Sunday, September 10, 2017

On gender

Genesis 1-3 is a foundational text for Jews and Christians. It acknowledges one thing that women can do that men can’t—childbirth (but see below)—but nothing that men can do that women can’t.

In Genesis 1, human beings, explicitly male and female, are to ‘rule over’ the earth: no division of roles in bringing potential to its fullness.

Genesis 2 envisages companionship—implying mutuality, and presence to one another. Woman is described as relating to man as a ‘suitable’ or ‘corresponding’ (again, mutuality) ‘helper’ (no hierarchy to helping, or working alongside, one another) or ‘warrior’ (traditionally perceived as a male role, but not here, or at least not solely; the term is later also used of God, in whose image male and female are made).

In Genesis 3, things go pear-shaped. There are consequences to this. These are addressed to the man and to the woman, but they are not mutually exclusive; rather, each consequence address each sex. The consequence addressed to the man is that the work he does with the woman will become harder. The consequence addressed to the woman is that (without God as midwife) the work she does that the man can’t do (but he can help, as I did at the birth of all 3 of our children) will become more painful; also that their relationship will be(come) complicated. The response of the man to the desire of the woman to not be left alone in the work of bringing forth a child will be to ‘rule over’ her, which implies both the working to bring potential to fullness (as per Genesis 1) but also (now) a relating to co-regent as subject. It will get messy...

This ancient poetical text is an inspired observation of the relationship between men and women. It recognises difference, and sameness—and a minefield! It does not support exclusively ‘masculine roles’ and ‘feminine roles,’ or affirm gender-stereotyped outlooks such as ‘boys are more physical’ and ‘girls are emotionally aware.’ Indeed, it opposes such views.


Thursday, September 07, 2017

Jeez knees

The Lectionary readings for Holy Communion today are Colossians 1:9-14 and Luke 5:1-11.

Sometimes it is hard to be a follower of Jesus. That is why Paul’s daily prayer for the believers in Colossae—a community he had heard of from a friend of his, who happened to have started it—was: ‘May you be made strong in the strength that comes from God’s glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.’

They weren’t facing persecution, as the early Christians did from time to time, and many Christians around the world do today. It’s just hard, sometimes, being a follower of Jesus.

Paul’s sometime travel-companion Luke records the time when Jesus orchestrated a miraculous catch of fish, just to mess with the head of Simon Peter, a fisherman, who had worked a full night-shift and had nothing to show for it. Sometimes following Jesus is hard.

There’s this incredible moment when, the boat beginning to sink under a tsunami of sardines, Simon Peter ‘fell down at Jesus’ knees…’

Now, there are several occasions in the Gospels where it is recorded that someone fell down at Jesus’ feet, pleading him to help someone in serious danger, or thanking him for having done something wonderful for them, or even in overwhelming joy and adoration. It seems to be the kind of thing people do when Jesus shows up.

But in this episode, Simon Peter didn’t fall down at Jesus’ feet. Uniquely, he fell down at Jesus’ knees.

Why? Because Jesus is not stood before him. The implication of Simon Peter falling down at Jesus’ knees is that Jesus is on his knees.

Picture the scene: Jesus and Simon Peter are both on their knees, scooping up armfuls of slippery fish, trying to bail the boat out before it sinks, and in a moment in which time stands still their eyes meet. I can only imagine that the look of sheer terror on Simon Peter’s face is matched by Jesus’ most goofy expression: isn’t this amazing?!

You don’t need to be afraid, Simon. I’m right here with you, on our knees. I always will be.

And that is where we find Jesus, too. On his knees alongside us.

Putting in the heavy lifting.

Lightening our load.

Filling us with joy.


Monday, September 04, 2017

Dead man running

Look for me at 9.00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and the chances are you’ll find me at parkrun. Here’s an insight into my internal thought process, what with me being an introvert, and all:

I. Am. Going. To. Die.

That’s it. On repeat.

The fact that I have yet to die while taking part has no bearing on this.

Likewise, neither does the fact that it is statistically highly unlikely that I will die out on the course.

Because the thought isn’t, This is going to kill me. The thought is:

I. Am. Going. To. Die.

And I am. And so are you.

Interestingly, the thought doesn’t seem to be connected to fitness, or even to running per se. I try to go out for a run, of comparable length or longer, twice during the week, and on those runs I find myself composing a sermon (I am a vicar) or working through a list of people I am praying for, or even thinking how good it is to be alive, and at some point I find that I have forgotten that my body is running at all.

But this never happens on a Saturday morning. On a Saturday morning, the sole thought, repeating like a mantra, is that I. Am. Going. To. Die.

You might think that morbid. You might think that I might run better times if I had more positive thoughts playing in my head. I think of it as a gift.

The fact is that I am mortal, and I am going to die.* However much we try to ignore it.

Those 25 minutes, give or take, on Saturday mornings put the whole of the rest of my week in focus. Which is a great trade-off.

Given that I am going to die, what does not matter? What do I need to do less, put down, or hand on?

And what really matters? What do I need to prioritise and guard the time for?


*Even if I believe that God loves me so much that he will give my life back to me.


Hearts and giraffes

When you walk to work with a heavy heart

not for any particular reason, just that some days your heart is heavy

and as you walk, you have a conversation with Jesus about how you are feeling

and (not only does he point out a giraffe in the bushes by the side of the path, putting a smile on your lips, but also)

 


then you have a meeting with someone you have never met before, and you end up talking for a couple of hours, and he asks if he can pray with you, and

though you did not ask him to pray about this

that stranger-become-new-friend prays specifically for your heavy heart, asking God to mend it in due time.


That.


Saturday, September 02, 2017

Questions

I’m always struck by how many people feel the need to begin a conversation with me, or other clergy, with the words, “I’m not religious, but...”

Of course, they almost always are religious, at least in the sense that a significant part of their construction of meaning to life is found in something bigger than themselves, engaged with in community with others, according to highly prescribed rituals. Being committed to parkrun or being a season ticket holder at the Stadium of Light would be two obvious examples.*

So when they say, “I’m not religious, but...” perhaps what they are really saying is, “I would not have imagined myself to be having a conversation with a priest, but...seeing as you are here, I have a question I've been meaning to ask.”

The fun is in the number of places you can put yourself, to be asked. And in the diversity of questions, which really do range from the sublime to the ridiculous.


*Moreover, I’d want to suggest that human beings are, by nature, not only religious but also worshippers. I would describe worship as the pursuit of glory, in hope of participating in that glory, and my interest is in making connections between the universal religious- and worship-impulse, and the distinctive person of Jesus.


Thursday, August 24, 2017

Navigation skills

Some thoughts on GCSE results day:

[1] Despite pressure on schools to the contrary, this is not a competition. Despite the turmoil government has created for teachers to work in, GCSEs ought to be a way of guaranteeing a certain breadth of education, and part of a discernment process enabling our children to discover what they want to pursue further. So firstly, a heart-felt thank you to all teachers who do their best to achieve this despite everything.

[2] Children excel at different things. For some of our children, today will not be a day of celebration: they will have other days, to be celebrated, which we must not fail to mark. But for some of our children, academic study is their opportunity to shine. If that is your child, celebrate them, and with them, today. If it is your friend’s child, rejoice with those who rejoice.

[3] As already stated, GCSEs are part of a discernment process, of vocational discovery. Rather than downplay this day, or over-emphasise all the other aspects of our children that GCSEs do not help determine—such as character traits which matter regardless of what you do in life—we need to see this as an opportunity to engage in that process.


Holy fear

The epistle set for Holy Communion today is Acts 5:12-16, which reads:

‘Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem. Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by. A great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.’

The early church was meeting every day in the temple, in the part of the temple where Jesus—along with other preachers—had been in the habit of teaching. Among the crowds of pilgrims, many found themselves drawn to them, but afraid to come too close. This is not surprising: God’s presence is deeply attractive to humans created to be in relationship with God; but also—rightly—a cause of fear: God is, after all, the Creator and Lord of the universe. This tension appears to have been overcome by the recognition that in God’s presence, healing and freedom is to be found: they came, bringing the sick and tormented.

As I read this familiar account, I find myself thinking of the Minster. Here is a place to which people come, every day throughout the week, to approach God, while choosing to remain at a distance from the gathered congregation. They slip in and out, not brave enough to join us in public worship (and while there may be many reasons why people don’t come then, in conversation holy fear is a recurring theme—one which might challenge us in our over-familiarity). And they come carrying their sick and tormented to God in hope of a miracle: carrying them, not physically and literally, but symbolically in the lighting of a candle, the writing and pinning-up of a prayer. Physical healing, emotional freedom, the restoration of broken relationships, and concern for the deceased account for the overwhelming majority of prayers and prayer-requests written and left.

People in Sunderland recognise that God is, somehow, present in our midst, and their response is to ask God to heal their sick and bring freedom to their tormented through our prayers.

Yet they still stand off, at a safe distance.

And I rejoice at the ways in which our experience reflects that of the earliest church. But I long for more, long to see people bringing their sick, long to see healing—not just the hope of healing—happen, long to see more men and women added to our number, joining with us.

If we are to see such a step-change, it will happen when we start to take daily gathered corporate prayer and worship more seriously.


Thursday, August 10, 2017

Bread

My daughter has been out and bought sliced white bread for lunch, and as I eat it I am transported back in time to bread-and-butter teas at my Granny’s table. And from there to the vegetables she cooked for lunch, starting as soon as breakfast had been cleared away; and to my Grandpa’s vegetable patch, from where they had come; it was a substantial patch, though there came a time when each summer when we visited we would find it smaller, the lawn larger, than the year before...

And walking into the village with a wicker basket to shop. The butcher, who was also a volunteer fireman, called away at any moment by a light that flashed on the wall behind the counter.

And the ancient blacksmith (the village, in the South Downs, served race-horse stables) with his gnarled hands, like claws.

And I am undone.

All by a slice of bread.

The world is a wonderful gift.


Silence

This week the POTUS (Petulant Over-sized Toddler of the United States) threatened to visit the earth with greater fire and fury than Little Boy.

The Old Testament reading this Sunday (1 Kings 19:9-18) tells of Elijah, feeling sulky and put-upon, discovering that God is not to be found in mountain-splitting wind, earthquake, and fire, but in the sheer silence that follows.

In the aftermath.

Relevant, much?

Praying for those who find themselves in the aftermaths. May they find themselves standing before the God of the new beginning.


Trust and obey

The Gospel reading this Sunday is Matthew 14:22-33. The well-known account (actually, I’d say more famous than known well) of Peter walking on the water.

Notice that Jesus does not instruct Peter to get out of the boat.

In fact, Jesus explicitly instructs Peter and the other disciples to get into the boat and [in the boat] go ahead of him to the other side of the lake.

When Jesus says, ‘Come’ [to me on the water] it is a concession to Peter’s doubt that Jesus knew what he was talking about when he told the disciples to get into the boat.

And when Jesus calls the disciples ‘You of little faith’ he isn't saying ‘You don’t have enough faith.’ In Jesus’ picture-language ‘little’ is consistently a positive thing (the one exception I can think of is love; but then, love is also exceptional in being the one debt we are to remain in). If anything, he is surprised that they, possessing ‘little faith’ should doubt, because it is the ‘little’ who see God and who depend on God and not on their own strength.

Little faith is defined by trust and obedience. Which, it turns out, is also ‘great faith,’ in one encounter with a Gentile woman (by the way, the opposite of little faith is not great faith, but absence of faith).

Peter needs to be reminded that he is called to exercise little faith, in the boat with the other disciples. And to leave being Lord to Jesus.

My own take-away from this is this: to re-focus on my calling (which is always found and expressed within the context of community) and to seek not to be distracted by (or into) the (complementary) calling of others.

To be fair on Peter, that is harder than you might think.


Monday, August 07, 2017

Monotony

I was reminded this week of a wonderful quote from GK Chesterton. He wrote:

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

(GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy)

We spent the past week at New Wine. As a family, we have been going to the New Wine summer conferences for the past ten years [1]. We love this often rain-soaked week of camping on a showground with thousands of other people, there to worship Jesus, to hear from him, and to pray for one another.

I have loved being in an arena with 5,000 other people, singing. People in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, singing worship songs led by musicians with guitars, keys, drums, bass. The kind of sound that anyone in their seventies and younger in this country has grown up with. The kind of sound you might hear at any summer festival, or on the radio, directed towards the glory of God. Singing for half-an-hour and more at a time, hearts poured out.

I love it for its monotony.

Singing a two- or four-line chorus at the heart of a song

over

and over

and over again.

Why? Because it resists the demand to rush on. It allows us to meditate on a particular aspect of Jesus’ nature. To drill down deeper into some truth. Until it in turn drills down deeper into us.

Making daisies.

The Anglo-Catholic bishop Philip North, there for an afternoon seminar, pointed out that New Wine was not as far as you might think from Walsingham, perhaps the premier place of Anglo-Catholic pilgrimage in England today.

Anglo-Catholic practice including Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, where partaking in communion takes place after an extended period of adoration before the consecrated Host, or indeed praying the Rosary, tap into the same glorious monotony, slowing us to God’s pace. Charismatic Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics both in on a secret.

In a digital world of driving distraction, it refreshes and restores—it strengthens—the soul.


[1] We couldn’t go in 2014, so we’ve been 9 times in the past 10 years, first to Newark and more recently to Shepton Mallet. And Jo and I went to Shepton Mallet twice before we had children—and twice to Clan Gathering in Scotland—so we have history here.


Rain

A confession: rain makes me feel really sad, and spikes anxiety in me.

Yes, I know that is completely irrational. And yes, I have spent the past week in a rain-drenched field with 15,000 other people (another thing that overwhelms me is crowds; despite the rain and the crowds, New Wine is the highlight of my year, which I hope you understand is really saying something).

And as I am walking to work for the first time in just over a fortnight, it starts to rain. And then the rain becomes a downpour. Bouncing off the street. Turning the uneven pavements into lakes. My jeans are soaked through.

I’m sheltering in the University under-pass.

And I have a choice. To embrace my sadness, rather than resent it (for the past couple of generations we’ve made a big mistake in trying to avoid or at least displace certain emotions, rather than dialogue with God about them). And to worship God. To sing songs in the rain, songs that turn my heart to him.

It isn’t easy. It takes discipline. Which is a good thing.


Sunday, August 06, 2017

Mountains

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the day we remember the time when Jesus went up a mountain and met with Father God (and Moses and Elijah).

In the Bible, mountains are signs and symbols of having an encounter with God. The place of revelation of God’s glory, and of instruction, or teaching. (Moses and Elijah both met God on mountains long before Jesus.) In fact, David called God our rock, our solid ground, our cave to shelter in, our firm foundation.

There’s another geographic feature in the Bible, the sea. In the Bible, the sea is a sign and a symbol of chaos. Not only the epic destructive chaos of, say, war, but also the background noise and distraction that appears to separate us from God. So in the Bible we see God setting limits on the sea, parting the sea, treading the sea under foot, and in John’s vision of the future world-made-new ‘there was no sea’ (symbolically, not literally—if you love the sea, don’t worry!).

Jesus said, if you have faith you can say to a mountain be thrown into the sea, and it will be. This is often taken to mean, if you have struggles, difficulties, obstacles, you can move them out of the way. But that isn’t what Jesus was saying. Remember, the mountain was the place of encounter, not trouble.

Jesus was saying, if you have faith, you can take the experience of encountering God in one space and one time, and transfer it into another space and time.

We have just spent a week at New Wine, encountering God in pilgrimage. And today we travel home, to a place that seems a thousand miles apart. By faith we can tell the mountain to be thrown into the sea, providing solid ground.

Peter wants to stay longer on the mountain. Jesus says no, we take the mountain with us, into the sea. To the boy seized by convulsions, and his heart-broken father…


Friday, July 21, 2017

Talents

Our youngest child finished primary school today. Earlier in the week, I attended his Leavers’ Assembly. The theme was Journeys—physical, emotional, and spiritual, with their years at the school being presented as a journey in each of these senses. At one point, every child said something about their talents or passion, something they had discovered about themselves along the way, something that reflected both their unique make-up and what they had in common with others. It was heart-warming.

And then one of them read out the parable of the talents, from Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-27 also tells a version of this parable), and my heart sank.

My heart sank because I have heard this parable presented so many times, with the message that God has given each one of us gifts which we should use to the best of our ability. I don’t dispute that this is true. But I don’t believe it is the message of that parable: and when we teach the parable in this way, the deeper message we present is that God is harsh, a self-serving despot, exploitative, prone to anger and violence, quick to view us as worthless if we do not perform for him. Our motivation, then, in relation to God, is rightly fear of judgement, fear of punishment.

If you tell this parable as God giving us gifts, you cannot separate that from the message that our deepest motivation before God should be fear. You just can’t. Children pay attention to everything, understand the implications of what we tell them better than we do: and that is the message our children will hear and store away in their hearts.

And I don’t believe that this is the good news Jesus brings.

Yes, this parable is presented by Matthew as one that tells us something about the nature of the kingdom of heaven. But where is the kingdom of heaven hiding in the parable? We so often jump to conclusions far too quickly; we assume that the parables tend to say the same thing in a variety of ways (so, if God is presented as a king in one parable, every time we come across a king in a parable it must be God) rather than recognising that the parables might tell us many things.

In Luke’s account, Jesus tells this parable as a corrective, on his way to Jerusalem to die, because his followers assumed that the kingdom of heaven was about to arrive—and do so in a triumphalist manner.

I want to suggest that the ruler in this parable is not God, but a description of the way in which earthly rulers operate (per Matthew) and indeed a thinly-veiled dig at Herod (per Luke). The first two slaves make profit for their master, presumably by operating in the same unethical manner he has schooled them in, and are rewarded. This is a description of ‘the world’: that is, the political-militaristic-economic matrix, that invests in us—unequally—and demands a multiplied return, or declares us worthless, even brands us a problem to be eliminated. And it is equally true of right-leaning, centrist, and left-leaning takes on the political-militaristic-economic matrix.

I also want to suggest that the slave who, despite being afraid of the consequences, refuses to play the world’s game, and as a result is thrown outside the city wall, put to death, and allotted a place among the dead where the weeping of the relatives of those put to death never ends, is Jesus speaking of himself.

What this parable says about the nature of the kingdom of heaven is that it resists the unjust ways of the world. Even when it feels like it will make very little difference. Even when to do so comes at great personal cost.

The very opposite of triumphalism.

Hear, then, the parable of the talents: the world invests in you to further its construction of reality, in which the powerful rule over the rest, and your best hope is to advance yourself within the system (though you might not sleep at night, for fear if not for guilt). We all live in that world, but we do not need to be of that world. Another kingdom is present, subverting the world: or, rather, restoring it to how it was meant to be. Removing the resources of injustice, little by little.

De-activating them.

Relying instead on the resources that God has, indeed, planted in you. And trusting in God, with whom even death is not the end of our story [1].

Parables, of course, are not morality tales. The moral of the story is not ‘walk away from what others have invested in you’—in the context of a Leaver’s Assembly, is not, ‘throw away your education’. There is no moral to the story. It is far wider and far more wild and free than any such tale. But it does whisper:

What will you do with what you have been given?

What kind of world will you invest in?

And what kind of world will you refuse to invest in?

Our society is as unjust as it has ever been. We need to sow an alternative imagination in our children [2]. Politics cannot do this. But, I believe, the gospel can.

My prayer for my son, and for his cohort, is this: that as they continue their journey through life, they might see the world for what it is, and see the kingdom hidden in its very midst—and that they might divest themselves of the one, and invest in the other.


[1] In Matthew’s account, as the story-telling continues, the ‘worthless slave’ returns from the outer darkness as the true Human, appointed judge. The people of the nations are judged according to what they have done to care for ‘the least’ among them. Those who have attended to the needs of the least inherit the kingdom of heaven—only now fully revealed—while those who failed to do so, despite their attempts to justify themselves, find themselves cast out, judged by their own measure and sharing in a punishment never intended for humanity.

[2] The worthless slave in Jesus’ parable is surely the precursor to the resistance in fictional dystopian republics such as Gilead (The Hand-maid’s Tale) or Panem (The Hunger Games). It is no coincidence that Jesus told stories.


End of an Era






From today, we no longer have any children in primary school.

And breathe…