This is the week for Prayer for Christian Unity an annual event which is organised in this country by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. Their website has a range of resources which are being used this week.
This year the week is based around Micah 6:6-8 which in verse 8 asks “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” It was a verse which was referred to in the benediction given at the Presidential Inauguration yesterday. It’s a verse which Micah Challenge, an international challenge seeking to hold governments accountable for their Millennium Development Goals, base their campaign upon. It’s one of those verses which seems to be something we can agree on but it’s one of those really difficult verses to live out in practice.
As regular readers will be aware the church I attend is an eccumenical church where they are trying to get on with the messy business of living out Christian Unity and where there very survival depends not on having a week of prayer for Christian unity, but a daily one. It was in this context that the Rev David Moore preached a sermon on Sunday based upon Micah 6 verse 8 for this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Now David is part of the congregation of the church and has been for many years, he knows exactly what the score is and it was in that context he preached the sermon which was both a kick arse and kick up the arse sermon, as far as I was concerned. (I’ve put the link to the church blog where it has been posted in and I really would encourage you to read it if you have time).
We don’t just listen to these things in a bubble though we take them in through the wider lens of our lives, experiences and feelings. So it was I heard and reflected upon this sermon with other events of the week in mind, the stuff I’d heard about the impact and potential impact of the cuts and the whole Steve Chalke thing.
David started off by talking about the way in which Micah lived in a boarder town and what the prophet was calling people to was a counter-cultural, radically different way of life. He then went on to explain how we need to focus beyond the church and into the wider world. Within this he referred to the diversity discussion going on at Cornerstone at the moment and how it has in his opinion not gone far enough. It has not looked at the whole diversity of the wider town(s) we are part of, rather focusing in on the diversity issues which impact us.
This was my first kick up the backside moment. My diversity agenda may be slightly wider, but it is still limited and inward looking.
He then gave an extract from a young girls diary which focuses on the apparently inconsequential such as the yellow chords she’d been wearing before adding as a footnote “man landed on moon”.
That made me stop for a moment and gave a huge challenge. As he said 66 words on teenage hormones and four about life changing events. This blog gives more than 66 words on most days to inconsequential nonsense and sometimes event less to the important stuff. It’s been something going on in my mind since and something I’ve been wrestling with as a result.
He then went on to give something of the history of Cornerstone and made the point few of the original people who had been involved in the hard decisions and had had to learn to trust each other were still about and this had consequences.
This is true, I certainly have struggled with what it means to be part of an eccumenical church. In the past I have always been enthusiastic about the concept, but in practice being part of Cornerstone has been hard and has made me identify more strongly as a low-church non-conformist than I have ever done in the past. Living out eccumenicalism in that context requires you to give up part of your identity and in doing so makes you more aware of that part of who you are or who you have constructed yourself to be.
Rev Moore called for us to “This week I invite you to reflect/muse upon faith as ‘radical trust’; love as course of action, rather than a cluster of beliefs about which we endlessly argue or worry.”
He called upon us to “Act justly – this is first and foremost about putting others first – not allowing the ‘yellow jean syndrome’ to flood our horizon with our ‘hormones’ or cultural myopia. (Myopia = nearsightedness, lack of imagination, foresight or intellectual insight.) Act justly.
Love mercy – think of ‘love’ as a verb … a doing word; love as action rather than sentiment or sentimentality; putting first that which puts the other person first. (The trouble is we think we know what is best for others!)
Walk humbly – to take this lifestyle as no big deal – this, quite simply, is the reason why it can be a very disturbing way – the radical nature of ordinariness when lived with purpose.”
These were strong words and whilst I was on the edge of my seat as he spoke them, feeling a strange mix of empowerment and enthusiasm as well as guilt I wanted to scream out so how the heck do we actually get on and do it?
David then went on to give some of his own story, being vulnerable in the process. Within this he said the following which was incredibly powerful hearing it and has remained so reading it again this morning.
“One of the things I personally find most difficult as a Christian is the way other people assume to know what, for me, being a Christian means …. the assumption is that it’s about believing in impossible things, like God, the Trinity, being good!
For me being a Christian is first and foremost NOT these things but about becoming a pilgrim, having a clear purpose you can articulate.
What I have in mind is ‘love’ as a verb and not just or even a feeling. I am drawn by the disturbance Jesus caused to the establishment because of his capacity to focus on the most important things, and my quest is to redefine what that means for us today.
I cannot affirm with any sense of purpose or excitement the historic creeds – I do not want to get rid of them – they are marker posts in the ever-changing sands of Christian history. However, I do invite you to make time this week to muse upon my minimalist affirmation: faith as a journey away from certainty, rather than a primary source of certainty. I understand faith as a call to action, rather than a cluster of beliefs which we argue about or feel forced to conform to.”
He continued a paragraph or so later:
“The very thing that ‘captured’ me when I arrived at Cornerstone was that people were living by faith – not in pious ways but practical, intelligent, adult ways. That is the reason I am still here. I do, however, fear now that the Diversity discussion, as wonderful as it is, lacks the political clout required to face up to the long-term disasters being heaped upon future generations by the present Government.
I do not believe that Jesus would settle for the present level of silence between believers and the world.
Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with God. These characteristics do not immediately spring to mind in either the political or religious world of today.”
For me this all captured so much of what I have been feeling and am wondering about. I am going to briefly give 3 examples of things which worry me (and there could be so much more):
1) The churches attitudes to foodbanks. We know the need is rising for these and churches have been at the forefront of helping support these. Infact many churches get quite self-congratulatory about the support they provide, but they are not at the same time publicly questioning why foodbanks are necessary and publicly campaigning against the changes in public policy which are going to make them more necessary. Gingerbread have highlighted how 200,000 more children are likely to end up in poverty (and so needing the support of churches and other voluntary organisations like foodbanks).
2) The debates around inclusion, particularly related to sexual orientation and same sex marriage. We, (and here I include myself), have made much of this weeks debate and the way in which the nature of the debate has changed. Yet, we are still framing it within “the church” and our attitudes. To be fair Steve Chalke did address this in some of what he said – making the point about the young people Oasis work with in their academies, but the whole thing needs to be seen in the wider context.
Over the last few weeks with work I have been involved in the campaign our young people have been spearheading to fight the proposed withdrawal of funding for their youth club. As part of this I have become aware of the statistics both locally and nationally about homophobic bullying, self-harm, suicide risk and so on which illustrate why young people need LGBandT safe spaces and the benefits which these spaces can provide. (Anybody local in Milton Keynes reading this who hasn’t yet responded to the budget consultation may wish to do so – putting something in response to proposal S61 which is the proposal to cease to provide youth grants to voluntary organisations).
The church in the debate it has been having isn’t anywhere near taking this wider, real world, into account. We are still so bloody inward looking and on both sides are still far too focused on the experiences of those within the church and on those things which the church wants to protect or change.
3) Denominational groups and churches are facing a drop in income and the impacts of this is being felt. At the same time demand for practical support and help from churches is growing and come April when the bulk of cuts come in and start to bite one can only imagine what the situation will be.
We need to be thinking how to respond, yet we are focused in so many churches around talking about the songs we sing on a Sunday and what worship means to us.
And you know what the last bit happens because it is dealing with things we feel we might have some power to change. I and so many others I know are feeling so utterly hopeless in the face of what’s happening that we are focusing in on the stupid ‘us stuff’ because it’s stuff we can do something about. We don’t know what the heck to do about anything else, understanding that the system’s broke and that hard decisions are needed about what to do but knowing the hard decisions being made right now are often morally wrong ones which don’t fit in with our faith. And that’s why we need our leaders to stop faffing about focusing on women bishops and gay marriage and start giving us some real leadership on discipleship and how we can actually live out Micah 6 verse 8.
I know I am part of the change I want to see but I need some leadership and inspiration – I need to know what the heck to do as well as the courage to do it. So I need what was missing from David’s sermon – the information and networks to put it into practice. For too long I’ve heard the call to action without being given the practical help to be able to put it into action.