OT Lectionary November 2nd 4 before Advent (Kingdom 1) Micah 3:5-12

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.

 File:Country church tower - geograph.org.uk - 773041.jpg

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.

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.