I leave Germany early tomorrow morning to return to Croydon and prepare to take a group to Israel next week. The two and a bit weeks here have given me the space to reflect on a lot of things – as well as read a shed-load of books and do some writing. And I have slept alot and thought alot about alot of things.

Look at the photo below:

That was the view from my window the day I arrived from England. It was the same view today, just before I depart. A couple of days ago it cleared a bit and I took the photo below:

What is remarkable about both pictures is what you can’t see. If I had with me a photo taken in summer you would see the mountains of Switzerland around St Gallen and over to the right a bit. I haven’t seen them from here once in over two weeks.

When I came here with a friend for a sort of retreat week several years ago, it looked like this for about the first four days. I think he was beginning to doubt that the mountains really existed – that they were a figment of my fevered imagination.

Then the cloud lifted, the mist dispersed and the view was transformed.

If he had come with me this time, he would not have seen the mountains and would have gone home with a perception of ‘reality’ that was limited and partial. But, it would have been the totality of his experience of this place.

One of the benefits of getting some space to think and pray and reflect and read is that there is time for the mist to disperse and for new ‘realities’ to be glimpsed. But, it is also a reminder to me that I must be careful of making fixed judgements based on my own limited understanding or experience: there might be a hidden vista that, given time and exposure, will change my perspective.

This applies to God, the world, the church, myself. And, of course, as this visit has demonstrated, it is not in my power to change the view by forcing the clouds and mist to disperse.

You have to wait for grace and you can’t claim or manipulate what is gift.

I am writing this before Liverpool play Manchester United this afternoon. This is deliberate on my part. I cannot bear to be ‘public’ if Liverpool loses its fifth game in succession – especially if it involves the long-lamented Michael Owen playing any part in a United win. Call me feeble if you wish, but when it comes to anything bad happening to Liverpool and anything good happening to Manchester United (Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton, etc.) I am actually pretty … er … feeble.

GYI0000531890.jpgWhen I was asked last week about Liverpool’s loss at home to Lyon in the Champions League, I boldly argued that this was simply yet another example of Scouse generosity – giving space for the little clubs to have their moments of glory after Liverpool had dominated European football for three decades. Of course, this would have to end before too long because generosity has its limits; but Liverpool’s critics should change the way they think about the current run of form and recognise instead the glorious generosity of a morally superior club … and be grateful.

I didn’t even convince myself. And now I’m worried about this afternoon’s game and the future of Rafa Benitez as Liverpool’s manager. When the club’s owners articulate publicly their support for the manager’s position, you can’t help feeling the severance package is already being worked out behind closed doors.

So, let me make a leap from one challenge to perceptions (of Liverpool’s ‘failure’ or ‘generosity’) to another.

Some time ago I was asked to write a book about Christmas – re-telling the story and reclaiming it for what it should be. Well, the result has now been published and has the following to commend it:

  • It is short: only 75 pages.
  • It is written in accessible language and should be easy to read and follow.
  • It is written for people who might not be part of any church and, therefore, is written in language that isn’t ‘churchy’.
  • It is a celebration of Christmas – even the dodgy accretions of a consumerist culture – that re-tells the story in different ways and tries to place it in the real lives we live in Britain during a financial recession.
  • It has a nice cover.

WWYAMC coverPeople’s perceptions of Christmas can be weird – hence the bizarre staging of school nativity plays that include all sorts of characters who do not appear in the original story: lobsters, kangaroos, etc. God gets confused with Santa Claus, the ‘stable’ with Santa’s grotto, the shepherds and wise men with Santa’s elves… and so on. I was once told that the main character in the Christmas story was Cinderella.

So, we need to offer people a different ‘take’ on the over-familiar story that people think they know, but have forgotten. And the story needs to be told in a way that ordinary people can grasp – or be grasped by. And if churchy Christians hate the way I have written it (as some did my last book – which was also not written for them), then I have probably succeeded.

After all, we need to recognise that angels are not fairies, Santa is not Jesus, shepherds were dodgy, Magi were not kosher, Jesus grew up (and probably did cry) and carols sometimes give the wrong impression.

Berliner DomI have just launched myself into a series of five conferences (one ended today) which will keep me away until 2 October – though I hope to keep blogging. I leave early tomorrow morning for Rome and then Blackburn (!) followed by Kassel (Germany) – and end up preaching in Berlin Cathedral before returning for the final blast at Swanwick. Roll on October…

At the residential conference which ended today the recently-retired Bishop of Thetford, David Atkinson, shared his great wisdom with his usual quietly-spoken humility. While answering a question about the most pressing agenda for the Church of England at the moment, one of the things he identified was climate change. I have to confess that I am a bit worried about ‘climate fatigue’ setting in – there is so much being said and written about it that I think many people are beginning to glaze over instead of waking up. I hope I am wrong.

What woke me up was David asking: ‘Will we let future generations speak to us?’ In other words, will we have the imaginative courage to hear the blessings or cursings of our children’s and their children’s generations as they suffer the consequences of our refusal to change our costly lifestyle? Will we simply bequeathe to them a broken world with a broken climate because we are too greedy and selfish to hear their cry?

This struck me because it reminded me of a verse from the Old Testament book of Proverbs that says:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.

An older version of this formed the title of a remarkable book I read years ago when studying German political history – particularly about the failure of the Church in relation to the Jews during the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in the early 1930s: ‘Open thy mouth for the dumb.’ It is a potent demand.

Auschwitz gateThe prophetic challenge has always been that people who bear God’s name should see through God’s eyes and speak on behalf of those who have no voice. I have always simply assumed this could refer to those who have no voice in contemporary affairs – the poor and the marginalised. It had never occurred to me that it could be a challenge to listen to the voices of those as yet unborn who will one day – long after we have moved on – pay the price for our greed and complacency.

This also resonates with Wolfhart Pannenberg‘s understanding of the resurrection as the ‘proleptic invasion of the end in the present’. Big words, but a simple concept: the resurrection of Jesus by God is the ‘end’ being brought forward into ‘now’ and enabling us to live now in the light of the end. So, Christians live in the here-and-now in the light of having seen the promised end – resurrection. And this actually goes to the heart of Christian hope. For Christian hope is not wishful thinking and does not lie in an anticipated series of events taking place (all that ‘End Times’ nonsense from the USA). Rather, it lies in the person of God who raised Christ from the dead and thus invaded the now with his final word. We trust in God, not in heaven.

Now, I cite this bit of theology because there are those who think the climate change stuff needn’t bother us on the grounds that God will soon intervene and bring it all to a glorious end anyway. And it is precisely this sort of stupid theology that needs to be firmly knocked on the head.

earth_mainThe prophetic challenge mentioned earlier has always been dismissed by those who spiritualise themselves out of responsibility. But the simple equation cannot be avoided: our faith in God (as well as our theology) can only be seen in how we live now in the light of the future. And that means that our ethics now must be shaped by our imaginative and informed understanding of what future generations might be saying to us if only they could speak for themselves and if only we could hear them.

In my last post (as it were) I offered a brief suggestion of what question it is that the Bible is answering. I did so in relation to an incarnational representation of political argument by giving that argument a character and placing it/him/her in a story. This is what, in a form of shorthand, I wrote:

Hence the simple (simplistic?) formula I have stated elsewhere for handling the Bible whose fundamental question is ‘What is God like?’: “If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. If you want to know what Jesus is like, read the Gospels … and then look at us (the Christian Church).”

Andrew Marr - My TradeI was provoked into thinking about this by a number of factors, one of which was an observation by Andrew Marr about newspaper columnists in his excellent book, My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism. Writing about the art of writing a good column, he says:

Every column is … an argument, a case, a piece of logic. In general, it needs to be about something that can be expressed in a single headline-sized phrase or sentence. If the columnist cannot say [it] concisely, … then it is likely that the column will be confused, and therefore dull. If it isn’t a statement, it’s a waste of time. (p.371)

What Marr says of good writing is also true of any good communication. The purpose of good communication is not to reveal how clever or well-informed the writer/speaker is, but to enable the reader/hearer to grasp simply and clearly the essential thrust of the argument. It isn’t about making complex matters simplistic, but making complex matters simply comprehensible. Which brings us back to the Bible and communicating what it and Christian faith are about in ways that can be understood without needing a dictionary, a degree or a thick book.

Rothley Parish ChurchIt seems to me that whenever we pick up any sort of book, we do so with an unspoken question at the back of our mind: whodunnit? who is this character? why did these events happen the way they did? When we come to the Bible, the basic question we should be asking of the text(s) is: who is this God and what is he like? At least, that is, I think, the fundamental question being addressed by the text. The answer given is: God looks like the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. Look at Jesus of Nazareth and you see who and how God is in the world.

But – and here is the sticky bit – that same Jesus called his followers and friends to be like him, to look and sound and feel like him. The New Testament writers – particularly Paul – grasped this and called the body of Christians the ‘Body of Christ’. The logic is that the Christian body should reflect the Jesus we read about in the Gospels (that is, incarnate him) in the ways we live, the ways we speak, the ways we listen and hear, the priorities we set, the habits we cultivate and so on. Hence the ‘formula’ I offered in my last post.

I cannot see any other way of understanding what the church exists for.

Hymn singingYet, in saying this, I will probably be criticised for being selective. Yes, there may well be other ways of describing the role and purpose of the church in the world; but no single pithy phrasing will be all-encompassing. The fallibility of any ‘headline’ or metaphor should not, however, prevent us from trying to communicate who and why we are in ways that can be grasped simply and quickly by most people. After all, that is why Jesus spoke in parables and with images and stories. And it is why Paul used the picture of a human body.

The pithiest ‘headline’ I have come up with is: ‘the task of the church is to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God.’ And that is the beginning of the matter, not the end. I fear that too often in the church we go to the complicated end and forget that most people haven’t yet got as far as the beginning.

brucedart2I have been out in parishes morning, afternoon and evening every day for the last couple of weeks and love it. But I was driving home slowly this evening from licensing a new priest in a Surrey parish and was feeling reflective. I had a Bruce Cockburn CD on and the haunting Bone in my ear filled the space while I drove:

There’s a bone in my ear
Keeps singing your name
Sometimes it’s like pleasure
Sometimes it’s like pain
It’s a small voice and quiet
But I hear it plain
There’s a bone in my ear
Keeps singing your name
MoltmannIt’s actually a love song. But those first lines hint at the experience of loving the God who loves us: haunting, longing, sometimes painful, often searching or feeble. It reminds me of the words of Juergen Moltmann, the great German theologian:
God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.

the-holy-bibleA few days ago I commented on my concerns about the handling of the Bible in churches and the problems associated with merely displaying passages on a screen or notice sheet. An interesting conversation ensued, but with the usual ‘either-or’ assumptions about what I was querying. Yes, different people need different approaches, but questions remain about the use of the text itself in public worship and what effect the medium has on the message itself.

This morning I was with friends in an urban church in a tough area of South London – a church that has grown in just over three years from an average congregation of 15 to one of around 80. This morning the congregation was over 80 and multiethnic – a wonderful place in which the church is growing a worshipping and serving community. When I licensed the vicar there I had no idea if it would work or not – and I feared the challenge and stress might damage the vicar. This morning I felt very close to tears witnessing such an encouraging community worshipping and belonging together, reaching out in welcome to newcomers.

Hymn singingDuring the service I was reflecting further on the phrase I used in my earlier post: ‘liturgical osmosis’. I had questioned whether people learn the faith (and the Bible) merely by absorbing some of it during disconnected services, but without realising it. I was urging a more serious approach – after all, I would be rightly suspicious if my children went to school and the teacher simply hoped that something of a disconnected discourse might either accidentally or incidentally enable the child to learn – for example – to read or count or learn grammar. We expect teachers to take ‘learning’ seriously and teach in such a way as to make learning more rather than less likely.

However, I want to redress the balance a little by urging that ‘liturgical osmosis’ be taken as seriously as other forms of ‘deliberate’ learning/teaching. We are constantly absorbing not only sensations and feelings, but ideas and constructs that impact on and shape our mindset and, therefore, our behaviour.

sheepFor example, this morning we sang that unfortunate song, O let the love of God enfold you. Why unfortunate? The chorus line asks God to ‘come and fill your lambs’ – but doesn’t say what with. Sage and onion stuffing?! It is a very odd line to sing without feeling weird. So, why do we keep singing it – especially when the post-resurrection Jesus enjoins Peter to ‘feed’ and ‘tend my lambs/sheep (John 21), but not to ‘fill’ them?

Perhaps a better example of what I am saying can be seen in the great Easter song we used to sing a lot in my church when I was a vicar in Rothley, Leicestershire: Graham Kendrick‘s In the tomb so cold they laid him. The first verse goes like this:

In the tomb so cold they laid him, death its victim claimed; powers of hell, they could not hold him – back to life he came.

Nothing wrong with that, you might think. Except, of course, that Jesus did not come back to life. As Paul puts it, ‘God raised Christ from the dead’. But if you keep singing about ‘coming back to life’, it isn’t too long before you are thinking at a subliminal level that when we die we simply come back to life. We don’t. Christian hope/trust is rooted not in an outcome, but in a person: that if God raised Christ from death, so will he raise us also. The rest is detail.

As Tom Wright has noted many times, Christians are really confused about death, resurrection, heaven, ‘spirituality’ and the cosmos, etc and slightly dodgy songs don’t help. Wesley noted that we learn our theology from what we sing rather than from what we read or hear in a sermon. Or, to put it more bluntly: sing rubbish and you’ll believe rubbish.

rock gigSo, those who are responsible for leading worship carry a great weight of responsibility in terms of both content (theology) and form (the choice of medium). Perhaps more is going on than sometimes the quick choice of songs or hymns might suggest.

In other words, the content of what we believe/assume is shaped by what we red/sing/hear/imbibe – which means that the message cannot be divorced from the various media in which it is represented.

I need to lie down in a darkened room. The Daily Mirror is reporting the ‘shock’ news that most teenagers haven’t a clue about the Ten Commandments. Under the heading  ‘Kids forget God’s rules’, this is how it is reported:

More than a quarter of 11 to 16-year-old Britons cannot recall ANY of the Ten Commandments, a shock poll reveals.

It found just one in 17 adults and teenagers could recite all 10. And many were left baffled by the language of the Old Testament rules.

Most of the 1,000 questioned for the survey commissioned by computer game makers Electronic Arts said there should be modern commandments such as “protect the planet”.

So there.

The-Ten-CommandmentsWhy should any teenager be expected to know any of the Ten Commandments? The only way to remember anything longer than three words is to repeat it regularly until it becomes part of us – and repetition is not something we do with our children any more. Perhaps this is also why children don’t grow up knowing any poetry by heart. And if children go to a church regularly, they are more likely to know a short mantra to a good tune than a Psalm or prayer or Bible passage – because we are now slaves to informal novelty and have lost the art of purposeful repetition.

The point of liturgy is that, having prayed it alot, it ends up praying you.

But, back to the forgotten Decalogue. I remeber the Sunday Times phoning a load of clergy on a Saturday afternoon and asking us straight off to recite the Ten Commandments. I managed nine, but not in the right order. I had come out of the garden on my day off and was put on the spot. Inevitably, the shock report the following week suggested that clergy do not know the Ten Commandments either. The hole in this sort of nonsense is not hard to spot, is it?

But, I was interested in the Mirror’s notion that these are God’s rules. I think they are human rules that articulate in an ancient way what it means to live a good life for the common good in a community. They aren’t the arbitrary diktats of a megalomaniac in the sky who wants to control people. They should be taught as such and the hard language of the Old Testament needs to be taught properly, with imagination and translation, opening up young people’s minds to the big pictures of God’s engagement with people and the world they live in.

‘Protect the planet’ is already there.

Yesterday I went to Stansted Airport to collect my elder son and his wife from their holiday in Germany. Airports intrigue me because of the complexity of life and relationships you walk into. I think I was the only person speaking English in the Arrivals area. As travellers came through the doors they were greeted by screams and hugs and laughter. The cacophony of languages and the joy of new beginnings inevitably made me reflect on today – Pentecost – when people of all nations and languages were able to hear the good news of Jesus Christ in ways they could understand and celebrate.

In Germany for the Kirchentag last week, I was asked during a panel discussion (on the future of the church) what I thought was the major challenge to the church. I could have offered many responses, but I settled for saying that the most urgent challenge for the church is to speak a language (or languages) that people ‘out there’ can actually hear and understand. For too many people church is associated purely with bad-tempered conflict between people who haven’t got a life – they never get as far as ‘God’ and ‘spirituality’ and ‘good news’. So, the challenge is to enable people to hear and see good news – to create the space in which they can find that they have in fact been found by the God who created and loves and redeems them.

In the light of this, I remember preaching a sermon at Pentecost that clearly did not strike the right notes for some of the visitors in the church that day. Then I concluded by singing (badly) a Bruce Cockburn song with a lovely guitar accompaniment. The song – with Cockburn’s poetry – went where my sermon had not managed to reach:

Cockburn nothing-but-a-burning-lightSomebody touched me
Making everything new
Somebody touched me
I didn’t know what to do
Burned through my life
Like a bolt from the blue
Somebody touched me
I know it was you

Somebody touched me
Deep in my bones
Turned a key in the hole
There was somebody home
Some would say that I’m dreaming
But I swear that it’s true
Somebody touched me
I know it was you

Somebody touched me
Like the rain on the wind
Left me alone
Feeling like I’d been skinned
But I know you’re with me
Whatever I go through
Somebody touched me
I know it was you

The Kirchentag is now about to conlude under clear blue skies and a warm sun. Tens of thousands of people have made their way to the Buergeweide for the Closing Service, but I have to prepare to leave for a conference in Paderborn. Just time for some concluding reflections on the Kirchentag.

kirchentag-plakat1. The Kirchentag does not take place in a private place, but in the heart of a living city. Every day we walk past the red light clubs and the business of the city goes on. The worship, seminars and workshops (around 2,500 in three days) go on in the public space – a refusal to park religion in the ghetto where people who like that sort of thing can get on with it in private. Last night, as we were looking for somewhere to eat, a reflective service was going on in the Marktplatz – hundreds of people at the heart of the city, unashamedly praying and bringing questions of life, politics, economics, society to the public square.

2. It has caught the imagination locally. The theme of the Kirchentag has been ‘Mensch, wo bist du?’ (Where are you?). The regional SPD welcomes visitors to Bremen with placards stating ‘Schoen, dass du da bist!’ (We are glad you are here!). The ‘pub’ we ate in last night is called Die Staendige Vertretung: waiters wore t-shirts with ‘Mensch, wo bist du? on the back, and underneath ‘in der Staendigen Vertretung!’ (Where are you? I am in the SV pub!). It is great to see how the funny side of a serious business has caught the imagination of the local (secular?) society and the whole city has joined in the fun. Christians have captured the public imagination, partly by choosing a theme and wording that invited response and engagement from all people – wonderful.

3. The press coverage of the Kirchentag has been interesting. The local Weser Kurier has put out a special edition every day of the Kirchentag and has provided good (not always uncritical, but always fair and intelligent) coverage of what has actually been going on here. There is a clear celebration of the event locally – even among those who don’t actually want to be part of it. As far as I have been able to see, the national press has also covered the event with intelligence, fairness and humour. Journalists take the substance seriously and don’t just look for holes and contradictions to exploit – that there will be holes, inconsistencies and contradictions is assumed and accepted.

4. There is a robustness about the Kirchentag which allows for enormous diversity of approach on the grounds that people are grown up enough to think, make their own minds up and argue the toss when they wish. There is an intellectual and cultural maturity to the whole thing that makes me want to stay here. For example, serious and lively discussions about religious education in schools has not been accompanied by the sillinesses we have come to expect in England – look at the recent spat between Ekklesia and others on this matter, for example.

5. Serious questions about the future development of the EKD are being asked and the debates are robust and demanding – as they should be. But what is immediately remarkable is the mutual respect with which ‘opponents’ treat each other and the rigour with which arguments are articulated. With few exceptions (in my experience), people behave like adults and Christians who love God, the church and the world and want to bring all three together.

So, there are some concluding thoughts and the clear suggestion of a regret that such an event in England is hard to imagine. I don’t have illusions about the Germans or their church, but I do have close experience of the way they are proceeding with facing change. I think it is impressive – regardless of whose vision will end up being implemented.

Now to Paderborn.

The last full day of the Kirchentag has been full and stimulating as ever. The day began with thousands of people listening to a Bible study by Prefessor Dr Juergen Ebach – an Old Testament theologian – doing an exposition of Genesis 16:1-16. This is the story of Sarai, Abram, Hagar and Ishmael. I used the word ‘exposition’ deliberately because being in Germany reminds me of what good exposition is about.

Much of what has passed in my experience as ‘expository preaching’ has been nothing of the sort. While purporting to be expounding the biblical passage, it actually squeezes the passage through a filter that is shaped in the ‘right’ way. What we have had this week has been an antidote to this. Kaessmann and Ebach have stuck closely to the text, allowing the text to challenge the assumptions we bring to it.

Ebach began this morning by asking: Who was the first person in the Bible (a) to be addressed by a messenger from God, (b) to give God a name and (c) to escape slavery? The answer is Hagar, the Egyptian who does a reverse of the exodus by escaping from the Israelite-to-be. In this context Ebach also noted how weak a man is Abram in the dispute between Sarai and Hagar – in common with most of the men in this strongly patriarchal society.

There is too much in this to explore here late at night, but the full text is available for those who read German. Ebach touches on ownership of ‘the Land’, the nature of the ‘others’ and the nature and vocation of Ishmael.

Anyway, a lunch with my German publishers was followed immediately by a 3.5 hour session on Church Reform (Podium Kirchenreform). I was a member of a panel for a 1.5 hour discussion ranging widely over a number of related matters, but the limitations of my spoken German let me down once or twice. I went straight from there to help lead an ecumenical service in Bremen and eventually got out to eat with friends at around 10pm. Hence the lack of an interesting post this evening.

More – once I have got my thoughts a bit more sorted.

Tomorrow the Kirchentag closes, but I will be leading an ecumenical visit to Paderborn for a service in Paderborn Cathedral (RC) in the afternoon and an academic conference on Monday. More anon.