Monday, November 23, 2015

Being really awful

One of the things that I find most important about Christianity is that it allows me to admit that I am a really poor excuse for a human being.  Before you leap to my defence (which was your instinct, right?) I should say that you, too, are an awful, awful person.  I'm not exaggerating.  I'm sure that you, like me, have regularly had that experience of knowing exactly the morally right thing to do, and yet doing something else altogether - sometimes without even really knowing why.  Most of the time we brush that off - just a one off, a thing that happened.  But it happens quite often, doesn't it?  And what sort of a person are you - what sort of a person am I - if I deliberately avoid the good?  Those choices don't speak well of our inner being.

It's not just ethics either.  Like me, you have all sorts of opportunities to do good, exciting, fun, significant things with your life.  Like me, I bet you don't do most of them.  Maybe out of laziness, maybe out of fear, maybe just distracted by all the nonsense with which we've filled our lives.  We've got life - actual, real life - and what's more, uniquely, we know we've got it.  What sort of people are we to waste that?

And then there's just that nagging feeling that everything isn't right between you and the universe.  I'm slightly on a limb here, because we don't talk about this stuff as much, but I'm betting that you, like me, know what it means to feel not-at-home even when you are home.  I'm guessing you know what it means to have that discomfort verging on anxiety for no apparent reason.  It's like we don't really know how to be ourselves, when it comes down to it.

We're just really awful human beings.

Now, I think I know how the secular non-Christian ought to answer this.  He or she ought to point out that we are, after all, just very advanced animals, with only a lot of luck and a little bit of achievement separating us from the rest of the beasts.  Nothing means anything, we don't mean anything.  We are, at the end of the day, only pretending to be people anyway.  The only flaw we have - if we have one - is that we perversely hold ourselves to standards of ethical behaviour and existential peace which we don't extend to badgers and wolves.

Most people don't go down this logical but chilling route.  Most people instead choose to stand their ground and assert that in actual fact they are quite good (and if they're feeling generous, they might throw in that hey, you're not so bad either, and don't be so hard on yourself...)

This is frankly ludicrous.

What a relief to admit what would surely be patently obvious to any unbiased witness, if we could only find such a one: that we are utterly bankrupt, failures in almost every respect, turning even our triumphs into burdens we cannot bear.  We are real people gone really wrong, out of step with ourselves and with all of reality.  We are colossally guilty, guilty of the greatest crimes, all of us together and without exception.

What a relief to get it out in the open.

And then -

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Anyone want to throw me out an amen?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Calendar

I've been using the church calendar as the main guide for my devotions for four years now, so I guess I have to admit it's no longer an experiment and is now just my usual practice.  So as this is the last Sunday of the year, here are some notes.  You'll notice that I've become quite enthusiastic.

Firstly a qualification: I'm following the Anglican lectionary, and therefore get caught up in all kinds of feasts and festivals which I could happily do without.  If I were to commend the calendar to evangelicals outside the Anglican tradition (and I would), I'd want to strip it down a bit.  Get rid of all the saints, minimise the number of feasts that don't relate directly to the life of Christ.  I think the following seasons, fasts, and feasts ought to be sufficient:

Holy Week
All Saints

I'm keeping Trinity and All Saints (the only ones not directly relating to the gospel story) because I think they potentially keep important truths in view which would otherwise be lost.

So why would I commend this scheme?

Primarily because it keeps the gospel on our minds.  We're always re-treading the story of Christ, remembering him, living our lives in the context of his work.  (Think about it - the calendar provides the context for life; a secular calendar puts life in a secular context, and a Jesus-shaped calendar in the context of the gospel).  Christians are people with new lives, and I think it helps to mark time in a new way.

Secondarily because it provides teaching opportunities.  Can I be honest and say that I don't think I've ever heard a sermon explicitly dealing with the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, or the Ascension of Christ, or the Trinity?  Of course those things have come up, but the exegetical and sequential preaching of contemporary evangelicalism (whilst having much to commend it) means we're much less likely to get this sort of doctrinal preaching.  I'm sure that leaves dangerous holes in people's knowledge and faith.

As an aside, there is still a whole lot of Ordinary Time in the calendar which can be given over to this sort of preaching - at least half the year.  And obviously the seasonal preaching could, and should, still be expository and possibly sequential as well.

Thirdly, and this one contains a bit of a grumble, I do feel that evangelicalism can become dangerously self-obsessed.  The most important things easily become the big events in our congregational life rather than the events of the gospel, and the notices take on more significance than the worship.  Might not the church calendar give us an opportunity to take our eyes off our programmes and focus them on Jesus?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Paris, and Nonsense

When terrible things happen, we all tend to react in a knee-jerk way.  Often our reactions are not sensible.  In fact, they are nonsense.  Here are just a few nonsense reactions to the Islamist attacks on Paris.

There is a sort of right-wing response which says 'the values of our society - which are also universally valid values - are under attack, and we must fight to defend them'.  This is nonsense because western culture has been running hell for leather in the direction of moral relativism for decades.  You can't have your cake and eat it.  You can't on the one hand destroy all moral absolutes, and then on the other hand claim that your 'values' are universal.  What are these universal values?  If they are really so universal, why must we fight to show other people how jolly right they are?  Who are we planning to fight, anyway?

There is a sort of left-wing response which says 'this is not an ideological or religious attack - this has nothing to do with Islam - it's just a bunch of nutters'.  This is nonsense, and patronising nonsense to boot, because it claims the right to ignore the stated motivations of the attackers.  As uncomfortable as it is for people in the liberal west to face up to this, the murderous followers of ISIS have a good claim to represent a coherent interpretation of Islam.  It is of course not the only interpretation, but none the less there can be no doubt: this attack was driven by religion.  We only want to deny it because we can't believe anyone would take their metaphysical beliefs so seriously.

There is a (more) right-wing response which says 'Muslims are out to get us'.  This is nonsense because it ignores the fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not in any way subscribe to the interpretation of Islam which drives these attacks.  The majority of Muslims, like the majority of people, want to live in peace and are happy to let everyone else live in peace.  Only a fool would imagine that he can paint realistic pictures with a foot-wide brush.  Those broad brush strokes only make for nonsense.

There are mirror responses on the left and the right about victimhood.  On the right people tend to say 'we - the west - are innocent victims defending ourselves against terror'.  This is nonsense in a very particular way.  The people killed in Paris were indeed innocent victims of terror.  But we as a society are absolutely caught up in a web of international relations which victimizes others across the world, politically, culturally, and economically.  Our hands are not clean.  On the left people tend to say 'they - the Islamists - are victims driven to these acts by our oppression'.  This is nonsense because once again it ignores the attackers stated motivations, and because it implies some sort of moral justification which just isn't there.

All of this nonsense has seeds of truth in it, but I do think we should work harder to get those seeds to grow...

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Psalm 139 is regularly read in church services.  It's a beautiful celebration of humanity as created and sustained by God.  It's a wonderful reassurance that God's great design stands behind each human being, and that his awesome presence accompanies each human life.  Where we are perhaps ready to see the flaws in each other and in ourselves, the Psalm encourages us to view each person as "fearfully and wonderfully made".  Where I tend to feel alone, the Psalm lifts my eyes to see that wherever I am and whatever my circumstances, God's "right hand shall hold me".  No wonder the Psalm gets so much airtime.

But then you hit verse 19.  Oh, that you would slay the wicked, O God!

The reading often skips this bit out.  How can this verse sit alongside the beautiful sentiments of the rest of the Psalm?  How can we affirm on the one hand that God knows each human life intimately, but on the other hand pray that God would smite the wicked?

But there is no conflict here.  It is precisely because of the value of life that the Psalmist cries out against the wicked.  The wicked are "men of blood", those who stand against God's good intention, those who oppose life.  And they are strong, and they are bold, and mere human beings cannot stop them.

Therefore, oh, that you would slay the wicked, O God!

Now, with New Testament lenses on, we can see that this prayer is ultimately answered, not in the death of any number of wicked people, but in the death of wickedness itself  at the cross of Christ.  And yet...  May we not still hand over the wicked, whose power is beyond us, to God - the just judge?  Should we not ask the Judge to enforce justice?  I think perhaps we should.

Love of life - the life created by God - must mean enmity to everything that stands for death, and in that battle our weapon is prayer.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Common prayer

I am currently reading Bonhoeffer's Sanctorum Communio, and finding it both quite hard going (it is, after all, a proper academic thesis, and a German one to boot - though I am reading in English!) and also very stimulating.  It is a study of the church, and whilst there is a lot in it that I disagree with - including some of the more fundamental ideas, I think - there is also much that has made me think.  Here is an example of something that has got me thinking (from p 188f):

"For the church it is... critically important to assign corporate prayer the central place it deserves.  Leading a single life, the church must also have and practice one common prayer."

Common prayer is critically important because prayer in the church is "individuals organizing themselves to realize the divine will for others, to serve the realization of God's rule in the church community".  Corporate prayer is "a God given means for realizing God's purpose".  As such - and here Bonhoeffer quotes Luther - "the Christian church on earth has no greater power or work against everything that may oppose it than such common prayer.  Prayer is 'unconquerable'".

I confess that the main reason this struck me is because I am very aware that common prayer is not so regarded in the churches with which I am most familiar.  Of course, in Anglican circles this idea and practice of the church praying together - having a common prayer life - is very strong, being represented by the shared liturgy.  It was strong, too, in a different way, in the churches in which I grew up, where it took the form of the mid-week prayer meeting, and of the long extempore pastoral prayer in the Sunday service.  Neither model is free from danger - of formalism, or performance, or whatever - but that life of common prayer was there.

In the sorts of church with which I am most familiar, the main locus for prayer has moved away from Sunday services and whole-church meetings, and into small pastoral groups and special interest groups.  There is some virtue in prayer in these settings - honesty and intimacy is encouraged, for example - but I think something is also lost.  My observation is that when the small group prays, it tends to bring the prayer requests of individuals, but not of the church.  The prayer life of the church, in this model, is in danger of becoming just the aggregated prayer lives of its members; that is to say, there is no real common prayer.  Might this be why we see little evidence of the church "leading a single life"?

A couple of thoughts on how to move forward:

1.  We need to get over the idea that I can only be included in something if I am doing it.  I think one of the things I struggled with in the model of extempore prayer practised in my childhood churches was that I didn't identify with the person praying.  It didn't feel, to me, like corporate prayer, but like listening in to someone else's individual prayer.  I tend now to think that this was largely my problem. Being an individualist at heart, and essentially valuing what I did for myself over what others did for me, it was always going to be hard to get on board with this.  We need to teach about corporate prayer, and then make sure we're modelling it.

2.  We need to learn how to lead in prayer.  It's not the same as praying privately.  Those of us who lead church services need to make sure that they are services of prayer as well as worship and preaching.  We need to bathe in the Psalms more, and we need to appreciate the historic liturgies of the church more.  We need to be willing to pray big prayers - the prayers of the church, not just our individual prayers.  I wonder how much of that is about confidence?  In which case, we need to reflect more on the intercession of Christ.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Too Gritty

Back in the day, I was a Relay worker, which means I worked for a year as a volunteer alongside the Christian Union in Cambridge.  It was, in retrospect, a great time, although I made a mess of it in many ways.  But at the time it felt hard.  Really hard.  At the end of the year, we had a session where everyone stood up (there were about sixty of us, I think) and in turn gave a report on how the year had been.  Turns out lots of people had had a hard year.  There were tears.  Yours truly cried like a baby.  I remember about half way through the session one of the leaders saying something like 'if you've had a good year, you are allowed to say so!'

I've been wondering about the way we talk about the Christian life.  My guess is that we're at one end of a pendulum swing.  Used to be that you couldn't really express doubts, or talk about how hard you were finding the life of faith.  Everyone in church was meant to smile.  No doubt that was pretty unhealthy.  Nowadays, it's the opposite.  You read Christian blogs or just listen to sermons, and you'll hear a lot of 'wrestling', a lot of agonising, a lot of honesty about how hard things are.  But I wonder if maybe we've gone a bit far (as the pendulum has a tendency to do).  I wonder if it's become as hard to have simply joy in Christ as it used to be to express doubts and struggles.

If you've had a good week, you are allowed to say so!

The concern is that this new culture is just as damaging as the old one, in a subtly different way.  Doubts and struggles which are not expressed grow and grow.  In that old culture, no doubt repressed difficulties thrived underground and eventually destroyed many Christians.  But joy and delight that is not expressed actually shrinks and withers.  In the new culture, I worry that our lack of expression of joy will eventually make it impossible for us even to experience joy.

Can I recommend one small and seemingly insignificant step that has been making a big difference to me?  I've been changing my music choices and putting on some of the Christian music I used to listen to back when I was a student.  You know the stuff.  It's cheerful, it's bouncy, it's full of Jesus.  The temptation now is to write it off as hopelessly naive, and certainly it doesn't give the whole picture.  But it might help to nudge the pendulum back towards the centre a little.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

How imagery doesn't work

Jesus Christ is the Head of his Body. His Body is the Church.

That pair of images is used to bring out a number of truths in the New Testament.  For example, the truth that Christ directs his church as the head directs the body, and the truth that Christ is intimately connected to his church.  Or within the church itself, the truth that each person is intimately related to each other person as different parts of the same body, and the truth that each has a particular role within the organic whole. The images work because they appeal to something which we understand and of which have experience.  The images speak to us far more deeply and clearly than bare language (in so far as there is such a thing) ever could.

But the danger is that we let the image control the idea. We might conclude, for example, that because a head is as dependent on a body as a body is on a head, that Christ and his church stand in a reciprocal relationship of dependency. That won't do. Or we might construe the link between Christ and the church organically, as somehow natural, because this suits the image. We might then imagine that the church is in some way a continuation of the incarnation - after all, a head is only present with (and perhaps through) a body, so maybe Christ is present only in and through the church.

The image is illuminating in its original connection, in its right place in the argument. It is not therefore legitimate to develop it any which way, or to deploy it in wholly different contexts and arguments. Then it may well be only deceptive.

The image lives from the reality, and not vice versa.