Storykeeping for 2013?

Thanks to all who have passed through this little part of the blogosphere in 2012 and especially to those who have joined in the conversations.

Some thoughts on ‘faithinireland’ to close the year

There are a number dominant narratives abroad that continue to shape public discourse here and most of them aren’t pretty. Maybe you can add your own, but these are some prompted by the paper today.

And the details don’t really matter nor whether the narratives are rationally justified or not – the point is their bigger ‘narrative sense’. A narrative doesn’t have to be true to be real. It doesn’t have to (and can’t) capture reality of day to day life on the ground either. But it does capture an attitude and interpretation of reality within contemporary Irish culture.

Frustrated Justice: over four years into the banking collapse and no trials or convictions. Increasing clarity over Ireland’s enforced bailout of the banking system by the ECB and the transparent immorality of foisting tens of billions of recklessly accrured private debt onto taxpayers (and their children). A desire for justice to be done but little or no real expectation that it can or will be.

Rage: against politicans, developers, the banks, Eurocrats – probably contributing to the suicide of junior minister Sean McEntee after sustained hate mail. ‘McEntee’s death exposes a sickening culture of hate’ is how one article title goes.

Suicide: dread of and helplessness caused by high profile young teen suicides and the perception of increased rate of suicide due to financial crisis.

Consumer dreams: the furious modernist optimism of consumerism continues unabated, perhaps even speeded up, selling the dream of a better life around the corner. This consumer ‘gospel’ is the consistent and persistent purveyor of  ‘good news’ in a culture saturated with bad news.

Fatalism: with about €200 billion of unpayable debt, 6 austerity budgets with more to come, combined with accelerating emigration, a sense of powerlessness, and a lack of belief in leaders to change things, there ain’t much sense of hope around.

Envy: at those who are perceived to have done well out of the boom years, and especially those in protected well paid state employment.

The Christian gospel has always been a dramatically alternative narrative of good news. Ireland’s current climate brings the sheer otherness of the gospel into sharp relief.

It’s a narrative that speaks of infinite love of the triune God; of incarnation, kingdom life breaking into this lost world through the Spirit, resurrection of the living Lord, and future hope for all who have life through him. It’s a gospel of forgiveness, grace and  justice in the here and now but only perfectly enacted in the future. It’s a gospel of community life formed around word and sacrament that speak of a different story to that of fear, hopelessness, anger or superficial promises of happiness through consumption.

On the one hand, this good news changes nothing. Ireland and the world is still broken.

On the other hand, this good news changes everything.

I don’t know about you but I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions. But my simple hope for 2013 is to keep reminding myself daily of this other story.

For Christians are storykeepers; called to keep contrasting the gospel story with other narratives that shout and yell incessantly that they are what makes reality real.  So I hope to keep asking and reflecting and trying to share on this blog during 2013 what difference that gospel makes in the messiness and complexity of everyday life.

Hope you’ll stick around and help figure out some answers together. And in the meantime ….

Best wishes for a joyful NEW YEAR

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Guns and God and the USA

I was over on a work-related trip to the US last week. There are lots of things I love about America. The people are hugely generous and hospitable. I’ve been fortunate to have great friends and colleagues who are American. There is such energy, enthusiasm and optimism. There is a wonderful climate with proper winters and proper summers. The landscapes are fantastic and the sheer scale of the place is liberating; it’s the best place in the world for a road trip. All sorts of things seem possible.

And then there are things that I know I’ll never really get about the US. Last week, before the indescribably horrific events in Connecticut, I was taken to a huge sports store 09122012563(photo). A large proportion of it was taken up with what can only be described as everything needed to start a small war. Combat gear, telescopic sights, every sort of bullet, pistols, semi-automatics, rifles and sub-machine guns. All there for purchase with ID. The place was packed with men, women, families – all window shopping and buying guns.

Yes, I get the idea about the self-defence, freedom and the ‘sport’ of range shooting and hunting.

Scot McKnight has a good post on this
that asks good questions beyond surface simplicities. Worth reading, especially on asking questions about America’s ‘cognitive dissonance” between violence at home and overseas American military action that leads to civilian communities being destroyed by US Drone attacks – the President grieving over one and ordering the other.

The narrative seems to buy uncritically that American is the land of God-given freedom. That freedom is tied up in the individual’s right to bear arms. Freedom is enforced through violence or the threat of violence. Normally, it is the state (police) that is mandated to enforce law and order through violence if necessary. In America, it seems to be accepted that it is OK to have an ad hoc army of self-armed citizens operating in parallel to the state.

But OK, let’s get beyond the idea that America (or any nation) is a ‘Christian’ country. What I struggle to understand is the enthusiastic and active involvement in this gun culture by so many American Christians (and I know many others are as baffled by this as I am). By gun culture I mean a culture that puts trust in violence to solve problems and bring ‘peace’. That blithely seems to assume that I, the individual, am righteous enough not only to use violence for ‘just’ ends, but also that I am beyond making fatal mistakes and beyond the corruption that the power over life and death brings. Which leads, in some places, to numerous Christians turning up at church armed and where churches employ armed guards?

How can Christians (of all people), with a supposedly developed and realistic sense of human sin, be so unself-critical? My theory – is this the dark side of American optimism about human nature? And the church (or part of it) has bought into it without a second thought?

Comments, as ever, welcome

Christmas in England versus Christmas in the USA

It’s been an interesting few days with little time for blogging and which has included, among other things, being at a church service in England and also one in the USA.

I’d be interested in what responses you have to these descriptions – aesthetically, theologically, missionally, culturally etc. And how does your culture and context shape your response?

Service 1

was in a large and very old Church of England in an historic English town on a freezing cold December night. It was a Christmas carol service, the evening of the first Sunday of Advent. The church stood in the town square. You could only walk or cycle or park some distance away.

We were welcomed with a warm smile just inside the arched stone entrance and given an order of service. We sat on hard wooden pews in a quiet atmosphere. If anyone talked, it was in whispers. The nave was half-full with maybe 150, mostly older, people; the balconies were empty.

The church was decorated with candles. The lights were turned off as we sat each with a lit candle supplied with a little circular cardboard wax collector. Little pools of light illuminated the beautiful carved wooden choir and high beamed ceiling. The order of service contained music, poetry and readings. The singing was led by a large choir of robed singers drawn from the church’s children, youth and adult choirs. The music was eclectic (I only knew one or two of the hymns) and quite demanding to sing. It started with chanted song. All the songs were drawn from previous centuries. The only other instrument was the organ, the organist hidden away somewhere from view.

The choir started seated high up on the back balcony and then slowly paraded down the nave to sit in the choir singing as they went. There was no sermon as such, just a short five minute reflection by the robed clergyman inviting us to worship the God of the incarnation. At the end the clergy and choir paraded out down the nave, with a large golden cross held high at the front. As we left, there was opportunity to give a donation to Christian relief work that the church supported in Africa. Outside, around the church were the graves of past generations of worshippers.

Service 2

on the second Sunday of Advent, was at a huge and growing American megachurch of over 15,000 people located in the South-West. The church’s campus stretched over several blocks, populated with numerous administrative and ministry buildings including centres for infants, young kids, high school kids and a purpose-built youth auditorium. Each one of these buildings could cater for 100s. Every one was buzzing with life and each ministry was being run in a super-efficient way by an army of volunteers and staff.

The main worship centre was surrounded by a bookshop, restaurant, coffee shop. Outside there were large grass play areas and sports fields filled with kids out playing in the warm sunshine. There were seats and tables outside in the shade for talking and relaxing. And all of this was encircled by giant car parks, staffed by attendants directing traffic. Beside the church was a small hill, topped by a large cross, underneath which was a replica of an empty tomb.

Technology was everywhere: parents could sign in and collect children with an electronic tag; the entire service was being recorded and rebroadcast in separate campuses from a separate control room. It would later be repeated exactly ‘in the flesh’ twice more in this campus.

On our walk in, we were greeted at least three times by smiling teams of welcomers. We were warmly invited to fill in a new visitors form giving contact details and given a free lunch voucher for doing so, as well as a new visitors bag. Without fail, everyone was friendly and glad to welcome a visitor. Inside, giant screens filled the vast amphitheatre of the worship centre, flanking a large stage on which a worship team of drummer, bass guitarist, keyboards, lead guitarist and two attractive female singers were later to appear. On the screen a digital clock was counting down the seconds to the start of the service.

The seats were soft and comfortable, no hard pews, robed clergy, stone flags, wooden choirs, vaulted ceilings or cruciform architecture here. There were thousands of people filling the space. As the clock hit zero the lights dimmed and the band suddenly launched into a set of three worship songs. The style was contemporary Christian music, the tempo was upbeat, joyful, extrovert, professional, emotional and personal. The screens flicked seamlessly from one image of the band to the next, just like TV coverage on The Late Late Show. The final song of the set had little discernible Christian content but was connected to the theme of the sermon on standing for what you believe.

You were encouraged to greet those around you before a woman led a beautifully presented short reflection on the power of community before communion was served by attendants. Little plastic glasses filled with juice, with a clever little tray with hard-baked pieces of bread, were circulated. It was up to you to participate or not. What communion represented was not explained. You drank and ate as it passed, replacing the empty glass in the holder. The whole operation for thousands took perhaps 3-4 minutes.

The preacher spoke for about 28 minutes, perfectly timing the whole service to exactly an hour. He drew out, at high-speed, principles for witness and evangelism from the book of Esther, challenging listeners to make a difference for Christ in their lives and workplace. His style was personal, engaging, direct and urgent. This was preaching calling for response and courage to put Christ first whatever the cost. The sermon was part of a series going through the whole Bible. There was no mention of Advent or Carols. Christmas services would be focused on the week before the 25th with multiple services across three campuses, expecting a total of around 32,000 people.

After we left we joined the throng at the food counter; a huge weekly military operation to feed tens of thousands. Later we got a tour of the facility, including seeing clever automated communion juice dispensers filling the thousands of little glasses for the next service.

Some brief reflections to get a conversation started …. please feel welcome to add your own:

A big caveat: I was a first time visitor at both places and so am only going on one experience.

Both services represented wildly different forms of orthodox Christian worship. And this reflects how adaptable Christianity is to its culture and context. You could say that both services were carefully managed and constructed experiences – they just had very different outcomes in mind.

Service 1: The whole service was meditative, embedded within church tradition, low-key and suffused with Christian symbolism. There was a sense of continuity with history and theology and liturgy. I also suspect is asks significantly less of its participants in terms of discipleship, commitment and evangelism but I could be wrong.

Service 2: The industrial size of the church shaped a lot of what was going on. Everything had to be perfectly timed (hundreds of parents had to collect hundreds of kids before the next service; the length had to be exact for re-broadcast etc). While much of Service 1 revolved around inviting you gently to find your place within a living faith tradition, the entire structure of Service 2 revolved around removing any perceived barriers to encountering the gospel: the welcome, the facilities, the architecture, the service, the content, the songs, the convenience, the car park – everything was carefully designed to get you to the experience of church. And from there a lot more was being asked of people – involvement in neighbourhood groups, volunteerism, counting the cost of following Christ and so on. There was little connection to church calendar, the focus was on the individual. And the assumption (I guess) is that the bigger the church the bigger the potential for impacting more individuals.

Comments, as ever, welcome.