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)

Church for those with learning disabilities

Our church hosts a congregation for people with learning disabilities. The leader of this ministry, Chrissie Cole, wrote recently for our church bulletin. I thought it was a great story and worth reproducing.

“You mean, I can pray in the garden?” This remark was made by a young man with autism and a learning disability the first time he came to the Causeway group.

We were looking at the story of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. This young man has gone on to be a valued member of our group, who prays the most wonderful prayers which show a degree of compassion for others which is quite surprising given his autism. I hope he has also begun to pray in his garden!

But I am always being surprised by the people who come to the Causeway group; by their faith which takes Jesus at his word, and by their love and support for each other. The Causeway group, which is supported by the Christian charity Prospects, aims to provide accessible worship and teaching for people with learning disabilities such as the young man above. We have been running for 24 years and at the moment have 21 members.

Over the years I think I have had more encouragement and blessing from them than I have given back. Some people might question whether those who do not have the understanding to grasp the theological truths of Christianity are really able to be Christians. To which I would reply that Christianity at its heart is not about theological truths, but is about a relationship with a living God.

Anyone who can respond to another person, on whatever level, is capable of responding to Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and I have seen this happen in wonderful ways over the years. It has also become clear to me that God has equipped them with gifts, as he has everyone in his church, such as being able to lead us in prayer, lead worship on the piano, or notice when someone else is feeling down and needs prayer. I believe it is important that, as with all of us, they are encouraged to use their gifts to build God’s church, both in the Causeway group, and in the wider church.

Not sulking, just thinking hard

That’s our story anyway.

What brought this post on was hearing a lecture from Catholic historian Eamonn Duffy.

In its pre-reformation days, we were told, the Church happily contained many strands of thinking under its ample skirts. Later Reformation criticism (against dubious fundraising through selling indulgences for example) were openly discussed and campaigned against by people such as Erasmus, within the Catholic fold.

After the split, however, the Church of Rome convened the  Council of Trent, better known perhaps as the Almighty Catholic​ Sulk 1 and made a perverse point of adopting all the dodgy stuff as it had been central all along. The split hardened what once was fluid.

Nothing new here of course. The estranged halves of a split each get busy digging trenches. But it’s everywhere.

Is this what faces our Brexiteers as they try to negotiate Tessa May’s beloved Deep and Special Partnersnip with the EU? Will we, instead, find our former partners in full Council of Trent mode? Hope not.

Doesn’t it explain our own country a bit as well? In our church context, some nationalities, like the Chinese, approach the Christian faith in a rational manner: they turn up at church to learn what it is about. This keeps happening in our church.

Many of my fellow Brits, however, seem to reject even a mention of the gospel in what seems to me like an irrationally unfriendly way, like divorcees, like the bruised survivors of a split. The West, someone said, is haunted by the Christian faith.

What is the answer? It took hundreds of years for Catholics and Protestants to resume friendly relations. Let’s hope history really is moving quicker than that.

‘Science’ and ‘religion’ were originally names for good personal habits

The Territories of Science and Religion
’Science’ was originally a name for virtue, or a good habit–like making your bed or not doing that thing with your nose in public.

According to the thoughtful book The Territories of Science and Religion by Peter Harrison, when thirteenth-century Doctor-of-the-Church Thomas Aquinas filtered newly-recovered Greek philosophy through a Christian net, — which was more or less what Aquinas did with his life — he came to understood ‘science’ as ‘working out conclusions from first principles.’ It was one of a trio of virtues: intellectus (grasping the first principles in the first place) scientia (deriving conclusions from them) and sapientia (coming to terms with the highest and ultimate cause, namely God.)

Good people possessed scientia. It was a fine habit. They were able to arrive at conclusions from principles and evidence, unswayed by prejudice, rage, timidity or Fox News (Vulpes Fabulae).

Religion –religio–was also a virtue. I am oversimplifying Peter Harrison’s careful historical inquiry here, but perhaps religio could be  ‘a disposition to worship the true God and live out a life of goodness.’ Insofar as this sense was true, it potentially transcended any one expression (Catholicism, say), by focussing on the timeless essence of the thing, namely the heart-to-God encounter that leads to a good life.

The opposite of religion could be ritual or idolatry–investing in spiritual scratchcards, as it were–or the equally empty pursuit of money, pleasure and stuff; or again the worship and pampering of Self; or even the slavish and fearful preoccupation with the Material Only.

Back in the early modern day, good people were defined by a kindly God-centred life and by applying logic to facts and arriving at conclusions. Scientia and Religio. Could perhaps do with a comeback.

 

Peter Harrison’s book is available on Kindle, and his first chapter, which arguably contains all the really good bits, is free to download.

The Territories of Science and Religion

by Peter Harrison [University Of Chicago Press]
Price: £22.50 EUR 26,97 EUR 27,36 EUR 23,95

The Kingdom of God as the ‘sphere of God’s goodness’

I enjoyed this quote from Ken Costa

God at Work: Live Each Day with Purpose
When Jesus came to earth, he proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand. The language of kingdoms can sound strange to us, in that it seems to signify territoriality. In the context of work, it may therefore be helpful to see the kingdom of God as “the sphere of God’s goodness” in the world. We are called to advance God’s kingdom, sharing the “sphere of goodness” and extending it as we operate with God’s values. Our actions at work have the potential to advance the kingdom of God and his “sphere of goodness,” or to hinder it–on both a macro and a micro level. Each time we tell the truth, make decisions fairly and with respect for others, or act with integrity, we are advancing this sphere, albeit in small ways.

Ken Costa, God at Work, p 16.

Wonderful immigration (with working link this time -sorry)

Crowd
The Church around the country is leading the fight against mean and small-minded immigration policy.

I am relying on anecdote here. It’s just that so many of my Christian friends, when they aren’t staffing the food bank rota, are helping Iranians and Syrians and Afghans fill out forms, make appeals and try to start a new life in the UK. They also inviting them to their homes, teaching them English and being their friends.

Where are the politicians? Crowding into the cellar. Where are the newspapers? Foaming at the mouth for the most part. I don’t see too many opinion-formers  telling us that the inward flow of young, keen, hardworking people is a great gift to us, a resource better than discovering a reservoir of shale oil under the entire North of England.

These good people are going to pay my pension and keep the health service running for me.  Of course we have to observe the lifeboat principle – if you try too much, too fast, you sink.

But that can’t be that hard given the fact we are entirely surrounded by an impassable watery border, we have coped even with 300,000 new people a year, and our population would be shrinking and ageing if we didn’t open our doors. We have a big lifeboat and it isn’t full. In the year 2000 the foreign-born population of the UK was 4%. By 2010 it was 8%.Well done us.

The beautiful joy of criticism

It separates wheat from dross, and cuts rough diamonds

Ufology sign
By ‘criticism’, I don’t mean saying bad things about people, of which I think we do way too much.

I mean holding something up, looking at it in a fresh light, considering an alternative view, listening to the opposite argument, assessing and weighing the evidence. 

Sceptical skills do not come naturally to us and I think we should practice them. Argue with yourself against some deeply-held opinions for a few minutes each day, perhaps. 1

I think we should cultivate the friendship of the smart, good people who despite being smart and good, believe all the wrong things.

We should celebrate when we change our mind or arrive at a fresh perspective. These are moments that don’t come round so often. It’s much more common, apparently, only to really latch on to the fresh information that digs us deeper into the rut we have already chosen.

And finally we should train our sceptical gunsights on those who who are on our side, who are bravely fighting our corner. It isn’t wrong. It’s breathing clean air.

Is evangelism biblical?

Only evangelicals believe this.

Breaking bread, juice, dinner party, Broadview townhouse, Seattle, Washington, USAHere’s a question.

Is evangelism something you should ‘do’? Is this how we should think?

  1. I am a Christian
  2. The world needs to know the gospel
  3. Led by God, I must go and tell it/them.

I’ve believed this is the right thing to do for decades but never much liked the idea, and not been too good at it either.

There’s an alternative:

  1. The Kingdom is coming
  2. Turn to the King and follow him

I like this much better. Why are these two ideas different?

The first seems to be fatally flawed in that it casts me as the good guy and the expert and the world as the needy thing to which I am sent like a spiritual paramedic. I am broken, as truly broken as the world is, we all know this, I want to communicate this. We evangelicals like to talk about ‘one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread’: good so far. But having the wrong starting point really doesn’t help this communication effort. When I climb into the spiritual ambulance, put the blue lights on, and race helpfully towards you I am obscuring the message of our mutual need.

The second approach starts with broken me and sets as my duty ‘following Jesus’ rather than ‘evangelizing’. Go where he leads; do what he wants me to do; become what he wants me to become; and strive to form disciples en route.

The first feels like a marketing campaign, the second feels more like a pilgrimage – and also more natural, normal and slow.

There’s some Biblical heft behind the second idea (as well as personal preference). It’s what Jesus himself said and did, right from the start on the Galilee lakeside: the Kingdom is coming: embrace it.

It’s what he sent out his apostles to preach and demonstrate.

Even the Great Commission in Matthew, the final peak of Christ’s teaching, is not (as is often taught and I myself have taught) ‘go and make disciples’. It is best translated, ‘in your going’; ‘as you go’; or (I paraphrase) ‘on your way through life’, ‘make disciples of all the nations.’

I don’t think all the evidence is in my favour and I am deliberately overstating things. Just a few days ago I heard of more than 50 students making a profession of faith after what looked a lot like an evangelistic campaign in their university. Paul and other apostles clearly strategized, preached, believed they had the answers and set out to teach the world. They behaved like good evangelicals. But they were gifted evangelists. And they were only a part of the Church’s response to Christ; they had their limitations too. And perhaps campus evangelistic missions are more like the exception in church growth, not the rule.

We are not all evangelists. Teaching us all to behave like evangelists is an evangelical weakness, a weakness that’s obvious to everyone (except ourselves). We thereby seem to love to instruct people in the right way to live–not an attractive quality–rather than admitting the truth, which is that we are all hippos together in the glorious mud–but Christ has come among us.

Inconvenient data

It just really gets in the way of sloppy thinking.

Fulbe herders, W Africa, 1984, taken from just outside my front door — a missionary memory of my own.

Our new vicar showed us a film of his early life as a child of missionaries in West Papua (the other half of Papua New Guinea).

A compilation of home movies, and from the 1970s, it was almost a splicing together of Victorian missionary cliches: small dark-skinned people carry suitcases on their heads through the jungle. White missionary in shorts and pith helmet preaches to seated crowds who are clad in shells and penis-gourds. Female white missionary gives injections while dark-skinned people wait patiently for their turn; local children run to greet the aeroplane.

I’ve spent a lot of my career writing positively about missions in a world where ‘everybody knows’ the whole endeavour is an exercise in cultural imperialism and thinly-veiled racism. These images confirm everything ‘everyone knows’ and they don’t help.

Except they did help. As the film unfolded, we saw the happiness on the people’s faces when they destroyed their weapons in a fire. We saw the road that two villages built to connect them because they wanted to give up war forever.  Primitive peoples? They were advanced enough to disarm and to build bridges with their neighbours and rivals. Conspicuously more advanced, then, than my country; and the gospel did that. The gospel the pith-helmeted missionaries in their t00-short 1970s shorts brought.

How often is the truth more complicated, and more unfashionable, than the lazy assumption? I think probably always.

Keep a pencil handy

Because eternity’s at your shoulder

lined paper

Today someone, armed just with a pencil and paper could make something that will last forever.

It might be a pencil sketch, or a melody, or a novel, or a theorem.

As long as there are people, that picture or song or story or insight will live on. Even if humans are out-evolved by (let us say) intelligent machines, they may be wise enough still to treasure these divine relics.

And our art may add to the furniture in an eternal age to come. The Bible’s Book of Revelation says ‘The glory and honour of the nations’ will be carried into City of God (Rev 21:26).

Once there was a time when Picasso had not sketched a dove, when Handel had not written the Hallelujah chorus, when no-one knew the magical relation between e, i, pi, 1 and zero, when no-one had ever written a gospel or a sonnet.

Today or tomorrow some art will be created that will loved for a thousand or ten thousand years.

Two thoughts

Two obvious thoughts flow:

  1. How can anyone believe we are not made in the image of God? That we are not his sketches, melodies, novels, theorems? That he didn’t create us to create this stuff to celebrate his glory of which he contained too much to keep to himself?
  2. Buy a pencil-sharpener.