Justin Welby’s ‘Reimagining Britain’

[amazon template=image right&asin=1472946073]The Brexit referendum was the moment the ceiling fell in; but the dripping had been a problem for some time. Justin Welby’s book ‘Reimagining Britain’ is what happens when an Archbishop joins a crowd of workers leaning on shovels, looking at our nation, sucking their teeth and saying that this is going to take some fixing.

I like our Archbishops a lot. Archbishop Sentamu actually does stuff, like fasting, actually going hungry, which is a step up from most members of the order Primate, who usually only do stuff metaphorically (like ‘wrestling’ with a Bible text).

In Justin Welby, meanwhile, it is so refreshing to have an archbishop who doesn’t look like he’s just stumbled out of a library and can’t find his way back.

My liking for the Archbishops may make me too kindly disposed to this book; but even if it has flaws, it’s a really enlightening read.

Archbishop Welby is striving to ‘reimagine Britain’ after the loss of a Christian backdrop, the rise of pluralism, and above all, after the divisions brought to light by the Brexit referendum.

It’s a good fight and it needs someone, just as the nation needed an Archbishop Temple when Britain was being previously reimagined at the end of WWII. Welby believes Christians can lead this reimagining; in fact they must.  

Government-issue British values

The government’s response to the retreat of Christendom seems to have been to ask some poor civil service intern to write up a set of  ‘British Values’ on half a sheet of A4.1 This is to replace what grew through the toils of scholars, monarchs and martyrs in the last millennium and a half. They are:

  • democracy
  • the rule of law
  • individual liberty
  • mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.

Welby rightly rejects these as too flimsy and attempts to replace them.

‘When faith is increasingly privatized, it leaves a vaccuum which relativism in belief or a great plurality of incommensurable beliefs is unable to fill … There is a need for a generous and hospitable metanarrative within which competing truths can be held.’

He goes on  ‘It will be a suggestion of this book that Christian faith, centred on love-in-action, trusting in the sovereignty of God rather than political power, provides the potential for such hospitable and generous holding.’ (p 17)

 

So he first suggests a set of values, then attempts to reimagine aspects of British life with reference to them. 

Justin’s values

The Archbishop’s suggested values for reimagining Britain are ‘community’, ‘courage,’ and ‘stability’. If those sound too wishy-washy, suspend disbelief for a moment.

Community is about the way we all belong to each other, a note distinctly lacking in political discourse at the moment. After the referendum, the leavers didn’t say ‘let’s be magnanimous, let’s move forward together’. Instead we had, ‘You lost, get over it.’

Courage means giving room for animal spirits of competition, innovation and creativity.

Stability is basically a commitment to compromise, combined with a caution that gives room for bad stuff to happen without causing everything to collapse. Compromise! Forethought! Caution! Imagine!

So it’s good stuff. These are good directions to urge our society to head.

The best bit

The best part of the book for me was the reminder that Christians can rest on two truths: God is good, and God is King. In depressing days like these, I like the freedom to hope.  

Is it fun being an Angel?

Another in my series of Magazine Articles I Was Asked to Write

Here’s a piece I originally wrote for a Christmas issue of Impact Magazine in Singapore. OK, it isn’t Christmas yet but it’s all fast approaching. It did get me thinking about the angelic stuff we don’t read about.

Do they practice their songs? Who writes them? Can they all sing in tune?

When an angel is sent to find someone (Elijah in the desert, Mary in Nazareth), how do they find them? Do they ever get lost? In one of his books, Terry Pratchett has the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse stopping off for a drink on the way, and never leaving the bar. 

John Milton has them doing athletics in Hell (as I mention in the text)

So with such noble predecessors in this genre, here goes… 

 

All we really know about angels is what the Bible tells us, and the Bible doesn’t tell us very much.

Breakfast is served
One thing we never see, for example, is an angel making a mistake. Elijah is hungry, exhausted and depressed under a broom tree. Journeying (let us presume) from heaven, an angel locates the right country, the right desert, and even the right broom tree. Then he fills a jar of water, lights a fire, finds some flour and oil, bakes bread, and gives Elijah a gentle tap on the shoulder. The account in 1 Kings 19 doesn’t say whether he also coughs politely and says, ‘Room service’ or perhaps ‘Broom service’  but the care of the weary prophet could not be more tender. Angels are good at their jobs; the Bible doesn’t say how they learn the skills.

Or take the angel that slips into the prison where Peter is sleeping, bound, you remember, by two chains between two soldiers, in Acts 12. First he brings some light into the room. Then he gives Peter a poke, or possibly a kick. Presumably the angel has remembered to sedate the guards since it is hard to imagine the Apostle being woken without giving out a mighty snort or wondering loudly what is going on. The angel then looses the chains, helps Peter to dress, reminds him to take his cloak, dodges the sentries, and makes the iron prison door open all by itself. Peter emerges blinking in the moonlight. The angel leads him down a further street before vanishing. I can picture the Apostle Peter as one of these people who finds waking up a challenge. But eventually he realises what has happened, his head clears, and he sets off for the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark, to bring an unexpected end to the church prayer meeting.

How do the angels do this?

Worship

Or take worship. Perhaps this is the main work of the angelic host. Angelic choirs celebrated the Creation: God in his answer to Job talks about the time when ‘the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy’ (Job 38:7). Angels celebrated the Incarnation, giving a bunch of shepherds and a flock or two of sheep the most extraordinary musical moments ever seen on earth (see Luke 2:9). And Revelation portrays angels helping bring about the birth of the new heavens and the new earth, rejoicing all the while. The beginning, the middle and the end of the world are all celebrated by major compositions and performances.

But we never know more than this. Who writes the music? Are there auditions for the best parts? Do these choral occasions require many weeks of practice, learning when exactly when to come in with the next ‘Worthy are you O Lord’? Do they play (as we perhaps assume) Western classical music, or is there room for R&B, Jazz, or garage or house?

Or take the complex and difficult issue of angels at war. In our age of rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, would angels still appear with drawn swords, as they did to Balaam and David? Who does the procurement for these weapons? Do the same suppliers also equip the bad angels?

The hobbies of bad angels

Perhaps the greatest writer to think about these questions was the seventeenth-century Puritan, John Milton, in his epic poem Paradise Lost (which you can read, with helpful notes, on the internet).

Most of Milton’s poem is about the bad angels, who, as many critics have observed, Milton seems to find more colourful than the good ones. In Book II, Satan heads off to try to precipitate the Fall of Man. The rest of the Satanic host occupy themselves in Hell until he gets back. Milton lists some of their hobbies while they wait:

• Hold an angelic Olympic games, ‘Upon the wing, or in swift Race’
• Practice the arts of war: ‘Armies rush/ To Battel in the Clouds’
• Form a singing group: ‘Others more milde / Retreated in a silent valley, sing / With notes Angelical to many a Harp’
• Argue about ‘Providence, Foreknowledge, Will and Fate,’ like students at a Bible college and (also like students at a Bible college) ‘found no end, in wandring Mazes lost.’
• Explore. Unfortunately, since it is Hell they are exploring, they only find,‘many a dark and drearie Vaile … and many a Region dolorous.’

The end of it

Enough speculation. It might be fun being an angel because of the occasional James-Bond-like assignment. It might be fun to be given a meal by some generously hospitable Christian who is unaware that his guests are angels at all (See Heb 13:2). It might be fun to compose some angelic music and have it performed in front of the Throne of God.

But what certainly is fun is hanging around God’s throne and Christ’s church. There’s all these people coming to Christ every day, each one causing rejoicing among the angels in heaven (see Luke 15:10). Hebrews 12 talks about ‘thousands of thousands of angels in joyful assembly,’ like a happy football crowd, hanging around the church.

And there’s worship of God himself. Some people wonder how worship can be all that enjoyable: some of us get tired of it after half an hour on earth. How will we feel after half a million years? How might it be for the angels?

Perhaps there are a couple of answers to this. First, surely for both people and angels, being in God’s presence isn’t only about giving out: we are nurtured and nourished by God’s presence like a tree in the sunshine. We don’t just worship God, we bask in him, feed on him, walk with him, enjoy his love. The glory of God is sunshine to the soul. Reptiles can spend large parts of the day having a good bask. Perhaps the angels do too.

Second, there’s variety. One of God’s promises to us, the church, is this:

… in the coming ages he … [will] show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:6-7)

Notice how it says ‘coming ages’, not ‘coming age’. The idea perhaps is age following age of seeing grace’s ‘incomparable riches’, fresh epochs, leading to fresh discoveries.

So we don’t know too much about how the angels operate. In truth, we know almost nothing. But seeing God at work in the church, as they do, and spending times wrapped up in the presence of God, as they surely are—it’s got to be fun.

 

And then I got really creative and created my own comic spiritual world which occasionally intersects with the Biblical one. Paradise is a free download, ideally like your first hit of a drug. Then you get to pay for the rest.

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Long read: a gospel worth believing

broken cupThis is a short extract from a longer article that got the original author into hot water.

I recommend it as a long read. 

Like hot water, it stings a bit but it’s really good once you’ve climbed in. Super article that (arguably) upsets all the right people. 

The gospel that infuses the body of Christ is about the restoration of broken relationships …Poverty is a broken relationship with God, with my neighbor, with the earth, and the broken places inside me.


Our task as the followers of the true healer is to help mend these fissures we find in life. Without this understanding we easily become purveyors of I’m here and you’re over there. The truth is that because I am broken, through my wounds I get to heal somebody else who also, in some strange way, begins to heal me as well. Jesus said that because of the injury and death he experienced, he could heal us. In humility we follow his lead and offer ourselves as his agents in sacrificial love.

Steve Haas

On being trusted by God

Being trusted by God feels just like being abandoned by him

I was commissioned to write this a few years ago, and thought it was worth unearthing.

Let me get a heretical thought out of my system first.

I was listening to the singer Katie Melua who had a modest hit in 2007 with a slightly wacky song called If you were a sailboat. There’s a line in that song that goes like this:

You took a chance on loving me
I took a chance on loving you

Here’s my heretical thought: that’s how it feels between us and God.

Listen to your good and true church leaders
Of course our church leaders, if they are good and true church leaders, will tell us that thought is theological nonsense on all kinds of levels. Here are two:

1.Us loving and trusting God isn’t a gamble. God is more reliable than gravity, more sure than taxation, more certain than the fact that your girlfriend will laugh at you for something you don’t find funny. Mountains are shifty things compared with our God. The stars can fade from the sky like foam vanishing into the sand: still God is true, still God is loving. It’s ridiculous to sing, as to God, a lyric like ‘I took a chance on loving you.’

2. God loving and trusting us isn’t a gamble either. This is God we’re talking about. God whose judgement might be said to be fairly sound. God who has a good idea how things will turn out in the end, because both the beginning of history and its end are familiar territory to him. When he set his love on the human race, when he offered the wide arms of Jesus to anyone who will rest himself in them, he wasn’t messing about, calculating the angles, whistling in the wind, or vaguely hoping things will come good. He’s going to finish what he started. When he sets his love on us he is most definitely not thinking:

You took a chance on loving me
I took a chance on loving you

But that’s how it feels
Except that’s how it feels, quite often.

Consider Joseph, patriarch, grand vizier of Egypt, and sometime irritating younger brother. His brothers sold him into slavery, doing something that many an elder brother has only dreamed of.

It set up one of the classic narratives of the Old Testament: 17-year-old Joseph trusted God. Ever-old, ever-young God trusted Joseph. Joseph is sold on to an Egyptian official, but works hard and becomes a top employee. He refuses to sleep with his boss’s wife, but gets imprisoned for it anyway. He rises to a senior position in the prison and has hopes for people putting in a good word for him with Pharoah, but his hopes are dashed yet again. Still God and Joseph trust each other. Finally, of course, thanks to realizing that Pharoah’s puzzling dream is actually a weather forecast, he is appointed Pharoah’s No. 2 and the story ends happily. He trusted God. God trusted him. And it all worked out.

Consider Mary, mother of the Lord Jesus. I think she was a teenager too. (Only a teenager, surely, would believe such a madcap idea as the ‘the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God’ (Luke 1:35, NIV). Sensible mothers knock ideas like that out of their daughters at an early stage.) We know that Mary found a friend in her cousin Elizabeth. She found another in her husband-to-be, another Joseph, who stood with her through it all. But presumably Mary had a mother, and aunties, and a granny or two. What did they think of her? What did her neighbours whisper? What did Joseph’s friends laugh about? How could Mary walk down the street in Nazareth as her bulge grew? Was she always the serene figure of mediaeval art? Not if she was a human being, she wasn’t.

Surely the Patriarch Joseph and the Virgin Mary, as well as every other person who has ever loved and trusted God in dark places, went through times when they could sing:

You took a chance on loving me
I took a chance on loving you.

We might wonder how God felt as he watched these dear servants endure their disappointments, taste their bitterness, cry their tears. Somehow I can’t see God sitting smug and aloof: what kind of Father is that? Did God too, somehow, worry about them? Did He, as it were, sit on his hands, longing to help, determined not to, nervous of the outcome? Somewhere within his all-knowingness and his almightiness could he, too, have sung:

You took a chance on loving me
I took a chance on loving you

These are questions for extremely highly paid and clever theologians, of which I am not one. But I’d love to know how you can be a Father and not feel vulnerable when you watch your children stumble and get hurt.

The power of powerlessness
The problem, in a nutshell, is this: God trusting you feels exactly the same as God abandoning you. Indeed that’s the nature of trust. There can’t be trust without a letting go. God backed Joseph to endure the disappointment, the self-doubt, and the injustice, and he did. God trusted Mary to endure the painful conversations and the laughter in the street, and she did.

Shortly my own 17-year-old daughter is likely to pass her driving test. This means I am going to have to hand over the steering wheel to her, and also (to be fair to her), try to restrain my cries of panic. I think I will have to put my fist in my mouth. I have to let go, or she won’t grow. I have to trust her, even though she’s 17. It’s a dad thing. You just have to do it. That’s a tiny instance of what God does every day, with each of us who have entrusted ourselves to him.

So why does God put us, and perhaps himself, through all this, this pain of trusting? Here’s why.

God wants sons (and daughters), not slaves. Being trusted makes you grow. Trust leads to trustworthiness. This world does not need more Pharisees, who trust the rule-book and recipe book, never think creatively, never cook something new. It does not need lazy miserable servants, scared that God is a taskmaster, who bury their gifts within a fear of failure, who never want to be vulnerable.

This world needs people who are built up by the power of trust. Trusted, trustworthy people. Read Paul’s first letter to Timothy (I’m paraphrasing): I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service … this is a trustworthy saying … entrust the church to trustworthy people … Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care.

Trustworthiness will see the Church through, Timothy.

And so it will. Through the infectious power of trust, God is raising sons and daughters, confident in his love and favour, sure of his power, creative and happy, free to innovate, free to fail, free to wonder and dream and love and fight and transform the world. The dreamer Joseph ran a country. The peasant Mary made the Incarnation work. But previous bold generations of saints haven’t exhausted all the fun. There’s still some left for us.

God trusts you. Go with it. It will hurt. But it’s OK.