Tuesday, 17 January 2017

There's no such thing as the perfect church

Book review – Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans (Nelson Books, 2015)

Rachel Held Evans is an American Christian blogger, author and speaker. She is a member of the generation often known as the millennials – those who came of age around the millennium and in the decade or so afterwards. Definitions vary, but roughly speaking this group is currently aged 20-35; Evans is 35 so at the upper end of the generation. Her book begins with the question of why people of her generation are leaving church in such large numbers. She is clear that any solution is not to be found through glitz or marketing, as her generation has spent its life being marketing towards and so “can smell b.s. from a mile away”. Rather, she argues, “millennials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity – we’re looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity”.

However, the book is not principally a how-to guide for churches that want to attract younger people, important as that is. Instead, this is a book that is part spiritual autobiography, part meditation on the nature of faith, part discussion on what it means to be church. It is perfect reading for anyone who struggles, or has struggled, with what it means to be church in the 21st century. It’s definitely not just for millennials - I’m at least a decade older than that generation and my copy is full of underlined passages which resonated for me.

Evans’ book is punctuated by accounts of her church journey: she grew up in a large independent evangelical church, which she loved as a community but ultimately left (along with her husband) because of its intolerance towards women in leadership, towards gay people, and its unwillingness to accept any but a single doctrinal position. She then was involved in founding a church plant which failed, spent long periods where she couldn’t face attending church at all, and tried various other denominations, before settling in the Episcopal Church – although as she says early in the book, “I didn’t want to put my church story in print because, the truth is, I still don’t know the ending – I am in the adolescence of my faith”. The title of the book only partly refers to her search for a church community – it also refers to her search for the resurrection of Sunday morning, “about all the strange ways God brings dead things back to life again”.

The book is structured around the seven traditional (Catholic) sacraments – baptism, where the church tells us we are beloved; confession, where we’re told we are broken; holy orders, where we are commissioned (all of us, not just clergy); communion, where we are fed; confirmation, where we are welcomed; anointing of the sick, where we are made holy; and marriage, where we are united with another. This structure is said to be a literary device, but clearly also reflects the author’s attraction to liturgical worship and her present affiliation to the Episcopal Church. Each section takes one of these sacraments, opening and closing with biblical mediations on key words and concepts relating to that sacrament. So for baptism, we have water & rivers; for confession, ash & dust; for holy orders, hands & feet; for communion, bread & wine; for confirmation, breath & wind; for anointing of the sick, oil & perfume; for marriage, crowns & kingdom.

The importance of these sacraments is stressed throughout the book, but so is the sacramental nature of all life. Evans talks near the end of the book about the difference between the church and the kingdom of God, saying that “the purpose of the church, and of the sacraments, is to give the world a glimpse of the kingdom, to point it in its direction … we make something sacramental when we make it like the kingdom”. These sacramental acts, these kingdom glimpses, can be seen in the ordinary things of life – food, relationships, friendship, forgiveness – and they can be seen in churches of all kinds when they are places “where the last are first and the first are last and those who hunger and thirst are fed”.

These kingdom glimpses bring us the hope of resurrection, whatever the darkness of our lives or the difficulties of our church experiences. When Evans writes of baptism, she observes that “baptism declares that God is in the business of bringing dead things back to life … we are people who stand totally exposed before evil and death and declare them powerless against love”. Time and again, she writes, Sunday morning (and especially Easter morning), “sneaks up on us – like dawn, like resurrection, like the sun that rises a ribbon at a time; we expect a trumpet and a triumphal entry, but as always, God surprises us by showing up in ordinary things”.

Throughout the book she writes about the nature of church, about the fallibility but the necessity of human communities. Being a follower of Jesus is not something we can do alone, but need one another to help with. It’s a flawed institution – if the church is the body of Christ, she writes, we have to tell the truth about it, “acknowledging the scars, staring down the ugly bits, marvelling at its resiliency, and believing that this flawed and magnificent body is enough, for now, to carry us through the world and into the arms of Christ”. She has often felt, she says, that if only she could find the right church or denomination, then all would be well – but “right’s got nothing to do with it; waiting around for right will leave you waiting around forever”.
Image: Nathan Bingham, The Perfect Church
Church life – in all churches – can be frustrating at times. And the right church for one person may be wrong, even toxic, for another. Finding that place may be an instant click for one, a lifetime search for another. But ultimately the church as a whole is the best thing we have to enable and nurture us to serve others and to serve Christ. Rachel Held Evans presents a rich and powerful account of church life as it moves forward into the future. I recommend her book highly.

(Review originally written for Abington Avenue URC church magazine)

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Commitment, manifestation and mission: a sermon on the baptism of Jesus

Sermon preached at Duston URC on 8th January 2017. Main texts: Matthew 3:13-17, Isaiah 42:1-9.

As a family we’ve been a number of times to a set of gardens in Devon by the name of Escot, complete with family-friendly animals and play equipment. One of their attractions is a birds of prey display – hawks, owls and the like. They care for and handle their birds well, but at one point in the display they’ve trained the hawks to fly out from the keeper and then swoop in low, just above the visitors’ heads, before coming back to the keeper. A few years ago we were there and they had a young bird doing this, and it came in very close to the top of my wife Becky’s head, almost touching her. None of us have seen birds of prey quite the same way since.

I tell this story not just as an easy introduction, but because it comes close to part of Jesus’ experience at his baptism. Given the long history of doves as a symbol of peace and of the spirit of God, it’s easy to think of their flight as something soft and calm. But their landing is not [see Anna Carter Florence, Preaching Year A]. Doves aren’t birds of prey, but they swoop down and land with a bump, rather like birds of prey. So the dove of the Spirit would have landed on Jesus’ head quite hard.
The experience of being baptised, of being named publically as God’s son, of becoming committed to a mission that would inevitably put him up against the state and would ultimately lead to his death, was not a comfortable one for Jesus. He was marked. He was chosen, and he had little choice in the matter. His calling landed on him with a bump.
Image: The Baptism of Christ, Andrea del Verrocchio
Two days ago was the festival of Epiphany, and in many ways this is a story about epiphany. The day is often associated with wise men and gifts, but the word simply means manifestation – of God being made known. The heavens are opened, which is a poetic way of saying that the gap between the earthly realm and the divine realm was reduced to nothing. God was experienced in that place on that river-bank. As the Biblical commentator Karoline Lewis puts it, “Epiphanies are not subtle. We can look for God in all kinds of people and places, but sometimes God comes crashing through the clouds and stops you dead in your tracks.”

This doesn’t mean we can’t experience God in other ways. When we pray, when we sing in worship, when we live out the gospel through serving others, when we see the works of God in nature, or in music, or through the love of others – these are all ways of experiencing God, among many others. But a sudden breaking-through of the gap between earth and heaven, a sudden and complete experience of God – that comes as more of a surprise.

This kind of epiphany, this experience of God’s complete love and presence, is an act of grace. It seeks us out, and is freely given to us. But we can make ourselves ready and available for it. That’s the nature of grace – it’s a two-way process, something offered that has to be accepted willingly.

And we see Jesus willingly going to his baptism here, freely taking up the offer of God’s grace, and freely taking on the mission which followed from it. One of the great questions that people have asked about Jesus’ baptism was why it was necessary. John baptised for repentance, for people to confess their wrong-doing and be transformed through the water into a new life. But Jesus was without sin, the eternal word of the Father made into a human being. And he chose to go into a muddy pool by the Jordan river to accept repentance and washing-away of sins from a radical preacher living on the edge of society. As some commentators have observed, it was something that the early church found really scandalous, almost embarrassing. Why did Jesus do it?

By the sounds of things, John the Baptist asked a similar question to Jesus. He was a bit scandalized at having the one he’d been preaching about coming to him to be baptised. But Jesus gives him a strong response. The language of the standard Bible translations here isn’t very helpful – the NIV says “it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness” which sounds like something from a legal contract or a memo by a particularly dull civil servant. The Message translation that I read at the start of the children’s talk is a lot livelier but not hugely more insightful: “God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism”. The Greek word we have here as ‘righteousness’ appears a lot in the gospels, and it usually means ‘doing the right thing’, but specifically the right thing in God’s eyes. It’s about fulfilling God’s will.

So Jesus is saying: I need to be baptised, because it fulfils God’s will. It has long been the belief of the church that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human at once, though that is a sufficiently perplexing statement that trying to explain it rationally does your head in. How can someone be 100% of two things at once? Nonetheless that is what Jesus was. As one who was fully divine, he didn’t need baptism, but as one who was fully human, he needed to go through all the same things that we ordinary humans need to do.

Being baptised was a sign of Jesus’ commitment to humanity, just as much as was his birth and his death. It was also a very public way to make a commitment to his mission. There was no going back. The wonderful words that he heard, about being God’s son & beloved, were deeply affirming to Jesus. But here in the gospel of Matthew they are also a quotation, and they recur twice more in the gospel.

The words of God come from the passage we heard in Isaiah – “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight”. They are the first of the four servant songs, written to the people of Israel to show their vocation as a people who exist to serve others, although they are read by Christians as referring to Jesus. Isaiah gives an amazing mission to the servant described here – to bring forth justice, to be a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to release prisoners from darkness.

That is the mission of Jesus – to bring justice to a world that sorely needs it, but in ways that they wouldn’t expect. Not through domination, but through service. Not through power, but through weakness. Not through violence, but through love. Matthew quotes a longer passage from Isaiah 42 when discussing the many people Jesus had cured, and the conflict which arose from it because it was seen as inappropriate by the religious establishment. And again we hear Isaiah in Matthew’s account of the scene on the mountaintop known as the Transfiguration, when Jesus shone like the sun and was joined by Moses and Elijah; then too the voice of God said “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased”. These words from Isaiah echo throughout the gospel of Matthew, just as Jesus’ mission echoes through the gospel of Matthew.

Indeed, the gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus calling his disciples in turn to make disciples of all nations, to baptise them just as Jesus had been baptised, and to teach them to obey all of Jesus’ commandments. In other words, to take on the mission of being God’s beloved one, sent as a servant to bring forth justice and to be a light to a nations. And that call is passed down from one follower to another, so that we too are called to take on Jesus’ mission, to be ourselves a light to the nations and to be bringers of justice.

We might each of us bring light and justice in different ways – some of us through our work, some through our service to others, some in campaigning, some in charities, some in our families, some in the way we treat others around us. But the gospel is clear. If we are followers of Jesus, we are bringers of justice and light in everyday life.

Because there is one more thing to be said about epiphany. It’s something we can practice, and it’s something that breaks through in ordinary life. When people are baptised, whether as babies or adults, there’s nothing special about the water. It’s just the ordinary stuff from the tap. But it’s made sacred by it being the channel through which we are accepted by God. In the same way, when we celebrate communion, there’s nothing special about the bread and the wine (or grape juice). They are ordinary things made special by the way we encounter God through them.

As the American author Debie Thomas writes, “Epiphany is deep water — you can't stand on the shore and dip your toes in. You must take a breath and plunge.” We need to work at finding God, at hearing his voice, at encountering the divine presence. It reminds me of Peter walking on water. The bravest thing he did was not the walking, but leaving the boat and trusting Jesus that he would be ok.

Peter needed faith that if he let go, he would be ok. We all need faith that if we let go of our excuses, our world-weariness, our reluctance, then we will be ok, that we will then encounter God.

Because we have a mission, to follow Jesus in bringing forth justice and being a light to the nations. We can be reassured that we too are the beloved ones of God, given new life through his grace, but we need to be willing to accept that grace, to step forward in faith, and to follow Jesus in committing ourselves to God just as he did. Then truly we will fulfil the meaning of his and our baptisms.


Tuesday, 20 December 2016

The Open University: institution or movement?

So I spent this morning at a meeting of the School of Computing & Communications (we no longer have departments at the OU, rather Schools). The improbable setting was a hotel that forms part of Stadium MK, the impressive football stadium built for the MK Dons, complete with a view straight from the meeting room over the pitch:
Our main topic was the OU's developing academic strategy, which depending on your perspective is either: a worthwhile & necessary response to an increasingly challenging external environment; or a power grab by senior management; or a well-intentioned attempt to build an overarching strategy albeit with some questionable details. Or perhaps a combination.

What it's not is exciting. Because strategy documents never are. It simultaneously says too much and not enough. No especial criticism there of the strategy's authors, who I'm sure in fact are doing their best; it's the nature of such documents.

But I got quite exercised during the meeting, as I have from time to time reading recent OU strategy documents, about whether it helps us to achieve our mission. The OU was established with a clear mission: "open as to people, open as to places, open as to methods, open as to ideas" (often referred to as the 'four opens'), an idea first formulated by Geoffrey Crowther in 1969 on his installation as OU Chancellor and retained ever since. That is, we are not established to make profit, to become the top university for research, or even necessarily to be the largest university in student numbers. But we are established with a cause of social justice: to bring education to people who wouldn't otherwise have it, in places that they wouldn't otherwise have it. The methods and ideas change with the times - the mission is an adapting one - but the openness and social justice remains in place.

However, on the train home I was reading a chapter of a fascinating new book by post-evangelical author and pastor, Brian Maclaren, The Great Spiritual Migration. Brian writes about social movement theory (drawing on the work of Greg Leffel), in the context of churches but the work has more general application. He distinguishes between three forms of human organisation: communities, groups of individuals and families with dependence on the same environment; institutions, which serve communities by seeking to preserve and enhance particular aspects of their lives; and movements, which 'organise people to articulate what's wrong with particular institutions and propose what should be done to make things right'. Others have made this distinction in a number of places; David Bosch (again from a church context) wrote that 'The difference between an institution and a movement is that one crosses boundaries the other guards them'.
Institutions are vital; they are needed for continuity, for getting things done, for giving people stable jobs. And movements are vital: they are needed for energy, for asking difficult questions, for challenging and changing the status quo. So which is the OU? I think it sits in tension between the two, of movement and institution. It has an excellent history as a movement - it's concerned with mission, with innovation, with challenging norms, with asking difficult questions. But it has achieved its impact through being an institution: having large module teams, media teams to shape academic work into attractive forms, processes to ensure high-quality materials, support structures for students.

Also today I listened to a podcast of a deeply inspiring speech by veteran LGBT and (other) human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, on receiving an award from the Royal Society of Arts. He said two things I really liked. He described the goal of Outrage (the LGBT campaign group he led for years) as follows:
Our goal was nothing less than revolutionary - a peaceful, cultural revolution in values, laws and institutions.
And in conclusion he said that his guiding principle as a campaigner was:
Don't accept the world as it is - dream of what the world could be, and then help make it happen.
Peter Tatchell perfectly embodies the behaviour of people in movements - standing out, unafraid to challenge, with a clear goal in mind. He took many personal risks and made sacrifices (he has been beaten up many times). And the quotes from him are perfect descriptions of working within a movement.

The Open University is an institution, and it needs strategies. But it also needs to dream of what the world could be, and help make it happen. And for that it also needs to be a movement.