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A New Time: How To Be A Bible Believer In A Changing World (Episode #100)

The four cubits podcast has always been about taking seriously both our ancient Bible and our modern lives, even when doing so leads us away from easy, neat answers. Often, that approach will lead us towards personal and communal change - and despite what you might have heard from some Christians, theres nothing more biblical than change!

This episode explores some of the ways in which the people of God in scripture not only navigated changes in themselves, their communities, and their world, but how their experiences of God often drove those changes.

Read transcript

Working For Joy (Gaudete Sunday, 2020)

It’s probably rare that fans of 1970s folk rock and fans of medieval Latin carols form a Venn diagram that comprises a single overlapping circle, but when it comes to ‘people who know the word gaudete’ - well, here we are.

Gaudete, gaudete! Christus est natus
ex Maria virgine, gaudete!
Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born
of the virgin Mary, rejoice!

Gaudete! – “Rejoice [ye]!” – is the title of a 16th century Christmas carol written in Latin, and the word recurs in the refrain (printed above, with translation). As a lifelong, low church Bible nerd, I obviously know the song from the 1973 Steeleye Span recording not the liturgical tradition. It was a Top 40 hit in the UK, and here it is in all its a cappella glory lyrics:

The third Sunday of Advent is ‘Gaudete Sunday’, and we’re turning our attention to ‘joy’ for our Advent reflections this week. (You can loop ‘Gaudete’ in the background while you’re reading, just to get you in the mood.) If you’ve followed the last two blog posts in the Advent 2020 series, you might be wondering how I’m going to talk about joy and rejoicing. On Advent Sunday I confessed to feeling hopeless, and for Advent 2 I was worried about not feeling at peace. So yes, I’m struggling to feel joy right now.

Honestly, I think probably a lot of us are, because reasons. Among those reasons, there are certainly times when I’ve felt like my low church, Evangelical tradition has been infused with a kind of forced cheer, where anybody not overflowing with enthusiasm and joy for the always-just-around-the-corner apocalypse is viewed as lacking faith. After all, aren’t we the people of The Truth? Aren’t we moving inexorably towards The Kingdom Of God and eternal bliss in the divine presence?

As we considered on Advent Sunday, there can be an unhealthy preoccupation with the future at the expense of a full awareness of the present. Well, perhaps we also need to consider how much an obsession with the future also obscures our view of the past. Take this Psalm, for example.

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like [those who dream].
Our mouths were full of laughter
and our tongues sang aloud for joy.
Then among the nations it was said,
‘The LORD has done great things for them.’
Great things indeed the LORD did for us,
and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, LORD,
as streams return in the Negeb.
Those who sow in tears
will reap with songs of joy.
He who goes out weeping,
carrying his bag of seed,
will come back with songs of joy,
carrying home his sheaves.

Psalm 126, REB after NRSV

The language here is very familiar, which perhaps makes it easy to skim this psalm instead of digging into it. But it’s worth the digging as we consider the nature of ‘joy’ this week.

The second stanza is a petition urging God to restore the fortunes of the people of God. That’s a bit of a surprise, because the first stanza is full of praise for a time when God already restored God’s people! Is this a time after the Exile and the return to Judah, when the people have once again been brought low by imperial oppressors? Probably. In scripture, petitions and complaints frequently reference past events as an indicator of future ones. The psalmist’s joy comes from a confidence in God’s past faithfulness to the people of God in times of difficulty.

But Hebrew doesn’t have past/present/future tenses like English, and this is a poem that has none of the explicit indicators of chronology or sequence that we find in Hebrew narrative. So it’s quite possible to read the first stanza with a future sense, not a past one. In fact, the JPS Tanakh (1985) translation does exactly that:

When the LORD restores the fortunes of Zion
  —we see it as in a dream—
  our mouths shall be filled with laughter,
  our tongues, with songs of joy.
Then shall they say among the nations,
  “The LORD has done great things for them!”
  The LORD will do great things for us
  and we shall rejoice.

Psalm 126:1-3, NJPS

This reading transforms Psalm 126 entirely into a psalm of complaint or petition. It looks forward to a future deliverance and petitions God to hasten that time, and the line “The LORD has done great things for them” becomes a straightforward statement of praise or incredulity by “the nations”. Changing the reading changes the perspective: the joy that emerges from the psalmist’s faith in God’s character, which is particularly poignant coming from a place of desolation and weeping.

The reality of our present time makes it hard to find joy, so whether we’re looking back with longing, or looking forward in faith, this psalm has something to offer us. Maybe the ambiguity is even part of the psalmist’s point, a nuance literally lost in the translation. Whichever reading you choose, the psalmist’s expression of joy is restrained by an awareness of mourning in the present. It’s the perfect psalm for the Advent season.

Perfect, that is, unless you approach the text like a modern Evangelical, full of triumphalism and the certainty that every current event is a significant milestone on the Bible’s clear roadmap from ancient Israel to the exaltation of the saints of God in their own church. Christian nationalism is not joy, though - it’s hubris. It strips out the psalmist’s reality of “the now and the not yet”, the crucial recognition that faith and hope is anchored in a present reality that falls short of that which is to come.

And this is where my own church tradition fails to appreciate how difficult it can be to find joy. It’s a feckless hope that fails to acknowledge and address the present time, and it can only lead to hysteria in place of the kind of joy modelled by the psalmist. Asking someone experiencing hardship to ‘just choose joy’ or ‘just think of the future’ is like asking a person suffering depression to ‘just cheer up’.

We see a much more balanced approach throughout the prophets and psalms. Living for a better future without also living with our past and fully in our present is delusional, not faithful. If we want to model a biblical kind of joy, then we need look no further than Mary and the Magnificat.

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Luke 1:46-55

Mary’s proclamation of the good news of Jesus, the son of God whom she is carrying in her womb, blurs the lines between past, present, and future just like the psalmist of Psalm 126. The lowly servant rejoices in God’s coming deliverance, but Mary speaks of the impending advent of Messiah as though the act of deliverance has already been accomplished. What does that mean for us, the church of the gospel awaiting the Messiah’s second advent?

In the Magnificat, Mary proclaimed that the deliverance of God would scatter the proud and bring down the powerful. If the church preaches a message driven by self-satisfaction, gloating and strutting as it looks down haughtily on the unwashed masses who are ignorant of that great Truth that it hoards, then the church is on the wrong side of the prophet Mary’s proclamation. That church is magnifying itself, not the Lord that it falsely claims to represent.

By contrast, we can see Mary’s words reflected in the work that Jesus does throughout his ministry as recorded in Luke’s gospel. Jesus walks beside those who are being crushed by the injustice and suffering in the world. He magnifies the Lord by lifting up his fellow humans. He promises joy, but he brings that promise to bear in the present.

Peter said, ‘What about us? We left all we had to follow you.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you: there is no one who has given up home, or wife, brothers, parents, or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not be repaid many times over in this age, and in the age to come have eternal life.’

Luke 18:28-30

Maybe it’s time we reclaim these words of Jesus from the wolf-ish preachers of the ‘prosperity gospel’. Our actions now matter, and if we acknowledge that one cannot simply “choose joy” then maybe we should demand it instead. Our world, and the history of our societies, are full of horror, pain, and the disappointment of repeating cycles of misery. If the church - the concrete expression of the way of Jesus in the world today - cannot be a home, a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a child to anyone seeking the Good News of God, then that church is broken.

If we are to preach the gospel, then the news of the second advent of our Lord has to actually be good news right now! So what do we really have to show from Jesus' first advent? How are we transformed by what has already come? Have we heeded our prophets and turned the power structures of the world on their head within the church? When we cry, "Rejoice! Rejoice! Christ is born of the virgin Mary!" will it be a rallying cry that brings joy and peace on earth to all people, or will it seem like nothing more than an empty boast delivered with a smug grin?

We may not be able to simply choose joy, like flipping on a happiness switch in our brains. But, just like Jesus did centuries ago, the church together can work to show the world what the joy of God's redemption might one day look like.

No Justice, No Peace (Advent 2, 2020)

Perhaps more than any one other consequence of the coming of Jesus, “peace” often takes centre-stage. Christians interpret Isaiah 9:6-7 as a Messianic prophecy, ascribing to Jesus the titles that include, “prince of peace”. The angels who appear to the shepherds in the Luke version of the nativity story proclaim “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14). The writer of Ephesians helpfully identifies the connection between “hope” (the theme of Advent Sunday, from last week) and “peace” in chapter 2:

Yours was a world without hope and without God. Once you were far off, but now in union with Christ Jesus you have been brought near through the shedding of Christ’s blood. For he is himself our peace. Gentiles and Jews, he has made the two one, and in his own body of flesh and blood has broken down the barrier of enmity which separated them…

Ephesians 2:12b-14

What does ‘peace’ mean to us? This is not an abstract - nor entirely a personal - question. For Christians, it’s a deeply theological question. Maybe you don’t think of yourself as a theologian. If, like me, you’re from a low-church tradition with a heavy emphasis on Bible reading and study (for a certain value of ‘reading’ and ‘study’), maybe you prefer to think of yourself as a Bible student. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course: you definitely have a theology. What you do with your knowledge, your interpretations, how you tie together the ideas presented in scripture: that’s theology, and you’re doing it all the time.

What’s more, it’s likely that your church tradition has a normative theology of its own, which is probably the primary influence on how you do theology. A tradition’s theology of peace is at the very centre of its witness in society, and affects how the church interprets everything from the ministry of Jesus, to the calling of the church today, right up to the fulfilment of God’s purpose with the world in the future. What does it mean to be a follower of the prince of peace? What does it look like to proclaim peace on earth?

For my tradition, which is rooted in the premillennial dispensationalist theology of early 19th century Evangelical revivalists, peace will come to earth when Jesus comes again to establish the Kingdom of God. This is very much in keeping with the spirit of Advent season, as we anticipate the second advent of our Lord. Is that future peace the central hope of Christianity? Is that kingdom-to-come the fulfilment of Bible prophecy?

Here's how the prophet behind the distinctive second section of the book of Isaiah set about proclaiming peace.

Comfort my people; bring comfort to them,
says your God;
speak kindly to Jerusalem
and proclaim to her
that her term of bondage is served,
her penalty is paid;
for she has received at the LORD’s hand
double measure for all her sins.

A voice cries:
‘Clear a road through the wilderness for the LORD,
prepare a highway across the desert for our God.
Let every valley be raised,
every mountain and hill be brought low,
uneven ground be made smooth,
and steep places become level.
Then will the glory of the LORD be revealed
and all mankind together will see it.
The LORD himself has spoken.’ ...

Climb to a mountaintop,
you that bring good news to Zion;
raise your voice and shout aloud,
you that carry good news to Jerusalem,
raise it fearlessly;
say to the cities of Judah, ‘Your God is here!’
Here is the Lord GOD; he is coming in might,
coming to rule with powerful arm.
His reward is with him,
his recompense before him.
Like a shepherd he will tend his flock
and with his arm keep them together;
he will carry the lambs in his bosom
and lead the ewes to water.

Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11

The comfort that we expect our prince of peace to bring at his second advent is a familiar theme. But in all four gospels this passage is quoted of John the Baptiser (Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4, John 1:23), who was the herald of Jesus the Christ's first advent. The comfort of Israel's Messiah has already come to the people of God. His words were preached to Jerusalem two thousand years ago. The shepherd was there to tend his flock, and if we believe that Jesus lives then we believe that he is tending it still (see especially John 10:1-18).

It's common in my tradition to push back against any hint of God acting in the present, even indirectly. Maybe it's even inevitable in Evangelical traditions that emphasise the future kingdom over all other aspects of the gospel. There's a counter-voice in the Isaiah 40 passage that expresses a similar sentiment (though for quite different reasons: biblical lament and Evangelical nihilism are not the same things).

A voice says, ‘Proclaim!’
and I asked, ‘What shall I proclaim?
All mortals are grass,
they last no longer than a wild flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the blast of the LORD blows on them.
Surely the people are grass!'
The grass may wither, the flower fade,
but the word of our God will endure for ever.

Isaiah 40:6-8 (punctuation following Baltzer) 

The prophet is expressing the trauma and pain of a people in exile. By contrast, a theology convinced that its only hope is in the future is naturally convinced of the irretrievable brokenness of the present. But Advent is the season of "now and not yet", because the Christian hope – Israel's Messiah – has already changed the world by his first coming. If we cut out the "now" from our theology, then what is left? What could we make of Jesus' own words from John's gospel?

‘Peace is my parting gift to you, my own peace, such as the world cannot give. Set your troubled hearts at rest, and banish your fears. You heard me say, “I am going away, and I am coming back to you.” If you loved me you would be glad that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I am. I have told you now, before it happens, so that when it does happen you may have faith.

John 14:27-29

Yes, Jesus is coming back: but if we accept the whole of Jesus’ message then we also have to believe that he left his peace with us. So where is it? What is it doing? Is it only inside us, a shadow of a promise of a peace to come at a future time? Are we only to proclaim the existence of the straight way in the wilderness, the potential of paths that are no longer crooked? Are we nothing but museum tour guides in The Jesus Of Nazareth Experience, a static exhibition of the life and times of a man who came from God to teach people about the future?

The straight way in the wilderness is not there for us to admire like tourists: Jesus made us a straight way so that we could walk it. Jesus brought peace, and spoke comfort, so that we could recognise and demonstrate that peace in our lives, our churches, and our world. We are waiting for Jesus to come again, but we already confess that "Jesus is Lord". If the Reign of God has not already begun, then in what sense is Jesus our 'Lord'?

Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers." (Matthew 5:9) What does that mean for the church as a community? If the peace of God dwells only in our hearts then Jesus only reigns within each person, separate and disconnected. Why even start a church? What purpose does a community serve if the Jesus Experience is only an individual, personal, internal spirituality?

I believe that Jesus lives, I believe that Jesus is Lord, and I also believe that he’s coming back. But I don’t feel at peace. I think there’s something missing here in the "now", even as we acknowledge that there is more to come in the "not yet".

A psalmist reflects on the peace of God, and just as we found with ‘hope’ last week, we find that ‘peace’ does not exist in the abstract.

LORD, you have been gracious to your land
and turned the tide of Jacob’s fortunes.
You have forgiven the guilt of your people
and put all their sins away.

You have withdrawn all your wrath
and turned from your hot anger.

God our saviour, restore us
and abandon your displeasure towards us.
Will you be angry with us for ever?
Must your wrath last for all generations?
Will you not give us new life
that your people may rejoice in you?
LORD, show us your love
and grant us your deliverance.

Let me hear the words of God the LORD:
he proclaims peace to his people and loyal servants;
let them not go back to foolish ways.
Deliverance is near to those who worship him,
so that glory may dwell in our land.
Love and faithfulness have come together;
justice and peace have embraced.
Faithfulness appears from earth
and justice looks down from heaven.
The LORD will grant prosperity,
and our land will yield its harvest.
Justice will go in front of him,
and peace on the path he treads.

Psalm 85

As Jesus’ blessing upon peacemakers implies, peace is not just something that God bestows - it is something in which the people of God participate, in contrast to their prior “foolish ways”. Not only that, but this way of peace brings near the deliverance and glory of God! That's not to say that we can make Jesus come back sooner. It's not about proximity in time, but proximity in experience: the people of God can build a community that will show people what that deliverance will be like. How? Because the peace of God is entwined inextricably with justice.

Read the final verse of Psalm 85 again: as God treads the path of peace, justice goes before him. If we are to be disciples of Christ, if we are to follow the way of God, then we too must be led by justice. Dr King succinctly identified this key to the Jesus way of peace in his Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963). He described the biggest obstacle to the abolition of segregation and 'Jim Crow' laws in the US as

...the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice...

We are a people waiting for their Messiah to return, but if we are a people who focus our theology of peace on living unobtrusively, comfortably, biding time until deliverance simply arrives, then we are not living the peace of Jesus. We can talk about the way of peace until we are blue in the face, but Jesus expects us to walk the way. If we are not following justice, then we are not being peacemakers.

As we reflect on the peace of Christ this Advent, reflect too on this most biblical of rallying cries: "No justice, no peace." What does our God require of us? Only to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). And if like me you do not find yourself at peace in this season of the prince of peace, then perhaps you too are feeling the call of justice.

So follow the call. Justice is ahead of us on the straight road of peace through the desert, waiting for us to follow her in the way of peace. There will be a time when justice arrives fully, in the coming of our Lord Jesus; but Jesus is also Lord now, and blessed are the peacemakers.

A Tradition Of Hope (Advent Sunday 2020)

Today, on November 29th 2020, millions of Western Christians will be celebrating the start of a new church year on this first Sunday of Advent season. “Advent” (from the Latin) means simply “arrival”, and in the Western liturgical traditions this first Sunday is about hope and prophecy. Ministers and lay people will be reading from Isaiah, Psalms, and the Gospels. They will start preparing to celebrate the Arrival of Jesus Christ in anticipation of the hope of his second Arrival to redeem the world and raise the dead.

I've never really celebrated the season of Advent before, and that's not surprising from someone who grew up in a 'low-church' Protestant Christian sect. In those sects and denominations, mainstream Christian “tradition” is often criticised, usually by reference to customs or practices that are perceived as quaint, redundant, obsolete, or misguided. (Though in my experience, anyone declaiming the embedded customs and practices of other Christians is usually blind to their own embedded customs!) But when we talk about Christian “tradition” in an ecclesial or theological sense, what we’re really talking about are the ways in which a church community holds and enacts their beliefs: how they read, interpret, and apply the scriptures to their faith.

Every church has a tradition, a particular method and set of beliefs for practising their Christian discipleship. Even most ‘non-liturgical’ churches have some kind of customary liturgy, even if it isn’t formally agreed or written down. But in ‘high church’ liturgical Christian traditions, seasons like Advent represent a conscious effort to focus mind, spirit, faith, and worship on some crucial truths. It’s a chance to refocus our God-thought in specific ways. I think that’s a healthy spiritual practice.

I'm starting to really comprehend why so many Western Christians of my generation are leaving churches that are, broadly speaking, Evangelical and fundamentalist. In enacting Christian faith, those traditions place almost sole focus on assenting to intellectual propositions. What we might call 'spiritual practices', like observing Advent and other mainstream church holidays, simply don't fit the fundamentalist Evangelical paradigm of 'salvation by doctrine alone'.

Ironically, I've found that many of the spiritual practices of the mainstream church—the ones that I was taught to disdain—actually teach us to embody many of the beliefs that have always been at the core of my faith. I think I'll have more to say about this next week but, even though the language of embodiment is shunned by my tradition, the concept of embodiment is not completely absent. The Sunday memorial of breaking bread and drinking wine is not just a commemoration of Jesus’ last supper with his closest disciples before his judicial murder by crucifixion. In looking through this lens from the past we can see a different future, a future where we all are united with God (and with each other) in communion with our Lord Jesus. The Eucharist is a promise and an assurance combined, a reminder that:

In Christ our release is secured and our sins forgiven through the shedding of his blood... in accordance with the plan which [God] determined beforehand in Christ, to be put into effect when the time was ripe: namely, that the universe, everything in heaven and on earth, might be brought into a unity in Christ.

Ephesians 2:7a,9b-10

That's an embodied spiritual practice, whether or not it's explicitly recognised as one, and the commemoration of the birth of Jesus at Advent is similar. As Christians, we rejoice in the life of Jesus Christ now, but we see in it a new life to come. That's an expression of hope, and Christianity is supposed to be a faith of hope. But the advent of Jesus Christ calls us to treat hope as a concrete reality, not a source of empty platitudes. And hope - like reality - is often hard to live in.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t felt very hopeful these last few years. We’re all feeling things more acutely as we try to care for our neighbours and ourselves during a global pandemic, but it’s more than that. I often feel hopelessness for the times in which my children will grow up. So I appreciate the voice of the Psalmists, who frequently wrestle with this tension between the “now” and the “not yet”.

Hear us, Shepherd of Israel,
leading Joseph like a flock.
Shine forth, as you sit enthroned on the cherubim.
Leading Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh,
rouse your might and come to our rescue.
God, restore us,
and make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.

LORD God of Hosts, how long will you fume at your people’s prayer?
You have made sorrow their daily bread
and copious tears their drink.
You have made us an object of contempt to our neighbours,
and a laughing-stock to our enemies.
God of Hosts, restore us,
and make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.

You brought a vine from Egypt;
you drove out nations and planted it;
you cleared the ground for it,
so that it struck root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
and its branches were like those of mighty cedars.
It put out boughs all the way to the sea,
its shoots as far as the river.
Why have you broken down the vineyard wall
so that every passer-by can pluck its fruit?
The wild boar from the thicket gnaws it,
and wild creatures of the countryside feed on it.

God of Hosts, turn to us, we pray;
look down from heaven and see.
Tend this vine,
this stock which your right hand has planted.
May those who set it on fire and cut it down
perish before your angry look.
Let your hand rest on the one at your right side,
the one whom you have made strong for your service.
Then we shall not turn back from you;
grant us new life, and we shall invoke you by name.
LORD God of Hosts, restore us,
and make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.

Psalm 80

Hope is not blind, nor naive. The plaintive cry, “God, restore us, / and make your face shine on us, that we may be saved” is part of the psalmist’s acknowledgement that present suffering is real, no matter what the future holds. The psalmist looks to the king appointed by God ,”the one at your right side”, for that hope of restoration—but is also calling for God to “Tend this vine” and act now for the sake of God’s people.

The prophetic tradition of the Old Testament teaches us that the people of God are such because they follow in God’s way. If we expect God’s response to suffering, to “tend the vine”, then as we wait in hope we should expect to live by that hope as well. This is at the root of Paul’s appeal to the church in Corinth.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I am always thanking God for you. I thank him for his grace given to you in Christ Jesus; I thank him for all the enrichment that has come to you in Christ. You possess full knowledge and you can give full expression to it, because what we testified about Christ has been confirmed in your experience. There is indeed no single gift you lack, while you wait expectantly for our Lord Jesus Christ to reveal himself. He will keep you firm to the end, without reproach on the day of our Lord Jesus. It is God himself who called you to share in the life of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and God keeps faith.

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

While we wait in hope, “expectantly”, for the advent of our Lord, the apostle reminds us that we have already been called to share in the life that has already arrived. We have been given grace; we must show grace. The Christian hope is an active one, a concrete ‘doing’ hope not just an intellectual ‘being’ hope. It is not lightly that Paul begins this letter with a reminder of the grace shown to us: if you keep reading he proceeds with an appeal to the believers to act on that grace within the church and in the world.

Paul issues an appeal for a unity that recognises diversity. That's not contradictory, and we'll return to it next week, but Paul’s hope for his siblings is vested firmly in his confidence that, “By God’s act you are in Christ Jesus; God has made him our wisdom, and in him we have our righteousness, our holiness, our liberation” (1 Corinthians 1:30). If we cannot acknowledge the life of Jesus in one another, or even in ourselves, then where is our hope? The life of Jesus has already arrived once. How can we sustain our hope for its second arrival if we cannot live that life while we wait?

We must live by grace in a world that lacks grace, but we have the apostle’s confident assurance that, “There is indeed no single gift you lack”. This isn’t a ‘prosperity gospel’ of platitudes and false hope. We know that life is hard (for some more than others) and, as the rest of 1 Corinthians shows us, living by grace and living in community is hard too. It’s in our choices as a community that we show to our world what our concept of Christian “hope” looks like.

So let’s start this season of reflection and anticipation with new determination to “Tend the vine”.

Letter From A Birmingham Jail

A police dog held by a white police officer tears the trouser leg of a Black man, who looks calmly over his shoulder.
An image from the non-violent Civil Rights protests of 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama (USA).

I am coming to feel that people of ill-will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.

– Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter From A Birmingham Jail (April 1963)

From a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in April 1963, Dr King wrote one of the most powerful Christian essays of the 20th century. It was a response to an open letter by eight local Alabama clergymen that criticised the non-violent Civil Rights protests in the city. It was the response of a Christian whose faith was not merely a set of beliefs and actions that he shared, but the reality in which he lived and the lens through which he both experienced the world as it was, and saw the world as it would one day be.

In this special episode we consider the background to King's Letter From A Birmingham Jail and then we read it together. As Christians in July 2020, we should not need to be reminded that Black lives matter - and yet, here we are. We need only look back to Dr King for an appropriate Christian response, but it also behoves us to join his lament. It is nearly 60 years since King wrote this essay, and still our societies - let alone our churches - have failed to internalise some of the most basic tenets of racial justice and Christian fellowship.

Transcript for introduction coming soon!