Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A million souls struggling for the light

Been busy and unwell - hence the absence.
However, I thought I'd post my latest contribution to the church magazine - for those of my congregation who don't read the print version and anyone who's interested.

Recently I had an epiphany. It occurred during an ad for Davidoff men's fragrance. It wasn’t that I suddenly wanted to smell like ocean waves crashing on rocks or silk shimmering against a sunset sky (whatever that might smell like!). It was that I was surprisingly aware of God’s voice leaking into my ears through the TV speakers in the ad’s soundtrack: the fragile voice of Joseph Arthur, borne aloft on gentle acoustic guitar, sang:

I pictured you in the sun wondering what went wrong
And falling down on your knees asking for sympathy
And being caught in between all you wish for and all you seen
And trying to find anything you can feel that you can believe in
May God's love be with you
May God's love be with you

Quite what this has to do with selling perfume is lost on me. But I’ve loved the song since I first heard it and sensed a sensitive soul groping for the light. I am inclined to take such songs at face value and frequently find myself pondering what experience has led the writer to involve God in his search for peace or love or a sense that life might amount to something.

I don't know anymore what it's for
I'm not even sure if there is anyone who is in the sun;
Will you help me to understand
'Cause i been caught in between all I wish for and all I need
Maybe you're not even sure what it's for any more than me
May God's love be with you

Nothing is certain – except perhaps God’s love.

I listen to a lot of pop and rock music and frequently find myself hearing God in my iPod headphones in truly unexpected ways. On our Big Welcome Sunday at the end of September, I shared my love of David Bowie’s 1976 album Station to Station and got a hugely unexpected response from people who don’t listen to or like David Bowie but who similarly heard God speaking to them that morning through the thin white duke’s anguish:

Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing
And I'm trying hard to fit among your scheme of things
It's safer than a strange land, but I still care for myself
And I don't stand in my own light
Lord, lord, my prayer flies like a word on a wing
My prayer flies like a word on a wing
Does my prayer fit in with your scheme of things?

Bowie knows we live in an ‘age of grand illusion’ where nothing is certain and where glamour and fame does nothing to nourish the soul. His voice is part of a chorus line from contemporary music all giving melody to the emptiness behind the glitz. The tragedy, of course, is that so many people look in from the outside and think that the celebrity life is one of unalloyed joy and fulfilment and crave it like mad.

I think God speaks to me through this music because he wants me to hear what people who don’t come to church are saying about life and more importantly about him. Bowie’s Word on a Wing longs for a place of belonging: ‘I'm trying hard to fit among your scheme of things… Does my prayer fit in with your scheme of things?’

When Nathanael was brought to Jesus by his friend Philip in John 1:43-51, he received a welcome that he probably wasn’t expecting. Jesus affirms the good things in his life and accepts him as part of his team. All the important stuff about what he believes about God can be sorted out as they eat and travel together.

What a world of popular music tells me is that we need welcome people like Jesus welcomed Nathanael. In so many of the tunes I listen to I hear God saying ‘are you getting this? Are you feeling the pain in this music? Are you ready to welcome the people who feel and speak this way, affirm the good in them and travel with them as they find out more about me?’

We’re often quick to write off such people – and their legions of fans – as merely hostile to the things of God and not really people like us. Well, they aren’t people like us, but they are people loved by God, people he is urging us to welcome into our community and so we can help them with the deep questions they are asking about life and God.

Joseph Arthur wonders ‘if there is anyone who is in the sun/will you help me to understand…?’ Are we a community where people with similar struggles can come and find support as they wrestle with their questions? It’s the kind of community that Jesus was building at the beginning of John’s gospel with the likes of Andrew, Philip and Nathanael. So it might be the kind of community he’d like us to build here in Bromley. How about it?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Being church in a harsh economic climate

One of the things the church has a chance to be is a community that models a different approach to life. For many years it's been popular to describe this as 'counter-cultural'. The trouble is that this term has been frustratingly vague and often informed as much by cultural factors as by Biblical thinking.

Trevor, commenting on a previous post about social solidarity, lamented the fact that churches aren't really talking about what's happening in our country. Part of the reason for this, I guess (rather obviously), is that within our churches are people who voted for most of the options on offer in May's election; there are people who want to pay less tax and so support public spending cuts and those who think the state has a responsibility to protect the poorest in our community. Because of these divisions of opinion, we tend to steer clear of talking about these issues in church.

Trevor reminds us of Jeremiah 29 - a text that called me into ministry 30 years ago - and suggests that 'our churches aren’t going to be able to prosper if the communities around them are being ravaged by cutbacks and redundancies.' That's food for thought, isn't it?

What does it mean, in the context of impending spending cuts and the general fragility of our economy, the squeeze on household incomes and general gloom about our economic prospects following years of boom, to 'seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.'? How will we 'pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper'?

The word rendered 'peace and prosperity' is the Hebrew word shalom that offers a picture of wholeness, well-being, the welfare of everyone in the community. Church, according to Jeremiah, is a gathering, a collection, a community of people who embody the values pre-supposed by this rich Hebrew word. What does that look like?

Peter reflects on this passage in Jeremiah in his first letter and one of his observations is that 'as foreigners and exiles, [we] abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.' (1 Peter 2:11-12).

Perhaps if we see sinful desires as referring less to sex and more to our economic lives (greed, for example; the use of our cash only to satisfy our wants and desires and not the needs of those around us), we could begin to reflect on how this call to godly living might resource counter-communal living in today's harsh economic reality.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

So, exactly what is church, then?

We had a great time with one of our Urban Expression teams yesterday evening - reflecting on the stories from the past year, reviewing progress, setting some goals. In the course of it, all kinds of thoughts started buzzing round my mind.

The biggest was the one that's been there for years: exactly what is church, then? How do you know when you stumble into it? What marks it out from other gatherings?

Time was when church planters were working with a blueprint. They had been sent by their church to reproduce it in a new location. So a group of the willing set off to find a venue in a place where there wasn't a church like the one they'd come from, and they started one. They brought musicians, screens, projectors, hymn books, bibles, chairs, lecterns, an urn to boil water for coffee; they invited people from the neighbourhood; and hey presto - church!

Maybe that still works in some places. But it doesn't actually answer the question at the top of this post.

One of the things I'm discovering as I talk with people involved in UE is that answering that question is nothing like as easy as we thought for two reasons.

The first is that all the religious trappings of a gathering don't make it church. As the young son of one of team from last night observed 'church isn't the building, it's the people, silly.' Quite right. But which people?

The second is that Paul planted churches all over the Greek Roman empire with none of the trappings noted above in evidence. No special hall, no musicians, no projector, screen, chairs, books, etc, etc.

We don't doubt that his gathering in a workshop or an upstairs room was church, despite the absence of anything we seem to think is essential. So, what made it church? And how did he know when he'd planted one? And would his answer help us in the situations in which we're trying to do mission and plant churches?

Answers on a post card, please...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The gossamer threads of social solidarity

I've hung back over recent days from commenting on what's happening politically - largely due to a mixture of disbelief and incandescent rage that means my fingers don't kiss the keyboard properly! But following the publication of the Browne review into higher education, a thought that has been taking shape over the past couple of weeks finally became expressible.

It's not the hypocrisy of Vince Cable accepting a proposal to more than double tuition fees barely six months after signing a pledge to oppose any rise in fees. It's not the mantra of the government saying they have no choice because they didn't know how bad the deficit was until they took office, despite the fact the size of the deficit hasn't changed since last autumn's pre-budget report (as the Insttitute for Fiscal Studies keeps pointing out). Sadly, such things are just par for the course from politicians. And we can forgive that.

What has struck me is that the debate about benefits, tuition fees and public services is couched in entirely consumerist terms. It's all about 'what's in it for me?' and 'what am I as a tax payer prepared to spend on other people?' (as though we are preparing a Christmas list and totting up how much uncile Bill is worth against cousin Eileen).

There is precious little sense of society (so maybe Mrs Thatcher was right!), barely any notion of our solidarity with one another.

Child benefit is universal because it reminds us all that we are collectively responsible for raising the next generation - the benefit is merely a token of our solidarity in that task; it says that as a society we think raising children matters more than anything else and we'll all poull together to ensure parents are supported in it. We invest in education because it is good for the country to have a literate and skilled citizenry not just in economic terms but in cultural and social terms as well.

There was a great example of this in last week's Sunday Times. Eleanor Mills wrote a think piece in the News Review section headlined 'without God, culture is lost'. Now this was not a rant by a Christian feeling marginalised, wanting a return to the good old days when we told everyone how to live their lives rather than Richard Dawkins. It was rather a piece based on the simple observation that without some knowledge of the Bible and Christian tradition, vast amounts of our cultural heritage are simply incomprehensible. Can you read Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, our great poetic and literary tradition without knowing the broad Christian culture in which their talents flowered? Can you 'see' the art on the walls of the National Gallery and other great institutions without some understanding of the theological palette of the artist?

I think Ms Mills answer was that we need to educate people so they understand this or something very important about our culture will be lost and we will the poorer in all sorts of ways - and not just economically, though it will have economic effects. And who pays for this? We all do because we all think our culture is worth investing in. And that's best done out of general taxation, managed by those people we have elected to be guardians of the things we value.

Well, it struck me listening to Vince Cable yesterday, that this argument applies across the piece. Our society is knitted together on gossamer threads of obligation and common interest. It's not for nothing that we talk about the body politic; and if society is a body, then when one part is unhealthy, the whole body suffers. It's a notion derived as much from Pauline theology as it is from Plato and Aristotle.

It's easy to cut spending - though as Mrs Thatcher and all who've attempted to slash and burn in her wake discovered, not as easy as talking about it on party platforms; it's much harder to repair the torn ligaments, ruptured muscles and broken bones that can result if it's done without care for the fragility of our social solidarity.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Those wonderful Smoke Fairies

Finally got to listen to the new Smoke Fairies album Through low Light and Trees. And it's really pretty wonderful. The surprising thing is that it hasn't really registered on reviewers radars. This is a shame as this is English eerie folk at its best - like Tom Waites channelling Sandy Denny (or vice versa). Check it out.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Busy but bursting with brilliance

Life's been pretty full-on over the past few days. but excellent.

On Saturday, Robin and Sarah got married and it was lovely to conduct their wedding and share in the celebrations afterwards.

On Sunday morning, we had a storming baptismal service. three young people were baptised in a packed church. Their testimonies were amazing - each one of them has clearly had a profound encounter with God and want to live their lives as followers of Jesus.

There were a lot of people there who don't usually go to church and afterwards a number of them said that if they'd known church was like that, they'd have taken it more seriously. So, we'll see if any make a return visit sometime soon. It will mean that we'll have to make some changes - which is a good thing!

One of the things I take away from the service is that something fast-moving, lively, with many people involved and nothing lasting more than five minutes, does seem to scratch where lots of people itch.

We also had a good later service with a number of visitors and returnees and a good atmosphere as we reflected on prayer and broke bread together.

And then today, I started teaching New Testament at Spurgeon's College. Well, to be strictly accurate, the college's  full-time NT lecturer has gone to Durham and they've asked a couple of local ministers to help out. So, I'll be teaching two hours a week for this year on Monday mornings from 8:30am. And today's session went really well. A good class of 15 alert students, who asked good questions and made intelligent contributions. So, I'm looking to sharing the journey through 1 Corinthians and the life and though of Paul with them.

Tomorrow, I think, I'll need a lie-down!