A little bit of hardship does the church good
It's become a common place to suggest that the British church is now living in exile, and it's easy to understand why. Like the Israelites of Jeremiah's day British believers are having to learn to live in a culture that no longer reflects, or even tolerates traditional Christian values.
The recent debate over same sex marriage has highlighted this truth very clearly. I have never belonged to a particular party but I am fascinated by the political process. I am not fazed by heated arguments; in fact I enjoy the cut and thrust that goes with it. But I have a real problem with intolerance. I struggle to come to terms with those who refuse to listen to reason and try to silence any voice that differs from the prevailing orthodoxy. All of which explains why I was appalled to read that the Tory MP leading the campaign against gay marriage had become the target of death threats and abuse on social media.
In the same way I have been deeply disappointed to discover that my local newspaper (The Western Telegraph) has been very willing to criticise our two local MPs for voting against the bill but will not even respond to my repeated requests to explain why they have not published my letter congratulating their political courage.
Having said that I am not despondent. We have been here before and the church has emerged all the better for the chastening experience. At the end of the eighteenth century for example evangelicals were excluded from national life because "They were regarded as narrow minded, bigoted, lacking in humour, devoid of imagination, incapable of understanding the real world, occupying a subculture which normal people would not with to enter" (Martin Robinson and Dwight Smith).
Given the current situation then, I would suggest we could do no better than reflect on the advice the prophet Jeremiah offered the exiles of his day. They were to settle down and make the most of what they had, even though they were living in a very inhospitable and sometimes hostile culture. They were to pray, and they were to do everything they could to ensure the prosperity of the place where they were. For their prosperity was linked to the prosperity of Babylon.
British Christians need to learn from this. We are where we are because this is where God wants us to be. He has not lost control of the situation. He is still in charge and we are not here by accident. For whatever reason He expects us to live for him here and now, neither dwelling nostalgically on the past nor whimsically dreaming of some Utopian future.
This is still God's world. We have a responsibility to argue our case but even more urgently to shine for Him. We have a God given task but this is not to be equated with filling our church pews. God expects us to live in such a way that kindness and graciousness become fashionable again. He wants us to live such authentically Biblical lives that our calls for justice will ring true. We need to begin to measure our success by the impact on our communities rather than by the number of people who turn up to our services on a Sunday.
And as we enter yet another Lenten period it might be worth reflecting on the words of Tom Smail who once suggested that at its worst charismatic renewal was nothing more than "middle aged ladies giving thanks for daffodils".
We can get it wrong both ways, he suggested. We can go around doing good without being anointed by the Holy Spirit (and ultimately fail) or we can retreat from the world and shut ourselves up in some kind of holy huddle (a contradiction in terms). We are called to live "a third way". If we want to be like Jesus we must resist both temptations and ask God to give us the power and the compassion to win our communities for Christ.