‘Arm them against the gray impersonal powers’

The Orkney poet George Mackay Brown was helped out of his alcohol-soaked obscurity by the other famous twentieth-century Orkney poet Edwin Muir.

George Mackay Brown attended Newbattle Abbey College, south of Edinburgh, a college for mature students, while Muir was warden. Muir’s recognition and encouragement changed Brown’s life. After Muir’s death, Brown wrote a play about him and puts these words, concerning the students, in Muir’s mouth:

Never be hard on them. Never let them feel they’re wasting their time. My time as well. The whole treasury of literature is there for them to ransack. Open their minds to the old wisdom, goodness, beauty. Arm them against the gray impersonal powers. They press in on every side. More and more.

George Mackay Brown in Richard Harries Haunted by Christ, SPCK 2019

‘Open their minds to the old wisdom, goodness, beauty’ … an astonishingly uncommon sentiment today.

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.

The slow pushback on the autocrats

Underneath the headlines, autocrats keep being foiled

Just read the annual letter by the head of the American-based Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth.

He talks about the slow pushback on the autocrats. Messy, partial, grassroots, ragged and often not making the headlines, it makes the tyrants lives harder and more complicated and at times, impossible. Poor them.

In some ways this is a dark time for human rights. Yet while the autocrats and rights abusers may capture the headlines, the defenders of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law are also gaining strength. The same populists who are spreading hatred and intolerance are spawning a resistance that keeps winning its share of battles. Victory in any given case is never assured, but it has occurred often enough in the past year to suggest that the excesses of autocratic rule are fueling a powerful counterattack.

Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch, 2019 Keynote

He adds

… new alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, have mounted an increasingly effective resistance. Political leaders decide to violate human rights because they see advantages, whether maintaining their grip on power, padding their bank accounts, or rewarding their cronies. This growing resistance has repeatedly raised the price of those abusive decisions. Because even abusive governments weigh costs and benefits, increasing the cost of abuse is the surest way to change their calculus of repression. Such pressure may not succeed immediately, but it has a proven record over the long term.

He then offers an impressive survey of current human rights abuses and how in many cases unorthodox groupings have added to the headaches for the autocrats.

I like this. It’s a very ‘slow mission’ way of opposing evil.

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 NIVUK

Justin Welby’s ‘Reimagining Britain’

[amazon template=image right&asin=1472946073]The Brexit referendum was the moment the ceiling fell in; but the dripping had been a problem for some time. Justin Welby’s book ‘Reimagining Britain’ is what happens when an Archbishop joins a crowd of workers leaning on shovels, looking at our nation, sucking their teeth and saying that this is going to take some fixing.

I like our Archbishops a lot. Archbishop Sentamu actually does stuff, like fasting, actually going hungry, which is a step up from most members of the order Primate, who usually only do stuff metaphorically (like ‘wrestling’ with a Bible text).

In Justin Welby, meanwhile, it is so refreshing to have an archbishop who doesn’t look like he’s just stumbled out of a library and can’t find his way back.

My liking for the Archbishops may make me too kindly disposed to this book; but even if it has flaws, it’s a really enlightening read.

Archbishop Welby is striving to ‘reimagine Britain’ after the loss of a Christian backdrop, the rise of pluralism, and above all, after the divisions brought to light by the Brexit referendum.

It’s a good fight and it needs someone, just as the nation needed an Archbishop Temple when Britain was being previously reimagined at the end of WWII. Welby believes Christians can lead this reimagining; in fact they must.  

Government-issue British values

The government’s response to the retreat of Christendom seems to have been to ask some poor civil service intern to write up a set of  ‘British Values’ on half a sheet of A4.1 This is to replace what grew through the toils of scholars, monarchs and martyrs in the last millennium and a half. They are:

  • democracy
  • the rule of law
  • individual liberty
  • mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.

Welby rightly rejects these as too flimsy and attempts to replace them.

‘When faith is increasingly privatized, it leaves a vaccuum which relativism in belief or a great plurality of incommensurable beliefs is unable to fill … There is a need for a generous and hospitable metanarrative within which competing truths can be held.’

He goes on  ‘It will be a suggestion of this book that Christian faith, centred on love-in-action, trusting in the sovereignty of God rather than political power, provides the potential for such hospitable and generous holding.’ (p 17)

 

So he first suggests a set of values, then attempts to reimagine aspects of British life with reference to them. 

Justin’s values

The Archbishop’s suggested values for reimagining Britain are ‘community’, ‘courage,’ and ‘stability’. If those sound too wishy-washy, suspend disbelief for a moment.

Community is about the way we all belong to each other, a note distinctly lacking in political discourse at the moment. After the referendum, the leavers didn’t say ‘let’s be magnanimous, let’s move forward together’. Instead we had, ‘You lost, get over it.’

Courage means giving room for animal spirits of competition, innovation and creativity.

Stability is basically a commitment to compromise, combined with a caution that gives room for bad stuff to happen without causing everything to collapse. Compromise! Forethought! Caution! Imagine!

So it’s good stuff. These are good directions to urge our society to head.

The best bit

The best part of the book for me was the reminder that Christians can rest on two truths: God is good, and God is King. In depressing days like these, I like the freedom to hope.  

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.

Religion in Europe – a public utility

They may not turn up, but that’s not the full story

Just read a fascinating interview about faith in Europe. It’s a little old now (2005) but one of those pieces that makes lights go on in your head. It was with Grace Davie, an Exeter University professor, the sociologist who popularized the term ‘believing without belonging.’

July 23 - Prague - Cathedral & Castle (10)A few highlights:

European exceptionalism

‘The patterns of religion in Europe are not a global prototype. They are, in fact, an exceptional case. European self-understanding is premised on the idea that modernization implies secularization. Europeans think that what Europe does today, everyone else will do tomorrow; they don’t find it easy to grasp that the European case is, perhaps, sui generis.’

Contracting out your faith

Religion is contracted out. Regular church attendance is small and declining. But trying asking a wider question – who do I want to take care of my funeral? A much higher percentage expect something of the church. ‘The historic churches are public utilities, and you expect public utilities to be there when you need them.’

‘Religion [is] performed by an active minority — that’s the belongers — but on behalf of a much larger number — that’s the wider population, who implicitly, not only understand but quite clearly approve of what the minority is doing. In other words, there is a relationship between the nominal member and the active member.’

‘Church leaders and churchgoers not only perform ritual on behalf of others, they also believe on behalf of others.’

This explains why newspapers write so much about what bishops believe and what the Church of England synod is up to. They are doing exactly what they also do with sport or politics — telling the crowds of semi-committed non-payers what the committed minority are getting up to.

Among further evidence for contracted-out religion she notes what happens in tragedies (people expect the churches to be open); and the resentment people feel about a parish church being closed (people feel it belongs to them).

Two models of church

Statistics can be misleading because change is happening within denominations as well as in newer denominations. This can hide working models (it does so in the Church of England). The two working models are:

  1. The evangelical, often charismatic church. ‘In every small town and city you will find a relatively successful evangelical church.’ The most successful include a charismatic, experiential element.
  2. The cathedral or city-centre church. ‘You can just go there, you can sit behind your pillar, nobody bothers you, but while you’re there, you experience traditional liturgy — very predictable liturgy, which is clearly important (everybody knows what’s going to happen). You have world-class music, sublime architecture and very good preaching. It’s a very high standard. If you look at cathedrals, they are filling at every level. They are filling with regular members, less regular members, pilgrims and tourists.’

These lead to two models of Christian involvement among Europeans: the convert (the one who joins the evangelical church) and the pilgrim or seeker. ‘Old-fashioned Biblicism, as well as liberal Protestantism, is in trouble … The purely cognitive does not seem to appeal to today’s population. And although you have two completely different patterns, in fact they have a common element. It’s not so much what you learn when you get there; it’s the taking part that is important. It’s the fact that you’re lifted out of yourself that counts. And the big one-off occasions — candlelit carol service or evangelical conventions — are what do the trick’. It’s a mistake to ‘divide Europe into people who practice [the weekly attenders] and people who don’t, because most people are somewhere in the middle.’

Share the gospel or preach good principles?

A randomised trial of religion has surprising results

Fascinating experiment in the Philippines. International Care Ministries (a Christian charity) helps the Philippines’ poorest people with a training course that contains anumber of modules. Some just explain the gospel. Others teach things like financial planning or health. The charity can deliver all the modules, or just some.

So they tried just the gospel portions on one large group of villages. They tried just the life-skills module on another group. Still another group got the full course. And for a control, they looked at villages where they did nothing. It was (reports the Economist, ‘a randomised controlled trial of religion’) 1

The group who got the gospel (6000 households, a large sample) became more religious, a bit gloomier about their prospects, and their incomes ‘had increased by 9.2% compared with the others. ‘

As the Economist points out, ‘For now, anyone recalling nudges from grandma urging wakefulness through tedious sermons should consider that she may have been right.’

The ‘consider’ sayings of the New Testament

Getting our head round this lot would change everything

considerJust looked up the ‘consider’ verses in the NT. What a fun study: all about reshaping our thinking by reminding ourselves what’s true, when it doesn’t feel true. Or something.

Mastering this lot would change our whole lives.

Here are some of them:

  • And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin 1
  • So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.2
  • Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds3
  • But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.4
  • Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.5
  • consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.6

Complain a lot, but praise a little too

The rights of God’s children

88960025When we’re trying not to be beaten senseless by our own thoughts, I like the way the Psalms do it.

Roughly:

  1. Complain all you like but always praise some.
  2. Sometimes just praise.

This is great! And it’s in the Bible:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me? (Psalm 13:1-2 NIVUK)

But then you have to praise.

It’s like when two of you have had a row, but one of you decides to say a slightly kind thing. Just that slightly kind thing can start to dismantle the situation. Before long you’re friends again. In the same way, a little willingness to praise starts to cap the gush of self-pity.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
    for he has been good to me. (Psalm 13:5-6 NIVUK)