Something I wrote for a Greenbelt event a couple of years ago- which came back to me recently when discussing brokenness. Originally it was written to make comparisons between organised church and psychiatric care.
There was a concern in the land
In every town the roads were lined with beggars
There were homeless orphans and widows cast out onto the streets
Lunatics were stoned by children
And melancholics drowned their sorrows with gin
The pain of it all was in the middle of us
The Jesus in the least of these
So the good people gathered
“What is needed” they said “Is asylum.”
A safe home where broken people can live out their lives in care-
Protected from all of the mess of life,
Fed and warm and watered.
So money was gathered
Stones were shaped and raised
Staff were retained and clothed in starched clothing
-The heavy doors were opened wide in welcome
And so they came- the halt, the sick, the lame
The motherless and the pregnant child
All those broken by worry and grief
The shakers and the mutterers
All the awkward squad
The outsiders now came inside
They were home at last
It went well for a while
All was orderly and planned
Starved frames filled out
Songs were sung again in the entertainment hall
Gardens were laid and tended
Sheets danced in the evening sunlight
And a bell rang out to warn of the dowsing of night candles
But time passed, and shadows fell
Budgets were tight, and the paint peeled on windows
The good folk who had once been so generous had other calls on their coin
A few still visited on feast days but for the most part
Out of sight became out of mind.
And there was trouble
The awkward squad was still awkward
The asylum split into ‘us’ and ‘them’
‘We’ had roles- uniforms and clipboards, rotas and registers
Big bunches of keys danced at our belts
We had dreams- of advancement, romance and families
We had homes away from this home
‘They’ stood the other side of our desks
Dirty and lacking in motivation
Ungrateful and manipulative
Un co-operative with our assessments
Lacking insight into the nature of their dysfunction.
They had ceased to be like us
Rather, they lived out regulated half-lives
They ceased to be flesh
And became instead a collection of paper
In manila folders
Despite all the material provision- something was missing
Despite all the person centred plans, the person was not at the centre
Despite the close press of humanity, there was no family
Despite all the risk assessments, there was no adventure
Despite all the planned activity, there is no purpose
Despite the safety of the high walls, I am still destroyed
So it was that care became captivity
Individuals became invisible
And home became hollow
While Jesus in the least of these
Here is the word of the moment (from Michael Frost);
…defined as the burial practice of removing the flesh and organs of the dead, leaving only the bones. More of this later.
Frost gave a whistle stop tour around what he saw as cultural trends. He suggested that he was less concerned about the process of getting people back to Church, and more about the irrelevance of church within our cultural context; in particular, the fact that we have failed to pose the right questions, or to articulate alternatives.
He used the following analogies;
The Gate Lounge (Airport waiting room)
(An idea pinched from Martin Baumann.) The suggestion is that increasingly we engage with our world as tourists, in a place of constant transition. We live in, and create, sterile artificial environments that we pass through quickly, always on the way to the next non-real, commercially curated experience. This leads to a kind of life where we skim over the surface, living a commodified experience that lacks satisfaction.
It also leads to a disconnection from place, community, belonging. Frost mentioned the film ‘Up in the air’, which I reviewed previously on this blog here.
We are increasingly a culture whose head is down- always looking at our tiny screens. Life is lived in the abstract, and we develop two selves- a screen self, and a real self.
Frost mentioned the novel ‘The Lost Memory Of Skin’, about a man who is addicted to internet pornography, but has never had real sex.
Here the church may have contributed to its own disconnection, as we have presented a polarised perspective on everything- heaven/hell, earth/heaven, world/church, flesh/spirit. Jesus is presented as living in the soul and waiting in heaven, not incarnate- flesh blood and spit here, right now.
Likewise church has followed the same disembodification as the rest of our culture- we learn through sermon podcasts rather than the process of experiencing and testing truth in community. We create individual worship experiences in auditoriums with a stage at the front and us, eyes closed, seperated from those around us.
Back to the word, ‘excarnate’. We human beings are made to experience the infinite depth of what we inhabit. We are tingling flesh on tingling flesh. Strip away these parts of what we are, and all we become are dry bones.
Frost described a communion service he once attended- a large empty church with the floor covered in black plastic. In the middle of the room was a mountain of stinking, oozing, rotten rubbish- the human kind- every kind of filth. The putrid juices ran out in rivers into the room and the communicants struggled to stand clear, and to cope with the smell.
Then two people in swimming costume entered the room, and walked towards the filth. They waded in, first ankle deep, then up to their waists. From there they led a service of communion.
The imagery is astringent. We follow Jesus- God-who-took-on-flesh, whilst at the same time living a world that increasingly avoids touch.
I am not sure whether you find this analysis of current cultural trends to be exaggerated? Frost is of course an agitator, but I there is something in what he describes that make me sit up and pay attention. Whilst engaging with our culture, seeking to understand and participate within it, we also have a duty to understand the Zeitgeist, and where necessary, to oppose- and perhaps most importantly (in the way of Jesus) to oppose by example.
Frost described how his community (Small boat, big sea) are seeking to do things differently. They have agreed to apply this method, and to hold each other accountable for it. Each week they will;
Bless three people- with words, gift, favour
Eat with three people- sharing their table as an image of Kingdom
Learn from the life of Jesus
‘Sent’ consider life as a mission
In this way, we might not exist only in our ‘head’ (excarnate) but encounter God in practice- in the mess of real flesh.
I attended this event yesterday, and will post a couple of reflections on things that were said.
I was slightly reluctant to go- partly because I was not sure just how much a couple of blokes from Australia and South Africa could really tell me about future development for church in Scotland. In this, I think I was partially right- both Frost and Hirsch spoke very well about their developed passions- each linked in with piles of books available at the back of the room, which is fair enough I suppose- both have a living to make. However, the groove that the books gave to the themes were general, not specifically tartan.
There was a considerable contrast in the styles of the two men. Hirsch was more technical, more given to making categorical statements gleaned from Scriptural interpretation. I confess to finding this a little alienating. Frost was passionate, inspirational and well practised with each story and each illustration.
It has been a while since I was in the presence of so many professional Christians. I would reckon that 90% of the people there (around 100-150) were in some form of ministry. The impact of days like this on the shape of the Church in Scotland has the potential to be significant then. I think that most of us who attend events like this are already quite well versed in the nuts and bolts of the arguments. We have read (at least some of) the books, and have had an eye constantly on the state of the Church for years. What we tend to do then is to take away a few nuggets of issues to chew on further. These will of course be different, but here is the first of mine;
Hirsch began the day by talking about the ‘Five Fold Ministries’ from Ephesians 4;
10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature,attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Hirsch’s contention was that Churches could not grow without a recognition of the importance of each one of the ministries of church- what he called APEST- Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds and Teachers. He suggested that many of these roles have been scandalously neglected by institutional church, and that because Ephesians 4 is foundational we do this at our peril.
He also said that although this is not a ‘silver bullet’ to deal with the monster of secularism and church decline, it is a ‘sliver telescope’. Without these things, we can achieve neither unity nor maturity.
My perspective skews my response to this kind of analysis. I am much more interested in church-at-the-edge, church-in-the-gutter, church-around-the-dining-table. These kinds of churches are very resistant to grand labels. Neither am I sure that Paul’s list is either foundational or fully inclusive of all the leadership roles that Church (with a big C) requires.
To be fair, Hirsch did point out that Ephesians was a letter sent not to a church in strife, or in need of outside correction, but rather to a collection of small house groups, full of very ordinary people. We are not talking Megachurch here, where individuals are raised up high on some kind of spiritualised stage. This might suggest that people who contain within them the different gifts are fully formed mature versions of the same- more that this is their starting point towards any goal.
This is where I think that the analysis has some use. We have become very used to all those personality tests, seeking to codify and categorise our humanity- often to understand better how we fit together, how we approach different issues in different ways. So it may be with these ‘five fold’ ministries- each one looks at the Gospel from a different perspective- each one is a different mode of awareness, or form of intelligence. Here is a little more on how this might work for each one (with some of my own thoughts about the perspectives they bring);
Apostles are people who feel the ‘sentness’ of church. They keep the movement intact, guard and maintain its integrity, see the big picture.
They have to deal with personal issues and structural issues about the use and misuse of power.
Prophets are people who are highly sensitive to the spiritual depth of a situation. They listen to the voice of God. They often might use art or writing as a means to display and engage with these issues. Hirsch used the phrase ‘Canaries in the mine’- the first to sense problems, the first to notice the change of atmosphere.
They can also be difficult, awkward individuals who upset others around them.
Evangelists are recruiters to the cause- gifted communicators and networkers. Without them a movement can not grow.
They can also be driven by the buzz of the sale room, and the conquest of another closed deal.
Shepherds are people driven to heal, to care for, to nurture and to protect. They feel the needs of others around them deeply. They keep the peace.
They can also become worn down by the brokenness of other, and tend to lose the big picture because of the intensity of the small ones.
Hirsch suggested that the church has overemphasised this ministry- all those ‘pastoral’ positions in church, and points out that the Greek word associated with this gift is only very rarely (one or two) times used in the NT.
Teachers connect the dots, help others understand detail.
Most of the time this word is used in the NT refers to ‘false teachers’- pointing to the danger of what happens when ideologues get hold of the gospel and use it as a web to make their own power.
The interest for me in all this is two fold. Firstly I will talk to my friends about how this might relate to the skills gifts and characters that we have. It might be a useful way to recognise and uphold/encourage individuals.
Secondly, it might be a useful tool of analysis- to take a look at our activities through different sets of lens.
I heard a story about Church the other day from one of my close friends that made my eyebrows shoot skywards. More on this later…
I have spent too long deconstructing institutional Church in all its glorious contradiction. Initially I did this as someone who had been chewed up by a negative experience of church – burnt out by it all – and then latterly, more from a respectful removed distance. Eventually however, all this deconstructing has to stop and we need to start constructing again, or we are remain caught in some kind of pointless cynical loop.
All things change. The usual human cycle of any project of human organisation always goes something like this; new thing-expansion-slowing down-dissatisfaction-deconstruction-emergence of new ideas-start of new thing.
Except in Churches, things sometimes seem to go so slowly. It is almost as if the religiosity of these institutions becomes a gate for the flood of change. If the shape of Church is God-ordained, defined by theology, supported by Scripture and managed by the chosen ones then how could it ever need to change?
My answers to this question, thought over long and hard, are as follows;
- Change will happen, even if you try to ignore it.
- The institutions of Church are human constructs, not divine templates floated down on angel cushions.
- Church arises in a particular time, place and culture- it answers the questions of this place, and everything about it is shaped by these requirements.
- But then the time place and culture have moved on, and there is a danger of disconnection.
Sure, many will suggest that culture may change but not The Truth, but I am afraid I do not agree with this either. What we once held as absolute gospel truth on all sorts of things has shifted- the divine right of Kings, remarriage after divorce, the place of women (even though this is still a work in progress.)
Back to the story;
My friend grew up in a Church in the north of Scotland and she frequently visits her parents there still. The Church they attend has a room at the back, with a glass partition between it and the main auditorium. The sounds of the main Church building are piped in by speakers on the walls, but otherwise the room is a smaller version of the main Church- plain, unadorned, lacking in any distractions such as toys or books.
It is known as ‘The Training Room’- where young people learn how to behave in Church. When to stand and sit, how to keep silent and when to sing, how to dress and to maintain proper decorum.
Initially I was shocked. How far have we come from the Jesus way of putting the kids first (see Matthew 19.)
But is this so very different from what we all have to go through in entering Church? We learn first of all to conform- to how to behave; to what is correct. Later on we may be able to question some of the edges of what we have become, but the pressure to conform, to belong, is too great.
Perhaps this might serve us well in part. We DO have things to learn, and we learn best in our collectives. However, these collectives also need to be learning, changing institutions and this is not an easy thing to achieve. In the worst case scenario the choice we have is to accommodate or take the nuclear option- and leave.
Leaving is no panacea of course, because as individuals or small groups setting out on our own we will start to form our own Training Rooms.
The open question for all of us is; how do we remain open, questioning, teachable, lovers of the way (not sitters on the pew?)
I have some flickerings of an idea as to how we might do this- and it is about being a sent people, not a gathered people. It is about going with love, not staying with doctrinal truth.
The former Home Secretary, Charles Clark chaired some debates on the place of faith in our society recently. He argued that church attendance (in decline in the UK for decades, with some minor fluctuations) was not a good way to judge the importance of faith in the life of our society.
You can hear what Clark had to say here.
He argued that if we focus just on two polar opposites – the ‘Richard Dawkins’ position (there is no God, all religion is dangerous superstition and should be stamped out) and those who would firmly believe in the existence of a divine deity at the centre of the universe – we miss the obvious fact that most people are somewhere in between.
Most people instinctively dislike the extreme position. On the one side we have the God shouters- the Evangelical truth dealers and hell threateners. And on the other side we have the Dawkins brand of religion- elitist condescending rationalism that cuts the colour from human experience.
But in the middle we have millions seeking their own understandings of what it means to be body mind and spirit.
What we know is that in order to make our spiritual enquiries- or journeys- many of us need a vehicle in which to travel. We need the shapes around us made by the journey of others.
And because we are social animals, we also need to make these journeys in community. We need to find ways of marking our anniversaries, our life boundaries, our coming and going in company. Ceremony and liturgy have their place too in allowing us into the depth of things.
Which brings us back to Church.
I no longer attend formal church services regularly- at least in terms of the sort that gather beneath steeples. That is not to say I never go, but rather that our ways of churching in Aoradh tend towards the informal. I am blessed with a community of friends who journey with me, and this is all the church I need for the most part.
Along the way I have spent a lot of time critiquing church, because Lord knows there is a lot to criticise. Most institutions lumber along with a weary momentum that appears to suppress life and vitality. But this would be a false stereotype- Churches are also places of light. Places where we might learn to be light givers.
So here is my defence of arch and steeple, font and choir stalls, Priest and Pastor, organ and acoustic guitar, parish committee and conference, flower rota and Sunday school, back pew sitter and pulpit preacher.
If you are weary of soul and spirit, if you are hungry to encounter God, you may seek him in the mountains, or in a city train station, and you may find him there.
Or you could go to Church and sit on the back row.
I spent much of today talking about terrorism. This is not usually part of what I do, but I was asked to attend a local awareness session. In the end it was rather fascinating.
What we tried to think about was the sorts of processes and relationships in our communities that might draw people into extremism, and right away, we people of faith have to concede that one of the most common drivers for this in the world at present is religion.
Many people would have in their mind a stereotypical terrorist, and they well be Muslim, male and aged around 25. There are real problems with these kinds of stereotypes of course, as I have spoken about previously here. There is also a real possibility that we exaggerate the potential threat, and this plays into all sorts of paranoid murky politics.
However, we now know that even our sleepy rural county of Argyll has been touched by terrorism. Several extremist groups have used outdoor centres/outward bound courses up here to breed team spirit, and the bombers who attacked Glasgow Airport a few years ago did so from a holiday home base in our area.
What brings people to the point of being able to justify the use of extreme violence? Of course this is not a new thing, and many would regard the drivers of inequality, imperialism and oppression as fertile breeding grounds. However, today we talked about some of the societal/group pressures that might draw people in;
The need to be ‘saved’ from an old life, and released into a special calling, as part of an enlightened elite. So we see some people drawn into extremist groups out of situations of isolation, confused identity, drug addiction and poverty.
People often see themselves as on a special mission, to right injustice and to live to a higher calling. There is an exclusiveness to this, and a tendency to see others as weaker, more contaminated, sinful, outsiders to the truth.
Narrowed world view
Extremists are united by a compelling narrative, often focussed on a single issue and simplified to black and white kind of thinking. In this narrative, there will be good guys and bad guys, those on the inside, those on the outside, and a call to fight back.
The drive to proselytise
The need to be bigger, more powerful, to convince others of the rightness of your cause, and to win converts. All other things are secondary and this end justifies all means.
Powerful, manipulative leadership
Leaders who convince, who have elevation over others and able to use hyper emotionality and charismatic manipulation to bring cohesiveness and common purpose.
Distortions presented as fact
Leaders like this often present historical and theological perspectives, or downright distortions as fact. They emphasis certain aspects (for example eschatology, judgement, Jihad) over others (for example, forgiveness, grace, peace.) People are not encouraged to think for themselves, to test and debate issues, rather they are expected to achieve correct belief.
Removal and isolation
Before every act of violence, there seems to be something in common- a time of removal, sequestration. People are removed, or remove themselves from wider society, and focus on the purity and certainty of their cause, and the need for their final act.
Here is the challenge then- I invite those of you who have been involved in Christian churches to consider this list from that perspective. Those of you familiar with charismatic or fundamentalist denominations may find this list rather familiar. The point is, the group dynamics of religion that distort faith and breed a kind of hatred and destruction do not just belong to the other, they arise from who we are as humans.
Jesus seemed to understand this very clearly, and anyone who knows his teaching would see it as the antidote to all of the above. He seemed to reserve his anger almost exclusively for the kind of religion that valued the law (or religious understandings of the law) over people.
And yet we stand in the shadow of two thousand years of repeated examples of where the group dynamic within our churches has become toxic and released all sorts of hatred, judgementalism and even death as a result.
I find it all so depressing.
Is there nothing else that Churches can unite behind or against?
I suppose the truth is that they DO- all the time, but no body notices. There is a feeling in me however that that the issue of personal sexuality, and the application of the word ‘marriage’ to same sex coupling still has the power to bring spittle to the lips of the faithful like no other.
Not poverty, or people unfairly imprisoned or tortured. Not restoring sight to the blind or declaring jubilee to those who are oppressed.
I know- for many of my fellow Christians, this issue is complex- full of difficult theological questions and wrapped up some kind of desperate struggle against a perception of a rising secular tide.
For me it is much simpler.
If we are to make any kind of mistake- err on the side of grace.
Oh- and get on with the things that are the proper business of the Kingdom of God.
The stuff in Matthew chapter 5, not the obscure bits of Leviticus. This bit for example;
16 The LORD said to Moses, 17 “Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. 18 No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; 19 no man with a crippled foot or hand, 20 or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles. 21 No descendant of Aaron the priest who has any defect is to come near to present the food offerings to the LORD. He has a defect; he must not come near to offer the food of his God. 22 He may eat the most holy food of his God, as well as the holy food; 23 yet because of his defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar, and so desecrate my sanctuary. I am the LORD, who makes them holy.’”
If you were born with a disability then you may not go to church?
Quite clearly we find this interpretation abhorrent. In our culture (but not the one of the ancient Hebrews) to be born with disability is not shameful. You are not to be hidden away lest other people are somehow made unclean. You are not condemned to a life that is less that those around you, or excluded from parts of civic life.
Does the parallel strike you?
We are just back from our monthly Aoradh ‘family day’. This is the closest we come to a ‘church service’ that we do regularly within Aoradh. It usually involves filling up one of our houses with people, then one of us will co-ordinate a period during which a selection of folk – kids and adults – will take turns to lead others through a song, a prayer, some meditation, a poem, a clip from you tube. It is simple, messy and lovely.
Then we eat together.
Today I was thinking about the distance I have travelled within the scope of what ‘church’ might mean. I was playing my guitar along with William and Rachel, and really enjoying it, because this is something I do fairly rarely these days.
There was a time when it was my whole life.
I was a ‘worship leader’ – one of those blokes (and they usually are blokes) who stand in front of people and whip up some spiritual fervour by the application of soft rock love songs to Jesus. I lived for those moments when the music took flight, and something kind of opened up. At such times, music was more than just notes. Performance became less about technique, and more about an attitude of humility and receptiveness.
But in the course of my journey from ‘organised’ church, other principles started to dominate the way I thought about worship. Primarily, I was convinced that the culture of ‘church’, with all its big and small liturgies, assumptions and traditions, easily came to be a black hole that swallowed people whole. It left us with no room for the other. It became about us, not about them. They were only important if they were willing to become like us. I was convinced that church should exist to send and to serve, not endlessly feed itself.
Our corporate worship was the same. It was all about music and preaching. Other ways if worshipping were not necessarily wrong (although some were guilty by association) but they were just not our thing. We knew what we liked and this was enough.
As I think about this now it is like a rainbow of only one colour. Still impressive, but monochrome.
It can also be so selfish, so self centred. Worship like this exists to make us feel good. The end we aim for is a spiritual/emotional high for us, dressed up in the clothes of adoration of the God that we make in our own image.
But I overstate my case. A monochrome rainbow can still be beautiful.
The word that came to sum up the change I was finding in my own aspirations in worship was this one;
By which I mean the experience of God in the ordinary. The incarnation of the maker of the universe within the temporal, messy world in which we live and love.
Transcendent moments fill our lives if we look for them. And the more we attune ourselves to the looking the more we see.
They are everywhere in the natural world; sunsets, new leaves, mushrooms in caves, the lick of new born fur, the light of the moon on still water, the smell of rain on dry earth, the sea that goes on for ever. All these things will happen whether or not we are there as witnesses. But when we look in a certain kind of way a hollow space opens up in the middle of them into which we can meet with something transcendent. Into which we can invite/be invited by the living God.
They are everywhere too where humans also are. In conversations, in touch, in the longing for justice, in the decision to forgive, in the deciding to repay hurt with love, in the listening and in the laughing. Because God is a God of communion. God commands love, and love requires direction. Perhaps above all, the transcendent God is immanent when we come together in community.
They are encountered in art, because art can become a bridge to something beyond our business. Films, books, poems, paintings, sculptures, music.
They can even be encountered in church – for me, especially when we sing, when the chordal voices find the vault of the building and make it vibrate.
I had become so trapped in a view of God that was limited to one colour of the huge spectrum from ultaviolet to infra red and beyond, that I needed to go cold turkey. The guitar needed to go away for a while so I could hear the birds sing.
So I had some time to speak to people, with no agenda other than love.
So I could be creative, and make art in service of the Creator.
How about you? Where might your ordinary space become pregnant with the extraordinary, capricious, magnificent Living God?
I noticed this on FB the other day (Thanks Ian Emery.)
…when the Gospel story is accompanied by a fog machine and light show, I always get this creeped-out feeling like someone’s trying to sell me something. It’s as though we’re all compensating for the fact that Christianity’s not good enough to stand on its own so we’re adding snacks.
But more importantly, I want to be part of an uncool church because I want to be part of a community that shares the reputation of Jesus. Like it or not, Jesus’ favorite people in the world were not cool. They were mostly sinners, misfits, outcasts, weirdos, poor people, sick people and crazy people.
I liked it because (and I know this might be a surprise to some of you) I am not cool.
I never have been cool, and never will be a trend setter. Thankfully, there comes a point in life when you do not care much about coolness any more. We sink into the stew of middle age and bob like dumplings. In case you needed evidence-
Now don’t get me wrong, I am sure Jesus loves cool people too, but I sometimes wonder if it might be easier for camels to pass through the eyes of needles than it might be for cool people to…. you get my point.
Emerging church became Missional church, and some folks wanted to stay out on the trendy edge, using words like ‘Hipster Christians‘ and ‘Christian pirates’ but it left me rather cold- and I think this is why-
We have one place for the uncool people—our ministries—and another place for the cool people—our church services. When we actually bump into one another, things can get “awkward,” so we try to avoid it.
The truth is we’re all guilty of thinking we’re too cool for the least of these. Our elitism shows up when we forbid others from contributing art and music because we deem it unworthy of glorifying God, or when we scoot our family an extra foot or two down the pew when the guy with Asperger’s sits down. Having helped start a church, I remember hoping our hip guests wouldn’t be turned off by our less-than-hip guests. For a second I forgot that in church, of all places, those distinctions should disappear.
The article is from an American church situation, but this seems rather familiar.
We are all guilty of seeking significance for ourselves, our ministry and our ‘art’. But it is good to be reminded that these are not the measures of fruitfulness used in the New Kingdom. Paul preferred to describe ‘Fruit of the Spirit’, which emphasise things like love, kindness, gentleness, peacefulness, self control.
No mention of coolness.