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Celibacy for Mission

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband.

(1 Corinthians 7:32-34)

Today was the feast day of Augustine of Canterbury. He was the first Archbishop of Canterbury, consecrated around 600 AD after leading a team of 40 missionaries, priests and monks who preached in the kingdom of Kent. Because of Augustine’s efforts, the people of England became and remained for over a thousand years a Christianised people.

By this I do not mean to suggest that the United Kingdom is a Christian nation, merely that the story of God and the worship of him was widely accepted and embraced on England’s shores. The Church became a community institution which in various times collected and distributed taxes, mediated property, ran schools and facilitated local and regional political dialogue.

Gregory’s mission to Kent seems to have been a roaring success.

Augustine and his companions were called out of the Monastery for their mission. I believe this single fact is key to the success of Christianity’s spread not only in England but in many other tribes and peoples.

English history is full of dynasties and tribes who come and rule for a time and then fade away or fall out of favour and are overthrown. The Church experiences its own turmoil in England but is not overthrown or rejected like the Normans or Stuarts or whoever else. The reason for this to me is clear.

The Church did not rely on the success of any one dynasty or family, tribe or culture for its mission. Because it grew through conversion, it could have a life among the people, in the villages, towns and cities, which existed independently of families or bloodlines.

The monastics and the chaste religious live in their very bodies the reality that the Church exists by faith not by family. They show that they have nothing to gain through their preaching, that they are not attempting to establish a name or accumulate wealth. They can go anywhere in the world and give their lives away, as the 40 did who left Rome for England.

Perhaps it is because this is such a difficult burden to comprehend, the idea of giving up not only one’s future but also the potential good of that future, that Protestants who are divorced from those grand, old and transcendent Church traditions have not upheld the uniqueness of not only single clergy but other alternative forms of human community.

I submit that something has been profoundly lost with the forgetting of this ancient path to which some have been called. Protestants mistake the Monastic call for that of an attempt to earn God’s favour or an oppressive regime of submission to corrupt institutions. Can it be that those who are lifelong singles could be received today as the frontrunners in the Church and heralds of the Gospel as they have been in the past? What would have to change for that to be a reality?

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Happy Birthday Kierkegaard

Today is Søren Kierkegaard’s 220th birthday. Again I am drawn to his description of the Gospel, how he expound’s Christ’s invitation to all the weary wanderers in this world.

Accept the invitation so that the inviter may save you from what is so hard and dangerous to be saved from, so that, saved, you may be with him who is the Savior of all, of innocence also. For even if it were possible that utterly pure innocence was to be found somewhere, why should it not also need a Savior who could keep it safe from evil! –The invitation stands at the crossroad, there where the way of sin turns more deeply into sin. Come here, all you who are lost and gone astray, whatever your error and sin, be it to human eyes more excusable and yet perhaps more terrible, or be it to human eyes more terrible and yet perhaps more excusable, be it disclosed here on earth or be it hidden and yet known in heaven-and even if you found forgiveness on earth but no peace within, or found no forgiveness because you did not seek it, or because you sought it in vain: oh, turn around and come here, here is rest! The invitation stands at the crossroad, there where the way of sin turns off for the last time and disappears from view in-perdition. Oh, turn around, turn around, come here; do not shrink from the difficulty of retreat, no matter how hard it is; do not be afraid of the laborious pace of conversion, however toilsomely it leads to salvation, whereas sin leads onward with winged speed, with mounting haste-or leads downward so easily, so indescribably easily, indeed, as easily as when the horse, completely relieved of pulling, cannot, not even with all its strength, stop the wagon, which runs it into the abyss. Do not despair over every relapse, which the God of patience has the patience to forgive and under which a sinner certainly should have the patience to humble himself. No, fear nothing and do not despair; he who says “Come here” is with you on the way; from him there is help and forgiveness on the way of conversion that leads to him, and with him is rest.

Read more in Practice in Christianity.

The annual Naval Academy vs St John's College Croquet Match. Now having ran its 33rd year with the Academy only winning 7 times. Trust Classics students to be experts at lawn games.

Ministry Update Spring 2015

Springtime as I experience it is a time to think. Winter is a time of eating and staying warm but as the weather changes one is not so hurried by gusts of freezing wind and so one has a moment to stand on a sidewalk, to look at the blossom, to speak with someone new who also has a moment to stand still after the long winter’s march from building to car to building.

I made a new friend over the winter months. T arrived on Main Street at the end of November having been made redundant and leaving Baltimore where his wife lived. He had grown up in Annapolis in a very different era, when Downtown was full of African American businesses and the community wasn’t hidden away in backstreets and suburban developments like a shameful secret. He told me and my friends stories of Annapolis which made our eyes wide. The shoe-store which would receive African American customers only at the side door, or the time when the city nearly descended into rioting were it not for the demonstration of friendship between Pip and Zastrow who walked the streets together when white people and black people struggled to see a peaceful future. T maintained an inner confidence, yet sometimes when he was more exhausted he would share with his friends the pain of feeling rejected by his family, the community where he grew up and the passers by on the street who would call the police to deal with him. He became a personality in Downtown Annapolis, singing at the Open Mic nights and Piano Bar for tips; one could ask every doorman on Main Street and they would know T. It made him glow with pride that he could sing and be valued for the fact that he had something beautiful to offer. Today he left the city to go to rehab and I am glad for him. He had become a part of the Christian community in Annapolis and he gave us so many opportunities to grow in our understanding of love.

There are others who are known to the Christian community. Not all find a way out of their situation and some do not want it. I was challenged by a friend that my desire to see an individual’s situation improve, by connecting them with rehab or other resources, was becoming a threshold of relationship. I was guilty of making my love dependent on their performance to my expectations. I was angry at having this placed in front of me yet it didn’t take long for me to realise that he was right. Whether I give someone the time of day, share a meal with them or more must never be because I deem them worthy of attention. Why? Solely because Jesus chooses to see those acts of service as worship to him, and my refusal to serve is an act of rebellion against the King of Love.

This is a hard fact to accept: That an act of love for someone unlovely will scarcely ripple the currents of poverty in a city. The community of Christians I have met here help me keep in mind that such widespread change is not my burden. I have only to care for the one in front of me.

This experience has led me to join initiatives which seek to enable these kinds of small relationships to start. I invited a dozen people from Downtown Hope to come out at 4:30AM on a Wednesday morning in January to meet the homeless who were sleeping in downtown Annapolis in the middle of winter. A couple of weeks ago we were invited to be part of Homeless Resource Day which pairs those at high risk with a host who will spend as long as they need helping that individual find all the resources they need to make steps away from homelessness. I was invited to lobby at the state-wide level in the name of the church for affordable housing policies for the most at-risk populations. I offer my skills to the Coalition to End Homelessnesswhose major goal is to see the homeless connected to communities of people who can walk with them through all the difficulties they are facing and all defeat those things which trap them in poverty. The ability to understand that the inadequacy of my actions is no hurdle to it being an offering to God has radically shaped how I show and tell others about that work.

I am thankful to those who have been faithful in contributing to my living costs and supporting me in prayer. I consider it a sacred privilege to be supported in a way that I can offer my life for the benefit of the church and the city in ways which are different than if I was in a workplace setting. I have been able to create resources for our church community as well as jump into the founding of a nonprofit which seeks to help people form transformative relationships with the city’s most vulnerable residents.

Most importantly of all, your support enables me to be available to share the love of God, and that is deeply humbling.

If you would like to become a supporter, USA residents can give here and hitting “give to missionaries” and UK residents can fill out this form.

As always please write to me and ask questions. I love to talk as you well know.

Peace,
Ian.

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Pastoring a Post-Christendom Generation

Sports presenter; Ted speaker; Apple Executive; Bono; Russell Brand; Therapist; Teacher; Actor; Nonprofit Leader; Entrepreneur; Academic.

These are the culture shapers of today (April, 2015). People receive their content and comment and though they don’t have political power they exercise an enormous amount of influence through their organisations and their public appearances. This is no bad thing and has always been so. Some people have enough charisma or dumb luck to find themselves in the public eye and often people rally around them and thus change is made and new initiatives are begun.

Now the Church in her effort to renew the proclamation of the faith to each generation in many ways leans on these contemporary patterns of leadership to define her clergy. Ministers today often look and sound like executive leaders and inspirational speakers, or therapists and academics. They start initiatives and make speeches, run training programmes and group discussions and this has become the expectation placed on clergy by society broadly and then more importantly, the congregations they serve.

Congregations who have grown up in a culture where a secular model of leadership has eroded much of the holiness from Holy Orders. The smaller, grass-roots quasi-independent churches which are springing up are most at risk of losing this sense of the Sacred in their leadership because they depend so heavily on the shaping from the context into which they are reaching. They may not have a Diocese, Conference, Presbytery or sending Church who can help a pastor stay accountable to the specifics of his or her calling and the community who they and a small team have called into the household of faith may not be theologically aware enough to understand what a Minister is and what they exist to do.

So by accident of the church’s context the calling to ministry might morph into a calling to executive leadership or distant lecturing or therapy.

This is the challenge pastoral ministry to the post-Christendom generation.

Leaning on the Old Ways

For Lent this year I decided to take up the practice of giving confession to a minister of a local Anglican church. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer has a fantastic section headed ‘The Reconciliation of the Penitent’ and each week we would sit down and work through the liturgy. I enjoyed it because of its form, the fact that I knew what the response was going to be: no matter what I confessed the minister was going to announce the forgiveness of my sins. That’s what he was there to do.

He wasn’t there to be my therapist.

He wasn’t there to give me advice.

He wasn’t there to fix me.

He was there to make present the truth of the Word of God.

To be a living proclamation of the Gospel.

I think it takes an extraordinary amount of courage and singleness of mind to be that kind of person and so I can forgive when ministers find themselves pressured into becoming the mirror image of Bono. It is hard to stand up to the post-Christendom world holding nothing but a Bible and bread and say ‘repent for the Kingdom of God is near’.

It’s so irrelevant.

We’ve entered the world Bonhoeffer saw from afar. The religious edifice surrounding Christianity is being pulled down, with its traditions of power and position and publicity. Now it rests on the shoulders of ministers to maintain the discipline of their calling when the world would begin to demand much more from them and their congregations don’t understand the old ways of faith, don’t trust in the utterance of absolution, the breaking of bread and the proclaiming of the Word.

What a task. What a trial.

Jesus said: These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. (John 14:25-27)

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Loving Someone Until They Are Free

The goal of our engagement with the vulnerable, oppressed and impoverished is our mutual liberation by way of becoming human.

Problem: The poor and rich, oppressed and oppressor exist in a destructive relationship. Those who use the labour and energies of the poor have lost their humanity by way of exercising violence against their neighbor. Insofar as we use and resent one another we are failing to realise and experience our full humanity. The poor are dehumanised by their relegation to ‘things’ or ‘objects’ by the actions of those in power. Their preferences, needs, wants and opinions are thus not considered as true or valid as someone ‘above’ them.

The Christian must take seriously this existing paradigm and seek to demonstrate a new way of engaging with the oppressed such that both the oppressed and oppressor become more human as a result of the interaction.

One could suggest that this is part of a Christian paradigm of salvation: Jews and Greeks, slaves and free being brought together into the fellowship of the Trinity. It is no coincidence that this kind of mutuality of loving friendship begins to unwind oppressive attitudes and practices. How can we carry on living in our hostile and disconnected state after we have experienced a wonderful new form of human community? We refuse to go back because the new fellowship we have experienced is just far too compelling.

Therefore we love our poor neighbor because in doing so we believe everyone’s future will be free.

This post is brought to you by Paulo Freire.

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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