…Even good things in the church – good theology, good ethics, good worship service, ministry time – can become distractions which prevent us attending to God and each other.
Anyone who serves in the church – on whatever level – knows the ever-present danger of this kind of distraction. We begin to think that we are doing something cool. That we are important – game-changing, even. More than the dangers of moral failure in sex or finance, I think, is the danger of getting distracted by our own self-written press releases…
I am delighted to see that book listing posts are back in fashion. How delightful. This time it is a listing Christian books that should be read before we turn 25 – Krish Kandiah started off the trend in Christian Today, and Andy Goodliff supplied his own list. I have read a lot of the books on both lists, and think the recommendations are good.
However, I thought I’d join in the fun, with an extra twist of lemon – I currently am 25. How about that. So instead of a prescriptive list, here’s a rather more idiosyncratic descriptive list of 11 books which made a big impact on me growing up.
- What’s so amazing about Grace – Philip Yancey. Yancey doesn’t just describe what grace is, he attempts to help the reader to see what grace feels like. He weaves together stories, personal anecdote, literature and quotes to provide a beautiful tapestry of grace. Still one of my go-to recommended books for people feeling a bit parched and wanting to hear the gospel afresh again.
- Evangelical Theology – Karl Barth. It’s no secret that I love Barth.1Naturally, as a theology student, it goes without saying that my personal reading crushes also involve many a midnight rendez-vous with Augustine behind the bikesheds (it was the only place we could escape his mum), much flirtation with Calvin, full-on eloping with Barth and so on. However, I largely kept these interests out of the list for the sake of not boring everyone else to death. For me he is one of the most creative and interesting theologians ever. Evangelical Theology is an unusual book from him – less about the academic content of theology, and more about the habits of faithful Christian living and faithful Christian theologising. The book is full of gems about prayer, study, patience and much more – I find it great devotional reading.
- A Generous Orthodoxy – Brian McLaren. I read this book at a time when I was feeling very hemmed in by the Christian context I found myself in, and this book helped to expand my horizons and show me some of the depth of the Christian tradition. More recently, I have become critical of a lot of stuff McLaren writes, but I think this book is still very helpful and his enthusiasm for the project is contagious.
- The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass, Christian Speaker, Aged 45 3/4 – Adrian Plass. My teenage years were spent in very charismatic circles, and in many ways this is still the mode of spirituality which I most readily identify with. It’s an exciting part of the church to hang around in – but there is also no shortage of nuttiness. I found Plass’ gentle way of poking fun (from inside the tent) helpful in processing some of what I was experiencing. Not just that, but this book is side-splittingly funny at times – and hugely poignant at the same time.
- Chronicles of Narnia – I admit I’m taking a liberty in filing this as one book, but it’s my list… Narnia was always somewhere I loved to escape to (I got into Lord of the Rings much later), and I found the more that I re-read the books, the more I appreciated their subtlety and beauty.
- Holiness – John Webster. This is probably the most academic book on this list by far, but I wanted to slip it in. This book made me do a complete rethink about how I talked about, thought about and lived holiness. Evangelical traditions can be very impoverished in the area of holy living – even leaving aside the cliches of legalism, a lot of thinking tends to be a very bland account of justification and sanctification. Webster’s book places holiness back in its proper place: the holiness of God calling and shaping a community of holiness. It’s a big picture account of how the gospel both demands and generates holiness, and as such is a text I come back to time and time again.
- Why study the past – Rowan Williams. This one is a niche choice, I grant you. My favourite subject at sixth form was probably history, and even now I still get very nerdy about all things history (and the history of the church tradition was my favourite aspect of my theology degree). Rowan Williams’ book provides some of the reasoning for why studying history is a good idea, reminds us of the strangeness of history, urges us not to appropriate the people of the past for our own ends and keeps us humble.
- Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy. As a foolish undergraduate, I thought I could study and learn Russian. It became clear after two semesters that my linguistic ability stretched to German and no further, so I dropped Russian. However, my love of 19th Century Russian novels lives on. This is another book that demands re-reading in order to fully appreciate. I’m not going to lie – the first time I ploughed my way through this was dry. But the second and third times I began to get into the characters.Tolstoy paints on a wide canvas and one of the themes I really appreciate in him is the holiness of the ordinary life well lived – it’s a tonic to some evangelical over-enthusiasm for the extraordinary life as a marker of true faith. Tolstoy also deeply questions our abilities to understand ourselves and our own stories – a much needed question mark in an environment where personal anecdote has in many ways become the dominant form of moral reasoning.If you are going to get into this book, do yourself a favour and get a nice translation. It’ll make such a difference. At all costs avoid Constance Garnett.
- The Doors of the Sea – David Bentley Hart. This is a small, very accessible book looking at the problem of suffering in the Christian tradition. Again, this book had a large impact on how I think about theodicy and heavily resists the temptation to make suffering ‘make sense’ on some banal pacifying level. If you’re tempted to read this book, you should know that Hart is a prickly writer and deals curtly with those he disagrees with – his style definitely isn’t for everyone’s taste!
- The Curry Secret: How to Cook Real Indian Restaurant Meals at Home – Kris Dhillon. Absolutely no Christian content to this book, but has proven invaluable in cooking meals for prayer meetings, church events and most importantly home groups. One of my go-to ways of blessing people. (Note: double the quantity of ginger and triple the quantity of garlic on most recipes. You can never have too much of either).
- The Meaning of Marriage – Tim Keller. Again, possibly a surprise entry. Even in Christian circles, not terribly many people are thinking about marriage before 25. However, this is one of the few good Christian marriage books I have ever read, mostly because it spends a lot of its time talking about really banal things like friendship and kindness. Therefore, I would go out on a limb and say it’s generally a good book to keep reading for any relationship – be that romance or purely friendship.(A confession: I ‘improved’ the chapter on gender roles with the help of a large black marker. Even if you want to argue for a complementarian understanding of gender, I think messing around with the doctrine of the Trinity is a pretty weak way of doing it, and is sad to see in an otherwise very robust book).
And with that my meandering, unbalanced and entirely unscientific list is complete.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Naturally, as a theology student, it goes without saying that my personal reading crushes also involve many a midnight rendez-vous with Augustine behind the bikesheds (it was the only place we could escape his mum), much flirtation with Calvin, full-on eloping with Barth and so on. However, I largely kept these interests out of the list for the sake of not boring everyone else to death.|
Last week a party of us went up to Berlin for the EBF Mission Conference 2016, “Welcoming the Stranger”. This conference, the theme of which was planned before the events of last summer, looked at Baptist responses to the refugee crisis across Europe. There have been several reports already about the conference, and I thought I would just add in a few reflections of my own.
At the end of my first year at University in Scotland, I did a two month summer internship with my church. I would help with Sunday services, get experience of what church administration looks like, help out with a children’s activity week, and other similar tasks.
As part of the internship, we used to have team meetings and regular contact with the pastors of the church. It was during one of these sessions, over a cooked breakfast and a cup of coffee, that the question came up: “David: do you tithe (give 10% of your income) to the church”
We are currently going through a preaching series on seven verbs for Lent in Projekt:Gemeinde. I drew the short straw of preaching on suffering. This is fraught with difficulty: it is a subject which is very personal and real to many people, and one which touches our deepest hopes, dreams, fears and pains. Unfortunately, it is also a subject which is too easy to either preach glibly about, thus minimising the real experience of suffering, or to be too academic and dry, and thus miss the pastoral mark in terms of ministering the gospel. Finally, I’ve had a tedious couple of weeks and was also feeling exhausted and in need of the gospel myself.
Therefore, I decided to structure the sermon a little differently. We broke it up into five small meditations, divided by the repeated reading of Psalm 13:1-4 (“how long, O Lord, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me…”).
A lot of people found the sermon helpful, so I decided to give a scribbled spark-notes version here translated into English, in case it helps other people. This is obviously a highly condensed summary of a spoken event, so comes will all the limitations thereof!
On my way to preach on Sunday evening, a half remembered quote from Pope Francis sprung to mind. When I got to church, I tracked down the quote from Evangelii gaudium and incorporated it into my sermon, and the whole message ended up being very different to what I had been planning to preach (this, by the way, is rather nerve-wracking when preaching in a foreign language!).
In his exhortation, the Pope reminds the church of the joy of proclaiming the gospel. The part that particularly sprung to my mind comes from the last paragraph of Chapter 1:
Let us go forth, then, let us go forth to offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ. Here I repeat for the entire Church what I have often said to the priests and laity of Buenos Aires: I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.
I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life.
More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37).1Evangelii gaudium, 1.48. Read online
I found the Pope’s vision for the church captivating and challenging. There is a lot for me as a Baptist to affirm here – and yet there is also the question: does this reflect the reality of our personal and corporate lives together?
My sermon was about fasting and giving up our power. Drawing again on Philippians 2, I pointed out that in Jesus we have a demonstration of what reality looks like, and encouragement that the same mind that should be in each of us. And indeed this reality is our reality: we enter in this new reality by the power of the Spirit.
I had a wonderfully detailed series of applications about what that might look like in various situations. In the end, I stayed on the one level, our identity as a church. And my point was simple: an encounter with Jesus is something so completely precious, so reality-changingly beautiful, that it breaks our hearts.
In Jesus, we see the God who is for human beings completely and without reservation. We see God’s ‘yes’ to humanity, despite humanity’s frailty and disobedience. And when we encounter this Jesus, as individuals and as a church, we cannot help but be drawn to the kinds of places Jesus was drawn to, and to learn to live and love as Him.
May this encounter with Jesus in the gospel shape our lives and our imaginations of what church is more and more. May we be known as a people who are addicted to grace, who try and embody God’s ‘yes’ to human beings in the middle of a society which so quickly dehumanises and demonises.
May God keep us from the security of our own internal structures and debates, of church politics and becoming ‘harsh judges’, and instead keep us captivated by his gospel. And may we long to see God’s Kingdom coming in our churches, as we get remade by the power of the gospel.
Sunday wasn’t the sermon I planned to preach. But maybe, despite all the homiletical inadequacy, there was a vision to live and die for: a church bruised and broken, because it is made up of people who have seen the risen Lord.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Evangelii gaudium, 1.48. Read online|
I’d like to draw your attention to the report released by UK based Project 3:28 this week looking at the balance between male-female speakers in UK Christian conferences. The project, kickstarted by a small group of superstar activists, exists question the imbalance between male and female speakers at Christian conference, and to advocate for visible gender justice.
You can read the whole report for yourself to see a breakdown of the number of speakers, some comments on research methodology, and improvements from 2013-2014. Though I am pleased to note that the (BUGB) Baptist Assembly came top of the list, having a moreorless equal line-up (52% men, 48% women). Also, two conferences (Church and Media Conference, and Youthwork Summit) are notable for having a higher proportion of women than men.
I was preaching on Philippians 2 in our Farsi service on Sunday, and was particularly captured in the inspiration by the idea of power in the church community. Paul is concerned in the beginning of Philippians 2 to talk about what should characterise Christians in church: they should be of one mind, sharing the same love, being in full accord with each other.
Then he moves on to talk about how Christians relate to each other: they should do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility they should regard others as better than themselves. We shouldn’t look to our own interests, but to the interests of others (it’s interesting to notice the way this is often softened in some translations to be “not just to your own interests”). To illustrate this point, of course, Paul points to the example of Christ (Phil 2:5-11).
This all got me thinking about the power dynamics in our relationships with each other in the church. I think that most churches are characterised by a mixture of the kind of love that Paul is pointing to, and a mixture of unbaptised conceptions of power and what power looks like (as is so often the case in human relationships).
I have slight tendencies towards grumpiness. Or at least seeming grumpy. This will come as no surprise to those who know me.
Indeed, when I lived in Scotland, my friend helpfully made the following image comparing me to a grumpy cat (for those who are confused, I am the one on the left):
I put it down to being born in the North of England before spending too many years in the rainy plains of Scotland. It’s not that I have a particularly cloudy outlook on life: by and large, I am a positive – even optimistic! – person. Yet, grumpiness tends persist.
In a flight of fancy this evening, I begun pondering about grumpiness and whether it could be classed as a theological virtue. There is a health warning on what follows: it is to be taken with a large pinch of salt and very little earnestness. Possibly. Maybe.
Church history tells us that many theologians weren’t the life-and-soul of the party. Whilst it was true that Luther was often to be found in the bars of Wittenberg, others – Calvin, for example – were known for a rather more austere approach to life. Of course, the fact that Calvin spent a large part of his life chronically ill probably did little to lighten his mood.
Yet grumpiness isn’t just a certain grimness in the face of otherwise irresistible cheeriness (here I think of Leonard Cohen’s quip: “I’ve also studied deeply in the philosophies and religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through”).
Neither, I think is it unhealthy cynicism or sourness. Both of those are clearly sins in the theological discipline where we are called to worship God and study with joy. But I don’t think grumpiness is necessarily antithetical to joy. Grumpiness is something much more British, much more positive and much more related to irony than either of those two.
I think grumpiness can also mean a certain impatience with novelty for novelty’s sake. On this account, it tries to resist narratives of ever-increasing improvement (whilst also resisting narratives of ever-worsening situations) and suggests that received tradition and wisdom are not to be idly dismissed. Grumpiness can be a healthy impatience with things that are superficial or self-serving, or a suspicion at new trends that seem to reinforce existing power structures.
If we entertain this definition of grumpiness, then, it could indeed be a theological virtue in the church.
A healthy scepticism – a ‘grumpy’ scepticism, if you will – towards new ideas is rooted in a knowledge of and debt to 2000 years of Christian history, and a pastoral concern for God’s people, lest an incoming trend distract from the main and the plain of love for God and neighbour. Grumpiness can also be a resisting force against ideas that shrink the living God of the Bible down to a riddle we can work out, an ethical theory or something we can grasp. It accords priority to God’s speech and action.
Grumpiness is wary of the latest ideas or coalitions, of gospel-centred beer brewing and relevant conferences with the latest big name speakers. Not because God is unable to use these – of course he can and does – but because such movements often have the unintended side effect of crippling the local church. Or these movements and their well-known leaders too often keep silent – and try to silence discussion – when it comes to publicised issues of plagiarism, abuse or domestic violence so as not to destroy the perpetual motion machine of the Evangelical Industrial Complex. Here, a grumpiness that has very little invested in the glamorous hierarchies of Christian celebrity and the glitzy world of gospel-centred-capitalism can again be a pastoral positive. Grumpiness resists the temptation to be in the Inner Ring and thus become a scoundrel (the ghost of this C.S. Lewis script of course haunts this paragraph strongly…)
If this flight-of-fancy is true, then, we could define grumpiness as an impatience at things that offer less than God or encourage people to settle for something smaller than God. Only the speaking, table-turning, unsettling and comforting God will do. And grumpiness insists time and time again that we do business with this God, not the multiple idols that we are so good at constructing.
Of course, this could all be rubbish and it could just be I am a grumpy git. That’s far more likely than anything else I’ve written above. Yet, even here, grumpiness means it’s difficult even to take one’s own thoughts too seriously. As Jeremiah soberly reminds us, “the heart is deceitful above all things and there is no cure” (Jer 17:9). Nothing sounds better than self-justification. So even the grumpiest of grumpy cats must eventually dissolve in laughter at the futility of ourselves.
Here, it’s always wise to remember words from St Karl of Barth (himself rather a chipper Swiss person):
“The angels laugh at old Karl. They laugh at him because he tries to grasp the truth about God in a book of Dogmatics. They laugh at the fact that volume follows volume and each is thicker than the previous one. As they laugh, they say to one another, “Look! Here he comes now with his little pushcart full of volumes of the Dogmatics!” And they laugh about the men who write so much about Karl Barth instead of writing about the things he is trying to write about. Truly, the angels laugh.”
Quoted in Robert McAfee Brown’s “Introduction” to Portrait of Karl Barth, by George Casalis, trns. Robert McAfee Brown. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1964, p xiii.
Maybe there’s something useful to grumpiness.
Probably, I’m just dour.
Either way, not taking myself or my work too seriously is a good way forward – God is just too lively, too beautiful, too glorious to spend too much time staring at my naval.