Friday, 25 November 2011

on religion as a crutch

In an interview with the Guardian earlier this week Bill Bailey credited the strength of support for live comedy on the recession and a need for people to be cheered up in these difficult times. Especially, he added, "now that religion isn't cutting it."

Bailey's assumption that people have a faith to make themselves feel better puts me in mind of that condescending remark sometimes heard from atheists: "I'm not religious because I don't need a crutch." Its perhaps not so surprising that in this age of individualism and self-importance people imagine faith to be yet one more consumer instinct. To be fair, the church hasn't always helped itself - the doctrine of personal salvation that is almost exclusively emphasised in some church traditions, and the more recent notion of Jesus as Life Coach, do lend themselves to a Christianity that is just a little bit too me, me, me.

Countless Christians can certainly testify to the way that their lives have been changed, and that they do feel better as a result of their faith. But that is not to say that this is the objective behind it.  It is an example of obliquity, where a positive outcome is achieved while aiming for something else.

Far from being about me, faith is firstly about God. And then about others. We are the object of God's unconditional love and he calls us into relationship with him so that we can love him in return and, from him, learn what it means to love our neighbours. As Marvin Gaye sings it in God is Love "God made this world for us to live in and gave us everything, and all he asks of us is we give each other love." I'm not suggesting that is a complete theology but its not a bad place to start.

Jesus put it this way:
"'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22.34-44)
This is a faith that is always centred on the other rather than the self. Indeed, the story of God's people that is told in the Bible is one where they are continually seen to be leaning on artificial crutches (idols, wealth, personal security, self-serving religious dogma) rather then stepping into the freedom of spirit that God offers.

The possessions we pile up, the goals we pursue at the expense of others, an obsession with body image and lifestyle, the things we ingest or chase after in pursuit of happiness or comfort - these are the real crutches that God desires to liberate us from. Counter-intuitively, true freedom is found by taking the focus off ourselves and placing our faith in the one who brings us life in all its fullness.

Monday, 31 October 2011

a sermon for All Saints Day

I used to own a shirt that once belonged to Elvis Presley. Or to be exact, I owned a square inch of a shirt that belonged to Elvis. It was on sale in the gift shop attached to his birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi. It had purple and white stripes, printed on some seriously nasty nylon. But it was amazing to think that here was something that had once been on the back of the man they called the King.

That was, until a sceptical friend pointed out that I had no real way of knowing whether this was actually Elvis' shirt. "Maybe they just cut up any old bits of fabric and flogged them off to gullible tourists," he said, eyeing me pointedly. After that my souvenir never felt quite so satisfying.

I was reminded of Elvis' shirt when I visited the recent Treasures of Heaven exhibition at the British Museum. Here they had gathered together a stunning collection of medieval reliquaries - jewelled caskets and beautifully painted cabinets, each containing the relic of a saint or of Christ himself. A lock of hair, a bone, a fragment of the true cross. Like Elvis Presley's shirt there was no way of knowing how authentic the relics were (although I'll stick my neck out and say I'm pretty sure the vial containing the breast milk of the Virgin Mary was a fraud. In any case, it was by now evaporated milk).

The utterly corrupt trade in relics was one of the catalysts for the Reformation. Churches yearned to possess their own relic for pilgrims to visit and venerate. Such high demand coupled with a lack of any effective means of authentication led inevitably to the circulation of bogus relics. As well as telling us something about the human capacity to cash in on a good thing, the veneration of saints and their remaindered body parts points to how compelling and inspirational the lives of saints were to faithful Christians in the middle ages.

A book by an Italian monk written in the 13th century did much to fuel the appetite for tales of saints. The Golden Legend by Jacobus De Voragine sold like wildfire across Europe in various translations. It became a source of inspiration for poets, painters and church artisans. Here were collected stories of miraculous deeds, grisly martyrdoms and virgins protecting their virtue. St Valerie who, on being beheaded, picked up her head and took it to present to her bishop. St Giles, whose coat miraculously healed those who wore it. St Clements who was martyred at sea, after which the waters parted to reveal a marble mausoleum that God had built to house his corpse.

Picking through these fantastic fables, one theme stands out - a saintly devotion to God and steadfastness in living faithfully to his word. Reading of the lengths gone to, and the fortitude shown, in the face of adversity inspired medieval Christians to redouble their efforts to live a godly life.

This is the same impetus that continues to draw Christians to the stories of saints. Their capacity to inspire us to become better people, or strive for those qualities that elude us when we are under pressure, offers us hope and possibility in our journey towards wholeness. There may be modern day saints who better serve to inspire us. The decades of care and nursing shown by Mother Teresa in the face of grim poverty. The magnanimous forgiveness of Nelson Mandela towards his captors. The courage in speaking truth to power of Martin Luther King or Dorothy Day. Or perhaps simply a friend or family member who has encountered hardship with cheerfulness or an absence of self-pity.

Inspirational stories urge us on to be our best selves. And while the veneration of saints is not so popular, the appetite for role models remains. Think of TV shows which honour heroes or acts of bravery. Or newspaper stories of celebrities who have battled their demons to achieve success. Or sports personalities who triumph through hard work and discipline. We seek out the success of others to remind us of what is possible in our own lives.

The question arises of how we discern fact from fiction, or determine which qualities to cultivate. It is certainly easy to mock the credulity of medieval Christians reading The Golden Legend. But the strive for perfection was at the heart of their devotion. The worship of celebrity in our own age - which still has the potential to inspire good, and is perhaps our nearest equivalent to the adoration of saints - is increasingly losing its own way. Rather than emulating positive qualities, increasingly it is the lifestyle of the rich and famous that is most eagerly sought after.

For Christians the challenge is to remain true to the gospel of Christ. Like our medieval forebears it is too easy for us to become distracted by the trends or culture of our day, or to embroider our faith with made-up doctrine or quasi-religious practices that divert us from the model of life taught by Jesus. It couldn't be more fitting that the gospel reading for All Saints Day (Matthew 5.1-12) is from the sermon on the mount, that pivotal passage which distils Christ's teaching and sets out the upside-down values of the kingdom of God - where the poor, the pure and the peacemakers are blessed.

The church continues to struggle in clearing away the clutter and rubbish of our times to reach the heart of this vision, just as much as Christians in the past did. But if the choices we make and the priorities we set are guided above all by Christ we'll do better than we've been seen to do of late. The lesson we can learn from saints of the past is the example of their determination and single-mindedness in trying.

Friday, 28 October 2011

on standing down from the Pastoral Team at St Paul's Cathedral

Since the summer I've been a chaplain at St Paul's Cathedral, one of many London clergy who give half a day a month to being the priest available to the cathedral's visitors, and to leading prayers on the hour. It is has been immensely enjoyable and interesting to do. Given my relationship with the cathedral I've been closely following the events arising from the Occupy London protest which pitched camp in the cathedral precinct a fortnight ago. There seemed to be a great deal that was positive and constructive about the dialogue between the protestors and the cathedral. I was therefore very disappointed to learn of today's announcement that St Paul's is taking legal action to have the protestors removed. Consequently I have decided to stand down from the pastoral team, and explained my reasons to Michael Colclough, Canon Pastor of St Paul's Cathedral, in an email earlier today (below).

I can't stress how tiny a gnat I am in the scheme of things, so my decision is not even a blip on the radar compared to Giles Fraser's principled and courageous resignation. But given the negative PR that has been, and will continue to be, generated from the cathedral's action I wanted to join my voice with other clergy colleagues and church members who are expressing disquiet with the stance being taken by St Paul's. I don't for a minute think they have been put in an easy situation, and I wish them well as they continue to work out the best way forward. More than anything I am sorry that the story has become one about the Church and not about the City, which is really where the attention must be focussed.

Dear Bishop Michael, 
I appreciate what a difficult couple of weeks the Dean and Chapter have had following the occupation of the cathedral precinct by protestors campaigning against corporate greed. You have been much in my thoughts and prayers as you have navigated the complex issues with which you have been presented, and the negative press which arose from the decision to close the cathedral. I am delighted that a way was found to reopen the building today which satisfied the cathedral's duty of care towards its worshippers and visitors, and have been impressed by the degree of cooperation that Occupy London offered to enable this to happen. 
It has therefore been disappointing to learn of today's announcement that St Paul's will instigate legal proceedings seeking the removal of the protestors. It is particularly poignant that this announcement comes on the day that IDS report an increase in top directors' pay of almost 50% over the last year. I appreciate that St Paul's has its own means of speaking to the issue of corporate and financial conduct in the City, but am sorry that a way could not be found of - at the very least - continuing to thole the occupation of the precinct by those with a genuine and prophetic complaint that has much in keeping with the values of the gospel. 
I only recently joined the cathedral's pastoral team and it has been a privilege to minister to the building's many visitors. I was looking forward to more opportunities to do so. Today, however, I am left feeling embarrassed by the position the Dean and Chapter have taken. I do not relish the prospect of having to defend the cathedral's position in the face of the inevitable questions that visitors to St Paul's will pose in the coming weeks and months, particularly if we are to see protestors forcibly removed by police at the Dean and Chapter's behest. It is therefore with regret that I write to inform you of my decision to stand down from the pastoral team with immediate effect. 
I continue to wish you well, and a strengthening of discernment, as the situation continues to play out. All of the staff and volunteers at St Paul's remain much in my prayers at this difficult time. 
With warmest good wishes, 

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Joseph could teach our politicians a thing or two about integrity

Genesis 45.1-15; Matt 15.21-28
St Peter De Beauvoir Town
Sunday 14 August 2011

In our Old Testament reading today we get the end of the story about Joseph that we began last Sunday. Joseph’s faithfulness to God shines through. In spite of his rise to power, influence and success he understands that God has a purpose for his life.

He could very easily have become pleased with himself for doing so well, letting his achievements go to his head and seeing himself as better than or above others. He is the second most powerful person, after the King, in a country which does not share his faith. He might have been tempted to adopt the religion of the Egyptians - with their many gods - to help smooth his way to the top. Yet Joseph’s rise to power comes because of his faithfulness to the God of Israel. He has the sort of integrity which makes him trustworthy, and earns him the respect of Pharaoh. Joseph understands that he is still a tool for God’s purposes and work in the world.

In our gospel reading, Jesus appears - unusually, for him - to be confused about God’s purpose for his life. A woman from the country of Canaan seeks him out to ask him to heal her daughter. Yet Jesus seems to think that his ministry is really only for the people of his own country, Israel: that his mission can only be understood in the context of Jewish scriptures. The woman sees what Jesus initially does not - that God’s blessing for Israel should spill over for the benefit of everybody.

The discussion about crumbs falling from the table may sound immensely condescending to our ears. It should be understood in the context of the feeding of the five thousand, the story we heard told a few weeks ago. After Jesus enables the feeding of a hungry crowd, there are 12 baskets full of leftovers at the end of it. The miracle tells us something about the abundance of God’s grace - that there is more than enough to go round, not just for Jewish people but for the whole world.

By the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is sending his disciples out to all the nations of the world. The point about Israel was that they were never intended to be the sole recipients of God’s blessing. They are to pass it on. But as the American pastor and writer Brian McLaren has written,
“The ancient Jews... often [became] preoccupied with being blessed themselves, forgetting or suppressing their calling to be a blessing to others...[Christians today have similarly] betrayed the message that the kingdom of God is available for all, beginning with the least and the lost – and have instead believed and taught that the kingdom of God is available for the elite, beginning with the correct and the clean and the powerful. We have been preoccupied with guilt and money, power and fear, control and status – not with service and love, justice and mercy, humility and hope.”
How, I wonder, do service, love, justice, mercy, humility and hope speak into those communities in London and other English cities, where violence and looting erupted this week? And where do we see them in the response of leaders and politicians who have been, quite rightly, quick to condemn the riots but rather more slow to agree on the underlying social problems that led to them.

Particularly appalling has been the language some politicians have used to describe the rioters, calling them "feral youths."

One former gang member interviewed on television this week, spoke of how his past behaviour of violence and drug-taking was rooted in a feeling of hopelessness. “I was bitter and resentful because I had a very abusive father. I didn’t feel I belonged, so joined a gang.” Asked by the interviewer what had changed, he told the story of how he had become a Christian after going along to church with a friend. When the minister told him there was hope for him, he broke down and wept. He began to understand that he was loved and could be somebody, could make something of his life. He’s now at university, and working hard to be a different kind of Dad to his little boy from the model of fatherhood he experienced.

If our social problems are to be solved then more people need to hear this voice of hope, to have positive role-models, to see the qualities of love, justice and mercy expressed in our communities and through our leaders. But what we have witnessed this week have been the most appalling double-standards on the part of some politicians.

One MP this week asked how we can “reclaim” these rioters for society. He’s already something of an expert on claiming, having received over £8,500 for a top-of-the-range television set on his parliamentary expenses. There is more than one way to grab what you want at other people's expense.

And what are we to make of a rioter who took bottled water worth £3.50 and was sentenced to six months in jail, when there is a government minister who wangled £7000 of decorating expenses on a second home before flipping its designation so he could claim back stamp duty on the purchase of another house? He got a seat on the Cabinet.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, said this week that those rioters who had committed offences would face the full force of the law. Yet it is only a few weeks ago that he was telling us that everyone deserves a second chance – meaning, of course, the job he gave to the former News of the World editor, whose paper had been routinely hacking into people’s mobile phones in search of the next big sales-grabbing headline.

If we want to name the gangs that have looted our cities and caused chaos, let’s start with JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, the Royal Bank of Scotland and their rival gangs in the City, where naked greed has brought the world economy to its knees.

In an opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph this week, Peter Oborne said this:
“Something has gone horribly wrong in Britain. If we are ever to confront the problems which have been exposed in the past week, it is essential to bear in mind that they do not only exist in inner-city housing estates. The culture of greed and impunity we are witnessing on our TV screens stretches right up into corporate boardrooms and the Cabinet. It embraces the police and large parts of our media. It is not just its damaged youth, but Britain itself that needs a moral reformation.”
Of course the rioting was appalling and wrong. There can be no excuse. But the hand-wringing and judgementalism from some of our leaders is rank hypocrisy.

The example of Joseph’s integrity stands in contrast to this. Someone who has risen to power but has not let go of his duties and responsibilities, or his sense of God‘s purpose in his life. He works to save the lives of the very poorest not only in his own country but in that of his forefathers. “God sent me ahead of you to rescue you... and to make sure you and your descendants survive,” he tells his brothers.

And through Jesus we see the sufficiency of God’s grace. Through him we know that there is abundant hope for all who feel angry, bitter or betrayed at their lot in life. The church has already been quick to respond to the needs of those who lost homes or livelihoods in our city this week. In the months to come I have no doubt that much thought will be given to how parish churches in London and elsewhere can better reach out to the lost sheep in our neighbourhoods. We must remember that God’s blessing is not just for us, but something that we should be passing on. That the message of God’s love is for the least and the lost, as well as for the self-satisfied who think that they are better than others.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

keeping faith in good times and in bad

Genesis 37.1-4,12-28; Matthew 14.22-33
St Peter De Beauvoir Town
Sunday 7 August 2011

Today's reading from the book of Genesis tells the start of one of the most famous stories in the Bible - that of Joseph. Or as many have come to know it, Joseph and his amazing technicolour dreamcoat.

It is not really surprising that Andrew Lloyd-Webber should have taken this tale of betrayal, tragedy, family feud, and triumph over adversity and turned it into a hit stage musical. It has all the elements that a budding composer and librettist could possibly want.

Sadly, our reading only covers the betrayal. Joseph's brothers, deeply jealous of their Father's favouritism towards Joseph (and, to be fair, their brother's rather obnoxious way of rubbing their noses in it) conspire to fake his death and sell him into slavery in Egypt. It is the cause of much grief to their Father, who we have been hearing about in previous Sundays' readings go by the name of Jacob, but is now called Israel. (Long story).

The best bits of Joseph's story come later on, where he does rather well for himself in Egypt - barring a few ups and downs - rising to a place of real importance in Pharaoh's service. It is in this role that Joseph encounters his brothers once more. There is a famine in their homeland and they have come to Egypt to buy food. Here is Joseph's opportunity for revenge. If this was a piece of French 19th century romantic literature, there would follow a very carefully plotted and elaborate vengeance, strung out over hundreds of pages with quite forensic precision. But Joseph is not a character from the fevered imagination of Alexandre Dumas or Victor Hugo. Aside from toying with his brothers when they fail to recognise him, Joseph's love for his father and for God shine through.

In Joseph we see a role-model of faithfulness to God in both the worst of times and the best of times. He remarkably keeps faith with God when his brothers sell him to slavers headed for Egypt. He keeps faith with God during imprisonment and in the face of temptation. Somehow he manages to keep hold of a bigger picture outside of his immediate circumstances.

Desmond Tutu calls this capacity to hold onto the big picture during tough times the ‘principle of transfiguration.‘

He writes:
During the darkest days of apartheid I used to say to PW Botha, the president of South Africa, that we had already won, and I invited him and other white South Africans to join the winning side. All the "objective" facts were against us – the pass laws, the imprisonments, the teargassing, the massacres, the murder of political activists – but my confidence was not in the present circumstances but in the laws of God's universe. This is a moral universe, which means that, despite all the evidence that seems to be to the contrary, there is no way that evil and injustice and oppression and lies can have the last word... That is what upheld the morale of our people, to know that in the end good will prevail. It was these higher laws that convinced me that our peaceful struggle would topple the immoral laws of apartheid... The principle of transfiguration says nothing, no one and no situation, is "untransfigurable," that the whole of [creation waits expectantly to be] released from its bondage and share in the glorious liberty of the children of God.
Joseph seems to understands this principle of transfiguration. Even in the face of his worst ordeals he is able to understand that God is bigger than the present circumstances suggest.

It is one thing to hold onto our hope in God during a time of suffering, quite another to do so when we enjoy the security and comfort that affluence brings. Then it is easy to believe that we can get by without God's help. And of course often we try. Yet Joseph rises to the position of second most powerful person in Egypt and doesn't let that go to his head. He doesn't dispense with God, but stays true to the principles and values of his faith. It is this that enables him to respond to his brothers with generosity and forgiveness. When we are free to live lives that are independent, under our own control, successful or powerful, the goodness of God is needed more than ever to help us live up to the responsibilities that come with good fortune and affluence.

Whatever our circumstances our choices should be made in the light of the character of God. His essential goodness is reflected in ourselves. His loving, gracious and merciful spirit is something we can tap into to enable us to be our best self in any situation. For me this is what lies at the heart of our spiritual life. How can I live my live so that God's goodness is even more self-evident? How do I step away from those decisions or behaviours that cause me to somehow be a little less than my best self?

It takes a big person, anchored in something outside of their self, to make godly choices of the kind Joseph made. He set aside the smallness of human revenge and judgment to let in the bigness of love divine.

It is not always easy to let go of the experiences that have scarred or damaged us in past. Events in childhood in particular can cause wounds that continue to pain us in adult life. It requires conscious effort through prayer - and in some cases professional help - to bring God's healing love to bear on such wounds. This is not to say that our wounds will necessarily vanish. But the ‘God effect’ can strengthen us to rise above them, to be our best self in spite of them. Even, perhaps, to be a source of healing to others through them.

Joseph, I am sure, would carry the wounds of his brothers’ betrayal throughout his life. But in the strength of God and with faithfulness to him, he finds restoration – a transfiguration – that enables him to be his best self even an opportunity for revenge presents itself.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

you give them something to eat

Isaiah 55.1-5; Matthew 14.13-21
St Thomas the Apostle Finsbury Park
Sunday 31 July 2011

Our gospel reading today starts with Jesus in a state of exhaustion and grief. His cousin and colleague John the Baptist has been beheaded by King Herod. Jesus responds in the way many of us would on hearing bad news. He withdraws to a quiet place to be alone with his thoughts and with feelings of great sadness. This was no ordinary bereavement. For Christ it was a foretaste of his own death; a powerful reminder of the forces that were working against him and would not rest until he had been executed. Who wouldn’t need a bit of space?

But crowds of people still demand his attention. They want to hear more of his stories; learn more about the Kingdom of which he speaks; to bring their sick friends to him to be healed. In spite of his weariness and troubled mind Jesus feels great compassion for the people and performs many healings.

They are in the middle of nowhere. The crowds have followed Jesus out of the villages to this deserted place. The disciples – no doubt mindful of their own hunger and tiredness – suggest to Jesus that he sends the people away so they can buy food.

His response? “You give them something to eat.”
“What with?” they reply. “We’ve got nothing here except some bread and a few fish.”

Here, Jesus exhibits what the Americans might call a can-do attitude. Don’t clutter the situation with your own problems and needs, just feed them. Yes, it is late. Yes, we are in a desolate place. Yes, there is nowhere to buy food. You give them something to eat.

How often do we bring our objections to the call that being a disciple of Christ makes on us. We’re tired. It is not a good time. It’s late. We might even dress up our objections as caring for other, as perhaps the disciples did. “Look at you Jesus, you’re exhausted. Send the people away.”

You give them something to eat.”

Two years of drought in the Horn of Africa have left over 12 million people in need of food. These include half the population of Somalia, many of whom have fled to refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. Not everyone lasts the journey. Others make it as far as the camps only to collapse with exhaustion.

The British fundraising campaign has so far raised £37 million. This is a terrific achievement in such a short space of time, and is typical of the generosity of people in this country in a time of need.

Nevertheless perhaps we could do more. The amount raised equates to about 60p for every person in the country. Of course it is not simply relief aid that is required. The action of the international community is vital in solving some of the problems that this region of Africa faces. Political solutions, technological and agricultural solutions are all required to ensure that the people of the world have enough to eat. It isn’t that we lack the resources or the ability. But the will of wealthy nations to share what they have at the levels necessary seems as lacking as ever.

What is it that stops us from doing more for the poorest people of the world? Like the disciples, we sometimes bring our well-meaning objections to the situation.
“There are so many problems in the world - we don’t have enough to fix them all.”
“The aid doesn’t reach the people who need it.”
“Their governments are corrupt. It is their own fault!”
“We’ve got our own problems. Don’t you know there is a recession on?”
“I’ve already donated £1.”

You give them something to eat.”

Jesus’ command cuts through our objections as much as it did those of his disciples. Like them we may already feel we’ve done the caring thing, made the compassionate suggestion. For Christ, though, our thinking - like the disciples - is sometimes too small. The costliness of following Jesus suddenly becomes costlier still.

Yet, Jesus is able to take whatever little we offer and make the most of it.

As Tom Wright puts it,
“This is how it works whenever someone is close enough to Jesus to catch a glimpse of what he’s doing and how they could help. We blunder in with our ideas. We offer, uncomprehending, what little we have. Jesus takes ideas, loaves and fishes, money, a sense of humour, time, energy, talents, love, artistic gifts, skill with words, quickness of eye or fingers, whatever we have to offer. He holds them before his father with prayer and blessing. Then breaking them so they are ready for use, he gives them back to us to give to those who need them. And now they are ours and not ours. They are both what we had in mind and not what we had in mind... It is part of genuine Christian service, at whatever level, that we look on in amazement to see what God has done with the bits and pieces we dug out of our meager resources to offer to him.”

Food is at the heart of our worship as a community of God. We meet week by week to feast on the goodness and generosity of God. And we can be a bit possessive about that too. “You can’t have it until we know you are really serious, until we know you are one of us or understand what you are participating in,” we object. Are these really objections made in the name of the one who said, “You give them something to eat.”

Perhaps people don’t need to know, or go on a course or be confirmed. Could it be that simply being hungry for God is enough of a reason to allow a person to feast at the table of Christ? That participation in his love feast should be based on need, not understanding. Do we trust the Holy Spirt so little that we have to inhibit her work to those who hunger to be fed?

The love and presence of Christ that we encounter in the Eucharist is not something to be rationed out, or controlled by entry qualifications. Like the 12 baskets of leftovers after the feeding of the 5000 we must trust in God’s abundance. There is more than enough to go round.
“The Lord says this: Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.” [Isaiah 55.1]

You give them something to eat.”

Sara Miles, Take This Bread: a radical conversion (Ballantine Books, 2008)
Tom Wright, Matthew For Everyone part 1 (SPCK, 2002)

Sunday, 24 July 2011

the events of the last week challenge self-serving interpretations of scripture

Today's epistle (Romans 8.26-39) contains some of the best known verses in the New Testament, and are among the most cherished by Christians:
‘All things work together for good for those who love God’
‘If God is for us, who is against us?’
‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ?’

These promises have comforted and reassured Christians throughout the ages. But they have also been distorted to justify inappropriate action - or sometimes a lack of action - on the part of Christians.

Paul’s assertion that ‘God is for us’ has been used by armies to claim divine protection as they set off for war. ‘All things working together for good’ is sometimes glibly treated as a way of imagining that God will get on with the business of caring for his own so that we don’t have to – or, even, that if people are faithful to God nothing bad will happen to them. So if you suffer, it is obviously your own fault. I’ve heard very committed Christians utter the complete tosh that even catching a cold is evidence of a lack of faith.

These are appalling and twisted ways of interpreting the points that Paul was trying to make, and they take his words completely out of context.

If anything should make us think twice about investing cherished Bible verses with naive and self-centred meanings, it is the events that we have seen unfold in the news this week.

Firstly, the worst drought to hit East Africa in 60 years is putting the lives of 11 million people at risk. So far the country worst hit is Somalia, where 1 in every 10 children is at risk of starving to death. Hundreds of thousands of people are already trying to leave the country, many of them dying on the journey or shortly after arriving at aid camps in other countries. The situation is expected to worsen.

God doesn’t call us to sit back and say, ‘Well it will all work out somehow.’ Or that he’ll look after his own. Or that it is their own fault. Or even, as I hear people at St Peter’s say, charity begins at home. Christ’s mission and ministry reached across religious and national divides. God’s preferential option for the poor is not for Christians. It is for poor people, regardless of which faith - or lack of - they adhere to. But we are called to act as Christ’s hands in a suffering world.

The only thing keeping the images of starvation off our television screens at the moment are the actions of a so-called Christian fundamentalist thought to have blown up government buildings in Norway, before pitching up at youth camp and shooting dead 85 people, mainly teenagers. I wonder if he drew strength from the idea that God was for him and nothing could be against him?

Fundamentalism of any sort - Christian, Muslim, Communist, Fascist - is intolerant and oppressive. The actions of this one young man may be extraordinary and exceptional, but they are rooted in the same hatred and fear that fuels all intolerance. There is nothing about the love of Christ present in the actions of the Norwegian gunman, and we stand together with other Christians this morning in saying, “Not in our name.” One of the possibilities already beginning to emerge in the light of Norway is that Christian Europeans might now be better able to identify with, and offer support to, the millions of law-abiding and peaceable Muslims who also say in the aftermath of extremist acts of terror, “Not in our name.”

Paul did not write to the church in Rome to offer bland reassurances that nothing bad would ever happen to them, or that God was on their side and destroying their enemies. The situation in first-century Rome was quite the opposite, with Christians being roundly persecuted. It is in this context that he says, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” These were not imagined possibilities for Roman Christians, they were everyday life. But even in the face of such desperations, Christ love is constant.

Paul quotes Psalm 44, one of the so-called Psalms of Complaint. It is a national lament and a prayer for help. In spite of their faithfulness to God, the people of Israel experience terrible suffering. We’ve heard from our ancestors about all the great things God did, they say. But all we experience is hardship. “For your sake we are being killed all day long, we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

What kind of consolation is Paul offering to the church? Not that God will save his people from suffering, but rather through it and perhaps even because of it [see Tom Wright]. That in some way the hardships encountered are gathered up into God's purposes, and lived out by his people as an extension of Christ's love. We see in the terrible imagery of Jesus Christ on the cross, not the beloved Son of God being saved from his suffering, but rather one who would triumph over it and in so doing extend God’s love to the world.

We have our own share of suffering here at St Peter’s - of terrible illness, of grief, of mental anguish. Paul tells us that in the face of these troubles Christ prays for us. That even when it is hard for us to find the words to say to God the groanings of our heart are understood and carried before God in prayer. What we are promised is that even in terrible suffering God the Father stands alongside us, God the Son brings hope, and God the Spirit brings healing.

As a community of God’s people we share the conviction with which Saint Paul ends this passage,
“...that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Monday, 2 May 2011

St Thomas: Patron Saint for the Age of Me

We live in an age of scepticism where people are abandoning their -ologies.

For centuries the prevailing -ology was theology, as the teaching of the Church shaped everything from the law to the ordering of society. Not always well admittedly, but nonetheless it was the dominant paradigm.

For much of the twentieth century political ideology captured the imagination and aspirations of millions. Socialism, Communism, Fascism were causes worth fighting and dying for.

And in the 50s and 60s people placed their hope in technology and science to solve humanity's problems, cure our ills and take us to new levels of achievement.

But in the 21st century the hopes invested in these -ologies lie shattered by the disappointments and failures of these movements.

Church attendance has plummeted as scepticism rises towards an institution that is perceived as archaic and out of touch. There is the scandal around sexual abuse by clergy. The rise of the toxic and intolerant religious right. The bad taste left by the perceived cultural imperialism of missionary work. And besides, who in their right mind believes in something you can't prove?

The rot set in for political ideology when Fascism led to holocaust, and Communism was corrupted by greed, fear and domination. More recently the absence of conviction politicians, the expenses scandal in parliament and the era of soundbite and spin have led to voter apathy.

And who trusts their GP anymore? Once a pillar of the community whose opinion was never questioned, the controversy over the MMR vaccine, the tragedy of Thalidomide and the unscrupulous practices of pharmaceutical companies have left some patients wondering whom they can trust.

So what does today's generation believe in if not the priest, politician or doctor? The answer is, of course, themselves. Like St Thomas, who would only believe in the risen Christ if he could touch his wounds, Generations X and Y will only believe what they know to be true from their own experience. The notion that one might invest trust or hope in an institution without personally verifying it's authenticity is regarded as immensely naive. The Age of Me is driven by scepticism, conspiracy theory and distrust.

But putting the Self at the heart of one's experience or opinions means elevating the very thing that corrupted the institutions that are the focus of scepticism. The drive for money, sex and power by individuals within Church, Government, and Science are what sullied their reputations. The Age of Me idolises that same self-centredness, and conveniently side steps the examples of those who set aside their own needs for the greater good.

The Christians who took on vows of poverty and chastity to better serve the needs of the poor. The missionaries who lived among lepers. The volunteers who joined Brigades to fight fascism in Spain. The campaigners for freedom who languish in a Chinese prison. The medics who experimented on themselves to find cures or push the boundaries of science.

When Jesus says to Thomas, "Blessed are those who have not seen but have come to believe," he once again challenges us to take our selves out of the centre of our existence and place God there. When we do so, like others before have done, we become outward-facing and better able to look our neighbours in the eye while stretching out a hand of generosity.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Holy Week: An opportunity for Christians to fetishise torture?

A well-known British writer once said that he could never be a Christian because of the way we venerate the Cross. He regarded it as fetishising torture, which seemed just a bit sick to him. It is a wry chattering-classes remark, but doesn't come close to understanding the real meaning of the Cross.

What we remember week by week as we celebrate the Eucharist, and focus on particularly in Holy Week, is an act of self-giving so powerful that it inspires us to persist in countering the self-serving behaviour that is so deeply rooted in human nature.

The Cross is a reminder of what society is capable of when confronted with a force of goodness that it finds threatening to power, vested interests or the status quo. Christ crucified draws our attention away from ourselves and onto innocence made to suffer at the hands of humans. The Cross incriminates us in the daily injustices that the world continues to mete out to those who do not deserve them.

Even if the crucifixion was nothing more than a myth or a parable it would still give pause for thought about our actions and conduct. Imagine a story in which perfect goodness walks the earth. How would we respond? The answer of course is not to embrace it but to become so uncomfortable, so convicted by our own comparative shortcomings and weaknesses, that such goodness would have to be got rid off. For this reason I believe the Cross has something to say to people of all faiths and none.

Christians of course view the cross as more than myth. It embodies the extraordinary idea that a merciful God would place himself at the mercy of flawed and selfish humanity. This is an act of humility so potent that to be reminded of it whenever we break bread, and especially now in the events of Easter, cannot help but challenge us to reorientate our lives away from the gravitational pull of our own selfishness.

As we enter the season when the Cross is most contemplated I will see not only a generous God hanging there but also the suffering of all humanity, confident that the arms of Christ are reaching out to embrace us in another way of being.

Monday, 11 April 2011

gay audiences love a coming-out movie. Christians of all people should understand why.

Last week the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival finished its run at the BFI on the South Bank, albeit a much curtailed affair this year due to funding cuts. Nonetheless, as it has done for the last 25 years, the festival drew on the output of film-makers from around the world in a diverse programme of queer movies.

For all the variety on offer - drama, documentary, shorts, comedy - there are recurring themes found in each year's pick of films. The impact of the AIDS epidemic is one. Or the effect on particular cultures or characters as they encounter homosexuality would be another - last year's Eyes Wide Open powerfully explores a same-sex relationship in Jerusalem's Orthodox Jewish community, and has gone on to wider cinema and TV release.

Films which explore the struggle of the protaganist in coming out are a perennial favourite with gay audiences. Last Monday's matinee, the very sweet comedy Sasha, played to a packed house. What is it about coming out stories that draw gay audiences in again and again?

For many, of course, there will be resonances with their own struggle in coming to terms with who they are (which is not to presume that coming out is hard for everyone). While we are accustomed to think of coming out as the revelation of one's sexuality to friends and family, the first step is coming to terms with, and understanding, oneself. The process of doing so is perhaps a common bond with which gay audiences identify.

It wouldn't hurt those who decry homosexuality as a 'lifestyle choice' to enter more fully into the narrative of those for whom coming out was far from what they initially hoped or imagined for themselves.

A coming out story presents a narrative arc that lends itself well to film-making, and should have an appeal far beyond gay audiences. To become more fully human, to overcome limiting social conditioning of family, friends or self, to realise one's full potential -- these are universal themes in movies of many genres. It is, for example, the subject of Billy Elliott.

Christians from those traditions that more readily embrace spirituality (who perhaps see conversion not as a moment in time but a lifelong process) will also understand the language of becoming more fully human, more whole. Coming to terms with who we really are, learning what it means to be free of the hold that our broken humanity has over us, setting aside lowest common denominator social norms to move on and grow in the love of God, is another kind of coming out.

These days it is hard to know which is more socially awkward - coming out as Christian or coming out as gay.

In both cases there is a learning to 'come home to oneself', an expression Timothy Radcliffe explores in Why Go To Church? He writes:
Repentance is, inseparably, an awakening to God, oneself and each other. Most sin is pretending to be someone else, admirable, or powerful or sexy, who will have value in other's eyes and one's own.

It is in stripping away such pretences and embracing humility - a grounded understanding about who and what we really are - that we can begin the journey towards wholeness that is sometimes also called holiness.

For some gay people the challenge is not to throw off one set of limiting self-beliefs only to become bound by a collective obsession with body image, hedonism or sexual liberation so easily found in the queer sub-culture.

And for Christians the journey towards wholeness must hold us in that place of humility that is far removed from the smug, self-satisfied judgementalism that too often leaks out of the Church and corrodes society.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

the world doesn't need another blog about Rob Bell's new book

and he sure as hell doesn't need any more publicity...

But I have been thinking about why some Christians feel so threatened when you suggest Hell might not be real.

You see if you remove Hell from the picture it takes away the central plank of their marketing strategy. Every product or service is the solution to a problem, and a good sales campaign will point up the problem to remind you of why you should buy into what I'm selling. So if you're peddling religion, scaring people with the prospect of eternal torment is a great way to line up your pitch of getting them to become more like you and do what you want.

I have no doubt this works because it is the same strategy they taught us on day one of sales training in the financial services industry. "Mrs Jones, have you thought about how you and the children would survive if your husband suddenly passed away?" And as a look of alarm flits across her face you slide over a form and a pen. Helpfully you've filled out all the blanks. All she has to do is sign, and peace of mind can be hers forever. (At least until she dies and goes to Hell because, friends, I'm really not sure about some of her lifestyle choices...)

This approach was very popular in the middle ages, when the Church's leverage on superstitious and poorly educated people was at its height.

The really good news about Hell as a marketing strategy is that it fits right into the modern Christian's hectic time-poor schedule. No need to waste time on all that tiresome self-examination, or bleeding heart acts of love, welcoming of outcasts or challenging injustice. Jesus, who has got time for all that these days when there are souls to save?

The doctrine of Hell too easily appeals to those Christians who think it is their job to convert people, not the Holy Spirit, and who rely on sales techniques to bring people to Christ. Instead let's focus on living lives of personal example that witness to the love of God, and let him worry about judging others.

Friday, 18 February 2011

should the Daily Mail come with a mental health warning?

An enterprising young man wants to persuade his mother to stop reading the Daily Mail, so has set up a group on Facebook which lists all the paper's cancer scare stories over the last few years. It is an astonishing list, painstakingly linked to each article on the Mail's website - almost 150 carcinogens from flip-flops and hugging, to talcum powder and till receipts. Smoking isn't mentioned.

I remember Mike Yaconelli once saying that good satire doesn't always need to provide witty commentary. Sometimes it is simply enough to hold up a mirror to what someone has said or done. The Facebook list does just that, and speaks for a news agenda that plays on our fears and anxieties.

It is a little unfair, I suppose, to single out one newspaper. The front pages of papers are dominated by bad news, and can leave one gasping for hope amidst the litany of woes that are the headlines. What does our exposure to all this news of greed, violence, and catastrophe do to our state of mind?

Michael Moore's conclusion, in his film Bowling for Columbine, is that the anxiety created by the news agenda in the USA is responsible for the number of people who own - and consequently discharge - guns.

Others have suggested that levels of anxiety, depression, panic attacks and social withdrawal are linked to fear stoked by the news.

But it is not all bad news, of course. The media is limbering up for the overboard coverage they are sure to give the royal wedding. Sometimes a good news story can spread itself across a dozen pages of a tabloid newspaper. And remember the coverage given to the remarkable rescue of the Chilean miners?

There is another argument. We don't actually get enough bad news, because our diet of reality is diluted by celebrity gossip, political commentary or those feel-good 'And finally...' stories. Editors know that it is hard for us to swallow too much depressing reality and must leaven the mix to keep readers engaged. Attention-grabbing headlines, that draw us in by playing on our fears, give way to cheering human interest stories to remind us that everything is fine really.

Writing in the Church Times (£) a few months ago, Giles Fraser suggested that the instinct to tone down the news might have something to do with how we wish to see ourselves.
I wonder why it is women who write best about evil: Mary Midgley, Gitta Sereny, Gillian Rose, Hannah Arendt. Perhaps it is because, unlike men, they do not so readily refocus their distress at hearing [stories of human atrocities] into some passionate expression of retributive anger. This allows time and space for a more disturbing reality to dawn: that we might have more in common with the perpetrators than we are comfortable acknowledging.

News of inhuman treatment towards others is appalling to read. Part of that shock is realising the capacity of some people to do things we would never dream of. And yet perhaps within us is an understanding that what drives people to commit acts of terror, assault, abuse or murder is the same sorry collection of fears, insecurities, shame and hatred that we all have to confront within ourselves. We may not be driven to the same extremes, but which of us hasn't had moments when we could have cheerfully throttled a colleague or family member? Or fantasised about the 'disappearance' of a difficult person from a challenging situation?

Reading the paper may or may not be bad for our mental health. But perhaps it should prompt us to examine closely the state of our spiritual well-being.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

there are never enough second-person pronouns around when you need them

The trouble with the English language these days is that we only have one word for 'you.' Even my rudimentary grasp of schoolboy French remembers that our nearest neighbours can distinguish between you, the individual, and you, a whole bunch of people (as well as you, a chum, and you, someone dead important).

That is has taken me this long to notice our deficiency in second-person pronouns suggests that it has not been the greatest obstacle to communication. Mostly we can figure out whether it is one person being addressed or a group of people from the context in which you appears. (While any good Glaswegian will helpfully get round the problem by using the plural youse - as in, "Are any of youse goin' doon the chip shop?")

Difficulties can occur when translating from a language with more than one form of you, into modern English. Sometimes the meaning is lost in translation.

Both Hebrew and Greek, the original languages of our scriptures, distinguish between singular and plural second-person pronouns. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove writes:
"My Greek professor at college was from Oklahoma. He liked to say that most of the you's in scripture are y'all's. That is, almost all of the second-person pronouns are plural in the New Testament. Same is true with the Hebrew. The Bible isn't addressed to a person but to a people."

Along with a wider cultural shift towards individualism, Christians too easily personalise their faith to something that is between God and them. Society often prefers it that way. "Religion is something that should be kept private," is a line columnists trot out whenever a public demonstration of faith makes the headlines.

We should be wary of too much emphasis on me. It is easy to see how the gospel of personal salvation so often preached can lead to a distorted faith that is self-centred rather than focused on one's place in a community as it relates to God.

God calls us to be part of his people, his community of the faithful, through whom we become partners in his mission. From the story of Israel to the emergence of the New Testament Church, the Bible is an account of the way that God is shaping his people to be a force for salvation to the nations.

Our personal faith, then, has to find its place and expression within the context of God's people. When somebody says, "I don't need the church to be a Christian," they are removing themselves from the very body through which God shapes their journey - and that of the world - towards wholeness.

This is why so much of scripture dwells on how we relate to each other. In his Sermon on the Mount, Christ sets out a blueprint for how we should live as part of the family of God. You (plural) are the salt of the earth. You (plural) are the light of the world. In today's gospel reading (Matthew 5.21-37) Jesus spells out how we must resolve disagreements and manage our anger towards each other before it destroys us.

His message, as pressing today as it was when he preached it, is, "Sort yourselves out. God has work for you to do. Together."

Sunday, 6 February 2011

John O'Donohue on Prayer

I was looking for something appropriate to include in the parish news sheet, and found the following extract from John O'Donohue's book Eternal Echoes. There is a notion in Celtic Spirituality that some places are 'thin places' where the membrane separating heaven and earth feels like it could just break open. Places like Holy Island and Iona are popular with pilgrims because that sense of holiness feels stronger.

I find that same quality in John O'Donohue's writing, such as this passage about prayer:

One of the most tender images is the human person at prayer. When the body gathers itself before the Divine, a stillness deepens. The blaring din of distraction ceases and the deeper tranquillity within the heart envelops the body. To see someone at prayer is a touching sight. For a while they have become unmoored from the grip of society, work and role. It is as if they have chosen to enter into a secret belonging carried within the soul; they rest in that inner temple impervious to outer control or claiming. A person at prayer also evokes the sense of vulnerability and fragility. Their prayer reminds us that we are mere guests of the earth, pilgrims who always walk on unsteady ground, carrying in earthen vessels multitudes of longing.
To sit or kneel in prayer is visually our most appropriate physical presence. There is something right about this. It coheres with the secret structure of existence and reality, namely that we have a right to nothing. Everything that we are, think, feel and have is a gift. We have received everything, even the opportunity to come to the earth and walk awake in this wondrous universe. There are many people who have worked harder than us, people who have done more kind and holy things and yet they have received nothing. The human body gathered in prayer mirrors our fragility and inner poverty and it makes a statement recognizing the divine generosity that is always blessing us. To be gathered in prayer is appropriate. It is a gracious, reverential and receptive gesture. It states that, at the threshold of each moment, the gift of breath and blessing comes across to embrace us.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

it isn't a proper wedding if there isn't a fight

As the evening of my niece's wedding drew to a close, I turned to my sister and said, "What a fabulous wedding. Everything went so well." She agreed, but added, "Hardly a proper Glasgow wedding though, was it? There wasn't a fight."

Setting aside the question of how deserved is the city of my birth's reputation, for most us weddings are more probably associated with joy, love and hope for the future.

So it is fitting that John's gospel records Jesus' first miracle as taking place with these happy themes as the backdrop at the wedding in Cana. The miracle of water turned into wine (John 2.1-11) tells us much about God's generosity - the wine is of the very best quality. And the quantity is silly: gallons and gallons of it. We catch something of the abundance with which God lavishes his grace on us - such extravagance, so much more than we could ever need. God's well of love never runs dry.

The image of water into wine also speaks of the way God offers us the means to be transformed. The ordinariness of plain water turned into the finest of vintage wines reminds us that God invites us to open our lives to his transforming power and love so that we can be renewed. "Changed from glory into glory," as the hymn writer Charles Wesley puts it. God's abundant grace helps us go from strength to strength as we move towards wholeness and fullness of life.

Each Sunday we continue to use wine as a way of remembering the abundance of God's generous love, as we participate in the holy feast of the Eucharist.