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
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 RenĂ© 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.