Church: there and back again

Recommending a book is a tricky business. No more so than when it comes to Christian books – especially the ones aimed at a more popular market. Recommend something and there can often be the assumption that the recommendation also means endorsement and agreement. That always seems to me to be a lazy approach to anything, let alone something so personal as a book; but there we have it. Algorithms increasingly tell us what we should read, watch, listen to next based on what we’ve liked before, and we expect people to do the same – so we get funnelled deeper into an echo chamber we may not have been aware we were making.

I value Rachel Held Evans. I don’t always agree with her; sometimes her writing on blogs or in books annoys or angers me. Which is all the more reason I need to listen to voices like hers. She is one of those who voices what many who love Jesus increasingly feel and experience. As such, whether I agree with her or not is in many senses irrelevant. I need to hear her, and through her hear those who feel she speaks for them. Her last book, A Year Of Biblical Womanhood, has been for me a key plank in establishing my own feminism. Her new book, Searching For Sunday, has challenged and enriched me deeply. Through a series of reflections around each of the Orthodox church’s sacraments, she tells her story of struggling with doubt; of leaving, trying to remake, and eventually reconnecting with church. Sometimes people who write or speak on these subjects put people like me (church leaders) on the back foot; we’re made to feel guilty, failures. It’s our fault, you see. Sometimes it is, of course, but such blame shifting doesn’t open dialogue or encourage learning. Searching For Sunday I found to be rather different. It was truthful, open, compassionate, humble. It spoke as much for the experience and concerns of someone in my role as it does for the skeptical and occasional pew-sitter.

It eschews easy judgements and blanket assertions; the book – and the author – is both vulnerable, but confident in her own incompleteness. It’s also her best piece of writing – some of the metaphors and imagery are startling or refreshing; I especially appreciated how the conscious use of voices, stories and metaphors associated with women opened up different perspectives.

It seems so reductive to ask myself if I agreed with everything she said. I don’t know how to answer that, or quantify it. I needed the book, and continue to need it. It speaks to me, and for me. It challenges me and refreshes me and encourages me and heals me. It sheds fresh light and depth on aspects of both my life as a disciple of Jesus and as one tasked with public ordained ministry, performing some of the sacraments on which she touches in the book.

It’s neither the first, nor the last, word on any of the issues it raises. It’s not trying to be either of those things. It’s more than that – it’s a beautiful, touching, and eloquent chapter in the story.

 I rated this book 5/5 on goodreads

Shadow sides 1: Frustrated and angry Moses

The first in a series of posts adapted from sermons about some great characters from the pages of the Bible, with weaknesses and frailties that we might find all too familiar. 

Anger and frustration are frightening. They suggest being out of control – either ourselves, or at the hands of others. They speak of abuse and violence, fear and quaking in the corner. Good Christians shouldn’t get angry or frustrated. They should let go and let God.

Or should they? What if anger and frustration, rightly handled, take us closer to Jesus, mean we’re more like Him, not less?

Take Moses, for example.

We know about Moses. Performing signs and wonders in the courts of a despotic ruler; courageously leading a fear-stricken people; not afraid to lead a wander through the wilderness; parting seas and bringing water from a rock; receiving stone tablets of law in the handwriting of God. We know about Moses. Murderer with a speech impediment; often angry and frustrated, dying on the doorstep of his destination. Despite his successes, hardly a model leader. Or is he?

Let’s focus in on Moses, for the time being doing what he should be doing. At the end of Exodus 24, we read about him heading up a mountain with Joshua. For 6 days he watches; on the 7th day God speaks; for 40 days he’s on top of the mountain, enveloped by cloud which signifies the very presence of God, receiving the law which will shape the worshipping life of God’s people. It’s written on stone tablets, apparently by the hand of God Himself (Exodus 31:18).

While he’s doing what a leader of God’s people should be doing – spending time with God, listening to Him, paying attention to Him, God’s people are getting impatient.

Where is he?

This is taking far too long (32:1); let’s do something instead of just wait.

Aaron, left in charge by Moses, is pressured into collecting golden jewellery; it’s melted down and shaped into the image of a calf. This is what the people choose to worship; this, they say, took them out of Egypt. It’s ludicrous, but no less offensive for that.

God can see what’s going on, so He tells Moses. God’s less than happy, on the brink of wiping them out when Moses intervenes and tells Him it would be better for His reputation not to do so, to remain true to His word to make a great nation out of them. Moses’ self-control is all well and good, until he comes down the mountain himself. He sees and hears the chaos around him; in his anger he smashes the stone tablets of the law in pieces; burns the golden calf and grinds it dust, scattering the dust on water which the people are then forced to drink. Stand in leader Aaron shifts the blame to the people in a ducking of responsibility reminiscent of Adam and Eve; Moses allows those still for God to show themselves, and the rest are slaughtered. Even so, there’s still a plague to come as a reminder of such a naked act of disobedience and idolatry.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us, first, with the reality of frustration and anger. Leadership of God’s people is no easy task. Any attempt to do something under God’s authority – especially an act of leadership – will likely be laced with anger and frustration. You  might even say it’s part of the calling; you can see where you, your church, your people, your project is and where they should be – and the distance is great, the blindness of the people on the ground so rebellious, so wilful, that you might just snap. God feels it, Moses feels it, so you and I will feel it.

Even so, in your anger and frustration do not sin (Ephesians 4:26). Do not go on a crusade that God has not given you; in your anger, do not run ahead of God and try to fix His problems for Him. He is more than capable – and just as angry, but not prone to sin.

Jesus does the ultimate Moses: He sees the sin, bears the consequences in terms of the isolation of people and the wrath of God – death, and provides a way beyond it in the shape of resurrection. Now He lives at the right of God, interceding, praying for His people.

So you feel angry and frustrated at the state of God’s people? Well you might; maybe you’re becoming more like Jesus. So leave the crusading and the fixing to Him, the perfect intercessor.

So often we think anger and frustration are marks of weakness. Too often they lead us into sin. Rightly managed they catapult us headlong to the arms of a God who knows only too well how we feel, yet still acts in love towards the objects of His anger and frustration – you, me.

We must be careful; anger and frustration can be corrosive and destructive. But in themselves they are not wrong. One way or another, they will carry us away. It’s up to us whether we let that be away or towards the one whose image we are made.

 

 

 

 

 

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 14: Community, costly and sufficient

This post is the next in our series on the Psalms of Ascents The original sermon was preached by Mike Keggie on  Sunday September 29th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town.  I have used this sermon as the starting point for my own reflections on the text. It focuses on the fourteenth of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 133 It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.

For links to the previous posts in this series, scroll to the end of this post.

Such a short psalm, and so often quoted. I’ve heard and read it most often in the context of those places where God’s people from different streams come together for a time – a local Churches Together walk of witness or service project; an ecumenical conference; a call to prayer.

Not to diminish such things, for they may well be and often are the call of God to people in a certain place or time, but these are not the best that this psalm has to offer us. This is a psalm that speaks instead to my Saturday night and Sunday morning lethargy, my desire to keep myself to myself, my gravitational pull towards privacy.

This is a psalm about community and that those who belong to God live in community whether they like it or not. If you belong to the God of Jesus Christ, then you have a family; you are part of a body; you are a living stone in a glorious building. You may not like the other parts of the body, the other stones in the building; it may seem to come more naturally and easily to do this by yourself, but if you insist on that you are doing the opposite of that for which you are made. Since Eden onwards, people have been made for relationship. Family flowed from family flowed into nation flowed into blessing to the nations. Opt out of that and your swimming against a vast tide. You can only lose – or at the very least lose out dramatically.

How pleasant it is (verse 1) … when it works. It’s easy to romanticise relationships and to idolize community – that’s why the one-off event is such a tempting application. How marvellous to come together for a week in the summer and do something together! How beautiful to walk in witness to Easter together once a year! Yes, it may be. I do not mean to mock. Such things can be profound and deep and also hard. It’s more profound, deep … and, yes, hard also if it’s what we do and day on day, week on week.

The psalm is nothing if not realistic. In reaching for an image to unpack how good this is, verse two stumbles across something … costly. Costly. To live in deep, day on day, community is costly. It requires me to give up my desire that things be fitted around my needs, my music preferences, my liturgical desires, my timetable. It needs me to recognise that my needs may not actually be the most important ones this day. It requires me to be a living sacrifice, laid down, poured out like a drink offering because the God who calls and names this community as His church is worth it. It is hard and costly.

God knows this, and has paid this cost Himself. We are invited into a perfect community in the shape of Himself – Father, Son, Holy Spirit in an ongoing relationship of love and deed. It’s been costly for that community, though. Costly in terms of Son taking on the appearance of a son, brittle boned prepared to be splintered, soft flesh ready to be torn. Real community really is costly. Which is why it is so precious. Like the oil (verse 2) flowing down on the one freshly set aside – anointed holy, to use the Biblical phrase – for God’s work. A true Christian community is bought at a high price and set aside for something special – to express and live God’s ways and work in the world. Costly and special – set aside, not for the benefit of itself but so that the community can love in the full view of the world in such a way that others are actively invited and encouraged to join in.

Costly – and also fresh, daily (verse 3). Like the morning dew on the mountains, thick and heavy and daily replenished like the wilderness manna which was rich in the history of God’s people. Miraculous food given daily – enough for each day. Take too much and it would be rotten before you could use it; take too little … well what was the point in that if there’s enough for everyone? This has something deep to say to my view of my Christian community, the church. Opt out, take too little of the manna, and I may get by. However why would I want to get by when there’s a sufficiency, daily? Why limit myself?

The converse is true also. Plunge myself into this community in such a way that I have time for it and it alone, take too much, and I’ll grow fat and lazy. I won’t grow in the directions I’m meant to, I won’t be inviting. Slowly, over time, to me most likely imperceptibly, my arteries will harden and clog and I’ll fade away. This community, lived in aright, is enough for my daily needs, enough to make me grow and flourish, enough to shape me into one who invites others in. That’s where the blessing of God, life as it’s meant to be, eternally, is to be found.

A life equipped, a life poured out, a life blessed and anointed. We have a Bible full of examples of how to do this and how not to do this; we have a God who lives it Himself and has paid the price of it Himself. It’s hard, it’s costly, it’s painful, it’s beautiful and blessed. We’re free to claim we’re opting out, but to do so is to go against the grain of reality itself. How good, how pleasant, how costly. The economy of God and the life of His people.

Also in this series:

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey (An Introduction)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 1: All Is Not Well (Psalm 120)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 2: Looking For Help (Psalm 121)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 3: Worship … or life as it should be (Psalm 122)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 4: Waiting … and asking (Psalm 123)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 5: Always More (Psalm 124)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 6: Nothing In The Way (Psalm 125)

A Guidebook For A Trick Journey, Chapter 7: Tell Us A Story (Psalm 126)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 8: God’s Glorious Inefficiency (Psalm 127)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 9: Grow (Psalm 128)

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 11: On the uses and uselessness of planning (Psalm 130) 

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 12: Rest, dear child (Psalm 131)

 A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 13: Remember … (Psalm 132)