I find myself on a steep learning curve at the moment. I am an unashamed townie, but I am working at the moment with several different groups of deeply rural Lincolnshire parishes. I am discovering just how profoundly I don’t understand rural life, and how tempting it is to try to plant urban ways of thinking into the rural fields of the diocese. I’m also discovering how deeply ‘Norman Tebbit’ I am: ‘Don’t moan because you can’t get broadband – just move to somewhere proper where you can get it!’ I am aware that this attitude will only alienate me, and so I try to keep it quiet (apart, of course, from blogging about it), but I am aware of the need for me to learn and grow in my understanding, and for the church to discover a genuinely rootedly rural spirituality, but one which is also thoroughly biblical.
But at the same time it may be that my distance can help me to see some things more clearly. So when people from country parishes tell me that their greatest calling is to ‘be there’ for people in case they might need them in hard times, I wonder what happened to challenge or a call to repentance. Christ and the apostles called people to repent, even ‘commanded’ them to do so. I see this deeply absent from rural Christianity, and, the more I think about it, from much urban Christianity too. Have we all become far too nice?
When I first began to learn about pastoral counselling, we were told about the need both to comfort and to confront. Either one without the other is counterproductive in different ways, but both together can be very effective. In the time of Micah in the 8th century BC, we appear to have ‘prophets’ who would only say nice things, but Micah himself, who is gloriously free from such a tendency, has the task of declaring Israel’s transgression and sin. Their failure to care for the poor, their perpetuation of class systems and injustice, their corruption, bribery and bloodshed are deeply abhorrent to God, and all this is made so much worse because of their presumption and complacency. ‘No disaster will come upon us!’, they believe, and it is the prophet’s job to burst their bubble and warn them of the danger of their presumption.
Many in today’s church have bought into a package in which the belief that God loves us unconditionally, that Jesus was there to serve the needs of everyone, and that hell and judgement are outdated ideas, are all wrapped up together in a warm fuzzy gift-wrapped spirituality of inoffensiveness. Isn’t it ironic, therefore, that Micah is the one filled with the Spirit, power and justice. The implication, which we see so often in the pages of the Bible, is that to be Spirit-filled is not a nice option, and is likely to lead us to speak unpopular truth rather than beautiful lies. As we enter the ‘Kingdom’ season and approach Advent, with its themes of penitence and preparation, we need to watch this tendency to become infected with the spirit of the age and its highest value ‘tolerance’, a deeply sub-Christian sentiment. And we need to remember that ‘Gentle Jesus’, the Servant King, is also the one who proclaims woes against those who live in tolerant presumption.
I have been repeatedly reminded of that truth too in the last year; that Jesus always balanced invitation with challenge. So to be faithful to his word, ways, and works, we need that dual focus too.
Thanks for that encouragement – it’s so easy to go soft!