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.

 

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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.

Dry Bones pt1

dry-desertThis is the first of two blogs based on some teaching I did recently at Sarum College in Salisbury based on the ‘valley of dry bones’ vision from Ezekiel 37: 1 – 14. The day explored the story of exile as a way of thinking about mission in post-Christendom Britain.

I would argue that exile is a powerful metaphorical lens with which to explore the identity and mission of today’s church. As in Israel’s exile the key treasures and symbols of an old and familiar dispensation have been dismissed and maligned and we are having to reimagine what it means to be the people of God.

The valley of dry bones is a liminal passage in the context of the book of Ezekiel as a whole. Whilst Ezekiel’s first ecstatic vision in the plain (3: 22 – 27) was the precursor to the destruction of Jerusalem, this vision provides a turning point between despair and hope. The rest of the books concerns the rebuilding of the temple and the return of the presence of God to it.

Lament as a step toward hope

“The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Ezekiel is faced with a valley full of the bones of a great army. They are many and they are dry as dust. He is led on a detailed tour of the bones. The vision must surely convey that the state of Judah, its military, royalty, priesthood, prophets are dead, long dead. Furthermore, unburied, they are under a curse – they are beyond the favour and blessing of God, they are outside of his life. That Ezekiel is taken on such a detailed tour of these bones also suggests that the reality of this must be confronted with – not just glossed over – it must be addressed in detail.

In terms of leadership in a post-Christendom context a key task of leadership must therefore be to confront the hard reality that is the context of our ministry.  It means to study intensely the reality of the place of the church in our society, not shirking from the places that look hopeless. We can all tell stories of hope, and its right that we do so.  We also need to face hopelessness squarely, not wallowing in, or giving into despair in the face of it – but honestly engaging with it. We must not shirk from the pain, the confusion and disorientation involved in seeking to be leaders/ministers of faith in a context where the dominant values, language and practices are different from our own.

As leaders in the church we are too often scared of lament. We would much rather continue to deal out some form of hope. But true hope only emerges when we have faced despair, difficulty, pain head on. That is the testimony of the psalms of lament, all of which take time to detail an experience of anguish, all of which (except one) end with an affirmation of faith and hope.

As Lee Beach says ‘defining reality is an act of empowerment, because it orients people in a way that allows them to proceed with the facts as they currently stand. Without this act of truth telling, a legitimate hope can never emerge’ (The Church in Exile p144).

What Ezekiel’s tour of the bones does is bring him to a point where he must realise, and Israel must realise, that true hope begins when all our puppet hopes have been laid down in the dust. Then we can perhaps hear the story of hope that God wants to give us.

Surrender and the dark night of the soul.

The next part of the passage is illuminating. Ezekiel is asked what seems like a rhetorical question: ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’. It would seem that the answer is obvious.  Yet Ezekiel is able somehow to utter ‘O Sovereign Lord, only you alone know’.

He able to utter those words because he has crossed the liminal threshold from death to life in himself. He has modelled the confrontation with death in himself that enables him to put complete and utter trust in the power of God to bring life.

From there on Ezekiel is invited to participate in an initiative of God to bring change and to bring life. He is not redundant. Instead his is a surrendered participation. A willed submission to the freedom and sovereignty of God.

Dark night is a helpful way of getting some grasp on the painful reality of the challenge of leadership and ministry in the context of exile. The key elements of dark night are:

  • a realisation that the old forms, that have served us well in past no longer seem to work any more.
  • A disorientation – an experience of fundamental uncertainty (oscura – the word from the Spanish as in noce oscura, literally means obscured or uncertain) ie dark night may not necessarily be a time of trauma or pain, it may be more a banal experience of disorientation, of uncertainty.
  • vulnerability – a sense of nakedness, or humiliation, unclothing.
  • grief – a real and visceral sense of pain at the loss of certainties

Is it not significant then that Ezekiel is deliberately confronted with the sheer apparent hopelessness and death of the valley of bones and yet is able to say ‘Sovereign Lord, only you alone know’?

Dark night is sometimes the only thing that brings us to that place of surrender where can give God the central role in leadership and ministry that he is asking us for. Indeed it is the thing that God uses to bring death (of ourselves), surrender and the possibility of resurrection.

Dark night is the deconstruction of forms – forms that have outstayed there welcome or usefulness and to which we have become overly attached. Forms that have taken the place of ‘Sovereign Lord’ at the centre of our lives and communal life. Forms that have become and end in themselves rather than a means to an end.

The experience of exile then is similar to the experience of dark night – old forms have been discredited, they don’t work in the same way anymore, those brave enough to do so begin searching for new forms that will give some traction on uncertain ground, some light in the darkness.

Therefore as leaders/ministers we must choose how to respond faithfully and help others to do the same. We can ignore the reality of dark night, carry on as though it weren’t happening, or we can embrace its reality and lean in to what the darkness has to teach us and to what is emerging in the darkness. When we do that we are then able, like Ezekiel, to be surrendered and open to the voice and action of God that brings renewal out of despair.

Stepping into Grace

stepping-into-grace-frontSo I’m pleased to be able to say my book ‘Stepping into Grace’ is published today by Bible Reading Fellowship. This blog was the training ground for many of ideas that made their way into the book. So it seemed apt to explain a little of what the book’s about and why I wrote it.

Most simply Stepping into Grace is a book about the beautifully formed and mysterious book of Jonah. About Jonah and his journey from Israel to Ninevah. A picaresque journey which is not primarily an external journey but an internal journey where Jonah’s faith, vocation and identity are all transformed.

But it’s the context of Jonah that makes it all the more interesting for our time and our situation as the church. Jonah is written after the exile and is a ‘diaspora advice tale’ – a story written by exiles to grapple with the challenge of exile. Who are we? Where is God? Can he be present amongst these people in this place? How do we continue to be the people of God living in a foreign land within a dominant culture suspicious of our faith and practices?

When we are living through the complexities of a crisis, we tell stories. Stories are good in a crisis. They are open forms to help us wrestle with the issues without closing them down. They are participative forms that draw us in and engage with the story in ways which enable us to engage with the challenge we face.  And it seems to me that Jonah is an exceptionally good story to help us reflect on the challenges and anxieties we face as the people of God today.

Before Jonah is called by God to preach to the Ninevites at the beginning of the book he is fully involved in a plan of restoration under the king of the northern Kingdom of Israel. Under this king (Jeroboam II) Israel experienced a small reversal of fortunes against the Assyrians and re-established its borders to a previous point of security. Of course, from the point of view of the later experience of exile this now looked ridiculous. Everyone knows it didn’t last. And when the inevitable came and the Assyrians exiled the Jews of the northern kingdom it was brutal.  It’s like that footage of Neville Chamberlaine coming down the steps of his airplane in 1938 waving that scrap of paper and declaring ‘peace in our time’. Hopeful at the time, but ultimately futile.

Jonah is stripped of this illusion of safety and security however when he is called to preach to the Ninevites – the very people who are Israel’s greatest enemy. He is forced in the story to confront what the exiles were already confronting – life as the people of God exiled from the land and face to face with the enemy.

And what transpires is a journey that maps out the journey of soul searching, lament, anguish and reformation that Israel went through as they dwelt in exile.

As I’ve written about on the blog before – I think exile is a pretty helpful and apposite metaphor for our experience as the Christian church in post-Christian Britain today. In many ways we are offered the same choice as Jonah – continue to attempt a programme of nostalgic restoration based on our own will and our own resources, or venture out into the call of God to participate with him in a movement of reform which is happening by the initiative of his Spirit.

And the thing is that if we, like Jonah, willingly or reluctantly, take on that call to venture beyond safety and security, face up to the challenge of mission to people who are not like us, we will find that it will change us, and stretch us and deepen our understanding and faith in this unboxable God of grace. Our vocation is not simply to do what God has called us to do, but to allow ourselves to be shaped into the people God would have us be, and that takes courage.

That has been my, sometimes painful, experience as a pioneer minister in Poole, Dorset. Given the role of creating something new that would connect with unchurched people I found myself travelling a very similar journey to Jonah, a journey that took me from confidence and ambition, through something of a dark night of the soul, to a renewed understanding of God’s grace.

Which is why the book is called ‘Stepping into Grace’. Because grace is not primarily a status, a kind of kite mark of authenticity. Grace is a flow of God’s life that he invites us to enter into, step into, be embraced by and led by. Grace aims to encapsulate and transform all that we are, our doing and our being throughout the course of our journey with God. And one of grace’s key modes of transformation is invitation – invitation to venture beyond ourselves and take on challenges that seem impossible and impractical, invitation to be vulnerable, stupid, in danger, without a plan or a strategy, so that the work of grace can get to those places where we cling on to the ridiculous illusion that we know what we are doing.

In exile God’s people discovered grace anew. They thought they knew all about grace, what it was and how to get it. Exile blew that all apart. That is where we are. Challenged to wrestle again with how to be people faithful to a God of grace without shrink-wrapping grace into presentable and manageable forms for the consumption of others. The challenge is enormous and it will take leaders of humility, vulnerability, obedience and courage to help us find our way. If in some small way this book helps people navigate this challenge, then I will be glad to have written it.