Monday, June 29, 2015

Conflict : Part 3

In my previous post, I suggested that conflict is both an inevitable and a necessary part of the world we live in. I also suggested that the experience of conflict has to do with our being made in the likeness of a good God.

The earliest human experiences, as told in the Bible, are experiences of conflict and of learning to engage with conflict in ways that bring forth life. There is the conflict of resting from work when there is so much work to be done. There is the navigating of the conflicts of tending a garden: not enough water, and plants cannot grow; too much water, and plants cannot grow: water must be channelled; plants, too, must be cultivated, not left to overrun, to encroach on others. There is the conflict resulting from being different from the other animals and needing to find a corresponding companion. In engaging conflict, the human beings are participating in the life of all creation, and in the life of God.

A new character finds voice in this unfolding story, a character who calls into question something God has (not) said. What follows is often considered to be the root cause of conflict, between male and female, between humanity and the planet. But we might read it as another opportunity to engage with conflict (conflict = difference + tension), and one that reveals to us our ability (perhaps, propensity) to engage with conflict badly, with negative consequences.

The serpent brings a bad report, calls God’s character into disrepute, suggesting that God has acted in a particular way out of selfish and unloving motives, perhaps out of fear. God is not present to be asked and to offer clarification, in order that a greater understanding be reached. Initially, Eve challenges the serpent’s report (she adds to God’s words to the man, and much has been speculated as to why and whether it matters or not), but ultimately a series of related conflicts –

abundance / perceived lack

perceived food / perceived wastage

delighting in / consuming

wisdom / knowledge –

are resolved badly. Compounding the situation, attempted physical withdrawal from the situation, defensive and aggressive survival strategies are all employed, drawing relationship apart.

Complex consequences are set in motion – complex not least because each response to every conflict has the potential to draw us further apart and the potential to draw us closer together; complex also because conflict is inevitable, and is the (very) raw material for a good end, which will be brought to fruition through hard work and perseverance.

From here on in, throughout the Bible, we see this conflict - reconciliation played out: on the micro-level of the relationship between brothers; to the macro-level of relationships between nations; to the meta-level of the relationship between all creation and God. The goal is not a return to a fresh start in an unspoiled garden, but something altogether greater. It is also ongoing.

Our conflicts are not a distraction from entering-into the life, the love, of God. They are the very places of transformation where it becomes possible to do so. They are the places of our passing from death into life. The labour pains of something new, something longed-for but as-yet unknown, un-named. Every conflict is a kairos moment, where the kingdom of heaven has come near, if we are willing to repent (to change our perspective) and believe (to live out a different way of being).

How, then, can the abundance of conflicting hopes and dreams and needs and visions and desires and preferred futures and painful pasts and frustrated ‘now’s be engaged with graciously, lovingly, for the transformation of us all?

That is what we are called to, as human beings. That is what we are called to live out, as the Church.


Conflict : Part 2

Conflict has been described in this way: conflict = difference + tension

Elijah wants to lie on his bed and quietly read a book, Noah wants to play his electric guitar: difference. The boys share a room: tension. The resulting conflict could be handled well, bringing them closer together, or badly, driving them further apart.

To put it another way, conflict is an inevitable consequence of diversity in a universe experienced in time as well as space.

According to the opening verses of the Bible, conflict provides the raw material with which God works to form the world, and indeed universe, we live in. That is, God does not create out of nothing, but out of the experience of conflict. Light and darkness; sky and land and sea; different seasons; different possible forms of life, needing different environments: each part is calling out to be recognised, to not be overlooked.

While our response in the face of conflict is often to go on the defensive, or to go on the attack, or to withdraw emotionally or physically, God moves towards conflict with the intention of drawing-out something good – and not only good for the parties in immediate conflict, but good for the bigger picture, the wider creation.

God identifies god-self in particular ways – for example, as creator, redeemer, sustainer – and invites others to do the same: the sun to know his own identity, and the moon hers; creatures that fly, or swim, or crawl. Underlying concerns are drawn out; common ground brought to light; interdependence encouraged, participation enabled. And God creates human beings, to be like God, to share in God’s experience of and activity in the world.

What does it mean to be made and found in the likeness of a God who looks on conflict and sees in that conflict the necessary raw material for creating something unimaginably wonderful? What does it mean to be made and found in the likeness of a God who moves towards conflict, with a particular intention and hope?

Surely it means that we experience conflict not as a result of something that has gone wrong, in us and for us, but rather as something more fundamental and more positive?


Conflict : Part 1

I have just been on a week-long training course on ‘Transforming Church Conflict’ run by Bridge Builders. It was the best training course I have ever been on. The content, and delivery, were excellent; the team facilitating the course, first-class. But what made it so significant and so helpful was this: so much of what I am encouraged to focus on as a church leader (mission, growth, discipleship) can seem esoteric to others, passions specific to my role and my vocation, hard to relate to; but everyone can relate to the experience of conflict, in family life, between partners, at work, on soap operas, on the streets, in the news...

The Bible is full of conflict. In fact, you can see conflict, in some form or other, in every story, on every page. To some, that is clear evidence that religion is a root of conflict, that religious texts promote and perpetuate conflict. To others, it is deeply embarrassing, especially in the light of so much conflict between followers of Jesus today; more than that, I know many Christians who believe that our internal conflicts within the Church detract from our mission to share the love of God.

I would suggest that conflict is inherent to life, and that the Bible is full of conflict because it is fully concerned with life. I would also suggest that the accounts of conflict found in the Bible are very much concerned with how conflict might be transformed so that something good is brought forth, something it was not previously possible to imagine into being, even (especially) where there is no quick fix.

As such, the Bible is a great resource concerning how we might respond to conflict; and the Church has both great opportunity and no little experience to offer the world an ongoing ministry of reconciliation.

The following posts do not cover the content of the course I have been on, but are my own reflections on conflict in the Bible and our attitude towards it, having been on the course. In my next post, I want to begin to reflect on the opening chapters of the Bible, from this particular perspective.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Old And The Young

At the moment, we are reading through Ezra in Morning Prayer. The back story is this: Solomon had built a great temple to the Lord in Jerusalem, which was one of the wonders of the world; the Babylonian Empire arose, and defeated Solomon’s descendants, taking the people into exile, in waves, and eventually destroying the temple; the Persian Empire arose, defeating the Babylonians and freeing all captives to return home, in order to rebuild economically productive vassal states; the Jews returned to Jerusalem, in waves, the first wave building a new temple (under Zerubbabel), the second wave being a mass return of people (under Ezra), and the third wave rebuilding the city walls (under Nehemiah).

This morning we read Ezra chapter 3, which ends:
‘And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.’ [emphasis mine]

It is easy to read this as offering a choice that has to be made: between joy and sorrow; between lamenting the past and welcoming the future; between nostalgia that blinds us to what God is doing today and eyes of faith that can see God at work even in the smallest of beginnings. Even as the people rejoice, there are naysayers, who will not join in.

That would certainly be the way to read this text through the cultural lens of an obsession with youth.

But life is more complex than that.

The past is not uniformly better than the present. Nor is the present uniformly better than the past.

The young rejoice that they have, at last, for the first time in their lives, a home of their own. They rejoice that they have, at last, a place to worship in a way that is fitting to them.

The old rejoice that they have lived to see God bringing his people back home, out of exile. That God had not forgotten them, or abandoned them, even if he had humbled them. They rejoice that the young will have a future in a place of their own, and because they see a desire among the next generation to worship God.

But they also weep for what has been lost, and will not be again; even as they rejoice at what has been done and will be. The two responses are simultaneous. They co-exist. They cannot be distinguished.

It is not a matter of choosing between joy and sorrow; between lamenting the past and welcoming the future; between recognising what was, and is, and is to come. It is a matter of choosing to embrace – and choosing to allow ourselves to be embraced by – both joy and sorrow; both lamenting and welcoming; both loss and gain.

It is the difference between judging one another across the generations, and honouring one another across the generations. There is a wisdom to these ‘old people’ (which is not true of all old people) – a wisdom they can invite ‘young people’ into, because even though the young have not shared the exact history, that history is their heritage, their (old and young) shared story.

The verses immediately before the ones I cite above record a time of worship in which the people ‘sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord,
‘For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures for ever towards Israel.’

Perhaps only those whose faith allows joy and sorrow, lamenting and welcoming, loss and gain, can sing these words from the heart.


Saturday, May 23, 2015

Growth

Earlier this week, I gathered the representatives of our congregation and asked them to be ready to share three things:

how they had come to be at the Minster;

their experience of coming into the Minster on any given Sunday;

and what had most helped them grow in their faith over Lent and Easter-tide.

It was a privilege to listen to one another. And it was an incredibly helpful exercise for me, to listen and to learn.

Of the thirteen people in the room, a few were able to talk in terms of their faith having grown over the last few months. Interestingly, the most common thing that they had found helpful was walking the journey of suffering with friends or family members living with irreversible physical deterioration or terminal illness. This, of course, was also deeply challenging, stretching faith in a most uncomfortable way. But most of those present were not able to perceive any growth in their faith over that timescale.

These were people of mature faith, seeking to live faithful lives rooted in God and God’s people. And I have been thinking about this ever since.

I have been thinking about a healthy tree. The growth from seed, through shoot and sapling, to growing to maturity is both incredible and at times imperceptible. In the early stages, we can see growth on a weekly basis; later, a thin ring is laid down in the trunk year on year.

But a mature tree does not continue to grow in the same way. It continues to live, an incredible array of processes going on as it utilises water, light, and nutrients. It responds to the seasons, at times leafy and at times dormant. But it is, for the overwhelming majority of its life, a stable system. And even its slow dying is used to bring life to other organisms...

The answers to the first question - how they had come to be at the Minster – spoke of having healthy roots. The answers to the second question - their experience of coming into the Minster on any given Sunday – spoke of those roots reaching water, whatever the season.

Perhaps questions of growth are concerned with the early stages of faith.

Perhaps the sign of maturity is that we no longer need to concern ourselves with growth, but can simply be; and in being, provide shelter for others.

If so, the questions of growth that we need to address with those in the early stages are those communal practices which will nurture them for a lifetime.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Ascension Day

Once there was a father who had two sons. The first-born son was dutiful, took the burden of responsibility that he felt upon his shoulders most seriously. As is so often the way with eldest children, he was not much given to celebrating life, and, truth-be-told, struggled with those who did. Working alongside him, his father would from time to time speak words of affirmation; but they felt more like a wound, because he could never live up to his own expectations. At the end of the day, his father would encourage him in to the circle sat around the fire, telling stories in the darkness; but he preferred his own company, or told himself as much.

The younger son was wild and free. From childhood, he had filled the estate with laughter and the slap of running feet. Both sons, in different ways, felt constrained by the boundary wall that marked their home – and they were meant to. Home is where we start out from, and return to; it is not the wideness of the world. But while the older brother conformed himself to that constraint, the younger son kicked against the walls until they broke and he burst free. Out, out he went, having secured his share of their father’s fortune, seed-money to seek a fortune of his own. He travelled to a far country, where he fell in with a crowd of other run-aways, and there he squandered his father’s wealth with revellers and gamblers, with prostitutes and conspirators. What his older brother would say, if he could see him now! And what would knowing do to his dear father?

The money – as I’m sure you can imagine – soon ran out, as money has a want to do; and with it, most of his new-found friends ran out on him too, except those so lost they had nowhere else to run. And then, of course, he took an inevitable beating, from those who prey over the weak, who refused to believe that there was nothing else to take from him, if he was who he claimed to be.

Then he set out for home. There was quite literally nowhere else to go. The journey took him forty days. Along the way, he had several adventures. He met several old friends who no longer even recognised him, at least not a first. With each encounter, each revelation, he came to himself – not the young man who had left home, but the man prepared to come home, his true self exposed.

At last, he arrived – his father running beyond the boundary to meet him. His brother, on the other hand, refused to recognise him at all. He could not, for he had never really recognised his own surroundings – his father, his home, his own self.

Why did the father embrace his lost son, I ask? Because he loved him, you reply. Yes, he did; but that is not the reason: after all, he loved his elder son just as much. No, the father embraced his younger son because he himself had gone on a similar journey long before. He had descended from heaven onto Mount Sinai, to befriend a broken rabble of outcasts; had descended even further, to tabernacle in their rebellious midst; and had then ascended Mount Zion, from where he established a wounded-but-healed people to bless all the surrounding wounded peoples from one horizon to the other, to the ends of the earth. The way home is down, down, up. Earth, hell, heaven.

The ascension is Jesus’ homecoming. It marks the end of a first journey, which takes us away from home in order to return home recognising home for the first time. Seeing home as we were never able to see it before. Those who have never left home can never see home in this way. And it is the beginning of a second journey – still unfolding – which sees Jesus widen the family to include all of humanity.

This is a journey we are called to walk too, as we follow after Jesus, as he does what the Father has done. We are called to return home; having first travelled far from home. That is why Adam and Eve always had to leave the Garden (and they had to be tricked into it, because few of us want to leave the security and comfort and provision of home – though in this we see another deep truth: that God transforms what was done with evil intent for good, includes the fall from grace in the triumph of grace). That is why scientists tell us that all matter is expanding outwards from a moment, to which all matter will eventually contract back: for all things come from God and will return to God.

I experienced something of this Eastertide, when we went up to Scotland to see my parents, my sister and brother-in-law, nephew and niece, and my brother. I left Scotland twenty-four years ago, and have never missed it. Don’t get me wrong, I love my family, but that is not quite the same thing. This visit, it felt like coming home. Not that I want, or need, to move to live in Scotland – I know that we are called to England – but that I had come home. That I am free to leave again, because it will always be there, in a way I had never known it before. A twenty-four year journey.

Our home is in God. This is where we start out from, and where we return to. Ascension-tide – from now until Pentecost – is a gift, an annual opportunity, to practice coming home. To learn how to return home, together. A time to tell stories of home, to awaken dreams, to stir up hope. A time to stumble towards love, and a time to be transformed more fully into our true selves as we live in the tension between Jesus’ departing and his return.


Cloudy, With Reign

Today is Ascension Day. Today we remember the day when Jesus’ disciples saw him for the last time, when, having blessed them, he turned and walked into the cloud. Anyone who has walked in the mountains may be familiar with such a phenomenon. While Christians affirm that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, from where he will return, ‘how?’ questions – which cannot be answered – are a distraction from the more important question, ‘so?’

This event is so important to the understanding of the early Church that it is recounted in the last chapter of the first volume of (the Gospel according to) Luke-Acts (of the Apostles) and again in the first chapter of the second volume: Luke 24:44-53 and Acts 1:1-11. It is, in other words, a hinge-point in history. Why?

Some six hundred years before Jesus, the nobility of Jerusalem was living in exile, having been deposed and carried away in humiliation by the Babylonian Empire. Some of this ruling class had been re-trained and appointed to administrative posts within the Babylonian Empire; one such man being Daniel. On one occasion, Daniel had a dream (recorded in Daniel 7:1-28) of a succession of ‘beasts’ coming out of the ‘sea’ – the ‘sea’ symbolising chaos, and the fantastical ‘beasts’ symbolising empires (think the lion and unicorn symbolising the British Empire). The dream relates to a series of empires rising up and ruling over the people of Judah. But the dream continues, with a ‘son of man’ – that is, human being – presented before God in the clouds, to whom God gives dominion over all empires, for all time. After suffering, God’s people will be restored, and return under a king who will establish them for ever.

Jesus’ departure, then, is presented as the fulfilment of Daniel’s dream: Jesus is the human being presented before God on the clouds, and made king to reign over all the peoples as the king of God’s chosen people – God’s chosen people not being the Jewish nation by natural descent, but, now, the faithful community of the Church, soon to expand to include the Gentiles.

But we haven’t yet addressed the ‘so?’ question.

In the first account of the ascension, Luke records Jesus ‘opening their minds to understand the scriptures’, that understanding culminating ‘that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his [Jesus, the king in the clouds] name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’ [emphasis mine]

In other words, the judgement that the exalted human passes on all human empire-building is this:

‘Come home; all is forgiven.’


That is staggering. Not least because the ruling Empire of the day had put this human being to death in a display of their power, just forty-two days before.

Today is Ascension Day.

So?

What is the implication of this day for those who look to Jesus in a highly politicised world of empire-building?

What are the implications for us when we see our government make decisions that – intentionally or otherwise - oppress the weakest people in our society?

To declare to power, ‘Come home; all is forgiven’ does not equate to saying, what you are doing doesn’t matter; does not equate to saying that empire is good and not evil. To embrace and forgive is not the same as to condone.

But it is far harder than to shake the fist.

Harder, and perhaps, ultimately, more transformative.

Whether we see such transformation or not, Ascension Day is the Church’s political model.