Scars and Hopes 4: Goal

I am not moved by small ideas, targets and visions. Ever since I can remember I’ve been far more intrigued and caught-up by the absurdly big as opposed to the comfortably attainable. Why have a game of table-football when you can have your own World Cup? Why lead a church when you can change the continent?

That can lead to a dangerous type of hubris, of course. We all know people who are always talking about changing the world and what ‘this generation’ (usually people 20 years younger than the one talking) can do. So the key is in being content to not meet the goal.

Huh?

bevmeldrumphotography.com

As the turn of the millennium approached, my wife and I and some others felt that it needed celebrating in a more subversive way than that of which we’d yet heard tell. So we (who were all engaged in some full-time, part-time or voluntary capacity with the London homeless scene) read the Gospels (always a dangerous to thing to do) and decided to hire a big, well-known venue in London as close to Millenium Eve as we could and throw a huge party for as many different homeless people as we could. We set ourselves the goal of 1,000 (it may have been 2,000 … I can’t remember now). We worked a lot with a lot of different people and agencies arranged transport for people from projects all over London; we made sure there was good food and good music; we got a lot of free stuff; we dreamed and hoped and talked and prayed.

By the goal we set ourselves, it was a failure. We didn’t get 1,000 people; we got several hundred (I can’t remember how many).

So what?

Celebrations were had; we danced with people who didn’t look or feel homeless for one evening; there was a lot of laughter and fun; industrial quantities of quite-good-actually food were consumed.

The goal didn’t matter. The kingdom of God was expressed and anticipated, a prophetic challenge was issued to the church and the city, and though it wasn’t a perfect event it was pretty good, all told. I have no idea what other events and ministries it has since inspired, but I’m sure it did provoke more strange ideas.

Mission-shaped living needs big goals, big enough to get you out of bed on cold, grey, relentlessly wet London morning to see if you can get the price of the food reduced by another few £s; but you need also enough grace to remember the goal itself doesn’t matter as long as you’re on the right journey. It’s a goal expansive enough to permit failure and redefine success. Which needs courage, faith and a healthy dollop of prayer.

Hear that?

It’s the applause of heaven as, on your terms, you fail to reach yet another unobtainable goal.

Also in this series:

Introduction

Soup

Time

Listen

Interstellar

Big budgets and creativity don’t often go together. Limitations force us to be creative, to think and plan and dream; effectively unlimited resources too often mean a death to original thinking and problem-solving. Director Christopher Nolan may just be proving himself to be an exception to this rule: his smaller, early films like Memento and The Prestige are creative, intriguing, involving and engaging; all qualities found in mega-budget Inception and the occasion he was handed the reins of that most precious of commercial enterprises, Batman (in the form of his trilogy Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises). All of these are films which throw spectacle as well as ideas at the viewer, expecting the audience to work as well as be wowed.

Interstellar is the synthesis of this, a dizzying spectacle almost impossible to describe or articulate. It’s science-fiction set in a future where humanity’s food sources are dwindling out-of-control; a solution must be found elsewhere. What follows involves space-travel, space-ships and some very big philosophical and scientific ideas.

If all that sounds like the stuff of fan-boy culture, you’d be doing yourself and the film a grave dis-service; the opening act is earth-bound and centred around what becomes the film’s key relationship – father-daughter. For all the hyper-reality and wow factor that follows, this is seeking to be a very human story.

Watching Interstellar and then trying to form a coherent opinion of it is like trying to self-diagnose after beaten about the head by one of Pacific Rim‘s gargantuan robots. That’s not to suggest the film is clumsy; it’s that it’s so overwhelming, so expansive, so … big … that you’re left grasping for a response that actually does justice to the experience of seeing the film. It’s far from perfect – the script is clunky, at times giving in to some laboured plot exposition; it sometimes feels like a blessing that the sound mix is such that some lines are near-drowned out by Hans Zimmer’s intense, searing score. That means that the actors don’t really shine; especially those with a lot to do. The best performances are more to the fringe than the centre – especially striking is Mackenzie Foy as the 10-year old daughter, carrying an emotionally laden part that’s vital to the plot and the especially the film’s first third with a disarming ease. Nolan regular Michael Caine is on fine form; Matthew McConaughey struggles gamely with the inadequate script in the central role, and comes up short.

The film wants to ask big questions of the nature of reality, belief and existence; questions so big that it’s impossible to articulate them properly even in a near-three hour running time. It’s also trying to hymn the human capacity for the extraordinary; it does that successfully, with room to spare. For me however, it runs that alongside a deep awareness of humanity’s over-arching arrogance, capacity for self-destruction and the ability to ignore that which is self-evident. For all the wonder, the film never feels naive or misty-eyed.

In the end, it’s an essential, flawed experience; one of the few films that can tip such obvious references to works of the scope of 2001: A Space Odyssey and not seem ridiculous; that’s big enough in vision to ignore the lazy temptations of a third-dimension; the reach of which exceeds its grasp but somehow that’s all part of the experience, exactly appropriate for what the film is portraying.

Christopher Nolan has made many all-round better films, and will make more; but he will not make one that does such full justice to the purpose and experience of cinema as an art form. Neither will he make one as satisfying in its vision despite its failures; nor is it likely that any film, Nolan’s or anyone’s, will make you feel the way this will. It demands to be seen on a screen big enough to do justice to its ambition and scope.

I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Scars and hopes 3: Listen

I’m not the sort of person who ‘just asks God’ and readily downloads the answer. That being said, God is a missionary and if we’re doing missionary type of things then we should expect God to have something to say to us about it. Not that life will be an unbroken journey of “God said this” devoid of doubt and colour; but He wouldn’t be much of a leader if He invited us to a journey and only gave us a two-thousand year old map.

I’d had an idea in the back of my mind for a while, which I hadn’t mentioned to others but others were starting to coincidentally mention to me. It was the idea to take church to the pub, which I’ve mentioned before. Aware of the work, stress and money this would involve as well as the fact that to some this would sound at best barmy or at worst offensive, I prayed. I prayed a simple prayer that went along the lines of “God, if there’s something in this, please make it clear. Amen”.  I knew the church needed to be more open and available to the average person, but I wasn’t sure this was the way. I kept the prayer simple … and went to the pub.

Photo from Bev Meldrum Photography

My friend and I were meeting there to discuss an unrelated church issue; pints in hand, we took our seats at a table for two. As we did so I noticed two women at the table next to us. I didn’t know them, but they were engaged in animated conversation. As I made contact with the seat I heard one say to the other “The problem with that church is that it just needs to be more available”. 

That’s me told, then. God’s a missionary. He says we’re missionaries too. If we’re to make church a missionary endeavour, it only makes sense to ask Him what He’s got to say about it and if there’s any guidance He wants to give. My experience suggests that you get more opportunity to use ‘the gifts of the Spirit’ when we’re doing missionary type of things, because that’s exactly where God is and wants us to be. And just because missionaries have to go somewhere, that doesn’t always mean you’ve had to move.

Ears open?

Also in this series:

Introduction

Soup

Time

On wisdom

More scars and hopes soon.

For now, there’s something burning away and eating at me; actually it’s feeling a little more corrosive than that, it’s more acidic. I’m more than a little concerned as to what will happen if I don’t something about it. Thing is, I don’t know what to do. I need wisdom to know what’s best here.

You see, it’s to do with wisdom. We know wisdom isn’t the same as knowledge, and there’s a lot of talk about it in the Bible – especially the Old Testament. Many of us will have had dear saints exhort us in hushed tones to ‘be wise’ with our money or relationships or prayers or dreams or decisions. We’ll have heard their advice and nodded humbly, and maybe changed our decisions because we know wisdom is something that often comes with age and experience.

I don’t mean to decry this. I don’t mean to say that this advice wasn’t good or helpful or … wise. But it’s making me uneasy.  I fear we may have domesticated wisdom, de-clawed it; made it safe and acceptable and sensible. I fear true wisdom is unwise by my own standards.

So often we say that saving money is wise; that trusting those proved trustworthy is wise; that doing the less risky thing is wise; that the way of least offence or greatest consensus is wise.

Are we sure?

We know Solomon was so very wise; he asked God for wisdom and God gave it to him. The example of that we’re given in the Bible is when he ordered a baby to be cut in half, in an age when disobeying or questioning or hesitating over the king’s words would mean death.

Cutting a baby in a half.

I’ve read reports – apocryphal maybe – that ISIS do that to Christian babies.

And we say that’s wisdom when it’s in the Bible, blessed with the convenient get-out that he didn’t have to go through with it. Viewed from inside the story, it’s much more scary. He’d have to have been willing to do it for it to mean anything; and it was an order that came with no guarantees of success, of flushing out the truth. It was a terrible, awful risk.

Jesus embodied wisdom, of course. So he overturned tables, created chaos in the temple and allowed himself to be manipulated into death.

And we say that’s wisdom.

He chose 12 close followers, all of whom abandoned him and one of whom betrayed him.

And we say that’s wisdom.

God’s wisdom is beyond our understanding , and he welcomes me into His family when I daily choose to do my own thing and ignore what He says is best.

And we say that’s wisdom.

Jesus dies violently for people who hate Him.

And we say that’s wisdom.

Wisdom.

Have we neutered it, rendered it sexless, incapable of reproducing? Have we infected its DNA, making it manageable and harmless? Have we made it the preserve of grey-haired Gandalf figures who never go on an adventure, never really do anything but are roundly praised for their sense and sobriety?

I fear we have.

What have we lost by doing so? What dreams lie un-lived, what lives unsaved, what problems remain problems due to ‘wise’ courses of action?

Wise appears never to be safe, never seems to carry with it a guarantee of trust repaid or reward received; it doesn’t seem to care for results or efficiency or economics or appearance. The Good Samaritan was terribly unwise to stop by the roadside, to linger over a prone body in place where violent criminals were known to operate. Jesus ate with people of ill-repute, trusted people who gave precious little evidence of ever repaying the trust. The New Testament is largely written by a man who institutionalised the murder of Christians.

Wisdom, then. We are invited to it, knowing it will wound us and disappoint us and play merry hell with our reputation. It will ruin us but it will make us. It will wreck careers and bank accounts and retirement plans and it may just save the world.

Are you in?

Scars and hopes 2: Time

photo from Bev Meldrum Photography

 

It takes time. Lots of it.

The problem with leading a church is that you feel a nagging drip of pressure to get results as soon as possible. We ran church in the pub once a month for two to three years, plus a weekly visit to the pub quiz. Church in the pub was expensive – we were laying on free breakfast; it was also a hassle. Taking a church service that wasn’t a church service off site once a month was, even for a small church like ours, a bit of a production. Sound gear, instruments, children’s activities, Sunday newspapers, jelly, Jenga sets, model pigs and an inflatable Dalek. It was a bit of an effort.

Going to pub quiz once a week was less work – apart from those Tube station questions – but required a willingness to be mocked over the microphone for being ‘the church team’.

So all told it would have been great to be able to point to real progress after 3 months. Or 6. Or a year at a push.

We didn’t. Over 2-3 years we’d made meaningful connections with a roomful of non-Christians, two of whom became regular or semi-regular church goers; it opened opportunities with many others we’d never have seen.

Not exactly explosive church growth, is it?

Problem is, that’s appears to be the default mode of the Spirit when you’re out there in the world, mission-shaped and ready to roll. The slow, gentle, deep work of the Spirit, working to His own timetable and seemingly unconcerned with the pressures on me to show that it was all Worth It.

Which needs patience, courage, and a willingness to look stupid and aimless for a long time in the eyes of the people who pay the bills (that would be those who actually give money to the church). Which leads to many scars and an awful lot of desperate hoping.

Pioneering mission-shaped ministry may be the talk of the era; but it’s not glamorous. It’s not easy. It’s not quick. It’s about co-operating with God’s good work in people which is usually slow and gentle and deep. Which points away from me as the leader and towards the individual, away from results and towards formation, away from transferable quick-fix models towards patient-in-it-for-the-long-haul living.

Also In This Series:

An Introduction

1: Soup

Scars and hopes 1: Soup

The year after I graduated from university I did one of those year-out schemes. It had that peculiarly Christian wrinkle whereby the volunteer pays to work incredibly long hours for a year. It was great, but exhausting. One of the nicer parts of the year was the times I and the rest of the team would get invited to the home of local church families for a meal. It was great because you got treated really nicely and you didn’t have to cook or pay for the ingredients from your already dwindling budget.

This being Britain, about 90% of the time this happened, we were fed that most generically Christian form of hospitality: lasagna. I like lasagna. Home-made lasagna can be amazing. 6 months in, though, and I was desperate to see a roast or a curry or fish or … something other than lasagna (as long as it wasn’t quiche, the staple diet of every church catering function).

We all get bored with predictable food.

I’ve been involved in working with that sector of society we call  homeless for some time now – either full-time, or in part-time as part of my church life. We have a vibrant weekly supper in our church for anyone to come to, followed by worship and chat. Many of those who come are homeless. Some of my favourite people sleep outside.

When I describe such things to people they often say something along the lines of ‘Oh! You run a soup kitchen! Fantastic!

We don’t. We started off serving soup as part of our meal rotation. However we’ve stopped that.

You see, we started to actually talk to the people who came along and we discovered something important. That many of them who did the rounds of local homeless provision were sick of soup. They got it everywhere they went, several times a week.

Image from http://commons.wikimedia.org

A depression-era soup kitchen

Now we didn’t want to be a homeless provision. We wanted to be a community supper; a meal for anyone, including but not limited to those who sleep outside. Anyway, we wanted our guests to enjoy themselves; it’s hard to enjoy yourself if you think ‘this … again?‘.

So we don’t serve soup. We serve hot, hearty meals which are often quite spicy (because many of them like spice). We use fresh ingredients and we serve people at tables.

The difference is fascinating; people don’t talk about it as a homeless provision. We’re a place to eat, chat and maybe worship or pray. People appreciate that we know names and stories; they like that we use fresh ingredients (many soup kitchens run out of churches tend to use just going out of date food because it’s cheaper); they like that we serve at tables, not ask people to line up and have food slopped on their plate like school. We treat people as guests. Because they are guests. And we’re all going to be guests at the wedding feast of the Lamb, so we might as well start now.

So. Lay off the soup. And the lasagna. And the quiche. And listen to what people want.

Also In This Series

An Introduction

Scars and hopes: An Introduction

There’s a movement in the Christian church that’s been increasingly influential over recent years. You could call it many things; the terms you’ve most likely heard are ‘missional’ or ‘mission-shaped’. I’ve been floating around in it for a few years now: to me, what it means is seeking to reshape corporate church life and individual discipleship in such a way as to ensure the thrust of everything is engaged with the missionary direction that we see in the life of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

That’s a start of a definition. I’m not going to go deeper than that here, because many other people already have; and they’ve done it much better than I could. Go out and find them.

What I thought I’d like to do instead is post a few of the lessons and ideas I’ve picked up along the way. Not to say I’ve got it sorted out now; far from it. Just that I thought it would be helpful to put my mistakes out there so you don’t have to make the same ones; and it will help me to process a bit by writing these down.

So there you go. You’ll see a few of those over the next few days. They will be shortish, drawn from mistakes made and representing my hopes for how I and we can do things better in the future.

First up will be something about soup.