Friday, December 28, 2012

Conception, conversion, consummation

Three linked poems by my friend Wilf.

Conception
The flame came down encountering the lily
And both were held in awe
Innocence marvelling at purity;
The bearer of the news,
The bearer of the word
Trembling on the edge of the moment
When the seed of God would tip into our world
In the heart of a pure girl’s womb.

Conversion
When the ‘brave’ braced back bends braver
And the knee knows now to kneel.
The conquered king is caught from his castle
Hauled, galled, called to the hallowed gallows
Head held high. Clawing, gnawing, mauling;
Part lamb, beast and man;
And tears turn fears to trembling trust.
In this chaos of contrition
The seed slips silently in
And all heaven exults.

Consummation
Still, still, still the newborn earth
And heaven here is hushed
No faintest breath disturbs the air
Through which the nubile figures move.
If divinity can look with awe
Then this, this, this is the moment
For the groom has locked his gaze
Upon his bride.
She whom he has drawn from the beginning
Draws close and ever closer
The first touch,
Time and eternity meet as so many times before
Parts of the one, eternal moment
The first kiss, and then...

Friday, December 14, 2012

The fat and the fire

"Lovely evening tonight" I tweeted. "Friendship, candlelit dinner, baked spiced apples, glowing fire, chocolates, laughs. Oh and I was called fat."

It's true, one of our dear young disciples made this heinous (and sadly increasingly accurate) accusation. And it was funny, though not as funny as the time my then 3-year-old declared: "When I grow up I want to be like Daddy - " (pause for pathos and effect, then - ) "fat!" In fact, though I may be a little more rounded than I was ten years ago, I don't think I yet quite fit the epithet.

Nevertheless, there is something about those long, fire- and candle-lit evenings in winter, in community, that really does feel like living off the fat of the land. Friends and family gathered with nothing much to do except to be. To be friends, to be family, to be...

It seemed a fitting follow-up to my last, rather theoretical, post about Sabbath rest.

C S Lewis, as ever, put it rather well: "Is any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a good fire?"
 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

To rest is holy

Last Sunday I spoke about the fourth of the Ten Commandments:  ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.’ Here’s a summary.

What do we make of the command to rest, to take time out – in this case one day in seven – to stop working?

Some find obedience to this command easier than others. Garfield for instance.


The fact that God has to command rest indicates we can become work-addicted. More on this later. First to explore a couple of ‘whys’ behind the command.

‘Why’ number one. The Exodus version of the commandment says the reason for Sabbath is: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

So why did God rest? Was he tired out? (Theologically problematic given omnipotence.) Had he got ahead of schedule? (Ditto omniscience.) Pop back to heaven? (Ditto omnipresence.) In fact, the reason God ‘rested’ is hinted at in these word: And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.

God rested to celebrate, to enjoy creation because it was very good. It was not only of value for what it could do or produce (utility), nor was it meaningless (futility). It was fruitful and abundant, but its meaning was not limited to this. Ultimately it was a work of beauty that both glorified its maker and brought joy to its maker.

Sabbath reminded Israel: creation was made for more than utility (what it can do) and futility (having no meaning).

‘Why’ number 2. The Deuteronomy version of the commandment says: You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty outstretched hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.

Sabbath reminded Israel they were no longer slaves. Not only was creation not made for utility or futility, but nor were they. They had been delivered from Pharaoh’s back-breaking brick-making and soul-destroying quotas.

And we should note a further revolutionary fact: the commandment was not only for adult Israelites but for ‘your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you’. Sabbath was egalitarian: for all creation – even animals.

Sabbath points back to creation’s original purpose – joy, celebration and glory – and forward to the day when creation would cast of its slavery to utility and futility.

For, as Paul puts it, creation has been ‘subjected to futility’. As Genesis has it:
Cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.


Sin has made work hard, unyielding, relentless. Utility. It has made the human destiny ‘dust’. Futility.

Work, work, work, work, work. Die.

It is a Christian commonplace (though no less glorious for that) that Jesus’ death and resurrection have undone the effects of sin and overcome the fall. He brought old creation to its end – he literally bore the thorns of Genesis on his head as he died, the ‘last Adam’ – and took it to the grave. On the Sabbath he rested.

And ‘on the first day of the week’ (as it carefully points out in all four gospels) creation began again. That is Jesus was raised imperishable. If old creation began with the heaven and the earth and finished with a ruling man, new creation began with a ruling man and will finish with a new heaven and earth.

And in the meantime? After all, looking around the world today there’s plenty of evidence of utility and futility – but what of new creation?

In the meantime, there’s work to be done. ‘God and make disciples’ says Jesus, echoing the ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ of Genesis. And he doesn’t just mean converts. He means spread new life. Baptise people into new creation. Make new people (including yourself). And live like he commanded.

Which includes Sabbath.

The New Testament is ambivalent about actually having a one-day-a-week Sabbath. Paul ranges from tolerance to trenchant prohibition.

The latter almost certainly had its roots in Jesus’ own strong condemnation of a Jewish Sabbath-keeping which had become so divorced from its raison d’être that it enslaved people rather than freeing them. (To love God is to love people. Put another way: obedience to God will always emerge as love for people – otherwise we haven’t understood what God is commanding us.)

Sabbath for new creation people is not a day off a week (though if it works for you, feel free).

Sabbath is a way of life. As the letter to the Hebrews says: There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God... Let us therefore strive to enter that rest.

Sabbath is an end to futile labour. Our work in the Lord is not in vain. It’s an end to seeing people as worth only what they produce. All are valued. It’s an end to stressy striving. It’s an end to manic measuring.

It means hard work, but it also means valuing play. It means tears, but joy follows after. It means human beings, not human doings. It means saying no to drivenness, but yes to servanthood. It means sprinkling some Calvinism in our Arminianism. It means work is good, but rest is ‘holy’.

It means, for some, and in order to obey the Lord of the Sabbath – being a little more like Garfield.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Have yourself a very little Christmas

A few years ago I wrote a little rant about consumerism at Christmas. To my great amusement the first comment on the post was spam advertising Christmas hampers. The irony. Added grist to my mill, needless to say.

Right, so let's get this straight: I love friendship, being together, family, fun and games, warmth and generosity. If that's how you celebrate the season, I'm with you (and I venture to say that God - not the killjoy we sometimes present him as - would agree).

But this poem - written some years ago, but updated today - is to say again that as a follower of Jesus, I can't, I simply can't, commerorate his birth by abandoning everything he stood for, everything he said.

So the poem, a plea to abandon consumerism precisely because it's Christmas, is called 'Have yourself a very little Christmas' It's an anti-advert. Works best read out loud - but you may just have to imagine that.


Have yourself a very little Christmas: an anti-advert

You’ll all have seen that jolly chap
dressed all in red and furry white
with pressies stuffed into his sack
and reindeer trained for turbo flight
– but did you know that Santa’s suit
was first designed by Coca Cola
in 1931 to loot
the world? A big fat dollar
for corporate fat cats to get fatter?
Last year eleven billion pounds
were borrowed to fund the Xmas platter
of the rich – and if that sounds
not filthy enough then you may need
to consider that eleven billion notes
is enough, by far, for a year, to feed
fifty million of the poorest poor…
Please: kick sick consumerism out the door.

See, Jesus is not some stained glass sissy
looking woefully down from Cathedral windows:
he’s angry; he’s fuming against hypocrisy,
yelling “Woe to the rich” to the pious offenders
who tithe full of pride and let justice go hang
– and “Blessed are the poor”, “Forsake all and follow”:
get out of the rat race, so shallow and hollow:

Come out of the inn: no room for me there
far from chestnut roasting firelight,
my squalling fogs bleak midwinter air,
and gold quickly sold funds a refugee flight.
From wood of the trough to wood of the cross
from roadside birth to borrowed tomb
from curse of king to mother’s sore loss
I never asked the world for room.

Slam the door; make sure you lock it;
follow the leader means do what I say – like
not running in circles to line every pocket;
like: give it all up; like: give it away.

Like what you're hearing? Like what you've heard?
Wanna be in my gang now you know about my birth?
Like what you're hearing? Like what you've heard?
Would you own all creation
and inherit the earth?

Friday, November 16, 2012

Thoughts on Genesis 1

The famous and dramatic opening chapter of the bible is full of powerful truth.

In the beginning, God... There is one God who is eternal and uncreated.

God created the heavens and the earth... God created everything, spiritual and physical, simply by speaking! He didn't struggle to create - God is almighty. God made the world as a wonderful temple: heaven is the holy place where God dwells; earth, the outer courts, expresses His glory.

God created man in his own image... The climax of building a pagan temple was the setting up of a 'god's' image - an idol. This is a pale reflection of the climax of God's creation: He makes human beings in His image and places them in the world. Living, breathing, loving human beings reflect and represent God Himself.

Everything that He had made...was very good... The created world is good. Evil (which enters the account two chapters later) can only spoil creation, rather than being original in itself.

The first chapter of Genesis is poetic in form. Later chapters become more clearly historical, focusing on Abraham and his family. Powerful poetry stirs awe and deepens the heart's understanding. It isn't 'history' or 'science' in a modern-day sense. Yet what this chapter tells us about God and man and creation is profoundly important.

I'm left with thought-work to do: explore what it means to be 'in God's image'. Mine this chapter for other important truths.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Speaking quietly

Acer“It speaks for itself – quietly.”

So says the visitors' leaflet at Batsford Arboretum, home to many beautiful trees. My wife and I went for an autumn walk there today.

The place is effulgent with luminous yellows, burnished oranges and blazing reds, as well as some residual cool greens among the tall beeches and firs.

It is also, as the leaflet promised, quiet – apart from tinkling streams that criss-cross through the wooded paths.

Beech“It speaks for itself – quietly.” That, I thought, is quite a good summary of what creation does. It speaks, but quietly, on the whole.

Not just in the glory of beech and acer; also in the perseverance of dandelion; the brilliance of carapace; the patience of moss; the humility of grass; the mystery of mist; the utility of worm; the logic of branch; the humour of mushroom; the mischief of cloud; the wistfulness of water; the playfulness of bamboo; the security of sunlight; the equanimity of dog; the cleverness of cat; the generosity of sky...

I need to shut up and listen.

Friday, October 26, 2012

He said what?!

Laughing Jesus by Gary Ellis (www.garylellis.org)
Is the joke on you?
Another poem wot I wrote. Works best read aloud with a bit of drama. I dedicate it to my mother. Not only did I inherit any gifts I may have in creative writing (not to mention drama) from her, but she also taught me that the first step on the road of love is tolerance. Love's road may go much further, but it starts with that first step and never unsteps it. (She also told me last night that she often reads my blog. So this is for her.)

He said what?!
The good Samaritan.
He said...
The good Samaritan!
Good?
And Samaritan?!
A heretic, terrorist, unclean Samaritan?
Good?!
The Pharisee is speechless.

For us for whom Samaritans
Are nice people who help with problems
On the telephone
The shock is less.

Who is he telling us
Is good?
The good gay?
The good Muslim?
The good evolutionary biologist?
Good God we say,
What a shock.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Friends make friends

Friendly orange'What I'd really like is a pint of freshly squeezed orange juice!' One of our house family was feeling rough last night. One of those lingering colds. Hearing his orange juice longing, my 9-year-old daughter and I nipped out to a local store and got him a carton of posh Clementine juice. I think he was well-blessed.

Friendship is priceless.

There's a bit of a catchphrase round our place at the moment: 'friends make friends'. When we're truly friends with each other, it's attractive; others want to join in.

So we've been upping the importance of friendship in our household (by 'household' I mean not only those of us who live in our community house, but our wider circle of members and friends, too). We all know, somewhere in our bones, that friendship is simply the best thing in life. But we need to hear it sometimes, especially when busyness and clashing priorities can seem so pressing. And also because friendship - just chilling together, enjoying each other, laughing, playing - can seem somehow less spiritual than, for instance, all closing our eyes and singing a Matt Redman song.

I think that's a mistake. Friendship is centre stage, not in the wings.

There's a beautiful little bit tucked away at the end of one of the smaller letters in the New Testament: 'The friends greet you. Greet the friends, every one of them.' (3 John 15) Christians are called 'friends'. Not 'members' (powerful word if it means parts of one body, less so if it means belonging to a club); not even 'brethren'; but friends.

There have been many attempts to define friendship, some of which make good fridge magnet type quotations. 'Friendship is a single soul dwelling in two bodies'. That's Aristotle, y'know (thanks Google). 'A friend is someone who knows all about you and still likes you.' That sort of thing.

I like some of the biblical proverbs about friendship:

A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. (Proverbs 17:17) 'That's what friends are for' they say about help given in hard times. True word that.

A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. (18:24) There's something about friendships formed in Christ which has the potential to run deeper by far than even family ties - and certainly deeper than just those we sit next to once a week on Sunday.

Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy. (27:6) We usually take this to mean that the truthful reality of a friend is worth a lot even when it hurts - which is true. But I also wonder if it may include the idea that it's better to be hurt unintentionally by a true friend than to lap up the false blandishments of a false friend. Certainly I've been often hurt by my friends in Christ - but they're still my true friends and I ought to remember this. Mustn't let offence rob me of that.

Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel. (27:9) Beautiful. There's nothing quite like heart-to-heart honesty with a dear, deep friend.

So we're into friendship: meals round friends' houses; parties with treacle toffee; days out together; games; laughter; nicknames; prayers.

We want a widening circle of friends. Life affords nothing better.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Hoorah for pessimism!

'Good morning, Little Piglet,' said Eeyore. 'If indeed is is a good morning,' he said. 'Which I doubt,' said he. 'Not that it matters,' he said.
 So, my friend tweets: 'A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.'

A nice little sound bite (I wonder if it's original to him?)

And I wonder if it's true?

A year or two back, I remember hearing a radio discussion in which one chap was expounding the virtues of 'defensive pessimism'. He argued that optimism, almost universally feted as a wonderful and desirable state of mind, will often have disappointment as its long-term result. (After all, there is such a thing as wishful thinking.) Conversely, a judicious pessimism, he argued, can lead to a life filled with pleasant surprises.

So all you Eeyores out there, all you Puddleglums, all you Lieutenant Worfs - take heart. We need you dour 'bottle's half empty' types just as much as we need those bouncy 'bottle's half full' types.

Of course, this is quite possibly the most pointless post I've ever written. As Eeyore put it:
'This writing business. Pencils and what-not. Over-rated if you ask me. Silly stuff. Nothing in it.'

Monday, October 15, 2012

Everyone valued

I love being in a people-loving church of zero-prejudice.

Two Facebook statuses by different friends, both in the Jesus Army, stuck out to me this morning. Here's the first, referring to our big bash in Sheffield last Saturday:
I am proud of my church, the Jesus Army. We have slogans "All accepted, none rejected" and "Where everyone is valued." Saturday in Sheffield demonstrated, once again, that it doesn't matter how people classify you: by race, colour, gender, age, sexual orientation, previous religion, history, class or any other "box", you can be accepted as a full member of the church.
And the second from another friend:
The last few days have been a stark reminder that life is all about the people... Those who are gone, those who are here, those who are far away and those who are near. They all shape you, make you and change you. Its the people that make life what it is and its those people that remember what you made of life when you're gone. Thanking God for the people in my life, those that have been, and those people making life what it is!
I believe that in our time the church must earn its right to speak into our culture. It earns that right not by seizing or protecting power, not by intoning or preaching from some lofty height, but by - truly, demonstrably, authentically - loving all people everywhere.

I'm glad to be part of a church that is at least trying to do just that.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

The bible says

I love the bible. But I wrote this poem in response to those who think 'the bible says' is the end of the argument. It seems to me that what the bible says invites us into an argument that the bible invites us to have... with the bible!

                The bible says

                The bible says
                Slaves
                Obey your masters
                The bible says
                Women must be seen and not heard
                In church
                The bible says
                Go into the land and kill them all
                Spare not the women and children
                The bible says
                Stone
                The man who lies with a man
                The bible says
                Do not eat shellfish
                On pain of death
                This and many other things that are wrong
                The bible says
                The bible also tells a story
                A story in which slaves are set free
                By an almighty outstretched arm
                A story in which Mary is not sent back into the kitchen
                To be with the women
                A story in which
                Love
                Fulfils the law
                A story in which we cannot call unclean
                That which God has made clean
                On pain of death
                The bible tells a story
                That invites us to argue
                To wrestle
                To do battle
                Even with what
                The bible says
                The bible tells
                The story of a journey
                In which love knows the way

Monday, October 08, 2012

Martin Luther, alive and well

Martin Luther: here I standMartin Luther's still converting people, 500 years on.

A friend of a friend (who also happens to be a friend in his own right) was brought up a Christian, but pretty switched off to the childhood faith he inherited from his parents.

A bright kid, he's doing A-level History. His period is the 16th century - the Reformation. His teacher lent him a book about Martin Luther and the revolution he kicked off from the day he pinned a little list to that church door in Wittenberg.

Result: my friend's friend (who also happens to be my friend) is being galvanised into real, living, excited faith. Something about Martin Luther has brought him to life. He's being converted.

Made me think of some of the worthies who've inspired and influenced me (that eclectic bunch from Augustine to C.S. Lewis to Watchman Nee to Francis of Assisi).

G.K Chesterton defined tradition as 'giving our ancestors a vote'. Well, it seems that some of our ancestors have even more than a vote - their legacy continues; their ministry endures.

Inspiring stuff.

Who inspired you?

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Am I a Buddhist?

Minutes ago, I retweeted the Delai Lama.

“A happy society must be created by people themselves, not through prayer alone, but by taking action.”

I liked this tweet enough to retweet it. It’s practical, not pietistic.

Conversely, a tweet from Christian prayer initiative got my goat yesterday. The tweet quoted A.W.Pink  and said “The measure of your love for others can be seen in the fervency and frequency of your prayers for them.”

Really? Isn’t the measure of my love for people quite a lot to do with being patient, cooking meals, washing dishes, speaking encouragement, confronting wrong, listening carefully, wiping up sick, mopping brows, laughing at jokes, being reliable, keeping my temper, noticing things, driving around, mopping the floor, staying up late, getting up early, seeing things positively, forgiving, forgiving, forgiving, being forgiven, being forgiven, being forgiven, crying, longing, aching – and okay, praying?

Does this make me a Buddhist?

Monday, October 01, 2012

Beyond the box

So what can a snowy-haired bicycle repairman and his ancient eccentric lodger teach me about life?

In Penelope Wilcock’s novel The Clear Light of Day, Jabez Farrall is a kind of heterodox sage who helps the heroine, a harried Methodist minister, to find what is truly true. In summary:
‘Simplify; small is beautiful; cherish the living earth; bless the community where you live; think globally, act locally; watch your boundaries; choose what is handmade with love.’
And his feisty lodger, Seer Ember (who I suspect is Pen Wilcock’s means of expressing her own heterodox truths) adds:
‘Don’t eat food you don’t like; don’t be deprived of firelight; don’t take anything too seriously; don’t let people get you down.’
Penelope Wilcock has provided many members of my church with spiritual sustenance through her Hawk and the Dove books. The Clear Light of Day is less well-known, but has the same earthy spirituality. And she has written non-fiction such as The Road of Blessing, which I recently read and found perceptive, original – ah! an original Christian book! – and refreshing.

Last May I was privileged to meet Pen and talk through silence, solitude, celibacy (among other things). We also laughed a very great deal. You can read that interview here.

We need those who see – and help us see – beyond our boxes. I think Pen Wilcock is one such seer.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Love's the point

I wrote this paraphrase of Paul's famous passage on love in 1 Corinthians.
If I ‘do so make covenant’ * before men and angels, but have not love, I am missing the point of the promises I am making. And if I live in community, and understand all the mysteries of the common purse, and if I attend every meeting, arriving punctually and staying till the end, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away every chance of romance I have, and if I deliver up my life to celibacy, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Photo by ugaldew of sxc.hu
Love enjoys people as they are, and can wait for perfection to come after resurrection; love can say ‘I am no less than anyone else’ but also ‘I am no better than anyone else’; love has no need to interrupt, shout others down, or push its way forward. Others can contradict love without having to face explosions or implosions. Love is not afraid to confront others if they’re wrong, but much happier to praise them if they’re right. Love puts up, bigs up, looks up, keeps up – always.

Our inspirations have a limited shelf life; our words will pass their ‘use by’ date; our certainties will be swallowed up. For our certainties are uncertain, our inspirations are uninspiring, compared to what we’re heading for. When perfection comes, my inspirations, words, and certainties will seem to me like that collection of stickers I prized when I was five: I’ll smile at them and let them go. At present these things are the binoculars through which I glimpse God, but when God arrives I’ll drop them without a thought (and realise I was looking through them the wrong way anyway). Then I’ll realise it was never about how much I knew God, but how much God knew me.

For now we need faith; then we’ll see. For now we need hope; then we’ll receive. For now we need love; and so we will forever, when only love remains.

* For those not familiar with the Jesus Army, my reference in the first paragraph of this paraphrase to 'covenant', 'community' and 'celibacy' are three of our church's key distinctives. Covenant refers to the promise of lifelong discipleship that our committed members make to God and each other; community refers to our intentional Christian community houses (with their common purse arrangements); celibacy refers to the promise that some have made to remain single in order to serve God more freely. These things are important ways in which we've sought to put the New Testament into practice over the years.

These things matter to us. But as with the issues that mattered to the Corinthians - tongues, prophecy, faith, knowledge and so on - if we forget that they're actually all about love, we've forgotten what they're for.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Of making many books...

This year I’m only reading novels that were written since I was born.

About a decade ago, I decided to get more deliberate about my reading. I’m a voracious reader, and it’s a good thing. As well as being a pleasure and a calming influence, it widens horizons. But I found the down side of being a confirmed readaholic, sob, an incurable bibliophile, is that reading can become hotchpotch, undisciplined, all over the place. Simply put, I just read whatever my hands fell on.

So about ten years ago I decided to have a reading theme for that year:  biographies and autobiographies. That year, among others, I was inspired by Nelson Mandela, intrigued by Mikhail Gorbachev, appalled by Adoph Hitler, even more appalled by Joseph Stalin, challenged by George Fox, melted by Mother Teresa, and upbraided by John Wesley. I think I can honestly say some of the people I met that year changed by life.

Expand your horizons with a bookSince then, I’ve adopted a reading theme each year. In the myth year I sailed with Odysseus and believed in the Valar. My theology year saw me getting my teeth into Karl Barth and revisiting my old mentor Augustine of (humorously named) Hippo. Children’s books! That was fun and included spending several summers in one year on deck with the Swallows and Amazons. Science and sci-fi was out of my usual orbit but none the worse for that (I meant to work from physics through chemistry to biology, but never got beyond physics, it was so fascinating – H.G. Wells kept me entertained between the pencil chewing.) The first thousand years BC presented the challenge of fitting a millennium into a year, which I managed with the help of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which is quite simply one of the most marvellous things I’ve ever read. And the classics year meant I finally got round to reading Pride and Prejudice and, yes, it really is as good as everyone says it is.

I don’t stick to my theme absolutely rigidly. I’ve usually got one or two Christian or theological books on the go, and I read the Bible and the Times most days. But it’s helped to add some deliberateness to my reading. As with the rest of life, rules and discipline help as long as we deliberately break them now and again.

So this year I’m on novels written since I was born. Since I was born in 1976 this means that I’m having a fairly post-modern year, and rather enjoying it. Life of Pi and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin combined profundity with humour rather excellently. The Wasp Factory made me itch with discomfort. Atonement was brilliantly written and played a trick on me which I quite enjoyed (though I know some people it annoyed). The English Patient was a bit pretentious which is probably why I liked it. Beloved was achingly sad. The Colour Purple was brilliant yet odd. The Blind Assassin was clever and engaging until it became too long. The Road was nihilistic and life-affirming by turns. Love in a Time of Cholera was poetry in motion. The Hunger Games was, I thought, quite brilliant, genuinely moving by the end of the trilogy, and none the worse for being 'popular'.

What’ll it be next year? The complete works of René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo? That's seriously tempting. Poets and poetry? Other people’s diaries? Who can say.

'Of making many books there is no end', said Solomon. He meant it as a complaint, I think. But I’m rather glad.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Drop in the ocean

A Jesus Army team takes a double-decker bus to the West End of London each month to give out food and drinks, and talk and pray with people. Last week I was on the team.

Aleksandar is 19 and from Bulgaria. He has been living on the streets of London for just over a week. I meet him outside the Jesus Army bus and we drink coffee from polystyrene cups and chat.

Aleksandar came to the UK after nursing his mother “pretty much single-handed” before she died four months ago. A so-called friend of his family offered him work in the UK. But when Aleksandar arrived he found the “friend” wanted him to work without pay. “Slave labour, basically” says Aleksandar. “He said to me ‘You’ve got no papers, no permit – so no choice.’ I said ‘No thanks.’ So I left.”

Now Aleksandar hopes to get help from some of London’s homeless charities, including the Jesus Army’s “Jesus Centre” near Oxford Circus.

Zeb is only 15. He and his mates hopped on the bus for some food and a Snickers bar (or two). They’re pretty respectful – though Zeb’s zonked on booze and who knows what else.

He’s been a heavy drinker since he was 11 and in and out of care.

"Tripz" on YouTube
At the momen, Zeb is homeless: sometimes “sofa surfing”, sometimes sleeping on the streets. His mate “Tripz” has made some rap videos and posted them on YouTube via producer “Pacman TV”. Zeb is in one or two of them, wearing his baseball cap and posturing in the background. The videos are a moving mix of youthful hope and old-before-their-time despair.

Delia is anywhere between 35 and 65. Her mental health problems and homelessness make it difficult to tell. She’s worried because the doctor’s said she shouldn’t eat meat. But she’s very appreciative of the vegetable curry we give her from the Jesus Army bus. She chats away, reminding me, curiously, of both Eastenders character, Dot Cotton, and a female Frank Spencer.

We make other friends that night. Iranian Ali, joker George, gay Phil, arthritic Sue.

It’s a sea of humanity, each person with a story, often heartrending.

Round the corner is Leicester Square. Another sea surges through it, this time mainly dressed in designer jeans and sequined miniskirts. Stopping to talk with those who want to, I find they can be as hungry as the homeless.

“I want to make my lift mean something” says Ahmed. “I’m a youth coach” says Musa “and I tell them to make their life count”.

“I’ll have a cross” says Sam in the queue in McDonald’s. I give her a trademark Jesus Army fluro-red cross. “I believe, but it’s hard, innit?”

It is hard. Hard not to be overwhelmed by all the people, all the need. But I want to play my part to help the Jesus Army to play their part. To add some love. If we’re going to be a drop in the ocean, I’d rather we were a drop of love than anything else.

Some names in this post have been changed.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Drugs shame cop jailed

This morning the front page of our local paper made me sad.

‘Drugs shame cop jailed’ shouted the headline. The story was about a young police sergeant who’d been caught trying to give illegal drugs to ‘as he tried to seduce a young man’ in a gay bar.

I only caught a glimpse of it as I ran out of the front door, late for work (again). I don’t know the backstory (can we ever, really?) But it made me reflect on the unhappiness of this young police officer’s situation. Yes, he’s done wrong, broken the law, and that’s particularly serious for a policeman. But I sense a sad struggle in the background.

I know a bit about Rainbows, the bar he was in because a number of my friends – gay and straight – have mentioned what a friendly, open, accepting place it is. It’s widely known as one of the most chilled out, peaceful venues in the city.

And then I imagine this young officer there. Is he desperate for some acceptance? Looking for some relief? Has he struggled with his sexual identity? Wrestled with what others may think of him? Felt the conflict between his public position and his private world? What drove him to the crazy risk of using drugs to try to buy love?

And I see in my mind’s eye that police sergeant’s face, as pictured on the front of the paper. A photo taken as his guilty verdict was announced. Grief. Broken. Hopeless. Finished.

My heart went out to him.

And it stirred in me again the strong desire for our community, our church, to be a place where all can come, no matter what ‘guilty’ verdicts hang over them, no matter what struggles they have and try to hide. I want to be part of a community like Rainbows, but even better. A community where all are accepted, welcomed, loved – as they are. And we can walk on together, all broken, all heading for a better future because God accepts us all – as we are.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Passing the baton

Last night two ex-students of mine came for dinner. They’re a great pair and I always enjoy the thought-provoking discussions we have when they come. They’re both Christians, but badly disillusioned with church. So much so that by their own admission they can’t really contemplate being part of one.

They love (I think) coming to our community and there’s genuine friendship there, but they’d run a mile (I think) at the thought of joining us. Not especially because it would challenge them; more that it’s all a little too ‘pre-packaged’ and they’ve got too many painful questions to easily accept our ‘answers’.

It chimed in a little with something I’ve been thinking about: the challenge of winning a new generation. Like in a relay race (there’s my topical reference; good eh?), the handover of the baton is a crucial part of running a good race. Raising up a new generation is crucial to a movement’s ongoing life.

In any transition from one generation to another there is the crucial importance of taking all that the previous generation have found (often at cost) and passing it onto the rising generation. Yet there’s also the importance of taking the risk of letting the new generation truly be just that: new. Of letting it wrestle with some questions in order to find its own answers. It may even have to repeat some of the mistakes the previous generation made, and invest some pain in learning things the hard way.

That way, a generation will come to hold a movement as truly its own.

It’s the difference between passing on a vision and passing on a blueprint. A vision catches hearts, stirs aspiration – but it doesn’t bolt everything down too tightly. A blueprint defines everything, leaves nothing to chance. A vision produces a movement; a blueprint produces a machine.

The blueprint option feels safer, feels right, precisely because it eliminates risk and leaves nothing to chance. Yet I suspect it produces two basic responses in a rising generation: rebellion (in its leader-types) or passivity (in its follower-types). Neither are much cop – and castigating the former and being over optimistic about the latter will not achieve much either.

I was intrigued to read bible scholar Walter Brueggemann’s comments about the last chapter of Deuteronomy (a chapter of generational transfer if ever there was one). Here’s what Brueggemann wrote (with the phrases that leapt out at me in bold):
[There is a] gap as wide as the Jordan, between the end of Deuteronomy and the beginning of Joshua... When the reader enters the Jordan and the land and the book of Joshua, Moses and Deuteronomy are finished. Fresh faith and fresh strategies are required under new leadership. The “new generation” of Israel represented by Joshua must now take form. This is “your little ones” [1:39] in “the next generation” [29:22] upon whom the tradition has its hopeful eye. The discontinuity is clear, a discontinuity necessary if Israel is to have a life beyond recalcitrance. Thus the new generation does not need to pay forever for the failures of the old [24:16]. At the same time, of course, the tradition insists that the new generation does not appear in history de novo. These are “your children” who must be fully inculcated into the story of wonders and into the demands of Torah that are the premise of life in the land. Thus the tricky relationship of new and old, of discontinuity and continuity, is much on the mind of this tradition, for the covenant is “for all of us here alive today” [5:3], but also for “those who are not with us here today” [29:15]... [This text is] powerfully contemporary for every generation that finds itself pondering old miracles, trusting old memories, heeding old commands, and always again entering new territory of promise.
I know that when something’s on your mind, it can seem to crop up everywhere, so I wasn’t altogether surprised when, this morning, I read something Tom Wright wrote which seemed to be about the same thing.

He tells the story of how he was invited to go and preach at the school he attended as a boy. It was ‘one of those annual events where we were supposed to remember the great pioneers who had founded the school’.

‘I pointed out something very odd was going on,’ writes Wright. ‘Each one of the men and women we were honouring had been innovators. They had been the ones who dared to do things differently, to go in a new direction despite the people who wanted to keep things as they were. But we, by reading out a list of their names in a solemn voice, and by holding them up as our founding figures, were in danger of doing the opposite: of saying that we wanted everything to stay the way it had always been. Do you honour the memory of an innovator by slavishly following what they did, or by daring to be different in your turn?’

I couldn’t help thinking of our Jesus Army founder, Noel Stanton, who died three years ago, nothing if not a visionary and a force to be reckoned with. I, among others, am tasked with taking his vision forward. Yet one of the great abilities Noel had was the ability to contradict himself. If he felt an emphasis or direction had outlived its purpose, that new ones were necessary, he wouldn’t flinch (even when almost everyone else was reeling). He was an innovator to the core. We had at least one major revolution every decade – and many minor ones between (if you want a flavour, try to imagine a deep, rural, Anabaptist-influenced community becoming Jesus Army, an urban missionary fighting force in the space of about five years.)

It may not be right for my two ex-students to join us. Our answers may not be their answers, though I do pray they won’t drift on the tide of their questions forever. But God help us find, call, envision and train a new generation.

And God help us not try to give them all the answers. God help us let them be innovators.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Sunk without you

At our recent big church bash Ian, one of the Jesus Army's main leaders, spoke about "covenant".

We call the commitment made by core members of the Jesus Army a "covenant". It's a mutual promise to be faithful to God together and to live out His calling to be a Jesus army (and not without its controversies; for instance, some have seen it as too limiting: “why commit to just one church?”) I’d say it was one of our key strengths, a confirmation of the real brotherhood and unity we share.

Brotherhood covenant (picture by pixelstar of sxc.huOne thing that Ian said jumped at me with real freshness. I captured it with a tweet as he spoke: ‘Covenant commitment is not a super-spiritual pledge for holy people, but a survival pact for people who know they’re weak.’

All too often we can see things like covenant commitment as an attainment, as a plateau inhabited by the spiritual. In fact, it’s a recognition of need.

I cannot be a Christian on my own. Others may be able to sustain an isolated discipleship; I can’t. I need my covenant brothers and sisters and I need them to stay with me or I’m sunk.

I cannot stop sinning on my own. Others may be able to achieve solitary sanctification; I can’t. Without brothers to hear my sordid confessions and cheer me on along the upward road to (an, in this life, always approximate) holiness, I’d degenerate fast.

I cannot believe in God on my own. Others may have mightier faith than I; I need the reality of brotherhood if faith in God is to be anything more than just a theory (and one that I might well abandon when the chips are down).

What’s more, it isn’t enough for me to just have some brothers and sisters walking with me part of the road. I need them the whole way – or I won’t make it. What’s more, if I don’t promise, very clearly, to stay on the road with them, I’d be off into a siding in no time.

So I promise. I covenant. I need to.

It occurred to me last night – after an evening of wonderful relaxed eating and laughing with those I live with, in community – that Christian community is much the same. Some see living in community with all things in common as a lofty pinnacle (or at any rate something “for the most committed”).

Really?

If you can have your own money and not love it, you are more advanced as a Christian than I am. I need to have no money, to share all my money – otherwise money-love would get me (maybe subtly, maybe outright, but I promise you it would be there.) I take my hat off to those who evade money-love without a common purse. I’m just not up to their standard. I’ll take the easier path please.

I’ll live in community.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Choose life


And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?’ And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back. (Mark 16:2-4)
Disappointment can dog anyone.

It can get a group down, too. At White Stone we’ve had our fair share of disappointment over the years (mingled I should say with a good deal of joy and achievement). People whose stories didn’t turn out as happily as we’d hoped; tensions that proved difficult to resolve happily; stubborn health problems; growth slow despite effort and prayer.

A result of this has been a certain loss of sparkle. We started as a team of bright-eyed idealists, sent  ten years ago from our ‘mother house’ on the other side of the city, full of dreams.

We spoke in those days of our household having a ‘character of worship’. A little grandiose, perhaps (and those words should describe any church), but it gives a flavour of our early idealism. I believe God was in it, even if it was mixed with copious amounts of youthful naivety.

We’ve gained much. Breadth and stickability. We’ve learnt to pace ourselves (sometimes the hard way, as we’ve taken turns to bump along the bottom of burnout). We’ve learnt that love means longsuffering and that it isn’t neat and tidy and that we can live with that, even celebrate it. We’ve learnt some wisdom (I hope).

And yet. Could it be that when we gather to worship and pray together we’re – dull? A touch dowdy in spirit? Is it possible to worship God whilst slumped in an armchair and staring into the middle distance (‘the hands in my heart are raised’)? Could it be that spiritual gifts are a wee bit ‘same old’ (‘I saw a picture of God as a shepherd and us as his sheep’)?

Recently poleaxed again by one of our members going through some personal difficulties and having to move out, the spirit level sunk lower still.

And then, well – God spoke.

I don’t want to over egg the cake. I’m not claiming that we were all subject to an epiphany, a blinding revelation. But God has spoken to us.

Sunburst by thesaint of sxc.hu
First, he spoke through Colossians 3 which happened to come round in our cycle of bible readings. As we together chewed over its call to ‘put off the old and put on the new’ and to live for the body of Christ, God spoke. Then, a week or so later, a younger leader reminded us of the call to have ‘a character of worship’. A worship time of more than usual tenderness followed (not revival, granted, but tender nevertheless). Then, another day, another leader, quoting Moses’ call to Israel, called us to ‘choose life’ in all the situations where we might ‘choose death’ through unforgiveness or resentment or whatever. (Read some more of his reflections on this here.)

It’s all combined to be a word of light in a dark place. God has made it possible for us to throw off the grave clothes, the old reactions and selfishness. We can rise in worship, not dominated by our poor old souls, with their thoughts and feelings of failure and hurt. We can choose life.

Then, to cap it all, our local pastor spoke last Sunday about ‘resurrection life’: how, though Christ, we can know a power of LIFE working in us which enables us to overcome and endure – and to shine.

It’s not that everything in the garden is rosy, but it’s strengthening to know that God hasn’t left us, that he is guiding us.


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Road

I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Finished it last night. Here's my review:

The RoadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Both bleak and beautiful. The bleakness emanates from the scorched landscape, external and internal, we travel with this father and son; the beauty from the love between them.

Some have called this achingly sad novel a warning. I can see why. But I think, in a very strange way, it's also a celebration - of all that we have, all we too often don't appreciate, and of love, the greatest and frailest gift of all.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Jonah moaner (part 2)

I've written about Jonah before. And last Sunday I talked to the good Jesus Army people in Coventry about him - particularly about the episode with the plant (Jonah 4 – not as famous as the episode with the whale, but just as instructive).

With Jonah's help, I explored anger.

Reminiscent of the older brother in Jesus' "Lost Son" story, Jonah is displeased at God’s grace. Before we leap to say ‘How wrong!’ (and, yes, he's undoubtedly wrong) we should remember that Nineveh had terrorised and brutalised the world including Jonah's own people.

Grace is scandalous. If you've stopped being shocked by it, beware. Maybe grace has left you behind. Maybe you're left with a tidy religious system. The fact is grace had burst out of control in Jonah's eyes. Things hadn’t turned out how Jonah wanted – or thought they should.

Result: he was angry. And he expressed it! "Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live." This is a full-scale, spit-your-dummy-out, not-playing-anymore strop.

So what does God say? “You are wrong to be angry with the righteous God and therefore I will smite thee and strike you down with lightening until all that remains is a small patch of burnt ground”?

Well, no. God asks a question: “Do you do well to be angry?” This is tender; this is grace; this is God honouring Jonah’s humanity and dignity.

But Jonah's not yet ready to have his anger questioned or probed. He retires to the sidelines ("to the east of the city") – as people often do when they’re hurt – and finds his comfort in lesser things – as people often do when they’re hurt.

Three divine ‘appointments’ show God's grace towards Jonah. The first is comforting – the "plant" – the second disturbing – the "worm" – the third downright provoking – the "scorching east wind". God won't abandon Jonah to soul-destroying rage. He comforts – but then He provokes his anger further; brings it to the surface to be dealt with.

Ever seen two riled guys with one saying ‘Come on! Come on!’ and giving the other little pushes to start a fight? Well – here's God doing the divine equivalent of just that. Jonah is sinking into his unexpressed anger and God provokes and pushes – and asks again: "Do you do well to be angry?"  And this time God gets a response: "YES! Yes I do well enough to be angry! Angry enough to die!"

Anger is powerful: God help us, we must learn how to handle it. "Anger is like an accelerator in a car" says  Myra Chave-Jones in her book, Living with Anger; "when a learner it has startling power, but with experience it becomes an extension of ourselves and can be used without anxiety or threat."

In a similar vein, Eugene Peterson (of The Message fame) points out that anger is "useful as a diagnostic tool" (it points out that something is wrong), but less useful in that it fails to tell us "whether the wrong is inside or outside of us".

Anger expressed in temper can be very destructive, can be sin, as James points out in the New Testament. God grows self-control in us.

But anger bottled up and denied can also lead to sin. And sometimes that sin is worse; longer-term, deeper rooted. It can lead to entrenched attitudes, unbelief – and outbreaks of rage over other, smaller, things. Anger denied becomes a cold, grey, but very flammable sludge inside the soul. A spark can set it blazing!

"What happens to anger once it is censured?" asks theologian Lytta Basset in her book, Holy Anger. "Repressed anger falls upon an innocent person: the anger of the employer falls on the employee, of the parent on the child, of the child on the younger brother or sister, who takes it out on the cat!"

Paul gives a command in the New Testament, which is really two commands: "Be angry and do not sin." Be angry - don't deny it! But do not sin - work it out rightly! Paul is citing Psalm 4:4, which goes on to give an example of working through, of handling, of dealing with, anger: "Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent."

Ponder it! Work it through! Question it, probe it, discover its source and cause. On your own (who hasn't had a sleepless night working through anger over one thing or another?) and with others. Sometimes, with serious anger over serious hurts, counselling can help.

Only this way can we avoid anger becoming murder - figuratively or literally. Only then can anger be used can be "used without anxiety or threat".

René Girard, French historian, literary critic, and social philosopher, warns us about undealt-with anger: "[There is a] tendency, universal among human beings, to unburden their accumulated violence on another, a substitute victim... Scapegoats continue to exist... Everywhere and always, when humans cannot or dare not attack the object of their anger, they unconsciously look for substitutes, and most of the time they find them."

When Paul adds "Don’t let the sun go down on your anger" he means something like "deal with your anger before it goes cold". There's a time to "count to ten" to avoid temper outbursts. There's a time to "ponder in your heart on your bed" to work anger through. But don't bury it – "don’t let the sun go down" –  don’t deny it or put it off!

Most anger ends up at God sooner or later if let to run its course. Anger at God needs particular care – but it also can provide a gateway into liberation because God is the one who is supremely able to receive our rage, our fury, our hurt and wounded sense of wrong done – and take it.

So Jonah, provioked by God, expresses his anger to God. The painful honesty of the dialogue with God that follows has the potential to open up new perspectives ("Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city?")

We don't know how it ends with Jonah. His book ends, tantalisingly, with a question mark. Maybe, like Cain, he refused God's provovation and sank into murderous violence. Maybe, like Job, he had it out with God and made it through into peace. Maybe like Paul, he had to go round the block a few times. Maybe like Jesus, God stressed him out to the point of illness.

We're all angry. God give us grace to tell Him. To work it through. To find the peace that He wants to give us.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Ten ‘other’ commandments

Photo by mzacha of sxc.hu
Some of us are inclined to try too hard. If you're like that, you may find these ten 'alternative' commandments (which a friend wrote for me a while back after a prolonged time of trying too hard that had left me pretty burnt out) helpful:
Thou shalt not be perfect, nor even try to be.
Thou shalt not try to be all things to all people.
Thou shalt leave undone things that ought to be done.
Thou shalt not spread thyself to thin.
Thou shalt learn to say ‘no’.
Thou shalt schedule time for thyself and thy supportive network.
Thou shalt switch off and do nothing regularly.
Thou shalt be boring, untidy, inelegant and unattractive at times.
Thou shalt not even feel guilty.
Especially thou shalt not be thine own worst enemy but be thy best friend.


Monday, June 11, 2012

Full volume

On Saturday, the Jesus Army turned up its collective, creative, technical, organisational, inspirational volume to full.

More than a thousand of us marched (danced, sang and pirouetted) our way from Hyde Park Corner to Traflagar Square. There we celebrated Jesus for three hours with music, dance, drama, testimony...

It was a great day. The sun shined (as did the Son).

One of the best things we ever do...

(Have a look at some more pics at the JA Facebook page, here.)

Monday, May 21, 2012

Pincompetant

PinterestSo. I decided to check out Pinterest, the latest big thing in social media, a kind of Twitter for pictures.

Having got myself 'invited', I set up a 'board' called 'Inspirational', searched Pinterest for pictures tagged 'Jesus', and found a picture graphically declaring a suitably (to my mind at any rate) inspirational motto: 'Church is who we are not where we go.'

So I 'repinned' it to my 'Inspirational' board (get me!)

Flushed with success, I thought I'd go for broke and add a comment, too. 'Yes!' I wrote, as a heartfelt amen to the sentiments expressed in the worthy little pic.

Unfortunately, I reckoned without that tendency of computers to treat rookies as prey. My comment somehow appended itself to a different image: one of a little purple flower in a field of grass.

I'll go on record as liking flowers. Yet, I confess, I was a little piqued that my first comment on Pinterest was a 'yes' (complete with exclamation mark no less) for an image that, frankly, made me appear a wee bit - shall we say - schmultzy.

But worse was to follow. Looking closer at the flower pic, I discovered that it was accompanied by a text, also prettily purple. It said, 'Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod he shall not die. (Proverbs 23:13 (NIV)'.

There are, I doubt not, some deep and wise principles underlying this Solomonic text. Nevertheless, it wouldn't be my choice for a text to accompany a flower. Furthermore, and more importantly to me personally, it wouldn't be a text likely to draw my unqualified, nay enthusiastic, agreement - my 'yes' (complete with exclamation mark).

So far, my Pinterest profile appears to be emerging as a sentimental religious weirdo.

Hey ho. If the pin sticks, I may have to wear it.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Talk talk

Picture by guitargoa of sxc.huA friend asked me how I plan a talk. 'Do you aim for three points or intro, middle, end, or what?' he asked. 'Or both?'

Of course, I responded that for it to be an evangelical sermon worth its salt, it categorically must have three points all beginning with the same letter. That was a joke. I didn't really say that (no offence to those wedded to the alliterative approach).

Actually, in all seriousness, I do think the 'three points beginning with p' approach is based on a fairly fundamental mistake preachers and speakers can make: namely that people are going to remember what we say. It's a bubble burster this, but they almost never will.

What people remember is how you made them feel.

That is worth thinking about. ('It's not what you say it's the way that you say it'..)

So I didn't say 'three points beginning with p'. I did quote another friend who once said about planning a talk: 'Say what you're going to say, then say it, then say what you just said!' In other words, one main point, reinforced three times.

I like this, though I confess I'm rarely so disciplined in my talks. I tend to think 'intro' (warm your listeners up with an apt story or joke - and if you can't think of an apt one go for one self-evidently and self-deprecatingly inapt), 'main bit' (usually based on scripture, directly or indirectly, and I try to put the scripture up on the screen), and 'summary' (reinforce the main point).

Also I almost always project pictures to go with my talk, even if they seem non-essential, because they engage a different part of people's brain and keep them with me.

In some settings, and for longer talks, it can be good to break for a few minutes and get people talking to each other in pairs about some related question. This refreshes concentration and helps people actively engage with the topic.

Lastly, there's nothing better than genuine passion and nothing worse then hype (and I've done both over the years!)

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Hero

Extracts from a gospel message I brought at Coventry Jesus Centre recently.

We all have heroes. Some are our heroes for deep and profound reasons; others less so (my wife for instance has a great liking for Daniel Craig which I suspect has something to do with turquoise eyes and chiselled features).

Then there are those characters in stories (page and screen) that appeal to our hunger for heroes. Nobility, self-sacrifice, strength.

What do the following four heroes have in common? Aslan from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Neo from The Matrix; Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars; Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings?

Answer: they all have aspects of their heroism that – in some cases deliberately – echo that of Jesus. Aslan, the kingly lion, whom CS Lewis created as an explicitly Messianic figure, was killed and rose again; Neo was ‘The One’ who was prophesied; similarly, Anakin Skywalker’s coming was prophesied; and Gandalf, created by CS Lewis’s great friend JRR Tolkien, while not allegorical like Aslan, reflected Christ in his own death, defending his friends from the dreadful, demonic ‘Balrog’, later returning as from death ‘at the turning of the tide’.

Watch a rather well-spliced together selection of Gandalf clips from the Lord of the Rings films here:



I love this moment in the film. “You shall not pass!” bellows Gandalf, smiting the bridge with his staff. He defends the Fellowship from the Balrog, but at the cost of his own life.

It reminded me of a scene from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which I recently finished reading. The Italian soldiers, including Corelli and his men, are being rounded up and massacred by the Nazis. As they face the firing squad, Corelli is grabbed by Carlo, a giant among his men who is devoted to him. Gripping Corelli, Carlo takes all the bullets for him, counting to 30 before dropping back onto his beloved Captain. Against all odds, Corelli survives.

And it reminds me of Jesus.

All the powers of evil – violent evil, political evil, religious evil, spiritual evil, the evil of betrayal, the evil of desolation, every kind of evil – drew themselves to their full height and flung themselves at Jesus on the cross. And He opened His arms wide and declared, in effect, ‘You shall not pass’.

He took our bullets.

He stopped evil in its tracks, refusing to keep it in circulation by the everlasting pattern of revenge, ‘an eye for an eye (and take an ear while you’re at it)’. ‘Father forgive’ He prayed – and evil lost its power, exhausted itself, spent itself utterly.

Now Jesus comes to us ‘at the turning of the tide’ and He says to us: come and join Me beyond the reach of evil and death. Come and join My way of forgiveness and new life.

A new creation is dawning and Jesus invites you to come and play your part with Him.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Seriously

SeriouslyI promised I’d blog this. You probably had to be there, but here’s the post anyway.

It was an amusing moment at our Agape (the weekly meal for committed members of the Jesus Army, which includes bible study and bread and wine). Following a study on Jonah and his ungracious attitude towards the ne’er-do-wells of Nineveh (see previous post), we’d been discussing whether there are any people groups we find it hard to accept.

‘So, are there any kinds of people you find difficult?’ asked my fellow leader to one of our members, a clever, computer kid. To spur him on he added, ‘Like – idiots, for instance?’

The question hung in the air half a beat, before I quipped, ‘Have you got a vested interest in that question?’ Everyone laughed (including him; he’s no idiot, but likes a joke, especially at his own expense.) I went on to muse about whether I ought to ask about Liverpudlians (I hail from Liverpool). But no-one was listening by then, amid the hoots of hilarity.

I ought to add: Agape is a serious time of deep heart-sharing and covenant reaffirmation (cough).
 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Jesus Army coming of age

Christian communityTalking to Shane Claiborne when I met him last summer, I said: "Six people were living in community at The Simple Way and you became world famous. There are 600 of us in New Creation Christian Community and we’re not! Why do you think that is?"

If you think the question sounds mildly petulant, perhaps it is! But the tone of our conversation had been so very brotherly that I felt at liberty to let out a wee bit of frustration in the question. Here's what Shane said in answer:

"One of my friendly critiques of the Jesus movement in the US – and I sense you’re a bit like some of those communities – is that when they started they were wonderfully counter-cultural, but they also threw out the rest of the Church. I think maybe some of that was necessary – but I think it also minimised the impact they had on the wider Church.

"Learning from that, we are trying to revitalise and restore some of what’s broken in the Church, a bit like Francis of Assisi’s calling to 'repair the Church which is ruins'. Our discontent with the Church is the very reason we engage rather than disengage. We said 'We are going to stop complaining about the Church we’ve experienced and work on becoming the Church that we dream of – but that also means we’re not giving up on the rest of this dysfunctional family.' I think that’s part of why we’re still invited to preach at Willow Creek and other places.

But I think that the gift of the Jesus Army and other radical communities is in preserving the radical spirit of that counter-culture or contrast society. It’s community on steroids. It moves the Church I think closer to where it should be."

Which was both encouraging - I love being described as "community on steroids" even if I wince a little - and challenging - it makes me feel the need for us to embrace our brothers and sisters everywhere, of whatever Christian "stripe", to learn and to share.

Talking of sisters, I met a nun last week, Sister Catherine (@digitalnun of some fame on Twitter), who said of us in the Jesus Army, "I love what you're doing - but your website's rubbish."

I know, sister, I know. We're working on it.

But later, Sister Catherine said, "Be encouraged. You're coming of age as a community." As someone who belongs to a monastic movement with fifteen hundred years under its communal belt, I take that as quite some encouragment.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Jonah moaner

Ever read the Bible and find it's reading you? I found this with Jonah chapter 4 today. Jonah, sulk-full of self-pity is quarelling with God under what Eugene Peterson memorably called 'the unpredictable plant'. A lesson in grace unfolds.

A number of biblical characters quarrel with God. Sometimes they are wrong and earn correction – like Paul; sometimes, they are vindicated and gain God’s approval – like Abraham; sometimes both – like Job.

Jonah quarrels with God because God relented from destroying Nineveh. It is not clear why this made Jonah so angry: maybe because it made Jonah’s message of coming judgement seem untrue; maybe because Jonah saw the (non-Jewish) Ninevites as unworthy of grace.

In fact, grace – undeserved favour – is a key theme here. God’s grace is shown not only in His forgiveness of Nineveh, but also in the way He handles Jonah. He doesn’t blast this sulking prophet for his self-centred anger; He gently asks a question: “Do you do well to be angry?”

Then, just as gently, God teaches Jonah a lesson, using the unpredictable plant, which first grows to shade Jonah and then withers. God helps Jonah to see the smallness of his heart, asking the same pointed question: “Do you do well to be angry...?”

And the book of Jonah is unique among biblical books in that it ends with a question: “And should not I pity Nineveh...?” This puts the challenge not only to Jonah, but also to me: can I see from the perspective of God’s huge, all-embracing, gracious love?

It makes me ask myself questions like: How easily can I accept those who are different to me? How quickly can I forgive? How gentle (rather than swift to correct or rebuke) am I with those who are (as I see it anyway) in the wrong?

We never find out what happened to Jonah, whether he languished in self-pity or learnt the lessons of grace that God was so patiently teaching him.

I can't do much about Jonah anyway. He's long gone. But I can do something about me.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Husband from hell

I was sitting in the giant marquee in which my church holds a festival every Easter. A man walked past me, in the aisle, followed by his wife.

It was a sad sight. He's led a chaotic life, ravaged by drug addiction and psychosis (we see a painful amount of it as the Jesus Army.)

But it was her that was the really sad sight. Thin, drawn, pale. Her life's been hellish because of him. Women's faithfulness can be utterly astounding - sometimes, tragically, to their detriment.

It made me reflect. Often looking at a wife can tell you a lot about her husband. A fulfilled and fruitful wife can be a preacher's very best sermon. Conversely, an unhappy, unfulfilled wife can be an indictment of her husband.

At the time, we were singing a song about the bride of Christ, the church. Jesus rose from the dead, not just to provide us with an excuse to eat chocolate eggs. He didn't even rise from the dead just so that we would have life after death.

He died and rose from death in order to gain a beautiful bride, a church of those being freed from death in all its forms - now, in this life, as well as afterwards.

Every life changed, every life ransomed from death, every life beautified in the bride of Christ - it is to the glory and honour of her Husband.

And so I pray for that couple I saw. May they yet come to a better day, a healing day, a new day. A resurrection day.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

A rather wonderful quotation

Sun burst (photo by thesaint of sxc.hu)Paul has spoken, and we must speak, of the love of the one, true God. This love of God calls across the dark intervals of meaning, reaches into the depths of human despair, embraces those who live in the shadow of death or the overbright light of present life, challenges the rulers of the world and shows them up as a sham, looks at the present with clear faith and at the future with sure hope, overpowers all powers that might get in the way, fills the outer dimensions of the cosmos, and declares to the world that God is God, that Jesus the Messiah is the world's true Lord, and that in him love has won the victory.

~ N.T. Wright, in his commentary on Romans