Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Sweaters what does that mean



It may not be John 3:16, but this line from 1 Samuel 16:7 is one of the best-known in the bible, even when people don't know where it comes from.

"For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

It is profound, and it rings true, even to our own experience and appearance. Which of us can say that we have never maintained - even knowingly maintained - an appearance of "holiness" - the right clothes, church attendance etc - while inside we were a seething mess of unrepented sin. The fact that man looks on the outward appearance is a huge source of temptation.

We are all natural-born judges of the outward appearance. Let's face it: the outward is all we have to go on. The physical world is our world; our eyes and ears are our detectors. We think we are adept at scanning the heart beneath the skin, but we also know, if we are honest, that we can be monstrously wrong in our "discernment". After all, we aren't even that good at sounding our own deepest motivations, at least, not until exposed to the word which discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart. No wonder we are told not to judge - we are crap at it!

The temptation to judge by outward appearances increases  whenever a form of religion takes on outward signs to mark holiness, spiritual gifts, or (let's be honest) seniority and rank. Once a society develops a system of markers in that way, the sky's the limit when it comes to scathing judgements, elevation to pedestals and the general development of pecking orders - all based on outward appearances.

It was ever thus. I find it unlikely that the instruction (De 6:8) to bind the words of God's law to hands and forehead was intended to be more than a figurative instruction to "remember this law in all you do, whatever you touch or work at, wherever you go and whatever you look at." Nevertheless, some people at some point understood it literally, and phylacteries were born - little boxes containing scriptural texts, physically attached to wrists and forehead. And not so little: by Mt 23:5, if your holiness was being seen in how much Bible you could stick on your face, then you make the box LARGE!

I was brought up in a world where such legalistic markers were the norm. "We do like a pastor to wear a hat." "I can't hear Mr So-and-so - he wears his hat at the wrong angle!" "Oh yes, we have three hymns; We know the truth!" Outward, man-made markers they were, but enormously satisfying. And of course, so much of the joy of approving of each other actually comes from disapproving of others. As we all approved each other for our outward appearances, so we formed a cosy and closed club, where there was a tremendous sense of belonging and a tremendous absence of any risk that the Word of God could come and disturb that hideous complacency. Many of us are both amused at the memories of a childhood in such circles, and scarred by it. And have a bit of the DNA of it still active.

Of course, sometimes the visible markers designate not just our level of holiness but also our tribal allegiance within the Christian universe. Anyone, however non-church they may be, who has entered Garrison Keillor's Woebegone world will be aware of how intense that tribalism can be. His upbringing in the Plymouth Brethren amongst the tribes of Norwegian Lutherans and Catholics is a source of much amusement but also of deep inner groaning for anyone who was brought up in that kind of mentality. 

But it isn't just the smaller, tight sects. I remember saying at the end of my time as a university Christian Union leader in the U.K. that if I raised my hands during a song there would be those who thought I'd had the Baptism in the Spirit, and others who thought I'd sold out to the forces of darkness. I pointed out that the real difference between hands raised and not raised is about four feet. You can judge nothing that really matters from it.

And now we get to the crux. Is there any church with a more developed set of outward markers than TSA? We have formalised markers and rules. The Soldier's Covenant. Publicly declared abstinence from things. The uniform. Ranks and badges and white stars. It started out pragmatically, and it started out as a leveller - if all had uniform then there were no rich and poor distinctions - but it represents one of the finest, most formalised, set of pecking-order markers of any Christian tribe.

I am new to TSA. For the most part I have been impressed by the way "high-ranking officers" have been free of rank-driven pomp, of standoffishness, of side. Christian humility often does transcend the structure. But that doesn't mean that it always works so well.

I have heard the commitment to abstain from alcohol described as "obeying God's will." Again, such a commitment as a piece of pragmatic wisdom, given the specific ministries to which TSA has historically been called, is fine. As a blanket statement of God's will, however, going beyond Scripture, it is an evil piece of pharisaical oneupmanship. Not for nothing are extra-biblical commands to abstain from this or that food or drink lumped in with "doctrines of demons" in 1 Tim 4. Restrictions that go beyond God's word are from the Pit, because they denigrate his good creation and divide and destroy his community with their fake "holiness".


More recently a comment on one of my photos drew my attention. A cadet is arriving into the welcome service at WBC in full uniform. Alongside her is her husband. Not a cadet himself, he is nevertheless a soldier, wearing an SA Vee-neck pullover and tie. Beneath, someone has commented, "Sweaters what does that mean. Only one is committed." I have tried to get to the bottom of this, by contacting the writer via several channels. I do not want to evaluate those words unfairly. Is it a joke? Does the writer (an American Salvationist) know these people? What does it mean? Because at face value, putting the incompetent punctuation and use of English right, it is just about the nastiest thing I have seen or read since my parents left that denomination dominated by hyper-Calvinist pharisaism. And those words are sitting there in the timeline of my photography page for all to see.

I don't believe that "judge not that you be not judged" is a call to a lack of discernment. Nor is the blanket application of "judge not" even practical - it tends to bite back. That verse is actually the text most frequently used at present with the most savagery, condemnation and judgement. We are actually called to judge, to evaluate and discern - even critique. We are to do so in the consciousness of our own judgement-worthiness, and our critique must be tempered by the awareness that our critical eye may be suffering with the presence of a girder that we haven't spotted yet.

This article is an appeal not to judge by outward appearances. It is an appeal to the writer of the comments on my Facebook page to think hard about the horrible things said to people of whose lives she knows nothing.

But I don't want to use the blog to fire a metaphorical broadside at an individual. Kay Muir's comments are a reminder of just one of the ever-present dangers that a formalised set of markers can present a Christian community. I know that the uniform can open doors. But it is clear that at times it allows or even promotes the kind of evil attitudes which are the antithesis of true holiness. Think hard before wearing it; think hard before seeing it as a sign of anything at all.

Overall, I think I would burn all SA uniforms. For all the doors that are opened by them, the sensation of a mutually approving cosy club is a massive danger, a closed shop secure in its self-approval and impregnable in its self-assuredness. Such spiritual ghettos are proofed against the in-breaking of the word of God. I'm praying for that word, sharper than a two edged sword, to do the impossible, slice deep into the Salvation Army afresh, restoring gospel power and holiness. If uniform and other SA trappings survive such a revival, well and good. I may yet be surprised!

Sunday, 16 April 2017

He is Risen!

resurrection
I believe he rose the third day. 

The physical, historical resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the essential, non-negotiable heart of our faith. Without it, the cross is just a cross. A death. A defeat. The resurrection is the proof that the cross was a victory. 

It is an integral part of the great chain of events that begins (in terms of human history) with the incarnation and leads through to the ascension. The physicality is critical throughout; without ceasing to be what he eternally was, the Son became what he eternally was not. Who is he in yonder stall? 'Tis the Lord! Our God contracted to a span, the Creator come as one of us, in our flesh. 

We are not spirits trapped in bodies, souls needing release from an intrinsically evil material world. We are human beings, physical entities, part of God's good material creation. Our rebellion has brought injustice, pain, chaos and death into the world, and the whole natural order is affected. Our gracious God has entered this world,  united himself to our suffering condition, experienced our pain, faced our injustice and undergone our death. 

The resurrection is the pledge of future transformation of the whole creation, which is groaning, longing for the big day ahead. The resurrection reveals the man who will judge us all and lead redeemed humanity into the eternal, physical, glorious future. The risen Christ, ascended, has taken the throne and intercedes for us; the dust of the earth is sat down at the right hand of the Majesty; a real man who knows my pain and frailty and temptation speaks on my behalf in the control room of the universe.

Jesus is our man at God's right hand. Jesus is the Firstborn of the new creation, the physical pledge that the present creation's groanings will be heard and heeded and resolved. His physical resurrection was the first roar of judgement day, when this man himself will put a shocking stop to the violence and injustice and abuse and slavery that so often characterise our treatment of each other.

Abandon the physical resurrection and faith becomes super-spiritualised. Ironically, sometimes it is the very people who claim that the early church and even the New Testament itself were influenced by Greek thought, who actually capitulate to Greek thought here. Lose the robust, flesh and blood, realistic, human vision of physical resurrection, and you are left with insipid moralising or anchorless mysticism.  

The glimpse of the future creation that we have in the resurrected body of Jesus is, of course, different in some ways from our present reality. The risen Man can apparently enter a locked room, or appear at will in distant locations. But it is not less than physical, and there is a continuity with what had gone before. He ate, he drank, he was holdable and touchable. There were marks where the nails and the spear went. And he is now really physically absent from our experience. But will be back!

Despite its rather narrow doctrinal basis, the Salvation Army is oddly open and vulnerable at this point. We make no direct affirmation of the resurrection of Jesus, and that line about "the immortality of the soul" sounds vaguely Greek until rescued by "the resurrection of the body" which follows it. It ought to be impossible for anyone honest to be a soldier without believing in physical resurrection and the future re-creation, but it could have been made even harder!

The Christian message is good news. Like the News at 10 it deals with stuff that has happened. It isn't simply a philosophy, though it has huge philosophical repercussions. It isn't just a moral code or way of life, though it has huge implications for how we live. It is news, it tells of God's inbreaking into history, it proclaims the true man, our true King, to us, it offers hope of his new world and warns of the disaster of continuing in rebellion against him.  That moral challenge is so rooted in the historical event that it would be an entirely different thing without it. 

Jesus Christ is risen! We tremble at that fact. And we are filled with joy by it. And we must live by it, must speak of it, must stand firm for it, must hope in all it promises. That may turn out to be awkward at times. But so be it; united to the crucified and risen one, we will face the future boldly. 

 

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Jesus won the victory so we could talk to each other in church


The work of Jesus Christ is one event and a sequence of events. At its heart is the cross, with its cries of abandonment ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!") and of victory ("It is finished!"). There at the Cross, the true Man committed himself decisively and finally to the path of 'obedience unto death', and in so doing overturned the act of disobedience of the other Man in whom we all died. 

But the cross, while central, is not the totality. Evangelical theologians have sometimes had less to say about the resurrection or ascension, but these are vital scenes too, as the victory is confirmed and published and rewarded. Sin and death and hell will not have the final say; Satan will not have the victory. The resurrection is the first roar of Judgement Day, God's mighty 'No!' against human injustice and all that raises itself up against him. That 'No' declares the end of sin; that 'No' announces the Judge. 

But then, the King ascends. He has the victory, he takes the spoils, and he sits down at the heart of the majestic glory. As High Priest he enters the heavenly Holiest Place on our behalf and intercedes for his people. And as Prophet, he speaks. 

Those facets of his ministry are all visible in the final once-and-for-all act of his earthly work – the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost. The one who has won the victory over sin has the right to redeem sinners from their captivity, to bring them into his victorious army, and to empower and enable them to serve. He intercedes with the Father and the Spirit is poured out. The initial chosen few begin to speak, and the last battle begins. The church makes war by the Word; the church understands, believes and speaks because the Spirit has come; the Spirit has come because Jesus Christ has won the victory. 

That is the reason for the crucial but often overlooked or skipped-over section in Eph 4:7-10. 

Paul wants to give the Ephesian believers every reason not to drift back to their former life as pagan occultists. As it is for every Christian, the most common temptation is to slide back to what they were before they met Jesus. Backsliding is generally exactly what it says – sliding back. In the Ephesians’ case, it happens to have been a life of magic, Spiritism and esoteric religion.

Every part of the letter is geared to stopping them slip back to that – to show that what they enjoy in Christ is infinitely bigger, better and more thrilling than anything they had before in their occult groups. Nowhere might that be more of an acute challenge than in the Christian meeting itself. Compared to drunken sacrifices of bulls, and to nakedness and orgies as a means of experiencing spiritual awakening, groups of people meeting to eat, pray, and to talk and discuss the Jewish scriptures must have seemed rather tame.  

It isn’t tame, says Paul. Any communication of the gospel, any pre-echo of the voice of Jesus that will be heard on the last day, any Spirit-driven word... all is the result of Jesus’ decisive victory. That applies to the once-and-for-all laying down of the definitive revelation of the gospel, through the apostles and prophets. It applies to the ongoing work of proclaiming and applying that gospel, by the evangelists and shepherds-and-teachers. And it applies to the work of every believer as all of us, in conversation and fellowship, encourage and help one another to grow in our faith.  

When Christian people meet and speak the truth – the real truth, the actual gospel – to each other, we are seeing the spoils of Jesus’ war. What we are seeing is the product of a divine invasion, an incursion. A powerful One came from outside and supernaturally intervened in a dark empire. Citizens who had been comfortable in this world were turned into rebels against this world – for they are now citizens of a new and as yet not-fully-seen kingdom. Jesus turned sinners into saints. He made the ignorant into the knowing and blasphemers into preachers. The gathering of these rebel forces is called “church”. 

The way in which this rebel movement grows is called evangelism – speaking the truth about Jesus so that other people are convinced and join up. And the way the passion and purity and power of the lives of the rebels is built up is by… talking to each other. Hearing pastors and teachers explain and apply the apostles’ and prophets’ teaching, discussing that and applying that to one another, that is the battlefield diet of an advancing and powerful army. In re-telling the gospel and its implications is nutrition and life and energy and transforming power. Mutually teaching each other the Bible is the essential basis for spiritual warfare – the battle for holiness.

Don’t be taken in by the suggestion that words are peripheral – whether to evangelism or to the life of the church. If Francis of Assisi really said “Preach Jesus – if necessary, use words!” he was no saint – but then, he never said that! Don’t be taken in by the idea that images or actions are central to our meetings. Words are. In the Salvation Army we rejected the two officially sanctioned faith-feeding visual actions early in our history; ironically the resultant vacuum has made us so hungry for the visual and physical and so inventive of secondary symbols and sacraments that the word has been at a disadvantage among us ever since. I don’t know if we will ever be able to reinstate baptism and the supper as catalysing co-workers of the word; I don’t doubt that the dethroning of the word is one of the things that is killing us. As a church we are dying of starvation. The Salvation Army is rejecting the gifts that its Saviour paid for!

The Authorised Version used the word “conversation” to describe something much broader than “talking” – it was the whole lifestyle of believers. And yet the word made a profound link between word and life: a church in its living will never rise above the quality of its talking. You have to walk the talk, but you can’t not talk. Jesus died and rose and ascended so that we could talk in church. Never underestimate the wonder of that. The Christian meeting is the counter-cultural, subversive, perturbing sign in this present world of his victory won – and of his coming return. 

See you on Sunday! 









Thursday, 30 March 2017

I am an idolater

So, Theresa has signed the blasted letter. And I’d better write something too. I have been practically inactive on here since the US presidential election, and I need to have a stern word. With myself, mainly. 

The last years have seen a resurgence of nationalism across the world – or across the “West” – that has been pretty disturbing in its manifestations and consequences. From the rise of more or less overtly racist parties across Europe, to the outpouring of frustration at a complacent Westminster in the Brexit vote and its accompanying hate incidents, and on to "America first! America first!" and the petty, self-obsessed tweets from the Trump, we have seen a descent towards tribalism and barbarism that comes as a shock. 

What has been a particular source of grief, though sadly not of surprise, is the degree to which members of the Church have attached themselves to this movement. Christians I know personally and respect highly became vocal supporters of the Orange One, explicitly in the hope that he would “Make America great again.” Such thoughts are not the exclusive preserve of Unitedstatesian Christians. That slogan is merely the American outcropping of the same stratum seen in Brexit, Le Pen, AfD, the Dutch Freedom Party and the rest. Here too Christians are on board with the nationalism; in the U.K. “taking our sovereignty back” was espoused not merely as a necessary political re-balancing, but as a theologically-driven crusade. 

Now, it may possibly be faintly discernible in what I have written that I did not vote in favour of Brexit, that I find the Washington Tweetmeister utterly detestable, and all support for him perverse. If you have picked that up, you are with me so far. Which is good, because this piece is not actually a rant against Hilary-hating, Obama-bashing, Breitbart-swallowing “Christian” America, nor against Brexiteer-believers in the U.K.  

No. It’s a rant against me and my kind. Not for being “sore losers”, because actually, in a democracy, you are allowed to go on arguing for what you believe even after a decisive vote – as an 11 year old Farage started doing in 1975. No, this rant is an attempt to deal with the utter, appalled misery into which 23 June and 8 November plunged me. It is wrung out of me as a confession that our misery and fear are merely the other side of the Trump and Brexit coin. They are manifestations of the same unbelief and idolatry.

For this wave of nationalism is a wave of idolatry. I say that as a patriotic Briton, an Englishman. I love my country, and do not have any special desire that it slide into oblivion. However, the UK will pass – and much of its glory has already gone. Nebuchadnezzar's dream of a statue is as relevant today as it was in the days of the Babylonian empire. Babylon – passed away. Persia – came and went. Greece – faded. Rome – disintegrated. And the British Empire is now just the skeleton of a shadow. I would recommend to North Americans, especially to Christians, that every time they look themselves in the eye in the shaving mirror, they tell themselves, “My country will disappear”. Before the recent election, a Trump supporter stateside urged me not to look at the candidate, but to read the GOP platform. I duly did so – but the first line of the preamble was enough for me. “We believe in American exceptionalism”: that’s idolatry, right there. Whether or not any country was great, is great or will be great, all nations are merely the dust on the scales of the One who really rules, and all will be utterly eclipsed by his coming kingdom. America is no exception: it will go – is going – the way of all the others. 

And that is where those of us who oppose Brexit may fall into exactly the same sin as those with whom we disagree. For Europe too will pass. Absolutising the need to get out of it and absolutising the need to stay in it are BOTH idolatrous. The greatest issues that we face as human beings CANNOT be dealt with by either being in OR out of the EU, they cannot be solved by either a Donald or a Hilary. And to the degree to which our anguish at Brexit or our dismay at the current POTUS is the mirror image of the triumphalism and hope of those who rejoice at last year's results, we are guilty. We are not to put our trust in princes, and nor are we to fear them – rather we are to fear the One who has power over body and soul for eternity. 

When we buy into the extreme, all-eclipsing passion which has characterised the Brexit and presidential debates, we not only run the risk of seriously damaging our unity as Christians (and much damage has been done that way), but we also reveal the degree to which we have ceased to really believe the gospel. I mean, really believe it, in a way that relativises every political issue, every ideological difference, every contemporary cultural chasm. And you may say, “Ah, but the gospel has political, ideological and cultural ramifications!” And of course it does. But not in such a way that I can bemoan our exit from the EU as if the EU were in and of itself the Kingdom of God, or rejoice in Trump's election as if he were the Messiah. 

That may appear to leave a loophole. “Oh, but we didn't mourn/rejoice like THAT!” Well, you could have fooled me! I have had to preach at myself for months in order to write this, so I know how deep the rot has gone. The drip feed of this-worldly thought has taken its toll, as has the desire, in the age of aggressive “toleration”, to avoid sticking our heads above the parapet with the actual gospel. That fear is certainly killing the Salvation Army in the U.K., and I don’t think we are alone in that. Christians in other churches, even in more consistently evangelical ones, are falling into the same trap.

We have become simply more passionate, more committed, more brave, more evangelistic about our particular political hopes and fears than we are about Jesus. Christians who love the EU and Christians who hate the EU are together being diverted from the real mission. Trump-lovers and Trump-haters are together losing the plot. And, dare I say it, theological liberals and theological conservatives are identical in practice if they are not actually talking about God’s work in Christ. You may believe in the authority of scripture as a unified, God-breathed book, you may cling to the centrality of the atonement achieved at the cross, you may sign up to the awful, eternal, populated nature of hell, but you might as well be Rob Bell if you only ever talk about Brexit, and share recipes or pictures of kittens.

For all the heat and aggression generated by recent events, feeling and speaking passionately about politics is simply less scary than talking about God’s message. In a ‘church’ where believing the gospel makes you the target for derision, it is hard enough making the basic affirmations of your faith INSIDE your community, let alone outside. But for myself I know I have to do this. I have to move on from recent events, move up to the higher issues that face us all, move back to what the gospel has always really been about. We have to lay aside idolatry and fear, and live as citizens of the eternal kingdom.

So here’s my head above the parapet. Here’s my creed. Here’s what I really have to stand for:

I believe in God the Father, Creator of the heavens and of the earth. I believe that the nations are the dust in the Almighty's scales and will all pass away. I believe that the leaders of nations are set in place and pulled down by his authority. I believe that talk which absolutises the greatness or destiny of any earthly country or union of nations is intrinsically idolatrous. 

I believe in Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered and died under the authorities of earthly kingdoms, was buried, and the third day rose from the dead. He ascended to heaven and is seated on the eternal throne at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there he will come to judge the kingdoms and peoples of the earth, those who have lived and died in every era. Jesus Christ will give the verdict and pass the eternal sentence on every one of us. 

I believe in the Holy Spirit, whose transforming power in the lives of sinners is the only hope for this broken, fragmented and rebellious world.

I believe in the holy catholic church, which is the present manifestation of the eternal kingdom, the only community on earth whose continuity is assured for ever.

I believe in the forgiveness of sins, which is the best possible news, given that sin and guilt and judgement to come are the most pressing issues facing any human being. 

I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting, these eternal realities so relativising all earthly goals and political concerns that my anxiety to talk about them should all but drown out any comment I may make regarding laws, treaties, unions and presidents. 

Amen.


I so need God’s help!

Friday, 24 February 2017

Four ways to run a denominationally structured church



1 Decisions taken at grassroots level. The people own what is happening. Can be wonderful, but can be very fraught when there is disagreement. 

2 Decisions imposed from above. Effective in stopping local divisions, but can leave people disenfranchised and, as a result, less involved and committed. 

3 A hybrid of the above, where localised decision-making and even the development of distinct decision-making structures is encouraged, but where big decisions come from above. This can be seriously horrid, especially when there is much made of local/individual consultation which then appears to be ignored/ridden over in subsequent HQ decisions. 

4 The hybrid as mentioned, but with leaks and gossiping from people who, through working at the HQ, are aware in advance of top-down decisions. The gossipers/leakers are typically far less personally affected by the decisions than are those who are kept in the dark, who then hear (sometimes unwelcome) news in the least pastorally sensitive and nuanced way possible.

 

If you want a serious and miserable stink, I recommend 4. 

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

How to write a worship song

1) Take a classic and well-loved hymn of which people are unaware. (This isn't too hard because your punters are aware of very few classic and well-loved hymns. It helps, though, if it comes from a slightly different tradition from your own.)

2) The hymn should be out of copyright. This means it can be chopped and changed at will; no one (apart from you) will need paying. It will generally be projected onto church screens with no mention of the original author at all. 

3) You will be adding a chorus, so it is important that the hymn is not too long. Look through it and cut out the verse or verses that seem least singable today; heavy theological terminology especially needs to be pruned. Don't worry if the verses cut were intrinsic to the logic of the hymn; that is going to be different and less clear now anyway. 

4) Feel free to alter other words to suit. You may have to do this again after you have written the tune so as to make them fit. Some changes may be to modernise, others will be random, and still others may be simply because someone goofed the lyrics in a key recording, and that became THE version that went out on YouTube. 

5) Write a decent, post-Coldplay tune. It must have a new and rousing chorus. 

6) The soul-stirring qualities of the song and especially of the chorus must come mainly from the tune, as the words you are adding to the classic hymn will not really say anything. Always remember, when fitting random evangelical cliché phrases into your new chorus, that main verbs generate meaning, and meaning generates controversy. Some song writers even believe that verbs are actually of the devil. 

7) Find a single word title for your "new song". It needs to be snappy, contemporary, and possibly related to building practices of which most users of the song will be intensely ignorant. 

Purlin? Nah. Bulwark? Better. Foundation? Better still. In fact, I'll stick with Foundation.

Cornerstone's already been taken. 

Friday, 4 November 2016

The Selfie Pout and the Worship Meeting

I was alerted to the following quote by its use in a recent blog by Kevin de Young. I am not always a fan of the perpetually curmudgeonly "Theodore Dalrymple" in the Spectator, but on this occasion he speaks pure and necessary truth:
No doubt the decline of religion accounts for the rise in self-obsession and self-importance that is everywhere observable. One of the great advantages of the Christian philosophy was that it managed to reconcile the unique importance of each man with humility. Every man was important in the eyes of God, and in that sense was at home in the universe because the universe was expressly created for beings such as he. His every action was known to God, and was therefore not without significance, however ordinary in other respects it might be; moreover, death itself was not without meaning, nor was it the end of his existence.
Yet, by comparison with the author of his being, he was infinitely small, as indeed was every other human being. However scholarly a man might be, God, being omniscient, was infinitely more knowledgeable; howsoever powerful a man might believe himself, it was finally God who disposed, so that all human power was both illusory and transitory. In the midst of life we are in death, the funeral service of the Church of England puts it; and it might have added, in the midst of importance we are insignificant.
I am not here concerned with whether this outlook is philosophically justified: with whether God exists, and if He does, with whether he is more interested in our doings and more solicitous of our welfare than He is with those of an ant, for example. All I am concerned to point out is that the religious outlook referred to above manages the difficult feat of assuring a man of his supreme importance without giving him a swollen head. (The New Vichy Syndrome, 63)
I think that is an extremely helpful thought from a professed atheist, and I have been mulling it over through the last few weeks, especially as it reflects on our meetings as Christians.  

In the non-conformist tradition, just as in the Anglican, it is as much the liturgy as the sermon which constantly reinforces our awareness of the tension between "humbling" and "exaltation". The fixed points of our meetings place us weekly in this glorious, near paradoxical space between "how like an angel" and "quintessence of dust." 

We are called to praise and adoration through readings and hymns which set before us the greatness and holiness of God in objective terms. That leads us to see ourselves objectively in our littleness and impurity, and we move naturally to confession of sin and prayerful declaration of our dependence. And then comes the sermon - a proclamation of good news to sinners, that leads us back to praise and fresh personal commitment, a subjective response.  

That cycle of objective and subjective, of seeing God and the glory of his Christ, seeing ourselves, seeing the gracious provision in Jesus, giving of ourselves, is wholesome and healthy and normal. You can see the same patterns in OT worship. And different Christian traditions have been strikingly similar, under the skin. 

Until now. As an observer of and a participant in Christian praise in many contexts over 40 years, it is possible to say that those "norms" of Christian praise are becoming increasingly rare, right across the world. It is not uncommon to attend a "Christian meeting" where the name of Jesus is not mentioned and where the main focus of the songs is not on God himself. Instead, we sing about how great we feel just for being present, with a kind of self-congratulatory narcissism. It's all about us. You feel at times that anything that might point to our smallness and poverty, be it by virtue of our creatureliness or our sinfulness, has been deliberately excised from the meeting. On no account must anyone be made to feel small, let alone bad. 


In all of this, the church is reflecting society. Ever since the triumph of existentialism at the popular level, and its going to seed in the current breakdown of objective truth (let alone a True Word from a Creator 'out there') the measure of man is man, and every individual carves out identity and meaning for themselves, with only their own lives as their raw material. It's all about me. We are gods. We have only ourselves to admire, and so we pout at our cell-phones. 

Of course, we aren't islands. When it's all about me, we can't help but keep more than half an eye on all the other 'Me's out there; self-obsessed, we actually measure ourselves by the lives of others. Or rather, the projected, apparently perfect lives of others. Every day we are surrounded by thousands of selfies. Via social media, we know that everyone else is having a great time. They sure look like gods! Amazing!

No wonder that we all of a sudden have such a rise in issues of confused self-image, appalling lack of confidence, crises of anxiety and depression. Having placed ourselves on the pedestal as gods, we immediately knock ourselves off and into misery when we are honest, even for a split second. We cannot live up to any of our expectations of ourselves. Our culture is heading into the deepest of existential crises. 

But if someone goes to a church in this context, what will they find? What will the selfie generation find in the Christian community? 

Effectively, they will find many congregations indulging in mass selfie making. Our "worship" amounts to holding up a giant phone and gawping at ourselves. We come with our varied lives, from our varied weeks, with our varied pains and needs, but together we apparently must immediately lift up heads and voices and sing of how great we feel for being there and how much we are pouring out our very selves. Our meetings are about us and our feelings from the off.

Gone is the great, levelling, objective declaration of the reality of God, that brings a perspective to our lives, to moments of triumph and misery alike.  If the first place I have to look on coming to the meeting is me, what is going to wean me from my pride? What is going to lift me up and deliver me from my despair? 

By echoing the self-absorption of our culture, the church has abandoned its essential and distinctive contribution as highlighted by Dalrymple. We are seeing more and more people lost in sadness and a sense of deep inadequacy, because they have looked within for their meaning and have found themselves wanting. We see a general moral chaos and lack of direction, for everyone is encouraged to do no more and no less than what is right in their own eyes. Instead of sliding down into the same self-worship and relativism, the church needs to be offering the radical alternative: Behold your God! Look to him! 

Very often the difference will come down to simply reordering the elements in our meetings. Some particularly stupid songs may need to be abandoned, but others just need to be sung in the right place. Hymns of response need to be a response to something. A hymn of personal commitment may be entirely appropriate after we have heard of God's love in Jesus, but it may be a cruel or ludicrous mockery at the outset of the meeting. 

However the change comes, the church will only survive the present cultural landslide if we hold our nerve and recover our message. There are people out there who seem more lost in their lostness than our society has seen in centuries. Rudderless ships, sheep without a shepherd. In compassion, we have to show them something better than a sleeked and preened church selfie. They need more than statements of how great it is (or we are) to praise God, or songs that communicate massive commitment without expressing much about who we are committing to or why. 

The church in its meetings needs to recover the heart of Christianity. Our meetings need to beat with a gospel rhythm. We need to say to ourselves and say to each other what we should be saying to the world: You lost and wandering ones, look not at yourself; look outside, to your Maker, Judge and Redeemer! Hear about him: his greatness and kindness and justice and love. It is great to worship him, but because he is wonderful, not because we are! Look to him, and you will find him to be a Friend, and he will put you on your feet and make you stand, in present storms and at the last day.