Monday, 13 December 2010

self awareness and slot-machine spirituality

I've been thinking a bit recently about the way self-insight illuminates our relationship with God, so I was heartened to see David Runcorn develop this theme in his book Choice, Desire and The Will of God.

In what sense might it be true that our understanding of God is deepened by an understanding of ourselves? I think this works on several levels. Even a basic faith needs some insight about our own shortcomings, and enough humility to confess these in repentance. It is easy to get stuck at this level, creating a sort of coin-operated relationship with God - I say sorry and in return he forgives me, allowing me to start anew. This is a somewhat transactional view of God (you give-you get) not to say superstitious. I'm not sure how well that can support a deep and lasting relationship with God.

We first need to recognise something of both the nature and desire of God.

If we understand that we are loved, and that nothing we can do can make us any less (or more) loved than we already are, then our superstitious slot-machine spirituality is already put under pressure. God does not forgive us because of something we have done. That would diminish God to something that we can control ('Look! If I do this I can make God do that.'). This fails to grasp an essential point at the heart of our faith: God forgives us because he is forgiving. Nothing else. His essence is love, his nature mercy.

God's desire, then, is for his love and mercy to work on us. Those moments we take to open ourselves up to him in penitence are like targeting a heat lamp on a pulled muscle. We seek God's mercy to work on those aspects of our lives that are disordered, so that we may be renewed and allow his grace to work on those parts of our desires and conduct that are ungodly.

We can begin to see that an understanding of God in tandem with self-insight leads to a much deeper spirituality. The more we can acknowledge the ways in which we are not like God - those desires that lead us to be self-seeking, vengeful, grasping, fearful, insecure - the more we appreciate how astounding the character of God is.

This is a sort of cyclical process: the more we reflect on God the more we learn about ourselves in relationship with him. This then deepens our relationship with him, which in turn yields yet more insight about ourselves. Critically, it is a process that does not begin with reflecting on myself but contemplating God. This sets it apart from much of today's approach to personal development and self-help which starts with me. Only when we start with God do we understand the self in a way that continues to push us to look outwards rather than ever inwards.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

watching and waiting through Advent

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the start of a new church year. It is a time when we think about journeying from darkness into light. We mark this during our service by lighting a new candle every Sunday, with the advent wreath becoming steadily brighter the nearer to Christmas we get.

What does it mean to move from darkness to light? This is the way that Christians describe living a life filled with hope. As Christians we watch and wait for signs of God’s promise to renew the Earth. We look for the ways that God is at work in the world and try to join in with it. Wherever we see justice and peace and well-being we witness the hand of God.

Living in hope means we live expectantly, looking out for the good things that are happening around us and rejoicing when we find them. We also look for the best in other people. When we see the light rather than the darkness, our lives are more joyful, more hopeful.

How do Christians dare place such hope in God? The answer lies in the events we celebrate at Christmas, when we remember God’s gift of his son Jesus. Christmas reminds us that God has already intervened in the affairs of the world – and continues to do so.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Remembrance Sunday sermon

[A short version of this post appears here]

Last week a letter appeared in the Guardian written by six British veterans of the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Falklands, the Balkans and Northern Ireland. They wrote to say they felt that Remembrance Day was being subverted into ‘a drum roll of support for current wars’, and that the poppy appeal had been launched with such showbiz hype that the horror and futility of war was being forgotten and ignored.

They closed by saying, ‘The public are being urged to wear a poppy in support of “our heroes”. There is nothing heroic about being blown up in a vehicle. There is nothing heroic about being shot in an ambush and there is nothing heroic about fighting in an unnecessary conflict. Remembrance should be marked with the sentiment “never again.”’

They are not the first to express concern about the tone that is used to mark our annual remembrance of those who have died in wartime. The language of ‘our glorious dead’ that is so often seen on war memorials masks the sense of shame and regret that should be felt by our participation in any war.

Because war is always a moral failure.

God calls us to live in peace, to reconcile ourselves both to him and to each other. Christ came to offer the means to heal our divisions. Our biggest sense of shame should be particularly felt for those wars in history that were prosecuted in his name and to further his kingdom.

However, while God may see a way in which we avoid sending our young men and women to die on the field of battle, it is much harder for us with our limited and flawed human condition to see ways of halting, for example, the great injustices of tyrants without declaring war. Sometimes battle seems like the noble thing to do. Human life is full of our inadequacies, and sometimes the best that we can do is still not good enough. So there is a tension here: that on the one hand war is always a moral failure, but on the other it may seem like the only way to resolve a situation. Of course, war has also been used to grab land, expand empires, enslave people, or secure access to raw materials, minerals or energy resources. If there is one thing you can say about war it is that the case for it is seldom black & white.

When we remember those who have died in war we must lose any sense of triumph or glory, and instead feel profound regret, shame even, while continuing to aspire to find new ways of living peaceably.

I do believe that observing Remembrance Day is a very good thing and that our commitment to honouring those who have lost their lives in wartime should be continued, and there are three reasons for this:

1. Often those who died had no choice. Both the first and second world wars saw the deaths of those who had been conscripted into the armed forces. Servicemen who deserted their posts in the trench warfare of WW1 were court-martialled and shot.

In times of high unemployment, and this is true even today, young people with few other options opted for the army to secure regular pay and a roof over their head. Others were caught up in the jingoism and imperialism of their day. Not to volunteer was the fast route to becoming a social outcast, handed white feathers in public and scorned as a coward.

Astonishingly, many testify to the way that war brought out the best in the character of themselves and their comrades. There is no denying the courage and bravery that has been shown on the field of battle, regardless of whether the combatants chose to be there or not.

In the first world war the scale of death was so high that one in every 57 people in Britain was killed, including 163 men from De Beauvoir Town. Their names are commemorated on the plaque on the north aisle. If you have never had a good look at that then I encourage you to do so today. Read a few of their names to yourself, or run your fingers over them. Or light a candle in their memory.

2. The second reason we should observe Remembrance Day is that war is the ultimate consequence of the same kernel of conflict that we all encounter in life - with our families, neighbours and colleagues. These are the daily squabbles in which people push for what they want at the expense of others. The seed of war is the same seed of sin, of selfishness, that mars our daily interactions in our community.

This was brought home to me most starkly on a visit I made to the Auschwitz extermination camp in Poland. In a period of just over two and a half years during the second world war the Nazis gassed more than a million people there, mainly Jews but also non-German prisoners, physically and mentally disabled people, romanies and homosexuals. Being there was one of the most sobering experiences of my life, and as I stood beside the incinerators in which the corpses were burned, fighting back my tears, I was pushed aside by a tourist wanting to get a better view with his video camera. In that moment, in that room, I encountered two ends of the same scale: the spectrum of self-interest that the Bible calls sin. What the tourist did to me was merely a bit rude. What the Nazis did was incomprehensible. But it came from the same seed of corruption of the human heart.

Of course, the Nazis’ victims are not the only examples of large scale genocide we have seen. In more recent times there have been similar mass killings in Rwanda and Bosnia. Today in Iraq the minority Christian population is being slaughtered in a series of attacks on them while they are at worship in Church. Just a couple of weeks ago at a service in Baghdad, terrorists burst in during the Mass, rounded up the congregation into a side room and tossed in a hand grenade. When government troops arrived to storm the church the assassins surrounded themselves with children before detonating explosives in their suicide vests. Around 60 people died. Compared to twenty years ago there is now only between one third to one half the population of Christians in Iraq. Somewhere around 500-800,000 Christians have either fled or been killed.

Today we remember all the victims and casualties of war, because if we forget we simply repeat the same mistakes - Auschwitz, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq. We must remember these horrors because they remind us what happens when the same seed of selfishness we encounter in daily life gets wildly and ludicrously out of hand. When we make the effort to remember, it might help us to do better to follow Jesus’ command that, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”

3. And the final reason we must remember is because we as Christians are a remembering people. Week after week we meet together to celebrate the Eucharist, to remember an act of God where he gave of himself to bring about reconciliation. The death of Christ on the cross was an execution by vested interests who feared the loss of their power and privilege. They did not want too many people following the teaching and example of the one who came to conquer the power of sin and selfishness in our lives. Through Christ we have the chance to start again, to put right our wrong relationship with God and with each other. Our weekly act of remembrance feeds us with the conviction and power to start afresh, and live lives that are peaceful, gracious and full of self-giving.

Our annual Remembrance Day service reminds us of the consequences when we fail to do that.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

why we must remember

Last week six British war veterans wrote a letter to the Guardian saying they felt that this year's poppy appeal had been launched with such showbiz hype that the horror and futility of war was being forgotten and ignored. Instead, they suggest, "Remembrance Day should be marked with the sentiment 'Never Again.”’ 
We may not always get the tone of Remembrance Day right but there are three good reasons why we should continue to honour all who lost their lives in wartime.
1. Those who died often had no choice. In past wars many were forced to join the armed forces. Others volunteered, caught up in the jingoism and imperialism of their day. Not to do so risked being made a social outcast. In the First World War 163 men from this parish lost their lives. We should not forget the loss and pain felt by this church and community at that time.
2. War is an extreme example of the same conflict experienced in all our lives - the squabbles with neighbours and colleagues, people pushing for what they want at the expense of others. The seed of war is sin, the selfishness that mars our relationships. Today we remember all victims of war. Doing so might just help us better follow the command of Jesus, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”
3. The final reason we remember is because as Christians we are a remembering people. Week after week we meet together to celebrate the Eucharist, to remember an act of God where he gave of himself to bring reconciliation. This weekly act of remembrance feeds us with the conviction and power to start afresh, and live lives that are peaceful, gracious and self-giving. Our annual Remembrance Day service reminds us of the consequences when we fail.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

the kingdom of God is always political

This weekend is the start of kingdom season in the church calendar. It gives us an opportunity to think about what it means when we talk about the kingdom of God - also sometimes called the Kingdom of heaven. The kingdom can be a complicated idea to get hold off because we are speaking about something which is both now, and also not yet.

What does it mean for the kingdom of God to be now? A kingdom means that we are under the rule of a king, in this case God. So the kingdom is now insomuch as we open ourselves up to the rule of God in our lives.

Luke 6.20-31 tells us a lot about what it might mean to be open to God's rule. Jesus proclaims four blessings and four woes - this is the same formula as the law given in the Hebrew scriptures. Blessed are those who do this, that and the other. Woe to those who do such-and-such. But when Jesus uses blessings and woes he isn't giving us more do's and dont's. (That will come as a disappointment to those Christians who are very fond of do's and dont's.) Instead Jesus tells us that when we open ourselves up to God, what occurs is a change of heart. Submitting to God's rule simply means becoming more like him.

Someone once suggested that God is like a song ringing out across the universe and all creation. And we can choose to join in with it, or not. To open ourselves to God's rule in this sense means picking up the rhythm of his song and keeping in time with it. And perhaps, because we have been made with creativity and imagination we can also harmonize and improvise around the melody.

Jesus teaches us what it means to join in with God's universal song. The subject of that song is God's very nature. Loving, gracious, merciful and just. In short, God is abundantly generous. What Jesus tells us about the attitude of our hearts is that we should be joining in with God's generosity. Turn the other cheek. If someone takes your coat, give them your shirt too. Do good to those that hate you. Pray for those who abuse you.

Here is how Bishop Tom Wright puts it*: 'The kingdom that Jesus preached and lived was all about a glorious, uproarious, absurd generosity. Think of the best thing you can do for the worst person, and go ahead and do it for them. Think of what you'd really like someone to do for you, and do it for them. Think of the people to whom you are tempted to be nasty, and lavish generosity on them instead.'

We are recipients of God's generosity towards us and in turn must pass that on to others. So when we talk about God's rule - God's kingdom - being now, it is our willingness to adopt God's way of behaving with absurd generosity that we are thinking about.

But there is a sense in which the kingdom of God is also not yet. It is his promise to usher in a new era where we will live harmoniously together under his reign. Sometimes called the kingdom of heaven it is our future hope, as well as our hope for those of our loved ones who have gone before us.

God's coming kingdom will not be a democracy but a monarchy, the like of which we have never seen before. Every human system of government has flaws in it. In particular -- and this really bothered the Old Testament prophets -- there is systematic injustice which disadvantages the poor. The very people society should be looking after the most become even more oppressed because of the way government works. In this sense, the kingdom of God is always political, because it challenges the way we work as a society.

This week it came to light that as a result of the coalition government's cuts to housing benefit, some 200,000 of London's poorest people may no longer be able to be accommodated in the city and will be shipped out to cheap bed and breakfast accommodation in other towns (The Observer 24 Oct 2010). Nobody is suggesting that this is a deliberate ploy on the part of evil Tories to get rid of the poor. Well, alright, probably quite a lot of people are suggesting that. But I don't believe it is the case - simply that systems in society time and again work against the needs of the most vulnerable. And if nobody speaks up on their behalf the poor are powerless to do much about it.

The kingdom of God, by contrast, gives us a vision of life the like of which we have never seen. There is a king who is also a servant. There is justice in which judgement gives way to mercy. The poor will be blessed, the hungry fed, and the sorrowful will laugh with joy.

This is a kingdom that only God can bring about. But we can join in with his work. Everything we do to challenge systematic injustice, everything we do to feed the hungry, reach out to the oppressed, or comfort those who weep, is work that prepares the way for God's coming kingdom. That is a hard challenge. But if we open ourselves up to God's generosity now, and allow him to create a new attitude of heart in us, one which springs from his divine generosity, then our actions will be in keeping with that glorious vision of the kingdom of God.