Friday, December 05, 2014

Teacher feature

"So, what made you want to go back to teaching after nine years out?"

It's a question I've been asked quite a few times since I made the decision to leave my employment by a charity connected to the Jesus Fellowship and return to the chalk face (or whatever we call it now it's all white boards, and interactive ones, no less).

When I made the decision, those years ago, to leave teaching it was absolutely not because I didn't like teaching. I loved it; I flowed in it; it was "me". I walked out of Blue Coat School that day with my tears blowing on the wind. But there was a need for my skills in the church's charity, and I sensed a call to do that. I loved teaching, but the church of Jesus was - and still is - my first love. I don't regret that decision, and I can reflect with some satisfaction on what I and my team have achieved in those years, in areas as diverse as media communications, through biblical theology, to safeguarding and policy.

But I never stopped dreaming of teaching. Literally. Dreaming. At night. I'd wake up and feel gutted as the dream faded. Because I wasn't really in the classroom; I was heading for the office.

"In the night my heart instructs me," wrote the psalmist. There was a teacher inside me, in my heart. If that sounds a bit over-precious, a touch pretentious, all I can say is that it didn't stop - all those years.

I kept going at the charity job out of, among other factors, loyalty to its leaders - and the leaders of the Jesus Fellowship are, quite simply, some of the finest, purest, noblest human beings you could ever meet - and because I still had plenty to offer. But I was starting to dry up. And now there's a time of considerable change coming for the charitable side of what we do - some of it driven by the straitened financial climate - and after careful, prayerful consideration, I decided it was time for me to move on.

I pushed gently at the door of the school at which I used to teach - basically just asking for a reference - only to find that door fly open and propel me into a job. I'm already back in the classroom. As it says in the same psalm quoted above, "The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places". I'm grateful to the Blue Coat leadership for giving me that chance - and I'm grateful to God.

And just to make this clear - because some people have taken away the wrong impression - I'm as committed to my beautiful church, the Jesus Fellowship, the heroic, brave, colourful, outrageous, exciting Jesus Army, as I ever have been. Indeed, one of the other factors in my recent decision was to enable me be more available to the local, Coventry arm of that church than I was when I had a central role.

So it's back to the classroom for me. Back to analysing WWI poetry, back to Leo Dicaprio's Romeo, back to Animal Farm, back to assemblies and marker pens, and reports (shudder), and parents evenings. And I'm running hard to get up to speed on Quality First Teaching, and SEND reforms, and cross-curricular literacy, and Controlled Assessments, and, and, and...

But I'm flowing. And God is in it.

An ex-student piped up on Facebook the other day with these remarkable and encouraging words (all the more remarkable when I consider how hard it was to get written work out of him back in the day!) With them, I'll sign off:
"If you can make a meaningful difference in the lives of reprobates like myself, you can make a difference in anyone's life. Blue Coat just got back one of their greatest ever assets of all time. I'm certain that there are some stressed out, depressed young people already there now that will look back and thank God for the day that they were taught by Mr Stacey."

Friday, November 21, 2014

By the rivers of Babylon...

Picture from http://fineartamerica.com/featured/by-the-rivers-of-babylon-psalm-137-michele-myers.html
My fellow-leader, friend, who is also my brother-in-law, who is also my brother-in-grace, who is also a very fine chap indeed, read out a psalm in a leaders meeting the other night. It’s that one made famous by Boney M – ‘By the rivers of Babylon…’

It struck a chord as he read it out. It starts with these moving words:
By the waters of Babylon,
    there we sat down and wept,
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
    required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the Lord's song
    in a foreign land?

Then moves to a prayer of devotion to the psalmist’s homeland:
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy!

It ends with some of that psalmy violence that tend to smash and jar on modern ears:
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
    blessed shall he be who repays you
    with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
    and dashes them against the rock!

We have been through a tough time over the past couple of years. Now, to put this in perspective, we haven't faced anything like the terrors and trials of, say, our persecuted brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq. But we have seen the closure of dreams, the departure of friends, the collapse of some ideals.

At times it has felt, as we arrive at yet another guitar-and-tambourine worship session (you may have to be a charismatic Christian to get what I mean here) – at times it has felt like, ‘How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?’ In this place of desolation, where broken hopes stare at us and mock us? Zion – the ideal, the dream, the heady days of youth and optimism – seem a memory more than a reality.

Yet love has held us. The love of very faithful, very generous, very kind people. And behind that the love of a very faithful, very generous, very kind God. And now the waters are rising. Gently, new hope is coming. And I find myself ready to pray, ‘Don’t let me forget. I really do love the church of Jesus. At her best, at her most loving and given and generous, this Jerusalem of Jesus really is above my highest joy.’

But what about that last stage of the psalm? Am I ready to take the ‘little ones’, the attractive, alluring, cute things of the world – entertainments, distractions, diversions, pollutions – and ‘dash them against the rocks’? To use Jesus’ words, ‘to enter violently’?

Almost. The tide is rising. I want to live for God. I want to live for Love.



Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Foolscap - a poem

Foolscap

The blinded window,
like a discarded page of empty, lined and yellowing
foolscap, says nothing,
but stares balefully back, while

the silhouetted money plant
is an elaborate blot of inky black and messy
coinage, worth little,
but for curiosity, when

the lights from a passing bus
flicker the length of the page
and make it a window again.

Since it has been said that
what you see in spilt ink,
(tealeaf like?) is a window to the soul, and
since the page is blank and yellow, and
since the money cannot be spent, and
since the light was there and gone -

why should I rise?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Goodness doesn't know

Yes, goodness knows
The Wicked's lives are lonely
Goodness knows
The Wicked cry alone
Nothing grows for the wicked
They reap only
What they've sown…
Last week I went with my family to see the musical Wicked.

It has some fab tunes (by Stephen Schwartz of Godspell and Prince of Egypt fame) – and, more than that, a thought-provoking story. The musical is based on the novel by Gregory Maguire, which is in turn a subversion of L. Frank Baum’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the iconic MGM movie that has taken audiences over the rainbow and along the yellow brick road since 1939.

Avoiding major spoilers, let’s put it like this. The story takes that gloriously 2D baddie, the Wicked Witch of the West, and tells her story in a way that turns it on its head. Villainess becomes heroine. The witch, Elphaba, is a sparky, inventive and idealistic young woman with a gift for casting spells. But she is rejected for being different (in this case ‘like a froggy, ferny cabbage…unnaturally green!’) Sealing her fate, Elphaba falls foul of Oz’s corrupt political masters who play on general ignorance and fear to spin her as an enemy of the people – hence the version of the story we see on our TV screens every Christmas Eve. The way the plot manages to twist and turn all those familiar motifs – from scarecrow to broomstick to ruby slippers – is truly, well, wonderful.

The show opens with a spectacular musical ensemble as the citizens of Oz celebrate the witch’s recent death. (You can listen to it here, with lyrics here.)

Forget ‘Ding dong the witch is dead’ – this number, with its blending of major and minor strains, is musically ingenious, and here’s why. Remember Lewis Carroll’s poem, Jabberwocky? The genius of this poem is that the first verse, complete with all its made-up words, is identical to the last verse – but means exactly the opposite. The first verse is sinister and menacing, the last verse – though using exactly the same words – is joyous and celebratory. Well, Wicked’s opening works similarly (though in reverse). The opening number is a joyous celebration of the witch’s death. The closing number is the same song – but now the minor tones come to the fore and it takes on a sinister, even tragic feel, and the words become deeply ironic.

The reason? In the interim we've ‘got to know’ the witch. We've been told her story. We understand her. We love her.

So now we cannot celebrate her death, but only mourn her as a terribly maligned scapegoat.

It strikes me that Wicked has a thing or two to teach us about prejudice and scapegoats. Those who seek power – political or religious or social – need scapegoats. They need someone to blame, someone to direct the fear and hatred of the populace toward. Hitler and the Jews is a very obvious example – but there are examples closer to home.

Fear the immigrant. Fear the gay. Fear the scrounger. Fear the Muslim. Fear the ‘other’. Et cetera. Fill in the blank according to your brand of prejudice.

It leads to soundbites and spin at best, violence and persecution at worst. ‘Goodness knows’ (that is, of course, we know) ‘the wicked deserve everything that’s coming to them’.

Until you get to know them. And then you discover that – who’d have thought it? – they’re human too. And sometimes, they might just have a thing or two to teach us.

So, my reflection for today: don’t judge others. Get to know them. Hear their story. Grow to love them and they'll no longer be ‘them’, the other, but part of the big ‘us’ that is the human race.

Don’t judge others. And certainly not by the colour of their skin – even if it’s green.


Friday, September 12, 2014

Vote Jesus

I want us to be a Green Party church, not a UKIP church.

(I’ve broken the law of polite conversation: never mention politics or religion. And I mentioned both. D’oh.)

What do I mean, anyway? ‘Green Party church’?

I went to the Green party conference this week. Just one day (the last), for two sessions – Q&A with the leaders and a plenary. It was in preparation for an event in just over a week’s time – Natalie Bennett, the Greens’ leader is speaking at the Northampton Jesus Centre.

I’ve never been to a political party conference, so it was a fascinating experience on that basis alone. And I suspect the Green Party may be more interesting than most. Still small enough to have the feel of a sparky group of activists yet with a real enough political platform to feel like a credible party, it was an interesting blend of people. Fair few eccentrics. Quite a few beards. High proportion of LGBTQ people (the kind you don’t need sophisticated gaydar to spot). A number of disabled people. Mix of social classes. A guy from ‘Occupy’ who looked like Jesus.

Old and young. But especially young. Lots of young people. Young people engaging with passion; young people speaking with conviction; young people putting forward motions, debating with the facts at their fingertips, pursuing their urgent points with eloquence.

21st century Jesus?
Furthermore, I noted lots of what some would call – not me and certainly not them, but some – ‘political correctness’. I’ve mentioned the range of people. Then there was the moment when questions were temporarily only allowed from ‘those who gender-identify as female’. There was the respect shown – along with the sense that there was nothing unusual about it – when a young man with a severe speech impediment brought a motion.

It all had a fresh feel, of a future of possibility, of a world worth fighting for. It was forward-looking, aspirational. There was also a strong sense that everyone had a voice; everyone would be listened to; anything could be brought to the table.

Now for a frank admission: it made me envious. I want the Jesus movement I’m part of to attract sparky young activists like these. Lots of them. I’m desperate for us to be a magnet for those with imagination, passion, drive. And, yep, we could do with a few big brains, too.

We have our eccentrics. We have our beards. I love them. They make us us. I love the young people who have grown up in church circles and owned its vision as theirs.

But oh God, send us an army of youngsters from all over the place, too. And let us honour their new voices, be open to their fresh ideas, not have ‘off the table’ taboos. Let us work out our passions and priorities through dialogue and debate, listening and loving the other.

The Green Party, like any other party, has to define its policy. That was what the plenary sessions were all about – agreeing on and finalising policy. Policy, by definition, doesn’t mean ‘anything goes’. But that policy would be reached through listening and openness working together with leadership and vision.

I like that.

I long for that.

At the GP conference, a speaker said, in passing, ‘UKIP’s main support base is older, less educated people; the Green Party’s main support base is younger, more educated people; so the future is ours!’ It got a laugh, a small cheer, a ripple of applause.

The implication was that UKIP represents the defensive views of a dying breed, hanging on to prejudices largely out of fear of change, whereas the Greens represent the aspirations of the rising generation based on hope and imagination.

I leave the political judgement to you, dear Reader. But as I consider our church and movement – we could go either way. We could cling onto safe old views and fear change. We could dismiss justice as ‘political correctness’, park power firmly with the status quo.

Or we could open our ears and our hearts to a fresh word for a fresh time from a fresh generation.

I’m getting older. I have to face it. I’m older than Jesus now (he’s 33 forever). Young people like him tend to tip tables over, tend to hang out with the wrong people, tend to say what sounds like our worst nightmare and keep saying it.

Bring it on, I say.

Vote for change. Vote Jesus.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Autumn - a poem

Autumn

Getting out to get some air, get some space, I walk
among the appled rows, through thistles, toadstools, stingers,
and a fruit tree now cut down. Past serried rows of stalks

of some anonymous weed with feathery seed, a cheerful singer
at its own wake, I walk, up, and then down, down and then up
the row, thinking, feverishly, trying to put my finger

on the right way to go, the right thing to do. But
autumn is no time for such transparency. No time
for knowing. Keats was right about the mists. My toe hurts

from a blister (due to walking or athletes foot?) I climb
again, past the sawn-off tree, again, and it seems to be saying
I could’ve been a bird-table but someone forgot me as I’m

walking up and limping down. On the breeze decaying
fruit wafts its pong of musty mulch from apples strewn
and cloistered here between the trees my limping is my praying.

September’s heaved summer aside, sloughed it off too soon:
dusk is near – and always was – those years ago at noon.


Friday, August 15, 2014

Cracks

A pregnant passage from Celtic Daily Prayer, the prayer book of the Northumbria Community:

“I had a vision of a house.  Every time a crack appeared in the wall, or damage in the house, I dashed out to repair it as quickly as I possibly could…And the Lord said to me, ‘This is what your Christian life is like.  Whenever any cracks appear in the wall that has been built up around about you over the years by the world and by yourself you dash out and you fill in the cracks so that no one is able to see what is inside.  But I want the world to be able to see what is inside. I want to be able to come in through the cracks into your life and I’m not going to fill them up either, I am going to flow in and out of these cracks. So when you see the cracks appear in your life, do not rush out and fill them in. Let Me come in.”
- David Mattches

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Dark night

My own Jesus,They say people in hell suffer eternal pain because of the loss of God – they would go through all that suffering if they had just a little hope of possessing God. In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing (Jesus, please forgive my blasphemies, I have been told to write everything). That darkness that surrounds me on all sides. I can’t lift my soul to God – no light or inspiration enters my soul. I speak of love for souls, of tender love for God, words pass through my lips, and I long with a deep longing to believe in them.
In my heart there is no faith, no love, no trust. There is so much pain, the pain of longing, the pain of not being wanted. I want God with all the powers of my soul and yet there between us is a terrible separation. I don’t pray any longer. I utter words of community prayers and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give. But my prayer of union is not there any longer. I no longer pray. My soul is not one with You, and yet when alone in the streets I talk to You for hours, of my longing for You. How intimate are those words and yet so empty, for they leave me far from You. 
…I do my best. I spend myself but I am more than convinced that the work is not mine. I do not doubt that it was You who called me, with so much love and force. It was You, I know….but I have no faith, I don’t believe. Jesus, don’t let my soul be deceived, nor let me deceive anyone.
You may be surprised to learn that this diary entry, with all its longing and despair, was penned by Mother Teresa. For many years the woman who many would regard as one of the very most Christlike people of the 20th century lived with a painful hole where her relationship with God used to be.
Yet, over time and with help, she came to see this painful absence as a paradoxical manifestation of closeness to Jesus - Jesus who at the culmination of His mission cried out 'My God, why have you forsaken me?'
Mother Teresa came to recognise this felt absence of God, not as his actual absence, but as what an earlier mystic, John of the Cross, called 'the dark night of the soul': a journey beyond our misleading senses into God who is unknowably transcendent and unbearably immanent.
To move beyond the idol we comfortably call 'God' or 'Jesus' and to journey into the real God, the real Jesus.
‘I pray God to rid me of God' prayed Meister Eckhart.
I am fifty gazillion eons away from Mother Teresa's (or John of the Cross's or Meister Eckhart's) depth of spirituality. But I do know something of the experience of 'the dark night' (an experience, by the way, that John of the Cross insisted was not just for 'advanced mystics' but part of common Christian experience as God matures us).
To authentically follow God requires, sooner or later, a kind of atheism - as we discover that the God we have enthusiastically embraced is 99% a god of our own construction. We have to abandon God in order to follow God. This is the call of the ever-challenging Jesus.
It is in the night that we are blinded - and then we can start to see. So John of the Cross sings in the darkness:
Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn, Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the Beloved!

(For more on the Dark Night of the Soul, real this excellent article by Mark Yaconelli in a recent Youthwork magazine.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Jeremiah questions

Jeremiah was a brave man. I'm not at all sure I'm like him.
In Judah, in Jeremiah’s time, there were two rival views of God’s relation to His people.
The first was certain that God would protect and champion His people no matter what. Had God not made promises to David and Solomon? Their house (dynasty) would not fail and God’s house (temple) would stand forever as a sign of this protection. Scribes, psalmists, even prophets, had expressed this belief in their writings. Judah’s rulers promoted it.
By Jeremiah’s day it was seen as treason to contradict it.
But Jeremiah stood against this view. Standing in a prophetic tradition that went back to Moses, he insisted that what counted was faithfulness to God expressed in lives of justice.
It was no good quoting the bible’s promises or relying on systems of worship if God’s heart was being ignored. Bravely, Jeremiah stood in the temple itself to declare this.
Jesus stood in the same prophetic tradition. In His day, He also stood in the temple, quoting Jeremiah as He condemned it as having come to stand for a false, even idolatrous, security for Israel. This was a key reason He was sent to His death.
Ironically, through that very death, Jesus was also the fulfilment of the promises made through David and Solomon: in His resurrection and ascension, He founded a house – His church – that would endure forever.
As so often with the bible I'm left asking myself some searching questions.
 In what ways might we misuse the bible to back up our wrong or self-seeking views?
What have we built - literally or theologically - that God may need to dismantle? Am I prepared to put radical trust of God ahead of even those things I and others have built in what we thought was faithfulness?
How can we express God’s heart for justice today in a way that cuts through all my and our and your agendas and reaches the real thing?
God help me be more like brave, prophetic, heretical, traitorous, faithful Jeremiah.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A little prayer that makes use of big words (not entirely seriously)

May Your omnipotence make up for our incompetence
Your omnipresence annul our non-attendance
(Your omniscience atone for my F in science?)
Amen.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Flight MH17 - a poem

In memory of Sister Philomene Tiernan, who I never met

'Her entire existence was to bring good into this world'
said your pupil
the day after you were taken out of this world.

In the heavens above Eastern Ukraine you were shot
down with the others in a not-quite war
in not-quite Russian airspace.
We cannot quite take it in.
It is not quite real.
Not quite
real
.

But you were real
and you are real

Sister Philomene.
Did you pray for those sinners in the hour of your death?
I expect you did.
'She seemed like a grandma that everyone just loved'
said another.
'She taught people that faith in God,
in themselves, and in the world
would carry them through the journey.'

As you ascend with those 298 souls
dear sister, grandmother, good-bringer,
pray for us - who are left behind.


(Read the news story in the Huffington Post here.)



Friday, July 18, 2014

A right royal poem

On seeing Prince William at Coventry Memorial Park

I saw the heir to the throne today.
He grasped my arm, seized my eye,
and urged me to pray for him and for the realm.

In truth, he didn't. That isn't true at

all, though thronging behind the barrier I did thrust
close enough to see the sun smiling from his
bald spot, admire his purpled tie, and hear
my wife say Isn't he

tall? They've learnt a thing or two
since Smithfield in '81
(thirteen, that is), the royals:
when tall Wat Tyler got too close
and kingship hung on a thread.
He grasped King Richard's arm
all right and nearly made
off with his head.

And the close shave that time
at Boscobel Wood in '51
(sixteen, I mean), with the roundheads:
when a tall hollow oak was all
that cloaked King Charles's arse from an axe-swing.
That soldier would've wasted no time,
by God, were it not that
God saved the king.

No, they know what's what in the Memorial Park (for '14
to '18, World War I). Obscurely obvious and all very
smooth, all very twenty fourteen.
Men in black with spaghetti in ears; boys in blue
dressed as highlighter pens.
I'd not have got close had I wanted a shot,
was I the regicide type
(which I'm not).

But it did make me think
if I was, if I had, what would happen?
If I reached in my pocket for a gun I don't own
taken aim at the bald spot and fired?
Would some satellite signal take me out quick -
vaporised,
expunged, expired?
Would my wife be adjusted and returned
to our house with a mind wiped quite clean
of her spouse?

But no-one thought it, I think, on that day:
we were all much too happy to see him:
a grinning Muslim beside us giggles,
a cyclist cheers, mums with buggies beam.
"We love you William, we love you, we do"
sing some girls
and I know what they mean:

something within the heart of a human
wants a human who's like us - yet more - an icon of the possible
however improbable
a token that there's something to rule.


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Jesus at the centre

Love this video about the work of the Jesus Centres. I'm particularly involved with the Coventry Jesus Centre, but have been to then all, and think they're all great.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Send Him victorious

Really, I should be a republican.

Equality, liberty, fraternity, and other revolutionary and broadly lefty values – inspired by my take on what it means to follow Jesus – these are what I tend to set my compass by.

But when I discovered Prince William was coming to Coventry Memorial Park this coming Wednesday I found myself scanning the internet for details (so that the missus and I could go and wave union jacks or something, I scarcely know). And when I read today’s article in the Independent about controversy over the Royal Family being granted a new right of secrecy, I found myself sympathetic not to the lefty-liberal voices of protest, but to Ma’am and her family.

I sympathise with the succession of Labour Prime ministers accused by Helen McCrory’s Cherie Blair in the film, The Queen, of throwing out principle and going ‘gaga over the Queen’.

It goes a long way back. I’ve been reading about the Peasants’ Revolt in the 14th century. Incensed with the injustices they faced, the lower orders declared war on the ruling classes. But not the king. Oh no: ‘King Richard and the true commons’ was their rallying cry. (Richard II, the king idolised by the revolting peasants went on to be a tyrant of the worst kind, before being toppled by Henry IV.)

But I sympathise with them, too.

And before we rush to paint these medieval rustics as dwellers in a cruder, more superstitious age, remember those Labour Prime Ministers. Remember the flowers for Diana. Remember ten million annual Queen’s Speech viewers.

So I don’t think I’m all that unusual regarding my strange hypocritical royalism. I think royalty has an enduring appeal. And not just our British Royalty, either – royalty per se.

Even when human beings get rid of kings, they replace them with pseudo-kings. Mr President, perhaps. Or Mrs Iron Lady. Or Mr or Ms rock/sports/film star.

Something deep within the human psyche longs for a monarch, someone with power, who knows what’s best and will make it so.

Could it be that human beings long for a Messiah? A once and future king?

To quote some 12th century words still sung today:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice!Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Got goats, high horses, and sacred cows

Two posts today got my goat. (If you think you can work out which posts, don’t bother, you’re probably wrong - and what would it profit you to be right?)

The first was a quote on a ‘moral issue’ that a friend posted up on a social media site, which I took serious issue with. In my view the moral point it was trying to make was, in fact, immoral. The second was a longer post from another friend, lionizing a Christian from long ago, and defending (or at least excusing) this particular luminary’s – in my view – execrable views.

Christians, I find, when they get on their high horse, so often choose the wrong horse.

In my opinion.

Which is the dilemma, isn’t it? It’s so easy, in disagreeing with what I see as self-righteousness or preachiness, to get - well - self-righteous and preachy about it in return.

Later today, I was reading and writing about some of what Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans. ‘Love is the fulfilling of the law’ he wrote.

Relevant to my got goat? I think so.

Paul is addressing a particular problem – differences of outlook in the Roman church on vexed questions of Jewish food laws and festivals.

Not situations we generally face in our non-Jewish church context. But the principle Paul lays down is still relevant: 'If your brother is grieved (by your actions or attitude) you are no longer walking in love'.

So sometimes we may have differences of opinion or outlook. (Indeed, in my experiences, it’s what Christians are good at.)

The crucial thing is that we can learn to ‘disagree well’.

That is, to make love our highest priority, even as we work through our differences (and let’s not pretend that that is always easy!)

In it all, we must avoid hurting 'one for whom Christ died'. Love will 'pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding'. Or as he put it in another letter: ‘Love does not insist on its own way’.

Love actively seeks to encourage, to join people in brotherhood, and to build a church of compassion and generosity.

There are several issues I can think of straight away that my friends and brethren and I need to find a way ‘disagree well’ on. Give me five minutes and I’ll think of several more.

Oh God: help us slay our sacred cows. Help us get off our high horses. Help us unget our got goats.

Help us make love our highest aim.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Ghost story

Everyone loves a ghost story, right? Especially if told round a fire, or in a tent, in the woods, at night, with a group of friends...

Yesterday a friend took me to the Staffordshire theme park, Alton Towers. Between rollercoasters, we went on the 21st century equivalent of what, back in the days of yore (i.e. my childhood), would have been called a ghost train. This ride is based on a local Staffordshire legend (classic stuff of late night campfire goosebumps): ‘the chained oak’.

The story goes something like this...

One night in 1821, the Earl of Shrewsbury was riding home to Alton Towers in his coach when a man on the roadside (in some versions an old woman) hailed him. The coach stopped and the man begged a coin for charity. The Earl harshly refused him, so the old man uttered a terrible curse: ‘For every branch on the Old Oak Tree here that falls – a member of the Earl’s family will die.’

The Earl dismissed him and carried on his way... (And this is where the campfire teller’s voice would change to a suitably chilling tone.) But that night, a terrible storm struck the old oak, and a single branch broke and fell. Later that very same night, a member of the Earl’s family suddenly, mysteriously, died. The next day, the Earl ordered his servants to chain every branch together to prevent other branches from falling.

The 'chained oak' can still be seen, not far from Alton Towers...

At the oak: can you spot the chains?
My friend and I went to see the chained oak that afternoon, and later he sent me a link to a local BBC page about the story.

Looking at it, what struck me most were the comments from large numbers of people who basically believed the story to be true.

‘Can somebody die when a branch falls off today?’ asks Darren. ‘We'll never really know if it’s true or not true’ says Stefan. ‘I thinks it’s true because when you go it doesn't feel right’ admits HK. Pete adds ‘I live near the tree, and won’t go near it, seems spooky enough for me.’ ‘I believe that it is all true’ says Sam. Dominic replies ‘I do believe in curses and the dark arts so the tree may well be cursed.’ Alexandra says ‘I think the curse is still intact. When I went to see the tree last time, I still felt this strange, dark, unfriendly presence surrounding the tree like there is someone or something there watching in anger... be very careful, be aware of the oak tree’s surroundings and don't go alone.’ Sophie meanwhile asserts ‘as a good historian’ that she thinks ‘it is true, but more research needs to be done and a test on the oak tree to see if it is really cursed.’

And on it goes.

It may be that you, dear reasonable reader, are aghast (I use the word advisedly) by all this silly superstition. Perhaps it has given you a rather dim view of Staffordshire people. Perhaps you are tutting and rolling rational eyes as you read.

But following my last post about how church decline statistics do not necessarily mean a more secular Britain, this struck a chord. Many, possibly most, people in Britain believe in spiritual things. It may be a bit of a muddle. It may be more influenced by Alton Towers than the Faith Once Delivered Unto The Saints. More ghosts and ghouls than Holy Ghost. But nevertheless: UK people are inclined to be spiritual believers.

So I repeat yesterday’s hesitant assertion: the church needs to morph, to flex, to adapt to meet this spiritual interest, this hunger for the unseen.

Never mind curses, let’s get blessing people.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Lies, damned lies and church decline statistics

‘The UK church is in decline’: today’s truism. You’ll see it breezily stated by tabloid editors. You’ll hear it complacently croaked by Professor So-and-so and Doctor Doodah on Radio 4 phone-ins. It’s tweeted, Facebooked and blogged. It’s all over the media – often with that thinly-veiled, quasi-secularist tone: ‘We-knew-it-all-along-how-could-anything-as-silly-as-religion-last-in-our-superior-age’.

‘The UK church is in decline.’

And yes, the published stats on UK church attendance are – let us say – not encouraging for church enthusiasts. Not heartening for those of us who contend that the church just might be good for more than providing pretty buildings in which to tie the knot. Not promising for those of us who posit that Christian faith might just have something to say to the UK beyond the utterances of cranky, phobic, UKIP-at-prayer types. (Though, goodness knows, the media always seem to find airtime for these odious individuals. Not in my name, I wince at the radio.)

In 2005, just under 6 million people in the UK were members of a church. That figure was projected to decline by one and a half million to 4.5 million by 2025. In 2010, this rate of decline seemed on course. But now, not so, says the forthcoming second edition of UK Church Statistics.

Future First, a Christian stats newsletter, summed up the situation thus: ‘The rate of decline has lessened significantly and the membership levels previously anticipated for 2020 will now most likely not be evident till 2025’.

I grant you, this is not yet a reason to hang bunting from every spire between Land’s End and John O’Groats. We’re talking delayed decline, not sudden growth. But what interested me was the analysis of the reasons for this change of fortune.

The first was the increase in black and other immigrant churches (shh, nobody tell the aforementioned ecclesiastical right-wingers). It remains to be seen what lasting change this will bring to the spiritual landscape of the UK. Personally, I welcome the spiritual vigour such churches inject into our nation’s bloodstream, but am wary of modernist messages in a post-modern society – and alarmed by some of the (im)moral and (un)ethical messages I hear coming out of Africa. Subject for another post, perhaps.

Cartoon from Future First
But what particularly interested me was the second reason for arrested decline: ‘the increasing success of new gatherings often called ‘Fresh Expressions’, which is becoming a generic name for all kinds of usually fairly informal gatherings like Messy Church, pub groups or cafĂ© churches, mission-minded churches...’.

Not decline, so much as a change of direction. Traditional church attendance is giving way to smaller, mission-minded groups meeting, befriending and helping people on their own turf, forming and fostering community, engaging with and salting their neighbourhoods? Sounds like good news to me.

Could it be, dashing those radio 4 secularists’ hopes, that the church has an ability to morph and adapt, to regenerate? (Christians’ word, that one. I reclaim it forthwith.) That the church may be inhabited by a creative spirit (indeed, by the Creative Spirit) that will not die?

I relate these thoughts to my own church experience. Our whole church, with its emphasis on community and engagement with society’s fringes, might be termed a ‘fresh expression’. Nevertheless, in our short (45-year) story, we’ve reached something of a hiatus. Growth has flatlined, our residential community all-too-often feels over institutional and is not currently attracting many new generation members. But missional, relational (why do so many current buzz words and in 'al'?) groups are springing up at our grassroots. They carry life and imagination. They’re growing (though rather less obsessed with measuring such growth than in previous times). They’re flexible and people-friendly. They are, I believe, the future.

But they’re not only the future. They’re also the past – no, not the halcyon days of the 1950s, when everyone went to church before their roast beef. I mean the ancient past, when the church met from house to house, and enjoyed the favour of the people, and shared with glad and generous hearts, and met in his house and her house, and multiplied greatly.

So don’t believe everything Professor So-and-so and Doctor Doodah say. The church has a future, even if it needs to shed some skins to get there. It’ll be about love, about people, about community.

There’s life in the old God yet.


Friday, May 16, 2014

More beautiful broken

Two things spoke to me this week.

First some lines from T S Eliot's poem, East Coker:
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God...
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Then this:


There's a depth can only come with brokenness; a hope can only come in darkness.

Selah.



Tuesday, May 13, 2014

KBO

There’s a line from a song we’ve been singing a bit more just recently:

‘We’re not fighting for survival; we’ve come to take the land.’

Problem is: it has felt rather like fighting for survival of late.

I ought to clarify. We’re not living through civil war or famine or earthquake. Compared to such dire circumstances – which some on our planet face on a daily basis – what you are about to read is certainly a privileged western whinge.

But there is a sense of sustained battle in our church. Times are hard. Challenges are many; encouragements sparse. Some key people have stepped back. Some regions have had to shrink, some plantings uprooted. Converts struggle, veterans lose confidence.

Taking the land may have to wait. Right now we’re fighting to survive.

But is that such an ignoble fight?

‘Success,’ Winston Churchill reportedly said, ‘is the art of moving from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm’. That great man also adopted as his personal motto the acronym ‘KBO’ – which stood for ‘Keep B*ggering On’. (I insert the asterisk for the sake of my conscientious Christian readers. And my mother.)

It may not sound very glamorous, but it occurs to me that if it’s good enough for Churchill it’s good enough for me.

Sometimes ‘hanging in there’ is the fight we must win.

‘I have fought the good fight,’ the apostle Paul famously wrote in what may have been his last letter before martyrdom. But in that same letter he also wrote: ‘ All who are in Asia turned away from me... Demas has deserted me... Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me... Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm... he strongly opposed our message. At my first defence no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me...’

He was fighting for survival; he also took the land.

May I do the same in my day, in my way.

What is the most important Christian virtue? Myself and a dear friend discussed this many years’ ago. I remember our conclusion: endurance. For what good is any towering virtue or feat of faith or accomplishment if before the end of the story you quit the field?

Keep me fighting for survival; and I might just take the land.


Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Happiness remixed

Happiness is not (necessarily) the truth, I wrote here. So I thought I had to share this rather cool Christian take on Pharrell Williams' phenomenally successful song, 'Happy':


Thanks, AdamandKid - love it!

Friday, April 18, 2014

The good, the bad, and the ugly

Why is Good Friday good? I used to wonder as a child. After all, it was the day in which the world did its worst to Jesus. It saddened me, all that blood and brutality. I remember.

As an older child, I put younger-childish ways behind me. With new theological sophistication I grasped that, as the hymn puts it, ‘He died that we might be forgiv’n, He died to make us good’.

Today I’m thinking about Jesus the Good – and how He faced evil on that day long ago. He didn’t resist it violently. He didn’t angrily protest. He didn’t summon heavenly forces to put a stop to this disgrace. He took all that evil threw at Him. He soaked it up. He allowed it to spend itself on Him.

He met evil with forgiveness – “Father, forgive them” – and so it emptied itself into Him and did not return.

Evil died in Jesus the Good.

All of which is very profound. But it becomes sharper when I realise that the evil that poured upon Jesus was not just some abstract metaphysical construct. There was human evil in that mix. Connivance of priests. Bitterness of thieves. Fickleness of crowds. Cowardice of friends. Hostility of kings. Jealousy of foes...

And there was me. Conniving, bitter, fickle, cowardly, hostile, jealous me. Standing right there with conniving, bitter, fickle, cowardly, hostile, jealous you.

And Jesus the Good said “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they do.”

The ground at the foot of the cross, as someone has put it, is level. We all stand there evil. We all stand there forgiven. We all stand there with the opportunity that, beyond, there is life – life in which we can be made good.

These words from an ordinary little church in Essex summed up well, in my view, the welcome that Good Jesus extends to us all, though we are evil:

Here we try to practise the generous Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This means you may be mixing with
seekers, searchers,
and those who have been bruised,
those who limp and those who mourn,
orphans and widows,
and those wounded by war,
refugees, asylum seekers,
foreigners of all kinds,
citizens of different colour from yourself,
women bishops (yes, there are a few),
and other bishops too,
leaders who are worn out,
clapped out, burnt out,
lesbian and gay couples – even singles,
the wealthy who are trying to get through the eye of the needle,
and the poor who are struggling to maintain their dignity,
the emotionally deprived and harmed,
people of other faiths,
fundamentalists and liberals,
radicals and traditionalists,
those who have failed to love
and those who are afraid to receive love,
those rejected by ministers and their churches,
those who have broken their promises,
those bowed down with burdens,
those who teeter on the brink of breakdown,
those for whom the grip of alcohol or work,
drugs or sex, gambling or unnamed powers is getting stronger,
and those for whom the grip is loosening,
those struggling with faith and doubt,
and goodness knows how many others...
indeed, anyone who is like those Jesus mixed with.
This is not a private club
but a public space open to all people of goodwill.
And though we are not yet strong and vulnerable enough
to show the unconditional love of God at all times,
we hope we are moving in that direction.
Welcome.

We’re all welcome into God’s forgiveness. He alone can make us good.

Have a good Good Friday.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Review: The Dispossessed


The Dispossessed
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ and ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ (see reviews), ‘The Dispossessed’ is a read that reads you back.

Along with its engaging, intriguing, edgy story, there is Le Guin’s customary thought-provocation. The novel is set in two twin worlds: a verdant world of plenty whose inhabitants freely war with one another, and an arid world of scarcity whose inhabitants agree on a strict unity. The novel is a fascinating meditation on the polarities and paradoxes that spring from this binary setting. What is the difference between unity and uniformity? When freedom brings exploitation and conflict is it a blessing or a curse? Is idealism better than individualism?

I’m reminded (a little) of ‘Animal Farm’ – but in a galaxy far, far away, with an author who doesn't take sides (Le Guin gives us various ‘pig’ candidates, but no-one is unambiguously declared the winner of that dubious honorific).

The questions this novel raises (and refuses to answer entirely) are important to me. Community, sharing, unity, equality – these ideals have shaped my life and those of my closest friends. So what about when community quashes individuality, when nobody owning means nobody caring, when unity becomes uniformity, when equality gets confused with equivalency? Give up and sell out to the consumer dream (=nightmare)? Me genoito!

I will read this again, I am sure of it. And it will read me again.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Iona - a poem

Iona

I am a place of pilgrimage
I, a destination
Of flight, rail, road and sea
My undyed yarn unfolds
My white sand, turquoise bay
Green remote and rugged me.

I am an edge in existence
I, a peregrination
Of flight, fall, chance and prayer
My crossroad cross points - where?
High above my jewels and pearls
Castled clouds and sea-spray air.

I am a tear on heaven's veil
I, a transfiguration
Of boot, bog, dust and track
My winding path unwinds.
Shy thin place, end of my world.
Go further, fall, go back?

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

That's just sad!

Are you a sad individual?

If, like me, you’re something of a sufferer from “S.A.D.” (Seasonal Affective Disorder)* you may be disinclined to like the winter. Dark, deathly, dreary, depressing: who needs it? If it wasn’t for the consolation of firelight, I’d hibernate. Like Wordsworth, I, too, am inclined to be moved to poesy by the sight of spring’s daffodils. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you can congratulate yourself on being not at all “S.A.D.” Or possibly on having no soul. You decide.)

But recently I’ve been thinking about seasons differently.

Seasons are part of God’s ordering of creation. “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease”. Autumn and winter with their dying and death give creation rest, and are as important, in their way, as spring and summer with their new life and growth. Nature’s phases – sowing, growing, reaping, rest – are all part of the circle of life.

I’m sounding more like a Disney song than I’m entirely comfortable with. I’ll move swiftly on.

There are “seasons” in our lives – in particular, in our shared life together as a church. (God who orders creation also orders his church which – staggering, humbling and downright baffling though this is to contemplate – is, in fact, the advance installation of new creation.)

But here’s the rub. God takes us through seasons, and they’re all good. But some seasons are dark. Some seasons are times of necessary, healthy death. Healthy death – does that sound odd? Oxymoronic?

In winter, growth stops, things die: this is not wrong – it is winter.

In our lives and our life together, we need to come to terms with winter, come to terms with letting go of things. As it says in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (think Nietzsche but in the bible): “There’s a time to die, to mourn, to weep” – “for everything there is a season”.

I must come to terms with “dying” phases and honour them as I more easily do with “growing” phases. This last year has seen the dying of a community I lived for. It has seen the loss or partial loss of some key relationships (not through death so much as through change). It has seen vision freeze over and idealism lie fallow. Can I see even these things as God at work?

Christians a great deal more spiritual than me have recognised spiritual seasons across the centuries. I’m in catch up. Brother Lawrence (him of ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’) was converted by seeing the difference between a tree in winter and the same tree in summer. St John of the Cross described “winters” of the soul that he famously called “the dark night of the soul”. These times of darkness, dryness, confusion, even lostness, were not, John of the Cross insisted, because of sin. They were part of God’s work in the soul. There was purpose in the pain – like an operation that heals us.

Spiritual life, it seems, is not just about what we see as “success”: growth, life, increase, achievement, winning the jackpot. It is also about dying, letting go, decreasing, ceasing. As possibly one of the most spiritual Christians of all time said: “I carry in me the dying of Jesus”.

Which brings us to Jesus. (Oh, him!)

Jesus knew about “winter”. Even in the three-year-long summer concert tour (theologically known as his “ministry”), he had his share of failure.

Followers dumped him (John 6); his own family thought he was a sandwich short of feeding the five thousand (Mark 3); his money man had his hand in the common purse and sold him for a handful of change (should have seen that one coming Jesus – oh, you did?) (Matthew 26, John 12); his closest friend denied knowing him (Luke 22).

And it all led to a bloody, brutal, humiliating death on a Roman cross.

Now, of course, we know that the cross was Jesus’ greatest work; his glory indeed (John 12) – the redemption of the world – but at the time it seemed like, and in a sense actually was, a catastrophic failure.

Winter. Spring came three days later.

It was said of the men of Issachar that they “had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do”.

It helps to know what time it is. Then we know what to do - or not to do. Winter blesses us with death, with cold, with stillness, with rest, with bright clarity. When spring comes, may I be ready.

In closing, I will corrupt a famous prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the winter I cannot change,
Fresh courage when spring comes again,
And wisdom to know the difference.


* To avoid flippancy regarding S.A.D., I should say that for some this type of seasonally-induced depression is a serious illness. Those who suffer from it in this way deserve our seriousness, our compassion and our prayers.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Duck church

One morning the ducks waddled along to duck church. When they got there they waddled into their duck rows and sang some duck songs. Then the time came for the duck pastor to preach to them all.

‘You can fly!’ he said, and the ducks all quacked with excitement.

‘You can fly! You can fly!’ the duck pastor repeated. More lively quacking from the duck congregation, and many now jumped up and down with excitement at the thought that they could indeed fly.

Then the service came to an end and all the ducks waddled home.

This pointed little fable was told by one of our congregational pastors yesterday and is reproduced here without permission. But I don’t think he’ll mind.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Faith: a difficult scandal

Came across these words by Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, whilst reading around Genesis this morning. Faith is not easy. It is, in fact, impossible - for us alone. But we're not alone...

[The story of Abraham and Sarah] shows what a scandal and difficulty faith is. Faith is not a reasonable act which fits into the normal scheme of life and perception. The promise of the gospel is not a conventional piece of wisdom that is easily accommodated to everything else. Embrace of this radical gospel requires shattering and discontinuity. Abraham and Sarah have by this time become accustomed to their barrenness. They are resigned to their closed future. They have accepted that hopelessness is 'normal'. The gospel promise does not meet them in receptive hopefulness but in resistant hopelessness...
The total Abraham/Sarah story is about a call embraced. But in this central narrative the call is not embraced. It is rejected as nonsensical. And indeed, if no new thing can intrude, if newness must be conjured from present resources, the promise announced here truly is nonsensical. But our interpretation must focus on the overwhelming question of God: 'Is anything impossible for the Lord?'
~ Walter Brueggemann, commenting on Genesis 16

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

'Such stuff' - a poem

Such stuff

I am walking in the wide
spacious centre of my days
- or near the brink.

I am swimming in the open
turquoise ocean of my life
- and soon to sink.

I am sleeping in a deep
dreamless slumber till I wake
- in an eye's blink.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Worth living for?

From a recent Jesus Army event: 'recieve the light, live in the light, shine the light'
So, what are we really living for?

Recently a group of up-and-coming Jesus Army leaders met and considered what our core values are. After a great deal of talk we came up with a mahoosive list, which we then boiled down, down, down into the following:

God. It would be unfortunate if He wasn’t on the list, and on the list first. In practice this means we want God to be central to our thinking and actions and we want to be prophetically led – based on what we sense Him to be saying to us, and based on His character and heart: love, joy, peace...

God’s kingdom. By which we mean, the corporate dimension of belonging to God together. People gathered around a common ideal: to live God’s way (takes some working out in practice, but if it’s a core value, we’ll put in the effort).

Community. Closely related to the above, but with some important definition: sharing, all things in common, equality, spiritual family.

Discipleship. We’re all learners and will always be learners. We want training, mentoring, mutual strengthening to always be live among us.

Mission. Never just an in-club, always outward looking. We aim to be a church for all kinds of people, with a particular love for the poor and disadvantaged. Being missional doesn’t divide between ‘evangelism’ on the one hand and ‘social action’ on the other. It’s all one: bringing and being God’s message to the world.

Death and resurrection. The cross is our central symbol, our ultimate reality. Powerfully enacted in baptism, reaffirmed in communion, it means our lives will be ‘death-and-resurrection shaped’. Separated from old habits and patterns; celibate-spirited (single or not, we’ll be single-minded), aiming for simplicity, willing to sacrifice. We follow Jesus...

It’s not a definitive list; we’re not the Council Of Nicaea. But it was a useful act of setting our compasses.

The journey continues. You're welcome to join us.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

A Serious Mistake

My wife made a serious mistake this morning.

She asked a computer-related question on Facebook.

Really she deserved what she got. What did she get? Answers. Answers from computery people.

‘Anyone know why I can access Facebook but not anything through Google?’ she posted. (She wanted to listen to the Archers online. Each to their own.) It wasn’t long before genuinely helpful computer people came to her aid. The only problem was they spoke computernese.

‘Could be the DNS server down,’ posted one. ‘You can change them,’ he added helpfully. ‘I use 8.8.8.8 or 8.8.4.4 which is Google’s, more faster and reliable than my own ISP.’

Er?

Does 'ISP' mean something like 'RSVP'?

Then another piped up: ‘Yes, https. Probably need to get someone to look at your ipcop box again.’

When did my wife change her name to ‘https’? And does she need to go to the doctor about her ‘ipcop box’?

I know computery people try to be helpful – these two most certainly were – but honestly, I can't understand a word of what they say. It's a different language.

Which got me thinking about language. At its best, language is a wonderful means to communication. At its most obfuscatory it can render recondite and abstruse via equivocation, prevarication, obliqueness, ambiguity and all manner of sophistry.

(In case you think I’m clever, I used a thesaurus on that last sentence. I’m not nearly as clever as computer people – they really understand all that httpy stuff.)

As a Christian involved in media and communications, I try to use language to communicate what I consider to be simply the best message of all time: God loves us.

But sometimes, my own Christian language can get in the way. And I don’t mean only the obvious pitfalls of pious metaphor (‘Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?’) No, I mean language we’d never suspect may mean little to the Great Unwashed (in the blood etc.)

 Take my above attempt to communicate something of the wonder of the Christian message: God loves us. It falls over at the first word.

God.

We Christians think we know what we mean by ‘God’ (and some of the time, we might be almost right). But we can be fairly certain that the average honest non-Christian we’re speaking to means something else.

No, not an old man in the sky with a beard. No, not like Ann Widdecombe only male. No, not a passive observer in the sky who wound up the universe then left it to get on without him. No, not the Greek philosophical absolute. No, not like Father Christmas. No, not like your disapproving/dysfunctional/dislikeable dad. No, not a silly fantasy character that we’ve decided to believe in because we can’t cope with the real world. No, not the Force. No, only very slightly like Morgan Freeman.

And on it goes.

We talk about God. People hear those three letters, G-O-D, but they reference something completely different.

Christians believe that we come to know who God is through Jesus. God is Jesus (better that way round than saying ‘Jesus is God’, since that second statement starts by assuming we know what ‘God’ means apart from Jesus – which we don’t.)

Jesus is God’s human face. God’s final word. God’s love in our language. So let’s talk about Jesus.
But, of course, then we hit another linguistic rocky patch.

No, not that miserable looking guy made out of stained glass. No, not Andrew Lloyd-Webber's rock star. No, not Mary Madelene’s husband and lead character of Dan Brown’s backstory. No, not the ‘babyjesus’ who makes no crying (well, not for long). No, not like Ann Widdecombe only male... (and so on).

It’s enough to make a Christian communicator like me through up his hands in horror and quit. If I can’t even mention God or Jesus without sending a whole host of unintended, unmeant messages – what’s the point?

Well, I think the point is that the message is important enough to keep trying. It’s even more important than my wife getting to hear the next instalment of the Archers. So, I’ll keep trying. Please accept my apologies in advance if I don’t do it very well.

But I have another idea, too. What about if – along with the words – I and my friends make it our aim to live like Jesus. He is brave – we’ll be brave. He is compassionate – we’ll be compassionate. He breaks taboos – we’ll break taboos. He shares his whole life – we’ll share our whole life. He sacrifices for others – we’ll sacrifice for others...

What about if we do Jesus as well as talk Jesus? Theologians call it being incarnational. (But then, they’re the Christian world's equivalent of computery people.)

Oh God (the real God), please help us to live like Jesus (the real Jesus) so that people can see who you are, what you’re like, and that you do – you really, really do – love us all.


Saturday, March 01, 2014

Pant, pant

Paul the apostle and the author of Hebrews (who probably wasn't Paul - my money's on Priscilla) both compared the Christian life to a long distance run. And having completed more than twenty Parkruns (5k runs in parks round the UK) I can appreciate the metaphor.

At first exhilarating, part of the crowd. Then it thins out. I realise I may not be one of the leaders of the pack. 'Pace myself' becomes the mantra. First hill behind me. Nice long downhill patch now. Sun shining, God's in his heaven, all's well with the world (and all manner of thing shall be wel- ) hang about! Another hill. Reserves are less now. But a friend alongside helps with some morale boosting words. 'You're not going to die.' That kind of thing.

Halfway feels a long way. Why did I set out? Why put myself through this? Just then an 80-year-old woman zips past and sheer dented pride boosts determination. (80-year-old women do that, I find, in both the literal and metaphorical race.)

Now for the long haul. Concentrate on breathing. Like: keep breathing. Don't forget to breathe. Pant, pant. Uphill again. How can this circular route be all uphill?! Marshals clap us on.

I'm suffering a crisis of faith. I don't believe in running anymore. It's all a cruel trick. I am going to die after all. Why not just lie down there in the ditch? Goodbye, cruel world...

Near the finish? Steals on the ear the distant triumph song. Last bit. '72 steps up this hill' says my friend. 'Good holy number.' How can he be pondering the significance of the Greek Old Testament when I'm struggling to keep lifting my feet?

Others have gone before. Exhilaration returns, all the sweeter for being mixed with exhaustion. There's the finish! I cross the line with my friend. I couldn't have made it without him.

There's a great cloud of witnesses watching us cross the line. Hallelujah! I've run the race, I've fought the fight.

Later Parkrun will send me an email. Well done, good and faithful runner...

Just keep running, friends.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Happiness is the truth?

Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth Because I'm happy...

So run the lyrics to a song by Pharrell Williams my kids are singing at the mo. It's a catchy, fun song, and features in Despicable Me 2. What could be better?

Last night my wife said she'd had a philosophical chat with our 8-year-old son about the line quoted above.

Because actually happiness is not the truth. Feelings are not always – not often? – the best indicators of truth. Put technically, this lyric seriously confuses the subjective with the objective.

Chuckling about this with a friend later still, it occurred to me that this has a bearing on contemporary charismatic worship. All too often the message contained in its songs amounts to 'Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth – Because we're happy' (and, runs the implication, if we're not happy, we're somehow 'backslidden' or we needs to be 'filled again').

Caveat: I'm not advocating carefully nurtured misery. As a rule, I'm with Teresa of Avila, who is reported to have said, 'From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord deliver us!'

But there is a problem if we really sing, and really believe that 'happiness is the truth'.

Apart from anything else, we'd have to snip massive portions of our bible out and throw them away. What happens to Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? And what are we going to do with Lamentations: Is it nothing to you,all you who pass by? What happens to groanings too deep for words? What about the prayer of Jesus on the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

We live in a world of grief, pain, turmoil and anguish - our own and others'. As Tom Wright puts it, our vocation is to be 'in prayer at the place where the world is in pain'. There is a time to cry, to lament, as well as to celebrate.


I don't like to carp. After all, I have blogged about this before. But sometimes, standing in the congregation on a Sunday morning, I don't want to spend the whole time singing about joy joy joy joy down in my heart. I have friends who are suffering. Disappointments that perplex me. Besetting sins that plague me. Images from the news that haunt me. I need to bring these things to God in intercession, lament, confession, and, yes, Paul's odd expression, groanings. And intertwined with all that, yes, there is the joy of God and his salvation.

By all means 'Clap along if you feel like that's what you wanna do' (another lyric from Pharrell Williams there). But leave room for other emotions in our life and worship, too.

Most of all leave room for truth – which is bigger, broader, deeper, and more mysterious than happiness alone.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Two kinds of prayer

Reading Luke's gospel this morning, I was struck by two ways of praying.

It was in a story Jesus told, in Luke 18:9-14.

The first prayer is addressed to God. It is confident and spontaneous. It takes a stand against greed, injustice and immorality. It speaks of a life of spiritual discipline, and financial generosity.

The second prayer is not addressed to God, directly. It is a hesitantly mumbled, set prayer. It is brief and embarrassed.

But the first prayer, Jesus says, is actually prayed not to God, but to the person who prayed it - he says it to himself. But the second prayer goes straight to God's heart.

Which kind of prayer do I pray, I wonder? Which kind are most often heard in our meetings? Which kind have you prayed today?