church

Stepping out of line

I am done with not rocking the boat.

I am done with putting up with things in church that I would not for a minute tolerate anywhere else.

I am done with letting bigotry have the last word in the name of unity or respect.

The church is too important for that.

I walked out of a church meeting last week because it was clear that the visiting speaker assumed that everyone there would agree with him that an extremely controversial and homophobic view of sexuality is an essential part of the true Gospel.

Crap, crap, utter crap.

I was too shocked and emotional to stand up and challenge him, so I had to do the next best thing, which was to remove myself from a situation where my presence would imply that I condoned what he was saying

Many of the people I know would say I should never walk back into a place where that kind of speech is tolerated. They have a point.

The trouble is, that after so many years as a Christian I have learnt that I need to belong to the messy, flawed and ultimately hope-filled place that is the local church.

I have tried doing without church in the past, only to discover that there is a way of encountering God there that doesn’t present itself anywhere else.

I have found that being committed to a group of people who may not be the ones I would naturally seek out as friends brings about growth in a way that nothing else does.

(Let me be clear here: if I belonged to a church where the kind of dehumanising attitudes I encountered last week were a regular feature, then I would go elsewhere. But this was a visiting speaker and such an approach is unusual for us.)

As I struggled with the powerful emotions that came up after that meeting, I resolved two things, both of them appropriate for the year of dare.

First of all, I will err on the side of offending when I encounter prejudice in the Church. I would rather create an atmosphere of discomfort than remain silent about ugly attitudes that have no place in a community of love and truth.

People in churches – and I include myself – are too often quiet and inactive because we are afraid of stepping out of line. I don’t know how this happens when we are supposed to be following the greatest out-of-line-stepper who has ever walked the earth, but it does.

And the result is not just that we end up tolerating prejudice, we can also do great harm to ourselves and to our relationship with God.

We can develop a mindset of constant, anxious self-censorship that prevents us from doing the very thing we say we are committed to, which is becoming the people God created us to be.

Churches should be among the most vibrant, creative, risk-taking, innovative, life-giving organisations on the planet – but how often is that creativity stifled through fear of disapproval?

How many world-changers, prophets and visionaries are sitting silent in church pews because we have bought into the lie that unity is the same as uniformity?

If we believe what we preach, that God’s love is unending and unchanging, then shouldn’t we be marked by a joyful, childlike desire to try new things, to seek out adventure, to explore who we are?

My second resolution was that I am not going to spend my life sitting quietly. I am going to dream and experiment and go on adventures because I believe that is our calling as children of God.

That means I will make mistakes. I may well fall flat on my face in public. But if the church is even remotely what we claim it to be, then surely it should be the one place where we don’t need to worry about falling over because we can rely on people to pick us up, dust us down and send us back on our way with a hug.

What’s harder is the knowledge that if I am more active and adventurous I will almost certainly expose some pretty unattractive character traits that I would have preferred to keep hidden.

When that happens, I need to know that my church people will not be afraid to call me out on it.

But I also need to know that it’s not the end of our relationship, that even when they find my attitudes offensive they will stay committed to working with me to bring about change – change in myself and change in the world around us, just as we are called to do.

wild, free and not very safe

‘The future is given to those who are experienced in groaning. The future is denied to those who have been cynical and calloused and self-deceiving enough to rejoice in the present ordering and are unable to grieve about the ruin toward which the royal community is headed.’

Walter Brueggemann The Prophetic Imagination

 

I should have known from Kelley Nikondeha’s challenging and profoundly thoughtful blog that joining her reading group would be something that shook me up.

But I just wasn’t prepared to be affected as deeply as I have been by this month’s read: The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann.

I have been a Christian for more than twenty years but by the end of chapter two I felt like the disciples who, when they caught a glimpse of the radical reversal that Jesus had brought into the world, cried out: ‘But who then can be saved?’

With ruthless clarity, Brueggemann lays bare the hypocrisy, the smugness and the numbness of our dominant culture. And here’s the thing: for me he also laid bare my own complicity in that culture.

Brueggemann gives us a portrait of a God who is wild and free, who stands opposed to the dominant powers, which need us to be numb consumers if they are to continue to control us.

As much as I hate the consumer culture, a wild and free God scares me if I’m honest. I like order; I like to know where the limits are; I like to keep things well contained.

What’s more, as a white middle class woman in the rich west I have a pretty strong interest in things continuing as they are. As crazy as it seems, I hadn’t understood that before, not like I do now.

In reading Brueggemann I saw there is a choice to be made. People like me who are comfortable and powerful can cling stubbornly to the status quo, even as we claim to want it to change. We can keep ourselves at one remove from the real suffering there is in the world. We are so affluent and so satiated that we can, literally, eat our way around pain.

But this choice comes at a terrible price. It’s the price of being only half alive. It’s the price of dulling our emotions, narrowing our vision and drastically limiting our entire conception of what it means to be a human being.

It means settling for optimism instead of finding real hope; being content with superficial relationships instead of finding true community; worshipping a tame and benign deity instead of daring to engage with a wild God of furious love.

As I wrote this post I realised I had heard a version of this message about the need to choose hundreds of times. It usually goes something like this: you are a sinner and you need a saviour.

But I have only ever heard it communicated in such a privatised, individualistic way that it never sank deep inside me as it did this month while reading Brueggemann.

And very often I have heard it communicated from inside an institution that – like me – appears to have a lot more in common with the static, controlling, dominant culture than it does with what Brueggemann describes as an ‘alternative community’ – one that makes room for the freedom of God ‘to surface in the brickyards and manifest itself as justice and compassion’.

Brueggemann is clear that for people like me the alternative to the status quo is not easy. For him there is no real hope until we have faced the desperation of the world.  There is no new life until we have understood that the culture that brings us so many goodies and eases our path though life is nothing less than a culture of death. It is not possible to face these things without entering into grief.

And yet, and yet – beyond the grief there is true hope, the promise of a completely different future, a future characterised by amazement and joy, expressed in dancing and new songs, free from the weary hopelessness that characterises so much of human life.

I found Brueggemann’s writing about hope to be the most difficult part of this book and I need to return to it. But what I did understand is this: that it is rooted in the reality of a God who is making all things radically new and who wants to include everyone in that newness, no matter how complicit they have been in the cynicism and injustice of the dominant culture.

It’s the hope that rings out through the songs of the Bible, defiant songs that tell of God lifting up the humble, bringing down rulers from their thrones and filling the hungry with good things.

It’s wild and it’s scary and it doesn’t always look like good news to those of us who are rich and powerful.

But I want it.

 

 

What good is God?

When I planned this post, I was simply going to review a book by one of my favourite authors, Philip Yancey. I had never heard of Anders Behring Breivik. Nor did I know that by the time I came to write the post, a four-year-old girl from our church would be lying in intensive care after seven hours of brain surgery.

The book, What Good is God?, is a collection of talks Yancey has given in places undergoing extreme suffering like those two situations I have referred to above. He spoke at Virginia Tech just days after a lone gunman had killed 32 students. A talk planned in Mumbai, India had to be hastily rearranged when terrorists  unleashed a marathon of horror, killing more than 150 people in a series of bombing and shooting attacks across the city.

What is refreshing about Yancey’s writing is his refusal to turn away from the hard questions of faith. His books have titles like Church: Why Bother? and Disappointment with God. He is not afraid to be highly critical of the Bible college where he studied as a teenager; neither does he hesitate to say that he does not have all the answers. This kind of humility is uncommon.

At the same time, he does not shrink from challenging his audiences to trust ‘a God who can redeem what now seems irredeemable’ (chapter 1). This challenge came sharply into focus when I met with other members of our church to pray for the family whose seaside holiday has turned into a long bedside vigil for their little daughter.

The meeting had been arranged hastily of course. We heard the news by text, or on Facebook. People arrived in tears, in shock, scooping up children or leaving their workplaces for an early lunch break. Our co-pastor, who has three young children of his own and is moving house on Friday, had already driven a couple of hundred miles so he could stand alongside the family, sharing their harrowing wait at a distant hospital.

‘Where is God when it hurts?’ Yancey asks the survivors of the Virginia tech massacre, supplying the answer ‘Where God’s people are. Where misery is, there is the Messiah, and now on earth the Messiah takes form in the shape of the Church.’

The Church comes in for a lot of flak and often that is justified. But what most people don’t see is the local church in action. My father in law died recently; my mother has been suffering from a mystery illness for weeks. In both cases, their churches have been alongside, offering emotional and practical support, providing a strength that is in short supply elsewhere.

Of course not all local churches do the job they should. Indeed, Yancey spends one chapter of his book explaining why groups like Alcoholics Anonymous often do it better. But yesterday, when I looked at the pictures of Breivik’s victims, most of them around the same age as my own kids, I was thankful to have a place I can go when life gets too hard for easy answers.