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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Beasts of the Northern Wild

Stranded whalesLike so many people I was really moved by the pictures of sperm whales washed up on beaches at Skegness and Hunstanton this last week. One picture (left) moved me profoundly –  the two enormous whales, captured as though nestled into one another in a final embrace, their huge levered mouths open as though at the end of a final long exhalation, their small grey eyes caught in a kind of eternal look of surprise. And all around them ordinary people picking around their sheer size, looking utterly insignificant by comparison.

Huge numbers of people travelled out to see these amazing beasts. Some were similarly moved and awed by the spectacle. Others took the inevitable selfie. Jeremy Vine tweeted his disbelief wondering what the world has come to when out immediate reaction to such an awe inspiring sight is to trophy the event by taking a photo of ourselves in it. Perhaps he is right. But I am left wondering what drew people out onto the sands to cry, to wonder, to experience the spectacle of two dead beasts.

I suggest three reasons

  1. Transcendence.

We experience a kind of transcendence when we are confronted by an experience so strange, so overwhelming, even mysterious. This is fascinating when any number of documentaries or online material can give us access to footage or imagery of a sperm whale. But there is of course nothing like experiencing the real thing. Witnessing these beasts in all their utter size and scale is a zoological equivalent of going to space, or standing on a mountain with the Milky Way streaking above our heads. These are transcendent experiences. And for all science’s ability to explain them and tell us what these are, we still experience them as something akin to a spiritual experience.

  1. (Re)Connection

These monsters of the deep remind us that we are connected to the rest of creation in an incredibly integral way. That connection, intrinsic to generations of humanity has been stretched and stretched by the powerful forces at work in the world over the last few hundred years. Perhaps the tide is turning with movements emphasizing the disconnecting practices of our supermarkets, tourism, and our urban way of life. However, for vast numbers of our majority city dwelling population it is not just whales that are a mystery in our experience, it is the local beach, the farm where our milk comes from, the bees that pollinate our fruit trees. When people cry at the sight of whales dead on a beach they express the unfelt grief of a society for a relationship with nature that has been utterly broken.

  1. The deep

The whale has a long cultural and literary history. Whales capture our imagination, they symbolise something profound for us. They stand for everything overwhelming, beyond us, frightening, dangerous. And they emerge mysteriously and fleetingly from that chaotic swirl of the sea, which despite our progress, remain very much that uncharted and undiscovered territory which we have yet to truly master. Old maps used drift off into uncharted areas ‘where there be monsters’. Nothing has really changed.  The sea, the deep, is still a place of darkness and mystery which from time to time throws up reminders of our frailty and finitude.

And the thing is that the deep, its chaos, its darkness, its propensity for producing forces that are beyond us, is critical for our thriving as human beings. Our thirst for control, for bringing everything ‘down to size’, in our grip, under our command, is ultimately unhealthy. There is an appropriate smallness to our place in the universe, the forgetting of which has the propensity to make us very unpleasant indeed. The famous whale story of the Bible is the book of Jonah where the ‘great fish’ is provided by God to save Jonah, thrown from his ship of convenience, as he sinks into the chaos of the sea. Three nights in the dark and skanky belly of this great beast is exactly what Jonah needs to reset his own particular version of hubris and renew his relationship with God.

Whether you believe in the literal truth of Jonah’s whale or not, the lesson of Jonah is that our growth as human beings sometimes requires precisely those places that we would rather not connect with at all. The darkness. The deep. The belly of a whale. But connect we must if we are to kick the habit of growing too big for ourselves, grasping too much false control.

The whales of Skegness and Hunstanton of course were very real indeed. They were super-real. Almost supernatural. But perhaps that is a rather apt word to use. In their unnatural dying, on the sands of an English beach, they offer us a needed reminder of the depths of life, physical, spiritual and eternal, we are rapidly losing touch with.