Monday 30 May 2011

Only By Grace Can We Enter

It seems very strange, yet I'm sure a lot of churches are like ours. We have a thriving set of youth groups coming into the church building, where they are welcomed and gently introduced to God's unconditional love and care, whatever their background, their lifestyle, or their felt sexuality.

Meanwhile, in the adult part of the church, at least whilst we had a pastor (we are between pastors at the moment), anyone who came was at risk of being lectured from the pulpit on permissable and impermissable sexual behaviour. To be fair, at the moment - in the absence of a pastor - I think it is true to say that preaching tends to be rather more grace-focussed. Nevertheless I strongly suspect that anyone who wanted to become a full member of the church, whilst living with their partner without being married (or who was living with their same-sex lover, even with the benefit of a civil partnership), would be unlikely to be successful. Although I could be wrong.

Other churches maybe have different barriers to entry. Nevertheless, high barriers seem to me to be a widespread characteristic of 21st-century churches. Some churches have explicit rules to keep people out, others have cultural barriers, or simply "This is the way we do things here", that lead people to feel excluded and unwanted. If you want to feel part of an 'evangelical' church you have to look at life - and especially God - one way; if you want to be in a 'liberal' church then you have to take another, similarly restrictive, viewpoint.

Doubtless this was always the way with religion, but the barriers over the past decade appear higher as the rest of the world moves on and many churches just stay put. The vast majority of non-churchgoers are just not willing to go so far against their own grain to conform to norms which actually have little or nothing to do with Jesus, not to mention being decidedly unhelpful in engaging with God in their everyday lives.

Yet, in the very early days of the church things were different. In the Bible the early chapters of the book of Acts chart a removal of the old Jewish barriers. The Temple at Jerusalem was full of restrictions on who could go where. Non-Jews were restricted to the very outskirts, Jewish women and eunuchs were restricted to their area, Jewish men were allowed fairly close - if they were ritually clean according to the rules of the Torah, the Jewish Law - but only priests got to be where the sacrifices were made, and only the High Priest got to the Holy of Holies, where God was believed to be especially present. The Christian Church, in contrast, was fully opened up to non-Jews, to eunuchs, and to women very early on.

When Paul of Tarsus went out starting churches in southern Galatia, a Roman province in what is now north/central Turkey,  he founded churches for whoever wanted to join, Jew and non-Jew, where all could worship God freely. This was fine until some conservative Jewish Christians turned up, after Paul moved on, telling people that now they were part of the church they had to obey the rules: the Jewish Law, including becoming circumcised.

Paul wrote a very angry, very idealistic, letter, in which he makes clear that in the Church of Jesus everyone is accepted: Jews & Gentiles, men & women, slaves & free. All can freely come to Jesus in his body, his church, and all can freely remain. There are no rules, other than the rule of love. There are no restrictions, other than the requirement of Baptism as a sign of turning to God through Jesus, and acceptance of God's gift of His Spirit. That was it.

A wise woman once said to me: "You have to have rules, otherwise there will be anarchy". According to Paul, in his letter to those Galatians, God has thought of that. If you don't have God's Spirit then rules are not enough, fallen human nature will break through anyway. But if you do have the Spirit of God within you then it will bear fruit in your life. And the fruit of the Spirit is: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Given these you don't need all those rules, just time and space for God's love to bear fruit.

Now, in 21st century churches, it's as though Paul never wrote his letter to the Galatians. Many churches call themselves 'Bible-believing', yet deny the freedom that Jesus won for us! They throw away God's Grace - his free gift to any who will respond - and replace it with empty rules and religion. Why?

There is a popular song in Church circles; it's a pity people don't always listen to what they are singing:
Only by grace can we enter
Only by grace can we stand
Not by our human endeavour
But by the blood of the Lamb
Into Your presence You call us
You call us to come
Into Your presence You draw us
And now by Your grace we come
Now by Your grace we come
Gerrit Gustafson

Saturday 21 May 2011

Responding To Religious Weirdness

Browsing blogs this week, I came across two interestingly contrasting posts: both responding to religious people doing weird things, but in very different ways.

As I suspect many of you are aware, today is the day of The Rapture, according to US radio preacher Harold Camping and his Family Radio network. Predictions of this sort happen all the time, of course,  but this one has been publicised more aggressively than most (helped perhaps by the fact that 'non-commercial' Family Radio is said to be worth some 120 million dollars, which they presumably don't see much point in hanging onto). Now US atheists are said to be planning post-Rapture parties later today to celebrate still being here.

Earlier this month, following the killing of Osama Bin Laden, many news media published a photo showing President Obama and others in the White House. One minor newspaper, Der Zeitung, the house paper of a Brooklyn-based Hasidic sect, caused a furore by publishing the photo with the women present airbrushed out. This was in line with the paper's editorial policy of not printing pictures of women, "because of laws of modesty". To my mind, laws of truthfulness suggest that, in that case, you print pictures which genuinely have only men in, you don't doctor images to hide the the presence of women. Feminists, of course, had a field day.

Two well publicised examples of weird things being done by religious people ... note, by the way, that I am carefully not saying they are (necessarily) weird people - just people doing weird things. Inevitably, blogs worldwide (not to mention Facebook and Twitter) took up the subjects, in their many and varied ways. Two blogs I follow (you can see both in my sidebar) made me think, by taking radically different approaches to this weirdness.

One blog, by the English Bishop of Buckingham, went for righteous indignation: how dare these Hasidic editors oppress women in this way. The title of the post, Airbrushing Out Women, indicates his take on the subject. My reading of his post is that he is taking a small group doing something weird (and wrong), then loading a whole pile of other sins onto them, like a Levitical scape-goat, which he can then blast away at, to a chorus of approval from his like-minded choir. Standard fare for the religious right (to generalise unfairly), but a little disappointing in a highly intelligent writer who I see as generally on the liberal wing of 'moderate'.

Another blog, by US author Rachel Held Evans, took a rather more thoughtful (and humble) approach to the Rapture story. Yes, Rampling and his followers are doing something weird, yet another demonstration of the daftness of religion. But, for Held Evans, that's a reason to look at ourselves. Not to bask in how wonderful and right-on we are, at least in comparison, but to ask ourselves what strange things we do; how our behaviour is sometimes similarly weird. Also, if we are less weird than some other people, might that reflect on a lack of commitment to our professed faith? 

It's easy to mock and attack others for the strange things they do, but are we really always so rational in our behaviour? It's part of human nature to have odd beliefs that we don't question, and to do weird things sometimes - religious, agnostic, atheist, whatever. Mocking and attacking people, for example. Is that really such a wonderful way to behave?

Sunday 15 May 2011

The Prince Of Wales In Caversham

I've mentioned the PoW several times in previous posts, but I thought it was worth its own ramble today.

Something I only realised recently is that the Prince of Wales is actually part of a small chain of pubs - it seems the same team also run the Fisherman's Cottage and the Rising Sun. It's a very long time since I last went to either of those, but my memory of the Fisherman's Cottage is that it is next to the Kennet, over in Newtown, and seemed mostly focussed on the lunchtime office workers' trade, whilst the Rising Sun is an edge-of-town-centre pub which (back then) had a bit of an unfriendly reputation. As you can probably tell from the links I've put in, there's not much information on the web about either, although it seems that the Rising Sun are also featuring weekly live music and are starting to do food. Clearly the team responsible for the three pubs are not really into posting much info on the internet. Still, I reckon they've done a good job on the Prince, so if you live near either of the other two, they have to be worth a visit.

Like many pubs these days, the Prince has a fairly sizeable and pleasant outdoor area, to cater for smokers and anyone who fancies getting out of the main building and breathing lovely vehicle fumes from Prospect Street. A couple of Fridays ago I turned up, on my bike, to find the outdoor section completely full. Indoors it was like a Tokyo bullet train - absolutely packed. The reason was a local band showcase, with four local bands all playing on the same evening. I watched about half a set from one band, who were excellent, but claustrophobia took over in the interval and I squeezed my way out and left. Maybe they should do fewer local bands at once but more often?

Tonight they had The Generaters playing - to a busy but (thankfully) not completely packed audience - it's the first gig in a while where I've felt motivated to stay to the very end (life's a bit complicated and very tiring recently). They weren't perfect by any means, but were very enjoyable. Basically they play covers in and around the borderland between rock and funk. At times they really hit the groove and were brilliant, but they kept falling back out again. There was a tension between a younger singer and bass player, with an older guitarist and drummer, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. The lowlight of the set was a version of Queen's We Will Rock You, where the guitarist just went AWOL  (try to imagine the song without the lead guitar parts, and you'll see why it didn't work), followed by what I assume was AC/DC's Highway To Hell, completely testosterone-free. The main highlight was the encore, something about 'burning your sex'(?), where the guitarist and bass player swapped instruments and the singer finally persuaded several men to come up and 'dance'; but an honourable mention has to go to a really good cover of Bowie's Spiders From Mars during the first session.

I did plan to insert a photo of The Generators from a previous visit to the Prince into this post, but their Flickr albums block copying, so I can't.

Somewhat ironically, I seem to be visiting the Prince of Wales more often since we moved further away from it - as well as the Saturday night live bands (and occasionally Friday too) they also do excellent Thai food, so the two of us sometimes pop over for that also (the kids aren't keen on Thai, which is a bit of a pain, but they are old enough to be left to their own devices from time to time). The beer is more expensive, but far better kept, than the horrible big-chain pub down the road, and it is a genuine, friendly, community pub, which has to be good news.

PS: I meant to mention that on the 'Local Bands' night I dropped my coin purse somewhere in the PoW. When I popped around next day in the slight hope someone might have found it, there it was behind the bar waiting for me. As I said, a proper community pub.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Judgement Day For Lib-Dem Liars?

Tomorrow (Thursday, 5th May) is local elections day in England. This is a chance for all of us to make clear to all politicians how we feel about outright, bare-faced lying in elections.

A year ago we had the full UK parliamentary elections. In the run-up to these, every Liberal Democrat MP signed a personal pledge to vote against any increase in university tuition fees. This was a personal promise, given without qualifications, by each MP. It wasn't a manifesto, if-we-get-power-and-everything-is-as-we-expect, sort of promise. It was just a simple pledge, made in writing. It gained the Lib-Dems a lot of extra votes, because many people in this country believe that having a skilled and educated population is vital to our successful future as a nation.

As it turned out, the election result was inconclusive, so the Tories offered the Liberal Democrats an illusion of power providing they sold out their electorate and reneged on their promises. Something like two-thirds of them did precisely that: selling out their constituents for a seat at (or near) the top table. The rest of the MPs, and the rest of the Liberal Democrat party, condoned this betrayal by failing to call for deselection of MPs who broke their promises to their voters, and failing to replace Nick Clegg as party leader (or to remove the whip from Vince Cable, the architect of the betrayal).

The assumption seems to be that the British electorate has such a short memory that we'll have forgotten about this by the time of the next election.

I call on all voters to go out tomorrow and vote against your Liberal Democrat candidate - vote for Labour, or Green, or Tory ... even Pirate or Monster Raving Loonie if they are standing in your constituency. But vote against outright barefaced lying. Maybe, if their share of the vote is close enough to zero, the Lib Dems will rediscover their conscience, dump their cynical power-hungry leaders, and get out of that destructive coalition.