Friday, June 29, 2007
George Herbert suggested that 'Storms make the oak grow deeper roots' - I think he may have been right - many a storm has passed this way of late, (my dad says it 'poshed' it down - not sure what he means) let's hope he was....(right that is, I mean Herbert not my dad).
Of all the places I have travelled in this world, there is one that moves me more than all the others put together and it's right here in Guernsey.
Walking up the steps of Tower Hill has become a very sobering experience. About half way up the steps is a plaque and its inscription describes the terrifying events of a day in July 1556 when three women were burned at the stake. What happened that day is a chilling rminder of what any religious right is capable of when given total control and power over communities.
Why is it many people shy away from mixing politics and religion? What is it that causes so many to keep these two sides of the same coin seperate? One could argue that maybe some people only entertain small talk and don't want to engage in a conversation of such potential diversity that the party might be spoilt.
The other night such an occasion arose. I suppose with Mr Blair moving on and Mr Brown moving next door, politics was on everyone's agenda as the boys tucked into chillied beef with udon. With a few religious convictions thrown in, it wasn't long before strongly held opinions were flying across the table.
The big disagreement stemmed from my opinion that state and Church should always be kept apart. Some, due to their belief that faith does in fact have real political implications, met this with great indifference. I don't disagree: you only have to look at someone like Martin Luther King Jnr to see that there is an integral connection between faith and politics; it's just I firmly believe that religion should inform politics not control it.
My worry is that the religious right has an obsession with taking over the world and I for one don't think this is at all theologicallly sound. The Church should be concerned with how it seasons the world rather than becoming its self-proposed dictator. In other words I believe the Christian mission to be more about quality rather than quantity. My point is that the Church's missionary vision should be one of a kingdom, not an empire - a subtelty which the Church has not always observed (again I refer to the plaque).
The big difference is that, and we see this all too clearly in todays world, an empire seeks to increase its own power and territory; a kingdom (God's anyway) does not need to gain the world, for that world is already God's. For me, it's more about dwelling within and carefully moulding culture. Didn't Jesus liken it to yeast working through a batch of dough, or a seed growing in secret (back to Coupland again)?
One of the main reasons William Temple was one of the most remarkable archbishops Britain has ever seen was because he proposed a pattern for society based on kingdom not empire values (personal freedom and dignity under God). His vision was based on a new partnership between government and faith groups.
So, in our contemporary context, this means the Church would reach out in respectful partnership with other faith traditions, inviting a new dialogue between religion and state about social and political morality. As for democracy, I agree with Jim Wallis, that, 'the biblical view of humanity suggests power and decision making should be decentralised and accountable, not because people are good but because we so often are not.'
A renewed ecumenical community has the ability to assist governments with new visions for a society desperately in need of them. Historically, religion has been a source of guidance for spiritual values and a brush with transcendence should call us to accountability. I remember a while back some timely comments from Rowan Williams regarding his desire to inspire a moral sensibility with ethics rooted in a transcendent reality. His comments were kindom comments not empirical ones.
What I have no desire to return to is what Philip Jenkins describes in his book 'The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity' - that the hugely influential roles and church leaders now play in the internal politics of American and African states draws 'telling comparisons with medieval Christendom.'
And after once more reading the plaque on Tower Hill, I am not sure that is a journey I want to make.......
Sunday, June 24, 2007
Coupland may have written it....but i believe it, and it's my secret too:
"Now - here is my secret:
I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God - that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love."
(Douglas Coupland, Life After God)
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
...no words in the small hours.
But this morning I found some after reading some of the story of Job.
Maybe faith is not about avoiding failure, but rather what we believe and what we do when failure happens to us. Maybe that's what Job teaches us. What would we rather do: believe in a God who is surrounded by mystery and imagination and wonder, a God who allows us to experience failure as well as fulfilment? Or believe in a God who only deals with success stories?
Saturday, June 16, 2007
There was a Greenbelt Management Group meeting last Monday night in London Town – great humans pulling together what I think is the mother of all festivals – Cheltenham Race Course every August Bank Holiday, for many, becomes the thinnest of places, and, (he says, with a hope resembling something the size of a mustard seed), this year will be no different.
There will be some 20,000 people drinking deep, many broken, some fixed (ish), quite a few lost, some found (ish), all searching, most wanting to cut loose and sing, and maybe just a few needing a secret and a quiet place, a place where their pilgrim dream can come alive. Whoever and however and for whatever reason we all gather doesn’t matter; what does matter is that we do make the journey, that we stand, sit, lay on the grass (or mud if the weather is crap) to learn, worship, drink, feast, but most of all, to laugh and cry…together.
And this has got me pondering in the light of the three readings from the First Sunday in Trinity. Imagine, for a moment, a faithful bunch of pilgrims hoping to learn more of the truth about God by attending closely to the liturgy of worship (whether in Parish Eucharist or the GB Arts Festival). I mean, imagine, for instance, we are confronted with three miracle stories. One say, about a bottomless flask of oil, another about a resurrection from the dead, and last, but not least, about a spiritual encounter with God.
Now imagine this merry band consists of people who, by virtue of their background and experience, find it (as, if I am brutally honest with myself from time to time, I do) almost impossible to believe in miracles, so they (dare I say we?) cannot help but view these stories as somewhat discomforting. Imagine then, that they give a quiet intellectual ascent to the possibility that God could do such things, but shy away from examining the stories too closely because of the embarrassing possibility that the stories will turn out to be false in some way, and that their quiet intellectual assumption will turn out to be insufficient to sustain their faith in Scripture, or even in God.
I have always been struck by the same question when it comes to this (and I now use myself, not some imagined gang, as the example): How can I discern the truth about God in texts I hear? The problem is not that my doubt gets in the way – the problem is that my fear of doubt gets in the way; that somehow the church has created an atmosphere in which diligent seeking after the truth is a risky project, one that could undermine one’s faith in God. Better, some say, to stick with hymn writer Newman:
And I hold in veneration,
For the love of Christ alone,
Holy church as his creation,
and her teachings as his own.
God only knows where thinking for ourselves might lead!!
I guess there is here a balance to be struck. I am not advocating unfettered flights of fantasy, nor even thinking madly outside the box. What I am suggesting is that, as a community within a tradition, we have a duty to think humbly but courageously about Scripture. And that thinking cannot begin if we deny before we start, our own deepest sneaking suspicions about God within the text.
To do this is I suppose to assume that our not spoken suspicions are somehow unacceptable (sinful even) – to God and the Church. And to do so is to assume that there is something unacceptable bout us – and whilst there is always room for improvement, to do that is to deny grace, the very heart of the Gospel, the Good News that we are loved and accepted by God just as we are…
…though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings and fears within, without;
Just as we are. ‘God wilt receive, wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve’; that is the bedrock of our faith. It’s only after we have sung these words, with all our heart, soul and mind and strength (all that it can muster anyway), that we can say with integrity, O Lamb of God I come; I come to learn from you in Scripture, to meet you in Communion, to be with you in prayer. The rest as my eccentric mad friend Terrance says is balderdash and piffle.
And in the light of this I was wondering what we might find if we come humbly and honestly to Scripture, despite our doubts and fears, or perhaps even because of them? Let me sneak a quiet assumption of my own: if we must talk in human images, then I say that the God who is powerful enough to do miracles is wise enough to recognise that a generation would arise for whom stories of miracles are hard to believe, a generation who would even think them suspicious, is wise enough to leave something in the texts other than evidence of her power. After all, God’s strength is perfected in weakness.
Miracle stories turn things on their head. Well, actually, quite the opposite. My priest has a lovely image of God in Christ turning everything ‘topsy-turvy’. I like to think that sin has tricked us all into walking around on our hands with our bums in the air and our faces to the ground – and into thinking that is normal and right. Miracle stories are then, designed to set us on our feet again. They are perhaps a special revelation, designed to reassert the fact that all things find their true meaning in God, not in what we call normal.
We think of generosity as unusual and often grudging, and let’s be honest, in this world, that’s pretty normal. But God’s generosity – true generosity, the hallmark, the benchmark, is completely different. Oil never ending and free of charge (George would never go for that!)
I guess the whole point is that whilst at times we need guidance we do actually need to own our faith not borrow someone else’s. To do that we need to talk, read, reflect, pray and talk some more – honestly – with each other. Honest opinions, honestly held, honestly expressed, are the seeds. Sown in the soil of honest listening and honest responding, they bring forth (somewhat miraculously) the fruit of the Spirit….
Sunday, June 03, 2007
I guess we should take life very seriously - but ourselves? Hmmm, not so sure....anyhow, it's been a long weekend and I need to lighten up a little. So, here goes - a sunday question. What book resides in your loo? What are you reading as you sit.....?
For the record, I am reading 'Troublesome Words' by Bill Bryson
Today's word was:
filigree - its meaning? "for intricate or delicate ornamentation"
There, I guess we'll all sleep better tonight for knowing that....on this balmy sunday evening I would love to know what read resides by your toilet - very wierd i know...forgive me
Saturday, June 02, 2007
I have been mulling these thoughts since Sunday. Finally, six days later they spill out...
Take a wholesome glass of milk, add a single drop of vinegar, and you'll get an undrinkable beverage (ask my children - not that I do put vinegar in their milk - though now I am veering far from my point). The whole thing is spoiled. So it is with writing and speaking. A single drop of insincerity can make the whole thing unpalatable - and so it is also with most of life's endeavours. Whole painstaking efforts to produce that which is healthy and true - in this case (and very topical to where I live), raising cows, milking them, pasteurizing, packaging, marketing, transporting, refrigerationg, pouring, serving; reading, reflecting, studying, reflecting, writing, reflecting, rethinking, rewirting - can be so easily spoiled.
That which is good is so incredibly fragile.
Pentecost is a feast more easily spoiled than most, spoiled by a small misunderstanding with devastating consequences. And, like the souring of milk, they are generally irreversible. What should be the culmination of the most glorious season of the Church's year can become a day of shattered dreams so that we arrive at Trinity Sunday back where we started - mirred in quarrels and doubts rather than inspired by hopes and possibility.
Pentecost is not only the culmination of the Church's year; it is also the culmination of Jesus' ministry - the constitution of the Church - it's birthday if you like. A misunderstanding of this day sours our whole identity - makes us Christians distinctly unpalatable - to one another, and to the world.
There is no doubt that Pentecost has something to do with the Holy Spirit. But to my mind at least, the usual misreading, however, focuses too heavily on the gift of the Holy Spirit to the apostles and not enough on the rest of the story. it rushes past the details to settle on a visually startling image and thus presents itself as the crudest form of advertising. The following are a few points I think we too often overlook.
First, the Holy Spirit does not come down upon the Church, if by the Church you mean those who believe or those who have been baptised. The apostles gather to choose just one of those who 'accompanied us during all the time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us' in order to make up their numbers to twelve after the death of Judas. It is upon these twelve that the Holy Spirit falls, commissioning them with the special gift suggested by their name: I am not trying to teach my grandma how to suck eggs here, but the word apostle comes from the greek apostolos, meaning one who is sent; in this case, sent to proclaim the Gospel.
if one takes part of the story, and makes it the whole of the story, one ends up with a picture of the Church as a community of public speakers, of preachers and proclaimers (though we all love letter from America and 500 Miles). There are several things to say about this picture. Firstly, it is simply not realistic. Can you imagine everyone in your Church's standing up and performing this apostolic duty - I have seen some places and it has not been a helpful experience for growth. So if you are left thinking either that the Church is not what it should be, and spend most of your time feeling guilty for not mentioning Jesus to your friends, your boss, colleagues, employees, and any Parthians, Medes or Elamites you might happen to run into; or else trying pursuing some distinctly narrow mission plan that encourages you to do just that - whether or not the Spirit has given you utterance. Personally, I find this vision not only unrealistic, but a dangerous distortion of the Pentecostal vision.
I think we need to notice, secondly, that the Holy Spirit does not give the gift of inspired speech to all the faithful. It is not given to those who lost the ballet in the upper room; nor any of the other 'devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.' Instead, they become the audience. And this is a very curious line, because Jerusalem was filled with Pagans. One might have thought that, not only failing to believe in Jesus (whom most of them had never heard of) but also failing to beleive in God, they were more in need of the Gospel than anyone. Instead, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the apostles preach to Israel, to those who wrestle with God.
And, of course, that is how we think of the Church - as the new Israel. As far as this story goes, we need to see ourselves as the 'Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs', though today our rich diversity may be described by different labels.
These people, too, receive a gift from the Holy Spirit. They receive the gift that truly constitutes the Church; not the ability to speak, but the ability to listen, and in listening, to hear, and in hearing to understand. If you read just a little further in Acts, we discover that it is these people who receive the Holy Spirit; these people touched by God who devote themselves "to the apostles' teachng and to fellowship; to the breaking of bread and to prayer." There will be some called out and given the gift to make known the works of God in words, but it is a greatly overrated vocation, with a huge burden let me tell you; and it does not excuse those of us so called from the deeper need to listen, to love, to break bread and to pray.
Jesus says, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments, and I will give you another counsellor to be with you forever - the Spirit of Truth." Those who would heed this councel must listen, and listen intently. False ideas come from a failure to listen. And a single falsehood can poison a whole community.
In the end, I guess to listen is to love...
Now I have got that off my chest I can go about doing manly things like drilling and watching england get thumped again by South Africa whilst drinking too much black stuff....
Oh, I knicked the image from my friend Chris George - not my shot today...