The blog

Featured

Slow mission

A blog of patient revolution

plumsSlow food is about seasonal ingredients, patiently nurtured, carefully prepared, lovingly cooked.

The ingredients of ‘slow mission’ are people and the Christian gospel; and also, seasons, brokenness, diversity, giftedness and time — things we need to keep reminding ourselves of.

Slow mission is about trying to make the world better by applying the whole gospel of Christ to the whole of life. It’s about using what gifts we have for the common good. It moves at the pace of nature. It respects seasons. It is happy with small steps but has a grand vision. It knows of only one Lord and one Church. Making disciples of ourselves is as important as making disciples of others. Diversity is embraced. Playfulness is recommended.

A fresh entry comes out about once a week. The idea is to learn together and encourage each other. Comments and guest blogs are welcome. Each entry is bite-sized, 500 words or less. Please do subscribe, join in, enjoy.

skinny latte

Featured

Slow mission values

Marwa_Morgan-It's_still_early_for_the_moon_to_rise
Marwa Morgan ‘It’s still early for the moon to rise’ @Flickr

‘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.

The oddly shaped Will

It’s complicated

Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay

I have been enjoying a set of lectures on the thinking of St Augustine, available on Audible.1

It is deeply satisfying because what I have left after finishing the series is a handful of crumbs about what Augustine thought about things, which is just substantial enough to really annoy people, but cannot be mistaken, on any proper test, for an actual understanding of the mind of the North African Doctor of the Church.

Augustine thought, or at least I think he thought, that the human will is complicated.

I really like this thought, and even if Augustine didn’t think it, he should’ve. One of the reasons I like it is because when my wife asks me, ‘So what do you want?’, I can refer to Augustine, and suggest that it’s possible to want several things, several contradictory things, simultaneously. That is because the will is not a thing like a light switch or a compass needle, that points in a single direction.

Augustine didn’t have the benefit of complex multi-dimensional geometries as a metaphor for the human will. Nor was able to call on the insights of quantum dynamics, of superposition, of Schrodinger’s Cat, with the will existing in two states at once and only revealed when you actually do something. I’m sure if Augustine had had those metaphors to hand, he would have used them.

The will is complex, superposed, and contradictory. My wife herself had an example of this when she offered a colleague a Kit-Kat. Her colleague simultaneously:

  • Wanted the Kit-Kat, perhaps because she is evolutionary disposed to fat, sugar and chocolate. Or perhaps because she was hungry.
  • Didn’t want the Kit-Kat because she was pre-diabetic, and also didn’t want the Kit-Kat because in her daily tally of calories, she had not left room for the 99 calories she knew it contained.

So what did she want? Her Will existed in quantum superposition of both simultaneously wanting, and not wanting the Kit-Kat. Actually resolving this, things could have gone either way.

I’ll leave you in suspense as to what actually happened. The point, is of course, if someone asks you ‘what do you want’, you can explain that Augustine felt that was not a fair question.

Though he was not, at the time of asking, married.

The end of the Jubilee centre

As a Cambridge icon closes, Nick Spencer of the ever-interesting Theos think-tank, muses on what it gave us – the idea that good relationships are what mark a good society. I enjoyed this article and thought you might too.

https://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/comment/2022/09/22/conservative-radical-christian-political

Book review: Wonders of the living world

This book’s author, my friend Dr Ruth Bancewitz, confesses that as a teenager she rather geekily enjoyed those books that showed giant cutaway models of things and explained how they work.

This book, though for adults, would be perfect fodder for teenagers who think the same way. Taking the work of six scientists, helped by some elegant writing and classy illustrations, it surveys some lovely science, slowly cranking up the view from the molecular all the way to the large trends and patterns that appear across species in evolutionary theory.

Then it does something that’s relatively rare in popular science: it turns the camera back onto the scientists themselves, what their discoveries mean to them, and how they integrate what they’re finding in the microscope with what they believe about God and the universe.

So as well as being popular science itself, the book offers correctives to two perhaps lazy assumptions that pervade quite a lot of popular science writing — that atheism is the only basis to do science from (it isn’t); and that the scientific process is somehow divorced from the humanity of the scientists themselves. (It isn’t: science is social construct, a tribal religion, just better than most tribal religions–we hope–at coping with the width and depth of reality).

I particularly like this book because it’s slow (in my terms): not strident, not argumentative, challenging popular assumptions just by being elegant, rigorous, beautifully illustrated and out there, inconvenient, like an unexpected piece of rogue data.

All the things you won’t die of

Nothing to fear here. Photo by Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash

‘You’ve got liver disease,’ my heart consultant said recently. ‘But you won’t die of it.’

This is a surprisingly comforting thought. Not least because you can add to it all the other things you won’t now die of:

  • Trying to land a spacecraft on Mars
  • Ballooning
  • Swimming the English Channel
  • The guillotine
  • Flying a light aircraft under a bridge
  • Being eaten alive by piranhas
  • Trying to break the world record for jumping a motorcycle over 42 double decker buses.

Really, it’s liberating. When you are a teenager, and happily raised in a land when you have some opportunity to express yourself, the possibilities are enormous. You can’t totally rule out, for example, being trampled by a herd of zebras or finding the end of hostile bayonet, or disappearing in a caving accident, or finding your attempt to cross the ocean on a giant rubber duck going horribly wrong.

It’s true that when young, if you’re lucky, all sorts of possible lives seem to present themselves, but they are accompanied by even more sorts of possible deaths.

Instead, as you ripen, with any luck or grace, you may be happy enough to find youself settling — into a life with people you love, things you love, work you love and times you love. Leaving those will be hard, and you will not want to let them go, even though some banal and workaday illness will finally prise your fingers away. But at least you found them and had them for a season, and thus perhaps, as I believe, sampled eternity.

A friend of mine

A friend of mine for more than 25 years has just died. He was a soldier, then a taxi driver, then in his final couple of years he worked at our local hospital, helping clear the rubbish from the wards and driving a vehicle than carried all this waste, snaking through the underground corridors. He struggled with health conditions all his life, a chest that wouldn’t sweep out infections, and he had been given just a few years to live when a teenager. He swallowed antibiotics every day. He sometimes swelled with arthritis until a new medication was found, and for many years plugged himself into a C-PAP machine, like a vacuum cleaner, every night.

He stayed a soldier in civilian life, gleaming shoes, immaculate taxi, always on time. For several decades he had contracts to shuttle materials between Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge and the nearby Papworth Hospital, the pioneering transplant centre. The contract only ended when Papworth become the Royal Papworth and moved onto the Addenbrooke’s site. Carrying radioactive materials for transplant purposes, he never let the patients down, and took on extra work, like taking mail between departments that otherwise might miss the collections. He told me once of a girl he’d taken home from the city centre, almost too drunk to give her address, certainly too drunk and incapable to pay her fare. He took this vulnerable girl home, knocked on her door, handed her over to her father, made sure she was safe, like she was his own daughter, and went on his way.

He was the beating heart of our men’s breakfast group, instigator of our weekends away in the Lake District, organizing them himself for many years, army style, with rations allocated and he would have had us travelling in convoy if we’d let him. He sought old army friends out and welcomed them in. He loved a curry. He loved his family and quietly fought his infirmities, every day, to keep going for them. His self-medication took him hours in a morning, and yet he was early to work every day. He had an encounter with Christ almost the first time he walked into our church (his daughter was at Sunday School) and followed him faithfully ever afterwards. I love his example of an ordinary life, each ordinary day, like his shoes, burnished, gleaming with grace.

Back after a little while

Unintentionally or not, I took the summer off, and hope you had as good a one as we did.

At the moment I am spending a lot of my time adding to the database of articles which is one of the sources of the prayer handbook Operation World. If you mine this database horizontally, you can dig any number of fascinating seams.

  • The rise and perhaps the teetering, of the autocrat.
  • The way autocracy vs. liberal democracy has turned rural areas against urban ones, with the rural ones in the ascendancy over the past few years, to the consternation of city-dwellers, who like to set the trends. You can see this in the UK, the US, India, Russia, Turkey, Japan and almost wherever you care to look.
  • The decline of radical Islam, or at least its popular decline as a fashion-statement and rallying point for the underwhelmed-with-life.
  • The non-impact of the church in India (Christians in 1950, 2.3%, Christians in 2020, 2.3%)

This is all good stuff and enjoyable in its way. It also happens to be a big piece of what I do for a career. But it’s also like walking around a housing estate rather than striding out across the fields. Where in all that is play? Texture? Subtlety? Creativity? Ambiguity? Beauty? Carefreeness? Where does the soul get fed? Where’s the joy of walking with a creator who is extraordinarily big, extraordinarily beautiful, extraordinarily tolerant of me, and extraordinarily, and unsettingly, original?

Much of this blog over the years has been about how my Christian faith animates these latter things, rather than the workaday business of machining truth – vulnerable, lovely, lively, teasing, elusive truth – into tidy journalistic widgits.

The quiet power

Drop by beautiful drop. Photo by Rudrendu Sharma on Unsplash

Someone kindly sent me a book about the church that first discipled me after I committed my life to Jesus in my teens. It isn’t that big a church even now, but people will publish books about anything these days and it was a good read, partly because I knew many of the people and partly because, a generation later, you can look back with a bit of perspective.

The church was founded by four then-young people, refugees from the rather liberal Methodist tradition that was embodied in dozens of churches around West Yorkshire. They started, in true late ’60s Christian style, with a coffee bar in a church basement. Then they rented some premises of their own and ran their own services, listening to sermons on reel-to-reel tapes. They employed a 24-year-old pastor and his wife, church members numbers 5 and 6. (Pastors are always male in this tradition.)

When I arrived at the church about nine years later, it already felt like a proper church, with a membership of perhaps 50 or 70. In the few years I attended, before leaving West Yorkshire for university in London, it was busy acquiring and fitting out a new building. Since then it’s seen two or three churches come into being in other little Northern market towns, all in the FIEC, reformed evangelical fold. It’s moved again, into a still bigger building. People have retired.

They welcomed me, befriended me, taught me, loved me and gave me a grounding in faith I’ve drawn on ever since, and I’m still in occasional touch with two of the early leaders. Add up those who stayed and those (like me) who moved on, the churches must have played a part in the lives of hundreds of us.

There was a level of ambition, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Much of its most successful work was among young people, a so-called ‘social event’ one Friday, a Bible study the next. And camps and things. And church teas. And hospitality. And of course the regular work of maintaining a church community and preaching the Bible.

It was the quiet power of faithfulness that struck me. Baking flapjacks. Buying self-raising flour to make cakes for church teas. Hosting unruly teenagers year after year. Vaccuuming the house before, and probably after the meetings. All the work of running camps. Prayer. On and on, over forty years. There really was nothing spectacular, no radical innovation (except the gospel itself) no ‘quick wins’, just the awesome inertia of faithfulness, everybody doing their bit, again and again and again.

‘Theology after Bucha’

The team that I am part of reads hundreds of magazines each year and we file references and notes about them to use in the new version of the best-selling prayer handbook ‘Operation World’, eighth edition due out sometime.

Sometimes we share articles around. Here’s one from the person who monitors Russian and Ukranian magazines. I’m sorry it’s not in the cheerier terms in which I usually try to write.

Last week Ukrainian troops liberated the entire territory of the Kyiv region. What they discovered in the cities of Irpin, Gostomel, Bucha, and dozens of surrounding villages, words cannot convey. As I write these lines, my hands begin to tremble, and my eyes fill with tears.

Hundreds and hundreds of unarmed civilians were shot dead with their hands tied. Burned bodies of raped women. Dead bodies cover the streets of cities, fill basements, and decompose in looted apartments. Entire towns and villages destroyed to the ground. Russian military vehicles are full of stolen goods (household appliances, jewellery, underwear, perfumes, plumbing fixtures, etc.). The Russian soldiers in the border regions’ post offices send everything they looted to their families back in Russia.

I don’t know how to live with it. We have liberated only a tiny part of our country from the invaders. However, we can already say that in Ukraine, Russian troops have repeated the crimes of Srebrenica and Rwanda.

A month and a half ago, I could have given a lecture or preached a sermon on how to forgive enemies and support victims of violence. But today, I can only cry. I used to be tormented by the question of why so many Holocaust survivors later committed suicide. It is worth mentioning the poet Paul Celan, the philosopher Jean Amery, a great witness to the horrors of Auschwitz (in which my own grandmother also died), and Primo Levy.

A month ago, I could have given a lecture or preached a sermon on how to forgive enemies and support victims of violence. But today…

Today, I understand that the violence and evil they experienced deprived them of ways to return to everyday life, normal relationships, and trust in other people. They, like Eli Wiesel, have been in such an abyss of evil that it is almost impossible to look away from it.

Who knows how to pray with a woman raped for a week by a Russian soldier, who then shot dead her sick mother when the woman refused to go with him to Russia? How should I pray for a six-year-old boy who turned grey because the Russian military raped his mother day after day in front of him?

What words can be said to the elderly residents of a care home that ruthlessly reduced to rubble by a Russian tank? What can be said to the people who survived hell on earth, which was arranged for them by the Russian military? How can we bring comfort a wife whose husband ran out to seek help because she had given birth but was killed near the house? How do we mourn civilians who have been tortured so much that they cannot be identified?

Apparently, my readers find it hard to believe all this. A few weeks ago, I would not have believed that this is possible. But this is Ukraine, and this is the 21st century. And I think with even greater horror, what else will we learn when we liberate the rest of our territories?

I am not ready to talk more about this today, but I know that a new theology has emerged in Ukraine these days: Theology after Bucha.

This piece was written by Ukrainian church leader Rev. Dr. Roman Soloviy and published by The Dnipro Hope Mission.

What’s missing in the talks I’ve heard on the ‘Great Commission’

The wisdom of crowds. Thanks to Keren Fedida on Unsplash for this lovely pic of the SXSW festival.

A recent talk that got me thinking about what’s missing from the teaching about missions that typically happen in (evangelical) circles such as I move in.

Such talks – and I’ve given a few myself – note how a page in history turns at the end of the gospels and the beginning of Acts. Here’s the new page: Christ is now reigning as Saviour and King: that good news is to be embodied and universalized. Starting with the few hundred Jesus followers, forgiveness and new ways of living through Christ are to be offered and implemented to everywhere and everyone on earth. This five-fold repeated instruction (in the four gospels and Acts) to Christ’s followers is called the ‘Great Commission’.

Usually, and in the case of the talk I heard, that means individual Christians doing evangelistic stuff, and/or supporting other Christians doing evangelistic stuff, and it reminds us of the need to cross cultures, to go places we are uncomfortable, in order for the message to go everywhere.

So far so fine. Many of us evangelicals, and especially me, however, can go into full cognitive dissonance at this point. It’s a mission meeting. We’re in church. We can all agree evangelism is good, cross cultural evangelism is good, I’m all in favour of it, but no, I’m not really doing it, please, God, send somebody else.

Sorry.

The problem may not be me, I am hoping. The problem is the atomistic nature of what is being taught. It denies the way the world works, denies the way the church grows, and denies the wider teaching of the New Testament itself. Are all evangelists? No. What does everyone else do then? Support the evangelists? Is that it?

Jesus taught, make disciples of all the nations. I think we too readily forget the communal, non-atomistic, nature of these commands. I think we too easily forget the importance of families and networks and cultures.

In Europe, arguably, sort of, there is a local church in every settlement from the West of Ireland to the Ural mountains, from the North Norwegian coast to the Greek Islands. In principle, there are all these little communities based around the Kingdom of God interacting and engaging in a thousand ways with the dominant cultures all around them. You will be my witnesses. Everyone who is part of Christian communities can have a part in that, doing what they do, with all their devotion.

Then look at the order of what Jesus taught in Matthew’s gospel: make disciples by (arguably first) baptising and (then, arguably second) teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. In Europe this happened when a king decided to become a Christian and all his people were roped in. In many contexts, like with a friend I interviewed with experience of people in the Indonesian rainforest, the group decides for everyone. (Or sometimes the group splits into two groups.) Everyone included in the decision to follow Christ is baptised, and then the teaching starts. When the great Catholic missionaries like Francis Xavier did their stuff, they baptised whole communities. (Xavier allegedly got repetitive strain injury from all the baptising he did.) Communities that he mass-baptized, like on the Coromandel coast of India (part of Tamil Nadu) have retained a Christian identity until this day. Indeed some have kept such an identity since the time of the Apostle Thomas, a millenium and a half before Xavier. Even if none of these options are true in your culture, the good news about Jesus’ forgiving power and current reign always tends to travel better down natural networks of family and community.

What are the takeaways from that?

  1. If you are part of a Christian community, doing what you do with devotion, you are part of the great commission, bearing witness -part of a community bearing witness– to the cultures around you.
  2. There surely is a need, and Jesus gave a command, for individuals to cross cultures to spread the gospel.
  3. Such missionary individuals, who go to new cultures, need to prioritize starting and building communities, or repurposing existing networks.
  4. Mass baptism of the whole group of humans involved (like a household, a social group, or even whole tribe or nation) may help retain a Christian identity for generations, and provide a platform for teaching.
  5. In this way, the nations are taught about Jesus and how to follow him.

The inside-out church

Solid at the core, fluid at the edges

Reshape to renew

I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m going. Image by Marianne Aldridge from Pixabay

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.

%d bloggers like this: