Let’s all go out and get Wongad, with Justin: ‘for heavens sake.’

So let’s do it, as Victoria Wood might say. Let’s get well and truly ‘Wongad.’

To get wongad, sorry about the noun-verb confusion, is to occupy two worlds at once. A world of hope, where a better future becomes possible, in missional terms where the unjust structures of society are challenged and better alternatives offered, whilst at the same time occupying the ‘real’ world, the messy world, in the full knowledge that our own house is not necessarily neat and tidy, spic and spam, entirely ready to receive middle class, educated people just-like-you-and-me, guests.

Of course when we go out to get Wongad we will get criticized and ridiculed; we will be viewed as uncouth, a challenge to the status quo, and, if we have enjoyed a particular form of upbringing, either in the home or in our church family, many will say ‘and who would have thought he / she would turn out like that, after all the advantages they have been given.’ 

Oh, group think is so much easier. But, the advantages aren’t really freely given, under this scenario they are simply passed on, with conditions attached. And one of the conditions is this: preserve the veneer that everything is as it should be, the world we have been taught to inhabit is the real world, one where neatness and tidiness are givens, and one where we should never step out (in faith) and do, or say anything remotely radical, until our own house is in order. The trouble with this approach is it simply isn’t the Christian way. 

Consider this: what if God had waited until His (yes! His please note I am not making a gender point!) creation was in order before………………He intervened? 

And so, we mustn’t wait until our house is in order, our ducks in a row before we intervene. 

Yesterday, in the Sunday Times, Rod Liddle wrote: ‘Poor Welby. He has been caught (now that’s an interesting word, isn’t it!?) doing something the Church of England prelates have practiced for years: inhabiting two very different worlds simultaneously. The first one is the fantasy island of the modern liberal left, where one lives a pristine private life free from the untrammeled evils of capitalism because, maaaan, we’re not part of that corrupt system. And, the second, which is the real  (nice judgement and truth claim expressed here) one, the rest of us inhabit, in which life is a procession of difficult compromises, and none of us is perfect, but we do the best we can.’

Wrong:

Welby does not live in a fantasy, nor has the ABC made any claims about the pristine nature of his own life, or that of the church. Nor, should any Christian. But Christians should inhabit two world’s at once. The world of Chronos, where the imperfection of the world, and our own complicity in its imperfection, is revealed through time, and Kairos where care and compassion (basic ingredients of redemption and restoration) are brought into play. Christianity is lived in the tension between dark and light, between the ‘real’ and the possible. To inhabit both worlds is not to be a trendy-lefty, or a fantasist, it is simply to pray ‘thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven,’ in the full knowledge that to do so renders us open to ridicule from those who wish to stay firmly rooted in their perception of the  ‘real’ world.

One final thought: in the night collects we pray ‘lighten our darkness we beseech thee O Lord,’ and ‘look down O Lord from they heavenly throne and illuminate the darkness of this night with thy celestial brightness and from the children of light banish the deeds of darkness.’ When we step into the light our prayers are answered, our darkness is revealed, maybe in a way that is uncomfortable. But, the  only other scenario is not to enter into the light, if we do this our darkness will not be revealed. 

Justin’s Wonga experience may lead the Church into both a new mission field and to promoting new and different ways of investing, and this may be the best of results. Two prayers may be answered, something of the breaking in of the kingdom of heaven in earth and, our own darkness being revealed. The two cannot be kept neatly in separate boxes.

Will you join Justin and get Wongad this week?

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On resisting the call to tolerance. Please do it!

Tolerance is very much in vogue. But, my hope is that you, and I, are saved from tolerance. I don’t want to be tolerant and, perhaps more importantly, I don’t want to breath in the toxic air of someone else’s tolerance. Yet, in secular Britain, as a person of faith, I suppose that tolerance, in large measure, is the best I can hope for.

If I react against secular tolerance how much more do I recoil from religious, ecclesial or denominational tolerance? Loads and loads is the answer.

But why do I feel so uncomfortable with the highest secular virtue? The answer to this is that tolerance is not a theological virtue. Think St. Paul for a moment: What dis he endorse? Faith, hope and above all love (1 Corinthians 13). In Paul’s scheme faith, hope and love work in combination, with pride of place being given to love.

Faith without love is straightforward belief. It is far easier and less demanding to believe than it is to have faith. Hope without love is simple wishful thinking. The apostle James also knew that faith without love was straightforward and uncomplicated belief, for after all ‘even the demons believe,’ (James 2, 19). James famously remarked that ‘faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead,’ (James 2, 14). Love is the animator or instigator of faith and it’s natural, or should I say supernatural, consequence. John also makes this point repeatedly in his first epistle. 

So it seems that Paul, James and John all knew the power of love and, the calling to love.

So this is the big question: is toleration a manifestation of love? No.

Love celebrates the mystery of creation in believing that all men and women are made in the image of God.

Love reenacts the incarnation through simple acts of kindness, hospitality, charity, friendship and so forth. Love compels us to see the beloved other as a ‘thou’ (Martin Buber).

The true lover understands where they stand in relation to both God and neighbor.

Tolerance, by contrast:

Is offered from a position of power and authority. ‘I am being tolerant because I can, even though I disapprove.’ 

Tolerance, unlike love, can only stretch so far. Because God is love, the elasticity of love is infinite, because tolerance is a secular / political ‘virtue’ it’s elasticity extends to the limit of my / our / your prejudice. 

The natural extension of tolerance is intolerance and the natural extension of love is………well, there isn’t one because love is the defining, ultimate, virtue (the alpha and omega).

Tolerance is frequently a mere facade masking the most dishonest form of intolerance (in some ways acts of hatred are more honest!). This facade is often articulated through one of the most nauseating of all phrases: ‘love the sinner, hate the sin.’

Will you join with me in rejecting tolerance?

Oh, but what a verse! (Luke 23, 26).

Last week Celtic Daily Prayer included a one verse lesson.

But what a verse!

‘As they led Him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus,’  (Luke 23, 26).

Two phrases stand out for me: ‘coming from the country,’ and ‘made him carry it behind Jesus.’  

Why?

Because: we need to remember that those who make most impact frequently emerge from the shadowlands. Think of Jesus Himself, think of the zany Old Testament prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel. In Christian (as opposed to biblical) history those who make the biggest difference frequently seem to operate from the margins. Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa are among the most obvious examples. In fact I struggle to think of any institutional initiatives that really make much of a difference; perhaps, you can help me on this one. So, we need to develop 360 degree vision, to see ‘country folk’ serving God, and ultra sensory hearing, so we can hear the prophetic voice coming from where we least expect  hear it. Perhaps, we need to shut one eye, and close on ear, to the voice of the metropolitan elite and the institutions that act as a platform for their voice?

This verse also provides an interesting parallel with Jesus’ invitation to potential followers: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me,’ (Luke 9, 23). Our call is to take up ‘our’ cross on a daily basis. We are able to do so because at Cavalry He was nailed to ‘the‘ cross. Our vocation means we follow from behind, trusting that He is in front of us. 

Simon of Cyrene is the first, historical example, of someone emerging from the countryside to take up the cross and follow Jesus.

He is therefore our prototype. 

Our challenges are to:

Know what it means to be a country person, to emerge from the shadowlands.

Develop 360 degree vision and ultra sensitive hearing.

Stay behind Jesus knowing that ultimately he bears the full weight of all our crosses.

Christian mindfulness and renewal of the mind.

Mindfulness is becoming a bit of a buzz word but, there is a lot we, Christians, can learn from it.  In fact I believe that mindfulness can be practiced within a Christian context. It involves self-healing (physician heal thyself – Luke 4, 23), resting in the presence of God and, renewal of the mind (Ephesians 4, 23 for instance). The healing effects of mindfulness have been validated by hard neuro science – it really seems that we, or perhaps God, can, through mediation (and prayer), change the very structure of our minds. Changing, or healing, our minds will of course change the way we engage with the world. Mindfulness through changing our ‘being’ can have a profound impact on our ‘doing.’ yet, there seems to be some resistance to its practice within the Christian community alongside a perception by some ‘non Christians’ that ‘religious folk’ will be threatened by mindfulness. Ruby Wax, whose highly entertaining book, Sane New World – Taming the Mind  is worth reading, repeatedly ‘apologies’ to people of faith when she discusses the benefits that mindfulness brings when the organic structure of the brain is altered. Quite why the faith communities should find this challenging, or alienating, I don’t know. To me it seems entirely in line with theologies of creation and redemption. Healing presumably is all about mending the broken bits!

Why is there opposition to mindfulness and other similar practices (mysticism for instance) in the Christian community? I can think of four reasons, presumably there are more?

First,  antagonism towards, or suspicion of, practices primarily associated with eastern religions. Now there is no way, as a Christian minister, that I would ever advocate an uncritical incorporation of practices developed by other religions into Christianity. To do so may undermine the distinctiveness and authenticity of Christianity (allowing for the fact that they might also enhance ‘our’ distinctiveness and authenticity, whilst acting as a catalyst for unity – have I just undermined by own argument?).

Secondly, either an ignorance or deliberate rejection of Christian tradition. Mediation and contemplation are intrinsic to Christian tradition. Unfortunately, in today’s culture tradition is frequently viewed with suspicion. The throwing away of tradition may have noble motives as we seek to be more relevant and accessible (horrible buzzwords) but, in the words of C.S. Lewis an exclusive focus on the contemporary may simply render us ‘chronological snobs.’

Thirdly, a fertile fallacy that renewal of the mind can only be achieved through teaching. The research into the effects of mindfulness (and meditative prayer)  by neuro scientists suggests that the very structure of the brain changes as a result of mindful practice. A further niggle of mine is that teaching is frequently reduced to instruction and the propagation of particular doctrines or dogmas. I need to fess up I always feel slightly anxious when churches spend a ‘disproportionate amount of time’ talking about teaching. I tend to hear instruction! In researching for my dissertation the rejection of ‘suspect’ approaches was revealed in the literature (thankfully not through fieldwork). The quotes below illustrate my point:


‘Reading, teaching and application of Spirit inspired testimony to Jesus surely have pride of place in any ministry among Christians. Neither sacramentalism, nor the development of the inner life, nor a preoccupation with issues of social justice can rightly usurp it,’  David Peterson.

And, from Vaughn Roberts: ‘The Christian’s heart and emotions on the other hand, are affected indirectly, via his mind, as his attention is focused in a tangible way,’ the focus on teaching provides the difference, in Robert’s scheme, between ‘a mystical and a truly Christian experience of worship.’ 

But surely what these authors are doing is to limit word to preaching and teaching (instructing?), failing to understand that renewal of the mind is a function of transformation of the inner life and, the word of God is frequently experienced when space is given for the ‘still small voice of calm.’ I think that they also make a category error in assuming that ‘word’ is tangible. Words possess an ambiguous and mystical quality. Surely?

Finally, is one of the reasons why some are suspicious of mindfulness, mediation and contemplation that it involves a giving away of the ability to directly influence? What might happen if people are simply left alone with God? If people take personal responsibility for renewal of the mind? These are scary questions.

So why am I so passionate about mindfulness. Easy, for this depressive it has worked. It has brought me closer to God, it has helped me renew the mind, it has made me more aware of the transcendent, it has helped me become more cheerful and relaxed. It has allowed me to come to the One who asks me to bring all my ‘heavy burdens’  replacing them with a far lighter load. It is a route into proper self-love. And, for these reasons I recommend it.

 

 

 

How do you look? Faith as a public good.

Below is a brief reflection, initially posed on Facebook: 

‘Interesting; today I went to London, into the heart of the City, to meet a good friend for lunch. I wore my dog collar. On the way, by train from Milton Keynes (the New Jerusalem?) I was greeted by two ‘hello fathers,’ asked by an oldish man to help him get to Marble Arch tube, someone walked up to me and said ‘God be with you,’ (I don’t think he was taking the ….) and countless people looked at me and smiled, maybe just seeking an affirmative smile back from someone whose dress code indicated that they might just be interested in them. Oh, by the way the Pizza we shared was wonderful as was the conversation with my liberal Jewish friend. So all in all a great day.’

So my questions are these:

How do you look to the outsider? 

In a sense I have it easy, wearing a clerical shirt clearly identifies me as a Christian, at least in name. But, it also brings an awesome responsibility, for I must not to paraphrase from St. Benedict behave in such a way as to disgrace my collar. 

However, it strikes me that all Christians, lay and ordained, must fulfill our priestly duty and be clearly recognized as followers of Christ. Our faith is not simply a private matter, it is in fact a ‘public good.’ 

Getting down and dirty, go on just do it (for salvation’s sake!)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the best known Bible stories, of course.

My hope is that its familiarity does not lead us to treat it as an old and familiar story, one to bring out of the cupboard when we are feeling down or confused, in need of something reassuring. We must not treat  it as some form of religious comfort blanket, for in reality it is a shocking story,a story with massive implications for the contemporary church and its mission. In fact it is nothing short of a scandal.

Let’s start with stating two very basic facts about this story.

First, it is a salvation parable, given in response to what for many is the ultimate question: ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’  This simply cannot be ducked.

For a brief moment  try suspending all thoughts about clever atonement theories, ideas about justification by………and, simply go along with Jesus through the ‘justification’ story He gives us.

Secondly, it is an incomplete, or as a good friend of mine (thank you Frank) terms it a ‘hanging parable,’ that is to say, it has no ending. As with many stories we may be tempted to conclude that ‘they all lived happily ever after,’ but this would, I suggest, be to to impose our desires for a rapid and speedy resolution to the story, on the text. In doing so we run the risk of letting ourselves off the hook.

Imagine for one minute that you (we) are either the innkeeper (by the way do we conceive ourselves as innkeepers – that is to say providers of hospitality to all and sundry?), or the Samaritan and ask two questions:

‘What happens next?’ and, ‘How long am I prepared to hang on in there, to remain in a potentially unresolved, perhaps even an unresolvable  story?’ 

And this is precisely the point both the Church (which is the Body of Christ in the world) and individual Christians (as part of the body) are required to assume the low status role of Samaritan and innkeeper, doing so in the full knowledge that in Jesus’ time Samaritans and Innkeepers were regarded as despised outsiders.

Regarding ourselves as part of the religious, social, civic or any other form of elite, is, according to this ‘hanging, salvation, parable’ strictly off limits. Why? Because, according to the parable they, the elite, don’t actually do anything, they seek to avoid all situations which might involve them getting ‘down and dirty.’

To regard ourselves as Samaritans and Innkeepers means that we must be prepared to be unpopular but more importantly it means that with our eyes fully open we must render ourselves both vulnerable and accessible, and isn’t this just what Jesus did in and through the incarnation? We must also. and this is so counter-cultural, do so devoid of success indicators, simply leaving the outcome to God. This is dangerous stuff, but it might just be linked to salvation and the redemption of the world, which I guess is the whole point of the missionary church.

How do you regard yourself and the Church? Are you and your church ‘getting down and dirty,’ as you walk the path of the vulnerable and accessible outsider?

Mission and the Imagination.

I have recently been reading Alister McGrath’s ‘C.S. Lewis; A Life,’ it’s brilliant!

McGrath provides a really interesting, thought provoking, analysis of Lewis’ ‘unique’ conversion experience. I suspect that, even though McGrath warns that ‘we must, however, avoid portraying Lewis’s as a typical or representative conversion,’ there are significant, and far reaching, lessons to be learnt for contemporary mission.

Taking my life into my hands, by arguing against, one of Britain’s leading scholars, and his biography of Lewis proves just how brilliant McGrath is, I suggest that words like ‘typical,’ and ‘representative’ make sense only in relation to categories, or broad groupings, of individuals, and that for certain categories, Lewis’s conversion story may be regarded as more or less typical, and representative.

Lewis, I think, may also be regarded as a forerunner for two large and growing categories of potential convert, those who seek to understand deeper truths through the deployment of the imagination and, those who self-identify as ‘spiritual but not religious.’

I also think that we need to guard against the tendency to create opposite perspectives. Allowing for the fact (and it probably is a fact) that Lewis’s conversion was neither typical or representative, for the mission field in aggregate, does not mean that his experience was either atypical, or, unrepresentative for certain numerically significant categories, as already suggested.

Let me explain further, starting with a couple of questions:

‘Do you think that the existence of God, and therefore your faith in God, is verifiable through rational, scientific, analysis?’  If your answer is ‘no’ ‘does this then mean that belief, and active faith, are irrational?’ For me the answer is no.

Irrational, is not therefore the exact opposite of rational. I would hate to live in a world where belief , or disbelief, in anything, let alone religion, means that we are regarded as inhabitants  one of two categories; one labelled rational the other irrational.

In just the same way that process evangelism (courses such as Alpha) is rightly regarded as successful in ‘targeting’ various categories of individuals, it presumably is also true that such approaches are unattractive to other ‘target groups? For many process evangelism provides a typical, or representative journey, towards conversion, for others it cannot be considered representative, or typical.

Those whose preference is to find meaning through experiential and imaginative approaches such as engaging with the arts and through mediation may be two categories for who process evangelism is likely to produce negative results. If  I am correct we need to be aware of a potential danger: inviting individuals interested in exploring faith to an inappropriate mission initiative may, in reality, be the biggest of turn offs.

So what may the implications of this be for the true missionary church? My urging would be to offer a smorgasbord of approaches. The smorgasbord could blend contemporary and traditional dishes.

So, let me finish by finish by giving a brief synopsis of how Lewis, according to McGrath’s analysis, crossed the threshold from Theism (belief in the existence of a Deity) to Christian faith and three examples of how churches may offer, as part of the smorgasbord, approaches to mission and ministry designed to appeal to the categories of potential convert whose preference it is to find meaning through the imaginative, inner, experiences.

McGrath credits another great ‘imaginative Christian,’ J.R.R. Tolkien, for providing the route map which allowed Lewis to cross the great divide between theism and Christianity. Tolkien’s challenge to Lewis was that he was overly focused on ‘the journey of the mind to God,’ and that the problem therefore lay not ‘in Lewis’s rational failure to understand the theory, but in his imaginative failure to grasp its significance.’ He also states that for Lewis ‘the issue was not primarily about truth but about meaning.  When engaging (with – my addition)the Christian narrative, Lewis was limiting himself to his reason when he ought to be opening himself to the deepest intuitions of his imagination.’ 

So let’s make sure that our contemporary mission initiatives are not limited to approaches which seek to verify the various truth claims Christians make, recognizing that for many (but not all) truth follows meaning. So here are my three mission ideas.

Use film as a lens through which to explore faith and the bible. Recent blockbusters such as Les Mis, The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Lincoln are excellent.

Buy and use the Church Missionary Societies ‘The Christ we Share’ resource pack – it is fabulous. An amazing opportunity to engage with those who learn through the visual arts.

Rediscover Benedictine (Lectio) and Jesuit approaches for entering imaginatively into Scripture.

Is your church / community stimulating the imagination?