Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Thursday, October 18, 2012
Today is the Feast of St Luke, which is a good opportunity to consider the assumptions we bring to reading the story of Scripture.
Luke is attributed with writing the two-volume work known as the Gospel According to Luke, and The Acts of the Apostles (though, in fact, neither work mentions the name Luke, though both are introduced as letters).
Paul mentions a Luke three times in his letters, and on one of those occasions identifies him as Luke, the doctor.
On the strength of this, most commentators assume that Luke was a doctor – the Anglican prayer for the Feast of St Luke* goes to town on it – although this assumption only works if we assume that there was only one person known, to be fair well known, to Paul who was named Luke; and if we rule out the reasonable possibility that Paul identifies a Luke as Luke, the doctor, in order to distinguish him from another Luke well known to those he is writing to.
On the basis of this assumption, many commentators point out how Luke’s account of healings, as compared to the accounts of the other Gospel writers, show the particular perspective, interest and specialist knowledge of a physician. The problem with this argument is that Luke’s account of healings – and, indeed, Luke’s account of the crucifixion – show no such thing. It just isn’t there, and the commentators are simply seeing what they want to see.
On the other hand, where the Luke who is attributed with writing Luke-Acts does show particular perspective, interest and specialist knowledge is whenever he writes about sea voyages. But the view that he was more likely a seafarer is a minority one (I like minority readings, and am thankful to Elizabeth Fisher for this particular one).
Of course, at one level it does not matter who wrote Luke-Acts. Why it is worth mentioning is this: if we bring such unquestioned assumptions over something that doesn’t matter, what unquestioned assumptions prejudice our reading of those things that we have more invested in?
*Almighty God, you called Luke the physician, whose praise is in the gospel, to be an evangelist and physician of the soul: by the grace of the Spirit and through the wholesome medicine of the gospel, give your Church the same love and power to heal; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Thursday, October 11, 2012
I came across Douglas Coupland’s latest project – to “try and isolate what is already different in the twenty-first century mind as opposed to the twentieth.” – from my friend Steve Taylor (a kiwi living in Australia). I have always found Coupland to be an interesting observer of culture. Of his ‘Slogans for the Twenty-first Century,’ the one that strikes me most is: LIVES ARE NO LONGER FEELING LIKE STORIES.
Here are my reflections:
My generation saw the failure of the dominant meta-narratives of our cultures – the American Dream; post-Empire Britain as still the greatest nation; etc. – and responded by making a couple of moves. We stepped-out of those meta-narratives on a long-term basis; and we constructed small, personal stories that did not connect with meta-narratives (in this sense, they were, ironically, more heroic – and doomed to failure – than we knew).
The following generation saw the first move as opting-out, and the second as creating and offering a very far from desirable alternative. Gen X watched metaphorical skyscrapers fall (long before we watched the Twin Towers collapse) and lived in post-apocalyptic shanty towns. Gen Y wonders why we settle for that (trauma is why), and set out to rebuild. Some, to rebuild skyscrapers – we have a cultural tendency to reject the values of the generation before us, and to co-opt (not return to) the values of the generation before them (for example, British PM David Cameron co-opts the values of the generation that rebuilt Britain after WWII – though I can’t imagine the NHS coming into existence on his watch). (We could describe it in this way: as the structures of one generation falls, the following generation stays away from the unstable building because it is dangerous, while the next generation returns to the settled ruins to claim anything they can plunder.) Others, to rebuild on a smaller, more human scale – there are signs of reclaiming family life.
So we have three surviving generations for whom lives are no longer feeling like stories: Boomers, because their stories (e.g. we get more and more wealthy through time) have fallen; X-ers, because over time the (metaphorical) poverty of (metaphorical) shanty-towns takes its toll on the human spirit; and Gen-Y, because stories feels like escapism (and money and celebrity status like a better escapism).
Here’s the thing: we are embedded in story – in several stories simultaneously – whether we are aware of it or not. Story is the medium we move in, breath in, just as water is the medium fish move and breath in.
I find my story within the Story that is told in the Bible. And within that Story, the way in which stories are inhabited is instructional to me. The Old Testament, in the form in which it comes down to us, was very largely shaped while the people were living in exile in Babylon – a culture built on a very different story from their own. Within this context, they needed to tell their story – indeed, to rediscover their story, for they had forgotten it (which is how and why they ended up in exile in the first place), and then to tell it, over and over, so that it shaped their own lives as they lived them out in a particular (and hostile) place and time. For them, story was not escapism: it taught them how to live; how to make sense of present circumstances which, on the surface, made no sense; and what to hope for.
This is what story looked like. They lived within the Babylonian story. But they took one day in every seven to remind themselves of their own story. That is, unlike Gen-X, they didn’t remove themselves from a story they found to be false (indeed, God told them to embed themselves in that society and to seek to bless it), but guarded moments to ‘step out’ in order to evaluate that story in the light of their own.
Lives don’t feel like stories, whether stories we write for ourselves as Masters of our own Destiny, or stories written for us by others who have power over our lives. Life is too hard, and too real, and too demanding, and too fast, and too overwhelming, and too randomly violent, and too short to be a series of stories. That is why we micro-story: Facebook statuses and twitter updates. (That is, perhaps, why I am writing blog posts of increasing length, rather than micro-blogging?)
And that is precisely why I feel the weight of the forgotten Story.
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Today (10 October) is World Mental Health Day.
According to the World Health Organisation:
‘World Mental Health Day raises public awareness about mental health issues. The day promotes open discussion of mental disorders, and investments in prevention, promotion and treatment services. This year the theme for the day is “Depression: A Global Crisis”.
‘Depression affects more than 350 million people of all ages, in all communities, and is a significant contributor to the global burden of disease. Although there are known effective treatments for depression, access to treatment is a problem in most countries and in some countries fewer than 10% of those who need it receive such treatment.’
I suffered from depression throughout my teens. In my first year at high school, I was relatively popular, equally so among boys and girls. On the eve of my twelfth birthday (first term of second year), I experienced an almost overwhelming sadness and had to physically fight against suicidal thoughts. I struggled with cycles of depression for years, which were particularly focused on the same time of year (my birthday is in November). I withdrew from friends – and was given the nickname Edd (Ever-Depressed Dowsett) – and lost confidence. And I spoke to nobody about what I was going through. Sometime around my seventeenth birthday, staying in a house in a forest with a group of friends (I did have some!), I had a suicidal breakdown. They listened, and took me back to Glasgow, not home but to the home of a psychiatrist we knew, who helped me to talk to my parents. Things hidden in darkness brought into the light can be addressed. My GP helped establish a platform on which I could find enough stability to stand – a platform that could in time be dismantled, and indeed that needed to be temporarily rebuilt at a much later date. There is no shame in taking appropriate medication for depression, any more than there is in taking appropriate medication to fight cancer.
Two years later, in my first term at university, I discovered something of how common it was for people to live with depression: I was not alone. But the help I had received enabled me to hold out hope and point to help for others.
On one occasion, I was sat on my bed. I was aware of myself – somehow outside of my body, or perhaps inside my body – curled in a foetal ball in a pitch dark room only just big enough to contain me. At some point I must have become ‘conscious’ that the walls had retreated – though I was still in darkness – and also become aware of the presence of Jesus sat next to me, in silence. After some time, he got up, held out his hand to me, and said, “Come on. Let’s walk away from here.” And we did. That, too, was a significant event in the process of healing. (And my name is not Edd: it is Andrew Christopher, the man who follows Christ...)
I was free of depression for many years. When I was put forward for selection for ordination, my mental health history came under scrutiny. I suggested that, as 80% of the population will personally experience some form of mental health issue (and 100% of the population will be touched by mental health issues), my experience – both of depression, and of the hope of life after depression – was a positive thing: indeed, God had already used it over and over to help others. Nonetheless, I was sent to The Priory in London for psychiatric assessment, where my fitness was endorsed in the strongest of terms. Ironically, this despite having to tell the psychiatrist that I was, at that time, back on anti-depressants to help deal with the fairly appalling manner in which representatives of the Church were treating me.
As it happens, I have not needed to be on medication since: though I may need to in the future; and while I have certainly continued to struggle with ‘low mood’ on a fairly regular basis (the appalling ways in which people in the Church treat other people at times is a large part of this; the lack of sunshine certainly doesn’t help; and I know that my own brokenness contributes). Other members of my family have needed to be on medication for depression and other mental health issues, for a variety of reasons.
Anyway, all this to say that I am grateful for all the ways through which God has moved to liberate me from depression (friendship, trained counsel, medication) and from any sense of shame or failure or disappointment with myself or judgement by others; and for the ways in which he has worked through me to bring a similar liberation to others. Depression is a word that intimidates us Not To Speak Its Name. There is a greater name – the name of Jesus. Depression will play its part in our death, whether directly or indirectly. But neither it nor death itself will have the final word.
For now, depression is indeed a global crisis. We don’t have to settle for that. We can stand up and be counted. We can speak out for those who cannot speak out for themselves. In so doing, we bring light to the darkness; and in so doing, others may be encouraged – literally, given the courage they need – to step into the light.
I’ve been sitting with Mark 10:17-31.
Jesus’ invitation/challenge to Peter mirrors God’s invitation/challenge to Abram (Genesis 12) to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household –
those things in which have given him a story;
a story that has given him an identity;
an identity that has given him security;
security that has given him confidence to become a wealthy in possessions and ownership of others and livestock –
and to step-into the story of God; there to receive an identity, identity that will give him security, security that will give him confidence to trust God for a new land, a new nation, a new name, that through him God would bless all the peoples of the earth.
Jesus’ invitation/challenge to Peter is to leave wealth, and home, and family, and fields, in order to step-into the story of God; so to receive them back in a new way, through which – Peter would come to understand – all peoples would be blessed as we enter-into the work of all things being reconciled by and in and through Jesus, the one killed by men and exalted by God.
What, then, is Jesus’ invitation/challenge to us, in relation to these things?
Kevin Lewis writes well on the political discourse of the ‘hardworking’ here. Some will want to agree that we cannot simply divide between ‘hardworking’ and ‘lazy,’ but the underlying assumptions run so deep that we feel the need to differentiate between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor (less readily between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ rich).
Jesus’ invitation/challenge: no-one in need.
We believe in the ‘property ladder’ – the need to buy a house, in order to buy a bigger house – as the most desirable aspiration, while recognising that the ladder is, at this moment in time, somewhat congested. We believe that “An Englishman’s home is his castle.” We have found something new to believe: that it is better for adult children that they do not leave home; that as parents we never lose a duty to protect our children from the world. This is justified by the perceived financial cost of leaving (ignoring the hidden financial costs of staying). We have a generation of parents who are afraid to discover who they are post the parenting stage of life, and who have kept their children as children in adult bodies; and a generation of young adults who are afraid to discover who they are post the parented stage of life, and who prolong their adolescence in an unprecedented way. This is a most frightening co-dependency. I am quite sure that this will sound harsh to some, but I’d ask you, take a long, honest look around you.
Jesus’ invitation/challenge: home as rest on the journey, Sabbath celebration, place to extend hospitality.
We have moved from the extended family as primary unit (not just biological; those in domestic service functioned as extended family. Note that extended family is stronger than other forms, but no less dysfunctional: I’m not advocating it) through the nuclear family as primary unit (probably 1950s-1980s) to the atomic family. Of course we still see both extended and nuclear family structures, but the primary unit is now the individual, making temporary combinations, with commitment to self taking priority over commitment to others.
Jesus’ invitation/challenge: to be part of God’s family, the gift of a large family, recognising one another.
We believe in food production, a term that has undertones of the factory; that demands maximum efficiency; that denies food as God’s provision. We demand that the field be a place of exploitation, where the supermarkets extort food from farmers at below-cost because we do not want to pay a fair price. This year – drought in the spring, floods in the summer – our fields in this country have become places of devastation, with unusual if not unprecedented crop failure. We fight against the warnings that present climate change is to a significant degree the consequence of our own pursuit of power (in more than one sense) and convenience.
Jesus’ invitation/challenge: fields are a reminder to us of our connectedness to everything else; of God’s provision; and of his setting limits on the consequences of our sin (yes, there are consequences) (Genesis 3:17-19). All things are being reconciled by and in and through Jesus. How might we take responsibility for fields without owning the land?
How might we help one another leave false constructions of wealth, home, family, and fields, and receive – by participating in – a new construction of these things, which is in both quantity and quality ‘a hundred times’ greater?
[Two pitfalls to avoid: understanding the 100x to relate to our existing false constructions, and so reinforcing them by acquisition; and spiritualising ‘wealth, home, family, and fields,’ so failing to follow Jesus in his reconstruction of these embodied things.]
Sunday, October 07, 2012
One of the questions I get asked a lot is, why would someone who considers themselves to be a missionary in a post-Christendom context choose to be an Anglican priest? Isn’t the Established Church a Constantinian corruption? Why I embarked on the whole selection process that leads to ordination was simply in obedience to what I – and others – believed God was saying, and I think Scripture shows us that he is not answerable to us. That said, what is my self-understanding of my calling? It has a lot to do with my understanding of exile and empire.
I am an exile, both in terms of kin – my father’s people are all Southerners, spread north-south from East-Anglia to Kent and east-west from London to Bristol; but I grew up in Scotland, and have lived my whole adult life in the North or Midlands of England – and in terms of faith - as a follower of Jesus in a post-Christian, post-Secular pluralist society.
At various times in the history of God’s people, they found themselves living as exiles within Empires. Through the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29), God instructs his people in Babylon to settle, to build a life, to seek the peace and prosperity of the place to which he has sent them, to seek to bless their host nation and leave their own being blessed to God. This principle articulates what we see supremely in three different stories set in different Empires at different times: that of Joseph/Zaphenath-Paneah, in Egypt; Daniel/Belteshazzar, Hananiah/Shadrach, Mishael/Meshach, and Azariah/Abednego in Babylon; and Esther/Hadassah and Mordecai in Persia. Each is thoroughly embedded in the Establishment of the Empires to which God had sent them. (Except Mordecai) Each is known by a name that speaks of that culture and its gods, as well as by names that speak of the Hebrew culture and god. Joseph’s father-in-law is a priest within a religion of Empire, and Joseph himself observes cultic practices that are alien to the practices of his own people. Daniel’s friends are civil servants and he is a senior political figure, and while they refuse to observe certain cultic practices, they nonetheless embed themselves within the politico-religious dynamic. Esther is called to live within the harem of a Xerxes, a king who has as many gods as he has wives and concubines, while Mordecai is elevated to second in rank to Xerxes.
Two other stories are pertinent here. One is the story of the prophet Elisha and the Syrian general Naaman. When Naaman informs Elisha that he wishes to worship, Yahweh, the god of Elisha’s people, within the cultic observances of Rimmon-worship, Elisha does not tell him he cannot, but sends him on his way with peace – right relationship with God and neighbour. The other is the story of the first two churches planted in Europe: the mission-focus of one being providing purple clothing for Roman senators, the mission-focus of the other being detaining prisoners of the Roman Empire.
There is a sense in which the Church of England is part of the one true Church, no less or more so than any other tradition within the Church. Whenever men have set out from the corrupt church to establish a pure church it has failed, sooner or later. This is God’s judgement on our folly. Jesus said “I will build my church” – and he will not allow us to build it. Whenever we seek to build the church, rather than to do what we were told to do – to go and make disciples – it is doomed to failure (in this sense, there would be nothing to be gained by my stepping outside of the Church of England). Every member of the Church is both chosen/elect (‘clergy’) and the people of God (‘laity’): not two different groups, but two different ways of describing a trans-national people set apart as priests to mediate between God and the nations.
But there is also a sense in which the Anglican Church – the Anglican Communion – is the religion of the British Empire. This is so, even though both the British Empire and the Church of England no longer enjoy their former place of privilege and power: and in this sense, it is as false as the religions of the Egyptian, Babylonian, and Persian Empires. It is, I would suggest, within this sense that we have public worship services, as opposed to the underground gatherings of Christians in ancient Rome or today’s China. And it is within this sense that I understand my Anglican priesthood: that I serve God within the cultic practices of a particular people group; that I seek the peace and prosperity of that nation, not least in blessing the people at significant rite-of-passage moments (but also through my promise to serve the monarch in all things lawful, God being my helper); and habitually doing so, am there when they seek help to deal with processing their response to the abduction of a young girl, the murders of police officers, the events that shake their world to the foundations. My personal name is ‘Andrew Christopher,’ which means ‘the man who follows Christ’ but in the Empire I am conferred the name ‘Reverend Doctor,’ or, Belteshazzar, or...
That I see the Church of England as both part of the one true Church and a false religion of Empire is neither schizophrenia nor pragmatism, but paradox – both/and which we are invited to live with without either/or resolution.
Some people hold the view that all God’s people are priests – mediators between God and people – to the surrounding culture, and the ‘clergy’ are priests to the priests. My own view is that all God’s people are priests in that they are sent to mediate between God and people, and that the ‘clergy’ (that is, those who are clergy in the way that we practice ordination in my context) do so specifically within the cultic structures of the Empire. The congregation I serve do not need me as a priest (they need a High Priest, and that is Jesus). In a time where they have all but lost the Story of which they are part, they need me as a story-teller.
Why would I dare to see myself as in any way comparable to Joseph or Esther or Daniel, rather than the nameless Israelites? In large part because of where God has sent me: first to a top independent school, a Scottish school that produced two Westminster Prime Ministers (I know some Christians who believe that Christians should not be in such school contexts, but God sends where God sends), then to university education as far as PhD level. From childhood, I have been trained to serve the Establishment of the land God has set me in; all the while knowing that God will not allow it to last forever, and that, living in its decline, there is even the possibility that I might outlive its fall.
Is this risky? Undoubtedly. But God is the most breath-taking of risk-takers. It is only possible to make what Michael Frost calls ‘dangerous promises’ to the Empire (we will bless you, however greatly you sin against us) without losing our own identity if we also tell ‘dangerous stories’ (the scandalous Story of Scripture, which has been all but lost to my own community), engage in ‘dangerous practices’ (I’d argue that Sabbath rest in a 24/7 society is even more politically subversive than Communion; and that the Command to observe Sabbath is the command most broken by most priests within the religion of this post-Judeo-Christian empire), and sing ‘dangerous songs’ (edgy, raw Psalms, not sentimental mush).
I am aware that this will be for many of my brothers and sisters a thoroughly unsatisfactory answer to the question, why on earth am I a priest within the Church of England? But satisfactory or not, I hope it can be respected.
Friday, October 05, 2012
I’m reflecting on the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man, Mark 10:17-31. Essentially, Jesus says “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” is the wrong question - the right question is, am I prepared to follow him in his creating a new humanity? How did we come to make the wrong question THE question, and the right question at best an optional extra?
The good news we are to proclaim is not personal salvation. The good news is this: that God has made Jesus, who was crucified, both Lord and Christ (as Peter proclaims in Acts 2:36; or, the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God, as Stephen puts it in Acts 7:56; or the man God has appointed to judge the world with justice, having raised him from the dead, as Paul puts it in Acts 17:31; or the one through whom the Gentiles will be rescued from the power of Satan, receive forgiveness of sins, and be given a place among those set apart, as Paul puts it in Acts 26:18). This is good news because Jesus has broken the power of death, of physical decay, of accusation, of sin, of division...good news made manifest contextually through those who mourn being comforted, the sick being healed, the oppressed experiencing deliverance, the hungry fed, the widow and orphan finding family, and all this (opposed at every turn) as a foretaste of what is yet to be (yet to be resolved).
And it asks of us, will you follow? Not, here is how you can cheat death, but, here is something, someone, worth dying for.
The personal salvation question puts me at the centre. The Jesus made Lord and Christ question puts the vision of all things that have been made being reconciled – to one another as created beings and to our Creator – by and in and through Jesus at the centre.
The personal salvation question sets me on a quest to save my life; a quest whose end, according to Jesus, is that we lose our life. The Jesus made Lord and Christ question invites me to follow him on a journey where I will lose my life, and having lost it, will receive it back again a hundred-fold.
In fact, pursuing the personal salvation question ironically results in my removing God entirely – as Jesus’ silence on the first four commandments weightily implies that the rich young man has done, most likely quite unintentionally.
Whatever personal salvation means (and I don’t think there is much in the story of Scripture to support the average western understanding, whether of those who attend church faithfully or those who would never think to do so), it is to be found in participating in a community that re-imagines and embodies a new way of constructing wealth (neither capitalism nor communism but meeting one another’s needs) and home (rest on the way, Sabbath in the week) and family (wider than, and at times in conflict with, kinship) and place (not local v global, but glo-cal), by dying to the false image of these good gifts (and embracing persecution for doing so). That is costly, and in the short-term and even the medium-term it is hardly worth embarking on - which is perhaps why so many become discouraged and walk away, while so many more settle for something so much less. But this, too, is good news, for those who have been shut-out from our god- and neighbour-forsaking cultural constructions of wealth and home and family and place, which are being shaken by God and found wanting, quite inadequate in their foundations. Take, for example, Generation Y. Generation X (my generation) watched their parents’ generation’s marriages (not necessarily their own parents’ marriage) collapse like viewing the Twin Towers implode over and over in slow-mo, and vowed they would not go there, substituting family for friends and commitment for passing relationships. Generation Y, while recognising the importance of friends, sees through the hurt-reflex of rejecting family, the inadequacy of my generation’s refugee camp, and are seeking to rebuild permanent structures, in human-scale community.
Such a vision requires all that we bring we are and all that we have, holding nothing back. In the church, it confronts both the poverty spirit that entices us to believe that we have not enough and must at all costs hold on to what we still have, and the prosperity spirit that entices us to believe that we are rich and have all we need (these two apparently contradictory spirits tend to co-habit quite happily). At the margin of the church, it disturbs the belief that observing Christendom rituals benefits us in any way. Outside the church, it exposes the emptiness of being spiritual-but-not-religious, and the poverty of any New Atheist vision for humanity...
With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.
Thursday, October 04, 2012
Who is welcome in our community? Who is not welcome? Who is welcome conditionally, on the basis that they first change, or are making certain changes? Whose presence in our midst makes us feel uncomfortable, concerned that we might in some way be contaminated by sharing bread and wine with them at Jesus’ table (despite Jesus clearly stating that it is not what goes into a person [certain foods] that makes them unclean but what comes out of them [certain speech, the outworking of certain attitudes]; despite Jesus’ own practice of eating with Pharisees and sinners)? The Church is invited to believe that everything that has been made is being reconciled – to one another as created beings and to our Creator – by and in and through Jesus...and challenged to live into this new reality. And yet, the Church is fraught with division and worry over who we can or should not embrace...those we disapprove of, and those we disapprove of because of who they disapprove of whom we affirm...
One of the most precious gifts God gave me last week was the opportunity to listen to Deb Hirsch (Los Angeles), and Sean Gladding (Lexington), each share their radical Christ-centred compassion.
Here are some observations/reflections/discussions that resonated with my spirit:
We are all sinners. There is no hierarchy of sin (though there are sins that harm the body as well as the soul); to break one part of the Law is to break it all.
We come to Jesus because it is him alone who can transform us, can cleanse us of our stains and heal us of our brokenness. We come on level ground, invited to the same table, and who are we to demand that we be welcome while demanding that someone else be turned away?
Our job is to point people towards Jesus – whether they are far away from him or very close, for the journey to him starts a long way off and the journey away from him can start as close as his first disciples, indeed as close as our own heart – and to leave the rest to him.
Moving towards Jesus is a journey. Can we really only affirm movement towards Jesus when it gets to a certain point? And can we really only affirm movement towards Jesus when it gets to a certain point, while adding barriers to getting to that point?! For example, an orthodox Christian view of sexual behaviour advocates marriage for heterosexuals and celibacy for homosexuals: while this is not the only view held by Christians, can those who hold it affirm the move from promiscuity to monogamy – from A to B, but not yet to C – as movement towards Jesus? Who are we to judge against those we believe to be moving away from Jesus, when we also wilfully or unwittingly turn our backs on him; when what is lost is to be sought and found and brought back and celebrated? And who are we to judge whether another person is ‘genuinely’ seeking to follow Jesus?
This is how sanctification works: when the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin in our lives, we cannot help but repent - Isaiah says “Woe is me!” and Simon Peter says “Get away from me, Lord!” – and believe, not because repentance and belief are coerced but because conviction is compelling. So if someone does not feel convicted that some part of their life we believe to be sinful (and it may be) is sin, rather than telling them that they are wrong and that they need to address this sin in their life before we can go any further, we do better to ask them, “Where in your life do you feel convicted of sin?” and to offer, to the best of our own provisional understanding and ongoing experience, to help a fellow child of God repent and believe and so enter into the experience of the kingdom of heaven. (Thanks, Sean Gladding, for sharing this profound observation.)
Who are we to say in what order God should address the brokenness in another person’s life? We might want him to start with the thing we feel most uncomfortable about; but God might want, or need – and he knows better than me – to start somewhere else or proceed in a different order to my agenda.
Every one of us is broken, in more ways than we are aware, and through a tangled mess of the consequences of those things we have done that we ought not to have done, those things we ought to have done that we have not done, wilfully or unwittingly, those things others have done to us that they ought not to have done, those things others have not done to us that they ought to have done, wilfully or unwittingly, and indeed the wider consequences of these things having been played out throughout history...The careful experience of being healed has begun for us, but every one of us will enter eternity broken and only be fully alive, fully free, fully comforted, fully healed when Jesus makes all things new. So who are we to decide what aspect of another’s brokenness must be made whole this side of then, or before any other?
If our theology prevents us from the embrace of another (sinner); from sitting down at table with another and breaking bread with them to remind ourselves that God comes to set his people free and to offer ourselves to live as those who have been freed; if our theology causes us to keep anyone from coming to Jesus (as the disciples tried to keep mothers from bringing their children to Jesus); then our theology is wrong and we bear false witness to the One we claim to love.
Perfect love drives out fear; and fear flourishes where we shut out perfect love. By whom am I afraid to be embraced? Where do I need to welcome Love? Where do I need to welcome Jesus, in the face of the person excluded for being gay/Muslim/alcoholic/racist/Reformed/autistic/[insert] – someone who bears the imago dei and who, with me, may be transformed into the imago Christi as we gaze together on his face, not least in each other’s eyes?
For me, personally, one of the hardest choices is to choose to welcome those who create a theological hierarchy of men over women. On this, I profoundly disagree with them, and am deeply saddened by their behaviour, by the impact of their behaviour not only on women but also on men who look to such leaders for their lead. I know where I stand – and it is important to know where we stand, while knowing that we have not arrived. But I also need to know that welcome is not the same as condoning their actions, any more than God welcoming any sinner condones any sin. If I will not love what is not lovely, I can have no part in Jesus. Sometimes, that is a very hard thing to do. But whoever thought that the great vision of reconciling all things – the state of glory, which Jesus chooses to share with us – was a small matter?
In a Church that seems intent on devouring one another in front of a world that looks on with bewilderment and curses Christ’s name, the wisdom, grace, and courage I have witnessed these past days strengthens my hope for what we do not yet see, and invites and challenges me to go and do likewise. For this, I am deeply thankful.