Sunday, 22 November 2015

Darkness and Light in Paris and Beirut

 Egypt’s Pyramids Light Up With Flags of France, Lebanon and Russia
The appalling attacks on Paris and Beirut just a few days ago have spawned a lot of comment over the internet, some of it constructive, a lot less so.

Personally I  am struck by the essential similarity between a massacre delivered on the ground and one delivered from the sky.

Maybe a fundamental question raised by such events is the old one about what such actions tell us about God, and about mankind.

It's a fundamental starting point to Christianity that people were created in God's image but that this image has become distorted and spoiled. In other words people are a strange mixture of good and evil, right and wrong, light and darkness.

So the basic question in Christianity is not why God allows things like these brutal massacres to happen, but what is he doing about them?

One answer lies in the bravery and selflessness shown by many in response to the horror around them - I am sure that in both Paris and Beirut there were far more people of courage and compassion than there were killers with their hatred and destruction.

But underlying that is a long term transformation of humanity: a preparation for a final cleansing which will bring healing and new life to a struggling world. The key enabling moment in that transformation was the death and resurrection of Jesus.

But that was nearly two thousand years ago! I trust that there is good reason for the long wait for Jesus' return and the transformation of heaven, earth and humanity that he will bring. Nevertheless, with the prophets of old, at times like this I have to ask:
"How long, O Lord?" 

PS: Clicking on the above image - a pyramid in Giza lit up with the flags of Russia, Lebanon and France - takes you to an extremely depressing list of terrorist attacks so far in 2015. One thing I do notice is that the vast majority are carried out by adherents of one particular extreme sect of Islam against members of more mainstream groupings within Islam - especially against Shia. Blaming Muslims in general for these attacks is about as accurate as blaming Christians for the actions of Westborough Baptist Church; although Wahhabist Salafists do get a lot more funding, thanks to Saudi oil money.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

TED Talks & Preacher Training

I wonder if Bible Colleges and other theological training centres use TED talks as part of their training in preaching?

A talk with a serious message given by one person with minimal staging and taking less than 20 minutes - for churchgoers among you, does that sound familiar? If I add that the vast majority of TED talks closely engage both the immediate audience and, in many cases, millions of people worldwide then maybe the familiarity decreases.

I've been known to say that the traditional lecture-style sermon is way out-of-date and an appalling way of attempting to engage with modern people in the modern world. There is an elderly and declining population of churchgoers who often like them like that, of course, but I have long argued that a new approach is needed.

In many ways I still believe that: sitting passively consuming the words of a supposed expert is a lousy way to learn. Yet the global success of TED talks does suggest that there is life in the format yet, so I think it's worth looking at some of the typical characteristics of a TED talk.

Pretty much all TED talks are given by people with genuine and obvious enthusiasm and expertise who are speaking about something which they believe matters.

The vast majority have a speaker who moves around the stage, rather than being trapped behind a lectern.

Many TED talks involve some sort of projection/PowerPoint accompaniment, used as a visual backup and complement to the talk itself; whilst the talk remains the main focus.

Many of the talks involve humour - but rarely in the form of isolated jokes, more as ways of making or supporting a particular point.

Some of the talks involve some degree of interaction with the audience, but this is nearly always limited. People want to listen to the speaker and there is a tight timescale.

So I would say it is time for preachers to rethink their methods, congregations to rethink what they ask of their preachers, and occasional visitors to church to give more feedback on how they experience the preaching in that church.

If a preacher doesn't have expertise and enthusiasm then why on earth are they there? If the preacher doesn't make the effort to engage with the congregation through movement, interaction, relevant visuals and/or humour then why should they expect the congregation to engage with them? And if a preacher isn't talking about something which has meaning and importance to listeners and to their neighbours then why is s/he wasting everyone's time?

What do you think?

Tuesday, 27 October 2015


Jesus famously said that he came to call sinners, not the righteous, but who did he mean by that?

To 20th-Century churchgoers the answer would have been obvious: sinners are the bad and the wicked, especially those whose wrong-doing has something to do with sex or the ten commandments. To early 21st-Century non-churchgoers sin is more of a marketing term, implying luxury and indulgence, with a hint of defiance against overweening authority.

In Biblical times the meaning was quite different. In contrast to the righteous, the δικαίους, who followed the rules and fitted into the framework of their society, sinners, the ἁμαρτωλούς, were those who had missed the mark, not kept to their society's rules. In the case of the Jews this was all about the covenant on Mount Sinai, and being God's people.

The book of Exodus tells of that covenant: God told the Israelites that if they followed his commands he would be their God and they would be his people. It was a contract, with definite terms and conditions.

A large part of the rest of the Old Testament tells of how the Israelites failed, again and again, to keep their side of the bargain. Eventually God withdrew his protection and the nation of Israel was driven out by the Assyrians; later Judea was taken into exile by the Babylonians. The Jews (aka Judeans) eventually returned to their lands, the inhabitants of the northern kingdom, Israel, never really did (there is some confusion about the status of the Samaritans, who claimed to be descendants of these Israelites although the Jews denied this).

Although the Jews (many of them) returned to their lands, they never really had control over them: Persians, Greeks and then Romans claimed authority instead. So, we can tell from documents from Jesus' time and earlier found over the past few decades, they decided that the exile was, in a sense, still ongoing. That God and his chosen king would eventually come and truly establish God's Kingdom of justice and freedom and peace ... at least for the Jews.

Part of this development was the idea that it wasn't enough to be a Jew to be one of God's people - you had to be a righteous Jew: one who truly follows all the conditions of that Sinai covenant. If you kept all the rules of the Law you were included in that promised Kingdom; if you missed the mark, failed to keep the terms of the contract, then you were a sinner, outside the Kingdom.

Of course, those of us who are Gentiles, non-Jews, are automatically outside the Kingdom, automatically sinners.

The trouble was that the religious authorities, who determined how those terms and conditions should be applied, interpreted them on their own terms. So, oddly enough, those who behaved religiously would be declared righteous, those who had to get on with normal life would find themselves being declared sinners, missing the mark and falling outside the covenant.

For example, their interpretation of the food laws effectively meant that Jews were not allowed to eat at the homes of Gentiles. At a time when Gentiles are in charge, that means that anyone working with the Romans or Greeks would soon be either out of a job - as eating together was an important part of the way that these relationships worked - or would be declared a sinner.

Similarly, anyone caring for the sick on a regular basis would soon find themselves doing or touching something they shouldn't, just as part of living. And anyone who actually was chronically sick - for instance the woman in the story who suffered from a long term haemorrhage - was excluded almost by definition.

People were excluded from God's Kingdom effectively because they were not rich and privileged enough to follow the lifestyle set as the target by the privileged religious leaders.

You begin to see why Jesus got so angry, perhaps?

There is an enormous amount of good in the Old Testament, including much that was amazingly progressive for its day. But the people in leadership, the ones who were supposed to make it work, instead abused and exploited their people in the name of God and of His covenant. A new approach was needed.

Jesus died on a cross, and rose again, in order that all those who could not qualify for membership of God's Kingdom under the old contract could take out a new one instead. A new contract which doesn't depend on following rules, but on following Jesus, and which focuses on including all who are willing to turn to God in order to be made new, and on welcoming the previously excluded into the family of God's people.

I just wish that today's religious leaders would properly come to terms with this.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

On Wings Like Eagles

The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
Something of a follow-on to my earlier post, The Years The Locusts Have Eaten, although rather different in style.

Every year when I do my tax return I have to deal with 'dead weeks' - weeks when the chronic fatigue has been bad enough that admin just doesn't happen, there's nothing left. I have learnt to deal with this by ensuring that there is always enough other information available to recreate what I need, but it is a reminder that energy is a scarce resource and sometimes I run out.

The above quote, from Isaiah, has always seemed to me to be tailor-made for CFS sufferers. The promise is that one day, whether in this world or in the renewed world of the resurrection, we will once again "run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint". Roll on that day!

But it's not just CFS which wears people out. Depression is well-known - I hope - to be not just about sadness, but about debilitating weariness, hopelessness, loss of motivation and interest, amongst many other symptoms.

Other chronic diseases also often include overwhelming tiredness, weariness, stumbling and falling amongst their symptoms ... including that most chronic of all: old age.

One of my symptoms is a fuzzy memory, and as I look back over the past 19 years I sometimes wonder whether the CFS is improving or not (actually, only over the past 17 or so years, the first couple were grim and I've definitely improved on that), and how far current symptoms are exacerbated by the fact that I'm getting older.

The reality is that all of us, at some point over our lives, go through times when just the next step is difficult, and imagining a better future feels like fantasy. At those times we all need a little hope to cling to. Maybe a picture of ourselves flying on powerful, secure wings, and imaging how that will feel, seems a strange promise and an odd thing to cling to, But I find it helps.

As a kind of a postscript, if you click on the picture above you will see that it is not just the weary who find hope in this image. God's promises are for all, whatever their need, just as his love is for all of us.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Dead End Justice (Seek Ye First)

Justice, justice
Don't want your law and order
Justice, justice
Or world wide disorder
The Runaways
I don't imagine it's what The Runaways intended, but that isn't a bad summary of what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God. If the Kingdom isn't about restoring lost souls, at least as much as saving the respectable, then it doesn't have much meaning at all.

It was Harvest Service at St John's last Sunday, for which this year's lectionary readings were ... interesting. Joel's prophecy of hope, where God promises to "repay you for the years the locusts have eaten". and Jesus' sermon on the mount, where he tells us to "seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you," where 'all these things' are food and clothes and all the practical stuff. 

The word translated 'righteousness' here also means 'justice'. And 'justice', for Jesus, was very definitely not the same thing as the Law. Following the law means being respectable: obeying the rules, where the rules have been carefully tweaked and tailored to favour the rich and powerful. Justice involves turning things upside-down: shaking things up so that those who have fallen to the bottom of the pile, in this fallen world, get their chance to find the top.

What sort of people can be expected to do best in a world of wrong? And who is likely to hit the bottom in such a world? 

Jesus taught of an upside-down Kingdom where all that we thought we knew from living in this one is turned backwards. A world where the contributions of the poor are valued more than the crumbs of the rich, where importance depends on service and humility, and where peace can trigger division. In particular this is a Kingdom where justice, peace and reconciliation matter vastly more than wealth and status - the latter just get in the way.

One oddity of all Jesus' talking about 'The Kingdom' in the Gospels is that he never defines what he means by it. It looks as though everybody knew what the Kingdom of God/Heaven was, so Jesus was simply building on that common knowledge foundation. For many centuries that 'common knowledge' was lost so theology on the Kingdom has always been a bit like an upside-down pyramid - lots of ideas based on a very slim foundation. Thankfully over the past half-century or so a lot of documents have been recovered from the Eastern Mediterranean, dating to a little before Jesus' time, which gives us a better idea.

In essence those waiting for 'The Kingdom' were waiting for a true end to exile, for God to found a nation of true justice and peace. By and large the Jews expected this to be a Jewish kingdom, although some noted that parts of the Law and the Prophets referred to Gentiles being included as well. This Kingdom would be ruled either by God Himself, or by a king from David's line chosen by God, reigning as a good and faithful shepherd. By Jesus' time these expectations of a just kingdom were linked with expectations that the remaining unjust kingdoms, ie the rest of the world, would either come to an end or they would become subservient to God's Kingdom.

A lot of Jesus' teaching was about who would qualify to be citizens of this Kingdom - including many people who respectable Jews would not expect to see there - and about the Kingdom breaking through ahead of time, so to speak. Thus Jesus' healings and teaching are signs of the Kingdom, as are those who are lost but become found, and those who seem dead being restored to life.

At the end, the New Testament gathers these Kingdom ideas together in a vision of a new world, where God Himself comes down to live amongst his people, and where citizens of the Kingdom, even the seemingly unworthy, are raised back to life, if they have died, or been transformed to new life, if they are still living at Jesus' return.
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”