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Sermon: Life On The Frontline – 1. The Frontline Call

Matthew 28:16-20

LICC Life On The Frontline DVD cover

LICC Life On The Frontline DVD cover

This morning we start the series of sermons that accompanies our midweek course ‘Life On The Frontline’ that began on Wednesday. And I guess that to use such an image as a ‘frontline’ might need some justifying. If we use the word ‘frontline’ in ordinary speech, we might think of a war zone. And while it is true that Christian mission participates in a spiritual war, that conflict is not with human beings but with spiritual forces. We have no desire to be aggressive towards those who do not share our faith, and those models of evangelism that contain elements of that are styles that we place at a distance from our convictions.

But we do come to a frontline in the sense of a boundary or an interface. Our spiritual frontlines are the places where we connect with those who do not follow Jesus Christ. And that’s what we are exploring in the course and the sermon series.

So this morning’s first sermon has the title of ‘The Frontline Call’. And we get down to some basics about that call using this famous passage that is often called ‘The Great Commission’. Four questions, in fact, about the frontline call: who, where, what and how?

The first question, then, is who? That is, who receives the frontline call? Verse 16 tells us it is ‘the eleven disciples’.

Note those words very carefully: ‘the eleven disciples’. Eleven being one less than twelve, because Judas Iscariot has taken his own life. These were ‘the twelve’. This is the group that Jesus had designated as his apostles. There were twelve of them in order to designate the connection with the twelve tribes of Israel, but now they are reduced to eleven.

And they’re not even called ‘apostles’ here. They are simply ‘disciples’. They don’t come here with special status, but as representatives of all Jesus’ followers. Disciples, not merely apostles, receive the frontline call.

Therefore the call echoes down the centuries to you and me as Jesus’ disciples today. Disciples are the ones who learn from the master, and that’s us. We have so much more to absorb about the way of Jesus. The Greek word for disciple – as I said on Wednesday night – may be paraphrased as ‘apprentice’. We are learning the trade. We are not master craftsmen.

In short, the frontline call, in coming to disciples, comes to a group of people who don’t have it all together. We do not have the spiritual life sussed, we just know that Jesus is the way to go, and we are imperfect followers of his Way.

You might think that Jesus would only call fully trained people to the frontline of his kingdom mission, somewhat in the way that the church doesn’t let a minister loose on a congregation until he or she has had two or three years’ training, or the way a doctor or solicitor has to study for several years before qualifying and practising.

But Jesus has not called a professional élite. He has called ordinary people. While there is a place for certain Christians to be specially trained in understanding other views of life and responding with Christian answers, this is not what Jesus requires of most followers. He simply calls his everyday followers to witness to him in word and deed. We bear witness through our deeds, and we bear witness through our words when we describe what it is like to follow Jesus.

So let no-one here rule themselves out of this high calling. It is for every Christian. It is the privilege of every disciple to let the world see their allegiance to Jesus through their lifestyle and their speaking.

The second question is where? What is the location of our frontline? I know we’ve already answered this in general terms at the beginning of this sermon, but let’s look closely at this passage. Verse 16 again:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee … (italics mine).

The resurrection appearances of Jesus (of which this is one) happen in both Galilee and Jerusalem. When in Jerusalem, they are at the centre of religious and political power. But here, the meeting is in Galilee, far from those corridors of power, far from the sort of place that features in the title sequences of news bulletins.

Inside The Hobbit Hole Of Bilbo Baggins

Inside The Hobbit Hole Of Bilbo Baggins by Trey Ratcliff on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

They are back home, in familiar surroundings, even if – as in The Lord Of The Ringsthe Shire can never be the same. They are back where they began, the place of family and work.

And it is in our ‘Galilee’, our familiar surroundings, that we find our frontlines. Sure, the Gospel will go to ‘all nations’ (verse 19), but it starts in our daily territories. For some of us who share households with those who do not share our allegiance to Christ, it begins in our homes. For many of us, it is our place of work. It may well also be the school gate or the place where we spend our leisure time – the fitness club, the Women’s Institute, the U3A, the ground where our favourite sports team plays, and so on. Our Galilee may be in our relationships with our neighbours, next door, down the street, and in our community. It may be in our involvement with local affairs, as we get involved with residents’ associations or in lobbying local councillors. It may be the library, the hospital, or even the dentist’s waiting room. I think you get the idea.

Whatever our regular images of the missionary being the one who goes to ‘darkest Africa’ – as if forever defined by “Doctor Livingstone, I presume” – the fact is that Jesus commissions missionaries for Galilee and Knaphill, St John’s and West End, Pirbright and Bisley. We need not be door-to-door types who thump the Bible like a percussion instrument. But we are called to people who live out publicly our apprenticing in the Jesus way, and who give a reason for the hope we have in him.

The third question is what? That is, what are we meant to be doing on our frontlines? Jesus says,

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Verses 18b-20a)

We have something to do, due to Jesus’ authority. But what? The normal order in which our English translations put these words lead us to think that the key idea is ‘go’. But in fact ‘go’ is ‘going’ in the Greek, and it parallels ‘baptising’ and ‘teaching’. These verbs ending in ‘ing’ (or ‘gerunds’ for grammar fans) serve the main verb, which is actually ‘make disciples’.

We are placed on our frontlines in order to make disciples. We who are already disciples are meant to reproduce! But, like ordinary human reproduction, it doesn’t happen overnight. Even on the rare occasions when we seem to witness an instant response, like the way the first disciples ‘immediately’ follow Jesus in the Gospels, we usually find that God has been on the case for a long time. And we are in this disciple-making enterprise for the long haul. We know it will take time for our witness to have an effect. People may not be interested. They may tease or even despise. We won’t always know at first when some people have been set thinking by our lifestyle or our words. Only after a while may tentative questions surface. But we stay at our post.

What does this boil down to? Simply this: that disciples make disciples. There are those who have a special gift in this area, and sometimes we call them evangelists. But even though we are not all evangelists – someone has suggested that perhaps about ten per cent of church members have an evangelistic gift – all disciples are witnesses. Wherever you are this time tomorrow, it is a place where God has put you to live before others as a disciple of Jesus, not only for the sake of your own holiness but also for the sake of those you meet.

Many years ago, my home church once conducted a survey where they asked members what the main calling of the church was. Back came the resounding and apparently uncontroversial answer: worship. But Jesus’ words here show that it isn’t as simple as that. Worship is our purpose when we gather, and yes our lives are meant to be acts of worship, too. But if we worship when we are together, we disciple when we are dispersed.

The fourth and final question is how? Exactly how do we set out making disciples? This is where we come back to that question of the verbs. If ‘make disciples’ is the main verb, then ‘going’, ‘baptising’, and ‘teaching’ are the verbs that explain the ‘how’.

Just as we are learners and apprentices of Christ, so we invite others to learn his ways. Of course we have to ‘go’ to those frontlines in order to do that – it’s a delusion to think people will come to us. And when we do, we ‘[teach] them to obey everything [Jesus] has commanded [us]’. We don’t just do that after they commit to following Jesus, we can do that as part of the outworking of our missionary call. We can say, “I believe Jesus taught us to approach life this way. Why don’t you try it and see what happens?”

So why not think of all the life issues that we might discuss with our friends – how we cope with family matters, finances, major decisions, moral crises, conflicts at work, relationship breakdowns, and so on. Did Jesus have any wisdom to offer on any of these? Of course he did. Without turning into a Bible-basher, is it not possible to say, “What helps me in these difficult circumstances is the teaching of Jesus, when he said …” Just make it conversational rather than preachy. Say it in such a way that someone can respond. See it in the way that  you can go into Marks and Spencer and try on the clothes you’re thinking buying in the fitting rooms. We can invite people into discipleship by suggesting they try on the teaching of Jesus for size.

The lonely office conversationalist

The Lonely Office Conversationalist by Eric Domond on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The baptising? If we do that on the frontline, I guess that would be a real ‘water cooler moment’! But seriously, that’s dangling before us the goal. However many people regard it today, baptism began – and still continues in many places – as the sign of irrevocably breaking with the past and following Jesus. It’s the mark of discipleship. It’s why we seek to show and share God’s love on our frontlines, living out our faith before the world.

I think I’ve told before the story of my friend who lost his son to cancer. The young man was diagnosed at around the age of seventeen, and died when he was about twenty. Some months after the death, my friend took a phone call. It was his son’s consultant.

“I’m ringing to invite you to my confirmation service.”

My friend had no idea she was religious.

“I wasn’t,” she said, “but I watched how your son lived out his faith in the face of his cancer, and now I am a Christian.”

You know, I would love not to be repeating that story. Not because it isn’t wonderful – it is. I would prefer not to repeat it, because there were so many similar stories to tell of what happens when we live intentionally as disciples on our frontlines. I’m telling some at the Wednesday meetings for this course. This last week I told one about the witness of a grandmother to her daughter and grand-daughter. I have another one stored up about a Christian woman in the banking industry who changed her company’s attitude to those in deep debt.

But wouldn’t it be great if there were some Knaphill stories to add to the collection? Let’s get to our frontlines – because that, after all, is where Jesus promises to be ‘with [us] always, to the very end of the age.’ (Verse 20b)

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We Don’t Do God … In Church

This topic keeps coming up lately among friends and colleagues. Why are we unable and unwilling to talk about God and talk to God, even among Christians? What stops us? What disempowers us? What could be stranger than Christians who don’t want to talk about God or with God?

Prayer meetings are dying, but on the other hand in my experience they’ve never been popular and it’s also true that Sunday evening church services are dying. A prayer meeting on a Sunday evening maybe a fatal combination. A crisis will galvanise us together, but regular bread-and-butter corporate prayer isn’t attractive.

Conversations after church – we default to the weather and our aches and pains. We might just talk about whether we liked the hymns. Maybe there will be the odd comment about the sermon, but it won’t dominate the caffeinated discussions.

Small groups tend to be just that – small. Some of that is about personality – some people are comfortable in discussion groups, and some indeed get too comfortable, putting others off with their belligerent expositions. Others feel exposed.

The one person who must talk about God and who must talk to God is, of course, the minister. She is our representative. He can do this for us.

And all of this before we even get to the question of talking about God outside the boundaries of the fellowship.

Some years ago, the Methodist Church recognised this problem. A national survey of church life identified that in our tradition we were strong on social issues but weak on talking about our faith. So it produced some material to help: Time To Talk of God. There was a lesser-known follow-up course on evangelism, Talking of God. But how much has changed?

If I am right that little has changed, why might this be? There could be all sorts of reasons:

* Our fear of others is stronger than our sense of God’s love

* We like to have just enough religion to feel we’re ‘in’, but not so much that we’re regarded as fanatical

* Churches (including leaders) are not offering the best education and training in the faith that we could

* Church leaders actually like hogging the power and influence, and don’t introduce more than they have to that would empower others. It’s nice to be the ‘expert’

These are all just some initial random thoughts about the issue. If I sat down longer, I might put together some eloquent piece about our lack of eloquence. But I’d rather just bash the keyboard and get this out quickly to ask – what do you think?

The Easter Number One?

When I was a young Christian, I wanted contemporary Christian music covered on Radio 1. When they covered the Greenbelt Festival, I was delighted. I wanted them to play Christian music, but I was embarrassed at the infamous attempt by Christians to get the band Heartbeat into the charts with their song ‘Tears From Heaven’. It was when well-known evangelical-charismatic preachers started saying it was the right thing to do that it was obvious something was wrong. It wasn’t their area of expertise, and one of the campaigners, Colin Urquhart, had one of his offspring in the band. I still wanted Christian music on ‘secular’ radio, but never understood just how much the BBC had to chase the coat tails of the commercial stations. Nor did I understand the irony of getting what was or should have been a counter-cultural message to have a mainline hearing.

Skip to my mid-thirties. I’m in my first appointment as a minister in the town of Hertford. A bunch of us are running youth worship events in the town, in church halls, a disused shop and eventually in the local night club, Zero. We call our event ‘One@Zero’. Some of our number have been going down to Littlehampton in Sussex to witness a youth worship event called ‘Cutting Edge’, led by what was called the Cutting Edge Band. That band morphed into Delirious? The teenagers at our event and we leaders followed them with interest and enthusiasm. When they started releasing singles in order to get into the charts, we all went and bought them. In fact, Hertford’s local independent record/CD shop, Tracks, used to supply a weekly Top 10 sales chart to the local newspaper. So we piled in there to buy them in the week of release. When ‘Deeper’

was released and made number 20 nationally, it was number one in the Hertford chart.

As they released more singles, we bought them. They had a few more to make the lower end of the Top 20, roughly comparable with other cult bands of the time. Nevertheless, the influential Chris Evans infamously refused to book them for his hit TV show TFI Friday, and Radio 1 still shunned them – something Q Magazine covered sympathetically at the time. It got to the point that the band called one of their albums ‘Audio Lessonover‘, an anagram of ‘Radio One Loves Us’. The singles eventually stopped, and they concentrated on their huge influence on the contemporary worship movement with evangelical-charismatic Christianity and beyond. I guess Christians shouldn’t have been surprised the band didn’t become the hoped-for darlings of the Smash Hits crowd. But you live and learn.

Or do you? As Steve Turner says in his poem ‘History Lesson‘:

History repeats itself.
Has to.
No-one listens.

Because it’s happening again. Only in a different way, powered by social media. The principles of Clay Shirky‘s ‘Here Comes Everybody‘ are being applied by Christians. Facebook groups have sprung up, not orchestrated by Delirious? (who recently split up, anyway), but by fans. The first one I saw was called ‘Anyone up for getting a No. 1 for Delirious?‘ The founder, Steve Jeffery, describes his motives this way:

So some dude managed to get Rage Against The Machine to No.1 for Christmas. Is anyone out there up for doing the same thing for Delirious? If you are then join this group. You need to download the track between the 29th Mar & 3rd April, the track will be History Maker, will all need to buy it from iTunes (or other download outlet) in the same week.

Please only join if you are actually going to commit to spend 75p on iTunes to make this happen. Spread the word and join now! I think it would be a great gift from us fans back to the band if we can make this happen!

You can see the social media connections. This is a people movement, like those who couldn’t face another saccharine X-Factor winner having the Christmas number one, and who successfully gave Simon Cowell a bloody  nose by supporting a Rage Against The Machine track.

The second group – with, at present, more followers – is called ‘Christian music topping the UK charts!‘ This too is motivated by the people power of social media, as they make clear:

Although this initiative has not derived from the band I have been in touch with their record company (Furious Records) and they are more than happy for this initiative to take place and are excited to see how it unfolds!

Those two campaigns are specific, and apparently time-limited to getting people downloading the track ‘History Maker’

during Holy Week, so that Delirious? get the number one slot on Easter Day (which may not be commercially significant in the music industry, but obviously is for Christians).

To these must now be added a (so far tiny) group with a longer aim, ‘Christian chart music for a year‘, who say

Christian music seems to be lacking from todays chart – yet there is some cracking stuff out there. We intend to try and push for at least one christian artist in the UK Top 40 every week for the next year. We’re not bothered about number one’s.

We want to inspire debate. To have DJ’s questioning why they are playing christian music. For people to talk to each other about their beliefs. To see churches swell with people who are curious. To say that we have a voice and that we are being marginalised. This could be an icebreaker to openly talk about your faith with someone else.

Approximately 5000 people buying the same track in a week will secure us a top 40 hit. Please help to spread the message of Jesus.

What can I do?

1. Press the “Become a Fan” button up top there.

2. Tell all of your Christian friends. (Click “Suggest to friends” to the left)

3. Post your ideas and suggestions in the forum (click the “Discussions” tab)

4. Support the single of the week

These are interesting reasons. Despite my background in remembering past failed campaigns, I don’t want to say anything cynical, especially since some of these campaigns are attracting young Christians and I don’t want to be negative in a way that damages their faith, or alternatively so puts their backs up they become obstinate. Instead, I would invite discussion around a number of themes.

Firstly, how are we going to engage in the proposed debate? It is a laudable approach, though – better the conversational approach in an Internet campaign, I think. Therefore the debate needs to be peaceable, not confrontational.

Secondly, let’s tease out the concern about Christians having a voice and the fear of being marginalised. That is an ongoing worry for many Christians, and is being heightened by the looming General Election in the UK. Will we be listened to? We have a right to be heard as members of a democracy. What we don’t have is any right to special status. Indeed, Jesus warned that only a few would take the ‘narrow way’, and the biblical images of exiles, of strangers in a strange land, are uncomfortable ones that we may have to embrace (without that in any way meaning that we should be silent). If the campaign becomes one about Christian rights, I think we can be sure there is a real sense in which we will not gain a hearing, because we will alienate people – just the opposite of what is desired.

Thirdly, if this is to be an icebreaker, let’s make sure our conversation is ‘seasoned with salt’.

Fourthly, let’s think about what constitutes good Christian witness. It won’t simply be Christian music in the charts – and especially at a time when the charts are less and less important. It will be about the kind of people we are. We still – even more – need to earn the right to be heard. We all need to be ‘history makers’ by our loving involvement in the world, so that people care about what we say and sing about.

Digital Britain, Analogue Church

The Evangelical Alliance recently published some statistics about what it calls Digital Britain. They make fascinating reading. Here are some highlights. You won’t find all of it surprising, but what is clear is just how much our culture is shifting in a digital direction.

* There is a trend away from social letter-writing in favour of email, texting and IM. Only 10% of letters now delivered by the Royal Mail are now ‘social mail’. Although 72% of over-70s write such letters, it decreases to 47% of over-50s, and there is a 1-3% annual shift.

* The use of landline telephones is in sharp decline, too. In 2007, we spent only an average of 5 minutes a month making calls from fixed lines, but a staggering 136 minutes on mobiles. (I know, I find that hard to believe.) In a population of 60 million there are 74 million mobile phones in use (how many people really need more than one?) and 89% of over-14s have at least one.

* The use of email is increasing. Although it was falling out of favour with younger generations, who preferred texting, the arrival of smartphones such as the iPhone and the Blackberry have rejuvenated email among the young. Perhaps it is the mobility and that the common theme to texting and the increase again in email is the use of the mobile phone.

* Social networking is extraordinarily popular. 25% of British adults use social networking sites – a higher percentage than the Germans, French and Italians.

* Yet it’s not an interest in technology per se that is driving these increases, at least among the young. Rather, it seems they use technology to continue doing the things they were always doing: listening to music, watching TV or films, and contacting friends. Technology becomes a supplementary way of carrying out these activities, not a replacement.

The contrast with anecdotal evidence in the typical traditional church is huge. You can’t send an email late at night to someone if you suddenly think of something, because they may not be online. They might have a mobile phone, but they may not use it often, so texting is less viable, too. As for a church website, well that’s nice and they may want the church to have one but it won’t be any practical use for them, even if they realise it is a good way of getting known today.

That we do certain things differently in the church is, in my opinion, both partly right and partly wrong. It is partly right because we need to minister to and with the digital poor. Sorry if that’s an ugly or patronising expression, I don’t mean it to be, but I need to make a contrast with the digital natives and digital immigrants who are comfortable learning and using new technology.

Yet it is also partly wrong, because it concentrates on maintenance rather than mission. It preserves existing ways but does not pioneer the Gospel into the ways in which our culture is developing. Therefore the church needs continually to find new ways into the digital culture.

In one respect, such a missionary thrust is tailored to introverts like me, who by nature are drawn to the written (or typed) word. Past models of evangelism have been throughly based around extraverted approaches – think about how the word ‘evangelism’ is conceived by many Christians and they think of crusade meetings and door-to-door work. I mean no disparagement of them, nor of the many other gifts extraverts offer, but might it just be that introverts could be on the cutting edge of new approaches to mission?

If so, that will mean a complete rethink of some of the attitudes and prejudices that prevail in many churches, alongside the ‘big ask’ of adjusting to the new digital culture.

Sabbatical, Day 77: Of Sausages And Crosses

Today, I’d like to apologise to the entire German nation. Every single one of you. By common consent, you make the finest sausages in the known universe. And I’m sure you agree.

But my kids don’t. They think I’m a liar when I tell them that German sausages are the best, and that nothing beats a bratwurst.

Why? Because today, we visited Cressing Temple for its annual St George’s Joust event. It is a wonderful celebration of all things medieval, including crafts, early musical instruments, falconry displays, York versus Lancaster battle re-enactments, and the famous joust with witty script and terrific stuntmen riding the horses. (Oh, and that other medieval theme, the Napoleonic Wars.) 

Having paid our entrance fee, we walked through the gift shop, out into the grounds and there we were greeted first of all by a series of catering concessions. I noted the existence of The German Sausage Company. I pointed it out to the children, and Debbie realised I had set my heart on a snack from there, even though we had brought a picnic. We made it our last call before leaving a highly enjoyable day.

Well, if I’m feeling charitable I have to say we might have caught them on a bad day. I also have to admit that we didn’t complain. But bratwurst doesn’t usually have the texture of half-cooked rubber. I have never seen Mark give up on a sausage so quickly. He could live on a diet of them, if we let him.

And if you ask to have bacon well done, you don’t expect it to pale pink. Because Debbie likes everything well done. She’d have ice cream toasted, if she could. The first time she met my family was for a meal in a French restaurant. She ordered a steak. When the waitress asked how she would like it cooked, she replied in one word my family has never forgotten: “Cremated.”

To add insult, Debbie recognised the brand of orange juice I had been given. “How much did you pay?” was her question.

“A pound,” I said.

“You can get six of those for 99p in Lidl,”she withered. Profit margin is one thing, but that’s – what shall we say? Optimistic? (A little research suggests it might actually be five for £1.29, but it’s still a steep mark-up.)

Now I have to say that – being British, not German (but so were they) – I of course didn’t complain at the time. Perhaps I should have done, but since all the sausages came out of the same container, I don’t think anyone else got a better brattie than we did. So, dear German friends, I am sorry my children now have the wrong impression of your great delicacy. 

It was a disappointing end to a fun day. Rebekah and Mark talked to a woman demonstrating weaving on a medieval loom. We found a company selling dried meat, mushroom and fruit snacks. Their website doesn’t mention the fruit, but we can recommend the dried strawberry and the dried blackberry and apple. 

 

Fighting between Yorkists and Lancastrians in battle re-enactment

Fighting between Yorkists and Lancastrians in battle re-enactment

Furthermore, the afore-mentioned battle re-enactment was not only lively and fun, it was presented with an educational slant. Along the way, we learned all sorts of things about the nature of medieval warfare that were possibly surprising to many hearers.

 

Lancastrian archers in the re-enactment by the Medieval Siege Society

Lancastrian archers in the re-enactment by the Medieval Siege Society

 

 

 

 

To our surprise, Rebekah and Mark had their attention kept all through the half-hour presentation. We had to reasure Mark that the soldiers lying on the ground weren’t really dead – we’ve had a lot of death talk from him since Good Friday. But apart from that – and there’s nothing the re-enactors could have done about that – it was superb.

 

Sir Odious the Black Knight and his Swedish counterpart in the joust

Sir Odious the Black Knight and his Swedish counterpart in the joust

 

 

As for the joust itself, that was pure entertainment. Some might not like the fact that the baddie was dubbed the Black Knight, but it seemed not to be about race and more about a pun on ‘black night’. Or it could have been to do with the Black Country, since his punishment when he finally lost was to be sent to Birmingham. Nothing worse, surely.

 

 

A small falcon flies high above the falconer in the falconry display

A small falcon flies high above the falconer in the falconry display

 

Seeing a falconry display gave me an opportunity to educate the children as to the origins of our surname, which was originally something like Falconer. We were the plebs who looked after the falcons on the Laird’s estate in Aberdeenshire. The name is first found in that county around the 1200s. Medieval times, indeed.

My father has long been convinced (through a story his grandfather told him) that we came from Scotland in recent generations. To that end, Dad supports the Scotland rugby and football teams. Trouble is, we come from a part of the Auld Country called … Lincolnshire. All the way back to the early eighteenth century, there is no sign of the tartan, still less of ‘our’ clan, the Keiths.

 

Mark dressed for his photo in front of a painted backdrop of a castle

Mark dressed for his photo in front of a painted backdrop of a castle

If I can be serious about one final thing, though, it was the tragic reminder of seeing the Cross everywhere as a symbol not of suffering love but of violence and oppression. Mark and Rebekah posed in borrowed costumes for pictures in a photographer’s tent (and very good they were, too, for the price). Here, you can see Mark in knight’s garments, with his cross. I thought about the wickedness of the Crusades, their perpetration of Christendom by cruelty, and what they did to peoples who should have been shown the love of God in Christ. 

Then I thought there were hundreds, if not thousands of people at the show, and only few of them would have had that thought. Of the few who did, a good number of them would have seen it as further evidence to prove the wickedness of Christianity.

Most of the rest, though, who would have given no thought to the symbol of the cross at all. Like someone who works for our local Schools and Youth Ministries charity said at a meeting last year, most young people haven’t rejected religion. It just isn’t on their radar in the first place.

And that may be the biggest challenge facing the British church today.

Sabbatical, Day 12

Yesterday, Olivia Newton-John. Today, the Rolling Stones. Mixed emotions, that is.After breakfast today, I helped another minister lead a communion service for the college body in the chapel. She had found some excellent material in Andrew Pratt and Marjorie Dobson‘s book ‘Nothing Too Religious‘, including a powerful retelling of the institution of the Lord’s Supper that we used as a thanksgiving prayer.

An intriguing morning either side of coffee with Nick Helm, the Bishop of Sheffield’s Advisor in Spirituality. He lectured us on spiritual direction. Quite a lively debate ensued about the similarities with, and differences from pastoral care and Christian counselling. The second half was less lively, being a rather protracted history of the movement. That could have been shortened and we could have got into more meat, I think. But stimulating.

This afternoon, though, Phil Meadows once again led us into powerful and painful places, spiritually. His subject was Anabaptist Discipleship. He emphasised just how radical their rejection of infant baptism was, because it also conferred citizenship of the state. Rejecting it in favour of believers’ baptism was an act of civil disobedience. Hence, given the (unholy, in my opinion) alliance between the Magisterial Reformers and the state, vicious persecution followed. This was the first example of Protestant persecution of other believers. Phil shared with us two stories, including that of Michael Sattler. To hear the details of the persecution reduced some of us to tears: me for one. Hearing about their children just did for me.

Phil’s point was that we don’t have tongue screws attached to prevent us preaching the Gospel, so what are our metaphorical tongue screws? What things have colonised our minds and hearts to prevent us sharing the Good News, at the risk of lesser persecution? Clearly, the Anabaptists held strongly to believing that Jesus was Lord of all creation, way above all earthly rulers.

I was relieved we had a coffee break followed by the MA students having tutorials and library time. So I wandered out of college into the nearby village where I found a craft and gift shop. I shall be returning tomorrow with little presents for the family.

This evening, a session in which Stephen Skuce argued that what he called ‘evangelism in the power of the Holy Spirit’ – namely, evangelism where there is a clear demonstration of God’s power (for example, healing) – is the normative form of Christian evangelism. Another debate on that one. Nobody here seriously doubts that God can and does work in that way, but an interesting and passionate discussion about the relationship between evangelism and signs and wonders, also bringing in the question of large-scale missions versus one-to-one sharing. We covered a lot of ground.

In between all this, I seem to have earned the reputation as the techie on the course for the week. I have been in demand to help people with what to me are simple tasks, but which to others are daunting. Installing a Java update and uninstalling earlier ones for security reasons. Discussing phishing emails. That kind of stuff. I’m only too conscious of those friends who know far more about this than I do, but I’m glad if I can put my moderate knowledge of the area to use in helping others.

I shall be leaving here after coffee tomorrow. The MAs have a final question and answer session, but there’s no point in me staying to that if the consequence were to be hitting the M25 at Friday rush-hour time, so I’m looking for an earlier getaway if I can. I shall be said to leave behind the teaching and spirituality of this place and the people I’ve met. However, I’ve missed Debbie and the children, and I’m looking forward to a happy reunion.

Sabbatical, Day 6

I haven’t really done any sabbatical work today. Friday is usually my day off, and I’ve kept it much like that. I think it’s good to keep the rhythm. So after taking the children to school, I stayed on, because on Friday mornings I do twenty minutes’ reading with a group of Year 1 children.

Late morning, Debbie and I headed into town. We needed some more bargain school uniform for the monkeys and struck gold at Marks and Spencer. Yes, really. Then we continued our recent habit of having a cheap lunch out together. Yates’s Wine Lodge (why do they put that extra ‘s’ after the apostrophe?) had a two-for-£7.95 deal, and it was good for the price. The downside was the company at the next table. Two young women with a pre-school boy. One was his mother, poor lad. All sorts of unsavoury conversation that youngsters shouldn’t hear. Debbie swears one of them got him to drink a mouthful of her shot. Some kids don’t have a chance.

Meanwhile, I have been following all week the case of Caroline Petrie, the Christian nurse who was suspended for offering to pray with a patient. She offered prayer, the patient declined, Mrs Petrie did not pray. The patient was not offended, but told someone else she thought it was strange. Next thing, Mrs Petrie is under investigation. She has previously been disciplined for offering prayer cards. The Daily Mail reported this on Monday,as did the Daily Telegraph. On Tuesday, the Mail reported support for her case from the Royal College of Nursing and the Christian Medical Fellowship. Today, the Mail reports her reinstatement, but – along with the Telegraph – also quotes a further potentially sinister development. The Department of Health published a document last month in which it warned that doctors or nurses who attempted to preach to patients or other staff would be treated as having committed harassment or intimidation under disciplinary procedures.

Furthermore, I have received a press release today from the Evangelical Alliance in which Hazel Blears, the Government’s Communities Secretary, told faith groups that if they accept money from the state, they must not use it to proselytise. They may speak about their faith if spoken to, she says, but clearly taking the initiative to mention it would be forbidden under a forthcoming ‘charter of excellence’. She then says she doesn’t want to strip away the very reason why faith groups show compassion! The Alliance’s Director of Public Policy, R David Muir, responded:

“The Government wants the social action and welfare that faith groups provide, but there is a danger that they also want faith groups to leave their beliefs at the door.

“Our faith is what equips us as Christians to provide support and compassion to those who are spiritually and emotionally damaged by debt.

“But we are glad that the Government recognises how integral our faith is to the services we provide, and is open to discussion on this critical issue. We look forward to working with them.”

All round, then, seem to be threats against Christians making the first move in sharing their faith and using it to offer comfort and hope to people. Here are a few random reflections:

1. None of this should surprise us. Whatever the faith of Blair first and now Brown, the Labour Party runs these days on a fundamentally secular humanist creed. Let’s here none of that ‘the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than Marxism’ mantra. It may have been true in the past. It isn’t today. Christians should expect such opposition.

2. Nevertheless, none of that should stop us crying ‘foul’. All these cases are about discrimination against the freedom of religion the Government supposedly signed up to when it ratified the European Convention on Human Rights. And while part of me is wary of the secular philosophies behind that document, the Government clearly doesn’t want to accept that sauce for the goose is a tasty accompaniment for the gander as well.

3. We also need to reflect upon ourselves. How much of this might we have brought upon ourselves through insensitive ‘witnessing’? Please note, I’m not saying Mrs Petrie was. I don’t know her, and the fact that she didn’t press on with a prayer for her elderly patient when the offer was declined suggests that while she is upfront with her faith, she is probably not the aggressive sort. Nevertheless, most of us know Christians whose demeanour in faith-sharing makes us cringe, let alone what the non-Christians feel.

4. However, an attempt to prevent us from taking the initiative is effectively a tactic to shut us up. I believe we have to earn the right to speak by loving, holy, just action, but that does not mean we cannot speak first or simultaneously as well.

5. The ‘public money’ argument is specious. It’s not Government money, it’s taxpayers’ money. And while we elect officials to use it, they are stewards, not owners. Do they think Christians should not pay their taxes? This kind of argument amounts to an attempt to strip us of our democratic voice.

6. There is a huge case of historical amnesia here. As today’s Mail article rightly points out, many of our hospitals were explicitly Christian foundations in their origin. In the church we would want to say more than that, in crediting the rise of the infirmaries and more recently the hospices to Christian vision. So to tell a nurse her faith must come second forgets the origin of much health care in this country.

7. Furthermore, no Christian can put her faith second. I am fond of telling the story of an elderly Local Preacher from my home circuit. He was interviewed for the post of Secretary to the local Co-Operative Society. “Where will you put the Co-Op in your loyalties?” the panel asked him. “Second,” he replied, “to the church of Jesus Christ.” I don’t think he meant that all his time would be spent at church, I think he meant that his faith would determine his life. He got the job, and did it well.

8. Nevertheless, putting our faith second puts us under suspicion in society. There is huge historical precedent for this. It’s what Daniel did, praying towards Jerusalem while serving faithfully in Babylon. It’s the centuries-long suspicion of Catholic loyalty to the Vatican. In the name of what is currently calle ‘community cohesion’, authorities call people together to a common loyalty that is effectively a secular creed. Hence other phenomena in our society today, such as the opposition to faith schools, or the legislation that has made it increasingly difficult to have organisations that are exclusively staffed by Christians. Do we cave in? The biblical answer seems to me to be ‘no’. However, that means accepting the consequences. We’re not remotely near the situation Christians found themselves in when communism ruled eastern Europe, but there it was well known that people of faith would not get on well with their careers and would suffer economically for their beliefs. Might we be seeing the thinnest end of that wedge here, or is that alarmist?

I think that’s enough from me. What are your thoughts?

Links

Here are some more places I stopped on my electronic travels this week. Several of these links come from Leadership Journal, because I’ve been catching up on a few weeks’ worth of the Leadership Weekly email they send out over the last couple of days.

Science 
Some pictures from the Hubble telescope. Get beyond the first few and you’ll see some amazing ones. I’ve just made the image of the Sombrero Galaxy my desktop background. 

Spirituality 
Take seven minutes and forty seconds of your time to listen to Archbishop John Sentamu speak on the Advent theme of waiting.

A moving description of happiness from Ben Witherington III.

In Bedside Manner, Matt Lumpkin offers advice on caring for the sick and for yourself during pastoral visiting in hospital.

Mission 
David Keen looks at Back To Church Sunday and considers what proportion of the population is open to evangelism of a ‘come to us’ approach, compared with the need for a ‘missional’ strategy. (Via blogs4god.)

Coming and going is an interview that contrasts the attractional and missional approaches to evangelism and church. In the attractional corner, Ed Young, ‘the dude with the food’, ‘the worship event is the port of entry to the church’, ‘I believe God gives one person the vision – the pastor.’ In the missional corner, Neil Cole, ‘Using traditional [church] planting methods, it would cost $80 billion to reach Atlanta’, ‘Three things deter spontaneous multiplication: buildings, budgets, and big shots’, ‘We have to think in terms of mobilizing the kingdom to go where people are. Too many Christians are passive and unengaged.’

Walt Kallestad gave up on attractional with the big show and transitioned to a discipleship model.

On the other hand, Dan Kimball (of all people) has expressed missional misgivings and particularly urged missional churches not to criticise attractional congregations.

Credit Crunch 
According to Christian Aid, ethical giving hasn’t been hit by the credit crunch.

Also on the credit crunch, Gordon Macdonald says this is no time to cower for the Christian church. His fifth and sixth ideas sound very close to what many ‘missional’ Christians have been advocating.

Christmas 
Think tank Theos has published research showing that one in three Britons believes in the virgin birth. Of course, just believing a doctrine isn’t enough … 

Communion wine from Bethlehem is being stopped at checkpoints by Israeli soldiers who deem it – wait for it – a security risk.

Philip Yancey on observing a mellow, domesticated Christmas.

Coins

Yesterday, I visited my parents. It was a good opportunity to see how Mum was getting on since we heard she (thankfully) had TB, not cancer. Dad has since been prescribed antidepressants: the strain of this episode, preceded by Mum’s fall last Christmas, and the prolonged saga of the house move last year have taken their toll on an eighty-one-year-old.

They treated me to an excellent lunch at a favourite pub. Then we returned to their flat for conversation, before tiredness meant they needed a rest and I made an earlier than expected departure.

During that chat, I mentioned a story from the other day. Rebekah had been looking at some coins and had noticed the date. This had fascinated her, especially a twenty pence piece from a galaxy far, far away known as 1982.

Dad got up and went out of the living room. I thought nothing of it. However, he returned with a bag. It was a collection of coins, many of them specially minted for state occasions and still in their presentation sleeves. There were crowns to mark the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 and Charles and Diana’s wedding in 1981. There were two wallets of Britain’s first decimal coinage. Then there were assorted loose coins, including some old sixpences. One of these came from the reign of King George V in 1922. 

Dad explained that he wanted them handed down the generations of the family. He asked me to keep them safe for our children. While they would be worth more than their face value, they would not be especially valuable, because many of them had deteriorated. However, they would be a fascinating and educational possession. I was delighted, and locked them out of sight in the car boot when I drove home.

It was a joy to come home and tell the children I had a present for them from Grand-dad. In the short time before bath-time, it was impossible to explain the significance and context of these coins to Rebekah and Mark. How on earth will I explain pre-decimal currency to them? I was only a fortnight shy of my eleventh birthday when Britain was decimalised.

And if Rebekah finds 1982 hard enough to comprehend, what price 1922? George V is three monarchs before the current long-reigning Queen (I’m including Edward VIII, even though he was never crowned). 

Pounds, shillings and pence and early twentieth century kings will take a lot of patient dialogue and explanation. There are so many foreign concepts to go through in order to make sense of Grand-dad’s gift.

Is it not similar in evangelism today? With, say, three largely ‘unchurched’ generations there is a huge gulf between the Christian community and most of society. (And that gulf may go some way to explaining the misrepresentations of our faith in the media – it isn’t all wilful, much is a genuine lack of understanding.) Evangelism is about being in for the long haul to explain the faith in a context of dialogue. I see the point of those who say that a contemporary repeat of Billy Graham’s Harringay crusades in the 1950s with their remarkable levels of conversionss most likely would not happen today. It isn’t that I think God is incapable of it – of course the Holy Spirit could – but it is to recognise that Graham was able to appeal to a residual faith and call people back to it. There is hardly any such residual faith today. 

Our faith is like a 1922 George V sixpence. To most people it appears not to be legal tender.  It looks battered, but it is valuable. Nevertheless, to explain the significance takes time.

But the investment of time into relationships as we gossip the Gospel is immensely worthwhile. We are sharing treasure with people.