Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Tales of the unexpected

So today I met the Duke of Edinburgh who asked me a totally left-field question that formed the springboard for my piece for this month's church magazine - posted below:

I went to the opening of the newly refurbished Bromley and Downham youth centre and had an unexpected conversation with the Duke of Edinburgh. The fact that he was there was not unexpected (the invitation told me he was coming to officially open the facility). And the fact that he spoke to me was not totally unexpected as he carefully made his way around the room speaking to pretty much everyone who’d turned out to see him (which was nice).

What was unexpected was what he asked me. David, Ned and I were representing JusB and between us we explained to him the kind of work we do with young people. The Duke nodded sagely and then clocking the fact that I was a minister (the clerical shirt – a new fetching pale blue one - was the give-away), he asked if I had a parish nearby. I explained that I was a Baptist and had a church in the town centre.

‘Ah,’ he said, ‘are there any Christians in Bromley?’

That was unexpected! I was a bit lost for words, thinking wouldn’t it have been nice to have notice of that particular question. All I could get out was something along the lines of ‘yes, there are; we certainly have quite a few each Sunday…’

He moved on and the people in my group all marvelled at what a strange question it was to ask.

The more I reflected on it, the more I felt it was a really interesting question. I have no idea whether the Duke was being anything more than mildly witty, passing the time of day with a group of people who had turned out to welcome him to their neck of the woods.

I thought about his question again as a small group of us settled down to read Romans 12 together at the church Bible study. Here Paul, having magisterially outlined what God has achieved for us through Jesus, how he has created a single people from every nation of the world through their allegiance to Israel’s messiah, spells out how we should live in the world in the light of our new identity.

‘Are there any Christians in Bromley?’ Well, according to the 2001 census some 70% of Bromley residents identified themselves as Christian (it will be interesting to see the number from 2011 census). But barely 9% of Bromley residents are in church on any given Sunday. But do those numbers really answer the Duke’s question?

How many people are there who actively offer their bodies as part of the church’s living sacrifice? How many people resist having their lives shaped by the consumerist, careerist agenda of secular thinking that dominates our media and national dialogue? How many practice hospitality, seek out the poor to associate with them, regard others (all others) more highly than themselves? How many make it their goal to live at peace with everyone around them, bless those who speak badly about them or make their lives miserable? In short, how many live as Romans 12 urges us to live?

All of a sudden the Duke’s question – ‘are there any Christians in Bromley?’ – takes on a probing quality that I am not sure he intended.

I can answer the question by saying that there are loads of people who believe in God, seek to follow Jesus, would describe themselves as sinners saved by the grace of a merciful God. And I rejoice in that.

But I wonder how Bromley’s residents would have answered the question. It’s all very well for the Duke to ask a minister if there are any Christians in Bromley. I only need to think about the last time I stood on the platform in our building and looked out at a sea of engaged and eager faces to be able to say ‘yes; definitely’.

But would my neighbour wrestling with debt answer so positively or my work colleague trying to keep a drink problem hidden or my friend struggling with anger? Would the homeless man trying to get his life back together, seeking a community where he can be accepted and helped answer in the affirmative?

Romans 12 seems like light relief after the dense and deep theology of Romans 9-11; it is so familiar and loved. And yet I wonder if we have ceased to see and hear its challenge. I wonder, in the light of what Paul writes in this great chapter, if he would have been so quick to answer the Duke’s question so positively.

And that is why the question has been gnawing away in my mind since I was asked it. I stand by my first answer: ‘yes, there are a lot of Christians in Bromley’. But I also stand in need of God’s grace and the energy of his Spirit to be the kind of person Paul describes in Romans 12. And I suspect that that is true of all of us. And what we can be truly thankful for is that God stands ready to empower us to live Romans 12 both in our church community and in the neighbourhoods and workplaces.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Sweating to get foodbank ready

I spent this morning with a wonderful group of people clearing out the vast storeroom upstairs in the church that will host our foodbank. We have cleared it in readiness for it to become the main warehouse for foodbank, a space capable of storing many tonnes of food.

This is a project born of the dreaming and hard work of a whole crew of people who have a single thing in common - a desire to serve the needs of those who find themselves on the margins of our outwardly prosperous community.

I think foodbank captures something essential to the gospel. Jesus told us to feed the hungry (so that's obvious as foodbank in London over the last year has fed 14,000 families unable to find the resources to feed themselves because of plummeting incomes, rising rents and prices,and precarious jobs). But there is also something in the gospel about working together to achieve gospel ends. And certainly foodbank here is doing that - people of all denominations and none, people of faith and people of good will, all united to achieve a single goal.

As it happens I'm reading Jesus Freak by Sara Miles which is wonderful account of the life and ministry of a woman who runs a pantry in her church. So her book is a reflection on life, faith and food. Over recent weeks - as we've had foodbank planning meetings and training sessions, as well as shifting the tonnes of wood and junk we did this morning - I've been musing on her words:

'Jesus does not, anywhere in the gospels, spend too much time calling his people to have feelings or ideas or opinions. He calls us to act: hear these words of mine and act on them. I started to help lead liturgies, then write liturgies, because I wanted to take the language I found in Christian worship and use it as a blueprint for action in the world.' (pxiv; italics in original)

This melding of liturgy and work is really helpful. If what we do in 'church' doesn't lead to us living and acting Christianly in the world, then we should stop doing it; stop wasting our time and God's.

'Worship and service were parts of the whole,' she continues, 'the Friday food pantry and the Sunday Eucharist were just different expressions of the same thing. Well-meaning Christian visitors liked to describe the pantry as a 'feeding ministry', but that just seemed like a nervous euphemism to me. What I saw was church: hundreds of people gathering each week around an altar to share food and to thank God.' (pxv).

There are countless stories in the book of realising that as food was being shared, Jesus was inviting everyone into the circle of his love, whether that sharing took place in the basement kitchen, the lobbies of tenements where many pantry people lived or around the altar in the church building. As Jesus' people live the life he's called us to, so he is able to work in and through us to bring his Kingdom.

My prayer as we gear up for foodbank in our community is that it will be such an outbreak of Jesus' life in our midst.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Binning the so-called Olympic traditions

Well, the Olympic torch is lit and will now commence a tradition that dates back to Hitler. The Olympic torch run was an invention by one of Hitler's cultural advisers to show the virtue of German peoples in the run up to their games in 1936. Whoops!

It's on a par with Royal Mint putting Roman gods on their commemorative coins rather than the gods of Greece (who were, after all, the original benefactors of the games). Whoops again.

Is this a result of the modern history curriculum? Are we not learning the basics of Western culture in school any more? It's a shame because if we don't know where we've come from, how will we expect to know where we are? As someone once said people who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

So, lets get back to the Olympics as a race meet, a place where athletes come and compete against each other and we watch on in awe at their prowess - like it was in 1948 - and drop the cod history and vacuous razzmatazz.

The trouble with democracy...

We're all big fans of democracy. It's a core western value. We've invaded countries to impose it, obviously believing that democracy flows from the barrel of a gun.

Over recent days, however, democracy has come to bite our current western dispensation on the bum. We have been told that deficits must be reduced across the western world and that can only be done through austerity programmes of various levels of severity.

his is all well and good until people say 'no'. Many in the UK have said 'no' through demonstrations and latterly local elections. In Greece, the 'no' has been more emphatic with at least 60% of the electorate voting for anti-austerity parties. The response of European institutions and the IMF is to tell the Greeks to try again because their version of democracy hasn't delivered the right answer.

Even more interesting, in Ireland voters are responding to a new tax - being levied to pay the nation's bond holders - by not paying it. Large numbers, perhaps a majority, are refusing to pay the 100 Euro levy and daring the government to prosecute them.

So, I'm wondering whether we believe in democracy at all. Our current government assumes that we'll all get it if they shout louder, as if we're the kind of foreigners that the English have always assumed will understand if we only speak louder and more slowly! The problem is that it's the government that doesn't get it (and this applies as much to the EU institutions and the IMF). The voice of the voters is democracy saying 'we've heard what you're offering and don't want it; so offer something else.'

That's what the Greeks have said - and to a lesser extent the French (though it remains to be seen whether Hollande will be that different from Sarkozy) - and what the Irish are saying in their defiant tax strike.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Salvaging a day at CRE

Back from The Christian Resources Exhibition at Sandown race course. It was a surprisingly good day. Surprising because  met some lovely people - old friends (including the lovely Clive Price and the equally lovely Gareth Wilde) and one or two exhibitors with a good story to tell.

But the event itself had a tired feel. There wasn't much of a buzz about the place and the seminar programme was lacklustre and predictable. It somehow felt smaller than the last time I went (which must have been ten years ago); it covers the same acreage but lacks ambition.

So if I hadn't met some lovely people it would have been a completely wasted day. It just goes to show what a difference people make! The standouts were Indigo Coffee (we use them already at church but it was great to some of the team behind what is an excellent service) and Ki'pe'peo, a project retailing cards made by a group of women from recycled materials (rubbish basically) in the Kibera slum in Nairobi. The cards are beautiful and the project is a wonderful example of how a small co-operative venture can empower the lives of people on the margins of society. I look forward to receiving my first delivery for church.