What Bezalel and Isaiah Would Do With Nasty Emails and AK47s (Isaiah 2:3-4)

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So, over at The Simple Way community, Shane Claiborne is learning to weld so that he can make farm equipment out of old guns. Meanwhile, Rachel Held Evans is learning origami as a way of creating something positive out of hate mail.

I guess that illustrates the transformative power of the “swords into ploughshares” idea seen in Isaiah. The concept of taking weapons and turning them into tools or art isn’t just an act of repurposing or recycling, it’s an act of transformation – transformation of attitudes, transformation of the world.

Bezalel is one of the earliest people said to receive the Spirit of God and he wasn’t a leader or a priest, he was a craftsman, an artist. He was the guy responsible for transforming a desert into a place where God lived, a tent into the throne room of the Lord. Maybe he’d have a few imaginative ideas about what to do with swords and slings.

In that sense swords into ploughshares is a work of art – it forces us to reimagine the assumptions we’ve held for so long. That letter isn’t a venom-soaked missive, it’s a swan; that AK47 isn’t an assault rifle, it’s a rake.

That cross isn’t a tool of execution, it’s an act of grace and reconciliation.

The fundamental creativity that’s part of God’s character is seen there on Calvary’s hill as he transforms Rome’s most brutal deterrent into a message of peace, hope and forgiveness. Empire’s sword became a ploughshare and no-one even saw it coming.

As we head down that Lenten path towards the cross again, I pray that I’d have the creativity to transform the weapons I wield into something more constructive, more beautiful, more holy.

Update: It turns out that someone has coined a name for a gun that’s been transformed into a guitar – Escopetarra. Invented by Columbian peace activist Cesar Lopez, there’s a video of his work over at Cultures of Resistance.)

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Count The Stars In The Sky, Abraham (Genesis 15:1-6)

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This post will start by revealing just how parochial I am and will end by torturing a metaphor a little. Not bad considering it’s also going to be short.

Abraham’s an old, old man, well past the age where having children with his beloved wife was a realistic proposition. This is a knife in the guts – he left his homeland, all that he knew to follow God, and yes he’s been blessed, but now he’s thinking of his own mortality and who inherits his riches? His servant. Great.

This is all about legacy in a world in which you lived on through your kids; handing everything over to a servant, to know his family would reap your rewards, is one of Abraham’s key motivators, the reason for some pretty spectacular mistakes.

But for now it’s night and it’s quiet and he’s just had a vision of God’s protection and blessing. But to Abraham it’s an empty dream because he’s an old man with no son.

And so God makes a promise and makes it visually – he takes Abraham outside his tent and tells him to count the stars because that’s how many descendants he’ll have.

Count the stars.

Like I said, I’m parochial. I live in an urban area full of lampposts and headlights and so when I look up and count the stars it’s not that difficult. Sure, I know there are plenty more out there – I read books, I watch documentaries – but I’m a townie, and so counting stars lacks a certain visual, awe-inspiring immediacy.

But then I heard a podcast that made me re-imagine all this. It was about the efforts of the National Parks Service in Utah to preserve one of the few areas in which the night sky is pitch black, in which the majesty of the heavens is still on display, unhindered by 24-7 electricity. In that sense it’s a throwback to that moment outside Abraham’s tent, looking into the sky and not just seeing a few stats but a galaxy stretched out before you.

At that moment, God’s blessing and generosity didn’t just sound abundant and extravagant, it looked it too. For someone who lives over an hour away from the nearest Dark Sky Parks it’s easy to underestimate this passage, even if I do have a couple of astronomy apps on my phone. But then it’s easy to underestimate God’s promises anyway – I do it all the time. Too much gets in the way, crowds out his voice, obscures the visions he want to give us. We look into the sky to count the stars but we can’t not because they’re too numerous and we’re too awed, but because there’s so much stuff getting in the way and threatening to make a vision into something small and disappointing.

Too much artificial light.

Abraham looked into the sky, saw stars and constellations and believed God’s promise. I pray for the faith to do the same.

(After I wrote this, I read this article on how light pollution is affecting our health. Feel free to extend the metaphor!

Lent / Ash Wednesday (Matthew 4:1-11)

temptation_jesus22Hungry and tired, Jesus walks through the wilderness, a nomad for the forty days and forty nights before he begins his mission in earnest. It’s a time of temptation, of preparation, of spiritual conflict. It’s this that we commemorate when we eat our pancakes and consider what we’re going to give up for Lent.

I never know what to do with Lent. I’m lazy and undisciplined and normally end up forgetting what I’ve given up. There are times it feels like the Christian equivalent of New Year resolutions, a noble cause for a couple of weeks that collapses into insignificance the moment it gets too hard.

There’s also a nagging feeling that giving something up seems a little… perfunctory? There’s nothing wrong with quitting smoking or chocolate or Facebook – heck, it might even save your life – but quitting something leaves a void, and sometimes the forgotten part of Lent is what you fill that gap with.

See, there are things I do need to quit – a lack of sleep, a lack of self-discipline, a lack of de-stressing. Those are the things that hit me hardest, that, if I’m being honest, drive me away from God. In the midst of them I can get self-pitying – why doesn’t God help me? – but the fact is I’m not really reaching out for him.Giving up chocolate for a month-and-a-half might help my waistline, but Lent is ultimately a spiritual discipline – that needs to be the focus.

Maybe it’s instructive that Lent starts with Ash Wednesday. It’s a low time; the palm branches that commemorate Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem are burned, reminding us of how transient that moment was – only a few days later, the crowds were gone and Jesus was being crucified alone. It starts a period of fasting and repentance that not only remembers Jesus in the wilderness, but Moses fasting before God following the incident with the Golden Calf. It’s a time of honesty – here’s what’s gone wrong, how do we put it right again?

That’s the question, isn’t it? During his time in the wilderness, during his time of temptation, Jesus was presented with three very enticing answers to that question – security, power, fame. If only I knew where the next meal was coming from from, if only they all knew how good I am, if only people would listen to me… Life would be so much better.

And yet Jesus rejects all of those, choosing again and again the more difficult path, choosing God over all the easy answers. Because Lent’s a journey that leads to a very specific destination – to the Resurrection, the place where the journey both starts and ends, not in mourning but in forgiveness and rebirth  It’s a journey that requires us to let go of our baggage in the pursuit of God, clinging on to the belief, even with our fingertips, that our stumbling through the wilderness will eventually find us in a garden. And that journey starts here.

Re-imagining What Your Church Should Look Like (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)

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(I suspect this post will be a tad rambling and have more questions than answers – it’s a thinking aloud post, I’ll admit that up front. Maybe the answers are out there and I just haven’t encountered them in my limited experience which would, frankly, be awesome – please leave your thoughts in the comments section, especially if you’re involved in a radically different outworking of church.)

What does your church look like?

If you’re in the West, I can probably take a guess – chairs facing a central point from which the speaker delivers preaching and/or teaching, with space for some form of musical accompaniment roughly in line with this. There’ll be spaces for corporate activity of some sort and probably a kitchen. You might have pews or chairs, you might have a pulpit or a stage, but unless you’re a fresh expression or a cafe church, I’m willing to bet the description above is broadly accurate. Heck, it fits all the churches I’ve been involved in (so I guess this could be my bias coming through, and if it is, forgive me).

My problem is that I’m a traditionalist at heart but I keep having odd thoughts pop into my head, thoughts that don’t go away. I’m happy with sung worship and prayer times and sermons and social action, those things are good and valuable, but…

There’s a design principle which goes “Form follows function” – you figure out what a building is for and you design it around that. Broadly speaking, that’s why churches have roughly similar layouts – an area for a communal gathering that requires distinct areas for someone to speak and music to be played. That gives us halls and chairs. No problem, that makes sense.

But then we keep saying that the church is actually its people and their on-going relationship with God – our buildings are just shelters, convenient meeting places. And that’s true as well, but doesn’t that flip the principle above? When it comes to local churches, discrete groupings of individuals called by God into a particular place, is there an argument to say that function follows form? That one way of figuring out our corporate calling is by looking at the gifts held by the individuals making up the congregation and designing our meeting spaces around those gifts? Yes, a church will have key elements – worship, teaching, prayer, pastoral activities, social action, mission – but there are a hundred and one ways in which each of those can be expressed. One size doesn’t fit all and we shouldn’t expect it to – read 1 Corinthians 12, if all Christians are different, then all communities of Christians will necessarily look different as a result, right? Have key elements in common, definitely, but that’s not the same as homogeneity.

Yeah, yeah, I know, this isn’t the most radical or original ecclesiological thought any more. Smarter people than me have been thinking about this for years. However, we still prioritize certain gifts – preaching, worship leading, evangelism, children’s work – and while those things are hugely important, where does it leave you if God’s put you in a church full of engineers? Or storytellers? Or gardeners, or cooks, or people with additional needs, or if God’s raised up a congregation in a community where there are twenty churches but no library, where spiritual needs are fed but 200 local workers need retraining because a factory’s just closed down?

It’s been said that the voluntary sector in the UK would collapse if all the churches closed overnight – look at all the soup kitchens and youth clubs and coffee mornings that are run by churches, work out the sheer cost and resource that represents. And yet maybe there are even wider visions than that – why shouldn’t a church run a makerspace if it finds itself attended by a group of engineers or enthusiastic geeks following in Bezalel’s legacy? Young entrepreneurs arriving at church because of your youth work? Why not set up a business incubator? You’ve got a vestry and a new sound system; great, but do you also need a sensory room, or a bigger kitchen, or new art or an outdoor gym or a bigger greenhouse? Does it allow us to take all our gifts and use them in the service of Christ, or are we compartmentalising too much, leaving someone on the margins because she can’t play guitar but she’s been knitting scarves for sixty years and now just needs someone to help her get those scarves to the local homeless? We might just be catching up with Facebook and Twitter, but the digital natives on the fringes of our congregations are rolling their eyes because they’ve figured out the next big thing in social media – what do we do with that?

A shed on an allotment can be a church; heck, that’s something Ethiopian Christians might appreciate. A skate park can be a church. Because a church is a group of people who love and follow God with all their quirks and talents and eccentricities. And I’ll admit, sometimes in my darker moments, I’m terrified that God has given the church so many gifts and talents but we often lack the foresight and creativity to use them in the ways he’s asking us. Where two or three are gathered together, God is in their midst, and he’s big enough to have something unique for them to do in that very place. Sometimes what we think of as a ‘radical’, ‘different’ church really isn’t; God’s more creative than we are.

Maybe that’s why so many congregations are worn out – we’re so busy doing what we think God wants us to do, we’re actually missing his true calling and are therefore engaged in an uphill struggle without even realising it.

I guess it boils down to this – does your church look like your congregation or just what you think a church should look like? And does it help you to look more like God, growing visions and empowering mission that looks totally different from what we’re used to but that is still relevant and blessed because God is using and strengthening it?

And am I too comfortable in church or can I ask God to give me a radical, exciting, creative vision of my part in his kingdom?

 

 

(After I wrote this, I listened to a sermon by Mike Slaughter of Ginghamsburg Church, Ohio. In it, he spoke about how God worked with the things Moses already had – his belongings, history and talents – in other words, focus on what you’ve got, not what you don’t have, because God can and will use it. I think that ties in with what I was trying to get across with this post.)