Reading the Neighbourhood.
Well, once more I write with news of an assignment, but this time it is an interactive assignment that requires some congregational participation. I am required to gather a small group of people who will, over the next few months, commit to doing three tasks.
The first is to walk around your neighbourhoods two or three times a week – preferably at different times of the day – and take note of what you see. Things like: who else is out walking and what would you guess to be the purpose of their walking? What kind of traffic is there? What are the houses like in this area? Who else lives here? What can you guess from what you see?
The second task is to meet as a group to share your observations, to dwell on a passage of scripture together and to see what connections we might make with our walking experiences.
The third task is where everyone gets a bit scared, because the third task involves actually talking to your neighbours. The third task asks us to move beyond a polite smile and wave. The third task asks us to begin to engage with the people we live next to and to get a sense of what brought them to the area, what they like about it and what they might like to see happen here.
These are actually interesting questions to ask yourself, and they are not meant to be threatening, or to lead to professions of faith or explanations of ‘the gospel’.
These days I think many of us do tend to get rather nervous around anything that smacks of ‘Evangelism’, by which we understand the imperial, colonial and Evangelical approach to faith and the spiritual life. We do not want to be identified with the ones who have a narrow and ‘Western’ conservative understanding of who God is (the old, white bearded grandfather in the sky in control of everything); how God views us (loves us, but is repelled by our constant failure to live up to the standard of perfection); how God has bridged the chasm between us and him (sent his son to bear all God’s anger and punishment for our failure) and what is required of us if we choose to accept this view of the world (unthinking loyalty and gratitude, obedience and service and improved moral standards). Along with this understanding of the world there should also be a dogged determination to spread this good news to all along with the severe judgement of those who do not accept this version of reality.
Even writing this makes me shudder a bit, and being British I often feel a great sense of responsibility for the atrocious ways that English missionaries in the past treated indigenous peoples in so many different countries – trashing their culture and their spiritual practices and attempting to replace all values and world views with their own ‘superior’ one. It also at times makes me feel some shame at calling myself Christian – so much high handed injustice done in the name of the God who claimed that we would find him among the poor, the powerless and the marginalised.
It is right to acknowledge that wrong was done and pain caused by those who hi-jacked faith and turned it into religion. The same thing is happening in Islam as ISIS kidnap and kill in the name of Allah. But it is wrong to let the honest recognition of a fault become the apologetic silence of shame. If our Jesus shows us anything by the manner of his life and death then surely it ought to be that God is compassionately present in the worst of what we can be, not judging and rejecting but facing squarely and embracing. It ought to be that shame doesn’t have the last word because Love has met shame, has taken it all the way in and overtaken it.
I think it is time for the church as a whole to re-imagine what we have to share, to shake off some of the old, constricting and prescriptive understandings of our faith and to re-discover the real spiritual treasures buried there – spiritual treasures that have practical, present and physical implications for the whole world. How does that happen? Perhaps we have to acknowledge the fear and uncertainty around the whole process. Perhaps we have to start by naming and putting aside some of our old concepts of our own faith and recognise that something new is called for. Perhaps we need to have conversation and ask questions and perhaps we have to walk around our neighbourhood and see who is there?
Please consider if you think those are some first steps you would be willing to take and then let me know if you can join me as part of a small group experiment.
Thanks and blessings,