Monday 31 August 2015

Respect For Life

Once we used to think that microbes were just 'germs', harmful and to be wiped out wherever possible. Now we are beginning to realise just how important they are.

In our guts we have an immense and complex microbial ecosystem, which affects our health in many ways. Whenever we take oral antibiotics that is really badly messed up. It would be a lot better if we kept antibiotics as a last resort and instead focussed on helping our gut microflora develop in ways which are healthy for them and for us. Respecting the life which is inside us and working with it rather than against it.

Researchers are also just beginning to home in onto a similar complexity of microbial life on our skins and in our mouths. It would be good if some serious studies were done on the consequences of wiping out parts of these communities with antiseptic soaps and mouthwashes - they may be doing more harm than good. Our microbiome is a lot more complex than we had previously realised; it should be treated with respect.

It is fairly well known now that insecticides are problematic. They kill insect predators as well as the main insect 'pests' - and the latter are much quicker to develop resistance. They also tend to accumulate up the food chain. Adjusting conditions to favour a more balanced and stable ecosystem is, in the long run, far more effective.

When it comes to effective use of the earth's land surface to grow food for the human population, studies have shown that some areas are best suited to growing plants for food and other are best suited to rearing animals. To feed our growing population fairly and effectively requires both plant foodstuffs and meat.

The proportion of the ideal diet which is meat should be significantly lower than the current average in the developed world, and significantly higher than parts of the developing world. Intensive rearing and general 'factory farming' are not efficient users of resources, so more sustainable patterns are required, for both plants and animals. Again we should be aiming to work with complex ecosystems rather than against them, recognising that monocultures and mass poisoning are both ineffective and inefficient.

One of the features of a successful ecosystem is that life and death are both a part of the web. I don't want to go all Disney 'circle of life' - reality is far more complex with its webs and time dependencies - but respecting life includes respecting the place of death. Every living thing dies (more or less), it is a part of life. Killing unnecessarily is disrespectful of life, but so is pretending death won't happen.

If humanity is to survive on this planet in the longer term we need to find ways to integrate ourselves into the wider ecosystem. In part that means stabilising our population; in part it means using sustainable food production methods, utilising both plants and animals; but mostly it means respecting life in all its diversity and complexity and working with it rather than against it. We are a part of something far larger than ourselves.

To apply this to the questions raised in my 'Cecil' post: as a generalisation a diverse ecosystem is healthier and more resilient than a narrow one. New species form and old ones die out, but we should do what we can to maintain a balance, and should certainly avoid putting unnecessary pressure on species and their environments.

As a slight aside, respect for the diversity of life in ecosystems across the world should be accompanied by respect for diversity within humanity, in my view. Both are essential for wholeness of life in the present, and stability of life into the future.

A final 'Cecil' question was about 'speciesism' - how far should we treat homo sapiens' life as being uniquely valuable?

From a Chrstian point of view, we believe that men and women are all made in God's image, and should be respected as such. But we also believe that we are called by God to be responsible stewards looking after this world, not just exploiting it for our own ends. All life came from God and should be treated with care and respect.

There is a bit of a question mark over what particular aspect of people is 'in God's image'. It is unlikely to be physical - as God is spirit - so it is more likely something to do with creativity and free will and 'sentience' - the ability to feel and experience subjectively. Some animals show signs of doing these things too, to a greater or lesser extent.

Does that mean that some are closer to God's image than others, with mankind at the peak? Could that be a basis for valuing a dolphin's life, say, over a tuna's?

I'm not really sure how well that works, but I do believe that a respect for life in all its aspects is a fundamental of living in the best way we can.

Thursday 27 August 2015

Mark Series In Order

Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order, of the things said and done by the Lord.
Papias of Hierapolis (60-130AD)
One problem with blogs is that their archives tend to be in reverse order: most recent first. For many purposes that is helpful, but for posts supporting a sermon series on Mark's Gospel it seems less so.

Actually Mark himself is said to have written his Gospel thematically, rather than in chronological order (which is why it is so daft when people try to create a timeline of Jesus' three-year ministry from the four Gospels). So this list aims simply to reflect the order sections are in that Gospel, trying to highlight themes in the same sequence as Mark.

I've included a post or three written before the sermon series started, where they covered relevant ground.
  1. Mark After Trinity
  2. The introduction to the sermon series.

  3. Gospel Beginning
  4. The opening: a title and a one-line summary.

  5. Son Of God
  6. Who says religion and politics don't mix? Certainly not Mark.

  7. Good News Afresh
  8. What does Jesus say the good news ('Gospel') is? More to the point what do his actions show about that good news?

  9. Provoking A Reaction
  10. Mark tells a story which is pacey, emotive, and where Jesus deliberately says and does things which demand a response. Some people were amazed, others horrified, but Jesus couldn't be ignored.

  11. Awe & Wonder
  12. Jesus the rabbi, the teacher, the good man ... but "Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"

  13. Faith Power Action
  14. The lack of punctuation in the title is deliberate. A healing sandwich, but who is actually doing the healing?

  15. Reactions To Jesus
  16. A follow-on to post 5 really. This series challenges us to read and hear Mark's Gospel with fresh eyes and ears, and to respond anew to the Jesus we meet.

  17. Turning Toward Golgotha
  18. The half-way point. The penny drops for Peter then is lost again. A change of direction and a mountain-top experience.

  19. Turn & Step
  20. What does it look like to turn to God through Jesus and step out in faith?

  21. Are Wives Like Cars?
  22. Divorce: Jesus tries to change the mindset; sadly the church hasn't listened.

  23. Poverty, Service, Struggle
  24. An upside-down Kingdom and a Church called to be Jesus' hands and feet and heart and voice in its local communities.

  25. Bread, Wine & All-Age Worship
  26. Friendship, enmity and reconciliation.

  27. The Trap Closes
  28. The trap closes and the 'victim' is caught. Jesus is close to defeat and death ... in God's upside-down kingdom he knows that is the road that leads to life.

  29. Triumph Over Death
  30. That's the way Jesus' death and resurrection is told today. Mark, though, seems more ambiguous. Maybe in mid-to-late 60's Rome it didn't really feel that way.

  31. Not The End
  32. Mark's Gospel doesn't really finish ... more precisely, the finish in our Bibles was clearly added much later. Mark leaves us a cliff-hanger: will they or won't they? It's an ongoing story and the final open-ended question still hangs there today.

  33. Why?
  34. Why did Mark write this Gospel account; why had Mark's companions in Rome (and beyond) suffered so much; and why do Jesus' followers still suffer today?
PS: I know that I have left the previous two posts half completed, waiting for a part two (actually there should be a part three to the 'Trinity' posts also - about mission and the Trinity - although I need to do more thinking about that). Hopefully I will do those soon, but I wanted to get this Mark resequence done quickly, while it might still be relevant.

Wednesday 26 August 2015

Cecil The Lion: Drawing A Line?

In the early thirties Ernest Hemingway went hunting in East Africa and it helped cement his reputation as a "man's man". A few weeks ago Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer went hunting in Zimbabwe and was widely seen as an inadequate person with more money than humanity. Times change.

Shortly after the fuss started about Cecil the lion I noticed vegans making comments on the hypocrisy of people complaining about the killing of Cecil yet still eating meat. We should respect all living things, we were told, not just the charismatic ones.

It seems a fair point, until you start to think about the breadth of the term 'living things' - from smallpox to blue whales, and from caterpillars to human beings. When we take antibiotics we are killing millions of tiny creatures; even an antiseptic wipe wreaks mass slaughter. Insecticides on crops kill insects - living creatures - and pest controllers kill rats to protect the health of families. Actually plants are living things as well, but that's an old argument.

Where do you draw the line?

As I understand it vegans don't eat fish or crustaceans, neither do they eat eggs or milk, nor birds or mammals. Insects and insect products (such as honey) are apparently disputed. As far as I know veganism does not include avoidance of crops on which pesticides have been used. It's drawing a line quite low, but nowhere near low enough to include all living things, not even all animals.

At the other end of the scale there are those who are perfectly happy with killing animals (or causing animals to be killed) but consider killing humans as murder and morally wrong. Again a line is drawn.

As an aside I note that Walter Palmer, as a citizen of the USA, is from the nation with the highest murder rate in the developed world - triple that of neighbouring Canada and nearly five times that of the United Kingdom. Maybe a carelessness about the lives of animals bleeds over into carelessness over the lives of people.

Then there are many who would draw lines somewhere in between. Maybe based on charisma or cuteness, maybe on perceived intelligence or assumed sentience and awareness; maybe based on conservation or ecological criteria. So eating tuna might be considered ethical so long as no dolphins are harmed in catching them, for example. Or beef might be fine as people breed vast numbers of cows, whilst lions and many whales are rare and declining in number.

I wonder about this sort of line drawing, in part because I keep reading about Jesus refusing to do so himself. Jesus, it seems to me, had a habit of approaching such questions sideways on, looking at issues in terms of underlying attitudes rather than black and white dividing lines.

Is there another of looking at the killing of animals? Can a respect for life inform our attitude to all living things, not just higher animals? And how important is 'species-ism' - the idea that killing other homo sapiens is far more abhorrent than killing other species?

This post is long enough, I reckon, so I'll end here and look at these issues in another post.

Tuesday 11 August 2015

A Quiet Life?

Several times over the years I have asked people (churchgoers and non-churchgoers) what they thought church services are about, who they are for, and how they can be made better. A couple of recent answers (from churchgoers) got me thinking:
"Our Sunday service should be for everyone in the local community; but really it's for people like us."
"We realise we have to change, but some of us think we are already changing, and maybe changing too quickly."
The second of these, from a lovely older lady, is a genuine cry from the heart which illustrates a real issue. Older people are often resistant to change (with all sorts of exceptions, of course), and churchgoers are often looking for a sense of changelessness. The trouble is that, with ageing congregations and declining numbers (except in immigrant-majority churches), the choice is change or slow death.

It's not as though Jesus promises a quiet life, and the Holy Spirit is described as a wind that 'blows where it will'; not to mention all the people in the Bible who find themselves sent out to do God's work away from their homes and their comfort zones.

So I believe that on the one hand change is desperately needed, on the other it needs to be managed and paced carefully, bringing along as many as possible of those who would not choose it. Change for its own sake is pointless, though, as is change for the sake of being like the surrounding culture.

Somehow the direction of God's Spirit must be discerned and moves made to head in that direction. This gets tricky with an ageing congregation already bogged down trying to keep a huge range of activities going from the days when church was bigger and more central. Not to mention an accumulation of previous years' initiatives which are maybe doing good things but not bringing noticeable growth.

I remember when I first started getting involved in churches we used to scorn measuring growth in numbers, "bums on pews" as we put it. "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God" was our attitude and let God worry about the numbers. The trouble is that churches didn't do a good job of opening up God's Kingdom either, so we can hardly complain now God is allowing the numbers to slip.

Maybe once we recognise our minority status we'll be more positive about welcoming and working with other minorities. One can always hope.

We probably need a new paradigm, a new mindset and active approach, to cope with our uncertain future. I'm blowed if I know what it is though! Any thoughts?

Wednesday 5 August 2015

One God In Community

The Christian picture of a Trinitarian God does have some important consequences.

A key implication is that the Trinity in some way reflects an important property of God's nature: that he is in an essential way relational; that community is somehow central to the creator of the universe.

One has to be really careful here, of course, not to go confusing a Trinitarian picture of God with some kind of cosy human family gathering. God is much, much more than that; but it is likely that He is not less than that.

Notwithstanding the Western Church, over recent centuries, slowly but surely moving to a focus on individualism and on each individual's relationship with God, the pattern of the Bible is very different.

From Genesis, where it is not good for man to be alone, throughout the Old Testament, with its emphasis on God's dealings with His people, to the New Testament, where the story moves from Jesus with his disciples, to the Spirit working in and through the Church, Jesus' body, the Bible is about communities of people following (or not) God.

One way of presenting the 'big picture' of the Bible is about relationships: broken in the opening chapters and being restored by Jesus' sacrifice and the power of God's Spirit. Relationships between people and God, between people and other people, and between people and the natural world, God's creation. These are still issues in our world today - the Bible story doesn't end with the final page of Revelation, it carries on through the lives and work of Jesus' followers throughout history - until the day Jesus returns and makes all things new.

I would argue that this is how you can tell the true Church, Jesus' real followers: are they in the business of restoring relationships or of harming them? Not that even the best churches don't make mistakes and wander off the path, but one can still question both the overall pattern, and the quality of the hopes and dreams of the members: do they build up and welcome in, or do they knock down and exclude?

The Bible tells us that "God is love", and love is the essence of true relationship. If God is love then his followers must also be love, and must ensure that their understanding and practice of that love follows the radical patterns laid down by Jesus. Love isn't about gooey feelings and sex, but about genuine and practical care for someone else, backed with a willingness to sacrifice oneself to meet their deepest needs. To love is to to take up one's cross for the sake of another.

Love starts with loving God with all that we are, continues with loving our neighbour as our selves - even when that neighbour is strange, foreign, or in some other way 'alien' - and ends with God's people loving one another.

Remember that God's love for you is far greater than any human love.

God loves you, He died for you: he is on your side. God is not out to get you, He is out to save you. But He always gives you a choice: love respects freedom of choice. As a parent of young adults I suspect I have a very faint insight into how hard that must be ... even for God.

Saturday 1 August 2015

One God Indivisible

As the early church became separated from its Jewish roots, it became more and more important to pin down just what the New Testament writers meant by some of the things they had written about Jesus.

Paul and John were both religious Jews, and therefore strongly monotheistic. So what did they mean by phrases like:
"For in him [the Son] all things were created ... he is the head of the body, the church ... the firstborn from the dead ... God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in him," 
from Paul's letter to the Colossian church; and
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us ... the one and only Son, who came from the Father," 
from the opening of John's Gospel?

It took several hundred years of argument, but in the end the church settled on the idea of a Trinitarian God - one God in three Persons - and that Jesus was both fully God and fully man, in one person.

Jews don't like this solution, Muslims don't like it either, and an assortment of Christian offshoots over the centuries have rejected it as well. So why is mainstream Christianity so attached to the idea of a Trinitarian God, what does it mean, and how is it monotheistic?

In my view, at the heart of the issue is the reality that God is essentially unknowable. How can anyone get their heads around a being who created the whole space-time universe out of nothing? If He created time, when did He do it; if He created space where was He when He did it? God is beyond space and time, but we have no way of understanding that. It's a reality which Kierkegaarde and Karl Barth described as infinite qualitative distinction (that Wikipedia reference isn't very good - if you know a better link please let me know).

So how can we talk about God as a person (or even as three persons)? How can a being beyond space and time relate to ordinary people in any meaningful sense, and how can we engage with, or even worship, such a being?

The answer has to be through God's self-revelation. We can't understand God (someone once said that anyone who claims to understand their God worships an idol). Nevertheless God can reveal himself to us - in a necessarily limited way - such that we can engage with that revelation. The Abrahamic religions understand that self-revelation to be through their scriptures and through creation, God's handiwork.

To Jews God reveals Himself through the Torah (and the Prophets), to Muslims through the Quran, and to Christians through the Bible. Scriptures are famously obscure and ambiguous in parts, so that revelation is modulated by the universe around us - God's creation - and by the way God has dealt over the centuries with His people.

Note, incidentally, the problems of language in describing God: God doesn't have gender, yet his self-revelation in the various scriptures is personal, so none of 'he', 'she' or 'it' really works well, but one must use something. So I'm using the traditional 'He', in spite of its limitations.

One self-revelation equates to one understanding of God which sits comfortably with monotheism. But what if God reveals himself in other, significantly different, ways?

What if God somehow revealed himself in a person? A person who in some mysterious way was both fully human and fully an expression of the one God? We can't begin to understand how that works of course, but then God is essentially not understandable - all we can do is appreciate his presentation(s) of Himself to us. A person is qualitatively different from a book; a human being localised in time and space has to be understood differently from the creator of that time and space. One God has revealed Himself in two fundamentally different ways.

Then there is the Christian experience of some sort of inner presence within them, which in some mysterious way unites them with other Christians, with Jesus, and with the otherwise unknowable God. A kind of Spirit which connects the human and the divine - inevitably almost indescribable and incomprehensible, but subjectively experienced as God revealing himself to us.

Three ways in which one God reveals himself to mankind - to you and I if we have eyes to see, ears to hear, heart and mind to experience. Creator and author, redeeming human being, and uniting restoring Spirit. One God revealing Himself through three 'persons' - self-expressions with whom limited humanity can relate.

A Trinitarian God who remains one God indivisible.