Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Monsters v Anglicans 2

This is a re-post of a blog from a couple of years ago which begins to explain a little why we are hoping to redeem something from Halloween tonight, rather than just reject it wholesale and hide behind our front door.

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!

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Culture:Queues, Queens and other opportunities.

There is lots of talk in the worlds of politics, the arts and religion about culture. Shifting culture, niche culture, world culture, youth culture. For some around the globe, culture is morphing so rapidly that new trends and ideas emerge and disperse before they can be caught. Others though continue to live and think as they have always done, and as their parents generation before them did. It can be a bewildering, dizzying experience trying to pin down what our culture is and how it really affects us and those we do life with.

Simply put, culture is the way we organise our lives. The millions of daily, unconscious agreements we make that have been shaped by our society into rules and patterns that we unthinkingly conform to as normal. Normal to us anyway, perhaps not to those from across a cultural divide.
Culture is woven together like a complex tapestry that is passed down through generations, giving a society a way of expressing it’s corporate identity - Culture enables us to say to the world, ‘This is who we are!’
This tapestry is made up of multi layered shared beliefs, customs and assumptions about behaviour and attitudes that are inherited from our past and hold us together in conformity.
Culture is learned so early, so sub conconsciously, through so many absorbed assumptions from those around us, that it almost appears more genetic than learned - but every child is surely born culture free, before the layers of how to think and behave become quickly imprinted on this blank sheet.

If culture and our need to be rooted in a shared identity has so strong a pull on us as human beings, then it is no wonder that those of us who are experiencing the cultural disintegration of modern western life feel displaced?
Is it any wonder that politicians spend millions on ideas to unify a people who have long since fragmented around differing norms? Is it any wonder that we can feel displaced, unsure of our place in a changing world? Is it any wonder that no single voice of authority has the right to speak to a nation who declare ‘not in my name’?

But our fracturing leaves a hole that settled culture used to fill. Why are the cynics surprised then every time that we come back together like long lost family members at a reunion to enjoy rare shared moments like the Queen's Jubilee or Olympics? These precious few events, regathering the dislocated tribes of people who now call themselves British around some vague set of undefined values such as fair play and the need to queue up without complaining! However vague, we are so hungry for community and the inward pull of culture into family, that we bury our diversity to embrace a unity of sorts.

Such a longing presents a wonderful opportunity to those who have a message of belonging that speaks into changing culture, for those of us who live by a bigger, more defining story that unites people from every tribe, language group and nation. Into such a climate the family of Jesus followers have something distinctive to live out with the unifying story of the gospel, and something attractive to model to a nation who no longer know where or how they fit.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Temple tantrums and new truths!

I love to visit some of the grand church buildings that have been preserved for us. St Paul's, almost hidden under all the new glass and chrome in the best part of London, the turreted Orthodox cathedral in Cluj Napoca, Romania. My favourite of all is still the Pantheon in Rome, with it's odd mix of Roman pagan, catholicism and Italian nationalism rolled into one breathtaking whole!

2000 years ago Jesus outraged the legalists by standing next to Herod's massive temple building project in Jerusalem and claiming that he was going to tear it down, then rebuild it in three days. He was either crazy, or he had a different way of understanding the way we think about temples and church buildings.
Jesus took all the prophetic promises about Jerusalem's temple and pointed to himself. This centrepoint building in the nation, where broken, penitent people would come to find forgiveness of their sins, to get right with God, for physical healing even – Jesus put all of this on Himself. Sanding by the impressive temple building, he had the nerve to say 'Come to me!' This physical temple is good, but He's far more impressive!

John gives us a little commentary on this story in his gospel account. Letting us in on the incredible secret that Jesus wasn't really talking about the physical temple, but about his body. The disciples of course didn't realise this truth until after the events that followed. We shake our heads at their slowness, but would certainly have jumped to all the same half baked conclusions if we had been standing in the shadow of that enormous temple with Jesus.

The scriptures tell us that Jesus died, rose again after three days, ascended into glory, from where He has sent the promised Holy Spirit upon his followers.
He was absolutely right! In those three days, the role and purpose of the physical temple was totally undermined. It stood in Jerusalem a few years longer, but was already an unnecessary monument to a lesser covenant by the time that the Romans pulled it down in AD70.
In and through the body of Jesus, a new, greater temple now lives and breathes. The temple has come out onto the streets and lived amongst us. The ongoing presence of God by His Spirit now fills and lights up the lives of millions of believers. Every day for them is a temple moment as God comes down and inhabits ordinary lives, in ordinary homes, doing ordinary jobs - gracing our insignificance with His magnificence. No wonder Peter later calls us living stones - the old static temple has come alive and is slowly but surely filling the earth!

I'll be back in Cluj, near the beautiful Orthodox cathedral in a few weeks, but getting near the presence of God is no longer about going to the right building, or entering a special city, a sacred place.
All those images are shadows of the greater reality which has been fulfilled in the man Jesus who tore it all down! Whatever our culture or tradition, as Anglicans, Catholics, Orthodox. Whatever we may think about pilgrimage to Lourdes, or even Mecca, there is a new and greater truth to grasp which trumps all our old understandings and ways of seeing the world.
There is a greater revelation that in the person of Jesus Christ we find the presence of a prefect God has come to live on planet earth. Even more unlikely, we discover that his ordinary followers are built up into some kind of living temple, greater than any ever built by human hands and shining with glory into eternity.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Strangled for scripture. A tribute to William Tyndale

476 years ago today, one of the greatest Englishmen to have ever lived was first strangled, then burned at the stake in Flanders.
William Tyndale's terrible crime was to have translated the New Testament, and large parts of the old into The English language. His mission, for ordinary Englishmen to be able to hear the scriptures, and therefore the gospel for themselves.

Tyndale's work was a terrible threat to the Catholic monopoly, their need for control meaning that most of the population never understood a word that was being said by Priests. More significantly than just understanding the words spoken, the gospel itself was shrouded in medieval mystery and superstition.

That psychotic monster Henry VIII was the worst player in all of this. Remembered now for his reforming zeal, his earlier years were defined by defence of the Pope and violence against reformers. The royal title,'Defender of the faith' which remains to this day, arose from Henry's own flawed theological ramblings as the head of a steadfastly Catholic English nation.

The irony for Henry is that within a year of murdering Tyndale, he was publishing the Great Bible in English anyway. This effort watered down a little for the preference of weak Bishops, but made up almost entirely of Tyndale's earlier banned work. No one has shaped our English bibles, and perhaps the English language more than William Tyndale, who died a traitor's death in exile, away from the country who should have lauded him.
Today, Mr Tyndale, we salute you!

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

A view of Naples : Not so innocent abroad?

144 years ago when the idea of the grand tour through undiscovered southern Europe was at its height, Mark Twain published his ' Innocents Abroad.' About Naples he remarked: 'I will observe here, in passing, that the contrasts between opulence and poverty, and magnificence and misery, are more frequent and more striking in Naples than in Paris even. One must go to the Bois de Boulogne to see fashionable dressing, splendid equipages and stunning liveries, and to the Faubourg St. Antoine to see vice, misery, hunger, rags, dirt--but in the thoroughfares of Naples these things are all mixed together. Naked boys of nine years and the fancy-dressed children of luxury; shreds and tatters, and brilliant uniforms; jackass-carts and state-carriages; beggars, Princes and Bishops, jostle each other in every street.'

Naples remains a wonderful, terrible city rolled into one. Driving through the heart of the city earlier this week I wondered that whilst Naples has modernised in part, the basic character of the place remains unaltered through the generations.

Shantytown shacks with plastic sheeting for walls and corrugated roofs, lean up against modern banks and factories. Factories built right up against the road that make things you would never want to buy. Angry graffiti on every surface, even the moving ones of train and bus. Billboards so numerous they stand one in front of the other, blocking, vying for your attention. Beautiful, sculpted gods smiling down on the poor, offering unobtainable dreams or transport to exotic, unreachable places. Raise your eyes and TV ariels gather en masse,  pointing skyward, standing tall like skeletal meercats crowded on the apartment roofs.

Piles of rubbish on every corner, and lining every street. In fact, rubbish everywhere, up against every wall and verge like filthy snowdrifts of litter.
The traffic choking. Mopeds weaving between buses and cars on the cobbled streets. Chaos reigns, although there seems to be some unseen order for the initiated, the constant sound of the horn and obscenities shouted from car windows providing the background music.

Immigrants are walking, carrying goods, down narrow alleys to the markets that spread across the central piazzas. Standing out against the early morning rush are the beautiful young. Texting, preening, self assured and self obsessed, clothed in designer labels. Their  hair, both men and women so unbelievably smooth and glossy they must have risen before dawn to arrange it. The old already sitting,watching, smoking, another day in the same spot as the world passes by their front row seat. 

In the tiniest corner between road and train track, with room just for a mat, a man runs his business, selling whatever he has been able to buy at dawn. Who can brave the traffic to cross to his makeshift store? He claims his pitch early, eking out a bare living in the shadow of the glass and chrome financial centre.
Shabby high blocks of once grand housing look down on a city  rotting, wasting. The modern facades and men in sharp suits unable to mask the decline, like decaying teeth in a once beautiful face, that still somehow retains a shadow of her youthful glory.
And whilst the city comes to life at the start of another day of heat and bustle, just like all the others that have gone before; That lethal half mountain Vesuvius looms darkly behind. Overdue, watching, waiting, forgotten by the millions who build their lives like ants on the volcanic slopes.