Dispatches from the Ploughshares Factory

There are times when it feels that we’ve turned some of the most powerful, beautiful themes of Christianity into empty cliches, pious memes that are gutted of their ability to change the world just at the moment we need their power the most. So we talk about something as radical and transformative as beating swords into ploughshares and make it a nice, utopian promise for a future world rather than something that could upend the violence that underpins our society in the here and now.

raw-tools-106-300x200So I wanted to recognise the times and places in which Isaiah’s great prophecy has been put into practice. Because these are places where the Kingdom breaks through. Sometimes that’s literal – the picture to the left is of workers at RAW Tools turning a rifle into a farm implement. RAW takes seriously the words of Isaiah and Micah, and sees them as a way in which a society scarred by gun violence and mass shootings can start to pursue a more peaceful path. That’s not just through engineering – it’s through giving people the metaphorical tools they need to reject violence. After all, if the only tool you have is a gun, the answer to everything starts to look like a target. We need better tools.

But this isn’t just about getting rid of our guns, not just about the repurposing of weapons. There are other kinds of violence, with the internet becoming a breeding ground for violent words, violent attitudes. Much of this is aimed at women, where what should be simple disagreements and debates end up being accompanied by misogynist language. To our shame, this is often the case among Christians; we fail to disagree well.

rhe-origamiSo when writer Rachel Held Evans found herself on the receiving end of some pretty unpleasant emails, she resolved to take this ugliness and turn it into something more beautiful. Using the art of origami, she turned hate mail into swans and cranes and ships, and in doing so it led to fellowship, freedom and forgiveness. Because when we reject the weapons and words of hate and replace them with creativity and imagination and peace, they can begin to heal.

These examples are faith-based, but that’s not always the case. Germany, like many other European countries, has seen a resurgence in racism, tensions within communities metastasizing into far-right violence and racial abuse. Swastikas have started to reappear, spray-painted in urban spaces, old wounds reopening. Street artist Ibo Omari is fighting back, not by painting over the graffiti, but by tracukwzyrxeaao59dnsforming them into something more positive, something more beautiful. And so, thanks to the Paintback campaign, strangely angular plants and animals have started appearing where there were once ghosts of a dangerous past, because even when our swords are transformed, they can still help us reclaim ground that was once lost to those with darker agendas.

There are other examples I’m sure; the world’s crying out for peace, and the Kingdom will break through like green shoots from pavement cracks. We need to look out for them, we need to encourage and build them and take them seriously, because these aren’t neutered cliches, they’re moments that point to a different, greater, better world. And those sounds you hear and the beauty you see are swords being turned into ploughshares; they’re signs that another world is possible, another world is breaking through.

Why Your Church Needs An Environmental Strategy

Look, I know there are people reading this who don’t believe in climate change, or at least who don’t think it’s influenced by humanity. And I’m no scientist, and I’m not going to be able to present a bunch of data that will convince you otherwise. All the same, I still think your church should have an environmental strategy. Here’s why.

A lot of Christians see the earth as transitory, that our ultimate destiny lies in the recreated new heaven and new earth described in Revelation. And so when climate change is described in apocalyptic terms, it almost feels like a clash of eschatologies, a theological Mexican stand-off. Now, this is fascinating as far as it goes, but it’s an indulgent theological dead end; there are plenty of people experiencing environmental problems now. This isn’t an issue for the future, it’s an issue that’s rocked up and sat down on our doorstep.

Just ask the people living in areas impacted by the Dakota Access Pipeline. If you live thee, environmental issues have a daily impact, especially if you’re getting manhandled by security and railroaded by corporations and watching your rivers get poisoned. And it’s not getting a vast amount of airtime, but it’s a lived reality for a lot of people right now. It’s not a hypothetical situation, it’s something that needs an immediate, local, incarnational response.

Of course, you and I may have been fortunate enough to have dodged this, at least in the immediate sense. That’s great for me, but it’s a major reason to think about how our churches respond to environmental issues. Because acres of the Bible teach us that we should have compassion and concern for the poor, and yet who’s on the front line of climate change and other green issues?

Exactly. The poor.

That immediately places a responsibility on the church. People are suffering as a result of environmental issues, many of those our brothers and sisters in Christ, and as disciples we need to be aware of this. We need to develop a greater appreciation for what’s happening in the wider world, we need to have a greater awareness of how our choices affect people on the other side of the globe, we need to get better at foreseeing all those unforeseen circumstances.

Now, that might be beyond the resources of most churches, but we can keep an eye on our neighbours, we can be better stewards of our resources, we can build more informed relationships with all those countries we support through our mission budgets. And that means asking some very focused questions about our local communities: how does all this affect churches in rural, agricultural areas? What happens if a town or city becomes more prone to flooding? Is your churchyard a Noah’s Ark? Who in our congregations are most at risk from extremes of temperature? Kids? The elderly? How do we look after them? Does everyone have decent drinking water? Is someone about to dump toxic waste into our local river? Are there any decent green spaces in our town? What about outdoor leisure facilities? How many jobs depend on the environment (or on trashing the environment)?

“Environment” is a big word. It encompasses climate, biodiversity, waste management, public spaces, public hygiene, plants and animals, soil and seed. And all of these impact each one of us, so your church needs an environmental strategy because it’s another way of serving your community and demonstrating God’s love to those around us, both right now and in the future. It’s not a matter of scientific or theological debate; it’s a matter of compassion and justice.

There are oportunities here, if we’ll open our eyes to them. Maybe it’s the impetus you need to do something fun and creative with that patch of land at the back of your church. Maybe by saving energy you can save money and reinvest those savings into new and existing projects. Maybe this could transform your next harvest festival. Maybe it could bring you out onto the streets for justice. Maybe it’ll wake up some prophets.

And as the environment is a global issue, there are opportunities for us to act as the worldwide Body of Christ. Congregations in the west could learn something about biodiversity from Ethiopia’s forest churches, for example; maybe this is another reason we should act as a network rather than in silos.

I don’t know what all this looks like in your church community – that’s for you to figure out. But I do know you need to plan for how your congregation interacts with its environment because that’s not something that’ll be dealt with by the eschaton, it’s something that affects all our lives, every minute, every day. And if we’re going to live out the Kingdom of God in our world, the least we can do is make sure the streets are clean, that the baptismal waters are non-toxic, that the least among us are protected. And that the good creation gift of God is honoured and respected.

Three Reasons We Should Pay More Attention To Church Toilets

Think of church and you might think of a modern, open plan worship space; a stage, perhaps, and lighting rigs and a big LED screen hanging on the wall. Or you might think of Europe’s great cathedrals, high ceilings and hushed tones and holy statues lurking in corners. I’m guessing no-one thought of the toilets.

That’s a mistake. And there are three reasons why (aside from the obvious):

Justice

We need to think about the toilets because, frankly, in comfortable western societies toilets are taken for granted. The whole messy business of getting sewage in and out of places is something other people worry about. Yet 2.4 billion people don’t have a clean, safe place to go about their business, and while that’s obviously a health and hygiene issue, it’s also an issue of justice – girls around yhe world can’t go to school, or are put at risk of rape, all for the want of decent facilities. That’s why the Toilet Twinning initiative is such a good idea – it can turn your church toilets into vehicles of justice, and maybe that’s the sort of thing that Jesus would have us think about, rather than yet another upgrade to the sound system.

Dignity

There’s also the issue of dignity. Again, something that’s easy to take for granted,  but imagine being out of the house and getting caught short and genuinely being stuck without access to a toilet. That’s an everyday reality for many people with disabilities, something that organisations like Changing Places are working to, well, change. Around 1/2 million people can’t use standard toilets and there aren’t enough disabled facilities out there to grant people the dignity they deserve. Churches aren’t always as welcoming to people with disabilities as they could be; maybe you need to see whether the disabled loo in your church is fit for purpose, or whether it’s just become the place where the mop buckets are kept.

Service

But someone’s got to look after those toilets; someone’s got to fix the leaks, someone’s got to mop the floors, someone’s got to change the loo rolls. And if I know churches, the majority of people doing that are probably pensioners, often elderly women who love to serve the church but who don’t get enough recognition, many of who probably shouldn’t be lugging vacuum cleaners around in the first place but there’s no-one else to do it. Somewhere along the line we ritualised Jesus washing the feet of his disciples; maybe next Maundy Thursday the elders should quietly do a stint cleaning the toilets instead. They should certainly give thanks and recognition to the army of unacknowledged servants who make sure the church is cleaned every week. I believe Jesus honours this work; his church should too.

So this Sunday, when you walk past the church toilets, think about what they might have to teach us. Because it’s in the things we most take for granted that we are often the most challenged; it’s in the most humble of places that God often speaks the loudest.

Churches, stop covering up sexual assault

tpc_fingerlipsquietreligionandabuse_fbI believe in the Church.

I find it frustrating at times, and I sometimes question where I fit into it exactly, but I believe in the Church because I believe in the Kingdom of God, and because I believe in Jesus, and because, at its best the Church reflects the beauty of both of those.

And that’s why it’s so sickening to see the speed at which elements within the Church are so quick to defend the indefensible. We saw it again over the last week or so – suddenly sexual assault became something understandable, something to shrug about, something men talk about in locker rooms alongside football. Worst of all, it was given a spiritual gloss – after all, King David was one of the Bible’s great heroes, and he had a chequered sexual past. It takes all sorts, right?

I think this is the point where something goes from being morally unconscionable to becoming flat out blasphemous. So let’s make this clear – David was a warrior, a poet, a king. He was also a rapist who had a man killed to cover up his crime and who, when his own daughter was raped, he failed to do anything remotely just or righteous in response. David is not the guy to look to if you feel the need to justify or minimise sexual assault.

But why would you want to do that anyway? Sexual assault is a vile act, inexcusable at every level, and what follows is equally deplorable – the shaming of victims, the weaponisation of forgiveness, the difficulty in obtaining justice, the refusal to take reports of it seriously, the way in which institutions close ranks to protect the perpetrators by sacrificing the trust and the dignity and the rights of those who are now struggling to survive a rape, or molestation, or pedophilia, or domestic violence.

But then these things aren’t about sex, not really; they’re about power, and parts of the Church have made an idol of power for centuries. On a mountain in the Galilean wilderness, Jesus was offered domination over all the kingdoms of the world, if he would only bow the knee to Satan. Jesus, of course, refused, but ever since then, many of his followers have been quick to rectify what they see as his mistake. And so we sacrifice people on the altar of power, because that helps us maintain respectability and influence and authority. All that it costs is the well-being of survivors, and our church’s witness and a crushing hammer blow to the faith of those around us.

People aren’t leaving the Church because of Jesus. They’re leaving the Church because of crap like this.

We need to reject the ongoing defence and cover-up of sexual assault. Women and children (and yes, men) who are attacked in this way don’t need to be shamed and ostracised and manipulated by institutional damage control, they need to be supported and protected and listened to and believed. The Church should be a place of safety, a sanctuary, a refuge, an outpost of the Kingdom in a world that dehumanises women and commodifies children. It should not be yet another venue for rape culture.

There’s a TED Talk by Ione Wells. It’s a powerful story of how she wrote an open letter to her attacker, and how that went viral through the #NotGuilty campaign. In her talk she quotes from her letter:

“You did not just attack me that night. I’m a daughter, I’m a friend, I’m a sister, I’m a pupil, I’m a cousin, I’m a niece, I’m a neighbor; I’m the employee who served everyone coffee in the café under the railway. And all the people who form these relations to me make up my community. And you assaulted every single one of them.”

We can’t minimise the impact of this violence. Not only is it a disgraceful attack on an individual, it harms our communities. If saving a life somehow saves the whole world, then to assault a single person leaves scars on the world in its wake.

So many have recently come together to share their stories of these scars over social media, but this isn’t because the technology has only recently become available, it’s because we haven’t done enough to foster spaces in which people feel safe enough to speak about an attack. We’ve been too busy creating shame spaces, silent spaces, shunning spaces. And every time we do this our communities shrink and wither and die as the cancer takes hold and spreads.

A culture of silence, a culture in which sexual assault is just an inevitable consequence of ‘alpha masculinity’ is a collective act of violence as well as an attack on an individual, is a culture that will eventually break down or self-destruct. And if we want our churches to truly be houses of God in a broken world, we need to stop playing by the world’s rules, stop ourselves being seduced by power and violence. We need to stop covering up sexual assault; we need to speak out for justice and truth; we still need to put this culture of rape to death.

Sitting in the Dark on Top of a Mountain: Elijah, God and Mental Health

icon_elijah_02_in_a_cave1You can’t make a diagnosis over thousands of years; it’s impossible to get into the head of someone who lived long ago, separated by centuries and cultures. But even so, I can’t help but read 1 Kings 19 without worrying about Elijah’s mental health.

The story takes place not long after the prophet’s greatest victory, his triumph over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. He’s seen his enemies driven before him, he’s seen fire fall from heaven. You’d expect him to be on top of the world and ready to take on all comers. And yet precisely at this moment of victory, Elijah runs from it, he runs until he finds himself under a bush wishing he could just die.

I bet none of his friends saw this coming. I bet people looked at him with awe, or with horror, or with hope. I bet they saw a kick-ass prophet of the Lord who was going to bring a whole corrupt establishment crashing down. No-one heard saw the maelstrom of emotion and pain and anxiety that stormed within him, a voice constantly whispering about his own inadequacies, the hopelessness of his situation, the futility of taking yet another breath.

This is midrash, of course. I don’t know if this is how Elijah really felt.But I do know what it’s like to want nothing more than to lie down and sleep because anything else is too painful; I know what it’s like to walk through a fog, cut off from healthy emotions and the evidence of my own eyes; I know what it’s like to want to live in the lifeboat because I’m scared of the shipwreck, even though the shipwreck never comes.

It feels like I can see some of this in Elijah’s story, how he almost sleepwalks towards his destination because he doesn’t know where else to go, how he’s clinging on to a sliver of hope with bleeding fingernails.

He’s heading to Mount Horeb, or Mount Sinai as it’s better known. He’s heading there because that’s where Moses encountered God face-to-face, that’s where Israel received the Law and became a people of promise. He’s clawing his way back to where he thinks he’ll feel safe; he’s trying to re-enact a story because after all it worked before.

In some ways this may not seem to be the best plan. God didn’t live on the mountain; he gave the Law and then lived in a tent as he wandered the wilderness with his people. Horeb remained in that same wilderness after Israel became a nation, and so it feels like the abandoned ruins of the past, a final stab at a crumbling place of safety, or as safe as anywhere feels when you really just want to curl up and die.

But God is gracious, and so he returns to his old hangout. And there on the mountain strange things happen – a powerful wind tears through the rocks, a violent earthquake shakes Horeb to its roots, fire from heaven falls just like it did on Carmel. All these things Elijah sees – the violence, the terror, the false hope, the despair. God wasn’t in any of these, but that doesn’t matter; what matters is that God is somewhere. Sometimes that’s hard to believe when hope is gone and fear is a permanent knot in your stomach. I don’t think Elijah doubted God’s existence – I suspect he may have doubted God’s compassion. Ironically, that seems to be the moment God shows up.

Everything stops; the immensity of God somehow pours itself into a space just next to Elijah and the world falls silent, a tangible, physical silence that wraps a place in peace. And this gives Elijah enough strength and healing to go on, and it’s possible that the stress and anxiety and depression stayed with him for the rest of his life, but God gets him to the next day. And the next. And the next.

God still does this – I saw it, for a few moments at least, looking out at Alcatraz. Sometimes a moment like that is the only thing that can get through, but at other times – I’m willing to say the majority of times – God gives that whisper through his church. Because presence – even a presence that’s smart enough to stay silent and just make a cup of tea – can be a miracle in itself.

Look around your congregation. At least one person there is facing mental health issues, and many more will be affected by them. They’ve heard it all before – “Pull yourself together”, “You feel like this because your faith is weak”, “I can’t see anything wrong with you”, “Cheer up!” – and while everyone’s circumstances are different, just knowing someone gives a damn can make a monumental difference.

Giving a damn means not judging, not criticising, not shaming, not pretending. Giving a damn means acknowledging that life doesn’t always go the way we plan, and that stress or anxiety or depression are illnesses, not a mark of a faith lying shattered on the floor. Heck, it probably takes greater faith to hold on to God in the depths of depression than it does when everything’s hunky-dory. Maybe that’s why God honours Elijah’s detour to Horeb rather than condemn him for it; the prophet runs away and wants to die in a gutter but God still shows up, God is still on his side.

There will be people in our pews whose secret journey into our sanctuaries has been just as fraught as Elijah’s walk to the holy mountain. And that’s when we have to turn down the noise and let the whispers of God drown out our biases, our preconceptions, our judgements, our inability to see the pain in front of us.

See, it’s not just those who can’t face waking up in the morning who need to hear the still small voice of God. It’s not just those who are scared all the time, not just those who can’t shut up the stressed-out babel in their minds; it’s all of us, because any one of us could soon find ourselves in the same situation. Anyone of us could find ourselves sitting on a mountain, so let’s work to make it easier for people to hear God’s voice over the earthquake; let’s work to make sure people have the help they need to climb the mountain so they don’t sit up there feeling alone.