Monday, December 23, 2013

Top Tory vs meagre Messiah

Work and  Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, refused to meet Foodbank charity chiefs over Britain’s growing hunger crisis this week.

Apparently, Mr Duncan Smith accused the charity of being too “political” and “scaremongering” to oppose his welfare reforms. The senior government politician walked out of a Commons debate on the issue of UK poverty in the run up to Christmas.

More than 500,000 people – one third of them children – have received emergency supplies from the Christian-based charity.

Chairman of the Trussell Trust, the charity that runs Foodbanks, Chris Mould said: “We reject the suggestion that we have a political agenda. Our interest is the needs of poor people who we see in their thousands every week.”

The Trussell Trust describes itself as “a Christian organisation motivated by Jesus’ teaching on poverty and injustice”. They “serve people of all faith groups and beliefs or none”.

So was Jesus concerned about the poor? Yes, He was! In His first ever public teaching, Jesus announced that He had come to bring “good news to the poor,” throwing in for good measure that He would “set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18).

Jesus may not have been party political – but He was certainly on the side of the poor and the have-nots over the self-satisfied rich.

It’s not surprising. Jesus Himself was born on the streets, after all. Forget cosy Christmas-card images of a lovely warm stable: the Bible just says that Jesus was “laid in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).

A manger is a road-side feeding trough. Jesus was born in the 1st century equivalent of a petrol station.

It’s all the more amazing when you think that Christians believe that Jesus was not just any old person – He was God’s own son, who chose to come into our world to rescue us. It says something about this God that He chose to be born not in a palace – but on the street.

And that He chose to die a painful death on a cross even though He was innocent.

God identifies with the poor, the hopeless, the accused, the rejected, the scum of the earth.

Do I?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


“These wineskins were new when we filled them, and behold, they have burst. And these garments and sandals of ours are worn out from the very long journey.” (Joshua 9:13)

This seems like a fitting scripture for the year we've had when I read it this morning.

In its context, ironically, it was a lie. The burst wineskins and broken sandals were an elaborate charade made to give the appearance of having traveled far. (Israel's shrewd potential enemies, the Gibeonites used it to avoid battle.)

When I first read it, out of context, I assumed the bible verse - taken as it is from the book of Joshua - was a reference to the Israelites after their long sojourn in the desert. We get used to projecting ourselves on the Israelites, so it was a natural thought: "Familiar! Sounds like the year we've had". It has been a hard year, a slog, beginning with the death of a dear friend, ending with the closure of our community house, along the way some loved-ones struggling with ill-health and associated problems. We almost ran out of wine altogether. Our shoes are in tatters.

But I found out that the burst wineskins et cetera of Joshua 9 were fake. This wasn't a story of endurence and suffering, but of cunning and strategy. My mournful scriptural epitaph for the year snatched from my grasp! Ah! What now for my self-pity!

And that was when another bible verse came to mind. What they have in common is sandals: "Your clothes have not worn out on you, and your sandals have not worn off your feet." (Deuteronomy 29:5). The Israelites did indeed have a long, arduous, dangerous trek across the wilderness. But God gave them staying power beyond themselves. Their sandals didn't wear out.

So, deprived of my sombre text for 2013, I'll make this my happier one for 2014. Our sandals are not worn off our feet. We can carry on. And in the next leg of the journey, may there be new wine.

I wish you all a restful, peaceful Christmas season and a New Year of new wine.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Fishing for complement

Fishy?The fish was off. It almost all went wrong.

It’s not every day we have an apostolic leader (Jesus Army speak for big leader) over for dinner. And the trout was off. Cue waiting at the table while my ever-resourceful wife cooked up some chicken fillets instead. But said leader amused my kids (and their dad) with optical illusion videos on his phone and all was well.

Later we had a great evening talking about lots of things from UK housing through to Pope Francis. Not surprisingly, given the rollercoaster ride my wife and I have had this year, we talked about vision and disappointment and community.

One issue we touched on that I thought would make a worthwhile wee post was the difference between generations when it comes to their money ethic. It ties into the wider discussion about intentional community – because if you’re going to share your money, as we do in a common pursue, the way members see money matters.

The older generation (his lot), we realised, prize frugality. This is the generation whose parents negotiated rationing and making frayed ends meet. For them ‘simplicity’ is about spending less. A community lounge with faded curtains, ill-matching plastic chairs and patched-together cushions is AS IT SHOULD BE.

The rising generation (our lot) prize liberality. This generation hasn’t, by and large, grown up with scarcity.  For this generation ‘simplicity’ is about spending more on others. About not worrying about money, being generous and spontaneous. A community lounge with simple, contemporary decor and plenty of (young) people feeling at home is AS IT SHOULD BE.

Of course, the younger generation’s liberality can tip over into profligacy – ‘want it nice, want it easy, want it now’. Likewise, the older generation’s frugality can slide into parsimony – ‘if it’s not horrible, it’s not holy’. And both sides can be inclined to characterise the other unfairly: ‘Wasters!’ ‘Misers!’

A better approach – as so so so often with these paradoxes – is to take both views at once. As John Wesley said ‘Earn all you can, give all you can, save all you can.’ 

Don’t waste God’s money; don’t be indulgent. Don’t penny-pinch; don’t be miserable.

Or to put those things positively: Spend money joyfully and remember that ‘God gives us richly all things to enjoy’ (1 Timothy 6:17); identify with the world’s poor and remember that ‘if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content’ (1 Timothy 6:8).

Jesus (funnily enough) got it right. ‘You can’t serve God and money’, he warned. But he also said ‘Use wicked wealth to make friends’.

Simplicity is best. But if the fish is off don’t eat it.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Pope hope

Do we live in the age of a second Saint Francis?

Early days, I know, and routine as it's become to lionise the current Pope, the Luther in me wants to dissent on principle... but it really does appear that Jorge Mario Bergoglio - Pope Francis - is a true spiritual leader for our times.

I read a quoatation from his First Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” yesterday, which struck me (quite a few extracts struck me: get a flavour here):

“Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.”

Pope Francis hugs a man in his visit to a rehab
Touching suffering... wonderfully complicated... intense empathy. Having gone through a degree of ministry burn-out of late, I might have found such words repellent. But no: they refreshed. Is a mark of a saint that he or she speaks words - the same words - that from another would have a different effect?

I posted the Pope's words on Facebook and my brother, a social worker, commented, “I can draw some parallels with my profession here”. My brother works with adults with learning difficulties, work which I can imagine can be tough, long and thankless.

This may be another mark of a saint: he can speak to any and all, man or woman, western or eastern, of any religion or none, with words that will resonate.

I applaud all who “touch the suffering of others”, who embrace human solidarity and refuse the blandishments of self-centredness. I don't always want to want to walk that path myself, but as another saint (Teresa of Avila) almost said, I want to want to.

Speak on, Pope Francis. I, for one, am listening.

(A little theological postscript for those who may question my approach to 'sainthood' in this post. I, along with reformed Christians generally, believe that 'the saints' are all who are being made holy - sainted - by Christ: all His followers, not just a select few. But I maintain it's good to recognise those who have made special progress, who become able to speak to and for humanity, to reresent human potential and beckon us all higher. Call them prophets if you like; call them stars. Like the word martyr - originally a word to describe all Christians as witnesses, which came to be especially used of those who died for their testimony - the word saint can, I think, bear these two levels.)

Monday, November 18, 2013

Another psalm for a desperate time...

...but this one's written by the King.

No not Elvis; King David.

After having written my own desperate psalm yesterday, wouldn't you know it? The psalm I had to write about for my church today was another psalm for desperate times: this one a "psalm of David" - Psalm 143.

David’s troubles make him aware of his own sins. He's oppressed by a nameless enemy – maybe an actual person, maybe his sins – and the result is a collapse of morale. He remembers enjoying God’s goodness to him in the past, but the present, by contrast, seems bone dry and starved of blessing. His dire need leads to urgent prayer. The psalm finishes with a declaration of trust in God and a fresh commitment to be God’s servant.

This kind of psalm teaches me about prayer, particularly prayer when I'm distressed:

It's honest. David tells God just how desperate he is. He acknowledges his own rottenness, but he is also bold enough to argue his case with God: "Enter not into judgement with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you" (v.2). That's pretty bold!

 It's urgent. Not for David a mealy-mouthed ‘If-it-be-Thy-will’ prayer: he demands that God answers – and soon! "Answer me quickly"; "Let me hear in the morning" (in other words, David doesn’t want to wait until the afternoon!) (v.8).

It honours God even in desperation. Despite David’s agony and fear, he ends this prayer by asserting God’s faithfulness: "In your steadfast love you will cut off my enemies, and you will destroy all the adversaries of my soul" (v.12). Even in suffering, David remains faithful to God.

I'm left thinking: my enemies can be people who oppose me in one way and another, my sins and follies, my destructive habits, or mysterious spiritual oppressions. What enemies am I facing at the moment and how can I overcome them? And if I was to rate my prayer life for honesty, how would I fare?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A psalm for desperate times

I am so very angry with you, my God. You have become as my enemy.
I know that you are holy, that you are to be vindicated at the last, but I do not understand your ways.
I am so very angry with you, I can barely speak. I cannot sing in your house.
Songs of happy praise are like ashes in my mouth; words of joy are like stones.
My father, my leader has turned back and what now are all his words worth? What light now in the world?
When vows are cast away, what is there of any worth in all creation?
My brother, my friend is struck down and cannot stand. I have cried to you on his behalf.
Why have you not heard my prayers for them? Why have you remained silent?
All we have built is broken. You have crushed it; the work of our hands blows on the wind as dust.
Storms unleash destruction, winds blow, the waters threaten to overwhelm me.
I know my sin, and my folly is not hidden from me. I cry to my deliverer. Save me O God!
Answer me, O silent sovereign Lord! Demonstrate your faithful love for who have I but you?
Darkness is my companion. My prayer is that I will yet praise you.
May my voice again be raised to you from among the congregation of your people.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Rapture kindled eye

What do Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero and Queen Victoria's granddaughter have in common?

Read on and I'll tell you.

Last Saturday was the Jesus Fellowship's annual 'Praise Day', a large-scale, stage-presentation style event run by my church each year in the International Hall at Ponds Forge, Sheffield.

Towards the end of the event, we very often have a special item in which we honour the martyrs of Christian history (followed almost always by a hearty singing of the hymn 'For all the saints' - it's the Jesus Army's version of All Saints Day). This year was no exception, and I was given the - somewhat awe-inspiring - task of coordinating the moment.

Inspiration came in the form of ten statues in Westminster Abbey. Standing above the West Gate on ten niches stand ten statues: ten twentieth century martyrs.

Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish friar, who volunteered to die in place of a stranger in the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, during World War II. He is the patron saint of drug addicts, political prisoners and families. Pope John Paul II declared him "The Patron Saint of Our Difficult Century".

Manche Masemola was a South African convert to Christianity. She attended baptism classes against her parents’ wishes. When she came home she would be beaten. Manche said she would be “baptised in her own blood”. After one severe beating, Manche died – without having been baptised. Manche's mother denied murdering her for 40 years – but before her death she became a Christian and was baptised herself.

Janani Luwum was an Anglican Archbishop in Uganda. In 1977, Archbishop Luwum delivered a note of protest against arbitrary killings and unexplained disappearances to dictator, Idi Amin. Shortly afterwards the archbishop was accused of treason. He was murdered in 1977, by either Idi Amin personally or by the dictator’s henchmen.

Elizabeth of Russia was a German princess, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and sister of the last Russian Empress. She was famous in Russia for her beauty – and for her charitable works. After a revolutionary murdered her husband in 1905, Elizabeth publicly forgave him and campaigned without success for him to be pardoned. She left the Imperial Court and became a nun, dedicated to helping the poor of Moscow. In 1918, she was arrested by the Bolsheviks and buried alive.

Martin Luther King was a Baptist minister and one of the world's most famous civil rights activists. In 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolence. He was assassinated in 1969.

Oscar Romero was a Roman Catholic Archbishop in El Salvador. Following his outspoken criticism of injustice and violence on many occasions, he was assassinated while he was celebrating the Mass in 1980.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor, theologian, and prominent anti-Nazi. He strongly opposed Hitler and was involved in plans to assassinate him. He was arrested in April 1943 by the Gestapo, imprisoned in a concentration camp, and executed by hanging in April 1945. It was just 23 days before the German surrender.

Esther John was a Pakistani Christian nurse and evangelist who was murdered by a Muslim fanatic in 1960.

Lucian Tapiede was an Anglican teacher from Papua New Guinea. He was killed during the Japanese invasion in 1941. Eight Anglican clergy, teachers, and medical missionaries killed by the Japanese were together called the "New Guinea Martyrs."

Wang Zhiming was a Chinese pastor and evangelist, killed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao. Many Christian leaders were imprisoned, denounced or beaten. One later stated, "I cannot recall how many times I was made to kneel on the rubble and how much blood flowed from my knees due to their sharp edges. When I could not hold out and fell to the ground, merciless beatings followed. Then I was pulled up and forced to salute the portrait of Chairman Mao. My refusal to do so resulted in another round of beating.” Wang Zhiming was executed in a stadium in front of more than 10,000 people on December 29, 1973.


With a huge picture of their statues projected across the backdrop, and signs to represent them and the thousands of others who have given their life as a direct result of their consciencious stand for Christ, their stories were told. A minute's silence was held in their honour. It was an awesome moment. Then we did indeed sing 'For all the saints' - with this rarely sung verse included:

For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Tragic tweets

For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me. (Psalm 38:2)
My post yesterday on lament provoked a few responses and some debate. One particularly stimulating Twitter thread may be worth sharing (well, three at once actually, and all with the same person at the same time; that’s the beauty – or the confusion – of Twitter).

So here it is, tidied up a little.

First @laurencecooper complimented me on the post (for which I thank him kindly), but took mild issue with one point:
Great blog. But I do think there is whining in the Bible as well. It depicts all states of being...
Adding (because Twitter doesn’t give you quite enough characters, does it?):
 ...was it Elijah whined everyone else has deserted and it's just me left? And God sympathetically gave him a bit of space...
To which I replied:
I don't think Elijah was whining in the way I meant - his complaint was justified! (though point taken about God's grace).

Meanwhile, at the same time, the conversation had launched off in another direction:
And other questions present like, can we all sing a lament song when few may be able to say that's where they're at?
To which I replied:
All should be able to feel/express world's pain; that's what prayer/lament/intercession etc is about. As all should be able to praise.
(The sharp eyed reader will spot more than 140 chracters; I've tidied up the Twitter abbrievation for the purposes of this post.) He then said:
Sure - but 'I'm in a hole and God you're a B&*%^$' is by definition an intensely personal experience and an acute one.
Me: I don't think 'God you're a B&*%^$' (to quote your verbatim) is what I'm talking about - not irreverence but honesty!
But @laurencecooper wasn't listening by then. He was on a roll:
In a quest to be emotionally authentic with God we may well express resentment, blame and so on. Hopefully we get through that...
...and God gives grace for us to allow us to work through our anger of and blame of him.
Then he caught up and clarified: 
...Obviously I'm not recommending irreverence; though scripture clearly depicts people like David getting well angry with God...

Meanwhile on the “whining” question, @laurencecooper made the point that Jonah qualifies:
Interested in what you mean by whining then. I definitely think Jonah was whining.
To which I could only reply with enthusiasm for my favourite biblical character and story (on which check out this post and this one):
I love Jonah! I think it's my favourite book!

Concurrently, a more serious question of the nature of our worship was getting underway. He tweeted:
Lament's truly a fascinating area and one we ought to be exploring.
To which I replied:
Yep. I think psalms are key; at the risk of opining, I think we neglect them in charismatic worship. Learn from monastics?
Him:Sure. we should employ the psalms more and I think happy clappies neglect them deliberately.
Me: Obviously psalms get pretty happy clappy at times (e.g. Psalm 150) - they do the full range! So what can we do to include them more?
Him: Public reading of scripture: reading psalms as a regular practise in our meetings...
Me: Yes, and not too selective - or we'll veer to the happier or more 'acceptable' ones...

Want to join in the debate? Is whining okay? If God gives us grace and prefers reality to politeness, how does reverence work within this? How could we craft more laments (and other neglected modes of worship like confession and intercession) into corporate worship in a way that would take engage the gathered church? What place the psalms? Is there a place for a lectionary or even liturgy (steady on!) in charismatic worship?

Answers on a postcard. Or perhaps on Twitter.

(You can follow me at @n0rmal and my friend Laurence at @laurencecooper.)

Monday, October 14, 2013

The tragedy

I read a Shakespeare play for the first time recently: “The Tragedy of Arthur”. The chances are you haven’t heard of it because it doesn’t exist.

“The Tragedy of Arthur” is a novel by contemporary writer, Arthur Phillips, about the discovery of a long-lost Shakespeare play about King Arthur. The novel includes the entire text of the play and a long introduction – which is, in fact, an autobiography of a fictionalised Arthur Phillips, the man with the lost play in his possession. As the story unfolds, the reader – along with the narrator – becomes increasingly convinced that the play is a fake, made up by fictional Phillips’ fraudster father. But it could, just about, be genuine. And part of us wants it to be.

But of course, we know it’s all made up anyway.

The novel turns on ideas about authenticity, fakery and the desire to believe – at times despite the evidence. I particularly enjoyed some iconoclastic asides, in which the narrator lays into Shakespeare with the shocking claim that not everything Shakespeare wrote was all that good. Could even the Bard of Avon have dropped some clangers?

Take Hamlet, possibly Shakespeare’s finest work, urges faux-Phillips. Take the scene following the discovery of Ophelia’s drowned corpse, a moment of pathos and tender tragedy. Queen Gertrude describes Ophelia’s flower-strewn watery grave in lines of tender lyrical poetry. And a penis joke.

...crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name...

Arguably, that bit of nudge-nudge-wink-wink hardly serves the mood of the scene. Rather spoils the moment? It’s a crass mistake, a duff line, rants Phillips. But Shakespeare need not worry. For the patron saint of English literature can do no wrong. Enter four hundred years’ worth of directors, actors, academics, critics – not to mention audiences – who scramble to justify William the Great, to find ways make the sore-thumb line work. It’s Shakespeare’s uncanny Freudian-before-Freud grasp of Gertrude’s psychology. Or it’s his artful and brilliant reflection of the theme of “beauty and the grotesque”, which permeates the entire play. Et cetera. One thing must be insisted upon: Shakespeare could never have written a bad line.

Beneath the irreverent banter, Arthur Phillips (the real one) clearly has a great love of, and respect for, Shakespeare’s works. I, too, love Shakespeare. But I, like Arthur Phillips (the false one) have sometimes found myself thinking, “Wait a minute – that’s not actually a very good line (/scene/play)”. Even A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which, apart from being the best play ever written, is also my favourite) has some jokes that take considerable invention for a director to render funny. I know; I’ve directed it.

Don’t tell anyone I said that.

Anyway, it got me thinking about God.

God, like Shakespeare (and the British press, but that’s topic for another day) is beyond criticism. You simply are not allowed to suggest that He Who Is Worthy Of Capitalised Pronouns could possibly get anything wrong. This, after all, is the deity who has none other than John Milton, that other titan of English literature, writing an epic poem in ten books “to justify the ways of God to men”.

On a dry theological level, I must concede the point. God has all the omnis in His favour: omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent. But this does make it rather difficult to have an authentic relationship with Him. Because, frankly, sometimes it feels rather like He has got it wrong. And if we’re not allowed to say it, then any relationship begins to feel more like politeness – or even pretence. (Remember the Emperor’s New Clothes”? There is a Christian equivalent.)

Faced with storms decimating eastern India or closer-to-home tragedies like a dying parent (or even, I admit somewhat shamefacedly, mundane trials like a delayed house move), I find myself wanting to say, “Come on, God! What are You up to?”

But that’s not allowed, is it? He’s God; by definition He must be right.

Many contemporary Christian worship lyrics refect this. These songs are often on one note only: a note called something like “praisy-boingy-woingy-happy-glory-hallelujah”. Even songs that touch on darker themes generally do so only to laud God for being unswervingly at our side throughout. “Never once did we ever walk alone” croons a popular anthem, with more than a nod to Rogers and Hammerstein and/or Liverpool Football Club.

But what about when we are alone? When, God’s omnipresence notwithstanding, all sense of Him has vanished?

Where contemporary worship too often fails, the bible comes to the rescue. There’s wonderfully gloomy Psalm 88 with its eighteen verses of depression and despair, culminating with the words “Darkness is my only companion”. There it ends without so much as a Praise the Lord. Or Abraham’s bartering. Or Job’s complaint. Or Jeremiah’s lament. Or the most dark unanswered prayer of all: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me!”

The bible’s writers weren’t averse to letting God know when, in their view, He’d failed to come up with the goods. Nowhere do their writings descend into whining and they are shot through with worship and theological depth. Psalm 88 accuses God, whilst simultaneously appealing to Him; Abraham frames his haggling with reverence; Job ends with eloquent silence; Jeremiah’s grief is transmuted into some of the most beautiful poetry in the scripture; Christ’s unanswered prayer leads to the redemption of the world.

But this doesn't prevent them from letting God have it with both barrels.

I want to make a plea for lament and complaint to be part of our worship (on which, see this rather wonderful post I read a while back). It’s different to whining. It’s different to boring “God is not great” atheism (that’s the equivalent of the Year 10 student who opines that “Shakespeare is crap”). It will take careful expression, poetic artistry. It will demand honesty, bravery, authenticity.

Yet lament, complaint, accusation, pain expressed – they are part of a real, authentic, biblical walk with God. The tragedy, not just of Arthur, but of me, of you, of us all – even of God – needs expressing.

Let’s get talking to God about those things. He’s not Shakespeare. He can cope. It’s part of truly loving Him.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Last(ing) Agape

Agape loveLast Tuesday, we held our last Agape meal at White Stone House – the last time our committed members will meet on a Tuesday night and share a meal together, a meal which includes the bread and the cup of communion.

We’ve done this every Tuesday night for just over ten years.

A dear friend shared this on Facebook afterwards: “For those who have a clue what I’m on about: White Stone had our last ever Agape meal last night and I’ve been experiencing almost physical levels of grief ever since. For those who don’t: life has hard bits and this is one of them.”

Life has hard bits and this is one of them. Yes. Yet that same friend ended our time together by reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans about hope. “Hope does not disappoint us.” We needed to hear that as we look to our diverging future paths.

It dovetailed with something I read out earlier that evening. Paul again, this time to the Corinthians: the famous passage about love. Even good, holy, exciting, wonderful things “will pass away” writes Paul, but “love will never pass away”. The lasting fruit that has grown among us over our years together, through good times and bad – is love.

White Stone may pass away; all our genuine love will remain.

The next day, I was reading 1Corinthians 13 again. With the help of, I looked up Wycliffe’s translation (one of the earliest bible translations into English). Its 14th century vocabulary and cadences sound odd to our ears – but I also found it oddly fresh and striking. So I end this post – probably my last before White Stone finally ends altogether this coming Saturday – with these words about what Wycliffe calls charity, and we call love, and Paul called agape: the greatest gift of all.
If I speak with tongues of men and of angels, and I have not charity, I am made as brass sounding, or a cymbal tinkling. And if I have prophecy, and know all mysteries, and all science, and if I have all faith, so that I move hills from their place, and I have not charity, I am nought. And if I part all my goods into the meats of poor men, and if I betake my body, so that I burn, and if I have not charity, it profiteth to me nothing.
   Charity is patient, it is benign; charity envieth not, it doeth not wickedly, it is not blown with pride, it is not covetous of worships, it seeketh not those things that be his own, it is not stirred to wrath, it thinketh not evil, it joyeth not on wickedness, but it joyeth together to truth; it suffereth all things, it believeth all things, it hopeth all things, it sustaineth all things.
   Charity falleth never down, whether prophecies shall be voided, either languages shall cease, either science shall be destroyed. For a part we know, and a part we prophesy; but when that shall come that is perfect, that thing that is of part shall be voided. When I was a little child, I spake as a little child, I understood as a little child, I thought as a little child; but when I was made a man, I voided those things that were of a little child. And we see now by a mirror in darkness, but then face to face; now I know of part, but then I shall know, as I am known. And now dwelleth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the most of these is charity.
(1Corinthians 13, Wycliffe Bible)

Thursday, September 05, 2013

When life sucks...

The big tall tailor always comes 
To little boys who suck their thumbs...

Two chilling lines of children’s (cough) poetry that I’ve never forgotten from my own childhood. The gist of this (certificate 15?) little poem is that little boys who suck their thumbs will be visited by a sinister tailor who would be most unlikely to be able to produce a clean DBS disclosure; he is equipped with scissors specially designed for snipping the errant thumb-sucker’s thumb clean off. (Read the full poem if you dare here, complete with gruesome illustrations I also remember from my infancy.)

I don’t recall whether or not I sucked my thumb as a small child – probably not given the terrifying tutelage of the tall tailor. But my 5-year-old does. Or rather, did – he recently severed the end of his left thumb. Thus his thumb-sucking days came to an abrupt end (the other thumb, he says, ‘doesn’t taste nice’ – so that’s that.)

The loss of part of his thumb wasn’t, in this case, due to a tall tailor, but an accident involving two boats, lots of blood, an ambulance ride, a small op, and a consolatory bowl of ice cream. A fortnight later, his thumb is now dressed, undressed, redressed, and healing well, thank God. It may even heal completely (we’re praying so). My son seems less disturbed by the whole episode, frankly, than his parents

Why do I write tailors and thumbs and the severance thereof?

Simply that such things can bring a sense of perspective. We’ve been undergoing a fair amount of grief recently due the closure of our community (see last post). Yet, in that moment when I sat in the ambulance and watched the paramedic write ‘amputation’ on his accident record, I experienced a change of perspective. The end of an era, disappointment, dying dreams – such things are indeed painful. But compared to loss of life or limb – not so very terrible. 

There's no denying that we're going through a rather difficult time. Thumbs down, so to speak. If you're a praying person, please pray for us, and if not, then please (as one of my friends puts it) do some 'good-vibing' towards us.
And yet: perspective. Our son is alive (sans thumb-tip). My friends and fellow workers will still be my friends and fellow workers in the new days to come. A new day is dawning. No-one has died. In fact – as many have tried to help me to see – this is in fact a good time, a God time.

And – here’s the rub – even death itself is provisional. With God, as Julian of Norwich once famously expressed it, ‘All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.’

So there, big tall tailor!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Dying we rise

I write with news of change. We have decided, after ten years, that it is time to wind up White Stone, our community house on Leamington Road and its wider household membership. After a few months’ prayer and thought for the whole of our church congregation in Coventry, the decision was made to strengthen our communities by closing one of our five houses and rejigging the teams in the remaining four.

But which one to close? It is, I suppose, a good sign that no household rushed to volunteer! As it happens, the White Stone team had been showing signs of considerable strain for some time. We've had some truly wonderful times over the years, with a cast of amazing people sharing the journey – but it hadn't always been easy (see posts like this, this, and this!) and the core team had grown tired and some had suffered a degree of burn-out. It had become difficult to generate fresh energy and forward momentum.

Our story on a scroll; our calling on a carving.
So we’re ‘quitting while we're still ahead’ or something like that. We’ve been very supported by our local friends – that’s helped enormously in a tough time. Needless to say, it’s a time of grieving and loss for us. But it’s also the right move, I believe. One of my dearest friends (and fellow White Stone pioneer) coined an apt neologism to describe the sensation: ‘grelief’ – an odd combination of grief and relief. This just about sums it up.

A number of us are going to move to one of our other community houses in the area. My wife, children and I, however, are going to live in our own place for a while and take stock. We'll still be linked to the community – part of a common purse, and maybe even with one or two others living with us – but we're looking forward to having some more time and space. People are referring to it as our 'sabbatical' which sounds rather nice (in reality I'll still be working for the church and three children mean that life is never exactly quiet!)  

It's a big change for us, this sabbatical from load-bearing leadership. We need time and space to be restored and find fresh vision and direction. Please pray for us.

The house on Leamington Road probably won't be sold, but used somehow. It may even house a newly formed community team. That would be rather wonderful – the house has been a place for God and we’d love it to continue to be. We’ll see.

In my bleaker moments I can feel only loss, pain, bewilderment, anger: ‘Our holy and beautiful house and all our pleasant places have become ruins’ (Isaiah 64:11). Yet at other times, I remember that death is God’s way into eternal life. ‘It is in dying that we’re born to eternal life.’ After all, we follow Jesus, crucified and raised.

I don’t know about you, but my natural mentality doesn’t easily grasp the paradox of life from death (even if it is all over the New Testament I claim to live by). In the latter half of his ministry, Jesus repeatedly told his disciples he had to die. And repeatedly ‘they did not understand what he was saying, and were afraid to ask him’ (Mark 9:32). After he was raised they were as slow to understand: ‘Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ (Luke 24:26).

It was necessary. ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’ (John 12:24).

From Jesus’ death, freely chosen, came life for the world. I pray that from our small ‘death’, freely embraced, new opportunities may spring; new dreams, new joys – new life.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Perfect radio face

On air
Hammering repeatedly on the studio door, I feared I'd travelled across London for nothing.

I'd come to give a radio interview, but neither the red phone by the door ('call to access Premier Christian Media'), nor urgent knocking, nor even phoning the 0800 number I'd been emailed, seemed to be getting me any closer to actually getting into the place.

This would have been a shame; many of my friends tell me I have the perfect face for radio.

I persevered. On trying the 0800 number a second time, I reached an apologetic chap who'd been answering a call of nature for the previous eight hours. Or so it seemed to me. He let me in.

Premier is a fairly large concern, judging by its spacious open-plan offices with room for a hundred or so - then empty it being Saturday, apart from me, the (now-relieved) doorman, and Nage, the presenter who would interview me (at that point live in the studio). Nage (pronounced 'Naj') later told me that 'The Big Breakfast', the show in which I would feature, has about half a million listeners.

London Jesus DayWhy was I there? Last Saturday was 'London Jesus Day', a colourful event hosted by the Jesus Army in central London. More than a thousand Christians marched from Hyde Park Corner via Picadilly Circus to Trafalgar Square where a lively rally was held for a few hours. It was nothing to do with protest and everything to do with celebration.

My chat with Nage went went well, I think. Or at any right that's what two very important people told me, in texts sent straight after I went off air (my boss and my mum).

And yes, a number of Premier's half a million listeners came along to the event. A number a little lower than half a mil, it's true - but I'm still glad I made that 0800 call a second time.

Have a listen. The event happened last Saturday, so you've missed it this year! But, all being well, we'll be doing it again next year - so why not look out for the date and come along an join us? All are welcome; the more, the merrier.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Christians by the beeb

Not having a TV in our home, I don't see much the BBC puts out to the nation's screens (my main media dose comes when I catch a snatch of Radio 4 most days while travelling to work).

But recently, and unusually, I watched a DVD of some old episodes of Spooks, the beeb’s TV drama about MI5.

Who knows if it bears the slightest resemblance to reality? The spies in the series seem to have semi-divine powers of surveillance and observation (mainly via whiz-bang ICT; topical, these days, given Farage, Snowden et al). The spooks in the series pit their wits against traitors, crazies, fanatics and fundies of every stripe. They save great old Great Britain week after week from the forces of terror.

Perhaps it was in the interest of fairness – some sort of PC gesture? – that an episode I watched dealt with a fundamentalist terrorist group not of a dissident-political or Islamic flavour – but Christian. A “Christian”/“evangelical” group decided to systematically attack and terrorize Muslims in the UK.

The portrayal was utterly unconvincing.

I know I’m biased. I’m Christian. Yet in all my years as a Christian – an evangelical one at that – I have never met, or read anything by, or seen or heard any hint of a single one who wants to betray the precepts of their Founder to the extent of bombing their enemies. Even the utterly odious Westboro Baptist Church only threaten hell; they don’t blow people up.

Not your average ChristianBefore you say it, yes, I know: the Crusades. The Inquisition. George Bush. Et cetera. I’m not saying the Christian Church has always eschewed violence in its chequered and compromised history. But what bothered me about the portrayal in Spooks was the assumption, which you find quite often in various media, that evangelical = fundamentalist = loony = dangerous.

Too many leaps. The result was a portrayal of Christianity that my inside knowledge knew that I didn't know. If you know what I mean.

It made me wonder (having no inside knowledge) whether their portrayal of Islamic fundamentalists was equally skewed (any Muslim friends care to comment?)

I despise Christian bigotry and am revolted by the silly sweeping statements that can come from Christians. Those from my own branch of Christianity, the evangelical fraternity, can outrage me most: when those most like me say things to which I want to shout, “Not in my name!” But I do yearn for some real Christians to be on the tele or the radio; Christians I can actually recognise. Humble, hardworking, compassionate, troubled-by-bigotry, trying-to-work-it-out, able-to-laugh-at-themselves, sacrificial, serving – in short, like the many, many I know – Christians.

Prejudice can go in many directions. Let’s oppose it in all its forms.

P.S. You can vote on how Christians are portrayed by the BBC on a poll here.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Do you hear the people sing?

Do you hear..?
There's been a flurry of talk round our gaff about Les Miserables. Yes, there's the recent film version of the musical - which among other things is the stimulus of discussions in our 'girls' cell group' at the moment. We also have more than one literature buff around who's read the original Hugo (and huge) novel. And a couple in our house were treated, not long ago, to a 'Les Mis' theatre experience...

And, yes, we like to talk, to theologise and philosophise.

After all, this is a tale packed with spiritual topics. There's the trio of human conditions represented in (unrighteous) Thénardier, (self-righteous) Javert and (righteous) Valjean. There's the heroic sacrifice of the revolutionary students - but also the agonised question of 'what their sacrifice was for'. There's the power of 'little people'. There's love, death and redemption (someone once said those three themes sum up all literature). And there's the musical's conclusion that 'to love another person is to see the face of God'.

Why, asks a Christian reviewer, in a world where both Christian profession and practice are on the wane, has such a musical gained tremendous popularity? The answer is twofold: The musical's approach is not didactic or preachy; the primacy of love and faith emerges from the telling of the story, rather than catechetical speeches or songs. And that approach allows the truth to speak for itself, and to speak to the viewer. Whether he is Christian or not, he cannot help but recognize the underlying truth of the story...

Story has the power to move the masses. Jesus understood this. He used story both to make clear and to make cryptic - and sometimes both at once. He used the narrative of his day - from farming to returning kings to absent sons - to reach and to reveal hearts.

I think there's something to be said for using today's narratives, found on the screen as much as the page, to raise thought, to stir longing, to reveal hearts.

Do you hear the people sing?

Friday, June 28, 2013

Like black buds unfolding

Hope“Every silver lining has a cloud.” So I remarked to a friend, in a gloomy moment recently.

But have you ever had a moment of hope? Irrational, bright, for-no-reason-and-yet? hope, like sun suddenly bursting through cloud, scattering silver like some crazed benefactor?

Ever felt that, despite everything, “all will be well and all manner of thing shall be well”? The moment may be fleeting – but it touches something real?

Some Thursday nights, we invite friends over to join in our community for the evening; we eat, talk, and laugh together.

Often, on such evenings, I read to everyone before dinner. It gives us a focal point before we thank God and eat. What I choose to read varies widely. Sometimes it will be overtly “Christian” or “spiritual” – Little Miss Sunshine or some other spiritual masterwork – sometimes less so.

Last night I read a short passage from Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning novel, Wolf Hall, which tells the story of Thomas Cromwell’s rise to prominence in Henry VIII's court.

The passage I read is from an early part of the novel. Cromwell is emerging painfully from a bleak time. His patron, influential but disgraced Cardinal Wolsey, has died. Cromwell himself may be finished. But opportunity is opening for him: if he champions the king’s prospective new wife, Anna Boleyn, there may be a future for him, a role. The passage describes the moment when Cromwell himself perceives this after his first encounter with Anne.
There was a moment when Anne gave him all her attention: her skewering dark glance. The king, too, knows how to look; blue eyes, their mildness deceptive. Is this how they look at each other? Or in some other way? For a second he understands it; then he doesn’t. He stands by a window. A flock of starlings settles among the tight black buds of a bare tree. Then, like black buds unfolding, they open their wings; they flutter and sing, stirring everything into motion, air, wings, black notes in music. He becomes aware that he is watching them with pleasure; that something almost extinct, some small gesture toward the future, is ready to welcome the spring; in some spare, desperate way, he is looking forward to Easter, the end of Lenten fasting, the end of penitence. There is a world beyond this black world. There is a world of the possible. A world where Anne can be queen is a world where Cromwell can be Cromwell. He sees it; then he doesn’t. The moment is fleeting. But insight cannot be taken back. You cannot return to the moment you were in before.

I read the passage partly just for its gentle beauty, but also because it resonated with me. Here, tenderly depicted, is one of those fleetingly powerful encounters with hope. One of those almost mystical experiences that I think we all know something about.

Hope is delicate – a bird’s wing, a quaver on a stave. But it is also strong. It touches something eternal. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. Death gives way to Easter. There is hope. And hope means we can go on.

The moment may be fleeting – but “you cannot return to the moment you were in before”.

May you know hope today, as a gift.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Peaceable (the calm) and Peacemaker (the unpredictable)

Over the past few months, we’ve enjoyed having an older man staying with us in community. He moved in after his elderly father (who he’d been caring for) died – partly for respite, partly out of necessity, and mainly because as a Christian he felt it was a good place to be while he considered what to do next. He moved on last week – off to live with some Mennonites in Shropshire – but we know he’ll keep in touch as he’s become like a family member to us.

We have an informal custom in our church and community of giving people nicknames based on a virtue or quality we see in them. We’d called him “Peaceable”, not only because of his Anabaptist-inspired pacifism, but also because he had a quiet, calming presence about him. We received a lot from him while he stayed with us.

One day, over dinner, “Peaceable” told a something he’d learned that day about being a peacemaker – learned, ironically, from another man who sometimes comes to our church, who struggles with anger and psychiatric issues that can make him unpredictable, even dangerous at times. Here’s what he told us, in his own words:
I was walking through town, not far from my destination, when a voice behind me called my name. There was “B” who I had not seen for months. He is what used to be called a “rough diamond” (bare knuckle rough at times). I was telling him that I was living with the Jesus Army now since my father’s death had changed my life.

White van driverBut we didn’t get far with the conversation because a situation was developing behind us. Two vans had nearly collided on the side of the street. The first driver got out of his van and was swearing at the other driver. He was angry and showed no signs of calming down. The other driver took it at first, but after the third spate of swearing was about to get out of the van.

I was looking on and considering what to do and was getting round to a prayer, when all of a sudden “B” shot over to the second driver and said, “Stay in your van, mate”, then said to the first driver, “There are babies in there”, indicating the house he had just come from. (By now, I felt a bit like one of the “babies”.) Then “B” told the first driver to drive on, whilst calmly but firmly pointing out to the other driver, “Those are hazard lights” – which were still flashing on the first driver’s van. He got back in his van and all went quiet. The demon road rage fled before the Spirit of the Lord!

Reflecting on this, various thoughts arise. Firstly, we can learn from anyone: here is “Peaceable” learning peacemaking from volatile “B”. Secondly, we’re all different – strengths and weaknesses – but together can make a difference. And thirdly, I miss my “Peaceable” friend with his quiet stories and calming presence.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

God, don't you care?

Okay, so a few things have happened recently that have got me down. Much as I'd like to be superpastor ('is it a bird? is it a plane? no!...), I've found myself finding it hard to believe in anything very much and fighting an 'I quit' reflex.

And to cap it all, I'm in the odd position of preparing a Sunday morning talk on faith/faithfulness (set up the topic in advance back in a sunnier spell). As someone once said, 'God must love me'...

But in the course of thinking my way through faith and realising I don't have much, I came again across the story of the stilling of the storm in Mark's Gospel.

'Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?' scream the terrified disciples as Jesus snores serenely 'on the cushion'. ('On the cushion'? Did Jesus take this 'snooze-through-life-threatening-scenarios' aid everywhere, or only on small boats?)

Do you not care? Fair question, I reckon. Ever known that feeling? It's all cracking off, drowning's imminent, and God's asleep somewhere on his heavenly cushion?

So, Jesus gets up, rather unreasonably tells them off  ('Have you still no faith?' - looks like he may be irritable when just woken up, too), and flicks away the storm like we might a gnat.

If it was me I'd want to finish the story (or the sermon) with a pithy, pious conclusion like: 'And they were all filled with faith and said "You are the Lord!"'.

But not Mark. His rather more realistic conclusion goes like this: 'And they were filled with great fear and said "Who is this?"'

Yup. Reading this I think 'What a relief, I am a disciple of Jesus after all. And as unbelieving, fearful, bewildered, baffled, and hard-done-by as the first lot. I'm relieved to be in the refreshingly flawed company of guys like the twelve disciples.

And I'm relieved that faith is not so much about its quality as its object.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Ethical repentance

“Jesus told us to clothe the poor…the poor are clothing us”.

This line from a blog smacked me across the face this morning. It went on to reflect on the heart-rending story of the recent disaster in Bangladesh when nearly 300 people died as the garment factory they were working in collapsed on them.

We’ve been hearing a call to repentance recently in the Jesus Army. It links to a prophetic call to be people of God’s fire, and an increased desire to receive that fire and be changed by that fire.

I’ve noticed that usually, when the call to repentance has been unpacked in our various gatherings it is couched in terms of morality.

Nothing wrong with that. Yet I’ve been increasingly aware of how biblical repentance must also include ethics as well as morality.

What’s the difference between the moral and the ethical? puts it like this: ‘Morals define personal character, while ethics stress a social system in which those morals are applied.’

Put another way, morality might ask ‘What do I do with my money?’ (a question that was indeed put to our local Jesus Army congregation just a couple of weeks ago). Ethics might ask ‘What do banks do with our money?’

A moral question might be ‘How can I clothe the poor?’ An ethical question would be ‘How do we ensure the poor aren’t clothing us (and dying in the process)?’

Justice and love for people, especially the poor, are close to our heart as the Jesus Army because we believe they’re close to God’s heart. It’s all over the bible. Jesus himself inaugurated his mission by quoting Isaiah’s announcement of ‘good news for the poor’.

The fire, I believe, will cause our ethics as well as our morality to be renewed. I reckon the time is coming and is now here when we need to look harder at what we eat, wear, consume, who we bank with, how we live, in ways we simply hadn’t considered before this wave of fire came.

Isaiah again. A friend pointed out to me that Isaiah 1:16-17 sums up what repentance looks like. ‘[16] Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, [17] learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.’ I note that verse 16 is mainly moral, verse 17 mainly ethical. Of course the two overlap – but I feel it’s in ethics we’ve got some real work to do.

Come fire! Change everything.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Jesus: perfect? Discuss!

A friend threw me a theological poser on Facebook today. (My friends know I like such things!) Here it is:
Having a few musings today..... Jesus/God was perfect, right. Ok good, Jesus also has been through everything we go through and knows what it is like. However feelings like - envy, jealousy, pride, unforgiveness - we would consider to be sinful. So then could Jesus have ever felt those things if he was in fact perfect - without sin? Did he know what it was like to feel those things? And further is it the feeling that is sinful or in fact the action that comes from it? - Discuss.
And here's my brief reply:
Jesus - what does his perfection mean?
Interesting question. Touches on some deep and mysterious stuff about the incarnation. If Jesus' humanness was genuine (which we absolutely believe it was), he must have had weaknesses: his 'perfection' didn't preclude them. He was afraid (Gethsemane), he was grieved (Lazarus), angry (especially with the Pharisees), exasperated (especially with his followers). He got hungry, tired, hurt. I think he must have had feelings prompting him towards envy, jealousy, pride, unforgiveness... But as you say, the crucial difference is that he didn't let the feelings (temptations if you like) harden into attitudes. As for his perfection - the book of Hebrews says he 'learned obedience', which implies his perfection was not a static state like a marble statue, but again a human reality, something he matured into as he made holy decisions.
Would you have added anything? Or said it differently? Or said something else entirely?

And here's another question for the keen. In our thoughts about Jesus, do we tend towards overemphasising his deity or his humanity (or do we get the balance right)? And what might be the implications of this (either way)?

As my friend said: 'Discuss'!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Woe is me, I'm so spiritual

It’s a miserable business being holy, isn’t it?

I remember a time, not long after I’d joined the Jesus Army, when I returned to my home town for a few days. While I was there I visited a friend, a young woman who’d played a pivotal role in my faith coming alive a few years earlier when I was 16.

She was charismatic (in both a theological and sociological sense) and attractive (ditto re theology, sociology, and let’s throw in biology for fun). A succession of guys had fallen for her (I, as it happened, had avoided this through the unforeseen and useful happenstance of falling for her sister instead).

Anyway, I wanted to make an impression. After all, had I not just discovered the best church in the nation, nay the world? I was gearing up for a life in intentional community. Hang it all, I was weighing up a call to holy celibacy. (That this didn’t come to pass was not due to my friend’s sister, I ought to say, but rather to the radiant creature who is now my wife. I didn’t know that – or her – at the time.)

I wanted to impress. I’d discovered something wonderful. I wanted her to know it. I didn’t deliberately try to look holy, I promise. But I did, nonetheless, try to look holy. My desire to convey the specialness of what I’d discovered manifested in a manner that was forcedly “spiritual”. And, with hindsight, downright miserable.

I’d wanted to foster an air of spirituality; I succeeded in coming across as depressive. My other-worldly air was woeful, my long meaningful silences stultifying. My attempt at gravitas was, in fact, just grave. Not surprisingly, my friend wrote to me not long after that visit to express some concern for me having lost my spark. She was troubled. I seemed unhappy.

I can look back and laugh now. And I think my friend has been long since reassured that I am, in fact, happy. Today, on Facebook, I saw a picture of her on some beach somewhere, the happy (if not entirely willing) subject of a photograph which I noted (thanks Facebook) was taken by a photographer with whom she is now "in a relationship". I smiled, happy for her. My memory drifted back to other happy memories, and back to that day of my forced solemnity. That’s why I write about it now.

Why is it, I wonder, that we often associate holiness with unhappiness? Misery as a measure of sanctity?

Julian of Norwich
Check out this cheerful saint, Julian of Norwich. It was once suggested to me that maybe she looks so miserable because she’s been saddled with a bloke’s name. But I suspect that hagiographers painted her sad simply because she’s a saint. Looking sad is what saints do, isn’t it?

Francis of Assisi
Check out Saint Francis, the new pope’s namesake.

Not exactly full of the joys of spring, eh? Even the bird in his hand looks like he'd rather be one of the two in the bush.

And before my dear Protestant readers spot an opportunity for controversy and start on about “Catholicism's attachment to unbiblical asceticism” or such like, check out these two Reformation pillars, Martin and John.

Martin Luther
John Calvin
Fancy an evening down at the pub with either of these two gents? (Not unless you want your party well and truly pooped.)

And let’s not even start on pictures of Jesus. Do a Google image search for “Jesus” if you dare. Once you’ve got over the fact that most of the results look like women (note to self: topic for future post) you'll notice you’re staring at a sea of miserable faces. Was Jesus, that magnetic gatherer of the common people, really so epically po-faced?

Why do these heroes of holiness all look like they could do with watching all twelve episodes of Fawlty Towers back to back? Why so miserable, Julian, Francis, Martin, John?

There is, of course, something to be said for the calling of God’s people, shaped as they are in the image of God’s Messiah, to carry the world’s sorrows. To pray with groans. To weep with those who weep. But this cannot be the whole story. Jesus skipped with delight when he saw his Father at work. Peter described a similar experience as “joy unspeakable”. Paul, writing to the Philippians, is positively bubbly (ironically, he was in prison waiting for the chop at the time of writing). We’re to rejoice with all who rejoice.

Put simply, to be holy does not mean to be unhappy. Holiness makes laughter and tears deeper. Holiness means that beyond happiness and unhappiness there is joy. The road of holiness is one along which a cross is carried, yet the destination makes the journey jubilant.

One of my favourite quotations from across the panoply of Christian saints is ascribed to Teresa of Avila – “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord deliver us!” Teresa is the same down-to-earth saint who advised her followers, if struck with melancholia and overdoing the “sighing saint” bit, to “eat a good steak and have a hot bath”.

I’m happy to be holy. But I’m not very holy, yet, which is why I’m not always happy. The holier I become the happier I’ll be – whether I’m laughing or crying. And when God wipes away every tear, I’ll be happy – because I'll be holy – forever.

And as for “rejoicing when others rejoice” – I'm so glad my friend's happy on that beach with her photographer. To her I joyfully dedicate this post.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Saint George the internationalist

Happy Saint George's Day that day when English patriotism swells in English breasts and St George's cross (the English flag) can be seen flying from windows and fences around the nation. This the day when our Prime Minister is prompted by that Saint Georgish feeling to declare how very 'proud' he is 'to be English and British'.

Saint GeorgeSaint George, as it happens, was not English. He was Greek. He served in the Roman army. He travelled the Near East before he was martyred under Emperor Diocletian. He was nothing if not cosmopolitan.

I love this beautiful island nation, too. Yet, with cosmo George the martyr in mind, I pray that Britain's greatness will not be walled in and hoarded by the Saxo-Normans who happen to form the racial and cultural majority in our era. I pray that we can be a nation with an open welcome and a generous outlook to those of other nationalities and races and in particular those who have suffered hardship or persecution or threat of death elsewhere.

It's what George would have wanted.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Is God a murderer?

Did God kill his son?

That was the question I had to address last Saturday night.

On Saturday nights, generally, we have a get-together in our community house; a time of singing, sharing, a zany game or two, a mug of tea or twenty. Last Saturday, one young woman led us all in a reflection on God’s forgiveness, which included reading out something she’d recently read.

It was good, edifying stuff, on the whole. But in the middle of it came this:
“When God says he forgives...he is referring to a sovereign decree of his will to extend grace to an undeserving person.
“He did this by killing his Son.

That’s a blunt statement, but it’s true.”
A blunt statement, certainly. But it isn’t true.

I grant, the wider purpose of the text was to emphasise both the steadfastness and sacrificial nature of God’s forgiveness. But to say that God ‘killed his son’ is simply wrong.

Theologians sometimes talk about a way of understanding Christ’s death called ‘penal substitution’ – that Jesus, in his death, took God’s punishment of sin instead of us. But the weakness of this emphasis is that it too easily descends into caricatures like ‘God killed his son’.

And this caricature – and others like it – often makes Christians have a hazy sense that God only loves them today because he took out his fury on Jesus yesterday.

Not surprisingly, this can leave them a tad insecure. Imagine how you’d feel if your mum was always nice as pie to you, but you knew it because she’d spent all her filicidal anger years before when she murdered your older brother.

Happy families, anyone?

There are people in my household group who I know are inclined to feel insecure like this. They know the bible says God is a God of love, that God loves them. But they’re caught up in a view of the central event of the bible as being mainly about not God’s love, but God’s anger, God’s punishment. And so in their heart of hearts, they’re not sure if they can trust his ‘love’.

At its worst, another caricature comes into play: ‘nice Jesus saves us from nasty God’.

It’s a travesty of what the Bible actually describes. God loves us. Before we care two hoots about God, God loves us. And, yes, before Jesus dies, God loves us.

And God forgives us. Yes, God's forgiveness begins before the cross and reaches its glorious climax at the cross.

It is because God loves and forgives us that he sends his son, and his son willingly comes. Forgiveness is not only the result of this rescue mission, it is what motivated the mission in the first place; the result is reconciliation. The way is opened for us to be reunited with God – even to the extent of his Spirit living within us.

It goes like this: love – forgiveness – rescue – reconciliation.

Reconciliation is a two-way process – it requires our ‘yes’ – but the good news is that the way is open back to a God who has always loved us and always will.

So – who did kill Jesus?

Sin killed Jesus. Read the Gospels. It was the corruption of Caiaphas, the apathy of Pilate, the cowardice of Peter, the bigotry of the Pharisees, the betrayal of Judas, the hypocrisy of the people... Panning wider, it was political sin, moral sin, social sin, economic sin... Or read the epistles for a spiritual take on the same answer: it was demonic sin – the powers behind human sin – that killed Jesus.

Sin – their sin, my sin, your sin, the devil’s sin, all sin – drew itself to its full height like a putrid river in flood and attempted to sweep away the son of God.

And the son of God let himself be swept away. And his Father didn't prevent him being swept away. This is as close as we can come to the notion that 'God killed Jesus' - he didn't rescue him by force: 'more than twelve legions of angels' stayed in heaven that day.

God – Father, Son and Spirit – refused to fight sin with sin, refused to fight fire with fire, to repay evil with evil. He turned the other cheek. He went the extra mile. He did not resist. He refused to keep evil in circulation. The result was that sin spent itself fully on him. Death used up its last on him. The putrid river emptied all that it had upon him until there was nothing left.

Away it flowed with him into death. And there it stayed. But Jesus didn’t. Which is why the resurrection is the first light of the dawn of a new world – a world without sin. And it offers me and you the possibility of a new life – one in which sin no longer has the final say.

Love has freed us. Freed from sin's domination. Reunited with God who loved us to hell and back.

Happy families remixed? Imagine how you’d feel if your mum was always nice as pie to you, and you knew that when you were little she'd watched your big brother rescue you from a mugger and get knifed in the process. Your brother nearly didn't make it. But he did, and you know they love you more than life.

So I had a little word with my household on Saturday night: 'God loves you' I said. 'He's always loved you; he always will. Be reconciled to God, and learn to live his way. Turn the other cheek. Walk the extra mile. Defeat evil. Walk the way of life.'

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Hell of a time

Someone I respect and love a great deal wrote this in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s death yesterday.
“Without wanting to jump on the Thatcher bandwagon... in the 80s her and Tebbit oversaw educational policy which saw me and many others sit quietly in fear while my teachers made my classmates laugh with lies (as I know) about 'queers'. I'm not negating the specific teachers’ responsibility, but Thatcher’s policies practically encouraged it. So personally, if there is a hell, I hope she's there, with other champions of hate.”
'Queers be damned'
Here is another glimpse of the little-known anguish suffered by LGBT people in the recent past. The comment may offend againt the principle of 'De mortuis nil nisi bonum', but it also betokens pain and anger. Sobering thought: while I was breezing through school, enjoying every minute of it (though I did have the pretension to consider myself ‘persecuted’ when someone scrawled an anti-God comment on my desk) – at the same school here was someone experiencing the blunt end of prejudice. And it wasn’t playground taunts; it was in the classroom, from the teachers.

I can’t hope anyone’s in hell (apart from anything else, for me hell isn’t an ‘if’) – but I do thank God (again, for me not an ‘if’) that our society is moving away from such woeful ignorance and prejudice.

'Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement'I hope the LGBT community can avoid the rhetoric of hate. It’s a big ask because there’s a lot of pain, and pain issues in anger, which can harden into hate. (It’s also a big ask from a Christian because the community of Christ has done so badly at avoiding such rhetoric – and that’s without having anything much to be angry about.) As my favourite gay wizard said: "Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement."

Only a determined effort from all to get beyond slogans, ignorance and stereotypes, to listen, to learn – only such determination can take us away from a hell of hatred that still threatens to engulf us.

On one occasion, at the aforementioned school, the Jesus Army came in for some unfair criticism at the hands of a sociology teacher. I wasn’t there, but I heard what happened. The same young gay man, who’d previously sat in fear whilst he and other gay people were mocked, took his courage in both hands and spoke out in defence of the Jesus Army. He did it because he knew me – and he knew what was being said was unfair and prejudicial.

I wish I'd known about what he was going through then so that I could have defended him. And I pray God will give me courage to speak out in his defence – and in defence of his community – now and in the future.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Waiting for Spring

Daffodills by kirsche222 of sxc.huBritain's waiting for Spring. Easter’s come and gone, but still snow lines the hedgerows. There’s ice on windows in the mornings. The daffodils in our verge have emerged but are shrivelling in the cold.

It illustrates, a bit, where we're at at White Stone (our community household and its wider members and friends). We hold together; we enjoyed our church’s Easter “Alive Festival”; we love having friends staying and coming round. There’s brotherhood and affection in our lives and that counts for a very great deal.

Yet our prayer is that God will rise over us like the sun bringing warmth, healing, new life and growth. "Let the long-term sick be healed; let new disciples rise; let prayers and longings be answered.

"Roll away the stone, great God. Unworthy though we’ll always be, let our faces turn from bewilderment to joy as we see You do what only You can do."

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A hell of a chapter

Fire and brimstoneFaced with nineteen verses of fire and damnation, I wasn’t sure what to write.

I write a weekly bible study for the Jesus Army. (The bible chapters for each week roll round on a rota, covering the whole bible every seven years or so – the New Testament, being shorter, is completed more like every three years).

What would you write when faced with Nahum chapter 3, as I was this morning? No offence to Nahum, I ought to say, as I may well meet him one day on some golden street up yonder. He had a job to do. And yet…

I’m not at ease with fire and judgement, and I’m skittish about Christians who are. It is clear that judgement, yes even eternal judgement (it’s a hell of subject) are very biblical. A God who isn’t Judge is not the God of the bible. But unlike that feisty early church theologian, Tertullian, I can’t rub my hands at the thought of sinners roasting.

To be clear, Nahum chapter 3 is not about hell. But it is about the destruction of a vast metropolis and everyone who lives in it. Nineveh’s evil, violence and oppression have overspilled the measure, and God says ‘Enough’. Time’s up. Cue fire and brimstone.

‘Will not the judge of all the earth do what is right?’ asked Abraham when faced with a similar city-becomes-bonfire scenario. And I can get where nervous old Abe’s coming from on this. Slightly worried, seeking reassurance that all the destruction is – well – right.

It was then that I noticed that the book of Nahum ends with a question. Which is unusual in the bible. In fact, a quick check confirmed there’s only one other book in the bible that ends with a question: Nahum’s prequel, Jonah.

Which got me thinking about those two questions: one  – Nahum's – about the human cry for justice (and God’s answer), the other – Jonah's – about human incomprehension of mercy (and God’s answer). And this is what I wrote. Hope it helps you, like it helped me, to understand just a little more about God – His great passion for justice, and His massive heart of mercy.

'Woe to the bloody city, all full of lies and plunder… Behold, I am against you, declares the Lord' (v.1, 5). This last chapter of Nahum paints a dramatic picture of the destruction of Nineveh, capital of Assyria (an empire whose violence oppressed the entire ancient world). After eighteen verses detailing destruction, the book ends with a question: 'All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For upon whom has not come your unceasing evil?' (v.19) The implied answer is ‘nobody’; nobody has escaped Nineveh’s evil, and therefore everyone rejoices at her destruction.
  There is only one other book in the bible that ends with a question – the ‘prequel’ to this one: Jonah. Like Nahum, Jonah was told by God to proclaim Nineveh’s destruction (Jon.1:1). But in Jonah’s day the Ninevites repented and were spared (Jon.3:4-5). Jonah’s response to God’s mercy was to sulk, and the question that ends the book of Jonah is from God: 'Should not I pity Nineveh?' (Jon. 4:11). The implied answer is, of course, ‘Yes’.
  Nahum’s question reveals human thirst for justice, for an end to oppression. God is not unmoved by this heartcry: He will bring judgement and restore justice. Yet we must hear Nahum’s message with Jonah’s in mind, too: God’s mercy is bigger and wider than our small human hearts expect. The judge of all the earth will do what is right (Gen.18:25); and in the end mercy will triumph over even judgement (Jas.2:13).

The  questions such a passage make me ask myself are: what injustices do I long to see ended? Am I working towards that myself in my words, actions, prayers? And where might I need to have a bigger heart, and show more mercy?