Cathedral faith

Look beyond the fundraising

My old publisher started his life in a Brethren assembly but ended his days worshipping in a cathedral. The gathering of disciples in a simple room is so New Testament. Why move?

He isn’t here for me to ask. But I too am drawn to the old buildings – I think for these reasons.

  1. Permanent. Cathedrals were built to stand forever, through all time and times, like the Church does.
  2. Humbling. Still so today, they must have been extraordinary as they towered over thatch-and-plaster muddy villages.
  3. Universal. They welcomed and sheltered a whole community. (Admittedly this didn’t stretch to outsiders, such as the Jews.)
  4. Filled with beauty and music. Like heaven and earth itself.
  5. Reminding us of heaven. Just look up, and see stained-glass accounts of God and his saints.
  6. Watered by a stream of liturgy. Ancient, comprehensive, slowly flowing, varying but never changing completely, all the generations take turns to swim in it. Through it habits form (in theory) and cultures are shaped; by it we take our part in the unending flow of praise to God. Babies enter the cathedral, corpses exit it, the flow of worship goes on.
  7. Corporate rather than individual. Admittedly, bishops or Queens or crusaders get special tombs ; but for most cathedral worshippers, their main identity is in being part of the mass of humanity; without individual lives, there is no crowded heaven.

Image by Diego Echeverry from Pixabay

The revolutionary effects of non-violence

It really works

I’m enjoying thinking about non-violence and radical submission.

Following Jesus’ example on non-violence and foot-washing, the principle of radical submission became embedded in Christian ethics.

Slaves were told to be excellent slaves, even if they served less-than-excellent masters. Enemies were to be fed and watered. Women, newly freed from oppression by the gospel, were told to fit voluntarily within the old patriarchal structures. They undermined it totally, throwing men completely off balance, by being unusually sweet and nice. Rulers were smilingly obeyed. Taxes were stumped up. Early on in the piece, a Roman governor (from memory, the younger Pliny) complained that the Christians treated the pagan dead with more kindness than the pagan living were managing to do.

When you treat an oppressor thoughtfully, charitably, kindly and well, you weaponize shame. ‘I’m giving you a chance to disgrace yourself,’ we say. ‘Don’t miss the opportunity.’

And even if that particular enemy is immunized against shame, his mother won’t be, his children won’t be, his support network won’t be. The more he shames himself by being cruel and sneaky to the kind, the more his authority shrivels away.

This has such powerful resonances for today. Hong Kong residents gather in their tens of thousands singing Christian worship songs (for example). This is much harder for the authorities to deal with than (for example) violent lawlessness. They have a playbook for violent lawlessness. They are rather less certain how to crack down on a church picnic.

It’s easy to say

Of course this is easy to say. Much, much harder to live out. Look at Zimbabwe, looted and ransacked by its leaders, peacefully opposed, but generations of suffering has not yet brought the needed change.

Look at the rise of autocracy and populism around the world. Yet, still, we have to insist that peacemaking and radical submission and love are the marker posts on the true path to transformation.

A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
    though you look for them, they will not be found.
11 But the meek will inherit the land
    and enjoy peace and prosperity. Psalm 37:10-11


	

The art of fighting for a cause

Re-reading the passion narrative in Luke, I noticed — sadly for the first time — that Christ was crucified as a political actor for political reasons.

Of course there was a bigger story going on, the one celebrated in the gospel, Christ dying to reconcile humanity to God.

But as far as everyone on the ground was concerned, it was politics. And seeing it in this light is fascinating. Jesus was out to ‘get’ the ruling religious authorities in Jerusalem. They had stolen religious affairs for their own good, not the common good. They were running the religion business so that they did well out of it: best seats at the banquets, top places in the synagogues.

Jesus campaigned against them. First he started a popular movement, going from town to town preaching and building large crowds. Then he spent some months training followers. Finally he invaded the Temple and taught right in their faces. This was incendiary stuff and everyone knew it.

But how did he ‘win’?

He chose the path of non-violence. He let them beat him, try him unjustly, crucify him.

Yet instead of stamping his movement out, as they hoped, within weeks it had thousands of followers, some of whom were themselves willing to die for him.

Over coming decades, the movement grew, and it split the autocracy still trying to control Jerusalem as Pharisees started to believe.

Finally the Temple was swept away by the Romans. Meanwhile the size of the Church grew, at its widest estimate, to a third of the human race.

The power of non-violence today

I saw this same dynamic when I was writing a book on Algeria. The White Fathers, a Catholic order, decided to stay in the country as the situation deteriorated into civil war in the 1990s. As very public Christians, they were obvious targets for the Islamic militants who were half of the civil war. (The state was the other combatant.) I remember hearing of three White Fathers, friends of a friend of mine, who were gunned down in cold blood one morning. The small Christian cemetery was filled with Muslim friends at their burial. One wrote to the newspaper saying something like, ‘I want to live like they do.’

This was not, presumably, was the Islamic militants intended: Christ and Christ’s peaceful ways were exalted. That which was supposed to be stamped out, lived.

Interesting.

Slow mission and the arts

Wonderful wastefulness

We are made in the image of a creative God and our creativity can bring him glory.

The arts are also an asset in mission work:

The arts are personal – they are heart-to-heart. Artistic expression and response prevent the Christian faith being reduced to formulas, programmes, or clichés.

The arts are intimate. Our complex selves respond not just to facts or emotion, but also to the sense of beauty or ugliness. The creative arts add extra dimensions to a person’s encounter with God.

The arts are daily bread. Humans hunger for stories and beauty just as they hunger for bread or God. Christian arts can enlighten a dulled world, sustain Christians in trials, and spark hope in hopeless situations.

The arts seed further creativity. The best art stirs people to reflect and create fresh art. In this way Christian art reproduces itself and extends the interaction between the risen Christ and the human species.

The arts bind communities together. Collective sung worship, or aesthetically pleasing buildings or rituals, for example, can unite people in communal devotion to God. We know ourselves to be part of something
greater than our own individual faith.

The arts can find soft places in hard hearts. Among the multiple reasons that Jesus told stories was, first, because everyone enjoys a
story, and second, because a story can start someone on a journey towards God even when that person is not willing at that time to seek him.

The arts are ‘wasteful’. Art is not usually economically justified. Rather, like when an expensive bottle of pure nard (grown only in the Himalayas) was poured on Jesus, the arts are an expression of unfettered love.

I first wrote this as part of a 52-week world prayer guide which I have been working on through 2018 and 2019. You can find out more about this project, and sign up for the full blessing, at Lausanne.org/pray

On finding your first love … again

In praise of the crazy act of love

Heart at airshow

Just coming down personally from a busy few months. With emails whittled down, files organized, commitments met, mostly, and the things shifted off my desk towards their final destination. A cup of tea in the sun and some mental unpacking.

And a reminder. The first love. That best, freest, sweetist thing I am capable of giving to my soul’s Lover. Not so much the good, proper, dutiful, obligation-fulfilling stuff that rightly fills much of my life. But the crazy act of love, unconsidered, unweighed, ill-judged. The thing done for the love of doing it and for the love of my creative Creator who loves me; the thing planted in our walled garden, for just the two of us. That thing. Do that.

Mission as being where Jesus is

This (from Rowan Williams, Being Disciples) is one of the most attractive reasons for the mission enterprise that I have read.

Being where Jesus is means being in the company of the people whose company Jesus seeks and keeps. Jesus chooses the company of the excluded, the disreputable, the wretched, the self-hating, the poor, the diseased; so that is where you are going to find yourself …

That is why so many disciples of Jesus across the history of the Christian Church –and indeed now — find themselves in the company of people they would never have imagined being with, had they not been seeking to be where Jesus is: those who have gone to the ends of the earth for the sake of the gospel; those who have found themsevles in the midst of strangers wondering, ‘How did I get here?’ People like Thomas French, a great missionary figure of the nineteenth century who spent much of his [p12] ministry as bishop in the Persian Gulf at a time when the number of Christians in the area was in single figures, and who died alone of fever on a beach in Muscat. What took him there? What else except the desire to be where Jesus was, the sense of Jesus waiting to come to birth, to come to visibility, in those souls whose lives he touched — even though, in the long years he worked in the Middle East he seems to have made no converts. He wasn’t there first to make converts, he was there first because he wanted to be in the company of Jesus Christ — Jesus reaching out to, seeking to be born in, those he worked with and loved so intensely. It’s the apparent failure, and that drama of that failure, so like the ‘failure’ of Jesus abandoned on the cross, that draws me to his story, because it demonstrates what a discipleship looks like that is concerned with being where Jesus is, regardless of the consequences.

Rowan Williams Being Disciples (pp 11-12)

Counting things to get to sleep

Just don’t do the sheep thing

Entre para por sobre con contra de desdeCounting sheep to get to sleep is one of those memes that should have been deleted from our collective consciousness years ago – along with other mother’s-knee nonsense like ‘a watched kettle never boils.’ (Have mothers’ knees not heard of the laws of thermodynamics?)

For those of us who spend many hours in bed but not asleep, there are many better things to do.

First, recognize insomnia is a gift, a free pass to get some extra mental stuff done while the rest of the world snores and snuffles to the grave. It is perhaps an unwanted gift, like singleness, but it is nevertheless a gift.

Insomnia is a gift, a free pass to get some extra mental stuff done while the rest of the world snores and snuffles to the grave.

Two, try to connect to God. I have found this such a help. It doesn’t matter if it’s a spotty connection, or if your mind wanders, or if you fall asleep in the attempt. God has seen us at our worst and it’s still OK.

I heard once of a very old lady who climbed into bed each night and started bringing up memories of all the people she’d loved or former friends who had already died. She remembered them with thanks to God, dozens or perhaps hundreds of them. Instead of feeling lonely I imagine she felt herself surrounded by a cloud of supporters who had loved her and gone ahead to eternity.

Or you can pray through the alphabet. Pray for something beginning with A. It doesn’t matter what – something. There’s only you and God there: you have fun together.  Pray for artichoke farmers. Or Australians. Or people who remind you of apes. Then move onto B. Or for an extra challenge, start with Z and work backwards. 

Insomnia’s a gift. Just don’t do the sheep thing.

Long read: a gospel worth believing

broken cupThis is a short extract from a longer article that got the original author into hot water.

I recommend it as a long read. 

Like hot water, it stings a bit but it’s really good once you’ve climbed in. Super article that (arguably) upsets all the right people. 

The gospel that infuses the body of Christ is about the restoration of broken relationships …Poverty is a broken relationship with God, with my neighbor, with the earth, and the broken places inside me.


Our task as the followers of the true healer is to help mend these fissures we find in life. Without this understanding we easily become purveyors of I’m here and you’re over there. The truth is that because I am broken, through my wounds I get to heal somebody else who also, in some strange way, begins to heal me as well. Jesus said that because of the injury and death he experienced, he could heal us. In humility we follow his lead and offer ourselves as his agents in sacrificial love.

Steve Haas

On being trusted by God

Being trusted by God feels just like being abandoned by him

I was commissioned to write this a few years ago, and thought it was worth unearthing.

Let me get a heretical thought out of my system first.

I was listening to the singer Katie Melua who had a modest hit in 2007 with a slightly wacky song called If you were a sailboat. There’s a line in that song that goes like this:

You took a chance on loving me
I took a chance on loving you

Here’s my heretical thought: that’s how it feels between us and God.

Listen to your good and true church leaders
Of course our church leaders, if they are good and true church leaders, will tell us that thought is theological nonsense on all kinds of levels. Here are two:

1.Us loving and trusting God isn’t a gamble. God is more reliable than gravity, more sure than taxation, more certain than the fact that your girlfriend will laugh at you for something you don’t find funny. Mountains are shifty things compared with our God. The stars can fade from the sky like foam vanishing into the sand: still God is true, still God is loving. It’s ridiculous to sing, as to God, a lyric like ‘I took a chance on loving you.’

2. God loving and trusting us isn’t a gamble either. This is God we’re talking about. God whose judgement might be said to be fairly sound. God who has a good idea how things will turn out in the end, because both the beginning of history and its end are familiar territory to him. When he set his love on the human race, when he offered the wide arms of Jesus to anyone who will rest himself in them, he wasn’t messing about, calculating the angles, whistling in the wind, or vaguely hoping things will come good. He’s going to finish what he started. When he sets his love on us he is most definitely not thinking:

You took a chance on loving me
I took a chance on loving you

But that’s how it feels
Except that’s how it feels, quite often.

Consider Joseph, patriarch, grand vizier of Egypt, and sometime irritating younger brother. His brothers sold him into slavery, doing something that many an elder brother has only dreamed of.

It set up one of the classic narratives of the Old Testament: 17-year-old Joseph trusted God. Ever-old, ever-young God trusted Joseph. Joseph is sold on to an Egyptian official, but works hard and becomes a top employee. He refuses to sleep with his boss’s wife, but gets imprisoned for it anyway. He rises to a senior position in the prison and has hopes for people putting in a good word for him with Pharoah, but his hopes are dashed yet again. Still God and Joseph trust each other. Finally, of course, thanks to realizing that Pharoah’s puzzling dream is actually a weather forecast, he is appointed Pharoah’s No. 2 and the story ends happily. He trusted God. God trusted him. And it all worked out.

Consider Mary, mother of the Lord Jesus. I think she was a teenager too. (Only a teenager, surely, would believe such a madcap idea as the ‘the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God’ (Luke 1:35, NIV). Sensible mothers knock ideas like that out of their daughters at an early stage.) We know that Mary found a friend in her cousin Elizabeth. She found another in her husband-to-be, another Joseph, who stood with her through it all. But presumably Mary had a mother, and aunties, and a granny or two. What did they think of her? What did her neighbours whisper? What did Joseph’s friends laugh about? How could Mary walk down the street in Nazareth as her bulge grew? Was she always the serene figure of mediaeval art? Not if she was a human being, she wasn’t.

Surely the Patriarch Joseph and the Virgin Mary, as well as every other person who has ever loved and trusted God in dark places, went through times when they could sing:

You took a chance on loving me
I took a chance on loving you.

We might wonder how God felt as he watched these dear servants endure their disappointments, taste their bitterness, cry their tears. Somehow I can’t see God sitting smug and aloof: what kind of Father is that? Did God too, somehow, worry about them? Did He, as it were, sit on his hands, longing to help, determined not to, nervous of the outcome? Somewhere within his all-knowingness and his almightiness could he, too, have sung:

You took a chance on loving me
I took a chance on loving you

These are questions for extremely highly paid and clever theologians, of which I am not one. But I’d love to know how you can be a Father and not feel vulnerable when you watch your children stumble and get hurt.

The power of powerlessness
The problem, in a nutshell, is this: God trusting you feels exactly the same as God abandoning you. Indeed that’s the nature of trust. There can’t be trust without a letting go. God backed Joseph to endure the disappointment, the self-doubt, and the injustice, and he did. God trusted Mary to endure the painful conversations and the laughter in the street, and she did.

Shortly my own 17-year-old daughter is likely to pass her driving test. This means I am going to have to hand over the steering wheel to her, and also (to be fair to her), try to restrain my cries of panic. I think I will have to put my fist in my mouth. I have to let go, or she won’t grow. I have to trust her, even though she’s 17. It’s a dad thing. You just have to do it. That’s a tiny instance of what God does every day, with each of us who have entrusted ourselves to him.

So why does God put us, and perhaps himself, through all this, this pain of trusting? Here’s why.

God wants sons (and daughters), not slaves. Being trusted makes you grow. Trust leads to trustworthiness. This world does not need more Pharisees, who trust the rule-book and recipe book, never think creatively, never cook something new. It does not need lazy miserable servants, scared that God is a taskmaster, who bury their gifts within a fear of failure, who never want to be vulnerable.

This world needs people who are built up by the power of trust. Trusted, trustworthy people. Read Paul’s first letter to Timothy (I’m paraphrasing): I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service … this is a trustworthy saying … entrust the church to trustworthy people … Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care.

Trustworthiness will see the Church through, Timothy.

And so it will. Through the infectious power of trust, God is raising sons and daughters, confident in his love and favour, sure of his power, creative and happy, free to innovate, free to fail, free to wonder and dream and love and fight and transform the world. The dreamer Joseph ran a country. The peasant Mary made the Incarnation work. But previous bold generations of saints haven’t exhausted all the fun. There’s still some left for us.

God trusts you. Go with it. It will hurt. But it’s OK.

Trusting in the slow work of God

Even when it’s annoying

I’ve several times had the experience where there’s been:

  • A good plan, to do a good thing
  • Lots of the pieces in place
  • Some missing piece, or some circumstance, that just slows everything down.

It doesn’t necessarily stop, this great project, but it barely crawls along. Snails overtake it. This isn’t what we bought into. Hope sags. I look at the vision ahead and the progress so far and do some rough calculations and realize I’ll have to move some of our milestones into the next century.

What is happening? So unprofessional. And if this is a Christian-inspired thing we’re trying to do, what is God doing? Doesn’t he care? If appearances are any guide, he is sitting on the hillside beside the lake while we are rowing into a gale. Couldn’t he, you know, lend a hand? Is that too much to ask of one who all-powerful and everywhere-present?

I only have two answers to this.

  1. God may have a different view of how important my contribution is,  and may therefore be relaxed about completing his work in the cosmos despite me paddling my canoe with no paddle provided.
  2. There’s a phrase in a dusty corner of the Old Testament concerning offerings to God: ‘handfuls of finely ground incense’ (Leviticus 16:12).