Friday, October 31, 2008

Gearing up for a cold night

It's been a busy day, so I've only just got round to looking at what's happened on the blog since Wednesday. lots of nice comments. Thanks guys.

been out and about today and on my travels have picked up some thermal gloves as it's going to be quite chilly tonight for street pastoring. There'll hopefully be 7 or 8 of us out tonight which constitutes quite a good presence on the streets of Bromley - people with fleeces who happen to be passing are very welcome to join us!

As it's Halloween, I've loaded up with sweets to give away - along with the bottled water and flip flops. Some people reckon town will be a bit lively tonight as people trick or treat in the queues for clubs and outside bars.

We'll see what the night holds for us - every evening is different and difficult to predict.

I've been continuing to reflect on what anonymous has been saying over the past few days and I find it quite a challenge. I'm not going to say much more than that at this stage because I want to think some more before I commit finger to keyboard. Watch this space...

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Quietly and lovingly living up to our message

I was out all of yesterday when anonymous and Andy's conversation was going on the comment section of my previous post. It's good stuff.

I find myself agreeing with anon that our toughest challenge as ministers is to help 'folks in the church (in its widest sense)...reconnect with both the UK population and with its original message.'

I guess that's the challenge I took on when I became a minister and certainly when I took on the role I currently have. One of the issues I face - as this blog conversation has so wonderfully demonstrated - is that the language we use to do the one needs to be entirely different from the language we use to do the other.

I've spent a lot of time over the last ten years analysing where the church is losing connection with the general population and why and trying to use that analysis to frame how I speak to both my audiences - those within church and those beyond its walls. That analysis has appeared in books, articles and on this blog over the past three years. This task is made slightly more complicated by the fact that both those audiences are pretty fragmented.

The danger of this, of course, is that we become in Russell's lovely phrase 'poor talkative little Christianity', in that we spend a lot of time talking about where we are and why we're not where we want to be. At some stage analysis - vital and essential as that is - has to give rise to action.

And I think that action has to be along the lines that Andy suggested when he said that he longs to be part 'a church that quietly and lovingly lives up to its message, while still being able to explain and explore that message with others.' We need to say sorry for our stridency and judgmentalism, the speed with which we seek to impose our views on others without allowing our message to shape the way we conduct ourselves with those others.

I'm really not sure that the world needs the Archbishop of Canterbury or any other Christian leader making pronouncements. We live in a febrile media culture where a statement is simultaneously lauded and lambasted - sometimes by the same media outlet. perhaps what we need are church leaders caught doing small acts of love and grace, small works that show God loves everyone, actions that draw people into communities that can not only explore what life's about, but also make life better.

So tomorrow evening, I'll be pounding the streets of my town with others, dressed in my Street Pastor's uniform, not to shout the gospel into people's ears but to sit with them on the pavement and listen to them sob about being dumped by their girl friend or help them get a taxi or bus home, provide flip-flops to girls who can no longer walk in their stilettos, give bottles of water to folk who've taken in too much alcohol. It's not going to change the world but it will offer a helping hand, perhaps ensure one or two stay safer on the streets than they otherwise would have been and, who knows, perhaps a glimpse of a deeper reality nudging into our workaday world.

This has been a good and helpful conversation - thanks to both my dialogue partners for their contributions so far.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Judgement and shaking things up

Of course the language in my previous post won't help my non-Christian friends, since the questions were aimed at my christian ones. It is the church that needs to ask itself these questions. There are different questions we need to ask our non-Christian friends.

I'm intrigued by the suggestion that Richard Dawkins is achingly successful at getting his message across. yes, he's in the spotlight of the chattering classes - interviewed yet again in the Guardian just this week - but half the population haven't even heard of him, fewer than a train-full of people have actually read anything he's written and the number of atheists in our society is not rising, according to most polls on belief.

On Sunday, I shall be talking to my congregation about judgement, the day when God puts all things right, steps in to bring justice to the world and salvation to those who've trusted him and looked and worked for his coming. Perhaps the nation can't think as far as their pensions, but some do look further and wonder.

At the end of the day I do what I do in the light of what I think God is calling me to do. The world is in desperate need in all sorts of ways and each of us is called to meet that need. So let's agree that each of us should do something to make a difference. After all, analysing the problem is easy and shouting that someone else should do something about it is even easier.

So, my anonymous dialogue partner, what are you doing about it? How are you shaking things up?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The third question

Yes, of course, anonymous is right to say that there's a deeper question. It's the third question that I was coming to (honest!). It's the question about what it means to be missional (to use the jargon) or more simply, how do we persuade those who aren't followers of Jesus to become followers of Jesus.

The reason for the intermediate question is that being a follower of Jesus is about belonging to others who follow Jesus, meeting with them. The New Testament and Christian tradition doesn't really recognise solo disciples. So gathering together is important. And I guess I think we need to ask what such gatherings would be like that attract those who think they might want to follow Jesus but don't know where to start.

The stats on other religions are unclear and hard to come-by. The best research suggests that Islam and Hinduism are growing almost exclusively by birth-rate and migration - certainly in the case of the latter; and probably in the case of the former, though there are isolated examples of westerners converting to Islam. The figures for Buddhism and other Eastern religions just aren't available in any accurate form. Not that that has hampered the media in rushing to judgement on the issue!

What is certainly clear is that Christianity is not profiting as much as one would expect from a rise in the levels of interest in spirituality that we've witnessed over the past decade or so. Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly that Christianity is seen to be associated with a past that the West has left behind; we've done it, been there, got the tee shirt. Other faith options appear new and untried and thus attractive in a way the Christian faith isn't.

That's a challenge the church needs to rise to rather better than it has so far.

There are Christian heroes and role models out there but by the nature of the beast, they tend not to be flashy and high profile. In the area of knife crime, there's the wonderful Les Isaacs of Street Pastors fame who is doing lots of serious work among communities in inner London, Birmingham and Manchester aimed at reducing violence. He occasionally surfaces in the media as do the pastors and priests of various areas blighted by high crime rates.

But this is certainly an anonymous statement that's worth pondering:

'From an outsider's perspective, I wonder if the church actually went back to simple fundamentals and addressed the very human needs of poverty, pain, suffering and wretchedness it might gain more recruits?'

I wonder that too. What would happen if we got hold of Acts 2 in these times of economic hardship and shared our goods and opened our homes to one another and ensured that no one was in need? Would people join us?

What if we took God at his word and sought his Spirit to move in power among us so that things happened that were beyond explanation - except that God did it; would people join us?

Often Christians cry for a return to signs and wonders. And I echo the cry providing we get both of the above - miracles and economic sharing. But then, I'm not sure you get one without the other.

And why should anyone be bothered? Because God has set a day when he will call all people to account for their lives and he's appointed the one who will be judge on that day by raising him from the dead - Jesus.

More basic questions

More friends have arrived from Prague.

We were chatting last night about what constituted church planting and whether a small but established church could be more pioneering than a church planting team moving into an area with a blank sheet of paper.

On top of asking what Christians should do when they gather, it seems like I'm always having conversations about fundamental questions regarding church life.

Perhaps the reason for this is that churches generally are struggling to engage with the wider culture generally, and each local community more specifically. it's true that most churches can point to people who have joined recently - indeed a steady, if small trickle of newcomers. That most of these are existing Christians shifting church for various reasons is beyond dispute; but there are a few people coming to faith.

But this is in a context of decline - fewer people overall this year than last across the UK - and so more fundamental questions really ought to be being asked rather more widely. Hence these two posts that ask what Christians should do when they gather and how the creation of new gatherings might be best achieved.

No doubt I'll continue to muse on this, but others' comments are always welcome.

Monday, October 27, 2008

What should we do when we gather?

I was chatting to a friend yesterday who is embarking on the worship and preaching module of a theology course.

We started off talking about what are the components of a worship service. I commented that even the title was unhelpful since 'worship' and 'service' are such slippery words in the theological lexicon.

We ended up wondering if we had a blank sheet of paper, what would our gatherings be like? Feel free to chip in suggestions. What should we Christians do when we gather?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

All publicity is good publicity?

A group of atheists is raising money to run the following ad on the side of London's bendy buses: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

They've raised the money through a subscription on the Guardian Comment is Free website and, naturally, from Richard Dawkins (who, I was interested to note, has recently helped to establish a Tory humanist group...mmmm!). Assuming all the money comes in, the ads will run in January 2009.

They're doing it because, they claim, there's so much advertising on behalf of God on London's buses. I assume they are referring to the annual Alpha splurge and the occasional advertising by the Met Tab and KICC.

But I loved this response from the Rev Jenny Ellis, Spirituality and Discipleship Officer for the Methodist Church: "We are grateful to Richard for his continued interest in God and for encouraging people to think about these issues. This campaign will be a good thing if it gets people to engage with the deepest questions of life."

Nice one, Jenny. It just goes to show that all publicity is good publicity!

It should be noted, of course, that for a bunch of atheists the group seems to be hedging their bets with the word 'probably'.

Perhaps now is a good time for us to be reminding people to be happy and enjoy life because there is a God and he loves us and he's seeking relationship with us that will last forever.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Recession, singing and being church

It's been good to have anonymous as a dialogue partner. Really got the grey matter going. And hopefully, the thinking will lead to action.

The recession adds a whole new dimension to this discussion, as anonymous suggests by way of a tangent (the whole comment on the last post repays careful reading). I do have all sorts of fears that cash will drain away from much of the good work that is being supported by Christians as they tighten their belts and that Christians might become more self-absorbed as they see their incomes falling.

But I think the recession - we can use that word now as the governor of the Bank of England used it last night(!) - does afford us an opportunity to assess our values as individuals and communities. We will suffer mild discomfort as bills rise - though already food and fuel costs are coming off the peaks they hit in the summer - but the poor around the world will suffer greatly.

The difficulty with recessions is that they are so uneven in their impact on people. Some sail through them relatively unscathed and others find their lives shattered by them. And often those people can live on the same streets, exercise in the same gym, shop in the same malls. My prayer is that our eyes are opened to see how people are being affected.

One of the interesting features of this recession, however, is that it could affect the middle class in the south much more severely than others - unlike the downturns in the early 1980s and 1990s. It is people working in financial services - and those trades dependent on them in London - and those who've relied on debt, especially tied up in property, to fuel their lifestyle who are at the eye of this storm. And these people are my neighbours.

Inevitably, as they are affected, there will be knock-ons in the wider economy affecting other sectors. But we have such a tiny manufacturing sector these days that it's unlikely we'll be seeing factory closures on the scale we saw in the 1980s.

So it's maybe not a time to focus on singing but on sharing, on being honest about how we're doing and how we can support one another and those who could well be in need around us. In short, we have an opportunity to be church in a significantly deeper, more Christ-focused way.

Of course, some would say that a sing-song in a crisis is just the medicine we need, but I'm not sure I want to go there...

Why, O why do we sing in church?

I think Richard has a valid point (comment on the last post) that the aim of modern forms of worship was to help people who weren't connecting with God in traditional services an opportunity to make some connection with him. And I would say that there have been times when I have connected with God using a mix of vehicles including modern worship songs.

But I also think that anonymous (comment to same post) has touched an issue at the heart of the contemporary church's struggle to connect with people. Put baldy, it is that we are generally frothy and irrelevant, inward looking and a wee bit smug about our relatedness to God.

Now, I wouldn't want to go overboard here. I've met loads of Christians who are getting their hands very dirty in some places where people need help and only Christians are there to do anything. I've been to estates in inner cities in the UK where the only 'welfare' provision of any kind is that offered by Christians who sacrificially give of themselves, their time and their resources to make a difference and bless their neighbours.

And I'm writing this the day after a British Christian aid worker was shot dead in Kabul for doing exactly that as a Christian. So I don't think we can tar the entire church as self-obsessed. It dishonours those who are worshipping God with their bodies laid on the line day, day out.

But sadly, the contemporary worship scene is part of a wider malaise in the western church that sees offering people what we think they want is the way to attract people. And while there might be some superficial appeal for some in the entertaining mix we serve up, the longer term danger of the whole approach is that we are only offering an hour's mildly spiritual diversion.

Now some will protest that worship songs are not entertainment; they are a means of lifting up the name of God in a way that draws people to him and therefore are the essential component of what we do as churches. Sadly, as anonymous' posts so eloquently attest, such an approach repels rather than attracts some, perhaps many people.

We do seem to be afraid of thinking, of asking the hard questions about our faith that would stretch our faith both intellectually and emotionally. As an author, I am frequently asked to remember my audience doesn't want to be too taxed. I need to write in a way that will be accessible to people who don't read books - tricky when I write books!

I had some interesting conversations as I was putting the finishing touches to my recent short commentary on Galatians that I was possibly entering into discussions and debates about the text that were not appropriate for the general Christian public. The idea seems to be that the average church person can only cope with a pre-digested, entertainingly served up gobbet of something to believe rather than a range of possibilities to think about.

This could indeed be why the church in the UK is losing people. But it also highlights a real problem that churches have and it's this: who is our audience and at what level do they wish to be engaged? I have said for a number of years now that I do not believe there is a one-size fits all way of being and doing church. I am neither original nor alone in this view, but it is depressing how few of us there still are who really believe it and are prepared to practice it.

There are a load of people who think seriously about the world and their place in it and who might well find that the Christian faith has something intelligent and helpful to say that would help them engage with and think through these deep questions. At the same time, that process might well help them to meet and engage with God with every fibre of their beings - body, soul and, equally importantly, mind.

Sadly, songs like I can only imagine will only repel those with an ounce of intellect and musicality. I am sorry for anonymous' poor experience of church so far. Keep in touch. I'll return to this theme.

Bigger issues than Graham

Thanks to anonymous for raising a much bigger issue about what Graham Kendrick represents. There is truth - and not just the truth of an unpleasant experience - is this observation:

'It may not be his fault, but he is a symptom of a church that doesn't care about anyone but itself and its members - and making its members feel "great". He is a proponent of weak minded, arms in the air, let's feel the love nonsense.'

My objection to Letts' comment was that he seems to think stoicism and Christianity are synonymous. But your comment puts a finger on a real and much more important issue.

I had one of those encounters in church in Sunday that I never like having before or after a service in which I was told that we must always sing because worship is the heart of what we do as church. I have not believed this for 20 years or more. I'm not sure I ever believed it but I certainly didn't after I read an essay by Howard Marshall on the language of worship in the New Testament. I have summarised his argument in chapter 2 of Building a Better Body.

I agree with anonymous that so much of what passes for 'worship' in our churches is self-serving nonsense that is designed only to make us feel good. It results in us leaving church feeling self-satisfied and smug. It does nothing for those struggling to make sense of their lives or God who have strayed into our gatherings; indeed it might only confirm that the church has nothing to say to them because it's only interested in itself.

I still think Letts is wrong, however, about 'worship' needing to remain in the language of the Authorised Bible and modern church music being one reason for rot setting in in Britain. I'd put the Daily Mail at number one in that league table and suggest that Kendrick, for all his faults, has on occasions sought to lift the church's eyes beyond itself to the needs of the world.

The issue of what we sing - and say - in church is a huge one. Perhaps it's something that needs airing at greater length in a number of blogs.

Thanks again for stopping by

In defence of Graham

There's a great post over on Sean's blog about how Graham Kendrick is one of the 50 men to have wrecked Britain. I missed this piece of nonsense, not being a reader of the paper in question. And while I'm not a cheer leader for Kendrick, I do think his contribution to music and in particular to worship music over the past 25 years has been extremely positive.

The fabulously mis-informed Quentin Letts suggests 'The sturdy hymns of England, musical embodiment of the stoicism, resolve and undemonstrative solidarity of our nation, are in severe peril, and all thanks to ill-shaven remnants of the late Sixties - grinning inadequates who have never got over the fact that they weren't Cat Stevens.'

So much of this is so completely ridiculous that it scarcely merits comment. But I just wondered what on earth stoicism has to do with Christianity. You've got to hope he's not as woefully ignorant about the others subjects he covers - though this piece does not bode well Maybe before he pontificates again, he could allow a fact to interrupt the prejudice.

On the need for Christians to think better

I've been watching the US election campaign with a mixture of fascination and bewilderment. I don't think I really get how the system works or how American voters function at an emotional level. But I've been helped by Simon Shama's spectacularly good documentary series on BBC2 - you can still catch last week's on iPlayer.

Today's paper has an alarming report from Colorado on how evangelicals are facing up to a possible victory by Barak Obama. It really doesn't make for comfortable reading by this evangelical.

Apparently one church is fasting and praying this week for a McCain victory. I'm not sure what the pastoral case load will be like if this doesn't happen and Steve Holt, the pastor in question, has to visit members of his flock to talk about how we cope when God doesn't say 'yes' to everything we ask him.

More worrying was this comment from a church member: 'has Obama through mass hypnosis, figured out a way to bypass the critical faculties of all Americans?'

Is this guy for real? Could it be that Obama has found a way of asking searching questions of all Americans that has resulted in them answering that there could be a better way of conducting ourselves in the world than the way we've been behaving over the past decade? Perhaps elections need to be fought on issues other abortion and gay marriage. Perhaps Christians ought to be as concerned about global poverty and the use of violence to settle regional disputes.

Maybe Obama has tapped into those concerns and people are thinking about what kind of presidency they want, what kind of America they want to live in.

Sadly, some Christians arrogantly think that if people disagree with us it's because they're stupid and sinful. Often it's because they've thought about issues more deeply and carefully than we have and they've found our fortune cookie answers to be wanting. When it comes to mass hypnosis, I think the church member from Colorado ought to ask whether he's been a victim of it for who knows how long and might find an Obama victory is the jolt he needs to snap him out of it.

The disappointing thing about the press report was that there's no mention of Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo or Shane Claiborne - all significant evangelical leaders who are campaigning for Christians in the States to decide their political allegiances and voting intentions on more than abortion and blind support for the secular state of Israel. In the interests of balance, it would be good to see them represented in the reporting of the US election over here.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Praying in the midst of the credit crunch

There's a good prayer we should all be praying posted here (scroll down) - and reproduced below:

Lord God, we live in disturbing days:
across the world,
prices rise,
debts increase,
banks collapse,
jobs are taken away,
and fragile security is under threat.
Loving God, meet us in our fear and hear our prayer:
be a tower of strength amidst the shifting sands,
and a light in the darkness;
help us receive your gift of peace,
and fix our hearts where true joys are to be found,
in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Many in our congregations will be feeling less secure and increasingly anxious in these uncertain times. And they will continue to feel these long after the headlines have moved on to the next crisis. So let's keep praying for those particularly affected by these testing times.

Challenging times

Had a good day yesterday, I think. The morning went well. Our morning series on hope is going very well with people responding positively to the teaching, finding real encouragement in it. One 77 year old said to me after the service yesterday that she felt excited about the future as a result of the series - that was great to hear!

Yesterday evening was similarly interesting. We did a cafe church on the topic of 'is faith anything more than a crutch in these troubled times?' Using a bit of pop music and word games and quizzes, we explored what people thought about god.

The challenge for us all was using a chapter from James Catto and Duncan Bridgeman's intriguing and beautifully edited film What about me? This is the follow up to 1 Giant Leap. The episode - called Grace - plunged us into the world of Athens as recorded in Acts 17, a world of gods and opinions about the gods and faith.

We then read Acts 17 and asked what we might learn from Paul about talking about our faith in this cacophony of opinions in a way that enables people both to hear what saying and to the God we are seeking to bring into focus.

It wasn't to everyone's taste, needless to say. But some of the exchanges around the tables sounded intriguing and useful and some of the conversations I had afterwards suggested some people had found it really helpful.

The proof, as always, is in the living this week.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Bail out Iceland

There's a great piece in today's Guardian G2 on Iceland. It contains one of the most priceless understatements to have emerged from the current financial meltdown.

The lovely Prime Minister, Geir Haardie, asked what he'd learned the whole frightening experience of the past two weeks, answered: 'it is not wise for a small country to take a lead in international banking.' You can say that again!

I, for one, think the IMF should bail Iceland out, however, because it has given some of the most wonderfully sublime music of the past decade. Bjork and Sigur Ros have been consistently creative, mystical and, admittedly, not a little bonkers.

Maybe we could all buy a share in them and it would recapitalise iceland's banking sector. In return, each of them could play a gig in our streets. Now that would be a result.

Monday, October 13, 2008

New toy

I took delivery of a lovely Dell Inspiron Mini last week. It's a tiny laptop that weighs no more than a bag of sugar but does everything my larger (and not so easily portable) laptop does.

I shall be using it mainly for word processing and blogging on the go. So if you see at the back of a meeting with it open on my lap, I'll be reading or blogging or playing the cool definition game at (assuming there's free wireless access, of course).

I always wanted to own a bank

I always fancied owning a bank. Now, it seems, I own four - obviously not on my own, I share the ownership with whole population of the UK.

'We're living in extraordinary, turbulent times.' So says the Chancellor on the morning he's taking big stakes in three high street banks - RBS, HBOS and Lloyds (these last two are still about to merge to form a super retail bank).

So, the 1983 Labour manifesto pledge to bring the banks into public ownership has been fulfilled by a Labour Government whose economic policies owe more to Margaret Thatcher than Karl Marx.

I think such ironies can be enjoyed - even in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the last one. Indeed Alastair Darling keeps using the words 'exceptional and extraordinary' to describe these events. He's not wrong there.

'The world has had a shock,' he says. Too true. I was glad that in the midst of this shock, the chairman of the World Bank reminded the G7 leaders of their commitments to the poorest of the world, calling them to ensure they redouble their efforts to see the millennium goals achieved by 2015.

Let's hope the world - and the Chancellor - is listening.

Kind of Blue

My copy of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue arrived late last week. And it's wonderful.

I waxed lyrical about So What a while back. The rest lives up to that beginning and the album's conclusion, Flamenco Sketches, is gorgeous.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Unpredictable people

One of the many jaw-dropping, spine-tingling moments on Mercury Rev's Snowflake Midnight is where Jonathan sings in his faltering falsetto: 'Life is uncertain and people are so... Unpredictable'. There's a wonderful hanging pause after 'so' before each syllable of un-pre-dict-able is sounded out. I feel a shudder of joy and hope every time I hear it.

It's a poignant commentary on so much of our experience. Life is truly uncertain. The credit crunch has thrown the precarious nature of our economy into stark relief, we've all heard stories of healthy and good people suddenly overtaken by illness and death.

Jonathan is right - life is uncertain. But the tone of voice with which he sings 'people are so unpredictable' suggests that in the uncertainty of life, some people come good, do good, are there for those that need them, unexpectedly offering hope in despair, light in the darkness. We think they'll act one way, but people are so unpredictable - often they act in unexpected and life-bringing ways.

The song ends with him singing 'there's no bliss like home'; nothing feels like that moment when in life's uncertainty, someone has helped us feel as though we belong, we can cope, we have a future.

Today, we could be the unpredictable people to our neighbours, offering acts of kindness to those under pressure, standing with those who who feel lost and frightened in the midst of the turmoil on the money markets, wondering what the future holds. We could be people who bring them unpredictable blessing, the bliss of a touch of acceptance and friendship.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Bringing the soft difference into focus

As promised here's part 2 of last week's post arising out of Miroslav Volf's excellent essay on 1 Peter. Having preached about it last Sunday, this Sunday, I'm asking how what Peter says works out in his context - and how it might work in ours (that's for the congregation to work on in groups).

It seems to me that soft difference is all about helping people see what God is like. So Peter talks about it applies in the three key areas people live in - the political arena, the work place and the home (of course, the last two were the same place for many people in Peter's world).

What a number of commentators seem to miss is that Peter expected Christians to get noticed. Bruce Winter has shown from 1 Peter 2:14 (and Romans 13:3-4) that Christians who can should behave as benefactors and be recognised as such by the powers that be. This means doing good works that benefit everyone in the community (Jeremiah 29:7 in action). The ancient world was littered with inscriptions commending folk who did such deeds. and Peter says that the followers of Jesus should also do it so that they get noticed and commended. this will silence some of the nonsense spoken about the new movement (2:15).

It's interesting that Peter tells us three times to 'submit' (2:13, 18; 3:1). Submission has a rather negative feel in our culture. But I wonder if all Peter means by it is 'recognise the context you live in and live well in it.' It's interesting that he doesn't use the word 'fear' or 'obey' - those are reserved exclusively for God. Rather, it seems that he is telling his readers to accept the world they live in rather seek to change it, but in their acceptance of this world, they should live in such a way that God comes into focus and the seeds of social change are sown - possibly though the coming to Christ of husbands, masters and governors (not so far-fetched as it sounds if Luke is right about Sergius Paullus in Acts 13:12).

So we submit in the political arena by doing good works that help to bring God into focus. In the workplace we submit to our masters. A good proportion of Peter's first readers would have been slaves, some of good masters, most of those who treated them like chattels. it's possible that Christian slaves would have got a beating for worshipping a foreign god and consorting with others who did so. But Peter says they should do 'good' to their masters, perhaps suggesting that they work beyond what they're instructed to do, going the extra mile, as it were.

And wives submit at home. This is the most foreign part of this passage to our ears - and the one that gets hackles rising (not to mention the one that has been horribly abused to justify the ill-treatment of wives by their husbands - something the text absolutely does not do).

We need to remember that wives were, in a similar way to slaves, the property of their husbands. They were expected not to have an independent life of any kind - no friends that were not from their husbands circle of acquaintances and certainly no religious allegiances that their husbands didn't share. So how is a Christian wife to conduct herself in a non-Christian household (for that certainly seems to be the context Peter is talking about in 3:1-6).

submission has to do with not doing anything that would blur God rather than bring him to focus. So, beauty is to be inward (2, 4) which sounds terribly spiritual but is also very practical: if the wife is going out to a Christian gathering, it's better she doesn't go made-up and wearing her best gown and jewels or people might assume she's heading for an illicit romantic tryst!

The reference to Sarah is subtle and amusing. The only time Sarah called Abraham 'lord' was when laughing at his faith about having a child! (Genesis 18:12). The reference is possibly rather to Genesis 12:13; 20:5, 13 where Sarah goes along with Abraham's plan in order to save Abraham's neck - at considerable risk to herself. In fact three times in Genesis, Abraham obeys her - again because the advice will save his life (16:2, 6; 21:12). Peter's point seems to be that a wife's selfless action can more often than not save the husband - exactly what he wants to see happen here among his first hearers (3:1).

It's interesting that there very little in this section about the wife's motivation, perhaps because Peter wants us to see that this flows straight out of his meditation on Jesus as the servant of Isaiah 53, suggesting that such wives are examples of Christ's submission and suffering that we should take note of and emulate.

So, that's possibly how Peter thought soft difference might work itself in the context he was writing to. The question we have to wrestle with is how might these principles apply to our very different political, working and domestic contexts. That's over to you, then....

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The soft difference

Does Peter have an original social ethic? It's a question I've been pondering as I've wrestled with 1 Peter 2:11-3:12 this week. My struggles have been greatly helped by a Miroslav Volf Essay 'Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter' (Ex Auditu, 10 1994, Pp15-30). It's an elegant essay that repays careful reading.

To sum up his argument in a rather crude nutshell, Volf argues that Peter urges his readers to be distinctive but not eccentric. He suggests 'To make a difference, one must be different' - a simple, obvious and yet profound observation that's worth reflecting on for a moment or two.

Some scholars suggest that Peter's social ethic - like that of the pastorals - is inherently conservative. He talks about submission in the political arena, workplace and home. He explicitly states that wives are the weaker vessel and that slaves should accept their lot. It doesn't seem promising!

But Volf suggests that Peter's ethic is strongly communitarian (he doesn't use that phrase) in that his teaching urges the formation of strong counter-cultural communities that seek to embody the values of the gospel of Christ in good works. It's not our job to change society, still less the world. our role is not to bend opinion to our view, build up blocs of supporters until we can vote the Kingdom of God through whatever legislature runs our countries.

Rather, our role is much simpler and small scale. It's to live by the values of the Kingdom and tell people why we're hopeful.

He says: 'What we should learn from the text is not, of course, to keep our mouths shut and hands folded, but to make our rhetoric and action more modest so that they can be more effective. As we strive for social change, 1 Peter nudges us to drop the pen that scripts master narratives and instead give account of the living hope in God and God's future (3:15; 1:5), to abandon the project of reshaping society from the ground up and instead do as much good as we can from where we are at the time we are there (2:11), to suffer injustice and bless the unjust rather than perpetrating violence by repaying "evil for evil or abuse for abuse" (3:9), and to replace the anger of frustration with the joy of expectation (4:13).'

And that's why we need to be forming strong communities that are shaping those values in places of mutual support and prayer, so we are strengthened to live well in our homes, work places and political arenas. 'For people who live the soft difference,' he says, 'mission fundamentally takes for the form of witness and invitation. They seek to win others without pressure or manipulation, sometimes even "without a word" (3:1)'.

It's great stuff. Later this week, I'll be reflecting on how this approach helps to understand the practicalities of what Peter says about our lifestyles.

Soaring to another place

The new Mercury rev album, snowflake midnight, is a strong late contender for record of the year. A decade after the band's sublime deserter's songs, snowflake midnight is an album of ambition and subtlety and wonderful tunes.

In many ways it shouldn't work. It's a sort of concept album, hanging around ideas of the transience of life in the enormity of the universe; it owes far too much to the prog rock of King Crimson and early Pink Floyd; and at times it meanders. Yet none of these things should put you off.

Mercury Rev have woven a load of disparate elements into one of the most affecting 41 minutes of music created this year. Check it out here. As ever the lyrics are intriguing and literate, a pile of images rather than a set of narratives. But they are embedded in gorgeous tunes and soaring melodies. it's genuinely an album to transport you to another place.

So album of the year has quite a strong and somewhat eclectic field this year - Yeasayer, Elbow, The Last Shadow Puppets, Potishead and Fleet Foxes are all in contention and there's still a couple of months to go.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Lives in the balance

Stephen Sizer's blog has a posting of Jackson Browne's wonderful Lives in the Balance featuring the lyrics and a number of links of YouTube videos. it's here and well worth checking out.

Jackson Browne was an important voice during my university years. His album Late for the Sky was rarely off the turntable and still brings tears to the eyes thirty years later. He's an excellent lyricist and beautiful singer.

He seems to have undergone something of a renaissance in the mid to late 80s and turned out some good songs reflecting on the parlous state of the world and the need for a spirituality that works - Lives in the Balance, The Barricades of Heaven and Looking East are among the best.

Voices like his are rare. Neil Young - another seminal influence, still going strong - lamented recently that there are no young singers manning the barricades and calling the politicians to account, which is why he's out on the road again doing it!

More recent posts on Stephen Sizer's blog contain reviews of his book Christian Zionism by a range of good people, including Stephen Travis and Peter Walker. it looks really worth reading - I found the book really helpful (if a little scary).