O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth, show thyself

jesuswept-300x225The abuse scandals in the Church of England haven’t featured in this blog up to now. This is not because I don’t care, but rather because I care so much. I’m so incandescent with rage that I hardly know what to write.

Anybody who wants a flavour of what’s been going on could start by dipping into two websites: Thinking Anglicans and Archbishop Cranmer. If you can’t be bothered, then take it from me that the institutional Church of England is secretive, evasive, cruel and corrupt. The people who work at the coal face, paid and unpaid, are by and large utterly decent and thoroughly commendable, but they don’t know the half of what goes on in the sleazy corridors of power.

It’s difficult to preach about this because, to be frank, the bulk of the punters simply don’t want to know. They come for a weekly fix of what they’ve always done on Sunday before pootling off to the pub or the local beauty spot. The last thing they want is for their complacency to be sullied by deeply unpalatable facts about the organisation that they profess to be part of. The latest morsel to come our way is the extent to which the tentacles of the establishment infiltrate this fetid, decaying corruption. Read this: Nobody’s Friends

Of all the issues that the Church should be concerned with, this—abuse in all its forms—is the topic that eats away at me the most. I’ve no idea why this should be so, for I don’t recall ever having been on the receiving end, except as I relate below.

At school I was taunted for being fat, bookish, wearing specs, and being more interested in church music than in grabbing other boys’ scrotums in the scrum. But I didn’t regard this as abuse then, and don’t now. I wasn’t at boarding school so had no experience of what is alleged to have gone on in some of them. As a church musician I soon became aware of the need to maintain distance between young choristers and me, and on the two occasions when I felt I’d overstepped the mark I visited the parents to apologize.

So, as I say, I’m not sure why the revelations of abuse should so affect me other than being profoundly disappointed in an organization that professes to be Godly. Every fibre of my being goes out to those who have suffered.

I am ashamed to be a public representative of the Church of England. I was ordained at the age of 56 (now 69) and I wonder if I’ve wasted the last thirteen years of my life—a fool to have been seduced by the institution. Am I alone amongst clergy in feeling this? And there has been not a single word of encouragement from any bishop.

In other walks of life, the boss might sympathize with the plight of embattled foot-soldiers, assuring them (us) of support when needed. I can imagine a Brigadier encouraging the troops after a battle that didn’t go to plan, in order to restore morale.

But not a peep from Church of England hierarchs.

I must confess to a feeling of schadenfreude about the John Smyth and Jonathan Fletcher stories. At several points in my life I’ve been assailed by evangelical so-called Christians who have condemned my views, and assured me that I’m destined for hellfire unless I believe precisely what they believe. This happened in childhood (rural Methodism), at university where some of the most oleaginous and judgmental creeps imaginable (Cambridge Christian Union types) poured scorn on us “College Chapel” Christians, and since then at meetings of Churches Together, especially in Chesterfield and Burton.

All this could be regarded as abusive, so there’s a certain guilty pleasure in seeing that the scions of these corruptions of Christianity now stand with their reputations in tatters. To read that one of them beat the crap out of an adolescent boy, to the extent that blood was gushing down his legs, puts that form of “Christianity” in its proper place. Just imagine: eight hundred lashes—they had to break for lunch—as punishment for a wank, or some such. Ye Gods. Satanists would be more humane.

About five years ago my elder son told me that if I willed any of my estate to the church he would utter incantations and stick pins into a clay doll made in my image. There is no danger of that. After a lifetime of sacrificial giving to the church, not one penny more will go to this cruel, hypocritical and putrid institution.

What a joy

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A good vicar

It is Rambling Rector’s considered opinion, based on 11 years as an incumbent, that people who contact him in their quest to find out about family history are – how shall he put this? – ah yes – a pain in the hole.

They seem to imagine that he has nothing better to do than to drop everything, run to their aid, and accede to their every loopy demand.

They seem to imagine that when he sees an email in his inbox headed “Family history enquiry”, his heart overflows with joy and his life is complete. “Oh whoopee!” they think he thinks, “another enquiry about dead people. Yippee!”

Reader, this is far from the truth. This Vicar, be it understood, is concerned with the living. He doesn’t give two hoots about the dead or about memorials or vaults or tombs or other manifestations of family arrogance and pride.

It’s icing on the cake when people announce that they’re coming to Burton on such and such a date, or are standing at the church, and demand that someone let them in. RR can barely be civil at such impoliteness. The notion that they might have consulted in advance is foreign to them. RR detects an attitude of entitlement that is common in the white middle classes. Perhaps they think that the Church of England is part of the NHS, funded by their taxes.

To all of you out there who might be thinking of contacting the Vicar of the church where your forbears lived, or worshipped, or were baptized, married or buried centuries ago, I say “don’t”. Just don’t.

Find another hobby. Go for a walk. Kick the cat. Take up foxy boxing.

But leave the Vicar alone.

Priesthood

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Agony

Homily by Rambling Rector at Robin Trotter’s first mass, 22 June 2019.

Proper 7: Isaiah 65:1-9. Luke 8:26-39

Isaiah 65:1-9, my précis based on The Message: 

I’ve made myself available to those who haven’t bothered to ask. I kept saying ‘I’m here’, but they ignore me. They get on my nerves. They make up their own religion, a potluck stew. They spend the night in tombs to get messages from the dead, eat forbidden foods and drink potions and charms. They say, ‘don’t touch me. I’m holier than thou.’ These people make me sick. But the Lord says they’ll get their comeuppance—actions have consequences.

All clerks in holy orders can sympathise with the prophet as they deal with people who appear to have ears but hear not. Robin, you will need fire in your belly and steel in your spine if you are to minister as priest to the wayward group of individuals that make up a church.

You will need fire in your belly and steel in your spine if you are to do as you promised yesterday: to teach and to admonish, to resist evil, support the weak, and defend the poor. Note the word admonish. This is more than warn, or premonish as the Book of Common Prayer has it; you are to rebuke, to challenge bad behaviour—and there is plenty of that in churches.

Did you notice that people in tombs feature in both readings? In Greek, tomb is mnema, which gives us memory, memorial, mnemonic. People living in the past, people who moan constantly that the solution to all the church’s problems is to have things as they were when they were young—it’s piffle, of course, because things never were as they imagine. There is plenty of that in churches.

The priest is to pull people out of the tombs they live in. It is often said that the Lord loves us where we are, but loves us too much to leave us festering there.

Demons

The things I want to explore in the rest of this homily are demons, like those driven into the pigs as we heard in the Gospel—in our world today, addictions, obsessions, fixed false beliefs.

The three demons that afflict us, and that do untold damage to us as priests, are those that we hear of in the Lord’s wilderness temptations:

  • the demon that incites us to seek personal gain;
  • the demon that incites us to want to be worshipped;
  • the demon that incites us to be in control.

Desire for personal gain. This isn’t likely to affect you much, Robin, since, quite frankly, you’re already pretty long in the tooth—OAP soon—and anyway there’s nowhere for you to go. It would have afflicted me had I been ordained younger. I would have hankered after promotion of some sort, for that was part of who I was. But ordination at the age of 56 meant, thanks be to God, it was too late.

Desire to be worshipped, to be known, “look at me”. This afflicts so many clergy. They want to please people, they want to fix people—like you used to do when you were a GP. They don’t challenge bad behaviour. They can’t cope with being wrong. They certainly don’t admonish. As a result, they leave behind them a trail of dissatisfaction and resentment, for they never actually do what they say they will. I know such a bishop, now retired.

Rather than aiming to be worshipped, priests must cultivate an air of detachment. They can’t afford to be too friendly with any group of parishioners, for then they will be seen as being partial. This will be difficult for you, Robin, having being known in these churches for 30 years and more, but you must work at it. You need to have friends who have nothing to do with church or religion. They will ground you in reality rather than in the la-la land that the Church of England has become. My own experience is that it’s easier to be open with non-church people—and vice versa—than with many church people who have expectations of what the Vicar should be, and I don’t meet any of them, thank God.

Desire to be in control. This is a truly evil and pernicious beast. It leads you to think that you should fill your diary, that you are very important, that you should pursue success (see how all the demons merge into one another?). It leads you to underestimate the value of masterly inactivity, the solution to many problems in life as in medicine. After all, if what they say is true, this is God’s church, not yours, not mine, not even the wardens’, and no amount of flapping around like a demented hen will achieve anything of value. If in doubt, do nowt.

Incompetence

Embrace incompetence. Theological training prepared me for critical study of scripture and introduced me to the riches of speculative theology, but it did nothing for me liturgically (being an organist did that); it did nothing to prepare me for wedding legalities, building maintenance, fundraising, financial management, being an entrepreneur … the list is endless. It certainly did nothing to train me, or even interest me, in managing flower arrangers.

I am an incompetent priest. I stand at the altar celebrating the holy mysteries aware of my selfishness, hypocrisy, uselessness, fickleness, laziness, arrogance, and yet there I am, not ashamed but accepting of all this, just me. I may have 26 letters after my name, but not one of them means anything of value. A priest is a doorway between the terrestrial and the Divine. My imperfections gather up those of my people and point them to the Divine—and vice versa: made like him, like him we rise.

In words of, I think, Chesterton, if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Indeed, Robin, if you don’t think you are rubbish at priesthood, then you haven’t properly understood it. A former Director of Ministry, now an Archdeacon, said “I used to tell ordinands that if they didn’t find a tension between the job they were asked to do and their personal integrity, they were brain-dead.” You are not brain dead. You will find that tension. It will hurt.

Finally, don’t be tempted to think that things are either right or wrong. Polarisation is hardly ever appropriate, not even in science, not in cosmology or particle physics, and not in pastoral ministry where either/or is actually both/and.

From Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Priesthood is that ruined house in which is a wellspring of Divine grace.

Spurn success. Embrace incompetence. And may the Lord be with you.

Inadequacies of ministerial training

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A good vicar

Two phone calls

“Can you help? We’re at the church—Irish family in a bit of bother”. Man, County Wicklow accent maybe.

They’ve got the wrong St Modwen’s, thought I: they need to ring the Catholics. “Which church?”

“St Aidan’s.”

Not the wrong church, so. I make another assumption: they want money or accommodation. The first I can deal with, the second I can direct them elsewhere.

I suggest they ring YMCA and was just about to give yer man the number when:

“They can’t help” says he.

“What exactly do you need?” says I.

“Car’s broken down outside church.”

I laugh. “I can’t help either” I say. If they knew me they’d know that I can barely find the oil doodah.

Phone slammed down (or the equivalent for a mobile).

I know a fair number of Irish priests, not one of whom would have been able to help. Maybe I know the wrong sort.

*******

“Is that Dr Monkhouse?” Man, posh accent, a bit smarmy. Hackles rise.

“It is.”

“I’m at the church and I’d like to see the monuments.”

“Which church?”

St Modwen’s in the market place it transpires. A car trip necessary. I ask him if he expects me to drop what I’m doing to open the church for him (yes, I agree, it should be open all day, but don’t get me started on that).

“Well, I’ve come a long way.”

“You could have rung to arrange this” says I. No response. I tell him he’ll have to wait maybe 30 minutes or so.

Eventually I drive there.

Tall, a bit dishevelled, in his 60s I guess. Bohemian unkempt longish hair. At least he has some.

I am not welcoming.

“I wasn’t ordained to care about church monuments, you know, and I have better things to do on a Monday morning than this”. Like watching a film on Netflix – I’m always exhausted on a Monday. I didn’t say about Netflix—merely thought it.

“I’m sorry. I should have rung in advance.”

“Yes you should. I have no time for memorials. They’re all about the past—egocentric people with notions above themselves.”

“Yes, I suppose that’s true.”

“When you’ve finished, let yourself out and shut the door behind you.”

*******

Car mechanic? Expert on memorials? Neither topic covered in training.

Because of this, Susan returned from walking the dog to find the car not there, so that discombobulated her day.

 

A feral priest

michael ramseyChurch magazine February 2019

Michael Ramsey was the greatest Archbishop of Canterbury since 1900. There are two biographies published: the more scholarly by Owen Chadwick, which repays reading again and again; the other more affectionate and gossipy by Ramsey’s one time press officer, Michael De-La-Noye. The latter reports that Ramsey was more than once to be found chanting “I hate the Church of England, I hate the Church of England, I hate the Church of England”.

In the thirteen years since I was ordained, the Church of England has changed beyond recognition. I could be wrong, mind you—it could be that the changes began sooner but I didn’t appreciate them, having been in Ireland, but whenever they started, they have been damaging.

The Church is in real danger of becoming an exclusive sect where one is accepted only if one can sign up to a particular set of beliefs, a particular view on the atonement, a particular view on the interpretation of the creeds, a particular view on the afterlife. And more. This is not my sort of church.

My sort of church is truly catholic where everyone is welcome no matter what his or her views, to explore the thing that I call The Divine. Instead of its being for all, it’s becoming a hobby group for middle class club members only. Some churches even organise people into fellowship groups that can be used to keep an eye on the purity of members—beliefs, way of life—just like secret police in a totalitarian regime.

Of course, the church IS a totalitarian regime, or its apparatchiks would like it to be. But the truth is that however much archbishops and bishops and General Synods may pontificate and huff and puff about how they think we proles should live and what we should believe, congregations have their own ideas. I don’t know anyone who bases their thoughts, opinions or actions on what bishops say.

If you read the news emanating from the Church of England HQ, Lambeth Palace, or the House of Bishops, you will see that the church is in a constant state of warfare between its different parties. Some don’t mind same-sex marriage, some do. Some are happy to affirm gender redesignation, others are not. Some are supportive of women bishops and priests, others are not. Some think that every word in the bible is literally true, some do not. And more, with all stations between the extremes.

All this is a criminal waste of energy. I’m not bothered what you think of the virginity of Mary. I’m not bothered whether you think priests have magical powers or not. I’m not bothered what you believe about sacraments. I’m not bothered whether you think the resurrection/ascension is historical fact or entirely metaphorical. I’m not bothered what any of you do with your genitals alone or in the context of a mutually respectful relationship.

What I’m bothered about is the teaching and example of Jesus. And from what I read about the early church, that’s the only thing they cared about too (after all, most of the doctrine hadn’t been invented then). And the bottom line of that teaching is liberation, healing, salvation, redemption—all words for the same thing—the purpose of which is that we have life abundant: that we grasp life’s opportunities and make good use of them and—a crucial point—help everyone else to do likewise. The common good. That we use our gifts and skills for the benefit of others and ourselves. That we free ourselves from the things that tie us down, that restrict our vision, such as ways of thinking, ways of acting, addictions, obsessions—all things that prevent us rising like “the lark ascending” so that we may approach The Divine, that we may all be sons and daughters of The Divine.

Enlargissez Dieu.

In the words of the great Advent carol, This is the truth sent from above: “and if you want to know the way, be pleased to hear what he did say”; and I would add “and did”. It really is as simple as that.

Liberation. Freedom from attachments—attachments to people, to family, to emotions, to desires, to ways of thinking, to addictions—all addictions, not just chemical. This is a Buddhist message too. Trouble is, it’s hard work. It requires you to delve into your psyche to identify the things that keep you in your rut. It’s such hard work, in fact, that the church gave up on it and instead made it into a punishment/reward exercise with the promise that the more ticks you get in the class register, and the more gold stars for your portfolio, the better seat you’ll have in the afterlife.

Let me make it quite plain: I don’t care about the afterlife either. I’ve heard of a Catholic theologian (name escapes me at present) who said that belief in the afterlife is not a necessary prerequisite of being Christian. I long to meet Hugh in the afterlife (I can’t even type this without filling up), but I don’t bet on it—there is nothing in scripture or doctrine that says I shall.

I don’t know that I would go as far as Michael Ramsey in saying that I hate the Church of England, at least not until I’m in receipt of its pension, but I certainly think its current direction is wrong, wrong, wrong. I’m not much bothered about bishops and hierarchies, and that’s putting it mildly. I’m not that bothered about creeds: I can interpret them as I wish—and I do.

What I AM bothered about is life abundant. Not life resisting, not life begrudging, not life bemoaning, not life denying, but life abundant. Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father which is in heaven; or as the well-known American theologian Dolly Parton might say, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. This, the psychological authenticity of the gospel, keeps me in the job.

Christian life and liturgy are not about being entertained like Sunday morning at the London Palladium. They’re not about collecting Duke of Edinburgh awards in caring or sharing or being pious or knowing when to do this that or the other. Life and liturgy are about celebrating our humanity with beauty in all its manifestations.

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In need of restoration

I was raised in a staid, repressed environment, in some ways puritanical. It has been a long journey for me, though I started quite young. I wonder if it comes easily to us staid, repressed English to look into our hearts.

I leave you with an extract from J L Carr’s short novel A month in the country, a beautiful work made into a beautiful film with Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh, Natasha Richardson and Patrick Malahide. The vicar (Malahide in the film) is talking to a young WW1 veteran (Firth) who has come to restore a painting in the village church, thereby also restoring himself after the horrors of the trenches:

The English are not a deeply religious people. Even many of those who attend divine service do so from habit. Their acceptance of the sacrament is perfunctory: I have yet to meet the man whose hair rose at the nape of his neck because he was about to taste the blood of his dying Lord. Even when they visit their church in large numbers, at Harvest Thanksgiving or the Christmas Midnight Mass, it is no more than a pagan salute to the passing seasons. They do not need me. I come in useful at baptisms, weddings, funerals. Chiefly funerals – they employ me as a removal contractor to see them safely flitted into their last house.’ He laughed bitterly.

I may not hate the Church of England—yet—but I would regard it a badge of honour to be called a wild, angry and uncontrollable priest. A feral priest.

His Holiness Archimandrite Phillip Jefferies

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A good vicar

October 2018 St Paul’s mag

By the time you read this, the Jefferies extravaganza will be over. As someone ordained priest only 11 years ago, I find it difficult to imagine what it must be like having been a priest for 50 years. How has he not been bored, year in year out? How has he managed to keep his patience? How has he managed to cope with the increasingly bureaucratic, meddling and managerial Church of England? I can’t answer for him so I’ll ask him to write something for next month’s magazine on half a century of priesthood.

It’s also half a century of marriage. Ye Gods, how has Rose managed to cope with him? I would be interested to read Rose’s reflections. I shall ask her to dish the dirt too. Behind every successful man is an astonished mother-in-law, but I guess it’s too late to ask her.

There are some terrible gobshites amongst the clergy. Phillip is not one of them. You might expect someone who has had a ministry like his, someone who has been (and is) as respected as he is, to be difficult to work with as a retired colleague. You might imagine that he would be telling me how he did things, and how I’m doing it all wrong, and generally waving it around to try and make me feel inferior.

Phillip does none of that. I hope he won’t disagree with me when I say that we have a great time. We exchange views. He gives advice when I ask for it, which is often. He answers questions honestly. I have no sense that he tells me only what he thinks I want to hear. He encourages me to take more risks than I do because, I sense, he feels he didn’t himself take enough. And thanks be to God, he is eye-twinklingly intelligent—which puts him in a tiny minority of clergy, I can tell you: him and me, in fact.

In short, I couldn’t wish for a better colleague. He had to retire when he was 65 under the terms of his appointment as Team Rector of Stafford, and here he is working with someone who’s 68. But he doesn’t take it out on me.

He will soon be submitting to the surgeon’s knife—if, that is, a heart lurks somewhere in Phillip’s thorax. I hope that his personality and inherent naughtiness will survive surgery intact, or even be enhanced, so that he and I can egg each other on to further heights of mischief.

Thank you Phillip: you’re a darling.

From Iona’s isle

213420.bHomily for Patronal Festival Evensong of the Church of St Aidan, Burton upon Trent

What attracted me, a Cumbrian village lad brought up in Chapel Sunday School, to defect to the Church of England when I was about 13? It was serious enough to lead to attempts at emotional blackmail by the Methodist minister about betraying family loyalty.

It was the liturgy and language of the Book of Common Prayer. Although I may by then have developed an ear for words—I was already consuming P G Wodehouse—what really appealed was the sense that these words and this liturgy had been used for over 400 years in this place, week-in, week-out. A matter of tradition.

What makes me begin every Sunday Mass at St Paul’s with the Trinitarian greeting in Latin? It’s not because I think I’m in Rome. It’s the feeling in some small way that those words have been said in similar circumstances for give or take 2,000 years. A matter of tradition.

The root of the word tradition is trade. It implies movement, transaction, development. It is not a static, sterile thing, but active and fluid. I like to know what a tradition is, and why and how it developed. I can use bits of it as suits me. In this morning’s readings we were reminded that tradition is not to be blindly followed, but is there for our sustenance. We live in the present and make plans, drawing on the best of the past as and when.

What, I wonder, did Aidan think of tradition? What would he have regarded as traditions? He is credited with the growth of the church in Northumbria. What would he be doing here in Burton, now? At this festival last year, George, the Diocesan Director for Mission said that we might see growth in the church if we could all tell one person the story of our Christian discipleship, encouraging them to join us and see for themselves.

I didn’t say so at the time, for I had no wish to be discourteous in public, but I didn’t agree with him. I don’t think that cuts the mustard these days.

First, I think many of us would be hard pressed to articulate our Christian formation. We came to church because we were made to. We found something that kept us coming, maybe singing, maybe shared interests, maybe community. We might occasionally have listened to Scripture or even to sermons, and gradually, very gradually we absorbed something of the Christian tradition. It has been, and remains, a slow process. It’s bit like the development of a fetus from one cell to a newborn baby: it’s impossible to point to one particular moment at which something dramatic happens, but over nine months the transformation is miraculous. For many of us, that Christian transformation takes place over decades. I don’t believe that the thing that some people call conversion is an event. It’s a process. Even St Paul’s so-called conversion took place over days, rather than in a moment.

Second, the Christian story is not sufficiently compelling—or maybe is not told in a compelling enough fashion—to get people to change. In western Europe, we are, I think, too prosperous, not desperate enough. Look around the world at where Christianity flourishes—I’m not talking here of the prosperity gospel of the American evangelists: that is a perversion of Christianity.

And then there’s the public image of the church. At the moment it’s grim. Suffice it to say that the institutional church is seen by many as a safe-space for child abusers.

So I think telling people about Jesus, or telling them our personal story is unlikely to be effective. In our world, people are suspicious of institutions, and of anyone who tries to impose their point of view. Such a strategy is seen as manipulative, even abusive.

Sorry George, it’s not the way.

Rather than tell, let’s show. Actions speak louder than words. I’m much more impressed by what people do rather than what they say, and you might remember the gospel story comparing a man who says he won’t do something but then does it, with a man says he’ll do something but then fails to deliver.

We have sung a hymn written by John Bell of the Iona community. If there is something about Iona that infects people, then I like to think that this hymn has the spirit of Aidan in it—not tramping around the countryside yabbering on about Jesus, if he did, but showing Jesus in action.

Whatever else the traditions of the early church in these islands have given us, they have left us with that of confession: heart speaking to heart as we tell a friend our deepest fears. Those fears are so often about the lack of courage to change, being too comfortable, too complacent, too prosperous, as we surround ourselves with metaphorical fig leaves of luxury. Those fears lead us to live, as it were, behind electric gates, inclosed in our own fat, our mouth speaking proud things.

The words of the hymn are prophetic, demanding, shocking.

  • Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? Are you prepared to be changed?
  • Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?Are you prepared to acknowledge that what you want is not necessarily the Divine will?
  • Will you leave yourself behind?Are you prepared to acknowledge that what you want is no more important that what someone else wants? The crucifixion/ascension is the replacement of selfishness with selflessness. Are you prepared to give and not to count the cost?
  • Will you risk the hostile stare? Are you prepared to be unpopular?
  • Will you love the you you hide if I but call your name?Are you prepared to delve deep into your psyche to uncover your deepest darkest fears and impulses, and expose them to the light?
  • Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around?Are you prepared to fight? Fighting for justice is love in action.

If we want to attract people to the Christian message we can’t do better than show them what it is. Working for justice, tending the sick in mind or body, provoking people to leave the ruts they are in, getting people to see things differently. This is Jesus in action. It’s so much more authentic than simply telling people about Jesus. It’s utterly authentic psychology, utterly authentic Christian tradition, utterly authentic Christianity.