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.

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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.

 

The future’s no longer orange…it’s teal.

cathedral-processionI recently came across a fascinating article on organisational management. It described a growing movement in some organisations which seems to herald perhaps a paradigm shift in the way they will be run in the future.

The piece built on a developmental theory of organisations which argues that organisations have experienced a series of evolutionary breakthroughs to achieve new levels of achievement and complexity (see figure below).

The article then suggested that we are the process of a new breakthrough a movement into a new realm. In the colour categorisation of this evolutionary scheme these new organisations are called ‘teal organisations’. In this new realm, teal organisations embody three important values:

1.       Self-management – management is no longer a top-down process but is embedded throughout organisations giving people at every level the freedom to make decisions

2.       Wholeness – the organisation actively encourages people to express all that they are in the organisation rather than some professional part of themselves. The organisation sees itself as having a role in people development of wholeness

3.       Evolutionary purpose – organisations have a deep sense that they have a purpose beyond themselves that they must sense and respond to. The bottom line is not shareholder value, but on responding well to this sense of evolutionary purpose.

teal-orgsAn example of a teal organisation is Buurtzorg, a care provider in Holland. Founded in 2006 it took a completely different approach to providing care to the overstretched, centrally controlled care companies that have, much like in the UK, proliferated in Holland since the 1990’s. At Buurtzorg teams of 10 -12 nurses serve a clearly defined neighbourhood. These teams self-manage – they decide which patients to prioritise, they liaise with local doctors and pharmacies and collaborate with the local hospitals.  Instead of proving care in the narrowly defined way it often is –  washing patients, changing bandages, administering drugs – the purpose of Buutzorg is to help patients life well. Nurses sit down with their clients and help them design their own support networks to help them lives as well as they can.

Buurtzord has grown exponentially. After 8 years is market share was 60%. It is incredibly efficient, delivering care with 40% less hours than other care providers, because patients become self-sufficient so much quicker. Hospital admissions have been cut by a third making huge savings in terms of the governments health budgets. Buurtzorg is also a profitable company.  It is quite an incredible picture of an organisation doing things radically different.

Naturally I couldn’t help but think of the church as I read this article. Where is the church in the schema of organisational paradigms described? Whilst we might at least be able to discount the first paradigm (red) which describes brutal organisations like street gangs and organised crime, the church finds itself all too familiar with elements of the other paradigms. Organisations that are based on the principle of an army (Amber), a machine (orange) or a family (green) all have operational elements that can be found in the contemporary church.

Perhaps this is what you might expect. The church, once absorbed acquiescently into political empire in the 4th century, has been mimicing the dominant culture ever since.  The last half-century has seen the church import, with relatively little reflection of critique, the business practices of the successful organisation around it. And part of the challenge we face is that most denominations still operate with the structures of a medieval hierarchy in a world that is utterly different and utterly unpredictable. We have as Bishop JV Taylor put it ‘lost our nerve and our sense of direction and have turned the divine initiative into a human enterprise’. No wonder we are so entranced by the best human enterprises of our age.

The descriptions of teal organisations are fascinating however. They resonate with a sense of what the church was always called to be. The metaphor that best describes a teal organisation is that of living organism – there are resonances here of Jesus’ agrarian metaphors for the Kingdom and of course Paul’s metaphor of the body. Self-management and wholeness relate powerfully with the church’s call to enable human flourishing and personal development.

But perhaps it is with the idea of evolutionary purpose that a key connection is made. Teal organisations are openly embracing the idea that there is something greater than simply the market outside of themselves. They are deliberately seeing to connect with, sense and respond to something beyond themselves that is calling them to a higher purpose. For many this brings into play practices of silence and contemplation, or of what has become known as ‘presencing’, attending to something deeper than just spreadsheets, business plans and management targets. Teal organisations, and those who study them, begin to get very unbusiness-like with their language at this point, God rarely gets a mention, but suddenly the realm of the unseen is entering into the parlance and practice of reputable and profitable organisations.

So, business has entered postmodernity and the New Age. So what? The church’s call is to continually respond to the voice of its founder, not the chatter of the trends of our age. Absolutely, except that in teal organisations I see something fundamental to what the church is, and which it has lost. It has lost a central belief that it is an organism, not an organisation, that it is a community in relationship with a God who calls, not a thing, or an enterprise that just puts God’s name on the letterhead. It has most critically lost a willingness to listen to the voice of the Spirit which is constantly calling it into new places and into new forms. And to a voice that is so consistently challenging to our penchant for order because it is constantly speaking from out there in the world where things are changing and people lives will not fit the categories we would like them to.

Jurgen Moltmann has spoken of three paradigms in the church’s history – the hierarchical paradigm (think Christendom, think amber), the Christocentric paradigm (think reformed churches, think orange/green) and the charismatic paradigm (perhaps think teal?). He says ‘in the charismatic congregation Christians come of age, and acquire the courage to live out their own experience of faith and to bring themselves with their own powers into the community of the coming of the Kingdom of God’.  Yet have we not been in the charismastic paradigm since the day of Pentecost? Did we simply lose our way, our nerve, and get dragged along with the same cultural and organisational trends described by contemporary theorists. Whichever way surely now we are invited to boldly reembody the church’s call to be a genuine charismatic community; diverse, local, agile, that seeks to enable human flourishing and wholeness and which is deeply attentive to the Spirit of God that gives her life and calls her forward.

 

 

My name is Paul and I’m a Christian melancholic

Half-empty-glass-I have recently returned from a Christian festival. I have spent the last week camping in close proximity amongst 10,000 other people and have filled my days with large gatherings, seminars, conversations and non-stop human contact. As an introvert who needs a heavy dose of personal space and reflection every day just to function well this was a challenge. But it is one I generally relish after the initial shock. For the past 10 years this annual gathering has refreshed me, challenged me and nurtured both my faith and ministry.  I am hugely grateful for all that this gathering, and the movement that it represents stands for. I shall be returning again next year.

There is however one element about this gathering, and perhaps others like it, and I suppose the general culture of the evangelical charismatic movement, that I continue to wrestle with. And it is this. I always spend the whole week feeling like the Cinderella at the ball, the Eeyore of the story, the killjoy and the party-pooper. There is an overwhelming positivity to these weeks that is intoxicating – a wave of smiles, and applause, ‘amazing’s and ‘fanastic’s that in themselves are great but as an almost unbroken experience just start to feel a little incongruous. And I spend the week struggling with it in a sea of people who all seem to simply lap it up.

I am a self-confessed melancholic. By which I mean, not that I suffer from depression in the sense we use it and which used to be called melancholia, but that I do tend to see the world rather glass-half-empty rather than full. I have spent years as a Christian wrestling with this disposition, even praying that somehow the joy that I am supposed to possess would be a little more exterior. But as the years have gone by, and an ever deeper appreciation of joy and grace have come without any fundamental change in this aspect of my character, I have come to see my melancholia, my sensitivity to the negative experiences and feelings of the lives of many people, as something of a gift.

So I want to stand up, in the manner of an AA meeting and confess that ‘my name is Paul and I am a Christian melancholic’. Not, to divert from the analogy, because I am unhealthily attached to seeing life so negatively, but to make a positive stand and admit for myself and to others that it might actually be good for me and the church.

The church needs melancholics. We need people who are sensitive to the negative emotions and experiences of the world around us. I love the passion and intention with which the charismatic movement of which I am a part shines a light on the inaugurated reality of the Kingdom of God. The Good News of the Kingdom is that it is here, and it is heralded by sign of wonders of the Kingdom, healings, deliverance, supernatural gifts. But, as one speaker this week helpfully put it, ‘we must continue to journey with those who still wait for healing’, or deliverance, of whatever it is they hope for. And so we need people who can ‘mourn with those who mourn’, who can empathise with those in pain, who will notice those caught up more in the ‘not yet’ of the Kingdom more than the ‘now’.

But I believe melancholics offer more than just empathy whilst we wait for the fulfilment of the Kingdom. Mary Oliver puts it beautifully:

‘Someone I loved once gave me

A box full of darkness.’ 

It took me years to understand

That this, too, was a gift’ 

While the world avoids negativity and darkness at all costs, dulling its pain and vulnerability with an assortment of narcotics, alcohol, work, busyness, sex (what Barbara Brown Taylor calls ‘artificial lights’), the Christian Gospel of hope is one that believes the darkness of our lives is not an experience where God cannot be, or an experience to be feared and avoided. Darkness is a place where God is. Indeed darkness it often the place where God does some of his best work in our lives. Darkness is even the place where God does some the work that cannot be done any other way!

A culture of fist-bumping positivity, so much the feel of the 24 – hour TV entertainment world we live in and the Facebook profile story we write for ourselves, is therefore an anaesthetic to the grace of God in these situations. It steamrollers over them. It suppresses and denies truth and the possibility of grace for those living in the shadow of death. Darkness really is a gift. But one we must discover by digging. There really are diamonds in the darkness but we must learn to mine for them.

In this sense melancholics can be ministers of hope, pausing in the darkness with those who struggle and those who weep. Melancholics can be those whose ears and hearts are attuned to the pain and anguish of the world and who can therefore help others to listen to their own pain long enough to find the voice of God within it. Melancholics need not be the Cinderella to the annual summer parties of the church – they are a profound gift to the church in this age between the now and the not-yet and we must learn to embrace the ministry that they bring.

 

 

Grayson Perry or Jesus Christ – what does it mean to be a man?

Grayson Perry In ‘Grayson Perry – All Man’, a series of documentaries for  Channel 4, artist Grayson Perry spent time with men in three different sub-cultures to explore  what it means to be a man. As he said of himself in the introduction to each episode there was something about Perry’s slight detachment from masculinity, as a transvestite and self-confessed ‘life-long sissy’, that gave him a unique vantage point to observe men and their behaviours in a wide variety of contexts. Perry’s immersive look at the worlds of cage-fighting, sink estate gangs and investment banking gave us insight into cultures that are pretty alien to most ‘normal’ men. And yet they revealed a great deal that was truthful and telling about the reality of what it means to be man in today’s world. The MMA (mixed martial arts) fighters of the north east seemed to be taking on much of the anger and loss of a whole generation of men whose identity and power had been destroyed in the closure of the coal mines. The youth of Skelmersdale fought violent and pitiful battles over the minutiae of local geography and criminal hierarchy. The bankers of the city played clever and charming games of power and control behind facades of elegant marble. But in all of these hugely diverse worlds the men involved had found ways of creating structures to avoid something that all men, in any context, find hard – vulnerability.

It is human to prefer order to chaos, control to disempowerment. But it has perhaps been the overwhelming inheritance of men to expect to be in control of order and in custody of power to the extent that its loss, and the resultant vulnerability it brings, is something we almost pathologically avoid. Perry referred in one episode to men having constructed a ‘carapace’, a kind exoskeleton of toughness, or charm, or aggression to keep the world and all its complexity and uncertainty at bay. That carapace might be violent posturing, gangster dress, sharp suits and gentlemanly honour. But it still has the same aim –  to hide the truth about ourselves, to present order and control to the world, to hide the soft abdomen of vulnerability from sight.

In a church I once attended there was a very prominent sculpture of Jesus which tried to capture that moment when he stood before Pilate. The striking thing about this piece was that the artist had portrayed Jesus as a remarkably muscular man. In fact so muscular that Jesus had the distinct look of a body-builder.  There was something very powerful about this in terms of what kind of man we think Jesus was. Here was a strong, muscular, and distinctively masculine Jesus. And yet portrayed in a moment of utter vulnerability when he comes, already flogged within inches of his life, to confront Pilate, the most potent local symbol of Roman power and strength. To be a man, Jesus shows us, in that moment, is to put one’s power and strength aside and offer nakedness and vulnerability to the puppet powers of the world.  Jesus before Pilate

The thing is we have defined masculinity very much in terms of strength, aggression, assertiveness. ‘It takes a man to take a life’ says one of the young people of the Skelmersdale estate that Perry visits. In the square mile, whilst the language of ‘aggression’ might not make it into CVs and application letters any more, Perry’s analysis suggested that it is still very much there, simply driven under the skin, under a thin patina of charm, honour and political correctness. To be a man in the modern world is still to fight, to assert oneself, to dominate, to climb to the top of the hierarchy, to win.

In a church where the gender imbalance is still stark, what kind of masculinity are we seeking to embrace? Often men’s ministry seems like nothing more than an attempt to reemphasise vaguely masculine themes and values often borrowed from general secular definitions of what it means to be a man. A gathering with some beer, some football or a full English breakfast. Is that all that it means to be a man?  

Might we not do better than that and actually begin to define a brave and courageous vision for Christian masculinity.  Jesus before Pilate might well be a defining image for a Christian man – the power and strength of one man laid down in vulnerability and defiance to the false power of the age. Power and strength offered in service to the most vulnerable, the weakest, the least. This is courageous vulnerability. In this vision power and strength are not ignored or devalues, but they are ennobled by a willingness to offer them vulnerably in the sacrificial service of others, particularly the poor and the marginalised.The willingness to withhold power, aggression, violence, is an act of power in itself – vulnerable power, sacrificial power, downward power. This is the way of the Kingdom in which the courageous vulnerable man can show others what it really means to be a man.

Teachers, junior doctors and vicars – the precious value of vocations

stressed teacher

In the course of the past few months I have had a similar conversation with a number of very different people in a variety of professions. All have resigned from a profession they largely loved and felt clearly drawn to. And all have come to the painful and difficult conclusion that they can no longer continue in their chosen profession and remain themselves.

Of these, two are GPs. Both have spent huge amounts of time, energy and money and significant personal cost to qualify. Both have worked for a number of years in the NHS and yet both have come to point where they can no longer continue. For these two GPs the pressure to attend to patients at breakneck speed, ensuring that a quota of patients can be seen by lunchtime within the targets set for them by their practice managers, has simply proved too much. They are stressed, demoralized, almost broken. They are also heart broken, drive out by an atmosphere of systemic urgency which mitigates against the kind of time and attention required to really care for a human being.

Two others are teachers. Both have taught, quite intentionally, in schools with a challenging intake of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And both feel they can no longer attend to these children as people because the system will not allow it. Their vocation to nurture the potential of these children has been crushed by the sheer weight of administrative responsibility, suffocated by an airless atmosphere of one-dimensional achievement and endless inspection.

Asjunior doctors strike I write junior doctors are in the midst of an unprecedented third strike. Whilst the strike is about a new contract, and therefore, in theory, about pay and working hours, at heart it is about value. It is about how much we value a vocation where intelligent people, invest huge amounts of themselves, often at great personal sacrifice, in order to tend to another human being at a point of need.  Junior doctors recognise, in the new contract soon to be imposed on them, not just something that is unfair, but something that ultimately devalues their vocation.

A vocation is something that will motivate the individual beyond the normal relationship between work and remuneration. GPs, teachers, and junior doctors already work far more hours than they are contracted to. They do so because something within them drives them to care, to nurture, to heal. We recognise it in them, we know that it is there to some degree in all of us. We want it to be there when we need it ourselves.

However, what we are witnessing, in all these professions, is the effects of a culture that has significantly lost sight of the value and beauty of vocation. In The Road to Character New York Times columnist David Brooks argues powerfully that our western culture has increasingly become infected by a ‘utilitarian virus’. This culture lives by a ‘the logic of economics’, in which:

Input leads to output. Effort leads to reward. Practice makes perfect. Maximise your utility. Impress the world.’

And it results in a kind of mean-spirited reductionism that distils everything down to what can be measured, what can be systematized, what can be reproduced and maximized. It is the world of economics translated into every corner of life. And now it is reaching those areas of life utterly ill-disposed to it, the care and nurture of our fundamental humanity, our health, our education.

In that same clutch of conversations I referred to earlier there were also two ordained ministers. I knew them both when, with myself and others, we arrived at theological college to train for ministry in the Church of England. Each of us had articulated our sense of vocation to a substantial number of people within the church and been accepted for training. We were a cohort of men and women, on average in our 30’s, passionate about our faith, hopeful for the future of the church, and committed to lead and serve the church in its worship and mission.  10 years later I happened upon two of that same cohort seriously considering leaving the ministry. Not for a loss of faith. Not primarily due to the demands of the job. They were on the edge of resigning from ministry for the same reason that my GP friends and teacher friends were resigning – the institution they had committed themselves to serving no longer seemed to provide the context in which their vocation could be exercised. Both spoke with a sad resignation at the conclusion they had come to. They remained motivated by their faith, and by the vision of church that is local communities of disciples living out their faith in a local context, yet could no longer see how this deep sense of vocation could be given space in an institution that placed such huge demands of administration on them. This burden of administration; managing graveyards, the paperwork associated with grade listed buildings, the responsibility of service provision across multiple churches over a wide area was becoming a tsunami of managerial drudgery that they saw no way out of – except by moving on.

It was clearly painful for them to come to this conclusion. It was a huge salutary warning to me to hear it. And it ought to be a salutary warning to the church, the Church of England certainly, but perhaps the whole church.

It is some years now since John Drane wrote about the ‘McDonaldisation’ of the church. He described concisely the economic dogmatism of the corporate world, a world which creates a tyranny of calculability, predictability, conformity and control. And he urged the church against these creeping tendencies, arguing instead for values of creativity, relationality, flexibility and proactivity as an antidote.

In an age of continuing decline in the mainstream denominations what Brooks calls a ‘utilitarian calculus’ and Drane ‘McDonaldisation’ can be a pernicious temptation. It can be a potential default mechanism for large institutions struggling to keep going. But the casualties of its dehumanizing tendencies are everywhere. Teachers choosing to teach abroad. Junior doctors striking. Young ministers reluctantly leaving a denomination and seeking a context somewhere else in which their vocation can be expressed.

church vocationsI can remember our college vice-principle warning us not to end up ‘cranking the eccelesial machine’, and yet some of us, despite out best intentions, have ended up doing just that. 10 years into my life as an ordained minister I find myself as a training incumbent, Anglican-ese for a minister with responsibility for the 3 – 4 year post-ordination training phase of a new minister. The cohort of curates of which my curate is one are a phenomenal bunch of young ministers with a passionate sense of their vocation for leadership and mission in the church. Will this young group of fresh ministers also end up turning the crank? If they do we will have failed them. And the danger is we will also have lost them.

What then must the church do? First, we must listen. What is clear from my conversations with GPs, teachers and vicars alike is a sense in which the reality of the pressures of their jobs is not listened to by a distant and stubborn institution. The institution continues belligerently to eke out another year, another turn of the wheel, with staff constantly at the end of their resources. ‘Insanity’ as Einstein once said ‘is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ The church must listen to the vocations of those whose call it has affirmed, as they come into authorised ministry under their care. When I listen I hear people articulating a passion to make a difference, to lead in mission, to see the church change and be renewed. I do not hear a glowing endorsement of a ministry that will result in them wading knee deep in paperwork, or running from one service to another with hardly a moment for a meaningful conversation.

Secondly, in listening to these young ministers we must try to see that in them is a vision of what God is doing, a vision of the future of the church.  If we truly believe in the gift and divine value of vocation, as surely we do, then we must listen to what these vocations are saying, for they are the voice of God for what the church must be. We must be willing to take, in many cases, the bold risk of creating space for these vocations to flourish. We must stop forcing people into roles that give insufficient space for their gifts and call to thrive. This will mean tough decisions. It will mean that certain cogs in the ecclesial machine grind to a halt. It will mean investing in risky vocations, and creative individuals who don’t quite fit the mould. But it will, I believe, mean a shift toward shaping the church around its vocational future rather than its past.