Stress, rest and resistance

Teenage Student Studying Hard

Its exam season once again. And this week there was yet another report outlining something of the immense pressure our young people are under and the effects it is having on them. The Millenium Cohort Study (MCS) revealed sharp increases in the girls being admitted to hospital due to incidents of self-harm including cutting, poisoning and hanging. An unbelievable 24% of 14 yr old girls were found to be depressed. Almost a quarter of teenagers at this key point in their adolescence are suffering from depression! What a horrific and saddening statistic.

Girls certainly seem to be fairing worse than boys on most indicators. Whilst 9% of 14 yr old boys are depressed looks mild when laid against the statistic for girls. It is still 1 in every 11 boys – which is pretty extraordinary.

The report cites possible causes;  bullying, cyber-bullying, social media, academic pressures, though does not come to any firm conclusions. It does however note that girls from poor backgrounds and girls who are academically gifted seem to be fairing worst of all. Commenting on the report one clinical psychologist pointed to the pressure children are under to succeed at school and that the competition for university places and employment is a significant source of stress.

As parents this whole topic can be a major source of stress and anxiety too! What can we do as parents to help navigate our children through what appears to be a pressure cooker atmosphere of academic and social stresses. One that seems to start earlier and earlier.  The ubiquity of the mobile phone, cheap data, almost universal wifi, and apps as addictive as any number of illegal substances, means that all but the most ruthless of parents is watching their teenage children living within the constant world of constant social scrutiny and distraction. Every year at exam time there are lovely words of wisdom from successful people who once flunked their exams – but there does not seem to be anything like concerted effort to reduce the academic pressure prevalent in so many schools.

I wonder though if there is something we can offer our children. It is an ancient practice, drawn from a foundational assumption about the world we live. It sounds like religious ritual, but it is fundamentally a humane practice for health and well-being. Might we offer our children the gift of Sabbath.

Sabbath originates from the Judeo-Christian creation story. It is a practice that responds to a belief in a God who worked for 6 days and rested for 1. It enshrines an essential human rhythm, alongside other natural rhythms of times and seasons, that says that a good balance for life and happiness is a rhythm of work and rest in roughly this proportion.

We do not live in a world remotely attuned to that rhythm. And it is wearingly all of us. And making our children sick. We live in a world driven by an assumption of scarcity and competition. We live in a coercive environment that demands more but never satisfies. ‘A society of 24/7 multitasking in order to achieve, accomplish, perform, possess’ (Walter Brueggemann)

TimeSabbath is the antidote of resistance to this pernicious culture. Rest is a brave practice that expresses a refusal to comply with that environment. It is to refuse to be made a commodity, or a thing, by a rampant utilitarian society. It is to practice the art of rediscovering that we are not a ‘what’ (the sum of our achievements or our potential to the economy) but a ‘who’ (a mysterious and beautiful blend of heritage, story, character, relationships and giftings).

You don’t have to be religious to practice Sabbath. Rest humanises us whatever our beliefs or background. It may well point us beyond ourselves to something of the deeper truth of our origins and that of the world around us – but that is another topic.

If we value our sanity, our humanity and that of our children we will do well to practice Sabbath. What might it look like? Very simple. A regular and consistent rhythm of deliberate rest from the pressures and coercion of the distracting and greedy society around us. It will not, and for many cannot, look like a Sunday of rest every week. We must take the principle and apply its values and its ethos. For my wife and I it is a deliberate 24-hour period from the beginning of Friday evening to the end of Saturday where we slow, silence our phones, and seek to be attentive to one another. We spend the morning reading the papers and have brunch. In the afternoon we may go for a walk or see friends. We will make more of an effort in making dinner in the evening and take out time over it.

That is our current rhythm. It has been renewing for us. But not only does it renew us each week, it somehow affects our attitude and approach to the rest of the week. ‘Sabbath is not simply the pause that refreshes. It is the pause that transforms’ (Walter Brueggemann). Practising Sabbath begins to shape our whole attitude to time and activity. By sanctifying one period of a week for rest, we resist the tendency to see all time and activity as commodity.

Our children are now at an age that we have not imposed out rhythm of Sabbath on them, rather we have modeled it to them. I guess it is for every family to negotiate how Sabbath might be expressed. First and foremost Sabbath is a gift from the treasury of Biblical spirituality, something from that deep seam of wisdom for life, that we can model ourselves and offer as a gift to others.

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Away and in Danger – and other unsentimental Christmas Carols

The rumour has got out in the Christian community I lead that I ‘hate’ Away in a Manger’. Of course, this is tantamount to Christmas blasphemy, so I feel I must make a defense and an explanation.

I can melt like the rest of us at a sweetly sung version of Away in a Manger. However, it has always struck me as a classic version of the kind of carol that emerged from that era of Dickensian niceness and over-sentimentality that continues to equate Christmas with a certain kind of feeling rather than a certain story. We don’t want to let an awkward story get in the way of that feeling we all want at Christmas; (open fires, mulled wine, candle light and well-behaved children singing sweetly), do we?

Except that the story of course was there to make things awkward. From the moment the Angel appeared to Mary things got pretty awkward. Jesus from his very conception probes, prods and cajoles at our sense of soporific comfort. And every generation has dealt with awkwardness and challenge in various ways, often aided and abetted by the church. A Barcelona friend of mine tells me of a character in the Spanish nativity called El Caganer. This character, a staple of Spanish nativity sets, is a man squatting the corner with his trousers round his ankles! El Caganer translates as ‘The Great Defecator’ and was probably introduced into the nativity scene to thumb a nose at the power, privilege and aloofness of the church. It was as if Spanish peasants were saying ‘this is our story too! You can’t sanitise this awkward story for us you know! Here’s a man shitting in the corner!”

Rather than writing in a character into the story to try and remind people the rawness, reality, pain and politics of the story I have taken to rewriting the words to some well-known carols. I have taken the worst offenders, in my opinion. Those carols that ooze sentimentality and seem to have lost all sense of the power and subversiveness of the story.

Away and in Danger

Away, amongst strangers, who gave them no bed
The new born Lord Jesus
Lay down his wet head
The stars in the night sky
Looked down in dismay
‘This was the Christ!? Asleep on some hay!?’

 

The cattle are lowing, this baby awakes
And just like a baby, a great din he does make.
‘I love you, Lord Jesus?
But please do not cry,
It makes you look human
Not aloof or on high.’

Be near me, Lord Jesus, get up from the hay
Grow into a man and be near me I pray
Bless all the children
In pain and despair
And don’t stop you’re crying
It shows that you care.

O Occupied Zone of Bethlehem

O little town of Bethlehem
In captivity you lie
Amidst your nervous, terror-ed sleep
The sentinels pass by.
In occupied streets shining
An endless burning light,
The hopes and fears of exiles’ tears
Are met in Him tonight.

How naturally, how painfully
the wondrous gift is given!
And God imparts to broken hearts
the promised reign of heaven;
Keen ears have heard his coming
But in this world of din
Where Roman soldier’s madness holds;
The liberator breaks in.

 

Sleepless Night

Sleepless night, horrible night
Baby cried, half the time
Round we walked this Mother and Child
Holy Infant not tender or mild
Sleep is desperately need-ed
Sleep is all that I need.

Sleepless night, horrible night
Shepherd’s came, what a sight!
Covered in poo and smelt like a bar
Brought their sheep, that’s going to far!
I can’t wait for the morn
I can’t wait for the morn.

Sleepless night, horrible night
Son of God? Yes, alright.
Asleep at last, just look at his face,
See the dawn of ordinary grace!
Jesus Lord at your birth
Jesus Lord at your birth.

 

Happy Christmas!

Reformation 500

On a wall next to platform 4 of Reading Station there is a memorial to Henry West who ‘lost his life in a whirlwind’ in that place in 1840. The memorial includes a poem from the time which turns this tragic accident into the opportunity for a verse sermon, urging those left behind to take warning from the event. ‘Dear Friends’ it says:

Prepare, taking warning by my fall

So shall you hear with joy the Saviour’s call 

It is hard to imagine such an event being marked and remembered in such a way now. Christian belief and language are so far from the minds and lips of the majority of the population that few have little idea of the sense of the memorial’s message. The appeal to ‘hear…the Saviour’s call’ falls on deaf ears, in a culture is little knowledge or understanding of who the ‘Saviour’ is and what his call might be.

Religion in our culture is a peripheral affair. Recent statistics suggest that those who self-define as religious are now in a minority. Our traditional religious institutions are in a very different place to where they were in 1840. The church is a marginal voice in a crowded religious and cultural marketplace. And whilst the church may still have the default position of lead religious voice in some matters, its statements carry little authority. In the wake of the Manchester bombings it was the church that was invited to provide leadership at the vigil soon after.  Yet as the Bishop of Manchester has since said, it was his role to ‘curate’ the community’s response rather than lead it, and certainly not to dictate it.

This year is the 500th anniversary of the moment in history generally associated with the beginning of the Reformation. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on a door at the Castle Church, Wittenberg, and the church was never the same again. His radical rediscovery and application of the doctrine of grace blew apart the relationship between church and people, challenged many of practices of the Catholic church and paved the way for the protestant movement to move from persecuted minority to a legitimate expression of church.

500 years later the dramatic shift in the place of religion and in particular Christianity, in the life of Britain and other western nations, has been so thorough and so fast that many have wondered if we are experiencing a new reformation. Where might we look for evidence of this transformation? There is first the story of decline, of all the mainstream denominations. Then there are the many stories of those who have left church but not abandoned faith, looking instead to gather a handful of like-minded individuals and journey together. And there are the huge numbers of people drawn to elements of Christianity, but happily fusing these ideas and practices with those of other traditions with little interest in organised religion. Something is afoot. And whatever it is Christianity, and its place in society, will likely never be the same again.

The writer Phyliss Tickle referred to what we are experiencing as another “semi-millennial rummage sale of ideas”, a kind of necessary clear out of accumulated stuff as a means of rediscovering what really matters. That was true of the Reformation with its three slogans ‘sola Scriptura’sola fides’, ‘sola gratia’  – ‘only scripture!’ ‘Only faith!’ ‘Only grace!’ It was attempting to clear away the clutter of indulgences, overbearing ritual, relics and obligatory religious observance and invite people back to a personal and individual faith. The key point of these slogans was to shift authority away from the patriarchal institutions of the church and back to scripture.

Many argue that the Reformation didn’t go far enough. The power of institution was not sufficiently broken and ritualistic authority was simply exchanged for an authority of doctrine. After all you couldn’t trust the ordinary man or woman to read Scripture on their own! So instead of being mediators of grace, the churches became arbiters of truth and dispensers of orthodoxy. What we are experiencing in our own age is the undermining of institution as the locus of authority. And with that global shift the churches in the west find they are losing adherents at an alarming rate. Some, it is argued, were never too firm on their belief in the first place. Others are taking their well-worn faith and looking for a place to nurture it beyond the reaches of organised Christianity.

Other still are venturing out to the edges of the institutions and reimagining church for the increasingly post-Christian, post-Christendom landscape that is still forming. Slowly but surely a movement of such pioneers and dissidents is forming. Spirit and community are the axioms that characterise this reforming movement –  the equivalent of the three-fold cry of ‘grace’.  The church emerging from the upheavals of the last century, growing in conviction and confidence, is one freed from the assumptions and models of Christendom. Free to follow the Spirit and reimagine church as a set of relationships rather than a set of prescribed practices. Free to delve into the past for such treasures devalued by the Reformation and refresh them for a new age – practices such as contemplation, silence, solitude. Freed enough from clericalism to find the space to rediscover church as a deep expression of solidarity and love in community. And freed from the endless dance around the holy grail of orthodoxy to journey with others with the deeper question of what it means to live Jesus’ call to live life to the full. These new forms of church are small and numerous, fleet of foot and flexible in form. They meet in cafes and homes, pubs and gyms. They will never have the power, prestige or public face of the traditional church. This emerging church is Communitas Spiritus, ‘a church from below’, a church with a purpose, shaped not by the limited arguments of the Reformation age of right belief, but by the common hunger for spiritual community in the service of Christ.

 

Rite of Passage

Rite of Passage (Durham 2017)

There are still some things only life can let you know

Time is a classroom with no conferring

In the cloisters, the ghosts of Celtic saints have worn the floor

Adulthood is the painful art of letting go

 

The bridge is a widened gate to self-improvement

To towers of learning established above the trees

Where centuries of earnest minds have pushed the doors

Time is a classroom with no conferring

 

Place is the settled form and bend in the river’s flow

Adulthood is the painful art of letting go

Rowers learnt to sculpt and steer the current’s turning

There are still some things only life can let you know.

 

The beech trees are shedding this year’s brittle mast

Striking the shaded paths around the river’s course

There are still some things only life can let you know

Love is the painful art of letting go.

 

The Grenfell Tower Beatitudes

The Grenfell Tower Beatitudes

Is this the moment? Is this the hour? 
When all our ungerminated seeds of justice flower?
Is this the day our myopic consumer bubble finally bursts?
Is this the moment the sublimated cry of those whose voice
Is stepped on, stopped up, silenced, sidelined
Breaks through and slakes its thirst?
 

Might this be, for all its visceral, pain and loss
And all its tears and grief and monumental human cost, 
All the hideous detailed traumatic tales and horror stories, 
All its blackened, choked up smoked inferno
Of misery, cheap industry, colonial history, ignominy,
All its horror at the thought of flames rising rapidly on those
       who never had much choice, 
Might this be the moment where people of poverty, dignity
       and community find our voice?
 
And when we do – clearing our collective lungs, 
Coughing up the blackened phlegm, 
Crying past the pain of burnt out throats, 
We would cry and we would sing the protest song,
The long- suppressed lament of those
Who have for too long been the nation’s prisoners of hope.

Who cry

 “Woe to you the fattened corner cutters!
You praise the logic of the spreadsheet before the dignity of others. 
Woe to you the high priests and priestesses of austerity!
You discredit those with the temerity
To catalogue the real-time, lived severity
Of what it is to live in the nursery of your love-child, poverty. 
Woe to you, you authors of deregulation’s hymn
That sang a strident song of local responsibility and reaped a whirlwind. 
Woe to you the ordinary metropolitan urban woman and man
Working blindly for the false prize of luxury – but who didn’t give a damn!”

But blessed are those who cry for action
The ones who fill church halls and stores and mosques and boxes with rations
Those whose thought is only humanity and compassion
Those who are meek and brave and humble enough to meet
Pain and anger full in the face and not feel they have to speak. 
Blessed are those who mourn. 
Blessed are those who grieve
The ones whose tear-streaked, sooted faces may yet achieve
What the politician, the prophet and the poets of justice 
Have for generations sought to weave.

And blessed are the meek,
For whom maybe, this is the moment,
This is the hour, this is the week,
When the kingdom of the mustard seed
Outgrew its neglected emblematic burnt-out frame
And burst out on the streets. 

The humanity of Manchester – and us all.

In the wake of the horrific act of terrorism in Manchester on Monday evening, a wave of inspiring stories of altruism and humanity have emerged. Of the taxi drivers offering free lifts, the medical staff voluntarily returning to their place of work on hearing of the incident, of homeless men caring for the injured and dying, of Manchester residents offering their homes as a place to stay to people caught up in the chaos. We have all been stirred by this wave of compassion, of generosity, of altruism – of humanity, in the wake of the utterly inhuman act of one individual.

George Monbiot is right however to point out that we shouldn’t be surprised by these acts. They are part of what it means to be human. The ability to empathise and relate closely to the predicament or another, even someone unknown to us, is part of what makes us unique as a species. It is in our very nature to act as so many have acted in the past 48 hours. That does not make it any less laudable that people do. Nor should it refrain us from praising and highlighting these acts of generosity. They may be natural, but they are worth celebrating all the same, especially in the face of an act designed to erode our solidarity and abuse our humanity.

A Monbiot says:

‘Altrusim and empathy are what binds us together, and what defines us. We should let no one distract us from the central fact if our nature: neither terrorists not those who, in response to them, demand we slam our doors in the faces of an entire community or an entire religion’  

We must believe in the innate nature of our altruism in an age when political forces prey on our tendency to favour fear over trust. We must live and act in faith that to be human is to experience and empathy and offer love. That means not only being empathetic and loving ourselves, but living on the basis that we will receive it from others.

Which is why I was alerted yesterday by a friend’s testimony from some work he was doing in our own community. We are exploring the possibility of setting up a community resource called a Street Association. These are groups of 5 -6 people in streets and small neighbourhoods who work together to bring greater neighbourliness by throwing street parties and BBQs and addressing some of the felt needs of that street. In Birmingham 7 have been set up with the support of the local council. A recent analysis suggests that in one year they have saved the Council £36,000 in public resources through greater neighbourliness, experienced as reduction in the use of police time on issues of neighbourhood disrupted, anti-social behaviour etc. In other words, by at least this measure, they work.

My friend asked residents in a local social housing tower bloc two simple questions: ”How many of your neighbours do you know? Would you like to know more of your neighbours?” The answer in a depressingly high proportion of cases was; “very few” and “no”, respectively. This area, of a coastal Dorset town, not exactly a centre of cultural and ethnic diversity, shows the need for faith in the humanity of humanity. And it shows perhaps the silent work of fear, created not so much by terrorists but by the same forces that have brought us into a place where Brexit was possible and the rise of far-right parties a reality.  Which is perhaps why we shout all the louder when we see acts of humanity from stranger to stranger, from the homeless man to the affluent woman, from the Muslim taxi-driver to the white-British man. For it takes an attack on a whole community to bring that latent humanity to a level that, for a period at least, seems to embrace the whole community. And that is something we long for.

So what do we need? We need leaders. People who believe in the inherent worth of community and solidarity that they will lead others in the reinforcing the local networks and other forms of social capital that have been eroded in the past few generations. We need people who will perhaps forgo or adjust the atomised life of the affluent commuter in order to plant their feet firmly in their own community for the common good. We need organisers who will not allow the insidious effects of individualism and consumerism stop them from believing in the innate value all human-beings place on community and solidarity. We need people who will remind us again what community looks like by showing how to get there again.

The American farmer and poet Wendell Berry once said ‘what I stand for is what I stand on’. We all stand with Manchester this week. Let us also commit to standing with and standing for the communities, neighbourhoods and gatherings of  humanity that inhabit the same ground we stand on.

 

Dry Bones pt2

dry-desertThis is the second part of couple of blogs based on a teaching day at Sarum College, Salisbury this year. The day explored the exile story as a means of engaging with the missional challenge for the church in post-Christendom Britain. It focussed specifically on the vision of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath[a] enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’” (Eze 37: 4 – 14)

Having defined the reality of Israel’s predicament and let go of any attachments toward unrealistic salvation by the old methods, Ezekiel is given a vision of hope. The cry of the exile is to go home, it is for restoration of what seems so precious now, but which was normal before the crisis; security, identity, peace. Ezekiel’s vision however suggests not restoration but renewal – a recreation of what it means to come home.

What becomes clear I that a new thing is taking place. The hope for Israel is not restoration, a return to the former things – God has something more creative in mind. Recreation. Resurrection.  The giving of the Spirit echoes the creation story of Gen 2:7, humankind is created from the dust of the ground and life breathed into them. It also foreshadows the breathing into the disciples of the Sprit after the resurrection in John 20.

In this vision the primacy of God’s initiative provides the context in which Ezekiel is invited to participate. God creates the space in the narrative for Ezekiel to participate, but the initiative is always his. The repeated declarations of ‘I will’ from the voice of God are a constant reiteration of God’s agency and initiative.

Fundamental to the vision is the Spirit. The use of the word ruach binds the passage together. Used creatively and with variety – translated wind, Spirit, breath, and applied to humanity, nature, God.  The Spirit is the animator of resurrection. Indispensable to it. But the Spirit cannot be boxed or treated like a utility. There is a mysterious, multivalent, unpredictable nature to the Spirit. He is central and powerful yet decentred character in the narrative.

Renewal as a way home 

coming-homeThis resurrection and renewal then is explained as a homecoming. ‘’I will bring you back to the land of Israel’ (vs 12) ‘I will settle you in your own land’ (vs 14). This looks again like restoration – a return to former things, yet for two reasons we know that restoration is not what is in mind. Firstly, whilst there was a homecoming, the impact of exile was far reaching and creative. Israel did not see itself as having been restored even with the rebuilding of the temple and of Jerusalem. Hence the disciples can ask ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel’ (Acts 1: 6)

Secondly, all the foreshadowing of re-creation in this passage points to the emergence of something new, not a return to the old. Rather this is homecoming as renewal, a return to the sense and structure of home but in a new way. It is perhaps homecoming in the sense that TS Eliot put it, that ‘at the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’ 

Of course, there was a homecoming, under Cyrus of Persia (see Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai) but it is by no means a return to business as usual. Instead the post-exilic period saw a thorough and radical reimagining of what it meant to be the people of God.  As Brueggemann puts it : ‘exile did not lead Jews in the Old Testament to abandon faith or to settle for abdicating despair, nor to retreat to privatistic religion. On the contrary, exile evoked the most brilliant literature and the most daring theological articulation in the Old Testament’ (Cadences of Home, p3)

This reimaging can be described under 3 headings, and these provide 3 focusses for reflection in terms of our response to the place of the church in post-Christendom Britain.

Firstly a radical development in the understanding of God’s presence – from specific to universal.  Exilic literature asserts the presence of God in hitherto unimaginable places, foreign soil. God was still with them in exile, he had not disappeared, his presence was not bound by their assumptions of him.  Hence radical witness of the vision of Ezekiel – the overwhelming glory of the presence of God appeared to Ezekiel from the very beginning ‘while I was among the exiles by the Kebar river’ (1:1).

This relates powerfully to one of the great emerging emphases of the fresh expressions movement. The great rediscovery by the likes of David Bosch, hugely influential to early pioneers and to the Mission Shaped Ministry report, was the concept of mission Dei. That God is a missionary God in his very nature, and that his key agency for mission is his people.

This fundamentally changes how we think about and carry out mission. The key task as leaders of mission is one of listening and discernment. It is seeking to listen and discern a sense of what God is already doing in the community we are engaging with and coming alongside. Eze 37 bears out this pattern, God’s initiative in transformation and renewal is clearly articulated, the role of Ezekiel is to listen, and participate in humble obedience.

I call this contemplative mission – it is mission that starts first and foremost with an attitude of contemplation, of making space for God and the centre of life and ministry. It is a trained and discipline attentiveness to the context in which are called.

The anxiety of crisis, in Ezekiel and in the challenge facing the church, lends itself to quick fixes, to models and plans, anything to get us out of this crisis. But what we need is vision, imaginative and Spirit-inspired vision. Vision that will enable us to go somewhere neither we nor the people we are seeking to reach have been before.

Secondly a developed understanding and practice of holiness – from ritualistic to holistic. The exilic narratives emphasise faithful Jewish practice in the face of the challenges of a dominant culture. The holiness codes of Lev 17 – 26 generally thought to have been definitively shaped around the 6th century BC. This code is detailed and thorough and is testimony to a developed expression of holiness that moved beyond episodic ritual to holistic practice. Other exilic prophets begin to express circumcision as a metaphor for distinctive faith, ‘circumcise your hearts’ (Jer 4:4), whilst Sabbath keeping and tabernacle constitute recovery of the sacramental life of Israel.

We can similarly trace the expression of this response in the key emphasis in the pioneer/Fresh Expression movement of authentic community. For many the monastic pioneers of the Celts, Benedictines and Franciscans have been a source of inspiration. Whereas Christendom seemed fixated with orthodoxy and became endlessly bogged down in doctrinal disputes, the missionary imperative of post-Christendom argues for communities of Christian disciples committed to the pursuit of Christ-centred orthopraxy.

Discipleship is therefore of fundamental importance to these new forms of church, much more so than observance. The call is clearly to live lives of authentic witness in the midst of the dominant culture in which we are exiles. Authentic witness will be faithful to the gospels and countercultural to the prevailing values of the dominant culture.

Finally exile saw a reformation in Israel’s understanding of its mission, from attractional to incarnational. Exile brought about a renewed sense for Israel of being a people with a mission to bless the nations. Passages in 2nd Isaiah’s servant songs articulate a call on the Israel to once again act as a light to the nations.  Jeremiah writing to the exiles calls on them to ‘see the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile’ (Jer 29:7).  The didactic narratives also have a clear missional emphasis: Jonah preaching to the Ninevites who respond in repentance and faith, Daniel’s demonstration of the supremacy of Yahweh resulting in declarations of faith from Nebuchadnezzar.

There is a huge re-emphasis on the theme of mission, but this emphasis is clearly incarnational. It builds on the understanding that God is present on foreign soil and amongst foreign people. Whereas any sense of being a blessing to the nations seemed confined the welcome of stranger and aliens, now there is an added dimension of being a holy and distinctive presence amongst a foreign people.

Once again this reflects similar renewed emphasis in the mission of our time with the proliferation of incarnational forms of mission and church planting. In the long twilight of Christendom attractional methods of encouraging people to church may still have some traction. But exile suggests the issues are more fundamental than simply the distance between the church and the pub – the distances in cultural terms that we need to travel may be as great as Jonah’s journey to Ninevah, the exiles journey to Babylon, Paul’s journey to Athens. Mission cannot be an occasional, even regular, mission week or Alpha course, mission must become the orienting factor which shapes the very nature of church. It must be as much about who we are as Christian community as what we do. It was emanate from our radical presence amidst the people of the culture in which we live.