The Battle For Our Stories Will Be Won Through Our Art

Back in 2012, before I was married and before the world didn’t end, a group of us got together to watch the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. It was an expansive, unexpected event, weaving together a patchwork of Britain’s paradoxes. Two parts stick in my imagination even today: the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter with James Bond (because, well, it’s the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter with James Bond), and the moment in which Mary Poppins does battle with Lord Voldemort for the soul of the NHS. It was a strange mosaic of pop culture and social justice and political reality, and because of the imagery and the resonance it took things we take for granted and turned them into something mythological, perhaps even apocalyptic – not in the everyone’s-going-to-die sense, but in the sense of an unveiling of deeper realities.
And all of this is important, because as a society our stories are failing. We’ve seen, even in the course of the last few weeks, darker narratives take hold and dominate – stories tanked up on racism and prejudice and violence and exclusion. They take hold and people get shot and shops get firebombed.

The Church can’t stay silent in the face of this toxic storytelling, especially as we’ve told a few horror stories around the campfire ourselves. We can’t rely on people stumbling into our sermons, can’t rely on the fact that we get a bishop to say a quick prayer before an important occasion. We have to get out there and tell better stories, and while we’re doing that, ask forgiveness for all the times we’ve weaponised our own stories.

That’s where the gift of creativity comes in. We need to empower and encourage and unleash the artists and the poets and the song writers and the film makers among us; we’ve got good at doctrine e and theology and apologetics,  and yhey’re important, but never forget that, when Jesus wanted to talk about the love of God he told the story of a boy who ran away from home, and when he wanted to talk about our love for each other, he told the story of a guy who got mugged.

So we have to pray that the Holy Spirit will bless and anoint those doing this work, because the world and the church need them out there on the frontlines. The Holy Spirit is our inspiration; let’s reclaim and remix and reims gone the Psalms and the parables and the lamentations and the testimonies. Maybe the time has come to be prophetic and apocalyptic, because that doesn’t mean that everything has to burn but it does mean that everything had to change.

There’s someone in the pews near to you that has a paintbrush. Someone has a digital camera and an eye for composition. Someone has a maker workshop in their garage, someone has a pen and a notebook full of ideas. And they also have the Holy Spirit.

Our job, as the church, is to help them present and reveal and embody a greater vision; our job, as the church, is to help them heal our broken narratives and to tell better stories.

Alpha Cities (Acts 2:5-12)

There’s an article at the V3 Movement blog that discusses the church’s mission in relation to ‘Alpha Cities’ – cities that are intrinsically connected to the rest of the world through complex networks of trade, migration and transport links*. We live in a world in which concepts of our neighbour now encompass both the person who lives next door and a Twitter friend who lives a couple of continents away. 
Of course, that also means, temporarily or permanently, people come to us, be that out of choice or necessity, because of hope or desperation. Lovers, workers, soldiers, visitors, families and friends pass through our towns and cities all the time; some are just passing through,  others make a home for themselves. Sometimes, through the evils of slavery and genocide and people trafficking, human beings are moved forcably and we have to find a way to deal with that too. Whatever the reasons, human movement, migration, has shaped human civilisation, and with it the church, for better or worse: missionaries or refugees, aid workers or colonisers.
For a couple of biblical examples of this, think of the Pentecost pilgrims, or Cornelius stationed in Caeserea by the Roman military. Both of these examples lead to major redefinitions of the mission of the early church.

So. Look at the town or city in which your church is based. How does it reflect the communities and neighbourhoods around it? Is it diverse? Homogenous? Why do you think this is?

The world throws up plenty of barriers between us – you’ve only got to watch the news from the UK or US to see that. But the church has always been a diverse, networked body made up of brothers and sisters from around the world and from every social class. This isn’t something scary and new that we’ve suddenly had to confront as the result of the modern world, it’s baked into the DNA of the people of God. And if we try and deny this, or actively work against it, we’re actually doing violence to the Body of Christ.

Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to celebrate the diversity, the breadth and depth of the church family. And the Alpha Cities and the urban and digital spaces in which we live help us to do that by bringing together our brothers and sisters from across the globe, helping our churches to see Christ from a thousand different perspectives, uniting us as one people, children of God our Father, talking about him in different ways and styles and voices and accents because God is too big to contain otherwise.

The world moves; people move within it. There’s an opportunity to move with them, safe in the knowledge that, wherever we end up, Jesus has gone before us, and that, when we end up in an Alpha City or just standing at a lonely crossroads, the Holy Spirit will be there, travelling in each and every direction.
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*In this post I’m largely thinking about ‘physical’ networks, but we’re also tied into the digital Venn diagram that is social media. The question here is, where does your Web traffic come from? How might that impact your church’s mission?

Open the Gates: How Jesus clearing the Temple speaks to how the Church should view disability (Matthew 21:12-17)

I don’t know how many times I’ve read the story of Jesus clearing out the Temple. It might have reached the hundreds by now, because it’s a cool, dramatic story. But there’s one element of the story I never noticed before, am almost throwaway line that nevertheless helps transform how we read the rest of the story.
It’s well known that, in the week leading up to the Crucifixion, Jesus marches into the Temple and throws around the tables of the money-changers and stampedes the cattle. So far, so familiar, but in all this chaos, something happens: “The blind and the lame came to him at the Temple.”

Why is this a big deal?

Because the blind and lame weren’t normally allowed into the Temple.

The reason is rooted in Leviticus 21:17-20 and 2 Samuel 5:8, and is interesting context for Peter’s interaction with a disabled beggar in Acts 3. But it points to something important that remains an issue for the church today.

Because the church isn’t always open to people with disabilities; the gates are shut and those with disabilities often find themselves stuck outside (again, Acts 3). And yet, pretty much the first thing that happens once Jesus causes chaos and disrupts the commerce and corruption and toxic respectability that had infected the Temple is that “the lame and the blind” come flocking in. It’s like people were just waiting for a moment like this.

I’ve blogged previously about families with disabilities at church and the hidden issues that affect their experience of Sunday mornings. TL;DR – it’s not often easy. And this isn’t about the need for ‘pity’, because that’s patronising, it’s about everyone being able to take an active role in the Family of God.

So it was interesting to see how Jesus’s radical act opened up the gates and gave more people the opportunity to encounter God. Maybe that’s a message to our churches – maybe we need to pray that the Holy Spirit would turn over some tables so that we would become a more welcoming and inclusive space.

Of course, we’ve got to actually want this, and here’s the thing – often the biggest threat to our individual congregations is comfort, and often churches don’t really want the disruption. It doesn’t fit in with the demographic or the ministry profile or whatever neatly mown lawn we consider to be our harvest field. And when that’s the case, watch out, because it wasn’t just the Temple that Jesus needed to turn upside down.

We need to be open to some disruption so that we can truly be the church. And that may mean days of noise and chaos as we find our way into what God wants from us. But one thing is clear, we can’t lock the doors. We can’t pity from a distance. Following Jesus means turning over our own tables; following Jesus means opening the gates.

Joseph the Dreamcoated Oppressor (Genesis 47:13-26)

The Old Testament story of Joseph is great, right? Young man gets sold into slavery by his brothers but slowly rises from the ashes to become the second most powerful man in Egypt… Just in time to save his family from a devestating famine. You can see why they turned it into a musical; the coat thing is just the icing on the cake.

And then you read Genesis 47.

Famine has struck the land, but thanks to his visionary dreams, Joseph has been able to prepare Egypt for disaster by stockpiling grain. Only Joseph’s idea of famine relief involves everyone selling all they have to buy food. And when they’re out of money, he takes their land. And after he’s taken their land, he makes them work for their survival.

Yep, Joseph and his boss Pharaoh become very rich on the back of this particular act of philanthropy. This is the context in which Joseph’s family come to live in Egypt – little brother has pretty much enslaved the population

There’s a theory that the Bible’s story of liberation starts with Exodus, with Genesis serving as more of a prequel. This casts something of a dark light over the story of Moses, which is set about 400 years after Joseph. The Israelites are now slaves. Their fortunes were reversed.

You think there might be a connection?

There’s s lesson here – Joseph used the famine (and, I guess the divine insight into the situation given to him by God) to oppress the vulnerable of Egypt, and in doing so bound himself to a system that would ultimately result in his descendents being enslaved). And so God gets them out of Egypt, but hundreds of years later the Israelites decide they want a king and wise guy Solomon ends up making the same mistakes and the whole cycle of oppression then exile starts again.

It’s easy to create systems that we think are benefiting ourselves and our communities, but which end up oppressing those around us. And whether that’s through society and politics, or through religion and the church, a system that binds others also binds us alongside them. Problem is we don’t notice this because we’re reaping the rewards.

Until, of course, the day we turn around and notice the system is collapsing, and those people on the receiving end of oppression aren’t as sympathetic as we’d like them to be.

The easiest answer to this is not to oppress people in the first place. Trouble is, when you’re embedded in abusive systems, it’s hard to see that. That’s when it’s time to ask some searching questions: who isn’t represented on our boards and legislature and church councils? Who’s on the receiving end of our tracts and polemics and yes, our vitriol? Who have we weaponised our systems against? How do we start to beat those systems into ploughshares?

And when we’ve answered those questions, ask where God is at work among the people who don’t benefit from our dream coated utopia as much as we do. Because he’ll be there, on the margins, speaking to those we render voiceless, standing alongside those we wish were invisible. The question is whether we want to stand with him, or with the idols we’ve created in our own image?

This Must Not Stand

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Look, this isn’t about Politics-with-a-capital-P: there was a referendum, small majority voted to leave the EU, we have to manage what happens next. That’s just how democracy works. And markets will eventually stabilise, deals will be reached and things will come together like a lucky drunk fumbling his way round a jigsaw.

But this is a Bible blog,  and so it’s at least partly about politics-with-a-small-p, because how we think about God will mould have we think about people and society and laws and how we live together. And the church can’t help but find itself in the middle of that messiness, because the church is made up of people that form communities, and right now there are scared people out there.

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Apparently instances of racial abuse have risen 57% since last Friday. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of Brexit, it seems like a spectre has been unleashed, or rather emboldened. I didn’t want to use the picture above, because I didn’t want to give the damn thing airtime, but this is what seems to be facing people in our communities to an increasing degree.

Maybe we weren’t aware of that. I wrote elsewhere that the last week feels apocalyptic, not because it’s The End Of The World, but because it’s an unveiling, a revelation of things that were hidden behind the curtain. We’re seeing things now that are messing with my naivete and my privilege as a comfortably employed white guy – the blatant violence of racism in word and deed, the fear of migrant communities and the fear and rage of people robbed of hope and opportunity and hunting down a scapegoat.

What do we do with this? I guess it’ll be different for each congregation; we need to challenge attitudes that are toxic and dehumanising, we need to offer sanctuary for those who feel scared and threatened, we need to build bridges rather than set down landmines. We have to declare, with one voice, that hatred and bigotry and violence won’t get beyond our gates, that there’s a line in the sand around our churches and a sign above it that says “No further”. Heck, we have to think about wearing safety pins.

It’s also an unveiling in the sense that we’re forced to ask ourselves where Jesus is in all this. To be honest, this isn’t that difficult a question. He’s alongside the families who received that note through their letter box. He’s alongside the German woman told by ‘friends’ that they don’t want her here any more. He’s on a tram in Manchester. He’s sweeping up at a Polish community centre. Jesus is always with the vulnerable and the marginalised, we see that throughout the gospels, and if that’s where Jesus is, that’s where the church should also be.

Something bad has found its voice. Something dangerous has started to roar. We need to shout louder.