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.

Repair the Broken Things

My new favourite TV show is tucked away on BBC2 in the early evening. The Repair Shop is a fly-on-the-wall show set in a maker/fixer space. People will bring along eccentric but broken possessions, like accordions and jewellery boxes and garden gnomes, only for them to be repaired and restored by the end of the show.

Now, I like The Repair Shop because I’m a bit geeky but have the technical aptitude of a banana. It’s interesting to watch people who can take apart a silent music box and make it sing again. But seeing the reactions of people to their restored heirlooms, the emotional weight and memories tied up with old toys and artwork, puts another slant on the programme. Fixing broken things is a sort of resurrection.

That sounds a bit pretentious; maybe it is. But think about all those technical and practical skills that are represented in our churches. Think about how repairing a friend’s car or their shower or their lawnmower can help support them through a financial crisis. Think about how the fixer movement helps challenge consumerism and conserve resources. There’s a whole world of stories and opportunities bound up in the idea of taking something that’s seemingly dead and destroyed and making it live again.

We have hundreds upon hundreds of conversations about what the church should look like in the 21st century, we debate strategies and ecclesiology, we realise we’ve become divorced from our communities and spend good amounts of time analysing the break-up. But all these things should, at their heart, reflect hope and grace and resurrection. A broken clock that’s suddenly made to work again is a suitable metaphor for this, so why not embrace that metaphor?

There are lots of skills sitting in our pews, gifts from God that may remain unused because they don’t fit the template. That’s when we need to get radical – why not get a bunch of churches working together to facilitate a fixer space?  Why not draft plumbers and electricians and craftspeople into serving our communities?  Why not embody resurrection,  revival and restoration in all their forms?

Let’s get to the point where carrying a set of tools is seen as just as much a part of worship as carrying a guitar; let’s release the skills and craftsmanship of our people to serve those around us and, in doing so, bringing hope and new life into every situation we can.

(This is related to a post I wrote years ago, which can still be found here.)

Not a Problem: A post for Autism Awareness Week

My kids are not problems.

They both fall on the autistic spectrum, they both have their own difficulties. Life isn’t always easy for them, but they are not problems.

I think it’s important to keep stating this, because sometimes it feels like autism is seen as a threat to the status quo, that someone on the spectrum is going to cause disruption somehow. And when those attitudes prevail, you can see the portcullis fall; people rush to protect the “norm”, and that’s when the exclusion kicks in.

I mean, often everything’s okay until adjustments need to be made. But suggest that things might need to be done differently, that a different level of support might be needed to help people participate on an equal footing… That’s when truths are sometimes revealed. That’s when a call for equality and inclusion are portrayed as being unfair to everyone else. That’s when we find out just how welcome our kids are. That’s when we find out the on-the-ground truth behind claims towards inclusively.

And when this is true of the Church, well… I’d be willing to bet that many people with disabilities and their families have some horror stories. And sometimes, heartbreakingly, it feels that autistic kids are made to feel more welcome by Big Bird and the Cookie Monster than by God’s people on Earth.

And still my children are not problems.

My children are made in the Image of God, they are fearfully and wonderfully made. They are loved by their Creator and they are welcomed by their Saviour and the Holy Spirit dances through their lives. This I believe, even when institutions try to shackle them and dismiss them, even when we’re trying to extinguish flaming arrows while pulling knives from our backs. Faith under these circumstances requires an element of badassery.

My 12 year old loves going to church. He keeps asking to go. And that’s fantastic and I hope it’s an indication that God is whispering to him, meeting him where he is because that’s what God does. But it means we have to protect him from our cynicism, our history, our experience; he’s unaware of the stories that weave around his joy at being able to put chairs away. I kinda hope it stays that way. He doesn’t need to bear our scars.

Because he isn’t a problem.

There are families out there who are nursing wounds, and sadly those are often inflicted by friendly fire, eccesiastical collateral damage. And that can’t help but affect how we feel towards God, and so we have to hold on to the One who welcomed the weak and the humble, who stood alongside them, who blessed children when his disciples wanted to send them away.

And the Church needs to pray for healing, not for disabilities but for the way in which we’ve pushed people away, for the gossip and the ableism and the looks. We need to repent in the most literal sense – we need to change our minds and live differently. Because that’s what God call us to do.

And my children are not problems.

(There are a lot more posts on this subject here.)