Sunday, 18 September 2016

Blessed Are The Desperate?

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit...
Blessed is the lamb, whose blood flows...
Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on...
Oh lord, why have you forsaken me?"

Blessed ... really?

I was at a "Continuing Ministerial Development" course on Thursday on "Preaching the Gospel of Matthew". I came away feeling it had been interesting but not really that useful. With one notable exception, it was full of academically inclined people talking in abstracts. Inevitable perhaps, given the CofE approach to selecting and training authorised ministers.

I don't mind abstract ideas myself, but it's been a really busy week and I have a painful back, so my initial response was that it hadn't been an effective use of the day.

One thing which we did look at was the Beatitudes - the opening to the Sermon on the Mount which Paul Simon so evocatively rephrases in his song above. I was part of a small group looking at this, which happened to include the one exception to the academic mould. She focussed us with the practical example of a young mum without the money to buy a can of beans. Is she blessed? Is that what the beatitudes are telling us?

Given a practical focus, the academic stuff sometimes comes in handy. Someone else in the group knew Oscar Wilde's De Profundis - a letter written from Reading Prison, where Wilde had been imprisoned with hard labour for 'gross indecency'. In this he writes that his first year of imprisonment was pure hell, but in the second year he was able to come to terms with all that was happening and use it to connect with Christ and with humanity.
"The poor are wise, more charitable, more kind, more sensitive than we are. In their eyes prison is a tragedy in a man's life, a misfortune, a casuality, something that calls for sympathy in others. They speak of one who is in prison as of one who is 'in trouble' simply. It is the phrase they always use, and the expression has the perfect wisdom of love in it. With people of our own rank it is different. With us, prison makes a man a pariah. I, and such as I am, have hardly any right to air and sun. Our presence taints the pleasures of others. We are unwelcome when we reappear."
To be honest, I'm not a huge fan of Wilde myself - to me he seems overly flowery and full of himself, even whilst celebrating his own 'humility'.

Nevertheless, there is something here about reality, and about our inability to face it when we are comfortable. There is also something, it seems to me, about God bringing good out of situations which are not good. To my mind it is wrong to speak of God making bad things happen, to serve a greater end. But it is true, I think, that God can take the bad things which inevitably do happen in this fallen world and can transform their outcomes: evil happens but in Christ comes resurrection.

There's a famous old sermon called "Sunday's comin'" which speaks of the hopelessness that goes with Good Friday - but, unseen and unexpected, "Sunday's coming".

Somewhere in the beatitudes stands a truth that sometimes it's easier to see light when we stand in darkness, that in Jesus despair transforms to hope, and that God can raise the deadest of dead. And, in due course, a full resurrection is coming when suffering and dying and hopelessness will be no more.

By the way, that young mum who couldn't afford beans - it was a local church who were her blessing. They went out and bought her a pack of food, including bread and beans. It's not a solution, but it was a blessing. The future is in God's hands ... and Christ's people stand as his hands and feet, heart and voice, and - sometimes - his shoppers for beans.

May your week ahead be redeemed by hope and grace in Jesus, whatever you may face.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

You Are Loved

Churches can be so frustrating sometimes!

It's a month since the EU Referendum result, when a truly horrible campaign from leaders of both sides led to a situation characterised by anger, despair and terrible division. Churches in this part of the world have talked internally about prayer and reconciliation over this period, but bog-all is visible externally.

Some of that, of course, is down to uncertainty about what can be done on a corporate level. Individually, being nice to foreigners and buying The Big Issue seem to be the order of the day, and the need for reconciliation has turned up in a sermon or two (most fervently in one case where the preacher had witnessed a racist attack in the middle of Reading the previous day). But that seems to be about the lot, in spite of the Bishop of Reading putting out a call for churches to get involved.

I'm not good at grand ideas, even less good at organising people, but surely we could start by doing something as simple and visible as telling people they are loved (even that idea I nicked from the Big Issue).

This is a core belief within Christianity: "God is love", "For God so loved the world", and so on. And the churches in CTM Parish were already being challenged by the PMC team to do something more positive with our noticeboards. It's not brain surgery.

I thought we had agreement to do some sort of poster a couple or three weeks back. So when I drove past St John's a few days ago I deliberately looked at the noticeboard to see what it said. "Thieves beware!" was all I could read from the road. :(

I need to check I am not treading on anyone's toes, that there is nothing already underway, but it looks as though I'll just have to put something up myself. This is my default approach, if I'm honest, and I've deliberately spent the past month trying to do things a better way: to get others involved; to cooperate, coordinate and consult; to seek better ideas and better ways of implementing them. Hmm.

I started this post intending to come from a completely different angle, actually, prompted by this post from HTB which makes the disappointing assumption that all parents feel instant and overwhelming love for their children and, more seriously, that all children are loved by their parents. It seems to me that maybe amongst those who most need to know that they are loved are precisely those who have least prior knowledge of their parents' love.

One role for the church is to show what love looks and feels like in practice, so people can have a starting point for recognising the love of God, whatever their background may be.

The referendum exposed deep divisions and insecurities in our communities. But these were already there, really. People need to know that they are loved, then that love can overflow to their neighbours. As I said before, it's not brain surgery - but it does seem remarkably difficult to do anything about in practice.

Fortunately I do believe in a God of miracles (as well as love)!

Edit 15/08/16:

It turns out that the poster was actually underway. A week or so back it turned up on our noticeboard, which now looks like this:


The person who did the posters is a gifted graphic artist, so I can only assume the brief he was given was somewhat ... unassuming.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Us & Them On So Many Levels



June really hasn't been a good month.

This is a picture of Stanford rapist Brock Turner: white, wealthy, privileged. When he found an unconscious women rather than helping her he began to rape her.

Some people came along and caught him so technically I suppose he is an 'attempted rapist', but he got far enough that the woman reportedly had dirt and grass inside her when they treated her in hospital.

He was sentenced to just six months in prison, reportedly reduced to four, by a judge who shared his background, and he and his family are appealing that as too harsh. His victim, once she had been treated, was articulate enough to ensure the case came to wider notice: a shocking example of 'them & us' in US society.

Melissa Etheridge's song, at the top of this post, was written in response to the mass murder at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando this month.

A deeply homophobic man shot dead 49 people and wounded 53 others. Behind him lay a deeply homophobic family, living in a deeply homophobic culture, surrounded by deeply homophobic churches (and presumably mosques).

Homosexuality has been a divisive issue across the world in recent years. My question on such things is "where are the haters?" Those who spread hatred of others are not God's people; and those who would divide Christ's body are nothing to do with Jesus.

Then we come to the UK's EU referendum campaign. The picture shown was probably the low point of a generally negative campaign. 

Both the Leave and Remain official campaigns focused on fear-mongering and negative propaganda. Both the official and unofficial Leave groups hammered away relentlessly at immigration and at people's fear and resentment of 'the other'.

Now the result is out and it seems the Leave campaigns worked - at least among older voters. The picture below, in many variations, is widely shared on social media by younger people angry at what they see as a betrayal of their future by those who won't have to live with the consequences. I suppose 'us & them' across generations is nothing new, but the anger is real.


I was going to put up picture of those utterly stupid politicians whose response to a crisis is to play politics and ignore the needs of the country. In many ways it was the Conservative party's internal politics, especially the ambition of Boris Johnson, which created the crisis, now Labour's MPs have decided they'd rather play leadership games than help rebuild the unity this country desperately needs to face a challenging future. The us & them of a broken political system.

In my view the most apposite comment was used as a headline by the Guardian newspaper: "If you've got money, you vote in ... if you haven't got money, you vote out." Subheading: "Brexit is about more than the EU: it’s about class, inequality, and voters feeling excluded from politics. So how do we even begin to put Britain the right way up?"

So much of the anger, so many of the divisions, arise from the deep and increasing inequalities within our society. A lot of the Remain campaign was based around fear of losing what we have got; to many that means nothing. A lot of the resentment of immigrants and minorities flows from insecurity, uncertainty, and a feeling someone must be to blame.

I'd like to come up with a nice 'Christian' solution to all this: "love one another," perhaps, "then everything will be wonderful." Meaningless! If we loved one another we wouldn't have the problems anyway. "Jesus Christ died to bring reconciliation," is at least apposite, but lacking in how and when.

At the moment my feelings are more in line with Habakkuk: how long, O Lord, is this unholy mess going to continue? When will there be justice and peace and cleansing?



Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Truth, Unity, Humility & Grace


There are two big lessons to learn from church history. The first is that people never learn from church history. The second is that living in unity has been a problem all the way from the New Testament to the 21st Century.

I've been working with Paul's letter to the Galatians a lot over the past few months and a major issue raising its head as soon as Gentiles started joining churches in significant numbers was that Jewish Law blocked Jews and non-Jews from eating together. Basically it would have meant two separate churches: one containing Jewish Christians, one containing non-Jewish Christians, plus a few people who made sacrifices to break the boundaries. Paul hated that: there is one Jesus, there is one body, one people of God, undivided.

It has been particularly abhorrent to me therefore that there are 21st Century churchgoers who will refuse to receive communion with other churchgoers because of their views on particular hot-button issues - often claiming adherence to 'Biblical values' as their justification. Do they not read those Bibles?

The challenge is to combine unity with truth. If I sincerely believe the person next to me at the altar rail is living an immoral life, shouldn't I be making a stand? Actually I'm not sure 'sincerity' has a lot to do with truth: I can sincerely believe that the world is flat but that doesn't make it true. If it comes to that, the sincerity of my belief that the world is round (more or less) doesn't make a lot of odds to whether that belief is true either.

As I write it's only a couple of days since the atrocity in Orlando, so I'll skip that particular issue and go with something else which bugs me.

I believe that when God made man out of the dust of the ground he used evolution to do it. For me God's word and God's handiwork are in clear agreement.

However, I have no problem with those who say that God created the world exactly as described by a mechanistic reading of Genesis 1; that he created dinosaur bones because, let's face it, dinosaurs are cool and God wanted the best for us; and that the mechanical inconsistencies between chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis are down to our limited understanding and we just have to trust God. I'm all in favour of trusting God, that's what faith is all about.

Where I do have a problem is with people like the 'Creation Science Movement' and 'Answers in Genesis' who go way beyond that, raising towering edifices of intellectual speculation which not only go far beyond either science or Scripture, but actually end up contradicting both. They really wind me up. But what pushes me to the edge is when they follow up by saying that anyone who believes in anything different is not a Bible-believing Christian and that disbelieving their particular interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis is tantamount to disbelieving the Gospel.

Some years back a couple came along to a housegroup I was leading pushing this view hard. I was fine so long as they simply stated their opinion, but as soon as they started rubbishing other views I had to point out that many faithful Bible believing Christians had different approaches to understanding what the Bible says on this topic, and that the mainstream orthodox Christian view on the matter is, and generally has been throughout history, considerably more nuanced than the approach they were pushing so determinedly.

Truth matters and they were moving beyond legitimate (if irritating) opinion and interpretation into downright falsehood. The Gospel is about God's love shown through Jesus, crucified and raised. Anyone can put their faith in that, irrespective of their beliefs, or lack of, in evolution, special creation, Noah's flood, or pretty much anything else in the Old Testament. Not that I don't think the Old Testament is important - I do -but Jesus and his amazing news is where new life is at.

They didn't come back, but if they had they would have been welcomed (possibly with an internal wince); I'd happily have eaten with them at the next housegroup social; and I did share communion with them next time it came around. Truth matters, and sometimes (but not always) needs to be stated, but disagreements don't have to break community.

Part of that is about humility and God's grace. I know I get things wrong, both in belief (my beliefs on some issues have moved a fair way over the past twenty years) and in terms of moral behaviour (try reading the Sermon on the Mount openly and honestly), but I come to the communion table acknowledging my failure and depending on the Grace of God, through Jesus. If I do that for myself, surely I have to allow the same Grace for the person next to me. If I think they have faults which I don't happen to share that makes no difference, I doubtless fail in areas where they succeed.

Mealy-mouthed Pharisaisms about my sin being repented and theirs not are just poor and arrogant excuses - Jesus paid the price, not me.

Are there limits? What about Westboro Baptist 'Church', obscenely gloating after the Orlando shooting? If I reckon (as I do) that WBC has nothing at all to do with Jesus, or with the body of Christ, how is that different from the person I recently spoke to who thought the same about the Roman Catholic Church? To be fair, he did make a distinction, which I would tend to agree with, between the organisation and some of its members.

There certainly are limits to my tolerance and willingness to associate with those who so strongly deny and oppose in all they do Jesus and his Gospel. Are there similar limits to God's forgivess and Grace? I doubt it, but God's God and I'm not.

In the end we all have to wonder in humility at the grace shown by God, through Jesus, and do all we can to live in the tension of truth and unity, recognising that we fail but trusting the God who loves us anyway.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Galatians: Service Not Status

From Paul, an apostle (not from men, nor by human agency, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead) and all the brothers with me, to the churches of Galatia.

It is a sad commentary on church history that most books on Galatians treat this opening of Paul's letter as being about him emphasising his own status and authority.

In the days before Skype, emails, or even telephones a ruler often couldn’t speak directly to someone far away, so he’d send a trusted apostolos as his envoy or messenger to carry his words to them.  But an apostle was not just any old messenger, he was someone especially tasked and trusted to relay the message precisely and faithfully, in the name of his master, without distortion or elaboration. It was an honourable role, but also a servant role.

So Paul begins his letter not by emphasising his own authority, but by de-emphasising it. As he goes on to say, his own history of persecuting Jesus' followers leaves him no right to expect any status on his own account. But he does have a message to give.

It's a message he has passed on faithfully once, and he is duty-bound to pass it on again in the face of confusion, distortion and misunderstanding. He cannot vary it nor can he reverse it, because he is an apostle - the message is not his but comes from Jesus.

For Paul had already given this message of the glorious news of Jesus to the people he had met in the towns of Southern Galatia, and they had responded. They had trusted in God’s message, they had responded to Jesus, and they had received his Spirit.

But now they were becoming confused. It looks as though the same people who had been stirring up trouble in Antioch (see this post from early in the year) had carried on to Galatia, spreading their different message to the new non-Jewish converts that, having been accepted into God’s people, through Jesus, they now needed to follow Jewish ways: being circumcised and obeying Jewish Law.

So Paul is writing to repeat his message, the one he received personally from Jesus. He will use this letter to expand on its meaning and emphasise its importance, but the message remains the same. Jesus has changed everything, everyone is welcomed into his community, and his Spirit is the true mark of his people. Jesus has given himself to set us free, and that is sufficient.