Last weekend, this was a fairly typical scene in central Milton Keynes, a city where I have received more affection and encouragement than I have ever experienced (in my workplace and family) but also less affection than I have ever experienced (in the churches). This is one of the paradoxes of church life generally, and stems fundamentally from the fact that we have such a poor theology of work, or even a decent theology of man and creation in our churches, that we simply do not know how to accord to each member the dignity and honour that the bible clearly enjoins us to demonstrate. We are also hidebound by the creeping individualism that, with the aid of technology, teaches us to look to our own needs rather than to those of others.
We have found churches that have such a strong sense of themselves that unless you adapt to their view of who they are and who you are, you cannot contribute. We have discovered churches that have told us that the ministry we have is not a ministry at all and you certainly can’t practise it here. And yet this is the church – the church! – that I belong to and have given my last 40 years to serving: the beloved, eternal body of Christ.
So when I look for a richness of fellowship, of a place of daily discipleship, of God’s kindly affection in community, it is not the church that springs to mind at all. When I look to see where we can begin to build shalom and a sense of community wholeness, it will be in our school, not my church, where I find it.
This sounds harsh, but it is not an uncommon expression of bewilderment among those of us who have arrived in Milton Keynes from communities that have longer communal histories and a richer sense of belonging. I count myself amazingly blessed to be working in a school where there is so much articulated affection: and we are keenly aware that we could do more, that we could really disciple each other and our children into an effective “shalom-wholeness” through all that we do.
I have found two features of welcome that create community that churches could think about: we have tried hard at Christ the Sower to enact these as a school.
- The first is to shift our identity as a school around those that newly arrive. This requires us to have a strong ethic and a warm affection for those that come, but without having a “Christ the Sower way of doing things” – if we have such a thing, it is a tacit agreement rather than an articulated ethos. Having this kind of strong ethic is rooted in the fact that we welcome and change in order to embrace the other. Miroslav Volf teaches brilliantly about the nature of this change in his book Exclusion and Embrace. It is based in a strong honouring of the guest among us (Tom Wilson’s Theology of Hospitality in Anglican Schools is also good on this), and how that impacts on our corporate identity. Because you are here, we are different, we are stronger, we have things to learn together that we could not learn if you had not come. This approach underpins much of my work and it will continue to do so, I hope.
- The other feature of welcome centres around the appreciation questions: What can you do? How can we put you to work? What have you experienced that we need from you? Until we ask these questions, we will never find ourselves as co-workers, and it is in co-working that we find the meaning that God calls forth from us. Years ago I was part of an organisation called Wellspring. From 1993 until 2008 I spent many weekends in churches and on conferences with this team of Christians who, though largely made up of professional musicians, welcomed me and put me to use as a pianist and teacher. I played a lot, led a lot, taught in seminars, helped churches in a variety of ways. In 2008 the group diverged and I worked with one part of the divergence, another wonderful gang of musicians called Epiphany, whose ministry is extraordinary – unique even (if you are at the Oxford Diocesan Conference at Swanwick, you will come across them at the end of April) and for whom I have an ongoing affection. But whilst composed of lovely people, it was not an organisation that ever really had a role for me, and I have not worked with them for 3 or 4 years now. It was in the purposefulness, the intentionality of the work and its impact where the fellowship lay. We have fellowship together because we depend on one another, and we learn to depend on each other as we work alongside each other. I love Jesus for many reasons, but chiefly because he has put his yoke on me and given me work to do, and thus he assures me of my value and trustedness to him. In the role I now have in our school, I am keenly aware of His work in and through me. In the church, not so much.
Why all this now? There are many reasons to consider issues of calling, discipleship and work, some connected to research that I intend to do with others over the next 12-18 months; also because a new metaphor for our approach to our work is emerging within and around me and I want to give flesh to its bones. Finally, I imagine that this will impact and deepen the way we do school – the curriculum, spiritual development, behaviour management, discipleship of children and adults and the way we choose to spend our budget, amongst many others. The research work will be centred around this emerging metaphor.
In To change the world, James Davison Hunter poses one possible answer to the struggles that different streams of Christianity have had in impacting their culture, and he terms it being faithfully present within. This is the metaphor, the attitude of heart and mind, that I choose to use.
This “faithful presence within” is both an attitude to God, an attitude to the church (yes, I am challenged here!) and an attitude to the world, implying a strong relationship and mutual impact between church and world. However, it also legitimises the creation of God as holy and beautiful whilst being clear that “the whole world is under the subjection of the evil one” (1 John, 5:19). We expect to find beauty and wonder through the pursuit of our daily work, but are not disappointed when we find something less than that, because we know that this is the way the world is ordered spiritually. This attitude of heart and mind is oriented toward shalom wholeness in the communities we work in, yet we know we will always fail because of our humanity.
Hunter says that to be “faithfully present within” requires us to understand and reflect the faithfulness of God, which is incarnational and is interpreted in four divine attributes:
- “God’s faithful presence implies that he pursues us” (Hunter, p.241) cf. Deut. 7:6, Jer. 31:3, Isa. 43:1, Jn. 3:16, Mt. 11:28, etc.
- “God’s faithful presence is his identification with us” (ibid. p.242) cf. Ps. 103:14; Phil. 2:7; Mt. 15:32, etc.
- “A third attribute of his faithful presence is found in the life he offers” (ibid. p.242) cf. Gen. 17:3; Jer. 29:11; Ps. 36:9; Jn. 1:4, 10:10, 6:35, etc.
- “the life he offers is only made possible by his sacrificial love” (ibid. p.242) cf. Zeph 1:7; Rom. 3:25; 1 Jn. 2:1. 4:10; Heb 10:10
Hunter’s argument is that these amount to an incarnational mandate, “- this is what God’s faithful presence means. It is a:
quality of commitment that is active, not passive; intentional, not accidental; covenantal, not contractual…whole-hearted, not half-hearted; focused and purposeful, nothing desultory about it. His very name, Immanuel, signifies all of this – God with us – in our presence (Matt. 1:23) (ibid. p.243)
This is close, in practical terms, to the type of modern incarnational engagement that Tom Wright has postulated as deriving immediately from his “inaugurated kingdom” thinking – the invasion of the world by its rightful owner and his church through the actions of love, compassion and humility. So yes, we are seeking to conquer the world, but no, we do not do it with the weapons of the world. As Tom Wright often says, if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not, and therefore we live within the glorious resurrection kingdom and advance it by doing the works of him who sent us and by rehearsing the virtues that reflect the activity of the Holy Spirit as we become disciples. Faithfulness in all things is at the heart of this.
As Hunter remarks elsewhere (p.227):
Formation – the task of making disciples – is oriented toward the cultivation of faithfulness in the totality of life. To this end, St Paul and St Timothy “proclaimed [Christ], admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone complete in Christ” (Col. 1:28). St Paul writes that he toiled and struggled at this task. Making disciples or formation, then, requires intentionality and it entails the hard work of teaching, training, and cautioning believers with wisdom in the ways of Christ so that they are fit for any calling and any service to him”
Faithfulness in the totality of life. That which enables the heather to flourish and flower beneath the snow, that allows daffodils to rise after the snow has melted is a persistence of life and beauty, metaphorical signs that if transferred to our lives as Christians, would make us more attractive than we often are. Faithfulness is an orientation toward a person or goal. It is not within the realm of desire but within the will. and can be cultivated by practice. A person may grow in the faithfulness that is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit by effort and prayer and obedience.
For all these reasons, Hunter is surely right in his diagnosis and prescription. Any prescription that both challenges us toward internal transformation through prayer and reliance on God’s grace together with external obedience to the incarnational mandate of Jesus, just sounds right. There is nowhere to hide, and everything to gain in this. There are no short cuts to glory through the heroic, the political or through personal purity only. It is a humble daily walk in the orientation of faithfulness toward Jesus-in-us and the goal set before us:
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14).
On Monday, we are being visited by three colleagues from the Local Authority who will review our teaching and learning. It is an opportunity for many things, doubtless – pre-OFSTED preparation, a chance to learn from people who operate in a different setting than us – but principally it is an opportunity to practice faithfulness – to Jesus, to each other, to our work, to the children, to ourselves and all that God has made us to be.