Sunday, September 28, 2014

What Are Sermons For?

Okay, as an occasional preacher I might be expected to know this.

But it's not really a question 'ministers' and preachers commonly ask. There is a stock answer - preaching & teaching - but that doesn't stand up well to closer inspection.

I am currently leading a review of our Parish Communion service, and how it can be more meaningful to occasional visitors, so I am inspecting more closely. At the moment I have more questions than answers ... not always a bad place to be.

'Preaching', in the Bible, means proclaiming: telling people good news about Jesus, or God's Kingdom. It's not news if people already know about it, so what's the point of preaching to a church congregation? 'Preaching to the converted' seems a meaningless exercise.

'Teaching' implies you expect people to know or understand more at the end than before you started. So in a church context you would expect people who have been listening to sermons for years and years to have a really good overall knowledge and understanding of the Bible and of Christian doctrine. My experience is that this seems to only apply to those who also attend some form of Bible Study group; otherwise Bible knowledge amongst long-term churchgoers seems more or less at the old Sunday School level.

Oddly, the same questions apply to different church traditions. Baptists have a different style of sermon, and they have more people in study groups, but you still get preaching to the converted and you still get long term members with minimal Bible knowledge. You also get quite a lot of telling people what to do: it's a lever of control for the priest in charge.

As I say, I don't have much in the way of answers to this, but I do have a few thoughts.

The first is that whilst preaching to the converted seems meaningless, it can have a point if the object is to give 'the converted' tools for sharing their faith with others. Articulating what we believe can be difficult, so having it presented in a clear and meaningful way in a sermon can be helpful in clarifying our own thoughts and words.

Secondly, if teaching is a part of the purpose then we really need to update our communication methods. A formal monologue, without visual support, is widely recognised, at least by the rest of the world, to be an ineffective means of communicating and teaching. People learn by hearing and seeing and doing - different people weight these three differently but everyone needs a balance. Sitting passively while a preacher talks at you is no way to learn anything. So, if teaching is seen as important, the sermon slot needs to incorporate visuals and actions - not a monologue but a dialogue (polylogue? - apparently not).

Sermon slot as a lever? I'm not a priest in charge, so that isn't really my area. A common example is the sermon telling us we should be giving more money and/or time to the church; there is some point to these but the way they are done tends to leave me feeling cynical. We did have a subtler example this morning with the sermon slot given to a lady from an organisation who arrange visits for the housebound and lonely in the area. Our priest in charge is a great believer in church members engaging with the community, so this is him presenting us with an opportunity to do just that. Fair play to him.

At the end of the day, the purpose of a sermon slot is really not my call. Preachers are there to serve the congregation, not to impose on it.

So what do you think sermons should be for? If you are a churchgoer, what works for you? If not, what do you consider would be a positive experience during a 15-30 minute period following one or more Bible readings?

I genuinely would like to know.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

All Change

We spent yesterday driving down the motorway to deliver our daughter (and a huge pile of stuff) to her new accommodation as she starts life at university. Very stressful and rather teary ... she was upset too ;)

Meanwhile our son, who graduated in July, looks like he has a job and will be leaving home in a couple of weeks. Likely another stressful, teary occasion, along a different motorway.

Then it will be just the two of us, at least during term time. However will we cope, after 22 years of living as parents, first and foremost?

It has to be said that an awful lot of other parents have been through this before us, and somehow survived. It's even labelled a 'syndrome', so it must be serious - and there's loads of advice all over the internet. The Independent has a good article here which ends with some sensible 'coping strategies'.

The site where I got the rather super picture above (just click on the picture to go there) begins with a good description of Empty Nest Syndrome, although by some sleight of hand it ends up plugging a book called Crowded Nest Syndrome. On the way it makes the point that often "the anticipation of children leaving home is more frightening than when they actually do leave". I think for us this rings a bell. And it brings back memories of earlier, similarly scary transitions, like their first day at school, which worked out okay in the end.

At heart I think the issue is about coping with change, especially at a time of life when it seems everything is changing too fast. Except that this always seems to be the way with change: nothing much seems to happen for ages, then suddenly loads of changes pile up on you at once. Leaving home ourselves, getting married, having children - they're all typically at busy times in our lives, they're all times when everything changes, and they are all times when a positive approach really helps.

Take getting married: back in the day a wife used to be known as a 'ball and chain', and my in-laws-to-be were horrified at the idea of their daughter getting married before she had the chance to 'see the world'. Actually, seeing the world together as a couple was a lot more fun. It's a matter of appreciating and enjoying the positives and opportunities that the life change brings.

Similarly with having children. It cut down on 'seeing the world' - so much extra stress and hassle in long distance travel with young children - but there are so many opportunities to do new things and enjoy new experiences together as a family.

And now we are back to being a couple again - but a middle-aged couple this time, with grown up children experiencing their own adventures. I don't know what new opportunities this will bring, but I'm sure they will be there; we just need to be alert and open, ready to enjoy them.

The past is a wonderful (hopefully) part of the way things are, and the future is a great unknown, but the present is an amazing gift, always full of unexpected things, ready for us to wonder at, to learn from and, especially, to enjoy.

Wherever you are, whatever changes you are going through, may God give you the great gift of enjoying your present, for all it is worth.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Homosexuality & The Bible II

Galatians 3:28
My last post looked mostly at what the Bible had to say about homosexuality to heterosexual people  (and I guess also to those in denial): do not judge, instead live in the freedom of God's grace for yourself, and allow others to do the same. The only part really aimed directly at any gay readers was the last paragraph, where I quoted Jonny Freeman.

I had a few reasons for doing this: preaching from the outside isn't necessarily helpful; there is a heterosexual majority, so it applies to more people; and, actually, what the Bible says about homosexuality to those who are not is a lot more obvious than its message to those who are (sorry, horrible sentence/clause structure there ... made worse by this bracketed section ;) ).

But ... there is real confusion about what the Bible does and doesn't say, and there is a lot of propaganda by various interest groups. So, with a view to providing information for people to make their own choices:-

I'll start by saying that the standard passages quoted on the subject (the ones I looked at last time, from Leviticus, 1 Corinthians and Romans) are not a great deal of use really. The reason is that their application is seriously ambiguous: Leviticus could easily be about one heterosexual man using another in situations where there are no available women (looking after herds, on patrol, whatever); Romans is most likely about the sexual licentiousness and corruption encouraged by Nero and his predecessors (Roman orgies and all that); and 1 Corinthians' malakoi and arsenokoitai are so uncertain in meaning as to be mirrors in which commentators can see their own prejudices reflected back.

I've been trying to research the 1 Cor. terms above in my big book of Greek words and there is surprisingly little there. It seems that malakoi can mean soft things, or weak things or people, or sick people, or people being punished by God. Arsenokoitai doesn't seem to be a proper Greek word at all, but a compound -apparently created created by Paul himself - of arsen (male) and koite (bed). Except that in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament which Paul appears to have used) 'bed' can just mean a place to sleep, or it can mean 'marriage bed', or an animal's den, or a sheepfold, or a sick bed, or ejaculation, or a prostitute's bed, or an idol's shrine - you can maybe start to see why translating a Biblical text is as much art as science. There is one of Paul's lists in Romans 13:13 which explicitly links koite with aselgia, gluttony and sexual excess - as in Roman orgies (again).

A long, geeky paragraph just to say that this particular passage is no help in discerning God's view of homosexuality.

The other passage often quoted is from Genesis 2:
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.
Jesus quoted this in the context of marriage (and divorce) whilst Paul quoted it in the context of prostitution (probably cultic, temple prostitutes).

The passage is often used in the argument about gay marriage to say that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, but that requires some extra assumptions. The main assumption needed is that the Bible says everything that is good, so anything not mentioned in the Bible is evil. There are groups who never ride in cars, or wear artificial fibres, or eat non-Mediterranean foods, but they are few ... and, of course, they also don't read Internet blogs or comment on social media or write in newspapers. For most of us, a better approach is to start from what the Bible says and to apply it to the modern world, by extrapolation, analogy, and the application of basic principles - like loving your neighbour, or being faithful to God.

The immediate Biblical context for the quote is earlier in Genesis 2 where God says:
 "It is not good for the man to be alone."
So you have a choice with Genesis 2. You can say that is just about God giving women to men because mankind is better in relationship than alone. Or you can say that people are meant to function in relationship and in community, so God gives us the marriage relationship as a special form of unity, as illustrated by the (most common) example of a man and a woman.

There is nothing in Genesis 2 to say that marriage must only apply to heterosexual marriage, but there is equally nothing to say that it definitely does also apply to homosexual one too. Read, think, pray, and choose ... and take responsibility for your choice.

A passage about marriage which churches rarely seem to take seriously is in 1 Corinthians:
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am.
There is an argument that same-sex relationships must be chaste, whilst opposite-sex relationships can culminate in marriage. That is a really Pharisaic loading of burdens onto others by those who are not prepared to carry them themselves, it seems to me. Nevertheless, chastity is a perfectly honourable lifestyle for those with same-sex sexual attraction; just as it is an honourable lifestyle for those with opposite-sex sexual attraction.

But Paul continues that for those who cannot live with this, then it is "better to marry than to burn with passion". It is possible to argue that this only applies to those attracted to the opposite sex, but it is a more natural argument that it applies to all who would otherwise be tempted to promiscuity and extra-marital sex.

Which brings us to idolatry and 'fornication', a word used in old Bible versions to translate porneia, which literally means prostitution or using prostitutes. As used by Jesus and Paul in the New Testament it has particular reference to Hosea's wife, thus to extreme unfaithfulness and to idolatry. Modern translations usually go for the meaningless cop-out of 'sexual immorality'. In the second half of chapter 6 of 1 Corinthians you get:
The body is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.  Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!  Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.
From later context it seems Paul is talking about Temple prostitutes here - ie idolatrous sex.

For me, this is the key point about any form of sexual relationship for a Christian, straight or gay: is it idolatrous, or is it in the context of a faithful walk with God?

There are people for whom that means a life of chastity, and there are people for whom it is married life, or at least the closest equivalent to marriage allowed by law in their locality. Faithfulness and community are key elements for most of us, whether married or single.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Homosexuality & The Bible

 

After Christian songwriter Vicky Beeching proclaimed in an interview in The Independent, on Thursday, "I'm gay. God loves me just the way I am", there was the expected kerfuffle in conservative Evangelical circles. Channel 4 News interviewed Beeching and US hardliner Scott Lively together, highlighting the problems.

The way Beeching (like many others) has been treated over the years is clear abuse and religious belief is no excuse for that - although do note that such abuse happens at least as much outside churches as inside, even in the US.

One common thread is the claim that the Bible condemns homosexuality. Clearly many who make this claim neither know nor care what the Bible says, but hopefully there are some who do care. So maybe a little clarification would be helpful.

There are three main passages that tend to be quoted about homosexuality, although only one, in Romans, is relevant to females:-

The first, rather depressingly, is from the ancient book of Leviticus:
Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.
I say 'rather depressingly' because Leviticus is right at the heart of the Torah, the Jewish Law. If there is one thing that a conservative evangelical ought to know it is that Jesus died to set us free from the Jewish Law, to live instead under God's grace.

Some evangelical traditions undermine that by saying that the Torah contains ceremonial laws, which are not binding on Christians, like circumcision, and moral laws which are. This is pure human tradition and directly contradicts both Jesus - who said that Torah is not to be reduced, not by so much as one jot or one tittle as the old translation puts it (Matthew 5:18) - and Paul - who wrote that those who rely on the Law must do everything written in the Law or be under a curse (Galatians 3:10). There is a choice for 'Biblical Christians': either try to follow the rules of the Jewish Law, and be condemned by it, or live in the freedom of God's grace, without putting millstones around people's necks or heavy burdens on their shoulders.

Vicky Beeching mentions Sodom and Gomorrah in her interview, but the Bible is explicit, in the book of the prophet Ezekiel, that the sin of Sodom was social injustice:
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.
The second often quoted 'passage' is rather a series of passages: Paul's lists. Typical is the following from his first letter to the Corinthian church (in the ESV translation):
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
There is actually a translation issue here in that 'men who practise homosexuality' attempts to translate two different slang terms of uncertain meaning: roughly 'male bedders'  and 'softies'. Merging two list items into one is poor translation anyway, but anyone using this passage should be aware that the one of the terms was apparently invented by Paul, without clarification, and the other was used in different ways in Greek writings - including softies as young men who have not had an older male lover - and a general reference to male homosexuality is as much assumption as scripture.
[The above paragraph was edited 17/08/14, after some more research]

However, the main point is that these are very general lists, not just about sex. In particular they should be taken in conjunction with Jesus' warning about lust being equivalent to adultery, and anger to murder. Take the lists as a whole and we are all included; none of us are entitled to entry into the kingdom of God ... we all depend on God's grace not our own worthiness. So anyone using these lists to condemn someone else, for sexuality say, is condemning themselves. As Jesus said, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven."

Which brings us to the final passage, for now, in many ways the biggie - also the only one which mentions female homosexuality - from Paul's letter to the Romans:
For this reason God gave them up to dishonourable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
I must admit I do find this one irritating. It is well known that context is important, and the verses above are a small part of quite a long, structured passage, whose conclusion is:
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practise the very same things. ... Because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgement will be revealed.
The Bible is absolutely clear: passing judgement on other people for their sexuality is to condemn oneself, not them. We can twist and turn and make excuses, but the point is clear. It is not homosexuality which condemns but legalism and judging others. Live in the freedom of God's grace for yourself, and allow others to do the same.

Finally, a thought from journalist Jonny Freeman, on Huffington Post:
If you're reading this and you believe you're gay, and you have a faith, do not feel ashamed. Life's for living, embrace who you are. The acceptance is growing, and one day, at last, it won't be such a big talking point.
Amen to that.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Change From Within Or Make A Stand?

Baroness Warsi has resigned from the British government today, saying that its position with regard to Gaza and Israel is "morally indefensible".

Inevitably the government, in the form of George Osborne, promptly tried to rubbish her, calling it an "unnecessary decision". The implication, argued on local radio, is that she should have remained where she had influence and could have made a difference, rather than resigning on principle.

It is, I think, a good question: when should one stay put, in order  to change things from the inside, theoretically from a position of influence, and when should one make a stand, pull out, and speak freely.

In a cabinet as wealthy, elitist, and white, as the current UK cabinet, I do have to wonder how much influence Baroness Warsi actually had. Committees, which essentially is what the cabinet is, have their own tried and trusted ways of keeping dissident voices in their place.

I watched an interview with Baroness Warsi on Channel4 News today and was impressed by her steadiness and firmness. It was clear that she has spent several weeks trying to get the UK government to engage more robustly with Israel, and was getting nowhere. As she put it, "George Osborne is a very good friend of the Israeli government".

It seems to me that the Israeli government has several 'very good friends' in high places in western governments and media, leading to a great deal of distortion in reporting and commentary. It is a pity that George Osborne, in particular, cannot be bothered to spread his friendship more to those suffering from poverty and disability within these British Isles.

In the case of Baroness Warsi, I do believe that she made the right decision. She seems to have tried to make a difference from within, not been able to achieve enough, and has therefore followed her conscience and resigned.

As a general rule though, I do also believe that you have to do things that way round. If some community or organisation is worth being a part of, then you have to be willing to work with the people within it, to make your points and to listen to other views.

Most communities and organisations which are worthwhile inevitably fall short of their own ideals - because they are composed of fallible human beings trying to work together. To pull out of something worthwhile because you do not get your own way over something has to be a last resort - what I term "the nuclear option". In other words, you do everything in your power to avoid it, but it is always there in reserve. If something is being done which is fundamentally inconsistent with what you believe to be right and true then you have to act with integrity and decency.

The impression I got today is that Baroness Warsi is a person of integrity and decency and I hope she is able to find other outlets for her talents now she has left government (at least the ministerial part of it).