Monday, February 26, 2007

Lent | A Simple Supper

Tonight I ate on my own. My shift ended at 7pm, so the children were already upstairs; and as soon as I got in, Jo had to go out on an urgent errand for a neighbour. Eating alone gave me cause to give thanks that I am not alone in the world; that I live as part of a loving family; and, more than that, that I am part of a wider community of people who are committed to one another. To pause to recognise that, for many, this is not the case; and to pray for those who are living, and dying, on their own tonight: Lord, have mercy…

The dish was a sweet root vegetable stew with couscous, a Nigella recipe. Root vegetables are humble, and hidden; yet nutritious, and delicious…which gave me cause to reflect on the value of the hidden life; the unpretentious, not-ostentatious, honest, simple life; of unearthing treasure in an apparently unremarkable field, or, seeing the commonly-missed value in others, and encouraging it to flourish…

The main course was followed by a bowl of fresh pineapple pieces, simultaneously sweet and sour on the tongue…which gave me cause to reflect on the nature of this life, where joy and sorrow intertwine; and the responsibility to celebrate with those who are celebrating, and mourn with those who are mourning – to get alongside each other…

A simple supper. A profound meal eaten, not alone after all, but with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sat around my kitchen table…each mouthful a prayer, of praise, of thanksgiving, of confession, of intercession…each mouthful, sustenance received, for body and for soul…

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Lent | Responding To Our Enemies

“But what nobody should doubt is that whatever the debates about tactics, the strategy is clear: to bring about enduring change in the Middle East as an indispensable part of our own enduring security. The poisonous ideology that erupted after 9/11 has its roots there, and is still nurtured and supported there. It has chosen Iraq as the battleground. Defeating it is essential. Essential for Iraq.
But also, now, for us here in our own country. Self-evidently the challenge is enormous. It is the purpose of our enemies to make it so. But our purpose in the face of their threat, should be to stand up to them, to make it clear that however arduous the challenge the values that they represent will not win and the values we represent, will.”
Tony Blair, PM, to the House of Commons, 21 February 2007

I must confess to finding speeches such as the one the Prime Minister made in Parliament yesterday disturbing. I am not ‘pro-terrorism’; nor am I ‘pro’ a refusal to take a stand against terrorism. But I do believe that the stand taken by the political leaders of the US and the UK since 9/11 has been deeply misguided, and has had disastrous results. We in the West have believed for centuries, and still believe, that our values are better than the values of the rest of the world; and that our values should be imposed upon the rest of the world, for their own good and betterment.

In the Middle-Eastern desert, Jesus came face to face with his enemy, satan (see Matthew 4:1-11 // Luke 4:1-13). And we could say that he countered the vision the enemy held out for the future by knowing clearly what he valued, and living according to those values. Values such as:
a sense of security in his own identity that does not need justification through flashy display;
a choice to live in harmony with his environment, rather than exploit it to satisfy his own needs;
a disinterest in expansionist political power;
a refusal to take a “the ends justifies the means” approach;
a commitment to live a life of worshipful service in response to God’s revelation;
a patient trust in God’s being at work in the world…

St Francis of Assisi is attributed with the dictum: “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” I’m not convinced that the values we, as western society – and in particular the UK and US – represent are better than anyone else’s right now. I’m not even convinced that we know what our values are. And I’m sure we haven’t taken the time to understand what their values are, and why they hold them. So, if our values win out over theirs, we’re all in trouble…

Lord, have mercy on the oppressed,
and on the oppressor.

Christ, spit in our faces
and open our blind eyes,
to see you in the eyes of those
we have demonised,
and to see signs and symbols pointing to you
in the cultures and values
we have despised and rejected.

Lord, expose us
where our values are but white-washed tombs,
trading on the past;
and where our pride prevents us,
and our militancy prevents others,
from entering into your life of freedom.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Lent | Intimacy

Lent can feel austere.

But Jesus’ forty days in the desert followed on immediately after God declared: “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” And Jesus comes out of the desert enfolded by that Father-love. John’s Gospel, in particular, portrays this: “I only do what I see the Father doing…I and the Father are one…if anyone has seen me, they have seen the Father…”

Everything that Jesus DOES flows out of his understanding of who he IS – an understanding that is grounded in intimacy…intimacy that is grounded in his experience in the desert, even in the midst of pressure to denounce that very relationship.

Far from a summons from an austere father-figure, Lent is an invitation to experience intimacy with God.

May God the Father, who is pleased to love his children, enfold us in his love this Lenten season and beyond;

May God the Son, who is our model, teach us to embrace and rest in the Father’s love this Lenten season and beyond;

May God the Holy Spirit, who descended from heaven to Jesus and led him into the desert, come to us and lead us with the Son to our loving heavenly Father this Lenten season and beyond.

“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
Ephesians 3:17b-19

Lent | Re-calibration

Lent can have the feel of a spiritual endurance test: do I have the will-power to hold out for forty days without succumbing to the siren lure of chocolate/alcohol/whatever-I-have-decided-to-abstain-from? But is self-flagellation – and, if we’re being honest, fairly token self-flagellation at that – really what it is about? While the decision to deny self and take up our cross daily are certainly prerequisites to following after Jesus (Luke 9:23ff), Jesus’ repeated invitation throughout the Gospels is: choose to enter into the life of the kingdom of heaven, through the process of repentance and belief (summarised in Mark 1:15). Though they might well be two sides to the same coin, perhaps Lent is better understood not as embracing the opportunity of dying to self but as embracing the opportunity of taking hold of the life of the kingdom…

To repent means to change our mind (literal translation), or to change the direction in which we are facing; while to believe means to actively step out in that new direction, as an expression of faith. To repent and believe, therefore, is to keep changing direction so as to keep in line with God’s changing will, to keep facing Jesus as he moves on from one place to the next. As I’ve said before, though that includes repenting from ‘sin’ – the times we fall short of God’s best for us – that alone is an inadequate definition: to repent can be pre-emptive (keeping us in God’s will) as well as reactive (returning to God’s will). Until his baptism, Jesus is in line with the Father’s will by being a carpenter, a builder of houses. From his baptism, he must change direction (repent) and head off on a new course (believe), that will lead, ultimately, to Jerusalem and a whole heap of trouble. The forty days he spent in the wilderness immediately following his baptism – the forty days that Lent draws so deeply on – are a period of re-calibration, making adjustments that he will carry into the next season of his life.

Perhaps the question God hopes we will ask through Lent is not what we should temporarily lay aside, but what long-term changes we need to put in place…

Sunday, February 18, 2007


Growing up evangelical, and an MK (missionary kid, or child of missionary parents) at that, I know a thing or two about the particular Christian tradition of pointing to heroes of the faith: pioneers of church reform (such as Luther; Wesley; Whitfield), of social reform (such as Wilberforce; Shaftsbury; the Quaker businessmen – and women; Muller; Booth), of mission (such as Carey; Hudson Taylor; Elliot and his companions), and those who faced incredible circumstances (such as Corrie Ten Boom; Joni Eareckson Tada). And, of course, the great biblical heroes: Abraham, Moses, David, Paul.

While there is nothing wrong with retelling such stories per se, telling them with greater enthusiasm than sensitivity results in the very opposite response to the one intended: instead of feeling inspired, we feel condemned. (This is where the Protestant hero of the faith differs from the Catholic saint, because the heroes are ‘supposed’ to be role-models whereas the saints are ‘supposed’ to be somewhat detached.) Here are some of the unspoken problems – whether intentional or unintended, and, I suspect, largely un-thought-through:

First, we’ve devalued the ordinary, by saying that raising children is not enough, that your years of employment are not enough (unless your colleagues ‘get saved’); that these are simply ‘givens’ and that you ought to have a sense of ‘calling,’ a Big Hairy Audacious Goal, that can’t be done in your own strength. (Judging by the evidence of the past fortnight alone, raising children would fall into that category…)

Then, we’ve devalued the extraordinary, by saying that those individuals whose lives impact at least one nation, if not more than one, are ‘just the same as everyone else.’ They’re not. Sure, they are in certain ways; but in others, they’re not. It might not be Politically Correct to say that some people are extraordinary, but it is true. And if we were all extraordinary – all single-handedly Changing The World, as opposed to collectively having an incredible impact – it would be bloody chaos.

We need heroes. We need role-models. And, I’d argue, that the kind of heroes, the kind of role-models, the church needs if it is to have any chance of making a difference in our society, are the kinds of heroes that no-one is ever going to write a biography of, whether in paper or on Wikipedia. Ordinary heroes. Unknown heroes. People you know, but I don’t know of; people I know, but you don’t know of. Heroes I won’t list here, because they don’t need their fifteen minutes of fame: they already have a far longer-lasting impact.

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Charlotte's Web

One evening back in the autumn, I found myself having dinner at a Mexican restaurant with Bob Beltz of Walden Media. Bob had been working on Amazing Grace – a film we’ll be hearing a lot about this spring – and had shown us a sneak-preview trailer earlier in the day. But when, over dinner, I asked him what was exciting him at the moment, he started talking about another Walden project, Charlotte’s Web.

Yesterday I took Susannah (5) and Noah (4) to see Charlotte’s Web. A trip to the cinema has become a half-tem holiday tradition. We all enjoyed it very much. Before we went, I’d read them an abridged version of the story, so they knew that Charlotte dies – is that giving away too crucial a part of the plot of a film adaptation of a children’s classic written in 1952? I don’t think so! – and, though they found that quite sad, they still wanted to see the film. In fact, the film is not as tear-jerking as the book (after all, to get a ‘U’ Certificate, a film has to be considered suitable for anyone aged four and upwards by the censors). But it is full of gentle wisdom on how to see others through the eyes of child-like wonder, and, to borrow a phrase from Rowan Williams, the impact of ‘prosaic heroism’ on a community.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

United (?) Kingdom | Prosaic Heroism

“The true measure of a nation’s standing is how well it attends to its children – their health and safety, their material security, their education and socialization, and their sense of being loved, valued, and included in the families and societies into which they are born.”
UNICEF: Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child well-being in rich countries: A comprehensive assessment of the lives and well-being of children and adolescents in the economically advanced nations.

This week, UNICEF has published a report on child well-being in rich countries. The report considered 6 dimensions of child well-being: material well-being, health and safety, educational well-being, family and peer relationships, behaviours and risks, and subjective well-being. The report compares these 6 dimensions across 21 nations.

The UK ranked last in the family and peer relationships, behaviours and risks, and subjective well-being dimensions; and last overall. The US ranked second last overall. As a society, we are failing our children – and therefore, though we are economically rich, we are poor.

It is interesting to note the impact of the breakdown of family relationships on child well-being. Aware of the sensitive nature of such an observation, the UNICEF Report states:
“The use of data on the proportion of children living in single-parent families and stepfamilies as an indicator of well-being may seem unfair and insensitive. Plenty of children in two-parent families are damaged by their parents’ relationships; plenty of children in single-parent and stepfamilies are growing up secure and happy. Nor can the terms ‘single-parent families’ and ‘stepfamilies’ do justice to the many different kinds of family unit that have become common in recent decades. But at the statistical level there is evidence to associate growing up in single-parent families and stepfamilies with greater risk to well-being – including a greater risk of dropping out of school, of leaving home early, of poorer health, of low skills, and of low pay.” [p. 23]

Equally aware of political sensitivity, and equally unwilling to bow to Political Correctness, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams made the following comments in a speech in support of marriage just a week earlier:
“…Because when we’re talking about the marriage relationship, we’re talking about a relationship, which constantly unfolds over time, which allows you to build on difficult experience, to work through it, to move, to mature. It allows you to have a story to tell about yourself, a story that is not just about how I wanted this, and I got that, but a story about how I discovered and moved through time to something more like the humanity that I’m capable of…

“…Marriage is for life; and that doesn’t just mean life-long, important as that is. It means for life; that is for an enhanced kind of human experience…Marriage is a relationship in which my commitment to somebody else, my risky, high risk, commitment to someone else, is matched and met by their risky commitment to me, and as already quoted from the significant source for our understanding on this, let me cap that with something St Paul says about how husband and wife belong not to themselves, but to each other. They really are giving some sort of ownership in themselves to another person, and that is so phenomenally risky that it’s only the mutuality of it, the shared promise of one to the other, that makes it doable. If someone comes along and says ‘give me your life’ you don’t normally just say ‘okay’. You enter into a covenant, a relationship of mutual risk and mutual promise - and that’s how you get a life. You know that someone else has a life invested in yours, as yours is invested in theirs. That seems to me really the bottom line of why marriage matters, not just for this society, but for any human society. That risk of investing yourself on another person, letting them invest themselves in you so completely, that’s about how we grow, about how we become human, and unless that relationship models for the whole of society what’s possible for human beings, we have a desperately impoverished society - and you’ve heard already this morning something of the nature of that impoverishment. Think this through for a moment: the committed relationship of husband and wife in marriage says to people around, and most importantly of all, says to the children of that marriage, it’s quite possible to live as a human being, not afraid at any moment that you’re going to be let down, abandoned, left to yourself. Someone is actually committed to be there for you. That’s what marriage is about, and modelling that kind of unconditional being there, that sets the foundation of stability, trustworthiness, which allows children to grow up confident that whatever goes wrong, for them, in them, through them, there’s something beyond that to hold them, to give them room, time, space, fresh air, to grow. The tragedy of the kind of social situation that we’ve already heard so much about this morning, is fundamentally a level of anxiety and abandonment among so many people who don’t and can’t believe that there’s anybody truly there for them; who don’t believe there’s anything trustworthy, apart from those transient and fraught, intense and violent relationships which was described by Iain [Duncan Smith] in his speech about the ‘gang culture’. If that’s the only kind of stable background people know, well we can expect the disasters that we see. One of the things that Camilla Batmanghelidj, my great heroine, has taught me - seeing her at work, talking to her - is precisely the absolute significance of that background of trustworthiness. Here is someone who is for you; and marriage which says between two people, I am for you and I am for you, says to children, says to those around, that’s the ground on which you grow, that’s the security, that’s what guarantees you, the air, the space, the time to move on.

“So what we’re up against at the moment is a society that has painfully and disastrously low expectations of relationships. I really liked the ‘ambition about relationships’ phrase, which came up earlier. We need to be ambitious about our relationships, ambitious for life, in both senses, ambitious for life-long relationships, ambitious for the kind of depth of human experience, the life that marriage can give. And as expectations spiral downwards then it’s not only the one relationship with marriage that suffers, it’s everything in sight that suffers. We can’t legislate this into being, but we can go on challenging the imagination of society and saying ‘aren’t you being desperately unambitious about what you are capable of? And what those close to you are capable of? Aren’t you lowering, lowering and lowering the sights because actually you are capable of much more than you think you are? When you think that millions of people every year embark on this extraordinary enterprise called marriage, without any exceptional sanctity or heroism, they just do it and they just carry on doing it, doesn’t that say something about the ambition that we can rightly have? And at the risk of sounding slightly sentimental, I think it’s quite important to look back to an earlier generation, remember parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and think there were a lot of very ordinary human beings, not especially saintly, not especially holy, who did this, who ‘got a life’, who worked through all of this with that prosaic heroism that brings out the best in people, that trained a new generation, that shaped the world which had some trustworthy limits, which had some recognisable moral geography to it. Were they wasting their time? Were they living out an illusion? Well if they were we are in a very strange position now, because we are trading on the achievements that they created for us. And that’s of course one of the sad things about some of the debates we have about marriage these days; that a great deal of the running is made in commentating in reflective terms by people who don’t perhaps fully see how much they are trading off the inherited capital of a stability and yes, a prosaic heroism that’s evolved over generations. And the fluidity and changeability of relationships and the transience of marriage may look perfectly fine if you belong to the commentating classes of north London, but you don’t have to go very many miles to see what the cost is for people who can’t take that sort of thing for granted…”

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A Rose By Any Other Name

Moreover, if you buy the Kenyan roses, you’ll be investing in the employment of 70,000 Kenyan women. Okay, it won’t be a very big investment on its own, but, a nation’s worth of rose-buyers has more impact…

…On the other hand, there is insufficient regulation of the working conditions of those 70,000 women. And the rose farms divert precious water away from farms that grow crops that Kenyans can eat…

Isaac Newton said that to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. He was wrong. To every action – buying roses, for example – there are multiple reactions – or consequences – of varying impact, some of them totally disproportional to the action taken.

Doing the right thing is not necessarily straight-forward. But what we don’t have the luxury of doing is carrying on without thinking about the consequences of even our simplest actions – such as the food we eat. At the very least we need to make informed choices. And beyond that, we may even want to find ways of shaping the big picture.

However you choose to mark, or not, Valentine’s Day tomorrow, I hope that you will know expressed shared love with at least one other person. It costs nothing – and you’ll both be the richer for it.

UPDATE: Kester Brewin has some great thoughts on how to escape the labyrinth of inaction through living symbolically here.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Be My (Carbon-Neutral) Valentine

This Wednesday is Valentine’s Day, the day when we are supposed to go out and pay three-times what we would pay any other day of the year for a bouquet of roses for the one we love. But that is just the tip of the (melting) ice-berg in terms of environmental cost…

A report out this week by Cranfield University compared the carbon emissions involved in the production of batches of roses sold in the UK and grown in Kenya and Holland. [reported p. 36, The Times, Saturday February 10 2007]

Guess which roses have the higher carbon cost? Well, it’s a no-brainer: it has to be the Kenyan roses. And if I tell you that transportation accounts for 91% of the carbon emissions of the Kenyan roses – that’s the aeroplane industry for you – compared to less than 1% for the Dutch roses, those stats only go to confirm it, right? Wrong.

Growing and importing Kenyan roses produces 6,004 kg of Co2 per batch; or 17% of the 34,188 kg of Co2 produced by the Dutch roses. Growing roses on an industrial scale in the Netherlands takes a lot of light and heat (and even then results in half the yield of roses grown in Kenya’s natural climate)…

So if you are planning on buying roses on Valentine’s Day, you might want to ask the florist where they came from. And if they are (relatively) local, you might want to choose some grown further a-field instead…

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Monday, February 05, 2007


My friend Mike Rutter introduced me to this one on Saturday: the U2Charist, or Eucharist set to the music of U2. It is, apparently, all the rage among American Episcopalians; it is all over YouTube (though some videos have been removed for copyright reasons, and I suspect others will follow); and it is coming to the UK soon

I love U2, especially the Achtung Baby and Zooropa albums. I find much of their music emotionally engaging and their lyrics thought-provoking, at what I would describe as a spiritual level. I believe that Bono speaks with a prophetic voice on issues of justice for the oppressed and alienated; speaks to the powerful on behalf of those who are powerless and have no voice of their own. I have no problem with the idea of a worship service at which we ask God to speak to us through the music (or other cultural artefacts) of our culture (such as God’s iPod); and I’m not precious about setting the Eucharist to music that was not originally written for that purpose, either.

But, I’ve always been uncomfortable with what I perceive as attempts by Christians to forcibly co-opt U2 as representatives for their particular doctrinal position; or as evidence that Christians aren’t necessarily social freaks (sorry – I saw the clothes and dancing on YouTube, and some of you really are!); or to ensnare the prophetic bird within the cage of an institutional form of Christian religion. Bono sang:
And I’d join the movement
If there was one I could believe in
Yeah I’d break bread and wine
If there was a church I could receive in
’Cos I need it now

(Acrobat, Achtung Baby)
I’m just not sure whether, in the U2Charist, he has found what he is looking for…

What do you think?


I noticed this little tool on Andrew Jones’ blog recently, and now my good friend Ben Askew has put a technophobe’s guide (that’s just the sort of help I need – cheers, Ben!) on his blog. Snap Preview Anywhere pops up a little preview pane when you hover over a link, so you can decide whether you want to follow it now or stay here. Likewise for all the permanent links on the sidebar. Oh, and it looks so pretty! Especially when my browser is being temperamental about uploading photographs, to break up my text…

Further Thoughts On Sexuality And Church

Recently I’ve written a couple of posts on sexuality, and have had positive feedback from several people who have said that it has helped them to wrestle with the issue. I recognise that sexuality is a pastorally sensitive issue; that the relationship between Christian faith and homosexuality is particularly (and, in my opinion, unhelpfully) charged at the moment; and I recognise the wisdom of those who feel it is best to hold back from expressing their views on an issue that has, perhaps, been blown out of proportion in importance. But perhaps it is the very fact that sexuality has been blown out of proportion that means that we have to address it. And perhaps the current over-emphasis on homosexuality within church dialogue (both internal, and with society) needs addressing, too. Personally, I believe that addressing has to be done through a combination of personal reflection and communal discussion; arriving at plans as to how we shall live, that may be provisional but in which we are nonetheless holding each other accountable to act in a manner that is consistent with those plans. Therefore I have decided to add this further post, in which I will try to set out where I find myself at this point. Though I generally prefer a narrative approach to theological reflection, on this occasion I shall make a series of statements. What follows is long, and wide-ranging; but is not intended to be exhaustive, nor especially systematic.

a) I believe that every aspect of our being has been broken, in some way or other, as a result of humanity’s decision to act in opposition to God’s expressed will for our lives; as symbolically expressed through the decision of our first representatives, recorded in the first chapters of the Bible.

b) I believe that for each one of us, our sexuality is broken; and that that brokenness is expressed in a variety of ways. I believe that the Bible records some examples of the ways in which sexual brokenness is expressed (though not every possible example), in the forms of prohibitive statements and of narratives that show the consequences of acting out of our brokenness. The examples of sexual brokenness recorded in the Bible are not necessarily considered to be examples of sexual brokenness in every culture; and may be seen as neutral or even desirable in certain cultures. For example, I live in a culture that has a ‘neutral or desirable’ view of adultery, and of same-sex sexual relationships.

c) I believe that our brokenness falls short of the wholeness God intended and hopes for our lives, as those made in God’s image to share in God’s wholeness; and that therefore we can rightly describe our inherent brokenness as ‘sinful nature’ (‘sin’ literally meaning ‘falling short,’ as in an arrow that fails to reach the target), and the actions that result from our brokenness as ‘sins’ (attempts that fall short).

d) I believe that denying our brokenness – whether by calling it ‘not broken,’ or by hiding from others those things in ourselves that we consider broken in others – only serves to further break us.

e) I believe that God longs to bind up the broken-hearted: which I understand to mean, God can hold our broken nature together so closely, so intimately, that we are able to live as though we were whole. I believe that as we (increasingly) admit to our brokenness, and allow God to hold us, we experience (increasing) wholeness.

f) I believe that it is wrong to require that those who do not claim to live in relationship with Christ should live according to the same values as those who do. I believe that the ‘moral norms’ of Christendom, imposed upon culture, served to strengthen the tendency in all of us to hide our brokenness; and also to obscure our need for wholeness, our need to be made whole. I believe that this was unintentional, and deeply ironic; but I am glad that we find ourselves in a post-Christendom context.

g) I believe that, in response to humanity’s commitment to calling brokenness ‘wholeness,’ God has chosen to give humanity over to the consequences of this commitment: brokenness upon brokenness. I believe that God has done so in the hope that we will wake up to the condition in which we find ourselves, and turn (back) to him. But, I also believe that if this is what God has chosen, then when Christians seek to oppose the choices of society – such as legislation that confers the name ‘wholeness’ on brokenness – we may in fact be guilty of opposing God’s decision (as unintentionally and ironically as Christendom – which perhaps such Christians are hoping for a return to). In the specific context of early C21st Britain, I believe that Christians who lobby Government in opposition to civil partnerships and other anti-discrimination legislation (which differs from requesting that Christians have the freedom under law to live differently) fall into this trap.

h) I believe that a lifestyle of habitually behaving out of our brokenness and habitually calling brokenness ‘wholeness’ – as opposed to a lifestyle of habitually wrestling with our brokenness and habitually asking God for grace to overcome, and grace to be restored when we succumb – is incompatible with a life of orthodox Christian discipleship. Regarding sexuality, I believe that same-sex sexual relationships are one of various expressions of sexuality that are incompatible with orthodox Christian discipleship.

i) I believe that we act out of brokenness (that is, we sin) when we consider the brokenness of others to be greater, or of greater seriousness, than our own: whether we consider sexual brokenness to be greater than other areas in which we are broken; or particular expressions of sexual brokenness to be greater than others. Sadly, I believe that the Church, as community of broken individuals and institution, is guilty of this sin – in particular in relation to those whose sexual brokenness is not manifest primarily or fully in opposite-sex desire – and needs to repent.

j) I believe that in order to honestly identify-with and reflect humanity’s brokenness, and model God’s redemptive restoration to wholeness, the Church needs leaders whose sexual brokenness results in or includes a bias towards same-sex relationships as much as the Church needs leaders whose sexual brokenness results in or includes a bias towards heterosexual promiscuity (I suspect, the vast majority of church leaders; myself included).

k) I believe that the Church should be a community where it is safe for leaders to be honest about their brokenness, including specific forms of brokenness – safe enough that they can repent of acting out of that brokenness, when they do, and be restored to the community, including the possibility of retaining their position of leadership; and safe enough for their families. If this is not the case, such honesty, vulnerability, and love is not modelled for the community; and, indeed, secrecy, defensiveness, and hate are endorsed. The Church needs to be a safe place for leaders whose brokenness manifests itself primarily or partially in same-sex desire; and for leaders whose brokenness manifests itself primarily or partially in opposite-sex desire. Sadly, I do not believe that the Church, in general, is a safe place for leaders, regardless of the specific nature of their sexual brokenness.

Though I have given these views some reflection, they are essentially a snap-shot of where I am right now. However, I believe them to be located within orthodox Christian belief, while seeking to be more generous in orthopraxy than the Church has often been. Feel free to disagree with me, strongly if necessarily; but please respect my right to place myself here, at least for now.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Referee! (Again...)

Bloody hell! (My maternal grandfather would have known how to say that in Welsh.)

Following in the tradition of yesterday’s fourth official who was so out of touch with the rules of rugby that he didn’t know what carrying the ball into touch means, today Wales had to play against Ireland and a referee who doesn’t know that it is illegal to tackle a player who isn’t carrying the ball. In a World Cup year, the standard of international refereeing is looking ominous…


Saturday, February 03, 2007

A Bitter-Sweet Taste In The Mouth

I am a British mongrel, with a claim on supporting England, Scotland, and Wales at sport. For reasons personal and historic (primarily that I found Gavin Hastings an admirable human being, and Will Carling a thoroughly objectionable one), I support Scotland when it comes to rugby. A year ago, Scotland beat England in the Calcutta Cup match, to most people’s surprise. Today, England reclaimed the silver jug (which happens to be the oldest international trophy in the world), to the surprise of many.

I’m genuinely pleased to see the return of Jonny Wilkinson and Jason Robinson to the England side, both after long-term absence through career-threatening injury. They are a joy to watch, and between them they accounted for all but 5 of England’s 42 points this afternoon. Yes, I’d rather they had been playing anyone else other than the boys in dark blue.

Though the score-line of any given match (in this case, 42:20) may hide it, the difference between any international sides is very small. Three factors – catalysts, injury, and referee error – make the difference between winning and losing, and two of those are unfortunate.

In sporting terms, a catalyst is a player whose presence in the side transforms all the other players, so that the game they produce is greater than the sum of the parts (including the catalyst). Generally, it is good to have several catalysts in any squad, and two or (at most) three in the given team on the field: too many in play at one time results in a dissipation of the very energy having a couple of catalysts brings. Last season, Scotland were transformed by the catalyst captain Jason White; and this season they will miss his presence, due to injury. Since becoming world champions in 2003, England has missed the catalysts Wilkinson and Robinson, again through injury, until now (and, of course, other catalysts, such as Martin Johnston, through retirement). To switch to cricket, England won the Ashes in 2005 because of certain catalyst players (helped by the absence of Australian catalyst McGrath through injury); and comprehensibly lost the Ashes in 2006/7, with arguably a stronger squad in terms of the sum of the parts, because that squad lacked catalysts.

Today Scotland were without their key catalyst, while England got their’s back. Which brings us to injury: incidences of career-threatening or ending injury have risen dramatically since the game turned professional. To an extent, fitter players provide a more entertaining game for sponsors and fans. But the professional era has been bad for players, and is therefore bad for rugby. We are unlikely to be able to return to an amateur code (too many vested interests; too many infrastructure debts), but, beneath the surface the game is in a bad way and is unsustainable in its present form…

The third factor is referee error. While I enjoyed watching Jonny Wilkinson kick the ball today, I was seriously unimpressed by the decision, made by the fourth official (whose job is to watch replays where the match referee and linesmen did not get a clear view), to award him his try. The slowed-down replay showed beyond reasonable doubt that his right foot had made contact with the ground outside the touchline before he grounded the ball behind the goal-line. No fifteen men can expect to win against nineteen men. At 30-13 with 20 minutes still to play, England were certainly in control of the game, but things were far from over; having to concede 7 points you’ve actually just prevented was a critically harsh blow. Teams should win or lose on the merits of what they achieve on the pitch. England deserved to win the match this afternoon, though by a smaller margin.

There are lessons here for the missional church:

The Church needs to identify and include catalysts, among both clergy and laity, allowing them to bring their transforming energy to ‘the teams’ (as opposed to identifying and excluding them);

The Church needs to reconsider the injuring pressure that it puts on clergy, in particular, as ‘professional players’ (as well as the costs inherent in sustaining infrastructure);

The Church needs to recognise that those appointed to make decisions sometimes make bad decisions – that have lasting impact. While a game requires people who have been given the authority to make decisions concerning the ordered flow of play; and requires that players submit to that authority; these inherent requirements come with their own inherent flaws. The criteria on which decisions are made, along with the means to challenge them, and some possibility of redress, must be open to change in a transparent context.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Environment Sheffield

In a report out today, Sheffield is listed as the 12th noisiest city in England. The report demonstrates that urban noise levels cause permanent damage to the ears, resulting in hearing loss – as well as having a detrimental impact on mental and emotional wellbeing of city-dwellers. Ranking 12th while being England’s fifth largest city, the good news is that Sheffield is a better sound environment than it might be; but noise pollution is a quality-of-life issue (“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Jesus, John 10:10) that gives plenty of scope for missional imagination.

How might churches – communities of believers, and properties – create spaces in the city that enable those around us to step out of noise pollution, and experience sound as a means of healing? And might the accumulation of such spaces alter the overall noise pattern of the city?

Sheffield lays claim to being one of the ‘greenest’ cities in Europe – at least in terms of the number, and percentage area-coverage, of parks; and the number of trees lining residential roads. This month will see the city host a major environment conference, with a combination of public and by-invitation events taking place, and Inconvenient Truth-teller Al Gore as keynote speaker. If you live in or near Sheffield, and are interested, the list of events is here.

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The Right Gospel?

What is the gospel?

I’d say that The Gospel is the grand, expansive Redemptive Story, that transforms all of time and eternity, and everything created within them. But The Gospel has a starting-point: the gospel. If The Gospel is the radiating ripples transforming the water of a lake – beneath, as well as on, the surface – the gospel is the pebble that broke the surface. The impact-point of the gospel, as modelled by Jesus, is always personal, contextual and experiential. To the blind man, the gospel is, “Receive your sight.” To the leper, the gospel is, “Receive your cleansing.” To the demonised, the gospel is, “Receive your deliverance from affliction.” To the widow of Nain, the gospel is, “Receive back your son.” To Martha and Mary, the gospel is, “Receive back your brother.” To the woman excluded from society because of continual menstrual bleeding, the gospel is, “Receive your physical healing and your restoration back into the community.” To the paralytic lowered through the roof by his friends, the gospel is, “Receive forgiveness for your inner being and healing for your outer being.”

At the funeral I attended yesterday, the gospel was proclaimed. But I’m not entirely sure it was the right gospel. The vicar spoke of ‘our belief’ that Jesus was the human face of God. But many present would not necessarily share the vicar’s beliefs; and I wondered whether his language didn’t rail-road all other beliefs into silence; didn’t (quite unintentionally, I’m sure) manipulate those mourning? He pointed to the cross on the wall above us, and spoke of how we all deserved to go to hell for the wrong things we had done, but that Jesus’ death in our place meant that we didn’t have to. And I understand why we might think that a funeral is the most appropriate place to talk about ‘Life After Death’ (including a measure of desperation: this may well be the one shot we get at saying this to these people). But I can’t help wondering whether a funeral is not, in fact, the most inappropriate place to talk about ‘Life After Death.’ I can’t help wondering whether a funeral should not, rather, be the place to talk about ‘life after a death’ and that the right gospel – the experiential invitation – to proclaim is God’s expressed will to comfort those who mourn…

I don’t take issue with the things that the vicar said. I’m just not sure it was the time and the place to say those things. And I’m genuinely not sure. So I’m not saying, he got it wrong; and I’m not saying, I’ve got it right. But I suspect that in our desire to proclaim The Gospel, we all sometimes – perhaps often? – miss the opportunity to proclaim the gospel. And I suspect that proclaiming the gospel is what we are called to do.

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