God In The Slow Lane

It’s often said that the urgent can drive out the important. From responding to emails to health issues and much in between, there’s evidence to suggest this is true. Our attention is automatically – and often necessarily  – diverted to that which is most pressing. If your house is on fire at the moment when you’d set aside time to work on your tax returns which are due in a month’s time, then you’d be a fool to do anything other than deal with the urgent, important as tax returns are.

How do we discern which is which? Rarely are faced with such a binary or obvious choice. The minister by whom I was trained told me many things which have lodged in mind: one of them was the importance of discerning the difference between a good idea and a God idea. It might be – for example – a good idea to introduce a church service led by the youth to the programme of services; but is it the right idea at the right time? Are the youth ready? Is the rest of the church ready? That’s the leadership decision; Victor Hugo is paraphrased as writing that no-can resist an idea whose time has come. There’s truth in that.

What makes this leadership decision so difficult much of the time is that people have very different ideas of what’s urgent and what’s important. I’m always hesitant to blame the still-new tool of social media, but certainly Facebook and the like can amplify this tendency – the louder you shout or the more dramatic the news or the tighter the deadline, then the more likely you are to get heard. And there does seem to be an awful lot of shouting. The ticking time-bombs of climate-change, American mid-term elections, Brexit and the like all scream for attention. Not to mention the varied issues that are – or appear to be – related to these and other situations; the gap between rich and poor in various countries, volatile economies, diplomatic relations strained to near breaking point, racial tensions, the rise of political extremism. It seems that something must be done on each of these, now.

We bring this to church, too. Can you give me 5 ways to improve my prayer-life? What’s the best way to read the Bible? Can we have a course to improve marriage/parenting/surviving as a single person? The need screams importance and urgency; set up a solution, now.

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Photo by David Whittaker on Pexels.com

The problem is that God seems to work to altogether different timetables. The God who defends the poor and is concerned for justice and liberation seems to wait most of Moses’s long life-time before finally sending him to lead them to freedom … which in the end turned out to be 40 years of wondering apparently aimlessly in the wilderness. Jesus waited for 30 years of presumably normal education and manual labour before doing much that was worth recoding for future posterity. As the letter-writer says in 2 Peter 3: ” With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” That’s to say – God is not so much concerned with any one thing we do or don’t do as He is the state of our souls, our relationship to Him. He’s prepared to give us a lot of time.

All this is somewhat fraught with problems. It may seem quite easy for me to say that God is patient and is biding his time for my eternal sake; but unlike some who live in this city, my house didn’t just burn down leaving me homeless and shorn of resources. The mid-term elections have a date on them, as does Brexit. If I were to receive a terminal diagnosis tomorrow (there’s no likelihood that I will), then every day would suddenly take on new weight. We’ve become so accustomed to having much of what we want or need on demand that we expect the same of the spiritual life and the faith communities we are part of or lead. Added to that, one of the perpetual burdens of leadership is to be able to see with clarity the gap between where an organisation is and where it could or should be. This gap between our time-bound urgency and God’s slowness seems to be a recipe for human frustration and angst.

What to do, then? I’ve never understood prayer, and am rather suspicious of anyone who claims to do so. I am aware, however, that when I am able to pray, two things happen – often simultaneously – something changes in the situation or person I’m praying for, and something changes in me. So I should pray, then. That’s all well and good, but in this period of my life – children, not great health, full-time job and the like, I don’t have much time. I pray a version of the daily office some days; I fire off prayers at some points in the day if something prompts me so to do. But it’s hard to turn attention to God when there’s so much that is, dare I say it, both urgent and important. Like many parents, I’m tired. I go to bed tired, and I wake tired. Prayer is hard when you’re tired.

God is working in my life very slowly at the moment. I’ve only recently realised the truth of something that happened to me around 25 years ago. Why didn’t God help me do it earlier, and save us all a lot of time? I don’t know. Things in church happen slowly; of course, we’ve never really arrived, we’re always changing and adjusting and growing – but it strikes me that in one particular area of my church’s life we’re only now beginning to reach a place I first dreamed of about 8 years ago. For so many people – including myself and my own relationships – I can see where we or they could be, but we all seem to take an inordinately long time to get there.

I read this week that in Paul’s great hymn to love, 1 Corinthians 13, the first definition given of love is patience; or as older translations have it, long-suffering. God seems to love me, you, us so much that he’s willing to suffer long for us to get to where he needs us to get to. He won’t rush us because to rush us would go against his innate love for us. He loves us more than our deeds, more than our urgent actions or calls to action, more than any one thing we can make happen. He wants us to work for him – but he wants that to come not as duty or forced obedience, but as loving response to his long-suffering on our behalf.

There is much we come up against that might be fixed by urgent labour or donation of money or the like. Sometimes that will need to happen; but more often, perhaps, we will find ourselves called to what Eugene Peterson termed the ‘long obedience in the same direction’; the long-suffering with ourselves and others, as God does with us. There’s no 12 week course to fix injustice; there’s no quick fix for my prayer-life; there’s no easy route to better relationships. Love is patient, long-suffering – requiring us to exercise the kindness and the benefit of the doubt to ourselves and others that God is so willing to exercise to all of us. That doesn’t allow us to be lazy, or to make excuses for damaging or violating patterns of behaviour; but it does mean that we are to find within us that part of ourselves that bears the stamp of the long-suffering creator, to let His patience call out our own with ourselves and others.

Glimpses Of The St Peter’s Story: Eating To Bridge Cape Town’s Divisions

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This is the first in a new series of posts giving non-chronological snapshots of the story of our church’s life.

His name was Peter, but most knew him as Green Eyes. He had been part of our regular Thursday Community Supper for most of the six and a half years that we have been meeting. This supper isn’t an act of food provision, and it’s not a project that aims to serve the marginalised. It exists to provide a space for people to eat good food together, to listen to each other, to get to know each other without the pressure of time or the divisions of one of the world’s most unequal cities getting in the way.

Over time we have found that many of those who attend regularly are poor or marginalised in some way; a good number of them sleep outside. Our policy is that we are not a soup kitchen; we serve food to people at their tables rather than expecting them to queue up. The university professors who attend sit and eat the same food as those with no job, sleeping on the street. Some of us who are more privileged come to cook or wash-up or serve food to tables; some attempt to shepherd the children in a room at the back of the church; some of us just sit and listen and talk. For all of us, the goal is the same – this is about community, about knowing each other. Sometimes, towards the end of the evening, we’ll have a very informal and short expression of the Communion Service around one of the tables.

Peter was well-known locally, and especially well known amongst us. He often came on a Thursday drunk; but we don’t turn away for being under the influence of drugs or drink – unless they’re very disruptive. After all, most among us who come are under the influence of caffeine; prone to greed; frequently found to be binge-watching; slaves to lust; prone to anger. But we don’t stop those people at the door; so to do so to others would seem to be a strange double-standard. It’s not as if the Jesus whom we claim as our model turned people away because of their addictions.

When we got to know Green Eyes, he would tell us why he came to Thursday Supper. “I don’t come for the food. I can get that anywhere.” (This is true – if you are desperate, food of some description can usually be sourced if you know where to look). “I come here for respect.” He understood the essence of what we are about; it’s not about the food.

Some so-called homeless ministries serve food past it’s sell-by date; some have their guests sit and listen to a talk. We don’t. We eat good, fresh food. And we listen. And we talk. And sometimes share Communion. Out of that has grown a partnership with an NGO run by one of our number which assists people into rehab programmes and night-shelters, and has seen success in doing so. Out of that has arisen a series of friendships which nourish us longer than a meal does.

A couple of months ago Green Eyes’ wife appeared at Thursday supper, distraught. He had died from complications associated with TB. He hadn’t had a funeral. So with her, we arranged one in the church. The family’s first language is Afrikaans – so I had little to do or say. Much of it was led by our friend and church member Craig, in Afrikaans. Memories were shared. Craig talked about us seeing and knowing each other across Cape Town’s divisions; and how Jesus saw and knew Zaccheus; and how Jesus sees and knows us, too. It was simple and profound; and I only understood what a few of the words meant.

Now on Saturday mornings a group of Thursday night regulars meet together, whoever wants, to read the Bible together and to talk about it means for them. In doing so, no one is teaching or leading, so much as all are reading together – trying to shed the layers that years of religion and systematization has enforced.

This is our church. Well, a large part of it. There’s also our 2 Sunday services. which look more like Sunday services are often expected to. But really we think of ourselves as having three services – 2 on Sunday, 1 on Thursday – all of which are in a process of evolution which we hope is God-guided. We are trying – sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding – to build with God a church in which power is equalised, division rejected and our common status as image-bearing children of God celebrated. It’s hard and messy, and there’s little in the way of strategy or structure. As one friend put it in his PhD research on the subject, this is mission as improvised jazz as opposed to finally structured song or symphony. We don’t know what this will lead to, but it seems to us and the Holy Spirit to be good.

 

 

Bored With Church

Bored With Church

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I get bored quite easily. People close to me – be they parents, my wife, or whoever happens to be on the receiving end at the time – have grown well used to me saying so, or displaying the symptoms. Restlessness, not focussing, disturbing others from the no doubt important things they’re doing, sighing, puffing of the cheeks. You know the score. I have a 9 year-old who does the same. I understood a bit of why I do this when I was diagnosed with ADD last year, making sense of my inability to settle unaided by medication.

In truth, many of us know the feeling – a weariness with what we need to do or should be doing, a sense that there’s something better and more stimulating just out of reach. I’m in my mid-40s now, and it can be something of a stage of life thing for many of us; we’re no longer young, but the finishing strait is a long way off. That can be a wearying, deadening thought for many of us; hence, perhaps, the famed mid-life crisis that some crash into, a desperate attempt to make life interesting again, often bringing others down with us into the bargain.

There can be spiritual, church-based ennui too. Especially, I think, amongst those who (like me) would call ourselves charismatic Christians. Our flavour of faith can often seem attractive because we can be seen to offer drama: ecstatic experiences, prayer for revival, things to ‘push in to’ and the like. That reels us in, and gives us a lot of momentum. I’m not saying that these things can’t be genuine or important, but they can end up inoculating us against how things often turn out to be. When the life of the church isn’t one of constant breakthrough, success and answered prayer, boredom can set in. Worship services can seem repetitive; the life of faith just a little more run of the mill than we felt we were led to expect.

At this point people like me – people who lead churches, that is – often start to berate ‘consumer Christianity’ and get a little shouty. It’s not about what you can get out of church; it’s about what you can give. Church isn’t about getting, it’s about giving; it’s not about me, it’s about others, and the audience of One. There’s truth in this, and I’ve said it myself in the past; the trouble is, it can all start to sound a bit too much like a list of ‘should’ and ‘ought’; alarmingly lacking in the winsome grace that draws us to Jesus in the first place. Add to the mix the wearying litany of church leadership scandals, and it can seem to very difficult to make it all seem attractive. The result is that good people; good, gifted, wise people start to opt out of church with all the implications that has for various aspects of the church’s life.

One of the reasons this can be so difficult is that church leader is often bored too. It can be quite dull ‘running a church’; or it can be very hard and costly and you can just get wearied and worn down by the cost of trying to bring to birth what you think God is inviting into being. Either way, the result can be the same – tiredness, cynicism and boredom. You opt out – in spirit, if not in body.

So what’s the answer? Of course it’s too complicated for there to be one silver bullet to fix it all; but I think part of the answer may be in reminding ourselves that Jesus doesn’t drive people. Rather, he invites, calls, beckons. We want to push people, drag them into deeper commitment and involvement; Jesus, on the other hand, seems to make an invitation that’s so attractive and luminous that people are compelled to follow. We often talk of church leadership in these terms  – ‘The Call’; but what about the rest of us? Do we create a culture where each person gets to consider what the invitation, the call of Jesus is for them? Are people called to our churches, as we are as leaders; or do they simply fill a seat, a space on the rota, until they no longer can? This seems to me to be the art of spiritual direction, preached, prayed and discussed over coffee. Of course, there’s a responsibility on the individual there too – is she searching, listening, asking? Or is she allowing herself to atrophy? But that in turn asks questions of the leader; do we expect God to call people; do we structure church solely in terms of the event that will convert or create drama or crisis for people; or do we, through worship, word, prayer, sacrament, conversation take people with us in to the deeper life of God, where the self is redefined and the life reoriented? Do we expect that to happen – perhaps even multiple times – in the life of the disciples in our care?

These are big questions, not easily answered. But the boredom people – leaders and lay people alike – experience is real and needs to be addressed. No one ever promised the life of discipleship would be exciting; Jesus did promise a cross and a yoke, albeit an easy-fitting one – hardly images to engage the thrill-seeker. We have a difficult balance to strike between fostering holy expectancy of anything at any time, and the slow business of walking a hot and dusty road behind a man on the way to his crucifixion (and later, his resurrection). The question remains: are we, leader and lay person alike, listening for the invitation?

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