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.

 

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The vocation of teaching

After a run of conversations in the past few days with teachers exasperated and sad at the state of the education system I felt I had to do something. So I have written to Nicky Morgan, Minister for Education, the text of which is below. To me it is not just teaching but almost all vocations associated with public service that are being hugely devalued at present. Something I have written about elsewhere. I would interested to hear any responses to the thoughts of this letter.

3rd May 2016

Dear Ms Morgan,

I am not a teacher. Nor am I a parent of children anticipating the new SATs tests. I am however someone who hears the concerns and stories of a number of local teachers first hand. In recent days I have listened to two local teachers who have handed in their resignations with heavy hearts, and another who is watching substantial numbers of teachers at his school do the same. The latter estimated that 50% of those resigning were leaving the profession.

I am someone who is deeply concerned. I am concerned for children under increasing pressure to produce results. I am concerned for children who do not ‘fit’ the description of a high-achieving academic student. More than anything else though I am concerned for the vocation of teaching in the current public system. At present the government is gambling with the vocational good will of teachers. It is playing hardball with the emotional investment teachers have in their own profession and in their desire to make a difference to the lives of children. What I am seeing though is that that gamble is failing – teachers are leaving the profession; not because they can’t take the pressure, don’t work hard enough, aren’t paid enough – they are leaving because the system is strangling them of their ability to fulfil their vocation.

I am concerned that we are very close to damaging the teaching profession for a generation. Because it is not just the teachers we are losing from the profession now. But also those who will not consider teaching a reasonable vocation to pursue when they see what it does to those who currently practice it.

There has been much in recent days about ‘letting kids be kids’. But there is also the need to ‘let teachers be teachers’. You, and those before you, have created a utilitarian system that, for all its dogma about raising standards, is destroying the very foundation on which standards can be raised. The precious raw material of the education system is the dedication and skill of people who see it their vocation to pass on knowledge and help kids thrive. If they thrive, our children thrive. If they are constantly drowned by paperwork, strangled by endless central initiatives and cramped by curricula and demands that don’t represent that children in front of them, they will leave. And, in my experience, they are leaving, in droves.

A vocation is a gift. A gift to that person. And a gift to those who receive its service. It is also a gift to those whose job it is to steward the vocation of others. You are in danger of rubbishing the gift of vocation in a generation of teachers. I urge you to listen to these people, to listen to the passion of their vocation and their gift and respond – and quickly.

Yours

Paul Bradbury

Poole, Dorset.