Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Challenging our Culture: What you need is hope

Time running out, time running out
For the fool still asking what his life is about
Time running out time running out.  (Jackson Browne, Black and White)
Sitting in a quaint tea-shop in the village of Clare the other day and musing on the problems of rural ministry, I found myself looking around at the other diners and asking myself, “What, really, has Christianity got to offer these people which they might possibly recognize that they need?” That is surely a question we need to answer before we can think about reversing the decline that affects so much of the church in this country.
At one table were a couple of women in their twenties gleefully discussing a recent trip to Paris. What could belief in God give them that they didn’t already have? At another were an older woman and someone who was probably her daughter. They looked well-off and comfortable. What did the ‘God-shaped gap’ in their lives look like?
And then there was my wife and I. What would make the other diners want to swap their lives with ours?
What I think we can’t say is, “Come to Jesus and your life will be happier and more fulfilled.” Frankly, I get very irritated by the stories in UK Focus along the lines of “My life used to be an utter mess but then I did an Alpha course and now I’m married and it’s all brilliant.”
Maybe it’s just envy on my part (it may be!), but life can be an utter mess after you become a Christian. Indeed, it can go downhill from that point. Certainly I don’t feel that I could personally offer such a ‘package’ with any integrity.
So what can we offer, if not that? Certainly one thing is the experience of God. Indeed, I would go so far as to say this is the key to Alpha’s success. I once had a very long one-to-one conversation with Nicky Gumbel, who insisted this was integral to the Alpha ‘model’ —that they wanted to give people an experience of God, not just a message about him. This is why the ‘Holy Spirit weekend’ is meant to be a non-negotiable part of the Alpha package. It is the point at which ‘theory’ translates into ‘practice’.
And although I can’t endorse the Alpha model, I certainly wouldn’t deny the importance of the experience of God in my own life. The great difference that becoming a Christian made to me was the sense that now I knew that I knew God —that, and an otherwise hard-to-explain enjoyment of things I’d previously avoided, like Bible study, Christian Union Meetings and church.
This, however, is hardly a ‘unique selling point’. Or rather, it is unique, but is it a selling point to happy twenty-somethings and contented fifty-somethings? “Come to Jesus and you’ll start enjoying church” —hmmm.
There is, however, something which is very much part of the Christian message which intersects precisely with people’s experience of daily life and present need, without making unjustifiable promises. And whilst it relates to our subjective experience it stems from an objective fact.
We are all of us, young and old, rich and poor, happy and sad, black, white, brown and yellow, running out of time. That is a hard, objective, fact; an undeniable reality. Indeed, it is not just we who are running out of time —the world is itself running out of time, and I am not talking about global warming. On present models, the universe came into existence about 15 billion years ago. Our solar system has existed for about 5 billion years. In far less than another 5 billion years, this whole planet will be gone. We will never ‘save the whale’, much less ‘save the earth’. All we can do is stave off the inevitable demise of everything we know for less time than it has taken it to get here.
But, some will say, we could migrate elsewhere, to other planets. And even if we couldn’t there must be life on other worlds —the story will go on. Well, for a while, perhaps, though why that story should matter is hard to define. However, (again on present models) the universe itself has a finite capacity for existence. Due to the increase of entropy, eventually every single atom and molecule will simply stop vibrating. When this point is reached nothing else can happen.
I read somewhere once that this ‘end point’ for the universe would be reached in 10100 years. That is an astonishing length of time. To put it in perspective, it hasn’t yet been around for 1011 years. But it is not an unimaginable length of time. On the contrary, yu just have to imagine ‘lots of the same’ and you’re there. In fact, it doesn’t require much imagination at all
Our human lives, meanwhile, are less than the blink of an eye. Moreover —and here’s the unwelcome bit —we occasionally become conscious that they evaporate just as surely as the energy of the entire universe is evaporating. I can still remember the morning I woke up at the beginning of the school summer holiday in 1957 with the awful realization that one day, inevitably, the holiday which was just beginning would be over, and it would be back to school. It was a difficult moment for a seven year-old!
Now, as I approach sixty, I am even more conscious that the same is true for life itself. One day —perhaps one day soon —I will wake up one last time.
And this knowledge has a very immediate impact. In fact, it has more impact as each year flashes by. (It is not yet Christmas and already we are planning the Easter outreach for our churches.) For it directly affects my hope about the future. When I was seven, life was full of hopes, stretching off into the infinity of the twentieth century. And there are still hopes for this life at the present time —but realistically they must be limited by the fact that there is so little of it left.
Now these may sound like the ramblings of a born pessimist, but I would respond they are the uncomfortable awarenesses of a realist. They are precisely the truths of which we should all be aware, and in the light of which we should all live our lives. The reason most people don’t think along these lines is that they are in a state of deliberate denial or blind ignorance —and in this category I would put most of our current crop of militant atheists. (If you want to read an atheist who’s got it right, try Charlie Brooker who writes for the Guardian and occasionally manages brilliant streams of invective prompted by just this awareness.)
I am reminded of the Alpha Mummy blogger who wrote how, given her “otherwise-strident aethism”, nevertheless when her children asked about death, “I JUST DIDN'T WANT TO TELL THEM THEY ROT, OK?” But yet in the same week, she wrote,
... I had a revealation [sic]. I interviewed Eddie Izzard — pretty much the most urgent and driven man in the world; which he all puts down to his mother dying when he was five —and realised that so much of what screws up this world comes down to not having a sense of urgency: of time passing, and, eventually, completely running out.
Quite so. And perhaps losing my own mother in that year of 1957 explains my own acute awareness of this reality. But shouldn’t everyone be made aware of this, as soon as possible? Shouldn’t we give little children a ‘memento mori’ — a reminder of death — as did those funeral clubs that Sunday Schools used to run for their own members? That particular Alpha Mummy’s column is revealing in the disingenuousness of its own conclusion:
Next time they ask about death, I’m going to say, very gently, “The amazing thing is kids, we’re alive! We can do anything we want now, if we put our minds to it. We can think and talk and feel and move, and make our lives pretty much however we want. So that when we die, we don't regret anything. We die with our diaries full.”
Recently, I have started taking Communion to a parishioner who knows she has only months —perhaps weeks —to live. Contrast Alpha Mummy’s message to her children with the words of the Collect we heard together for the first Sunday in Advent:
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Which would you rather teach your children? Keep your diaries full of busy-ness, or keep your mind full of hope? At least if the collect for Advent Sunday reflects the truth about this world, then it offers a true hope. The words of Alpha Mummy, and all such ‘consolations’, are self-consciously untrue, even in the hope they pretend to offer.
The picture of a life remains
And the high ideals and the promise
You once dressed the future in
Are dancing in the embers with the wind.
Time running out, time running out ...  (Jackson Browne, Black and White)

John Richardson
9 December 2009
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  1. An Anxious (but hopeful) Anglican9 December 2009 at 15:06

    Great post, and a timely Advent message! One digression comes to mind, though: I live in a parish that is, shall we say, very, very enthusiastic about the Alpha model, and it has permeated from an outreach/evangelistic tool to discipleship device, as well, using small groups. I feel uncomfortable with all this, and was wondering why you thought that your "non-endorsement" of Alpha was relevant to your larger theme.

  2. The "current model" for the age of the earth is fairly clearly set out by God in his little book about His world, it is called the Bible I believe.

    The age given there is approximately 7-9,000 years. And the 'end point' is also defined there as being when God chooses it to be.

    Do you as an 'evangelical' choose not to believe what He tells you?

  3. Anonymous, even if I were a young-earth Creationist, which I am not, I would still be looking for links between what the 'person in the cafe' thinks about life and what the gospel has to say. I don't think the most important thing at this point is whether the earth is very old or just old, but rather that we should all agree it is coming to an end. I think the approach is comparable to that used by Paul in Athens, quoting 'pagan' poets to make a Christian point.

  4. When I die I would like

    "To be Continued"

    on my gravestone

  5. Excellent blog. Though, in reference to a previous blog, I might say that if any other music than Sankey's Sacred Songs and Solos is to be heard in heaven I should like it to be that of Jackson Browne. However, given his lyrics, this is extremely and tragically unlikely.

  6. Iconoclast, after a trip round one particular east London cemetery, I decided I'd have, "Not Resting, Just Dead."

  7. First Anonymous,

    Sorry not to reply sooner. I think a lot of Christians believe Alpha is 'the' answer, and there is no denying it has had a certain effectiveness - though I think not as great on the ground in conversions as in the churches in Alpha groups.

    The relevance to the theme is in the issue of Christian experience. What should this experience be? It is often touted as a more fulfilled life or indeed, as in UK Focus, often as an outwardly more enjoyable life.

    In the Bible, by contrast, I see 'trials and tribulations' for all concerned. Such trials can include illness, loss of earnings, hatred from your own family, marriage breakup (see 1 Cor 7) etc. But over all this there is hope - and hope has a vital effect on the here and now. Without hope life is unbearable. With hope, anything is bearable.

  8. John,

    I imagine you have read Michael Watts "Why did the English stop going to Church?" (Dr.Williams Library, 1995). Watts argued that the main reason for church decline is the decline in belief and preaching on hell and judgement. Would be good to have your thoughts on Watts's thesis.

    Ro Mody.

  9. Ro- I heard of that paper from Garry Williams, but I've never been able to track down a copy. Where do we get one?

    Stephen Walton

  10. John

    I don't get too involved in the old earth/young earth issues. Even if I was convinced of a young earth absolutely your point about entropy remains true.

    As someone simply reading the bible I can see how Genesis 1-3 could be interpreted in non-literal ways. My problem lies with texts beyond these first three chapters.

    What are we to make of Ex 20:11 for in six days God made the heavens and earth and sea and all that is in them...

    Or Jesus comment in the divorce discussion, 'in the beginning it was not so' which seems to suggest that Adam and Eve were created at the beginning of creation. (I'm assuming here a literal Adam and Eve).

    It is how the rest of Scripture understands Gen 1-3 that draws me to a young earth.

    Any comments?

  11. Thanks, John. I appreciate you taking the time to expound on the Alpha issue (and I concur with your concern).

  12. how odd - I have just written a very similar article for New Directions! Read it in Jan! Spooky.....

  13. I'd say nothing at all, which is why I chose to reject Christianity

  14. Sorry I didn't see this back in Advent. Another blog linked to it so here I am a season late.

    Today I had the people take a look at Psalm 88:12, which is exactly the issue you pose: can there be anything after the time runs out? And the Psalmist bellows it at God from a poem of unrelenting despair.

    How blessedly amazing it is that God breathed these words into Scripture. What terrible agony he must have allowed to "inspire" the Psalmist to such words, yet here they are as God's Word written.

    They cause us to butt up against the reality that the church is too much about divvying up the satisfied and attractive, when the body of Christ really should be walking around in "the grave and place of destruction," preaching Jesus to the people there - the people so marginal or crushed that time continuing is just as bad as time running out.

    Like many clergy, I was not "bred" to walk into that place, and so in many ways I retard the growth of Christ's body. It is as though I must find a way of repentance which lets me respond to Psalm 88:12 with, "Here I am! Send me!" I need the coal to touch my lips.

    Thank you, as always, for your struggling and sharing.

  15. Sadly John has died on the 31st March 2014 from brain cancer. Prayers for his family and friends. Amen