Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Reflections On Covenant

This morning I sat in a quiet house overlooking a wooded creek, reading, praying, drinking coffee, and thinking about covenant.

Covenant is never only about personal relationship with God, or another person, but about creating a community (absolute minimum of two persons) that is robust enough to live beyond judgement. It moves from the particular (personal) starting point to bless and embrace others.

Future judgement and future blessing both break-into the present. So we can speak of the crises facing the Church and the wider society to whom we are sent as just judgement on God's people and the world for failing to love God and our neighbour. In this context, covenant creates community robust enough to live after the cultural earthquake.

This is how covenant is depicted biblically, whether after the Great Flood; or when Joshua renews the covenant between the people and God after he has brought them out of Egypt (judgement), dealt with them in the wilderness (judgement), and displaced other nations to give them the Land (judgement); or when Jesus initiates a remnant community that will survive the fall of Jerusalem (judgement on God's people) and the fall of Rome (judgement on the world) - a remnant that will embrace both Jews and Gentiles.

Therefore our covenant relationships - whether marriage covenant, or other forms - provide us with the means to live in a world that has been violently shaken, as would be an accurate description of our society in double recession and great upheaval, albeit the positive celebrations of this summer (celebrations which express covenant between a monarch and get subjects, and the youth of the world, as it happens).

It does so by (as the marriage service vows articulate it) the sharing of all that we are and all that we have, within the love of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The offering of who we are today, each day, as we change/grow; given to another so that they might grow more fully into the person they were created to be; in order that others are blessed beyond and outside of the covenant relationship in question. The sharing of resources. All held within the height and depth and width and length of God's love that goes beyond all we could ask or imagine. So, my marriage should not only bless my wife, but also our children, and as many others as we come into contact with.

And likewise my church community.

Is that how we understand ourselves, our calling in the world? Or are we overwhelmed by the earthquake?

View From America

I'm in America to attend the Sentralized Conference, and with a rest day between travelling and the conference beginning, I'm thinking about some of the differences between US and UK culture and what that means for church culture. My point is not that either culture should become more like the other, but that stepping outside of our own culture often helps us to critique it better.

A friend of mine who has lived in both countries recently told me that Americans invest in land, while the British invest in property. You can see this in our respective houses. As I walk around here, the houses are temporary structures. Every element will only last so long, but they are easily and inexpensively replaced. This allows for extending or remodelling or even building/re-building. Home is important, and when you enter an American home, the way it is decorated will tell you the values of the family that lives there (in a much less self-conscious manner than back home). But the structure is far less important. Family is the principle, and the house adapts to meet the changing needs of the family.

In contrast, in the UK we buy houses that are built to last, but come with high maintenance costs and are expensive to adapt. The family almost always adapts to fit the constraints of the house (with perhaps one big last-a-lifetime extension/conversion project).

If you have seen the period drama Downtown Abbey, you might be forgiven for assuming that Americans are more pragmatic, while the British are more principled. In fact, we operate according to different (often unspoken and certainly usually unchallenged) principles, each requiring their own different pragmatisms (US adapt, UK conserve).

This has an impact on our churches. Here I am concerned with my own British context. Rather than starting with the church family as it is now and as we perceive it is most likely to develop next, and asking what shape our structures need to be to hold this, we start with our structures and ask, how can our present family inhabit these existing structures? Who will take responsibility for this room or that room?

This takes us back to Downtown Abbey, and the challenge of running a Pre-WWI house after the cultural crisis (not to mention population loss) of that world-changing event. It can't continue as it was. This is the challenge facing us in our own different moment of equally rapid and discontinuous change.

It isn't sustainable.

The Americans invest in land, not property. Funnily enough, Anglicans also invest in land, at least in theory: long-term commitment to the parish. The problem arises where we see our role as preserving a building and/or set of practices.

My own interest is in asking, who are we? Recognising a continuity with the past and a responsibility to pass on what has been entrusted to us, yes: but not seeing that in inflexible terms. If anything, our preoccupation with the structures (the physical building and the institutional roles) prevents us from engaging in being family on mission to bless the world as it is now (in need of a family who will bless others) not how it was.

The American church faces its own challenges. In the UK church, we need to invest in more provisional and adaptable structures, seeing the family not as guardians of a way of life but as those who are alive, whose God-given life guarantees life.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Difficult Business Of Apologies

Lately I have been pondering the difficult business of apologies.

One of the controversies of the recent London Paralympics involved the South African double below-knee amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius.  Pistorius had fought for the right to compete against able-bodied athletes, against claims that his blades gave him an advantage over them; and this summer he competed in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.  But in the Paralympic T44 200m he finished in second, behind Alan Oliveira – a shock result.  Interviewed immediately after the race, he claimed that Oliveira’s blades gave the Brazilian sprinter the unfair advantage of a longer stride, dismissing the achievement of another athlete who had always looked up to him, and being dismissive of the International Paralympic Committee.  In fact, Pistorius didn’t have a leg to stand on: not only did he run the 200m in fewer strides than Oliveira, suggesting that Pistorius had the longer stride (and anyway, blades are scaled to the athlete wearing them, and no-one claims that Usain Bolt should be penalised for having a longer stride than his competitors) but Pistorius ran faster in his semi-final than either athlete ran in the final.  The following day Pistorius apologised for the timing of his comments.  Not for the comments themselves; for the timing.  So, when is an apology not an apology?

Then, and with the Paralympic Games as back-drop, the German-based company responsible for the morning-sickness drug Thalidomide issued an apology – for the first time, fifty years after the drug was withdrawn – along with an appeal for understanding and forgiveness: an apology deemed insincere and insulting by some campaigners but welcomed conditionally by others, who have extended the invitation to further progress towards reconciliation.

Yesterday, the Hillsborough Independent Panel published its Report into the Hillsborough Disaster and its aftermath.  Yesterday and today have seen a flurry of apologies made by politicians, senior police officers, journalists.  Some have been welcomed, others rejected as too little too late.

Of course, there are almost daily examples I could draw on.  When it comes to apologies, it would seem that you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

So here are some thoughts:

Saying sorry is perhaps the hardest thing we ever do.

We generally demand a swifter and fuller apology of others than we are willing to give to others...

The more we trust the person or people to whom we owe an apology to have our best interests at heart and to be looking for the win-win of reconciliation rather than the win-over-you of vindication, the fuller the apology we will be able to give.

Likewise, the less we trust the person or people to whom we owe an apology, the more guarded and limited our apology is likely to be.

Offer the apology that you are able to offer.

Be as clear as you can as to the apology you are making.

Be as honest as you can about the apology that you owe but are not (yet) able to make.  This opens the door for a degree of reconciliation, which opens the door to the fuller completion of the apology.

Be as generous as you can in accepting another person’s apology.  Is it really too little too late, or has it taken great courage to get this far while needing something in return in order to go further?

An apology that is not freely given is empty, so ask for an apology by all means, but don’t dictate what it should contain: if you do, you rob yourself of the apology you are looking for, and the other person of the apology that they might otherwise be able to move towards in time.

Only the person making an apology can truly know whether they are being sincere or not.  Passing judgement on their sincerity makes you less human than you were created to be, because it builds a barrier between us.  Accepting an insincere apology does not reveal you to be gullible; it reveals you to be the more fully whole person (at least in this instance), by denying the opportunity to build a barrier and, instead, moving for reconciliation.

Our unwillingness or inability to accept an apology reveals the extent to which we harbour brokenness – and, therefore, the extent to which we need to accept the apology being held out to us.

Don’t retract an apology – and don’t retract the acceptance of an apology.

Don’t apologise more than once (unless you need to apologise to more than one person or group and can’t do that on one occasion), unless you are able to extend your apology beyond what you have apologised for.  An apology – whether accepted or rejected – is an end to the matter (though it may need to be followed by taking consequences, and/or by attempting to make amends).  To keep apologising for the same thing is to believe that we are unworthy of forgiveness or acceptance.  Likewise, to demand that someone apologises repeatedly is to demonstrate that we do not believe that they are worthy of forgiveness or acceptance (and if that is so, that is our problem, not theirs).

Accepting an apology is perhaps the hardest thing we ever do.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Truth And Freedom

[I have lived within sight and sound of both Hillsborough and Anfield; was sent forward for ordination by Sheffield Diocese and received by Liverpool Diocese, ordained in Liverpool Cathedral.]

Today the Hillsborough Independent Panel, chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool, has published its Report.  Today is a significant moment for the families of the 96 who died, for the cities of Liverpool and Sheffield, and for the whole nation.  Things have been brought into the light, which have been hidden for twenty-three years.

Jesus said, “If you hold on to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31, 32)

Today we have a greater access to significant relevant information concerning the Hillsborough Disaster.  Today we are able to point to deliberate attempts to cover information with misinformation, long suspected but until now not established.  Today we can identify failure on the part of individuals and organisations, and shared degrees of culpability.  Today we know something, which we need to know in order to experience freedom.  But none of this is, in itself, the truth that will set us free.

If we are to experience freedom, we need to see ourselves in the eyes of our enemies; we need to forgive them; we need to love them.  We need to discover that – though justice must be done – mercy must triumph over judgement.

Liverpool supporters have been vindicated.  They were not responsible for what happened, and, indeed, they worked to alleviate suffering and were vilified for it.  They were not responsible for what happened, but they could have been: not because Scousers are scum who can’t be trusted, but because the impulse to exonerate ourselves by shifting the blame for our short-falling – whether the short-falling is wilful or unintended, doing what we ought not to do or failing to do what we ought to have done – is a universal human impulse as old as conscious thought.  I do it, and often – and I hate myself for it.  We fall short of our responsibility towards our neighbour; hide, driven by shame; and create a web of lies to cover our tracks.

When we look at the list of individuals and organisations that are rightfully indicted by this Report, we need the honesty to say, It could have been me in their shoes.  In this regard – as is invariably the case in tragedy that causes outrage – the families of those who died have shown a dignity that has not been shared by everyone who has called for justice for the 96, by those who have called for vengeance that goes beyond justice...and so violates the very possibility of justice, by ruling witness statements calling for mercy to be inadmissible evidence.

For while there are legal consequences (such as prison sentences) and public consequences (such as the redesigning of football stadia and the rethinking of policing), as well as psychological consequences (such as having people’s deaths on your hands), that need to be borne, we also need to forgive.  Unless we can forgive, we remain pinned under the weight of a barrier that crushes the life out of us.  Yes, this is easier said than done – but done it must be.

Today is an opportunity to move through justice (as yet, incomplete) towards reconciliation (as yet, a long way off).  Perhaps we can learn lessons from South Africa in this regard.  Only when we can love our enemies – when, from the heart, we can wish them no evil, only good; when we bless them, asking God to bring life out of the ashes of their lives, rather than curse them, asking God to cut their potential and their future short – can we live freely: free from the shame of our own short-comings, and the fear that they too will be publically exposed; free from the hatred that posses as pre-emptive defensive strike; free from the pain of our scars, which we will always bear but which we do not have to bear raw.  Only then will the memory of the 96 be able to rest in peace; only then will the people of Liverpool, and Sheffield, and wider, be able to rest in peace.

When Jesus told his disciples that they must love their enemies (Matthew 5:43-48), and forgive those who were in their debt by renouncing any claim to what they could not repay anyway (Matthew 6:12), he knew these three things: that they absolutely needed to, for the alternative is too costly to live with; that it is possible; and that they wouldn’t be able to do so alone.  Jesus gave, and continues to give, himself so that we are not left alone, so that we don’t have to fall back on our finite resources.  In the words over the gate at Anfield, and on the replica gate in the Memorial Garden in Hillsborough Park, You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Jesus revealed a kingdom-of-heaven principle to his disciples, one they struggled to understand: that the way to multiply what you have is to give it up – for only when we reach the end of our resources can we receive from God his unlimited resources.  It works like this: choose to forgive who you are only just able to forgive, choose to love who you are only just able to love, and if you are open God will increase your capacity to forgive and to love those you cannot, at this moment in time, imagine being able to forgive and to love.  If you want to know where you are in that process, listen to the imaginary conversation in your head with the key players.  The process is costly, and laborious, and messy, and through it heaven breaks into our world as untouchable outcasts are embraced within community, to the mutual restoration of both.

Today is a momentous day.  But it is not the End.  It is, if we will receive it, a new Beginning.  Lord, have mercy on us all.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Turning Seasons

I love the turning of seasons, that moment, ripe with potential, when one thing gives way to another.  In particular, I like the turning-point from summer into late summer, bursting with fruitfulness.  Today our children went back to school.  For the boys, a return; for Susannah, the first day at high school.  Here she is; and also a photo of all three with my parents, taken in our garden last week.