Thursday, August 30, 2012

God makes all things new while we seek the city’s welfare

So here's my piece for this month's church magazine...
Familiar territory for me but always revisiting:

Clarence Mendis is the energetic founder-director of Farms Lanka. It’s a project that offers micro-finance and ideas – along with heaps of motivation – to people with skills and ideas but no money. It makes small loans to help people set up in their chosen line of business – anything from agriculture, animal husbandry, batik printing, pottery making, etc – and gives advice to get up and running and then watches them grow.

Once they’ve reached a certain size, the project holders pay back the stake with a little interest and that money can be used for another person with an idea. Farms currently has 4000 projects across the island and has contributed some 7bn rupees to the nation’s GDP. Not bad for a project that started 39 years ago with 200 rupees and faith, as Clarence puts it. He is a remarkable visionary guy, bold to the point of recklessness, but fabulously blessed and used by God. He’s larger-than-life and curiously down to earth.

I thought of him over the summer as we were exploring Jeremiah’s call to the exiles and I was preparing to return to Sri Lanka. He seems to embody Jeremiah 29:7 more than anyone else I’ve met. He looks around at his desperately poor and divided country and asks how he can help to bring prosperity to his neighbours. And he does it in a way that brings dignity and independence to people struggling to make ends meet.

Jeremiah 29:7 is part of a letter written by Jeremiah to people from Judah who have been taken into exile in Babylon. Many of them were hoping to be home by Christmas but he tells them to settle down and dig in for the long haul; most of them would never see home again.

Although many of us are still living in the town where were born, it has in recent years become an unfamiliar place; social changes, the erosion of the church’s place in our culture and the arrival of people of different classes and races all mean that the world in which we grew up has changed forever. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we feel in exile and would like to go home.

But there’s no going back; this is the world we live in and I believe Jeremiah 29:7 has something really important to say to us about how we live in this strange new world. The prophet tells his first hearers to make a living (29:5-6): that’s obvious enough but it’s what God wants us to be doing. He calls us to be active and productive citizens of this place: working, paying taxes, joining in with our neighbours, even playing our part in politics at a local or national level.

And while we’re getting on with daily life, God calls us to seek good things for our neighbours. The word the prophet uses here is ‘shalom’ (v7) which means wholeness, welfare, peace, prosperity; God wants this for everyone. And this is where Clarence comes to mind; he has been actively seeking the shalom of his neighbours across Sri Lanka for the best part of 40 years. And as I think of him, I wonder what we could be doing that does something similar where we live.

So that leads me to do the third thing Jeremiah told the exiles to be doing: simply to pray for the community in which we find ourselves, to ask God to bless and equip each one of our neighbours for their God-given work, asking God to bring them peace, prosperity and welfare – and sometimes to tell them that we are doing so! And in praying, we are offering ourselves to God to be the answer to our prayers.

It’s easy to feel disheartened and disoriented by the place in which we find ourselves. We sometimes find this strange new world of shopping and mobile phones, reality TV and lack of respect for the church profoundly unsettling. And we ask ‘how can God be here?’ That is what the exiles asked and some of their leaders said that God wasn’t with them but would rescue them soon. Jeremiah, on the other hand, said that while he wouldn’t be bringing them home anytime soon, God is with them in the exile. And he will be bringing prosperity and a future to these people here and now, where they are as they got on with the task of seeking those things for their neighbours. And we see here one of God’s great ways of working: he makes things new as we get on with seeking the city’s welfare.

In 31:31-34 the prophet talks about God making all things new in words taken up across the New Testament. He talks about old ways being ditched and replaced with something more wonderful:  a new covenant, a new relationship, based not on where you live and worship, but on a direct encounter with the living God, so that his Law, which had been written on tablets of stone, would now be written on our hearts. It’s what Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 3 and the author of Hebrews (directly quoting these verses) in chapter 8.

If we want to encounter God today, we’ll do so as we seek the welfare of our neighbours; if we want his prosperity and future for us, we’ll stumble across it as we are trying to ensure that our neighbours enjoy prosperity and hope for the future. So, let’s work on ways that we can seek the welfare of where we live. Let’s be creative and bold.

Who among us is going to be like Clarence Mendis and rise to the challenge of helping our neighbours to find their way into the prosperity we enjoy but they can only dream of?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Grabbing our attention

A while ago, during a series on Luke's gospel, I produced the following meditation to get people thinking about the impact of Jesus' manifesto on his audience. I was reminded of it the other day as someone asked if they could have a copy. So I thought I'd share it for a wider audience.

It's the introduction to some reflections on Luke 6 and seem to resonate on this day of debate about wealth taxes and kick-starting the economy...

You can imagine the crowd turning up – a right mixed bag:
poor folk and rich ones;
people in fine clothes who have breakfasted well
and people in work-wear who haven’t eaten yet today;
people able to take a morning off,
others who risk not earning what they need to eat today…

They’ve all come because they’re interested; they’re keen to know what this Jesus is all about; perhaps they even crave a spiritual experience – some might even have received one already.

Jesus’ words would have left each of them spluttering, like they do us – if we’re paying attention:

blessed are you when your benefits are cut
and the damp’s rising in the wall of your temporary accommodation…
blessed are you when you can’t afford your five-a-day
and the payday loan is due…
blessed are you when people call you scrounger and cheat…

woe to you if your salary is 80 times that of your workers
and your table’s heaving with enough food
to feed a small Malian village…
woe to you when people say how well you’re doing…

The lucky people are not the healed and healthy, the well-healed and wealthy, but those who know they’re bankrupt and busted and only God can help them.

I imagine that by v26 he either had their attention or could see them turning and walking away – which was his intention. This is not Robbie Williams saying ‘let me entertain you…’ This is God’s Son grabbing his audience’s attention; calling us to a life of discipleship: do we stay or do we go?

For those with nothing, the choice is easier than it is for those laden with stuff; but for both there’s a sense of disbelief to overcome – does he mean it?

·         Is there good news for the likes of us; those the world looks down on; those who feel their poverty and ill-health to be God’s punishment? It sounds like there is…shall we hang around to hear more?

·         Is there good news for the likes of us; we who’ve worked hard and saved, got an education, bought a stake in the race and are reaping the rewards? Sounds like there isn’t… Should we hang around to hear more?


Jesus is speaking to disciples (17b, 20a), to those who are listening (27; 7:1): this is good news for everyone: a radical shake-up that changes everything and from which everyone emerges a winner… No wonder there’s singing at the back!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Thought-provoking lunches

Today I had an extremely enjoyable lunch discussing how we might set up some kind of social enterprise at church, bookended by visits to our annual holiday at home. As ever one of the issues that came up over lunch, which had nothing to do with the reason for getting together, has left me pondering...

It was about the nature of ministry, more specifically ordained ministry and what it's all about for us baptists. This is something that I am not that vexed about but enjoy talking about from time to time. I'm pretty anabaptist about all this (I think; if I understand this tradition correctly). I believe in the priesthood of all believers and the prophethood of all priests; I believe that Ephesians 4:11 applies to everyone in the church, not a select band of chosen leaders. So what is this ordination thing all about?

I feel the need to ponder this. Anyone care to help?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Having attended one too many men's meetings featuring an alpha male in dockers and a polo shirt strutting a muscular self-help ethic masquerading as the gospel for men like him, I was delighted to read this intelligently provocative piece by Jonathan Langley. It's on a website that's new to me but which seems to be offering some stimulating reading matter. Check it out here.

What I like about Jonathan's piece is that it's the first by a man that recognises that men don't go to church for a whole range of reasons and that a one-size-fits-all approach to men's ministry is absurd and demeaning to all involved.

I remember a long time ago attending a men's event that featured an alpha male who at the time was heading up a large national Christian organisation. In order to demonstrate that becoming a Christian had not made him less of man, he told a story about lobbing a spanner (a harmless prank, you understand) at a work colleague ribbing him for joining the God squad. This demonstrated, so he thought, that he was a still a red-blooded male able to bond with his mates. It demonstrated, I thought at the time, that he was a boorish thug both before and after he started going to church. I prayed that he might actually get what Jesus was about.

As Jonathan points out too much men's ministry is aimed at a parody working class male. It seems to me that it mostly fails on two levels: working class men find it as buttock-clenchingly embarrassing as we do and it seems tangentially related at best to anything Jesus is about.

Men are as fabulously diverse as the other 50% of the human race and reaching them with the good news about Jesus requires we get that. So thanks Jonathan for stimulating the grey cells.

Celebrating new music with Roxy providing the soundtrack

Listened to Craig Brown on Desert Island Discs this morning - very engaging. And he chose Sea Breezes off the first Roxy album - so that is my soundtrack for this morning.

I've acquired some good music over the past month. First up is the d├ębut album by Alt-J (the keyboard short cut on a mac to create the delta sign, apparently). An Awesome Wave is a quirky mix of indie pop, plainsong, close harmony and African and Asian beats and instrumentation, with literary allusions aplenty in the lyrics. It all sounds a bit sixth form but when it all comes together, the results are sublime.

And after a long wait (17 years I reckon) the new Dead Can Dance album, Anastasis dropped into my in-box last Friday. It's worth the wait. DCD are described as world music - possibly because they hail from Australia and blend asian instruments with their electronic washes to create swirling, anthemic music rich with emotion. But whatever you label you attach to it, it's pretty lovely. While waiting for this new album, they have been releasing a series of live happening collections, downloadable for free from their website (worth checking out and collecting).

But neither album has a song that is as viscerally arresting as Virginia Plain was to a fifteen year old me when it was released as Roxy's first single in 1971/2. Not included on the first album, it did make it to the re-mastered CD. On top of the pops, Roxy were at first sight, just another glam rock combo, albeit more glam than most. But something set them apart: there was a darkness at the heart of their music, a mirror held up to the bleakness behind the glittery surface of the early 70s that resonated with me. And boy, could they play - Andy Mackay blew a mean sax, Phil Manzanera is one the best guitarists these shores have produced, and Brian Eno - what was he? what was he doing? Someone from a dimension none of us inhabited, bringing soundscapes from other, more exciting worlds than ours; even then he was making the waves that would sweep pop music to more interesting shores.

Well, as I'm discovering this morning, it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up; I'm not sure why - maybe it just captured a mood still buried deep in my sub-conscious; maybe it's just fabulous, lush music, danceable with a rich vein of humour.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Preparing, planning and plotting

A whole month later, I'm back. What with the Olympics and preparing for Sri Lanka, there has been no time for blogging. But the Olympics are triumphantly concluded and I have prepared material for two weeks teaching in Colombo and Peredeniya - I have also sent copious quantities of notes and papers for my students to get stuck into ahead of classes starting (yes, I hear the sound of laughter at the back!)

My chief dilemma now is finding a format to transport the notes and papers. The favourite option is an iPad. I am trying it out on a friends unit at the moment before I actually take the plunge and buy one (though the readies are squirrelled away for that purpose).

The aim then will be to travel with just an iPad and a Kindle and not a sheet of paper in sight which will free a huge amount of baggage allowance. Well, that's my excuse; actually what I want is to be one of those travellers constantly updating his cyber profile in every departure lounge he passes through (I'm sure it will pall on the second airport I visit!)

I am teaching the social history of the New Testament for the third time - though I have tweaked the notes for every day and substantially re-written for five or six sessions. The course on NT theology is new - though compiled from existing resources. We'll spend a week looking at narrative theology and the gospel of Mark (day 1), four NT themes, viz Christology, atonement, the Holy Spirit and Church (day 2), 1 Peter and James (day 3) apocalyptic ideas and Revelation (day 4). This will leave day 5 for revision and an exam. Hopefully it will work, given the constraints of the system I am slotting into!

I have also had an opportunity to think through the autumn and spring programme for church and have created something that I think will work well, focusing on 1 Thessalonians and Colossians in the mornings and Matthew's gospel in the evenings. Advent will be given over to Isaiah. We'll be exploring issues such as identity, community, work, sex, hope, grief, the spirit of the age and the power of the gospel. It should keep us on our toes theologically and spiritually.

There'll be a report on cool new music along in a little while.