Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The path

My friend Wilf wrote this poem yesterday. I like his poems. His words are simple; his thoughts are deep and worth pondering.

Testimony -The Path

No path could have been more hopelessly wrong
Than the one You led me along
But no other path could have brought me through
Intact sane warm and strong

So many times my protective skin was flayed
Leaving every raw fear displayed
But they were the times I cried to You
And learned to be unafraid,

In times like that You made me;
Answering my prayers and those You saw hidden
In the ones You didn't answer,
And I was given strength
By those who had little for themselves
I was helped to stand
By those who often fell
And if I can look on life now
With wise calm eyes
It is because of those crazy troubled times.

Countless alters on a road of strife
Hardly noticed among the rubble of life
But they are witnesses to
My trembling heart before Your knife

Many have walked a sharper road
Than that which I have trod
But these petty trials led me to You
And made me a man of God.

Friday, May 27, 2011


Wide horizonThis is a bible study I wrote today for the Jesus Army to use as part of our weekly discussion over the scriptures each Tuesday evening.

I always find Paul's letter to the Ephesians widens my horizons, so I thought I'd share the inspiration, and post the notes here.

In Ephesians 2, Paul describes our great salvation in Christ:

* We are saved from 'the course of this world...the prince of the power of the air...the passions of our flesh' [v.2-3]. The world, the devil and the flesh form an ungodly ‘trinity’ which held us bound and made us 'by nature children of wrath' [v.3].

* We are saved by grace [v.5]. No human effort can earn our salvation – it is the gift of God [v.8] because of his 'great love' [v.4].

* We are saved to 'sitting in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus' [v.6]. We have the awesome privilege of being united with Christ, the ruling Man.

* We are saved for good works as 'his workmanship, created in Christ' [v.10]. The result of salvation, springing from our renewed nature, will be to work, build and pray towards new creation now.

For, through the death of Jesus, God has created, 'one new man' [v.15], the new humanity, in which all are united to become 'the household of God...a dwelling place for God' [v.19-22].

As to what it means, practically, for us to be ‘seated with God in the heavenly places in Christ’ or for us to work, build and pray towards new creation - well, we'll be discussing that a week on Tuesday. Pray for us!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Jesus Army: church of the (ungrateful) poor

At lunchtime the other day, I went into a small town near where I work to meet an old friend for coffee. When we came back to the car park where I’d parked the Jesus Army minibus, we found a bloke sitting on the tail plate.

Photo by colcerex of sxc.hu“Can you help me?” he asked, pointing at the word “Jesus” on the minibus. He had a wild look: matted beard, big pack on his back. To be frank, he was slightly scary. I opened my mouth to ask what help he’d like, but he was already saying, “No, I can see you’re going, don’t want to be any trouble. I just wanted to know about the Jesus Army.” I got halfway into saying, “It’s ok, we were about to leave, but what would you like to know?” But on the word “leave” he interrupted again in a sudden change of mood.

“F*** off then” he growled. “F***ing Jesus”.

Taken aback, and with half an eye on my friend who looked (like I was) a touch disconcerted, I asked him what he needed, and told him about the Jesus Centre, in the next town, where he could get some help.

“Take me there,” he said, and he pointed to his shoe. The sole was coming off. “I trod on glass,” he added plaintively.

“We’re not going there now,” I said, about to ask if he’d like the bus fare. But before I got to that, Hyde had taken over from Jekyll again and F-words being fired at me like bullets.

Now for a confession. I’m not proud of this. In a moment of horrible right-wing vitriol I wanted to yell, “F** off yourself, then, and get yourself a f**ing job, you scrounger!”

I didn’t, thank God. Apart from anything else, this man was not well mentally. Instead, I waited patiently, then explained again about the Jesus Centre, blessed him, and got in the minibus. As we drove out of the car park, I saw him swoop down on another guy, pointing at us, and gesticulating. I think I can guess the theme of his animated speech. (Something to do with “f**ing” and “Jesus”.)

My friend and I talked about the incident. I mused on how sometimes at the Jesus Centre in my own town, Coventry, people can get abusive – and are fairly regularly eye-wateringly ungrateful for food and other essentials that they are being given for free (or heavily subsidised).

Any idea how fussy people can be about how they like their fried egg – even one they’re getting for a few pence?

But I realised years ago that giving “the poor” the right to complain, the right to be ungrateful, is in fact an important part of affirming their human dignity. Why should only the rich have the right to complain? Or even the right to be ungrateful? Nobody thinks twice if a rich person complains in a restaurant if he doesn’t like his food. Why? Because he has money on his side.

Well – we revolt against money being the main measure of human worth. That’s one of the reasons I joined the Jesus Army. It’s a church of the poor.

The Dickensian view of the “grateful poor” can be deeply patronising, and part of our gospel work is to take complaints from the poor smilingly – and recognise something of justice restored in it.

So I didn’t feel I’d responded very well to the bearded brother in the car park. Maybe I should have given him my shoes. Maybe I should have taken him to the Jesus Centre. I’m quite sure I would have been sworn at a lot more for my troubles.

As it was, I drove away. And though I prayed for him, I felt uncomfortable as I recalled the biblical warning: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”

Here it is, then: my confession.

The one redeeming feature of the episode, perhaps, is that I gave him a chance to complain. And in complaining he was saying, “I too am human. I too am a king.”

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Jesus still weeps

Bigotry and hatred too often join hands with religion.

Jesus reserved his fiercest rage for the proud religious and his most generous (and scandalous) compassion for those they considered socially unacceptable. It makes me ache with frustration and despair when that same Jesus is used today as a figurehead for prejudice.

I say 'that same Jesus'. In reality, of course, it's not the same Jesus at all. It's just the same five letters, J, E, S, U, and another S, used to rubber stamp fear and loathing.

The shortest verse in the Bible is 'Jesus wept'. I think he still does.

Of all prejudices, homophobia particularly gets my goat, perhaps because it is still viewed as somehow acceptable in some religious circles. People who would throw up their hands in horror at racism, for instance, find it acceptable to talk ignorant rubbish about gay people - and feel a warm glow of orthodox righteousness as they do so.
"Woe to you! Hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in."
(That was Jesus, by the way, with his goat got.)

Tenderness_by_andreydubininLet's explore this. Faithfulness, tenderness, loyalty, self-giving - these are good things. They are Jesus-like qualities. Agreed? Yet some religious people would consign the faithfulness, tenderness, loyalty, sacrifice shown by a gay person to another to a bin labelled 'SIN'.

Because it happens to be Adam and Steve we're talking about, rather than Adam and Eve, their
faithfulness, tenderness, loyalty and self-giving is rendered null and void. Worse, these virtues are given names like 'sodomy' and 'sin'.

I've even heard some religious people express the execrable view that heterosexual sex that is promiscuous or even exploitative is better than homosexual sex that is
faithful, tender, loyal and self-giving - simply because the gender of the participants is the same.

This seems to me to be self-evidently ridiculous (and unutterable tragic). But it is held as orthodoxy in some quarters.

Let me be quite clear. I'm not advocating sexual moral chaos. This isn't about 'free love' (which in fact, comes with a very big 'buy now, pay later' label hidden in the packaging and is in any case nothing to do with love). Sexual morality matters. And f
aithfulness, tenderness, loyalty and self-giving matter. Promiscuous, exploitative, or even just plain selfish sex is a twisting of God's design. It is, in fact, sin - and brings all the pain, fragmentation and separation that sin always brings.

Human sexuality is too complex to be reduced to soundbites or formulae. But of this we can be sure: it is better saturated with
the qualities of God's own nature - of love, in fact - than it is without them. Much, much better. So much better as to be a different thing altogether.

So I felt I had to sign a petition the other day to oppose the horrific anti-gay bill proposed in Uganda (see avaaz.org).

Human sexuality may be complex. Questions surrounding human sexuality may be difficult. But when we're faced with such flagrant abuse of humanity as is represented by such a bill, when the screeching calls for morality become this immoral, when hatred threatens to be enshrined in law - I for one have to speak out. I have to say no.

In the name of Jesus - no.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Jesus Army: rebels with a cause or regimented rule-keepers?

“B-but that’s not allowed!” my friend spluttered, recently, at some minor infringement of some not particularly important rule at work.

Keep in stepI pointed out that it really didn’t matter, this time, for X, Y and Z reasons. But it didn’t make him feel any better. A rule had been broken – and rules are there not to be broken. Even if the rule is obsolete or unnecessary or just plain silly – well, that isn’t the point. It’s a rule.

Jesus Army: rebels with a causeIt got me thinking about how different people are wired differently on this one. Some delight in rule-breaking. They’re the original James Dean rebels-without-causes. They just will NOT keep off the grass. Others, like my friend, find security in the rules, and find it upsetting when the universe is found to be not quite simple.

I probably occupy the rather dull middle ground. No great rebel, I, but I don’t mind a bit of humane rulebook tearing here and there either. Particularly if it makes life happier (and no-one’s going to disapprove of me for it).

But I think I must be slightly to the rebel side of the centre, even if only because I tend to admire iconoclasts and dissenters: the courage they have to stick their heads above the parapet, to declare the emperor naked. That’s probably part of the reason why I joined the Jesus Army.

And I have to admit, I tend to be slightly contemptuous of the rulebook types, my friend notwithstanding. For those who appreciate literary references, I’d like to think of myself as more of a Jean Valjean than a Javert.

But it’s not quite as simple, of course. Radicals and rule-breakers are important, but the quieter, less “sexy” virtues of duty, discipline, obedience and loyalty have their place, too. Let’s face it, we all (rightly) looked askance at MPs who took a “flexible approach” to expenses; we didn’t cheer them for their imagination.

It’s another of those paradoxes that I can only assume God delights in since he’s scattered so many throughout existence.

We need rules; but we must not be afraid to smash them to smithereens when they become soul-killing. We need freedom and humanity, but we must be prepared to have principles – and maybe to let them inconvenience us to the point of... well, dying for them.

After all, Jesus embodies both. Having rescued the adulterous woman from stoning, he tells her “Sin no more”. “Sell all that you have” he says to the rich, young, would-be disciple in Luke 18; a chapter later, half is enough for Zacchaeus. “Give to the poor” he says, but he’s having none of it when someone protests about a prostitute’s “waste” of expensive perfume at a dinner party. As for his famous disputes with the legalistic Pharisees, he also said “Practice and observe whatever they tell you.”

Something like this paradox is explored by author and emergent postmodern guru, Peter Rollins, in his book The Fidelity of Betrayal (if I’ve understood him, at all, which I possibly haven’t in the slightest). Rollins says that true faithfulness to God includes arguing with God and provocatively suggests that Christians ought to wear wristbands inscribed with “WWJD” – standing for “What would Judas do?”

I find this paradox runs through my experience of belonging to a radical church like the Jesus Army. On the one hand, we're very cause-conscious with songs about the Jesus revolution and plenty of holy rebellion against the system in our bloodstream. On the other, we put a high premium on lifestyle and holiness and have a healthy respect for, and need of, rules.

Rebel! Do as you're told!

Confused? Me too.

Isn’t it good to live in such a fascinating universe?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Psalm 101

(Part 2 of some reflections on living in intentional Christian community)

Psalm 101 is a song about the way that a king like King David, a ruler with a “heart after God’s own heart”, should rule.

But as I read it, the other morning, it struck me as a good prayer for those living in – and especially for those leading – a Christian community.

So here are a few very brief, very undeveloped, starting points for thought on leading a Christian community – from Psalm 101.

I will sing of steadfast love and justice; to you, O LORD, I will make music.

Any Christian community must spring out of worship. It must start from a heart response to God’s “steadfast love and justice”. If it starts from idealism, or legalism, or any “ism”, good or bad, it will not be true Christian community. Any leader of a Christian community must be a leader in worship. I don’t mean a guitarist or and organist. I mean that the first task of a leader in Christian community is continually to call the community back to God.

I will ponder the way that is blameless. Oh when will you come to me?

Having dismissed idealism – there must be at least of a dash of holy idealism – pondering and longing for “the way that is blameless”. Otherwise, Christian community, to misquote Chesterton, will not be tried and found wanting; it will be found difficult and not tried. Community is not realistic. As I said in my last post, it is impossible. But oh! I long for it. I’ll pursue it. I’ll live it. (Let the miracle begin.)

I will walk with integrity of heart within my house.

Leaders have to be the same through and through. No double standards, no hidden compartments. I find the word “integrity” shines a light inside me, searches out the darker corners. It’s uncomfortable. I need it.

I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless.

And here’s a good example of integrity made practical. Job made a covenant with his own eyes, not to fill his sights with filth. My friend, Laurence recently blogged on this, not once but twice. It’s vital a Christian community be uncontaminated by the rubbish that fills page and screen all too often in our media-soaked culture. I’m not talking about some Simeon style pillar of lofty separation. The right place for an ark is in the water. The wrong place for the water is in the ark. Do the math.

I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cling to me.

Sometimes people walk away. Sometimes, it’s worse than that: people betray. One of the most challenging things about Christian community is to remain untainted by bitterness when people let you down. Not to let it “cling” to you. The danger is, you make a silent vow to yourself: “I will not love again”. This way lies the death of community.

A perverse heart shall be far from me; I will know nothing of evil.

“Perverse” – slippery. Some hearts you just can’t get hold of, like the bar of soap in the cartoon, they just keep slipping from your grasp. But community must be made from open, shared hearts. If hearts aren’t shared, in time nothing else will be either. A wise community leader must gently encourage the sharing of who we really are with one another. This can’t be forced. But a culture of trust will encourage it.

Whoever slanders his neighbour secretly I will destroy.

I’m fierce when it comes to gossip. People may as well set the house physically on fire. Gossip is as destructive. More so, in fact, because it tears down souls. “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” I will stamp out gossip from our community. Woe betide the person I catch at it!

Whoever has a haughty look and an arrogant heart I will not endure.

Perhaps it goes without saying that pride and Christian community cannot mix. But I’ll say it anyway: pride and Christian community cannot mix.

I will look with favour on the faithful in the land, that they may dwell with me; he who walks in the way that is blameless shall minister to me.

It is a commonplace that a leader must be a servant in Christian community. And that is true. But a leader must also allow himself to be served. That too is humble. And a deep appreciation of the “faithful in the land” (not necessarily the famous) is important.

No one who practices deceit shall dwell in my house; no one who utters lies shall continue before my eyes.

Deceit vies with gossip for the “public enemy number one” position when it comes to building community. Suffice it to say, that anyone fluent in the “devil’s native language” is unlikely to build the community of Christ. They need to learn the language of truth, openness and humility.

Morning by morning I will destroy all the wicked in the land, cutting off all the evildoers from the city of the LORD.

Not the kind of declaration very likely to elicit the response “Nice sermon, vicar”. Yet I’ve been relearning the importance of zeal. Zeal for God’s house. Not tramping around the place like the police. But unafraid to confront. To lead. Because once you’ve glimpsed the “city of the Lord”, the purity of God’s new kingdom society – it matters too much to settle for something shoddy.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Room 101

(Part 1 of some reflections on living in intentional Christian community)

Room 101 is the creepy torture chamber in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. In it, the sinister “Ministry of Love” attempt to subject a prisoner to his or her own worst nightmare, fear or phobia. For Winston Smith, Orwell’s main character, this is to be attacked by rats.

My Room 101 would be a massive, dark, tank of water, containing just a great white shark – and me. Maybe I watched Jaws too young, maybe it’s the sharks’ jagged down-turned maw and lifeless, black eyes, maybe it’s because sharks have us at such a disadvantage in water, their natural element.

Luckily for me, living in Coventry, I’m hardly at daily risk of shark attack.

In Coventry, I, like many others in the Jesus Army around the UK, live in an intentional Christian community. I like living this way. I find it inspiring. I find it brings out the best in me. There are times when it can be hard (more on this anon). But generally I’m a fan of Christian community living, and I recommend it to Christians everywhere.

But I know that for some people, the very idea of sharing home with other people (beyond their actual family – or maybe even including their actual family!) is downright horrifying. Some agree with Sartre: “hell is other people”.

For some, living in community may even approach their idea of Room 101.

I remember a Christian colleague, when I was a teacher in a Coventry secondary school, saying to me, “I could never live like you do” (she meant community, rather than my poor dress sense or any other undesirable feature of my life; I know that because we’d been talking about it.)

“I could never live like you,” she said. I was tempted to retort, “Of course you could, if you let the Holy Spirit fill you with love like the first church in Acts 2” or some similar biblical harangue. I’m glad I didn’t – not least, because it would have been rude, and love isn’t rude according to the same New Testament that glowingly describes the first Christians’ communal living.

But I’m also glad I didn’t because it would have been glib. Living in Christian community isn’t the kind of thing anyone should do on a whim. It is a tough call at times and in order to stay committed to it, you have to have a strong call – from God. You have to know God is in it. I passionately believe that Christians living together in community demonstrates God’s new society in a way that shouts louder than any words can. I urgently wish more Christians would embrace such a call. Hang it all, I’d love some to move in with us.

But I’m not going to say it’s easy.

What I might have been better saying to my colleague is something like this: “You’re right. You could never live that way. Neither can I. It’s a daily miracle.” And then, maybe, I could get away with asking, demurely, “Do you believe in miracles?”

You can’t live in Christian community – long-term – without believing in miracles.

There’s the miracle of forgiveness. Any long-term relationship needs that for survival, but in community, forgiveness has to happen without natural ties that help marriage and family life to survive (like children, sex and in-laws) – it has to be sought and found in God’s heart. Believe me; we don’t spend all day in Christian community floating around on clouds contemplating one another’s perfections. Sometimes I want to wring some of my fellow-communitarians’ necks (if I can get to them before they wring mine).

There’s the miracle of financial sharing. We share all our money and are therefore accountable about how we spend: it’s not “my” money, it’s “ours” (actually, it’s God’s, which ups the ante even more). We tread the constant fine line between being answerable to one another in our spending and living simply, and not “policing” one another in a way that limits trust and hinders maturity.

There’s the miracle of harmonising our differences. I like bold wallpaper. He likes hot curry. She likes peace and quiet. They like board games. He likes to take the paper to his room to read it (and often leaves it there). She likes people to say hello in the mornings (and can feel offended if they don’t). He likes slightly risqué humour. I like to talk with my mouthful over dinner. She likes... well, you get the picture. And (as if I needed to say it) each of these likes is someone else’s loathe.

There's the miracle of the mugs. Where do they all disappear to? (Actually, I think that one may be a demonic miracle...)

There’s the miracle of one heart. Despite all our differences, in our shared community and church life, in its weekly pattern of meals and meetings, being and doing, commotion and calm, we find, over time, that we have one shared set of deepest desires. It’s difficult to put into words.

Perhaps some words that we were given say it best:

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”