Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why live in community?

My friends, Stevo and Olivia Scott, talk honestly and inspiringly about why they live in intentional Christian community.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Angry at the pigs

Angry at the pigsLast week, I read some words of the prophet Amos, possibly the angriest man in the Bible. Here are some of my thoughts on Amos, chapter 8.

The rich ruling classes of Amos’s day resented the worship festivals in Israel’s calendar; they meant a day’s less trade for them to get fat on. What was more, their crooked and deceitful trade was riddled with injustice and oppressed the poor.

“When will the new moon be over,
that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
that we may offer wheat for sale,
that we may make the measure small and our profit great
and deal deceitfully with false balances,
that we may buy the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals?..” (Amos 8:5-6)

Amos’s response to these selfish and corrupt fat cats, is to announce a judgement on their nation so fearsome that it makes difficult reading.

“So many dead bodies! They are thrown everywhere!” (Amos 8:3)

This prophet’s voice relentlessly carries within it God’s naked fury at the oppression of the poor. Perhaps, if we find the force of the anger in such passages ‘difficult’, it points to something of our own complacency or insensitivity towards the things that stir the white heat of God’s passion. God simply cannot abide the kind of selfishness that fattens itself at another’s expense.

“The end has come upon my people Israel” God declares through Amos; “I will never again pass by them”.

It was with Amos’s fiery words still reverberating around me that I read, today, an article about Sir Philip Green (knight of the realm), the multi-billionaire businessman who runs some of the biggest names on British high streets (Topshop, Topman, Dorothy Perkins, Burton, Miss Selfridge, BHS...)

According to this article, Sir Phil dodged tax on his self-awarded £1.2 billion paycheque. (His business empire is conveniently “owned” by his wife who has not done a single day’s work for the company, lives in Monaco, and pays not a penny of income tax.)

Any time it takes his fancy, Sir Phil can pay himself huge sums of money without having to pay any tax. A distasteful fact, made utterly disgusting when compared to the life of the sweatshop labourers in Mauritius upon whose back he has built his £5bn fortune. In these sweatshops, Sri Lankans, Indians and Bangladeshis toil 12 hours a day, six days a week, for minimal pay.

What would Amos say?

And what am I saying? How am I living? Where do I shop? What do I wear? (I don’t think wearing a wristband with WWJD on it is quite enough here.)

Do I get angry at injustice and oppression of the poor? If so, what do I do about it?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Honest to God

This afternoon, we're going evangelizing in Leamington Spa. For those less than conversant with evangelical lingo, this means a team from our church will be talking to people on the streets about faith, about Jesus, about life. Maybe praying with some.

I for one will also be seeking to do a lot of listening, if I can, because I'm hoping to do more than just spray 'answers' around - I want to connect with people's hearts.

Which brings me to a question: which is more important in evangelism - honesty or certainty? Put another way, telling or listening? You see, we really do have something - someone - to proclaim. But it's not as neat and tidy as having all the answers. Sometimes knowing and walking with God is more like a wrestling match than a picnic in the park; more like a desert than a cool drink on a hot day.

So how do we tread the line between confidently, excitedly, spreading the reality we've found, at the same time as being real and vulnerable with people about the struggle faith can be at times?
Jesus appointed his followers 'witnesses'. Perhaps this is the key: we share what we've known and found of his life, and don't need to be bashful about what we still struggle with. And perhaps this is another key: Jesus appointed his followers 'fishers of men' - so there's room in our honesty and humility for a strong call.

I'll let you know how it goes. Pray for us. Pray for them.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

How (Not) to Speak of God

How (Not) to Speak of God: Marks of the Emerging ChurchHow (Not) to Speak of God: Marks of the Emerging Church by Peter Rollins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Rollins' community, Ikon, 'describes itself as iconic, apocalyptic, heretical, emerging and failing' which gives you something of the flavour.

Rollins explores paradox after paradox with the delight and unapolagetic fervour of a true postmodern. Indeed, what makes this book so arresting is that Rollins is not a theologian talking about postmodernism; he is a postmodern theologian talking about God.

This book threw all my beliefs around, causing them to land more deeply rooted - but sometimes upside-down. If you read it, prepare to think hard in some counter-instinctive directions.

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The fidelity of betrayal

The Fidelity of Betrayal: The Ir/Religious Heart of ChristianityThe Fidelity of Betrayal: The Ir/Religious Heart of Christianity by Peter Rollins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this straight after 'How (Not) To Speak of God'. As in that book, Rollins delves deliberately into paradoxes here - not as someone who wants to engage in apologetics and 'explain' the difficulties of faith (in either the slightly embarrased or slightly bombastic manner of some apologists). Unashamedly postmodern, Rollins delights in paradox - he shouts paradox from the rooftops - he sets paradox on fire and waves it from the treetops.

Central to this book is the (yes, paradoxical) assertion that in order to be faithful to God, we will sometimes need to betray God. In fact, if I understand him right, Rollins is actually saying we need to betray our idolotrous human certainties about God in order to continually stay alive to the possibility of encountering God more authentically (which is a subtly different point though I think I understand why Rollins puts his case more provocatively).

The worst parts of this book were those where the opaque prose forced me to read a paragraph several times in vain for understanding (usually before giving up and moving on); conversely, the best parts were some of the stories and parables Rollins used to illumine my way through his arguments.

Stimulating read and it will go on affecting me. I will certainly be reading Rollins' next book 'Insurrection' due out in October.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Love and madness

My old schoolfriend - another James as it happens - has recently become the vicar of a church in Luton. His inaugural address to his new flock was based on Acts 2; he explored something of what it means to live with 'everything in common'. It was good to listen to him, even if he has developed a mysterious southern accent in the years since we were schooled near Liverpool. (Apparently his church is called 'Saint Frarncis'...)

Before he delivered his talk - which I understand was greeted with enthusiasm by the good people of Saint Frarncis - he tweeted to let me know he was going to mention me in it. His actual words were: In my first sermon at StFrancis, Luton, I intend to quote Tertullian, Tom Wright and @n0rma1 (that's me, by the way, for those unfamilair with Tweet jargon) - in no particular order.

Good heavens. Two titans of theology, one ancient, one modern - and me. And in no particular order!

James referred to me and the community life I and my sisters and brothers pursue as a noteworthy way of living out the challenge of Acts 2.

It was a blessing to be considered a blessing, though I did wonder if James was rather too swift to pidgeonhole our lifestyle as 'a calling for some'. It's not that I disagree, it's just that in my experience that sort of talk tends to lead to many Christians breathing a sigh of relief and getting on with being the same as everyone else.

But I mustn't be glib. You can't sustain a common-purse-community life without being convinced that you can do no other. A mentor of mine describes our community - of which he too is a member - as 'strenuous'. Shane Claiborne said to me recently that he sees us as 'community on steroids' (I loved that). And, in fact, the words James quoted me as having said to him, many years ago, were that Acts 2 had 'ruined my life - in a good way.'

A life of full sharing, no personal money, house and hearth shared, is a pretty tough call and cuts across a lot of natural preferences. Just for the record, I do not live in community because I like having no money or because I like having other people in my living room (all the time) or because I really enjoy other people choosing the colour scheme of my kitchen or because I always wanted to have my weekly diary substantially written by others or... well, you get the idea.

I live in community because I have to. Because I can't read the New Testament without it shouting community at me. Because God is a community and I want to be like him (even if he does bewilder me much of the time). Because I really do believe that radical, root-level, self-renouncing love is the way Jesus lived and because no disciple is above his master, I have to do so too.

I still agree wholeheartedly with what I said to James all those years ago - except perhaps the bit about 'in a good way'.

Okay, okay, it is a good way. But it can feel like madness. There have been times when I've felt like if I see another person I may kill them - with my words, if not with the kitchen knife. Times when I've walked round and round the block I live on, with my head pounding, thinking 'I can't take this anymore'. Times when some relationship tension has swelled to fill my entire emotional world and I can't escape from it, I can't 'go home' because they're in my home. Times when vision is dim and I can't remember why or what for. Times when I'm fed up with my family, neighbours and friends thinking I'm odd (or, worse still, thinking I'm 'radical') and I just yearn to be bloody ordinary like everyone else.

But in all this, just as much or more than in the times when living in community is inspiring and wonderful , I learn what it means to live Christ.

James said I gave up a lot of opportunities to live in community. Maybe. But I would not be even a tenth of the person I am today if were not for the madness that ruined my life - in a good, way.

Perhaps it would appropriate to leave the last words of this post to St Francis. This is from his Canticle of Love (if you like it, read it all here):

I have entirely renounced both the world and myself in order to buy love. If I owned all creation I would gladly trade that for love. But I find that love has deceived me. I have given everything and yet I do not know where I am being drawn to. Love has destroyed me. I am looked at as if I am mad, and because I have been sold, I am no longer worth anything...

...In this anguish of Love, Love, Love, O my adorable Jesus, I would die while embracing you, O Jesus, my sweet spouse. Love, Love, I beg for death from you; O pitying Jesus receive me and transform me into thyself. Remember that I am passing away killing myself with love. I do not know where I am, Jesus, my hope, destroy me with love.

Friday, September 09, 2011


FriendsAdam was gripped with a passion to share God with others. He began to give himself to people in a local housing estate, serving his neighbours, speaking of God, listening to hurts and fears, laughing with people.

He started to be known as 'the Jesus man' - which was fine by him.

But as time went by, nobody was converted. No-one seemed to be having the same experience as young Adam had had. They were glad to be friends, genuinely appreciated him. Adam went on serving, praying, but he was frustrated.

Adam wasn't alone, of course; he was part of a church and drew huge strength of purpose from it. One day, Adam was talking to Guy, an old man and much-respected leader in his church, a revered figure, whom the younger man looked up to a great deal.

"You need to be braver" said the great man, "bolder, extend your faith. Call people with clarity and confidence. Make disciples."

Adam went away and thought a great deal about what Guy had said. And he went on serving, listening, laughing, praying, and no-one was converted. This went on for many years, in fact until the Adam was no longer young.

By now he had many, many friends. Indeed, some of the people in that estate would probably have died for Adam. He'd seen the Dodd children grow from birth. He'd spoken for Sarah's son in court. He'd been there for Pat's family while she was losing her battle with cancer.

It was many years later when the first healing occured. Tracey's baby was deaf the doctor's said. Adam held him and prayed quietly. After that, tests showed he could hear. Stan had been going downhill with Alzheimer's. But after one of Adam's customary visits, Stan got better. He just got better. Julie had a twisted leg before Adam did something - nobody had quite the same story but apparently it had something to do with olive oil - and her leg was straight after that.

Still nobody was converted, or at least not in quite the way Adam had hungered for when he was young. But by now a lot of people believed in God, followed Jesus, joined Adam and his friends in the church. Janice was speaking to Becky again. Margaret smiled these days. Jim was doing odd jobs for everyone in Chancery Street. A couple of younger lads, Tom and Steve, were so loyal to Adam, they ended up moving in with him and few other Christians from his church. In fact, Steve became a bit of a right hand man to Adam...


In heaven, Adam was surrounded with hundreds of those friends, many of whom had been healed and had healed others and loved and lived and shared over many years. One heavenly day, Adam met the old leader he'd spoken to back on earth, all those years ago.

"Well," said the leader, "You didn't do what I said."

Adam said nothing, but he slipped to his knees and grasped Guy's hand and kissed it. Then he said, "Thank you. For if I hadn't have decided not to do what you said, I would have never quite known what I was to do. It was all thanks to you."

And the older man smiled.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Stop praying to the Lord!

Lord, Love, Lord of LoveHere's a radical thought. How about if we stopped praying to the Lord?

In case you think I'm advocating defection to paganism, let me explain. We often address our praying to 'Lord' (or at any rate that's the word we use as commas in our prayers, along with the ubiquitous 'just' - 'and Lord we just ask that Lord You would just...)

But what resonance or meaning does 'Lord' have for us? Lords are the members of a possibly-soon-to-be-scrapped second chamber of Parliament. Or a cricket ground.

But it's not just that the word has no meaning for us. We no longer live in a fuedal system - when the word 'lord' had plenty of relevance. But even if we did, or even if our sense of history was enlivened enough to still engage with the word as a living one - does that make it a positive term of address for God. Many, perhaps most Medieval lords were harsh, even brutal. Do we want to name God after such oppressive power?

I'm fully aware that the Bible uses the term 'kyrios' - Lord (or even Caesar) - to denote God and Christ. In the New Testament and especially in Paul I believe there was some deliberate political subversion going on there, too. ('This is the true Caesar, and he's totally different to that guy in Rome.')

In the New Testament, whatever they were doing with the word we translate as Lord, it certainly had currency at the time.

I know some have suggested we use words with contemporary relevance like 'boss', but I can never take that entirely seriously. 'Master' has the advantage of freshness (and the advantage of being St Francis's favourite term of address towards God) but its reference to slavery takes us back into an unhelpful concept base.

Here's a suggestion. How about if we made it our common practice to address God as Love. Afterall, that's biblical - God is love, says John. Love is God's first best name as the hymn writer put it.

Now I'm aware that the word 'love' has come to mean all manner of petty or even selfish or lustful things in our day. I know that Greeks had the good sense to use different words for different loves.

But maybe if we were to deliberately address God as Love, it would rescue our concept of love a little. Maybe it would subvert those other petty loves, like Paul subverted the petty Caesars.

More still, rather than having a prayer life built round a distant, soon-to-be-abolished authority, we'd be continually reminding ourselves that the God we worship and pray to is love - self-giving, serving, generous love.

Imagine: 'And, Love, we just ask that you'd show us the way. Love, we pray you'd bring your healing power here. Dear Love, we give our lives to You again...'

Love could change everything.

Monday, September 05, 2011

RAW deeper

And for those who'd like a deeper look into what RAW was about, here's three little vids showing snapshots of what went on each day... (Spot the little ode in my honour!)

RAW 2011 Highlights

Here's the highlights video from RAW (Real & Wild) 2011, the youth event that I helped lead recently. My last one as it goes; they've put me out to seed now...

This video captures the essence of the event really well.