Sunday 26 June 2016

Us & Them On So Many Levels

June really hasn't been a good month.

This is a picture of Stanford rapist Brock Turner: white, wealthy, privileged. When he found an unconscious women rather than helping her he began to rape her.

Some people came along and caught him so technically I suppose he is an 'attempted rapist', but he got far enough that the woman reportedly had dirt and grass inside her when they treated her in hospital.

He was sentenced to just six months in prison, reportedly reduced to four, by a judge who shared his background, and he and his family are appealing that as too harsh. His victim, once she had been treated, was articulate enough to ensure the case came to wider notice: a shocking example of 'them & us' in US society.

Melissa Etheridge's song, at the top of this post, was written in response to the mass murder at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando this month.

A deeply homophobic man shot dead 49 people and wounded 53 others. Behind him lay a deeply homophobic family, living in a deeply homophobic culture, surrounded by deeply homophobic churches (and presumably mosques).

Homosexuality has been a divisive issue across the world in recent years. My question on such things is "where are the haters?" Those who spread hatred of others are not God's people; and those who would divide Christ's body are nothing to do with Jesus.

Then we come to the UK's EU referendum campaign. The picture shown was probably the low point of a generally negative campaign. 

Both the Leave and Remain official campaigns focused on fear-mongering and negative propaganda. Both the official and unofficial Leave groups hammered away relentlessly at immigration and at people's fear and resentment of 'the other'.

Now the result is out and it seems the Leave campaigns worked - at least among older voters. The picture below, in many variations, is widely shared on social media by younger people angry at what they see as a betrayal of their future by those who won't have to live with the consequences. I suppose 'us & them' across generations is nothing new, but the anger is real.

I was going to put up picture of those utterly stupid politicians whose response to a crisis is to play politics and ignore the needs of the country. In many ways it was the Conservative party's internal politics, especially the ambition of Boris Johnson, which created the crisis, now Labour's MPs have decided they'd rather play leadership games than help rebuild the unity this country desperately needs to face a challenging future. The us & them of a broken political system.

In my view the most apposite comment was used as a headline by the Guardian newspaper: "If you've got money, you vote in ... if you haven't got money, you vote out." Subheading: "Brexit is about more than the EU: it’s about class, inequality, and voters feeling excluded from politics. So how do we even begin to put Britain the right way up?"

So much of the anger, so many of the divisions, arise from the deep and increasing inequalities within our society. A lot of the Remain campaign was based around fear of losing what we have got; to many that means nothing. A lot of the resentment of immigrants and minorities flows from insecurity, uncertainty, and a feeling someone must be to blame.

I'd like to come up with a nice 'Christian' solution to all this: "love one another," perhaps, "then everything will be wonderful." Meaningless! If we loved one another we wouldn't have the problems anyway. "Jesus Christ died to bring reconciliation," is at least apposite, but lacking in how and when.

At the moment my feelings are more in line with Habakkuk: how long, O Lord, is this unholy mess going to continue? When will there be justice and peace and cleansing?

Tuesday 14 June 2016

Truth, Unity, Humility & Grace

There are two big lessons to learn from church history. The first is that people never learn from church history. The second is that living in unity has been a problem all the way from the New Testament to the 21st Century.

I've been working with Paul's letter to the Galatians a lot over the past few months and a major issue raising its head as soon as Gentiles started joining churches in significant numbers was that Jewish Law blocked Jews and non-Jews from eating together. Basically it would have meant two separate churches: one containing Jewish Christians, one containing non-Jewish Christians, plus a few people who made sacrifices to break the boundaries. Paul hated that: there is one Jesus, there is one body, one people of God, undivided.

It has been particularly abhorrent to me therefore that there are 21st Century churchgoers who will refuse to receive communion with other churchgoers because of their views on particular hot-button issues - often claiming adherence to 'Biblical values' as their justification. Do they not read those Bibles?

The challenge is to combine unity with truth. If I sincerely believe the person next to me at the altar rail is living an immoral life, shouldn't I be making a stand? Actually I'm not sure 'sincerity' has a lot to do with truth: I can sincerely believe that the world is flat but that doesn't make it true. If it comes to that, the sincerity of my belief that the world is round (more or less) doesn't make a lot of odds to whether that belief is true either.

As I write it's only a couple of days since the atrocity in Orlando, so I'll skip that particular issue and go with something else which bugs me.

I believe that when God made man out of the dust of the ground he used evolution to do it. For me God's word and God's handiwork are in clear agreement.

However, I have no problem with those who say that God created the world exactly as described by a mechanistic reading of Genesis 1; that he created dinosaur bones because, let's face it, dinosaurs are cool and God wanted the best for us; and that the mechanical inconsistencies between chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis are down to our limited understanding and we just have to trust God. I'm all in favour of trusting God, that's what faith is all about.

Where I do have a problem is with people like the 'Creation Science Movement' and 'Answers in Genesis' who go way beyond that, raising towering edifices of intellectual speculation which not only go far beyond either science or Scripture, but actually end up contradicting both. They really wind me up. But what pushes me to the edge is when they follow up by saying that anyone who believes in anything different is not a Bible-believing Christian and that disbelieving their particular interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis is tantamount to disbelieving the Gospel.

Some years back a couple came along to a housegroup I was leading pushing this view hard. I was fine so long as they simply stated their opinion, but as soon as they started rubbishing other views I had to point out that many faithful Bible believing Christians had different approaches to understanding what the Bible says on this topic, and that the mainstream orthodox Christian view on the matter is, and generally has been throughout history, considerably more nuanced than the approach they were pushing so determinedly.

Truth matters and they were moving beyond legitimate (if irritating) opinion and interpretation into downright falsehood. The Gospel is about God's love shown through Jesus, crucified and raised. Anyone can put their faith in that, irrespective of their beliefs, or lack of, in evolution, special creation, Noah's flood, or pretty much anything else in the Old Testament. Not that I don't think the Old Testament is important - I do -but Jesus and his amazing news is where new life is at.

They didn't come back, but if they had they would have been welcomed (possibly with an internal wince); I'd happily have eaten with them at the next housegroup social; and I did share communion with them next time it came around. Truth matters, and sometimes (but not always) needs to be stated, but disagreements don't have to break community.

Part of that is about humility and God's grace. I know I get things wrong, both in belief (my beliefs on some issues have moved a fair way over the past twenty years) and in terms of moral behaviour (try reading the Sermon on the Mount openly and honestly), but I come to the communion table acknowledging my failure and depending on the Grace of God, through Jesus. If I do that for myself, surely I have to allow the same Grace for the person next to me. If I think they have faults which I don't happen to share that makes no difference, I doubtless fail in areas where they succeed.

Mealy-mouthed Pharisaisms about my sin being repented and theirs not are just poor and arrogant excuses - Jesus paid the price, not me.

Are there limits? What about Westboro Baptist 'Church', obscenely gloating after the Orlando shooting? If I reckon (as I do) that WBC has nothing at all to do with Jesus, or with the body of Christ, how is that different from the person I recently spoke to who thought the same about the Roman Catholic Church? To be fair, he did make a distinction, which I would tend to agree with, between the organisation and some of its members.

There certainly are limits to my tolerance and willingness to associate with those who so strongly deny and oppose in all they do Jesus and his Gospel. Are there similar limits to God's forgivess and Grace? I doubt it, but God's God and I'm not.

In the end we all have to wonder in humility at the grace shown by God, through Jesus, and do all we can to live in the tension of truth and unity, recognising that we fail but trusting the God who loves us anyway.

Sunday 12 June 2016

Galatians: Service Not Status

From Paul, an apostle (not from men, nor by human agency, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead) and all the brothers with me, to the churches of Galatia.

It is a sad commentary on church history that most books on Galatians treat this opening of Paul's letter as being about him emphasising his own status and authority.

In the days before Skype, emails, or even telephones a ruler often couldn’t speak directly to someone far away, so he’d send a trusted apostolos as his envoy or messenger to carry his words to them.  But an apostle was not just any old messenger, he was someone especially tasked and trusted to relay the message precisely and faithfully, in the name of his master, without distortion or elaboration. It was an honourable role, but also a servant role.

So Paul begins his letter not by emphasising his own authority, but by de-emphasising it. As he goes on to say, his own history of persecuting Jesus' followers leaves him no right to expect any status on his own account. But he does have a message to give.

It's a message he has passed on faithfully once, and he is duty-bound to pass it on again in the face of confusion, distortion and misunderstanding. He cannot vary it nor can he reverse it, because he is an apostle - the message is not his but comes from Jesus.

For Paul had already given this message of the glorious news of Jesus to the people he had met in the towns of Southern Galatia, and they had responded. They had trusted in God’s message, they had responded to Jesus, and they had received his Spirit.

But now they were becoming confused. It looks as though the same people who had been stirring up trouble in Antioch (see this post from early in the year) had carried on to Galatia, spreading their different message to the new non-Jewish converts that, having been accepted into God’s people, through Jesus, they now needed to follow Jewish ways: being circumcised and obeying Jewish Law.

So Paul is writing to repeat his message, the one he received personally from Jesus. He will use this letter to expand on its meaning and emphasise its importance, but the message remains the same. Jesus has changed everything, everyone is welcomed into his community, and his Spirit is the true mark of his people. Jesus has given himself to set us free, and that is sufficient.

Saturday 11 June 2016

Galatians: God's Grace & Saul of Tarsus

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Paul, or Saul of Tarsus as he had previously been known, had been a ‘zealous Jew’ of the party of the Pharisees, we are told here in Galatians and elsewhere. To us maybe that sounds harmless: a religious sort of chap, maybe wearing odd clothes, or spending his days in dusty libraries discussing obscure points of theology, perhaps? Nothing could be further from the truth!

In today’s terms, think of a Jewish version of ‘militant Islamist of the Wahabi sect’. A zealous Pharisee believed in purity: purity achieved by purifying the land of Israel from foreigners and by purifying the people of Israel from collaborators, backsliders and heretics.

The Pharisees’ roots lay in the days of the Maccabees with their violent rebellion against the occupying Seleucids and against the Hellenised Jews who worked with them. Later the fruit of such zeal was seen in the murderous results of zealous Judaism in Jerusalem during the later stages of the First Jewish-Roman War in 69-70 AD (as told by Josephus) when Jewish factions slaughtered one another as the Roman armies waited outside. This is the background to Paul’s mission against the followers of Jesus.

Then Jesus came to meet Paul on the road to Damascus, and gave him a message. Think about that; if God chose Paul of all people to carry his message – that zealous persecutor of Jesus’ followers – how much more can he choose you, even me, to do wonderful and unexpected things?

That's the point of Paul telling his own story early in his letter to the Galatian churches: although by background he is a Pharisee, he now knows that he stands before God as worse than the tax collector in Jesus' story.

It’s the queen’s official 90th birthday this weekend. She’s a little over ninety years old and has been on the throne, and therefore head of the Church of England, for more than 64 years.

Aristocracy is about as ‘us & them’ as you can get, and royalty the peak of that, so Elizabeth Windsor, like Saul of Tarsus before her, might seem an unlikely messenger of Jesus, in whom “all are one”. Nevertheless, the queen’s graciousness and stability in both her royal capacity and as head of the CofE, leave her well-regarded in the country as a whole, and her Christmas messages often have a Christian theme.

This is the first Sunday for our new Transition Minister, Penny Cuthbert, here in Caversham; it seems a fair bet she’ll be talking about Grace at St John’s today, and that she'll have messages for other churches in the parish as she settles in.

Whether it’s Paul, or the queen, or Penny, or you, or I, or even that tax collector in the Gospel reading, we all have a history, a story to tell. And within that story there is a witness to God at work - maybe even to Jesus turning things upside down - and a message from God for us to share. The challenge for us is to notice what God has been doing and to share our experience of God in our lives with those around us, humbly and compassionately.

Tuesday 7 June 2016

Eastern Caversham & The Kingdom Of God Ramble

I'm too tired at present to construct any sort of ordered post, so it'll have to be a general ramble.

I was at a wonderful church service last night where Rev Penny Cuthbert was licensed and installed as Transition Minister for St John's, serving Caversham as a whole but particularly the communities traditionally associated with St John's in Eastern Caversham (by which I mean roughly the area bounded by Westfield Road, Emmer Green & CPV and the river).

The service was inspiring, the bishop spoke well, and the large congregation - church-goers and non-churchgoers - responded with openness and welcome. The next three years are going to be difficult and challenging times, but I certainly felt strongly the presence of God with us as we set out on that journey.

A couple of discoveries have really set me back on my heels in recent months. The first is that Eastern Caversham has about 9,000 people living there, in about 4,200 households. That is a lot more than I had expected, and equates to a lot of individual stories. It also makes St John's average Sunday congregation over the past year a little less than half a percent of the community we are meant to serve.

The second is that there are apparently at least a couple of hundred churchgoers in Eastern Caversham who cross the river every Sunday to attend worship at town-centre churches, mostly Greyfriars.

I became a Christian at St Aldates in Oxford, in some ways similar to Greyfriars as a city-centre student-friendly church; except at St Aldates, back then at least, there was a strong vision that they discipled the people who came through their doors - like me - trained us up, and sent us out to serve God's Kingdom in our local churches. So I find Greyfriars' apparently more acquisitive approach somewhat disconcerting.

Even more disconcerting is that I have seen no evidence for their presence in Caversham. Granted, I actually live in a different corner of Caversham, but surely hundreds of people working for the Kingdom of God in their local community should show up on the radar, shouldn't they? How could God's people - his light on a hill, salt and yeast for their communities - possibly be invisible?

One reason I have been using the term 'Eastern Caversham' rather than the more usual 'Lower Caversham' is that the St John's district actually covers a lot more ground than just the flood plain area to the south.

As small churches, St John's and the neighbouring Methodist church have partnered in focussing their resources on a small part of the area, to the south-east. As a place to start this, one of the poorer areas of Caversham, makes sense as a beginning for the local work of the Kingdom. But the rest of the area needs to hear and see God's love too.

I was going to use this ramble to record a few half-ideas toward achieving that but it's already getting a bit long and my brain is fogging, so maybe next time.

Grace and peace.