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.

Breakfast (John 21:1-19)

Waves lap the beach and the sun sneaks over the horizon as a band of fishermen finish an unsuccessful night shift. With the benefit of hindsight we know they’re disembarking into a moment of redemption, the story of Peter being forgiven and reinstated echoing through a million and one sermons. We’ve heard all about the different Greek words for love, we know the symbolism of sailors and shepherds, we smile as Jesus reruns a miracle to reawaken the memories and the faith of his disciples. But we miss one thing.

“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says. Because the disciples were hungry.

These aren’t rich men, and they’ve just pulled an all-nighter. Much as we’do love them to be spiritual sponges, soaking in the presence of Jesus, remember that they go into this story tired and confused, bad tempered and guilt-ridden and gagging for a decent meal.

Let’s be honest here, quite often that describes Sunday morning. We put on our nice clothes, and cajole and threaten the kids into the car, and smile as the steward hands us a newsletter, but what we really want is a fry-up and an extra hour in bed.

For others among us, that’s a luxury. We’ve had to choose between breakfast and turning on the central heating. Something went wrong with the car and now the overdraft’s starting to creak. The ink on that redundancy letter is just about dry.

Here on the beach there’s a reason that, before he’s a prophet, before he’s a liberator, before he’s the good shepherd, Jesus is a cook. He sits by a fire cooking fish for his friends. Yes, he’s about to give Peter forgiveness, but first he gives him breakfast.

We try so hard to separate the ‘spiritual’ from the ‘practical’, but that’s such a false dichotomy. We can can have all the right doctrine and all the right theology, but sometimes, before all that, people are desperate for a mug of coffee and a couple of slices of toast because they’re stressed and exhausted. We can have rockin’ worship and a 45 minute sermon, but that’s going to be hard work for anyone who hasn’t eaten that morning.

And why is coffee always served after a service rather than before?

All needs are practical, all needs are spiritual. What does that mean in a world of alt-truth and food banks? What does that mean for how we plan our services, our worship?
Jesus cooking breakfast was an act of love, maybe one of the easiest acts of love to emulate. All you need is a toaster.

Turning the Tables (Matthew 21:12-17)

We’re into Holy Week now, the journey towards Calvary becoming more and more inevitable. There’s a moment, during Palm Sunday, when everything feels a little more triumphant, but 24 hours later, the fate of Jesus is sealed.

This is what happens when you challenge vested interests – the powerful bite back. The Temple in Jerusalem was, at the time, dominated by the family of Annas and Caiaphas, two men who became bywords for corrupted religion. They’re often described as ecclesiastical gangsters who own the lambs to be sacrificed and the money to be changed. The Temple had become a giant, exploitative ATM for a single family, an early example of the 1%.

Enter Jesus, who immediately causes chaos. He stampedes the animals, he throws around tables, he breaks down the walls that confined people so that the blind and the lame are entering parts of the Temple from which they’d previously been banned. And then kids start singing, which really seems to scare the gangsters, because this is more than just a protest, this is something far more earth-shattering; this is messianic, and there’s suddenly a risk that the tables of society may all be overturned. Jesus’s actions are disruptive and confronting, deliberately so; when a centre of faith works to drive people away from God, then something needs to change, and Jesus rains down condemnation on toxic religion.

There’s a warning here; Caiaphas wasn’t some anomaly, a pawn in the plan of salvation. Caiaphas and his cronies were just the local iteration of a corrupt religious class that gets reborn in every faith and every generation, and if Jesus were here today, someone would have him down on a list while others call him a heretic. The Church is capable of accumulating riches and spitting out the bones of its own people, and we kid ourselves if we think we’re not vulnerable to the temptations of power and money, sex and violence.

So maybe Holy Monday offers us an opportunity.  We know Jesus would be more than willing to clear out our own Temples,  so maybe we need to get in there first, aligning ourselves with Christ so that our congregations look more like his Kingdom than they resemble Caiaphas. And where we’ve served as a barrier between God and those around us, we need to repent, publicly, and open our gates. We need to ask forgiveness and to confess our sins; sometimes the tables that need to be turned are our own.