Surprised by the F-word

Here’s the latest excerpt from God’s Upgrades … My Adventures published by Authentic.

 

Being by now an old hand at IKEA, I had become friends with most of the guys, and I had even had some positive contact with the constant stream of temps who came and went. But there was one person who still struck fear into my heart. Tom Hollick was over sixty, grizzled and cynical, the most foul-mouthed person in the room (and that took some doing), humourless and always moaning about life, the universe and everything. He seemed to regard work and the management with all the bitterness of someone trapped in a dead-end job for far too long. He looked not unlike Van Gogh’s picture of his friend Dr Gachet but with a much bigger moustache. In fact his moustache was even bigger than mine, which really does take some doing, and considerably more tatty and tobacco-stained. I so hated him!

 Then came the inevitable evening when I returned to the depot to find my name with his on the board for the next day. This was not going to be fun. I didn’t sleep well that night.

 ‘You’re the vicar, aren’t you?’ he asked as we were driving through the yard to the gatehouse. I braced myself and admitted that indeed I was. ‘I’ve been wanting to talk to you.’

 Now what was I in for? If he hated the church and all it stood for anywhere near as much as he appeared to hate everyone and everything else, I was going to spend the day getting a really severe ear-bashing. However, I was in for even more of a shock than I had worried about in my worst nightmares.

 ‘I did that “Alpha” course last year’ Tom admitted with as much of a coy grin as he could manage. It looked as if it was costing him a considerable amount of effort. In spite of the grin, I felt I was in for an in-depth critique of the whole process. Perhaps I was the first person he had been able to share his insights with, and I was going to get the full spiteful vitriol of his totally negative experience. Oh well, in for a penny …

 ‘What did you think of it?’ I asked, on the basis that if he was going to hit me it would be better before we got onto the motorway.

 ‘It was absolutely f****** brilliant!’ I wasn’t quite expecting that, and I pondered just for a moment exactly what Nicky Gumbel would have made of this accolade.Front only

 ‘Tell me more’ I prompted, and for the next twenty minutes I got a blow-by-blow, liberally peppered with words designed to illustrate clearly just how much he had enjoyed the whole experience. I listened open-mouthed as he told me how much he’d enjoyed both the material and the discussion, what a friendly crowd they were, what a turnaround it had brought in his life, and how he and his wife now went to church each Sunday. But even that wasn’t the end of his excitement.

 ‘We’ve got this woman who does that “singing in tongues” in the church’ he confided. ‘It’s bloody beautiful!’ I was able to be enthusiastic and share in his wonder at this wonderful gift, and to admit that I could do that too, although nobody had as yet described my singing as beautiful, an admission which filled him with even more awe for this strange vicar who had suddenly dropped into his life. Tom showed me the Bible he brought to work each day to read in his tacho-breaks, and told me how he didn’t always find it easy to understand and what did I think about such-and-such a passage? It would have been such a help to have someone else at work he could ask. Finally, with great wistfulness, he said ‘I really wish I didn’t swear so much, but I just can’t help it.’

 During the day he told me, almost with tears in his eyes, about a heart-breaking situation in his family and a huge decision he had to make. ‘Will you pray for me about it?’ he asked.

 Tom and I never again found ourselves paired up, but we kept in touch in the depot and I was able to ask him sensitively how things were going as we bumped into one another from time to time. I still remember to pray for him now and again, for his witness in a very difficult environment, and for the growth of his sanctification!

 

What’s Church for? Expecting the Unexpected

I have tried over the past few weeks to look into the future of church in the UK, and I’m very aware of the woeful inadequacy of this enterprise. I’ve suggested some directions which we might be headed in, but at the end of the day I wouldn’t be that surprised if all we see is a bit more of the same: marginalisation by the secular media, decline, greying and a lot of death. However, I am encouraged by a physicist named Thomas Kuhn, into whose hands I commend you as I close this mini-series of blogs.

 

Kuhn is famous for his ‘paradigm-shift’ theory. To understand him, allow me to take you back for a moment into the 1960s, and into the subterranean lair of an evil James Bond villain. All along one side of the cave is a huge computer, with lights flashing and tapes spinning, a machine with the aid of which the villain is planning to take over the world. Now, imagine that I asked you what a computer twice as powerful would look like in the future? The obvious answer is twice the size, with twice the number of flashing lights and twirling tapes. In the fact the real answer is that it would look like your mobile phone: in fact your phone is probably already hundreds of times more powerful. Technology, said Kuhn, rarely proceeds in a straight line. There come moments when some new invention radically alters everything, and a paradigm shift leads to a brand new direction. The invention of the microchip provided one such paradigm shift, such that miniaturisation, not growth, is the expected direction of progress. Nanotechnology, and work on single molecular circuits, mean that even further miniaturisation is on the horizon. But when Wikipaedia claims that ‘this miniaturization is the ultimate goal for shrinking electrical circuits’ it is reckoning without some further and as yet unimagined paradigm shift.

 

So much for physics, but the same can be true of history. Every now and then there will be some kind of a paradigm shift which means that a linear progress will no longer be the way forward. And in my experience the same is true of God. In spite of the suspicion with which the church often treats the notion of an ‘interventionist God’ the Bible is full of stories of God breaking into history to change everything. Freedom for slaves in Egypt; exile for a complacent and idolatrous nation; a Messiah on a cross; fire from heaven; all these are examples of God doing ‘a new thing’ which means that nothing is the same again. In more modern times the coming of the Holy Spirit on a group of farmers in Topeka, Kansas and many other revivals and renewals of the church have been both unexpected and powerfully disorientating for the church, but have sent us off in some amazing new directions.

 

All of which is a way of saying that I hope to the bottom of my being that the so-called ‘predictions’ I have made will prove to be complete nonsense, because by the time twenty years have passed God will have broken in, shaken up his church beyond recognition, and we’ll all be off in a completely new direction.

 

I went through a stage of reading all I could about great revivals of history, and like many I found myself praying ‘Lord, do it again!’ I have now learnt that a far better prayer is ‘Lord, do something new!’

OT Lectionary September 7th Trinity 12 Ezekiel 33:7-11

There is an interesting dynamic of ‘tipping points’ in today’s passage from the prophet Ezekiel. Firstly, chapter 33 forms a kind of pivot point between 1 – 32, which are predominantly about judgement, and 34-48, which have much more to say about restoration. As though to emphasise this great pivot the news comes to Ezekiel in v 21 that ‘The City has fallen!’ We can’t really imagine the significance of this for the exiles, but the destruction of 9/11 doesn’t come close. It is as though we heard that Westminster, Canary Wharf and Canterbury Cathedral had all been blown to bits in a single act of warfare.

So this passage sets before the people the need for repentance, and the role that the prophet has in calling them to it. The image of the ‘watchman’, one which Ezekiel commonly uses, relates to those placed on city walls to give early warning of imminent attack. But the danger here is less about the physical destruction of their home capital, and more about the internal eating away of their society by the cancer of immorality and godlessness.

But there is a smaller, more subtle pivot in the centre of the passage for today. By the time we get to v 10 the people apparently need no further calls to repentance: they are only too well aware of their offences and sins, and the results of them. Ezekiel’s word to them must now be different. No longer is he to give a warning of judgement: now his message is one of hope and restoration, and repentance as the way to it.

This corrects two common caricatures we may have unconsciously slipped into regarding prophets and their God. So often we think of those with prophetic giftings as miserable people who can only speak of gloom and destruction: indeed many modern-day prophets only serve to reinforce this caricature. This in turn can lead us to the belief that God himself is a miserable punisher. One of my bosses used to say that the job of the Holy Spirit is to ‘comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable’, and we have something of that here. To presumptuous and self-satisfied sinners God’s word is a harsh one, but to those who realise their own need of repentance he speaks mercy and restoration. This of course can’t help but raise the question ‘Where am I?’ and ‘What would God want to say to me?’ Clearly to speak words of peace to sinners who are completely unrepentant is as useless and counter-productive as calling to repentance those who are already broken-hearted. But so often all we want is to hear God saying to us that everything is just dandy.

There is also an interesting question here about how this passage might relate to evangelism. In the past it was thought to be all about calling sinners to repentance: indeed that is the thrust of most of the preaching recorded in Acts. But now the fashion has changed, and in a society which doesn’t really ‘do’ sin our call is more likely to be about comfort than confrontation. Maybe we need to rethink what the call of God on our generation really is.