Advent in Strange Times

Four Advent candles

Christmas is going to be different this year. The celebrations will be muted, COVID’s shadow falling over our nativities and family dinners, and much as we may want to rage against this, it’s a situation we’re stuck with. And that’s frustrating and heartbreaking in so many ways. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ has become such a cliche, but the stiff upper lip thing only goes so far, doesn’t it? This isn’t going to be the Christmas any of us imagined twelve months ago.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, four weeks of preparation and anticipation not just for Christmas but also the coming of the Kingdom of God. And in a year in which everything has been turned upside down, Advent is full of new possibilities.

But first things first, maybe it’s a time to grieve: to grieve those we’ve lost, the loved ones who won’t be with us around the table this year. We grieve the other things that are causing us suffering – job security, finances, physical and mental health, fraying relationships, loneliness. The Christmas lights seem to be going up early this year, but they shouldn’t mask the heartbreak. 2020 is going to be a rough Advent and it’s worth remembering that Blue Christmas is on December 21st. We have to make space to mourn the losses of the year.

Advent is also a time of looking forward, looking toward the promise of Christmas, looking toward God’s Kingdom breaking through. Sometimes it’s easy to take this for granted; Christmas is a time of tradition and ritual, we know what’s coming and look forward to it. That rug has been pulled from under us, but maybe there’s a strange kind of hope in that, opportunity in the uncertainty to find Christmas anew and reshape how we celebrate the coming of Christ.

I mean, when we look at it, Christmas is a time to remember that God has always been at work in a world of young families, stressed hospitality workers, blue collar labourers and farmhands, academics, refugees, grieving families, power-hungry authoritarians and protest-singing teenagers. Sometimes that gets lost behind the tinsel and the shopping. Maybe 2020 is an invitation to re-enter the more complicated Christmas faced by Mary and Joseph 2,000 years ago.

So how do we bring communities together when Coronavirus puts us all at risk? How do we do our Christmas shopping in a way that supports struggling independent businesses? How do we run online carol services while also being mindful of digital exclusion? How do we reach out to those who are constantly told there is no room at the inn? Advent is a space to ask all those questions.

The answers to these questions need to be inspired by the Spirit, who is already answering them; God is With Us within Coronatide, not in spite of it. And so throughout this weird, upside-down Advent, in this time of uncertainty and unexpected change, we need to hold on to Jesus, to find him in the chaos and confusion and follow him through. And I’ll be honest, here and now; I don’t know where to start with this, it feels like there are too many questions and not enough answers.

But Advent is a time to rediscover the guiding star, to put one foot in front of the other and set out for Bethlehem. The journey is before us and though the route is unclear, the destination is the same. Start walking.

Crowned with Thorns (Christ the King Sunday)

A crown of thorns casting a shadow of a royal crown. Digital artwork by Allan Swart, available here.

Just six miles south of here lie the ancient kings of Mercia. Aethalbard and Wiglaf, now no more than bones, are interred at Repton, capital of a kingdom that no longer exists, a kingdom that’s little more than archeology and dust.

Mercia may have long since been submerged beneath the waves of British history, but new kingdoms have risen in its place. Some of these are geographical, all flags and squiggles on maps, but many exist in less concrete spaces, spaces of business and media and ideology. Zuckerberg’s kingdom is bigger than Mercia ever was, its population larger than that of the Roman Empire at its height.

Different kingdoms still woo us, influence us, own us. Sometimes those kingdoms are even mythical, dreams of a golden age used to turn modern atrocities into acceptable expediencies, political fairytales no more real than Atlantis.

The Feast of Christ the King was introduced in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. World War I had ended only a few years earlier, but the War To End All Wars hadn’t left nationalism and division buried beneath the poppy fields. Just eight years later Hitler became Chancellor of Germany; five years after that would come Kristallacht. Empires rise and fall, and too many of us are eager to dance to their marching songs. To often we embrace empires because we like control, like power and security. Celebrating Christ as King was meant to be an inoculation against that, a liturgical reminder of where a Christian’s true loyalties should lie. Maybe it’s even subversive; after all, the Church has far too often sanctified slavery and antisemitism,

In thinking about empires, Pastor Brian Zahnd has noted that “There’s always some guy on a horse”. Problem is, the guy on a horse is far too often waving around a cross. When Jesus was tested in the wilderness, Satan showed him all the kingdoms of the world in an instant. I wonder if that was literally all of them; Rome, Greece, Byzantium, London, Washington, Facebook… I wonder if the greatest temptation of all these was Christendom. As I type this, a line from the song ‘Hurt’ is buzzing through my head: “You can have it all, my empire of dirt”. As the world stumbles into dark places, that line feels strangely prophetic.

For all the times we’ve turned the Kingdom of God into an Empire of fear and hate, Lord we repent. I repent.

Because the Kingdom of Christ is built on different foundations. It doesn’t come at the point of a sword, although some wish it would; it doesn’t get legislated, although many have tried. It can emerge from cathedrals and megachurches (although sometimes it’s paved over by those very structures), but it just as often appears in soup kitchens and refugee camps and women’s refuges and prisons, in online spaces that stand against the memes and the trolls. Every day is a choice to follow the King, a prayer for our eyes to be opened to see the Spirit dancing around estates, around foodbanks, reaching out to the lonely and the neglected and the marginalized. It is heard in the prayers of the ‘voiceless’, because the truth is, no-one is voiceless and Christ the King hears those we too often ignore. It’s a Kingdom represented by a party in which the guests have holes in their shoes and scars in their hearts. It’s a Kingdom that we sometimes think is invisible, but that’s because we’re looking in the wrong places. It’s a Kingdom in which daisies can break through concrete.

The Kingdom of God was born at a cross and is represented by a lamb. Christ is King, but his hands are nail-scarred and he knows the streets and doorways as intimately as he knows cathedrals and palaces, and when we praise the beauty of barbed wire, beware, because Jesus is likely on the other side of it, his Kingdom unseen but still a beacon of hope and love and light; a crown of thorns is still a crown.

What’s the Theology of Big Data?

what-is-big-data

The last few weeks have seen the release of a number of revelations around Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and the use of Big Data in influencing political campaigns and elections in the UK, US, Hungary and Nigeria. Much of this was around using information gathered from social media profiles, with the true depth of it all still waiting to be revealed. It’s a bewildering matrix of companies and individuals and manipulations.

Beneath it all though, there’s a familiar story: the desire for power. The idea that using our data and online footprints can create a means to control and manipulate people and events is bound to be intoxicating in a world where communication and commerce are dominated by the internet. And all that means that there’s a theological component to all this, one that needs to be wrestled with. The Lord knows the number of the hairs on our head; these guys want that information so that they can sell us combs and tell us to dislike bald people.

Okay, that’s sparky, but it raises the question of narratives. The whole point of this collection of data is to help various organisations get their message across, to communicate a story. That involves targeted adverts and constructed narratives, and frankly some of those aren’t healthy, often demonising others or propagating, to use an over-played term “Fake News”. There’s an army of bots out there, and our data is used to give them their marching orders, and that means we’re absorbing messages that are deliberately constructed to speak to our baser instincts. So what does that means for our discipleship when we’re being hit with goodness knows what other messages? I know that’s always been the case, marketing and advertising and what have you, but it was easier to ignore billboards when they were personalised and pointed directly at our lizard brains.

This also gives the concept of truth a kicking, now that “Fake News” has come to mean more than just a lie; it’s anything that someone wants you to think is unimportant, or simply something they disagree with. And you can only hear someone shout “Fake News” so many times before the seeds of doubt are planted – the whole idea seems to be to keep the ground shifting, to make us distrust everything. It keeps the world nice and malleable.

(I know this makes me sound like a conspiracy theorist. Stick with me.)

There’s also the way in which all this renders people made in the Image of God as products, commodities. We become data footprints to be bought and sold, so many pieces to be moved around a chessboard. This sounds extreme, but it’s the danger that lurks behind any enterprise motivated primarily by power and money. Our humanity – all those pictures we liked, all those websites we visited, all those conversations we shared – become commodified. Our lives become invisible tokens of trade, and that diminishes us, like anything else that sees us as less than image bearers of the divine.

There’s also a practical, pastoral implication to all this – which online platforms do our congregations use – is your church active on Facebook, for instance? In which case, how do the revelations of the last few weeks impact that – how we use it, what information can be gleaned from it? Maybe it’s worth an audit of sorts. Certainly it’s worth a chat with your fellowship’s resident IT expert. And while there may be a gut instinct to burn it all down, we also need to remember that social media can be a spiritual lifeline for those who can’t attend a church in person. There aren’t straight-forward solutions, the world’s just got complicated. Again.

I don’t have any smart answers to any of this – to be honest, I don’t think anyone does. The whole thing is a brave new world, the sort of thing that got mentioned in old sci-fi novels and dystopian fiction and we now how to view it in some sort of theological framework. And that’s a challenge because, bless it, the Church has often had something of the ocean liner about it when it comes to social change. Maybe that’s why we need young people to be theologians.

Sooner or later we’re going to be faced with figuring out the spiritual implications of AI, or finding ourselves operating ‘Smart Churches’ and we owe it to our brothers and sisters in the faith (and, frankly, everyone else), to try and get ahead of things for once. Because this isn’t about the world changing – it’s already changed. We need to figure out what that means for us living and responding as Christ in that world.

Palm Sunday: It’s Hard To Weaponise Donkeys (Matthew 21:1-11)

There’s a dark impulse buried just beneath the surface of humanity, a desire to look at our environment and our relationships and our technologies and figure out how to use them to harm others. In this week leading up to Palm Sunday we’ve seen a city terrorised by homemade bombs, the use of data to manipulate public opinion and emerging trade wars. Everything is weaponised through our MacGuyver-like potential to turn anything into a blunt instrument to use against our enemies.

But Palm Sunday offers us a different path. We use the language of Empire to describe it – triumphal entry – but in reality Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey is a journey born of satire and it’s heading to a cross. This is the announcement of a different kind of Kingdom, a new kind of king. Jesus rides in humility, he rides towards Good Friday. Maybe, deep down, we find this difficult to stomach: we turn everything into swords, from metals to social media, but it’s hard to weaponise a donkey.

Maybe we would have preferred Jesus to ride in a chariot, pulled by a war horse and followed by a parade of cavalry and nuclear missiles. That would be a show of strength, of power, our enemies would tremble. All we have to do is press a convenient red button and we unleash the fury of our weapons, of our economy, of Facebook and Twitter.

On Palm Sunday, meanwhile, Jesus unleashes the fury of a donkey. It’s hard to know what to do with that. We want him to sanctify our budgets and our bombs, our guns and greatness, all the while wrapping himself in the flags of our kingdoms.

But these things don’t mirror Jesus, they mirror us, our rage and fear. And who would fear an empire heralded by a pack animal, a child’s seaside distraction, by Eeyore and Shrek’s best mate? We talk about following the Prince of Peace, but that’s a moot point if we can’t even respect his mode of transport.

But still Jesus rides a borrowed donkey towards Good Friday. And we can either follow him wherever he leads, or ditch his parade for one lead by tanks and swords. Palm Sunday, our choice.

Why We Need Young People To Be Theologians

In a recent post, James Ballantyne makes the case for treating young people in our churches as theologians – people who can think about faith, interpret it, contextualise it. And that’s an important point, because we need young people to do this. We want to see them grow in faith, we want to see them reflect something of the beauty of Christ in their lives. But we also need to listen to them and learn from them. Because they’re not just visiting Mars Hill, they grew up there. Most of us didn’t.

I can sit here and think about how much the world has changed in my lifetime: personal computers, the end of the Cold War, the internet, shrinking congregations, fewer pipe organs, more guitars, ten different Doctors. But to my kids, this isn’t some transformed environment, it’s just life. I don’t have their perspective on things; I don’t navigate this shifted world like a native.

That means we have to support young people with tools to think theologically about their world, because that’s where new insights and creative thinking will emerge. The Church body will be stronger if it can empower people to look at the spiritual implications of the questions that face us:

How do we respond to climate change?

What are the consequences of increased automation and jobs in industrial areas?

What does talking about faith look like when you play video games with friends from around the world?

What does hope and trust mean when you’re being cyber-bullied, when leading cause of death among young people is suicide?

What does it mean to be a peacemaker in a world of decentralised, unpredictable terrorism?

What do church gatherings need to look like when everything is increasingly indivisualised and wagged by the long tail?

These are just some of the questions that will shape our faith and practice in the decades to come, that inform society as young people come of age, the problems caused by previous generations that will have to be fixed by the next. We do our young people a disservice if we expect them to just rely on what we have to say, on what we were taught by our parents. Because while the bedrock and heartbeat of Christ persist eternally, many other things will shift, mutate and change.

Part of this will involve having answers to questions we’ve never worried about before. Some of it will involve having the grace to admit we don’t have all the answers. We’ll need the wisdom to teach young people how to think theologically for themselves; we’ll need the humility to learn from them. And we’ll need the Spirit to bring all this together with truth and love, and to bring change where that’s needed.

Young people aren’t just the future of the Church, they’re its present. That’s a cliché, but we need to embrace their gifts, their passion, their insights and yes, their leadership. We need to hand them the future.