Jesus is fun?

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The church I grew up in was dull.

I used to go to Matins (morning prayer) which followed the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.  I found the canticles dreary and the hymns chosen from Ancient and Modern almost indistinguishable.  The Rector, a quiet introverted man who didn’t much care for people, preached every week on the state of the world. Fifty years later his sermons could have been preached almost unaltered; only the details have changed.  I used to while away the time gazing at the stained glass window opposite (the miraculous catch of fish) and reading the memorial tablet to an only son killed on the Somme.  I would also choose a page of the hymnbook and see if I could find all the letters of the alphabet in order.  (There were only about three pages where this worked; most pages stopped short in the search for a “q”).

Many people of my generation and after grew up in similar churches; it is not surprising that there has been a reaction.  It is also not surprising that for some churches the reaction has tended towards the idea that “Jesus is fun and loved a party.”

For a time, this was particularly noticeable in children’s work, where games and gimmicks became the typical way to do things.  “We try to wear them out with games and then we slip in a story,” said one children’s worker, talking about her junior church group.  The message was clear: if it wasn’t fun, it wouldn’t engage the children and we would lose the next generation.

But for some churches this also applied to other aspects of church life: they were determined to prove that Christians were not boring.  If people outside the church came along to fun church events – harvest suppers, duck races, Easter egg hunts – they would see that Christians were fun people who did fun things.  Perhaps this would encourage them to join in… Perhaps they would start coming along on Sundays…

The problem is that “Jesus is fun and liked a party” is not the Gospel.

I am sure Jesus was fun in many ways; he certainly wasn’t dull.  He also liked a party – we see him at the wedding at Cana, feeding five thousand people, enjoying himself with his friends…

But the Gospel is much more than this.  It occupies a far deeper space, one that makes meaning of our lives, our deaths and the whole of creation.  “Fun” barely scratches the surface.

We live in a culture, which like all cultures, is searching for meaning.  But our personal lives can be so busy that it is possible for both Christians and non Christians to avoid doing this. The default seems to be that if this life is all there is, time is short, and we need to have as much fun as we can.  Fun becomes the goal… and some churches seem to have accepted this, not necessarily for themselves, but in their approach to those who are not Christians.

This approach demeans non Christians who are just as much people as we are.  If all we are offering them is “fun” there is far more fun to be had elsewhere.  It is particularly demeaning to children who are not afraid to look at life afresh and make meaning.

Why offer them just the froth on the top?

As Rachel Nicholls put it, when commenting on poor all age talks:  “Yes – they can be the direst of the dire – but isn’t that when they operate out of a weird anthropology (children are from a different planet called kiddy widdy land) and a weird theology (God is essentially boring, so rather than enter his presence together, let’s muck around instead).”

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Knowing with our minds, feeling with our hearts

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“What is sin?  Is it possible for anyone to be sinless?”

I had just told the story of Isaiah’s vision in the temple to a group of Year 6 children.  The other groups had talked about sin as doing bad things and then moved on to talking about intentions.  Were terrorists sinful if they acted as they did because otherwise bad things would happen to their family?  Were they sinful if they had been forced into believing that what they did was right?   No, it wasn’t possible for anyone to be sinless, everyone did wrong things.

This group began in the same way but then went in a different direction.  Sin was doing bad things, but it wasn’t possible for anyone to be sinless.  Not even God.  After all they said, God created the world but what about wars and terrorists?

These comments threw me completely, and it was only later that I worked out why.  “What is sin?” and “Is it possible for anyone to be sinless?”  are closed questions.  I have my own answers to both – hopefully in line with Christian theology!

But these children, in this context, were not used to closed questions.  They treated them as open.  Instead of telling me what they knew with their minds, they told me what they felt in their hearts.

And what they felt was that as God had created the world, he ought to take responsibility for it.

How can a good God allow suffering, is a question that has been asked throughout history.  But even the answers we think that we know with our minds do not necessarily express what we feel in our hearts:

“You have created oceans of pain… and I cannot see how they were necessary to preserve your world…” wrote Peter Lippert, the Jesuit theologian.

The children’s discussion continued, they talked about the idea of people “who can make their own decisions.”  Some of them seemed to be moving towards the idea of a good God who allows people to choose.  I don’t think they were all convinced.

I came out of the session, thinking that I should have done it differently.  Was it possible to have asked the question as an open question rather than as closed?  I didn’t know.

The children heard two other stories that afternoon, all connected with the theme of holiness.  “What is the most glorious thing that you have ever seen?” is clearly an open question and the children responded with descriptions of tiny diamonds, magnificent sunsets and the first time they held their baby brother.

But what about the question “What is healing”? The storyteller and I had had a a brief discussion and our ideas were broadly in line with each other.   But two of the children responded to this question symbolically: healing is when a tree that has been split in two grows back together; healing is a maggoty apple having the maggot removed.

This has left me thinking: these children did not seem to mind sharing what they felt in their hearts even if it did not fit with what they had been told or with what they knew with their minds.  But what about adults?   Are adults really better at integrating what we know with our minds and what we feel in our hearts?  Or are we only prepared to share what we know with our minds, hiding away what we feel in our hearts?

A few days later I told the same story to a group of slightly younger children, but allowed the question “What is sin?” to be an open one. In response one child linked the story to “the little man up a tree” (Zaccheus) and another child spoke of Jonah “running away from God.”

Where there is no vision the people perish

The latest Church  of England statistics are out, with interesting analysis and comments from David Keen at Opinionated Vicar (http://davidkeen.blogspot.co.uk/), Jeremy Marshall (https://tinyurl.com/yckp9o2j) and others.  They continue to show a decline in attendance, and a wide range of reasons are suggested for why this should be so.

Is there anything the Church of England can do about its current decline?  If so, how does it identify what can be done and start doing it?

It seems to me that there is an underlying yearning to be part of a visionary church, one that is moving forward in the will of God.   We know that where there is no vision the people perish; what we don’t know is how to be visionary.

This is partly because there are a whole range of myths surrounding vision.  One myth is that it is possible for vision to happen top down.  Over the last 20 years I have attended several church away days dedicated to vision and mission.  We have come back and written Vision Statements and Mission Action Plans.  I was really excited by the first one – after years of drifting along fairly aimlessly, it seemed to me that the church was actually getting to grips with who it was and where it should be going.

But nothing actually changed – or if it did it was not as a result of the MAP or the Vision Statement.  I think this is because people find it almost impossible to turn the vague generalised principles of the Vision Statement into a practical reality.  There is a tendency to look at what we are already doing and see how it fits in so that we can tick the box that says for example “Respect everyone”.  Mission Action Plans can all too easily degenerate into Coming up with Ideas to Keep the Bishop Happy.  But good ideas are not vision…

Another myth is that we need unity in order to be visionary.  Given the current range of views in the Church of England, this is an impossibility.  There is not going to be a magic moment in which everyone suddenly converts to our way of thinking – and even if they did it might end up as a sterile situation.

So perhaps we are never going to be part of a visionary church?

I think we need to let go of the idea of a visionary institutional church that encompasses the whole of the Church of England.

But vision still happens…  In my experience (which is obviously limited) it takes place in a very specific context.  Often something sparks and an idea is taken up and developed by an individual or a small group of people.

Vision is time limited.  That initial excitement does not last; after a while the vision becomes the usual, even the routine.  I’m not sure that matters… for then the wind blows again and there is a fresh vision or a transforming of the old one as it moves in an unexpected direction…

So perhaps instead of one overarching vision for the Church of England, what we need is a piecemeal approach.  A mosaic of vision.

In that case what is the place of the institutional church, particularly at national level? Is there one?

I was starting to think the answer to this was no. But on reflection I thought that what unites all Christians is prayer.  So perhaps:

  • The diocese removes the pressure on churches to produce Mission Action Plans, Vision Statements and the like. Churches can still do them if they want to, but it isn’t compulsory.
  • Instead the diocese conducts a prayer audit of all churches. Who is praying, how often, how long for etc
  • Each church is encouraged (or possibly even mandated) to start a prayer group. As a minimum, one person who is not ordained or part of a clergy household once a week for half an hour. (It is probable that clergy and their families are already praying; this is something that needs to be taken up more widely.)
  • In addition each church has a monthly prayer group which includes clergy, some of those in church leadership positions and some of those the church leadership regard as the bums on the seats.
  • These prayer groups are free to pray as they feel led, but in addition they need to pray specifically, every time, for any projects or initiatives that their church is engaged in. Even the ones that they personally disapprove of or think are pretty rubbish anyway. Also for any local Christian projects and initiatives, regardless of denomination.  They ask specifically for God’s guidance and attempt to listen to what He might actually be saying to them in their context.
  • They also pray for protection.
  • Meanwhile the diocese sets up its own prayer groups. They carry on (for the moment) with all the courses and support that they are currently providing, but they then look to see what is bubbling up from the churches and how they can support it.
  • They also collect and share stories of people who prayed for years before seeing their prayers answered.  This isn’t a quick fix. We are all in this for the long haul.

At a distance

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I know of a church that sponsors a hospital in Africa.  As you enter the building two large, colourful noticeboards tell the story of this hospital, with pictures, personal stories, facts and figures.  Several members of the congregation have visited the hospital and their stories and photos are included. The church is lucky enough to pay parish share without fundraising; instead their efforts go towards the hospital. Church members talk enthusiastically about making jams and chutneys or the planned sponsored walk.  The noticeboard shows how much money was raised during the last year.

On a much smaller noticeboard, looking amateurish beside the almost professional ones about the hospital, is information about the church itself. It shows names and phone numbers for the clergy and churchwardens, details of the services and a brief mention of bell ringing practice night and the toddler group.  There are no photos.

As a visitor, my overwhelming impression was that this church exists to support the African hospital.

I have come across other churches that are passionate about the kilograms of food they have donated to the foodbank several miles away in the nearest town, their support for street children in South America or their missionary partners in South East Asia.

These are all important and necessary things but I am left wondering if these churches have got the balance right.  For all these things take place at a distance.  What is the church doing locally?

I have never known a place where no one is struggling with depression, loneliness, divorce, disability, bullying, autism, cancer, bereavement…

But often churches seem to be unaware of these people in their midst…

Perhaps they see the church’s role as focussing on those who have very little? Perhaps there is an unspoken assumption that anyone who does not live in poverty is somehow all right and needs to take responsibility for their own life?

But it may be that it doesn’t feel safe.  People’s lives are messy.  Getting involved with real people, instead of with those at a distance, means being prepared to get involved in the mess. It takes time: accompanying people to medical appointments, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, the school meeting about the difficult child…  Just listening takes time.  We don’t have much of it these days: churches are small and we are spread too thinly. It is easier and safer to “do our bit” by donating money, giving tins to the foodbank or packing a Christmas Child shoebox.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Over a hundred years ago, in her novel Pollyanna, Eleanor Porter wrote of the Ladies Aiders who preferred to send money to help children far away in India instead of supporting the actual orphan living in their town:

As Pollyanna says: “They acted as if little boys HERE weren’t any account–only little boys ‘way off. I should THINK, though, they’d rather see Jimmy Bean grow – than just a report!”

However, if we think that it is only those at a distance who matter, why are we surprised when people think the church has nothing to say to them?   Shouldn’t we be focusing on those at a distance and those among whom we live?

Heaven’s gate: Theology with children

Heaven's gate

“This is heaven’s gate.  You go through it to get to heaven. There is earth, air, fire and water the four elements. There’s a gate for each of them – inside a volcano, under the sea, up in the air and here on earth,” says the ten year old, explaining the painting above.

“The gods are in heaven,” he goes on.  He pauses to think. “There’s one God… but lots of gods. As you go through the gate that way you become a god and if you go through the other way the gods become human…”

At the same event, three girls sit with me by the sand, talking about Joseph and his brothers.  “Do you think Joseph will forgive his brothers and let them have corn?” I ask.

“Yes,” replies one.  “He needs to.  God tells us to forgive people… Joseph wants to do what God wants.”

“So you think he needs to forgive because this is what God wants?” I say, before adding: “I wonder what it means to forgive someone?”

Although I think she understands, this question takes her on the hop and she can’t find the words.

“I think it means you don’t hold things against people,” says one of the other girls, who has had more time to think. “If someone does something that hurts you, you don’t hold it against them. You let it go.”

“I think it’s giving people a second chance,” says the seven year old.

What is theology?  The dictionary describes it as the coming together of two words “theos” (God) and “logos” (word) to mean the study of God. Elsewhere there is “thinking about God” and a more explicit “the study of God and his relationship to the world”.  A quick internet search reveals several talks and essays by academic theologians attempting to define what they are doing.

From this perspective these three girls are doing theology.  In their comments about forgiveness they are “thinking about God” and how he relates to us.  If forgiveness is part of the nature of God and he asks us to forgive others what does this mean?

But what about the first child, the painter?  Is he doing theology?

It is possible to dismiss his thinking as too many fantasy books…  Or to worry about his beliefs – surely he knows that there is only one God not many gods?  Doesn’t this need instant correction?

But it seems to me that he is exploring many theological questions:

What does it mean for the divine to enter this world? What does it mean for the divine to become human? What does it mean for humans to become divine? What is it like at the boundary?

Or to put it in more Christian terms:

What changed for God at the incarnation? What is it like for people to enter the kingdom of heaven?

Several years ago, I belonged to a study group who decided to spend eight sessions looking at one of Eddie Askew’s books.  Each session we would read the Bible passage and then take it in turns to read aloud Eddie’s reflections and prayers.  After each extract, we would pause and comment on how wonderful Eddie was and how well he had expressed what we thought.

But insightful and inspiring though Eddie Askew is, it did not work in this context; I took nothing away. Theology needs to be an ongoing work for all of us; there is no point of arrival, no definitive answer.  In these sessions, we allowed Eddie to do the work for us and did none ourselves.

By contrast I have spent the last three days thinking about the painting.  In my own experiences of encountering God and the kingdom of heaven what was the point at which I crossed the boundary?  What was different? What was it like at the boundary?

Theology with children can take you anywhere: even to heaven’s gate.

Necessary August

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I recently asked a couple of friends when their year starts.

“January 1st” they answered in surprise.

Mine however starts in September.  (Interestingly none of us thought of the year as starting in Advent!)

My time with children and in education has made me unable to see the year in any other way.  July is a time of endings, September a time for beginnings.

But where does this leave August?

Apart from a cluster of family birthdays at the start, I don’t really care for August as a month; there isn’t enough going on.  I enjoy holidays once I’m there but I don’t tend to look forward to them.  By the end of July, I’m already thinking ahead to September.

But now, looking back on the summer, I’m starting to see August as a necessary month. It is all too easy, in our frenetic weeks, to ignore any idea of a sabbath.  Sunday includes church but also a lot of other activities; often I use it as a time to catch up on chores. I don’t think I see it as qualitatively different from the rest of the week.

I started August with something of the same mindset – this year I was determined to get all the cupboards cleaned and sorted.  But about half way through, especially with a couple of times away, I found myself relaxing into a slower mindset.  August became a fallow time; I even went back to a couple of neglected hobbies.

I hope I’m ready now to start the year. I don’t think I would have been without August, the sabbath month.

What is “the church”?

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“Are you talking about the church as the building or the church as the people?”

I was starting to say something about “the church” when I was interrupted by the questioner, asking for clarification.

“People,” I replied, instinctively aware that if I answered: “the building” my comments would have been discounted.

But later I wondered. Why was I offered this either/or choice?  Why do there appear to be negative connotations to speaking about the church as the building, as if this is something that we need to leave behind? What do we mean by the church as people anyway?

Are we talking about the regular congregation who turn up most Sundays?   Do we include occasionals? The person who comes once a month but takes no part in the life of the church?   How do we decide who is “the church” and who isn’t?

Neither church as building nor church as people seemed to quite fit with what I was trying to say. I wondered if I was thinking of the institutional church – the complete organisation from Archbishops and synods to churchwardens and PCCs?  But that didn’t seem right either.

On reflection, it seemed to me that behind all these facets of church there is a more mystical church. Connected to both past and future, it is continuously struggling to align itself (people, buildings and institution) with the Kingdom of God.

In this scenario, it is not a case of choosing one aspect and identifying it as “the church”. It is all of these, and probably other facets that I haven’t thought of, held together in some kind of tension.

“Go and repair my church, which you see is falling into ruins,” the crucified Christ said to Francis in the ruined chapel of San Damiano.  Francis did not see a dichotomy between rebuilding the physical chapel and a rebuilding of people’s spiritual lives. Perhaps we shouldn’t either…