Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A parable about a paradox

The city grew up around the source of the river. Her walls were tall and stately, her gates shining, wide and glorious. Within were spacious squares, lush gardens, warm dwellings; there were statues, and fountains, and libraries filled with the writings of the wise.

The city had stood for many years, a wonder in the world, and a destination of pilgrims.

Some saw the walls as the city’s chief glory: reaching for the heavens, both impregnable and beautiful. Rumour had it these walls were fashioned from pure gold, and certainly none could deny they shone with an ethereal brilliance, visible from many miles around.

Others could speak of nothing but the wonder of the city’s gates. Gleaming and expansive, they were open night and day, such was the great hospitality of the city, such her great heart to welcome all, to take the multitudes to her breast.

There came a time when a dispute broke out which – if it were possible – threatened the tranquillity of this wondrous habitation. The argument was between gatekeepers, on the one hand, and the watchmen, on the other.

The gatekeepers, ardent to spread their city’s fame and eager to extend her welcome to ever more travellers, had conceived of plans to widen the gates. Some had even drawn up plans to breach certain sections of the wall in order to erect new gates. “Open to every point of the compass” was their cry, such was their great passion for their city. Their hearts swelled at the thought of the shining eyes and open mouths of the pilgrims who would enter in their new widened gates, to breathe in the city’s sweet air and drink from her refreshing springs.

The watchmen, those eagle-eyed keepers of the walls’ towers and ramparts, knowing in their hearts that the city’s fame and glory depended ultimately upon the strength and purity of her walls, were uneasy at the ambitions of the gatekeepers. Widened gates too easily lead to compromised walls. And when the plans of the more impatient gatekeepers came to their ears, their alarm swelled to something akin to fury – and to fear. For these noble watchmen loved the city from the depths of their hearts, yet well they knew that a city without walls was in terrible peril. “Breach the wall, soon to fall” was their awful watchword.

Long were the debates in the guildhall and tempers were not always kept in the conflict. After much dissension, the matter had to be taken before the highest authority, and it was with confidence and the expectation of vindication – yet not without trembling in both camps – that the question was brought before the throne of the king.

There was silence as the gatekeepers and the watchmen awaited the verdict of their sovereign.

Thus he spoke:

“There shall be no breaches in my walls,” said the king (and great was the trembling of the gatekeepers as he spoke, and relief and pride coursed through the veins of the watchmen). Yet, without seeming so much as to pause for breath, the king continued, “There shall be no walls.” (Hope flared within the hearts of the gatekeepers, and swift came dismay on the faces of the watchmen.)

“No breaches,” sighed the watchmen, seeing in their hearts the vision of the city’s strength unsullied. “No walls,” breathed the gatekeepers, imagining all the nations streaming in. Yet a shadow was over both companies also, for the king had uttered both these dooms and contradicted neither.

There was a silence before the king spoke again.

“Long has it been told,” spoke he, “that the walls of my city are of gold. Yet hearken unto me as I tell you, yes even you O wise watchmen, even you O ardent gatekeepers: my walls are not of gold, but of flame; flame unbroken and unimpaired.”

And, even as he spoke, it seemed to them a wonder took place. For the walls of that resplendent city were suddenly become all fire in the eyes of their beholders. (Whether they were transformed at that moment or whether they were seen, at last, in their true nature no-one could say.)

And as the flames towered around the city, shining with beauty and brilliance, behold: from every direction, from north and south, and east and west, and north north west, and south south east, and from every degree of the compass, flowed a multitude.

Drawn like moths to the flame they came. And when they reached that fiery barrier, they did not stop, but plunged straight in, straight through, running, flying, dancing into the heart of that great city.

For behold: the walls of fire were all gate; and the gates of flame were all wall.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Absolutizing the present

Photo by Penny Mathews of sxc.huThe other night my friend, who’s also a Jesus Army leader, experienced the worst meeting of his life.

It was truly appalling. A fellowship meal without fellowship, a love feast without love, he’d left it with his heart in his boots, wondering what the point was. Why go on? Did anyone else care at all?

That spiritless meal with those who were supposed to be his deepest comrades in the cause of Christ, left him feeling bereft of hope. So much so, he went into a room, lay on his face and cried out to God. “Why, Lord?” he cried. “Why, oh why?”

As a believer in quick and prompt answers to prayer, he shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when just four days later, his little church group had one of the best meetings he’d ever experienced. Fellowship flowed, love was abundant, spirits soared.

Photo by Penny Mathews of sxc.huAll was well and all manner of thing wast well; my friend went to bed a happy man that night.

Telling me about both meetings the next day, we both chuckled at our ability to see no further than the immediate circumstances, good or ill – particularly as leaders who do, in fact, care a great deal about our churches. How easy it is to measure our entire reality by what has just happened, by how things are right now.

A mentor of mine calls this “absolutizing the present”; being unable in that moment – be it of agony or ecstasy – to conceive of reality being anything else ever again.

I’ve often called to mind his wisdom, and sometimes it’s saved me from spiralling down into cynical hopelessness, prompted by some discouraging incident (or, for that matter, soaring off into the stratosphere over something encouraging, which can be as unhelpful in the long run).

Of course, the account I gave earlier of my friend’s two meetings was exaggerated. But that’s the point. Our feelings do exaggerate things: they absolutize the present. We have to be disciplined with our feelings at times (as my wise mentor also says, “Emotions make good servants but poor masters”). We must learn to keep some poise.

Sure, that Friday wasn’t so good. But Sunday’s coming. Oh – and that Sunday’s followed by a Monday.

In the final analysis, it’s probably not nearly as bad – or as good – as it seems.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Face(book) up to the future

Yesterday morning at Coventry Jesus Centre, Andy, one of our regular preacher-men, announced that the title of his talk that morning was: “The Opportunities and Potential Pitfalls Presented by Facebook and other Social Media Websites”.

Snappy. He’s a master communicator is Andy.

Actually, Andy is indeed a very good communicator. Nevertheless, he, like many Christians in my church and beyond, has been unsure what to make of “the social media revolution” as some are calling it.

On the one hand – as a video Andy showed us yesterday showed – social media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and all the rest are here to stay. Recently, Facebook crossed the 30-million-users mark in the UK. That’s half the population. This is, quite simply, the way people communicate these days. Any church with something too say (and really every church should have something to say!) can’t afford to ignore the possibilities offered by social media.

On the other hand, there are as many potential pitfalls in social media as John Bunyan’s hero, Christian, faced at Vanity Fair. From flirty pictures, to gossip, to just plain worldly time-wasting, Facebook et cetera can be a veritable Slough of Despond for the unwary pilgrim.

Andy spoke carefully, and what he said can be summed up fairly well by a verse in Paul’s letter to the Colossians:

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.”

“Be wise” – avoid the pitfalls. In particular, don’t do on Facebook what your conscience wouldn’t let you get away with in the rest of life. Gossip is gossip, whatever the medium. Unkindness is unkindness. Lust is lust. Time is too precious for Farmville.

But – “make the most of every opportunity”. If half the population of our country is on Facebook, we need to be there. If we’re called to bring the message of Jesus to the people, we have to go where they are and speak the way they speak.

The right place for an ark is in the water. (Yet remember that the wrong place for water is in the ark!)

As something of a social media enthusiast, I may have been more enthusiastic in my endorsement of it all. But I realise there are real issues that need to be thought through, and I think Andy did a good job of treading the fine balance.

I’d like him to do a part two, in which he unpacks in more detail some of the creative ways we can “gossip the gospel” through social media, some ideas for how we can best chain this Leviathan and use it to add strength and effectiveness to our communication of Christ.

How about it, Andy? Up for it?

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Backwards is forwards

There's a few videos on YouTube with poems that say one thing, then scroll backwards and reverse their message. Here's one. Here's another.

We've shamelessly nicked the idea and written our own poem in this style. We're going to make it into a dramatic item to be be performed at Trafalgar Square when the Jesus Army hold our annual festival there (this year on June 25).

Maybe we'll make a video and post it as a response to the ones on YouTube. In the meantime, here's the poem. Read it down the page (obviously!), then back up from bottom to top to get the idea.

We are a lost generation
And we refuse to believe that
We can change the world
We realise this may be a shock but
God loves us
Is a lie, and
Money will bring us happiness
The truth is
God doesn’t care about people
We refuse to believe that
We can trust him
We will live our lives according to these beliefs
There is no God
It’s just empty talk to say
That Jesus died to save us
That divine compassion brings purpose to our lives
Is a reassuring thought however
Is a self-deceiving fantasy
We can be free without God
Our existence has no grand meaning or purpose
In a world without faith
There is freedom
But with God
Life is an endless cycle of guilt and shame
Without him
Everything makes sense
It is ridiculous to think
We need God

Wrong. It’s time we turned our lives around

Come to Trafalgar Square on June 25 and you can see the drama!

Monday, June 06, 2011

And another thing, God

I am fed up with happy songs.

I’m not saying that joy isn’t a profoundly Christly sentiment, or that there’s any special virtue in misery. I agree with St Teresa of Avila who famously prayed for deliverance from “sour faced saints”.

But yesterday in our Sunday morning worship, as we sang song after song about how great God is and how happy he makes us, I wanted something else. I was feeling frustrated. Perplexed. Questioning.

Why this, God? I wanted to ask. And why that? But the songs were busy declaring goodness and glory. They weren’t asking anything.

Oh dear, I thought, maybe I’m in the flesh.

On Sunday nights, after supper, I usually set an hour apart for prayer, walking in a local park (we’re blessed with a big, beautiful one with trees and gentle hills).

Usually, I just walk and think – about our community, our church, people I care for, and myself (not always, I confess, in such a self-abnegating order). I pray in tongues quietly, as I think. More often than not I’ll settle on one or two topics on which I’ll express myself to the almighty, best I can. Sometimes I “hear” a divine response – a word, a mental image, or just an impression be it of peace or urgency or anything in between. Sometimes God just listens, a patient parent, to my childish prattle.

Last night I found myself chewing on some of the frustrations and yearnings I’d been feeling, in particular, the situation of the Jesus Army nationally. Putting it frankly, it bothers me that we’re not doing better. Fully aware as I am of the dignified wisdom in sayings about God’s calling to be “faithful rather than successful” (attributed to another even more famous Catholic Teresa), it nevertheless deeply concerns me that we are so often frustrated in our endeavours around the UK.

There is much to be thankful for – from individual lives changed to new Jesus Centres and our expanding network overseas. Yet there’s planty of heartache as some of our churches fail and quite a number of our newly baptised disciples slip back or fail to continue in faith. We’re not growing as we long for. Our northern front, from Liverpool to Leeds, is nigh-on a scene of desolation. We need many more leaders if we’re to plant the churches and communities we’d like to – and as we do really believe God has called us to.

Is God unable to bless us? I found myself asking God whether there was some "master sin" afflicting us corporately, hindering us, blocking God's blessing. Of course, we’re a church of sinners (no church I know isn’t), but it seems to me that, at heart, we genuinely desire to be faithful to God’s call.

I was left with the question hanging on the night air as I arrived home. It was one of those nights when God didn’t seem especially talkative.

Then this morning I read Psalm 44.

O God, we have heard with our ears,
our fathers have told us,

what deeds you performed in their days,

in the days of old…

But you have rejected us and disgraced us

and have not gone out with our armies.

You have made us turn back…

Often in the Bible, such agonized prayers are followed by a confession of sin. Israel’s exile, for instance, was recognised by the prophets as having been the result of the nation’s rejection of God. But this psalm doesn’t take this stance. Instead, it contains the following surprising lines:

All this has come upon us,
though we have not forgotten you,

and we have not been false to your covenant.

Our heart has not turned back,

nor have our steps departed from your way…

Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long;

we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.

This last line was quoted by the apostle Paul as a description of the experience of the Christian Church. Given that, whenever Paul quoted Old Testament scripture, he always had the whole passage in mind; and given that the passage in which he quotes this is about groaning and aching in prayer for the fulfilment of Spirit’s plans; and given that Paul knew quite a lot about setbacks and desires frustrated – I think we can see such frustrations as all part of what it means to be God’s people in the world.

And I think Paul had in mind the prayer that concludes the psalm:

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!...

Rise up; come to our help!

Shocking. Surely the psalmist should be telling God how beautiful he is, or how lovely it is to be resting in his arms, or how happy we are – not telling the almighty to wake up and remember his covenant obligations? Not suggesting that God isn’t with his people and he jolly well should be because his people have been faithful? Dreadful theology. Can hardly believe it’s in the Bible.

In fact, I reckon there’s a place for this in our praying and our worshipping. An important place.

“Come on, God! (Groan.) Go out with our armies! (Ache.) Rise up! Come to our help! (Sigh.) Don’t let us go down the pan! (Yearn.)”

We need songs and prayers that express longing, express questions, express groaning, even express impatience with God.

Time to read a few more psalms – and write a few new songs.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Questions, questions

I got thinking as I sat on the loo (pardon the details, but that was how it was). Why are there 360 degrees in a full circle? Why not 400? Or 3600?

It probably has something to do with a base 12 numeral system. But someone, somewhen, must have decided that 360 were about the right number of degrees to cover the range needed. After all, if there’d only been 12 degrees in a circle, navigation would have been a tad haphazard.

Where am I going with this?

I’ve been thinking a little about questions and how we answer them. Some are mathematical or scientific or historical and with a little research a reasonably comprehensive answer can be found. I could probably “Ask Jeeves” or consult Wikipedia and find out the answer to my musings on degrees in a circle.

Er, run that past me again..I suppose a pure mathematical question can be answered with a pure mathematical answer. But not all questions are so tidy – or so pure. Even this one probably leaves a few imponderables up in the air. Once you introduce science, you leave the realm of unsullied logic and get into the murkier territory of hypothesis and experiment – not to mention finance (“who gets the grant?”). Descend to history, and you’re soon in the ash cloud of human motivation and political struggle.

And when it comes to ethics or philosophy or (heavens!) theology? – Can there be such a thing as a pure answer, unsullied by human jockeying for power or money or even just the base desire for popularity.

Postmodernism says “no”. Every answer, every story (especially the big ones which claim to answer questions as they go along) is just about human power games.

As a result, everything’s fundamentally suspicious, and therefore uncertain. All that remains is the story you write for yourself – and that can change next week if you like. Because, actually, we shouldn’t even trust ourselves.

The “big answer” of modernism, Science, has been found wanting because the “big answer” of the Enlightenment, Reason, has been found wanting. The “big answer” of the Reformation, the Bible, has not so much been found wanting as not found because the Enlightenment threw it out. And as for the “big answer” of medievalism, Mother Church, she is now only fit to be the arch-villainess in children’s books by Philip “postmodern” Pullman.

We’re on our own folks under a cold sky. As Samuel Beckett expressed it, we’re sitting under a tree waiting for Godot – but he never turns up. “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful.”

The problem is that no-one I know can actually live in a world with no answers. (Friedrich Nietzsche tried it; he, at least, had the good grace to go mad.)

So lots of little answers flood in. Life now consists of a new pair of trainers. Because they are The Meaning of Life, they are given names like “Fire” or “Passion”. Life consists of the latest film in which someone triumphs against adversity while we sit watching them, cramming popcorn into our mouths before going home and putting the bins out. Life consists of the latest Playstation game. Or how many friends you have on Facebook to tell that your doing “nothin much” right now. Or – darker – life consists of anonymous sex via internet porn.

For the record, let me just say that I don’t think everything about postmodernism is wrong. Some big answers need to be treated with suspicion. Sometimes science needs its capital “s” confiscated. Sometimes relationships are more important than “getting it right”. Sometimes we do have to accept that we can’t know everything and make friends with mystery. Sometimes “being” is enough and “doing” needs to pipe down.

At its best postmodernism is humble because it recognises that modernism was about human pride. A movement that is “post pride” is not a bad thing – as long as it doesn’t become cynical and, ironically, take pride in not believing anything.

What if there is a story that’s true? Not just mathematically, purely, inhumanly true – but historically, messily, humanly true?

What if there’s a story that puts not knowledge, but love at the heart of everything? A story that starts in a garden and ends in a city because human life does have a direction and a destination?

A story which doesn’t try to hide the mess, the humanness, the sullied motivation and confusion of its protagonists?

A story in which one obscure family – just like everyone else only more so – is chosen, from whom one obscure family member turns out to be the storyteller himself.

What if that storyteller gathers all the wrong answers, warped motives and proud delusions in the whole story, brings them all to an end in a chapter called Death, and opens a new chapter called Resurrection?

What if Godot arrived? What if something happened, somebody came, and it was awesome?

What if the possibilities are endless? What if there’s everything to live for?

What if that story is still being written and we have the opportunity for a part in it?

Only questions. Just asking.