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Why Wouldn’t the Evangelicals March: A Response

Photo: Tom Ferrara

This piece is written by my room mate Tim. He runs a small business in this city and belongs to a faith community rooted in the Wiccan Church of Canada. Here he responds to a reflection I wrote about why the local Evangelicals weren’t participating in a civil rights march.

I marched that night. I marched even tho I was, and still am, certain that a peaceful march would not cause even a tiny bit of change. I marched because I could do nothing else. I marched because an injury to one is an injury to all. I marched because the government claims to act in our names, and I needed to show them that such is not the case with me. Most importantly, I marched because my God commands Justice. I don’t know what god the evangelicals of Annapolis prayed to, or what he commands.

I was once told that the very definition of the adjective “evangelical” as it is applied to Christianity means a form of Christianity that is carried out from the church where it is preached and is practiced in the community beyond. Or so I’ve been told. I guess that the evangelicals of Annapolis know what they are about.

St. Francis of Assisi took his Christianity on the road, rejecting both ordination within the Church hierarchy and the order of St. Benedict, because to him locking his religion inside stone walls contradicts Matthew 10. Inspired by this passage, he went forth to evangelize. He was a true Evangelical. But the so-called evangelicals of Annapolis prayed for us. How nice.

Ian was very nice to the evangelicals of Annapolis, very conciliating. I don’t think that such was warranted.

He proposed some very excusable reasons why they might not have showed up, and every single one of those reasons is completely, thoroughly and totally wrong.

There is no moral ambiguity in the case of Mike Brown, except for the ambiguity created from the imagination of racist bigots who want an excuse to maintain their animus.

There are no bad people associated with the protests against the injustice of the Mike Brown case. There may be bad people who infiltrate or merely co-occupy with the protests, but they are not affiliated with them. And besides, this is Annapolis, a very boring town, and we like it that way.

“A gap in interpretation” is also called Heresy. The simple thing is, the mainline denominations read the entire Bible. It seems that the evangelicals of Annapolis are only reading part of it.

Let’s talk about the Mike Brown case. The Bible is full of accounts of injustice perpetrated by the established powers, through their courts, upon innocent individuals. From Paul and Silas, to the very Crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ. Any person who accepts the decisions of officially constituted bodies without scrutiny is a fool, or worse. This is not to say that official bodies never do justice, or always do injustice. Rather, those bodies which have the potential for both justice and injustice and in between keep detailed records and publish detailed accounts of the reasoning as to how they reach their decisions. It is then incumbent upon all who love justice to scrutinise those decisions and records to determine whether justice was done, or something else.

In the case of Mike Brown, he never got his day in court. Instead, he was killed on the street. In our country, we are committed to the idea that every person is innocent until proven guilty. We also have a constitution which defines “proof of guilt” saying that a person can only be proven guilty by a legally constituted court, consisting of a Judge who is appointed by the executive and confirmed by the legislature, presiding over a Jury, composed of the peers of the defendant chosen from “the district wherein the crime shall have been committed”. Daren Wilson was neither a peer of Mike Brown, nor of the district where the alleged robbery was committed, nor was his decision presided over by a duly appointed Judge. Thus, Wilson usurped and stole the power that is reserved for the Judiciary. In the absence of a criminal trial by a Judge and Jury (or a confession), we must consider Mike Brown innocent of any robbery. To do anything else would be illegal and unconstitutional.

But Daren Wilson did not only usurp the authority of the Judiciary. He also usurped the Legislature. It is the task of the Legislature to determine what actions are crimes, and what is the proportionate and Just punishment for those crimes. If we take the least charitable (and, as above stated, illegal) view of Mike Brown, then at most he was guilty of petty robbery, misdemeanor assault, and contempt of the police. Actually, the last one is not a crime according to the Democratically elected Legislature. However, according to Daren Wilson, Contempt of Police is a capital offence. Contempt of Court is punished by jail sentences measured in hours, but Wilson, like Lamech, decided that an offence against himself should be punished far in excess of an offence against a legally constituted court, regardless of what the legislature has to say. Or, perhaps, Wilson killed Brown because he decided that shoplifting or pushing someone in the chest should be capital crimes. Whichever was the case, it is properly the task of the Legislature to make such decisions, but Wilson appointed himself to that task.

Wilson talked about how he feared that Brown would kill him. But let us remember that Brown was only one inch, and ten pounds larger than Wilson. I want the reader to try reaching their arms into the open window of an SUV and see what they do and do not have the strength to do. Wilson, in control of the SUV, could have easily escaped by flooring the gas pedal, by rolling the window up, or by not getting into that argument in the first place. After all, he reversed his truck to have a second conversation with Brown after he heard Brown verbally express contempt for the police. Since this argument lead to the killing, and was entirely unnecessary, we can blame Wilson for Browns death because he initiated that argument. If he had kept his pride in check, and kept a clear view on the law (which does not prohibit contempt of the police), then Brown would still be alive.

I see this as a straightforward case. I see Wilson as guilty of Brown’s death. But it is not my task to judge. That is the task of a criminal jury. If Wilson is innocent, then a jury should acquit him. This is precisely what the protest here in Annapolis was calling for: an independent Prosecutor to take the case in front of a criminal jury, where a real verdict could be reached.

This seems a perfect time to segue to discussing the protestors here in Annapolis and elsewhere. Annapolis is a very boring town, and the people who live here like it that way. The protests here in Annapolis were organized by the churches of the city. Organizations which all profess Christianity. Do the evangelicals of Annapolis have so little faith in their Brothers and Sisters in Christ? While it may be the case that bad people have used protests in other cities as cover to exercise their badness, how likely is that here in Annapolis?

Actually, let’s talk about Oakland, CA. In Oakland, there was a solidarity protest much like the one which happened here in Annapolis. Like the protest that happened here, no looting happened in Oakland, no thanks to the Police. The Police in that suburb of San Fran sent an undercover agent to try to incite looting. He said to one person after another “Hey, let’s grab some stuff!” (or something like it, I have no actual quote). No one agreed with him. Finally, someone realized that he was a cop, told everyone around them so, and the cop pulled his gun. There are some violent, dishonest thugs in this story, but none of them are protestors. Sure, there was some property destruction in Ferguson, but there is a 50 year history of the citizens of that jurisdiction feeling alienated and disenfranchised from their own homes. No wonder that they feel no urge to keep their town clean. While Annapolis has a history of segregation and injustice, it is nowhere near as bad as Ferguson, and so the likely hood of rioting and looting is FAR less than what it was there. Anyone who could not come to the same conclusion is not paying attention to this town in which they live.

But even if there was a risk of violence, that would make the protest even more worthwhile. When Martin Luther King Jr. led his movement, culminating in the passage and signing of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, why do you think that civic leaders were willing to meet with King at all? Today, we remember him as a hero. At the time, he was just some “darkie” stirring up trouble. He had one thing going for him: Malcolm X. King’s representatives could say to civic leaders “If you do not talk to Mr. King, we will leave, and then Malcolm will come. We will not send him, we have nothing to do with his organization, but we can predict his actions, and he will be here.” (Or something like that, again, I do not have a direct quotation.) This fear of violence drove those civic leaders to accept those meetings, and the rest is history. Without a similar foil, the non-violent resistance of the Just will be ignored out of existence by the powers that be.

That is exactly what the Solidarity protestors are: the Just. We demand that Daren Wilson be tried by an independent prosecutor, one who will seek justice impartially, and we will accept any decision reached by a process involving such an individual. We also demand reasonable reforms which will make similar tragedies far less likely in the future, reforms including mandatory body cameras and mandatory investigation by outside agencies after every officer involved shooting.

Ian suggests that the evangelicals of Annapolis fear that, because of the ambiguity of the case, they may end up on the wrong side of history. Yet, above, I have shown a case that is not at all ambiguous. I’m sure someone can drain the clarity out of it (or fill it with mud, whichever metaphor you prefer), just as the opposite operation has been done with so many other issues. When you decide to take a stand, all ambiguity vanishes, whether it is a stand on premarital sex, divorce, or any other moral issue. So many people, especially ones who call themselves christian, take stands on such issues, and the issues become perfectly clear to them.

This is an issue that demands that a stand be taken, and I know what Just stance is.

Daren Wilson is the Roman Soldier who pierced the side of Jesus when he was on the Cross.

Prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch played in the dice game, gambling over His clothing.

These men are Romans, figures of Power and Authority. Jesus spent his time among the poor, the reviled, those that society had no use for. He spent time with the tradesmen, and the men who were scheduled to begin classes at a Technical College in the next few days.

I have nothing but contempt for those who claim to be Christian, and then wait passively for the Kingdom as Heaven to be built by someone else for them to be spirited away into. First, let’s break down some Greek language. The Lord’s Prayer expresses a hope that “Your (God’s) KingSHIP come to be, on Earth, as it is in Heaven.” We do not wish for that which already is, but only for that which could be. Throughout the parables Jesus tries to explain to his followers what the Kingdom AS heaven will be like. “As” being a word of comparison, indicating similarity or identically. Thus, we are looking for a Kingdom stretching the entire width of the world, without distinction or boundary within it. We know from Matthew 25:31-46 that entrance into the Kingdom will be based on what people do in life. “When injustice was done to me, you sat at home while others went out to demand a redress of that grievance.” Sounds like goats to me.

If Jesus is the λογοσ of God, then he is not a word (φανη), but rather a “statement of meaning”, a “science”, a “method”, or a Plan. Given that last option, let’s call him a blueprint. God the Father created a blueprint for the Kingdom as Heaven, and placed it upon a Trestle Board in a vast plot of land, all set about with orange safety fencing. Within that fence, beside that trestle board, he piled up a vast heap of building materials. Weeds grow from amongst the bricks and unmixed bags of cement, because so few workers have strapped on hard-hats and “set to” that only a tiny corner of that vast heap has been touched. Recruiting more people to wait in eager anticipation how wonderful things will be when that vast edifice is completed is futile and stupid. Humanity are supposed to be the workers, stacking the bricks according to the plan that is Jesus Christ. When the construction is complete, he will be present in every brick, just as the temporal plan is present in every brick of a temporal building. This will be his return, being a part of every thread of the new world.

But go ahead, sit and pray for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. We will be out here building it, with dirt in our knuckles and broken nails upon our fingers, and a great joy in our hearts as we see each little bit of progress.

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Christmas Ministry Update

Good news! It’s Christmas

As I sit here writing to you there is an icy draft making me shiver as the door opens, announcing the arrival of another student into the bookstore. A couple of weeks ago I had the furniture in here moved up against the walls to make room for an evening of intellectual discussion and hospitality for the skeptics and questioners who share this city. This was in fact my first big-scale event of my ministry here in America. Sitting with the floppy-haired youths from the local Liberal Arts college I was sitting next to a contradiction. I supposed that this community event was in some way entirely removed from what I am aiming to accomplish, in terms of how Christians serve and love their poor neighbours. Behind closed doors in community centres and basketball courts I see the hidden face of Annapolis, those who live below the poverty line who are overwhelmingly from the black community. Yet scruffy students in pea-coats are the icon most associate with the red bricks of downtown. There I sat, judging these people who also are my neighbour for their ignorance and cloistered, safe, wealthy lives.

I think I hated them because these students are so much like me. I see in them what I find frustrating about myself: The choking presumptions you pick up when you are raised in a context of wealth and opportunity. It is easy (or if not easy, at least simpler) to love those whose needs are profoundly clear. It is challenging to love those who seem to possess so much. Indeed would these have been the people who would have come to greet the infant Christ upon his Advent? Would they have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the shepherds? Perhaps St Matthew’s Gospel (visit of the wise men) would remind me that indeed they have their own mysterious journey to make as they come to find Christ in his humility. That night at the bookstore was a chance to be a signpost for them.

If it is the case that I have found something of great worth for which I am willing to give up all else in Christ, then any opportunity to share this is important and valuable. Am I going to convince the student who reads everything from Plato to Sartre that the Gospel is true? Of course not. Rather by ordering my life around including and serving the poor I get to show them that there might be something wonderful worth throwing away their lives for. This is the witness of the church which reaches further than the voice of any one preacher. The Magi had to travel a long distance to meet the humble saviour. The shepherds were close to him already yet the Lord welcomed them all. I have met those who are in extreme need and those in extreme excess. I was tempted to conceit and bitterness yet because it is the one Lord who embraces both I could not maintain such a stubborn pretension of holiness.

I have discovered that these kinds of contradicting and isolated communities are woven into the fabric of this city. It makes for an ugly blanket of clashing colours and as I find myself getting into the fiber of things I see that the reasons for much of the division here is not malice but lack of relationship. How can anyone love their neighbour when they have no idea who that person is? Maybe my unique piece in this is to be one of those who helps people cross the street and cross the borders into the unknown territory. I attend a number of regular events and programmes which help the people of the city but the need is far greater than this. By doing this I get to see over the fence into situations at once overwhelming in their challenge and rich in their possibility. Then I get the privilege of coming to church and sharing the wonders I have seen. As a missionary my role isn’t to patch every tear. Instead I try to encourage new friendships to happen just by saying ‘come with me and meet this new neighbour’.

In so doing perhaps, by the grace of God, the cause of Christ is served by many more pairs of hands.

Christmas has been the perfect season to begin this kind of ministry. Last week a small church who care especially for those vulnerable to substance abuse were singing christmas carols on Main Street. They had no musicians amongst them so I made a couple of calls to friends who lived nearby and soon we had some excellent musical accompaniment and it made the night for all of us. And even if some of what we call ministry around Christmas is somewhat shallow or short-term, I’ve chosen to engage with the feeding programs or gifts for kids schemes as a bridge with which to start a friendship, not as a one-off conscience cleanser.

Maybe if we keep walking over those rickety bridges, we will be will be known as the people who love the poor. Now wouldn’t that be something?

As always your prayers and encouragement are requested. Please pray for this new year as I begin to teach and lead more in the church that I will be received well and that people will be inspired to serve the city.

If you sense a call to partner with me by giving financially you can do so with a one off gift or monthly giving. US residents please click here and select my name. If you are in England you can give a gift aided donation with this form.

Thank you for journeying with me, I look forward to sharing with you many more exciting stories in the months to come.

All my love, Ian.

Photo credit to Tom Ferrara ratiosoflight.com

Why Wouldn’t the Evangelicals March?

Photo credit to Tom Ferrara

There was a protest in Downtown Annapolis the other week. Hundreds of people turned up for a demonstration organised by the clergy of the African-American churches to allow a corporate response to the confusing and terrifying reality to which the public conscience has been awakened. Within a matter of days a meeting between ministers had galvanised to become a city-wide invitation to gather, pray, weep and speak into the issue of how racial minorities are treated by the establishment of the United States.

I had heard the rumour of a protest passed around in a midweek prayer gathering attended by local Evangelical Pastors and by Friday the word was final: Meet at 5:30 and there will be a march. When I arrived I saw one or two familiar faces, clergy friends dressed up in their clerical collars. The contingent of white ministers I saw were Episcopalian, UCC or from other Mainline denominations. I found that remarkable because it seemed to me that the Pentecostal and Holiness traditions represented by the Black clergy would probably cause many of those from the Mainline to choke on their tea. Nevertheless, these contradictory groups could stand shoulder to shoulder as leaders of the Christian community in our city.

They marched under a banner with the name inscribed ‘Jesus’ and shouted and chanted and marched. The most remarkable moment for me was when the white ministers stood together and collectively expressed the sorrow they felt for representing institutions who had supported slavery and prejudice in previous generations.

It is the power of the Gospel which enables us to face down our sins and to turn from them. To my mind, that evening was an authentic expression of the Good News of Jesus, reconciling not only God to humanity, but drawing all people together in himself.

It was beautiful. It was tragic also.

At that Wednesday prayer gathering all those intelligent, brave, charismatic Evangelical leaders had prayed to the Lord that he would help them be unified and to have fellowship with those African-American churches and ministers. They knew it to be an issue of everlasting importance and rightly they plead to God that he would do the work which is too hard for any one person.

On Friday night I shook hands and greeted the White clergy who would probably not find a great deal in common with the pastors from Wednesday prayers and I looked around expecting to have to make some introductions.

I didn’t.

I could not find one minister from that prayer group came out to stand with the Black community of the city they prayed for.

Why?

It was clear to that group of White Mainliners that they ought to be there. Why was it not equally clear to the Evangelicals?

I can think of three possible answers:

1. The issue is too morally ambiguous

The official enquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown by the Grand Jury decided that there was no criminal case for which Darren Wilson had to answer. Middle-Class White Evangelicals might have a problem with taking a stand on an issue which seems settled to an acceptable standard of justice. We trust our systems and powers and duly receive their pronouncements as essentially true. Therefore there is no cause for protest.

2. Some bad people are involved

There has been a spark of violence and rioting in many of the demonstrations against the police and the Grand Jury’s decision. Therefore by participating in the demonstrations and protests, Evangelicals believe that they are endorsing the activities of these delinquents. We desire to support a just and ordered society and so cannot stand with those who seek to overthrow it on a whim.

3. Evangelicals have a gap in their interpretation

Why do the Black Pastors and White Mainliners pick up the Christian Bible and interpret it into their context in such a way as to perceive that the announcement of the Good News of Jesus is inseparably intertwined with the events of contemporary America? It is a bold and contentious interpretive path from the coming of the fulfilment of the promises of God for all Creation (Jesus) to then contend with the established government such that it begins to look a little more like that coming Kingdom. It is clear to them. It is apparently not so clear to Evangelicals.

Perhaps it is the case that the first two points are halting the progression of the third. The ambiguity surrounding contemporary events makes it hard to feel as though one if making an informed stand, that one is indeed doing God’s will in participating in some collective action or other. It is my belief that the African-American leaders and Mainline pastors have gained an eschatological vision which somehow enables them to engage in political activity without having to ask questions of other people’s motives. Yes, it can be argued that the Michael Brown shooting is only tangentially relevant to race issues, since it has lost all legal power. Yet in a theological imagination this issue becomes a rallying point around which a wise leader can gather support to proclaim a potential future where these painful events will not be possible.

This is what I saw the Clergy accomplishing on that cold Friday night in December. I hope my Evangelical brothers and sisters will reconsider what role their actions can have. Yes we may misstep and accuse the established powers of crimes they have not committed, but surely it is better to do this than to be confounded into inaction.

Trauma

When I was a child I was bullied.

Even writing this sentence I am filled with shame. How childish. Get over it. Move on.

It’s a squirming sense of embarrassment that crawls over my body. Bullying – how juvenile. The word gets stuck in my throat and I want to swallow it down. Everyone gets picked on in school and everyone gets over it. We all do things we regret at children but we grow out of it.

Yet here I sit, marked by the scars of things said and done a decade ago. Disconnected, disassociating. Emotionally numb. Anxious and afraid. How does one begin to unpack these things? How do I begin to reclaim that part of my story I’ve ignored for so many years?

How do I make sense of pain I had no control over and had no way of comprehending at the time?

Let me tell you about gym class. As I’m sure you can guess I loathed P.E. at school. I wasn’t very good at it and I didn’t enjoy competitive displays of ability. I think there is something in this about not really valuing the people around me enough to want to play them in sport. Or perhaps I felt so distanced from them that there was no way I could ever feel included in a competition. I didn’t enjoy P.E. (exert for swimming. Everyone loves swimming).

I especially loathed being commanded to wear shorts and t-shirt and go outside in the cold to play Rugby. Everyone was bigger, faster and more skilled so I would stand there flushed with shame for the two hours it would take for the game to end. Imagine a short blond chubby child with his shoulders hunched, looking at the ground. This experience, twice a week, only ever made me feel different to the other kids. It was like standing behind a soundproofed perspex screen: I could see the movement but I had no idea what it all meant. How alone I felt then. I’m no good at catching balls, playing in teams or memorising rules which I suppose says a lot about me, much of which I am grateful for today. Then, there? No. The mark of success in this is the extent to which you can conform. I couldn’t, so I was unacceptable.

So I’m enduring a couple of hours of Rugby and avoiding ever having to so much as look at the ball. If my acceptance, participation and success determines my inclusion in the group (as determined by the teacher) then it follows that my failure to do these things would exclude me. I didn’t like Rugby so I was on the outside.

How do teenagers treat outsiders?

Do they extend sympathetic embraces to those who occupy the ambiguous places in the collective conscience?
Do they accommodate the comfort and preferences of those around them, without harassment?
Do they allow for others to be free in their own consciences?

I was taking off my soaking wet rugby kit, ashamed of my nakedness as I still am to this day. Fiddling with socks when someone came over to me. He looked my small, if somewhat fat, frame and sneered. As I tried to stick up for myself he pushed me. And someone else pushed me. And someone put a leg out and I was hitting the floor.

Have you ever seen pigeons carpeting a London square? They squabble over a few crumbs or a discarded half-sandwich, pecking at it and taking it apart piece by piece.

So I was naked and on the cold floor of the changing room.

I think a piece of me still is.

In Memory of Clarence Who Called Himself C-Note

 

I have no idea when Clarence was born. When I met him he seemed old. He had been from Baltimore, Maryland to Richmond, Virginia to hear him tell it and been a chef in one of the finest hotels in the city. He had family somewhere in the south and owned a ruined townhouse on Clay Street. He had friends in Newtowne 20 and he knew every pastor in town.

Clarence slept on the bench in front of the church office when I met him. A thin man in stinking clothes he stood a few inches shorter than me, or he could have been hanging his head. I was frightened of this thin man who spoke with all the rich culture of the African-American community in which he was raised, which was so foreign to me. He drank a lot too so he would sway and slur and stare. Coming from a commuter community in the suburbs to work for a church based in the downtown of a middle-American city meant that I had to do more than drive past this disorienting sight. I had to regard him as a fellow human. For the first time a problem became a person.

For a brief few months we would see one another nearly every week. Some days he would be sober and would ask after my life, and others he was too drunk to recall my name. I didn’t matter, I would be with him either way even if just to share a hot cup of tea. When it came time for me to leave America he came to see me off and we embraced and wept. I told him I would see him again soon.

Our friendship was my inspiration for a vision to see Christians befriend those whose needs were totally beyond what they could imagine. I realised that fixing people doesn’t mean you love them, and the fact that I couldn’t give him everything he needed didn’t mean I didn’t care. I could give him the time of day and he gave me his stories and that was enough.

Sometime in 2013 Pastor Joey ran into Clarence who had developed a large tumour on his neck. He seemed otherwise in good health and had plans to undergo surgery to have the tumour removed. He was never seen again.

He passed away a few months later and I never got to see him again. I promised I would and by a matter of months we missed one another. It hurts me to think that he might have faced his death believing I had lied to him. I pray in some corner of his messy heart he found hope in God and that he was relieved with warm welcome to the eternal kingdom.

I doubt he knew how he had changed my life and that would have been the last thing on his mind in the final  days but I am grateful for the short time we shared.

His funeral was held at the local Methodist church where he had some kind of connection and so I suppose it might be true, what Charles Wesley wrote:Clarence

One family, we dwell in him,
one Church, above, beneath;
though now divided by the stream,
the narrow stream of death.

I sure hope it is. I’d love to see him again.

Thank you, Clarence, for the person to made me

Autumn Update (and some cool stories)

My first act of ministry

My first act of ministry

The other day I was sitting on a pew in an old Methodist chapel. It was a pastors prayer gathering which runs for about 45 minutes each week and one of the other local ministers was asking about what I was doing in America. I explained how I was here to help the local church enter into the mission of God, which is to say to help them obey Jesus in befriending and serving the poor. He asked me what I “felt called” to and I paused to think for a moment.

“Some days I feel like I was made for this and that I’m making a real difference. Other days I feel defeated and inadequate, and like my skills are more suited to other work.”

I supposed then that an inward sense of calling-which is to say that bright clarity which makes all other things dull in comparison-is a pretty shortsighted way to think of one’s work. While such enthusiasm lasts a while, soon the cut of the cost of such a work as that which I do begins to trim the wick.

“Some days I do feel called to this” I continued, “but others it is my choice to respond to the actual words of Jesus which makes me do this.”

Upon reflection I suspect the length of my wait to come back to America grew within me the understanding that any substantial work (whether public ministry or personal witness) must be grounded in more than youthful enthusiasm. I do what I do because I understand that Christ asks it of me. Or, at least, this is my interpretation of what he has asked of all believers (Matthew 25:34-46). The point being that the source of my ministry is not my own imagination but rather a small piece of the vision Jesus casts for the world. The beauty of church is that so many others have the other pieces that together we are a mosaic displaying a picture of the coming Kingdom of God.

What therefore shines before the people of the world is not the charisma or character of any one person but the crowd of small acts of love which bring glory to the one God in heaven.

It’s been just over a month since arriving in America and I have encountered a small corner of the local picture, each piece unique and uniquely interesting. The pastor is a classically trained artist and the director of the church is a Marine (even if you’re not in active service, I learned, you’re ALWAYS a Marine). Between them they care for a beautifully imaginative and energetic church and are constantly asking how they can empower their members to do their part for the cause of Christ. From Joey the Pastor I am learning that ministry doesn’t mean doing everything and from Joshua the Director I am learning how to build teams and train people. While it is certainly slower than doing everything oneself I can see that this is how you form a church which does not depend on professional clergy.

Last week I sat in a local coffee shop to respond to some emails. I promise I don’t spend every day in coffee shops-sometimes I go to the pub-but that day was too good to be in the church office. There were two women on the next table, one older than the other and they were clearly friends. The older woman said to the younger one, recounting her years as a mother of young children, that there was a time when she would be at church every single week because there were faces she needed to see just to survive the next seven days. As I sat their, frankly annoyed by the amount of administration I had to perform I was convicted in my heart. This woman had reminded me that there is not one single thing in church which doesn’t matter. All of it matters because all the people matter. Yes, I can sit in alleyways with the street people sipping hot tea, or I can distribute meals at the local shelter or I can do any number of commendable things yet even the mundane ordering of a Sunday morning service matters to the souls of the people there.

I suppose I have been guilty of a snobbish cynicism (surprise surprise) because I get to do ‘real’ ministry with the ‘really’ needy which allows me to deride the middle-class christianity of the churches in Annapolis which so happens to be one of the most affluent cities in America.

Yet these people have faith just like I do, and their faith has not been in vain but has stood as a guardian and a shield for the desperate in the face of uncaring politics. St Anne’s Episcopal Church is the most famous and one of the oldest churches in Annapolis. It sits at the top of the hill at the top of Main Street. It is just a block from our church office so I frequently go there for their midweek communion (Did you know that in America only the minister says the Collect for Purity? Each time I go to say it and awkwardly blurt out “Almighty God” before silently staring into the prayer book (I digress)). About two decades ago they started setting up bunks at the back of the church and allowing the homeless to sleep there. All the local churches shared this work and it grew from that into a permanent shelter, to a sophisticated homeless prevention scheme called the Lighthouse which not only houses individuals and families but provides qualifications, mental health care and support to help people keep jobs.

I do not think such a thorough response to the needs of the homeless is generated by a spasm of pity for those who sleep on cold streets, a feeling of inner calling but rather by the reality of what we who are disciples of Jesus are asked to do. Now I have no expectation that what I’m seeking to do with one small church will germinate into something so vast. In fact such expectation is besides the point. I hope that this one small church will gain a love for the work of Christ and a desire to serve the desperate. Where that goes is determined by the Spirit.

So with gentleness I’ve been pursuing the work already occurring in the city: With the Stanton Center providing dinner and homework help to kids on what we in Britain would call a council estate; Spending time at a youth club in one of the rougher neighbourhoods where heroin has a terrifying grip; Keeping my eyes open to the street people who live downtown and spending time with them; and in all cases going with those who have already made a first step into these very different worlds.

Thank you for being with me on this long journey and I hope some of the stories I can share are encouraging to you. Please continue to pray for me, I know I need it. Thank you also to those who support me each month. I have been so liberated by the knowledge that my calling is affirmed by people who know me. This has given me the strength to walk into many difficult places secure in who I am and what I am there to do. I look forward to sharing more as these small seeds of relationship begin to show some fruit. The real goal is to see people from my church have the kind of relationship which was so important for me all those years ago, a deep friendship with a homeless man called Clarence.

I’d love to share more but then I’d be giving away the chapters of my book (I AM kidding) so please ask me things.

Love, Ian

First Days in Annapolis

I have experienced so many things since landing here in Annapolis that I have no idea where to begin. So instead maybe you might enjoy some of the things I’ve seen.

Flying, Moving downtown, moving chairs (ministry) and some of the cool places I’ve seen so far. I’m sure I’ll figure out something to write. Eventually.

Summer Ministry Update: I’m leaving soon!

A bed just off West St.

A bed just off West St.

There is a time for everything under the sun, and I’ve spent a lot of it in the shade of a restaurant waiting on tables and pulling pints. I have been disappointed, despondent and defeated. I’ve felt frustrated and furious. I’ve wrestled with the fact of this time of waiting and I’ve felt jealous of those who have found success when I have experienced failure.

This has been the time after my ministry training.

This time is coming to a close.

On the 29th of September I am going to get on a plane and I shall arrive in Washington DC seven hours later.

I am finally going to fulfil the purpose I was called to over two years ago.

I am grateful.

I am grateful to the friends who have prayed for me, supported me, and believed in God for me. These have been the people who have helped me open the door through form-filling and filing and petitioning, through pleading with God and sitting with me whilst I try to figure out why God has asked me to wait here so long.

I am grateful too for the time I have spent working at The Young Pretender. I’ve felt like a pretender, an impostor with nothing to offer and no claim to do anything remarkable at all. There were times when even I didn’t believe I’d ever make it back and I became thoroughly bitter. My colleagues have born with me through this, allowing me to be part of their life and business despite whatever personal flaws I struggle to reconcile. In turn I have been overjoyed to be included in their struggles and triumphs, their highs and lows. They have given me the gift of knowing that I can be myself.

I am grateful.

Whatever else this between-time signifies, it has meant that I have had no choice but to be myself. The demands of a physically exhausting job means that whatever professional pretence I could maintain quickly dissolves until people experience me without my defences. That they could experience this and not hate me, this has been a blessing. This time of waiting has demolished the fears I held on to and has liberated me from my own self-pity.

It seems that the biggest obstacle to God fulfilling the ministry he has given me, was myself all along.

Thank you, all you who have read my letters and checked up on me. You have believed in me and in God for me when I doubted him and hated myself. Thank you.

Last month I took a trip to the US embassy in London. After queuing for half an hour to be checked in, and another 40 minutes to have my bags searched, and another hour in a hot waiting room, I spoke to a mild-mannered American man for two minutes and he told me he was going to give me a visa. Quite the circus if you ask me but it is what it is.

The embassy authorised me for a 12 month visitors visa. I think this is time enough to fulfil the ministry to which I have been called: enabling christians to form authentic friendships with the marginalised community where they live.

I cannot deny that my time working in a pub has made me more ready to do this than my time in theological college or working for a church.

It is true that my research into scripture and church tradition has given me the imagination to see a new way of being with the marginalised and disenfranchised, but it is equally the case that working in a pub has put me quite literally next to these people in such a way that being with them comes more naturally than it did two years ago.

What has changed is not the vision, but myself. I did not expect that. I could not have preached this message on Job were it not for what I have experienced in disappointment and frustration.

I am grateful.

So as this short season draws to its close I’d really like to find ways to connect, be it in writing or over the phone or coffee somewhere.

Please pray for me and the inevitable melancholy of the many farewells over the next few weeks. Check up on me if you’re in my neighbourhood. I know I’m going to need to lean on friends in this time.

Also pray that the financial support will be enough for me to accomplish all that I envision.

If you would like to contribute to my costs with a one-off gift or with regular giving you can do so through stewardship.org.uk (create a giving account and search my name) or leave a comment asking me to email a mail-off Direct Debit form. If you’re in America you can give through the church by clicking here.

Thank you for waiting with me. I am looking forward to sharing this next year with you as we discover something new together! I shall be writing regular reflections and reports of what I am discovering and I am considering a few opportunities for more formal academic writing and research and in this way I hope to be of service not only in Annapolis but also to churches in a wide range of locations and contexts.

Peace,
Ian

Celebrate

My visit to the embassy

The Wrath Of God Was Satisfied, please

I had gathered with Christians from all over the local area to celebrate Easter Monday at a big event. The Cathedral was full to bursting with Pilgrims who had walked for miles just to be there. The seats had been removed and a modest communion table was set in the middle of the nave. Gone was the finery of Easter Sunday. No shimmering robes, no bleach-white choir, no ladies in fine hats. This day was stripped of pretence as it was merely the gathering of those who wanted to celebrate the resurrection with their friends.

Hymns, readings and reflections led our thoughts as we prepared to share bread and wine. The story of forgiveness, of barriers brought down and hearts humbled became a real experience as we crowded into the church, smelling from our long walks and shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers and acquaintances alike. It was glorious.

Indeed it was a testimony to the reality that Christ’s resurrection inaugurated. Christ called people to himself and overcame death, demonstrating that there is no end to his reign and that all who follow him have nothing truly to fear. This is the foundation of Christian community.

One thing only threw me that day. I could cope with the authority exorcised by the Bishops, the fact that this event was steeped in Anglicanism and even that the Diocese of St. Alban’s has endured its own share of strife, disagreement and controversial opinions.

What threw me was that one line in one song had been altered.

Stuart Townend’s hymn “In Christ Alone” had been revised such that the line which was intended to say:

“Til on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied”

Had been altered to read:

“Til on that cross as Jesus died,
The love of God was satisfied”

Why did I find this hard to deal with?

This line is typically altered because the implication behind it is that Jesus came to save us from God’s rage. Therefore God cannot be loving, cannot be trusted and certainly ought not be worshipped. An angry God is not a good God and only a good God should be praised.

Now, the first thing to notice about such a decision is that it takes any objective content out of God and places him in the realm of subjectivity. Appropriately, the language of God can be altered to suit the mood of society and God has no response. It is also telling of the theology of those who would advocate such a change:

Imagine if you will that some researcher notices that a drug problem is intrinsically linked to sex-work in a deprived area. The fact of this research would keenly imply that the reduction of sex-work and the crime which surrounds it would be achieved by eliminating the cruel dependence the community has on drugs. But say for example that this is too hard. Why not just arrest every prostitute on a street corner. It’s easier and looks better to the Middle Class voter.

This would be philosophically bankrupt: The researching body knows what should be done, yet has chosen to do something easier. In the same way, those who jettison ideas of God on the grounds of expedience or comfort for the hearer are demonstrating their ideological bankruptcy because they have decided that Christian doctrine is a matter of opinion, or worse–marketing.

In order to appeal to the nice white middle-class churchgoers the notion that these people could be in any way worthy of God’s wrath must be not only diminished, but denied. It is a crude suggestion and I dislike the very notion that church leaders would indulge in this sort of crass revisionism, yet there is little else to justify such a transformation. Steve Chalke in his book “The Lost Message of Jesus” fiercely denies the teaching of preachers like Johnathan Edwards’ ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ on precisely these grounds. He speaks for a great many Christians, as his popularity testifies.

Yet the songs of the faith have not always been thus tamed. In days of trial, or suffering and persecution the songs uttered from the lips of the believer have been very different.

Oppressed black people in America sang their spirituals, calling for judgement, for mercy and looking forward to the day of justice.

He delivered Daniel from de lion’s den
Jonah from de belly of de whale
An’ de Hebrew chillun from de fiery furnace
An’ why not every man

De moon run down in a purple stream
De sun forbear to shine
An’ every star disappear
King Jesus shall-a be mine
De win’ blows eas’ an’ de win’ blows wes’
It blows like a judgement day
An’ every po’ sinner dat never did pray’ll
Be glad o pray dat day

From one sufferer, to another the Scriptures sing the same songs:

 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
    the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
    down to its foundations!”
 O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
    blessed shall he be who repays you
    with what you have done to us!
 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
    and dashes them against the rock!
(Psalm 137:7-9)

It is the groan issued forth from the lips of those under the burden of slavery, genocide, poverty and oppression.

This is the song wealthy, secure Christians no longer want to sing.

Stanley Hauerwas speaks of Black slavery as a “wrong that is so wrong there is nothing you can do to make it right.” There is only judgement in store for those who participate in this ongoing exploitation. The abuse of women is a wrong that is so wrong there is nothing you can do to make it right. The neglect of the disabled is a wrong. The disenfranchisement of the poor is wrong. The manipulation of global economies by businesses for their own ends is wrong. These are so wrong there is nothing you can do to make them right. There is no way for a person’s actions to justify them to the people they have wronged.

I think this is why God’s wrath is kindled against humanity. Not that people have failed some abstract set of rules but that their actions trample on the lives of others. The Christian tradition, especially what it inherits from the Hebrew scriptures, testifies to a God who is moved by the suffering of humanity. In compassion? Yes. But what is God’s care for the suffering if not accompanied by wrath for those who cause it?

Hauerwas taught me that the ability to confess to sin is a theological achievement. This is to say that it takes time and effort and reflection to really grasp the fact of one’s own sin and indeed the sin of the world. That God should be angry at this sin is then a clear conclusion. Short-circuting this journey to get God off the hook, to apologise for the harsh language surrounding him, thus displays a lack of reflection on the part of the church and also a perverse denial of the wrongdoing with which it has participated.

Standing amongst the multitude who gather to share the body and blood of the one crucified by the Romans confronts secure western Christians like me with the truth: That I participate in this same oppressive violence every day. How can God not be consumed with wrath on account of the misery my life, my culture, my empire inflicts on the downtrodden? How can I stand there and take the sacrament after this wrong that is so wrong there is nothing I can do to make it right?

It must be because the suffering and death of Jesus is God’s choice to identify not only with the victims of this world’s sin. In his resurrection he confronts those who abandoned him, who caused his suffering, inviting them to be reconciled through him to his Heavenly Father.

In this way the wrath of God was satisfied: Jesus died because of sinners, but in his resurrection that death becomes *for* the sinner.

Standing in a cathedral in a wealthy city in suburban south-east England, it is plain to see why we don’t want the wrath of God to be satisfied. This impinges far too heavily on our life now. Yet I could not but sing and celebrate that the wrath of God was satisfied. There is no way for what I have done and participated in to be made right but by forgiveness and no way for me to participate in the life of God in faith and through the sacrament without his sacrifice on my behalf.

Til on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied.