Monday, 22 November 2010

Easy. Like Sunday morning?

A few weeks ago as we were driving to the Sunday morning service, listening to Steve Wright's Sunday Love Songs on Radio 2, the Lionel Richie (was that with or without the Commodores?) classic 'Easy like Sunday morning' came on. And I had a bit of an epiphany. I suddenly thought, there's something in this. Easy - like Sunday morning. It all started to crystalise when it came to the bridge:

I wanna be high, so high,
I wanna be free to know the things I do are right.
I wanna be free, just me...

This talks of a deep spiritual yearning. There's a desire to know that we're living right. We're doing the right thing. And yet, as people, we seem to miss out, mess up. We can't seem to do right for doing wrong. So doing wrong becomes habit. But wouldn't it be brilliant to 'be free to know the things I do are right'? Wouldn't it be great if it was possible to live that life of rightness, where we do the right thing without even thinking about it? If only it was that easy...

Wouldn't it be great to be free, to be 'just me' - just who we are, who we were made to be?

The Christian message of salvation and transformation by God's grace purports to deliver this. And yet, experience often teaches us otherwise. In most churches, when we turn up for our Sunday morning gatherings (or equivalent), we seem to still be trapped by this combination of fear and longing - fear that we have to live up to expectations, yet we can't, or know we won't; and longing, to do the right thing, to be good, to be better... Somehow in all of this, we lose that power that makes us free to know the things we do are right, and free to be 'just me'. We have to appear a certain way, maybe sit in a certain place, stand at the right time, act in a certain way. Easy? Sunday morning is not easy. And yet it should be. And life as a follower of Jesus should be - maybe not easy, but definitely simple.

After all, isn't this the very heart of Jesus' own call to discipleship - to a scholarship as his student, an apprenticeship to him:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
(Matthew 11:28-30)

Being a disciple of Jesus should not be so burdensome. It should be free and freeing. It's about the easy yoke. The yoke was, first of all, a harness used to control beasts of burden (and maybe slaves), to allow them more easily to move their burden. But yoke also came to be understood as a term for wisdom or teaching. For example, a text written between the times of our Old and New Testaments (found in the Apocrypha), says:

I opened my mouth and said, Acquire wisdom for yourselves without money.
Put your neck under her yoke, and let your sould be receive instruction; it is to be found close by.
(Sirach 51:25-26)

And so, Jesus' invitation to follow him and his wisdom, his teaching, is not an invitation to the kind of straitjacket that the world of 24/7 media, money-makes-the-world-go-round, 2 cars on the drive, infeasibly large TV, calls us to. It's easy.

Nor is it and invitation to the kind of 'performance', look right, act right lifestyle of organised religion.

Jesus calls us to 'be free to know the things [we] do are right', to 'be free, just me...'
By following Jesus in his way - not the world's way, our church's way, or our own way - we can know that freedom. As we are shaped by him, by his teaching and by his example, we will more and more behave habitually like him - without having to think about it. We can know that the things we do are right, because we will be right; and out of our character flows our behaviour. Easy.

Paul, a follower of Jesus, recognised that the change had to occur in our character first, and that trying to 'do the right thing' just doesn't cut it. He said that we shouldn't conform to the world around us - blending in without thinking, by habit - but must be transformed (changed from one form to another) by the renewing of our minds: to have the 'mind' or the character of Jesus Christ formed in us (Romans 12:2).

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Paradigm Lost

The church (and in particular, The Salvation Army?) is at a crucial juncture in its existence.

Perhaps the problem is that the church (and in particular, The Salvation Army?) is operating in an old paradigm. It carries on - or tries to - as though the world has not changed in the past century. Trouble is, it has. The world is changing, and if it hasn't fully arrived in a new paradigm ('postmodernity'), it is certainly approaching it, on the cusp of it even. Thus far, the church has steeled itself against the onset of any such paradigm shift; it has denied it, preached against it, and finally battened down the hatches...

However, the emerging generation of leaders within The Salvation Army (and most probably elsewhere) have grown up immersed in this emerging paradigm. They are fluent in contemporary culture. They breathe change like air, and find themselves like fish out of water in a structure which tries to preserve and perpetuate a lost paradigm.

I dare to suggest that the Bible has an answer. Jesus once spoke (in Matthew 9:16-17) of repairing an old cloak with an unshrunk piece of cloth. His illustration makes the point that "the patch pulls away from the cloak and a worse tear is made." He goes on: "Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved."

The results of putting an unshrunk - new - patch on an old garment is a worse tear - and perhaps a lost patch. The patch won't fit. But before we can accuse the patch of 'just being awkward', Jesus follows up that illustration with the one about the wine.

It's almost as though Jesus acknowledges, even respectfully doffs his hat, to the old wineskins. They have clearly been well used and have done their bit - with distinction, perhaps - in the past. But Jesus is clear that to pour the new wine into old skins is not only pointless; it is destructive. But destructive of what? First of all, the skins burst; second, the wine is spilled; third, the skins are destroyed. So the wine is lost, ruined, useless; and so are the wineskins. The solution is to put the new wine into fresh wineskins, "so both are preserved." If our emerging leaders are being poured into an old paradigm, old structures, old wineskins - won't all be at risk of loss, of destruction?

Of course, in the original context, Jesus was most probably referring to Himself and to the 'new' availability of the Kingdom of God, and the 'old wineskins' of the Judaism and domination systems of his day, or the existing understandings of God and His way of doing things. This latter had to be reimagined, reshaped - reborn - to 'fit' Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

But today, new leaders are emerging who are passionate about Jesus and His Kingdom, who are committed to a radical life of discipleship and its expression in mission - in short, people soaked in the new wine of Jesus, people through whom the new wine of Jesus can flow into a world dying to taste Him - to taste the authentic, refreshing, invigorating, challenging, life-changing, society-transforming wine of Jesus. But if these people are put into old wineskins... oh dear.

So, does everything need to change? Yes and no. The Salvation Army, and the church, need to be reborn, or resurrected. This is not about getting rid of everything. It is a journey of transformation, a transfiguration - like the caterpillar, into the chrysalis, into the butterfly. All are made of the same 'stuff', but are quite distinct. It is the same creature, but radically different. The Salvation Army must change its form, its appearance, its shape, its self-concept - but keep its original DNA. It must recapture its original purpose, and reimagine its expression for today.