Friday, 17 September 2010

Catholic kitsch & lessons in missing the point...

This Sunday we'll be stepping into the shoes of Erasmus, the Dutch Humanist, & going back to the future in seeing how the Reformation remains so important today. Erasmus was merciless in his writings about the Popes & clergy of his day - I wonder what our reforming friend from Rotterdam would make of the circus around the Papal visit this week?

In the 21st Century, Pope on a rope soaps are all very Del Boy Trotter. Today at Twickenham,'I heart Benny' T shirts,caps & Rosary Apps are all on sale to the faithful in a Catholic kitsch sale which we haven't seen the like of since Henry VIII cleared out his garage!

If Tetzel got Martin Luther's knickers in a twist for flogging indulgences, then surely our German Reformation Rebel will be spitting beer out of his nose at todays special offer - Cardinal Newman electronic candles, on sale in time to be held aloft by tens of thousands of Brits in honour of this 'almost' Saint.

Last Autumn I had the privilege of visiting Subiaco, high in the mountains above Rome. This was the home of St Benedict, one of the holiest places of pilgrimage. After viewing the cave in which Benedict lived in abject poverty, I emerged into the sunlight from this place of quiet soul reflection to be faced with a vending machine offering Snickers & Pepsi for a Euro. Adjacent to the cave shrine is a gift shop, stocking all your Saintly needs from Benedict hand towells to home incense kits!

Before we pious Protestants get too incensed ourselves, let's remember that whilst we may not carry a Cardinal Newman medallion or drink Benny Beer, we can be just as guilty of missing the point entirely in our rush for the high moral ground.

We may have chucked out the tat & stripped our churches bare of everything from the frankly ridiculous to the sublime - but aren't we in danger of sending ourselves to sleep, in quiet, plain, unadorned boredom, having lost the mix of joy & awe in our faith which connects us to God & to one another in the first place?
Maybe, maybe not.....gotta go now, I'm bidding on a Rowan Williams mouse mat on ebay!

Thursday, 16 September 2010

A new reformation - Zwingli, the Pope & a mirror!

I'm working through some old notes on the Reformation this morning in preparation for our Lifechange Sunday series - Reformation to Revival - The history of the Missional Church in England from 1500 to the present day.

You may wonder what this ancient history has to do with post modern, 21st Century Britain, but you don't have to go far to see the value in looking back. Any generation which thinks it can't learn from the past needs it's collective head fixing, & the UK certainly needs to sit down with a Shrink. Every reason why the UK has an identity crisis & is in a moral/spiritual pickle today can be traced back to roots which have grown over the last 5 centuries.

More pointedly, the church, & not just society in general, must understand how we have got to where we are in order to have a context for where we are going. Perhaps thats why so many in our ranks neither know where they are or intend to go anywhere to do anything about it?!

The Reformers of the 1500's were no such men. They were men who refused to die in the waiting room, rather they took hold of the smallest opportunity in order to effect the greatest transformation.
Take Ulrich Zwingli, the Zurich reformer. He knew what he believed & understood what radical teaching would do to wider soceity. I read his key reforms again today, whilst listening to radio reports of the Pope's arrival in the UK.
Way back in 1523 Zwingli published his 67 Thesis. His main ideas were that Christ alone is the object of true worship & therefore Christ & the gospel are necessary for salvation. Because of this, the current Church hierarchy is wrong -Christ alone is the High Priest. All of our Saint worship is idolatry,outward show – clothing, images & pomp are entirely unecessary, & there is no need for ordination, confession, absolution, celibacy. Wow!

On the weekend that the Pope has come to restate Catholic Doctrine & to initiate Cardinal Newman towards Sainthood, these Zwinglian ideas are as radical as ever. Now, Zwingli was also a fighter, he died on horseback with an axe in his hand, at war with the Catholics. He would be there today with Iain Paisley to abuse & to attempt to force a change. Let's learn something from this too, lest we turn into angry ranters, more akin to Pastor Jones & his Koran burning brigade than people who look & sound like Jesus.

The truth is sobering. At the end of the great reformation century when Elizabeth died, there were an estimated 8,500 Catholics in England. Today there are 6 million or more. What happened? They didn't need force, invasion or Armadas after all - they simply required a luke warm, compromised, unattractive & faithless Protestant church, who largely has failed to proclaim & live the gospel in order that it might take root in our nation. Zwingli is right in all that he still teaches us today, but we are the ones who must take a look in the mirror.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Livin' for the city!

I'm back in the office after August, looking out over warehouse roofs to the gently rolling Surrey Hills, turning autumnal in the distance. Surrounded by rural splendour, peversely, it's the idea of cities that is captivating me at the moment.

We've seen some truly great cities this summer. Rome again. Then a train ride through the 2 sides of Napoli, shiny modern in the centre with a collapsing urban sprawl to rival any 3rd world conurbation. Last weekend we walked London again, our capital still brings out the wide eyed tourist in me no matter how many times I go.

The truth is, I've not been able to shake off the Ninevah story that we worked through from Jonah last month. Ninevah, 120,000 strong, ancient Eastern City, yet so contemporary in it's arrogant swagger - a city needing to be noticed, a self made, self sustaining kind of place where only the strong survive, the rich get richer whilst the poor stay in the gutter. You see, the same old cliches about giant communities still apply today.

Another enduring truth is that cities matter to God. Not the buildings, the institutions, so much as the people. In fact, if the Ninevah story is to be believed, the animals too!
These crowded hubs of humanity where every square foot of space is accounted for - they break God's heart. The multitudes of workers, the kids heading back to schools, the elderly who no longer know how to find community. Therefore the systems do matter too - the economy, the work place, the education system, the services - it all matters.
A city is the only place on the planet you can be lost & alone in a crowd, & yet God would grace such places with dignity & purpose. He lifts the lonely, the poor & the multitudes in dead end emptiness, up from the mundane, giving them worth & value where they had only known meaninglessness.

The killer question is this - if cities are so much on God's heart, then why have God's people largly ignored them? We know the early pioneer church of the 1st Century took city after city in the Roman world, it was a city to rural movement. In recent years in the west though, we've managed to reverse that trend. Post war migration of the educated middle classes to the suburbs has been reflected in the Church community, believers fleeing the 'hard' urban centres to form holy huddles around the extremeties, safe from dangerous influence.

If we learn anything from the ancient/modern story of Ninevah, then we must look to see this unbiblical trend turned around. It is more informed by fear than by the purpose of God for His followers. God surely wants His prophets in the heart of the city? God surely sends His Jonah communities to live amongst the City dweller in order to reveal His Father's heart of compassion for the lost multitudes? If we don't go & live this way, how will they ever know what He is like?

Such prophetic communities don't live in fear of being swamped, wondering if they can still catch the last train out of town before the flood comes. No, they have seen something of the nature of God. They actually believe they can contaminate the city, that their small, weak churches can boldly influence an apparently stronger clty culture & see it transformed. They have come to town to reverse the curse, to build a city within the city. They don't dream of escaping to Zion, to a New England, they determine to build it here, amongst the lost, by the grace of God.

So, whilst you raise your hand & come down the front for ministry, why don't we let Stevie Wonder sing us out with the last verse of 'Livin' for the city.'-
I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow
And that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow
This place is cruel no where could be much colder
If we don't change the world will soon be over
Living just enough, just enough for the city