What’s Church For? Bringing the House Down

In my attempt to take a prophetic glance into the future I suggested last week that in twenty years’ time, on current projections, there would be many local congregations which have simply ceased to exist due to the elderly faithful dying without managing to replace themselves, and dioceses and equivalent manifestations of ‘the hierarchy’ giving up the battle to keep crumbling buildings standing for no particular reason save that of history. This may be overly pessimistic, but I simply can’t see any way of keeping the show on the road. I think complacency will gradually give way to realism, and we’ll come to the point, like Samson, of acknowledging that we can’t simply ‘go out as before’ – our strength has gone.

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But, to stay with Samson for a moment, I think there is better news. Here he is, in prison, degraded, blind, wheeled out to entertain the people, who love a good bit of cruel mockery. But from the depths of his despair he does something which we have never seen him do before in the entire story – he prays. ‘Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more!’  He has lived his entire life in presumption, but now, degraded and with nothing left of himself, he finally reaches the point where he recognises his utter and complete helplessness and his total dependence on God. That appears to be just the kind of prayer God loves, because he answers it and a great victory is won.

 

I’ve written before on my hope that we’ll see our great church broken and weeping before God, and I suspect it will take a lot more than 20 years for us to reach that point, but I do believe that there are signs on the wind of a move in that direction. My sense is that the C of E is a more godly church than it was 30-odd years ago when I was ordained: there is a lot less posturing and immorality, and most church leaders really do seem to be holy men and women trying their best to do their job well, even if they feel a bit lost and bewildered by the state of the nation. I sense that we’re becoming sick and tired of arguing about sexuality; that we are less ready to write off those of different churchmanships from us as not quite the spiritual ticket; that we are becoming more concerned about mission than about internal politics, even if we’re a bit uncertain about what ‘mission’ actually means.

 

Anything which takes us in the direction of an awareness of our own uselessness and of our total dependence on the grace of God is to be welcomed, and I believe that God is beginning to get us to the point where we might be able to pull down a few pillars on the heads of our corrupt and godless society. But I suspect we need a lot more and a lot more desperate prayer before we really can see the temple of our greedy and consumerist nation brought down.

 

In the meantime, there are other signs of hope as we see new things springing up in the church. More of that next time!

OT Lectionary 17th August Trinity 9 Isaiah 56:1-8

Inclusive – but not too much!

 

This is clearly a passage about inclusion, and why the lectionary editors felt the need to fillet out verses 2-5 I just don’t understand, hence my dealing with the whole section. This chapter marks the start of what has been called ‘Trito Isaiah’ – the third section of our one book, dating from after 316BC when the Jewish exiles began to return from Babylon to rebuild the Temple. It is the story of a great gathering, where those who have been scattered with be gathered to offer prayer and worship to God. The Israelites had felt themselves to have been ‘scattered’ when they left Jerusalem for the exile, losing their sense of home and nationhood, but as far as the author is concerned that has been dealt with in the return from Babylon.

 BANGKOK,THAILAND- NOVEMBER 6 : Thousands of whistle-blowing demonstrators protest by against the controversial amnesty bill at Silom Rd. on November 6,2013 in Bangkok,Thailand.  - stock photo

But God wants more, a message which came to the exiles via an earlier prophet in Is 49:6. So this gathering is not just about ‘the tribes of Jacob’: it is a gathering of those who for various reasons have previously been excluded from God’s people. There are two groups of people: foreigners and eunuchs. The former term is self-explanatory, but note that it would include many of those who for centuries have been the bane of Israel’s life: Philistines, Amorites and all the other ‘ites’ who have been the enemies of God’s people in the past. The latter symbolise those who, while being racially Jewish, have been excluded from the worshipping community by some defect. Leviticus 21-23 provide further details!

 

So this chapter provides a vision of an enormous gathering to whom all are welcome, and especially those who previously could not have got in even if they had wanted to. As such it is an attractive vision for a fragmented and bloodthirsty world, and v 1 provides encouragement for those who have become cynical about God ever actually doing something about the state of the world and its injustice, And tempted simply to join in with the greed and evil all around. ‘Hang on in there, and keep the faith’ says the prophet, ‘because the divine denouement is coming soon!’

 

But as always in the pages of Scripture this utopian gathering allows the possibility of exclusion as well as inclusion. The Hebrew word ‘ger’, often translated ‘alien’ refers throughout the OT to someone not racially Jewish but who has become at least partly a member of the community, and it is used widely in today’s society to tell us that we must welcome all immigration and give equal rights to illegal immigrants. In fact this is far from the truth: the ‘ger’ was first and foremost someone who had bought into the Jewish religious system and was obeying the law. To use the term to encourage us for form an LEP with the local gurdwara is a gross misuse of the concept, and this passage is equally clear that those who will be included in this gathering are not just those who happen to be foreign or otherwise outcast, but those who are already living for God. It is striking that this commitment to God is evidenced by three things: keeping the Sabbath, binding themselves to God, and worshipping him. This further evidences itself in refraining from doing evil (v 2), making godly choices (v4), and remaining faithful (v 4, 6). In other words, God’s inclusivity has limits, and this passage is most certainly not an argument for the universalist position.

 

It behoves us in the church to avoid the twin dangers of prejudice and exclusion of those who are not ‘PLU’ (people like us) on the one hand, and on the other of becoming more inclusive than God is himself.

 

Breakdown or Breakthrough?

This thrilling excerpt from God’s Upgrades … My Adventures describes something of the process of recovery from a nervous breakdown. Not for the squeamish!

 

what emerged over the months, and this is why I believe that Gestalt therapy was exactly the right model for me, was a realisation that my whole life, and my whole faith, had been about a quest for certainty. I had been brought up, as you have heard, in the kind of church where being ‘right’ or, as we put it ‘sound’, was the only thing which counted. We even used to sing that old song

‘I’m S-O-U-N-D

I’m S-O-U-N-D

I know I am, I’m sure I am!

I’m S-O-U-N-D’

 

Someone once said, a bit unkindly perhaps, that Evangelicalism isn’t a theological position; it’s a neurosis. Overstated of course, but I came gradually to see that there could be some truth in it, and that the preoccupation in some bits of the church with correct doctrine and the witch-hunting of those who disagreed was not perhaps the most healthy of lifestyles to have pursued. I came to understand that studying theology at one of the most ‘liberal’ places in the country had set up a huge dichotomy within me. I had loved every minute of my theological education, and had come to value, whilst not always swallowing whole, the insights of critical theological study. But deep within me the desire always to get it right was still lurking. As I approached the end of my training, and was about to be ordained and launched into a waiting world, this tension became acute. I came to understand that it was significant that my initial ‘breakdown’ on that fateful Monday morning came immediately after a visit to my potential first parish, during which the deal had been done and I had agreed to go there.

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So to use my therapy session to understand what was going on for me, to explain my symptoms and to tie them down exactly to different kinds of stress-inducing events was merely playing into my weakness. Peter’s refusal to join in with that game, his repeated answers of ‘I’ve no idea!’ to my agonised questions, gradually taught me that it might be easier all round if I just stopped asking silly questions and accepted the fact that life was messy and things happened. And in terms of my faith, I came painfully and slowly to realise that God doesn’t always have to explain himself to me, and that now and again he might just do things which I don’t understand, and which I don’t need to understand.

It was also Peter who, in one of our very early sessions, responded to my use of the term ‘breakdown’ with the simple question ‘Breakdown, or breakthrough?’ I came to understand, and I guess this is a huge part of my motivation in writing this now, that to some extent we have a choice. When life crumbles around us do we simply cave in, or do we seek to move into a new way of living and understanding. Do we accept and download, or simply try to live on with the bug-infested old version?

 

God’s Upgrades … My Adventures is published by Authentic Media

What’s Church For? Taking a bullet for Jesus

I was asked some while ago by a follower of this blog to comment on what I though the church might be like in 20 years’ time, and I’ve been giving considerable thought to that question. I decided that now might be a good time to address it. In spite of coming out as one on one of those silly facebook quizzes, I don’t claim to be much of a prophet, but I do have some thoughts which may or may not turn out to have been inspired. So I want to take a few weeks, under the category of ‘What’s church For?’ to take a glimpse as far as I can into the general future. I want to begin this week with an old joke.

The vicar is just about to launch into ‘The Lord be with you’ at the start of the service, when the west doors of the church burst open and in come three men, all clothed in black, and with black balaclavas over their faces, carrying AK47s. Grabbing the attention of the congregation (which isn’t too difficult if you behave and dress like that) the leader shouts out ‘Anyone who isn’t willing to take a bullet for Jesus, get out now!’

As you might imagine there is a mass exodus from the church, but a few determined (or stupid) souls remain firmly in their seats, praying fervently. The gunmen then fire a few warning shots into the air, and shout again ‘We really mean it! If you’re not willing to take a bullet for Jesus, get out now while you still have the chance!’ Almost everybody leaves at this point. The leader of the gunmen strides up to the vicar at the front, looks him straight in the eyes, and says ‘OK Father – that’s got rid of all the hypocrites: you can start the service now’.

As I gaze into my (figurative, of course) crystal ball, I wonder whether this scenario might actually tell us a bit about what is going on in the church, and where we might be headed. I have recently moved to a new, largely rural diocese in which the vast majority of churches are small, struggling, and grouped together in impossible benefices. Not surprisingly people are by and large elderly, discouraged, and worn out from the burdens of administration and fund-raising to keep ancient buildings standing, even though many of them have very few actual services.

File:Cullompton , Countryside looking toward St Andrew's Church - geograph.org.uk - 1217350.jpgThis is not, of course, about hypocrisy, but I do predict that the time will come when the generation which values its church culture enough to keep on living sacrificially for it will pass away and much of the C of E will simply cease to exist. Younger generations, those who are so absent from the life of the church, have a very underdeveloped sense of duty compared to their parents and grandparents, and I predict that a lot fewer dead horses will continue to be flogged in the future. I suspect that the hierarchy, who have worked so hard at maintaining if not a priest then at least some ministry in every parish will simply admit defeat and finally begin to think seriously about new shapes of Christian witness, particularly in rural areas.

Church will only happen in places where people really mean it, are achieving some degree of success in their Christian mission, and have the resources to carry on and the vision to draw new people into their life. The church will be slimmer but hopefully fitter, and maybe ready to begin missionary work again to convert our nation to Christ.

OT Lectionary Aug 10th Trinity 8 I Kings 19:9-18

Getting back on your feet

 

Spiritual depression is a common experience among leaders in God’s church, and in a strange way it’s encouraging to watch Elijah going through it. It reminds us that even the great heroes of faith experience bad times, so what chance have I got of escaping unscathed? The Bible always paints ‘warts-and-all’ pictures of its characters, which is what makes the wartless Christ stand in such stark contrast.

 

But even more interesting is to watch how God deals with Elijah as he hits his all-time low. Those of us who are pastors have a lot to learn as we see God being pastoral to his broken servant. He begins very practically: the opposition and threats have got to the point where Elijah, who was once unafraid to stride into the king’s presence and denounce him, is now on the run from a nasty woman. Even the best of us can suddenly find it all too much. God begins his therapy rather as in an episode of EastEnders: whatever the crisis, the first response is to put the kettle on. So he provides rest, food and drink – those practical necessities which those of us who have been depressed can so easily overlook or lose interest in. But then he takes him on a journey: for 40 days Elijah has the time and space to mull over what has been going on.

 

Next God listens: Elijah gets the opportunity to tell his story, not once but twice (and maybe more). Like the Ancient Mariner he has to repeat his tale in order to get it out into words, and God listens patiently. But then he speaks, and in doing so he brings Elijah three different areas of reassurance.

 

First he tells him that he is still God. He confronts his sense of powerlessness. The heavenly pyrotechnics are designed to restore Elijah’s sense of perspective about where power really lies, while the ‘still, small voice’ reminds him that it isn’t all about displays of power.

 

Secondly he tells him that he (Elijah) is still important, confronting his sense of worthlessness. Having lived through a time when I was constantly being told that I was useless and that nobody liked me I found it immensely healing to be reminded by friends of my value. But this isn’t mere words: Elijah is recommissioned to get stuck in to his work again, plunging straight back into the political arena with his prophetic anointing.

 

And thirdly God tells him some truths, confronting his loss of perspective and isolation. He may feel alone, but there are plenty of people still with him, even if at times they are a bit silent and distant when he needs support the most. And as an added bonus God gives him an apprentice, both to share the load and to assure him that the prophetic work will go on past his incumbency.

 

God, the master pastor, gently leads Elijah back to health, and I’m sure he was stronger and more resilient as a result of his weeks out of action. I also note with interest that not once does God tell him to praise the Lord and join in the worship-songs. Maybe his church has something to learn from him!

 

Called to the Ministry

This is a brief extract from chapter 4 of God’s Upgrades … My Adventures published by Authentic Media

I began to attend not one but two very different Anglican churches. The first, St Laurence’s, to which I was invited by a friend’s girlfriend, was what you might call ‘Anglo-catholic’. Of course such terms meant nothing to me at that stage, but it basically meant that they had Communion every week, as the main service, rather than once a month tagged on afterwards as we did at the Baptist church. The priests, who were called ‘Father’, dressed up, there was lots of smoke, and people sang stuff instead of saying it. It seemed a huge distance from any kind of Christianity I’d ever experienced before, and I hated it with such a passion that I had to go back the following week in order to experience the wonderful sense of outrage over again. Soon I found I was hooked. Something in me also appreciated their great patronal festival celebrations. Laurence had been a deacon in a church in Rome somewhere who for a bit of cheek to the Emperor had been martyred in AD 258 by being roasted on a grid over hot coals. So each August the congregation celebrated their patron saint with a great barbecue, which seemed somehow both appropriate and amusing.

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St Laurence’s was Sunday morning, but Tuesday evenings were very different. Some other friends invited me to a different church which was creating a bit of a stir because they had been ‘renewed by the Holy Spirit’. The vicar was a guy called Trevor Dearing, and St Paul’s, I was later to discover, was one of the early pioneers of a new movement called ‘charismatic renewal’. It was a very different experience from my Anglo-catholic church. For a start you had to get there an hour or so before it started if you wanted a seat. There was no liturgy, and certainly no smoke, but there was plenty of fire, as the Holy Spirit was welcomed to save, baptise, heal and deliver people. The music consisted of short Bible-based ‘choruses’; there was usually a period of ‘singing in tongues’, there was a sermon which called people to be saved, baptised in the Spirit, healed or delivered from evil spirits, and then there was a time for people to go forward and receive prayer. It was crowded, lively, at times noisy, and I hated it. In fact I hated it even more than St Laurence’s, because apostate though that might have been, at least it wasn’t scary. And yet I found myself going back for more. Much later I was to discover a theologian called Rudolph Otto, who talked in a famous book about the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, or the ‘fascinating but terrifying mystery’ of God[i]. There is something about him, said Otto, which scares the wits out of us but keeps us coming back for more. That was certainly true of me at this period in my life.

[i] Otto, R The Idea of the Holy (London: Oxford University Press, 1923) You can now read this landmark book online at http://archive.org/stream/theideaoftheholy00ottouoft#page/n3/mode/2up