Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Monsters V Anglicans

Whatever has happened to Halloween? In 2001 we spent a collective £12m in the UK, by last year, this had grown like a prize winning pumpkin to a big fat £235m!
Shoppers to the nations favourite supermarket, Tesco (where every little helps, apparently) can pick up a 'Devil Witch' costume, age 3-10. If these tough economic times are straining your Halloween budget, you can settle for a 'Devil Alice Band' for £3 - I always thought there was something dark about the Alice band.

Before 2001 it seems we were happy spending our money on just the one big festival at the start of the winter season - Bonfire Night. Invented by our Anglican friends to help fuel anti catholic feeling & necessitated by fears of invasion or terror attack. Substitute Catholic for Islamic, add 500 years, & this festival sounds surprisingly contemporary.
You would think that in our current climate of fear, stoked up by an eager press, Bonfire Night would be the perfect symbol of our struggle for freedom? A celebration of Englishness, of triumph in the face of adversity, of standing firm against threatening & dangerous foreign cultures?

Enter stage left in a Monster mask (available at Morrisons, £3.99). It seems American culture has already invaded, silently, a bloodless coup (fake blood capsules available in all larger Sainsburys stores). Never mind Islam, Hary Potter, Twilight & American Teen culture got there first. We went down without a fight, led beguilingly by our all powerful supermarkets. We have simply given in & bought wholesale what they put in front of us as though it was what we wanted in the first place! Guido Fawkes beats a hasty retreat, monsters beat Anglicans!

All this presents a bit of a pickle for those of us brought up to believe that 'thou shalt not trick or treat' was in the original Ten Commandments. In an age where we tell our kids that it's not safe to walk down the garden path, Halloween actually has quite a lot going for it. News out today confirms that most young people don't feel they belong to any community, they never speak to anyone over the age of 40. In this dislocated climate, Halloween has some redeeming qualities - one of the few nights of the year when families do come out together, when you meet the other folks in your street, when you might actually talk to an older person (albeit from behind a grotesque rubber mask)!

Is Halloween then an opportunity for the Church? Is it a chance to build a bridge into our culture,rather than wave a placard & burn our bridges? Cheryl from Newcastle, interviewed on national radio this morning put it this way, 'Maybe rather than us kids just hanging in our own groups, weekly meetings could be put on where people of different ages & backgrounds could mix?' (I've edited out the 'likes' & 'yeahs?')
It's a wide open door - I hope the churches of Newcastle are tripping over their placards to invite Cheryl & her friends to come along to just such a meeting at 10.30am next Sunday morning! We've got so much to offer our disenfranchised society as the local Church, we happen to do community rather well, it is really rather attractive - But unless we wake up & smell the Corpse Coffee (available in all Asda stores) we allow others to set the agenda.
Now where did I put that Alice band? Happy Halloween everyone!

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

'I've got news for you if you were born in the 80's, the 80's'

Calvin Harris sang recently,'I've got love for you if you were born in the 80's'. Thanks for that Calvin, I'm a bit old for you on that basis! However, I've got news for you, for Calvin & for anyone else interested in the development of corporate worship in our churches. If you were born in the 80's you would assume singer-songwriter worship leaders with guitars & bands backing them had always been integral to church life. For todays generation, this is worship – therefore, the best kind of worship is the biggest kind, the conference, the Soul Survivor, New day, the Worship Event.This style has become the definition of worship when in fact it is only one model, & one which probably reflects our pop culture more than the scriptures.

Us charismatics, we’re probably to blame. I remember the 80's. Harris is right. His song develops....'I've got hugs for you if you were born in the 80's'. Was he in some of our early charismatic meetings? As a young boy, fresh out of the Salvation Army, I clearly recall the sheer terror of bulky middle aged women in flowing patterned dresses trying to envelop me in a full frontal hug - that kind of body ministry can lead to years of issues!

More positively, I also recall watching a band play & sing to Jesus rather than the congregation singing about Him to a set piano accompaniment. It was staggering, the intimacy, the freedom, the simple scripture songs, the feeling of loving & being loved......the tambourines, the meetings that went on all day....we didn't get it all right after all!
Maybe it was the culture of the 1970’s JesusPeople that struck a chord with our emerging churches as we left the strait jacket of denominationalism behind & discovered the wonder of New Testament worship & church life. The cultural style of that generation just fitted so well with our own breakaway & it came to define us. Perhaps if we're honest now, these new freedoms were stimulated as much by culture as they were by a return to the scriptures. With the passing of time, it becomes increasingly hard to say which came first. It really doesn't matter, this cultural shift was one which helped the church, a bridge into something richer, deeper, more authentic.

The 40 years which have followed have spawned a worship industry which we could never have conceived in those raw early days. We’ve somehow lost our wonder in Jesus & created pop stars.
This Pop culture worship leader style has brought us full circle & unthinkingly brings shallow unbiblical ideas into the church of Jesus. For many now, it is the main reason for joining or not joining a church, even more important than bible teaching which helps me to grow as a follower of Jesus!
We think we’re just exercising personal choice & style preference in the way we view worship. What we discover to our horror is that we have absorbed strongholds from our sinful culture which prevent us from being released into a truly worshipping people.

Al Mohler in 'He is not Silent' puts it this way -‘The unspoken, but increasingly common assumption of today’s Christian is that worship is primarily for us – to meet our needs. Such worship services are entertainment focussed, the worshippers are uncommitted spectators who are silently grading the performance.........taken to the n’th degree, this philosophy instills a tragic self centredness. That is, everything is judged by how it affects man. This terribly corrupts our theology.’
Mohler is right, we are the X-Factor generation of post-moderns after all. I’m blogging & preaching this because of the danger that our worship of God, our submission to Him, our expression of love & thanks to Him, has somehow become self centred, more about us than Him.

'It was acceptable in the 80's' croons Harris. Our worship style of the 80's would look hopelessly dated now, like your Nan's wallpaper. I'm not arguing that we put on our rose tints & adopt old models - the church has done that long enough over the centuries.I guess I'm suggesting that we are wise about our culture, we take what helps us, we spit out that which chokes. More than this, that we get to know the one we're worshipping afresh through the scriptures - this alone would transform us.
It all comes down to theology in the end, to what we believe. Our worship has corrupted our theology & our weak theology has corrupted our worship - the only way to avoid the need for a new break out from dry churches is to once again believe what we sing, & to sing what we believe. That was as true in the 80's as it is today.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Miner rescue, major questions?

Our culture has been numbed: Emotionally & spiritually stunted: Watching minor celebrities come out of a Big Brother house or the jungle, growing fat & helpless on our DFS interest free sofas, living interest free lives.
This week, for once, we have sat up. Emotionally overwhelmed in a genuine 'world' event, watching miners who are now majors. True celebrities emerging from a hole deep underground.

The whole planet was gripped for a few hours. Whatever your time zone, this scene became the sole focus of our attention, the subject of our water cooler conversations at the office. TV's, the internet, blogs & good old fashioned newsprint had our real attention again at last, & recalled how to hold it, how to keep us there for 'just one more'. People couldn't go to bed. Grown men from Hemel Hempstead wept tears for the first time since they stayed up all night to cheer Rhona Martin onto Curling gold at the Winter Olympics in 2002!
Even the inevitable jokes began making their 'bad comedy world tour' by email......'I switched off after the first couple of Chilean Miners were rescued....You've seen Juan, you've seen them all'......made me smile anyway!

What strange magic took us over? What is being called out in me as I watch this with millions of new friends around the world? What is this I feel awakening that for so much of the time is so dormant?
Surely it's just that we love a happy ending; a good news story, a grand redemptive theme? Isn't it just the flip side response to the pointless death of aid worker Linda Norgrove who was the unlucky one this week - failing to be rescued from her captors in Afghanistan? This is normal news - Don't we deserve a happy pill from time to time, a little opium for the masses?

Or is it perhaps that just for a moment, as we stand together around the world, putting aside our preoccupation with self & the minutiae of D list Celebs, we are awakened to the glimmer of a greater narrative - the hope of a big story in which we ourselves are rescued, where our futile lives find meaning, where our daily, grinding ordinariness is illuminated with purpose?
Maybe, just maybe God really has planted eternity in the human heart? Maybe it needed a long night of the soul in the company of Sky News & the Chilean miners to shine the first rays of light, to stir in us too the question; 'Will someone please rescue me?'

Friday, 1 October 2010

Saved by a walrus - in the footsteps of Archibald Lang Fleming

When we first moved as a family to Oldham, on the slopes of the Pennines, we were told by our neighbours that we wouldn't last one winter. There's nothing like a warm welcome to the North of England for Southern softies! To be fair, they were almost right, though by sheer brute force, ignorance & many layers of clothing, we eventually managed 9 winters & even became accepted & assimilated into this tough northern tribe.

I've been reading this morning of a feat of endurance in the North of Canada which makes our northern sojourn look like a Sandals holiday. Archibald Lang Fleming arrived amongst the Eskimos as a missionary in 1909. Ok, he was a hardy Scot from Clydebank, but nothing can have prepared him for the extremes of this kind of living. Remember,these were the days of Empire, when British explorer types set off up a mountain or into the Amazon armed only with a machette, a tweed jacket & a fine handlebar moustache!

Fleming needed more than a tweed jacket as he joined a people group who had maintained their existence for generations through the most precarious balance of hunting, skill & sheer fortune, in a climate which would finish off Europeans in a week.

Acclimatisation? Well, Fleming got straight on with it. That first winter of 1909 he spent living in a small igloo with 2 other Eskimo families! Stephen Neill in his 'History of Christian Missions' quotes Fleming as follows-
'Life in a crowded hut has many disadvantages. The foetid atmosphere was sickening, & the acrid smoke from the blubber lamps was an aromatic disinfectant, though when it caused us discomfort the hole in the roof was cleared & a better circulation of air was created.......What Commander Peary wrote of Eskimo dwellings was true. 'A night in one of thses igloos, with a family at home, is an offence to every civilised sense.'


Fleming is not famous amongst missionaries or explorers. There is probably a statue to him somewhere, but I don't know where. Even his Wikipedia page is brief! This man was a giant, the kind who counted his own comfort & even his life nothing, for the sake of seeing distant people reached with the gospel. Jim Elliot rightly gained attention decades later, but Fleming also was 'no fool, who gave the things he cannot keep to gain what he would never lose.'

That first, terrible winter of 1909, the whole settlement were days from starvation, their lives hanging in the delicate climatic balance. At the last, the wind changed, & hunters were able to find walrus to eat. Fleming survived, & persevered, discovering a brotherhood with the Eskimos through their shared adversity which drew them together.

By the time of his death in 1953, Fleming was known as 'Archibald the Arctic' & upwards of 80% of the indigenous Eskimo peoples of Canada were faithful Christians.It seems winter approaches again as I look out of my window today. I wonder what glorious opportunities exist for those of us who are ready to follow Fleming's example in our modern context?