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.
Rodney Stark’s book The Rise of Christianity is unsettling reading, but really worth the time and a few pots of tea.
Why do people join religious movements? His answer goes against what we would like to say, which is that we heard the truth and decided to believe it.
Having researched new religious movements he suggests the reasons people join are things like:
(other things being equal) when they have or develop stronger attachments to the group than they have to non-members (p18)
When they are people of no religion, the ‘religiously inactive’ (p19)
When the networks remain open, so that new people can continue to join (p21)
It would seem that these assumptions work for any new religion or movement; which is why, as we observe, people do join wacky and diverse groups, and then become arch-defenders of their new beliefs. The buzz they get from belonging outweighs the crazy they are obliged to believe.
But then, having joined, they argue that it was the group’s teaching all along that made them join.
This is interesting in all sorts of ways.
It does chime with my experience. Most of the people I know became Christians in the context of a friendly network. Though it isn’t true of all my friends, and it wasn’t true of me. (I much prefer to lurk on the edge of networks than actually to join them.)
it will always be easier for a non-religious person to start believing than for a person with a prior religious attachment. The rapid global rise in the non-religious is thus not the end of religion so much as a vast new opportunity for religions both good and bad.
For us Christians, we have to ask, did this process happen to us? Is that how we found ourselves in a church? Is that why we believe what we say we believe? Was it just sociology? If not, why not?
How do we know what is or isn’t true after all? I suspect that point is something to do with (a) what happens in the long years after we join a group. How do our beliefs change? What does the weathering of life do to them? (b) the personal experience of the life of faith: how does what we claim to believe chime with what we feel and who we are and what we are becoming? and (c)what is the fruit of the movement we are part of?
I have supplied copies of the pre-publication edition of my book Bread to about 40 people by now, and some have come back with comments. At one point my book talks about ‘doing small things well’ even if ‘big things have collapsed all around you’ (p 39 of the draft).
Both my suppliers-of-comments applied that idea helpfully to aging and decline. I hadn’t thought of that. In my book I’d applied it to failure and shattered hopes. Perhaps I should start thinking about decline: certainly I notice that on walks that I have taken for thirty years, formerly with our dog, and now alone, lots of extra hills and slopes have apparently been fitted. I couldn’t probably manage a dog now though that is strictly speaking a health issue rather than age in my case.
The fun part about decline, my correspondents tell me, lies precisely in doing small things well even when big things have slipped out of one’s grasp. How wonderful, when declining, to aim to be the sort of person who lifts the spirits of everyone who they meet. How wonderful to be joyful, kind, giving, happy, even as the body seizes up.
And you meet people like that. For them the downward slope to physical dissolution is rather overtaken by the upward slope towards the glory of God.
A fine thing to aspire to, as the night falls.
You can still download a free pre-publication copy of Bread just here:
And a reminder: I do welcome comments, via the comment section here, and I especially welcome honest reviews. To do those, go to your favourite review site (Amazon, for example) and just share a few honeyed words about what you think. Readers are smart: be honest about the deficiencies; it won’t necessarily stop them buying the book. I think you may have to wait till after publication day on Feb 19 2022 to paste in your honeyed words.
Another pre-publication extract from my forthcoming book
One of my lockdown projects was to compile a book about how difficulty and trauma can cause us to rethink our lives and, if we are fortunate, how we can then go on to live simpler, better and more meaningful days. Without having anything particularly to boast about, and also because of lots of other things have gone in the right direction for me, this is where I find seem to find myself (at the moment). So I wrote about this, and called the book ‘Bread‘. I’m serializing it here on my blog and here’s the 3rd slice.
The story so far: adversity can cause a rethink of our priorities. Now read on…
My search for what really matters
So: adversity or loss or infirmity or disappointment or something has brought us to crunching halt. We are looking out at a landscape with a sobriety and clarity that is aided by our low mood. We are beginning to realize that there is quite a lot that is more important behind the glitzy and temporary frontage to a life of success, wealth or popularity. These are helpful thoughts, sobering. What do we do now? What parts of our mental landscape do we stop visiting? What new paths do we tread down?
The place not to visit
I want to suggest that the main place not to visit is the broken dream. I’m not saying you should never go there. But you should go there to clear up, say your goodbyes, tie everything off. You have lost and it is good to mourn. So visit the broken dream if you must, but visit it less and less, let it go back to nature. It’s always going to be part of you, but it is a better part of you when it shapes a new future, rather than when it is a decaying present you are trying to primp, or when you are using it to define who you are today. You need to define yourself by something other than your loss, your sorrow, your ill-health, your former hopes, or your former state.
Instead of mooching around your broken dream, enjoying the gothic scene of heartbreak, your loosened hair romantically draped over the headstone of your loss, you might want to ask a few questions now that the urgency of your loss has passed. Don’t feel the need to answer these hurriedly. Mull them over. Work them into your life.
What have I not lost?
What do I love?
Whom do I love?
What do I value?
Point your feet where these answers direct you. Keep asking the questions, and keep walking in the answers. You won’t fix everything in an afternoon, or a year, or in the rest of your life, but you will be walking the right road and you will at times find yourself in the green pastures and quiet waters that you have always wanted.
You may like to see my review of Exiles on Mission which I posted on Amazon and Goodreads. True, it’s also printed in the column opposite for a while, but I am so enthusiastic about this book that I wanted to plug it a little more.
This book is the distillation of years of thoughtful teaching (at Regent College in Vancouver) and it shows. Whereas many books of Christian teaching are worked-up sermons, this feels more like a boiled-down course and would be enormous fun to work through in a group setting over a term or so. The diagnosis (my analogy, not his) is that the Church is like a cruise liner with the tide having gone out. Crew and passengers are busy trying to keep everything going. But really, rather than hoping for the tide to come back in, we need to engage with the new reality.
I am reluctant to summarize a b0ok that is so measured and thoughful, but it seems that the beaching of the Church is mostly an opportunity and call to re-think our view of the world, realize that Christians are already distributed widely through it, and for us all to learn how to follow Christ in whatever places we’ve landed. We should be ambassadors, he argues, and not the sort of ambassadors who are just dishing out a few passports; the kind who are engaging with the culture’s stories and helping compose new ones. The apostle Paul talked about the church as ‘pillar and foundation’ of the truth, and so it became in the Roman Empire, supplanting the previous cultural settlement.
In terms of a book trying to engage seriously with the teaching of the Bible and contemporary church and its mission, rich with further avenues to explore, this is about the best thing I have read in years.
Am so enjoying Paul Williams’ Exiles on Mission, as I may have mentioned before on this blog. I try to set aside some time each day to read a chapter. This is good practice, except that I’m reading it in our conservatory and the April sun is high and I keep get the overwhelming urge to lean back, close my eyes, and think about what he’s just written.
But I have been snapping out of myself. The chapter I read today was all about translating the gospel into our post-Christian culture. Another way of saying this is rediscovering the relevance of the gospel in this time and in this place.
This is so important because the Good News can seem irrelevant– not only to people who don’t know what it is, but also, perhaps, we Christians secretly admit, to ourselves. How can this message of grace be of interest to decent people with prosperous lives and a decided disinterest in suddenly taking up church attendance? Why would they want to do that?
Of course seasons come around for us all when the bottom falls out of our world and we perhaps realize that we’ve needed a rock to lean on for a long time. And with anyone, anywhere, who knows what God can set off in someone’s head and heart, a hunger that only Christ can answer. (That’s part of my own story of coming to faith incidentally.)
But with all that, still, the gospel can feel like a thing for the rougher edges or special seasons of the average life, not the whole. And for the private lives of individuals, rather than the whole world. And so many metaphors of salvation that are reissued forth from your standard church don’t reliably work in the outside world. (‘Don’t you feel you’re in a courtroom, and you’ve done loads wrong? Well, suddenly the judge’s son steps up and says, “I’ll pay your fine and”… sounds familiar, huh? Oh, you seem to have gone.)
I’m oversimplifying a detailed chapter, but you can imagine two steps:
Fit your chosen story within the Bible’s grand narrative of life, the universe and everything.
Carefully figure out some action resulting from this new perspective — do something.
What is the Bible’s ‘grand narrative’? As has been observed, it can be seen as a drama in several acts:
Creation. God made the Universe, for us to thrive in along with him, and even though God says so himself, it’s very good.
Fall. And we rebel, and alienate ourselves from God and each other and generally mess things up.
Israel. God gets to work redeeming the story, at first with broad brushstrokes, like the Law.
Between the Testaments… it isn’t quick. Things have to brew. But finally we get to:
Jesus. God’s translation of himself into human form demonstrates, then inaugurates, then welcomes us to join, a Kingdom where God is ruling.
Church And this message is embodied and carried everywhere
New Creation. Until God calls time and establishes a new creation, filled with the scarred and remade people out of all humanity, stocked with all the good and beautiful from the old, and they live with him in this new day, thriving together, forever.
So: rethink your chosen story in this light, then act on what you’ve discovered. This was an exercise that Paul Williams got his students to do, but here are a couple of examples that I made up. (When I was sitting in the sunshine in the conservatory with my eyes closed, you might have thought I was asleep, but I was thinking.)
Foreign debt. Remember the years up to the millennium when many poorer nations had borrowed money, then spent it or seized it, and were now spending more on interest payments than they were on things like education? What’s the unredeemed story here? How about: These people entered into loans quite transparently. If they spent it on yachts rather than clinics, that’s their problem.Why punish the taxpayers of donor nations for the corruption of recipients?
What would it look like if you infected this unredeemed story with God’s story? Christ is lord of all and intends people to thrive. There is greed and sin and people stealing the money rather than spending it on the poor. There is also, under God, redemption and a further chance to thrive. And Christ is Lord of all.And it isn’t all that expensive for donor nations who anyway could have been more careful the first time round. That can then lead to action: why not drop the debt, on condition that the interest payments saved are spent on the poor, on things like health and education? A campaign around the millennium started with this kind of thinking (in, I think, Tear Fund). It led to a clear call to action, that was taken up enthusiastically by trades unions, campaigners of various kinds, and eventually governments. Debts were indeed forgiven and thousands of children got an education who otherwise wouldn’t. This was, among many other things, the gospel, properly thought-through and applied to our culture, causing a wildfire.
Youth justice. Here’s the unredeemed story. Frequent or serious offenders cause massive amounts of misery and should be locked up.
Now let’s infect it with the God story: What damaged these children? What damage have they done? What evil has been done to them and what evil have they done? All can be put right under a God who made them in his own image, made them for better than this, who provides forgiveness and the power of a new start through Christ, and who intends them to thrive and do well in a beautiful creation. A huge change has happened in youth justice in recent years in cases where young people are found dealing drugs far from where they usually live. After suitable enquiries, it’s quite normal now to treat these children not as young criminals but as vulnerable kids who’ve been groomed by drug gangs and are being exploited. Today they are treated under modern slavery law, as victims, rather than drug law, as dealers. Law enforcement goes for the gangs instead. I have no idea if Christian reflection was behind this change. But it was reflection in a Christian direction. And it has been deployed across every youth court in the nation.
Suddenly, everything we touch and everything we do becomes relevant, even urgent. We can ask of it, ‘How can express the Kingdom of God through this?’ Or we could pray, as someone taught: ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as in heaven.’
What is the point of anything, is a good question.
A good answer for Christians is that what we do is a foretaste, a foreword, a good go, an early attempt, a sign, instrument, and portent of the world to come. It will all be thrown away as juvinilia (the early output of the creatives). But like juvinilia it is connected, even contiguous, with all that is to come. Here are some metaphors:
We are seeds, due to perish, but also a kind of Noah’s ark bearing extracts from the old world into the new. Into the marigold seeds that I save for next year are poured a whole marigold’s summer of life. When we go to our grave, we take our marigold summer with us, into the next life. When the cosmos dies, somehow, the same happens. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. (1 Corinthians 15:42-44)
2. Treasure and fine linen and the best of culture. The best of our earthly service is somehow returned to us, or to the cosmos, when the New Creation comes:
..Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:20-21)
For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. 8 Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.”
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.) (Revelation 19:7-9)
And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. (Revelation 21: 1o, 25)
This gives us a reason for every temporary act. We live in a world of death, and ends, and shadows, and half-built things, and things that fall down. But we build anyway, love anyway, serve anyway, invent anyway, create anyway, work anyway, because the best of it, whatever it is, we will see again and know it as our own, all spruced up and transformed through Christ.
About riding forth for justice on a very small horse. From my forthcoming book which might be called ‘The Sandwich’.
Here’s another article that I wrote for the Singaporean magazine Impact, aimed at the many thousands in that island nation–where we used to live–who were joining the churches for the first time. I’ve collected my favourites into a forthcoming book that may well be called ‘The Sandwich‘, because it is for those of us squeezed by the sublime one side and by the whole world on the other.
Ask anyone with a younger brother. Life is not fair.
We know that no two people are born equally favoured. We aren’t given equal chances along the way. Here’s the tip of the iceberg:
Younger brothers don’t get told off; we do.
Some people blab on their phone all the time while driving and are never caught. Someone else uses the phone once, with the car stationary, in a family emergency, and has to pay a fine.
Babies born in Singapore can expect to live 83 years; others choose parents from Sierra Leone and may only average 50 years.
Worse, in a sense: God, we believe, is fair. Nor does he think justice is merely an aspiration, a campaign promise, something to be put in place when he has sorted out a few other things first. God loves justice (as Isaiah 61:1 says). He does justice: ‘the Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed’ (Psalm 103:6). He commands his people to do justice: ‘You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality … Justice, and only justice, you shall follow’ (Dt 16: 19-20).
God is just; life isn’t. Yet God is all-powerful. So why isn’t life fair? Below are a few thoughts.
We inhabit a wrinkle in eternity
We inhabit a wrinkle in eternity. It helps to realize this.
Eternity is forever–and it is filled with God and his kindness and fairness. Evil and suffering are temporary and are perhaps the equivalent of an attack of hiccups in this great grand goodness. In the big picture, all is thriving and bright. So far, so true. But let’s zoom in on the wrinkle.
God is at work in history
God is working in the wrinkle. This is a central Christian teaching, and it is comforting but it doesn’t make our question any easier. A God who set things up and then headed off for the evening, leaving us to it, would at least mean we could understand injustice. But that isn’t an alternative the Bible offers. Instead, the Bible portrays God, like a master chef with hands in the baking bowl, up to his elbows in justice work every day. Here are some things he does:
God brings things to an end in his own time. This current world has mortality built in. People, cultures, empires grow, ripen, rot. Everything passes. This is part of his architecture of history: extremely sad for those we love but rather helpful in the case of evil people and empires. If they lived forever, it would be a nightmare, Genghis Khan or someone would still be in charge. But in an evil world, universal mortality is almost a kind of mercy, certainly a way of capping off evil. ‘In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace’ (Psalm 37: 10-11).
God works on behalf of the needy. I once sat in the recovery area of an eye-surgery ward. People recovering from cataract operations were saying things like ‘I’ll be able to drive again!’ ‘I can read this now! I couldn’t read it before!’
It was just an ordinary day for this ward, but I felt like I’d fallen into a page of the New Testament. The blind see! God works for the needy. Every little thing that is done to relieve human suffering has its first impulse in the heart of God. On average, today, by the measures of extreme poverty, the world is getting better, God’s justice is spreading. Through humans—many of them, his own people—he is putting right what is wrong for the poor.
God works on his own timescale. Here is a very humbling thought. His forbearance is meant to bring us to repentance (Romans 2:4). He is patient with us, not wanting any to perish (2 Peter 3:9) Imagine this! The all-powerful God of love and justice at times lets great suffering happen. He hears the cries of the oppressed and he sits on his hands. Why? Sometimes he judges it good to wait.
I always find it remarkable that the only things that didn’t obey Jesus on earth were humans. At the Master’s command, waves collapsed, demons fled, limbs grew, bread multiplied. But humans? He told them what to do and they did something else. There is something incredible about what God will put up with from humans, what disobedience he will face, what injustice he will sit out, in order to win them finally. God waits, and often gets in hot water for it.
Other times God seems even to let things move too quickly; the person looking for a happy retirement is struck down too soon. We cannot do anything about this beyond seeking God and trusting him. He is good, he loves mercy and hates injustice, but he lingers around or presses forward according to his own internal clock, not ours. There is a saying in the court system: ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’ But that is not true in God. He is an eternal being, and so are we. Mortality is delayed in some and hastened in others; it’s not fair; but it will be; and beyond understanding God we are called to walk with him: protesting perhaps, but also surrendering, trusting, praising.
There is a day coming. Years ago I drove past a horse and carriage on our roads, a rare sight. The horse was being whipped to trot faster. Its eyes were wide, it was foaming at the mouth, and it was shiny with sweat. Every time I drive on that road I think of that horse. But that was many years ago, and whatever cruelties it suffered are over now. In the same way, we believe there is a day coming when injustice will end for good. The wrinkle has a limit. Peace and justice will be universal. A day is coming.
God has entered our pain. In Jesus, God moved himself from the realm of mere academic speculation about fairness and made the argument personal. He has tasted injustice from the inside out. He knows what it is to be sentenced to death by a baying mob, abandoned by a cowardly judge. He knows what it is to be flogged like an animal. God in Jesus is many things, Saviour above all of them, but he is also God’s eloquent way of telling us to ‘shut up already about injustice.’
What do we do about this?
So what do we do about this?
A stream flows through the Universe and we glimpse it in the Bible.
One picture of it is ‘the river of the water of life’ flowing from the temple in the closing chapters of the book of Revelation. The same stream appears in the book of Ezekiel, bubbling from the renewed temple, making the salty land sweet. An explanation of it comes from Jesus: ‘Whoever believes in me … “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water”’ (John 7:38) and ‘the water that I will give [you] will become … a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ (John 4:4).
The stream is God’s mercy. It is intended to flow into us–the Church, the new temple–and then out from us into the world. From us it’s supposed to broaden into a river delta, so that the whole earth is irrigated. I think it is the main part of the answer to the protest, God isn’t fair.
While dry argument has its place, I suspect God isn’t at his happiest debating lesser beings about justice. He’d rather be out there doing it. That has to be our vision too. The words ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’ are interchangeable in the Greek, I understand, so it’s OK to translate Christ’s sayings in the Beatitudes like this:
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied’ (Matthew 5:6)
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:10).
Is God fair? A stream of mercy pours through the heavens. Those who drench themselves in it themselves become sources of mercy and justice. They set the world back on its feet. The static question has a dynamic answer, one that can catch us up in it and occupy all our creativity and energies. Is God fair? ‘There is a river … come behold the works of the Lord’ (Psalm 46: 4,8).
Here’s what I learnt this week. It came from reading the ‘Lord’s prayer’ in Greek in Luke 11. You can strip it down as follows – the first three requests setting the framework, the next three filling in the human-level detail.
Setting the framework
‘sanctified’ – set apart as holy
be your name
‘let be done’
The human-level detail
‘give us the needful bread’
like we forgive those who owe us
‘lead us not’ into fiery trial; ‘deliver us from evil’
Fatherly company in a rough world
And then later on in the same teaching session, Luke has Jesus talk about asking the Father to send the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13).
This all reminds me of ways you can dismantle Genesis 1. That passage on creation starts with the Holy Spirit brooding over primeaval chaos. And then has two lots of three, as follows:
Setting the framework
Light and darkness; day and night
Sky (or heaven) and earth
Land and sea; trees and grass
The human-level detail
Sun and moon as light and calendar markers – measuring our days
Animals and birds everywhere
Men and women as subregents of the animals; ‘cattle’ as a thing; vegetation for food
Genesis 1 is a picture of God ordering the primeval chaos, making it fit for humans, and then settling in to work with them — this settling in is God’s ‘rest’ of day 7.
The prayer that Jesus taught in Luke 11 has resonances with Genesis 1: first, setting a framework of God’s rule; then promoting God’s rule at a human level. Genesis 1 is a hymn of creation; Luke 11 is a prayer of new creation. Both end with God and people either in a harmonious creation or building towards a harmonious new creation. Both are universal and both are personal. This comparison may be rather contrived; but it is fun to see the two passages in dialogue.
I am writing this around the time of the longest day, the time they call in St Petersburg, which is even further north than I am, the ‘White Nights.’
It’s my favourite time of year, light and pollen everywhere, and often in the evening I will stand outside and try to sniff the air and store the moment. It’s the sort of moment you need to store given there is also, every year, the phenomenon known as January, when it’s dark, or cold, or bleak, or grey, or all four.
But really it’s a hopeless exercise. There is something about the White Nights that can’t be stored or even experienced for a moment; the joy of the stilled creation, the still-warm stones, the crashing of birds and squirrels in trees overstuffed with leaves.
C S Lewis wrote a lot about desiring this elusive joy, and discovered a German word, sehnsucht,to describe it. Desiring elusive joy is a familiar experience. What does it mean? Is it just a product of a deficient mental model of reality? We anticipate a meaning, even a joy, in creation but we can never find it because it is an artifact of our pattern-hungry brains, not a real thing in the Universe?
There’s another explanation which I much prefer. There is such a being as God, such a thing as the Kingdom of God, and these hints of joys are like straws blown over to us from that field — so they are not soap bubbles that look good but are empty and must pop, but signs that out there, over there, somewhere, to be hunted down, now hinted at, is a realm of joy that we yearn for and have not yet fully entered. We are hungry for a reason; we yearn for joy for a reason.