Downward Mobility

Money and wealth has been in the news a lot in these last few years, particularly as the government afflict a poverty/austerity agenda on the population whilst not being so committed to the principles themselves.  I’m not going to over-tire my typing fingers talking about the rights and wrongs of the UK government, but I’ve been thinking about how Christians can live counter-culturally in today’s financial climate.

I get really tired of ‘stuff’. It’s not only what stuff costs, but it’s the suffocating presence of it, especially when little of it is really needed.  And then there’s the space it takes up and the reminder that folks in the UK in my position are in possession of stuff that some people in the world can only dream of.  A comfortable bed, nice home, working vehicles, etc.   It’s very easy to justify the stuff we surround ourselves with. I can hear all the arguments, and I know them, because I use them myself.  This is part of the cycle of energy that must be engaged to keep stuff unthinkingly.

We cannot escape that Jesus came to earth and lived a simple life, in spite of the potential to ‘Lord it over’ and accumulate wealth and influence in the corridors of power as God’s messiah.

– Might the followers of Jesus adopt a lifestyle that displays that life isn’t all about stuff?
– Might the followers of Jesus adopt a lifestyle shaped by the kind of generosity that turns our earning power into a means of relieving poverty and suffering through sacrificial giving?
– Might followers of Jesus adopt a theology of ‘enough’ – being content to own no more than is necessary rather than desirable?
– Might Christian communities find ways to own necessary things together and share? (Cars, lawnmowers, bicycles, tools…even homes? etc)
– Might followers of Jesus live in the light of the challenges of climate change and seek to minimise consumption that especially compromises the environment?
– Might followers of Jesus consider the source of the things we buy, consciously aware of labour conditions and trade justice?
– Might followers of Jesus consider what it would mean to share surplus income with other families who don’t have enough?

I guess I could think of a variety of suggestions along this line, but the question remains – how, in a world obsessed with wealth, tax avoidance and accumulation of stuff that will break, rot and clutter things up, can followers of Jesus point to a different and just way of living?

I’ve not mastered this at all, in fact, I’ve only just begun to act on some implications of these questions.  I’m doing a bit more reading and reflecting the subject, particularly in the light of moving our lives towards living a credible life amongst those we are going to be working amongst.   But more than that, I don’t want my freedom to be restricted by material things, regardless of whether I can afford them or not.

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The Return

When the King of Ancient Northumbria first requested a missionary from Iona to come and minister to his people in the 7th century, it didn’t go so well.  The monk sent came to Northumbria ready to convert the hardened sinners, and, I guess, treated them as such.  He soon found himself back in Iona reporting that the conversion of the Northumbrians was impossible – they were such a hard people.

Another monk, Aidan, then suggested that, perhaps, a softer approach was needed.  Perhaps taking the time to walk amongst the people, learn from them (especially their own language), and to identify with them was the best way.  Everyone agreed, and since Aidan suggested it, that perhaps he was the one to go.

And so Aidan was sent to Northumbria, to the lands ‘North of the Humber’.  His method was to walk the lanes of Northumbria and speak to all.  As he passed Lord or peasant on the road, he addressed them with courtesy and grace.  He went everywhere on foot, so as not to appear as of high status.  He even gave away his King’s horse to a poor peasant, much to the anger of the King.  Aidan was know to say to the king, despite his anger, that even if the horse was replaced, that too would be given away.

It was said that Aidan would ask one question of those he met.  He would ask them ‘do you know of Christ?’  If they said yes, he encouraged them deeper into relationship with him.  If they answered ‘no’, he would teach about him and encourage them to submit their allegiance to Jesus.

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Statue of St Aidan on Holy Island

Aidan’s method of incarnational mission, walking amongst the people, although clearly different culturally, religiously and socially, set England aflame as he trained the other brothers in the same methods.  They would set up high crosses in the villages and towns, as places where people would gather for teaching and encounter, rarely building churches.  This was the flow of life from the monastic base of Lindisfarne…missionary bands of brothers going out as peregrinati, wanders for the cause of Christ.

Part of my inspiration for ministry in Benwell and Elswick comes from this story of Aidan.  And, in fact, before I decided on a more generic title for the project, ‘Community Connections’,  I was playing with ‘Aidan’s Way’ in my mind.  Nevertheless, his missionary stance to a largely non-Christian society largely untouched by the culture of Christendom, lets some vital missional practices, which is why studying Celtic Mission and Spirituality has been of such interest to me as part of my MA studies.

I’m not into 8 hour long Latin liturgies, or standing for hours in the North Sea as proof of my devotion to Christ (although I’d do it if I thought its what Christ was asking of me), but the model of missional monastery is a powerful one.  It is a combination of gathered and scattered, missional and attractional, if you like.

It is easy to get so fired up about the mission that you can neglect the necessary tools to sustain spiritual life, namely, Christian community, spiritual disciplines and practises, commitment to learning and reading God’s words (Aidan encouraged Christians to learn the Psalms and Gospels).  All this feeds and sustains missional living.

This is why, for me, the idea of the Community Connections eventually having a base, a prayer space and a meeting space is part of my dream.  I am hoping that God will call people to share in our mission, and who will sustain a faithful rhythm of prayer with us as we engage with folks in the streets, homes and in the public spaces of the two communities.  It may even be that I take further the idea of drawing together some who could belong to an ‘Aidan’s Way Community’ will will embrace a new monastic way of life in the light of Aidan’s example – you never know!

It is also why I hope to build in a missional training ministry as part of The Solace Network, so that we can train missional disciples, give real experience in the real world and help people re-engage, re-connect with people who are in post-Christendom England.

It is such a laugh to me that God should pester a committed Scottish Nationalist to live in the North of England, so tantalisingly close to home and yet so far, and to have that sense of being called to make this place home, to settle, become a local.  It is so ironic that God is calling a ‘wanderer, pilgrim and vagabond’ (which is what my moniker ‘turasaiche’ means), to settle in a place not home.  And yet, this year away has fostered in us a sense of knowing where we should be.

In the words of TS Elliot:

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

We left Newcastle last year from a position of some influence, strength and a very different role.  We return in weakness, maybe even a bit of poverty, with a heart to serve knowing that we will see it in a completely new way.  My biggest hope is that I can return inspired by the same Spirit as Aidan, who ignited a gentle flame of the gospel in the lives of so many and played his part in expressing God’s heart for the North East.

Connection

I think the longer we’re in amongst the culture of the church, the more we think that society in general knows we exist, thinks about us, is aware of us, and believes that we’re worth taking notice of.  I’ve come across this notion in books, in conversation and through listening to countless church meetings…the idea that people are just waiting for the right flavour of church to appear so that they can join in their droves.  Whilst a God-zapping revival would be nice, I’m more convinced than ever that renewal will come through connection and integrated mission.

Connection invites us to abandon, to a good measure, the idea of selling a Christian brand or style of church (high, low, radical, liberal, evangelical, takes your pick), and being humble enough to say that, actually, we’re maybe misrepresenting Jesus by what we wrap him up in, but it also invites us to engage in places and with people we’re not engaging with.

Last week I was in a conversation with a bright, intelligent, professional and genuinely spiritually open couple where I explained the gospel through a question they asked about baptism, or rather, what has come to be known in some circles, especially where children are involved, as ‘Christening’.  They had no real idea what the symbolism represented, and that Christian faith invites us to become dead to self, buried, and Risen in Christ.  The challenge is that I am not convinced that the church realise that almost everything about church culture and message is alien, and what people do know about us is not the bits we want to share so desperately.

Whilst there are always glorious exceptions of churches making significant impact in the community, I think Christians over-estimate our visibility and meaningful contribution.
Coming out of the Christendom era where everyone knew the Christian story, we make our way into a new world where nothing can be assumed. To me, at this point in life, I guess that is why nothing excites me more than relocating myself into a context where, as Paul said, no other foundation has been laid.  Like him, I believe it is time for the church connect, and that the way to do this most effectively is by establishing new Christian communities where we can hear in our own voices what it sounds like to explain the gospel to ears not possessing the language we speak.  I’m more than willing to forsake conventional securities for that.

You have to realise that the revivals of the past have mainly been to people who have had some exposure to the bible and to the Christian story, and who have had at some point some sort of faith heritage, however faint.  For example, when the preaching-centred revivals of the Isle of Lewis took place, it was amongst a people who, even although they didn’t necessarily believe it or live it, still listened to father read a portion from the family bible before dinner.  There was a knowledge that led easily to response.

I believe that if you look at the ways faith has grown significantly in this country, aside from the rise in Cathedral worship, you’ll notice that it has been through connection with both people and with the story of faith.  Whether you believe Alpha is the best depiction of the Christian story or not, we still can see that it has had the impact it has through getting people around the table to hear the story.  Yet, even Alpha doesn’t necessarily answer the questions people are asking, more the questions we wish people were asking….but I suppose it’s better than nothing!

The phrase ‘Church without walls’ has been around for a wee while now, but we’re not paying enough attention to the connotations.  The more we, as rank and file Jesus followers, realise that the only way to connect people with the story of Jesus is to get out of the church and live open lives amongst our friends and relations, the more we will see people attracted to the Jesus we want them to meet for themselves.

People have no interest in scaling alien walls behind which lies something seemingly archaic, disconnected, judgmental and ‘not for them.’  All the more reason that we too should leave the walls behind and go to where people are in the strength of the Missionary Spirit of God who is always at work trying to compel us out of the safety of our Upper Rooms into the market place, streets and haunts of normal folks.  Let’s go.

Spying in Geordieland 3

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A ‘Newcastle Chronicle’ image from Benwell/Elswick
Spending the day in Elswick and Benwell yesterday has been really useful.  I had opportunity to speak with the leader of a key church-related project in Benwell, who have been in the community since 1987.  His insights were really helpful and helped clarify a few things about the work I’m going to be doing.  Partnership is important to me, and it was good to have a positive exchange with him.  A few things I had already suspected were confirmed:

  • the work of the church as a whole is a little ‘you in your small corner and I in mine’, not too much by way of partnership, although the Anglicans have a team ministry across 4 churches, as well as a more separated Anglican presence in the form of a new church plant by a church who are a bit separate from mainstream Anglicanism.
  • some of the churches are bases that gather people from across the city, and not particularly made up of local people, and, in fact, some of the activities of those churches are perhaps not geared towards local people
  • local people don’t necessarily attend programmes (even things like parent and toddler).  We found this in some of the communities we’ve worked in previously…you could organise any great service, but people didn’t come for lots of different reasons.  In Aberdeen, we had people working hard at a children’s work with a handful of kids.  We cancelled it and then took to the streets for about 6 months, playing games in the streets with them.  When we launched a new club, we regularly had upwards of 30 children.   Some real ‘pre-programme’ work needs to be done to build up trust and let people test you out before you will be trusted.  If I can build relationships in the community and then signpost people to what already exists, it can be a real help.
  • the community is divided racially, socially, and ethnically.  The whole area is a bit of a ‘dump estate’ for folks from all over, which means there is a lot of mistrust all round.  There are large Nigerian, Romany Gypsy, and Eastern European populations, along with a large Muslim community.  All this is mixed amongst mainly white British people trapped in circles of poverty due to the loss of industry and employment opportunities.  All this doesn’t make for easy/happy community.  When I was walking the streets last year, a local Turkish barbers had been grafittied as ISIS sympathisers.  Division is live and well.
  • the physical environment just isn’t pretty at all.  This isn’t just the back alleys, which are a disgrace, but even the main thoroughfares and tracts of grassed areas where housing has been demolished previously.  To be fair, the City Council have their work cut out but it may be that some practical work would be to engage local people in the beautifying of their own community.  Something to think about.
  • there are people doing some hard work in these communities, and it may well be that going with an agenda to encourage, bless and support will boost some morale, alongside some strategic volunteering with staff-stretched projects already in existence.  I’m hoping that Community Connections can ‘recruit’ volunteers to engage and support these existing projects.

There are so many other things I could reflect on, and I will in time, but just visiting with a fresh set of eyes this week has highlighted so many key parts of work that can be done to transform some aspects of life alongside the folks who call those communities home.

There exists in these communities what can best be described as ‘broken shalom’.  If I were to pray ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’, then my only response and answer would be to actively work to bring healing to the broken shalom.  Whilst I hope that personal relationships will mean folks finding personal restoration and salvation in the fullest sense, it is also true that the whole environment needs a lift.

Kingdom people:

They’ll rebuild the old ruins,
    raise a new city out of the wreckage.
They’ll start over on the ruined cities,
    take the rubble left behind and make it new. (Isaiah 61:4 MSG)

 

Spying in Geordieland 2

I paid an early visit to the West End of the city in order to refresh my mind of what it was I saw as I spent a significant amount of time walking the streets there this time last year.  I’ll be back there tomorrow afternoon.

There is nothing romantic about the West End.  That’s not to say there isn’t beauty.  What I mean is that the signs of broken shalom are blatant and in your face for all to see. 

And the thing is, you can send in piles of money, start loads of projects and make some sort of dent; you can locate branches or campuses of rich middle class churches with the latest technology, best intentions and Christian courses; you can build fancy houses and hope for gentrification, trying to forget those who are trapped in the vicious cycle, but none of it works. 
Why? Because it is not projects that people need, nor the latest course from Holy Trinity Brompton.  

People who face the challenges found in communities such as parts of the West End are not objects who need things done to them.  They are beautiful people, however broken, who need to hear their potential, beauty and significant value in a world that demonises them and calls them scrounges and wasters.
I’m no woolly idealist.  I’ve wracked up a number of years working in communities like the West End and know full well that every shade of human character can be found there.  I know about the crime, abuse, addiction, hate, sloth and all the rest.

But I also know that grace can reach to any depth, that life can be healed and restored, that the captives can be freed and destinies can be turned around.

God has some of his people in there already but not enough.  There are so many in this city who need to put their ear closer to the bible and hear the call to Isaiah 61: 1-4 ministry to rebuild ruined places.  Time for the church to slip off the polished shoes and get its boots on.  

Spying in Geordieland

Well, we’re back in Geordieland, and lovely to be back in familiar surroundings and to see familiar faces.  We had a lovely visit to Trinity Gosforth this morning, where we enjoyed the ministry of my successor, Rev Peter Holwell, and had that chance to say hello to so many folks.

Having spent 5 years in Newcastle only recently, you’ll understand why, when it seemed like St Albans wasn’t working out as a location for our wee family, that Newcastle felt closest to home.  We know that even although it’s not necessarily our intention to be a part of the Trinity congregation again, we have many folks there who have been significant players in our lives these last 6 years, and who will, I know, encourage and support us working just down the road, although in a very different community culturally.

They say that you live life forward and understand it backwards.  It’s also true that we rarely see more than the next step of the journey we’re on.  Coming to Newcastle in 2010 was a curve-ball for us…we had no idea why we were coming other than that God just seemed to open up the opportunity.  My five years at Trinity was of some value in and of itself, but, of course, we’ve also got to know something of the rhythms and culture of the city and all going to plan, it might appear that those years may well just have been the training ground for a significant part of life’s work.

There are so many factors that need to come together for our return North, and Newcastle is at the top of our list, but we know fine well that God’s ways can be mysterious.  I’m more content to go with the flow, step out in faith and obedience and see what comes.  We’ve trusted him before, we can do it yet again.  He has never failed us.  We see plenty of ‘opportunities for faith’, but no big giants.  If the Lord is leading, we’re on a good path.

Pedestal

man on pedestal
‘Don’t let them put you on a pedestal like that’

“Don’t let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do… And don’t let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them—Christ.”  – Matt 23: 8 – 10 (MSG)

Whether it’s my personality, my inbuilt introversion and shyness, or whether it’s an unhealthy fear of the opinions of others, I’ve never enjoyed the limelight.  Yet, Christian ministry can often thrust you up there on the pedestal.  Whether its preaching or singing or teaching or some other such thing, the pressure to ‘perform’ then becomes very real.  Many of our churches still function around the 20 minute talk by the person up front., and so the pressure is on.  The flip of this is when there is something God-given that you can offer, it’s right to offer it.

The challenge of the church today is that it can so quickly become about personalities: who we like, who we agree with, who talks like we like, who fits with our perspective and all that sort of stuff.  And lets face it, if your church experience is fixed around a 20 minute monologue, you can understand why people vote with their feet to find someone more palatable to listen to.  But, I increasingly don’t feel church is about that.

I mean, I still think there is a place for teaching/preaching, and I think if it’s going to happen it should be decent, but more than that it should point to Jesus.  I guess the days where the Sunday preach was your main discipleship tool are long gone.  If we want to encourage people to act, then our learning has to be done by doing not just by hearing.  It strikes me that much of Jesus training for his disciples was just that…they literally followed him and watched him at work as he encountered folks.  And then, in the context of small and intimate gathering with his disciples, he would then teach them further in depth.  Incidentally, Jesus more often spoke to large crowds when he was in sort of evangelist mode…there, you can see almost the 1st C equivalent of the TED talk, where Jesus speaks to inspire and challenge, but where most of the deeper learning happens afterwards (think forums, video comments, blogs, further research/reading).   The contrast between Jesus delivering the parable of the sower and him teaching his disciples afterwards what it meant is the picture in my mind.

In all things, my prayer is that the gospel will be both proclaimed and demonstrated, and that my life can reveal God’s rule and reign to others.  If that means standing on a platform, in a small group, or one-to-one in a cafe, then so be it but please lets remember that it’s only ever the case of one beggar telling the next beggar where to find bread.