The quiet power

Drop by beautiful drop. Photo by Rudrendu Sharma on Unsplash

Someone kindly sent me a book about the church that first discipled me after I committed my life to Jesus in my teens. It isn’t that big a church even now, but people will publish books about anything these days and it was a good read, partly because I knew many of the people and partly because, a generation later, you can look back with a bit of perspective.

The church was founded by four then-young people, refugees from the rather liberal Methodist tradition that was embodied in dozens of churches around West Yorkshire. They started, in true late ’60s Christian style, with a coffee bar in a church basement. Then they rented some premises of their own and ran their own services, listening to sermons on reel-to-reel tapes. They employed a 24-year-old pastor and his wife, church members numbers 5 and 6. (Pastors are always male in this tradition.)

When I arrived at the church about nine years later, it already felt like a proper church, with a membership of perhaps 50 or 70. In the few years I attended, before leaving West Yorkshire for university in London, it was busy acquiring and fitting out a new building. Since then it’s seen two or three churches come into being in other little Northern market towns, all in the FIEC, reformed evangelical fold. It’s moved again, into a still bigger building. People have retired.

They welcomed me, befriended me, taught me, loved me and gave me a grounding in faith I’ve drawn on ever since, and I’m still in occasional touch with two of the early leaders. Add up those who stayed and those (like me) who moved on, the churches must have played a part in the lives of hundreds of us.

There was a level of ambition, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Much of its most successful work was among young people, a so-called ‘social event’ one Friday, a Bible study the next. And camps and things. And church teas. And hospitality. And of course the regular work of maintaining a church community and preaching the Bible.

It was the quiet power of faithfulness that struck me. Baking flapjacks. Buying self-raising flour to make cakes for church teas. Hosting unruly teenagers year after year. Vaccuuming the house before, and probably after the meetings. All the work of running camps. Prayer. On and on, over forty years. There really was nothing spectacular, no radical innovation (except the gospel itself) no ‘quick wins’, just the awesome inertia of faithfulness, everybody doing their bit, again and again and again.

‘Theology after Bucha’

The team that I am part of reads hundreds of magazines each year and we file references and notes about them to use in the new version of the best-selling prayer handbook ‘Operation World’, eighth edition due out sometime.

Sometimes we share articles around. Here’s one from the person who monitors Russian and Ukranian magazines. I’m sorry it’s not in the cheerier terms in which I usually try to write.

Last week Ukrainian troops liberated the entire territory of the Kyiv region. What they discovered in the cities of Irpin, Gostomel, Bucha, and dozens of surrounding villages, words cannot convey. As I write these lines, my hands begin to tremble, and my eyes fill with tears.

Hundreds and hundreds of unarmed civilians were shot dead with their hands tied. Burned bodies of raped women. Dead bodies cover the streets of cities, fill basements, and decompose in looted apartments. Entire towns and villages destroyed to the ground. Russian military vehicles are full of stolen goods (household appliances, jewellery, underwear, perfumes, plumbing fixtures, etc.). The Russian soldiers in the border regions’ post offices send everything they looted to their families back in Russia.

I don’t know how to live with it. We have liberated only a tiny part of our country from the invaders. However, we can already say that in Ukraine, Russian troops have repeated the crimes of Srebrenica and Rwanda.

A month and a half ago, I could have given a lecture or preached a sermon on how to forgive enemies and support victims of violence. But today, I can only cry. I used to be tormented by the question of why so many Holocaust survivors later committed suicide. It is worth mentioning the poet Paul Celan, the philosopher Jean Amery, a great witness to the horrors of Auschwitz (in which my own grandmother also died), and Primo Levy.

A month ago, I could have given a lecture or preached a sermon on how to forgive enemies and support victims of violence. But today…

Today, I understand that the violence and evil they experienced deprived them of ways to return to everyday life, normal relationships, and trust in other people. They, like Eli Wiesel, have been in such an abyss of evil that it is almost impossible to look away from it.

Who knows how to pray with a woman raped for a week by a Russian soldier, who then shot dead her sick mother when the woman refused to go with him to Russia? How should I pray for a six-year-old boy who turned grey because the Russian military raped his mother day after day in front of him?

What words can be said to the elderly residents of a care home that ruthlessly reduced to rubble by a Russian tank? What can be said to the people who survived hell on earth, which was arranged for them by the Russian military? How can we bring comfort a wife whose husband ran out to seek help because she had given birth but was killed near the house? How do we mourn civilians who have been tortured so much that they cannot be identified?

Apparently, my readers find it hard to believe all this. A few weeks ago, I would not have believed that this is possible. But this is Ukraine, and this is the 21st century. And I think with even greater horror, what else will we learn when we liberate the rest of our territories?

I am not ready to talk more about this today, but I know that a new theology has emerged in Ukraine these days: Theology after Bucha.

This piece was written by Ukrainian church leader Rev. Dr. Roman Soloviy and published by The Dnipro Hope Mission.

What’s missing in the talks I’ve heard on the ‘Great Commission’

The wisdom of crowds. Thanks to Keren Fedida on Unsplash for this lovely pic of the SXSW festival.

A recent talk that got me thinking about what’s missing from the teaching about missions that typically happen in (evangelical) circles such as I move in.

Such talks – and I’ve given a few myself – note how a page in history turns at the end of the gospels and the beginning of Acts. Here’s the new page: Christ is now reigning as Saviour and King: that good news is to be embodied and universalized. Starting with the few hundred Jesus followers, forgiveness and new ways of living through Christ are to be offered and implemented to everywhere and everyone on earth. This five-fold repeated instruction (in the four gospels and Acts) to Christ’s followers is called the ‘Great Commission’.

Usually, and in the case of the talk I heard, that means individual Christians doing evangelistic stuff, and/or supporting other Christians doing evangelistic stuff, and it reminds us of the need to cross cultures, to go places we are uncomfortable, in order for the message to go everywhere.

So far so fine. Many of us evangelicals, and especially me, however, can go into full cognitive dissonance at this point. It’s a mission meeting. We’re in church. We can all agree evangelism is good, cross cultural evangelism is good, I’m all in favour of it, but no, I’m not really doing it, please, God, send somebody else.

Sorry.

The problem may not be me, I am hoping. The problem is the atomistic nature of what is being taught. It denies the way the world works, denies the way the church grows, and denies the wider teaching of the New Testament itself. Are all evangelists? No. What does everyone else do then? Support the evangelists? Is that it?

Jesus taught, make disciples of all the nations. I think we too readily forget the communal, non-atomistic, nature of these commands. I think we too easily forget the importance of families and networks and cultures.

In Europe, arguably, sort of, there is a local church in every settlement from the West of Ireland to the Ural mountains, from the North Norwegian coast to the Greek Islands. In principle, there are all these little communities based around the Kingdom of God interacting and engaging in a thousand ways with the dominant cultures all around them. You will be my witnesses. Everyone who is part of Christian communities can have a part in that, doing what they do, with all their devotion.

Then look at the order of what Jesus taught in Matthew’s gospel: make disciples by (arguably first) baptising and (then, arguably second) teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. In Europe this happened when a king decided to become a Christian and all his people were roped in. In many contexts, like with a friend I interviewed with experience of people in the Indonesian rainforest, the group decides for everyone. (Or sometimes the group splits into two groups.) Everyone included in the decision to follow Christ is baptised, and then the teaching starts. When the great Catholic missionaries like Francis Xavier did their stuff, they baptised whole communities. (Xavier allegedly got repetitive strain injury from all the baptising he did.) Communities that he mass-baptized, like on the Coromandel coast of India (part of Tamil Nadu) have retained a Christian identity until this day. Indeed some have kept such an identity since the time of the Apostle Thomas, a millenium and a half before Xavier. Even if none of these options are true in your culture, the good news about Jesus’ forgiving power and current reign always tends to travel better down natural networks of family and community.

What are the takeaways from that?

  1. If you are part of a Christian community, doing what you do with devotion, you are part of the great commission, bearing witness -part of a community bearing witness– to the cultures around you.
  2. There surely is a need, and Jesus gave a command, for individuals to cross cultures to spread the gospel.
  3. Such missionary individuals, who go to new cultures, need to prioritize starting and building communities, or repurposing existing networks.
  4. Mass baptism of the whole group of humans involved (like a household, a social group, or even whole tribe or nation) may help retain a Christian identity for generations, and provide a platform for teaching.
  5. In this way, the nations are taught about Jesus and how to follow him.

The inside-out church

Solid at the core, fluid at the edges

Reshape to renew

I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m going. Image by Marianne Aldridge from Pixabay

We were talking with a couple recently who were part of a church that had turned itself inside out. They had sold their (Baptist) church building, and moved into a community centre that was owned by a mental health charity. The charity, a non-religious outfit, had been set up to provide community-based care but were short of volunteers. The church had volunteers but no building. Bringing the two together brought two half-formed visions together. Fascinating (even if I’ve somewhat garbled the story).

Much more could be done. I have sometimes wondered if a church, instead of employing a family worker or a youth worker, could employ a professional mental health nurse. She or he could supervise lay work in the community and provide professional backing. Many community mental health needs can be met by lay people. They are often at the level of dropping in on someone for a cup of coffee, or phoning them to make sure they’ve taken their meds, or helping with cooking, shopping or budgeting. Such community concern (also known as ‘friendship’) can be transforming in the life of someone struggling alone with mental health issues.

Similarly, I am very impressed by the work of legal aid charities, who provide free legal services. Some of this work doesn’t need trained lawyers – for example helping people get justice via disability or Special Educational Needs tribunals. It just needs suitably skilled and trained volunteers. A church could easily pay a legal professional to manage a community law centre who could in turn lead a team of enthusiastic (though trained) amateurs and perhaps the odd intern.

Imagine a community legal centre or mental health centre that became a worshipping community on Sundays and the evenings!

These are all examples of churches turning themselves inside out, or perhaps more strictly, dissolving their outer structures and seeking fluidly to fit themselves to pre-existing vulnerabilities in the community. Solid at the core, fuzzy or fluid at the edges. Becoming less like bacteria and more like viruses perhaps. The churches get to do all the good they want to, the community gets served. Better, surely, than worshippers in a building, and needy people in their homes, each alone in their own way.

What does revolution look like?

Nice try, but hélas! Photo by Pierre Herman on Unsplash

What does a revolution look like? Most of them involve armed thugs, which is hardly a good start.

That kind of revolution –which is most so-called revolutions — is only a revolution in the sense once defined by Terry Prachett: they call them revolutions because everything goes round and round.

What does a real revolution look like, one that actually changes things? The Kingdom of God, heralded and inaugurated in the New Testament, is supposed to be such a thing. What would it look like?

  1. A culture where leaders are accountable, to law, to being sacked by the people they rule.
  2. A culture grown kinder so that people are more patient, more honest, more generous, more likely to share your load.
  3. A culture where personal integrity is valued. Personal integrity forms, drip by drip, over a lifetime, like a stalagmite. Once formed, and if genuine, it reaches deep and extends far into the networks of people around us. When it connects with the integrity of others it provides a scaffold upon which decent human cultures can grow and thrive.
  4. A healing culture. That would be nice: people restored to joy and usefulness as part of a community, love flowing, even as lives bloom and decay.
  5. A worshipping culture. Perhaps all cultures are worshipping cultures; but this would be worshipping the maker rather than the made.
  6. A culture committed to living at peace: in harmony with creation; with forgiveness and forbearance to others at its heart; aiming to restore the broken.
  7. A learning culture, so that we are curious about the world around us; able to experiment; able to fail; willing to change.
  8. A culture committed to changing. I think much of what is loosely called ‘progress’ fits here. We can learn stuff and discover how to do things better. I personally prefer, for example, hi-tech, unnatural births over having all these dead babies or mothers taking up needless space in graveyards. Free markets distribute the good things of the earth around with great efficiency. Property rights and the rule of law ensure that the whole of society rises together, like boats on a rising tide. Unjust leaders get moved on. The Old Testament appears to regulate rather than abhor all these things.
  9. A remembering culture that knows other generations walked this way too and knew and did stuff and are owed respect at times.
  10. A respectful culture, sensing the preciousness and autonomy of every human, and letting that inform our corporate life.
  11. A creative culture, valuing playfulness, and invention, and engineering, and hypothesising, and art, and music, and literature.
  12. An ambitious culture, ambitious for human thriving, dreaming of still more goodness piled on the goodness of earlier years, like bank upon bank of clouds in the sky, all reflecting the sun from different angles.
  13. A culture committed to the long term. I’ve walked round a reservoir in the Peak District that was built in the 1930s, built to solve permanently the need of nearby cities for water. Ninety years on, our generation and culture doesn’t have to worry so much. Then in the 1940s Clement Attlee, that modest man ‘with much to be modest about’ in Churchill’s phrase, implemented across the nation the ideal of free healthcare for everyone. Eighty years on, for all the problems, we still stand in the good of that. What will we add? Imagine, for example, if we solved the problem of generating electricity sustainably; imagine if future generations hardly had to worry about flicking a power switch. Imagine if we found better ways of keeping warm, or feeding ourselves, or doing construction, or living alongside a thriving Earth. What gifts all that would be to generation after generation, to the grandchildren of our grandchildren, leaving them free to work on other stuff.
  14. A hopeful culture – when all the above is ripped apart, or becomes a monstrous idol of its own self, when everything is back to square 1 or square minus 10: still straining for ‘church bells beyond the stars heard’ (as George Herbert wrote) that make us stand and go again.

A little pause

Very much enjoyed a recent podcast from Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable series (Here on spotify but available via all the podcast hosters). It featured writer Paul Kingsnorth and Rowan Williams. Dr Williams’ theological musings have freedom to take wing now that he has been released from being Archbishop of Canterbury. Seeing him in his natural habitat (books, ideas and God) you feel perhaps he was never quite suited to the Archbishopy world of soundbite and confrontation and politics and business plans.

Paul Kingsnorth’s story was of a long reluctant progress to Christian faith via environmental activism, Buddhism and Wicca. He was eloquent in describing his journey to Christ, which despite its unlikely stopping places seemed to him more to do with continuity than discontinuity, though of course it had elements of both. He eventually realized he was searching for God and eventually Christ found him, via the Eastern Orthodox tradition as lived out by religious Romanians in Ireland.

Rowan Williams, meantime, was busy colouring everything in with his own reflections on conversion and Orthodoxy, and was, as ever, capable of giving us plinkety-plonk evangelicals a taste for the symphonic. His Christian faith, he said, expanded his view rather than contracting it. I liked that. He told us how you can’t just ‘put God over there and examine him’, which, frankly, is a bit of an evangelical pastime. And he talked about God creating creation like a pianist creates a sonata, or perhaps like a stream being created by the flowing water within it, a ceaseless creation, enabled moment-by-moment by an unsummarizable God.

Next time you’re on a long car journey, as we were, I’d recommend a listen.

And a shout-out to Justin Brierley whose Unbelievable podcast, a model of how to listen to the other guy, still shines after ten or more yours, and where this appeared. Broadcasting at its best IMHO.

Why electricity is just as good as miracles

Feels better already. (This is a photo of Singapore by lee junda on Unsplash)

Again I’m writing about healing, partly because I’m living it, partly because what I picked up from many years as a Christian now seems so wrong and there is so much rethinking to do.

I’m still rethinking, and I’m still breathing, both of which I feel are important.

The last few weeks: we bought a disabled buggy, a wonderful little thing, and took it on holiday. (It folds into the car.) We were with our daughter and son-in-law and grandchildren and there was much walking on the prom and the cliff-tops, all of it now painless and easy. Nor was anyone needed to push me around in a wheelchair. And I could give the kids rides. So now in God’s riches I have an electric bike for longer journeys around Cambridge and an electric buggy for when I am with others.

Then yesterday I took the train down to my specialist heart centre in London where they retuned the pacemaker in my chest. A week or so before that, after phone calls from me, I had downloaded the pacemaker data and sent it to the hospital via a piece of kit that lives under our bed. The hospital looked at it and called me in and did the necessary reprogramming. Amazing. It is early days for this treatment but I feel less breathless and my wife tells me I am no longer blue to look at. Those guys at the hospital (both female guys as it happened) don’t just measure your ECG; they modify it and tweak it. They don’t take an ECG lying down. They press buttons and see what happens. Such fun!

This techno-assistance, though, seems a far cry from the New Testament where the Lord Jesus or the apostles did their stuff and immediate physical transformation appears to have happened. My electric buggy and the retuning of the extraordinary electronics that supply my heartbeat seem a different order of a thing to that. Why can’t (as Naaman asked) a prophet just wave his hands over me and make me well? Does this techno-medical intervention really count as ‘healing’ at all? Or is it a second-best solution for those whose lives are so cold and lacking in faith and zeal that the real healing stuff never happens to them? What is healing after all?

The New Testament contains hints that what I have heard doctors call the ‘psycho-social’ parts of healing are important, just as are the physical deliverance parts. Ten lepers were cleansed: only one came back to say thank you. Was there a lingering psycho-social unhealing among the healed lepers? Body fine, head in wrong place. Demons are driven out of the Gaderene demoniac. He is seen sitting clothed and in his right mind. But Jesus tells him to go home to his family, rather than joining the band of disciples. Is that to complete his healing? To address the pyscho-social roots of what got him in such a state in the first place? As it is, Mark records that the former demoniac takes up a speaking ministry in the Ten Towns, and Mark is silent over whether or not that was what Jesus really intended for the man. Interesting.

Then I watch friends, with a cancer diagnosis say, put their lives on hold until the treatment is completed. I observe, I think, I might be wrong (I hope I am), that they are putting all their eggs in the physical healing basket. Zap the cancer, go back to the life we had before. Nothing else matters.

I am so not so sure that this is right. (Of course I have to allow for the fact that I am sitting in my garden, at my ease, contented, writing this, not suffering some medical emergency or hospitalization which would indeed require a lot of effort and focus.)

But still. I am coming to believe more and more that healing is life today, bread today, thriving today and that it is entirely God’s business how he delivers that. All good gifts come down from the Father of lights who does not change as the shifting shadows: buggies, pacemakers, holidays, instant miraculous physical transformations, play, vocation, nice food, people you love and good relationships with God and others.

I am coming to believe more and more that healing is life today, bread today, thriving today and that it is entirely God’s business how he delivers that.

Of course, you have to qualify that idea. There are seasons of emergency actions, long wintry paths of mourning, times of brute endurance of the deeply unpleasant. It’s hard to speak of ‘thriving today’ in the face of those. But still. Healing is thriving. Healing is enjoying our lives, nourished by God’s daily bread, despite everything, in these ramshackle tents of ours, before they are replaced for good with the eternal mansions of glory.

‘In whose shade they will never sit’

Photo: My own

A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they will never sit.

Loved this when I read it this in a book called ‘Ten Survival Skills for a World in Flux‘ by Tom Fletcher.

(As to its source, these two references hunt around a bit. )

It doesn’t need commentary.

A Free press (part 2)

Last week we saw the dismal news, courtesy of Reporters without Borders that ‘the press freedom situation in 180 countries and territories … is totally blocked or seriously impeded in 73 countries and constrained in 59 others, which together represent 73% of the countries evaluated. These countries are classified as having “very bad,” “bad” or “problematic” environments for press freedom.

The internet, in terms of print newspapers, has not helped, gutting newspapers worldwide of revenue and readers.

Is there another side to the story? I hope so. Among the forces fighting back are:

OSINT: Open Source intelligence, made famous in the UK by Bellingcat, and now replicated in other groups, has whizzed together brilliant minds, dogged investigation and habits of integrity, just like the best of the old. Connected by the internet, people comb publicly available information to establish the kinds of facts that journalists used to have to uncover with shoe-leather alone. For example when Russia was secretly, and they thought deniably, invading parts of Ukraine years ago, Bellingcat found Facebook entries of Russian soldiers smiling in conquered parts of Ukraine. Bellingcat’s founder Eliot Higgins’ book is a wonderful read, unless you’re a fact-supressing dictator.

News organizations who have found a way to thrive in the new world. Step forward the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Economist, the BBC, even Al-Jazeera, whose Palestinian-American reporter, Shireen Abu Akleh, a Christian, was recently gunned down even though she was wearing a rather large sign saying ‘Press’. The press isn’t as big or as widely committed to separating news from opinion as it used to be, but like a Yorkshire terrier, diminutive size just makes it easier to bite ankles.

Books. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the long form of a non-fiction book has done much to trouble the repressive.I’m just finishing Catherine Belton’s wonderful book Putin’s People and recently I read Tom Burgess’ title Kleptopia. Each journo, and their publishers, have had to fight angry oligarchs through the courts. I bought the books to support them. And everyone survived, except the reputations of the oligarchs. Wonderful books of dogged journalists.

Social media itself. Yes, it still has a power for good. Alexei Navalny completely wrong-footed the Kremlin when he produced a YouTube video about Vladimir Putin’s (alleged) palace. In Russian, it has just garnered a mere 123 million views, which can’t all be his mum showing them to her friends. Vladimir (perhaps Vladimire is better) had to go on TV himself to deny everything.

Better than all these wisps of hope in the turmoil (73% of countries with strangled media!) is the sense of hope that those of us with a Christian faith can muster. The world is in somebody’s hands. The rule of the repressive is not the last word. It’s slow, but skill, wit and integrity will find a way. Keep biting the ankles, don’t let go.

A free press, the white blood cells of our communities

A beautiful sight. Photo by Bank Phrom on Unsplash

Recently it was Press Freedom Day, or given the way things are going, Press Unfreedom Day. The group Reporters Without Borders (confusingly they are called RSF, like Medecins Sans Frontiers presumably) publish a ranking of press freedoms in different countries each year. They base it on counting actual incidents of repression, plus responses to a detailed questionnaire. It makes uncomfortable reading, which is perhaps the point.

At the top with the freest presses come the usual suspects of high-standard-of-living, happy countries, like the Nordic lands. A shout-out to Portugal (7th) and Costa Rica (8th). The UK is in its usual position of believing itself to be the best in the world but actually coming in at number 24. The US, armed with its First Amendment, crawls in at a distinctly saddo 42nd. Burkina Faso and Moldova, I’m sorry to say, both do better than the Land of the Free.

The nations that have tumbled down the list are the real horrors. China is 175th (out of 178). India, land of 100,000 newspapers is much freer but still a lowly 150th. Though there’s a bit of shooting of journalists (one this year) in that country and jailing of them (13 in prison), the main government strategy is getting its rich friends to buy news outlets:

Originally a product of the anti-colonial movement, the Indian press used to be seen as fairly progressive but things changed radically in the mid-2010s, when Narendra Modi became prime minister and engineered a spectacular rapprochement between his party, the BJP, and the big families dominating the media. (RSF India briefing)

Or its social media acolytes to bully them:

Rana Ayyub, an Indian commentator who loudly admonishes Prime Minister Narendra Modi for stoking anti-Muslim violence, has endured a campaign of intimidation by his supporters. Hindu nationalist trolls have superimposed her face onto pornographic videos, called for her murder, and shared her home address online. Fear of attack has confined Ms Ayyub to her home for long spells. Unable to eat from the anxiety, she has spent days on end in bed and been fed through an intravenous drip. “It’s a living, breathing nightmare for me and my family,” she says. (The Economist, 2022 May 7, ‘Where the Truth Lies’)

Or set the police dogs on them:

Indian law is protective in theory but charges of defamation, sedition, contempt of court and endangering national security are increasingly used against journalists critical of the government, who are branded as “anti-national.

Lots of countries sing from the same songsheet. Mexico directs government advertising revenue to friendly newspapers. Hungary’s president, proudly pursuing his illiberal state with a Christian sugar-coating, just like Vladimir Putin, has nudged his oligarch friends to buy, then muzzle, the media. Hong Kong, once so free, is now bound and gagged and I’m sure its people are delighted to be so mothered by the Chinese Communist Party.
Britain and the US both suffer from the concentration of the media in very few hands and the decline of regional and local dailies.

Is there good news anywhere? That’s for next week.

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