Thursday, August 30, 2012

Blind Universe

I did not get to see the opening ceremony of the London Olympics – we were on holiday at the time – but a common theme to the accounts I have heard was how the religious dimension was so unashamedly included in the celebration of British culture, with hymns that went beyond the tradition of singing at Cup tie matches and a moving remembrance of those who died in the London bombings the day after the Games were awarded to the capital city.

We watched the opening ceremony of the London Paralympics last night, and were struck by how very anti-religious the celebration was.  The central theme was a Scientific approach to the universe.  And while science and religion are not incompatible, the statement was defiantly humanistic and atheistic.  Which has me asking, are the disabled as a constituency that can be gathered more irreligious than society as a whole?  Or, is this the defiance of those who have been locked-out by those who do believe in God?  What – if anything – does this moment tell us?

As someone who believes in God as God is revealed in and through the person of Jesus, disability is a complex issue.

It is unavoidable that Jesus, directly or indirectly, reverses the physical and social impact of disabilities: the blind see, the lame walk.  Some see this (consciously or unconsciously) as affirming the able-body not only as normative but as being of a better class.  But in his relating to disabled people, Jesus always treats them with dignity.  He appears to recognise that the disabled have both had something taken from them – and it is denial to refuse to recognise this – and also have had something given to them, a determination and an ability to see and to respond to God’s active presence in their midst that the able-bodied are blind and lame to.  Jesus’ impulse is to move to restore what has been taken and affirm what has been given.  Both these moves seem to me to be fully in-line with the Paralympic vision.  After all, what else are prosthetic limbs and (physical and emotional) rehabilitation, if not a restoration of what has been lost; coaching and training and promoting and supporting, if not an affirmation of what has been given?

However, as a Jesus-follower I must look not only to what Jesus did – how he responded to others; and how he confronts our marginalisation of the other – but also to who he was.  In particular, his resurrection body, as a foretaste of the fullness of God’s intention for our bodies, has much to teach us about our attitude towards disability.

Firstly, Jesus’ resurrection body is not immediately recognisable.  I have disabled friends who believe that they will not be disabled in heaven, and disabled friends who believe that they will be.  My best guess is that all of us will be different from how we are now, in ways which we cannot imagine, and yet which are in continuity with who we have already begun to be.  No human condition is the final word on being fully human.

Secondly, Jesus’ resurrection body is not subject to the same physical limitations our bodies are bound by.  Pushing those limits – as Olympians and Paralympians do – would appear to be recognition that, while we experience constraints that contain us, they do not define us.  Again, our present condition – whether able-bodied or differently-able – is not the final word on being fully human.

Thirdly, Jesus’ resurrection body carried the scars inflicted on him by humans.  This is, surely, not simply evidence for theological claims concerning Jesus, but for theological claims concerning humanity.  Many (not all) Paralympians had their disability inflicted upon them by the actions of others: by improvised explosive device, machete, car crash, terrorist bomb, exposure to drugs (medical or otherwise) in the womb.  In Jesus’ body, their scars are affirmed as something that can be transformed from the raw ugliness of wounds into something beautiful; that the disabled human form can be beautiful, though perhaps only for those – both disabled and able-bodied – with eyes to see.  At any stage, the human body – our own, that of another – can be rejected as abhorrent or embraced as gift – to ourselves, to others.

I know many Christians who are delighted that these will be the most-watched Paralympic Games yet; who rejoice that attitudes towards disabled people have come a long way, and that – with a long way still to go – the United Kingdom is among those societies taking a lead.  Watching the athletes from many nations parade into the stadium last night, it was clear that this is an occasion to celebrate where we have come to, in equality, rather than lament where we have come from or where we have still to go.  It would be a shame if the humanistic and atheistic defiance of the artistic direction accurately reflects the general attitude of people with disabilities towards the Church, or the diversity of religious beliefs represented by the competing athletes.

On a national level, perhaps the anti-religious nature of this opening ceremony allows us to retreat from the heart-on-our-sleeve exposure of the Olympic opening ceremony; to move from self-conscious awkwardness after the event to face-saving restoration of business-as-usual.  Except that there is no business-as-usual to such moments: carnival is, by definition, a throwing-off of the masks we wear in daily life.  Prospero came to the conclusion that relating to others by godless means imprisoned not only them but himself; and pleaded with his audience to set him free by prayer and forgiveness, which move divine mercy.  The godless Prospero who was our host last night only painted a vision in which nothing is of account in the face of a vast unknowable universe, where the breaking of our prisons is no more than spectacular illusion and pretty distraction.  If that is the best vision we can put our imagination to, then these Games are not about humanity but about the desire to see freak-show gladiators fight for our entertainment.

How then, might we watch the Paralympic Games, as able-bodied and disabled, as people of growing faith in God and growing faith that no God exists?  Surely by allowing what we see unfold to call into question the position from which we begin, finding ourselves moving to a different view-point.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Would You Help Me Write A Book?

I am writing a book, and am looking to collate enough data to help test some intuitive hunches.  I’m writing about the dynamics between five human impulses I believe each one of us displays, to greater or lesser degree, in differing order of preference.  The technical religious language to describe these impulses, within the Christian tradition, is apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, shepherding and teaching, but they are universal human impulses to:

pioneer beyond what is already familiar in any given field or discipline (e.g. build an online business, rather than a high street business);

imagine and express the challenges we will face if we continue on our present trajectory so those challenges can be prepared for (e.g. Peak Oil, aging population, etc);

carry good news stories (e.g. promoting a new restaurant or latest gadget by word-of-mouth);

care for people (e.g. speaking out for the most vulnerable); and

secure the passing-on of knowledge or skills from one generation or context to another (e.g. teaching children to cook).

Here is how you can help.  My friend Alan Hirsch has developed a profiling tool for measuring the relative weighting of each of these preferences (you might have very little preference for pioneering beyond the known – but you will have some!).  For $10US you can take the test here.  It takes about 10 minutes, and will be recognisable in style to anyone who is familiar with other preference profiling tools such as Myers Briggs.  (As with Myers Briggs, we are talking about preferences, not mutually-exclusive boxes.  This particular tool is not an alternative to Myers Briggs, or Belbin, etc., but investigates a different set of preferences.)

I would be grateful if some of my friends – that is, people I know well enough to weigh my ‘guess’ against your results – would be willing to take the test and share their results with me.  If possible, it would be great if you could also give some indication as to whether you think it is a fairly accurate stable profile, or whether it more reflects your current circumstances (like Myers Briggs, I would say that there might be some ‘seasonal’ variation but that over time a stable preference set would be confirmed).

I would like to hear from friends who work in a variety of contexts: not only those in church leadership but in as wide a variety of fields or disciplines as possible.  And because I believe these are human impulses, not religious ones, I’d be especially grateful if any of my friends who would not identify themselves as Christians would be brave enough to set aside the technical religious language of Alan’s profiling tool and take the test.

If you are willing to help me out in this way, please email me your completed profile.  My email address is andrew[at]dowsetts[dot]net

Thank you!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Dark Knight Of The Soul

(or, watching Batman with Richard Rohr, Mike Breen, and Mark Stibbe.)

Life is a game played in two halves, not necessarily of equal length, with many people sitting out the second half – and even much of the first – on the bench.  The primary goal of the first half is to discover who we are; the primary goal of the second half is to give ourselves back – to God, to our neighbour – in such a way that extends the reach of life: for only our true self is a worthy offering.  It would appear that experiencing both love and success is key to discovering who we are (Scripture is full of such stories).  But such love and success need to be released from our grip if we are even to start the second half of life, and this is so scary to us that only failure can open us to the purpose of knowing ourselves, to give ourselves back.  This is what the Bible describes as dying to self, by which the Christian tradition does not mean obliteration of the self but the transformation of the self by the power that rose Jesus from the dead; that will one day rise us from death; and of which it is possible to experience that future breaking into our present, but only by moving from the end of the first half and into the second.  The delight of resurrection life, which can only be known on the other side of death, is that the love and success we dared let go of have not deserted us.

The Dark Knight Rises, the final part in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, is a film concerned with the transition from the first half of life to the second.

It is eight years since Bruce Wayne moth-balled the Batman project, having chosen for Batman to take responsibility for the murders committed by Harvey Dent rather than allow the population of Gotham to lose the hope they had placed in their crusading District Attorney before Dent’s tragic turning.  Moreover, Wayne has moth-balled a nuclear-fusion project for creating clean renewable energy, into which he had invested half his fortune, having discovered that it could be turned into a nuclear bomb.  At the start of the film, Wayne has been living for some years as a recluse, shut off from the world.  Having successfully invested his physical, intellectual and financial (and to a lesser degree relational and spiritual) capital into his identity – and I would suggest that Bruce Wayne/Batman is one identity, albeit that this is hidden – his resources are now spent or spurned.

Alongside the Wayne/Batman story, we meet Selina Kyle/Catwoman.  Kyle has established herself as a successful cat-burglar, but is now looking for a shot at redemption.  To this end she attempts to use her ability in exchange for a clean slate, stealing information in return for the promise of all records tracing back to her identity being wiped from any computer database.

When mercenary terrorist Bane turns up in Gotham, holding the city to nuclear blackmail, Wayne decides to bring back the Batman.  He will seek to address the present crisis using the strategies and methods that served him well in the first half of life.  His faithful butler, Alfred Pennyworth, who became his surrogate father following the murder of his parents, cautions him against this.  Alfred’s dream has always been to see Wayne embark on the second half of life – and to this end, the wise older man is prepared even to lose their relationship.  Wayne, however, confronts Bane, who breaks his back – witnessed by Catwoman who, at Batman’s request, had led him to Bane – and transports him to the Pit, a prison designed to break the spirit through feeding despair by holding hope just beyond reach.  But while Bane is right in recognising that despair is fed by the tantalising proximity of hope, he fails to realise that hope is fed by touching the pit of despair.

Wayne eventually escapes the Pit, not by relying on the methods that have served him well in the past, but by letting go of security, of the cord that ties us to what we know that we are capable of and what is beyond our reach.  Returning to Gotham, he searches out Catwoman and offers her the clean slate she longs for, not as reward for her track-record but as opportunity to give herself to others regardless of what they might do with that gift: the very thing Wayne has had modelled to him by Alfred and now models to Selina Kyle.  Kyle is now faced with the dilemma: having discovered her true self, through success that encounters failure, will she hold on to that self for herself, or offer it to and for others?

It is a risk with no guarantee – in their final confrontation we discover that Bane had laid his life down for another, only for them to be unable to respond in the same way; a loss too painful for Bane, who took up the broken pieces of his life to turn them against the world.  This, of course, is the same temptation that faced Bruce Wayne – albeit that he had only gone as far as turning away from the world, and not yet against it – the key difference in their lives being the self-sacrificial faithfulness of Wayne’s adopted father, Alfred, and the sacrificing unfaithfulness of Bane’s father-figure (and Wayne’s erstwhile mentor) Ra’s al Ghul.  If we are to dare to move beyond the first half of life, we will need not only the downward push of failure but also the faithfulness of a father who is prepared to send us out until we are ready, and actively wait to see us return – as the father does in one of Jesus’ most famous parables, and Alfred does in the cafe in Florence.

The trilogy concludes with Bruce and Selina leaving the first half of their lives behind – the Wayne/Batman and Kyle/Catwoman half – in order to live the second half.  What has been learned, as Batman reveals to Commissioner Gordon before ‘dying,’ is that anyone can be a hero – even the person (Sergeant Gordon) who puts a coat around the shoulders of a young boy who has lost his parents, to reassure him that this is not the end.  The mistake of the first half of life is to believe that hope depends on the image of a hero that did not fall.  The lesson that sends us into the second half of life is that true hope depends on ordinary people discovering themselves and offering up all of who they are – flawed, failing, even our best intentions having unforeseen consequences that will grieve us – fully, in every situation, to extend the reach of life, to give the gift of life.  ‘Life’ is gifted on, to the orphan boys of Gotham City, to detective Blake, to Lucius Fox, Commissioner Gordon, Alfred...modelled and entrusted, in hope that they will do the same.

Bruce Wayne is dead.  Long live Bruce Wayne...

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Understanding Strength And Weakness

In Ephesians 4:1, Paul urges the believers in Asia Minor to live a life worthy of the calling they have received.  What is that calling?  Certainly, he speaks of unity and of maturity, but that is not our primary calling: rather, Paul goes on to speak in terms of specific calling – to be an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, a shepherd or a teacher – a calling which is to be expressed in unity with the specific calling of other believers, for the purpose of attaining the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.  Paul knew his calling – to be an apostle – and urged others to discern their calling too.  How can we live a life worthy of the calling we have received if, unlike Paul, we don’t know what our calling is?

Here, at least in England, we run into a particular difficulty: a pious obsession that our gifts, strengths, and areas of competence are at worst a trap, causing us to operate without God; and at best irrelevant, because God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness.  After all, didn’t Jesus say this very thing to Paul himself?

No, he did not, and this pious obsession is a gross distortion of the passage it cites (2 Corinthians 12).

The weakness Jesus refers to in addressing Paul is a position of weakness that is caused by external opposition.  Writing to a church he established and where, in his absence, others have come in who oppose him, Paul recognises that this has been a recurring pattern in his ministry.  Indeed, he had broached the subject with Jesus no less than three times, making use of a scriptural phrase - ‘barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides’ (Numbers 33:55, 56) – referring to people who, unless driven out, will lead God’s people away from him and into trouble.  In the past, Paul had followed the instruction of Numbers 33:55, 56, in persecuting the dangerous followers of the Way.  Such action is no longer open to him; instead he pleads with Jesus to intervene on his behalf.  Jesus responds (on the third occasion? repeated three times?), “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  That the weakness he refers to is external is clear in Paul’s response, to “delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.”

Commentators have tended to ignore the plainest meaning of Paul’s case, engaging in speculation as to the possible nature of a bodily condition that afflicts him (an eye complaint? malaria?).  While such suggestions are still distinguished from personality preference, they are sufficiently internalised as to facilitate the interpretation of ‘weakness’ as being ‘those things we are not gifted in’ and the case is therefore presented that God is more able to work through our incompetence.  If I had a Pound Sterling for every time I have heard such an argument, I’d be a rich man.

This may well tie in with a very English unease with competence (though if we are ever going to address that, the summer of our best ever Olympic performance – not to mention, delivering a spectacular Games – is as good a time as any).

Throughout history, God has looked for people to partner with him.  The idea that he would make you as a person with particular gifts and then prefer to ignore what he had made is ludicrous.

God will invite you to step outside of your comfort-zone, the sphere of your present competence, for a number of reasons including these:

because discovering what you are not gifted for is one of the ways in which we discover what we are gifted for;

because experiencing those things we are not gifted at is one of the ways in which we grow to appreciate the different gifts of others;

because persevering for a season in what is not our best preference adds depth and roundedness to our strengths;

because the starting place for all competency is incompetency.

However, Jesus’ intention for you is neither naive incompetence nor omni-competence.  It is that you discover your calling and grow into it, so that you can live a life worthy of that calling.  It is that each member of the body of Christ should fundamentally be the particular gift they were created to be, learning to work together as opposed to trying to be and to do what someone else was given to be and to do.

Too often we ask people to operate in what is not their calling, because that seems easier than identifying the person whose call is best suited (and, after all, Jesus’ power is made perfect in weakness).  It never seems to work in the long-term, but if we just do a better job of explaining why we need them perhaps we can keep them in that role longer...

When Paul wrote to the church in Asia Minor, he was experiencing the particular weakness of another external constraint: he was in prison.  This, however, did not equate to an undermining of his internal strength, his calling to be an apostle.  It simply meant that how that calling was worked-out looked different from when he was free – writing rather than travelling.

Right now, your external circumstances might be such as to put you in a position of weakness.  If so, know that Jesus’ grace is sufficient for you.

But that is not the same thing as having no regard for strength, for the gift Jesus has given you to be.

Play to your strengths.  Invest in them.  Allow the Lord to train you in them.  Let other people seek to constrain you with weakness if they so choose; but don’t give weakness your energy.  To paraphrase Jesus, “let it go: you attend to whom I have made you to be, and do it to the fullness of the gifting I have given you.”

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Birthday Boy

This cheeky, life-loving, thoughtful five-year-old...turned six today!

Happy birthday to our beautiful Elijah.

(photos taken last week, on holiday.)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Yeast And The Dough

This morning I was talking with Scott Emery, a friend in America with whom I have recently been having some great conversations on Skype for an hour every other week.

One of the things we talked about this morning was an observable shift, several small bands of missional pioneers we are aware of who have recently taken or are seriously exploring the decision to be folded into larger and more structurally established church communities.

Up to this point, I don’t think we’ve seen this happen in quite this way.  Some have struck out and fallen back, taken a shot at a different way of being church and couldn’t make it work; but that is, I think, something different.

Alan Hirsch, drawing on the anthropological work of Victor Turner, has written on liminality – between spaces - and communitas - the close bond that forms between a group of people when they venture beyond the stable circle of community into such spaces.  Many groups exploring missional discipleship have stepped outside of church as they have known it, and indeed this has been a necessary step.  And yet the purpose of liminality and communitas is found in a return to the stable community, in such a way that the life of that community is perpetuated rather than slowly dying.  The boys Turner observed did not disappear over the horizon abandoning their village, but returned to the village from their adventures as men.

What I would suggest we are seeing is a returning.  And what is encouraging is the evidence that this is not an arrival with an ulterior motive to change churches, but an invited and welcome development.

Jesus spoke of yeast that is worked through dough.  I would suggest that these little bands are yeast – but they lack dough.  And that the churches they are being folded into are dough, in need of yeast.

(If we fear that the larger group is yeast that will somehow contaminate our dough - ‘the yeast of the Pharisees’ - perhaps we have misunderstood our purpose, struck out merely in line with the schismatic individualism of Protestantism/Modernism; or perhaps, and more positively, it indicates that it is not yet time for us to return.)

Or to offer another image, as I shared our conversation with my wife afterwards, Jo made a connection with Jesus taking his disciples across the lake in their boat.  The time in the boat is deeply significant, but they are heading for a shore where there are other people.  Perhaps we mistake the shore we are heading to for a wholly different way of organising ourselves, rather than an opportunity to re-enter community in ways that bring transformation?

I would contend that this observable shift represents not failure – evidence that another fad is passing, as people grow beyond the ego of youth and return home – but the coming-of-age of these particular communities.  Others, in their turn, will step out into the unknown.  The next season for those returning is to step up to the task of blessing, bringing hope to those who are older and a future to those who are younger...

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

On Beauty

Yesterday I got to witness and take part in a strange phenomenon.  The London Olympics closed on Sunday night, and on Monday it seemed that the nation stumbled about in a daze of mourning its loss.

Why strange?  Because, despite the participation of thousands of Games Makers and hundreds of thousands of spectators who travelled to the arenas, despite the millions of hours invested in preparing the sites, the overwhelming majority of the population contributed no more than sitting in front of the television or listening along on the radio.

What right, then, did we have to mourn?

I think we do have a right to mourn.  Indeed, I think it reveals our humanity.  I would suggest that our mourning is not merely self-indulgent – who will entertain me now? – but that we have been moved by (fleeting glimpses of) beauty and by the subsequent removal (loss) of beauty.  Not simply the particular beauty of finely-honed young bodies – a beauty our own culture places a high premium on – but also the beauty of the smiles on the faces of those who achieved their dream (contrast Tom Daley’s joy at winning bronze with the disappointment of others who wanted gold), and the beauty of spectacular venues (the velodrome, the transformation of Greenwich Park) and backdrops and joyful celebrations.

I am reminded of a story told about a man called Jonah, who mourned the loss of a vine God had provided to give him shelter, and subsequently took away again.  What was it that caused Jonah’s despair and resignation?  Surely it wasn’t the loss of shade, for he had already provided shade for himself by making an effective shelter.  In providing shelter where there was already shelter, God’s action would appear to be extravagant and perhaps even redundant.  And beautiful.  Not just a shelter, but a vine, that elicited a psychologically positive response.

God asked him, do you have any right to be angry? and Jonah replied, I do.  God, interestingly, does not inform Jonah that he is wrong, that he has no right to be angry.  In fact, he affirms Jonah’s response: his emotional investment in something both short-lived and towards which Jonah had contributed nothing.  And then he takes Jonah a step further: God sees beauty in a multitude of people who have mastered nothing, who cannot tell right from wrong, who are overlooked, on a par with cattle...and invites Jonah to see as he sees, and to channel his emotional response in the ways of grace and compassion – giving what is not earned, being moved to action by the plight of others – in ways marked by anger that is under control and love that knows no bounds at all.

These Olympic Games will inspire a new generation of Olympic athletes.  More, they will inspire a new generation of coaches who will invest in the potential of others.  A new generation of designers who will extend the frontiers of human creativity in ways that reflect the Author of Creative Life.  But in the talk of legacy, perhaps the greatest legacy will be if these Games inspire prophets to live in harmony with those whose culture and values and actions in the world are alien to us and ours; and inspire people to invest in the multitude of children who will otherwise never have another opportunity.

It begins when we see beauty in a particular moment, and choose to be people who recognise that the whole world is beautiful; who choose to affirm the beauty in others rather than confirm the ugliness that contends for every heart, including our own.

It is right and proper that we should feel at a loss in the post-Olympic shadow.  The choice before us is to turn in on ourselves, or to turn out to others.