Hope valley

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Hope Valley is a place, in the English Peak District, where our men’s breakfast group held one of our annual walking weekends.

It’s also an emotional space, a rather life-saving one. So much about our world seems never to budge. The wrong people are in jail and the wrong people are in palaces. Lives are snuffed out at a dictator’s whim. Armies clash, soldiers die, loved ones mourn. Shells blow futures to smithereens. Praying people pray and pray and nothing happens.

‘God,’ said Desmond Tutu (I paraphrase), ‘we know you’re on the side of the right, but couldn’t you make it a little more obvious?”The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice,’ famously quoted Martin Luther King.

Perhaps I could be allowed to add: sometimes this arc of history seems very long, longer than scurrying our little human lives can bear. Many lives aren’t long enough to see the good arrive.

Nor does the arc always bend in entirely pleasing ways. Mandela became president of South Africa, a happy geometry. Not long afterwards he was followed by a thief who plundered the country, rather than built it, and then by a good person, but who has, by some accounts, yet to get a grip. So a bad thing was followed by a different bad thing (plunder) and then by another different bad thing (unmended brokenness).

That arc of history has non-linear qualities. It wobbles. Sometimes it veers in the wrong direction.

Which is why you need hope, and why, for now, it’s a valley.

Thanks to hope we can know that the arc will be tamed someday, that symmetry will be restored.

That the arc will come to rest on a mountaintop.

The quiet revolution in the churches (part 2)

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This is something fascinating going on in Britain (and, I suspect, in the rest of Europe and the Western world):

  • Society is relying more on the social contribution of churches
  • Church attendance is declining
  • Churches are discovering that social action, church growth and discipleship belong inextricably together, and together open the way forward for a season of fresh growth, relevance and impact for the Church.

It is a quiet, slow-burn, patient revolution, my favourite type. It is not centrally organized, but spontaneously has arisen all over the nation. It developed through a decade of austerity and was shocked into further action by the pandemic. I think in a career of observing church trends in the UK, it is the most encouraging thing I have ever seen. It builds on and with other trends in the UK that have moved the needle: the rise of beautiful worship; the flourishing of the alpha course; the development of church-planting churches, networks and movements. There is probably a bunch of dying that the Church still needs to do, but perhaps for the first time in a generation, or longer, there are railway tracks heading into a bright future, and the Church is riding on them.

Here’s a quote from a report produced by the Theos thinktank in 2020, just as the worst of the pandemic was being felt:

Over the past decade, the contribution that the Church of England makes to society through its social action has increased, reflecting an increase in the demand and expectation for it. At the same time, church attendance in the country has continued to decline; by most key metrics, attendance at Church of England services fell between 15% and 20% from 2009-2019. This is the paradox facing the Church of England in 2020: the national church of a nation which is increasingly reliant on its social action and yet less and less spiritually connected to it. 1

The report noted that ‘the Church grows in number and depth when it is present in and connected to its local area, which may be manifested through its social action.’ Its longevity and presence make it well placed. Hospitality and generosity are significant. And ‘participation in social action can also offer a practical route into faith for people who weren’t previously part of the church community.’2

Exciting stuff. And it doesn’t involve massaging church statistics until something positive is squeezed out. It’s everywhere. I see it in the Christmas letters I receive from friends. I see it in my own church which, in other ways, is not exactly a picture of glowing health. I see it elsewhere in Cambridge. And I read it in reports like this one.

Four marks of revival

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Four qualities of spiritual revival have recurred throught the centuries. Revivals are:

  1. Popular and populist
  2. Transformative, calling for conversions
  3. Reforming institutions
  4. Devotional – calling forth relationships of love

I’m grateful to Christian History magazine (episode 149) to codify these things and helping us to see that revival in those terms popped up not just among Protestants but at many points in medieval Christianity. It is, of course, exactly what we need today. And (see the two previous posts in this optimistic Advent season), perhaps it is happening.

A quiet revolution in the churches (part 1)

In the last dozen years, as government cuts have taken hold, churches have stepped in to provide help to some of the most needy in the country. This has been a widespread, nationally significant movement, and politicians are beginning to notice. If this work continues and develop, it could transform our national life and our politics.

This was the summary of a message we heard from Sir Stephen Timms MP, who spoke at our Christmas Men’s Breakfast in my local church, St Martin’s in Cambridge in December 2023.

Hope made visible

He described a colleague of his (now a life peer on the Labour front bench in the House of Lords), who had become chairman of the Refugee Council.

Her job entailed visiting projects supporting refugees all over the country. The most remarkable ones, often involving sacrificial service by the volunteers, were run by churches.

‘To her complete surprise, she found lives characterized by the fruitfulness that Paul writes about in his epistle to the Galatians.

‘[Maeve Sherlock] decided to find out more about this; she attended church in Islington, then an Alpha course. In 2010 she became a member of the House of Lords; in 2018 was ordained a deacon and from last year became non-stipendiary minister in St Nicholas’ church in central Durham, as well as being on the Labour front bench in the House of Lords.’

Sir Stephen went on:

‘What I want to argue this morning is with things in the country in such a depressing state, and with so many things apparently not working as they should do, more and more people are looking to the churches, and are finding something different there, something better, something more hopeful … we need that fruitfulness to transform our politics.’

Supercharged by the pandemic

He described when he was leader of Newham council, more than twenty five years ago, that they were always polite to churches, but they never worked with them as partners.

The pandemic revealed a different picture than the common picture of church decline. He described getting two emails from constituents saying they had no food; and another email from the current elected mayor of Newham saying that a certain vicar, if contacted before 10am, would get a food parcel delivered before 6pm that day. Stephen tried this at the beginning of the lockdown, Good Friday 2020, and it worked. Many people, with no prior connection to the churches, became dependent on the churches for the basics for living.

The all-party group on faith and society commissioned a report, available on their website, published in Nov 2020, about faith groups and local councils in the pandemic, revealing that all over the country, faith groups were the ones providing help.

This was a surprise. The default for council officers was that working with faith groups was too difficult and complicated; either faith groups would spend any money given on converting people, or they’d favour their own adherents. ‘But come the pandemic lockdown, there wasn’t anybody else …

‘Faith groups uniquely had the premises, the volunteers, and the motivation, and the connection with people needing help that no-one else had.

‘Far from [churches] being “on the way out,” it turned out, in this decade, when the crunch came, communities became completely dependent on their churches.’

Foodbanks

All the Trussel Trust foodbacks are based in churches. Churches were unique in their capacity to help. They exemplified the ‘big society’.

Christians against poverty

Another high-impact Christian initiative is ‘Christians against poverty‘, founded in Bradford. They support people in debt and train church members as debt counsellors. Sir Stephen also mentioned churches providing shelter for the homeless, and welcoming refugees, and facilitating street pastors.

Nationally significant

MPs are noticing these developments. Nowadays the Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast, once desultory, now packs Westminster Hall.

Quoting a historian:

Between 1780 and 1850, the English ceased to be one of the world’s most agressive, rowdy, outspoken, cruel and bloodthirsty nations and became one of the most inhibited, polite, orderly and goodly-minded …

‘I think that transformation was a really really positive transformation which all of us are continuing to benefit from to this day and how huge were the benefits of that fruitfulness which exploded all over the country, including the transformation of our politics.

‘And I think that the state we are in now requires another awakening on a similar scale and on the same lines. And I am one of those who thinks it could happen and who hopes that it will.’

Not many of the recipients of those services are coming to faith. But people are coming to faith but in a different way. Theos [the thinktank] found that others in the community, seeing what the churches are doing, offer to help out.. and they are the ones who end up coming to faith.

‘Churches are doing the heavy lifting to support their communities in very very difficult times.’

Sir Stephen’s talk is available here.

The power of the small

I wrote some years ago about fractals, objects that are similar whether viewed on large scale or a small scale. For example, the way trees branch is the same whether you look at a whole tree or just a small portion of the branch. They are ‘self-similar across scales’, which is to say, fractal.

photo of bare tree under clear blue sky
Mathematically and theologically significant. Photo by Chris F on Pexels.com

Everything is infinitely small compared to God so (to God) the pattern presumably matters more than the size.

So it isn’t surprising that fractal behaviour crops up whenever we consider God at work. Parables–picturing God at work–are self-similar across scales. Is the parable of the sower about the history of nations? Or of a single small tribe? Or of a single human heart? It’s self-similar across scales, so it applies equally to all of them.

The pattern matters more than the size

Faithfulness is fractal. If you are faithful in a little thing, you will be entrusted with much. One who is faithful in small things will be understood to be faithful in big things too. The pattern is the thing; the size doesn’t much matter in the eyes of God.

This is a stunning fact when you hold it up against our desires for prestige or respect or generally just to be associated with big stuff. Two things stand out to me, one of them relevant to this advent season.

  1. The young woman caring for the infant Jesus, wiping his bum, burping him, rocking him to sleep, was supplying exactly the faithfulness needed at that moment; enough faithfulness to save a whole Universe.
  2. Our smallest faithful actions shine out in God’s eyes like stars– a secret of a life of patient revolution.

Healing and the end of life

Not that I am personally planning on calling it quits any time soon, but I was wondering recently what ‘healing’ looks like in the context of the end of our lives.

Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

We don’t know if this will be relevant for us, of course. Some friends of mine have been snuffed out without much time to do anything about it. Some apparently didn’t know it was going to happen. But most of my late friends and family had plenty of warning.

One part of healing near the end of life is, of course, that your life doesn’t end, you recover, and go on to see many good days.

But it occurred to me recently there is such thing as a ‘time to die’. However good or bad or complete has been our life, whether its conclusion will be bitterly painful or a blessed relief, our impact on the world is over, our days are winding down, this is it.

I wonder if ‘healing’ in this context isn’t about making peace with that fact; and going on to make peace with as much in your life as you can, and especially with God.

What’s fun about this idea is that it gives you back some agency. You’re in charge again. You have accepted the big fact (you’re mortal) and now you’re free again, to love and conclude things as you see fit, and as best you can.

Living in a God-soaked world

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Yesterday in our church our preacher tried to explain the word ‘providence’, an old-fashioned word that, like the groat or the florin, has or had considerable value, but has passed out of common currency.

And it still has value, perhaps especially when we look at the yoke that Christ has laid upon our lives and ask, is this yoke, as promised by Jesus, truly light, truly easy? (See Matthew 11:30.)

She—our preacher—explained that ‘providence’ referred first to God sustaining the Universe, upholding its natural laws; and then secondly, to God arranging things in life so that they turned out well and for our good. Exactly how the second meaning of providence squares with the first is a paradox, I think, but just because I can’t understand it, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Just suppose providence is a thing. It leads to several thoughts.

  1. I’ve seen blogs recently about people writing letters to their ten-year-old selves. Mine would be very simple: life so far has turned out better than ten-year-old me was capable of imagining. Half-formed ten-year-old dreams and desires turned into milestones upon which I can look now back on, half a century later. There was pain along the way, but it was not to be compared with the flowering or fruiting of those desires that accompanied them. Either I got lucky, or there was the hand of providence somewhere.
  2. That which starts by tasting bitter often ends up being sweet. It’s possible that an eye for providence may help us with that thought.
  3. We keep walking into drippings of God-soakedness, like colliding with spiders’ webs, which in the season I’m writing this, early autumn, are everywhere. I know that coincidences are mathematically inevitable, but that does not stop them also being the hand of providence. Several years ago I quoted the theologian Frederich Buechner, and it’s worth unearthing again:

“I think of a person I haven’t seen or thought of for years, and ten minutes later I see her crossing the street. I turn on the radio to hear a voice reading the biblical story of Jael, which is the story that I have spent the morning writing about. A car passes me on the road, and its license plate consists of my wife’s and my initials side by side. When you tell people stories like that, their usual reaction is to laugh. One wonders why.

I believe that people laugh at coincidence as a way of relegating it to the realm of the absurd and of therefore not having to take seriously the possibility that there is a lot more going on in our lives than we either know or care to know. Who can say what it is that’s going on? But I suspect that part of it, anyway, is that every once and so often we hear a whisper from the wings that goes something like this: “You’ve turned up in the right place at the right time. You’re doing fine. Don’t ever think that you’ve been forgotten.” ― Frederick Buechner

And this should not be

This post doesn’t need a commentary really. I have an interest in youth justice and this landed in my in-box. 1 On April 26 2023, just a few weeks ago, the Chief Inspector of Prisons wrote this about His Majesty’s Youth Offender Institution at Cookham Wood:

An inspection of a HMYOI Cookham Wood in April 2023 found that a quarter of the boys were being held in solitary confinement for extended periods, including two for more than 100 days, as a means of managing conflict between children. Records showed that it was not unusual for these boys to not come out of their cells for days on end, with no meaningful human interaction, education or other intervention. At the time of the inspection, 90% of children were subjected to ‘keep aparts’ meaning they were not allowed to mix with some of their peers, and staff were managing 583 individual conflicts in a population of 77 children.

Children told inspectors they felt unsafe, and were increasingly resorting to carrying weapons, many of which were made from metal which boys had scavenged from equipment in their cells, including kettles, in a bid to protect themselves. More than 200 weapons had been recovered in the six months preceding the inspection, despite inadequate searching procedures.

Cookham Wood was in a poor overall condition, with dirty living units and broken equipment. Prison staff were exhausted, with significant shortfalls on wings, and, while many clearly cared about the children, they felt unsupported by senior managers and had given up hope that improvement was possible. Four-hundred-and-fifty staff were employed at Cookham Wood, including 44 directly employed managers, of whom 24 were senior leaders. The fact that such rich resources were delivering this unacceptable service for just 77 children indicated that much of it was currently wasted, underused or in need of reorganisation to improve outcomes at the site.

The findings of this inspection represented the culmination of a steady decline in standards documented in inspections since 2016 that cannot be allowed to continue.

I’m glad we have a Chief Inspector of Prisons, that their work is public, that (on government directions) they require immediate action from the government, and that we ordinary people can write about this stuff without people turning up in vans accusing me of ‘insubordination’ or ‘spreading instability’ as might happen in many countries. I’m glad there are caring people at Cookham Wood and others who will campaign and fight. I’m glad we don’t incarcerate that many children (fewer than 1000 in the whole country). But the good news stops somewhere there.

The light touch(2)

Thinking more about the way we do things in community, and most especially if it’s on you to lead it.

I wrote last week about the subtle, partial, fertile, creative light touch that achieves more than the all-spelt-out, big, heavy, full-throated approach. I think this is because the light touch respects people’s humanity. They can work stuff out for themselves. They don’t need to be infantilized. Dropping seeds into their hearts may at times be more productive – though less predictable – than taking them through the procedure manual.

The more you think about this, though, the more complicated it gets. You need to select the right leadership tool for the job. Here (making it up as I go along) are some.

  1. The routine procedure. Some things are just best approached as procedures to be learnt. They become routine, mechanical memory. For example, the crash team electrocuting the stopped heart, the pilot working through a preflight checklist. Mechanical memory (and its first cousin, tradition) embeds and even automates the proven learning of the past. It saves us having to think, which is exhausting and can be error-strewn or just not as good.
  2. The precision task. Related to the routine procedure, the precision task differs from it because it requires a deep understanding. A checklist won’t do. Somewhere in your head you have to carry a precise working model of the system. Chernobyl exploded when they powered-up a powering-down reactor, without knowing the detail. They thought it probably would be OK, these reactors are safe anyway, leadership was on their back and it was nearly goodbye to Europe. Apollo 13 came home safe because the main actors mastered the detail., and had room to contribute more than just obedience to orders.
  3. The judgement. Sometimes a situation just needs someone to decide even if they have incomplete information. As recipients we may bridle, we may chafe, it will be the wrong decision in small or large ways, but it will have been decided and we can all move on. That is why we elect politicians. They aren’t super-people but we pay them to make the call. Court judgements are like that, elections are like that, Brexit was like that: a poor decision but least a decision. We are spared the agony of not resolving anything. Now we can reset and go again.
  4. The light touch and now here it is again, part of the tool box, ready to be applied, creative, open-ended, unexpected, hated by the control-type, slow, requiring humility and an open hand, but a way to reach unexpected solutions to complex problems. The gospel is like that. Forget the religious clutter, says Paul, it boils down to faith working through love. Work things out from there. May it never be missing from the toolkit.

The beautiful light touch

Photo by Andraz Lazic on Unsplash

I wonder if the light touch is what makes genius. So many areas: the penalty taker in soccer: does he (or she) just thump into the top corner, English centre-forward style? Or do they send the keeper the wrong with a little shimmy–a light touch–then side-foot the ball into the net? Does the music, or the writing, or the engineering, tend towards the sound and thunder, the power, or the elegant, effective, quiet, light touch?

I see it in my own field. When faced with a scandal, it’s easy to over-write, loading up the text with adjectives. But as good journalists everywhere appear to know, it’s more forceful to focus on one human story, telling it simply, letting it gnaw at the reader’s psyche. Sure, you can follow your story with your substantial evidence and research, but it’s the light touch that gets under the skin.

At the heart of ‘light touch’ is a virtue that I do not hear routinely praised in my neighbourhood: creativity, originality, looking at things in a fresh way.

We who claim to be Christians are of all people those with the least excuse for not seeking creative solutions. We are not chained to a rule book or a procedure manual, we serve a living and creative Christ. We herald and anticipate a new heavens and new earth that is preparing to burst out of this maggoty old one like a butterfly from its sleeping bag. If we resort to old, traditional, heavy-duty, heavy-weather approaches we are of all people most to be pitied or perhaps even despised.

Was Jesus ‘light touch’? Not when denouncing pharisees, one feels, calling them out as snakes. Nor when ordering demons around. But in his stories, in his dealings with the vulnerable, in his meek suffering, there was such a gentle hand and such an open hand. There was also such creative genius and novel approaches. He taught, then walked, rather than making the sale. The light touch and the creativity did much of the rest.

I like that.