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 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?
A culture where leaders are accountable, to law, to being sacked by the people they rule.
A culture grown kinder so that people are more patient, more honest, more generous, more likely to share your load.
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.
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.
A worshippingculture. Perhaps all cultures are worshipping cultures; but this would be worshipping the maker rather than the made.
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.
A learning culture, so that we are curious about the world around us; able to experiment; able to fail; willing to change.
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.
A remembering culture that knows other generations walked this way too and knew and did stuff and are owed respect at times.
A respectful culture, sensing the preciousness and autonomy of every human, and letting that inform our corporate life.
A creative culture, valuing playfulness, and invention, and engineering, and hypothesising, and art, and music, and literature.
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.
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.
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 lot of people can see the bits of the future, and quite a lot of us have the extra talent of somehow taking hold of a bit of the future and wrestling it down into the present.
‘I can imagine a day when cars are electric,’ someone might say. Or maybe an executive in a car company might say, ‘I predict one day there’ll be a lot of electric cars on the road.’ Both are seeing the future but not necessarily doing anything about it.
Someone else might say, ‘I’m going to build and mass-produce electic cars.’ Such people don’t just see the future. They drag it into the present.
Lovers, farmers, teachers and entrepreneurs do this all the time. Perhaps nearly all of us do it sometime, when we look at some future target or goal and move from ‘that would be nice’ to ‘I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen.’
The world of the prophet
True in everyday life, this is also true in Christian discipleship. The Christian faith adds quite a bit to our innate human ability to drag the future the into present. We add God and prayer to the equation, and also the theological sense that there is a good future held in God’s hands. It can be sampled, if not fully fulfilled, in our ordinary lives here. Even more controversially, perhaps, God can promise us things.
This leads us to the world of the prophet, or intercessor, that lonely place where someone has taken hold of God, or God has taken hold of someone, who will pray and work and agitate and cry and pray again until the future is born on earth, because God has led them into that lonely place. They feel he has promised them something and they have altered their life around that promise.
This is a subtle and difficult place. Because we can be completely wrong. Think of the pastor counselling a series of young men in a church, all of whom think God has promised them the same girl will be his wife. We can also be incompletely wrong, in that God has genuinely promised something, but we have embellished it over the months, and our embellishments don’t happen, even if the promise does. Or we can be wrong in that God was promising and we were wearing tin ears, so the fulfilment of the promise comes as a total surprise (think of the disciples’ response to the resurrection).
But for all the misuse, there is good use. Think of the two characters, Simeon and Anna, around Jesus’ first presentation at the temple. They had waited decades, into great old age, and possibly the temple authorities thought they were a bit mad, but Simeon was finally able to say, ‘you may now dismiss your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen…’ 1. Note that in Simeon’s and Anna’s cases, the temple authorities’ robust common sense may not have been a good guide. This unlikely pair each saw something and held onto it, improbable as it was.
That quiet, burdened person in your church may be bearing the future in a womb of lonely prayer somewhere. Or it may be a false pregnancy. Or even (to mangle the metaphor) a bit of both. Be kind to them.
Wherever you ripe fields behold, Waving to God their sheaves of gold, Be sure some com of wheat has died, Some saintly soul been crucified; Someone has suffered, wept and prayed, And fought hell’s legions undismayed.
Arthur S Booth-Clibborn, ‘There is no gain but by a loss’.
This slice of ‘Bread’ sums up what lessons I think adversity or suffering can teach. Smarty-pants readers, like you, will recognize where we have eventually landed after a long journey … the Beatitudes.
My search for what really matters – slice the 6th
Let’s collect up and summarize the lessons of adversity:
We are ordinary.
We are poor.
We are broken.
There will be losses.
Time compounds things, so it’s a good idea to live with integrity in both the large and the small. Integrity will still be holding your hand when charisma, success, pride, and boasting, and your good looks, even yours, have fallen away.
Approaching problems and joys a day at time, or a moment at a time, means you tackle them a scale you were built for and can manage.
Our life in the midst of others—belonging to others, making peace with others, exposing our lusts and terrors, our darknesses, to the kind light of others—is key to walking the long distance of life well. Suffering shared can lead to deep connection which is life.
Hoping and resolving to do something right and good, or to live towards the doing of something good, is a mighty weapon in the fight to reclaim your mind from itself. Even if it’s slow. Even if feels like small steps forward after a catastrophic fall. Why? You find you are working with the grain of the Universe. The Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote a book with the title Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. What a magnificent insight. (Perhaps I should read the book.) There is a course of life for us that is fruitful, being what we are, doing what we do, some good thing. It might be quite ordinary. Progress may be slow. Seasons may change while we await its fulness. But it is the path of life.
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.’
Read an article recently about the life of the carer. Of course there are millions in our country, paid or unpaid. Perhaps you are one yourself. In any case a person going somewhere with his or her carer is a commonplace on every bus, town centre, or tourist spot.
The lessons carers learn:
enjoy the moment;
look at the heart, not the surface;
treasure every human;
understand that loving commitment enables you to travel miles together;
don’t mind walking pace;
don’t worry about tomorrow.
These are kingdom-of-God lessons. One almost wonders how you can have a kingdom of God without the need to care; like the Kingdom was made to flourish among imperfection, limitation, and brokenness. How can it flourish without it? This is akin to the question, if everything were perfect, where would be the place of love? Too difficult.
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.
I read recently about a Japanese way of mending broken pottery. Instead of getting out the invisible glue, dust your epoxy with gold leaf. Then repair the pot and show all the spidery, golden threads of the former break. Like this:
It’s called Kintsugi, apparently.(Apologies to you if you actually know about this stuff.) What does it say? This pot has history. It’s been broken. It’s been mended. A new beautiful thing has come out of the broken old. Beautiful before, it is beautiful again, but now with beautiful scars.
I read there are Buddhist roots to Kintsugi, the impermanence, the suffering. It has echoes for me though of something else: the resurrection of Christ, of people, of the cosmos. There was Jesus: ‘behold my hands and side’. Look at the scars. My new body, a glorious thing, bears the scars of its former suffering.
What will eternity be like? Will we be all sculpted bodies? Or wrinkled, scarred, golden-mended?
Another article dredged from my archives, lest I am ever guilty of deliberately harbouring an unpublished thought. It is due to appear in my forthcoming book ‘The Sandwich‘ and was written for the Singaporean magazine for which I used to work. I am pleased to report that the children described in the article both ended up with Master’s degrees from Cambridge University, and that we all survived their childhood. Somehow.
Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it (Mark 10:15)
Christ said we must become as little children to enter the Kingdom of heaven. Dear God, this is too much. Have we got to become such idiots? (Protestant reformer Martin Luther, c. 1538)
Our children normally have a banana for breakfast and I have got into the habit of ringing it up before we eat it.
‘Hello, are you a banana?
‘Would you like to be eaten today?
‘Oh, alright then.
‘OK Thanks! Bye’
Presumably this little game will one day cease to be entertaining for the kids in the morning. (I hope quite soon.)
However, I was doing this one morning recently when my five-year-old daughter suddenly spoke up.
‘It’s not the banana talking at all! It’s you!’
I looked at her out of the corner of my eye, Has she only just realized this? I thought. Has she thought all these months and years that you can ring bananas up? And that they talk back? I wondered what else was going on, unsuspected by me, between her ears.
‘You’re right’ I admitted. ‘It’s me.’
Wet and wild
I work from home, in an upstairs room overlooking our garden, so I sometimes get to watch our three-year-old playing on his own: tramping about in his red wellies (rubber boots), watering the plants, digging in the sandpit. He shovels out sand and heaps it into his tractor. He collects stones in a bucket. He stirs the sand round and round with a stick, all the time talking. ‘Mum, I’m a collector. I’m collecting things.’ ‘Mum, I’m baking a cake. It’s a chocolate cake. With lemons.’ His mind, I observe, seems like a home you’ve just moved into: all the furniture’s there, but it hasn’t been straightened out quite yet.
In his book Queen of Angels, science fiction writer Greg Bear writes about an age when psychotherapy and computer modelling are so advanced that therapists will be able to take computer-aided journeys round the landscape of people’s minds, investigating the country and solving deep traumas.
Brilliant and daring though he is, he never speculates on the insides of a child’s mind. I can imagine why: it’s too wild. Certainly my kids’ minds are like that, mad, happy tea-parties where disconnected ideas and talking bananas jostle together.
It can’t be true
A child’s mindset is interesting in the same way the roller-coaster ride called Space Mountain in Euro-Disney outside Paris is interesting: riding it you’re completely in the dark and you don’t know where you’re going to be thrown next.
But it’s also interesting because, as we know, a child’s mind is a holy thing, a thing we must emulate if we are to get in on the kingdom of God. A child’s mind is nearer to the kingdom of God than a grownup’s. How can this be? Here are two ideas:
Wonder. Children know about wonder; grownups have to relearn it. Remember the answer Jesus gave to John the Baptist’s question, ‘Are you the one that was sent?’: the Lord Jesus told the questioners ‘The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.’ (Luke 7:22). ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him,’ says the apostle Paul (1 Cor 2:9). ‘Dear friends, now we are children of God,’ adds John, ‘and what we will be has not yet been made known.’ (1 John 3:2).
According to the New Testament, we are seeing the first, outriding snowballs of goodness tumbling down heaven’s mountainside into our lives; an avalanche will follow. As Christians we have every reason to develop a childlike capacity for wonder. Outrageous, lovely things really do happen. The future will be rich with them.
Relationship. Children have the enviable ability to have their problems solved with a hug. As grownup Christians we think a hug is not enough. But it is enough. ‘Peace I leave with you,’ says the Lord Jesus, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid’ (John 14:27). ‘Do not be anxious about anything,’ says Paul, shockingly; instead, ‘present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus’ (Phil 4: 6-7).
It is characteristic of Jesus that in the toughest times he does not explain things. Instead, he showers us with love and peace. It isn’t (rational, modern) explanation or (shrugging, post-modern) escapism we need; it is enough to be loved. Children know it; adults forget it.
At the heart of the Universe — we need to remember– is not a series of laws, nor something blind and chaotic, but a Good Person whom we do well to know (as children easily accept). His normal speech is what we call the laws of universe; his special words of love are what we call signs and wonders; fail to see him and we miss everything.
Maybe we should not be so committed to edifices of adult thought. Maybe the foolish playfulness of God, the God of talking bananas, is a surer foundation. We need the playful mind of a child to keep up with the rampant gaiety of a good God. Try this song as a quick summary of all we need to know (though in our case sung to Jesus rather than to a lover):
‘I don’t believe in many things, but in You, I do, I do.’