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.

 

South Africa, God is especially fond of you

We all like to think we’re special. The truth is, we are.

We are immeasurably special.

Yes, even you. You, you as an individual, you. You are made bearing the indelible and unique hallmark of the divine Source of all things. You were bought for Him at an unimaginable, inexpressible, uncountable cost. He’d have done it for you if you were the only one left. You are precious and deeply, personally, intimately loved in ways you can’t express or hope to understand this side of mortality.

You are special.

A pretty average book helped me understand that. Remember The Shack? A decently written novel about suffering and God. The God character whispers in the ear of the one who suffers “I am especially fond of you”. Beautiful, that. The only part of the book that stayed with me. God is especially fond of me.

What made that powerful in The Shack was that it eventually became apparent that God whispered of special fondness to each and every person. It’s utterly personal, deeply unique … and equally addressed to each and every person. That makes me deeply loved and very special – but also not that special at the same time. God performs the clever juxtaposition of boosting my self-esteem and keeping my ego in check at the same time.

The same is true for countries. Every country is special. Every country is unique. I suppose we might even be able to say that God has a special purpose for each country. Every country is different, so every country has its own purpose to perform. He chose one country through which to make that plain, but only so that each country and each person could find their own special place and purpose.

I’ve thought about all this a great deal recently, and it became inescapable for me when a meme started popping up in my social media feeds. South Africa – where I live and work – is experiencing a convulsion of rage and protest which will lead we know not yet where. It’s shaking a lot of people – which it should do, needs to. The meme talked of God not letting South Africa go – to which I heartily and fully say ‘Amen’. It said other things, though. Like this: “He loves you too much to let you keep the racism”. There are other things that meme says that God loves the country too much to let it fall back into.

I understand the sentiment, and it sounds Godly. It’s certainly true that God doesn’t want people or countries to be racist or to foster poverty. But the existence of those things is down to us, not Him. Keeping racism? That’s on me, not God.

God has special purposes for South Africa – just as He as special purposes for every country – but embracing those is up to the people of the country. If we get it right, it’s a reflection of His grace and good and to His glory. If we don’t, it’s on us. To suggest – even by implication – that God loves us too much to fall back into old traps  is to imply that one country is favoured over another. What about the countries where those things are happening (and let’s be honest, most of them are already happening  in South Africa anyway)? Does God love them any less because those countries are further down the rabbit hole?

No.

God is incredibly fond of South Africa. But no more so than He is of any other country. Expressed uniquely, personally, locally to South Africa for sure; but the love is shared around to every other country also, and none are left unequally unloved. South Africa is very special to God, and is also just like every other country. He gives us the tools, the invitation, the capacity to let go of poverty and racism and corruption. But it will be for no lack of God’s love if they seem to win; that’s on us, and us alone.

The gift of not being perfect

I’m tired.

That’s partly because I stayed up close to midnight to watch Arsenal’s inevitable demise to the liquid machine of Barcelona’s sublime brand of football. But it’s not the real reason. I’ll get to bed a bit earlier than usual this evening to make up for it, and all will be well. No, I’m tired in other ways. In no particular order …

I’m tired because I’m a new parent. We’ve been fostering 13-year old Mr K and 7-year old Miss J for around 2 months now. We’re told it takes 6 months-1 year to reorient life to a new reality like this. We’re doing quite well, all told, but  we’re making plenty of mistakes and learning plenty of new things. Learning and making mistakes is tiring. The earlier mornings are tiring. The dealing with the overflow of past traumas is tiring.

I’m tired because I lead a church, and it’s a tiring job. It’s never done, you never stop thinking about it, there’s always more I could do and I work more hours than most people know or believe – and I’m pretty good at protecting my time off.

I’m tired because I don’t live in the country of my birth. I’ve lived in South Africa for 6 years now, and it’s home – in as much as anywhere is ever home in my line of work. But I’d lived in the UK for 36 years before that; it’s how I was born and raised, the air I breathed. Living in a place that’s not that of your birth is always going to be a little destabilising; and especially so in South Africa, where as leader there’s the swirls and eddies of the country’s history and present threatening to sweep you away and grab your attention. The issues are so complex, so intertwined with one another, so hard to get a handle on. Add on that something is coming to the boil here, now; violent unrest is coming the surface once again. anger is surfacing and it needs to be faced, understood, listened to and acted in response to.

I’m tired by all these things, because I don’t do any of them as well as I’d like to. I try hard as a parent, but I fail daily. I try hard as a church leader, but I fail daily. I try hard to understand South Africa, but I fail daily. There’s issues that demand attention, articles to read, conversations to have – none of which I seem able to get to, all of which tire me out by their presence in my inbox, mind, newsfeed, book pile.

Then some words spoken came back to me. My therapist said to me, as I was becoming a foster father, that I’ll feel the pressure to be a perfect Dad. But relax, he said. You can’t be perfect – all you need to be is good enough.

Good enough. I can do that. Jesus calls it grace. I can be a good enough Dad; He’ll do the rest. I can be a good enough leader; He’ll make up the difference. I can be a good enough resident of a convulsing South Africa; He’ll bring the perfection. He’ll call people who’ll give to my foster kids what I can’t; He’ll raise up people within my church, and other churches, who’ll do and be what I and my church can’t do or be; He’ll bring forward people dealing with each issue and conversation that really matters. I just need to be good enough, to be obedient with what I’ve been given, to do what I can and not what I can’t.

Good enough.

It’s called grace, and it will mean I can sleep.

 

More than the few: on English football and South African xenophobia

The latest outburst of xenophobic violence in South Africa has, as you might expected, provoked comment and soul-searching. it’s distressing to watch the colours of the rainbow nation fragment. This time around other African governments have been drawn to comment, which has in its turn provoked a belated act of leadership from President Zuma. In his impassioned response to a Mozambican writerr’s criticisms of the incidents, Zuma argued that the detestable actions of the wrongdoers were the action of a ‘few’, of a minority.

This sparked a memory for me. A memory of the darkest days of English football. Allow me to explain (even if you despise football, please bear with me; I think this is important). In the 1980s, and into the 90s, English football experienced a period of self-recrimination and examination in the wake of a spate of football-related violence (much of this could also be said to be true of the sport in other nations, but I want to turn the lens on that closest to me). The strictures that resulted from this were severe: expulsion, for a time, of English clubs from the highest level of international club football, a series of changes to the way crowds were policed and legislated. We could also argue that it resulted in the structural changes to the game that resulted in the multi-millionaire culture of today’s Premier League, but let’s not go there for now. As the game’s public image sank, there was a frequent refrain from inside the game. It’s only a few fans

Using comparative statistics, that’s true. In a stadium of 40,000, only a minority would be real trouble makers. Most were indeed there to see the game. It’s true; but doesn’t make the dead and injured any less dead and injured. Various things needed to be done – some of the legislation (though perhaps not all) was appropriate and necessary. In addition to this, there needed to be invitations from those in football to a different way of following the sport; witness, for example, before the 1989 league title decider between Liverpool and Arsenal, the Arsenal players presenting wreathes of flowers in memory of deceased Liverpool fans. This two-pronged approach was necessary; but it missed a third prong, one which still lies (largely) unaddressed. The third prong revolves around the inherent problem of something that gives English football such a unique and special identity.

English football has an almost unique culture of fans travelling to support their team, and doing so with a special kind of noise, colour and passion. Globally there are few sporting events with the vibrant appeal of an English football derby (local rivalry); fixtures like Manchester United v Liverpool and Arsenal v Tottenham (Spurs) have an atmosphere you really have to experience to believe. This is because of the inherent tribalism in English football; these rivalries go back over a century, drawing fuel from sources wider than sport, into the very fabric of the communities which they represent. As a life-long Arsenal fan living on the other side of the world, the morning of a game with Tottenham, I wake up with a feeling in my stomach best described as adrenalised dread. This is what makes it special; it’s also what makes it dangerous. Fair warning: the contents of the next paragraph may offend.

When Tottenham player Sol Campbell moved to Arsenal, it provoked a storm of protest and anger. The song that some Tottenham fans sung at him ran thus (to the tune of Lord of The Dance): “Sol, Sol, wherever you may be/You’re on the verge of lunacy/And we don’t give a fuck when you’re hanging from a tree/Judas cunt with HIV”. Count yourself blessed if you don’t understand all the mental-health, racist and homophobic references in there. Arsenal fans were not blameless. A favourite response was the massed sound of air escaping between teeth aimed towards Tottenham fans. Tottenham has a strong base of support amongst North London’s Jewish community; the sound imitates gas in the Nazi death camps. 

Yes, it was only a few fans who engaged like this. But this hatred, which I’ve seen contorted onto the faces of desperately ordinary people, could only grow in the soil of the tribalism and rivalries at the heart of English football. Not every football fan was guilty; but we are all responsible for creating the environment in which it can flourish. Only when we acknowledge that can hatred be removed from football.

So back to South African xenophobia. We need more leadership and legislation. We also need hashtags and demonstrations of other ways to be South African. Some of these we are getting. But a third prong is needed. This third prong needs a kind of self-examination that seems rare in these fevered times. It needs a self-examination that says that all South Africans live under the curse of apartheid, have inherited (as argued persuasively by Professor Jonathan Jansen in Knowledge In The Blood) a view of life based not on shared humanity but on race. I’ve reflected elsewhere how moving to South Africa can make you feel more racist, forcing you to think in a way you never would have.

Since democracy came 21 years ago, South Africa has embraced a flag and a view of proud nationhood which the world loves. Think back to the 2010 World Cup; bad football, but a good face to the world for the country. It’s what makes the country so appealing to many outsiders – hope, life, new identity. Alongside that, the fruit of apartheid continues to grow in the heart of all South Africans; in the soil of proud nationalism, dismissal of the other easily grows. It was well taught by apartheid, and doesn’t go away just because all citizens have the vote. It’s just subtly refocussed. Now it’s the other nations who are ‘the other’. For most that’s benign; for a few, it’s xenophobic. The third prong of attack that’s needed is the humble and gracious self-examination that says that all South Africans have skin in this game, have learned prejudice in the blood and in some way have guilt to bear.

It’s doesn’t appears to be fair at first sight, but it’s really a deeper vision of justice than mere surface level fairness. Christians call it original sin. We’re all guilty. Until that’s owned, expressed and consciously turned from, all the well-meaning efforts of politicians and activists will be of limited effectiveness.

To our knees, then.

Missing out on missing out, or seeing Frozen at last

Moving countries is a sure way to put all sorts of parts of your psyche to the test. The new culture(s), the change in weather patterns, missing your favourite cafe or radio station or park, the relationships to build .. all of these and so much more splash around the surfaces of the consciousness. You are out-of-place: you know it, others know it. It’s obvious.

When we moved to South Africa nearly 5 years ago we experienced all of this. It felt like we were constantly missing out on something. It’s not so much destabilising as it is the creation of a whole new identity. Much of what you had become accustomed to building around you as part of your sense of self is gone and you have to do it all over again. One of the things I discovered I was missing out on was a name for this experience of missing out on things. I don’t know if it’s especially popular in this country or this part of this country, but I kept hearing and noticing 4 letters as part of speech. FOMO. It sounded like the name of a music festival; it would be casually slipped into a conversation and the locals would laugh. ‘FOMO! Ahh…’ Like the new car I hadn’t seen before, it was suddenly everywhere.

It stands for Fear Of Missing Out, and apparently it’s a thing. I don’t know where it came from and I’m not especially keen on finding out, but some people were having counselling or prayer ministry to deal with their FOMO. I was missing out on missing out.

Another area I was missing out on had nothing to do with moving to South Africa, but has more to do with the fact that my wife and I don’t have children. Though we both love films, this does mean that we tend to avoid seeing films that are aimed at more of an all-age audience and tend to concentrate on more ‘adult’ fare. (no, not that sort of adult). This means that sometimes we miss out; over the last couple of years it felt like we’d Missed Out in a very big way. Because, you see, we hadn’t seen Frozen.

Frozen is one of those animated films that has become a huge cultural icon. ‘Let It Go’ is everywhere. People are always posting hilarious versions of it on social media relating to news events or life in general; comments would be made about the cold not bothering me anyway. There were debates about how feminist it is, or isn’t. None of which I watched, understood or partook in. I was Missing Out and I didn’t like the feeling. Or so I thought.

So we recorded it off the television, and did the decent thing last week. We watched it as originally intended – with an eleven year old who’s currently staying with us along with her mother. Do you think you have ever Missed Out on something? Not only had the 11-year old not seen Frozen before, she’s never seen snow or ice (we live in Cape Town).

Most of you don’t need me to tell you that Frozen is a really good film. The songs really do work; Let It Go is proper ear-worm fodder; the snowman and the reindeer are classic creations. I laughed out loud several times, as did the 11-year old. Finding ourselves thinking about fostering I thought … if I was responsible for an 11-year old girl, would I want her to see this film? Yes, probably, I thought. Not only is it great fun but it’s refreshing to see an animated princess who has agency and decision-making power and who isn’t defined by the colour pink or her choice of man. It’s got a way to go – I was a little troubled by the subtext that a woman’s emotions affects everything and everyone around her – but this is much better a role model for young girls than many an all-age film I’ve come across before.

For me it’s a good animated film; up there with Up and Wall-E but not in Toy Story trilogy territory. But here’s the thing; it was better when I hadn’t seen it. Not having seen it had actually become part of me; a small part of me, but part of me nonetheless. I had gained a bit of cultural kudos from not having seen it; I was the person who hadn’t seen Frozen!!! Now I was one of the crowd, just like everyone else. I was laughing at the jokes. I understand the lines about the cold not bothering me – but the thing is, it kind of does. It was a bit better on the outside.

That shouldn’t surprise me. People tend to experience me as a bit ‘alternative’; just this week a friend in the same group discussion as me started laughing as soon as I took the microphone because he ‘just knew you’d say something subversive‘. I guess he was right; I talked about the way a certain passage of the Bible was used in demonic and dangerous ways by evangelicals like us.

I need to watch this, though. Defining myself by something other than what Jesus says about me is very dangerous territory. I may prefer being a little on the edge but He says I’m chosen and accepted and in. If I’m not careful I could find myself frozen out just to make sure my fragile sense of self is intact. Better to get that from Him, not whether I’ve seen a given movie or what I think about a certain passage.

Frozen is a good movie; I’m glad I’ve seen it. I do miss missing out, though.

Not to worry. Big Hero 6 has just been released.

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

Beautiful

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Sunrise over Table Mountain, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town – photography by Bev Meldrum

I’ve said before that we live in what many consider to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Cape Town can be truly breathtaking. The other evening there was an early autumn sunset over Table Mountain that took breath away and prompted a momentary social media awe-struck buzz – similar to the one in the image above. The always changing site of the unchangeable mountain is quite a backdrop indeed.

As I said a while back , though, there’s a few things about this sort of talk that bother me. I’m not an especially visual person; I like natural beauty, but it rarely moves me to awe or worship the way it does for others. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been lost for words at a landscape. I tend to find God in other ways.

Another aspect to strike me was the way some talked of this striking sunset in such a way as to say that Cape Town is the greatest city in the world. It seemed like an odd reflection; why does an awestruck moment have to lead to comparison and ranking? Can’t it just be beautiful and majestic in and of itself? Most of the world’s biggest cities are built around natural landmarks of some kind  – rivers, harbours, mountains. They all have a particular kind of beauty in the right light and on the right day. I’m a city boy through and through; there was, though, one year I spent in a city I just didn’t like, that as a place did nothing for me. I can still remember, however, 20 or so years on, one sunset in that city which just blew me away.

Which leads me to this: none of this was actually about the city. It was about the backdrop to the city.

Be it the mountain or river or sea or sunset or cloud formation, that’s not the city. It may be over or around the city. But it’s not the city itself. The city is people and what’s made by people. The tangible things made – buildings and roads and monuments – as well as the intangibles of art, culture and community. These are why I love cities and find it hard to imagine living in any other context. I love that dynamics and trends and ideas tend to emerge and take root first in cities. I love that big world events congregate around them. I love that in a city like Cape Town, especially a hub area like that which I live and work in (Mowbray), the nations of the world pass by my door every day.

Celebrating Mandela, Cape Town - photography by Bev Meldrum

Celebrating Mandela, Cape Town – photography by Bev Meldrum

That can bring pain and suffering too, of course. Crime and disease spread quickest in urban environments. One summer’s day in 2005 my wife and I were moving house and job closer to central London when we found our packed car overtaken by streams of emergency vehicles. The date was 7/7.   Such things tend not to happen in more rural areas.

A few days after Table Mountain’s sun-bathed glory, a video started popping up in my social media timelines. It’s a reworking of the video for Pharrell Williams’ song Happy set in Cape Town and featuring the people of the city. It’s not the song’s official video; simply a local contextualisation. There’s two things about this. The first is that if you look up ‘genetically perfect pop song’ in a dictionary, you’ll find this song. It’s irresistible, and does what all good pop music is for. Fair warning: if you don’t know the song and you go listen to it as a result of this post, it will be in your head for the day.

The second thing is this: that the video expressed part of what makes a city beautiful. The people and the streets. It’s not everything – there’s plenty of other emotions and experience to be had here, as there are elsewhere.

This video, though, expresses for me where I find beauty – in people and the things made by them. The art, the buildings, the music, the moves. That’s a city. The mountain, the sunset? Scenery. Beautiful, of course. But scenery. The beauty is to be found in concrete and bone, steel and street.

Next time you take a retreat, consider taking a trip into the city, not away from it. Next time you talk a long walk, think about heading for concrete paving not tree-lined horizons. After all, it’s in the former that you’ll find the image of God, multiplied.

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Cape Town station, Cape Town – photography by Bev Meldrum

Lessons On The Way 4: Tables and chairs are spiritual

“When do you discuss the drains?”

It’s a strange question to lodge in my mind a good few years later.

It was voiced in a room full of us who were training for full-time for ministry in the church. The class in question was, I think, supposed to be teaching us about the nuts-and-bolts aspects of leadership. A local minister was leading the session, and the questioner (not me) was asking a perfectly reasonable and sensible question. When and how do you take decisions to do with buildings and maintenance and technicalities?

There lies behind that question a strong and often verbalised feeling, one with which I fully identify. Namely that those of us who are chosen from within the church to lead churches are usually neither able to address, nor enjoy dealing with, such things.  So when and how do I deal with these parts of church life which are unavoidable but in relation to which I am neither passionate nor gifted?

One way we’ve tried to deal with this at the church I currently lead (a small-medium sized church in urban Cape Town, South Africa) is to do something that first seems to be counter-intuitive: we’ve created more committees. These are all sub-committees of the church council with at least one member of the council on them. Anyone who’s interested in or able in these areas can join them. I am on three or four of them. I don’t touch finance or buildings and maintenance. I just stay in touch as I need to. The result is that I’m much less stressed, more gets done and more members of the church are involved with different parts of the church’s life. It’s by no means a perfect system, but it’s working well for us now in this season.

We can’t, though, avoid everything we don’t enjoy. As our church council meeting came up last week, I glanced at the agenda and realised with a sinking heart that we’d be most likely spending a long time discussing things like tables and chairs. I sighed. I don’t lead council meetings (another decision that has been good for all of us; the woman who leads the meeting is really good at doing so) and I knew we needed to talk about these things. I could just see, however, the tedium coming down the track towards me.

So much for that. What I got was a deep and rich experience of the Holy Spirit; the chairs and tables put us on holy ground.

Our church is located in one of those areas of Cape Town which was affected by the Group Areas Act, one of the legal planks of apartheid which zoned cities by skin colour and forcibly moved black and coloured people to less desirable areas exposed to the elements and with less access to basic amenities. White people had the pick of what remained. One of the few things those removed could still do was travel to their parish church, even if they’d been forcibly removed long distances. So they did that  – taking unreliable public transport every Sunday morning to the place of worship of their choice. Apartheid may be long dead, but the symptoms remain. Still these people and their descendants travel to their family’s church. Apartheid couldn’t stop them, so nothing else will.

There was no great resistance to replacing the tables and chairs. They’re heavy and unwieldy, recognised as impractical for our needs. The chairs have been there longer than a parishioner who’s been worshipping in this church for over 50 years. What was an issue was what to do with the chairs – made from fine quality wood, they’re in good condition even now. There was talk of selling them for scrap for the price of the wood; the response to that was that we need to make sure they went somewhere they were wanted or needed  – or if we couldn’t find such a place, sell them for scrap and donate the receipts to a church or project with which we are in relationship.

Throughout the meeting stories were told and barriers broken through – people talked about the past and the future, with hope and expectation as well as holy trepidation. It was only after the meeting, in conversation with one person, that the penny finally dropped for me. People who had experienced forced removal from their homes were now rightly seeking to ensure that the chairs and tables, part of their church throughout much of apartheid, were not also forcibly removed. Their removal needed to be positive – not just to make way for an incomer. In the course of the conversation lights went on throughout my mind, scanning the history of our 4 years here, seeing the same theme pop up. Forced removals – named or not – remain a scar which is still visible.

A while back a tentative plan was made to have some days of story-telling in the church; getting the saints young and old to relate the joys and sorrows of life, capturing the triumphs of grace that make up our church’s life. Two weeks ago we had arranged a date for the first of these days; no sooner is it in the church diary then this happens. Chairs, tables, drains and bank balances in 2014 merging with the first-time expressions of hurts and injustices long since past but very  much alive.

Few of us who lead and work around churches decided to do so because we are interested in or capable in relation to tables and chairs, spreadsheets and budgets, drains and kitchens. We were set aside for the divine, devoted to the spiritual. Or so we like to think. Much to our embarrassment, it turns out that everything is spiritual, that as one theologian put it:

Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’ (Abraham Kuyper)

Christ is all in all; everything, everywhere. He is unavoidable, inescapable. Even in the tables and chairs and spreadsheets and drains.

It’s not wrong to encourage those who are good at these things to deal with such matters; if they suck the life from you, don’t do them if it all possible. They’ll get done better and quicker if I’m not involved. Never assume, though, that where you are is spiritual. It is spiritual, of course. So is everything and everywhere else. Even if we don’t like it, even if the very thought of it makes my heart heavy. It’s still spiritual, and touching it may be the gateway for Christ’s good work.

It shouldn’t surprise us that tables and chairs lead us to be seated on holy ground. After all, our central act of worship is a meal.

Are you on holy ground?

Also in this series: 

3: The dangers and offensiveness of grace

2: How to make sure you church leader doesn’t turn into a psychopath

1: I don’t have to do it all