Rediscovering relevance

Surprisingly, the gospel is about everything.

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.)

Relevance rediscovered

I’m oversimplifying a detailed chapter, but you can imagine two steps:

  1. Fit your chosen story within the Bible’s grand narrative of life, the universe and everything.
  2. 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:

  1. Creation. God made the Universe, for us to thrive in along with him, and even though God says so himself, it’s very good.
  2. Fall. And we rebel, and alienate ourselves from God and each other and generally mess things up.
  3. Israel. God gets to work redeeming the story, at first with broad brushstrokes, like the Law.
  4. Between the Testaments… it isn’t quick. Things have to brew. But finally we get to:
  5. Jesus. God’s translation of himself into human form demonstrates, then inaugurates, then welcomes us to join, a Kingdom where God is ruling.
  6. Church And this message is embodied and carried everywhere
  7. 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
  • Youth justice

Foreign debt

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

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.

The conclusion

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.’

Unity: the ignored superpower

I am curious how the church, or perhaps especially the splintered Protestant church, doesn’t talk all that much about unity. Three Bible references come obviously to mind.

Unity means:

A) A blessing (Psalm 133)

B) A demonstration of the multi-layered wisdom of God to the powers-that-be (Ephesians 3:10-11)

c) The whole world knowing that Jesus is God’s son. (John 17: 20-21, 23)

Much of what the church seeks by other means is actually achieved by unity. I note also that the mindset that creates unity (humility, meekness, peacemaking, that stuff) is the same as the mindset behind the Sermon on the Mount and the same qualities that mark real disciples. Meanwhile we have our maps, goals and strategies (certainly the part of the Church that I inhabit does). Perhaps the humble work of peacemaking and quiet living will take us far further than our tools and workshops.

Image by Hans Schwarzkopf from Pixabay

Juvinilia

What is the point of anything, is a good question.

food wood people woman
Photo by Alina Vilchenko on Pexels.com

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:

  1. 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.
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.

The secret, sneaky power of kindness

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Consuming two outstanding bits of media got me thinking about kindness. The first was the film Marvellous, a true story about a man with learning difficulties who served as a kit-man for a professional soccer team and was eventually awarded an honorary degree. The other was the first series of the terrifying and brilliant Line of Duty, once on the BBC, then on Netflix, then, suddenly, just on the BBC again. Both lingered in the mind long after we disconnected our video projector. (If we watch TV, we like to take up a whole wall.)

Without giving too many spoilers, Line of Duty, a police procedural, had some scenes where a person with learning difficulties was horribly abused by a drug gang. In the trade this is called ‘cuckooing’, using a vulnerable person’s flat as a drug-distribution centre.

The big difference between the uplifting Marvellous and the horrifying Line of Duty was not the vulnerability of the people with learning difficulties. It was that one encountered kindness, and the other didn’t.

Which did get me thinking.

Kindness is such a potent, invisible power. I find it helpful to think about people whom I disagree with and remember when they were kind. It helps me defuse personal animosity. Kindness, if you’ve ever shown any, is what people will speak about at your funeral. It will moderate you and moderate what people think of you. Kindness is remembered and treasured. Such a small thing–weightless, odourless, like God–but secretly infiltrating our minds, and changing us.

A slow manifesto

Take up your pack for another year’s walk

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

This appears as the introduction to my blog and is about fruitfulness: personal, social, in every season, and tracing a pattern established before we were born and which will still apply after we are dust.

‘Slow mission’ is about huge ambition–all things united under Christ–and tiny steps.

I contrast it with much talk and planning about ‘goals’ and ‘strategies’ which happens in the parts of church I inhabit, and which have an appearance of spirituality, but make me sometimes feel like I am in the Christian meat-processing industry.

Here’s a summary of slow mission values, as currently figured out by me:

Devoted. Centred on Christ as Saviour and Lord. Do we say to Christ, ‘Everything I do, I do it for you.’ Do we hear Christ saying the same thing back to us?

Belonging. We sign up, take part, dive in, identify, work with others, live with the compromises. Not for us a proud independence.

Respecting vocation. Where do ‘your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger’ meet?1. Vocation is where God’s strokes of genius happen. That’s where we should focus our energies.

To do with goodness. Goodness in the world is like a tolling bell that can’t be silenced and that itself silences all arguments.

Observing seasons. ‘There’s a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.’2.The world will be OK even if we check out for a while. (Note: our families, however, won’t be.)

Into everything. We are multi-ethnic and interdependent. We like the handcrafted. We are interested in all humanity and in all that humanity is interested in. Wherever there’s truth, beauty, creativity, compassion, integrity, service, we want to be there too, investing and inventing. We don’t take to being shut out. Faith and everything mix.

Quite keen on common sense. We like to follow the evidence and stick to the facts. We like to critique opinions and prejudices. We don’t, however, argue with maths. Against our human nature, we try to listen to those we disagree with us. We’re not afraid of truth regardless of who brings it. We want to be learners rather than debaters.

Happy to write an unfinished symphony. Nothing gets completed this side of death and eternity.  What we do gets undone. That’s OK. Completeness is coming in God’s sweet time. ‘Now we only see a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.’3.

Comfortable with the broken and the provisional. Happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for right, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the laughed-at. This also implies a discomfort with the pat, the glib, the primped, the simplistic, the triumphalistic and the schlocky.

Refusing to be miserable. The Universe continues because of God’s zest for life, despite everything, and his insouciance that it will all probably work out somehow. In sorrows, wounds and in the inexplicable, we join God in his childlike faith.

Hype

I worked, as you may know by now, for a Singaporean magazine in the early 1990s. Its target market was the Christian community and as the only inter-denominational show in town, so far as magazines were concerned, that meant we were the target market for lots of press releases. All the quotes in the article, which I’ve anonymized to save blushes, were real. And dispiriting. This article will be a chapter in my forthcoming book The Sandwich about living sandwiched in the interstices between God’s promises and the mysterious life of our home planet.

Thanks to luckylife11 and Pixabay.

(1995)

Sometimes you wonder.

We get lots of mail in the Impact office. Some of it is promotional. Here are some quotes from material lying around the office:

Pastor X is one of the strongest church leaders in the world today.

A man with a strong apostolic and prophetic mantle, Pastor Y is impacting the world.

Dr Z is one of the most anointed Bible teachers in the world.

Here’s a longer one describing someone’s ministry in Japan and inviting funds for the school that trained him:

At first they came by the dozens.

Then, they came by the hundreds

And finally, they came by the thousands.

And they stream across the playing field of a 60,000 seat baseball stadium to commit their lives to Jesus Christ.

It gets better:

This is happening in the inscrutable orient — in Japan, the country some have called the ‘missionary graveyard’.

The report goes on:

Closed. Until now. What has changed?

Who is God using to lead thousands of Japanese to publicly turn their faces to the cross — and their backs on centuries of religious tradition?

Aw, you guessed. A Japanese evangelist trained by the school.

The report fails to mention that responses like that were the normal pattern in Japan after World War II, and they were mostly for cultural reasons rather than spiritual ones. Japan’s churches have remained small, less than 1% of the population, despite hundreds of thousands of responses in large evangelistic meetings. It is astonishing that the school didn’t train its evangelists to understand this, and even more astonishing that they should be boasting about their ignorance of both history and culture.

Hype. A late-twentieth century disease, entirely absent from the ministry of Jesus and the apostles. (Can you imagine it? ‘Let’s put our hands together and welcome Paul, acclaimed author of Romans, one today’s most anointed missionaries…’) Chillingly present among the rag-tag-and-bobtail heretics who so damaged the Early Church.

Hype. There must be better ways for honest leaders with genuine ministries to promote what they’re doing. Let us pray:

‘From good people, doing good things, badly, Good Lord, deliver us.’

Radical meekness

Very hard to stamp out

Paul’s letters in the New Testament often contain instructions about family life and these cause a lot of trouble:

‘Wives, submit to your husbands’ is probably the most contentious. Here is the Christian faith at its most patriarchal apparently, digging in on the side of oppressing women.

Recently I wondered about this. Paul was writing, I think, to a society where the power imbalance and the justice imbalance were already ingrained. Men commanding, oppressing, even beating women was the norm, a society where a lot of couples were at war, an oppressive male, a scheming female.

When Paul wrote that wives should cheerfully submit to their husbands, it would completely disorient things.

So, in reverse, would a man acting kindly and considerately towards his wife.

Paul’s directions, in other words, were of a piece with the stuff Jesus was saying about praying for your enemies, blessing those who curse, turning the other cheek, carrying a load the second mile when you’ve been press-ganged to do the first. It was about upending oppression by radical, cheerful, irritating meekness.

It builds a new world and sets new norms. Radically meek women and tender men topple structures of pride and shame spouses into mutual decency. I think you have to add, though, there’s a context of normalcy here. I don’t think this applies in the abnormal and even criminal context of domestic abuse or coercive behaviour. People facing that stuff should get out and get safe and take their children with them. Paul’s teaching is about re-setting a societal norm, not licensing abuse. Still.

Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay 

The back of the tapestry

Devotion weaves it

This isn’t an original thought. Our straggly lives down here are like the back of a tapestry, loose ends and knots and tangles. Our eternal selves–through Christ– are like the front of the tapestry, beautifully woven.

Two recent things made me think of this familiar Christian trope. One is freshly hearing Jesus’ command not to accumulate treasure on earth, but to accumulate it in heaven. The other was a series of articles on the Guardian website about being 47.

I’m not 47, though I used to be, but it is the point (according to surveys in the West) that we are at our least happy. After 47, happiness starts to grow again. The Grauniad asked for some personal experiences and the people who they published were sad: weighed down by kids, work, circumstances, perhaps by a marriage that had lost its fizz. (It was mostly first-world sadness, people worn down managing and coping, rather than enduring more apocalyptic types of loss.)

Hence the tapestry. It’s a lovely picture for the follower of Christ — patiently walking through the frustrations and anxieties of every day. Doing so with a worshipful heart so that actually you are weaving colourful swirls and whorls and whirls (and other words that have a root of ‘rls’ and that I can’t think of at the moment) into some tapestry somewhere; through Christ turning from merely enduring to wonderfully weaving because it’s an act of devotion to an audience of One.

Image by Welcome to all and thank you for your visit ! ツ from Pixabay

Walking in Kingdom foothills

Without knowing it

I see this a lot.

I think Paul saw it too, when he wrote about ‘Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature (or naturally) what the law requires…’ 1.

These are people who do things because they are good or beautiful in themselves. Characteristically, staff in the UK’s national health service, in my experience, and teachers, and people in other areas of public service, do what they do to serve others rather than to gain prestige. Not all of course; but some.

The other day I heard of a property developer who, if he was deciding where to spend money, invested in good materials, high ceilings and big windows. Other housebuilders prefer fancy kitchens and bathrooms in what are otherwise cramped and mean buildings. Fancy kitchens might generate a quick sale; but the other developer is focussing resource on a home whose light and space will be delightful for generations.

It isn’t true of everyone, and all of us can be be public-spirited in one breath and mean or malicious in the next. But still. I meet a lot of people who are committed to public service, quietly doing their job with love and devotion, but they don’t share my faith or at least don’t speak ‘Christian’ the way I do. They have come to do what they do by some other route: personal choice, or nature, or instinct, or following the culture they learnt.

I like to think they are walking in the foothills of the Kingdom of God. They might not call it that, or recognize it as that, or even associate with that thought, but they feel the goodness in their bones.

Image by LadyLioness from Pixabay

‘Arm them against the gray impersonal powers’

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

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

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

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

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