Sunday, November 27, 2011

Beginning with Advent

Today is advent Sunday. So I'd like to wish a happy new year to all my readers.

Advent is the beginning of the Christian year year because it's the time when we get ready for the coming of Jesus, bringer of the Kingdom of God

There's a great post on a blog I hadn't come across before but will be checking out now. You can find it here. It's by an American writer and reflects on whose calendar we live our lives by - Caesar's or God's? The Christian calendar reminds us that we live our lives by a different story, the story of the coming of our king, his crucifixion and call to live our ordinary time as his disciples rather than as followers of some other value system.

I have often pondered shifting our church year from the three-term academic treadmill we currently follow to the ebb and flow of Christian year, beginning today with a period of reflection and preparation before the celebrations of Christmas, proclaiming through our programme the Lord whose values shape our lives.

Advent gives shape to the longing for change we see all around us at the moment - in the occupy movement, in the conversations with people talking about their daily struggles, in the dreaming of young people for a life that matters. Advent is the time when we reflect on what life is about and how God has promised to come and deliver us from the sins and chains that prevent us from experiencing lives of justice and hope.

Advent reminds us that God has heard and seen, that he is responding to the cries of his people by sending a saviour, a redeemer, a liberator, one who will fulfil the great prophetic hope that God will come to set things right. Advent reminds us that there is an alternative that flows from the heart of our creating, coming God.

And for Christians, advent gives shape to the story we live by, a story dreamed in the heart of God and told in a baby in Bethlehem; a story embodied and articulated in the life and teaching of Jesus; a story realised through the cross that breaks the power of injustice and inequity and in the resurrection that announces new creation starts here: see, says your God, I am making all things new.

As we mark advent, we are preparing ourselves to be part of that game-changing story. What a great to start the year.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Other Lives soars to other places

On Monday night we went to see Other Lives at St Giles in the Fields. It was one of the best gigs I've been to for ages.

Other Lives are one of this year's most exciting break-through band (check them out here). They've been around a while but new album, Tamer Animals, is a step up from everything that preceded it. It's a wonderful collection.

Live the band are tight and slightly ramshackle; everyone plays a variety of instruments, sometimes many in the course of a single song, diving between keys, brass, autoharp, cello, tom toms, pump organ, guitars and violins. Even the drummer was seen playing a clarinet while keeping the rhythm at one point.

But Monday evening was not just a display of dexterous virtuosity, it was also an emotional roller-coaster ride. Other Lives produce music of romantic and epic sweep. I don't if it was the venue - St Giles is a beautifully appointed seventeenth century church - but the gig felt like something more than just a concert (though doesn't great music always create that potential?). Things came to a head with a cover version of Leonard Cohen's epic cri de coeur the Partisan, played with a fragile energy that really suited singer Jesse Tabish's voice. As he sang 'Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing, through the graves the wind is blowing, freedom soon will come; then we'll come from the shadows' and I thought about the news from Egypt and Occupy London, I found myself in tears.

Great songs articulate feelings too deep for conversation. I was in Romans 8 territory, the Spirit of God urging the birth of a new world of peace and justice, finding words for our longing for change. I don't what my fellow gig goers were feeling...!

This was a great gig in a truly wonderful venue. I hope St Giles will continue to develop as a place where good music is put on for medium-sized and appreciative audiences.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bursting at the seams at Messy Church

We had a wonderful messy church today. It was our third birthday, so we threw a party and nearly a hundred people turned up. This is the most we've had and is probably the most the hall can hold. There was a great party atmosphere, lots of good conversations and the sense that we were really connecting with a number of families for whom this is their only church.

Afterwards one mum who's not been coming for long, came and told us that it had been wonderful and that church should always be like this.

Then we had a good messy talk, using some DVD material from the Ugly Duckling company that seemed to work pretty well.

I think I'm learning through messy church that it is possible to do serious things in an all-age context and that we shouldn't be afraid to mix activities aimed at children and conversation between adults (which is what happens at a regular children's party, after all).

It bodes well for our continued thinking about neighbourhood groups and refocusing church on smaller units built around families.

I also discovered some blindingly good new music yesterday. it's by a band called afterlife parade, the brain child of singer-songwriter Quinn Erwin. They've released two EPs this year called respectively death and rebirth ans they are both really beautiful. The song, simple on the Death EP is one of the best songs I've heard all year. Both EPs are a collection of thoughtful, faith-questing songs. You can check them out here and download both EPs for under a tenner. That's got to be good.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Getting to grips with holiness

Giles Fraser is at his mouth-watering best in today's Guardian, reflecting on where the church should be and whether we've understood holiness properly.

It reminded me why it matters what we think and say about Jesus. I have been putting the finishing touches to a session on Christology for Spurgeon's next week which has been a little like herding cats with material refusing to fit neatly in my pre-planned scheme. Ah well.

But Fraser's piece brought to mind some words of Richard Bauckham that I will be sharing with my students. Reflecting on Philippians 2:5-11, he says: 'the passage amounts to a Christological statement of the identity of God. The exaltation of Christ to participation in the unique divine sovereignty shows him to be included in the unique divine identity. But since the exalted Christ is first the humiliated Christ, since indeed it is because of his self-abnegation that he is exalted, his humiliation belongs to the identity of God as truly as his exaltation does…The God who is high can also be low, because God is God not in seeking his own advantage but in self-giving.'

The question is what does the self-abasement and cross of Christ tell us about God? The answer is eloquently given by Bauckham. But it begs another question what does it mean for us to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus? The very question Paul asks as the introduction to this amazing portrait of our servant God.

And it seems to me that Giles Fraser has put in finger on where an answer begins.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sorting out who we are devoted to

Sometimes something in a scholarly article that is otherwise dealing with rather arcane points of ancient history or Christian theology, leaps off the page and socks you between the eyes. It's a reminder that there is a close and vital link between academic study and Christian living.

I'm preparing a class on Christology, basing most of my reflections on the work of Richard Bauckham and Larry Hurtado who argue for a Christology of divine identity, derived from second temple Judaism. It's good stuff that helpfully moves beyond the rather arid discussion of ontological categories.

Towards the end of a review paper, where Larry Hurtado has assessed the impact that devotion to Jesus made on the first Christians and the surrounding society, he asserts 'In an understandable but probably misguided effort to make Christian faith as undemanding as possible, have churches by and large ill-prepared believers for anything in the nature of serious opposition, criticism, or worse? More positively, has the banal simulacrum that passes for Christian faith too widely today anything of the fervour and passion of the Jesus-devotion that empowered early believers to live, think, work, and even die for Jesus?'

And as we ministers are still smarting from that he adds: 'How well does the comfortable and low-demand Western Christianity of today (whether of ‘liberal’ or ‘Evangelical’ stripe) equip believers to engage their own social setting and political circumstances meaningfully and positively?'

Who says NT scholarship lives in an ivory tower, divorced from the reality of issues facing followers of Jesus today? Hurtado's observation that the power of the early church to leave a mark on its culture came from its devotion to Jesus. In a world of gods, the early Christians proclaimed that Jesus was the one through whom God had decisively acted, so God had shown him to be worthy of worship. And that devotion spilled over in their daily social, working and political lives. If Jesus is Lord, then no one else is. Such a profession cost many of these committed their livelihoods and even their lives. But from very early on, such a profession turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6).

If we want to do the same in our day, then maybe we need to sort out who we are really devoted to.


I was away when REM announced they were calling it a day. In homage to one of the world's greatest ever rock bands, I downloaded their end of career retrospective yesterday. Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982 to 2011 is a collection of 37 previously released tracks and three new ones. And they are all blinders!

Some critics suggest that REM went off the boil after Automatic for the People but I rate this year's Collapse into Now as one of the best records they ever made. It seems they quit at the top of their game. These 40 songs remind us what a potent force they were, Peter Buck's guitar the perfect foil for Michael Stipe's sometimes fragile, sometimes gritty vocals.

Listening to this retrospective makes me grateful for all the music and sad that they'll not do another album.

Showing there is an alternative - while we work out what it is

The great John Gray weighed into the debate over the future of our current form of capitalism in yesterday's guardian. The former LSE professor and author of False Dawn, among a slew of other prescient works, suggests that the protesters outside St Paul's Cathedral - and camped in other cities across the globe - are engaging with reality somewhat more effectively than our political leaders who remain in thrall to 'a defunct market utopia'.

It's hard to disagree. He points out that the calamity facing the Eurozone - with French bond yields now twice those of Germany and edging closer to the danger zone - is mainly because political leaders have no idea what to do. Unlike previous global crises of the same magnitude - and there haven't been that many - there is no global institution with sufficient cash and clout to sort out the mess - by knocking heads together if necessary.

Some people suggest, of course, that the markets over which governments have no control, are the ultimate expression of democracy, millions of individual investors exercising their choices through buy and sell orders. This is self-serving rot trotted out by brokers and politicians in thrall to their every whim.I might have a pension with a provider who bundles lots of pensions together and buys and sells on world financial markets, but I have no effective say in those buying and selling decisions. All I can do is vote for governments whose sovereignty is severely compromised by the operation of the markets. Every time I hear the Chancellor say that our economic policies are keeping the markets happy, I know that the UK's austerity workout is dictated by people I am not offered a chance to elect.

Gray argues that Europe's elites 'have yet to face the fact that radical change is unavoidable'. This is because they remain in thrall to a busted market utopia. The question is what kind of radical change is needed? And I come back to what I talked about last week - that at root this is a moral not an economic crisis. Gordon Gecko said greed is good in the film Wall Street but Paul points out that greed is idolatry and idolatry always brings calamity on its practitioners. So the radical change needed? Groups of Jesus followers taking him at his word and showing by their actions that it is possible to live in a way where our actions are not driven by greed but by generosity, not by hubris but humility. If as followers of Jesus we can learn to be content and live out of that contentment, we might show our neighbours that there is an alternative.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Gallows humour and searching questions

Economist Paul Krugman shows the lighter side of the dull science in his ditty:
This is the way the euro ends.
This is the way the euro ends.
This is the way the euro ends.
Not with a bang but with bunga-bunga.

Gallows humour is essential in a time of crisis. The Nobel Price winning economist puts his finger (maybe unwittingly) on something important - that in the midst of all the necessary focus on numbers, there is a serious moral dimension to this crisis.

There is a tiny group of people around the world who have seen their wealth rise exponentially during the last decade - even while economies have been crashing and burning. In some ways Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi, media mogul, billionaire, playboy, party-thrower, is a symbol and symptom of a moral failure at the heart of the financial catastrophe.

When I read about him, I think about the prophet Micah describing the glitterati of his day in these words - brought vividly to life in the Message translation (6:10-16):

"Do you expect me to overlook obscene wealth
   you've piled up by cheating and fraud?
Do you think I'll tolerate shady deals
   and shifty scheming?
I'm tired of the violent rich
   bullying their way with bluffs and lies.
I'm fed up. Beginning now, you're finished.
   You'll pay for your sins down to your last cent.
No matter how much you get, it will never be enough—
   hollow stomachs, empty hearts.
No matter how hard you work, you'll have nothing to show for it—
   bankrupt lives, wasted souls.
You'll plant grass
   but never get a lawn.
You'll make jelly
   but never spread it on your bread.
You'll press apples
   but never drink the cider.
You have lived by the standards of your king, Omri,
   the decadent lifestyle of the family of Ahab.
Because you've slavishly followed their fashions,
   I'm forcing you into bankruptcy.
Your way of life will be laughed at, a tasteless joke.
   Your lives will be derided as futile and fake."

Berlusconi is a joke and yet he's the epitome of the lifestyle our culture lauds and apes. And we will all pay the price of his folly and the folly of the one per cent of the world who live like him. But the joke could also be on us who have lived by the mantra 'there by the grace of the market, it could have been me...'

But Micah tells us how we should live:

[God's] already made it plain how to live, what to do,
   what God is looking for in men and women.
It's quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbour,
   be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don't take yourself too seriously—
   take God seriously.

And he goes on to remind us 'Attention! God calls out to the city! If you know what's good for you, you'll listen. So listen, all of you! This is serious business.'

I think the market makers know how serious this is - with bond yields for Italy above a crisis level 7% and stock markets falling. But I wonder if we do. Do we believe there is a technical fix that means we can return to business as usual? Or do we need to  ask more searching questions about the kind of economy, the kind of politics we need to ensure justice and equity for all the world's citizens?

For all its incoherence, the Occupy movement suggests that there are growing numbers of ordinary people from all walks of life who are beginning to ask for a better way. Where are the leaders rising to this challenge, harnessing this energy, articulating this cry for change?

Friday, November 04, 2011

The sound of protest

I've been listening to some great new music this week from an outfit called Fold. You can check them out and pay whatever you like to download their output here and here. What's more, when you buy their music, some of your money will distributed to organisations working for greater justice in our society.

One of the tracks - We must speak - puts these prophetic words of Martin Luther King over a wash of beats and vocals:

'I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. A time comes when silence is betrayal. The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those that call us enemy. For no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers. We are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative method of protest possible. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.'

It's that last sentence that has been niggling at me since I first heard it on Tuesday. And it is those words that came to mind when  read these two great stories about different kinds of protesters - one at St Paul's and one in the States

Questions about church (again...)

There's an interesting post over on Mike Bird's blog (euanggelion) about the church. It's called 'In praise of the visible church' and suggests that people who question institutional Christianity are engaging in 'a ridiculous cop-out'.

But I find myself confused over what it is that Mike is defending here because one of his favourite quotes on the church is from Rick Warren who says 'the church is the people, not the steeple'. I say a hearty amen to that. And so would many of the people engaged in debates over what he dismisses as 'churchless Christianity'.

The issue is not can you be a Christian without a church - I think Jesus calls us to a life of discipleship in community; the question is 'what kind of community constitutes church?' It seems to me that a lot of critics of emerging church are wedded to a view of church that owes much to the Victorian era and precious little to the New Testament.

I think a good question to ask about what we do in the name of church is this one: 'would Paul recognise our gatherings as church?' I suspect for the most part, he wouldn't.

Over the past couple of weeks some people have been asking where is the church around the area of St Paul's and Paternoster Square in the City of London? Some have offered the somewhat pat answer that of course the church is in the tents on the steps. That doesn't really address the question because to be church, a community has got to consciously be shaping itself around the life and values of Jesus.So maybe the answer to the question is along the lines that both the cathedral and the protesters offer some pointers to what church might be but neither actually embody it.

I'll be teaching on New Testament ecclesiology in a couple of weeks time and am really looking forward to teasing out some of these issues - not least the key one of the relationship between mission and church. I hope Mike will post again (rather more fully) on what he means by church.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

A kinder, gentler capitalism?

I bought the Financial Times today to read Rowan Williams' article and found beneath it an excellent piece by John Kay which you can read on the veteran economist's own website here.

I especially warmed to his sentiment that many people agree with the protest at St Paul's but few with what the protesters actually say. The reason for this is that we all think something's wrong but can't quite put our finger on what it is. He suggests the following:

'The incoherence results from a political void. Europe’s political left lacks any convincing narrative in the post-socialist world. The right tells a story in which greed is the dominant human motivation, government an incubus on the spirit of free enterprise. News “from the markets” is not of new products and services, but of the fluctuations of the FTSE. This rhetoric views doctors and teachers as parasites, not producers, and has provided cover for an unhealthy expansion of the influence of established large corporations.'

I think he might be on to something here. I was reading this as I listened to the World at One discuss the latest manoeuvres in the public sector pension wrangle. I found myself wondering why we are caught up in a race to the bottom; why the task seems to be to leave everyone without a pension. A number of experts were saying that the public sector workers need to realise that their private sector counterparts have virtually no guaranteed pension, so they should accept the same fate. The upshot of this, of course, is that the state picks up all our bills for retirement.

So how about changing company law to say that instead of maximising share holder value and ensuring that board directors retain their gold-plated pensions, companies have a legal obligation to invest in the retirements of all the people who have contributed to them making profits. If people are enriched by the labour of others, they should contribute to those people's well-being by paying them a salary and contributing to a pension for when they retire.

Further, all pensions should be set at what is needed for a person to live on when most of their major costs have been met (ie housing, school fees, two cars, etc). No one needs a pension of £750,000 a year and no one should be expected to make do with one of £7,500 a year.

And how about companies being legally obliged to maximise innovation and invention, quality in manufacturing, sustainability in investment and the use of resources? Then the news from the FTSE would not be about share prices and PE ratios but about new products and services that were genuinely adding value to society as well as company balance sheets.

John Kay argues that no one wants an end to capitalism; they just want a capitalism that is not about greed and gambling. I think we can all say 'amen' to that. As Rowan Williams points out, it is not just protesters who think the Robin Hood Tax is a good idea; Bill Gates and George Soros are supporters - neither men noted for their left-leaning sympathies.

What is becoming clear is that there is a growing chorus of voices saying that the false choice between austerity and bankruptcy needs to be replaced by a sensible conversation about how we can order our society, including the important financial sector, in such a way that everyone benefits and not just a few ridiculously rich people at the top of the pile.

It all sounds like motherhood and apple pie, I know. But of course mums are essential to the good ordering of society and apple pie fuels many a good conversation and fills a belly in a most agreeable way. So what exactly is wrong with that?