Killer Opening Lines (Genesis 1:1; John 1:1)

q7244486This post was inspired by a flurry of tweets using the #medialit14 hashtag.

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

Really it’s just a sci-fi way of saying “once upon a time”, and that works; after all, Star Wars is basically a fairytale in space, a folktale with robots. Forget the rest of the scrolling preamble, that one line let’s you know what you’re in for.

And then a stonking great spaceship flies across the screen and shakes you out of your seat. Awesome.

Everyone who’s browsed a library or studied literature or tried their hand at writing knows the power of the opening line. Never mind judging a book by its cover, those first few words are what really counts. Take 1984 as an example: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Fourteen words in and you know you’re somewhere else, somewhere wrong. And yet it’s still April, there’s still a spring chill in the air… Maybe this world isn’t as distant as you’d like.

It’s also a line that’s almost made for Twitter. There have been a flurry of tweets from CODEC‘s MediaLit training course (hashtag #medialit14) around the use of social media in communicating religious concepts – basically, can you nail the essentials of the Christian faith in 140 characters? Or can you use the vernacular to explain something like atonement theory?

But that raises the question of whether we’re using the right tools for the job. Twitter, for instance is all about instant impact – it’s fast-moving and transient, and that’s great but it’s probably not the best place to explain the Trinity in all its complexity. Maybe Twitter’s not a tool to explain the mysteries of the universe, but a way of drawing people into story that they can then begin to explore for themselves. The equivalent not of a theology textbook but that killer opening line that gets into your head and lives with you until you see the story resolve itself.

I don’t know if that’s how the writers of the Bible saw the world, but you’ve got to admit, they hit on some great openers, even if by mistake. “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people”; no-one ever preaches on Lamentations, but that’s a great opening. And I so wish “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the Temple” opened Isaiah 1 and not Isaiah 6.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Wait, which God? How did he create everything? You mean he stands outside of the created order? That tribe next door says there are hundreds of gods and they made the world from the entrails of a sea monster, you mean they got it wrong? Dr. Sheldon Cooper keeps talking about the Big Bang, where does that leave God, huh?

You’ll never resolve all those questions in 140 characters. You can invite people into the questions though, and you can practice your humility and your listening skills, because you won’t know all the answers, but if you practice love and respect, that won’t matter. The conversation is what counts.

But that’s all a bit technical. Look at the Message’s paraphrase of John 1:1 – “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.”

Now, I’ll admit I’m not always the greatest fan of the Message, but I love this line. It’s like Bruce Springsteen has discovered theology. “The Word became flesh and blood” is all a bit cosmic, “moved into the neighbourhood” is contemporary and everyday. Bring the two together and you get something mysterious and poetic walking the streets around us, a glimpse of the Incarnation in the space of a tweet. Does it matter that it uses the vernacular? Does it matter that we lose some of the links to the Old Testament stories of God? Well, maybe, if we ignore them completely, but this is just the first line of the story, the opening of the conversation. There’s time for the rest later, but at the very least we’re left with a couple of questions:

Who exactly became flesh and blood?

What happened when they moved into the neighbourhood?

Of course, Christians get obsessed with answers more so than questions. We sometimes worry that the whole Kingdom of God will come crashing down if we can’t answer every theological question and mystery in words of one syllable. And sure, there’s a place for apologetics, but there’s also a place for testimony, for inviting people into a story. My timeline has lots of people tweeting random Bible verses, but when a pastor from Australia tweets that he and a bunch of his colleagues have been arrested for protesting the treatment of asylum seekers, well, that makes me sit up and take notice. Jesus is somehow present in those tweets in a real and compelling way; they explain a theology of incarnational mission in a way that mere concepts can’t.

So maybe communicating through social media isn’t so much about being a digital theologian but a digital storyteller. Again, it’s a different set of tools, and maybe we shouldn’t see Twitter or Facebook as a simple method of communication but as the campfire around which we can gather and start telling our stories. And those stories will evolve into relationships as a natural consequence of us talking to each other.

So budge up and give God a seat at that campfire.

Bible Jukebox: Faith and Music

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Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen.

That’s been my favourite song for years. Bruce calls it a rock and roll lullaby, and that’s a nice way of describing the song’s dreamlike, iconic landscape. It’s true and quietly mythic at the same time.

Now, religious songs, that’s something else. My favourite is Be Thou My Vision, and while it’s a great hymn in and of itself, it really became a favourite when I heard the Van Morrison version. Because sometimes, no matter how good your church choir might be, sometimes you really need to hear hymns sung in the original Irish.

It’s World Music Day, and while I’m tone deaf and have an ambivalent reaction to the Beatles, I’m fascinated by the use of music in the Bible. We’ve probably done it a disservice by turning it into prose, but that robs it of a power that only music has.

For instance, it’s in the music of the Bible that we often hear the voices of the marginalised; the Magnificat falls into a tradition of women singing about liberation, while elsewhere a Shulammite woman is unapologetic in her celebration of her beauty and sexuality.

Songs seem to give voice to emotions and frustrations and ecstasies that we don’t always associate with the Bible. We’ve lost some of these traditions – we don’t know how to lament in the church (I’m struggling to think of an overtly Christian song as raw as, say, Johnny Cash’s version of ‘Hurt’), and some of the songs already mentioned are saturated with radicalism and outspokenness. The Psalms aren’t just the ancient version of a CCM download, they cover a breadth of human experience that can leave us feeling uplifted then battered within the space of a few verses. More importantly, they give us permission, give us the words we need to express some of our deepest hopes and sorrows; the Psalms tell us that we’re not alone.

That connection isn’t just between individuals separated across centuries. Most of the Psalms should be considered corporate worship, hundreds of voices harmonising and praising and crying out. We continue with that tradition today – in some ways it’s bigger than ever – and that’s both a privilege and a danger for worship leaders. At best, leading a corporate act of praise can guide people towards a new encounter with God, or a renewed freedom in worship; at worse it can become performance idolatry. It’s a fine line to walk, a faith saturated in song but with a tendency to worship the music rather than the God it points to. And yet that shouldn’t stop us rediscovering and reinventing some of the great biblical songs.

But worship music can transcend the confines of services. Why else would Amazing Grace be sung by displaced Cherokees walking the Trail of Tears? A Salvation Army brass band in a town centre somewhere can turn a cold, miserable winter’s day into Christmas. Music has power, and so the song of God could change everything:

In his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.

That’s a powerful image of grace. There’s a joy in it, an abandonment, an excitement that can only be expressed with music. The idea of God singing about us is glorious; maybe the use of music here is the only way to convey the enormity of divine grace and love.

Because there are times when only a song will do.

Jesus the Refugee (Matthew 2:13-15)

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According to UNICEF, the Syrian conflict has forced 5.5 million children to become refugees; that’s roughly the population of Scotland or Denmark. The numbers are difficult to comprehend as anything other than statistics. The sheer human cost of this is overwhelming, safer processed through reports and spreadsheets than faces or tears. We get compassion fatigue, the headlines fade from the news, we stop talking about one crisis and move on to the next.

Isn’t that always the case? We hear the numbers and forget the names, names of the countless millions throughout history forced to leave everything they knew in order to save their lives and the lives of their families.

Names like Marlene Dietrich. Albert Einstein. Freddie Mercury.

Jesus.

Even that may be doing the displaced a disservice, remembering only the famous. There is more to the idea of Jesus the Refugee than simple biography.

There is a solidarity between Jesus and those who run, and making Jesus too ‘establishment’ risks eroding that solidarity. I don’t care how great your worship band is, how many books your pastor has sold, I suspect that Jesus, were he here in the flesh, would be heading for a Syrian refugee camp way before any of our churches.

Maybe that’s the power of Incarnation; not just that God became human, but that he became a refugee, an outcast, someone with scars on his hands, someone whose parents never forgot the night they had to run a hundred miles towards the safety of another land. An incarnate God of love will always be found among the poor, the weak and the suffering, rather than in ivory towers and gleaming palaces and religious arrogance. It was those things he fled and fought and ultimately they nailed him to a cross.

There are moments and spaces in which healing can begin, when children stop drawing bombs and start drawing butterflies. And these spaces can exist in the chaos and confusion and heartbreak of refugee camps, or soup kitchens, or shelters, or… A form of resurrection can be found in the worst of places, and as followers of an incarnate, refugee saviour, it’s our job to help create and maintain and defend those spaces.

That’s a challenge.

It’s outside our comfort zone.

I guess incarnation always is.

God vs Defensive Architecture (Leviticus 23:22)

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Urban spaces are more complex than we give them credit for. I guess we’ve all had the experience of wondering why a public bench is so uncomfortable, or why we’re stumbling over humps in the pavement. The answer, quite often, is that someone’s trying to manipulate our behaviour.

“Defensive Architecture” or “Aggressive Design” or whatever you want to call it went viral over the weekend. Photos of nasty looking spikes embedded in a doorway to deter rough sleeps hit Twitter, raising questions of how compassionate the design of our public spaces should be.

In one sense it sounds ridiculous to say that spaces can have a moral quality like compassion. But we build our cities, our civil structures, our open structures. They are designed and created and funded by us, and so spikes in a pavement can sometimes say as much about a society as our greatest cathedral. Sidewalk or sanctuary, there can be something intimately spiritual about public design.

There’s a command, way back in Leviticus, that talks about landowners not harvesting the edges of their fields – the produce there was to be left for the destitute and refugees. Now that’s predominantly an economic command, but there’s something symbolic about it – it reflects God’s heart for the poor and the marginalised, it forces an interaction between haves and have nots (the outcome of the Book of Ruth ties in to this passage) and it forces us to consider how we ‘re using the spaces around us.

This consideration is vital because, as Matthew 25 implies, it’s the things we do for God when we’re not actually thinking about God that can be the real test of our character. How we create spaces for ourselves is evidence of how we feel about other people.

So yeah, homeless spikes send a message. But so does a lack of funding for hostels, or demonising food banks, and a thousand other things beyond rough sleeping – public toilets, wheelchair access, transport networks, benches, all of these have a moral dimension. They all take our spiritual temperature.

There’s an opportunity here for Christians though. Think about all the land owned by our churches: do we need a revolution in ecclesiastical design? Are there ways in which we can transform our public spaces, develop missional architecture, reflect God’s heart for the world around through surrounding our sanctuaries with community gardens or libraries or art galleries or debt counselling, not to replace the heart of our faith, but to recognise that it expands into every corner of human experience. God cares about what we do with the edges of our fields; he cares about our church car parks too.

How do we respond to that?

Disruptive Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13)

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There was a time, once in my life, when I was scared I would see Jesus.

I can’t remember how old I was, but when I was in the house alone, or the only one still awake, I would sometimes be seized by the idea that if I walked through the living room door I would see Jesus standing on the other side. Sometimes, just to keep things interesting, I’d be scared of seeing an angel instead, all the same, on the times I needed to take the handle and walk through the door, it was with a sense of terrified anticipation.

I don’t know why I should have been so scared, or why this memory has suddenly resurfaced. It’s not like I ever saw anything. But if I had, I know, by definition, it would have been a disruptive experience.

I guess that’s true of much of the Spirit’s work. On that first Pentecost the disciples have their worlds turned upside down by fire and gales and languages they knew they couldn’t speak. How can they not have been shaken by this? It was disruptive enough for a note of scandal to enter proceedings – a bunch of working class pilgrims from the sticks tumbling into the streets shouting about God in a hundred different tongues? They must have been drunk, right?

But the Holy Spirit is a healer, and maybe that disruption is fundamentally restorative. From this point the story begins to expand its borders – geographically, culturally, ethnically. That’s going to lead to headaches for those early Christians, but ultimately the church is stronger as a result.

When revival hit Azusa Street, critics were scathing of how it resulted in a “shameful mingling of the races.” Near where I grew up, a cairn stone commemorates how John Wesley was dragged away for prosecution by a mob instigated by local clergy. Even in my lifetime, the local Pentecostals were viewed with wary suspicion. Thankfully that’s changed, but the Holy Spirit freaks people out, and often the people freaked out the most are the church. That’s a tradition that goes back as far as Moses and Joshua.

But we can’t complain if God doesn’t play by our rule book; he’s the one who writes the rules in the first place. Sometimes we need shaking up, we need to be disrupted, we need our horizons to be expanded. The Holy Spirit does that; has the right to do that, in fact, because he is God.

(Yes, I know that’s a fairly orthodox statement to make, but how many times do we refer to the Spirit as ‘it’? I know it’s sometimes a battle for me to remember to use personal pronouns when referring to the Spirit. Slightly embarrassing confession, yes, but I bet I’m not alone.)

So maybe today’s a good day to open ourselves to some disruption. We can’t be the church without the Spirit, be that through his fruit or his gifts; Pentecost needs to be an ever present reality, not just a commemoration. Let the wind blow, let the fire burn, let our language be transformed. And let the Spirit fall.