Monday 29 December 2014

Tis The Season To Be ...

Wrecked? Peaceful? Worried? Still?

Traditionally the Christmas season is the twelve days after Christmas, not the period of preparation beforehand - that is Advent.

Church traditions try to make Advent out to be all about seriousness and self-denial, but that is really less true to the Bible stories than the modern approach of stress and rush and pressure. Consider a newly-married couple trying to cope with advanced pregnancy, major family issues, and Roman occupiers forcing them to travel across the country to an area primed and ready to take commercial advantage of their need. Modern commercialism and exploitation in Britain are probably but a shadow of their Bethlehem predecessors.

I enjoy Christmas, its colour and its excitement, and the concern for others which always manages to break through the materialism and excess. I also struggle with it: deadlines and pressure are no good at all with CFS. By the time I get to bed on Christmas Eve (technically Christmas Morn) I am always physically and mentally wrecked, and usually in the process of succumbing to some nasty bug or other. Luckily I have a daughter who always gets into the spirit of excitement, and an immediate family who get on with one another and actually like being together.

My Christmas morning tends to be heavily structured: awake at stupid-o'clock to look at stockings, downstairs for much-needed coffee and a first round of presents, then preparing the turkey and putting it in the oven, before heading off to church, as a family, to welcome the Christ-child into the world, and finally doing the rest of the Christmas lunch. I am in no state to stress about the meal by this point, and it's only for immediate family and friends anyway so not so much pressure, so that's relatively peaceful.

I recognise that I am extremely fortunate.

Then we get to the traditional Christmas season for me: a time to rest and recover, short visits to wider family, and thoughts of Mary and Joseph, with Jesus safely arrived, forced to take a pause and to wonder.

It is only a pause, of course, there are still consequences to deal with. Somehow Mary and Joseph have to make peace with their relatives in Bethlehem, their 'family town'. Not to mention dealing with the evil fallout from Herod's tyrannical insecurity. But for now they must rest.

I will have to do something about my badly battered credit card, and there is a lot of travelling still to do. But for now I must rest. I have new music, books and an immediate family who are great; it's the season to take time out and enjoy them.

And give thanks.

Friday 26 December 2014

Hot Metal

I was recently thinking about my favourite new rock bands; it struck me that out of six favourites (which one is THE favourite depending on mood and context) three are fronted by women. Of other highly-appreciated new bands a lot are FFM (female-fronted metal). Being me, I inevitably find myself wondering why - am I letting a pretty face override musical quality?

At the moment my favourite-favourite new(-ish) band is Within Temptation - I was given their Let Us Burn DVD for Christmas and I've just been watching the Elements concert. The music is fantastic, but it has to be admitted that Sharon den Adel is seriously hot. At the time of the above photo (try clicking on it) she was 38 years old and had borne three children!

Delain's Charlotte Wessels is also seriously good-looking, although in a rather different style. On the other hand, Danii Monroe from The Dirty Youth is pretty but far too young and cute for me to consider her hot.

Admittedly female-fronted metal's  female fronts do tend to be heavily (although not exclusively) inclined to corsets.

Rock music has always been about sex as well as music, of course, but I do think there is far more to female-fronted bands than that. Plus I find myself making some sort of mental distinction between 'hot' and 'sexual', which is weird when I think about it logically. Sharon den Adel in her initial Elements costume (above - doubtless highly metaphorical) looks incredibly hot, highly attractive, even sexy, but somehow, to me, not sexual. I'm strange, I know.

I enjoy the heavy end of rock, overlapping with the melodic end of metal, and hunger after creativity, expression, and a style which combines musical quality with lyrical interest. The contrast between crunching guitars and a rich soprano voice can be a wonderful experience, especially if seasoned with a light smattering of male 'growls'.

A common feature of many songs from Delain, The Dirty Youth and Within Temptation is that they tell a story, and express ideas in interesting ways. Stories about werewolves, deadly sins, or drunken nights out, told through tunes with varied musical structures, by highly talented musicians. All three also play songs of emotional intensity and rhythmic 'heaviness'. Dendera, Future Of The Left and The Virgin Marys (my other three favourites) share similar characteristics, in their varied and distinctive ways.

Of course there is also a lot of formulaic FFM around - it has become a popular musical style on the continent, and there are always those who are more interested in following a fashion than in creating something distinctive - but it remains a genre which, over the past 15 years or so, has attracted more than its fair share of original, creative and enjoyable artists. In my opinion, of course.

I hope you are having a great Christmas, and wish all who read this a happy, hopeful and adventurous new year. God bless.

Monday 8 December 2014

Gospel Beginning

I get a lot of emails every day; I suspect many of you do too. I also get a lot of posts on my Facebook wall. The challenge is to skim past the ones I'm not particularly interested in, whilst picking up on the ones I want to look into further. The subject and the first couple of lines are key to doing that.

'The more it changes ...'. Two thousand years ago, near enough, there was more information flowing around the Roman Empire than ever before. If you were a cosmopolitan sort of person, interested in what was going on - for instance a merchant whose business depended on knowing where there might be trouble and what trade routes might be affected - then you kept an eye on all the information you could. Even then, 90% of that information would be irrelevant - not quite cat videos perhaps, but not worth spending much time on. Nevertheless, you really didn't want to miss the 10% that did matter. So the first few lines of any document were important.
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.
This seems harmless to modern eyes. I am inclined to think that it is therefore a lousy translation, however literally accurate the words may be. Because to any well-informed cosmopolitan person in the 60s or 70s AD this would be dynamite. The sort of thing you need to know more about, even if you do find yourself looking over your shoulder for imperial spies.

'Good news': a much devalued phrase these days - a kind of prelude to religious brow-beating perhaps, not news and unlikely to be good. If I saw it in an email subject or Facebook post I'd probably feel I ought to read it, but with low expectations. If I weren't involved in churches already, the odds are I'd just hit the spam button, or skip the post. Back then an evangelion ('good news') might be a personal celebration - "It's a boy!" kind of thing - but by this time it was at least as likely to be political - the emperor, or one of his key generals, has just won a great victory somewhere. A royal proclamation: probably heavy on spin but, for a cosmopolitan reader, vital to know. Better read on.

'Messiah', or 'Christ': oh dear! Christos means anointed one or king. Caesar is unlikely to be happy about an evangelion saying someone else is king. Unless it is about a subject king, of course, one who recognises that Caesar is boss ('Lord'). But anyone who knows the Jewish scriptures - or has an informant who does - is likely to be aware of the story of David: anointed king long before that was a political reality, but from then on his predecessor Saul was a doomed man, his reign limited and his line at an end.

'The Son of God': oh dear, indeed! Emperor Nero had claimed that title, as had his predecessors ever since the newly dead Augustus had been proclaimed divine. Somebody else laying claim to that title was not going to go down well. Especially in the late 60s/early 70s AD.

It is a little inconvenient for us now that we don't know exactly when Mark's Gospel - from which the above political hot potato is the opening line - was written. Best estimate is between 66-70 AD. In 66 AD Nero's erratic incompetence was starting to become a serious issue in the Empire. In 68 AD he was forced to commit suicide, leading to instability and a power struggle. 69 AD was known as 'the year of the four emperors'. By 70 AD Vespasian had come out on top and was busy stabilising his position.

At any time during this period a document claiming to be a royal proclamation about an anointed king who carried imperial divinity was inevitably both highly dangerous and highly important. If you were a cosmopolitan person within the Roman Empire you had to read on. This was a subject line which couldn't be ignored.

What bothers me is that nowadays what used to be an attention-catching, if risky, opening means little or nothing to a modern cosmopolitan reader. The other three Gospel openings, similarly designed to attract the attention of their targeted readerships, are likewise pretty meaningless to a non-religious audience today.

How would one open a modern telling of Jesus' story? What would catch a modern reader's attention and encourage them to read on? Any thoughts and ideas?

Saturday 29 November 2014

Advent Hope

"£25m Pay Deal Criticised" - BG group, headquartered here in Reading, are hiring a new CEO, Helge Lund, who wants £25 million for his first year. He may or may not get all of it, but the reality remains that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The reason is simple: the rich have the power to decide where the money goes and so they take it; the poor don't have power so they struggle to feed their families. It seems to me that there should be a reckoning for this, an accounting, a judgement if you like.

"Kassig Had ‘Calling’ To Help Syrians" - Peter Kassig was kidnapped and killed by the IS/ISIS/ISIL and a video of his death posted. What western media rarely mentions is that around 14 Syrians were also murdered on the video, an omission that seems to me to play into the hands of the IS propagandists. Nevertheless, what we have in Syria and Western Iraq is a situation where men (mostly) of violence are slaughtering people of goodwill and good intent. Surely that demands a reckoning, an accounting, a judgement.

"Rotherham: Tip Of The Iceberg" - At least 1,400 vulnerable children abused by a paedophile ring. Why the 'tip of the iceberg'? One reason is that there are now investigations into other paedophile rings operating in other towns and cities across the UK. The other is that police chiefs are now saying what the NSPCC have been saying for years: that all of these paedophile rings are only the tip of the iceberg of child abuse in this country - the vast majority of abuse takes place in or around the home, carried out by family members or family friends.There has to be a reckoning, an accounting, a judgement, and it must come soon: every day more children and young people are suffering.

What is God doing about all this?

Which brings us to Advent. Advent is not just looking back to the first Christmas, celebrating Emmanuel, God with us, and wondering about all that God was doing. Advent is also about looking forward in hope. In the church calendar, last Sunday was the Feast of Christ the King; for the next few Sundays we look forward to the return of King Jesus to earth to reign in power over a new Kingdom of justice and peace. Sounds easy?

Back in the days of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah he wrote warnings about the consequences of the injustice, greed and violence racking his nation. Many of his passages have a thick dark thread of warning, interwoven with a fine gold thread about God intervening personally to sort things out. The warnings in due course came true, back in 587BC when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and exiled many of its people. Injustice piled on injustice, with greed, violence, poisonous politics and exploitative religion, had built up a toxic brew which eventually boiled over in death, destruction and horror. You can read about it in the Old Testament book of Lamentations.

It was several centuries before the fine gold thread took effect ... and then it was in a totally unexpected way. A baby in a manger, what is that about? The everyday miracle of a new birth, new life, imbued with the once-in-history miracle of the incarnation: God as humanity; the infinite creator of the universe as a tiny baby in its mother's arms. A wonder.

But still injustice, greed and violence continue. The Gospel writers, like Isaiah before, warn again of the consequences. Again, a thick dark thread of warning mixed with the fine golden thread of hope. There will be violence and destruction but, at an unknown time and in an unknown way, there will be change. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed - again - in AD70, "not one stone left on another", but Jesus, crucified by men of violence, has been raised to be king. Soon, we don't when, he will return.

Injustice, greed and violence remain - see the headlines above. They regularly boil over in a reckoning of death, destruction and horror, but that changes nothing in the long term. A new approach is needed; a new kind of reckoning. Instead of a judgement of death and destruction, the world needs a judgement of redemption and transformation. Not a reckoning of retribution, but a reckoning of renewal: a totting up, a drawing of the line, a fresh start. The point is what comes after, not judgement in itself.

We get a pointer from the apostle Paul's first letter to the young church in Corinth. Talking about Jesus' return, Paul tells them that all we have done which is wrong, which falls short, which is unworthy of Jesus, all that will be burnt up when Jesus comes, destroyed, blown away, no more. Cleansed. On the other hand, he tells us later, all that we do which is good, wholesome, worthy of Jesus' name, that will last forever. Not just a good thing for today, but Jesus will carry it over into his reign, his kingdom. Anything good we do this week will be a part of Jesus' Kingdom throughout eternity.

The point is that we are not to be afraid of making mistakes, we need to reach out and do whatever good we can.

Jesus' parable of the talents makes the same point: God has given the gift of life to us; he wants us to use it. Not to hide away in fear, in case we make a mistake, but to use it to make a difference, to make this world a better place, and so to work toward the world to come.

Because Jesus' reign and Jesus' Kingdom are not just about when Jesus returns in glory. The Advent Hope is so much more than that. Jesus' Kingdom will come fully when Jesus returns, but even now it is breaking through where Jesus' followers are at work. Even now Jesus reigns where his people do the unexpected, take risks: when we help those who would not help us, when we are kind to those who show only enmity, when we go further, look deeper, do more. That is where Jesus' Kingdom is visible, calling people to respond.

This is what the Lord's Prayer means when we say "your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven". It must never just be just words, it is to be said as a commitment: we will do all we can to help God's Kingdom break through where we are. Because the Advent Hope is not just an idea, it is actions and attitudes and a brave heart in difficult situations. It is trusting God to use all that we do for good.

And it is also saying, "Do hurry up, Lord, we're doing our best, but we still need you down here now!" Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Tuesday 25 November 2014

Fifty-Six Weeks In The Year

In a church year, that is. Kind of.

The official church year begins at the end of November, with Advent: the season of preparation for the coming of Jesus. That makes reasonable sense: Jesus is the centre of the Christian faith, and we have a big celebration of his birth on December 25th, so a four-week (actually four-Sunday) time of preparation and anticipation takes you to a starting point of (this year) November 30th.

The run up to Christmas is typically terribly busy, often stressfully so, and then Christmas itself can be fraught with family hassles, or lonely with the lack of family hassles. All of this can help us to connect with that very first Christmas. Joseph and Mary trying to cope with a new marriage, with Mary's first baby on the way, and with the knowledge that family and neighbours are all very aware that the baby is expected a lot less than nine months after the marriage, probably also aware that it is not Joseph's. Imagine the small-town attitudes responding to that.

Then the Romans throw a spanner in the works by making everybody travel back to their family town: all the way south to Bethlehem in Mary and Joseph's case. As if they haven't got enough to cope with. Then when they get to Bethlehem - their family town - their family don't want them: nobody has room for a young pregnant girl, about to give birth. Family problems and loneliness in a single hurtful package.

If Advent is the beginning of the church year, when is the end? People will often say it is the week before Advent: the feast of Christ the King (in those churches which have this sort of church year, of course). Except that, after celebrating Christ's Kingship, you then need to prepare for his coming back, as king, to rule here on earth, to put things right and to reign in justice and power. We do that at Advent too.

So Advent is also a time to consider and prepare for Jesus' return. and a time to think about death and resurrection, judgement and restoration. The details of when and how this will happen are deliberately vague in the Bible - which doesn't stop sects, nutters, obsessives and successful American authors from fantasising about it - but we do get told the result. People will be raised to life and renewed, God and Jesus will come to live on earth, and the earth will also be cleansed and renewed.

Somewhere in the detail left vague and ambiguous in the Bible is 'hell': the fundamental question of what happens to those who aren't raised to life and renewed. My take is that we eventually face a fundamental choice: do we want to be a part of this renewal or do we not? Why anyone would choose to face the 'second death' rather than allow God to renew them I don't know, but I guess a part of respecting someone's humanity is to give them that genuine option.

God's kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven, just as we regularly pray. All that we have done which is wrong will be cleansed and forgotten; all that we have done which is good will remain as part of Jesus' renewed kingdom. We will live together in Jesus' presence with peace, justice and purpose.

So you end up with two seasons of Advent overlapping: one at the beginning of the church year and one at the end. Advent is just under four weeks long (depending which day Christmas Eve falls upon) so that makes a tad under fifty-six weeks in one church year. QED.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Stressed Ramblings

In the middle of last month I received a letter threatening legal action over an old blog post. I found it extremely intimidating, making threats and demanding money.

In a way this gives me insight on a more emotional level into the situation some of my customers have found themselves in. They receive a phone call out of the blue, claiming (in effect) to be from Microsoft, telling them they have viruses and could be disconnected from the Internet, and charging for the 'service' of removing said (non-existent) viruses. Computers are not these customers' comfort zone and they get very worried and often end up making payments which, with a cool head and time to reflect, they would never normally have agreed to.

My advice to my computer customers is always to take time to think about the matter, and to consult an expert (such as myself) if they are concerned. So, after an initial headless-chicken moment, that's what I did over the letter. Legal affairs are as dark, unknown and scary to me as computers are to many others.

Kudos then to E.J.Winter & Sons for advice which I found to be clear, constructive and helpful. A thumbs up also to Harrison's Solicitors in Reading who don't deal with this sort of thing, but helpfully put me onto someone who does.

Meanwhile the empty nesting continues. Our son has started work up in the Midlands, and has now moved into his own rented flat. At the same time our daughter is slowly finding her student feet in the foreign land of Wales. I'm immensely proud of both of them.

Saturday 15 November 2014

Barclays: Jekyll & Hyde

I'm really rather conflicted over Barclay's Bank. At the giant multi-national corporate level I remember it as the 'apartheid bank' of the seventies and eighties; now, in the 21st Century, it keeps hitting the headlines for highly dodgy wheeler-dealing and dubious financial ethics.

In the late nineties, after apartheid was over, it was the only bank with a branch in Caversham which met my small business needs, so I opened a business account there. I find the local branch brings a very different set of associations from the central institution. I have, over many years, found the staff there to be helpful and professional. I've had the odd dubious communication from Barclay's over the years, all apparently from either head office or their marketing department, but no problem at all with the branch itself.

St John's had its Christmas Fair today, which is what got me thinking about Barclay's. Two of their branch staff came over to help us out on the two busiest stalls, did a great job, then matched the takings on those stalls from their branch funds. A small amount for Barclay's, no doubt, but immensely helpful to us. More importantly, though, it was done in the context of involvement: giving up their time and commitment to get involved and make a difference within the local community.

So bravo to Barclay's Caversham branch, to the staff who came and helped out today, and to the other branch staff who doubtless help other community endeavours over the year.

Every now and again there are rumours that Barclay's head office might close their Caversham branch. If that happens I will move my account in a shot (not that they'll miss its small turnover). Until then, though, I will appreciate the positives and be grateful for bank staff who want to give something to their local community.

Sunday 9 November 2014

Indigo Requiem

St. John's Church in Caversham held a special requiem service last night, marking remembrance weekend on the hundredth anniversary of the start of the Great War. Len David conducted his Indigo Requiem, with a combined choir from the Hurst Singers and from St John's. Liturgical sections were led by Revd. Colin Bass, and there was accompaniment from piano, saxophone, bass, percussion and trumpet (as well as the organ for the hymns).

Len has composed Indigo Requiem in a style of jazz which I associate with Gershwin - the respectable end of jazz you might say, but it still raises a smile to hear 'the devil's music' used in a context of formal Christian worship. Jazz has a flexibility of tone and mood which allowed it to move between the sadness of  loss and remembrance and the sure hope of resurrection without jarring ... in Len's hands, at least.

It was a fairly grim night weatherwise - and apparently there had been some firework throwing going on - so the congregation was disappointing; far less than the event deserved. Nevertheless musicians and choir (who were a soloist down through illness, I heard afterwards) did a marvellous job. St John's has wonderful acoustics when the singing is strong, and it was great to hear them ringing out. The sound of fireworks banging outside during the reading of the names of those from St. John's lost in the war was slightly surreal, but possibly appropriate, I guess.

From the programme notes:
The music of the requiem seeks to reflect something of the journey that we make as individuals through distress and dread in facing up to death, ending with a quiet acceptance of hope based on the gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. As we reflect on our own mortality and remember our loved ones who have died, we are invited to offer our feelings to God and pray that after the service we go away knowing something of the saving power of Christ.
The requiem was being recorded, so I am hoping it will end up on YouTube or somewhere similar, in which case I will add a link to the top of this post.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Lives After Them

"The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones."Shakespeare

My last post looked at evil and grace from the angle that Jesus gives a way back for those who have made bad choices - he has paid the price to redeem the souls they have sold, if you like. The other side of the coin is dealing with the mess and pain which evil leaves behind.

Shakespeare's quote above is mostly intended to be about reputation, I suspect - slightly odd-sounding today given our culture's supposed reluctance to 'speak ill of the dead.' Nevertheless it is all too true in the sense that the consequences of evil for those impacted will often last far longer than the deeds themselves.

Ruanda, Bosnia, and South Africa all still bear the scars of evil, open wounds often, as do the victims of Jimmy Saville, and of the gangs in Rochester and elsewhere, and of the abusers in children's homes and orphanages, and of all the abusive family members and 'friends' who make children's lives hell. The evil lives on in damaged bodies, shattered trust and ruined lives.

Good lives on too, but it always seems so much more fragile.

As is often said: it is quicker and easier to destroy than it is to build up.

In the long term the Bible is clear that this will be reversed: those affected by evil will be healed, cleansed and comforted by God Himself. It also says that all good that is done for Jesus will have lasting impact, however small and fragile that good may seem.
I heard a loud voice shout from the throne:
God’s home is now with his people. He will live with them, and they will be his own. Yes, God will make his home among his people. He will wipe all tears from their eyes, and there will be no more death, suffering, crying, or pain. These things of the past are gone forever.
In the meantime there is work to do for God's people. We are called to be the hands and hearts and feet and voices of Jesus in the world. Our task is to do what we can to show God's Kingdom here on earth 'as it is in heaven'. Jesus said that the key marks of his ministry were:
The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have skin disease are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.
Jesus came to reverse the effects of evil, to transform sickness to health, and to bring fullness of life to all - that is now the task of his followers, in all our weakness and vulnerability. Like Jesus:
“The Lord’s Spirit has come to us,
because he has chosen us
to tell the good news to the poor.
The Lord has sent us to announce freedom
for prisoners,
to give sight to the blind,
to free everyone who suffers,
and to say, ‘This is the year the Lord has chosen.’”
Where there is evil, pain and injustice, there you will also find followers of Jesus working, in their small way, to bring comfort and healing. Because Jesus comes to those in need; and often that's through his faithful people. 

Thursday 9 October 2014

The Evil That Men Do

I came across a quote from Canon Andrew White - the 'vicar of Baghdad' - recently. He had been asked why IS hates Christians and other minorities so much, and he replied:
They hate because they hate. They hate because they are evil. It is not an issue of 'these are Muslims and they're radicals and that's what they're like'. They're like this because they're evil ... They don't know God at all.
Every now and again it seems people get an excuse and an opportunity to cast off the restraints of 'civilized behaviour' and some of them do things which can only be described as incredibly evil. We saw it in Ruanda, we saw it in Bosnia, now we see it in Iraq: people who had lived together comfortably enough as neighbours suddenly descend into anarchy and chaos. It is tied to dehumanising others - the Ruandan Hutus famously described the Tutsis as 'cockroaches' before going on the rampage - rather than religion (Orthodox Christians in Bosnia, Sunni Muslims in Iraq, and no real religious element in Ruanda) or race/geographic region (Africa, Europe and Middle East in these three examples).

That is 'chaotic' evil - where people seemingly just lose the plot and wildly act out the darkness within them. There is also a cold systematic evil, such as the Israelis deliberately killing civilians in neighbouring countries every few years. They dehumanise with terms like 'terrorist', yet their aim is to cause terror and to destroy - in the latest attacks on Gaza, hospitals and those who managed hospitals were targetted, to teach them a lesson.

I've also been reading (again) Steig Larsson's wonderful book, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The four parts to the book are each introduced by a statistic about violence to women in Sweden:
"18% of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man."
"48% of the women in Sweden have been subjected to violence by a man." 
"13% of the women in Sweden have been subjected to aggravated sexual assault outside of a sexual relationship." 
"92% of women in Sweden who have been subjected to sexual assault have not reported the most recent violent incident to the police."
Currently in Britain various child sexual abuse scandals roll on. Last night Channel 4 news quoted a child support worker as saying:
"Rotherham is not the exception, it is more likely to be the norm."
Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg. According to NSPCC research the vast majority of child abuse happens in the home: their figures suggest that one in twelve children (around 8%) is sexually abused during their childhood, the vast majority by either family members or family friends.

It's about power and accountability. Where people have power but do not have to answer for it then some abuse it. Where they can shield their activity in darkness, anonymity and secrecy then some give way to the evil within. And some don't.

Maybe that is a working definition of that horribly degraded term 'sin': when we have a choice between what is evil and what is good, which do we choose?

Most religions, I think, follow most people in condemning those who choose such evil, who sin in this way. A distinctive about Christianity is that it also offers a way back.

When you have made the wrong choices, when you have sold your soul to evil, Jesus offers hope - light in the terrible darkness. Churches still struggle with what on earth that means in practice, and lots of churchgoers are really not keen on this idea at all, but following Jesus means little without it.

For someone who has sold their soul, Jesus has paid the price to redeem it. The Bible calls this 'Grace'. We all need grace ... maybe some more than others.

Monday 6 October 2014

Whose Image?

Then the Pharisees met together to plot how to trap Jesus into saying something for which he could be arrested. They sent some of their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to meet with him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know how honest you are. You teach the way of God truthfully. You are impartial and don’t play favourites. Now tell us what you think about this: Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus knew their evil motives. “You hypocrites!” he said. “Why are you trying to trap me? Here, show me the coin used for the tax.”

When they handed him a Roman coin, he asked, “Whose picture and title are stamped on it?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

“Well, then,” he said, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.”
His reply amazed them, and they went away.

I don't know about other countries, but here in the UK all our money - coin and paper - has the queen's head on it; how little has changed in two millennia. But it makes the first of Jesus' points clearer: pay your taxes, don't cheat the government. The government prints the money and, these days, it gives it its value, so give to the government what is theirs. No tax evasion, no tax avoidance: the mean-spiritedness which pays accountants and advisors in order to avoid paying the government just shrivels the soul.

But that part of Jesus' reply is not what amazed his questioners and sent them away silenced.

"Give to God what is God's" - if money bears the Caesar's image, what bears the image of God? Or, more precisely, who? Way back in the very first chapter of the Bible, we are told "God created mankind in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them". You and I bear God's picture, his image ... maybe somewhat messed up, but there nevertheless.

"Give to God what is God's" - that would be myself, and my neighbours. Jesus said elsewhere that we cannot serve both God and Mammon - money, wealth, possessions. Money is useful to live, and has its own rules, including payment of taxes due. But God takes priority over money.

Part of the background to the question was that people were struggling to pay both the Roman taxes and the taxes and tithes demanded by the religious authorities. Part of Jesus' answer is that these religious authorities - and the questioners - were wrong to be focussing on money as they did. Their focus should have been righteousness and justice - which would have messed up their cosy relationship with the Roman occupiers, of course.

The standard Anglican communion service has a quite remarkable line toward the end:
Through him [Jesus] we offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice.
Which is an amazing sentence, when you think about it, but it does take Jesus' 'Give to God' point very seriously.

Money is useful for living, but God must come first: his justice and his mercy. And how we spend our money (after taxes) reflects our priorities. Whether that is in spending a few extra pence on 'fairly traded' food (or not), or buying more expensive (in the short term) low-power light bulbs (or not), or reducing our use of our car - if we have one - in favour of walking, cycling or public transport (or not).

We are made in God's image; so are African farmers struggling against unfair global terms of trade; and so are Bangladeshi's at risk of being flooded out as sea levels rise due to global warming.

Giving to God what is God's means being careful of God's image, wherever it occurs, and acting in ways which benefit that image throughout the world.

"Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God."

Sunday 5 October 2014

Abortion, Contraception, Homosexuality and Divorce

According to the BBC those are the topics of the two-week Roman Catholic synod starting today.
According to the Vatican the purpose of the synod is to discuss the family. Spot the difference.

More specifically, the official title of the meeting is "Pastoral Challenges To The Family in the Context of Evangelisation". To put it in slightly plainer English, this meeting is to look at "proclaiming and living the Gospel of the Family in a credible manner", whilst a second meeting next year looks at "pastoral care of the person and the family".

It is important to note that the preparatory document puts relating the Gospel to the family in the context of "preaching the Gospel to all creation". Unlike much of the comment which has arisen from various pressure groups, this official position does not directly reflect the commonly held church prejudice that focuses on marriage to the exclusion of single people.

The preparatory document lists many new concerns about the family:
The many new situations requiring the Church’s attention and pastoral care include: mixed or inter-religious marriages; the single-parent family; polygamy; marriages with the consequent problem of a dowry, sometimes understood as the purchase price of the woman; the caste system; a culture of non-commitment and a presumption that the marriage bond can be temporary; forms of feminism hostile to the Church; migration and the reformulation of the very concept of the family; relativist pluralism in the conception of marriage; the influence of the media on popular culture in its understanding of marriage and family life; underlying trends of thought in legislative proposals which devalue the idea of permanence and faithfulness in the marriage covenant; an increase in the practice of surrogate motherhood (wombs for hire); and new interpretations of what is considered a human right. Within the Church, faith in the sacramentality of marriage and the healing power of the Sacrament of Penance show signs of weakness or total abandonment.
That's a long list and, creditably, it does not just focus on the concerns of relatively wealthy Westerners.

The classic church response to challenges has been to focus on rules and restrictions: "Thou shalt not". It is just possible that the new Pope's approach over these meetings will be different:
By simply calling to mind the fact that, as a result of the current situation, many children and young people will never see their parents receive the sacraments, then we understand just how urgent are the challenges to evangelization arising from the current situation, which can be seen in almost every part of the “global village”. Corresponding in a particular manner to this reality today is the wide acceptance of the teaching on divine mercy and concern towards people who suffer on the periphery of societies, globally and in existential situations.
"The current situation" quoted being that remarried divorcees are excluded  from taking communion in Roman Catholic churches. Focussing on divine mercy and concern for the marginalised is a new approach (in this context). Hopefully it will lead the Catholic Church, which has around a billion followers, onto a new path which is less focussed on social control than in the past, and more focussed on helping people where they actually are.

Personally I think it would be good to see that extending to an affirmation of committed gay marriages, and an encouragement for such couples to have children - whether by adoption or artificial insemination - and so form the faithful stable families that Roman Catholic teachings say they are so keen on. Although I suspect that would be many steps too far.

Not that a different approach is guaranteed. The (US-based) Catholic News Agency is busy reporting on (plugging) more conservative views on the family and pressing for simple restatement of old teachings. For example:
“Men and women need desperately to hear the truth about why they should get married in the first place,” the letter states. “And, once married, why Christ and the Church desire that they should remain faithful to each other throughout their lives on this earth.” The letter said that men and women need to know that in times of marital difficulty the Church will be “a source of support, not just for individual spouses, but for the marriage itself.”
In other words the pastoral needs of individuals should be secondary to protecting and promoting the institution. The letter they are reporting on also describes marriage and the family as "indispensible", a real kick in the teeth to the vast army of single people who faithfully serve Jesus as part of the Roman Catholic church.

So this synod is an opportunity for a major change of tone and focus for the Roman Catholic church (although not on the underlying fundamental values). However the forces of conservatism and authoritarianism are mobilising to stop that happening.

I am a bit dubious about the operation of the Holy Spirit through church denominations, indeed through organised religion in general, but if ever there was a time for prayer that the Spirit's movement might be truly effective, this is surely it. The lives of a billion people could be affected, for better or for worse.

Saturday 4 October 2014

Only Connect

Matthew's Gospel was originally placed at the beginning of the New Testament because long ago the people who decided such things thought that it was the first Gospel written.

These days it is near-unanimous amongst Bible scholars that Mark was actually the first Gospel (and that many of Paul's letters were written before the Gospels anyway). But Matthew is still considered the right choice to begin the New Testament.

The reason is that Matthew is the great connecting Gospel. Written for the community of Jewish Christians in Judea, Samaria & Galilee, it strongly emphasises Jesus as the Jewish Messiah - as the fulfilment of the hopes and promises of the Jewish scriptures. Matthew emphasises links between the things Jesus said and did and the writings of the prophets; he proclaims Jesus as the fulfilment of the Torah, the Jewish Law; and he starts his Gospel with a genealogy going back to Abraham.

Genealogies are important, especially in small-town life, because they connect you into the life of the community. A genealogy is not about genes or physical inheritance, it's about where you fit in. Whose child are you, what is your background, which family do you come from, which known figures are related to you.

I live in a town, Reading in England, with quite a transient population, so in many ways this sort of connectedness has broken down. Yet, even here, I often find myself classified as "you must be BlackSar's dad", or "BlackLin's husband", or sometimes "are you related to BlackJohn, the photographer?" (no, I'm not). The desire to connect and to build community through personal links and relationships remains, even if the impermanence of much of that community makes it difficult to sustain.

The genealogy given by Matthew starts from Abraham, the father of Israel, and is important for who it includes: King David of course, considered the founder of the line of true Godly kings, but there's also a prostitute (probably: Rahab), and a foreigner (Ruth), and Solomon (whose mother was stolen by David from Uriah, by adultery and murder), then a line of kings of Judea, and eventually Joseph, "the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah".

It's not important that the genealogy probably misses people out - it is who is included which provides the community connections - and it is certainly not important that Joseph was not Jesus' biological father. He was the husband of Jesus' mother and that is what matters to the community.

Jesus was an Israelite and a Jew (of the tribe of Judah) and a descendant of the line of David and fitted into his local community as the son of Joseph and Mary. He connected on many levels. For Matthew that is the foundation of his telling of the good news about Jesus the Messiah: saviour, teacher and the great high priest whose sacrifice finally opens the way for God to reconnect with his people.

I was at a teaching day/quiet day yesterday, led by David Winter. He views the Bible as being all about connection: God working to reconnect with people, eventually fulfilled through Jesus, and mankind seeking (more or less enthusiastically) to connect with God.

There is a great human longing for connection: with God, with one another, with our surroundings, even with our own inner self. Matthew's testimony is that Jesus is the key to that connection: he is the one who makes us whole, in ourselves and as part of God's people, God's community.

It is said that "no man is an island". Jesus brings that truth to life: may he do so for you whenever you feel the need for connection that goes deeper, to the heart and to the soul.

Sunday 28 September 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 21 September 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 17 August 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 16 August 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 5 August 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).

Thursday 31 July 2014

Trevor Huddleston, Makhalipile, Human Being

Life itself and all that goes with it - all the glory of it, all the power of it - every many splendid thing is a free gift from the God who made us.
Trevor Huddleston
Just occasionally somebody comes along who epitomises Christ at work in a troubled world. From 1943 to 1998 one such man was Trevor Huddleston.

There was a wonderful tribute on a recent Channel 4 News from trumpeter Hugh Masekela, which says more than I ever could:

Desmond Tutu said:
"The biggest defining moment in my life was when I saw Trevor Huddleston and I was maybe nine or so. I didn't know it was Trevor Huddleston, but I saw this tall, white priest in a black cassock doff his hat to my mother who was a domestic worker.

I didn't know then that it would have affected me so much, but it was something that was really - it blew your mind that a white man would doff his hat. And subsequently I discovered, of course, that this was quite consistent with his theology that every person is of significance, of infinite value, because they are created in the image of God.

And the passion with which he opposed apartheid and any other injustice is something that I sought then to emulate."
Often it is the small unthinking things we do which best reflect Jesus to other people.

God bless Africa, God bless Africa,
Guard her children, guide her leaders.
God bless Africa, God bless Africa,
God bless Africa and bring her peace.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Justice And Peace Together

I added a comment to a recent post yesterday, which I want to expand on a little. It seems to me that there is a really difficult tension between Jesus' call to "love your enemies" and "do good to those who hate you" on the one hand, and God's call to "act justly" and "love mercy" on the other, or even Paul's call to "stand firm against the schemes of the evil one".
On one occasion Jesus was confronted with a bullying synagogue leader:
On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.
Jesus unambiguously stood up for the bullied woman and against the religious leaders. He did so publicly and vehemently: "You hypocrites!" So the deference to leadership and the 'niceness' taught by many churches (especially by their leaderships, oddly) is clearly unfaithful to Jesus' example and to the clear teaching of the Bible.

Church leaders are there to serve the people who make up the local church, and that local church is there to serve Jesus in their local community. Many churches, of all sorts of traditions, seem to get this backwards. It is essential for the proper functioning of a church that its leadership is fully, and publicly, accountable to Jesus through its congregation. This means that keeping things secret from the congregation is anathema, and that confidentiality must be seen as being a part of good communication, not opposed to it.

With hindsight I wonder if Caversham Baptist Church could have avoided a lot of pain, or at least made sure it had some purpose, by coming together behind such principles. Other churches in Caversham have had similar problems, one at least as severe. The trouble is that local churches don't seem to be that good at coming together with purpose; possibly because of a lack of clear vision and direction. If you are all busy working to a clear, agreed and common goal, then a lot of the nonsense can be left behind.

Which brings me to Israel and Gaza. If everybody there passively stopped the shelling and the missiles and the shooting, the result would be neither justice nor peace. Gaza would still be under siege, there would still be Palestinians rotting without trial in Israeli jails, and both sides would continue living in fear and hatred of the other.

Not that the killing and wanton destruction is in any way helpful, but stopping them without changing the situation just stores up more killing and more hatred for the future. A ceasefire is good if and only if it is also an opportunity to seek justice and resolution.

There are peacemakers in Israel and Palestine: Christians, Muslims and Jews who come together to learn about one another and to explore ways to live peacefully together.

If enough of the haters become sickened by their hatred, and by the legacy they are passing on to their children, then maybe there could be a foundation for spreading peace and trust, bit by bit. It happened in Northern Ireland and South Africa - haters are still there but the momentum has passed from them to those who would make peace. This creates windows of opportunity to find just solutions to the causes of conflict, and to negotiate the inevitable bumps in the road.

When people stand together to do what is right, for justice and peace, then often they need to take the first steps, to show that progress is possible. That requires showing love for enemies and doing good to opponents. This works best, in my view, if they place their primary trust in God, through Jesus, rather than in politicians and other human leaders.

So much hatred is based on fear and fear-mongering; Jesus died and rose again to show that we can overcome fear, and focus on life and love. May churches, families and nations do so, and may the energy and resources put into creating conflict be turned to building peace, justice and a better world for all.

Sunday 20 July 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 14 July 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."