What price obedience?

Amongst the stories in the news this week, one that caught my attention was that the government is considering the introduction of schools with a ‘military ethos’.   

None of the online stories I could find did much to define what ‘military ethos’ meant, but seeing as the details included reference to schools with discipline issues, it seems probable that at least part of what is intended is a strict disciplinary regime.  The online comments certainly assumed so, with lots of people responding positively that kids today need to “learn to respect their elders” or “learn to do as they’re told.”  In other words, diagnosing the “problem” with the youth of today as a lack of obedience, being too willing to rebel or answer back. 

As a Christian I have a big problem with this assumption that unquestioning obedience is a good thing.  I’ll come on to the reasons why in a minute.  But unfortunately this idea has crept into the church too.  Conservative evangelical culture has always placed high store on authority, whether that be parents and children, church leaders and congregation, or God and humanity.  That is not in and of itself entirely a bad thing but, partly due it seems to the influx of resources from America, there is an increasing tendency to demand unconditional obedience in all those areas.  Parents will demand their children obey simply because, whatever the request may be.  Church leaders will take a “my way or the highway” approach to leadership.  And “God says” has become the ultimate trump card in any question of what choice someone should make. 

My problem with this is that I don’t think it’s Biblical or healthy.  There are 206 uses of the word “obey” in the NIV.  The vast majority of these reference obedience to God’s commands.  Some appear in a narrative context, such as references to people obeying the king.  Very few are instructions for people to obey other people, and those that are never make that unquestioning. 

To consider the handful of most relevant passages.  Deuteronomy 21:18-20 speaks of a son who is disobedient to his parents, but the details makes clear that the issue here is more than just not doing what he is told, but of underlying attitudes: “stubborn… rebellious… glutton… drunkard.”  Joshua 1:17 and 22:2 speak of the people’s obedience of Moses and Joshua, but this clearly stems from and is conditional on their obedience of God and his continued presence with them.   

Ephesians 6 is the passage that comes closest to requiring unconditional obedience, of parents to children and slaves to masters.  But even here it is in the context of reverence to Christ, and the obedience is to be “in the Lord.”  And there is a reciprocity in the way parents are told to treat their children and masters their slaves.  But even if we were to take that one passage as demanding unquestioning obedience, that is scant Biblical support for something to become so central. 

We do not have to look far for examples where an uncritical acceptance of authority has caused hurt or pain.  Unquestioning deference to positional status has allowed far too many parents, clergy, teachers, and others to continue to abuse children.  On a national scale it was the attitude that allowed leaders such as Hitler to flourish.  And even when it comes to religion, an unquestioning acceptance of what is (wrongly) perceived to be God’s will has caused Christians to support the crusades, slavery, racism and more. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating bringing up children to be anarchists.  I hopefully show my boys the importance of doing as mammy and daddy ask, and I tell them that they should do what their teachers tell them.  But I hope that in an age-appropriate way I also teach them the importance of their conscience, and that there may be occasions when an adult asks them to do something which they just know to be wrong.  At those times I want them to have the confidence and the permission to stand up and refuse to obey. 

Because we live in a world where there are unfortunately still those who seek to abuse positions of authority, particularly when it comes to children; where sections of the media increasingly push ideology based on fake news; where those wishing to become UK citizens must pledge unconditional loyalty and allegiance; and where there are those who would brand anyone who questions government actions as traitors.  In such a world we all need to be prepared for those times when we may need to say, “We must obey God rather than human beings.”  (Acts 5:29)

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Thoughts and prayers

This morning the world wakes to the news of yet another shooting in the US. And as usual the social media channels are full of people offering “thoughts and prayers.” Some of this is doubtless from people of faith who are genuinely praying for those caught up in the incident. But how much of it is really just the culturally expected response?

And what does it mean to pray in this context? Or indeed in any context. Surely our prayers must be active – we cannot use “I am praying” as an excuse not to respond in other ways – it can’t be a case of I’m leaving this to God so I don’t need to do anything. James is abundantly clear about this:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14-17, NIV)

Is this not what sections of the American church have been guilty of time and again? Offering “thoughts and prayers” to the victim of gun crime while doing nothing to support efforts for greater gun control. Indeed far too often it is those who claim the name of Jesus who have been arguing for a continuation of the current right to bear arms. I am usually cautious in criticising the views of those who are in a very different cultural context than myself, but in this case I have no hesitancy in stating that this is wrong.

To be blunt, if you continue to support the free availability of instruments that exist for no other reason than to injure and kill, while claiming to worship the God who said clearly, “Do not kill”, then you lose the right to offer “thoughts and prayers” for those who have been injured or killed.

Most people reading this will not be in the US, but many of you may know people in America. If you do, please do talk to them about this issue. If they are not yet speaking out in favour of gun control please urge them to do so. If, like all of my American friends, they already see the importance of this issue, then please encourage them to continue in this fight.

My thoughts and prayers are with those caught up in the incident in Texas. But they are also with all those involved in political and religious leadership in America – that they may have the courage to follow the leading of Jesus, to put faith into action, and to see the responsibility and the power that they have to be agents for change and to reduce the probability of this happening again.

Is church too complicated?

In common with many churches, we run something of a ‘skeleton operation’ over the school summer holidays.  Many of the congregation are on holiday, and so some of what we normally do becomes unnecessary or not possible.  That has been compounded this year by a move to a new venue for Sunday worship, and we have been gradually finding our feet.

Things have been different over the summer, but in some ways they haven’t.  We haven’t had a Sunday school, our music group has been smaller, for a couple of weeks we had no hot drinks after the service etc.  But we have still met together, we have still worshipped God, we have talked, we have prayed, we have loved one another.

All of which increases my growing sense that we make church too complicated.  How many of our congregation are there on a Sunday morning because they are on a rota?  How many do what they do because they feel they must, rather than because they want to?  How many of us spend more time during the week preparing for our Sunday worship than we spend actually worshipping?

It has become almost a truism that church can’t function without rotas, but I wonder if the opposite is the case.  What would a church look like where everyone was guided in our contributions by the Holy Spirit rather than a piece of paper?  Where if I feel inspired to bake biscuits for the post-service coffee I can do so, rather than instead forcing myself to do a flower arrangement because that’s what the rota says.

Yes, this might lead to church that is a little more spontaneous and a little less ‘polished’.  But surely that is a price worth paying for a church where people genuinely enjoy their contribution.  And it could be a good way to discover what people really value about the church community, and what is being done simply because we feel it should be.

Some examples of how this might work:

  • Get rid of the flower rota and encourage people to bring flowers as they feel inspired.  Some weeks there will be none (and some people may need encouraging that this is okay, and they don’t have to bring some just in case no-one else does). Other weeks the church may look like the Chelsea flower show, and even those who never normally notice the flowers will be inspired to glory in God’s creation.
  • No tea and coffee rota.  Not, I hasten to clarify, no tea and coffee!  In the church where I grew up the first person into the kitchen after the service put on the kettle, someone would throw some teabags into a pot, and if you wanted a drink you went through and made yourself one.  I recognise that was a congregation of only about 40, and yes we did keep a pot of powdered milk for the occasional week when no-one had realised that the people who usually brought fresh were on holiday, but by and large it worked – and there was always someone who had brought some biscuits.
  • And we don’t need to stop at practicalities such as flowers and coffee.  Even key parts of our service could be handled this way.  What if we encouraged everyone musical to turn up whenever possible with their instrument, or ready to sing in the worship group?  Depending on how your church structures worship you may need to still rota a leader for each week, and there is the risk that occasionally they may end up playing alone, but some churches may find musicians who they didn’t know they had.
  • And if we want to go all the way, why not dispense with a preaching rota, at least on occasions, and encourage everyone to reflect on the passage for the week and bring their Spirit inspired thoughts.  That of course is nothing new, it’s how the Brethren have often done things, and 1 Corinthians 14:26 would suggest it was familiar to the New Testament church.  But how many churches do it often these days?

Every congregation is different, and depending on the available gifts there may always need to be some rotas to ensure that essential areas are covered.  But I think there is a sound principle behind all this.  How do we do church in a way which means that people are coming joyfully to offer themselves in service in a ministry to which they feel called, and in a way which uses their gifts, rather than just to fill a gap on a rota for something which may not actually be necessary?

 

 

 

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.