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27/11/16: Christian living (1): introduction

Firstly to say, very pleased to tell you that I now have my work permit so into the office as usual on Monday.  When the moment came it was all a bit sudden!  A few more thoughts on the last few weeks and those coming will be in future blog posts I'm sure.

Meanwhile, long standing (suffering?) readers of this blog will know that there have been a number of posts under the heading 'No frills cooking' inspired by my house guests of about a year ago, Tommy and Peace of the Operation Mobilisation ship Logos Hope.  More to come on this shortly, in advance of welcoming my friend Ruth here over the Christmas period I've been practising my vegetarian cooking, including substituting tofu for meat in casseroles with reasonable success so far.

I've decided that I want to start another occasional series entitlted 'Christian living', a matter to which I've been giving a certain amount of thought over the last few years.  I do very much hope that you'll tell me what you think, or maybe volunteer a guest blog on this theme.  Anyway, time for me to get started.

I've just been reading a book about the sociology of religion, a field of study which, in part, explores the question,why express a faith when you don't actually believe in it?  Aware that any experts in the field who are reading this will be grinding their teeth in exasperation at my pulverisation of their chosen area.  But let me give three examples to illustrate the point here.

Some years ago I started to attend the church I left to come out here to Tanzania.  Chatting over coffee after a service one Sunday, I discovered I was speaking to a plumber.  Fantastic, says I, and take his phone number.  Over the subsequent years he replaced the boiler, serviced it, and did a number of other things for me - and also my neighbour who saw him coming on one occasion.

Given that the opportunity arose, I'm really pleased that I found a plumber in that manner.  Whilst there are no absolutes here, I am very aware that I know nothing about the field, so if I'm told that the problem I have is going to be expensive to sort out, I have to trust him.  Also it was helpful on occasion to give him a key so that he could work when I wasn't there.  The fact that I saw him regularly on Sundays - and ended up playing piano for his daughter's flute exams - all helped to make me comfortable that I was dealing with somebody who would be straight with me, as he undoubtedly and always was.

Do I regard this as an example of the Christian community in action?  No, I don't.  A similar contact could have been the husband or wife of a colleague, or somebody I met through music circles.  Indeed, one could go so far as to say that this is the converse of Jesus' command, implicit in John 15:19, to be in the world but not of it. That is to say, that we had withdrawn from the world (although that is surely appropriate for relatively short periods of time each week) and were doing very much the kind of thing we might have done within it.  How many parents, I wonder, end up attending church for varying lengths of time in order to fulfill the admissions criteria for a popular church school?  Is this not another example of being of the world but not in it?

A second example was a couple in their late twenties / early thirties, both professionals working in central London and living in the suburbs of London with pre-teen children, active members of their local church.  With great fanfare they announced that they had been 'called to rural evangelism' as they moved outside of London into commuter territory.

Now, the call may well have been genuine, I am not in a position to comment on that.  But forgive me being a bit sceptical here.  Might non-Christians in the same personal and professional circumstances have made exactly the same move?  Yes, of course.  I would have found a call to live in a tough council estate a bit easier to believe, when there is a clear mismatch between the call on one hand and what people would be wanting to do for their own immediate reasons on the other.

My third example comes from visiting churches in East Africa when I am out and about, ready to work on Monday and already in situ on Sunday.  On one such occasion, in Coastal Kenya, the pastor said as part of the introduction to the service, "This is not entertainment."  Well, as considered in this blog post, when people say things like this I immediately assume that what they're saying is that this is, in fact, entertainment - or at the very least there is good reason to believe that it might be.  And in North West Uganda there were regular congregational hymn practices giving rise to the most amazing music with not a scrap of paper anywhere.  In places where there is very little money, few televisions and even radios, surely attendance at church services and other such events makes perfect sense from a social perspective, leave aside any belief in the Lord Jesus Christ?

One of the sessions I do with students is to consider the nature of professionalism within the teaching profession, and in that I make the point: we really know that we're being professional when there is a conflict between what we are doing for professional reasons and what we would want to be doing for purely personal reasons.  So, for example, we might consider that the appropriate way to respond to a misbehaving child is by being calm, positive and polite, when every fibre of our being is wanting to fight fire with fire.  Similarly, we really know that we are living as Christians when there is a conflict between what we are doing and what we would be wanting to do for other reasons.  So problem necessarily with what anybody is doing in the examples I give above, but there is no challenge, no conflict, with what we would be doing anyway.  Let me challenge all Christians - and indeed, all people of faith - as to what you are doing because of your faith that you would not be doing anyway.  Would love to hear from you if you're happy to share your answer!

I'll be looking to be more positive in future posts but wanted to dig myself a hole before then trying to climb out of it.  And one final thing: the specific reason for reading about the sociology of religion was to explore the extent and reasons why churches are segregated by social class, everything I could find seemed to be more concerned with ethnicity.  If you can point me in the direction of something suitable, very pleased to hear from you!

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