Friday, April 28, 2006

Not In My League

Britain has become a League Table culture. The Government sells us league tables for school/hospital/anything-you-care-to-think-of on two key principles: greater – more informed – choice for parents/patients/customers; and early-warning detection of poorly or under-performing service providers. Sounds good? But these key principles are extremely flawed.

The first is problematic because it reduces the citizen to the role of customer. There is nothing wrong with being a customer per se; but it is detrimental when it becomes the primary designation, the primary role, the primary definition of value, in ever-increasing areas of life. Not a parent, but a customer. Not a patient, but a customer. And it is detrimental in the other direction, too: not a teacher, but a service provider; not a doctor or nurse, but a service provider. It causes us to think of relationships, increasingly, only in terms of customer and provider; of economic transaction.

The second is problematic because it applies a limited set of criteria – perhaps only one criterion – in determining “success” or “failure.” Today it is announced that surgeons will be league-tabled. Which means that the surgeon who cherry-picks those patients most likely to survive a heart transplant operation, for example, will rise to the top of the table; while the surgeon who says, “If we operate, this patient may well die…but if we don’t operate, they will die…so, we will operate” will fall to the bottom of the table.

Churches, too, are under pressure to conform to the League Table culture. To provide what the client wants, or – alternatively – to create a need to sell to the client, in order to justify their existence…to be “successful,” as measured by numbers, or innovation, or…to miss the point: of serving others; of radical, sacrificial, agenda-less love of the other.

I do not want to be part of a church that considers itself to be at the top of the league table; a “successful” church – in any sense (other than, possibly, an ironic one). I want to be part of a community that subverts the trend; that calls for the commitment of the stake-holder (yes, I recognise this is as much an economic term as “customer”…); that seeks to walk closer to Jesus, rather than be bigger, cooler, or whatever…; that exposes the de-humanising lie, and offers an alternative vision, honouring God-given gifts and roles; that includes and embraces those who will never make the top division of a government league table; and recalls Jesus’ prophetic observation that those who consider themselves to be first shall find themselves last, and those considered the last shall be found to be first.

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Parlez-vous Anglais?

Thanks to those of you who have engaged with the last few posts – do take the time to read the comments and not just the “starting” points. The following thoughts flow out of the conversation.

Contextualisation means...

…that we recognise that we cannot challenge a culture with the gospel unless we speak the language – I do not mean merely the verbal language, but every level of communication, including shared reference points, and normative values – of that culture. The Old Testament prophets were fluent in the “language” of the pre-exilic, exilic, and post-exilic communities of Israel and Judah. Jesus was fluent in the “language” of first-century CE Jews, living in their historic homeland but under (successive) Occupation(s), trying to make sense of their circumstances by drawing on their traditions. Paul was – and Peter became – fluent in the language of the Greco-Roman world. Each, in their different contexts, used the “language” of the culture to subvert the normative values of that culture. They did not challenge the culture by imposing another culture – indeed, Paul is explicit that gentile followers of Jesus do not need to adopt Jewish culture in order to be genuine followers of Jesus.

Contextualisation does not mean...

…that we believe that our expressions of following Jesus are better than those of previous (and in particular the immediate predecessor) generations, or than other contemporary contextual expressions. In every context, Christians have got some things “right” and some things “wrong” – and we will be no different. Hindsight, and a bit of distance (geographic; theological; etc.) can be useful tools for evaluating what has been “got right” and “got wrong” – but ultimately only God can make that call. But, contextualisation recognises that even those things we believe others have “got right” in other contexts may not be “right” in our context. What we have to learn from the wider Church is perhaps more to do with principles of contextualisation than to do with reproducing (or rejecting) specific practices. We are not at liberty to opt-out of the task of engaging our context with the gospel out of fear that we might get some things wrong in the process. Indeed, we know that we will get some things wrong; but are not so arrogant as to believe that God cannot work around, and even through, our mistakes.


Saturday, April 22, 2006

Why I Do/Not Care For Preaching

The other day I was asked by a friend if I was getting any preaching opportunities at the moment. No, not really, I replied. That must be disappointing for you, they wondered. Again, no, not really, I replied: I’m actually less-and-less satisfied with preaching as a form of communication; less comfortable with hearing only one voice; more inclined towards conversation, discussion, arriving at understanding of what God is calling a given community to be and do communally. Yes, they replied, I can see that that would fit you.

It is well documented that the monologue is an ineffective form of communication, engaging, as it does, only one of our five senses. And so preachers have added-on PowerPoint, to engage the eyes at the same time as the ears; and jokes, to warm the audience to them…essentially tinkering with the sermon format, to improve it. When perhaps it needs ditching altogether…

I know that is hard for preachers to give up preaching. Sometimes, I quite like preaching. I especially like preaching sermons that are longer than expected, so as to stretch the listeners; or shorter than expected, so as to cheat them. I might preach sermons that are so-dense-that-you-cannot-possibly-follow-the-full-address-and-are-forced-to-give-up-trying-so-that-hopefully-in-that-resignation-you-will-hear-God-speak-and-not-my-words; and sermons that are so simple that even an adult can follow them.

But there are no sermons, as we know sermons, in the Bible (though there’s this thing we call The Sermon on the Mount, that we preach sermon-series on). And there aren’t sermons as we know them today through most of the history of the Church. The sermon is a Modern, educational, form; coming to its peak, perhaps, in the celebrity preachers of the Victorian era, such as Spurgeon. There are a variety of other ways in which the Bible has been retold – in parable, in story, in stained-glass window, and art, and architecture, to name but a few. Stained-glass embraced the culture of its day, its available technology and [pre-literate] approach to interpreting the world; and we, in turn, must embrace the technology [digital?] and interpretive framework [iconic? non-linear? post-post-literate?] of our culture…

I want to be part of a community that locates itself within the history of God’s engagement with humanity; that stands in continuity with his family; that familiarises itself with its own story. I’m not convinced that we need to hear God through one or two people alone; that if we listen to more voices the Holy Spirit will get too confused to lead us into all truth. I’m not sure that, even in the bigger-sized expressions of church, things would get out-of-control – not out of the Holy Spirit’s control, at any rate. I don’t think that the sermon should be banned; but I don’t want to deliver one very often; and I don’t want to listen to someone else deliver one very often either.

Much has been written in defence of sermons, often setting-out a case that if we lose the art of the sermon we will no longer look-to the Bible or effectively communicate God’s values. But this is a doubly-flawed concept: not only are there other ways of communicating our understanding of God’s values; but, the sermon, increasingly, does not communicate what its champions intend to communicate at all. Its long-held dominance is, increasingly, an alien cultural form – and if we want to honour the great preachers of the past, and stand in continuity with them, we need to embrace and pioneer alternative means of doing what they have done.

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Why I Do/Not Care For Bible Study

Since the 1960’s, the British church (in particular, perhaps, but not exclusively so, the evangelical tradition) has become increasingly familiar with the concept of small home-based mid-week meetings. And Bible-study has been a main-stay of such groups (in particular, perhaps, but not exclusively so, for the evangelical tradition). The approach has tended to be systematic – by book or topic – and this increased biblical knowledge has coincided with a marked decline in involvement in a church community within the general population. I’m not suggesting that bible-study has been responsible for this exodus; but it doesn’t appear to have equipped the Church for effective missional engagement with British society…

I have long advocated turning-on-its-head the traditional role of the Bible within the small community. My advice to such groups has been, when you meet together, do so over food; share what is going-on in your lives – the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful; and ask, what resources does the [hi]story of God’s involvement with humanity offer this particular circumstance? In other words, rather than making an abstract, informational approach to the Bible, allow the Bible to approach us in an applied and transformational way. And, see the Bible as a story to enter-into, writing – with God – the next chapter in the trajectory between 100AD and Jesus’ future bodily return; as opposed to a scientific formula to be reproduced [I think we are mistaken when we try to faithfully reproduce the early church, because it was no utopia, and because to do so implies that the Holy Spirit has not lead the Church over the intervening 2000 years].

Ah, but I can only engage in such an approach because of the systematic-approach grounding in my past, the response comes back…without that, the end result will just be an inward-focused handling of the Bible, and increased biblical illiteracy. I’m not convinced: certainly, we need a community that is committed to familiarising itself with our bigger story, so that it can inhabit it. But the systematic approach seems to me more to do with Modernity’s obsession with classifying everything in an attempt to attain Full Knowledge (and thus prove that we no longer need to posit God as a means to fill-in the gaps) than it has to do with meditating on God’s Law night and day. And – moreover – I’m not convinced that many of my contemporaries and younger are going to be convinced of the validity of my faith in Jesus Christ by means of an apologetic based on systematic theology or Bible study; but I am more convinced in the effectiveness of an apologetic based on testimony and how we live as a community, seeking to love God and each other and our neighbour, in demonstrable practical expressions.

So, Bible – like worship – yes; but not as we have inherited it: it is time to lower the bar, by about 1’6”…from a cerebral approach to a visceral one; from study to ingestion.

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Why I Do/Not Care For Worship

To worship means to attribute worth; to respond to the worth of another, in such a way that their worth is affirmed. And for worship to do that, it must cost the worshipper something of themselves. King David expressed it like this: “…I will not take for the Lord what is yours, or sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing.” [1 Chronicles 21:24] Now, I find David an ambiguous role-model for worship; but in this regard, he stands in continuity from the costly worship of Abel – whose worship ultimately cost him his life – to the widow Jesus commended for giving more out of her poverty than all that the wealthy gave out of their riches. Indeed, God himself worships us – affirming our worth; which is God-given in the first place – by, ultimately, giving us his One and Only Son. [If you find the idea of God worshipping us problematic, it is worth recognising that he only Commands that his people don’t give anyone or anything greater worth than they ascribe to him; worshipping itself isn’t prohibited, as recognised, for example, in one form of the Anglican marriage vows, in which the husband promises to worship his wife.]

So, for my worship of God to be genuine, it must cost me something. This is not about earning anything from God, but about responding to his costly worship, as well as his inherent worth. And here is the rub: when I am asked to participate in singing choruses, or hymns, as the primary expression of communal worship, I am asked to offer worship that has cost me very little. And that, I find, is not only dishonouring to God, but, over time, harmful to me.

Beyond the songwriter – who may not even be part of the singing community – and the musicians; when everyone else can only sing along; the majority are giving the Lord what belongs to a minority, not what is theirs. The musicians may be representing their community as well as themselves; but the wider community is distanced, relegated – and in danger of becoming consumers of worship that is meant for another. I certainly believe there is a place in the life of the church community for coming-together to sing; but when that becomes the dominant, even sole, expression of worship each time the community comes together, I – along with many others – am uneasy, less-and-less happy to go along. I am happy to sing – especially at the major festivals of the Church year; especially if I am singing songs produced within my own local community…because to do so is to honour – to appropriately worship – the Church, and my song-writing friends, and to worship God according to their gifts is to identify together as the family of God. But when we sing time after time after time, we devalue both sung worship itself, and every other possible expression of worship arising from the community, the gifts and abilities and loves God has scattered amongst us.

I cannot play a musical instrument, compose songs, follow musical notation, or even sing in a way that most people find pleasing. But I can write reflections; I can take photographs that speak to me of God, and offer them back to him; I can…And I don’t want to insist that everyone should worship in a way that is authentic to me, but, as members of the body of Christ, I would wish that we could all contribute…

[On a practical note, my wife suggested to me the other day that participatory worship was all very well for creative people like me, but not for mere mortals like her. But we are all created in the image of a creative – Creator – God: when Jo made a (Nigella recipe) Tunisian Jewish vegetable stew this morning (and I helped prep the vegetables), which we will eat with couscous at our communal lunch tomorrow, both the preparation and the eating are expressions of worship; likewise the Easter-cake, decorated with a crown-of-thorns-and-text-of-John-3:16-border and central gold cross, that our friend Amanda made, and we ate, recently.]

Unlike many who are involved in the ‘emerging church,’ who have generally tended to opt for small-sized-only church in order to allow for full contributory participation, I am committed to church community being expressed in several concentric sizes – family, clan, tribe, to borrow from Old Testament language. But I’m not convinced that even the larger-sized gathering of the church requires a lowest-common-denominator expression of worship.

To follow Jesus involves worship; requires of us communal worship. But singing – whether the hymn-sandwich or the worship-block; whether Wesley, or Kendrick, or Redman – as the principle expression of worship is a cultural form. And for me it feels, increasingly, someone else’s culture imposed on me. In contrast, ‘alt. worship,’ drawing on the historical resources of the Church, contemporary culture and technology (as Wesley et al did in their day), and the diverse gifts God has given to his people – and restoring the Eucharist to a central place in worship, often in its original context of a shared meal – gives me fresh hope. One day, today’s ‘alt. worship’ may be ‘main-stream,’ and (whether that turns out to be so or not) my children will have to re-interpret worship so that it comes from their heart. But that is what Jesus is looking for: not one expression of worship as opposed to another, but worshippers who worship in spirit and in truth.

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You Have To Change To Stay The Same

When my parents went to the Philippines as missionaries in the 70’s, they would be asked by students, “Is that Christian, or British – because if it is British, we don’t want it.” They wanted to follow Jesus, but they wanted to do so in an authentically Filipino way: their culture being redeemed, rather than someone else’s culture being imposed. A generation-plus on, back in the UK – but a very different UK from the one my parents left – I find myself asking, essentially, the same question: “Is ‘x’ a part of what it means to follow Jesus, or is it merely someone else’s cultural form of following Jesus? In particular, is this a Modern interpretation of how the church should look – because if it is, I don’t want it: it is increasingly inauthentic for both me myself and those whom I would invite to be with Jesus with me (which, in turn, would make my invitation inauthentic, evidently not ringing-true). The following three posts explore this a little, specifically in relation to worship, Bible study, and sermons…

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Queen, At 80

Today is Her Majesty the Queen’s 80th birthday. There has been much attention given by the media to her workload, and to the fact that she will never abdicate.

Personally, I like the fact that our Head-of-State is unelected: that she did not come to her position through courting the backing of powerful interest-groups who demand something in return, but as an accident of birth – the elder daughter of the younger brother of a king who abdicated; born not in a palace but (just like my own son) in a private family home.

But I’m not really interested in whether you are pro-monarchy, anti-monarchy, or ambivalent in regards to the monarchy. What I am interested in is the observation that a significant proportion of the Queen’s work is to honour other people for the contribution they have made to their community. Some are famous celebrities; most will never be heard of beyond the community they have quietly served over many years, bringing positive transformation – ushering-in the kingdom of God, whether or not they themselves would claim to act in his service.

If that were a significant proportion of my work, I wouldn’t want to retire either.

And, then again, why shouldn’t it be a significant proportion of my work? your work? anyone’s work?


Monday, April 17, 2006

Back To 'Normal'

Well, that's Easter over for another year. Normal service resumed.

Or not.

[The link is to an excellent post from hopeful amphibian. Maggi Dawn thinks so too.]

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Easter Movies

We watched Chocolat last night, the tale of a chocolate-maker and her daughter who arrive in a rural French town at the start of Lent, 1959. It is a beautiful film; I could write about the symbolic use of colour – blue, and red, and orange – but I recognise not everyone watches a film the way I do, so I’ll spare you…And it is a deeply theological film, a truly Easter film. It is a study of how those in authority use religion to control others, creating a community in their likeness, of skeletons-in-the-cupboard hidden behind whitewashed tombs…of their deep suspicion of anyone who comes into their town spreading life, gift-giving, reconciling, welcoming-in the broken, bringing hope…of the battle between hate and love…and love’s eventual overwhelming of hate, in the very moment of love’s deepest despair. A community learning – as the young priest finally comes to see on Easter morning – that goodness should not be measured by what we Do Not Do, but by who we are willing to embrace.

This afternoon, we watched Jesus Christ Superstar. Like the fictional chocolatier in late-50’s France, this 70’s-tastic film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical Passion Play caused deep distress to the religious right in the UK…And yet, as with Chocolat, it is a truly Easter film, exposing and confronting our assumptions about Jesus [“Jesus Christ, Superstar! Do you think you’re who they say you are?” – almost certainly not!] as well as our assumptions about religious propriety. Of course, it has dated badly – the beautiful, blonde Jesus; the casting of a black man to play the principle villain, Judas – unless, of course, we allow these givens to challenge the very cultural prejudices they represent.

But, it hasn’t been a bad way to celebrate with Jesus this sacred/secular Easter Bank Holiday weekend. Not bad at all…

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Easter Joker

The Eastern Orthodox Church finds Easter Sunday so delightful, they tell each other jokes…not sure any of these would make the cut, but:

The Father-of-the-deceased’s visit was unconventional, to say the least…

[not meant to be disrespectful – in fact, very, VERY respectful]

Like all apostles, Jesus left an item of clothing behind when he checked-out…

[if you know one, you’ll understand]

Mary mistakes diVine for diGardener…

[of course it is cheesy – I’m a Christian, for goodness’ sake]

“I know he said, ‘Shout it from the rooftops!’ but, do you think it would be cheating if we were to use those wire things up there?”


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He Is Risen!

The literal, historical, physical resurrection of Jesus Christ is a load of nonsense.

Not anti-sense (the opposite of sense). Not un-sense (the absence of sense). But non-sense: something Wholly Other – bigger, and more Glorious, than sense can taxonomify, and pin to a piece of wood in a museum…

I believe in the literal, historical, physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the most delightful, joyful – and powerful – nonsense the world has ever known…

“It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”
Luke 24:10, 11

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Saturday, April 15, 2006

God Is Dead

God is dead. And with him, the dreams he has sown in my heart.

I don’t say that as a platitude. There are dreams God has put in my heart that lie dead and cold right now. And there are God-given dreams that have died behind every door on my street. And I don’t mean that as a platitude, either.

And we do our neighbours a disservice if we rush from Good Friday to Easter Sunday – if we can’t acknowledge death without immediately qualifying it with resurrection. Yes, God can raise the dreams he has sown in my heart; indeed, those dreams can’t grow and bear fruit unless they first die. And yes, this is true for my neighbours, too. But the deaths are real, and need to be taken seriously, not made light of. God has been there. And that choice to identify with us is incredibly powerful.

So why should we be afraid to let God work in the space between Good Friday and Easter Sunday – between death and resurrection – today, and not just 2000 years ago?

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Jesus, Recovered

Time was, I suppose, when one might have expected there to be a church service televised on the morning of the Good Friday Bank Holiday; a cinematic interpretation of the Gospels in the afternoon. No more. More evidence – if evidence were needed – of a sad decline of the place of Christian faith in the life of the nation, to be lamented? Not at all! Yesterday evening I witnessed the best religious broadcasting I can recall seeing.

First up, EastEnders. Soap World – home of comically ineffective vicars and platitude-spouting or judgemental stereotype-Christians – is an unlikely place to find a serious exploration of Jesus of Nazareth and his impact on history. But Jesus shone through last night’s episode of EastEnders: from regulars in the Queen Vic debating the Synoptic Problem, and whether the crucifixion or the resurrection had the greater theological significance, over their pints; to someone who “ain’t religious” freely admitting to turning to the Bible for support in the past (“we all turn to something in hard times”); to general talk of Christian observance; to one character praying out loud with the father of a missing boy for his safe return…

In one sense, it was quite artificial: it was scripted by a team of writers, clearly as a marking of Good Friday, and the volume/range of discussion was high. But it was very well written – taking the matters seriously, but not piously – and was, therefore, believable – which is a mark of good Soap writing, even though the genre calls for exaggerated storylines. In reflecting Real Life, the scriptwriters felt it was appropriate to mark Good Friday in an up-front way; not segregated into church, but in the pub and on Albert Square. Jesus liberated, recovered for the man and woman in the street.

Cue another Albert Square: this time, not in the fictional London borough of Walford, but in the very real centre of Manchester. Last night saw The Manchester Passion, televised live 9:00-10:00pm (and repeated 11:00pm-12:00am – we watched it then, and it was like being at an Easter Vigil). A massive light-box (weighing half a ton) in the shape of a cross was processed through several central Manchester neighbourhoods, followed by a large crowd, moving towards the Square. Approaching the Square from the other direction, a cast of actors interpreted the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ final hours through the locations of Manchester’s city-centre, and the music of its bands. Not religious music: top-40 chart music; only one song referencing Jesus at all: The Stone Roses’ “I Am The Resurrection” – the verses used brilliantly to portray Peter’s denial; the chorus saved for the very end of the night…In the crowd, Christians yes: but also Muslims, there to honour Jesus as prophet; those of other faiths; and those who adhere to no organised religion but for whom spirituality is important…

I loved it. It asked hard questions of the crowd: was Judas the victim of circumstances? Aren’t we all just victims of circumstance? Or…? And, This is the 21st century and things are different now: if the Messiah appeared today, we wouldn’t murder him. Would we?...And it turned-on-its-head the idea of Marches for Jesus or Walks of Witness: rather than a group of Christians making an awkward and somewhat aggressive Statement to the wider community and then retreating behind the safety of the church walls again, here is the wider community saying We want to honour Jesus, and inviting the Church to join in. In reflecting Real Life, the scriptwriters felt it was appropriate to mark Good Friday in an up-front way; not segregated into church, but in the music and venues of every day. Jesus liberated, recovered for the man and woman in the street.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting a stereotyped Relativism: that every interpretation of, and response to, Jesus carries equal validity; or that there is only My (individual) Truth and Your (individual) Truth. Moreover, I don’t think that is what either programme was about. But I am suggesting that Jesus – as mediator between humanity and God – still has perceived significance for the general population of England; perhaps, even, greater significance than he has been accorded for the previous several generations. And I’d also suggest that if the Church no longer enjoys a privileged position – as mediator between humanity and Jesus – then that is not a bad thing. Jesus does not belong to the Church. He never belonged to the Church. And there is evidence – if evidence were needed – to suggest that he is being recovered…

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Vulnerable Adults, Part 3

In some ways, Jesus is the most Vulnerable Adult in the Passion story. Not because there are any skeletons in his cupboard (rumours, perhaps; but not skeletons); and not through abusing others; but through an intentional decision to be vulnerable: to open himself to the possibility of being betrayed, disowned, deserted by his friends; misunderstood and misrepresented by his peers; even forsaken by his Father…

And his vulnerability does not result in his being a pawn, manipulated by others for their own ends; his own intentions repeatedly derailed before they can come to fulfilment. On the contrary, it would not have been possible for him to achieve his purpose – to reconcile all things to himself – without first making himself vulnerable. For in opening himself to the possibility of being betrayed, disowned, deserted, misunderstood, misrepresented, and forsaken, Jesus also opened himself to the possibility of being responded-to with hope, faith and love. And so that all things might have the opportunity to respond to this vulnerable Redeemer, his disciples are called to follow his example, to have the same attitude.

When I look to Jesus I know that I am a less-Vulnerable Adult than I want, and need, and hope, to be…


Vulnerable Adults, Part 2

The ironic tragedy of Judas’ part in Holy Week is that he makes himself vulnerable to being taken advantage of by satan by having first taken advantage of his friends. One betrayal compromises him into making another, and the abuser – in this case financial abuse, stealing from the common purse – becomes the abused. But there is no justice in this table-turning: it still leaves a victim, instead of resulting in reconciled relationships. By removing himself from the group – by staking a claim for independence and invulnerability – Judas becomes increasingly vulnerable.

The more I deny my vulnerability; the more I seek to hide it; the better I become at presenting myself as fully able and independent; the more Vulnerable to abuse I become…


Vulnerable Adults, Part 1

The people I have recently started working with in a support role, who have Cerebral Palsy or Spina Bifida and/or Hydrocephalus, are classed as Vulnerable Adults. Because of their disabilities, they are – potentially – at a greater risk of being taken advantage of by others; abused in a variety of ways, including physical, emotional, sexual, financial…In this context – because abuse is always wrong – vulnerability is seen as a disadvantage, something that requires extra input to counter-balance. In contrast, the majority of the population is not vulnerable; is, therefore, more highly independent of others. And, while I understand the designation Vulnerable Adult and the practices surrounding it, I’m less comfortable about the flip-side; the idea of not being vulnerable, and/or of not acknowledging our vulnerability…

I want to reflect on vulnerability in the Holy Week story, through Simon the Zealot, Judas Iscariot, and Jesus.

I guess Simon the Zealot is one of the marginalised disciples. We tend to think of Peter and James and John – the “in-crowd” – and Judas – the “bad-guy” – first; then perhaps Matthew – because of the Gospel – and Thomas – because he Doubted; and then…yeah, there were others, um…

But, imagine how vulnerable Simon the Zealot felt that week, as his past came back to haunt him…Here is a man whose passion for God’s [Name] [never spoken by devout Jews] and God’s People and God’s Land had led him to choose the path of terrorism, targeting the Roman Occupiers – whose values, and whose presence in his land, defied God and defiled all that was His. This Simon is a disturbingly contemporary fundamentalist…but, somewhere along the line, he is attracted to Jesus…accepts Jesus’ invitation to walk away from his life, his cell, and follow along a different path – a path on which the enemies are not Romans but sickness, and demons, and death, and even the religious leaders of his own people, the People of God…and the weapons are not swords but heavenly power and authority, exercised in a ruthlessly aggressive (make no mistake there) love.

Three years or so of deconstruction and reconstruction…and then, the entry into Jerusalem: excited crowds, all talking about Jesus, Jesus who had come to overthrow the Romans, at the head of a popular uprising who would then proclaim him king. Heady stuff. Like an alcoholic who has not had a drink for three years being caught up with the binge-drinkers in any British city centre on a Saturday night. And when the crowd turned ugly, what pressure was Simon under to betray Jesus with Judas, to cut off Malchus’ ear with Peter? And what grace kept him from doing so?

I, too, am a Vulnerable Adult; and Jesus is my Support Worker.


Sunday, April 09, 2006

I'm Dreaming Of A White Easter

Snow. And hail-stones. A week into April. In Sheffield. What is the world coming to?

The Stones Cry Out

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
Luke 19:39, 40

I have heard stones sing. It was one of the strangest and most beautiful sounds I have ever heard. Here’s how it happened…

My wife can ring church bells. BC (Before Children), she used to ring with the Sheffield Universities Guild of Change Ringers on a Monday night at St Marie’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in the centre of Sheffield. I am not a bell-ringer (it is too complicated for me!), but I used to walk into town to join them in the pub afterwards. I’d meet them outside the cathedral door. En route, I’d always be asked for money by one of the street-sleepers; and, rather than giving them money, I’d buy them a Burger King meal instead. I don’t know if I’d do that these days – not that I no longer care so much for homeless people; but I no longer care so much for fast-food chains! Anyway, I digress…One night I pitched up at the cathedral a little early, and just as one of the priests was exiting the building. He invited me to come in, and wait inside the church. So I sat in the church, and listened to the stones sing…

I have to say that I don’t particularly like the sound of bells travelling through air and bouncing off all the irregular tall buildings in the city centre. But the sound of bells travelling through thick stone walls, so that the stones themselves and the space they enclose resonate with ethereal noise, is incredible – and haunting. The stones sang harmonics; and it was beautiful worship.

Yea, Lord, We Greet Thee

Matthew 21:1-11 // Luke 19:28-44 // John 12:12-19

Jesus rode into town, riding on a donkey’s colt. A great number of Anglicans came out to meet him.

The Evangelicals’ expectation was that this prophetic drama heralded Jesus’ intent to rally to him a popular uprising to overthrow the Roman occupiers; for this was how their Scripture foretold that the Messiah would come to town – and any other interpretation of the action would be wilful revisionism of the texts. Their anticipation was high; so much so that some of their number lowered the tone of the occasion by tearing off palm branches and waving them in an excessive act of charismatic worship…

The Anglo-Catholics’ expectation was that this prophetic drama heralded Jesus’ intent to rally to him a popular uprising to overthrow the Roman occupiers; for this was what their Tradition decreed that the Messiah would do when he came to town – and any other interpretation of the action would be dismissive of the history of the People of God. Their anticipation was high; so much so that some of their number raised the tone of the occasion by tearing off palm branches and waving them in a liturgical procession…

The Liberals’ expectation was that this prophetic drama heralded Jesus’ intent to rally to him a popular uprising to overthrow the Roman occupiers; for this was what their sense of Justice dictated that God would do if he were to come to town – and any other interpretation of the action would be immature, irrational hogwash. Their anticipation was high; so much so that some of their number turned the occasion into an impromptu rally by tearing off palm branches, writing “Romans Go Home!” on them, and waving them in demonstration against the oppression of the powerless by the powerful…

And Jesus? Jesus wept. For he loved the Evangelicals, with their love of Scripture, and their strange idea that truth was propositional not relational; and he loved the Anglo-Catholics, with their love of Tradition, and their strange idea that God was hidden in unfathomable mystery; and he loved the Liberals, with their love of Justice, and their strange idea that he was a metaphor for their nobler aspirations…and he wondered at how their various loves and strange ideas had led each, in time, to forget their first love…

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Attention Span?

While the BBC News may be "dumbing down" as one response to the information economy [see my previous post], Andrew Jones has written a thought-provoking post noting research on computer- and visual- interaction that indicates that "children are able to master 5.4 channels of information at a time - far more than their parents" and "today's youth...are able to track thoughts that are longer and more complex than their parents" (Perhaps the News, aimed at the parents, is further reducing their attention span, and thus further heightening the divide?)

As Andrew points out, this widening and lengthening attention to detail has significant implications for anyone wanting to engage in effective communication with today's "screenagers"...


As journalism goes, I happen to like the BBC. I remember listening to Fergal Keane’s reports on the Rwandan genocide on the radio; being moved by the beauty he found, in the ugliest of circumstances, to bring to his reports in honour of those who had lost their lives. His remarkable book, Season Of Blood: A Rwandan Journey, is one of my all-time “you must read this” recommendations, for anyone who has ever reflected on the complexity of human nature – the good; the bad; and how we, as individuals, are impacted and shaped by the events we witness.

Clearly, not every report can compare to such high standards. But European news agencies are world-leaders in reporting global news. The roots of this go back, I think, to the same horizon-gazing outward-looking lust for geographic Discovery that led to European colonialism in the past, and global tourism today. (In contrast, American colonialism has tended to be export-economic; a far smaller proportion of the population has travelled beyond their own borders for leisure purposes; and international news coverage has a much lower profile.)

That said, Jo has been pointing-out to me an irritating trend on the BBC news lately. In the past, when a correspondent filmed an in-depth report on a current new story, to be shown, say, on Panorama, the early evening News would show an edited clip from that report and end the piece with the anchor wo/man informing the audience that they could see more on the story later that night. But more recently, the News has increasingly functioned as an advert for BBC journalism in other contexts. Last night, for example, one of the headlines was that the BBC had got an exclusive interview with one of the last remaining survivors of Hitler’s bunker. Now, fascinating social history that might be (then again, it might just be another example of raking-up voyeuristic entertainment from events that should not be forgotten but surely don’t need to be obsessed over…); but, over sixty years after the events, it isn’t news – and certainly not headline news. The News is becoming Closed-Circuit Television…

In other words, media coverage of “the news” has become the news. While news has always been reported – and, moreover, news coverage has always been “spun,” intentionally and unintentionally, on partisan and ideological grounds – this is a recent phenomenon, and an indicator of the current transitions variously described as Late/Hyper/Post-Modernism. For, when an economy has moved – as ours has – from a manufacturing/production-based economy to an information-based economy, the processing, packaging and distribution of information becomes news-worthy in-and-of-itself…Similarly, from Andrew Marr’s gesticulating arms to Nick Robinson’s geek-chic glasses (the BBC’s Political Editor regenerating, Dr Who-like, into his next incarnation), news reporters have moved from reporting events and offering speculative analysis on those events (itself an earlier development), to being a news spectacle in their own right.

Coming soon, I’m a Celebrity Correspondent, Get Me Out Of Here! [insert war zone of your choice], and Celebrity Strictly Come Reporting On Ice

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Green Room

Or, daring to step outside...

I’ve been reading the chapter [4] on ‘Transforming Secular Space’ (one of the 3 core practices, and 9 shared practices overall, that characterise emerging churches) in Gibbs’ & Bolger’s Emerging Churches. The desire to deconstruct the dualism of modernity – such as the sacred/secular division – and to reclaim the whole earth and all that is in it as belonging to God (Psalm 24:1), and holy to him, resonates strongly with me. The complicity of the modern church in the sacred/secular divide – the withdrawal to address only ‘spiritual’ matters, in ‘spiritual’ spaces; and the removal of God from even those spaces – shapes, to a large degree, where those of us who have grown up within the church are coming from – and, hopefully, coming out from…
(Note that by ‘Space,’ we do not mean only architectural space, but any cultural space, such as music or film or politics…In each of these arenas we can see a sacred/secular or religious/civic divide.)

One image that struck me was borrowed from Mark Scandrette at ReIMAGINE! Mark uses the picture-image of colour to address the transcendent/immanent (that is: God is beyond human understanding, and experience / God actively participates in creation) dualism, especially strong in the modern church. Gibbs & Bolger explain:

“Green is not a primary color – blue and yellow are. Yellow is the vertical axis, the spiritual axis, the pursuit of God. The higher it goes, the more faint it becomes. This is the sole pursuit of the Creator, of transcendence. Blue is the pursuit of creation, social justice, the good life, doing good to others. It becomes darker and darker as one moves away from the centre. This is the pursuit of the immanence of God. Yellow people view God only as transcendent. Often they are evangelicals and conservatives. With their focus on transcendence, they care about God but not about what God loves. Blue people love what God loves – they love the earth, humanity, the environment, and the sensuality of being human. They are liberals. With their focus on immanence, they don’t love God and they deny Jesus, but they long for the kingdom.

At ReIMAGINE! the focus is green. Jesus is the ultimate green, for Creator and creation meet in Christ. People are fallen and are either blue or yellow. ReIMAGINE!’s task is to help yellow people add blue to their palette (becoming tied to creation) and to help blue people add yellow (becoming tied to the Creator)…” [p. 74]

While the summary of evangelicals and liberals might be seen as extreme, there is a great deal of truth in it. Evangelicals do tend to focus on transcendence, as seen in their highly conceptual worship – God is approached through the mind, for conservative evangelicals; and through the emotions, for charismatic evangelicals – and their heaven-focused evangelism. Liberals do tend to focus on immanence, as seen in their highly material worship – God is approached through the sacraments, and through creation; and is to be found in the face of the other, as each person is made in God’s image – and their earth-focused evangelism.

As the quoted passage hints at, the transcendent/immanent dualism does not only exist within the church, but to an extent characterises those who, in the language of Acts 17, worship an Unknown God. The image of helping people add a particular colour to their palette calls into question both the evangelical assumption that God has done nothing in the life of an individual or community or culture until he sent us to tell them what they need to believe (that there is no godly colour in their lives, until we bring it – though, with a focus on transcendence, and the corresponding suspicion of the material, we are more likely to seek to remove them to our utilitarian blue room than to help paint their room green); and the liberal assumption that we should not speak into the beliefs of another (that it doesn’t matter if they are yellow or blue, so long as they are sincere in their yellowness or blueness). Moreover, an appreciation of both yellow and blue confronts both the evangelical assumption that blue does not exist outside of heaven; and the liberal assumption that yellow does not exist…And it is a great way of treating people with integrity, rather than as a project.

Scandrette’s colour image expresses a humble centred-set ecclesiology and missiology, in which we are all moving closer to, or further away from, Jesus, “the ultimate green,” and our goal is to follow him more closely and invite others to follow him too (as opposed to the dogmatic bounded-set – where one is either ‘in’ or ‘out’ – of the modern church). It also expresses a holistic theology of sacralization, in which all things are offered to God to be made holy by him (as opposed to a dualistic theology of compartmentalism, where some things are spiritual – and worthy of attention – and some things are not – our work, our culture, etc.). This means that, rather than withdrawing from the world, with occasional forays to take captives for Christ, the world comes to be seen as something being transformed by the kingdom of God, something that the church can engage with creatively. All these developments are cause for joy and hope!

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Monday, April 03, 2006


Cadbury are running a fascinating commercial for their Dairy Milk chocolate here at the moment. It begins with a retro scene of a young teen boy on a coach, passing two pieces of the chocolate through the gap in the seats, coyly offering it to the girl sat in front of him; then traces their relationship – first date, wedding, family portrait with young son; and ends with the family on a coach today, mum and dad knowingly looking on as their son, sat in front of them, passes two pieces of chocolate through the gap in the seats, coyly offering it to the girl sat in front of him…

Advertising goes way beyond a simple pitch in the hope we will buy. No-one decides to go out and buy a car while watching a car advert; the aim is to create a framework in the mind so that, when we do decide to buy a new car, we have a particular make and model in mind. Though the cost is in no way comparable, the same is true for groceries, and broadly true even for a chocolate bar. Cadbury works hard to make sure that when we do think of chocolate, we think of their chocolate.

I’d hazard a guess that this particular campaign is targeted at parents, of children not-yet in their teens, who aspire to still having a close relationship with their children by the time they are teenagers – and if they have any guilt over the lack of “quality time” they spend with their kids, so much the better. (It is unlikely – and not the aim – that teenagers themselves will actually take to using chocolate as a means of brokering their relationships [that is what txts are for!] and at some point Cadbury may use a very different campaign pitched at them…) The commercial doesn’t so much play on the shared social activity of eating chocolate together (a simple pitch) as it makes the claim that Cadbury, as a specific manufacturer, fulfils a social-glue role between the generations of a family (a more complex pitch; and a more subtle one, including disarming the audience with blatant improbability and faux naïveté). Established companies such as Kellogg (breakfast cereal – celebrating their centenary this year) and Warburton (bread) make the same claim in their advertising. They seek to be foremost in our mind when choosing between brands by presenting a picture of the family, in which family is defined as those you eat this product with; and held-together by our shared experiences of eating.

The process is a circular one: the food itself perpetuates its own central place in the life of the family, nourishing the body by first nourishing the imagination, and re-nourishing the imagination each time the body is nourished. The process is also (or, at least, claims to be) a cyclical one: the family is brought together by a food (food as rite-of-initiation); held-together by that food (food as rite-of-re-membering, or, bringing back together); and releases the next generation through that food (food as rite-of-passage).

The sacrament of Holy Communion works in a very similar way, to construct a stable/dynamic family of those who share the bread and the wine. It is the patte[r]n on which the Cadbury/Kellogg/Warburton model is based: it is, one might say, the Original and the Best…

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Time Out

Does anyone leading in the emerging church world have first-hand experience of extended time out from leading community?

I guess in the inherited church paradigm, you just keep leading until retirement, punctuated by three-month paid sabbaticals which are taken as study leave; or, you leave leadership entirely, as a result of burn-out or disillusionment...

We didn't step down from leading community for either of those reasons, but because we felt that was what God was leading us to do at the time. Leading community is the call on our lives, so I know we'll be leading communities again in the future; though they may well be very different from the communities we've led in the past. But for now, we aren't. Again, under the inherited church paradigm, I guess that makes me a theorist as opposed to a practitioner right now; but I think I am a practitioner - just that what I am practicing at the moment is, essentially, the Sabbath Year. But I've not been here before...

Any insights?!


“By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”
1 Corinthians 3:10-15

On Monday (27th March), Mark Palmer of The Landing Place Finished his battle with cancer. Alan Creech wrote a moving tribute here. Following Jesus, Mark surrendered his body to death, and his spirit to Life; and in so doing defeated the cancer in its moment of victory. Mark's first wife, Jennifer, Finished her own battle with cancer just a few years ago; he leaves behind Amy, his wife; and Micah, Mark and Jennifer's four-year-old son. Pray for them.

I never knew Mark; but I knew of him, of his influence; I know people whose lives were touched, directly, by him; count myself as someone whose life was, and is, touched indirectly by him; and have been deeply impacted by the blogged response to his passing.

And as I have allowed that response to impact me, I have been drawn to these words [above] from 1 Corinthians. The measure of a man is what he builds, on the foundation of Jesus, and what others have built on that foundation before him; what he leaves behind. The gold, silver and costly stones Mark built with are the lives he invested in: and those lives are being tested by fire - passing through the burning flames of death. Everything Mark invested in that was not worthy of his Lord - and we all make such investments; all build, at times, without care - is being burnt away: in time, it will not even be remembered. Not that Mark will be remembered with rose-tinted spectacles; but that the wood, hay and straw have been dealt with - count for nothing - and only the gold, silver and costly stones remain. For now, those who knew and loved Mark are walking through the fire. The fire will pass - the fire, not the sense of loss - and the gold, already precious, will have been refined. For God redeems even the fire.

Mark was an ordinary man. He was an extraordinary man. There was nothing particularly special about him. Everything about him was incredibly special. Much quality building survives Mark; and he will receive his reward. And his life causes me to reflect on my own: I am an ordinary man...what will survive me? We are all ordinary men and women...what will survive each one of us? I want to leave behind a legacy that will stand, that others will build on in their turn, and which will last into eternity...

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour…”
Isaiah 43:2, 3a