Taking the Christ out of Easter

Every Easter the news carries stories of complaints about the religious significance of Easter being pushed out by chocolate, bunnies, and flowers.  This year the issue seems to have gained particular momentum, helped by the alleged omission of the word “Easter” from advertising for a National Trust egg hunt, and the decision of the Prime Minister to speak out in response.

I’ll be honest, I’ve read few of the stories about this, but the ones I have followed predictable lines.  Well meaning Christian voices protesting that Jesus is the real meaning of Easter, being driven out by a secular agenda.

I would, of course, affirm completely that the central meaning of Easter is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But I disagree that this is being pushed out by other celebrations.  Jesus has long since been pushed out, past tense.  Easter for the vast majority of people is a secular holiday involving time with the family and lots of chocolate, on which these Christians do keep trying to impose a religious story.

As just one example of this, I occasionally complete online surveys, and four times this year I have been asked how I will celebrate Easter.  Of the tick-box options given, not one of those surveys included an option for attending church.

So how do we respond?  I would suggest that the answer is to stop trying to pretend that our religious remembrance and the secular chocolate-fest are one and the same.  They are two distinct events that happen to share a common date.  (Incidentally, I would suggest a similar approach for Christmas, but that’s another blog post).

What does that look like?  Well it doesn’t look like retreating into our church buildings to hold our religious observance hidden from the world.  But it does look like making our faith in the events of Easter known in a way that recognises that the Jesus story of Easter is completely alien to most people, and completely ‘other’ to everything they associate with the word Easter.  It looks like letting people celebrate Easter according to their understanding of what it means, without moaning that they haven’t recognised our understanding.  It looks like telling our own story, and celebrating our own events in a way which doesn’t try to pretend they are the same thing.  And it is important that we do tell our story, and continue to celebrate our faith in a public way, as the Christian story of Easter still has the power to transform lives.

Tomorrow I, along with others from my church and other churches in our town, will stand in the main shopping street and hand out free Easter eggs.  Each of these has a sticker saying, “Easter shows that God loves you” with a picture of a cross.  At first glance this could seem to contradict some of what I am saying here.  But for me it is important that this isn’t an attempt to browbeat others into seeing Easter our way, or to claim that they have got it wrong.  Rather, it is a means for us to communicate what for us as Christian people is central to our understanding of Easter, and the fact that we can do so in a way that recognises the other meaning of Easter simply makes it all the more powerful.

Lent

Tomorrow is the first day of Lent, the period of the year when Christians turn their minds and hearts to the coming Passiontide and Easter season.  Traditionally Lent is a time of reflection and penitence, 40 days mirroring the 40 days which Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted.  Often it has been a time to give something up as part of a process of refocussing of life on what really matters.  But increasingly it has become a time instead to take up something new and positive.

This duality of both consciously fasting and also positively refocussing is expressed in the following, words of Abbot Tryphon of All-Merciful Saviour Orthodox Monastery, Vashon Island, Washington, USA, which were sent to me by a member of our congregation:

Fasting is not just about food.

Fast from self-concern and feast on compassion for others.

Fast from discouragement and feast on hope.

Fast from lethargy and feast on enthusiasm.

Fast from suspicion and feast on truth.

Fast from thoughts that weaken and feast on promises that inspire.

Fast from shadows  of sorrow and feast on the sunlight of serenity.

Fast from idle gossip and feast on purposeful silence.

Fast from problems that overwhelm you and feast on prayer that sustains.

Fast from criticism and feast on praise.

Fast from self-pity and feast on joy.

Fast from ill-temper and feast on peace.

Fast from resentment and feast on contentment.

Fast from jealousy and feast on love.

Fast from pride and feast on humility.

Fast from selfishness and feast on service.

From what will you fast this Lent?  And on what will you feast?

Who we are, not what we do

The course on which I am currently studying is excellent.  But there is one module with which I, and many others, are struggling: Missional Leadership.  The focus of the syllabus is around how we can lead our churches to grow numerically and spiritually.  So far so good.  But the content is based round a number of models, mainly taken from secular management and fitted into a church context.  The problem is, they don’t fit.

People today are in many ways more individualistic than previous generations.  But they are also seeking relationship, and that relationship has to be genuine.  The Millennials and younger will see immediately if they are being put through a “sausage factory”.  When it comes to evangelism, discipleship, and church growth, one size doesn’t fit all any more, if it ever did.

To be fair to the college, none of the models are being held up as the solution to everything – they are being suggested as tools from which we can pick those that will help in our context.  The problem is, I’m not sure any of them do.  Because no model, tool, or strategy, however good, can replace genuine, loving relationship.  People are individuals, with their own needs, hopes, questions, and aspirations.  Jesus knew that, and he approached each person he encountered in a unique way which would deal directly with what they needed in their situation.  We don’t have his insight, so for us that will take costly time and effort to get to know people, but it is time and effort we must be prepared to commit.

Ultimately, what will attract people to Jesus Christ, will encourage them into relationship with him, and will enable them to grow and deepen that relationship, is not a model or strategy, however well thought out.  It is as they see him shining through us, see his love at work in our lives, and see that Christians have something they are lacking.  If we genuinely understood how much God loves us, began to grasp the depths of the grace he has poured out upon us, our lives would be transformed in such a way that we couldn’t help speaking of him, and our actions would naturally back that up in a way that could not be ignored.  In other words, people will be won to Christ not by what we do, but by who we are.

So my strategy for Missional Leadership?  Well actually it’s God’s strategy, that he’s been speaking to us as a church in many ways over the past few weeks.  Pray, pray, pray some more.  Pray that we will be filled with the Holy Spirit, transformed into the likeness of Christ, and so become people who constantly attract others to the Jesus who lives in and through us.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year!  I pray that everyone reading this will have a 2017 that is indeed happy, and peaceful, and filled with the presence of God.   

I’m not sure I’ve ever known so many people expressing a hope that this year will be better than last.  For some that is a result of personal and family situations which have made 2016 a difficult year.  For others it is a result of the number of household names who seem to have died (David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Terry Wogan, the list goes on…), which perhaps reminds them of their own mortality.  For still others the various political developments in this country and around the world have made them feel unsafe and uncertain of the future. 

None of us know what 2017 will bring, whether it will be better or worse, but it is inevitable that it will hold times of sadness and distress.  So how do we motivate ourselves to carry on? 

As I reflected on the last year God gave me the chorus of a gospel song, “Because he lives I can face tomorrow, because he lives all fear is gone.”  When Jesus was on earth he experienced the joys of being human, but also the sorrows, grief, terrible suffering, torture, and death.  But he walked through this and out the other side into fullness of life.  And now he walks with us through everything we experience in life, its joy and its sorrows. 

So I hope 2017 will be a good year for you, but when the difficult times come we face them with Jesus who “endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God,” where he is still seated today (Hebrews 12:2).  His death and resurrection don’t make any promises that we won’t hit difficulties this year, but they do assure us that he is in control, and give us hope for a future that is full of joy and peace in his presence.

How important is the Bible, really?

God has been challenging me about the place of the Bible in my life, and particularly in the worshipping life of the church community.  Though we don’t use the label, Beverley Baptist Church comes from the tradition known as Evangelical.  The word means different things to different people, but common to all definitions would be a high place for the Bible as the Word of God.

And yet, look at our average Sunday service, and the Biblical content is often just a few short verses.  Contrast this with the “Catholic” tradition – in which I include Roman Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, and Orthodox in all its forms.  In all of these the Bible would be held alongside church traditions which are in some way or other also seen as authoritative.  So on paper the Bible is less important than in the Evangelical church, yet in a Catholic service of worship there will be four readings – Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament and Gospel.  And alongside this a written liturgy that is packed with Biblical quotes, imagery and allusions.  Which tradition seems to place more importance on the Bible?

To which the Evangelical might respond that we spend a substantial amount of time each week unpacking, interpreting, and seeking to apply the few verses that we have read.  This is broadly true, and shows perhaps a differing understanding of the purpose of reading the scriptures – the Evangelical church reads a passage from the Bible in order to preach from it, and to hear God speaking through the preacher; the Catholic church reads the Bible because it is valuable to hear in its own right as “The Word of the Lord”.  That is perhaps an oversimplification, but one I think with some truth in it.

But I have a niggling feeling that the above is a convenient excuse to cover up the decreasing importance placed on the Bible in Evangelical churches.  Is it really our “supreme authority on matters of faith and doctrine”, to use an oft quoted phrase.  This was really brought home to me recently during my studies.  One of our modules is “Missional Leadership” and as part of this we have occasional guest lecturers.  Most of these come from Evangelicalism, broadly defined, and they have brought us ideas from various books, personal experience, secular management practice, etc.  Last week our guest lecturer was the Venerable John Day, an Anglo-Catholic.  And he turned us to the Bible, to the story of the Emmaus Road, and over the course of an hour ably expounded leadership based on what Jesus did in that story.

So, how important is the Bible to us, really?

Christian celebrity

Recently I have read a couple of things which have made me ponder once again celebrity Christian leaders.  The first was the Facebook post by Bill Johnson, Senior Leader at Bethel Church, Redding, California, defending his decision to vote for Donald Trump.  He tried to do so from the Bible, and in my opinion failed miserably.  Yet such is his celebrity status in certain sections of the church, his decision to back Trump will have influenced the voting choice of a large number of people across the US.

The second thing I read was by a leader from the other end of American Evangelical Christianity, John Piper.  In responding to an email regarding a pastoral situation Piper also, in my opinion, was extremely poor in his use of the Bible.  Even more concerning in this case was that Piper gave an abstract theological answer to a very real pastoral situation, about which he knew very little, and the potential for damage to that individual from his choice of language was huge.

This adds to the stories you read of the demands placed by some big name speakers on conferences and events who ask them to speak, and the large fees commanded for their appearance, to reinforce my feeling that the Western church has a big celebrity problem.

I am not a celebrity Pastor, and please God I never will be, but my reflections on this issue over the years, and particularly the past few days, lead me to the following practical steps to avoid such a temptation.

  1.  Avoid the myth that size equals success.  Reconfigure your church building so it will seat no more than 200.  If it starts getting full, plant another church.
  2. Avoid the myth that popularity equals success.  Don’t pick your speaking engagements on the size of the attendance or the fee offered.  If you really are a gifted speaker the village church of 40 people may benefit far more from your presence than the conference of 10,000.
  3. Don’t try to provide pastoral advice unless you have taken the time to get to know the people and the situation.  If issues of geography make that difficult, refer them to someone closer to home.
  4. Be accountable.  Seek out those who will disagree with you and dialogue with them regularly, genuinely listening to what they say.  Make sure this includes people who will challenge your character and attitude as well as your theology.

This is my list at this time, others may draw up a different list, or disagree with my premise entirely.  But I feel it is important to have thought now about how to avoid the traps of celebrity, however massively unlikely it is to ever arise, because it seems all too easy to get carried along on the tide of “success”, only to be spat up on the shore and left high and dry.

God is at work

God is at work among us.  I’ve lost count of the number of people who have said to me there was something special about our last two Sunday morning gatherings.  The presence of God was very real, and he spoke clearly to many.  I believe this is the latest stage in a movement of the Spirit which has been building since the summer.  Our Sunday morning series on Ephesians has been a catalyst for this: inspiring us, challenging us, and changing us. 

A month ago now we heard a rallying call from Steph preaching on the first part of Ephesians 2, reminding us of our high calling as a community who are here-and-now seated with Christ in the presence of the Father.  The next week we considered how the church is the temple of God, that he dwells among us as we meet to worship, with the challenge to consider how we prepare for Sunday mornings as a result.  And this has borne fruit as there has been a change in the atmosphere of Sunday morning in subsequent weeks. 

Then Peter reminded us from Ephesians 3:12 that we may “approach God with freedom and confidence,” and asked the question why so few felt able and willing to pray during times of open prayer in worship.  Service leaders have picked up on this, and encouraged us, and new life has been breathed into our prayer together.  Building on our successful Day of Prayer last month we are beginning to grow in this vital but struggling area of our life together.

Last week God moved many of us powerfully as we reflected on the sheer unimaginable scale of God’s love for us, and simply scratched the surface of what that means.  A very special service where God’s presence was felt in everything that was said and done.  There is always a sense of nervousness after such an occasion, as the next week can feel quite flat by comparison.  But this morning’s service too was special, and used powerfully by God in many ways, not least the challenge to humility towards one another as we make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit.

And it hasn’t just been about Sunday mornings.  One recent week seemed to be particularly hard for many in the congregation.  But it was really encouraging to see how readily people rallied round to help those in need, and the love and support of the church community – a very tangible outworking of that unity of the Sprit. The doors that seem to be opening to work more closely with the Cherry Tree Centre and through them to the community of Swinemoor are another example of God at work.  And I’ve already mentioned the Day of Prayer.

All of which leads me to say God is at work among us.  I don’t know the fullness of the plans which he has for this stage of the life of our church.  But I do know that if we continue to seek and expect his presence with us in worship, to spend time before him in prayer, and to live out our unity in loving compassion for one another and the world, there is much more that he can and will do in us and through us.

“…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”  Philippians 1:6