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."

Saturday 12 July 2014

Rob Beardsley Leaves Caversham Baptist Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EDIT 26/07/14

It strikes me that the bullet point list above is solidly negative. This is simply because I wanted to only list changes which were objective and demonstrable, and the list of such things that I am aware of is solidly negative. However, it does seem implausible that there was nothing objectively positive happened at CBC during that thirty month period. If you are aware of any such, please use the comments section to share it.

One thing I would add is that I am aware of individuals who went above and beyond the call of duty just to keep things going in particular areas of the church's ministry. 'Keeping things going' doesn't really fit into 'objective and demonstrable' changes, but it does represent a significant and costly contribution to God's Kingdom, I think.

EDIT 29/10/14

I've had a letter claiming the above is defamatory: I've taken legal advice and it is clearly not (see the Defamation Act 2013). Nevertheless, for the avoidance of doubt, I wish to explicitly state that there is nothing in the above attempting to suggest that Rob Beardsley was in some way personally responsible for the heavy financial losses suffered by CBC during that period. This was a whole-church problem and CBC is a church with congregational government: all church members are responsible for decisions made, and Rob Beardsley was just one amongst many such members.

Sadly, in the kerfuffle I have disconnected the original comments on this post. I am recreating them below, but the links to commenters are lost. Sorry.