Proudly No Nation

Proudly No Nation

The Olympics are in danger of helping me forget that 2016 is, fundamentally, rubbish. It’s tempting to think of big sporting events like this as bread and circuses (minus the bread); the ancient Roman tactic of staging magnificent spectacles of blood-sports in the Coliseum to distract from some inconvenient facts of life. Used the wrong way, such events can be just that. Put them in their right place, however, and they can serve an important purpose: a kind of holiday from the depressing full-time difficulties that occupy all of us, that when it’s over may leave a bit of a hole but as a result of which we will find ourselves somewhat refreshed with a bit more lightness in our spirits to help us navigate these dark and troubling times.

There are few absolute goods that are of human creation, however. Big sports events in general and the Olympics in particular can fan the flames of the sort of love for nation and exultation in nationhood that can be hard to resist. When a lifetime’s work – most of it away from the public eye – is rewarded on the big stage, it can feel good to wave or wear or post to social media a flag and enjoy the shared afterglow of one person’s achievement. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the acheivement per se – especially if it inspires us to more unseen commitment to our own goals and callings.

I’m a British person who lives in South Africa. For many years I thought myself proud to be British. I’ve let go of that, however. I’m still proud of some of what British people have and do achieve; over the last week I’ve been freshly staggered, for example, by the almost routine commitment to excellence from the British cycling team. It inspires me, and I believe it deserves to be celebrated and rewarded; I want to learn about it, and apply it my own fields of endeavour. Increasingly, however, I find that I can’t call myself proud to be British. Not when I consider a history of colonialism, a present of racial and economic inequality, and much else besides. I’m not proudly British. 414eztpwzkl-_sy450_

This drive to exhibit national pride easily tips over into hounding good people for not doing what others think they should be doing. Think of American gymnast (and champion from the London Olympics) Gabby Douglas, hounded to the point of tears for not putting her hand over her heart during the playing of the American anthem (read about it here). It starts with criticisms of what this supreme athlete does with her body whilst a piece of music is played; it soon becomes the dog-whistle racism of criticisms of the texture of her hair. In other contexts I’ve lost count of the number of social media posts I’ve seen criticising a South African rugby coach for not being ‘#proudlysouthafrican’ because of his team selection (interestingly, I rarely see that particular criticism made when the coach has white skin). It seems that the message is this: be proud of your nation, and make sure you show that you are in the way I demand – or you’ll be hounded until you change or you’re gone.

This should be especially problematic for us who follow Jesus. When God chooses a nation in the Old Testament, he doesn’t choose it to be ‘great’ in terms of its achievements, victories and international power or fame; He chooses it to be a blessing to other nations. Blessing, in Bible terms, is about speaking well of others (or God) and enabling others to move into the fullness of what they can be, doing and being good towards them. In New Testament terms, Jesus models a use of power and status that empties itself rather than draws attention to itself; that wraps a towel around its waist and washes dirty feet rather than pride in self. We’re invited to take pride in a stigmatised death, a seeming capitulation to power, a use of one’s own power to open life in all its fullness to those who would snuff it out. Jesus, Paul, John, Peter – they all seem to have very little time for the very idea of a nation; let alone taking pride in an accident of birth. The identity and pride of a Jesus follower isn’t Israel or Rome or Britain or South Africa or America; there’s no true greatness in any of those, and there can’t be whilst they consist of sinful people. Identity, pride, greatness for us is in the new creation, in eternity and the way of the cross – suffering, death, sacrifice for others, that leads there.

The flag has no place above, or next to, a cross. We live in the here and now – and that means in a nation, yes. But we die to self that we might live for others; we invite the awareness of the reign of a king who rules over a kingdom that transcends physical borders and breaks down the divisions of race and country and everything else of human construction.

We live under the rule of a servant king, who calls us to serve and love and carry a cross; not wave a flag.

 

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The storm is gathering; first, do nothing

2016 is exhausting a lot of people. The trickle of deaths of well-loved celebrities has seemed unchecked; by April social media was already awash with people asking to ‘turn 2016 off and turn it back on again’, or wanting to hibernate until 2017. Dark events stalked the mainstream news as well. In the last 30 days the news has seemed to have become unendingly bleak – or at least potentially world-altering: the Turkey coup, the Brexit vote, shootings of young black people by American police, Bastille Day attacks, Nice, Baghdad, shootings of American police, Oliver Pistorius’ sentencing, the American elections, a week of violence in Germany. Add to the mix ongoing issues in other countries: the famines, droughts, diseases, corruption, poverty. Many feel the world is increasingly dark. It may be so; or maybe we just know more about what’s going on. Either way it, is overwhelming many.

So the plea is for good people to act; for Christians to speak and work and do. We must. History – not to mention God Himself – has a habit of judging the church’s silence and inaction harshly. It’s vital we speak for the oppressed or threatened, act for justice, confront prejudice. All these things and more.

But tired people don’t get much done. If we look closely at what Jesus says we don’t find someone who drives people, who needs to whip up motivation. We find someone who calls, who invites, who beckons. And who travels with people. He invites people to do things, yes; but also to rest, to try on an easy-fitting yoke.The life He invites to is a life of the pendulum swing of rest and work, abiding and bearing fruit. Neither one makes sense without the other. Rest without work is laziness; work without rest is unsustainable. Either rest or work without the other is disobedience to Jesus who calls us and sustains us.

Late last week I experienced a wave of post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by the reports of the shopping mall shooting in Munich. I woke up on Saturday edgy, tense, nervous, sick in the stomach. I had work I had to get done for Sunday and I was on childcare for most of the day. Neither happened very well. I switched off for a while and was fine; took the child out with me and we were together. We got home, the child was over-active, I was still in the grip of PTSD. I was good with the child, but no so much in communication with my wife. The result was a row with my wife that was unresolved at bedtime. I barely slept on Saturday night. I managed the Sunday morning of work just about intact; a good day with family but still sick in my stomach and nervous. My wife and I only managed to speak late on Sunday. We were back in sync. Still, on Monday I woke exhausted and still tense. A day of reflection, prayer, some task-based work and a little family time got me through to bedtime in one piece. It’s only on Tuesday that I’ve felt rested and restored, capable of being who I need to be and doing what I need to do.

We can’t wholly retreat from the world. There is much for Jesus’ people to do. But we do it out of a place of radical rest and restorative recreation. Our invitation is not to find what drives us but to listen for the still, small voice of God’s call in the midst of the storms around us. Then to follow, and to see Him at work and join with Him as He does the heavy lifting. We are not made to be driven people, working out of motivation and compulsion; we are healed people responding to an invitation, identifying our unique call, walking in humility and obedience with the one who strengthens us and through whom we can do all things.

We need to work, to do, to weep over the state of things . But to do that, do nothing first. Be with family, play games, watch a bit of t.v., take in a movie, read, enjoy some good food. Take the dog out. Pray and enjoy silence and good music. Get lost in playing or watching sport. Laugh until you can’t laugh any more. Turn the news off for a bit; refrain from commenting on everything. Ignore some stuff. You can’t feel about everything, be informed about all events, do something about everything. You’re one person. You’re part of Jesus’ body for many reasons – a very important one being that you’re not responsible for everything. He is, and He distributes callings amongst His church as He sees fit.

We are called to act, respond and do. But only if we first rest, trusting and enjoying grace; and then having worked for a time go back to that rest, trust and enjoyment. Rest as re-creation that we might work for the new creation is subversive; it says there’s Someone and Something else; it says there’s a call on me but it’s up to Him not us.

If you belong to Jesus you are not driven and worked. You are called, kept, loved, invited, adored.

There’s much to do. So first, do nothing.

 

Worship in the minor key

What does ‘no more’ mean, really?

I ask because of some lines from a song. It’s a contemporary worship song written by British songwriter and worship leader Matt Redman. You can find the song, ‘Endless Halleujah’, squirrelled away at the end of his album ‘10,000 Reasons’.

I like the album. From someone who’s not always the greatest fan of worship music, that’s high praise. The emphasis of the collection of songs is upbeat, looking forward. It does so with confidence and faith but also a little realism. That’s especially located in the song ‘Never Once’, a song which musically and lyrically must (at least sub-consciously) take some inspiration from English football culture. The singer finds him/herself looking back how far they’ve come, looking at the scars and struggles, conscious of God’s presence along the way.

So it’s in that context I’m intrigued, bought up a little short and slightly confused by that last song on the album. It looks forward to eternity, to a time where there’s no more sin or sorrow and ‘forgotten is the minor key‘.

I understand, and of course concur, with what I think he’s getting at. The new creation, eternity in God’s presence, is hard to describe – but we can say with certainty that it will be an experience of the old order of things passing away.

So on one level I’m signed up to the direction of the song. On another I’m troubled. It’s the presence of that line. I’m no musician, but I love music. I’m not going to get technical (because I can’t); but I do know that major keys only work because minor keys also exist. Can you imagine a whole symphony, album, show in only the major key, with not a single reference or allusion to the minor key, or without its existence for contrast? No. It would be, surely, absurd or exhausting. To look at it another way, fireworks need a clear, dark night sky to shine. One only works because of the existence of the other.

I know this song is dealing in metaphor, but do we really want an eternity where the minor key is forgotten? I’m not sure. When I say ‘not sure’, I mean it in the sense of ‘not sure’; not disagree. Just not sure. I understand that eternity is an experience without sin or negativity or sickness. But are those things forgotten, or are they rather put in their right place? Won’t the songs we sing then be all the more meaningful because of what we’ve gone through? Doesn’t a risen, crowned Jesus still bear nail marks? That implies suffering isn’t forgotten; it’s better than that. It’s transcended and transfigured; we might say (as I have elsewhere) that God seems to be in the business of harmonising on evil as opposed to eradicating it.

I appreciate, though, that God has an inconsistent memory. He never forgets His people; but then He only has to glance from us to the One whose shadow we stand in, and all of a sudden our failure is forgotten, we stand clean in the light and we bear glory not disgrace. Try fitting omniscience alongside that and take a step back as your brain implodes. Never trust anyone who says they’re an expert in theology. How can a finite one possibly be an expert in a discipline that deals with the infinite?

Where are we, then? I can’t escape the idea that the scars will still be there, somehow. We’ll be physically alive, but perfectly so. We’ll be renamed, but very much ourselves. What will that sound like? It will be glorious, yes. It will be celebratory, of course. I can’t help but think, though, that there will be journeys from minor to major and back again. There will be flirtations with dissonance, resolved into previously unheard harmonies.

Try putting that to music.

Shadow Sides 5: Esther and the absence of God

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine.

It’s not that I don’t believe that God does dramatic things; it’s not that I haven’t had times when it feels that God is so close to me I could almost touch Him; it’s not that I believe that God’s closeness to me is dependent on my goodness. It’s just that I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a normative sense of God’s presence in the Christian life. There can be times – maybe illnesses, job losses, money problems, bereavements and the like, when God can seem far off. What do I do when the omnipresent is nowhere to be seen?

If there’s a book in the Bible where God seems absent, it’s the book of Esther. It’s a cracking read, rollicking along at a pace Lee Child would be proud of. The story it tells is one of thunder clouds on an ever-nearing horizon. Men manipulating and mistreating women, acting out of pride and territorial entitlement. Ethnic cleansing not only threatened, but marked indelibly in the diary. Manipulation and scheming. Not only is God not mentioned, not even once; He seems far off from the dark quotidian reality of sex, power and death. If there’s ever a time when one’s going to feel as if God is absent, it’s when you’re in Esther’s shoes. Used by men for sex, she and her people the Jews are facing extinction. There’s no miracles, no prophetic words, no mention of God’s name. Has God left the building?

No. He’s directing events, pushing His people into centre-stage, just where He wants them. Queen Vashti was the original Queen, dismissed by King Xerxes for having a mind of her own and not coming running when he beckoned. Insolence amongst wives across the nation was feared if news of this got out. A weak man dealt with a strong woman by pushing her out of the way. But in Esther another rose to take her place. Esther finds herself, through the misogynist actions of a king, in a place where she has a chance to have his ear and save her people from his threats of death. She’s beautiful inside and out; God doesn’t look at outside appearance, He looks at the heart. It’s Esther’s courageous heart that God uses; but King Xerxes is far from God, so all he’s interested in is Esther’s body. Both her courage and her looks are what we might call ‘natural’ gifts; they’re not the supernatural gifts of prophecy or healing or tongues we sometimes focus on. But they are what enable Esther to win a hearing from the place she gains in the king’s court. All this makes her God’s person in God’s place at God’s time. The most famous verse in the whole book is the one that comes closest to mentioning to God’s name, hinting at His presence behind the scenes:

who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this? (Esther 4:14)

God may not be mentioned by name, but He’s there, asking Esther to act on His behalf. Does God seem absent? Have you stopped uttering His name? Does His action and His guidance seem far away? Trace the story of your life; see how He’s been at work behind the scenes. What are you ‘naturally’ good at? What makes you come alive to do?  What do you often get complimented or thanked for? Who knows, maybe  God has arranged for you to be where you are now, for such a time as this? Maybe you are the bearer of God’s presence for which you yearn so much.

I preached a version of this a couple of days ago, around the time a homophobic terrorist was killing partygoers in a Orlando nightclub. A hate-crime on a frightening scale. This is the worst-case scenario of many gay people, image-bearers of God, around the world. People I know by name are today scared. If it can happen in Orlando, it can happen here. The threat of extinction lies heavy in the air.

For such a time as this?

Also in this series:

Moses: frustrated and angry at God’s people

Paul: impure and limited

Hagar: used and abused

Thomas: the saint who doubted

These posts are based on a series of sermons

9 (or more) things I’m going to do, and would like others to do too

The tipping point is a helpful idea, but in this case I can’t point to one. I’m sure being a (foster) dad to a young girl for a few months has been part of the picture; I’m not aware of a news item pushing me to this point, but there may be one or two sub-consciously in the mix.

This has been a long time coming. My wife and I play to very few traditional gender roles or characteristic stereotypes and archetypes. I have become increasingly aware of rape culture, male privilege and patriarchy; and on a few occasions I’ve deliberately acted to fight against them. I’ve realised, uncomfortably, that as a white British male in the early-21st Century, I’m one of the most privileged people in humanity’s history. I’m also aware that not one iota of this privilege is earned or deserved.

So I’ve taken a decision to do what I can to walk away from it. If you’re a man, I invite you to walk away from it also. Because if girls and women suffer or are held back, then I suffer and am held back. That’s what it means to be a fellow human, also made in the image of God, also part of the body of Christ. There is no such thing as a truly isolated human – especially one who follows Jesus. I’m doing this because I’m a man, a husband, a father, a friend, brother, son, citizen, Christian, minister, blogger, sports-fan, culture-consumer. Many other things, too.

I’m not seeking to start a movement or get publicity. I don’t have a hashtag for this, a website to promote, a t-shirt to sell you or a book deal to anticipate (of course, I can’t promise that none of those things will happen – but I’m not looking for them). I’m doing this because I should, and I want to. I need to, and so do you. I’m doing this in a public forum so that I know I’ve done it and I can’t get out of it. As well as inviting you to join in, I’m inviting you to hold me to this (lovingly), especially if you’re a woman. Do it sneeringly, nastily, self-righteously, or in an attempt to show me that it’s doomed and useless, then I’ll try to ignore you. Do it to help me do it better, then I’ll listen to you and I’ll try to act.

So here’s what I’m going to try and do. There aren’t ten of them because that would just be too comfortable, and it would suggest completion. If you have other suggestions, then please make them.

1. Take responsibility for my own thoughts and actions.

2. Raise my foster daughter to insist that only ‘yes’ means ‘yes’.

3. Raise my foster son to take responsibility for his own thoughts and actions, and to                 teach him that only ‘yes’ means ‘yes’.

4.  Act on the basis that only ‘yes’ means ‘yes’.

5.  Critique and challenge men when I become aware of them acting out of rape culture,            patriarchy and privilege.

6.  Without evading my responsibilities or God’s call, I will step away from an                                 assignment when I know of a woman who could do as good or better a job than me.

7.  Consciously empty myself of privilege when I become aware that I am                                         acting out of it; and to examine myself for signs of acting out of rape culture,                             patriarchy and privilege.

8.  Allow others to point out to me when I may be unaware that I am acting out of                         rape culture, patriarchy and privilege.

9.  Work towards breaking patterns of rape culture, patriarchy and privilege in                               church ministry.

 

Fear and love, Or How Horror Movies Help Me Worship

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

The Bible, Philippians Chapter 4 verse 8

How many times have I heard that verse? So many.

Quoted so often, so many times, sometimes in relation to so many things that I’m doing that people think I shouldn’t be doing.

You see, there are certain types of shows and films and books that certain types of Christians think I shouldn’t be seeing or watching. Maybe it’s the language in them; maybe it’s the fact that some of them could be classified as ‘horror’. Some examples of titles I’ve enjoyed …  The PassageThe Walking DeadParanormal ActivityPenny DreadfulThe Blair Witch Project; Pan’s Labyrinth; Alien; 28 Days Later. There are plenty of others. If you’ve never heard of those, Google is (in this case) your friend.

I’ve had that verse used on me a few times. I’ve also thought more than once about if I should even write this post, admit to these interests in such a public way. Will it cause people to stumble’? Well, if it causes you to stumble then don’t read it on your phone whilst walking along a busy street.

Those titles don’t fit with that verse, I’m often told.

I’m not so sure.

Fear is true and real. I get scared, sometimes. I’m scared of bees, wasps, certain people and a resurgent Tottenham Hotspur. I know perfect love drives out fear. But that verse (the one about perfect love driving out fear) is about how we relate to God and His judgement, not movies and books (or even drone warfare or terrorism or cancer or drunk drivers or a lot of other things I’ve heard this verse misused in relation to).

Sometimes  – well, once or twice – people stop and ask me why I watch or read these things. Because I enjoy them, and they’re true. Fear is part of life; I find I know the sort of films and books I’ll enjoy and the sort I won’t. I find it helps me, makes me feel more alive – and yes, somehow more in awe of the God who holds me in His palm – if I get on a roller-coaster like the ones I’ve named. I know the roller-coaster can’t hurt me, really. I know that in watching a show about a virus outbreak (for example, about which I used to have nightmares), I know it can’t hurt me so I’m less likely to actually be fearful of it even if the show itself makes me jump and sweat and maybe even say something naughty out loud.

I find that when people use that verse on me about these shows and books and films, they usually follow it up with ideas of what I should watch or which they enjoy (and they rarely do it in a way that I would call ‘lovely’). Often I find that what they suggest to be dull, or just not very good. I have a ‘good’ degree in English literature. I read and watch ‘good’ stuff, too, by that measure. But I also know that Macbeth is about witchcraft and child murder; Hamlet is a ghost story; King Lear features an eye-gouging; I’m not even going to start on Titus Andronicus (that’s all Shakespeare, by the way). You should see some of the images John Donne uses about God. People who know about these things probably won’t be surprised to learn I have a love for the work of Shakespearean influencers/influencees John Webster and Christopher Marlowe. Have you even heard of those two? They’re two of the greater English writers. Ever. You may not have heard of them; they’re utterly brilliant, and contain some ‘fearful’ stuff. Actually, have you even read the Old Testament – properly? Some of the stuff in there doesn’t fit my definition of ‘pure and lovely’, so please leave off me a bit.

I find this stuff cleansing, cathartic, life-enhancing. I feel more alive and more thankful to my creator for it afterwards. Yes, I sleep better for it. I may still be able to physically feel the shock and fear of the season finale of The Walking Dead this year, but thinking about it helps me sleep.

I’m not expecting you to feel the same. I have no problem if you only watch things rated 13 or below. If that’s what helps you, that’s great. But I’ve arrived where I am before God, in relationship with people (especially my wife who really gets me and tells me if I’m out of line or wrong or watching something I shouldn’t). And actually there are a few Christians out there who enjoy this stuff too and could do with talking about it in church as well as out of church.

None of it defines me; none of it changes my worldview. But sometimes it makes me just a bit happier, a bit more grateful to be alive. And yes, even a bit more worshipful of the one I’m told I should love and fear at the same time.

Bored

I’ve been hearing the complaint ‘I’m bored‘ quite a bit recently. I suspect it’s because I’m still relatively new to this parenting business; give me a couple of years and I’ll be, well, bored of hearing it and I’ll stop noticing it. I haven’t found a skilful retort to it yet, and I doubt I ever will.

The truth is that I spend much of my life bored. Not in terms of needing entertainment or occupation; between my job, family life, TV, movies, books, dogs and video games there’s plenty of stuff for me to do.

No. I’m bored of something that’s always there.

I’m 42 and I’ve been in pain for over 16 years. Illness. Pain. Sickness. I’m bored of it. I’m bored of the audible crunch of bones in my neck and spine when I turn my head on a cold morning; I’m bored of medication every day; I’m bored of explaining my condition; I’m bored of having to spend so much money fighting it; I’m bored of doctor’s appointments; I’m bored of not being able to play football; I’m bored of being sore after walking, standing, sitting or lying for more than an hour (all told I do a lot of walking, standing, sitting or lying for more than an hour); I’m bored of answering the question ‘does your illness define you?’, a question only ever asked by people with no chronic illness themselves; I’m bored of it affecting my sex ‘life’; I’m bored of not a single Christian ever having had a ‘word of knowledge’ about Ankylosing Spondylitis because they’ve probably never heard of it and certainly can’t spell it (and yes, that includes people from Bethel as well as your personal favourite healing ministry); I’m bored of well-meaning but ignorant advice; I’m bored of the guilt at not doing the physio I should be doing; I’m bored of doing the physio I should be doing; I’m bored of missing out; I’m bored of being tired just because I’m ill; I’m bored of my lowered immune system; I’m bored of people telling me about their ‘bad back’ because they think they relate; I’m bored of people thinking they can’t talk to me about their stuff if they know I’m sore; I’m bored of people asking ‘how are you’ and not really wanting the answer; I’m bored of the voiced and unvoiced judgements … if only you’d do xxx then you’d be better, you are a bit overweight, after all; I’m bored of having to opt out of moving chairs and tables because it will hurt and worrying about what people think of me for opting out; I’m bored of listening to that worry and helping move the table and then being in pain for a day; I’m bored of choosing between playing with the kids or being in pain later.

And here’s a truth. Others are bored of all that too. It’s part of the curse of chronic illness. Sometimes I wish I had an acute illness. Cancer, or something else that has an end point for better or worse. When people first find out about your chronic illness, they’re sometimes interested. They ask questions which you answer wearily because they show interest and you think they might want to help or ‘walk with you’. And they do, for a while. They pray with and for you. Maybe they help with something that you can’t do. But then, mostly, often, they get bored. They never say it, of course; they may not even be aware of it themselves. But at some point it becomes clear that this disease isn’t going away, that it isn’t my fault, that the prayers aren’t going to be answered like that. One time a couple of people offered to sit and pray with me regularly for my AS. I was thrilled. We met twice. So people back off; they don’t walk with me and my wife. They check in every now on. But they haven’t got time for me and my illness. A small handful have. But people back off. They get bored of my need, my story, my pain. People get bored just walking with me, with no apparent end to the journey.

I’m bored of that. And deeply, pathetically, tearfully, grateful for those who do just keep walking at my pace. Which is slow.

Oh so fucking slow.