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.