The massive storm we have witnessed here in Philadelphia on the last day of our holiday is nothing compared to the storm of violence now raining down on Tripoli as the battle for freedom from Gaddafi’s rule enters it’s endgame. As with other similar struggles in the Middle East in the last six months, however, the question will soon move from ‘What do we want to be freed from?’ to ‘What have we been freed for?’

The distinction is important. It is easier to unite against a common enemy (or evil) than to unite for a common goal. It is easier (and more therapeutic) to pull down than it is to build up. Yet, we human beings seem to find it hard to learn the lessons of history that destruction is easier than construction.

Which is not to criticise the rebels in Libya – they have shown extraordinary courage, backed by NATO bombs, in challenging the regime’s brutality. A similar respect is due in Syria. But, the courage of the present will need to be re-energised and re-directed for building the post-conflict peace that lies ahead. If we are praying now, God knows we must pray even harder in the months and years to come – especially when our attention (and that of a hungry media) has moved on.

For the purposes of this post, however, the point is not primarily about uprisings; rather, it is about the distinction between ‘from’ and ‘for’. In fact, the thought was sparked by an excellent article by Bishop Tom Wright in today’s Spectator online magazine:

Defending the Church of England against the uncritical media mantra of decline and extinction, he summarises the role of the Church as follows:

“It exists, in other words, to do and be for the world what Jesus had been for his contemporaries: to bring healing and hope, to rescue people trapped in their own folly and sin, to straighten out the distorted pictures of reality that every age manages to produce, and to enable people to live by, and in, God’s true reality. It exists not to rescue people from the world but to rescue them for the world: to see lives transformed by the gospel so that people can discover a new depth and resonance of what it means to be human, precisely by looking beyond themselves to God, to the beauties and glories of his creation, and to their neighbours, particularly those in need. The Church does this through liturgy and laughter; through music and drug-rehabilitation programmes; through prayer and protest marches; through preaching and campaigning; through soaking itself in the Bible and immersing itself in the needs of the world. When God wants to change the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks (as many, including many critics, think he should). He sends in the meek; and by the time the world realises what’s going on, the meek have set up clinics and schools, taught people to read and to sing, and given them a hope, meaning and purpose which secular modernism (which gave us, after all, Passchendaele and Auschwitz as well as modern medicine and space travel) has failed to provide.”

I have offered a summary elsewhere as: “The Church is called to look and feel and sound like the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. If we don’t, we are a fraud.”

But the key point in Tom’s piece (also picking up nicely on David Bentley Hart’s ‘The Atheist Delusions’, which I am reading here) is that “It exists not to rescue people from the world but to rescue them for the world”. A popular critique of the church is that it indulges itself in some otherworldly preoccupations while the real (material) world deals with the real business. Yet, the Incarnation itself is about God opting into the world and not exempting himself from it. You can’t get more material – or less superspiritual – than that.

Christians do not seek escape from the world and all it’s complexities, but commit consciously to engage with it in all it’s messy contradictoriness. It might not be comfortable, but neither was the cross.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Philadelphia, USA

There’s a great Bruce Cockburn song (are there any that aren’t great?) that begins with the line:

Knots in my muscles, too much traffic in my mind, traffic in my mind…

That just about sums up the inside of my head, too. While the world goes mad (US brinkmanship regarding debt ceilings, Libyan contortions, Syrian massacres, Zimbabwean injustices, deepening exposure of media corruption, England beating India at cricket…) life carries on as normal for most of us. For me that means huge investment of time in getting to know the people and places within the boundaries of the Diocese of Bradford. It is both encouraging and challenging, but it also raises huge questions about future development.

It also makes it difficult to sleep. Not because I am worried – I am not. Not because there is too much going on – although there might be. It’s simply because my head is full and alive with questions, thoughts, options, imaginings. All good stuff, but, in Cockburn’s words, “too much traffic in my mind”.

Questions like:

    1. How can the Church best serve the deverse communities of urban, suburban and rural West Yorkshire and the Dales?
    2. How can clergy best be deployed, supported, resourced and led in leading their churches and parishes?
    3. What will be the pros and cons of dissolving three dioceses and creating one new one (where the pros so far well outweigh the cons, in my mind)?
    4. How do we best capture the public imagination with the announcement of the good news of Jesus Christ for all people?
    5. How do we best allocate our resources in order to enable us to achieve our vision: to enable the church to resemble the Jesus we read about in the Gospels – to be a sign of the presence of God in the messy world?

    Nothing new or radical there, but the actual realities of a new (for me) context raise them in new forms and in different colours and with changing urgencies. So, life is not boring. The questions that look general have to be addressed in the light of the particular, and that is where it gets tough/interesting/challenging/stimulating.

There are other questions, of course:

  1. When will American politicians learn that their ideological intransigencies make for a dangerous game in a contingent world where most of us wish they would grow up and learn the art of compromise for the common good? Or at least learn a vocabulary that isn’t automatically inspired by the demonising of ‘the other’?
  2. Why did we ever get involved in Libya and why did we decide to back the rebels before they even have popular legitimacy there? Did we learn nothing from Iraq?
  3. What legitimacy does the UN (or the ‘international community’) have when Syria just ignores ‘demands’ that they stop killing civilians with heavy weaponry?
  4. When will African leaders (particularly in SADC) take responsibility for insisting on the rule of law in Zimbabwe where Mugabe increases his snook-cocking at his subjects, uses the police as his personal judiciary and allows the nightmare (and profoundly dim) Nolbert Kunonga to terrorise the Anglican Church there?
  5. Who cares about cricket? I never did understand it. Roll on the footie season…

Oh dear…