Monday, April 12, 2021

So, what is the normal church that we are returning to?

 Our church began working its way through the early chapters of Acts earlier this year and yesterday arrived at 2:42-47. It was my turn to preach, so here's what I said (pretty much).

I'd be interested in the thoughts of others

There’s lots of excited talk at the moment about things returning to normal. Tomorrow we can go and spend a small fortune sitting freezing in a pub garden with six friends and queue for a haircut and shop for non-essentials. Yay!

And churches are wondering what this means for us. A return to singing - yay! (again or not - depending on your taste!!), gathering to worship and learn together in silent rows, standing in the lounge having coffee with people we know and those we’d like to.

But is that what is normal for church? If it is, then it’s little wonder that so few people join in with us - maybe 5% of London’s population gathers in a church on any given Sunday; fewer on Zoom over the past twelve months.

The only time I met Prince Philip was at the opening of a youth centre in Bromley. I introduced myself as a baptist minister in the town and he remarked, ‘Oh, are there any Christians in Bromley?’ Legendary wit? Astute social commentary? Not sure…

But this ‘normal’ of church life is hardly a description of the revolution we started to look at when we opened Acts together earlier this year. Today we get to the place where Luke gives us the first of two summaries of ‘normal’ church life (the other is in 4:32-37) 

Here it is,

The whole company of believers stuck together and held all things in common. They were selling their goods and belongings, and dividing them among the group on the basis of ones need. Knit together with singleness of purpose they gathered as the church every day, and as they ate the common meal from house to house they had a joyful and humble spirit, praising God and showing overflowing kindness toward everybody. And day by day, as people were being rescued, the Lord would add them to the fellowship. 

That’s different to the version you’re looking at because it is from Clarence Jordans Cotton Patch translation of Acts 2:44-47.

Jordan was a remarkable Baptist preacher from the deep south of the USA that most of us have never heard of. Trained in agriculture and the New Testament (he had a PhD in NT Greek - and those aren’t easy come by!), he and a few friends set up Koinonia Farm in 1942 in Americus, Georgia.

Based on a radical call to discipleship, Jordan set out to create a community that was committed to racial integration, nonviolence, a simplified lifestyle, sharing of possessions, and stewardship of the land and its resources.

This was very Acts 2 but in the Jim Crow states of the USA in the 1940s, it was also dangerously out there.

But Jordan believed the resurrection changed everything. This was the promised revolution that had erupted into the world from the hand and heart of God. For him, 

The resurrection of Jesus was simply God's unwillingness to take our 'no' for an answer. He raised Jesus, not as an invitation to us to come to heaven when we die, but as a declaration that he himself has now established permanent, eternal residence here on earth. He is standing beside us, strengthening us in this life. The good news of the resurrection of Jesus is not that we shall die and go home to be with him, but that he has risen and comes home with us, bringing all his hungry, naked, thirsty, sick prisoner brothers with him.


The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.


Hence Acts 2 being a manifesto for and description of this revolution. Let's focus on four features of this normal church life Luke draws our attention to:

firstly, shared space being together requires open homes - and we find that all through the book. The revolution has come home (2:46; 5:42; 11:3; 16:15, 31-34; 18:7, 8; 20:7-12, 20)

As Christians spread out, homes were their base; the place where they lived and worked was the place where the revolution took root and spread to others. Most Christians would have met in workshops where they plied their trade as artisans of one sort or another.

This had two implications. The first is hospitality which is essential to forming community. It’s why Paul says a vital qualification for being a leader in this movement is that they were hospitable (Ti 1:8). And the second is that through their homes they were focused on helping out. Their gatherings were very practical; these folk looked out for each other at the square meal level (2:44 cf 4:32-37; 2 Cor 8:13-15). If people couldn’t bring food to share that didn’t matter, they could always get a meal because that’s what the gathering was for.

But of course it went beyond that. As Jordan says, ‘What the poor need is not charity but capital, not caseworkers but coworkers. And what the rich need is a wise, honourable and just way of divesting themselves of their overabundance’.

And that is precisely what Koinonia Farm is all about. People with nothing are provided for and given the skills they need to provide for others. And the model has spilled out into other communities where groups of Jesus followers buy debts and pay medical bills, offer training and the finance people need to get on their own two feet so that they do the same for others.

Students often enthuse to me that it would be great to see God working among us in signs and wonders just as he did in the early days of the movement. And I agree with them. And then I ask if they are prepared to pool their resources so there is equality among the people of God and no one in need. If we want to release the signs and wonders we crave, economic jubilee is an essential part of it.

Secondly, we see shared values in operation. There are so many stories about how the world works, each one giving rise to values to live by – we see it in the way the government works, companies operate and if we are going to embody God’s revolution, we need to know ours so that we can model them to others.

Values are based on two things: facts, the apostlesdoctrine: there are things we need to know; so reading the bible, talking about it, learning it matters. We need to know who Jesus is, what God has done, how the Holy Spirit works in our midst.

But the other thing we need is footsteps. The point of this teaching is that we walk in it: writing to the Corinthians Paul said he was sending Timothy to them to remind them of his way of life, not just his words (1 Cor 4:17). If the facts do not lead to foot steps, they are not being heard right, they are not being learned correctly. If they remain in our heads and do not reach our feet, they are, frankly, pretty useless!

So we need to learn how to be accountable to one another for how were living; this is not threatening but good; it strengthens us, helps us become the community we are called to be: if were not changing as result of coming to church, becoming more like Jesus, why are we coming?

Thirdly, these were a people with a shared mission, a community that was built as much by working together serving others as by meeting together: what they did to show kindness and offer practical help to their neighbours was the outworking of their shared values.

So their gathering was a bit like stopping at the motorway services when on a long journey. They met to refuel, get fed & get cleaned up so they could continue serving God their neighbours during the week: this is what church is for. So 3:1-11 with its story of mission follows 2:42-47 and shows that the revolution has taken root and we are becoming the community that will show the world who God is. 

Effective evangelism is always incarnational, it’s always a demonstration of the message in actions that flow from the message; we cannot preach what we are not prepared to live. As John Stott once said evangelism and social action are two blades of a pair of scissors, one without the other is as useless as one-bladed scissors.

So the revolution is about feeding hungry people as much as talking about Jesus, housing homeless folk, sharing food with our neighbours, clothing the naked, healing the sick, welcoming the stranger and making space for them at our tables. That’s when our neighbours start saying, these people have turned the world upside down, as the people of Thessalonica said of Paul and his crew.

And finally, what we see here is a shared encounter: a community of trust, learning, mission and mutual accountability is the very best place to encounter the living God (43). God doesnt leave us to live as disciples and become such a community on our own: he gives us his power and strength through the Holy Spirit. 

Then we see signs and wonders, share our goods, are flooded with joy because God is active in each one of us and in our gathering: it is here we taste the new creation as we grow together into community and the world sees in a way that changes their lives and ours (2:47).

As Clarence Jordan says, ‘The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.’ Adding, ‘Now faith is the turning of dreams into deeds. It is betting your life on the unseen realities.’

Is this the normal we are longing to get back to? Are we longing to gather because we are products and perpetrators of the Pentecost revolution? As we walk this life of faith together, we will grow into that community, for faith as Jordan reminds us ‘is not belief in spite of evidence but a life in scorn of the consequences.’

God will build little outposts of his revolution through his Holy Spirit wherever people trust him and allow him freedom to move: is that us?

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Soundtrack to the weirdest year...

 I haven't done this for a while, but I thought 2020 merited a brief comment on my playlist during this weirdest of years. I have spent a lot of time working at home, typing, preparing, reading, thinking, when I've not been in Zoomworld. And to keep the right side of sane, I've been playing some great music - some of it new, some of it the comfortable old favourites you snuggle up in when the world feels bleak and inhospitable.

So, I've listened to a lot of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, quite a bit of Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd. I've also rekindled a love for LCD Sound System, Dead Can Dance, Kate Bush and Vaughan Williams.

So here's a run-down of new stuff that has delighted my ears this year (in no particular order until the end):

Smoke Fairies, Darkness Brings the Wonders Home - languid, bluesy, beautifully played and sung.

Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways - when the 17 minute reflection on the consequences of the Kennedy assassination dropped  in the early Spring, I was astounded (I even reflected on it theologically for a mate'a church newsletter). But I was not expecting it to be followed by Rough and Rowdy Ways, probably Dylan's finest work of the century, a great record full of wit and wisdom and some great tunes.

The waterways, Good Luck, Seeker - I'm a long time Waterboys fan and this is up among the best that Mike Scott and his attendants have recorded. It's a mixture of rock and celtic folk; it's got a great cover of Kate Bush's Why Should I love You; and has a centrepiece - My Wonderings in a Weary Land - that ranks among one of the band's best ever tracks. Spiritual, odd, tongue-in-cheek and wonderfully realised.

Fleet Foxes, Shore and Sufjan Stephens, The Ascension dropped at the same time. They are good but I am still not sure what to make of them, especially the Stephens record which lacks his customary ramshackle guitar in favour of a Prophet 5 synth (I'm not sure I like the change...). But I shall continue listening and allow them to reveal their hidden treasures.

Deacon Blue, City of Love - this slipped out in the early Spring and I only noticed it in the autumn. It continues the late renaissance of one of my favourite bands of the 1980s. Following in the footsteps of The Hipsters, A New House and Believers, this album has a slightly harder edge to the mellifluous tunes, more prominent guitar and still the lush vocal support of Lorraine McIntosh. Ricky Ross gets better and better as a lyricist and tunesmith.

Ben Watt, Storm Damage - I didn't think Watt (one half of Everything but the Girl) could better Hendra, his 2014 first solo album for two decades, but he does so with Storm Damage. Watt is a great chronicler of the effects of the memory on the present, wonderfully gifted at conjuring up a sense of place and time - nowhere better than on Summer Ghosts. But every track on this album is a thing of beauty. Indeed, it would have been my album of the year but for...

Nick Cave, Idiot Prayer - strictly peaking this is not an album of new material. It is rather a solo live album where the Cave songbook is reimagined for solo piano and Nick's rich baritone played in an empty Alexandria Palace. I was supposed to see him and the Bad Seeds at the O2  this year, a gig that has now sadly been cancelled (the silver lining being the promise of a new album in 2021...). Idiot Prayer reveals the depths and strengths of 22 Cave classics from across his back catalogue. I loved 2019's stripped back, minimalist Ghosteen  and Idiot prayer captures that vibe across a range of Cave songs but brings a unity of theme and atmosphere to them. It is an unforgettable and immersive one and quarter hours of heartfelt and searching songs that offer insight into a poet's journey through grief in a year when so many of us had to make that journey. It is truly a gift.

So 2020 will not be missed for all sorts of reasons but it has given us a great deal of great music. I am sure it will have seeded  rich crop of great albums yet to be revealed in 2021. Bring it on...

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Tuning into the voice that matters

This began life as an advent sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11 earlier this month. Then an edited version was published at A Broken Church, run by good friend Rich Blake-Lobb. For the sake of completeness, I am publishing the whole sermon here as I listen to the new Deacon Blue album, City of Love (who knew this band would still be soundtracking my life 35 years after I first heard Dignity?!)

So, do you remember those halcyon days when you entered a cafe or bar that was full of people - go on, stretch your mind back to those dim and distant times; you can do it! Everywhere you looked people were talking and your ears were washed by a sea of disconnected words.

Well that’s how Isaiah 40 opens. We enter a new scene in the book, 150 years after the first part ends and we are greeted by a host of voices. Here we are not so much invited into a conversation as assailed by a cacophony of speakers - 1-2, 3-5, 6a, 6b-7, 8, 9-11 - maybe five or six in all.

And at the heart of this is v6b-7, the voice of a reluctant prophet, someone offered a job who gives God a piece of his mind in a bid to turn it down. But it’s the voice that grows stronger and more urgent as this remarkable poem unfolds over the next 15 chapters. 

The voice in v6-7 is the voice of everyone who feels that God has paid them too much attention and he wants him to leave us alone. 

Like Job in 7:17-21 

Like Debbie we met when church planting near us in Peckham back in the 90s: 'I can't believe in him up there ‘cause of what's happened to me down 'ere'’. And she proceeded to tell us how she’d been treated by men, the council, her kids, and life in general…

Like Jack: no dad, not much mum, a litany of bad choices, reluctantly in our night shelter because it was marginally better than sleeping out on a frosty night, ‘but don’t talk to me about God,’ he snarled, ‘all I’ve had in my life so far is expletive deleted…’

Like Colin, an ad sales executive on the last paper for which I worked, gay, disabled, HIV+ who gave me a mug as a Christmas present that I still use to remind me there is no cure for Aids. I wished him a happy Christmas, told him what I’d be doing and he said he didn’t do Christmas because nothing good happens in the world and God was not as useful as his crutch. He didn’t live to see another Christmas…

The prophet puts into words what many feel: there’s no good news, look around you, all people are frail and fragile and God keeps blowing them over, like the scorching wind that blows across the Judean desert in the height of summer (6b-7).

And too often the source of the lashing wind is the church, God’s would-be mouthpiece, which snipes and snarls about lifestyles and choices without understanding what it's like to walk in the shoes of those it is addressing. 

The prophet who opens the collection of words in this amazing book (back in chapter 6) volunteered to take a message of judgement to people who would not pay any attention. 

But the prophet of this section doesn’t want that gig.

The voice of v6f is certainly aware of what’s gone before – ‘don't send me with a message like that, a message of the scorching wind that blows people away. Don’t send me with a word of judgement’. 

But his voice is only one of many in these verses and the others clamouring for our attention are suggesting that God has something altogether different in mind.

So Isaiah 40 opens with an invitation to listen, to tune in to the voices echoing around us, voices of dislocation and disillusion; to tune into the voice within us, fragile and uncertain; and to find God’s voice in it all.

There is a searing honesty in this opening section of the poem, a telling it like it really is, telling God how we really feel. Here were people languishing in exile, far from home, mourning the loss of family, of livelihoods, of good times with friends, of fixed points in their lives, 

people who would say a little later ‘my way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’ (v27).

People like us and our neighbours.

So, this is a great text for Advent; indeed this is really the only place to start an advent journey.

Because advent is a clearing of the decks, a bringing out into the open everything that upsets and unsettles us about the world, about our lives, about God, a time of being blown on by the scorching wind, breath of God so that we might be able to receive his word of comfort, forgiveness, solace and strength for the journey.

The voice that cries out in v3-4, is picked up in the opening verses of Mark’s Gospel, as John the Baptist blazes a trail for Jesus to arrive with a message of the coming Kingdom and a new world order, a world of peace and justice. 

Something is stirring, God is on the move, speaking comfort, sweeping into the lives of the unsettled, the broken, the forgotten.

Advent is the vital preparation for Christmas, for this arrival. It’s not about dusting off the decorations, sorting out our present wish list, still less about queueing outside Primark for the season’s must-have onsie. 

It’s about standing stripped by the wind of God ready for God himself to arrive along the highway prepared for him in our hearts and lives (3-5).

A voice says, God is coming (3-5, 9). This voice has heard him stirring up the nations, fermenting the rise of Cyrus in neighbouring Persia and the changes in the global political landscape that will at last lead to these exiles going home. 

God is still coming, whatever is happening in the world at large – things we welcome, things we wish were gone so everything can get back to normal – God is coming to break chains and set people free from sin and its all-too visible consequences: debt, poverty, illness, poor education, unemployment, violence and injustice. 

We’ve seen too much of that this week, this month, this year… We need God to come and make everything new. 

And God is comforting (1f, 11) God knows our pain and longs to gather us to him like a mum sweeping her child up in her arms. He knows what the voice in v6 knows - that we are weak and frail, that we’ve had enough, that we’ve used up all our spare energy just getting through lockdown and all it’s brought with it. The last thing we need is God arriving with a pep talk and a call to action. 

We need God to come and wrap us in his arms and say, ‘enough; that’s enough’ (as he says in v1-2). And because this is how God comes to us, it is how we are called to draw alongside our wounded and hurting neighbours, in God's name bringing his comfort and pointing to the light on the horizon.

And God is calling. He comes to comfort, seeking relationship with us, but we’re deaf and he needs to get up on high mountain and shout it out. Notice how he does it – not through a lecture or a sermon but in a poem, language that burrows deep into the heart of who we are. 

For in advent, God wants us to change way we feel about him and ourselves; so, there’s no new theology here, no fresh revelation; just a reminder of the old stuff (especially the exodus with its memory of a journey to freedom and new life): he’s reminding us that we are his, that he loves us and he will not leave us to face this alone.

And so as we walk into the cafe or bar with its clamouring voices, we also hear the sound system playing the wonderful Deacon Blue Christmas song:

You’ll know it’s Christmas

when the snows are beginning 

and someone’s singing a song.

If there’s a star in the sky

if the air is filled with the mystery

if there’s a babe in the church with a choir

you’ll know it’s Christmas…

If there is love in this world

if there is something worth struggling for

If there’s someone you’re holding close

you’ll know it’s Christmas

Really what Ricky Ross captures in his sly and subtle way is the spirit of advent. Advent is our invitation to get ready to meet him, in the things we think worth struggling for, in the people we hold close. 

In advent we get ready to welcome our God not as a conquering king but as a baby in a manger with the echo of choirs of angels, at the centre of an ordinary family’s celebration of new life and hope for a better future.

Advent is an invitation to tune into the only voice that matters among all the other voices clamouring for our attention. Because that’s the voice we hear in the things we think worth struggling for, things he thinks worth the struggle of coming to be with us

And as Ross sings in a different Christmas song,

I can’t carry you

you’ve gotta make your own way there;

this boy belongs to you

move a little closer, don’t be scared.

what better invitation do you need this advent to tune into the only voice that really matters?

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Thoughts about caterpillars and butterflies in a time of plague

This morning the leader of our zoom gathering had planned to start with Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, familiar words about everything happening in its time, probably appropriate for current circumstances. But earlier in the morning, she had the strong sense that we should read to v17. She was not sure why, but I am really glad she did.

I love Ecclesiastes, the collector of riddles, the riddler of the faithful (as Doug Ingram suggests). So I am often drawn to its enigmatic text, hoping it will give voice to and shape my muddled thoughts. Well, this morning it didn't disappoint. I don't know why God wanted my church to hear these words but I know why he wanted to bring them to my attention.

I have been wrestling with the issue of what church and mission might be like as we emerge from lockdown. Will we be the same distracted caterpillars, over-feeding on the same bush while constantly remaining the same, or will we be butterflies, transformed by the grace of God encountered in hard places and shaped for a new adventure with God in the world?

I hope the latter. Often the conversation about mission is about returning to what we used to be able to do when we could go out and gather for all sorts of activities. I hope those opportunities will return, opportunities to serve others, to show the love of God in tangible ways to those who need reminding if it. But that will be a resumption of caterpillar life.

Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 showed me something of the possibility in our discourse of becoming the butterflies we are called to be. It's simple advice, a little downbeat if read in certain tones of voice. It's about toil (v9 setting the themes for the short section that follows) but it is also about God's gift. And it was that which hit me with some force this morning.

What is God's gift? That all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil. It is God's gift that everyone should have enough to eat and drink and find delight in what they do. So why are so many hungry, thirsty and stuck in soul-destroying, unproductive and unrewarding labour? Because we have taken God's gift and kept it for ourselves. A few benefit from the majority's labour and live lives of ease and enjoyment as a result. The many sweat and toil under the harsh sun for precious little reward.

This is not God's gift; this is our abuse of what he has given us.

I started the day reading an alarming piece by Naomi Klein on the Intercept website about how the powerful are profiting from the current pandemic and are gearing up to profit more as we come out of it and the world returns to normal. Maybe this is why so many are suggesting that returning to normal is not what we want.

So, what's this got to do with mission after covid-19 and Ecclesiastes 3? I think it has to do with what our mission is about. We have been called to God - who has lavished the gifts of Ecclesiastes 3 on us; we have been called into a new creation set loose in the resurrection of Jesus; we have been recruited to a revolution whose manifesto is the beatitudes. So if our mission is about anything, it is surely about pointing to a world where everyone enjoys the gift of Ecclesiastes 3:12-13.

More than that, it is surely about seeking ways to make that world a reality. This means going beyond poverty remediation through foodbank's and night shelters (good, essential, though those they are) to poverty alleviation through adventurous reimagining of how we can use our resources to create the kind of world imagined by Ecclesiastes 3:12-13.

For the section doesn't end there. The riddler says he looked for justice and righteousness where he expected to find them - namely, I guess, in government and the courts, and possibly even the places of worship - and found only wickedness (the word the bible often uses for the selfish self sufficiency and looking out for me and mine that is all too evident in and around us).

Our mission needs to be marked by justice and right relationships - both enacted in what we do and agitated for in what we say and how we act towards those who should be distributing the power they so tenaciously cling on to.

I was glad to go to church this morning to be reminded of this and provoked into new trains of thought. There is so much more to say about this but I throw it out there for people to react to. So, over to you...

Thursday, April 02, 2020

hearing something new in familiar lines

I don't know about you, but as I have been working away in splendid isolation, I have been rediscovering gems in my music collection. Of course, half my life is spent in Zoomworld, trying to focus on what's being said but often taking more interest in the wallpaper or curtains behind whoever is speaking.

But among the CDs (remember them?) that I've been spinning has been my limited Jethro Tull collection, Aqualung and Passion Play. The former was a gift from long time friend, fellow minister and Jethro Tull aficionado, George Pitcher, and is full of musings on the presence of the divine in our daily lives. I might reflect further on that in a subsequent post as I've played it a lot.

But Passion Play, Tull's flawed musings on mortality and morality (I think...) contains two of my favourite lines in popular music. Over maudlin piano and acoustic guitar, Ian Anderson sings,

There was a rush along the Fulham Road
there was a hush in the Passion Play

I've always liked the internal rhyme that emphasises the stopping of everything in the bustle of life. And as I heard these lines a number of times over the past week or so, they have resonated in a new way.

There was (past tense) a rush along the Fulham Road; there was a hush, pause, a rest, even a full stop, in the passion play... I don't know what traffic on the Fulham Road is like just now but if it's anything like the traffic round here, it's not the jam it used to be.

The lockdown, the absence of the bustle of traffic and office life, the grinding to a halt of so many parts of the economy, means there is a hush in our passion play, a pause in the clamour, rush and tear of business, productivity and consumption.

The tune of this refrain - it comes number of times over the forty minutes of the album - in minor chords, has a feeling of loss, lament, even bereavement. And of course, the juddering halt to so much of our passion play has crashed production and put countless livelihoods at risk. Good companies will go the wall - the hush will be permanent - and good workers will be rendered unemployed.

And we weep for all this; and in particular for all those whose lives are rendered insecure by this current crisis; just as we weep with the bereaved who have lost loved ones before their time.

But perhaps the hush in the Passion Play also forces us to take stock, to examine what life is, what we get out of bed for in the morning, whether the passion play is worth our investment.

People talk about getting back to normal by the summer, as if what we are experiencing now will vanish like the morning mist and be consigned to the filing cabinet of bad dreams. The economy will bounce back - though what shape will it be in? How much austerity will be visited on us for the largesse of these months?

But people also talk of things never being the same again. How can we go back to underfunded health care systems and undervalued, underpaid key workers, not just those in the NHS but those who kept the food supplies going, those who work in shops, clean our streets, clear away our rubbish; all those people we suddenly realise are essential to our lives, if not to the economy.

And we are coming to the season of the great passion play. This Sunday I would have been preaching at a Palm Sunday service in West Croydon, I would have been reminding the faithful of the parade Jesus led as a counter blast of the arrival of Pilate from his palace by the sea to a sweaty city simmering with uproar and unrest. And the following weekend we will be retelling the story of the passion of Jesus, his cross and suffering, and the resurrection of Christ, the eruption of new creation in the midst of a tired and fractious old world. Our retelling this year will be unfamiliar, even novel, but no less heartfelt than previously.

Things will never be the same because Christ is risen. And as the rush returns to the Fulham Road and the hush in our Passion Play is over, will our world return to business as usual or will we have seen things in these days that means we pay closer attention to the one who comes to us and says 'behold, I make all things new'? Will our re-emergence into 'normal' life be a new adventure in justice and equality and the re-ordering of things in the interests of what matters?

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Modern monetary theory and the God of abundance

There's been a lot of talk of late about how governments will recoup the enormous sums they are putting into the economy to keep people from penury and companies from tanking. Some talk of the need to raise taxes once the crisis is passed, while the proponents of modern monetary theory suggest that central banks can create all the money required without seeking any of it back.

Well, you pays your money (sorry!) and takes your choice (as they say). The best explanation of MMT is found at Richard Murphy's Tax Justice Network blog. The other view is well known from elections over the past 40 years that all been fought on public spending and the taxation needed to pay for it.

I probably lean to the MMT view of things. And in that perhaps God's on our side...!

I'm reading Walter Brueggemann's lovely provocative little book A Way Other Than Our Own for my lent devotions. I'm a bit behind (as always) but I'm catching up. And yesterday I read his reflection on the feeding of the five thousand, how Jesus turned the wilderness, the place of scarcity and lack, into the place of lavish, almost unending provision; how Jesus turned 5 loaves and 2 fish into a feast for five thousand men and an untold number of women and children; and how the disciples, who started with nothing, ended up with a basket of leftovers each.

It's a wonderful story of miraculous provision, a sign of Jesus' identity as the one who feeds his people in the wilderness as God had done with the manna.

But it is also a wonderful lesson in divine economics. As Bruggemann puts it, in a world that tells the story of scarcity, and has economic theories created to meet the problem of scarcity (theories that had seeped into the hearts of disciples who helplessly ask, where can we buy enough food for this crowd; we do not have the resources), Jesus comes and provides and so questions our assumptions about the world in which we live,

'The story we tell about scarcity is a fantasy. It is not a true story. It is a story invented by those who have too much to justify getting more. It is a story accepted by those who have nothing in order to explain why they have nothing. The story is not true, because the world belongs to God and God is the creator of the abundant life. All of us are invited to be children and practitioners of this other story. We act it out in ways that disrupt our society, even as Jesus continues to disrupt our world of scarcity with his abundance.' (p51)

Christians have always said there is enough to go round - enough food to feed the hungry, water for the thirsty, bricks to build shelters fr the homeless. The problem is not scarcity but inequitable distribution. Jesus shows that he creates and controls the abundance of creation and ensures everyone gets what they need.

And he still says to us, his nervous followers, wondering what's coming next, 'you give them something to eat'

What would happen if we said 'yes'?

Thursday, February 07, 2019

The congregation as good news?

So, here I am contemplating a Devon rain-scape, the low sky a single shade of grey, drizzle making the pavements shimmer, and I’m thinking about the church. There are probably a host of reasons for this - not least my role in helping to form minsters at a Baptist college - but chief among them are two recent experiences still reverberating in my mind. 

The first is church on Sunday where in the context of a wonderfully informal cafe setting, we sang a set of bewildering Bethel songs that seemed connected to nothing, not the life experience of the congregation, not the content of the Christian message, not the culture within which this church existed. These people were grieving because a young man associated with them had died on the Friday evening before in circumstances that are far from clear. And having sung the songs, a group left the building to go and pray in the areas the town’s young people hang out and enter whatever conversations might transpire. As people left - including me - it struck me that this is what church is really all about. After we’d gone, the remaining congregants talked and prayed and drank coffee, and shared their pain and bewilderment, again what church is for. 

The second was a half-day conference I had attended a week earlier at King’s College on a new book called The Desecularisation of the City, a collection of essays looking at church growth, the emergence of new churches and the persistence of old ones, across London. The essays in the book tell a single story which could be read entirely optimistically. The persistence of church attendance, the growth in some congregations, the fact that there are twice as many churches in the capital now than in 1979, all suggest that the secularisation thesis, so popular among sociologists from the 1960s onwards - and still staunchly defended by such luminaries as Steve Bruce of Aberdeen - does not tell the whole story. Indeed, maybe the essays in this collection are evidence of desecularisation.

The critical friends who took up the second half of the afternoon did not think so. Secularisation is not just about the numbers attending worship services or the numbers ticking ‘Christian’ in survey boxes. It is also about the enduring influence of religion in cultural and public life. And it is in relation to this that the critical friends were unsure that desecularisation is taking place at all.

One, Daniel Dehanas, is a lecturer in politics and religion at King’s. He has studied the faith journeys of young people in both church and mosque across the capital. He told the story of a significant ministry in south London - significant in the sense that it made a lot of noise about itself - that drew large numbers to the estate on which it was based. Large numbers of young people were affected by the ministry. But the neighbourhood in which the ministry was located seemed entirely untouched by it. For all the numbers being converted or otherwise influenced by the ministry, there seemed little impact on the surrounding estates. Indeed, he seemed to suggest, for all the good news stories contained in The Desecularisation of the City, there seemed precious little evidence that all these new and growing churches were having the kind of cultural or political impact you would expect if genuine desecularisation were taking place.

The other critical friend, historian Michael Ledger-Lomas, suggested that the book told him that SE15 has the largest concentration of African Christianity outside of Africa, but who knew? He and I both live within that London postal district and I agree with him that the growth of these churches is important and tells an interesting story but often the only time they have an impact on their neighbours is when a planning application goes in for a building’s change of use or congestion around people’s homes leads to mutterings.

He suggested that few of the chapters were about identity among the churches featured, what does it feel like to be part of these congregations? He and Dehanas agree that the faith espoused and promoted is very personal, about me and Jesus. But Ledger-Lomas wanted to know how the adherents of these congregations felt about their neighbourhoods. It led to his astute observation that many of these stories are about how attending these churches is often a coping mechanism for migrants of all kinds in a slightly hostile and often difficult world.

There’s so much here that provokes thought. But two issues come to the fore for me. One is about the implied relationship between a congregation and its neighbourhood. Who knows churches, Christians are in their midst? How do they know it? The other is the idea of the congregation as coping mechanism for those who attend, which has a bearing on the palette of music on offer in our churches.

The friendly critics of the book seem to suggest that desecularisation will only be seen to be happening if there is a shift in the culture, the political atmosphere, if the Christian faith returns to a place of central influence over social mores and morality. Perhaps this is what the classical sociological theory would take as evidence of its error. But I wonder if this is a measure we are interested in, a measure of the Kingdom worming its way round our neighbourhoods. When I went out to pray in the town I’m visiting at the moment, I did not expect anyone to notice. I did it in a way that would not attract the attention of anyone but God. And what would the effect of such praying be? Well, when combined with the ongoing presence of members of this congregation with the town’s young people, offering support and encouragement, accompanying them through the pitfalls of adolescence, working with families and schools to help them find themselves in a welter of competing voices, the effect could be profound, life-changing, life-stabilising, a little glimmer of God’s Kingdom. But evidence of deseculariation? I’m not so sure.

Sometimes I think the Kingdom is most present when we hardly notice it. What we notice is human community working well, the vulnerable supported, the voiceless listened to and helped to speak, and the strong learning life lessons from such as these. We see it when an alternative agenda to that espoused and expounded by the world’s elite is evidenced. But I’m not convinced that this would register even the faintest blip on the sociologists’ radar and that what does - mere assemblage of numbers, new locations, recent arrivals forming groups of their own - is not actually that important in Kingdom terms.

Which brings me to the congregation as coping mechanism. As I first heard Ledger-Lomas articulate this, I thought, ‘yeah, that’s right; and it’s not what church is for!’ ‘Coping’ is not a missional term; it is not part of the great commission of the church to go and help people cope. And it is ‘coping’ that often encourages a musical palette that is all about me and what God has done for me, and how he has helped/healed/supported/lifted/enabled (delete as appropriate) me.

But on slightly more mature reflection, I came to see that, of course, the church is a coping mechanism. It is the community of the congregation into which God has set us that does enable us to cope with the vicissitudes of living in a difficult, sometimes hostile world, where putting food on the table and paying the rent and maintaining family relationships is hard. If the congregation is not a coping mechanism, then what on earth is it?

In a book I wrote a while back called Building a Better Body, I argued that church was not about worship, not about singing and all that stuff. And I still believe that. Much of what we sing in church is execrable and people much cleverer and wittier than I have pointed this out (see Pete Ward and Nick Page). It matters what we sing in church, though that is not the point of our gathering, because music touches emotional recesses that conversation often doesn’t. So we need to sing our pain and anger as much as our joy and hope; indeed if worship song writers actually read the Psalms they claim to be emulating, their repertoire of topics would be a good deal bleaker and more earthbound than it currently is.

Maybe music helps us to cope, reminds us of who God is and what he has done for us; and that happens as we listen to performed songs as much as as in community singing. But congregations as coping mechanisms must be much more than this. My congregation must be the place I go to with my pain and bewilderment, the bruises from standing up to the powers that be, from standing with the vulnerable, from giving voice to the mute, for sharing my goods with the destitute. My congregation needs to be the place that helps me to cope with the call of God on my life to be like Jesus which is just too hard to manage on my own. And my congregation must help me to cope with the joys of seeing an exile settled, a court case won (as I heard when writing this), a home found for a homeless family, a teenager shown that life is navigable. In telling these and other stories in and to my congregation, it affirms that what I am doing is what Jesus smiles on and that affirmation tells me that I can do the same in the coming week, that this will be my spiritual and acceptable worship (Rom 12:1).

And, of course, the church I attended on Sunday, coming to terms with the tragic death of a young person, needed to be a coping mechanism for all the people who knew him, all those who had stood with him and his mates in the dark, played games, accompanied him through the turmoil of growing up and now had to cope with his premature death. Of course, praying out on the streets or sitting together and holding their grief before God was what congregations do in these times. The church is undoubtedly a coping mechanism.

I’m not sure such congregations are signs of desecularisation - though I’m really not sure what would be - but I am sure that they are little signs of the Kingdom, tiny evidences that there are groups of people who get what Jesus is about, pockets of resistance to the way of the world, shelters for those who cannot navigate the choppy waters alone, places that rejoice when they see the light of God’s reign break on the horizon.

And it’s still murky here, a slate grey sky darkening as evening draws closer, and my friends are out accompanying young people, and I sense Jesus smiling.