Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Engaging the Powers.

Four quotations:

Intercession is spiritual defiance of what is, in the name of what God has promised.  Intercession visualizes an alternative future to the one apparently fated by the momentum of current contradictory forces.  It infuses the air of a time yet to be into the suffocationg atmosphere of the present.

History belongs to the intercessors, who believe the future into being.  This is not simply a religious statement.  It is as true of the communists or capitalists or anarchists as it is of Christians.  The future belongs to whoever can envision in the manifold of its potentials a new and desirable possibility, which faith then fixes upon as inevitable.

All this about our role as intercessors in creating history is arrogant bravado unless we recognize that it is God rather than ourselves who initiates prayer, and that it is God's power, not ours, that answers to the world's needs.  We are always preceded in intercession.  God is always already praying within us.  When we turn to pray, it is already the second step of prayer.

Prayer in the face of the Powers is a spiritual war of attrition.  ...  In a field of such titanic forces, it makes no sense to cling to small hopes.  We are emboldened to ask for something bigger.  The same faith that looks clear-eyed at the immensity of the forces arrayed against God is the faith that affirms God's miracle-working power.  Trust in miracles is, in fact, the only rational stance in a world that is infinitely responsive to God's incessant lures.  We are commissioned to pray for miracles because nothing less is sufficient.  We pray to God, not because we understand these mysteries, but because we have learned from our tradition and from experience that God, indeed is sufficient for us, whatever the Powers may do.

All come from the Biblical scholar Walter Wink's amazing book Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Fortress Press, 1992). Wink died earlier this month, aged 76, after a long struggle with dementia.  In his American homeland he was a controversial figure - loved by many and loathed by others.  To me he was the person who first made me understand the political necessity of intercessory prayer. From him I learnt that prayer is a calling into being of an order of existence that refuses to allow evil and hurt to have a determining power over humanity. He inspired me pray as one who refuses authority to the powers of harm and despair, and to look to God's victory in all things - even when it's impossible to see it. He taught me to pray for a peaceful alternative, even when I can't voice what that alternative is. I thank God for Walter Wink's inspiration.  May he rest in that godly peace for which he taught us to long with prayerful passion.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Daily Scripture in a twitter

'As a whole the Scriptures are God's revealing Word. Only in the infiniteness of its inner relationships, in the connection of Old and New Testaments, of promise and fulfilment, sacrifice and law, law and gospel, cross and resurrection, faith and obedience, having and hoping, will the full witness to Jesus Christ the Lord be perceived.' So wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together (page 36, SCM Press 1965 edition), that small but profound manual of communal learning he wrote out of the life of the seminary he led at Finkenwalde in the years immediately before the outbreak of the Second World War. It's one of those books I come back to again and again, as I guess many other people do as well.

The quote comes from the section in which he describes the importance of lectio continua - the consecutive reading of Scripture. For me such reading arises out of the prayer of the Daily Office, generally a solitary action. According to Bonhoeffer what is done alone comes to its most productive through what is done in community. I've been wondering how that could be translated into the digital age.

In preparing a sermon I always begin with the Bibilical passage and what issues or questions it suggests to me. I scribble down as many as I can without any prior research or any attempt at ordering or prioritizing (that comes later). I'm conscious, however, that I don't do any of that in consecutive Scriptural reading. Perhaps if I did, my reading wouldn't feel so rushed and peremptory. Bonhoeffer taught that such reading should not serve a purpose but should be for its own sake entirely. I recognize the value of the warning but perhaps he would allow me a slight adaption of a purposeful methodology. As an experiment, I'm going to tweet a thought or question out of my daily reading. They'll aim to be 'instant thoughts' - one believer's attempt to frame something that can mindfully stay with me through the day. Anyone out there willing to join to me?  

Sunday, 13 May 2012

An innovating faith?

‘As you’ve shown an interest in innovation, you might like to know about the savings available on these books.’ Such was the tenor of an email I’ve just received from Amazon. Quite flattering really! Innovation is one of those terms that figures somewhere in the news every day. Indeed last week on several days the BBC ran four or more stories where ‘innovation’ was a key component. Innovation is one of those things that appear to be an unquestionable good. And that’s where Amazon’s data collection about my interests breaks down. For every Christian, innovation, when it’s applied to faith is a problem.

Maurice Halbwachs, the French sociologist of social memory, detailed the issue many years ago. Christianity, he said, is essentially the commemoration of the life of Jesus. This one event in all its complexity and detail is immutable. Jesus happened and, until Jesus returns, that happening remains set in time and cannot be changed. Whatever Christians do and say must always refer back to this happening. Innovation in the usual understanding of the word is simply impossible. Authentic faith must always locate itself in the teaching and life of the person Jesus. Should I as a Christian have any interest in innovation at all?

Halbwachs went on to say, however, that no institution that seeks permanence can be entirely orientated to the past. No matter how much effort is put in, memory is always attenuated over time. Even constant reference to a past event cannot stop that event fading both in content and significance. According to Halbwachs, social memory must always serve current needs if it is to be kept alive as a memory. The remarkable thing about Christianity, Halbwachs said, is the way it interpreted Christ as a constant presence even from its earliest days. Either through a constant and guarded emphasis on truth in church teaching, or through a mystical appeal to a believer’s interior connection to Jesus and his intentions, the church both formularises and lives the tradition – though those streams are often at odds with one another. Peculiarly this constancy enables innovation, since it allows current needs to be expressed as a refreshment of the Christian inheritance. Perhaps I should look more carefully at those Amazon bargain titles.

Friday, 11 May 2012

When is a sermon a sermon?

The Bank of England should have done more to prevent the banking crisis according to its Governor, Sir Mervyn King, speaking in the Today Programme Annual Lecture at the beginning of the month. But, he continued because banking regulation had been removed from its powers, the Bank of England was limited to ‘publishing reports and preaching sermons.’  ‘And we did preach sermons about the risks,’ he said, but the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street should have ‘shouted from the rooftops.’ The inference is clear: the preaching of sermons doesn’t change anything.
King gave his lecture a three-part structure: what went wrong? What are the lessons? What needs to change? The way forward he offered was similarly tripartite: regulation; resolution; restructuring – his 3Rs helpfully alliterative. Here’s a speaker who knows the value of mnemonic devises.
Early on in the talk there was a jokey aside addressed to a Today programme journalist – a nice human touch. Throughout there were simple pithy and memorable phrases: ‘take away the punchbpowl just as the next party is getting going;’ ‘a case of heads I win, tails you – the taxpayer – loses;’ ‘shouted from the rooftops.’ Here’s a speaker who can translate hard ideas into down-to-earth and catchy phrases.
And all this carefully illustrated not only by reference to recent events but also via appeal to historical characters: Montagu Norman, late 1930s Governor of the Bank of England and US President Roosevelt speaking in 1933.
Banking may not be the subject that immediately comes to mind as the topic for an engaging and memorable speech, but this certainly was. King’s presentation, in its delivery, content and structure was immensely listenable. In fact you could say it was a sermon, or at the least a lecture that employed many homiletic strategies. Perhaps preaching has more significance than even the users of its techniques appreciate.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Say it like Sarah Lund


I’m one of the millions of fans of Sarah Lund – the uncompromising, uncommunicative, and unsocial detective who leads in the hugely successful Danish TV show The Killing. Despite subtitles, plots elongated beyond any comparable crime drama, and the relentlessly gloomy weather of its settings, The Killing has found global success. In the UK audience appreciation figures have been phenomenal with the show often acknowledged as ‘the best thing on TV’; extraordinary for a show that on the face of it is far from easy, casual watching.

A recent BBC interview with Sofie Gråbøl, the actor who places Sarah Lund, gives some clues (!) to the show’s appeal. She says it isn’t a meal where all the dishes are served at once. Instead, things are served up in a slow and incremental way that demands the imaginative attention of the viewer. The audience isn’t allowed to be passive as this holding things back demands co-creation on the part of the viewer. Significant details emerge through time and have to be remembered. One crime is the focus; presented in 20 episodes where each is a day in the investigation. Famously, even the actors don’t know ‘whodunnit’ as the programmes are being filmed as scripts are written as the story unfolds.

There’s a lot here any preacher or speaker should think about. Perhaps it isn’t always necessary to serve up all the words at once, as it were. It’s just too easy for preachers to fall into the trap of making every sermon encompass ‘God, the universe, and everything.’ Important subjects can connect in a much more piecemeal way, if there’s an evident suspenseful and engaging development in what’s said. The audience will stay with it, even for very long periods (20 episodes), if imaginations are being stirred and mental concentration is provoked. In fact, people like to put this brain effort in – it’s enjoyable and satisfying. The blindingly obvious served up in a tedious stew of words neither satisfies nor encourages. Engaging the minds, imaginations and hearts of the audience is the clear priority. Surely that’s the aim of every preacher too? Let’s say it like Sarah Lund.