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April 2004 – Easter Musing

Do you remember the furore over the Bishop of Durham’s views on the resurrection? I remember it clearly because 1984 was the year I moved to Durham (to read Theology) from South Africa and the South African papers were full of the controversy. My poor aunt was terrified I’d get “led astray” by David Jenkins’ so-called “heretical” views!

A recent film, The Body, told the story of the discovery of the body of a carpenter who had been crucified at the time of Christ. Injuries to the skull suggested that he had worn a crown of thorns. Was this the body of Jesus? The Church is in an uproar. A priest commits suicide, his faith in tatters. What will happen to Christianity if the body proves, indeed, to be that of Jesus? It is Paul who said, “If Christ has not been raised from the dead, our faith is worthless.”

The truth is that there is a wide spectrum of Christian beliefs about the resurrection. For some, “resurrection” is symbolic language for the truth of the ongoing significance of Christ — a significance that survives his death. For these people, the discovery of Jesus’ body would make no difference to their faith. For others, it can and must mean nothing less than the physical raising to life of the dead Jesus. Where are you on that spectrum?

It’s not a question of whether or not we believe “what the Bible says”. The problem is in the texts themselves! The four gospels can’t be harmonised to say the same thing, or to make it possible to construct a “diary” of Jesus’ life after Good Friday. Mark’s gospel is the oldest gospel. And the earliest manuscripts of Mark end with Jesus’ death — they do not include the resurrection. Matthew has Jesus appear to his disciples in Galilee, whereas Luke has Jesus rise, go to Emmaus and back, and ascend to heaven – all on Easter Sunday and all in and around Jerusalem. John has Jesus appearing to his disciples over a period of eight days. So if we ask, “What does the Bible tell us happened?”, the answer is, “The Bible tells us several contradictory things! We don’t know for sure!”

This is because the gospel writers are less worried about what we call “historical detail” (what exactly happened) than they are about the meaning of it all. None of them doubts that Jesus rose from the dead. But each of them uses the gospel story to tell us the significance of the resurrection.

Some things are fairly clear. On Friday, just before the start of the Sabbath, Jesus’ body is given a rudimentary burial preparation and is put in a sealed tomb. On Sunday, the tomb is empty. Jesus’ body is gone. Some time soon after that, the disciples — a small group terrified for their lives — appear, proclaiming that God has raised the crucified Jesus to life. This, they say, is not just resuscitation (the temporary bringing back to life of a dead person who will die again — like Lazarus) but resurrection: Jesus, who died, is now alive and will never die again. And for this, they are prepared to suffer quite appalling persecution and death.

One thing is pretty clear: Jesus’ body disappeared. The tomb was empty. That’s presumably why the authorities had to try to stamp out the Christians, rather than simply produce a body. It’s also — and this is very significant – why there was no early worship at Jesus’ tomb, as would normally have happened to a holy man. That came much, much later. And as for the notion that the disciples stole the body… well, why die for an obvious lie? Why allow your family to be killed too?

But what did the disciples actually see? Not the resurrection itself! They claimed to have seen the risen Jesus — a Jesus who was more than a ghost (he ate fish and could be touched) but who could walk through walls and “disapparate” (to borrow a Harry Potter phrase) from the meal table. At some stage, he appears to ascend into heaven and the resurrection appearances cease. And these accounts are all told in symbol-laden language and story form. Which is why Christians talk universally of “resurrection”, but differ — faithfully — about what “actually happened”.

The gospel question isn’t so much “What happened?” as “What is the significance of all this?” And here we are on clearer ground. Resurrection transforms the cross from the tragic, disastrous and ultimately meaningless death of Jesus of Nazareth into God’s means of salvation for the whole of creation. It is God’s loving refusal to let humanity’s “No!” to God stand as the final word. It is the triumph of Life over death and all the ways in which we humans distort, spoil and destroy our world and one another. It is God’s assurance that, if we want to cut ourselves off from God, we have to find an even better way than murdering God’s Son. It means that nothing, nobody and nowhere is God-forsaken. It means that this world belongs to God and will become all that God intends for it. That is the Easter message. It is the Gospel.

May 2004 – The Passion of the Christ – a bruising experience

“He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed”. (Isaiah 53:5—the text with which The Passion of the Christ opens.)

One thing is certain: Mel Gibson has succeeded in getting more people to think about the events and meaning of Easter than all the church services, Easter eggs and holiday hype combined. People have been converted, challenged, outraged, sickened, offended and transformed watching the film. The thing they have not been is neutral or unmoved.

If the film does nothing else, it rubs our noses in the awful brutality of the crucifixion. Jesus suffered. He really suffered. And he suffered because he was bearing the weight of human sin. That is the message of the film – or, at least, that was the clear message I got, watching it. Gibson’s film reminds us – visually and sickeningly – what we have spent centuries trying to forget or domesticate and sanitise: the crucifixion of Jesus is human sinfulness made stomach-turningly visible. The sadism, hatred, rage, degradation, humiliation, prejudice, pride, religious bigotry, injustice, self-interest and sheer murderousness

that make possible the Holocaust or Apartheid, Rwanda or Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland or contemporary Israel are all there, naked, proud, triumphant and unavoidable. We dress it up as Real Politik, compromise, national interest, economics, or social processes but the naked reality is something too awful to face. The cross is not something beautiful and loveable. It was and remains – even after Easter Sunday – something to offend; something from which to turn away. It is a symbol and exposé of all the ways in which we humans make our world and lives and relationships in deliberate rejection of God. Like the ancient Canaanite gods, our systems and relationships are sustained by human blood, torture, suffering, rejection and sacrifice. “Sin” is its theological shorthand. And on that first Easter, its object was Jesus – God incarnate.

“He did it for you.” That is one of the attendant pieces of publicity with which cinemagoers are confronted. And, according to the testimonies of countless viewers worldwide, that is precisely what so many have realised for the first time. So a big “Hallelujah!” to that, because that is the purpose of the cross. Jesus is not simply a heroic victim (Gibson’s Christ is at least that). Nor is his death a meaningless tragedy. It is a sacrifice. For sin. That is what Jesus’ death means both for him and for us (the whole human race).

“But where is God in all this?” was the question that plagued me throughout the film. If Jesus was bearing human sin, what was God doing? The answer that seemed most obvious to me from the film was precisely the one that I believe is dangerously wrong: “God was punishing Jesus”. That is one way in which to interpret Isaiah 53:5 and the cry of dereliction. Jesus was bearing human sin. God is holy and needs to punish sin. Instead of punishing us (the guilty ones), God punishes Jesus in our place. Jesus “takes the rap” for us and our account is squared with God. We go free while Jesus suffers as though guilty.

It is a tradition with a long and popular history. Yet it denies something fundamental about the cross: “God was in Christ, reconciling us to God’s self” (2 Cor 5:19). God wasn’t watching from afar. God was involved – suffering with Christ and in Christ. Yet how? In the cross, the Father suffers the death of the Son and so (says the theologian, Jürgen Moltmann) suffers the death and loss of his own fatherhood. And if God’s fundamental identity is that of Father, then God suffers the death of his own identity. That is how radical sin is. It changes God forever. In the cross of Christ, God embraces and takes into God’s self pain and suffering (passion), death and loss. For all people. For all time.

God is not the far-off, outraged and vengeful potentate, dishing out punishment for human sin. God is the suffering Lover, taking the power and destructiveness of sin upon God’s self for the sake of the world. Its ultimate power is alienation and death. And on Easter Sunday, its ultimate power is destroyed once and for all, because God raises Jesus from the dead in the power of the Spirit. “Sin” (that theological shorthand) has done its damndest – and it has not been enough to cut us off from a God who loves to the point of taking and absorbing all that it can do in order to destroy its deadly power.

“Nothing, then,” says Paul, “will ever be able to cut us off from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus!” The Passion of the Christ? Yes! But more than that – the Passion of God. That is the truth of Good Friday.

June 2004 – Finding Jesus again for the first time

I found Jesus in the Galilee – in Capernaum, on the shores of the lake. It was a peaceful, sunny morning. The lake shone blue and silver, ruffled by a light breeze. Birds and insects flitted among the olive presses, stones, pillars and old walls.

Brian (Brian Jolly – convener of the Life & Witness Committee and veteran of many visits to the place) and I had the town – village – that Jesus lived in for most of his ministry all to ourselves. We even knew exactly where he stayed: the house of Peter’s mother-in-law, which became a church in the years after his resurrection. There is no modern town of Capernaum. This was Jesus’ place – excavated by archaeologists so that we could see the houses he ate in and the streets he walked, and stand in the synagogue where he worshipped and preached (or at least, in the ruins of the later building built on top of the original, which was Jesus’ and whose foundations we could see).

Finding Jesus was unexpected and astonishingly … gracious – an unsought bonus. I didn’t need to find him in that way. My faith didn’t depend on seeing where he walked, visiting the cave of his birth, looking over Jerusalem as he did from the Mount of Olives, touching Calvary or even kneeling inside his tomb (yes, I was quite content that those really were the places). Those didn’t do anything for me in terms of my faith. But that morning, in Capernaum, I stood in the ruins of the synagogue and looked out at the streets and houses and was struck by the thought, “Jesus walked there! He knew those houses – the people who lived there. And they knew him. They’d see him, or hear his voice, and say, ‘That’s Jesus.’ They knew what he liked to eat; they’d heard him belch after a meal; they knew what he smelled like after a day out in the hills or on the lake. They’d heard him laugh, argue, discuss, preach. They told him the jokes that made him laugh. Theirs were the children whom he told off, or whose heads he ruffled, or whom he carried. And there – that’s the beach he’d have gone to, where Peter and James and John had their boats…”

What I “found” there was Jesus the man, the human being, the person. Texts and stories and place names became living contexts. And Jesus the Christ became Jesus of Nazareth, the living, breathing man of Galilee. I looked at the places he knew. Sayings about sheep, corn, lilies in fields, coins and plants suddenly lived. The sights lived – as they must have lived in Jesus’ head. That’s why he chose to say what he did. Standing on the mountain where he is reputed to have delivered that sermon made me wish – achingly – that I’d been there then. I wanted to be there, in his places, with him. To follow him. Literally.

We headed back to Jerusalem that afternoon. It was a four-hour drive. Jesus would have taken 4-7 days to walk there. The enormity of Jesus turning towards Jerusalem hit forcibly. He was turning towards the place of power and conflict; the place where the final verdict on who God is and what God wants for us humans was to be played out. Just as we were returning to the place where the present conflict is being played out. The place from which the Wall will prevent more and more Palestinian Israelis from gaining their livelihoods and practising their Christian faith. A place of fear, despair, hatred, death and hopelessness. I wanted to weep when we came in sight of the city again.

But it also brought together for me Jesus, the man I’d met in the Galilee and Jesus, incarnate Son of God and Christ of my faith. He still looks for followers. He still calls for God’s love and grace and salvation to take root in the soil; to happen; to be made visible. Incarnate.

I’m looking forward to Suheil, Khalil and Nabil’s visit. They’ve things to tell us about God and God’s people in Israel/Palestine that we desperately need to hear and take on board. They also need our help: our actions, our solidarity with the Christian Church in that land. I hope I’ll see you there!

July/August 2004 – Christian Solidarity – Britain and “The Holy Land”

His resistance to “The Holy Land” is important. On one level, that title, applied to Israel/Palestine, means no more than that the land is regarded as holy – “sacred” – to the three great monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But then, “sacred” land goes right to the heart of the matter in the present conflict. Sacred in what sense? Simply desirable, or desired? It’s certainly that! Land is in very short supply. Land and property prices are comparable to those in New York City. Does “sacred” mean more than that, though? Is the soil itself somehow “holy”? This is how many of the religious groups – including Christian churches in the West – often perceive it. It is “holy” because it is “God-given”. Then the question becomes, “To whom?” And, perhaps, “By whose God?” Therein lies one of the very powerful forces motivating the whole Israeli/Palestinian question.

“Holy” doesn’t mean, “God-given”. It means, “God-like” – and, in the New Testament sense of the word, it means “Christ-like”. To be holy is to be like Jesus. It hasn’t always meant that. The more usual biblical meaning of holy is “set apart”. “Radically different.” That is how the Hassidic Jews in Israel interpret it. Immediately obvious in their dreadlocks, black suits, hats and unshaven cheeks, they see themselves as “set apart”. They spend all day studying the Torah (the Law) and in prayer to Yahweh.

The Israeli state actually pays them to do this because it is a full-time occupation. They congregate daily in Jerusalem at the Wailing Wall. Yet the Hassidic Jews are among the most radically right-wing supporters of the Israeli state and some of the loudest advocates of the most repressive and inhumane anti-Palestinian policies. And when you think that they are paid out of Palestinian taxes, while Palestinians – who pay identical taxes to Israelis — don’t have their garbage taken away, their streets cleaned properly, the roads mended, pavements and parks provided – you begin to wonder just how “godly” this set-apartness really is.

This is precisely why the Old Testament prophets speak as they do when religious observance is promoted, on the one hand, while gross oppression, injustice and violation of human rights -– particularly those of the most vulnerable -– is allowed to flourish unchallenged and unchecked on the other. Have a look at Isaiah 58-59, for example. Or those incredible words in Amos 5:18-24, where God’s revulsion at worship while injustice persists culminates in the glorious, “But let justice roll down like rivers, and righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

That is why “holiness” comes to mean something very different in the life and ministry of Jesus and beyond. It was for his understanding and practice of holiness that the Pharisees wanted him dead. For Jesus, holiness was not about “apartness” (the literal meaning of Apartheid!) but rather all about “God-likeness”. And for Jesus, the characteristic that most clearly summed up who God is and what God is like is compassion. Compassion is at the heart of the great commandments -– to love God and neighbour. Compassion fulfils the Law because the Law is ultimately about love. That is what the parable of the Good Samaritan is all about (Luke 10:25 ff). Look at verse 33. It’s the key moment -– the Samaritan has compassion. Compare verse 37.

Com-passion. It literally means, “To suffer with”. What our Palestinian visitors told us is that the Christian Church in the land of the Holy One is suffering -– terribly. It is suffering because the Palestinian people are suffering. Subjected to an appalling panoply of laws and measures against them, those that can are fleeing. The Christian Church is dying and will cease to exist within the next two to three years.

We are people who follow the Holy One. We are to be holy, to be Christ-like. To be filled with compassion because our Christian brothers and sisters need not only our prayers but also our action. We who were at the consultation have pledged our support and commitment to a number of measures. One is to finance the annual St George’s “summer camp” for Palestinian children (Christian and Moslem) who cannot leave Jerusalem. Another is to host a “Kids for Hope” visit next year. Let’s support these events wholeheartedly as they arise.

September 2004 – The Bible…boring?

Sheila Maxey’s moderatorial address was about how we ought to use the Bible and how we ought not to use it. It’s an important message for the United Reformed Church at this point in our journey of catching the vision. Visions are about renewal. New things. New ways of “reading” our present and our future. Our God of resurrection is a God who does new things and calls us to new ways of believing and living and acting. And so renewal always happens alongside and because of new ways of reading the Bible and of re-understanding (often for the first time!) who and how God is for us as revealed in Jesus.

We are a Church whose final authority for all it believes and does is the Bible. Isn’t it ironic, then, that the Church Life Profile (the most comprehensive survey of British Church life that we have) turned up the fact that more URC members than of other denominations profess to find Bible study boring and unimportant? If we are serious about catching God’s vision for us, we need to be reading and re-reading the Bible in breathless anticipation of what God is going to say to us. That is how God speaks to us. It isn’t boring — it’s life-giving!

I remember discovering Bible study as a keen young convert of fourteen. It was a mind-blowing experience! I was into everything as a teenager — sport, the outdoors, clubs, societies, voluntary work, church and a hectic social life. But the highlight of my week, all through those years, was Tuesday night. That was Bible study. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I even used to bridle about going on holiday if it meant missing Tuesday nights!

Why, then, do we find words of Life so deadly boring? I think a lot of it has to do with the method of study that is most common. Most of our ministers and leaders have been schooled in what is called the Historical Critical method. The idea is to reconstruct as accurately as possible what the biblical author wanted to say to his (yes, it was always a “he”) original readers — and so get at the “truth” for us today. That means becoming an expert in obscure historical facts: the value of a denarius, the geography and religious customs of the Ancient Near East, historical events of 600 years ago etc. Small wonder, then, that what we need is a resident expert who can tell us what we can’t possibly discover for ourselves simply by reading the text. Bring on the history lesson … YAWN!

Its opposite — “proof-texting” — is also sometimes part of the problem. This way of reading assumes that the Bible is a collection of instructions directly from the mind and mouth of God, covering every conceivable area of human existence. The best interpreter then is the walking concordance — the person who knows the most Bible verses. You’ll recognise the key phrase: “The Bible says…” If there’s any dispute about truth and interpretation, it takes the form of people slinging competing texts at each other. Remember the sexuality debate…? Here’s the problem: with a good concordance, a set of strongly held convictions and prejudices and the gift of the gab, we can make the Bible “say” pretty much what we’d like it to say! So the Bible has been used to justify slavery, Apartheid, the Holocaust, the Inquisition, the subjugation of women, the persecution of gay people, the class system and the oppression of the Palestinians. If the Bible can be made to say anything, then why bother? Instead of finding truth and vision, we become manipulated and misled crusaders of the most persuasive.

“A text without a context is a pretext!” Historical context matters because it helps preserve us from being manipulated by proof texts. God did not dictate the Bible. It is the record of people of faith, reflecting on their experience of God and history under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Bible does not speak with one voice, but with many. It is not infallible and there is no way to understand God faithfully other than to engage in the enormous responsibility of trying to interpret the Bible. It reminds us that there is hope, because it was in day-to-day life and the events of history that God revealed God’s self.

Yet God is always calling us to new places — different times and circumstances. We are not prisoners of the past, but inheritors of God’s future. God speaks through the Bible today. Proof-texters remind us of that — we can hear the voice of God through the Scriptures today. We need to be listening avidly for it.

But how can we hear it? One way is to read the Bible as a conversation – a conversation between God’s story, our story and the stories of the people who have encountered God in the pages of the Bible and throughout our Christian history. It’s lively, thrilling, sometimes very painful, costly and difficult. But it’s never boring! This is a conversation I would like to continue…

October 2004 – Saved by a name…

Beyers Naudé (pronounced Bayers Nor-dee-a) died on Tuesday 7th September 2004, aged 89. South Africa mourned one of the great heroes of the anti-Apartheid struggle. I did, too. I am pretty sure that, among all his other accomplishments, he saved my life.

Beyers was an Afrikaner “aristocrat”. Named after the greatest Boer general, he was a Dominee (minister) in the Dutch Reformed Church and one of its youngest ever moderators. He was one of the Dutch Reformed Church delegates to the Cottesloe Conference in 1960, set up by the World Council of Churches to investigate the Sharpeville shootings the year before. As a result of what he discovered, Beyers joined the other delegates in condemning the apartheid system.

The South African government response to Cottesloe was immediate and decisive. The Dutch Reformed Church withdrew from the “communist-inspired” World Council of Churches. The South African delegates were told plainly: either recant, or else …

Beyers opted for the “or else”. He was thrown out of the Church, harassed, humiliated, banned under put under house arrest for four years. Try and imagine being a prisoner in your own home, allowed to be in a room with only one other person at a time. The police can enter at will and tear the house apart on any pretext. And then there were all the dirty tricks and public vilifications…

Beyers’ story is an amazing one. Reading it was a conversion experience for me, a former security police officer in Ian Smith’s Special Branch, doing theological research in Cambridge and trying to find a way of understanding how my faith could have allowed me to get things so wrong.

Beyers’ faith not only sustained him, it grew. He started the Christian Institute, and was one of the first whites to stop speaking for black Christians and begin to listen to them. He joined the ANC and, even as one of its most articulate and passionate advocates, was one of its staunchest critics from within when he saw compromise and wrong-doing. He became one of the Christian giants in South Africa, succeeding Desmond Tutu as Secretary of the South African Council of Churches until his retirement in 1987. He was one of the architects of the Truth and Reconciliation process. His 80th birthday speech was given by Nelson Mandela.

I met Beyers Naudé in 1989. I told him how much his story had meant to me. Typically, he invited me to coffee in his home. When we ran out of time, he invited me to his church service in Alexandra Township so that we could talk afterwards.

Apartheid was euphemistically known as “separate development”. That separation included spiritual development. The Dutch Reformed Church was an all-white church. It created “daughter” churches — one for each of South Africa’s “race” groups. Beyers and his wife joined a black Dutch Reformed Church in Alexandra Township. “Oom Bey” (Uncle Bey) soon became known and loved throughout South Africa’s most dangerous and violent township. Most of us know of Soweto, but Alexandra was the scene of most of the gruesome necklacings in the 1980s, where people accused of being police informers and sell-outs had car tyres placed around their necks. The tyres were filled with petrol and set alight. They’d stopped by 1989, but Alexandra was still a no-go area for whites. Several whites who ventured into Alexandra had been killed. It was “kill first and ask questions later”.

I drove into the township that Sunday, looking for the church. I got lost, and came to halt in a dead-end street. Within moments, a gang of young men surrounded the car. Their mood was threatening and ugly. I was white — and I was in the wrong place!

A couple of the youths began to rock the car. I was terrified (as you can see, I’ve mastered English understatement in the 20 years I’ve been here!). I did the only thing I could think of: I got out of the car and, with my hands held high, started calling, “Oom Bey! Oom Bey!” At his name, the mood changed completely! They smiled, laughed, clapped me on the back and asked me what help I needed. Then they showed me how to get to the church and gave me an escort, running alongside the car.

It was an astonishing service. A young white Dominee was being inducted as an assistant to the black minister. As far as I know, it was the only instance of its kind. Most astonishing to me, though, was that I had survived long enough to be there!

What struck me most about Beyers was the twinkle in his eye and his godliness. God shone out of him! I mean that. He was a walking sacrament. He was just one of those people. We — the world — owe him a great deal. I think I owe him my life. Thank you, Beyers, for yours.
November 2004 – Demolition in progress..?

Q: How many church members does it take to change a light bulb?
A1: CHANGE???!!!

A2: 100: 1 to change the light bulb and 99 to say how much better the old one was.

Change is never easy. It disturbs and disrupts. It leaves people uncertain and uncomfortable. We are in the throes of moving house at the moment. I say, “in the throes” because although we moved a week ago, we’re still unpacking and getting used to the newness of it all — finding where all the light switches are, getting used to a new heating system, a radically new house layout, new neighbours, new patterns and rhythms, and of course, we can’t find anything we need. It can be very frustrating! But it’s also exciting, watching a new house and a new life gradually take shape. It’s going to be very different, living in Bowness, being able to walk to work and having shops (SHOPS!) just down the road. Disturbing and yet exciting — there’s always that tension about change, isn’t there? It’s that borderland between the excitement of new things and new possibilities on the one hand, and the loss of the familiar, the certain and the comfortable on the other.

The light bulb joke points up a curious irony about church life. On the one hand, church life is by definition a life of constant change. The biblical metaphors for life in the Spirit are usually organic: as “babies in Christ”, we are supposed to be growing and if we’re not changing, it’s a sure sign that something’s radically wrong. Then there’s the Old Testament picture of a Pilgrim People. Or the New Testament image of discipleship — being people who follow Jesus from place to place. Constantly on the move, in other words.

How ironic, therefore, that for many, our attitude to change is often best expressed in the words of the hymn, “Change and decay in all around I see/O Thou who changest not, abide with me.” Change is bad: it is a sign of decay and degeneration. They would point to the sign on the newly-erected builders’ fence outside the church: DEMOLITION IN PROGRESS, and think, “Yes! That says it all!”

Changing our building is a process. The process of change requires management. One of the interesting (and difficult!) tasks is managing ourselves through that process. The point is, we will change too, along with the building. And we will find ourselves changing several times and probably in quite contradictory ways. It is helpful to recognise that it is a process, and that we ought to expect to find ourselves feeling all sorts of things as we undertake the journey. Here are some signposts that you might recognise in yourself and others along the way.

I want to go back to Egypt! It’s likely many of us are there right at the moment. We’re meeting in the hall, the church is barricaded, and if we got inside, we’d see the floor ripped up and all the work debris. It’s the point where everything familiar is gone, and we can’t see anything exciting or worthwhile to replace it. It’s like being in the desert. Our reaction? “Let’s get back to how it was! Why did we change anything in the first place?”

I didn’t know it would be like this! This is double-edged. Most of us had our own idea of what the whole process would be like. Now, as the process is underway, we find that it isn’t as we expected. Some of us who were enthusiastic find ourselves thinking, “If I’d known that this was how it was going to be, I’d have opposed it!” Others who were initially reluctant might be thinking, “This is a lot better than I feared! I’m glad I was outvoted!”

The gain isn’t worth the pain! This is a variation on the above two. We recognise that there is a definite gain to be had from the alterations, but find the process too disruptive and painful. The balance shifts: it isn’t worth the hassle.

They’re taking away my home! Our relationship with our buildings is complex. On the one hand, we proclaim loudly, “The church is not the building, it’s the people”. On the other, we can fight like cat and dog over what colour the walls should be, or the new carpet, or what kind of chairs we should have. We need to recognise that the church building is the church family home and we all have tremendous emotional investment in it. Changing the home to suit everyone is always a nigh-on impossible task.

I feel homeless! We are “homeless” at the moment. We are outside the building. Worship in the hall is noticeably different from in the church. People talk more before the service. The atmosphere is instinctively social rather than reverential. We’re physically (and spiritually?) closer together. The singing is certainly better, though we miss the organ. It’s a bit of a camping trip. Some of us wouldn’t go on a camping holiday if we were paid to! But then, camping is a chance to spend family time in a different part of the country…

My head’s spinning. I need to sit down! Change takes energy. It can be bewildering. Exhausting. Sometimes, we need just to sit down and take time out.

The important word here is “process”. The building is changing and so are we. We’re doing so because we believe that God is calling us to new things. The thing that appealed to Mandy and me about our new house is that it is a traditional Lakeland stone house on the outside. Inside, it’s been gutted and modernised. It’s light and airy and spacious and suited to modern living. That’s rather what we’re doing inside Carver. The notice is wrong. It’s not demolition in progress — it’s new birth.

December 2004 – Singing the Angel Song

I remember Christmases, growing up in what was Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). It was hot! Probably 90°F in the shade. We’d sit down to a traditional Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. The windows were sprayed with imitation snow. The tree (an exotic pine) was bedecked with baubles, tinsel, lights and little figures on sledges. The cake, lovingly iced in white, was decorated with a snowman and Santa in his sleigh. The cards on the walls had pictures of robins and Victorian carol singers in snow scenes. The Westminster Abbey choir on the crackly Christmas carol record were singing “In the bleak midwinter”. Then we’d get up from the table, leaving the washing up to Joel (our servant, my friend, tireless maker of stilts, bows and arrows forts to play in and an infallible fixer of bikes) and head for the conservatory for a game of table tennis. They were wonderful times! Innocent, intimate, and unforgettable. And a glorious slice of unreality.

I remember how much I was affected by the stories of Christmas in the trenches during the early years of the Great War — the songs of “Silent Night” drifting across the devastation of no-man’s land, sung in German and English. The Christmas Day when both sides climbed out of their trenches and played football together. Before normality resumed the following day and they all got back to the serious business of killing each other. What got to me was the way in which it seemed, just for a moment, that the promised new world of the angel song — peace on earth, and goodwill among mortals — was fulfilled.

Christmas, 1979. I was a 20 year-old detective in Ian Smith’s Special Branch during the final days of white rule. The black townships were in an uproar. Officially, there was a ceasefire in place. Former guerrillas were making their way into holding camps in preparation for elections. In reality, the Bulawayo townships where I was working were crawling with heavily armed fighters. There were impromptu political rallies every night, where the euphoric crowds were promised houses, jobs, land and undreamed of wealth. The white oppressors would be brought to justice and executed. I had drawn the night shift, which meant that, every night, I would hurtle from rally to rally with one black detective and try to get the crowds to disperse. It was madness and absolutely terrifying. I narrowly escaped being shot by a guerrilla in one of the crowds.

My shift finished at 4am on Christmas morning. I went home, bathed, got dressed and went to church. The sun rose on a world that was suddenly totally alien. I’d hardly slept that week. I’d spent my waking hours in darkness. And I’d totally forgotten it was Christmas! I emerged into a world of sunshine and decorations and smiling, happy people doing all the normal things one does on Christmas Day and it was like being in a dream world. The sounds were all either far too loud or muffled in cotton wool. I had the strangest sensation of watching a world in an over-exposed film. Rather like those films of life in the 1950s which seem far away and remote a by-gone era. It was the first Christmas that didn’t “work” for me. I was too full of the reality of the past week — a reality of war and dark nights and gut-wrenching fear. The smells of turkey and Christmas pudding were smothered by other smells: camouflage cream, rifle oil, sweat, cigarettes and blood. The carols couldn’t dislodge the more persistent political freedom chants and songs that played over and over in my mind. The orderly streets strung with Christmas lights and the shops with decorated windows looked false and insipid after the harsh reality of dusty township roads and block after block of identical houses, each one harbouring goodness knows what dangers. I was an intruder in those places, and now I felt an intruder in my own world. I couldn’t find my way back to the comforting, nurturing nostalgia of Christmas Past. There was no place for a stable bathed in starlight and a sweet little manger-cradled baby in Christmas Present.

Christmas 1984. My first Christmas in England. It was Band Aid — the great and the good of rock and pop gathering to record “Feed the World!” in response to the food crisis in Ethiopia. As I watched, marvelling and excited as the pledges rolled in, I felt Christmassy again for the first time in six years. This was what Christmas meant in a world where there was such starvation and suffering! The Bread of Life was being born. The Light was coming into the world and the world was being challenged: “It’s Christmas time/no need to be afraid! At Christmas time/we let in light and we banish shade… Feed the world!/Let them know it’s Christmas time!” And people responded with open hearts and open wallets.

It’s easy to knock the commercialism and shallowness of so much of the way in which we celebrate Christmas here. And quite justifiably. But what is most sinister is the way in which we use Christmas as a holiday from reality. Normality is put on hold (how else could Mr Blobby make it to Number 1 on the Christmas chart?). We ride the waves of nostalgia and sentiment like consummate surfers and manage to convince ourselves, for a few short weeks, that the world is a different place from the way it really is. For a few short weeks? For most of us, it’s probably just Christmas Eve and Christmas Day — because then it’s time to get down to the Sales!

I find it gets harder and harder to sustain the fiction. Don’t you? In our information age where news is delivered instantly via satellite TV and the Internet, we know too much about the harsh realities of our world. The killing and starvation and injustice and loneliness and despair is too intrusive to be kept at bay any more. We know what is happening in Bethlehem at this very moment. We can no longer be innocent — only wilfully and culpably blind.

Yet we should stop fearing these things and look them fully in the face. The angel’s hymn isn’t a song from a soppy, sentimental musical. It’s the announcement of God’s audacious, ridiculous and extravagant love: the Saviour has been born — Christ the Lord. It is none other than Immanuel — God with us. The Incarnation is not an escape from reality but the promise of God’s saving presence in the very deepest darkness of our existence. It is when we look reality full in its most fearsome face that we can sing out the message of the angels as a proclamation of joy and hope. Then God can do something with us to transform the darkness of Christmas Present into the glories of Christmas Yet to Come.

 February 2005 – Struggling with God

God doesn’t make it easy to hold on to faith. There are times when I want to shout at God and call God to account. It’s invariably the same sort of thing: “WHY, God? Why do you let things happen as they do? If I had all your power, I’d make a better job of the world than you seem to be doing!” It’s also invariably my response to the same thing: suffering.

Christmas is one of the “easy” times to believe. It’s amazing and wonderful and glorious to know that we are loved so much that God took on human flesh and entered into all the darkness and awfulness that is the flip side of world and society. “The Light of Christ has come into the world. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never been able to put it out!” What an astounding message! What an astonishing God!

But then the tsunami hits. Mindless, horrifying and terrifying destruction on an incredible scale. Hundreds of thousands of lives snuffed out. Imagine how horrible those last instants of life and consciousness must have been. If they had time, they must have cried out to God. And God did nothing.

After the tsunami, there’s the Holocaust Memorial. Auschwitz, where over 1.5 million people died. No, to be more accurate, where over 1.5 million people were deliberately exterminated. Just one of the camps, which was part of a vast machinery of death, so incredible that they had to coin the word “genocide” to describe this new reality. Don’t forget: it was God’s chosen people who were being exterminated – God’s people who prayed and cried and screamed to their God as they were herded into the gas chambers. And God did nothing.

We can’t let God off the hook. We can’t pick on Christmas, or Easter, and say that we believe in a God of saving power and love because God is involved in human history, and then discount God’s silence and apparent indifference to the victims of natural tragedy and human evil.

The question “Why?” or “Where was God?” is a natural one. It is a faithful question, because we believe in a God who is involved in the world. When we look at Jesus, we are taught to trust that God is a God of love; a saving God. If God cares about the victims of Pharaoh’s slave system, then it is faithful to ask, “What about the victims of the tsunami and the Holocaust, God?” Those questions have been prominent in our media since Boxing Day. They’re being hotly debated on countless websites. People are struggling to make sense of God in the wake of the wave of horror and death.

We cannot opt for glib, trite answers that are disguised as “faith”. The tsunami was not God’s punishment, any more than the Holocaust was. Can we really believe in a God who kills poor, innocent people in vulnerable parts of the globe, and leaves unpunished those – like our own nation – whose politics and economics create a world where two thirds of humanity are condemned to poverty and starvation? Not if Christmas shows us what God is like!

“After Auschwitz”, says one Holocaust theologian, “We cannot say anything about God that cannot be said in the presence of burning babies”. Unless we say things about God that are true even in the face of horror, we are merely deluding ourselves with platitudes that are quite simply obscene to the victims and the families.

We need to admit openly that there are no easy and satisfactory answers. Senseless, wicked human suffering is the great question mark over a God who is all-loving and all-powerful. The Archbishop of Canterbury said so publicly – not because he is faithless, but because he takes God absolutely seriously.

What can we say faithfully and truly about God in the face of these events? Startlingly little, I fear, but what we can say is nonetheless vital. I believe in a God who enters into human suffering, not in one who stands on the sidelines and watches. I believe that because of Jesus. Jesus tells us that God was there, suffering with the victims. They didn’t die because they were God-forsaken or unloved. Even though they died, they died with God. God did not abandon them.

I believe in a God of Resurrection, whose purposes for good cannot be thwarted even by death. When nature or human beings have done their damnedest to destroy and kill, God is able to bring new life. The victims are not lost. They are with God and will live again with God.

I believe in the God of the Rainbow. There is no power – not even that of nature at its most destructive – that has the last word over the fate of the earth because this world belongs to God.

And finally, I believe that we see God in the collective grief, compassion and generosity of the millions who have survived and are determined to help. I see God’s love in the concrete acts of compassion and aid.

That much I believe I can say about God in faith and in confidence that it is true. “Not much!” you may be thinking. No, it isn’t much. Yet for me, it is enough to go on believing and trusting. If it’s true, it is vital and hopeful. I look at these things and I struggle. We all do – or should. Let’s share answers, and not be afraid to ask the questions. It’s not blasphemous. It’s faithful discipleship.

March 2005 – Friday-free faith?

For many of us, it's a simple matter of circumstance: we go to church on Palm Sunday, and then on Easter Sunday. We miss the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services because our days and evenings are already spoken for. The trouble is, we miss out on a vital part of the significance and meaning of Easter: death, loss, grief and despair. That is what Good Friday and Easter Saturday are all about – God entering into the deepest depths of human darkness.

Death, loss, grief, loneliness and despair are real aspects of human existence. The one thing that we all have in common is the absolute certainty that we will all die. Yet our society doesn't "do" death well. When I think of dying, I hope (and pray!) that it will be quick, painless and that I shall know nothing about it. The prospect of a slow, lingering death frightens me. Yet the medieval confession included praying for a slow death in order to have time to "amend our lives", to prepare for death and to come to terms with dying. They were braver than I am!

I'm not being critical of aspects of our society like the hospice movement. They do wonders in giving terminally ill people a quality of life up until the time of death that is something to thank God for. I do worry, though, about the way in which try to ignore death, or pretend it isn't as awful and tragic as it is. We try to tidy it away because it makes us feel uncomfortable and vulnerable. Facing grief and loss is difficult and threatening. This is why many grieving people find that their friends expect them to have "got over" the death of a lifelong companion or friend within a month or two of the funeral, while for them, it feels as raw and devastating as ever.

St Paul reminded his Christian readers, "We do not grieve as those do who have no hope". All too often, we interpret him as saying that Christians ought not to be sad because our loved ones are safe with God and free from pain, worry and illness. He isn't saying that. He says that we do grieve — for ourselves, because we have suffered irrevocable loss.

Death is the great Robber. It robs the dying person of life. It robs those of us left behind of their presence. Their death leaves and enormous hole. However rich the treasure trove of memories is, however strong our conviction that our loved ones are in a better place and are at peace, the fact remains that we have lost them for good. We will never hear their voice, see their face, touch them or be touched by them again. Their going leaves a permanent hole in our lives.

When we rush from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, it's easy to forget what a tragedy Jesus’ death was. Good Friday was the death of all Jesus’ dreams. All that he worked for – the coming of God’s kingdom – was in tatters. The love and invitation of God received its human answer: “No! There is no room for you in our lives and in our world!” Imagine being a disciple on that Friday and Saturday. Re-read the story of Good Friday, trying to forget what happens on Sunday morning. It is a time of desperation and inconsolable grief. Read the Emmaus Road story again, trying to imagine what the disciples were feeling and thinking. Imagine, even, what it was like for God, watching his son suffer and all the while believing that God had abandoned him. Jesus spoke of God as a Father, who loves better than any earthly father does. That must surely mean that God experienced Jesus’ death more keenly than any of us might over losing a child, not less keenly.

Good Friday tells us that God has become involved in every aspect of our lives, including grief and loss. We often think the opposite: that God is somehow outside of all that mess and anger and desperation. We might even think that God disapproves of grieving, as though it is somehow undignified or even faithless. Then we try desperately to put on a brave face and be joyful, without ever acknowledging the living hell that bereavement can be.

When we do that, we make a lie about death to ourselves and everyone else. That’s when we find ourselves completely lost, because we cannot lie to our deepest selves. We may smile and say all the so-called “Christian” things, so that everyone is amazed at how strong our faith apparently is, but inside we’re breaking up and tearing apart. And the trouble is, we’ve shut God out of our grief, thinking that God doesn’t belong there.

I’m glad that Lis conducts funerals the way she does. She makes explicit and public space for grief, anger, despair and loss. She gives us permission to shout at God, blame God, rage at God – and in so doing, gives God space to work in us and heal and comfort and walk with us. That’s Easter faith! Christian faith isn’t about downplaying death. If death is nothing much, then neither is resurrection. It’s when we look the awfulness of death full in the face that we learn about the glory of the resurrection. Then we can grieve – but not as those who have no hope! Our hope is in the Easter God who walks with us through Good Friday into the morning of Easter Sunday.

April 2005 – Talking of resurrection…

"Jesus said, 'I am the resurrection and the life! Whoever believes in me shall live, even though they die!'" I last heard those words at my cousin's funeral, a couple of weeks ago. He was three years older than I am. He lost his father when he was eighteen; now his own son of eighteen mourns him, as do we all. They were good words to hear, in that context. Words of faith and encouragement. They are Easter words. Christian words. Words about what is at the core of our faith: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Without the resurrection, there is no Christianity. "If Christ has not been raised from the dead," says St Paul, "then our faith is worthless!"

Why worthless? Surprisingly, the answer isn't "Because if Jesus wasn't raised, then there is no such thing as resurrection and when we die, that's it!" The primary purpose of resurrection is not to guarantee us personal immortality, or even to comfort us with the faith that we will see our loved ones again — important though that is.

Here's another thing that may surprise you. Did you know that belief in the resurrection of the dead emerges relatively late in Jewish belief? For most of the Old Testament period, people believed that, when we die, that's it. The belief in a resurrection at the end of time came much later and was a significant change.

Let's get back to Easter. If all that surprises you, it's probably because we focus all our attention on whether or not God resuscitated Jesus on Easter Sunday. Jesus raised Jairus' daughter, the widow's son and his friend Lazarus from the dead, just as Elijah raised the widow's son. Those were instances of resuscitation, but not of resurrection. The Bible tells us that Jesus is the first person who was resurrected.

So what's the difference between resurrection and resuscitation?" The obvious difference is that all the people raised from the dead died again, whereas Jesus was raised never to die again. However, if we think only of differences in duration (resuscitation = for a while, resurrection = forever), we're right back with the notion that resurrection is about guaranteeing personal immortality.

What happens, though, when we understand resurrection as re-creation? This is what resurrection is. It takes us right back to the beginning — to God's purpose in creating the universe and human beings. God intends all that is made to live in fellowship with God and to live with God. Look at the picture painted in the Genesis story about God walking with Adam and Eve in the evening, talking with them. That's how we're meant to relate to God! And not just human beings, but the whole of created reality! The problem is human rebellion and refusal to live with God. Sin, in other words. Sin is not just the naughty things we do as individuals. It is about the way in which we consciously and deliberately make our world and societies without reference to God. It is our determination to shut God out. We see sin in human evil, and in poverty, oppression, injustice and greed.

God is Life and Light and we choose death and darkness. So we find in the Bible an intimate connection between death and being cut off from God. The Bible writers speak of sin as a power. Its power is seen in the way in which God’s good purposes for creation and its inhabitants are frustrated. To put it in Jesus’ terms, the world is not the Kingdom of God, where people live by the commandments to love God and neighbour, and do God’s will on earth as faithfully and consistently as it is done in heaven. It is a place in which there is no room for God. That is why the people crucify Jesus. The crucifixion is humanity’s final answer to God: “No! Stay out! There’s no room for you. Go away! You’re not wanted here!”

Our last word on the subject. But not God’s! God’s last word is resurrection — starting again, re-creation. Resurrection is a new world order — an order in which sin and death have no more ultimate power because they exhausted themselves in the cross and God still had something left to say and do. No wonder Paul said our faith was worthless without resurrection! Easter Sunday is a new beginning for the whole of creation, not just individuals. It promises that God’s plans for good will indeed come about, and this world will indeed become the Kingdom of God.

By faith in Christ, we become part of the new creation. St John talks about this as being “born again”. St Paul says, “For this reason, if anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation! All the old things have passed away and everything has become new!”
(2 Cor 5:17)

That is what is at the heart of Christian faith. A new reality. A new world. A new creation in which we share. A sharing in the very life of God. That is why we believe that all will be restored and made well. Resurrection isn’t something that happens after death. It happens now! It has already happened to us in Christ. And if we have already been made new in Christ — resurrected — then death has no hold over us and we will live again. How can it be otherwise?

Resurrection hope is not a promise for the afterlife. It’s a promise for disciples of Jesus who seek the Kingdom of God. We still live in a world that kills those who live as Jesus did. But the worst it can do is kill. It cannot cut us off from God. It cannot hold us. It can kill the body, but cannot kill the Life that is in us. “I am the Resurrection and the Life! Whoever believes in me will live, even if they die!” Hallelujah!
May 2005 – Going Up…

Have you ever been to the chapel at Walsingham, in Norfolk? It's an Anglo-catholic place of pilgrimage. I confess it did very little for me, primarily because of the way in which the ascension is portrayed. There, on the ceiling, is a painted sky, with a painted cloud, out of which are sticking two concrete, painted and rather grubby feet and ankles! I was supposed to be thinking very spiritual and prayerful thoughts, and all I could do was flee from the chapel to a spot in the cemetery where I could safely howl with laughter!

And yet, ascension is something that – though vital – is difficult to get excited about, or to feel that it matters much. Crucifixion and resurrection are easy – where would we be without the death and resurrection? But ascension is different. At times it reads like some sort of "exit strategy" – as though the gospel writers were struggling to find a way of ending the story satisfactorily and came up with ascension as the equivalent of the child's "… and then I woke up!" ending to an essay.

At other times, I'm overwhelmed with a feeling of abandonment. Here are the disciples, having lost Jesus, only to discover that death wasn't the end, and then to lose him again because he was leaving them for heaven! How awful! And somehow, promises of preparing places and coming back for them and taking them to be with him just somehow don't cut the necessary ice.

At yet other times, it just sounds silly and far-fetched! Jesus, the gospels tell us, was taken up into the sky, rising up until a cloud hid him from the disciples' view. So where did he go? Deep space and the third rock from the sun..? And what would the disciples have seen if it had been a cloudless day..?

All of these wrestlings, however, miss the point. Ascension is the ending of one chapter of the Jesus story – but only a chapter ending, not time to close the book! If you'll excuse the pun, it takes the story to a different level. The ascension belongs with what the Bible calls Jesus' exaltation. Jesus' ascension to the right hand of the Father (as the creeds put it) breaks the boundaries of time and space. That place (the right hand of the Father) is Jesus' place from all eternity. It is the "place" from which the whole universe is created. Jesus' "return" there as the crucified and resurrected Lord means that his death and resurrection are for the whole of creation, not just for the disciples, or the Jewish people, or for 2000 years ago.

Look at Philippians 2: 6-11. Paul is quoting a hymn about the incarnation (v7), the crucifixion (v8) and the ascension and exaltation of Jesus (v9). The purpose of the ascension and exaltation is made plain in vv10-11: Jesus is Lord of the whole creation and will one day be acknowledged as such. Paul is referring, in other words, to the coming of the Kingdom of God, when all of created reality will be as it was intended. That is when Jesus' mission will be complete.

There are at least three reasons, then, why the ascension is vital and relevant. Firstly, it is the guarantee of God’s promise that the Kingdom is coming. Just as Jesus was raised from the dead, so God is going to bring into being a new creation – the transformation of this world into the Kingdom of God, when all the power of sin, death, destruction, cruelty, bereavement, oppression, poverty and suffering will be a thing of the past (cf Revelation 21:3-4). That is something to be encouraged by and to get excited about! It makes all our hopes and disappointments and struggles for a new world worthwhile. It promises us that our failures won’t have the last word and that our hope is not in vain.

Secondly, it’s a vital word to us as 21st century consumers. It reminds us that we are not the centre of the universe. The realisation that Jesus died for us personally is a wonderful, converting thing. It’s what made the former slave trader, John Henry Newton, write the hymn, “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound/that saved a wretch like me!” But it can easily tip over into a spirituality that is self-obsessed – as though Jesus’ death for me is the most important fact of the incarnation, passion, resurrection and exaltation. We are apt to forget that God’s view and priorities encompass the whole of creation. In our materialistic society, “Jesus” is frequently marketed as the ultimate consumer-product! It leads to a “me and Jesus” theology and spirituality, as though the whole purpose of Christ’s coming was to give me an eternal “buzz” because I’m saved and because I know God personally. It isn’t that salvation is less that that (and goodness knows we need deep, personal, exciting and transforming encounters with God through Jesus!), it’s that salvation is so much more than just that! We who know Jesus Christ are to be those who, as his disciples, get involved in God’s mission to bring about the Kingdom.

Thirdly, it’s about the Holy Spirit. The ascension of Jesus means that he is able to send the Holy Spirit to indwell all believers everywhere and in every age. The Holy Spirit is both the continuing presence of Jesus with us and the power by which we are enabled to take part in his mission. This is the same Spirit who empowered Jesus in his mission, and the Spirit of resurrection by which God raised Jesus from the dead. Part of celebration of the ascension is the waiting and hungering for the Spirit. Just as we have begun a new chapter in our church life, let us use this season in the Church calendar to begin a new phase in our experience of God and our commitment to God’s mission.

June 2005 – Evangelism for Everyone

What associations spring to mind when you hear that word? Hell and damnation sermons with lurid descriptions of fire, brimstone and torment? American tele-evangelists whose shady dealings over sex and money make sensational news stories? Denouncing other religions as satanic? Or perhaps evangelism belongs in your mind with “evangelicals” – the Christian “happy-clappy” sub-culture that is deeply suspicious of the faith of non-evangelical Christians? Or fundamentalists who insist that anyone who doesn’t take the Bible absolutely literally – particularly in matters like a six-day creation and the condemnation of homosexuals – doesn’t “really believe the Bible”?

Evangelism has never been a big thing in the URC. It doesn’t even appear in the Basis of Union. As a Church, we’ve tended to leave the emphasis on evangelism – understood as “getting converts” – to those churches and ministers who consider themselves “evangelical”, while most of the URC has preferred to prioritise “mission”, which has been associated with the “social gospel”. We’ve been uncomfortable with evangelism.

It is undeniable that evangelism has a deservedly chequered history in living memory. But then, so do most aspects of Church life and practice. And just because we’ve done something badly doesn’t mean that we ought to abandon it: we ought to be trying to get it right. That’s what the URC has decided to do. General Assembly 2003 passed a resolution that we ought to look at developing evangelism as a ministry and emphasis within the Church.

Significantly, the impetus has come from the Church’s engagement in mission. More and more churches are getting involved in their local communities, but then been asked to explain why they are bothering. The answer is because of their faith in Jesus Christ, but they are finding themselves ill-equipped to communicate that. This is a problem – and even more of one when we consider that proclaiming the gospel is the first of the Five Marks of Mission! In other words, a church that is failing to evangelise is failing in its mission and therefore failing to be the Church!

Now, if you’re thinking to yourself, “I don’t ‘do’ evangelism! I want nothing to do with that stuff about converting people to my way of thinking and believing!”, let me ask you: is Jesus worth following? That seems a different and vitally important question to me. I don’t want everyone to become like me. Nor do I want everyone to join the URC (though they could do worse!). But I do want people to discover for themselves the joy and Life I find in being a disciple of Jesus Christ! That is a gift I want to share with people.

I had a conversion experience a few days short of my 14th birthday. It wasn’t something I understood very well at all, but I knew that the intensely personal experience I had of God was something that was utterly real and life-changing. That is something that has grown and sustained me over the years through war, marriage break up, failure and betrayal. If there is one thing I am totally convinced of, it is that following Jesus Christ is the most worthwhile and liberating way that any human being can live. Jesus is where true Life is to be found. I have no hesitation in commending that to anyone. And I can’t help feeling that if we Christians don’t believe that, then we’re wasting our time, deluding ourselves and would be far better employed doing something else worthwhile with our lives.

That, for me, is the heart of evangelism. It is the Good News – that Jesus invites us to come and follow him. That is converting news – whether we experience it through a dramatic moment, or grow into it over years, and whatever sort of language and form of worship we use to express and live it.

Following Jesus is being incorporated into God’s mission to transform this world into the Kingdom of God. That is why it is about Life. It isn’t some private possession to be gloated over, but shared in word and deed. The Good News is God’s gift to the whole of created reality, not just to some small, ever-shrinking club called the Church. Evangelism isn’t about persuading people to join our club, but about sharing with them how God’s Life touches and frees them in Jesus Christ.

It’s passionate stuff! But then, the commandments to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength, and love our neighbour as ourselves, are pretty passionate. It doesn’t have to be noisy and emotional. It does have to touch us at the very deepest level of our beings. Whether we express it in “evangelical” or “Pentecostal” ways, or in very “English” and typically “URC” fashion, it ought to be about the things we are most deeply and fundamentally committed to – following Jesus Christ. The call to discipleship demands nothing less of us.

Evangelism is something we ought all to be involved with. It doesn’t take special training, or a special language, or theological knowledge. It takes a willingness to give of ourselves, and share our stories about what following Jesus means to us. We can all do it! We ought to be doing it! And we can start by being prepared to tell our stories to one another. I often get groups in the Centre to do that. They start off looking aghast at the prospect, but soon my problem is shutting them up in time for meals! It’s exciting stuff.

July 2005 – The Emerging Church

“To remain as we are is not an option”. These are the opening words of the Catch the Vision statement. Everybody is talking about the need for the Church to change. There is also recognition that the Church of the future will be radically different from the way we know it now. What isn’t clear is what the Church will look like. There are no obvious models to help us. That makes it very difficult to plan for change. Where has the crisis come from? Its roots aren’t so much in the Church itself as in the radical changes that have taken place in society within the last 50 years or so. In the current crisis about Church life today, one sign of hope is what is commonly being called “The Emerging Church”.

The contemporary world is a radically different one from the world in which most, if not all of us, grew up, came to faith, and practised that faith in the form of Church. It is important to understand the nature and significance of these changes because they have shaped us all – whether or not we are churchgoers. We no longer behave, relate and make choices as we used to. These changes are the root cause of the contemporary crisis in the Church and the sense of lostness that currently characterises Christian belonging. Incidentally, this crisis and lostness is one which we share with all “traditional” forms of society — political parties, football clubs, schools, the police and judiciary, charities and so on. What we all share in common is that the “old ways” (and I use inverted commas because “old” may as equally refer to “yesterday” as to the Middle Ages!) no longer command allegiance and enthusiasm, and the “old” answers no longer work. The nettle we need to grasp is not the dwindling numbers and aging congregations, but the fact that we are failing spectacularly to communicate the Gospel to huge swathes of our society. That failure is the single most important challenge to the Church. The Gospel is not being heard and received eagerly as Good News. Why not?

Customising Church

Most non-Church goers complain that Church doesn’t “fit” them. It doesn’t “suit” them or “work for them”. It may be the time of the service, or the style of music, or the fact that they don’t find a church service the most helpful way of encountering God. There is a great deal of belief “out there” — it’s just that people seem increasingly to find Church unhelpful as a way of expressing their faith. The Emerging Church has given up on finding a form of service that fits everyone. The task is to find ways of creating spaces for people to join in Church in ways they find attractive and helpful. And it’s working! Church is being “customised” to fit people, rather than asking people to become “like us”.

Henry Ford said that people could have any colour car they liked as long as it was black! Think how different things are today. You decide to buy a Ford Focus, for example, and then have all sorts of choices: the model, the colour, the engine size, the level of trim, the type of sound system… the idea is that your car is specially customised to fit you exactly. We live in a customised world. We like things to fit us and our individual choices. We like to go out to dinner and be able to choose whether to eat Greek, Italian, Indian, Chinese, Thai or traditional English food. We expect our dietary needs and requirements to be catered for. We expect people to recognise that we’re all different and that what works for someone else might not work for us. The Emerging Church recognises that most churches are a “one-size-fits-all” that doesn’t actually fit them. And they’re voting with their feet!

Imagine if you could come to a Sunday service at Carver, any time between 9am and 10.45, and had the choice of spending some time in prayer and meditation, sitting in the church prayer area with a picture to look at or some music to listen to. Or taking part in a Bible Study on the texts for the service, gathering round the piano and sing some favourite hymns, having a cup of coffee, drawing, painting or modelling, having a discussion on Make Poverty History and then going to the worship service as usual. You could do some or all of these. That’s something like Emerging Church, and our newly refurbished church makes that sort of thing possible.

Church on Sunday comes to mean something different from “just the Sunday service”. There may be only a few people in the service itself, but a far greater number who have “been to church”. Church takes on more of an aspect of a department store than the corner shop.

“Fragments of Tomorrow”

This is a wonderfully suggestive phrase I came across in Michael Moynagh’s Changing World, Changing Church in the context of the Emerging Church. It says several things to me. “Tomorrow” holds all the promise of a new day. The time is dawn. The sky is light, but the sun has not yet risen. Fragments of the landscape are bathed in the light of the new day. Most of it remains indistinct. This seems to me to be where we are, both as the Christian Church and as Carver. The air is fraught with promise, hope and expectation. The sun (Son?) is about to rise. The Church is emerging from the shadows of Yesterday and looking into the predawn light of God’s Tomorrow — a Tomorrow filled with God’s promise and Christ’s presence. So I’m hopeful and excited. Are you?

September 2005 – When Gospels Collide

My son Patrick is in Israel/Palestine as I write. He has spent the past week helping to run a summer camp for Palestinian children from what are termed “the forgotten villages of the West Bank”. The children are Christians, from the indigenous Palestinian Christian community. Many of these families can trace their lineage back to the Jerusalem church of the New Testament! Imagine that — having long-dead relatives who were among the followers of Jesus and members of the very first Christian Church. One of the aims of the camp was to take the children to Jerusalem and to the holy sites — Bethlehem, the Galilee, Nazareth and Jerusalem itself. They also went to the beach. This was a first-time experience for these children. Although they live within a few miles of Jerusalem, they have never been to the city — or anywhere else in their country. Their villages are sealed off. Travel is restricted. People there are becoming so impoverished as their land is expropriated or the wall cuts them off from their fields that they live as prisoners in their own towns. Patrick was telling me that they’d visit a site and read the Bible story there. It was a life-changing experience for the children as well as for Patrick.

Next summer, 25 of these same children are coming to the Windermere Centre as part of the Kids for Hope programme. This is a programme designed to expose Palestinian Christian children to a world beyond the borders of their villages and strife-torn lives. The hope is that they will grow up to make an active contribution to a new society and help to provide an alternative to the violence, hatred, suspicion and despair that imprisons the communities not only within their villages but within their minds too. Despair walls in their minds and paralyses the imagination, so that it is nearly impossible even to imagine a different, better way of creating society. The Christian leaders in “the land people call holy” (to quote the bishop-elect, Suheil Dawani) are desperate to see a younger generation learning the transforming Christian values of the Kingdom – peace, justice, forgiveness, transformation, resurrection.

For the rest of this month, Patrick will be carrying out research for his Theology dissertation. He is looking at the understandings of forgiveness in both Christianity and Islam, asking what common ground they have that can be used in conflict resolution, reconciliation and nation-building (you may remember that the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was primarily an initiative that came from the churches)

He visited Tantur, a theological college in Jerusalem, for a meeting with the Principal, who is an expert in Jewish-Christian relations. He discovered a deeply conservative Catholic who was outraged at Patrick’s dissertation proposal. For him, “the two most important things Jesus gave us were his body and his Mother”! These gifts are to be found and experienced in the Catholic Church. In other words, for the Principal, the whole aim of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was to bring about the Church. If the Gospel is the Good News, it is the good news that, through Jesus, we can become members of the Church and be saved from damnation. And that’s pretty much it!

That is a radically different understanding from the Gospel as the Good News that God is transforming the world into the Kingdom of God. It is different from Jesus’ announcement of good news to the poor, sight to the blind, health to the sick, freedom to the captives, justice for the forgotten and liberation to the oppressed, because it doesn’t touch on the real-life, day-to-day experiences of people who are trapped in an unending cycle of oppression, fear, violence, revenge and conflict — a cycle that engulfs not only the Palestinians but also the Israelis.

The differences between the two understandings of the Gospel go much deeper than it might seem at first. At rock bottom, the Gospel is the Good News about God. It is about who God is, what God intends for the world, and what sort of God it is that we have to do with in Jesus Christ. That means that it is also the Good News about the world. This world was made by God and for God. God has not abandoned it or condemned it. God’s intention is that this world will be a place which gives life and wholeness and happiness.

This is what we are saved for – a future with God and each other as God has always intended. And, having experienced that salvation here and now, we are sent into the world to proclaim the Good News by erecting signs of the Kingdom. When the sick are healed, the captives free, injustice done away with, the hungry fed, the naked clothed, the poor lifted up – then we make our preaching a reality! And when people see the Church, they ought to be able to see a “preview of coming attractions”! They ought to be able to look at the way the Church lives and acts in the world and say, “Ah! So this is what God is all about!”

The Principal writes and lectures about the Church. He has nothing to say about what the gospel means in Israel/Palestine today. He believes that Patrick is abandoning the Church (and therefore Christ) for a godless, political alternative. I keep hearing the words of two wonderful, godly men ringing in my ears. The first is the ironic voice of Desmond Tutu: “I am puzzled about which Bible people are reading when they say that religion and politics don’t mix!” And the second is David Jenkins, former bishop of Durham: “God is. He is as he is in Jesus. Therefore there is hope!” Amen, David!

October 2005 – God is still speaking

I had four days in the United States I the middle of September, courtesy of the United Reformed Churcht as part of a delegation of four from the URC to visit the United Church of Christ (UCC) in Cleveland, Ohio. We had gone over to find out more about the UCC’s God is Still Speaking campaign. A church very like our own, the UCC has faced the same issues of dwindling numbers, aging congregations and an inability to make meaningful connections with people in their local communities who have nothing to do with church and faith in Jesus Christ. The UCC had run a $3 million advertising campaign on the theme of God is Still Speaking. It had gone out on national television. As a result, they have had over 5 million hits on their website, and hundreds of thousands of enquiries from people asking where their nearest UCC church was. A common response was, “If church is really like this, I want to give it a try!”

That was pretty much all I knew before going. I had far more questions and worries than I did facts. Is advertising an appropriate medium for churches? Are we here to “sell” church? If we’re going to advertise, shouldn’t we be “advertising” the Gospel rather than church? Doesn’t advertising buy straight into the whole consumerist culture, trying to persuade people that church (or even the Gospel) is just one more “thing” they need in their overstocked lives?

We were astonished, challenged, delighted and inspired by what we found. The UCC had done some proper market research through professional channels, using focus groups. What they had found surprised them. Vast numbers of people were not “turned off” by God. The opposite was the case. People were, however, not only turned off by church but very, very angry with the Christian Church. What the UCC discovered was that huge numbers of people felt disowned and rejected by the Church. They found the Christian Church to be overwhelmingly white, middle class, respectable, heterosexual, suspicious of “foreigners”, conservative, cerebral, judgemental, unwelcoming, demanding, disapproving, conformist … the list went on. The point is that people who didn’t fit the mould found themselves rejected. They felt that there was no place for them. The UCC picked up on a theological point: many people felt betrayed by the fact that they had been baptised and accepted into the Church as infants, only to be rejected when they grew up and “became themselves”.

The UCC ran a 3-second advert on national television called The Bouncers (you can watch it by going to stillspeaking.com and finding it on the home page). It showed a Sunday morning queue for a typical church (yes I know – we don’t usually have people queuing for church!). Two club bouncers guarded the entrance. They were letting in the usual suspects – the typically “church folk” – and turning away others: a gay couple, a single parent, black and Hispanic people. Cut to a black screen, and the words appear: “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we!” Then shots of UCC communities, and the voiceover: “No matter who you are, and where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here!” Then cut to the logo: God is Still Speaking.

That’s the heart of the campaign: you won’t be turned away because Jesus didn’t turn people away. You’re on a journey, just as we are – come and join us! And people are responding in their tens and hundreds of thousands.

Isn’t it ironic that something as simple as a message of unrestricted welcome should be experienced as Good News? We heard stories of people who had heard the message and decided not to commit suicide after all. Other lives have been transformed in different but no less significant ways. Their presence has been transforming the lives of the churches, too. The churches are discovering new ways of worship and communal life that are nourishing and exciting and that genuinely communicate with people of different ages, backgrounds and circumstances. Young people are becoming involved in church life. The churches are becoming witnesses in their local communities, but are also finding themselves revitalised as a result.

One advantage that the UCC has over our situation was absolutely clear to us. They have resolved the sexuality issue. We could not, as a church, run the same sort of campaign because we are not able as a church to say that gay and lesbian people are unequivocally welcome. It was moving to hear just how powerful a message it had been to gay Christians to be told that they could come as they are and find the sort of welcome in church that Jesus gave to the outcasts of his day. Those stories made us think! They are the sort of testimonies that we need to listen to when the URC reopens the sexuality debate.

What the visit did was to challenge us about our own sense of identity. What is it that we can say about ourselves and our understanding of the Gospel that no one else can say? Or at least, what would we choose to emphasise about our understanding of God and God’s ways that is distinctive and which will sound like Good News? This is where the visit linked for us into the Catch the Vision process. Whatever we decide about structures and church life, we need constantly to be asking ourselves what it is that we want to proclaim as Good News for a society that experiences the Christian Church as the greatest obstacle to faith in God.

November 2005 – Forgiveness

A minister on a pre-retirement course the Centre made an interesting remark to me after evening prayers. He said, “I notice that you always seem to lay great stress on confession and forgiveness in your prayers. They’re a prominent part of the liturgy. Why is that?” He was right, and it was interesting to have that brought to my attention, because it’s something I do automatically rather than consciously. It is also a subject that has featured prominently in the lectionary readings lately. It led to a fascinating discussion among us all about what forgiveness is for and why it’s important.

Forgiveness is at the heart of our Christian faith because it is intimately connected to grace. Grace (the word literally means “mercy-love”) means that we get from God all that God longs to give us, despite our refusal and rejection of God. What is the “problem” between human beings and God? The theological shorthand is “sin”. Sin is serious because it destroys the relationship that God intends to have with the world. It’s nothing as trivial as “We’ve broken God’s rules and now God is angry with us and needs to punish us”. That is how we often see God – as an angry Victorian parent whose authority has been flouted by a naughty child, or a headmaster whose rules have been broken (note that it’s always an angry male in the picture!).

If we want to understand how sin “works”, and just how serious it is, we need to look at the Parable of the Prodigal. When the prodigal asks for his share of the inheritance, he is effectively saying, “I wish you were dead and from now on I’m going to live as though you were. I no longer want to be your son, or regard you as my father. So let’s act as though you were dead: give me my share of everything, and I am off. You’ll never see me again!” No wonder he later decides to say to himself, “Father, I am no longer worthy to be called your son!” Talk about understatement! But this is the heart of sin – the rejection of God’s love and parenthood and the determination to make our lives, our relationships, our politics, our economics, our communities and our world without reference to God. We see its symptoms and effects not just in the bad things we do, but in the world we have created for ourselves and others: in poverty, starvation, oppression, war and injustice.

God’s grace is God’s loving refusal to let that be the last word on the subject! Not only is this the message of the parable, but of Luke’s account of the crucifixion. In Luke’s gospel, the crowd is given every opportunity to turn back from its determination to murder Jesus. Yet in the end, when Pilate asks what he should do with Jesus, they call out, “Crucify him!” In other words, they say, “God, let’s get this clear once and for all! There is no room for you in our world! Get out of here and don’t come back!” What a terrible and terrifying thing to have done! How could we cut ourselves off from God willingly and so finally, without any hope of changing things? Yet it is in Luke’s gospel that we hear the crucified, bleeding Jesus say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing”. It is forgiveness that makes resurrection possible – so that our last word on the subject is not allowed to stand as God’s Last Word.

Forgiveness isn’t about “getting back into God’s good books”. If crucifying Jesus wasn’t enough to turn God’s back on us forever, then there’s nothing we can do to cut us off from God’s love. That’s what Paul says in those glorious verses at the end of Romans chapter 8. What confession and forgiveness does is to restore relationship. It enables us to “come home”, like the prodigal. It’s we who cut ourselves us from God, not the other way round. It’s all about coming back to the God who longs to embrace us and throw a party for lost children who have come back home. It’s about allowing God to give us all the things we most need – love, care, healing, freedom, comfort, peace, joy, the Holy Spirit – and to take our place in the household of God.

That creates the possibility of putting other things right. Broken relationships between us need to be mended. That is why part of confession is also about forgiving others who have hurt us. This is no light matter! We human beings do terrible things to one another. But, as those who have been forgiven much, we are asked to be gracious in return. The moment of confession in the service is the time for letting go all the justified grievances, grudges and records of wrong we hold.

Then, as forgiven people, we are sent out to transform the world in grace. Resurrection is about the birth of life where all hope of its possibility has died. It’s about making a new world of justice and peace. It’s about ending poverty and oppression. It’s about practical caring and refusing to treat anyone as less human or worthwhile or important than we do ourselves or our families. It’s about making this world the place that God intends – doing God’s will on earth as in heaven. That’s why it’s so important.

December 2005 – Immanuel – God with us

I’ve had quite a luxurious week at the Centre because, rather than having sole responsibility for leading, I’ve been able to participate in two stunning courses: The Heart of Christianity and Rock & Redemption. I’ve been able to take in far more than I’ve given out and I feel refreshed and encouraged in my faith. One of the things that has come out time and time again in different ways has been how complex, difficult, bruising and sometimes downright dark life can be. And our Christian faith – our Christmas faith – is that God isn’t put off by this, but comes in Jesus to live among us and share the darkness. Small wonder that one of the major emphases at Christmas is that Jesus is the Light of the World – the Light that shines in the darkness and which the darkness is never able to extinguish. I’m a sucker for Christmas lights. I love seeing the lights in the streets on the dark evenings, and the lights in the shop windows. I love the candles, and best of all, the moment when we’ve finished decorating the tree and we switch the lights on. That’s when I feel that Christmas has finally arrived!

It’s incredibly easy though, to see it all through a sort of sentimental mist. That’s when Christmas becomes a brief “time out” from real life. That’s why Santa often seems as “real” and as relevant as Jesus at Christmas. One of the shocking things about the Tsunami was that it hit right in the middle of the Christmas period. It rudely interrupted our “holiday from reality”. We couldn’t ignore the fact that this world can be deadly and tragic.

The point, of course, is that we shouldn’t be trying to ignore it! When we do, we miss the whole point – the whole wondrous miracle – of Christmas which s that God comes to be with us in Jesus where we are. Christmas isn’t some sort of protection against the darkness of our world.

Past generations were far better than we are at coping with these things. They didn’t have the high expectations that we do of life. That’s the trouble with our hi-tech, high-income, high-entertainment society. We swallow the myth that we ought to be able to screen out all the horrible things. We expect life to be pain-free. So we try to ignore them and push them away. One result is that we’re lost and devastated when it all goes pear-shaped. Another is that we miss out on the miracle of Christmas.

We’re in Advent now. Advent is a time of waiting: waiting for God to come and be with us. Advent is a dark time. Look at the great Advent hymn, “O come, O come Immanuel”. It’s a song of exile – of mourning, captivity, gloom, dark shadows and misery. It recalls Israel in exile, far from home and apparently hopeless. In the Old Testament, exile also has echoes of captivity and slavery in Egypt. Yet it is precisely the darkness and yearning that is a sign of hope and promise, because God is the God of Exodus – the God who comes to save and create new beginnings. The more hopeless things are, the more reason there is to trust that God is about to act, because God hears the cries of the people. In the Old Testament, the return from exile is presented as a new Exodus. Jesus presents his own message of the kingdom of God as the promise of a new Exodus.

Jesus, Luke tells us, is Immanuel – God with us. And when God came in Jesus, the religious leaders of the day couldn’t cope. They had a picture of God shut up in the Holy of Holies in the temple, safe and free from contamination. God wasn’t supposed to get involved in the mess and darkness of life because God was supposed to be holy – set apart from all that. Jesus shows us a different God. God is holy, but Jesus teaches us that to be holy means to be filled with compassion and love. So holiness means that Jesus comes not to judge and condemn, but to seek and save. He is the Good Shepherd, looking for the lost sheep. There are no “no go” areas for God!

How’s that for a Christmas present from God? It means that we don’t have to pretend that things are better than they are. We don’t have to concentrate just on “happy” things and good things. We needn’t be frightened to admit to ourselves and to God how much pain and darkness there is in our world and our lives. That is what Advent is about – waiting in the darkness, but trusting that it is the darkest part of the night, just before the dawn. That’s what Gina’s poem reminds us. Because it is when we “do Advent” properly that Christmas takes on its proper meaning and joy: the Christ Light is coming into the world. Immanuel is being born among us!

February 2006 – “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see!”

I found myself being struck again by the way in which St Paul (among others) writes about Christian faith as something precious and wonderful, amazing and exciting. He writes about it as a gift. Now, Paul is a writer who is quite capable of exaggeration, irony, sarcasm, hyperbole and smut if it suits his purpose. But he’s quite serious and clearly writing from his own experience when he talks about Christian faith as though it is the most marvellous and surprising thing anyone could possibly be given.

Is that the way we instinctively think about our own faith? I suspect that it isn’t. Perhaps it’s more like breathing – something we do naturally, without reflection. Or eating – something we do automatically, and occasionally make into something special. But for many of us, I suspect, faith is something that we’ve grown up with and doesn’t appear all that remarkable – part of the fabric of our universe.

That’s not anything bad. Few of us have had the particular life experience that brought Paul to the place he reached. Not many of us started out on a crusade to eradicate the Christian Church, only to be confronted by the realisation that the Jesus whom he was opposing was, in fact, God’s Son and Messiah! That sort of experience is bound to crank up the spiritual temperature a little. So if Paul appears a little fanatically obsessive and OTT, well, that’s understandable. He would react that way, wouldn’t he? We are different – and what’s more, we’re British! So, while we might sing Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, the word “wretch” is not a word we’d automatically use in self-description. Nor would we automatically plump for images of once being lost and blind, as the former slave trader John Henry Newton did in his great hymn.

But if our Christian faith seems unremarkable to us, we ought not to let ourselves off the hook so quickly, but ask why. Part of the answer is that we have inherited the wrong emphasis about what Christian faith actually is. I imagine that most of us, when faced with the question, “Tell me about your faith”, would instinctively start reciting the things we believe – or suppose that we ought to believe.

The problem is that we have inherited a theological tradition and spirituality that talks about faith primarily in terms of thinking. It’s about the “facts” of faith – the Trinity, Jesus as a union of the divine and the human, the Holy Spirit, baptism, communion, church order (things like elders vs bishops, ministers vs priests) and so on. And soon we find ourselves in the “problem areas” of subjects like the virgin birth, bodily resurrection, miracles, demons, whether prayer actually does anything, and how we can make sense of these difficulties in a 21st century world. To put it somewhat crudely, faith appears to be something like “believing six difficult things before breakfast”.

Another problem is that we automatically equate Christian faith with belonging to a church. “Christians are people who go to church”. Then faith becomes exactly the same thing as spending Sunday mornings in church, singing hymns, being on committees, being involved in church functions, supporting worthy causes like Christian Aid, attending Church Meeting, maybe being elected an elder, looking after people and the like. It is extremely church-centred. The concentration on church-related activities has a further result: our primary networks of friendship are inevitably with church people. Our most important, day-to-day contacts and activities are with the group of people with whom we worship and do all the other things that make up our week. Christian faith then appears to be defined by our involvement in a particular set of church-related activities and church people.

There are serious issues here. Christian faith is fundamentally outward-looking. Church-related activities are really important, but so are the kingdom-related things we do in the wider world. Deep relationships within the Christian community are really important, but so is the networks of relationships outside that community. It is the outward-focussed activities and relationships that make Christian faith remarkable: if it wasn’t for faith, we wouldn’t be involved with them.

One of the things we forget is that a Church is the community of faith. It isn’t a collection of like-minded friends, however deep our friendships are. It’s a community of people who share a common faith, rather than background, nationality, education, ethnic origin and the like. The cement that holds us together is the commitment we make to one another to journey together in our Christian discipleship. The Church is a covenant community because of that commitment. One of the signs that the Church is being what it ought to be is the commitment we have to every member of the community, rather than to a small group within it. That, says Paul, is the most obvious sign of the Holy Spirit’s reality and presence.

Christian faith is something different from a list of things to believe or church involvement. It is about following Jesus Christ. It is a way of life – the way of Jesus. It isn’t “natural” – in many ways, it’s a call to live by very different standards and priorities. It is a call to take on the burdens of the world and its people, and to go out and make a difference for Christ’s sake. It’s about opening our doors and our hearts to all sorts of people – people we wouldn’t “normally” associate with – and throwing in our own Christian future with them. It’s about discovering how Christ meets us in them.

This is when we discover the Holy Spirit. Christian faith is about experiencing the very life of God – the difference that God makes through the Holy Spirit. It is about a vital, exciting and life-changing encounter with God through Jesus Christ. And, in discovering that, we also hear the call to go out in the power of the Spirit to change this world and make it part of the kingdom of God. That is something that requires devotion, energy, commitment, time, courage and prayer. But it’s also when we discover faith as something vital and marvellously unexpected – a gift from God that makes the sort of difference between lost and found, being blind and seeing!

March 2006 – The shadow of the cross

Lent is lived in the shadow of the cross. It is preparation for Easter. The tradition of Lenten observance isn’t a very big one in Reformed spirituality – at least, not in modern Reformed practice! Our typical response is, “So what are you giving up for Lent?” The answer’s usually chocolate, or alcohol, or pudding, or smoking – invariably something that has to do with self-improvement. I gave up chocolate for one Lent, banking on accomplishing two things: the first was losing some of the excess weight I’d put on as a protective layer during winter, and the second was the unbelievable pleasure I knew I’d feel when, on Easter Sunday morning, I put that first piece of post-Lent chocolate into my mouth and rediscovered chocolate as though for the first time! It wasn’t about being changed by the experience – just giving something up for a while, and resuming normal service as soon as possible.

Lent is actually something far deeper. It is about transformation. In other words, the intention is that we arrive at Easter very much not the same as when we began the journey. Normal service can’t be resumed because it isn’t normal any more – just as Jesus was changed by Easter.

The idea behind Lent is entering into the Easter story. It comes from the gospel themselves. Both Mark (this year’s lectionary gospel) and Luke quite deliberately frame their stories of Jesus around journeys. It is clear that Mark uses “journey” as a narrative device. His aim isn’t to give us a “diary of Jesus’ movements”, but to emphasise the fact that all that Jesus is doing is moving towards a very particular climax. The idea of journey – moving purposely from somewhere towards somewhere else – helps to make this point more clearly. The first half of Mark’s gospel is set around a series of journeys Jesus takes in the Galilee. The centre is his home in Capernaum. Then, in the second half, the scene shifts abruptly and he begins a new journey. The key shift comes with the first of the passion predictions. This is a journey towards Jerusalem – to suffering and death. In other words, the shadow of the cross begins to loom very early on in the story.

I find the idea of Christian faith as a journey profoundly helpful. For one thing, it gets us out of the silly trap of thinking about faith as “a series of things to believe” – spiritual “facts”, if you like – and into the proper sense of faith as a way of life. Secondly, journeys take time. We live in a very “instant” world. We like things now. We are like people who want to rush from one place to the other as fast as possible – like tourists instead of disciples. Tourists fly through, taking holiday snaps so that they can show their friends and remind themselves about their “break from normal reality”. Disciples share the journey – the meals, the conversations, the arguments, the friendship, the hardships, the disasters and the high spots. They’re not “passing through” – they’re sharing Jesus’ life. Tourists want only to get to their destination as quickly as possible, whereas for disciples, it is the journey that matters just as much as arriving. The journey changes what arriving at the destination actually means, because they arrive as changed people.

I remember a very short journey that changed how I reacted to arriving. It took half a day. I wanted to visit the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem. But instead of going there by taxi, or by the most direct route, I walked through the city – through the Palestinian quarter. I diverted here and there. I walked along the Via Dolorosa. I stopped in the market – one of the many – where the goods on sale were exotic rather than expensive. I walked among the ragged children, and through streets where sanitation was clearly hit-and-miss. The buildings were beautiful, but decaying. It was a poor city – a third world city. Suddenly, I passed through an alleyway and found myself in the Jewish quarter. There wasn’t a sign saying so, but I knew it straight way because of the opulence. It was beautifully tended and dripped with wealth. Huge amounts of money were clearly spent on the upkeep of the area. And this staggered me – because the residents all paid the same tax, Jewish and Palestinian! Yet the disparity of public spending was shocking and visible – because I’d journeyed there. I found I couldn’t admire or appreciate anything. I’d been changed by the journey.

So a Lenten journey is about immersing ourselves in the story of Jesus’ mission in the shadow of the cross. It helps us to view our world through his eyes. It shows us what needs changing, who needs caring for, where our priorities should be, who and what needs confronting and opposing, and what the cost is. It also helps us to take stock of who and where we are. As they begin the journey to Jerusalem, Jesus asks his disciples if they really want to follow if this is what it’s all about. It’s a time to look again at our own faith and commitment and priorities. It’s a time to confront our own lack of faith and absence of passion, as well as our resistance to the way of the cross. That’s not meant to put us off! Ironically, it ought to encourage us – because we’re no different from the disciples, and look what they went on to do and become!

But mostly, it’s about experiencing the truth of what Jesus said when he talked about losing our lives in order to find them. That’s when we discover the reality of the Holy Spirit and the joy and fulfilment that following Jesus brings. But it’s only there for Lenten disciples – not Easter tourists!

April 2006 – Easter in Ordinary

This is the title of a book by Nicholas Lash, a former professor of mine in Cambridge. I bought it, thinking it would be a series of essays about the events of Easter but it wasn’t. It was about life, language, politics and all sorts of things – but nothing on the Easter texts! It took me a long time to realise the significance of the title. Lash was talking about the way in which Easter “appears” and is made real in daily life. That it took me so long to “catch on” is an indicator of how we often treat Easter – like Christmas – as an “event” rather than as a way of life. It’s the great Christian festival, which we focus on when the shops are full of Easter eggs and soppy cards with fluffy little chicks. It’s a special time of the year, rather than the way in which all of time ought to be lived.

Easter – crucifixion and resurrection – didn’t just “happen” to Jesus. It “happened” to the world. In the long story of God’s love affair with creation, Easter is a new beginning – the point at which God “changes the rules” forever. Resurrection doesn’t just mean “bringing back to life” as though it was a rather spectacular act of resuscitation. It means re-creation. The crucifixion of Jesus is more than an act of judicial and religious murder. It is the end of everything, for Jesus is more than a man – he is God in human flesh, the maker of all that is and the source of all Life (John 1: 2-4). Killing Jesus was the last chapter in the story of how human beings are determined not to give God any space in our world. It means that we chose, once and for all, to live life without God. It was our last word on the subject.

But God wouldn’t leave it like that. Just as in the creation story in Genesis, God creates “out of nothing”, so at Easter, God brings new life out of the ashes of all that has gone before. When we have said our final “No!” to God, God doesn’t withdraw and leave us to it – forsake and condemn us – but, in love, speaks a new word of creation all over again. It is the great Last Word of Life and Love – resurrection!

Easter tells us what sort of God we have to do with. This is a God who refuses to stop loving, refuses to condemn, refuses to be shut out. This is a God who, in grace and mercy, doesn’t leave us to the consequences of our actions, but carries on wooing us, forgiving us and offering Life. And when we have done our utmost to get God so offended and outraged that God goes away – by killing God’s only, beloved Son – God says, “Sorry – you’ll have to better than that!”

Yet all of this is just so much theology and theory unless it actually makes a difference to life. God’s purpose in sending Jesus was to save the world (John 3:17). And saving means transforming it from a place of suffering, despair, loneliness and death into the place God always intended it to be. This is what Jesus called, “The kingdom of God”. He talked about it, and told his disciples to pray that it would come. And when they wondered what it was they were actually praying for, Jesus explained: “Your will be done here on earth”.

So Easter begins to be real when the disciples of Jesus live and act in the world as he did. Do you remember the awful murder of Stephen Lawrence – the young man who was murdered for sport by the five white men (who were never prosecuted) simply because he was black? One of the things that didn’t get reported was that the dying Stephen was found by two Catholic women who had just left a prayer meeting. One ran for help. The other cradled Stephen, and as he was dying, kept saying to him over and over again, “You are loved! You are loved! You are loved!” Those were the last words he heard. That was Easter in ordinary.

When the communities of coffee growers are transformed by the Fair Trade subsidy that is made possible because you and I and others buy fairly traded goods, that is Easter in ordinary. When lonely people who are shut in are visited and reminded that they are remembered and cared for, that is Easter in ordinary. When people who have been offended and wronged say genuinely and freely, “I forgive you!” and relationships are restored, that, too, is Easter in ordinary.

Of course, it isn’t only Christians who make Easter a reality. When people gave generously to help the victims of the Tsunami, or marched to Make Poverty History and donated to Live 8, when Mandela was released and Apartheid ended, all those were instances of Easter in ordinary.

Easter “happens” in tiny, tiny things, as well as the big things. Jesus called those little things, “mustard seeds”, and promised that they would have an effect far out of proportion of their size. That is because they are part of God’s new creation, and share in the re-creative power of resurrection.

That ought to encourage us. Looking at the sheer scale of what needs changing in our world is daunting. In fact, it’s often impossible to believe that anything significant can be done. But Easter reminds us that God is the God who needs only mustard seeds, and who can bring something out of nothing. We who are disciples of Jesus are actually living proof of that reality. And God sends us out into the world to make Easter “happen”. In “ordinary”.

May 2006 – God of Surprises

My Lenten and Easter journey this year has been made through reading the lectionary texts each week and commenting on them on my blog. I’m frequently asked how I find the time to it, but the honest answer is, it’s very self-indulgent! I’m sure I get far more out of doing it than I ever manage to put into it. There’s something about reading through the gospel accounts systematically that draws us into the Jesus story in a powerful way. I say that as someone who has known these stories well and studied them closely over many years. Yet this is somehow different. It’s as though we usually know our bibles as "sound bites" – isolated stories, rather than as a complete narrative that builds and hangs together.

I was struck by that very forcibly reading the early chapters of Mark (this year’s lectionary gospel). He’s a great storyteller! It’s amazing how rapidly and ominously the tension builds. In the midst of some of the happiest, most exciting and "successful" incidents in Jesus’ ministry, there’s an underlying threat – a dark cloud that gathers shape and substance as the gospel unfolds. It comes to a climax in Jerusalem that first Easter.

I suppose that if I was asked what calling the bible "the Word of God" meant, I’d have to say it has to do with the experience of reading it. When we read it, we’re drawn into a new world. It’s not like reading CS Lewis and being drawn into Narnia: we stay in this world, but it changes. It changes because suddenly God is afoot in it. That is what the people who wrote it believed they had experienced. It is why they write – so that their readers can share that experience of a world in which it is possible to encounter God. The bottom line for me is that I read the bible and meet God. And because of that, I find myself changed and the way in which I look at the world changed too.

I’m a sucker for tidy endings. That’s what the "conclusion" to a story is all about, isn’t it? It’s like the final scene in an Agatha Christie novel, where Poirot gathers all the characters in the room and reveals the answers to all the mysteries that have unfolded during the course of the story. The puzzles are solved, the murderer revealed, justice is done and everything is neatly wrapped up and tidied away. No more mysteries. The world is as it should be. Close book.

That’s not what happens when we read the bible. When I say, "I’m changed", I don’t mean that everything becomes clear in a once-and-for-all blinding flash of light. I can’t close the bible like I can a novel and put it back on the shelf to gather dust. The bible isn’t about tidy endings – it’s about constantly new beginnings. But that’s not to say that it’s about constantly going back to the beginning and starting again. It’s more like having to refer constantly to a map on a journey and plot a new course. When we talk about the life of faith, we mean something like a lifetime of faith. Faith is about sharing the whole journey of life with God. God, we discover, isn’t a comfortable companion who walks beside us in companionable silence. The more we get to know God, the more shocking, disturbing, surprising and delightful we find God to be. No wonder Gerard W Hughes entitled his book, God of Surprises!

This Easter, I found myself never more surprised than by resurrection. It’s very disturbing – not least, because it should never have happened! I don’t mean I’m surprised by the notion that God should bring a dead person back to life (despite the fact that it tears a rather large hole in the fabric of the universe as we know it). It’s what the resurrection of Jesus means for the world that makes it so shocking. It means that the world is not as it "should" be. God didn’t raise Jesus to give Jesus a second chance! God raised him to give us a second chance – and we don’t deserve one. We live in a world of deserts and consequences. That’s how we operate. It’s the basis of the rule of law. So when God comes among us in Jesus, offering us the gift of the kingdom, and we reject it – when we refuse to share our world and lives with God – then God ought to go away and leave us to it, right? And if God does to us whatever it is seriously powerful and angry deities do to people who get up their noses and spit in their faces, well, we can’t complain. Right?

So what does God do? God says, "Okay, you lot. You may have given up on me, but I’m not giving up on you. Let’s change the rules completely and forever. We’re playing a new game. It’s called ‘Love and forgiveness’. The rules are simple: you do whatever you can think of, and tell me to go away as often as you like, and I’ll carry on loving you and forgiving you!" But there’s more. God doesn’t only break the rules; God also breaks all the chains that keep us prisoners in darkness, despair and death. There are no "no-go" areas for God any more.

Resurrection is exciting, but it’s also very scary. In Mark’s gospel, the women at the tomb don’t rejoice – they flee in mute terror and refuse to say a word about what they’ve seen! Death and despair is not a happy ending, but it’s at least a tidy one! Beginning a new journey into completely uncharted territory can be so daunting that it makes life among the tombs an attractive option. Stick with what you know! Resurrection calls us to a new journey, with only the promise of God’s companionship as a guarantee. But it’s a journey into Life, full of the Spirit. It’s where God is and where God is going. And God is offering to take our hand …

June 2006 – In the Spirit of things…

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Holy Spirit? Or what about a different question: what’s the first thing you feel when you think about the Spirit? For me, my fist introduction to things to do with the Spirit was the controversy that was raging in the churches during the early 70s over the charismatic movement. I was a teenager, living in the small border city of Umtali (Mutare). I grew up in the Presbyterian Church and taught in the Sunday School. I’d had a conversion experience shortly before my 14th birthday at a Baptist Youth Team event organised by Scripture Union. By 15, I was running our local Baptist YP (Young People) group. It was incredibly successful – principally, I now realise, because there wasn’t much else going on in town! We regularly had 70+ people attending. And because it was the place to be, we had the young people from other churches coming to the Friday night meetings, the Saturday socials and the Sunday Bible Studies. More and more of us were discovering the excitement and wonder of a personal, real and living experience of God in Jesus Christ. That is something that has never left me.

Some of the young people were from the local Pentecostal Church. They had a very different emphasis to their faith. It all seemed to centre on the Holy Spirit – who didn’t figure very largely in my evangelical Baptist-shaped piety at all! It wasn’t that I was suspicious or anti – I had just never come across it before. I remember my first service at that church – I think I must have sat there with my mouth open all the way through! The big thing was speaking in tongues. I was fascinated, but thought “Well, that’s interesting – not my cup of tea, but it’s certainly different!”

The trouble was, they all seemed to think it ought to be my cup of tea! In fact, if I didn’t speak in tongues, it seemed that I ought to be considering carefully whether I was actually a Christian at all! Then the charismatic movement “hit” our local Anglican Church. Suddenly, it wasn’t just the Pentecostals who were talking about the Spirit – and talking in the Spirit! Everyone seemed to be! Everyone, that is, except me. So began a long and agonising search for “baptism in the Spirit”. It wasn’t that I was desperately worried about it – it was agonising because of the fear that I was missing out on something that was clearly wonderful and important to other people. I saw Presbyterians and Anglicans who had attended church for years experiencing a radical transformation of their faith and lives. They were bubbling over with excitement and joy. And it was real.

Despite those years of active seeking that sort of experience for myself, I have never spoken in tongues, or interpreted them. I love exuberant, dancing, hand-clapping Black African worship, and join in enthusiastically and naturally. But I always feel embarrassed and uncomfortable in white charismatic worship settings. Not anti – just uncomfortable. It isn’t “me”. I’ve learned to be comfortable with who I am, and, at the same time, recognise both the reality and importance of that experience of the Spirit for others. I also happen to think that the United Reformed Church could do with a healthy dose of Spirit-led renewal! Heaven knows some of our churches desperately need to discover joy in a living faith, and a deep sense that it all matters! I don’t much care what form that experience takes (the Church is in real trouble if everyone suddenly became like me!) because, if there’s one thing that’s clear about the Spirit, it’s that she’s unpredictable. Oh – let me add, rich and varied and often totally outrageous! Praying for the Spirit to be let loose ought to carry a health warning. The Spirit doesn’t “do” middle-class, English respectability too well!

One thing I’ve come to learn, however, is that the biblical emphasis on the Spirit is not on personal experience. That’s not to say that’s unimportant, unreal or irrelevant; it’s rather a question of emphasis. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of mission, who came upon Jesus at his baptism and empowered him to live the life he did. We can’t love consistently and self-sacrificially without the Spirit. We can’t go on and on and on forgiving without the Spirit. We cannot truly embrace the kind of people we’d instinctively avoid and disapprove of without the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is also the Spirit of resurrection. It is the power by which God raised Jesus from the dead. That means that genuine transformation of individuals and of this world into the kingdom is not possible without the Spirit. To “walk in the Spirit” isn’t about living on some higher plane where we don’t have to engage with the trials of human living and the challenge of our 21st century world. Quite the opposite! The Spirit is the very Life of God that God intends to flow through all people and all of creation. We are all baptised in the Spirit – because God intends us to be agents of transformation in the world.

But transforming the world can be an earnest and discouraging calling. One of the greatest gifts that God gives is joy. Sheer, extravagant, overflowing joy in our experience of the Living God and the gift of being alive in the world. That’s something we tend to lose sight of in the Reformed faith. We’re better at good words and worthy actions than we are at celebrating faith. Pentecost is a reminder of that whole other dimension of life in the Spirit – renewal, enthusiasm and vigorous faith. That is part of what God wants to give us. It’s something to reach out for this Pentecost with eager hands – but not without having taken a deep, deep breath first …

Lawrence Moore

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