Three annoying habits of Christians (and how to cultivate them)

annoyedThe Christian faith triggers a number of  reactions among which are:

‘Not really sure’

‘Not for me’

‘Not today’

Or

‘I’d rather put my head in a food mixer.’

Some of this might be blamed, rightly or wrongly, on genuinely irritating habits of Christians such as:

  • Reactionary politics
  • Believing conspiracy theories
  • The Crusades, The Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials
  • Over-prolonged eye-contact
  • Invading my personal space
  • Excessive empathy
  • Puppyish enthusiasm

and

  • Always wanting me to go on courses

I do believe, however, that some irritating habits I see in some of my fellow Christians are worth nurturing. Here are three. If only I could:

Grace. Refusing to speak ill of people. Introducing a positive note in the office just when morale is at its most deliciously dismal. Not bearing grudges or engaging in satisfying acts of minor malice or revenge. Doing the coffee cups. Not assassinating people behind their backs. Buying the biscuits.

Certainty. ‘I have become one of those annoying people who is sure God loves him. Goodness and mercy will follow me all my days. God will not stop doing good to me. My death will see my longings fulfilled, my tears wiped away and possibly my nose blown. I know I deserve none of this and I agree you are as good a person as me. Sorry if you find that irritating in some way.’

A light touch. Aw, I wish I had this. And I wish the millions of people banging away on keyboards in their bedrooms had this. God save us from point-by-point refutations.

Satire should, like a polished razor keen

Wound with a touch that’s scarcely felt or seen

(Mary Wortley Montague, quoted in Stephen Pinker p 766.)

How to bury a non-churchgoer (part 1)

Overgrown graveyard 3

I asked my former church leader, Canon Stephen Leeke, this question:

‘I have twice been asked to do funeral services for family members. These family members did not want a Christian funeral. I want to help the best way I can. What should I do?’

Stephen kindly responded.

As an Anglican minister I have conducted many funerals and since I retired I seem to be doing more! Many of them were for people who were not committed Christians. The Church of England funeral service is a great asset and has been carefully worded with some very useful features.

My principles:

  • All human life is precious and God loves us all.
  • I am not the judge and he knows all the thoughts of our hearts.
  • I am a minister of the gospel and a servant of Jesus Christ.
  • A funeral is primarily for the benefit of the living.
  • The deceased and his or her opinions should be respected but not be paramount.
  • Funerals don’t have to be funerals!
  • Jesus said, ‘Let the dead bury the dead’.

All human life is precious and God loves us all

This is one of the things a funeral service is saying implicitly. And it needs to be said. If I refuse to officiate because the deceased was not a ‘Christian’ (by my reckoning), what am I saying about God? He only loves the faithful? – He doesn’t. I am only interested in those who have joined up? – I ain’t! 

I was asked to preside at the funeral for one of my school teachers whom I hated. In preparing for the event I found that his children had a similar emotion! They said to me, ‘We don’t know what you are going to say.’ I said that I would not lie and nor would anyone know my opinion of him. I spoke about his good points and his achievements, balanced by the fact that not everyone liked him and he was far from perfect. The congregation thanked me afterwards for painting a true picture of the man they knew and mourned even though he was problematic. I was acutely aware that I am far from perfect too and that I am not the one who has to judge.

I am not the judge and God knows the thoughts of our hearts

It is given for man once to live and then comes judgement. Some people wouldn’t mention that word at a funeral but I am grateful that the CofE service does.

So suppose everyone says he was an atheist, but was he? And was he at the time of his death? I have known people come to a living faith in Christ hours before their death. And others who have said ‘Amen’ to prayers they heard when in a coma. So who is to tell what the dead person believed (or even what they wanted?) I just don’t know, so I rarely ask the family what the deceased believed or whether he was a churchgoer (does that guarantee a ticket?). But I have discovered that the Funeral Director often asks whether they want a ‘religious’ funeral or a non religious one! Relatives can demur at asking for ‘religious one’. It sounds a bit off-putting. But if they nevertheless still ‘want the vicar to do it,’ fine. Where there is faith there is hope.

The day the stars fell from the sky

Ice on roofWhen ice melts off a roof, you hear dripping and thawing for some time. Then, occasionally, a whole chunk falls off. I think I have lived through such a change in the UK. Census returns show it:

UK Census 2001 Christian: 71.7% No religion: 14:8%

UK Census 2011 Christian: 59.3% No religion: 25.1%

A piece of ice fell off the roof. When I was growing up, we theoretically believed in the ten commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.

School worship was vaguely Christian.

National celebrations like Armistice Day saw the country getting its Christian hardware out.

It was a staple of farce that the moment something immoral was happening in your house, the Vicar would call, and you were bothered.

In fairness it was all ripe for collapse, because not too many people believed in it really, though some did.

What has happened since has been:

  • The incineration of millions of old nominal Christians (after they died).
  • Their replacement by millions of younger people not brought up in Christian traditions
  • A new widely accepted story about what we believe.

The new normal

I blame the BBC for this latter point, though really our national broadcaster only reflects back to us our own thoughts. What is the new normal? All religions are treated equal and thereby categorized and thereby diminished. The BBC looks down on them all and ‘caters’ for them all, while believing in none of them.

The position from which it looks down is not defined, but is assumed to be somewhere liberal, reasonable, empirical, scientific:  a totally superior vantage point to where the poor saps who still follow ‘a religion’ lurk. Christians may prefer Fair Isle jumpers and fair trade coffee to beards and burkhas but really. All religions are the same and don’t lead anywhere. Though of course one must give them the utmost respect.

Ursa MajorThe Christian faith was like the constellation Ursa Major in the Northern hemisphere: always there, always indicating true north, always pointed out to children, always called the wrong thing, but everyone recognised it.

Now the stars have fallen from the sky.

Millions of thoughts flow from this, which might occupy other blogs. One is worth thinking about in passing.

It is a loss. Since the Emperor Constantine the European peoples bought into a project to unite every aspect of their lives– science, philosophy, trade, agriculture, birth, marriage, death–under the Lordship of Christ.However well or badly that worked out, we agreed on where the pole star was. Now it’s gone.

Interesting. Thoughts, anyone?

 

Why violence has fallen

Stephen’s Pinker’s wonderful book The Better Angels of our Nature describes the fall in violence over thousands of years. You have to read the book if you don’t believe me, but I find it convincing.

Amazon

For example: we have a much less chance of being caught in a vendetta or blood feud than if we were all hunter-gatherers 5000 years ago. Crucifixion, cannibalism, the rack and the whip, these days, are deployed only in the world’s darkest holes, not in its finest civilisations. These days–in Europe–we worry about battery hens or foxhunting or whether a cow died well; in the past we worried about slave trading or state executions.

We still have evil and violence in the world but, per capita, per life, there is much less of it.

Wars, of course, are more problematic but even here the facts are surprising. No war has killed more than World War II, true, but World War I only ranks fifth or sixth in the list, out-cataclysmed by three Chinese wars and the Mongol conquests. If you adjust for world population at the time, neither of the 2oth century’s showpieces make the top ten.

So, violence has declined.

Why?

Pinker has five general reasons:

  1. ‘Leviathan’: by this he means, following Thomas Hobbes, government and the power of the state. If they punish the person who robs me, I don’t have to. And if they police the streets, it’s possible fewer people will want to rob me in the first place. Anarchy is bad for us. Government, though it brings its own problems, is preferred.
  2. ‘Gentle commerce’: the more we trade, the less we fight.
  3. Feminization: It does tend to be the chaps who do the violence; as women gain more influence, violence declines.1
  4. ‘The expanding circle’. The more we mix, and appreciate each other, and put ourselves in each other’s shoes, the less likely we are to fight. Maybe education works, too. Sounds soppy, but, hey.
  5. ‘The escalator of reason.’ This is about applying logic to problems rather than pride or prejudice.

I find this powerful stuff. Take your favourite dysfunctional country, and apply this lot, and things will get better. That is what is happening around the world, and why we now have–for example–the EU rather than the 100 years’ war.

But he missed the chilli out of the curry

I  find these arguments necessary and enlightening, but not sufficient. On my reading Steven Pinker is a wonderful scholar but he keeps dodging Jesus. Like many who boast the title ‘humanist’, he is happy talking about the Old Testament, about crusades, inquisitions, and witch-burning, but he refuses to look Christ–the not-retaliating, against the death penalty, blessed-are-the-peacemakers Christ–in the face. He underplays the role of radical Christians in (for example)  fighting slavery, inventing the whole idea of the NGO and being decisive in civil society, also known as being salt and light.

(This might not be his fault. If he is a behavioural psychologist he is destined to be shaped by his environment and anyone who spends as much time as he does with social scientists is bound to lose his grip in certain areas.)

It matters, though, even in a book so brilliant as his. Take drug addiction in the UK. ‘Leviathan’ gets druggies their own apartments, on methodone rather than heroin, with a care worker, using clean needles and with good free healthcare. It’s harm reduction and it’s loads better than nothing.

But I could dig up stories about hundreds of former addicts who are off drugs entirely, and embedded securely in loving networks of family, community and work. And they would attribute the change to Christ. Government ministers have visited centres in the UK and seen this and asked, ‘couldn’t you do it without the religious stuff?’. The answer, of course, is ‘feel free’. But when it comes to rescuing druggies, fishing the inebriated out of ditches, running day care for the elderly, the humanists honestly seem a bit thin on the ground. Perhaps his curry is lacking a dash of chilli.

 

A problem with miracles

You just can’t rely on them…

beauvaisOn Ascension Day 1573, just after the congregation had filed out of the building, the cathedral tower at Beauvais in Northern France fell through the roof. A monument to mediaeval hubris (it was, for a few short years, the tallest building in Europe), it  has never been finished2. But because the tower fell just after church, nobody died. A miracle?

1755On All Saints’ Day 1755 the Great Lisbon Earthquake struck, while the churches and Lisbon cathedral were packed with worshippers. Thousands died. Meanwhile the non-churchgoers, picknicking or partying away from the city, survived the quake and also the following fire and tsunami.

Christians 1, Atheists 1.

 

On not being sucked into the vortex of someone else’s urgency

Evangelists, and apostolic, entrepreneurial Christian types generally, seem to be the unsettling opposite of ‘slow mission.’ They dash about. The apostle Paul seemed always to be in a hurry.

Rush Hour at Guwahati Club, Guwahati

This can make the rest of us feel uneasy. These people are out evangelizing the world while we are digging allotments, playing games, visiting Aunts or watching cricket. Do they show up us slow mission types as wicked, lazy servants?

Here’s why that isn’t—or at least might not be—the case.

  1. Much of what is achieved in haste seems either to evaporate altogether or need re-doing more slowly.
  2. In my experience, some evangelists cut corners. They might be slapdash with relationships, or with money, or with the speed limits. Their evangelistic zeal is a kind of coverall to hide their character defects.
  3. God in any case has his ways of slowing evangelists down. Paul kept being put in jail, and arguably did his best work there, writing half the New Testament.
  4. Slow mission is not about laziness. When you follow your love and your passion, you work harder and for longer than when you work at anything else. Duty can take you a long way, but devotion will take you further. 
  5. Evangelists’ love and passion is in winning people. That’s their thing and their devotion. Wonderful.  But it shouldn’t–should it?– be foisted on the rest of us as if it were the final word in discipleship or obedience.

‘Chasing Slow’: great title, helpful book

Chasing Slow: Courage to Journey Off the Beaten PathChasing Slow: Courage to Journey Off the Beaten Path by Erin Loechner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The title was irresistible and was happy to promote this book up my reading shelf. This was the first time I’d come across Erin Loechner who is evidently famous in lots of places for her interior design (in the sense of homes, rather than souls. Though she’s not bad on the interior design of souls either.). Here are the pluses and minuses for me:

The pluses:
* Beautifully designed and very often beautifully written
* A personal life-story, nevertheless it’s crafted well enough to connect her story with ours and is stimulating and thought-provoking.
*It’s an enjoyable, fresh, challenging read.

The minuses
*I found the beginning (?more about hope, ambition and dreams) more interesting than the latter half of the book (more about the challenges of rearing a toddler and for me a bit more been-there-done-that)
* It’s about a blogger reflecting on her blogging life, which as a blog itself contained a lot of reflecting on life. Shades of someone looking at herself looking at herself looking at herself in two facing mirrors. In this sense, it’s quite millennial in its enthusiastic self-analysis, but that’s refreshing for a boomer like me.
* There are some lovely aphorisms in the book, but I got a little worn down by the sheer mass of cutesy one-sentence solutions by the end.

I certainly don’t mean to be harsh. I liked this book, and its writer, a lot and will recommend it to others. Bit more cutting would have made the diamond shine brighter.

** I picked this book up for free as an Adavanced Review Copy. There was no obligation to write a review, still less a positive review, but it’s a good book. **

View all my reviews

At the smell of coffee

We Christians, especially us evangelicals, are very keen on programmes and courses. It sort-of suits our desire to package things. And we all of us like to receive pre-packaged things, whether it’s a ready meal or story. Life would be impossible without them, especially the Western consumer lifestyle.

I can’t help feeling something has been lost though.  This is God we are packaging, the Ultimately Unpackable. I suppose it’s good to always have something in the freezer that you can bring out when necessary, a gospel ready-meal, systematically covering the basics of Christian truth. A reader myself, I like a book, even though it’s a packaged summary, because it’s at least a start. (I’ve even written one for just that purpose.)

But the danger with a power-point-type presentation of the gospel is like every other power-point you’ve ever seen, it passes through the mind without ever being internalized. All the boxes are ticked, you’ve had the training, but in another way none of the boxes have been ticked. 

Jesus told stories which were totally incomplete accounts of the gospel. He probably had many reasons for this (not being stoned to death in a religious hothouse might have been one). But his stories are like the smell of coffee. They set you off on a hunt for the source.

Life is Short. Enjoy ur Coffee.

Does our love for the pre-packaged make us compartmentalized in  our thinking? Identikit in our practice? Unnatural in our growth? Interesting.