Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Easter Retail | Easter Re-Tale

Jo and I went into the centre of Nottingham this morning, shopping. As we moved through various stores, I noticed something I’ve not noticed in previous years. Easter has gone all Christmassy. First clue: Easter hanging decorations, glass eggs, a variation on the theme of Christmas tree baubles. Second clue: Easter pulling crackers (a staple on the British Christmas dinner table), with trinkets inside.

Now, for years the shops have been full of chocolate eggs and little yellow chicks and bunnies at Easter. But this is different. What’s going on?

I don’t think this is evidence of a swing back to celebrating Easter as an event of religious significance. But I don’t think this is evidence of a growing material exploitation of previously Christian events, either.

Crackers belong, quite specifically, at a celebratory, gathered-family meal table. The message is, let’s take an opportunity to get together, over a special meal – perhaps roast lamb, rather than roast turkey – and be family. Let’s make a stand against the pressure to put our career ahead of our children. It ties into a campaign some of the UK’s celebrity chefs have been endorsing, to reclaim Sunday lunch as a time when the whole family gets together and catches up with each other’s news; where everyone gets the opportunity to share something – the trials and triumphs of the week – with the group. It’s not, “Let’s go to church on Easter Sunday!” But it is, intuitively, let’s be church on Easter Sunday – because church is, in its most fundamental sense, gathering around a meal table, giving thanks, and each one sharing something, contributing, in turn. They just need someone to affirm that impulse, interpret it for them, and point to the possibility of a fuller experience…someone to help make connections between a small experience and a big story, which helps us know who we are…

Decorations are to do with transforming a home, adding a symbolic dimension to the everyday, the familiar. Our homes look different at Christmas; but it wouldn’t work if we kept the decorations up all year round. In part, I suspect that the message this Easter is, let’s not allow the global recession to bring our mood down; just as, in part, the message of our Christmas decorations is, let’s not allow the short days, where it never really gets light, to bring our mood down. But the symbols are not random. They point back, to a story forgotten by the conscious memory, but recalled by the subconscious folk memory. One of the most common symbols this Easter would appear to be flowers. Jesus had some things to say about the flowers of the field, which would seem to me to be especially pertinent at a time where the unprecedented financial buffer-zone we have built up between us and the rawness of life - and death – is being shaken…

What the shops tell me this Easter is that people are looking around for a story that will help them make sense of life. The church, it seems to me, has two options. We can complain that our story has been stolen and devalued. Or, like Philip with the Ethiopian, we can ask, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

Thursday, March 26, 2009

12 Weeks | Moving, Again

In 12 weeks' time we are leaving Nottingham and moving to Liverpool, where I shall be curate at St Andrew's, Clubmoor, following my ordination at the start of July...

There's a lot to do between now and then!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Path Less Travelled

Lent. The road into the wilderness. The path towards - the path foreshadowed by - the cross.

9 Months To Christmas

Today is The Annunciation of our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary, or, the day we remember the (unknown) day the angel told a girl called Mary that she would have a child, and was to call him Jesus.

The image is one I took at the Church of the Annunciation, in Nazareth. I like this statue. I like how Gabriel looks quite casual, really; an animated type; one hand raised mid-story-telling, the other in his pocket. And Mary? Well, she's not the serene woman of Mediaeval art. Her arms are wrapped around her, in a protective, comforting, pondering-these-things-in-her-heart kind of way...but she's listening attentively to the angel's story. She's vulnerable, of course, but she has something about her; she might harbour unspoken thoughts inside, but she's not other-worldly. And, of course, she would have had something about her, in a self-effacing sort of a way, to make her a good choice of mother. Anyway, I just like this statue a lot. So I thought I'd share it with you.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Becoming | 2 | Resist The Devil

“Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7)

In my last (written) post, Becoming | 1 | Submit To God, I started to describe the process of becoming the person we were uniquely created to be in Christ. The story of Gideon in Judges chapter 6 gives us a worked example of the first part of that process. The continuation of his story in Judges chapter 7 gives us a worked example of the second part of that process.

I believe that the devil is a real person, an angel created by God who has chosen to rebel against God and seeks to destroy his good creation; who leads a destructive rebellion that will ultimately be overwhelmed by God’s goodness. But I also take the instruction to ‘resist the devil’ as a call to resist evil, whether that evil is directly attributable to the devil or the consequence of the fault-line between relationship with God and rebellion against him that runs through each one of us. In other words, to resist those things that contribute to our coming undone, our falling apart, as opposed to our becoming our true selves.

In resisting the particular manifestation of evil that Gideon is called to face – the Midianite army – the first thing that he learns is that we do not resist in our own strength (7:1-3). Though we are called to resist, and passivity is not an option, both the possibility of resisting and the victory it results in are of God. Twenty-two thousand men who had not submitted their fear to God turn back. Others show they have not submitted their strength to God, by staying fight-alert when told to drink, and are sent home.

The next thing Gideon learns is that we resist the devil as part of a community, not alone (7:7). Although he has been created to be a ‘mighty warrior,’ this is not “God and me against the world!” A mighty warrior is not a gung-ho loner, but one who inspires others, who is supported by others.

The next thing we learn is that we resist the devil still afraid – but with that fear submitted to God (7:9-15). Gideon has already submitted his fear (6:36-40). And now God says, “If you are afraid, walk into the enemy camp”…and that is what Gideon does. God doesn’t say, “Now that you are no longer afraid, walk into the enemy camp.” Gideon does not say, “Thanks for the offer, God, but I’m no longer afraid so I don’t need to go down into the enemy camp.” Gideon is afraid, but because he has submitted his fear to God, he can act with bravery and courage. If you are not afraid, you can be neither brave nor courageous. Decorated soldiers will tell you that. The person who feels no fear is a reckless danger to self and allies. Likewise, the person whose fear overwhelms them is a danger to self and allies. Courage is fear overcome; and God’s perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18).

The next thing we learn is that there are times when resisting the devil requires of us that we use our initiative (7:17). Gideon says to his army, “Watch me…Follow my lead.” God hasn’t dictated a plan to him, but has chosen Gideon for the task, and will back his actions.

The next thing we learn is that there are times when resisting the devil simply requires of us that we stand firm, hold our ground (7:21). Not fleeing from the scene, running away from the circumstances. And that is increasingly possible as we learn the accumulative lessons of submitting to God and resisting the devil.

The final thing we learn is that there are times when resisting the devil requires of us that we fight with God; and times when it involves calling to others to join in where we have seen a particular breakthrough (7:23-25). When the devil flees from us, it is not just a personal matter, nor a trivial event. Others will enjoy the benefits of God’s victory in our lives, over the struggles we face: especially where they have played a part in securing the new freedom; and where they play an ongoing part in recalling the struggle and living out the consequences of our ongoing becoming our true selves…


What circumstances do I face right now, that are threatening to overwhelm me?

What aspect of who I am today do I need to submit to God today?

Who is standing with me as I resist the devil? Who should I be asking to stand with me?

Monday, March 09, 2009

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Becoming | 1 | Submit To God

“Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7)

Our highest calling in life, the thing that gives the most glory to God, is to become the person we were uniquely created to be in Christ. I do not make that claim out of an extreme individualism; but out of a profound sense that the created – all of creation – is designed to respond to the Creator, to flourish in response to his love towards us. By ‘in Christ’ I mean that our identity is not self-determined, but a gift to be embraced. It is, however, a contested gift: for, just as the Christ comes to bring life in its fullness, so the satan – the accuser – comes as a thief to steal our identity, to kill and destroy.

And so the process of becoming who we are created to be, a process that will take a lifetime and beyond, is encapsulated in the instruction to submit ourselves to God, and resist the devil. Such submission is neither servile nor esoteric, but the honest laying out of ourselves before God. Likewise, such resistance is practical not conceptual. The story of Gideon, recorded in Judges chapters 6 & 7, offers us a worked example.

The angel of the Lord appears to Gideon, and addresses him as ‘mighty warrior’ – which at first glance appears ironic, as Gideon is hiding in a hole in the ground, for fear of enemy raiding parties. But what we have here is Gideon’s identity in Christ being called out of his present experience. The angel of the Lord is not merely an angel, a messenger of God; but God’s visible form. In the New Testament, God is most commonly described in terms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the Old Testament parallel, and precursor, being God, the angel of the Lord, and the spirit of God. As a Trinitarian, I would suggest that it is the pre-incarnate Jesus, through whom creation was made, who stands before Gideon and names him ‘mighty warrior.’

But Gideon will have to respond, if he is to become his true self. And the first thing he does is submit to God his doubt (6:13): he has heard stories about how great God is, but, to be honest, the stories don’t match up with his experience. God does not take away Gideon’s doubt. But because Gideon is submitting his doubt to God, is holding it out before God, God is able to extend to Gideon the invitation to discover for himself God’s wonders in liberating his people (6:14).

The next thing Gideon submits to God is his own inadequacy (6:15). He is, it would appear, the least likely candidate for the task. God does not dispute Gideon’s inadequacy. But because Gideon is submitting his inadequacy to God, God is able to extend to Gideon the invitation to discover God’s more-than adequacy (6:16).

The next thing Gideon submits to God is his inexperience, his lack of confidence that it is God he is hearing. And he does this in the context of sacrificial worship (6:17-24). Gideon sacrifices resources, skill, time, and the product of these three things: in fact, he submits his experience, what he can do, as well as his inexperience in this action. Sacrificial worship is often the context for submitting something to God: making ourselves vulnerable is always costly, and worship involves a measure of trust beyond what we know of God as well as response to what we do know of God. [There is something in this that ties to my previous post on moving mountains.] Because Gideon is submitting his lack of confidence to God, God is able to extend to Gideon the invitation to experience that The Lord is Peace; that where God is, there is harmony as opposed to dissonance (6:23, 24).

The next thing Gideon submits to God, in response to God’s request, is his family history (6:25-32). Here he is moving from what we might describe as internal angst to relationships (that is, I don’t think anyone in the ancient world divided life like that; but we do). If the process of becoming is one of submitting to God and resisting the devil, Gideon’s family have come undone through practices of resisting God and submitting to the devil. In fact, in this they are typical of their people at that moment in time, which is why the people are collectively come undone, living in fear of their enemies. At some point, we need to face up to those ways in which our actions have resulted not in becoming ourselves but coming undone. At times this will involve recognising the ways in which the actions of others have contributed to this; but such recognition does not excuse us from taking responsibility to turn around the direction we are travelling in, or repent.

The final thing Gideon submits to God is his fear (6:36-40); fear which has already come to the surface in relation to his family, and even more so now he is about to come face-to-face with the enemy armies God has asked him to overcome. And submitting his fear is a process: he has to do it more than once, in more than one way. And, as with his doubts, as we shall see in chapter 7 God does not take away Gideon’s fear. But because he has submitted his fear to God, he will be able to be courageous. Gideon is on the way to becoming the mighty warrior he was created to be…

Next post, Becoming | 2 | Resist The Devil