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 a 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.

Thoughts and Prayers

Another day, another disaster, another act of public violence and Twitter confusion, another outpouring of sympathy and compassion. Throughout all this, one phrase gets repeated, echoing around social media to the point of cliché.

I understand why. I’ve heard terrible news and felt the need to say something, anything, aware of my powerlessness but needing to speak. Somehow silence seems inhuman, erasing, and so I offer up my thoughts and prayers, along with thousands of others. And all too often it ends at that, at least until the next disaster, the next outburst of senseless violence.

There’s nothing wrong with thoughts and prayers – I probably don’t give enough time to either. Sometimes all you can do is hand things over to God, because our power only stretches so far. Having the humility to accept that is a good thing.

But prayer is meant to change us, isn’t it? Let’so not be so arrogant as to suggest that communicating with the Divine will allow us to walk away without being transformed. We pray about situations, and we think about situations, and God will break through our platitudes and prejudices, until He transforms how we speak, how we spend, how we act, how we vote, how we serve, how we Tweet, how we love.

People get cynical when they see so many of us talking about thoughts and prayers. Part of that is scepticism, but part of it is, I think, the fact that we say these things every time but nothing changes; there’should always another disaster that could have been mitigated; always another act of violence that could have been avoided.

We want God to materialise and personally fix things, but sometimes he expects us to be the answer to some of those prayers. We speak with him, we follow Jesus, we embrace the Spirit and that’ll have an impact. And bad things will still happen, but at least we won’t paint God as an impotent deity on a cloud through our refusal to let him change us.

We see what happens through our prayers: people open up their places of worship to serve as shelter and support, they cook meals and collect toys and go out and fill shopping trollies full of toiletries and clothes. They weep when the words have run out and mourn with those who mourn, because the cumulative effect of all those prayers is Jesus shining through.

Thoughts and prayers are important only insofar as they are real. If we’re passionate about them, if we use them to let God get into our bones, then maybe our Tweets will mean more. Maybe, one day, we’ll be changed.

Socks: A Post for Ascension Day

The Ascension is a weird story, a strange climax to the Gospel story in which Jesus levitates into the clouds leaving the disciples freaked out and wondering what was going on. It’s hard to know what to do with that; the Resurrection feels like the real end of story, reversing the Crucifixion and breaking the curse of death. The Ascension sometimes feels like one of those Marvel post-credits scenes that leaves half the audience going “Huh?”

But the Ascension plays on its double-meaning; this is the moment that Jesus ascends his throne. It’s the consolidation of his kingship, a cosmic coronation. Jesus leaves Earth to reign from heaven, which is another reminder of the inauguration of his Kingdom. The Ascension therefore shapes our identity – we serve as citizens of this Kingdom, and  as servant of our King.

That means the Ascension has implications; for instance, what does living under the reign of Christ look like? What does it mean in the ordinariness and mundanity of everyday life? If the Kingdom of God had always been a spiritual, other-worldly thing then we could get away with that sort of faith. But before he ascended Jesus incarnated into the mud and muck and complexities and blood of human life. That transforms what his Kingdom looks like.

So. Socks.

In seeing at what a Christ-centred Kingdom might look like, we need to look at Jesus himself. Here’s someone who typifies his reign through sacrificial love, by kneeling and washing the feet of his disciples. And this is where we run into incarnated spirituality, because we sometimes re-enact this moment in church. And although I can’t swear to this, I’d bet that a lot of people participating in the ritual wash their feet beforehand and change their socks. Do we erect a barrier against a spirituality that was designed for the dirt?

(Always remember that the disciples didn’t wear socks.)

If Christ is on the throne, and if we’re his followers, and if we’re inhabiting a spirituality that encompasses both soil and soul, then socks become totemic. Metaphorically they may be a barrier to us having our feet washed by Jesus; practically, they’re one of the most requested items at homeless shelters. And while washing our feet might be a powerful expression of intimate community, washing and clothing the feet of someone who hasn’t changed their socks for weeks embodies the Kingdom in places it’s most needed. It’s interesting that the Ascension takes place on the Mount of Olives, a day’s walk from the city – the Kingdom of God is often found in liminal spaces, emerges out on the margins.

This isn’t just about social justice, although don’t kid yourself that the suffering around us isn’t our concern; it’s incarnating the reign of God in the world, setting up a beachhead against all the things that seek only to steal and destroy. The Ascension knits two worlds together and makes them one.

In a world that’s shaking, maybe we need the Ascension more than ever.

Running Down The Road From Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)

This post was inspired by a recent edition of the Pulpit Fiction podcast.

A man called Cleopas walks towards his home. It’s been a difficult few days; death and violence, rumours and confusion, blood and whispers. The day is drawing to a close, and Cleopas just wants to sleep, if he can, just wants to cover the last few miles to Emmaus.
He turns and sees someone approaching, a Stranger on the road. They strike up a conversation, small talk at first, pleasantries about Passover. To be honest, Cleopas doesn’t much want to talk; the Messiah’s been crucified, maybe the disciples are next. That thought, and the look on his face, seem to beg a question; the Stranger asks what’s been happening. That’s all the excuse he needs; Cleopas gets the events of the weekend off his chest: Jesus is dead, and a messianic dream with him, despite disjointed whispers of an empty tomb.

The Stranger reacts strangely; instead of nodding and taking in this news, he instead launches into a free-former exegesis, ancient scriptures and the words of the prophets dancing with this very weekend. The group walks through the dusk as their shadows lengthen, Cleopas listening with rapt curiousity as the jigsaw of his faith is reassembled with the help of a different picture.

As the sun sinks, and everyone pulls their cloak around them, the laws of hospitality kick in and Cleopas invites the Stranger into his home. They continue talking as they throw wood on the fire, as the table is laid, as the Stranger takes bread and breaks it, as the eyes of Cleopas are opened and he suddenly recognises the face and the scars of Jesus himself. And suddenly Jesus is gone and all Cleopas can think of is finding the other disciples and singing of what he’s seen. He needs to go back to Jerusalem.

But here’s the thing: this is all taking place at night, centuries before street lighting, before night buses. Bandits lurk beyond the threshold, prowling the streets between Emmaus and the city. Under normal circumstances, most people would stay safe behind closed doors; this, however, is Easter Sunday, a day that takes those normal circumstances and transforms them, illuminates them, raises them from the dead.

So Cleopas runs out into the night, no thought for the bandits, stumbling along the way in the moonlight, abandoning safety in favour of proclamation. He runs into Jerusalem, ignoring the looks from all those people who hang out on city streets at night. He finds the disciples and tells them what he saw as the Stranger broke the bread. That’s where we leave him, in the Upper Room, celebrating and singing as the chains of guilt and abandonment quietly fall to the floor.

Today the journey feels dark. We walk through life knowing that our leaders are in love with nuclear missiles, knowing that our theologies can sometimes become weapons, knowing that economic and social gears creak and grind as the innocent are caught in their teeth. It would be easier to stay home, safer, easier to stay in our pews and sing and mingle and wait for the dawn to come.

But it’s not that simple, is it? The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. The resurrection has come, and even though it’s dark outside we need to tell of what we’ve seen by its glory. We run through the night unafraid of its shadows and holding the hands of those we find there as we wait for daybreak.

May we encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus, but never let this be the end of the journey; let us always be found on the road from Emmaus, dancing through the dark because the resurrection breaks the power of the shadows, because freedom is found in broken bread, because even though the night feels long, a beacon shines as we sing of the dawn that’s come.

Joshua Norton and Jesus: A Post for Christ the King Sunday

In 1859, America got its first Emperor.

He wasn’t  a traditional emperor, because America officially doesn’t do that sort of thing. Nevertheless, emerging from a self-imposed exile following his bankruptcy the previous year, Joshua Norton proclaimed him the Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

Now, it’s clear that Norton wasn’t a real emperor, but he did become a much loved part of San Franciscan life as people played along. He wore an ornate uniform and wrote dramatic proclamations in the local press, and if he liked a local restaurant he’d award it royal patronage. At one point he walked into the middle of a riot targeting Chinese workers and recited the Lord’s Prayer until the rioters dispersed. And when he died in 1880, tens of thousands lined the streets to say their final farewells to their beloved emperor. Reading the tributes is a moving experience: “Emperor Norton has killed nobody. robbed nobody and despoiled no country, which is more than can be said for some fellows of his line.”

Norton died alone in a rain-soaked street, but his funeral cortage was two miles long.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, and Christians around the world will be celebrating how Jesus is king over God’s Kingdom. But in doing that, we need to recognise how that Kingdom looks very different to the empires of this world. We sometimes forget that, when we look around our great cathedrals and revel in having the ear of kings and Queens and presidents. In his last week on earth, Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of an infant donkey, he caused chaos in the middle of the Temple, and he got nailed to a cross like a common revolutionary. Without the benefit of hindsight, without the light of the Resurrection, Jesus’s Kingdom probably looked more like Emperor Norton than the Caesars or the Herods.

I think that’s something we need to rediscover. We sometimes get too comfortable, too institutionalised, too powerful. We become too used to being part of the elite, the in-crowd. And yet, way back in the day, St. Paul wrote that “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Today we honour Christ as King. But his Kingdom is a different world founded on different principles. The last are first, the foolish are wise, the meek shall inherit the earth. It’s an upside down Kingdom that doesn’t ride into town on a mighty war horse;  it appears, often quietly, in the margins, in the brokenness, in forgotten spaces and ignored places. And so that means getting our hands dirty, it means being radical, sometimes it means becoming unpopular, sometimes it means speaking truth to power.

The embassies of this Kingdom should be our churches, and often they are. But sometimes the embassies of the Kingdom are soup kitchens and food banks,  sometimes they’re vandalised because the love and grace of God burn so brightly that people race to put out the fire. And then some churches are beautifully constructed and the worship sounds great, but something inside them has turned toxic and the glory of God has left the building. And that statement sounds crazy because their congregations may still number in the thousands, but the Kingdom of God isn’t measured by our metrics; the palace may be there but Christ won’t sit on their thrones.

And this reminds me of another American eccentric. James Hampton was a war veteran and a janitor,  a quiet man who kept himself to himself. He lived in Washington DC until his death in 1964, and upon his passing his family and neighbours learned of a project Hampton had been working on for fourteen years. Inside a rented garage, they discoverer a throne Hampton had made for Jesus to sit on in the event of the Second Coming. This wasn’t a professional job; it was made from old furniture, tin foil, coffee cans, vases and light bulbs. This wasn’t a traditional throne, not a million pound, gold plated project, but a piece of outsider art. And yet somehow that represents the upside-down Kingdom of God better than many things that have the ‘correct’ branding and marketing.

Today we celebrate Christ our King, and rightly so. But we need to remember that he’s King of a Kingdom that looks morelike him than the empires of earth, and that this needs to be reflected in the inhabitants of that Kingdom. And if that happens, the world may think we’re crazy.

Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.