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November 2008

Icons of the New Millennium

 

Stocki was asked by Frontiers, a great magazine for those who want to think deep about faith and culture, to write an article about the icons of the new millenium. If Nostradamus had been a preacher... (the magazine is available from frontiers_mag@hotmail.com)

ICONS James Dean, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison - pop icons of the twentieth century. The dictionary definition of ‘icon’ is 'sacred painting, mosaic'. The names above have all become such on the t-shirts of a generation. Of course icon means more. It is a godlike thing not just being worshipped in allegiance or fan devotion but in lifestyle, fashion and values. As we come to that moment, that will be like every other moment but has become the great excuse for the party of our lives, the building of altar domes and apocalyptic type fears about our computers, it is interesting to ask who or what will become the icons of the next millennium, the beginning of it at least?

Watching the Millennium Music Awards recently on television I was led to question whether it would be pop or film idols. It was very humourous, and diminished the value of the awards somewhat, that Robbie Williams was a constant inclusion in every possible category. Indeed the ex Take That teen idol was voted second to the King, Elvis Presley, as the best male artist of the Millennium! The television panel that included the like of Bob Geldof, Billy Bragg and Brian May from Queen, eventually turned to humour in order to deal with the nonsense of the matter ... a nonsense that they all said Robbie himself would agree with. The man has only released two solo albums and so has neither the canon of work nor has he made any real impact either musically or socially for change even though he was in the top ten again as most influential artist! It revealed that those kind of polls do attract the vote of those who will cast their allegiance to the current big thing. That Oasis only made minor waves suggested to me that the big things have a very short icon span these days and that the old icons are being much easier foirgotten. Janis Joplin iconoclastic ten years ago was not even in the top 20 female artists.

Kurt Cobain did make a few fleeting appearances. I can remember when he died in April ’94 how it was seemingly the birth of another mythical legend. In a classroom of 15 year olds 14 months later I was asked who he was. In a similar classroom situation just last year I had problems getting answers to the question, 'who is your hero?' There seemed to be a new understanding that no one was worth worshipping anymore. Maybe that is just the nihilism of Generation X, maybe a better kind of maturity than I had as a school boy or maybe nobody gets a chance to make the same impression as the old icons made. There was only one Presley (apologies to Sir Cliff!) but when Cobain blew his brains out to give the book of Ecclesiastes incarnate truth, their were many other singers to fill the gap. Similarly the comparison between James Dean and River Phoenix.

Then of course there is Princess Diana. Outside of the pop sphere Diana’s death in August 96 gave rise a to a tide of mourning and almost worship that could have seen her rise to the Lady of The Millenium status. I may be wrong but, I am not sure such a mania still exists. Without doubt she is not forgotten but had she passed on in the early sixties her iconic status may have been more deeply engraved on the tablet.

So, as I look to what will be icons of the next millennium I am tempted to turn away from people and faces. I close my eyes and try to imagine what icons might decorate the worship place of most people in the next decade. After that who knows.

THE CLOCK ON THE WALL Time is worshipped and more and more so in our day. We value time more than ever before and we are slaves to diaries and schedules and appointments more than ever. I often feel that it would be good if I walked more and I do not take my car out of laziness or lack of desire for exercise. My dilemma is time. I am leaving one meeting at the last minute to get to another that has already started. I am using up every precious second I have with my wife and family before I head to the next engagement. We have the technology nowadays to cut it fine. So we do. Time rules us and we are always attempting to rule time.

As a result of this I am inclined to call us a nation of Levites and priests. We cut our time so fine, we care about our time so much that we are left without any time to stop for the person who has broken down. Indeed if they have broken down in the middle of our carriageway we toot the horn at them, give them gestures and blame them for their inconsiderate attitude as to get in the way of us getting to our deadlines. Road rage is an end product of the curse of time.

I remember travelling in the Drakensburg mountains of South Africa. As I marvelled at the scenery and the rondavels that the local people lived in, I watched as they went about their business. For them there was no point or reason to take a shortcut somewhere. Doing that might mean you would miss that friend you wanted to share a joke or a story with or you might miss the beauty of the mountain. There was no rush to move on from the last blessing. There was just this attitude of taking in the day, breathing in the life they seemed to know they were blessed with. There was no clock in their place of worship. I envied that.

CREDIT CARD As a result of the clock being your pedagogue, you need to discipline your life accordingly. Helps in discipleship need to be manufactured and will inevitably be used to exploit us as well. When it comes to time saved and convenience there is nothing like the credit card or the club card. If you think about it over the past five years we have probably gone from one card in our wallet to upwards on twenty. Every shop has their card that will either give credit or advantages for shopping in this shop or that one. There is a seeming convenience to it all. Cynically it means taking away goods without parting with any money. The credit card also gives us the opportunity to pay off everything on the spot. We can telephone through our credit card number and pay off whatever. This of course leads to telephone banking, on line and television shopping and all kinds of other ways to save those precious minutes. In the worship centre of the next Millennium we will need the credit card. It will in turn become a tool to roll the materialistic snowball down the hill towards avalanche.

ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM It seems to me that it should not be too many years into the new century before we will have in the corner of our front room an entertainment system that may save us from going anywhere. Couch potatoes will have to be chiselled out of their couches and their numbers should increase dramatically. As we have increased the bulk of the Living Room Altar from television to adding a video player and satellite system we will soon be adding internet access and the size and capabilities of this altar is becoming greater and greater. We now have interactive television and the beginning of shopping, beyond the clever add with a phone number. Prologic sound and wide screens will give us no need to go to the cinema and pay for view will soon make it inevitable that we will not only have a season ticket to our beloved Manchester City that we can watch their every game home and away without traffic jams or bad weather but we will also be getting the very premier of movies if we are prepared to pay the price.

Computer technology will probably get us very quickly to the point of being able to view the people on our email forums. We could then probably hang out with people down the road without meeting up. The global village will then not be just how easily it is to travel the world it may be possible to entertain and become friends with total strangers who live at the other end of the globe and be with them every day. Newspapers will be obsolete, libraries will become unnecessary, book sellers and the music industry will have changed their centre of commerce from the shop to the screen. The MC3 already suggests that all our music will be downloaded from the Web in a very short time.

The Entertainment system also represents our desire for pleasure. Hedonistic pursuit. We used to be a people who fitted leisure around work but nowadays we fit work around our leisure activity. No longer do we feel the deep satisfaction of making sure our work is well done. We rush to get it done no matter what it’s standard in order to get to the golf course, the yacht club, the gym, the pub. In the middle of a study group recently we were discussing the need for leisure and I suddenly realised that the vast majority of the world’s population knew little about it. Most of the people’s on the earth work all the hours they have to feed their families. There is no chance of a Leisure Centre near them being a right. It’s a luxury that they have never been able to afford. Yet we live our lives expecting the best in pleasure filled activities.

All of this of course helps us worship the God of time. It also helps us pamper the icon of self.

THE MIRROR Last icon in the worship centre of the future is one that has been there through time ... the mirror. It is for two things closely linked. So that we can check our fashion and look. It is also the way to keep our eyes on self. The future may see even more desire to serve self.

When my Father’s father went to work it was to earn the money to buy my father shoes to wear to school. My father’s son will earn money to pay for the most expensive, fashion labelled, trainers , so that my daughter can sit in her own home and use the entertainment system. Fashion labels have taken what we wear from looking good to simply being a good brand name.. Maybe I even contradict myself here as maybe the label is enough and it doesn’t really matter how you look as long as you wear the label.

As the world worships time and money and pleasure so we become more and more focused on self. Now some have looked at this historically and blamed the Thatcher years in Britain and the Reagan in the States. No matter what there is certainly a wild and rampant selfishness at loose in the world heading towards 2000. The Legal suits, the demands for rights, the little attention paid to others we put self on a throne way above any other ruler or authority.

HASN’T PAUL WRITTEN THIS ARTICLE BEFORE All of the above may be generalisations and maybe a couple of years of research would prove them all just ideas in the head without substance in reality. They all point, however to an old old text which seems never to be more up to date. When Paul wrote to Timothy had he the faintest imagining of how much money future generations would have, that pleasure would become a huge industry or that we could become a world that could pretty much live life as individuals. When Paul said that 'in the last days…people would be lovers of money, lovers of pleasure and lovers of self…' was it a Nostradamus type prophecy. Truth be told it was probably as 'forth-telling' as 'fore-telling' but surely there is no way Paul’s prodigy could have understood the appetite or possibilities of filling that hunger that we would have at our time in history. Maybe it’s one of those many portions of Scripture that will be even more up to date than out of date in the third Millennium.

So maybe the icons of the next century fulfil Paul’s last days signs, not that I would hold back the Lord’s return by expecting it. So maybe we can point the finger at the world and preach it towards judgement or repentance. Or maybe we could ask if these icons are raising their heads within the community of faith. Could it be that the rise in interest in 'revival' and the charismatic gifts is to give us an easy shortcut to holiness and personal comfort. Could it be that our modern worship songs are obsessed with us being blessed and with the self. Could it be that we are so sure of self and the infallibility of self that arrogance and intolerance are rife in the Church. What of prosperity gospel? Never mind that what about the big cars that fill our car parks and the seemingly taken for granted idea that we should have materialistic security and that those with such are those we vote in as elders. Are our diaries just as full of meetings and business that we have less time to give to loving our neighbours because we are either at Church or making sure we build a fortress around our own relaxation time.

Now let me conclude by saying that there is nothing wrong with clocks, with credit cards, with entertainment systems or even mirrors. It is when they become tools to consume us with a selfish, hedonistic materialistic agenda for the drives and ambitions of our lives that we need to ask questions. If these are icons that will seek to tear our allegiance away from a Kingdom of God lifestyle that is radically upside down from the spirit of the age ... how should we then live?


THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO... SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION

Shawshank Redemption

Without question Shawshank Redemption is my all time favourite movie. I can never watch it too much. It is simply full of theological intrigue.

The brutality, the injustice and the everyday routine of those things in prison. In the midst of that, there are great moments of grace. The scene where he gets all his mates a cold beer on the roof of the prison. The time when he finds the LP and locks himself in the office so he can play it out over the whole prison yard and that moment when the prisoners felt free because the music lifted them to transcendence. as the old time Thought for the Day would say, “Isn’t that a lot like life”. It’s hard. It’s tough. Then there are moments of grace that make you think there is something more.

There’s also that scene where Brooks doesn’t want to leave the prison that he has been in for 50 years of his life. It reminded me of the man that Jesus asked if he really wanted to be healed. Healing for that man would be a ruination of his way of life. The only life he had ever known. So with the children of Israel in Egypt. Security in captivity. Fear of the unknown in freedom. Brooks couldn’t hack it and commits suicide. Red describes it well. 'At first you hate these walls, then you accept them and eventually you become dependent on them”.

I think back to my student days when we were going to change the world, not get caught up in the materialistic. Some years later I was at a party where all the conversation was about curtains, wallpaper, conservatories and tarmacing the driveway. Still in the relative innocence of the commercial, material world. we hated the I fear that at first we will hate the rat race, then sadly we came to accept it and then we even got to depend on it.

Which takes me to that other key phrase, paraphrased from Dylan’s 'It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding). As they sit again in the prison yard there is a confrontation about hope. Red sees hope as the enemy, a dangerous thing. For Andy it’s a friend, all that there is and he says that you’ve got to either 'be busy living or busy dying’.

I had friends who lost a dear friend of theirs a few years ago. He hung himself in jail. As they sat in my house distraught one of them said, 'If only we could go back to that moment when he made that one decision that sent the dominos falling towards this'. Sometimes it is those little decisions we make that tip our lives towards being busy living or busy dying.

For Andy in Shawshank prison he had hope. Hid mate Red was suspicious of hope but Andy told him, “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies”. Andy had a dream of an alternative. He had visions of how it could be, where is life could go. Which way the dominoes might fall. We find out late in the movie that he had not only had dreams but he had strategically thought through how that dream could become a reality. For years he conceived and brought to life inch by inch a tunnel towards the light of another world. There is that wonderful moment when he is driving down the Mexican coastline and we see the panoramic view of the ocean. Deepest blue colour to contrast the grey drab world of Shawshank prison. It’s a little glimpse of the heaven we hope for. Of what we are busy living for.

Chuck Swindoll calls it 'dressing your dreams in denim'. When I was young the only person I knew of who wore denim was my uncle Bert. He wore the coolest dungarees I have probably ever seen and they were no fashion accessory. When he had those denims on I knew he had been in the workshop. He was a carpenter and he was bringing to life the visions of his imagination. Nehemiah mourned and then dreamt of how those walls could be. He prayed and then got off his knees to dress his dreams and prayers in denim. He took stock, he planned, he put a team into action and he built those walls.

So I ask myself, will I be imprisoned, have the wonder of Kingdom living snuffed out by the diseases of the age? Will I be busy living or busy dying? Where are my dominoes going to fall?


Rethinking the Nature of the World

 

Based on a sermon that Stocki preached which itself was based on Douglas Coupland's novel GIRLFRIEND IN A COMA

IF YOU'RE NOT SPENDING EVERY WAKING MOMENT...

"In your old life you had nothing to live for. Now you do. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Go clear the land for a new culture...If you are not spending every waking moment of your life radically rethinking the nature of the world - if you're not plotting every moment boiling the carcass of the old order - then you're wasting your day."

What inspirational words. "If you're not spending every waking moment of your life radically rethinking the nature of the world...then you're wasting your day." Do those words not make you want to rush out the door and go change the world? Could we not do with rethinking the nature of things? Should we not be about boiling the carcass of the old order? These are words of rebuke, in that I feel as I read them that indeed I have been wasting my day, and yet the rebuke comes with a motivating sense of encouragement to just go and stop wasting anymore time. If there is still a reason for that Sunday morning ritual of climbing pulpit steps and preaching down to a congregation then these are the words that should be preached. I long to sit beneath that pulpit and hear these words fill me with energy and to head home to Sunday dinner with enough strength to be part of their revolutionary implications.

And yet I have climbed those very steps and spoken those every words and been distraught and confused that such words should be making those who sat before me uncomfortable. There was no sense of urgency about the fulfilling. No sense of excitement at the possibilty. Yet surely these words capture so well the whole concept of what Jesus was on about when he told us to go and bring in the new Kingdom.

Yet these words did not come from the houses of God but from the pages of a modern novel. Douglas Coupland's latest novel, Girlfriend In A Coma, may have been the best sermon I heard in 1998. Coupland, most famous for his novels Generation X and Life After God, writes with a very direct preachiness. He makes no claim to a Christian commitment but, though his other books are concluding a thiestic worldview, "Girlfriend..." leads him to the very edge of Christianity itself.

It is about the ills of modern society, the healing and redeeming of such and the saving of souls. Briefly Karen falls into a coma in her high school year. Before doing so she has an apocolyptic vision of the future. She tells her boyfriend, "It was just us, with our meaningless lives. Then I looked up close...and you all seemed normal, but your eyes were without souls". Karen becomes the girlfriend in the coma and misses seventeen years of her life before. Though the book deals with the changes from the world she fell asleep in, in 1981, to the world she wakened up again in in 1998 (she misses out on Princess Diana entirely), it is about the lives of her friends and the fufilment of Karen's vision, when they become the only people left on planet earth. Another old friend who died in his early teens, Jared, appears as a friendly ghost, who reveals to them their "deep down inside" ills and redeems them. It is then he says that they can get the world back but only if they decide too. "You're going to have to lead another life soon; a different life. You can get the world back yet" and so to the climactic words at the top of this article.

So what of us the pew sitters? What are our expectations of the sermons we hear. What are our perceptions of what it is to follow Jesus into turning the world upside down with our prayer "Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." On Sunday mornings it might be good to sit in our Churches out of a very commendable spiritual habit, committed to our liturgies and creeds whether traditional or modern. Indeed we may seem normal but we could be eyes without souls. Just there, going through the motions and not "spending every waking moment radically rethinking the nature of the world".

Paul told the Romans to avoid being conformed to the pattern of the world around them and be transformed by the renewing of their minds. He told the church in Galatia to put off the old self, to be made new in the attitude of their minds and put on the new self, created to be like God. What that might be like in 1999 in Northern Ireland is what our radical rethinking needs to get to grips with. Jesus gives us the fodder for our minds to chew on.

In a world of materialistic obsession we need to radically rethink the nature of the world and store up for ourselves treasure in heaven instead of on earth. In a country where hatred and pride has divided us into a murderous society we need to radically rethink the nature of the world and love our enemies and do good to those who hurt us. In a world where outward religious duties like quiet times and sound theology have become the mark of a spiritual life we need to radically rethink the nature of the world and be salt and light to the homeless, the prisoner and the hungry. In a world where the first our first and the last our last we need to radically rethink the nature of the world and create a world built on grace where the last become first.

So what do we spend every moment doing. Making sure we're in line for that next promotion. Making sure we play the lottery witht he shares that our strongest. Making sure that our children our materialistically secure. Making sure that we keep the Church the way our grandfathers had it. Making sure we do not let the other side win. Making sure that we have no undesireables around our churches or homes. Making sure that we are in line for the eldership. Making sure that other people think well of us. Making sure our theology is watertight.

Nothing wrong with most of that but maybe there is nothing much right with it either. It is not what Jesus meant when he said "follow me". No, let Jesus words "follow me" put eyes into our souls. Let the Holy Spirit fill us with vitality, inspiration, and the ability to wrestle and struggle. Let us put our hand to the plough and risk it all. For what? For another world, radically rethought. For another world with a new nature. Another world where this one is turned upside down and we live for the Kingdom of God.

So tomorrow morning before you leave the house ask God to remind you - "If you are not spending every waking moment of your life radically rethinking the nature of the world - if you're not plotting every moment boiling the carcass of the old order - then you're wasting your day."


Amusing Yourself To Death

 

Young people of Ireland, I can see that you are a generation that is seeking so hard to be someone, to be somebodies, to be recognised, accepted, affirmed and loved. I have had a look at your magazines, I have listened to your radios and watched your videos. I have visited your fashion boutiques. They all point to the fact that you are looking for a sense of identity. Identity is the question. As your own pop poets The Spice Girls have put it:

Swing it
Make it
Move it
Shake it
Who do you think you are?
(SPICE GIRLS - JUST WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?)

However, I see a problem. You see as I look around at your culture and then look at you, I am not convinced that the you that you are is really the you that should be you but the you that they want you to be. Today all over the world people in suits met around tables with one thing in mind - to take a bite out of you. These sharks are not satisfied with just a leg or an arm or even your whole body. They want your soul. They want to sell, sell, sell and they are looking for you to buy. They strategically look to see how they can sell, sell, sell to you and they hang it all on identity. They are going to sell you an identity and you are going to make them rich.

I recently watched a TV documentary that exposed how I was conned by them. In 1978 when I was your age or a little older, Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of hell was the album of the year. One Tuesday night on the Old Grey Whistle Test, an ancient form of music television, had as their guest Meat Loaf. The next day in school it was all the rage and that summer I just listened to that one album over and over again. This TV show revealed how 120 people had sat down in an office and worked out how to package Bat Out Of Hell 2. They reckoned that their biggest sales would be among those who had bought the first album. So they designed the cover to evoke memories of the first one and then did market research to see what magazines I bought, what TV chat shows I watched etc. etc. Their ultimate aim was to recapture the feelings I had in 1978 so that I'd buy it again. I did and I haven't even listened to it all the way through. A second hand record store wouldn't even buy it off me last year. Conned!!!!

$40, 000,000 was spent a few years ago on trying to sell Levi 501's to 15 year olds. And it all leads to you feeling that to be someone, to be recognised, to be accepted and affirmed, to be loved, you need to buy this identity. Your magazines say that you have to look like this with shape and skin and hair and clothes like this.

Let me be a patronising 35 year old for a moment. Let me tell you where I think this problem arises from. Cultural analysts refer to this generation as Generation X. We are post modernists. Now without going in to lecture mode, can I explain where we sit in the history of the world. There were the premodernists. They came before the modernists! We are the post modernists and you've guessed it, we come after the modernists. Basically the premodernists, world history from Adam and Eve through to about the 18th century were superstitious, believed in God etc. The modernists however on the back of the enlightenment and moving into the Industrial Revolution were those who were going to sort out the world. Man now had the knowledge, the technology and had rationalised God out of the equation and so humans could now through science and technology evolve the world into a perfect place.

However, then you come along and see the Emperor with no clothes on. Progress has left us with a depleted ozone layer and trees disappearing so fast that we may run out of oxygen and this is the century of the holocaust, atomic bomb, Rwanda, Serbia and Belfast too! So your generation has cut itself off from the optimism of Modernism and looking forward you don't not see a great future either with possible nuclear destruction, environmental apocalypse or who knows in this X Files era an invasion from outer space. Whatever, this generation has no past and does not look to the future. You have lost the story and so you live in the now. If you lives in the now then image and feelings are everything. And your magazines show that that is what your life is all about. Identity and life is tied up in the now. Look good. Feel good. Amuse yourself.

So, who says that the Bible is out of date. The fascinating thing is that some parts of the Bible are actually more relevant now than they were when they were written. When Paul wrote to Timothy and told him that in the last days people would be lovers of self, money and pleasure he could have no idea how clear a picture he was painting of our generation. The world we live in is constantly proving the truth of Paul's words. These magazines, videos and our identity is to do with how well off we are to afford those things that make us somebody. Paul spoke of amusing ourselves to death.

Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die Jesus said and that is exactly all that a generation has if it has no past or future. If we have no story but the now then that is all that is left for us. Have a good time because there is nothing else. Then we find ourselves in the futility of such a world. Where is there any meaning. Amuse yourself to death. As Halcyon Days put it:

Throwing snowballs at the sun
Fighting wars that can't be won...
(HALCYON DAYS - SNOWBALLS)

So just as Paul looked around Athens, at their poets, their philosophers and their unknown gods so tonight we've been looking around your culture. As Paul then explained to them who the one true God is, I want to tell you tonight where you can find your true identity. Paul spoke to the Athenians about their sculptors creating gods with their own hands, That is so like the editors of magazines, the fashion designers and the video directors. They are all sculpting identities and putting you under pressure to buy into it. If you don't look like this or do these things then you are something less than human. Do not let magazine editors in London tell you what human is.

So let me let you in on the story, the story that will give you acceptance, affirmation, love and identity. And this story works because this story is true. Thinking about it this week it is the difference between a lovely little colourful, perfumed flower that looks great on the surface but if a little breeze blows it is ripped out of the ground and blown off into oblivion. This story gives you the roots of a tree in a forest that will stand the winds of time and culture. And it is not a place that many of you will look. The Church or the Bible or Christianity may not be the place that you believe you will find meaning - but you need to be careful that what you think something is really is what it is.

Janice and I knew the drummer on Patrick Kielty's PK Tonight. Emu was on one Friday evening. Now Emu seems to me a little bit like a baby crying in Church. We've all heard a baby cry before but when it happens in Church it is as though we never have before and we forget the sermon to concentrate all our energy on this cry. Emu has been on every chat show ever and does the same thing everytime and still we laugh like it is the first time. Anyway this time Janice and I did laugh because EMU went into the drum kit and sent our mate tumbling. It can be very funny when it is someone you know. By coincidence I saw our friend in a record shop on the Monday, so I crept up behind him, got my nose touching his nose at right angles and said, "Emu is going to get you!". He turned around and...it wasn't my friend the drummer. You need to be careful what you think something is or you can get very embarrassed.

Or even worse you can miss the whole point of life. You see Christianity is the story. It has a past that gives it a future and brings into the present our sense of identity. Only in the midst of this story can we find acceptance, affirmation, love and meaning. It begins of course with God creating the world and setting human beings into the midst of his world. We, as humans, were created to have a relationship with God, with his creation and with one another. It seems that it would only make sense to ask He who created us about meaning and identity - not some editor, director or designer.

Anyway, as you can tell we are not as we were originally intended to be, we are not exactly intimate with God, we are fighting with our neighbours around the world and we haven't been too good with the environment either. You see, we humans decided that we could do perfectly okay without God and gave in to the temptation of the devil who encouraged us to seek a different identity than the one we were made for. Eat of this fruit and you'll become like God he said. And look around, how has mankind been doing without God. Destroying ourselves.

It is into this world where we are destroying ourselves that God again acts. He sends Jesus into space and time history. The crucial parts of the story are those stories that we taker so much for granted, Christmas and Easter. What is Christmas to you? Just another pair of Granny's socks? This baby is God, the one who threw the stars into space is dependent on a teenage girl and a carpenter for everything, the one who spoke and the universe came into being can only gurgle and coo. And you know what it says. It tells you that you can be accepted, affirmed and loved. The baby of the Christmas story is like that present you open and go, "my goodness, I didn't know they loved me that much."

And then it is Easter. And oh how that story is too familiar to us. Tim Winton is a novelist who was nominated for a Booker Prize a few years ago with a book that was set in Ireland, "The Riders". I heard him do a seminar a few years ago where he told of how he shared the stories of Jesus with his son. For various reasons he hadn't been going to Church so he was telling his son bedtime Jesus stories. This wee guy had Jesus as a hero rather than postman pat or a ninja turtle or whatever. Anyway when the wee guy gets to 5 or 6 Tim reckons it is time to tell him the Easter story. So in their wee loft in an Irish cottage he is telling the story of the crucifixion. Winton says that his son was holding him tighter and tighter but reckoning that that the disciples would save him or Pilate would say no or that the crowd would shout for Barabas. He says that when Jesus died they lay there together in tears, just weeping. He said that he got the impact of hearing it for the very first time.

Folks that is the story that we need to buy into. It is of Jesus dying for our sin, to redeem us, to set us free. Now once again we can be restored to our relationship with God, with creation and with our fellow human beings. This cross makes the way possible for us to know acceptance, affirmation, love and meaning. Through this death we can have back our original identity. If we find a story with this past then we have a future and the present is radically turned upside down.

Winton says that he lay there for ten minutes weeping before he realised - this isn't the end of the story. As he told his son about the resurrection the tears turned to joy and they ended up jumping around on the bed shouting and cheering like supporters at a football match. Is that your reaction to your hero?

Can I ask you tonight. Who is your God? I don't mean the God you assent to in your head or that you wear a fish on your lapel. Who is your God? I reckon that where your identity is, there is your God. What makes you you? What is the thing that gives you confidence to step out into the world each day? What makes you secure? What is that thing that if you lost you'd fall apart? For many of that can be our fashion, our music, our image, our cool gang. This story that we are hearing about tonight gives us our identity in something that will never fall apart. Find your identity in God? Not in your religiosity or self righteousness, because they can be as designer as the fashion and fun. No find it in God.

So there is the story folks and you tonight have a choice. You can amuse yourself to death. You can go out there and have a boogie good time, live for the moment and the thrill of the night. But what about when you come home. Are you always left standing when the music stops. Tonight you can buy into this story, or rather Jesus buys you into it, that gives a future that won't blow away in then winds of change. Christianity is a subversive radical alternative to a culture that sells it's soul for wealth, hedonism and selfishness, to a culture that can amuses itself to death. And if you want to amuse yourself to death there is plenty of opportunities to do it in the world today. Or you can live in God and move forward into a real identity - the you you were designed to be.

Life
Moving on, or
Amusing yourselves to death
Always left standing when the music stops
(HALCYON DAYS - ALWAYS LEFT STANDING)


The Scandal of Grace

 

It seems so sensible and rational and logical. The cool are affirmed and accepted. The beautiful are sought after. The talented go far. If you are none of these things then, what are you expecting? A nerd on Top Of The Pops! Two left feet replacing Michael Owen in the England attack! A failure at GCSE getting accepted for a post grad in nuclear physics! Come on! No, it is a world where the first are first and the last are last. We live in a graceless world.

Such a world however leads to inferiority complexes, insecurities, a sense of alienation, the stress of always trying in vain to impress and a fakeness and shallowness that is keen not to let people know what we are really like. So logic leads to many illogical acts in everyone's constant struggle to be the first and avoid being the last.

Into the midst of this graceless act comes a most rare and strange concept; unnatural and certainly not of this world. Into this graceless world comes an irrational idea, a revolutionary concept, a scandalous possibility. Grace. Favoured without your own merit. Love unearned. Acceptance as you are. Salvation not by what you do but by what someone else does in your place. It seems irrational - surely there is no such thing as a free lunch. Revolutionary - what a radical concept that the last should be first. Scandalous - the scoundrel gets the prize. This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the Christian faith. This is our only hope. It still has to do with righteousness, "but now," as Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, "a righteousness from God apart from the law has been made known, to which the law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe". By the cross of Jesus Christ sin is dealt with and we can be the receivers of God's amazing grace.

So you might think or suppose that the Church would therefore be an alternative way to live from the world outside. Here would be a place of grace in which we could all relax from the world of striving. Yet, sadly, it seems that even in the Church the first are still first. There are not many bin men being voted as elders and not many lawyers taking out the bins. In a place where grace is the core of belief it is still what you achieve that gets your recognition and gives you a sense of belonging. Sadly, even within the Church, life is all about behavioural patterns to be conformed to, activities to be attended and theological systems to assent to. This leads within the Church to people who are bound to the chains of religious slavery and burdened down under a weight of Pharisaical guilt.

Yet Jesus whole ministry was about communicating and giving this grace. If we look at the parable of the landowner in Matthew 18 we find that the landowner is giving the same wages to the workers who worked the last 15 minutes as he is to those who worked 12 hours. This is economically irrational, revolutionary and scandalous. If we look at the story of the Prodigal Son we find a wild living son who has squandered all that his father had lavished on him returning to what should in the world's terms be a shocking judgement. Yet, what does he get? A father running down the lane to throw his arms around him and throw a party for him. This is socially irrational, revolutionary and scandalous. Yet so often in the Church we are those who become the older son in the story who mutters about the father's outpouring of grace.

There are many other instances in Jesus parables and life where irrational, revolutionary and scandalous things happen. A shepherd leaves 99 sheep to look for one. Two puny coins in an offering plate is seen as way more than the rich man's generous contribution and a jar of perfume is poured out over Jesus in a seeming wasteful extravagance. Then there is the prostitute, caught in the very act of adultery and brought out before he who claims he'll judge the living and the dead. Let the lightning strikes begin. But no. Instead Jesus asks the perfect to continue with the stoning and when left without anyone claiming such a high standard of living he tells the woman that he doesn't condemn her either. What is going on!

Grace. That is what is going on and that is what we've been doing without in the Church. It seems to me as if there is a net strung from the roof of our Churches and it is full to the very brim with the grace that God wants to pour out over his people and yet we prevent anyone from pressing the switch to let it fall, because of our rational, conservative and scandal free ways.

We do struggle with the very concept of grace. We are saying as we read this. "Hang on Stockman are you saying that we do not have to do anything". You are saying, "Steve this is dangerous stuff. Are you telling them they can do what they want. Come on now, big lad, qualify it." The truth is I cannot. Grace is a dangerous and risky teaching but it is the very thing that our evangelical faith is built upon. "Grace through faith - not be works so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2v8). It is the wondrous doctrine that Luther discovered after striving all his life to earn his salvation. It is our only hope in the whole wide world. Martin Lloyd Jones once said that unless people misunderstand your preaching as a licence to do what you like then you are not preaching the Gospel. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel. Woe to those who have misled you, by their preaching, to not have the possibility of such a misunderstanding.

The Pharisees just couldn't accept it. The Church in Galatia got a blasting from Paul for diluting it. It's what most of Jesus parables are about. It was what most of Paul's letters are about. To not grasp it suggests to me three things. Firstly, you have not an understanding of grace. It means "unmerited favour" not "unmerited favour for a little while before merit kicks back in." We are so keen to make sure our evangelism is sound, in stressing not be works but all of God's grace. Then somehow once saved we are dragged into a discipleship that leaves grace at the entrance door and goes back to a legalistic works salvation.

This leads to the second misconception. That is that grace is only the ticket that gains us our salvation. It is so much more than that. Grace is the engine of our entire Christian life. It brings us into a new life and then goes on to bring us to maturity in our faith. So , you see, it will change the things we do, not because we try our best to change but because it will be the power that changes us. As Paul said to the Philippians "I am confident that he who started a good work in you will carry it open to completion". After salvation the responsibility does not come back to our legalism but carries on by His grace. The changes within us are not the fruit of our working but the fruit of the Spirit.

Finally, it means we have a warped view of God. A graceless God who again is watching our actions to see if we merit His love. Salvation is all about what God does for us. We do not deserve it. It is all about His unbelievable love. "God demonstrated his love for us in this, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." It is the desire and joy of his heart to redeem us, to restore us, to rebuild us and to redirect our lives. His work of grace within us will make us never be the same again.

So do we need to reassess. I believe we do. As a University Chaplain, my most frequent problem with students is not that they are lost to drink or drugs or sex or peer pressure. It is that they do not know that God loves them. It is also often those from the most evangelically sound Churches who know it the least. They are weighed down by a burden of guilt, they are bound to a slavery to legalism. They live in a graceless Church and are taught of a graceless God. It is not Christianity. It is a perversion designed in the pit of hell and implemented by the devil himself. We need to be aware and we need to be forgiven when we are the criminals of gracelessness. We need to be healed when we are it's victims. We are all victims and criminals and only his grace will set us free. It is an irrational idea, it is revolutionary concept but is a scandalous reality because of Christ's death on the cross. It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Go receive it and live it.


Missions - A public confession of our failure to evangelise?

 

The older I get, the longer I stumble and tumble and stumble again on my life's commitment to follow Jesus Christ, the more amazed I get with my Saviour, Lord and God. I believe more and more that he is the only God; the way, the truth and the life. I believe more and more that he is the only mediator between God and man. I believe more and more that he is the best teacher, story teller and human being who has ever lived. He excites me. He fascinates me. He confuses me and challenges me. He embarasses me and he forgives me. He loves me, understands me and keeps whispering for me to go on following him because it is only in him that this world or my life makes sense and has any meaning or purpose or hope.

I guess that is why I have such a passionate agitation with how seemingly irrelevant Jesus is perceived in 1999. I do not say popular because I understand why much of his teaching is left off the top 10 of favourite lifestyles but it seems to me that the more I read the Gospels the more relevant He becomes. The more angry I become that John Lennon in 1966 or Liam Gallagher in 1997 can say that their pop bands are more popular than Jesus. How can four guys from Liverpool who sang "She loves you yeh yeh" or four guys from Manchester who want to be your Wonderwall be the radical icons of their culture when Jesus screams across the centuries, just as on the cutting edge as ever "I have come that you might have life and life in all it's fulness".

We live in a bright and loud world that is desperate for love, a world that is striving for significance, a world that is yearning for security, a world that is searching for transcendence, a world that is killing itself for hope. Yet that world passes a Church building every couple of hundred yards without a second glance as it invest it's soul in drugs, cheap sex, materialism, hedonism and fame.

I am impatiently asking, how did it come to this? Where is Jesus' street credibility that is so vividly evident in the four Gospels. He drew thousands to him, inquisitive, angry, disagreeing, opposing, loving, following. Why is he treated with such apathy? Who has changed? Society? Peoples needs? Jesus? Or could it be that we the Church, his body here on earth, have failed him, have compromised him, have hidden him, have watered down his radical agenda and the cutting edge of his revolutionary kingdom.

One of the best portrayals of God's earthy, risky and unconditioanl love was in Tim Robbins' movie Dead Man Walking. Based on the true story of a nun who befriended a man on death row, it paints a stark reality of the difficulties, pain and confusion of holding grace out in a fallen world. In the sleeve notes to an amazing soundtrack album Robbins wrote "Sister Pejean is a woman who has dedicated her life to religious work BUT is grounded very much in the day to day, the work. She walks on the earth, not in some ethereal place". The capitals and underling of BUT are mine because that word sugeests that this man like many others in our world does not expect those who are involved in the work of Christ to be involved in the real world. We have taken the Church out of the real world and put it in some ethereal place.

We have created ghettos and trenches. We have set ourselves up as an alternative to life rather than the mission station that goes out to regain the world. We lie in our trenches singing lovely warm and fuzzy songs about what God is doing to make our lives blessed while a war rages over head. We only seem to pay attention to the war for long enough to be able to say "Oh what an awful place" or "The world is so dark and it seems to be getting worse" or "Lord we thank you we are not like other men but can sit here and sing selfish self absorbing fluffy songs".

We seem to have lost the understanding that it is on the front line not the trench that we are meant to be, in the thick of it. We are the light of the world. Now where should light shine. On Boxing Day 1998 much of Northern Ireland lost it's electricity. The electricity suppliers came in for much criticism in the media and no one once blamed the dark for being dark. When it is dark it is the light's fault. So if I live in a dark part of a dark city in a dark country spinning in a dark world and Jesus told me and the Church that we were the light. Then it is my and our fault. In the same, if the world is a cold place where is the warmth of love.

The answer to all of the above ills lies it seems to me with Jesus himself. As well as telling us that we were the light of the world he told us that he was the light of the world. One follows the other. He is the light. We are his followers and his body on earth so we are the light. It is his example that we need to follow and that is where I think we have let him down. As I look at a representative of Christ in 1999 and then speed across two millenia to see him walk on the streets of Palestine I see a huge gulf between us. Jesus was a light who shone in darkness. He lived in the depth of the dark not in fringes lit up by religiosity. He was born in the stink of a stable and lived in a sawdust strewn workshop before ministering on the dusty roads and fishing boats and then being killed amongst criminals outside the city walls. That's the place for light. And he whispers for me to follow.

It is there in the heart of the world where mission gets done, not in some safe field on the outskirts where we invite the world out to. I often think of missions as a public confession of our failure to evangelise. Too prove that we are good and evangelical we plan big crusades to reach whole cities for Christ. We forjm committees and devote maybe up to two years in the preparation. We invest our time and energy and money and then when few attend and we spend the week entertaining Christians with lively gospel presentations that they already responded to years ago we blame the unbelievers for being not interested in their souls. Surely if we were investing our time and energy in spending time with our neighbours and work colleagues we would have no time to spend on such committees and we would actually reach people in more qualitative ways. Years of being someone's friend is much more powerful than even the best 15 minute hit and run sermon.

It may be the way we communicate the greatest news of all time that has been our down fall. Again a comparison across the two millenia may give us some insight. Jesus never planned big missions. Indeed he seems to have specifically targetted just 12 men and though he would minister to and even feed thousands of people if they turned up he wasn't putting up posters. He also never resoted to posters up trees. you do not hear him tell Zaccheus to climb up a wee bit higher because there is a lonely verse stuck further up the tree that will lead him to salvation. No he goes for dinner with him. There are no impersonal tracks shoved into the hands of busy shoppers who already have their hands full.

Actually if you study closely the Gospels you find that much of Jesus evangelism is reactionary. He's in the midst of people, indeed that is such a vital part of incarnation that God meets us on our turf, and his presence causes a reaction, So a question or healing or kangaroo court or mumbling criticism causes him to respond with a story or a truth. He is involved. He dialogues. He listens to the situation and brings to each individual scenario not a carefully learned off formula but wise and discerning application of the truth.

Of course like me many of you will have been brought up in a preaching, proclaimational culture. Though that has had a prominent place in the past and still has some role today,it seems to me that we need to see that in 1999 the Gospel needs shared relationally. There are 100,000 cults and faiths and our pluralistic society shouting their roads to salvation from magaphones or in door to door invasions. It means that people are more cautious and suspicious of such impersonal tirades. We need to become those whose faith is shared with intergity, that by gaining trusting friendships, people will be interested in the God wiithout whom our lives make no sense at all.

The Word does not return empty I have often heard quoted as a reason to believe that salvation comes from the preached word alone. However this is a very narrow reading of Scripture and understanding of it's application. First of all the Word in the Bible is not just about preaching. God's word comes in dreams, in books, in visions and dreams, in crazy dramatic actions of prophets and of course the pinnacle of revelation was no sermon but THE WORD becoming flesh and living for a while among us.

So what am I saying? I am saying that we need to reassess. We need to rediscover the ways of Christ. We need to be more adventurous in our discipleship. We need to be involved in the discussions, not with patronising contradictions but with sensitive and discerning Scriptural evaluations of every issue that has our neighbours and work colleagues. We need to move from macro Christianity where we think spectacular big events, statistics and programmes to a micro Christianity where we think about practical love and friendship and the long slow consistent dent of a Christian living out there faith where it matters; where Christ lived out his.

Wouldn't it have been great if Jesus had said, "Peter run a mission for me, be a good we evangelical boy." Sadly he didn't. He said, "Follow me". So will we follow him. Out there where evil fights the good. There where no one believes. There where the city gambles. There among the thieves. There where innocent blood is spilled. There where love violently dies. Out there where the world is changed. In the flowing tide. Jesus says "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." Will we go or run an outdated mission to ease our consciences.


46664 - The CDs / DVDs

 

46664 is a live concert that took place at Green Point Stadium, Cape Town in November 2003 to launch a new initiative endorsed by Nelson Mandela to highlight the human catastrophe that is HIV/AIDS. First let me confess to the bias that might descend. I love Cape Town. I spend time there every other year and the opening panoramic shot of table Mountain, The Lions Head, Signal Hill and Table Bay bring an emotional wetness to my eyes. To add to that I have nothing but utter admiration for Nelson Mandela. He is without doubt the greatest human being alive today. I am left staggered at his grace and humility, how he forgave his oppressor and has led not only South Africa but the entire world in an example of how to treat your enemy. Finally I am an advocate for music being about more than entertainment. It might not be able to change the world but it should be used in whatever ways possible to give it a darn good lash; I do though have a sneaking feeling that it can! Nothing brings me closer to swearing than snivelling little rock journalists giving out about rock stars involving themselves in saving the world as if musical gifts were given to humanity so that they could be prostituted for sex, fashion and hedonistic materialism!

Where 46664 – The Event could have fallen out of favour with my subjective tastes was in the line up. Much as I am a fan of Bohemian Rhapsody I have prejudice against Queen, only surrendering to the purchase of their Greatest Hits collection as a library resource. The Corrs are a little middle of the road. Peter Gabriel is a little bit prog. The Eurythmics are okay but nothing to get excited about. Beyonce and Anastacia are too mainstream. World music has never won my heart though my head has huge admiration. Against that Bono and The Edge is at the heart of things and loom large in my lunchtime legend and Bob Geldof is to music what Mandela is to politics; a statesman to be honoured even if the Boomtown Rat’s language is a Dublin shade of deepest blue!

Where 46664 differs from other concerts of its type is that this was not a gig-fest where you take the best selling acts of the day and give them all their fifteen minutes of charity. This is more perfectly planned. The bill is cleverly thought through with the old players alongside the younger chart toppers and the Africans alongside the westerners and Jamaicans and a few South Africans thrown in to bring the whole thing back home! Once the bill is set down there are songs written for the event, fascinating collaborations and intriguing cross fertilisation of genres. The Soweto Gospel Choir deserve a special mention with their constant presence but particularly their Bohemian Rhapsody.

Of musical highlights the song 46664 (Long Walk To Freedom) is a catchy piece of writing and is the late Joe Strummer’s last song co-written with Bono and the event’s main musical force Dave Stewart. Building line upon line to the title of Mandela’s biography there are a few great couplets no better than “six waves might break in the Bay but the seventh one reaches the shore.” That the concert takes place a few hundred yards from that shore with Robben Island a few miles out adds to the power.

This song gives us one of the two most powerful emotional moments. As Bono gets the crowd in a sing-a-long groove of the long walk to freedom refrain Mandela himself right on cue takes faltering steps with the aid of a stick across the stage to the podium. It is a beautiful soundtrack to an inspired walk. This is a concert of victorious celebration as well as tragedy and challenge. It is a fully realised follow up to the Mandela concerts at Wembley in 1988 and 1990 when rock music joined with political lobbies to free Mandela and the entire black population of South Africa. Here we all are almost a decade after democracy had been won. To see the reality of such an achievement helped empower the belief needed that now apartheid had been vanquished we could do the same to the next great enemy of this beautiful people – HIV/AIDS. When Mandela begins his speech that follows to a mixed race Cape Town crowd with “Comrades and friends” to a huge united cheer – goodness me!

Which takes us to that other eye filling moment of the night. One of the first songs that caught my attention and sent me looking to what was going on in South Africa was Peter Gabriel’s tribute to Stephen Biko killed in police custody in 1977. Gabriel introduces it by saying that it has been a long time coming but at last he can sing it for the first time in the land it was written about. Twenty five years later history is being tied up; a reminder how far the 40,000 people gathered have come.

As well as the political the air is rife with the spiritual. From the outset Bob Geldof describes what is to come as everybody’s Redemption Song with a cover of Bob Marley. Jamaican Abdel Wright takes up the mantle of his fellow country man, Marley, charging the Church for “using the name of Christ for hypocrisy/how can you say come follow me/when deep down you’re living so indecently.” Andrea Corr’s vocal to Brian May’s acoustic on Is This The World We Created is hymn-like and when during Amandla this young boy called Andrew Bonsu prays that in the name of Jesus we would over come all that the devil has planned for the world it is almost like Church.

Bono and Beyonce, those with a more than vocal Christian faith are giving the Amen a whole lot of Dixie behind him. It is their song American Prayer that brings the Church into the proceedings directly as Bono speaks about the incongruity that those of faith seem to always be the most judgemental and asks that the Church would open up and become a sanctuary for those dealing with the HIV/AIDS stigma; the gist of the song being that American prayer would grow hands and feet and hearts and bring spiritual energy this campaign.

The campaign is never lost in the fun and brilliance of the music. Beyonce tells the young women to take care of themselves. Ms Dynamite is less innocent and asks that they would love themselves enough to seek protection in love. The strand that links the entire bill are songs written by Dave Stewart and Roger Taylor, new songs full of sadness and hope, calling for action. The immediate action is to respond to the initiative they are launching. 46664 was the prison number assigned to Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. Used here it demands that none of us treat those chained to the HIV/AIDS virus as just numbers and statistics. It is chanted throughout the gig, a stadium anthem to send people home to the computer to check out the web site and any other means that can be used to fight HIV/AIDS.

The DVD adds short documentary films about HIV/AIDS, the making of the concert and there are twelve one minute movies done by artists. The message is too crucial not to be over emphasised. When you see Annie Lennox meeting Mandela with 17 MILLION DEAD on her t-shirt the reality hits home. Suddenly numbers and statistics are given flesh and the horror has to ask us what are we going to do about the greatest human tragedy the world has ever known.

These musicians are giving us the inspiration, the launch pad to make the difference. At the end the horrific tale of Gabriel’s Biko he finishes with the words “and as always the rest is up to you…” Too true. Here’s an album of quality entertainment with a prophetic kick running through it.


Ubuntu - A few thoughts in process

 

It was a weird moment. It began with profound discomfort and ended with profound insight. I was in the District Six Museum in Cape Town for the first time. I was simply enjoying the silence of the space. It is in an old Church building and exudes solitude and respect. I was there with many of my students but off we all went into the same space in the search for reflection and understanding of the days we were spending in the vortex of South Africa’s history, being daily exposed to its many wounds and scars. District Six is such a gaping wound. In the sixties the White government designated these bohemian, arty eclectic and energetic streets to be white and threw the people from their land out to the sandy barrenness of the Cape Flats. International opinion was so intense that no one ever rebuilt there, so there is this grassy sore, not a leafy park but haunted wilderness on the landscape of the city.

So I am reading poetry, gazing at old photographs, mesmerized by the story of people’s injustice as they were sent from their homes and lost not only houses but generations of place and belonging. It was a cruel rape of social order; barbaric and in my life time. So why did I feel so joyous within, so uplifted. Can even evil inspired nostalgia be something to enjoy? No, I suddenly realised that like Robben Island this was a place of redemption, where evil had not had its way but now had had its day and was being bulldozed over in restoration, transformation and mending. So the next question had to be how?

Ubuntu was a word that kept cropping up here, there and everywhere. Whenever we asked how South Africa had moved as far as it has down the road from Democracy we would be given Ubuntu as the secret. White and black alike, political or religious, all seemed to see this word as crucial to the entire miracle that we always somehow feel a part of. It would get a different definition every time but in essence this Xhosa philosophy for life was “a person becomes a person through other people,” “I can only be me through you,” or the U2 phrase that is not limited to this concept but includes it, “All because of you I am.” I took hold of the phrase and began to ponder it not simply because it was a key concept in South Africa’s transformation but because it resonated within me as true.

Yet, it was a Xhosa saying. It was not rooted in the Bible that I make my life’s authority. Can the Christian get taught from another culture that does not hold to Biblical origins? In my answer I look towards the common grace notion of Reformed theology or the secret presence theology of Catholic theologian Karl Rahner and say yes, God can and will be moving throughout the world not just exclusively in a Christian enclave. So I wrote the word on my thinking and started to caress and collide it, mostly caress, with Scripture. I attempted to put a Christian theology upon it seeing the need for me as a Christian to be in connection not only with God, but with fellow believers in the Church and then those outside of the Church also. Jesus even went as far as to say that we should love our enemies.

It soon became clear to me that Ubuntu was a phrase that would express my own Christian belief that I am who I am as a disciple of Jesus not only in relationship to God but to others. When Paul calls us the Body and describes how that works in I Corinthians or in Ephesians or Romans it shows without doubt that my identity is tied up in connection. I am who I am through others in the same body. Beyond that Jesus describes us as salt of the earth and light of the world which means that we cannot be who we are meant to be without engagement with others beyond the Church walls. I am who I am through others. Even if my vertical relationship with God is restored by God’s grace I can never hope to develop my true being as some solo believer or by cutting myself adrift from the world around me; Ubuntu!

Of course the particular application for this idea is rooted in the conflict situation of South Africa’s apartheid history and the dawning of the new democracy. Alex Boraine, the vice chair of the Truth and Reconciliation committee told us that on the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison there was some uncertainty about what he would say in his speech and what consequences there would be. If he had decided to tell the people to rise up and overthrow the enemy then there could have been a bloody civil war. What stopped Mandela was his sure belief in Ubuntu. His speech encouraged his oppressed brothers and sisters to embrace the new South Africa where their white neighbours would have to be included as they could not be who they had the potential of being without them, their traditional enemies. Others would tell us how this indeed was the secret as to how Mandela even caught the imagination of many young white South Africans who also willingly and excitedly became a part of this new order.

So, primarily Ubuntu has a place for me in the work of reconciliation. In my own Northern Irish context I cannot be who I am without my Republican neighbour, traditionally my enemy. To be fuelled by Ubuntu sees the necessity of relationship to shape and hone and bring fullness of my salvation and redemption as well as the restoration and transformation of my society.

One of the reasons I came to Regent College this summer was to theologise my ideas. These were thoughts rattling around in my head, chatted out with my friends. Were they anyway erudite or was I away with the cerebral fairies. Wonderfully I find that unbeknown to me there are those, particularly Archbishop Desmond Tutu who have thought through the theology of Ubuntu and I can now be better read and more fully thought through in my processing my summer of 04 meditations. Ubuntu is one theology I want to pursue in the days that are ahead.


The Amish Forgive the Murderer of their Children 2

 

Just as much as I want to commend the light that the Amish community of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania have shone out since the tragedy struck their school house I cannot help thinking that we see in their engagement or lack of it with the world the reason that Jesus mentioned both light of the world and salt of the earth in the Sermon on The Mount. If they were both the same thing he would not have had to waste his breath. They were two sides of one coin. Influencing society is our commission but we need to do it in both ways.

Where our Amish brothers and sisters became a beacon to us, I wonder would they have not have needed to have been had they shaken the salt of their faith over our society. A light can shine from a distance, like a Lighthouse or the landing light of an aeroplane. Salt though is useless from a distance; impotent. To be salt we need to be right there in the heart of society, flavouring, keeping fresh, healing. David Gray puts it well when he sings “into lies, ruin, disease/Into wounds like these/Let the truth sting.” The call is to be light and salt. Both!


The Amish Forgive the Murderer of their Children 1

 

The Amish community of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania were not expecting nor did they deserve to be thrown into the world’s spot light in recent days. The bloody horror of that day in the Nickel Mines school house will live with us for many years but the response of this almost naïve exclusive group of Christians should reverberate around our world for even longer. This qauint and spirituality eccentric people have shown a dignity and Godly strength that transcends these times we live in.

Within hours of the shooting dead of five of their precious children, Amish leaders had visited the wife of the murderer, Charles Carl Roberts IV to extend forgiveness. They even attended the murderer’s funeral. This is not the normal way of things. It is a grace that is not of this world. There are even those on the internet who would claim that the Amish have not quite got their Christianity correct. Yet, this believing community is doing what they say they believe. “Jesus is about forgiveness and so we have to learn to forgive.” It seems so obvious. It must be incredibly difficult. They believe God will give them the strength.

This all takes place in a tiny community in the middle of a nation that has responded very differently to its’ children being murdered. The Amish shows an opposite response to the American government after 9/11. Surely it would have been easier for them to rage against those outsiders who entered their antiquated safe tranquility to murder their loved ones and to launch a war against mass murderers. Easier was never the way of the Gospel of Jesus. And the last words on his lips were “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Forgiveness for those who did not even know they had need of repentance is Jesus model for us to follow. It might not make sense but it changes the world in ways that revenge never has.

Sadly, it took more innocent murders for this bright light to shine out from the hills of Pennsylvannia. Will the darkness understand it?