Sunday, July 20, 2014

That Farmer Again
Jesus told another parable about a farmer being apparently downright perverse. In this case it was a farmer who refused to let his wheat field be weeded, in case any wheat plants were pulled up by mistake. Yet surely if you allow weeds to grow amongst wheat they will steal the nutrients and crowd the wheat out, so what on earth is he playing at?
Jesus then told them this story:
The kingdom of heaven is like what happened when a farmer scattered good seed in a field. But while everyone was sleeping, an enemy came and scattered weed seeds in the field and then left. When the plants came up and began to ripen, the farmer’s servants could see the weeds. The servants came and asked, “Sir, didn’t you scatter good seed in your field? Where did these weeds come from?”
“An enemy did this,” he replied. His servants then asked, “Do you want us to go out and pull up the weeds?”
“No!” he answered. “You might also pull up the wheat. Leave the weeds alone until harvest time. Then I’ll tell my workers to gather the weeds and tie them up and burn them. But I’ll have them store the wheat in my barn.”
'Weeds' is a remarkably unhelpful translation here; it is very likely that the Greek word zizanion refers to darnel ryegrass, Lolium temulentum. This is also known as poison ryegrass, because it is commonly infected with poisonous symbiotic fungi, Neotyphodium. There is a factsheet on darnel ryegrass on the BioNET-EAFRINET website which advises:
Lolium temulentum is a weed of wheat farmlands. Even a few grains of this plant will adversely affect crop quality. Its seeds are poisonous to people and livestock. It is very difficult to separate the seeds of L. temulentum from those of wheat and other small grain crops as they are similar in size and weight. L. temulentum can be a host to a variety of crop pests and diseases.
If prevention is no longer possible, it is best to treat the weed infestations when they are small to prevent them from establishing (early detection and rapid response). Controlling the weed before it seeds will reduce future problems.
Although they then add:
Hand weeding can control this species although this is difficult to undertake early because of the resemblance between this weed and the infested wheat crops.
So maybe the farmer isn't being quite so daft after all; he just needs to make sure he gets his timing right.

The parable isn't about grasses though, it's about people. In particular it is about telling the difference between those people who are beneficial and those who are poisonous. It is not always easy to tell the difference.

Religious groups have a nasty habit of trying to make the distinction based on their own prejudices, traditions and rules - mostly equating to "are they like us" - but God waits for people to show their true colours. Sometimes this means getting the timing right - see the Bible story of Zaccheus - sometimes it means being able to see below the surface - see the story of Simon the Pharisee - and sometimes it is about not excluding people because of superficial matters - see the story of the Ethiopian eunuch.

The promise is that at 'the end of the age' there will be a cleansing. Those who prove themselves to be poisonous will be removed, along with all causes of harm, and those who prove to be wholesome will be welcomed into God's Kingdom, to 'shine like the sun' in a renewed world where there will be no more crying and no more pain, but God himself will comfort them.

The Wolf Will Reside With The Lamb
The Wolf Will Reside With The Lamb by Loulou13

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Incompetent Sower?
Jesus' parable of the sower and the seed is fairly well known (see below for a reminder) but it always surprises me how ready people are to assume that 1st-Century farmers really were that incompetent. Jesus' teaching was full of puns, hyperbole and even jokes, but they don't always translate well (do Bible translators have a sense of humour, I wonder? Or are they too busy being reverent?).
"A farmer went out to scatter seed in a field. While the farmer was doing it, some of the seeds fell along the road and were stepped on or eaten by birds. Other seeds fell on rocky ground and started growing. But the plants did not have enough water and soon dried up. Some other seeds fell where thornbushes grew up and choked the plants. The rest of the seeds fell on good ground where they grew and produced a hundred times as many seeds."
Why did the farmer not sow all his seed on the good ground? Corn for seed is corn that cannot be eaten or sold, so no real peasant farmer would want to waste it. If it comes to that, clearing rocks and weeds is an important part of a cereal farmer's work (yet there usually seems to be a subtext to sermons on this parable that it is somehow for us - the ground - to fix ourselves, to remove our own rocks and weeds). So this is a story of one very odd farmer.

Jesus gives an 'explanation' which, like many of his explanations, raises more questions than it answers. He basically says that the seed in this parable is a metaphor for God's word (or the word of the Kingdom), and the different grounds correspond to the varied ways in which people respond to that word.

Embedded with the parable is a question about why Jesus teaches in stories and parables, and a quote from Isaiah about people hearing but not responding:
‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand,
And seeing you will see and not perceive;

For the hearts of this people have grown dull.
Their ears are hard of hearing,
And their eyes they have closed,
Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears,
Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn,
So that I should heal them.’
Isaiah spent his life warning people that disaster was coming if they didn't change their ways, but the people - especially the wealthy and powerful - mostly ignored him and listened to those with a more palatable message. Jesus was teaching anybody and everybody about God's Kingdom, yet relatively few were responding and following him. Why do that? Why not focus just on those who were interested in that sort of thing?

The point, I think, of this story is that God's Kingdom is for everyone. It's not just for the religious and the intellectual, to be spread with sophisticated theological argument, it is for all who will listen, spread in deceptively simple stories. The seed is scattered everywhere, because the 'good soil' is everywhere - even between stones and hidden amongst weeds - and because those who persistently "hear but do not understand, see but do not perceive" are also everywhere - even in fields which give the impression of being good soil.

Jesus wants people to accept his message and turn to God; anybody can do it, whatever your background, whatever your culture and lifestyle. Accept God's gift as simply as a child accepts a present from a trusted friend, turn and be healed.

NOTE:  I've noticed that I have looked at this parable before, a couple of years ago, from a slightly different angle: see 'The Sower And The Seed II' - "God is good and God is love ... sometimes we forget."

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Rob Beardsley Leaves Caversham Baptist Church
After two and a half years as pastor, Rob Beardsley is leaving Caversham Baptist Church. As I understand it, the termination agreement includes some sort of 'gagging clause', so church members are tight-lipped. In fact their church website, in its news section, doesn't even mention that he has gone ... there is just a gap in the Meet The Team page.

I'm not a fan of secrecy myself: when authorities use 'confidentiality' as a justification for being secretive, then I tend to assume they are avoiding accountability. Typically secrecy has the exact opposite effect from confidentiality: the information vacuum creates gossip and speculation to fill it.

We never did find out what had gone wrong at Rob Beardsley's previous church, Oakham Baptist Church, just that there was not a single person from Oakham who came to his induction at CBC - unheard of in my experience.

My take on what has happened at Caversham Baptist over the last two and a half years is as follows:
  • The church has been haemorrhaging members;
  • The church has been haemorrhaging money;
  • Their outreach worker was moved to internal work and later laid off;
  • Disciplinary action was taken against Rob Beardsley;
  • The church has become deeply divided;
  • It was clear that the situation was unsustainable so the parties agreed to Rob Beardsley leaving.
A year into this process I left the church, so I am not a neutral observer, but I hope the above is suitably objective anyway.

There is a less-obvious issue in all this: that of listening to God as a church.

Baptist churches, when recruiting pastors, don't seem to do the things that would normally be considered 'due diligence', like taking references. They just say that pastors are 'called' by God, so that sort of thing is inappropriate. Actually, my reading of the Bible is that things heard from God should always be checked out ('tested').

Nevertheless, the basic point stands that pastors are called under God's guidance, and a church knows who to call because they listen to God:
"[Jesus] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice." (John 10:3b-4)
In Caversham Baptist's case, we clearly did not listen to Jesus. That, in my view, should be their priority now as they attempt to move on from this traumatic time: focusing on Jesus and following him.

Meanwhile all should acknowledge that, whoever might have been at fault for the things that happened whilst Rob Beardsley was pastor, the basic problem lay further back, with the church as a whole. We all messed up, so playing the blame game would be a singularly futile exercise.

It is time for Caversham Baptist Church to learn from the past, constructively; but, more importantly, to step out into the future: doing what is right, always showing compassion, and - most importantly - walking humbly with their God.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Why War?
We are heading toward the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, a particular lowlight in a century marked by war and massacre.

Looking back at the violence of the 20th century, it strikes me how much of it was characterised by a toxic mix of nationalism and ideology, and how little it had to do with religion.

The First World War was fairly unambiguously nationalist and imperialist in origin, whilst the second seems to have been triggered by a more complex brew. On the one hand there was German national feeling, battered after WW1 and bearing grudges over the post-war loss of Germanic territories; on the other there was fear of communism, fear and hatred for 'the other' - particularly, but not exclusively, 'The Jew' - then there was a striving for discipline and order, represented by a powerful fascist ideology, and a bizarre mix of Aryan and Wagnerian mythologies.

Meanwhile, in the Far East, causes seem to have been more simply about nationalism and access to resources (traditionally the other main driver of imperialism).

In between these 'world wars' you had the Bolshevik takeover in Russia, with its ideological civil war followed by mass famine as their policy of Prodrazvyorstka destroyed the battered agricultural system; then under Stalin the famines and purges continued as ideology and tyranny ran their course.

After the Second World War, the Cold War marked the continuation of ideological and imperial conflict, much of it through proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam. Meanwhile the Maoist revolution in China followed the path of Russia's revolution through civil war, mass famine and extensive purges.

I am only aware of two major outbreaks of violence during the century where religion was one of the main causes, both in the late '40s: the Partition of India in 1947 and the founding of Israel in 1948. Both of these events had violent repercussions which continue to this day, and both had a strong religious element. Both also had a strong ethnic and nationalist element: religion and nationalism can be just as toxic a compound as ideology and nationalism, it seems.

There is a list of 20th-century battles on Wikipedia, which gives an idea of the continuous level of conflict during that troubled century.

Granted that my knowledge of 20th-century history is not exhaustive, I do still find it strange that the 'new atheists' - the likes of Richard Dawkins - continue to link war with religion. With a couple of exceptions, here was a whole century of essentially non-religious violence, much of it explicitly atheist.

Why war? Because people are prejudiced; often they are ignorant and demonise 'others'; they are all too ready to follow leaders who tell them they are right and others are wrong; and because, by and large, people prefer to function as part of a local ethnic/racial community, rather than as part of worldwide humanity.

Most religions attempt to work to a bigger picture, which could be immensely helpful in enabling people to live together in peace. Sadly, all religions are composed of fallible, flawed people, as are all ideological groupings. We could just wait for God to fix it, or we could try to work with God and spread peace and justice in our own small ways, wherever we are, and whoever we are with. It's our choice.

Postscript: There is an interesting post on a similar theme over on the BeThinking blog.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Time, Talents & Tenners
One of the perception issues that modern churches struggle with is the idea that they are always after your money: "Praise the Lord and pass the collection plate," as the saying goes. Conversely, another issue for many churches is lack of money, especially older churches with ludicrously expensive heritage buildings to maintain.

Many free churches, especially those on the religious right, hit the tithing button: telling members it is their religious duty to pay a tenth of their income to the church. This is usually presented as a Biblical demand, ignoring the fact that it is a part of the Jewish Law and that Christians are supposed to be free from the demands of that Law. Indeed, Jesus once said that God's children are exempt from paying such 'duties and taxes'.

Other churches have 'stewardship campaigns' - bundling the money issue in with other contributions people make to their church: 'time & talents'. This makes rather more sense, but if you look at the supporting literature and listen to the supporting talks then you can see where their heart really lies. Some churches focus on their ministries: the things they do for others and how people's contributions, of whatever form, build God's Kingdom. That suggests they are genuine. Others just focus on money, with any reference to time and talents as an inadequate fig-leaf, and service to others notable by its absence.

As something of a Bible geek, I do find it really aggravating when such churches abuse the Bible to get their demands across. I've already mentioned the tithing demand, but another aggravating claim is that giving to God and giving to church X are the same thing - they are not! Giving to God could be helping your elderly neighbour, with time, talents or even cash; giving to the church of which you are a part is more like giving to yourself.

Likewise the claim that such giving is all about generosity: if you are part of that church then that is really nothing more than "generosity begins at home". This often gets linked to a passage in Paul's second letter to Corinth, in which he talks about taking up a collection for famine relief. As soon as you think about that famine context it is clear that it has nothing to do with giving to your local church, but that doesn't stop preachers from abusing the passage to try to get people to give them more money.

It seems to me that Jesus' comment about children and taxes can be taken further. I don't charge my kids for staying here - what parent would - indeed they get cash from me in the form of pocket money or student grant/loan top-ups. But my son is currently job hunting. If he gets a job with a decent salary and remains living at home for a while, it would be entirely reasonable, I think, for him to pay a share of the household costs.

I am a part of a church which costs a fair amount per year to keep running, as well as additional costs for all the things we would like to do, together as a church and in our community. It doesn't just cost money, it also costs time and effort and skill and dedication. It seems entirely appropriate to me that those of us on a reasonable income who use and value the church should make our monetary contributions to the running costs, and those of us with reasonable health should contribute with time and effort, and so on.

A church is people, not a building or an organisation. Its running costs are our running costs, to be shared fairly between us, according to what we have to offer. An annual reminder that costs are increasing, preferably tied to a review of what has been achieved over the year, and what we are hoping to do over the following year, is a reasonable and sensible thing to do. Incessant nagging and arm-twisting is not, and misrepresentation of the Bible to bludgeon people into handing over their cash should be anathema.

There's God's work to do, a Kingdom to help build. As Jesus said, we should be focussing firstly on that Kingdom, and leaving the worrying and stress about resources to God.