Saving Mr. Noah

 

In the movie Saving Mr Banks, Walt Disney tries to convince P L Travers  to let him make Mary Poppins into a movie. She is reluctant to hand over a story that has welled up from her own childhood for fear that Disney will trivialise it . She needs it to be told right because it is the story she is telling about her own father. If it is ruined, she will not have peace.

While she fears disorder, Disney asks her to trust him as a storyteller because

that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination.

Noah’s story wasn’t  written to be a “factual” account. The Jews are a reflective people who  tended to take the stories they encountered and reshaped them in an attempt to make sense of their place in the cosmos and their relationship with Yahweh. The flood is a pretty common near east story which makes it a useful context from which to tell a bigger story.

Is it simply the story of God being angry, of nearly destroying his creation and then placing all his bets on one righteous man while promising not to do it again (even though said righteous man blows it soon after hitting dry land)? Or is there something deeper here?

What if you were a people who saw their fair share of chaos and violence and brutality. What if you were reflecting on the terrible empires you had been exposed to and the evil that people could conjure up, including your own. What if you listened to stories from your region about a great flood that threatened to wipe everyone out.

What if God had ever thought about using a flood to get rid of a humanity who would not buckle down and accept his sovereignty over creation and his plan to order it?

The storyteller imagines a crisis for God. Humanity, which he lovingly and intimately made, chooses to rebel against him and ignore his will,  thus spoiling the creation they are an integral part of.  The storyteller imagines the internal dialogue of God. “Should I let these people keep on doing this evil or should I just cut my losses and get rid of them? Maybe not all of them. Maybe I’ll start over again with one family and see if it works out differently.”

This is the drama.  We do our evil. We confound God’s sovereignty and make our own way and our own mess. What would the story be like if God decided he could do without us? Those are fearsome questions for a storyteller to ponder.

So, the storyteller does what Disney describes: creating order where there is much chaos. The storyteller tells the story of what might be the outcome if God sent a flood which wipes out all the  humans except for one supposedly righteous family. The writer comes to two conclusions:

God decides that he wouldn’t do this again.

Where there is a person, there is the opportunity for chaos again and again. Noah and his family turn out to be as prone to blowing it as Adam and Eve.

Taking this story and reading it through the lens of Jesus,  the one righteous man who is capable of restoring a damaged and drifting creation, the flood is a way of seeing what God’s options are when dealing with a creation in rebellion. It invites us to reflect on the possible outcome: destroying it has no good ending but neither does letting it run wild. It invites us to look, with God, for a better way.

It’s not so much an history as a reflection on how God is not detached from from us and how we are not detached from Him.

Christians can look back at the story and see that Jesus is like a fulfilment of the rainbow promise; a  promise that God loves the world so much that he doesn’t enter it to condemn it but rather to save it.

A Good Friday Sermon

(this is the text of a sermon preached at St Michael’s and All Angels Macclesfield)

The only instructions preachers get for this morning is to speak about what Good Friday means to me.

Good Friday has meant different things to me over the years. As a child, Good Friday was a day of pain and guilt as I was encouraged to see Jesus hanging on that cross because of what a bad person I was. I felt hurt and guilty that he had to hang there for me and my messed up life. And that is kind of tough on a 10 year old because he keeps that up all his life if he isn’t careful.

Alongside that message was one which seemed to say that the more Jesus suffered on that cross, the more grateful I should be to him for paying the price of my sins. It was as if Jesus was going through a process and that his death was just one stage of that process. There seemed to be no consideration that the cross and Jesus’ death was a complicated mix of “events” and causes.

It seems to me now that the cross can’t be distilled down to just one simple slogan or motto or theology. God is more complicated than that; God’s relationship with his creation is more complex than that; God’s love for me and his creation is more complicated than that.

Can I also add the caveat here as a preacher that I am not asking you to feel less pain today. I am not asking you to downgrade the cosmic significance of today. I am asking you to open up a bit of room to see the bigger picture of what God is doing today

First, I want to say that today is about mystery. On the cross God deals with sin and death. He strips them of their power so that I can be free now. I am free to refuse to obey sin. Participating in sin always leads to death at some level: my own or that of my neighbour. I can walk away from it and participate in his way, truth and life which,  leads us away from the need to sin.

On the cross, he does not deal with my sin: he deals with the sin of the whole world and sin itself. Jesus calls us to be born again, to die to our old sin loving selves and to live his risky, inclusive and world changing life as our own. I don’t know how he does it but he nails sin and death to that cross and does not allow them to leave.

Second, when we focus on the gore and the violence of today and the “my death” aspect of today we ignore the fact that the powers and principalities of this world are in rebellion against God too. He got in the way of the System’s interests and agendas; he revealed them for what they really were and how they really worked. He called them “demonic”, “ungodly” and obstructive of God’s purposes and will.

They put him to death because he shined the bright light of God on them. In offering his way and truth and life as the antidote to the systems of greed, abuse and oppression they were threatened. He wasn’t crucified for standing up for a personal morality and being nice. He was crucified by a system stung by his prophetic unmasking of it.

This should be the point that really rattles us because it implies that those who take up his cross will come into the same conflict with the same powers…

Third, I am reminded that God loves us so much that he will go to the greatest and longest lengths to free us to love him, my neighbour and to live the life I was created to live. The sadness of Good Friday is rooted in the truth is reveals: corruption is rife, life is cheap, and love is treated as an ideal rather than the foundation of all society and relationships and power.

Yet in the midst of that sadness, there is hope. Jesus is not an innocent, nice man caught up in events bigger than himself. Instead, he is big event that the powers and principalities, and ourselves, get caught up in. Those powers think they are so strong and yet the gospel truth is that death only has the power to hold Jesus for three days.

The message of this weekend is that when we join our lives to his death, death can’t hold us either. His death reveals the powers and principalities to us and now we know we can’t trust them and should not trust them when they tell us to go to war, how to shape our financial system or tell us how to treat the poor.

We are now dead to them and that is what frightens them the most. Dead people have nothing to lose. When the system offers us a way, truth and life, Jesus frees us to ask: how do God and neighbour benefit? Today we are encouraged to ask why they killed him: too many healings on the Sabbath? Too many women forgiven for adultery? Too many door openings to the kingdom of God? Too many lepers healed and spirits cast out? Too many keen observations that what passed for religion seemed to be slavery rather than freedom? Too much hope?

We remember Jesus’ death today because it reminds us of the new life God calls us to and it spells out the cost of that new life. Today is not simply about what Jesus has done for us; it is about the old life he calls us to die to and the new life he calls us to embrace in him.

A Good Year?

A pastor in California tried an experiment which cost him his job and made him rethink his vocation. You can read his blog here.

At the end of his year of trying to be “Godless” our “atheist” pastor friend names what he misses and doesn’t miss:

I don’t miss being a surrogate for people’s relationship to god. I don’t miss needing to believe difficult-to-believe things on behalf of my members. I don’t miss never having a weekend or the sheer exhaustion of Sunday mornings that was worse than any hangover I’ve ever had (remember, Adventists have church on Saturday). And I definitely don’t miss the experience of not having any real, mutual friendships—that every single relationship is made unavoidably complicated by my role as the person’s pastor.

I do, however, miss being involved with people as they navigate the momentous twists and turns of their lives: the joy and the pain, the celebration and mourning of significant life events. I miss the look of “Aha” in people’s faces as they let go of an old destructive idea and embrace something life-affirming. If I’m honest, I miss preaching, but not because it put me in front of a group of people. I always feel a little nauseous as I step up to speak in front of people. I miss it because I enjoyed weaving narratives together to shape a story that could give direction to the communal experience of a group of people in a particular social situation. I miss the prophetic role of speaking and acting for justice in my city. And I’m sad about the death of my dream of forming a community of resistance to the dominant narratives of our time…

I have a certain sympathy with him. As his year progresses he becomes more aware of and describes the tension created by being a faithful person working in an institution that is often less about faith and more about keeping the show on the road and meeting people’s unrealistic expectations. By no means is he the first to identify this tension.  Eugene Peterson wrote his fantastic book Under the Unpredictable Plant  because he wondered what had happened to that on fire person who existed before becoming a pastor who would settle for smouldering on the best of days.  From my experience, if you have been in ministry for more than a couple of years and haven’t felt this tension you are either outrageously blessed or you are lying.

A few years ago in our team ministry, my colleague and I were invited to offer our team council an insight into what really gave us life in our ministry and what took life away.  We submitted our thoughts  and the response was really a blessing:

 “We always thought vicars loved everything they did. We didn’t realise you sometimes wake up in the morning and feel the same about going to work as we do.”

The best thing about that exercise was the opportunity to talk about our real lives doing real work in the real world. I appreciated the recognition that we are people too and as such we’re susceptible to the same pressures and joys as everyone else. I am very fortunate to work in churches where people understand that vicars are human too.  But that isn’t everyone’s experience.

Brian McLaren outlines in his book The Church on the Other Side another tension that comes from pastoring in a situation that requires having a foot in a dying past and a rapidly encroaching future.  I was ordained just at the turn of the century and I feel that split acutely. There are many in the Church who want everything to return to the “good times” (sometime before the 1970’s) and want little to do with the actual world the church is called to serve and love and evangelise in. As the ground shifts and the signposts become unfamiliar we in the church are increasingly tempted to allow ourselves to become strangers in a strange land. The  more we refuse to recognise and act on that, the stranger the land and the gospel becomes to us.

So before we dismiss our Adventist friend’s experience too lightly, perhaps we need to see and appreciate that serving God has a cost to all who attempt it and that serving God within human institutions can have an even higher cost to the well being of those who stick with it.

Not one of Us

Leaving that region, they travelled through Galilee. Jesus didn’t want anyone to know he was there,for he wanted to spend more time with his disciples and teach them. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies. He will be killed, but three days later he will rise from the dead.” They didn’t understand what he was saying, however, and they were afraid to ask him what he meant.

After they arrived at Capernaum and settled in a house, Jesus asked his disciples, “What were you discussing out on the road?” But they didn’t answer, because they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve disciples over to him, and said, “Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else.”

 Then he put a little child among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes not only me but also my Father who sent me.”

 John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone using your name to cast out demons, but we told him to stop because he wasn’t in our group.”

 “Don’t stop him!” Jesus said. “No one who performs a miracle in my name will soon be able to speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us. If anyone gives you even a cup of water because you belong to the Messiah, I tell you the truth, that person will surely be rewarded.   Mark 9

Earlier this week, I spoke about this passage at a midweek communion. It was hastily chosen and I talked about it off the top of my head.  As I read it I discovered it wasn’t the passage I thought I was choosing (feel free to shake your head in disappointment).

How good it is when God short circuits us in order to teach us something other than what we already know. What I found was a passage where Jesus escapes the gospel writer’s agenda and spin. He says something which is  hard for us qualify by saying, “well of course, what he really meant to say was…”.

We find these rogue passages around the issues that Jesus spoke the most about: power, money and relationship. No one makes official church doctrine around them and no one uses them as foundations for excluding others from the fellowship of a church congregation or the communion table.

Passages like this end up being aspirational conversations about what the Kingdom of God will be like.  They never, however, make it into our official conversations about who is in and who is out without a “but” somewhere in the sentence.

For his disciples the journey with Jesus seems to be about victory and success and the right order of things.  They are his friends and friends get benefits when other friends come to power.  While we often criticise the disciples for not believing enough, it is clear that they believe enough of Jesus’ message to begin counting their chickens before they’re hatched.

The intensity of the current debates in the Church of England have less to do about the gospel and more to do with who gets to direct the Church. While we pay lip service to passages like this one from Mark, we are told who are really disciples by the churches with the largest congregations, the most giving and shiniest clergy.  We are told that they are so successful because they are the most faithful. This is what the Kingdom of God looks like.

And yet, I keep coming back to the inconvenient Jesus who has a knack for making me less comfortable with my own relative wealth and accommodation with the systems of the world by saying stuff like this. The one whose gospel left him friendless at his darkest time.

First, he brings out a child. A child in Jesus’ culture has nothing to offer except their potential. They have no status or traction or juice. He might as well have brought out a widow or an orphan. No one aspires to be these things. They are powerless.

Second, he rebukes them over the censure of someone who is not one of us.  Jesus points out that if someone is doing stuff in his name, and it bears the sort of fruit Jesus bears, then how can they not be one of his?  It seems to me that Jesus, in dealing with people who regularly don’t get what he is on about, is agreeable to us doing our best to bear good fruit despite our failings and corruptions.

All too often we are happy telling others they can’t be one us even though the name of Jesus is on their lips and their lives bear fruit.  Jesus assesses us on the fruit of our lives rather than personal piety and following the rules.  You can be a great evangelist, pastor, worship group leader and righteous dude or dudette, but if you lack the fruit that leads to justice and love then you’ve got nothing.

The apostle Paul writes that we work out our salvation with fear and trembling because following Jesus takes us to territory that was previously and is unchartered for us.  That’s why Jesus pointed out that to see clearly in this new land, we should make sure the planks have been removed from our eyes.  It’s also why he refused to give disciples the power to judge other disciples (or anyone else for that matter).

Rather than spending time deciding what our status will be and how we decide who can or cannot be a disciple, we should spend more of our valuable time asking Jesus why he let us be one.

St Noddy ( a Christmas morning homily)

So here it is merry Christmas
Everybody’s having fun
Look to the future now
It’s only just begun

 

Wise words from the great theologian Noddy Holder.   But they are true words because they describe what we celebrate this morning.  We have fun because we are full of joy.  And what we celebrate is a new beginning. 

However, like any anniversary celebration, if we don’t inhabit what we celebrate, it goes flat almost immediately it finishes.  If we don’t keep the party going, we fade back into dull lives in need of colour. Perhaps what is best is if we don’t rely just on the past event to cheer us, but what that past event makes possible in our future and makes possible right now. 

God gives us a brand new start at Christmas . Our futures are full of hope and purpose.  Christ makes us new people capable of new things. Positive things. Healing things.  Wholeness creating things. 

The other gifts that God gives us are time, money and ourselves to share with those who need us. He gives us roughly 10 square metres around us where we can make a difference. Don’t worry that you can’t stop the civil war in South Sudan. Look to see what you can do in the regional conflicts that happen around you. See how you can invest yourself locally in your neighbour. Don’t see people as sinners or saints but rather as beloved children of God. Look at them like God does and do what you think he might do with his children rather than what he might do with his enemies. 

What God also gives us is the humility to see that we too may need that healing touch from someone else. To lower our guard so others can minister to us.  To revel in the fact that Jesus does not see us as sinners but rather as followers. He waits on the path when we fall behind. He teaches us the better way to walk the path rather than telling how wrong we are getting the journey. Frankly, most sinners know they are sinners. What they desire to be told is whether there is a better way.

Be a gift this year to others. Use this great feast to fire you up to live like Jesus and shine light in all the darkness you can find. 

So here it is merry Christmas
Everybody’s having fun
Look to the future now
It’s only just begun

 

(editor’s note: Noddy Holder was the lead singer of Slade and their song “Merry Christmas Everybody” is an inescapable serenade to the Christmas season in Britain)

 

 

Different Day, Same Shit (a midnight communion sermon)

A couple of weeks ago I was striding across the Marketplace late for staff prayers when my head was lifted by the sound of a man shouting across the square to another. They were both in scruffy groups of older men who had, maybe, seen better days. Today wasn’t one of them.

The conversation went a little bit like this:

Man from group one: “All right mate?”
Man from group two: “Different day, Same shit!”

Now work with me here when I say that this exchange was in the minds of all the gospel writers. “Different Day, Same Shit” could easily have been the motto which prompted them to write, though perhaps with a less fatalistic outlook and maybe using a greek word for shit which doesn’t sound so bad.

I say that because 2000 years ago people were saying the same thing across busy Marketplaces. “Different day, same shit” was a description of the life people thought they were stuck with.  The rich get richer, the powerful more powerful and the mass of us exist only to be faceless fodder to generate wealth for others and to do their bidding. The world is full of violence and exclusion and we’re all invited to join in.

The gospel writers knew of this world. The Old Testament prophets knew such a world. And yet, they had hope. Hope that God was coming with a new day. Hope that the status quo was going to be turned upside down. Wild bearded Jewish prophets in the desert tried to paint word pictures about this moment, not knowing when it would come but telling anyone who would listen to look out for it.

The poor, the abused, the addicted, the losers, the afraid, the slaves, the disabled, the old, the forgotten all have a saviour and a new world that welcomes the likes of them. The people walking in darkness have seen a new light. On the shoulders of this saviour rests the foundations of godly community. All of those who follow this King join in a cosmic revolution where the undeservedly rich, the privileged, the corrupt, the war mongers, the abusers will lose their power.

We laugh a nervous laugh because it just might mean having our lives turned upside down too. We notice that we fit the list of the deposed better than we do the list of those being elevated. It might mean fighting battles that look impossible to win. And maybe if we are honest, we’re not quite sure this way of Jesus will really win.

But then God gives us little glimpses.

You would have to have been in a total media blackout to not know that Nelson Mandela died recently. He was not a great administrator or reformer. He didn’t make the economy better, didn’t make people richer. He didn’t wipe away the townships or the racism.

So why all the fuss? Because he did one thing right which was almost miraculous and which you and I in a million years would not expect from a national leader. When he left prison he had a choice: he could follow the world’s rules and make demands, seek revenge, punish the whites for their evil satanic system, threaten violence all day long against a regime that really deserved it.

Or, he could see that there was new way that had to be tried. The only way SA had a future was to forgive, to recognise the evil that had taken place, to name it, and lance the boil of poison. His demand was that as a nation, SA had to do things differently and try different rules or they would be utterly destroyed. He chose the hard path and our jaws dropped. It was a rare isolated moment where someone tried the godly thing and it worked. It’s just a shame no one had the faith to follow through and try some more.

The decision he made was one which we can make in miniature every day. Mandela’s greatness lay in making that crucial choice when it mattered. And the gospels tell us that Jesus has been trying to tell us that since he was born. The crucial act is not the obvious nor the easy one and it is best made by ordinary people in ordinary circumstances.

That is at the heart of the new age that Jesus brings. We give a great gift to others. Love your neighbour as you love yourself and you will find that Marketplace motto gets changed very quickly. You find that little miracles happen all day long. However, we often have to learn that lesson ourselves because there are very few who can tell you that from experience. To paraphrase GK Chesterton: “It’s not that loving our neighbour has been found to be too hard so it was abandoned. It’s because it has looked too hard and therefore has never been tried”.

So here is my challenge to you. If you truly believe that the heart of Christmas is the celebration of God doing something awesome in our midst and making radical transformation possible, then give the gift of yourself in tribute to him giving the gift of himself. Offer yourself as the possible answer to someone else’s’ prayers.

Today is a different day. What kind of day will you help it to be?

(editor’s note: the author’s wife wisely pointed out that while the S word may sound big and clever it would probably require a lot of apologies for the rest of the year and runs the risk of being the one and only time ever that a load of children came to midnight communion so maybe he should use a different word in the pulpit. Wise woman indeed.)

A Really Big Adventure

Once, a friend labelled me a “walking theological reflection”. I think he meant it as a compliment but I’m still not sure. What he was referring to was my habit of taking anything in my ordinary life or something from the news or a photograph and spinning it into some kind theologically based observation. It wasn’t that I was great at it or in need of improvement but rather, it was something I did.

Seventeen years later, I’m still prone to do that. In fact, I was doing it this morning. It was one of those rare Sunday mornings where I could walk into church and I had nothing to do but sit and listen and be ministered to. I sat and reflected as two church members led the service inviting us to explore the perplexing, wearying and surprising nature of hope. Listening to them,  I started to make all sorts of connections.

At the heart of Advent is the waiting for God to come as one of us. He doesn’t arrive as fully fledged saviour but rather as the one who will save, who will be the fulfilment of our hopes and dreams and who will teach us to live the way we were created to live. As I pondered this I started to wonder just how hard that would be for God to  enter our world and be one of us.  Would he magically adapt or would he struggle to get the hang of living like us? Maybe that is why he doesn’t make a significant impact on his community until he is in his thirties (a late starter for  his time). Maybe all those years were spent just getting the hang of being us.

I know some people might be offended by that idea, that somehow it makes God look weak and limited.

We talk about God as being this perfect, adaptable, prepared for every situation entity and yet the bible often tells us of him being surprised. “Why are you hiding?” he asks in the garden. So why shouldn’t taking on flesh be as bewildering as his creation  not following his basic induction day about living in Eden?

As I thought about this, my mind moved to a book I’ve been reading called  Paradise Imperfect: An American Family Moves to the Costa Rican Mountains by Margot Page.  The back of the book says 

Margot and Anthony were ordinary parents. With two jobs and three kids, there was soccer and carpool and too much to do, and a little chronic stress about money. Then one night, following a day that was a regular amount of hectic, Margot had an idea: “I think we should move to Costa Rica.” Seven weeks later, there they were, jobless on top of a mountain, hours from the nearest paved road. This witty, insightful memoir of a family’s struggle to right itself in a leafy new world is about parenting and privilege, loneliness and connection. It’s about what happens when a stressed-out technology professional escapes with her loved ones to an idyllic mountaintop…and finds that even when everything changes, some things remain the same.

While this may appear to be a shameless  plug for a friend’s really good book, it is deeper than that. Margot and her family leave behind every thing that is  familiar and sustaining in order to immerse themselves in a new place and with a renewed purpose. This move turned out to be a costly exercise for all of them. And in my musings I wondered if the incarnation was a costly exercise for God too.

Philippians 2 hints at how this process of leaving everything behind is the core of Jesus’ incarnation and the nature of it. He wasn’t God in disguise. He was God in the flesh and it was different and humbling. We know that Jesus had troubles making himself understood, he struggled with getting his own family on board, he felt lonely and friendless, he was tired and sometimes thwarted. None of this is how it worked where he came from and yet it was the price of being one of us in order to save us.

Margot’s story reminds me of God’s story at Christmas. While we like to look forward to Christmas Day as the arrival day of a powerful and overthrowing king, it might impact us more profoundly  if we saw it as the beginning of God’s own adventure as a person.  That adventure of God will transform all those who associate with it and decide to make that story part of their own. By loving God and drawing his life to the centre of ours, we find that his adventure becomes our adventure.

What is even more amazing is that God in the flesh doesn’t finish his adventure, neatly folds up his man suit and spirits his way back to where he came from. No, Jesus returns to the Father and the Spirit as the crucified, resurrected Christ with nail and spear wounds intact.  God carries his adventure back into his most precious community, the Trinity.

It is trendy at the moment for clergy  to sigh as Christmas carols are sung because they are populist and simplistic ways of telling a much more complex story. But in doing that we miss the truth they tell: God became human so that humans might have the chance to live and thrive in a way they couldn’t manage themselves.

When we see Christmas without that adventure, we are impoverished.

A Rare Moment of Purity

There are so few pure moments in ordained ministry.

Most of what we do is organised with an end in sight, with an intended emotion, with intended actions and with an outcome that is hopefully beneficial both to career and parishioner.  In contrast, the pure moments sneak in like the person who slips into church after they know everyone else has taken a seat.

Preachers know what I mean. That sermon you slave away on all week gets a “meh” response. The one you wrote in desperation that morning and tweaked while you delivered it? The one that makes you want to say to each person shaking your hand at the end of the service: “sorry about that” is the one that makes them clasp your hand, make deep eye contact and say, “Thank You.”.

Priests know what I mean. The big middle class baptism where the people are charming and you feel a bit “connected”  goes flat by the end because like the caterer your job is done and they have already moved on to the next agenda item.  The packed, rowdy estate baptism where the congregation laugh, keep the right amount of respect and are genuinely grateful that you’d let them be part of something so beautiful and fun makes you feel like you have moved a little something forward in the cosmos even if you never see them in church again.

I was moved to write this because I’ve just come from the bedside of a dying man where I have experienced one of those pure moments.  He’s someone I am fond of and someone who has always been supportive of my ministry even when it was kind of hard to do so.  I got a phone call asking if I could come to the care home and say some prayers.  So I dropped everything and drove over.  He was struggling and he isn’t going to be with us much longer.

The pure moment came when I prayed for him, made the sign of the cross on his forehead and gave him permission to let go, to be at peace and to be assured of God’s love for him now and always. A little something broke free in the room.  I don’t know how to describe it except as a sort of peace and rightness.  A man lies dying with family nearby stroking his hand and speaking gently to him. He receives blessing and an assurance that his life mattered and will matter.  With his lungs filled with final breaths, his ears hear that he is loved and that he will be missed. He hears that he is a part of all of us as friend, father, father-in-law, husband, granddad.

I want to weep but I can’t because I feel at peace.

It was a moment that could not be manufactured. Deathbed scenes are often more grim vigils than peaceful passings.  Death can occupy the room so oppressively that love and good remembering get chased away. Sometimes when you speak ancient words and sentiments and address a life lived in real faith something gets unlocked. When you affirm a life lived the best he knew how as you touch his forehead and hold his wife’s hand something genuinely good for the world is released.  We are meant to continually tell the story of hope and peace and love until we can speak no more because that is the sustaining story of life. This is what we were created to do as we journey together from cradle to grave.

Keep a look out for those pure moments and expect them in the least likely places because that is where they burn the brightest. You may only catch them for a moment or see them in the corner of your eye.  That’s okay. As long as you find them and allow yourself to be refreshed and nourished by them for your long journey of life.

Some Like It Hot

When you read articles like this  it can leave you scratching your head.  I can understand some people not believing that the climate is changing for the worse. I can accept that some people might think it is changing but that we are a bit hasty to assume it is mainly a human created problem. But what I’ve never understood in some evangelical circles is the adherence to this denial as if it were handed down on Sinai.

Maybe there is a mistrust of anything that sounds “green” because it must be driven by a liberal agenda. Maybe it is that mistaken infusion of the gospel with productivity, prosperity and the idea that God gave us dominion over the Earth rather than stewardship of it. Maybe it comes from the idea that God is going to trash it all in the end.

I’m going to take a punt here and say that climate change is denied not so much for being untrue but rather because the truth we don’t want to accept is that we messed up and we really can’t fix it. Like children we look at the mess and when asked how it happened, we say “I don’t know”.

In Genesis, Adam and Eve get full run of the garden and cavort and eat and play and tend to nature and name animals. It is  implied that at the end of the day they hang out with God.  It’s an attractive scene.  And then they eat the fruit; they do the one thing they were asked not to do and suddenly there is shame and hiding and fig leaves.  No one told them that being naked was shameful. But now, after eating the fruit, suddenly they see things in a different way and they generate their own shame at being naked.  They hide from God but when found, they don’t say, “hey we messed up”.  They get stressed and try to explain the fig leaves and then point fingers at each other and in the process break God’s heart into a million pieces.

When we ponder how weird our climate is and when scientists in the most non newsworthy sector of science get all newsworthy and we start counting the tonnes of carbon we’ve pumped into the air since we discovered burning stuff was a prosperous way to drive an economy  we run and hide too. We don’t come out and say, “boy, we’ve made a real mess of this gift we live in”.  We hide.  We deflect. Adam blames the woman. The woman blames the snake and God just stands in their midst wanting them to shut up while he thinks of how this can be put right again.  We do the same.

My guess is that  Christians who deny that the climate is changing and that it is hard to exempt ourselves as one of the causes are enslaved to the lie that we can do whatever we want to the earth and God really doesn’t care. He is more concerned with who you are sleeping with, whether you take drugs or think women can be church leaders.  I think,  like Adam and Eve, they come to believe that the Garden is there for their own enjoyment and purposes. The fruit tastes good so they eat it. Nothing bad will come of it.

There is an easy way to override this fantasy that somehow we can do what we want to the planet and believe that we’re honouring God. The example I use in school assemblies is this:

DSC_0185

This painting was designed and painted by my wife and my middle son after a really good holiday in Cornwall. We are proud of the painting because of the personal investment.   You can see us in the lower right hand corner. I am the pasty,  tending to flab guy in the orange trunks. My wife is the svelte beach babe in the hat.

Now, imagine that we loan this picture to our neighbours to care for it on our behalf and they do the following: they hang it on an outside wall, they don’t bring it in when it rains.  They let the dog sleep on it.  They use it as a litter box for the cat.  When we go and visit our picture we are aghast: “What happened?!”.  Clearly they have misunderstood what we meant by “take care of it” but as long as they stay true to their own style of stewardship, there is no problem.

When I ask the simple question in assembly whether I should use this painting to shelter under when I run to my car in the rain, they all shout “NO!” One child warned me that my wife would kill me if I did. I ask them why? They tell me that it is such a personal creation and I should respect it and care for it like it is something special.

Bingo.

Any person who uses the label “bible believing” need to take that on board when they read the very personal process of creation in the first chapters of Genesis. This special creation we live in is not ours to do with what we please. It is held in trust for God. It is held in trust for each other. It is held in trust for all the other members of creation be they plants or animals. What God gives, he gives in Trust rather than as freehold and no amount of denying will change that.

Syria. What am I supposed to write about Syria?

Million of pixels and gallons of ink have been spilled over the subject, much of it good and much of it unhelpful.  It was easier to be a compassionate person back before the internet and rolling news. There was so little of the world you could find any information about to pull at your heart strings so you let your neighbourhood and town do the pulling.  The well worn phrase “charity begins at home” had a somewhat truthful ring back then. But now, you and I are denizens of the global village and we can see up close and personal the suffering of people today in places we didn’t know existed and places we might have trouble spelling.

Compassionate people want to know what to do. Christians want to know what to do because part of the DNA of faith are those pesky “serve your neighbour” genes in which, thanks to Jesus, “neighbour” becomes an overly elastic phrase.  When those genes kick in they tend to raise questions like the following:

1. What can you do when You can’t do anything?  Sure you can pray, discuss and lobby but in the end Syrians and the nations who see them as their pet project are the ones who will have to sort this out.  If you want the Chinese and Russians to get the Syrian government to cease and desist, then you better be prepared to not buy any consumer goods for the next decade and if you live in Europe, don’t buy any natural gas.  Good luck with that.

You might like to see the US and other powers do a bit of butt kicking but the world has yet to see a civil war that a major power couldn’t make worse with better technology and four to five  year election cycles. And if you were honest, Syrians would like to see foreign troops intervene with the same enthusiasm that Britain would have welcomed foreign troops in Ulster during the 1970′s.

2. How patient do I have to be?   Most people aged 45 and over never expected to see Apartheid in South Africa be overthrown in their lifetimes. It took decades for the seed to grow into something that might bear fruit despite some of the most sustained campaigning and boycotting the world has ever seen. What turned the tide was the white population who devised the system and armed it and institutionalised it deciding they couldn’t do that any more.  Waiting for those hearts to change means you are in for the long haul.

3. It’s hard not to be partisan    There are no good guys or bad guys in this.  There is no angle that will somehow make the outcome good for everyone.  This war will end with one side being in the ascendency. There will be no Truth and Reconciliation Commission or an attempt to have some kind of inclusive, consensus led society.  There will be a winner.  And I’m pretty sure that winner will be someone we  have to do business with rather than someone we will want to embrace.  Some Christians are lobbying for Assad to stay in power because without him, the small Christian segment of the population will be slaughtered by whatever Islamist junta takes his place.  But somehow, just because we identify with them doesn’t make Assad the answer. At the same time if we support the Islamists who are really driving the rebellion, then we will have to be prepared for Syria to be an Islamic state and for the lives of many of its citizens, women in particular, to be set back severely.

It is hard to pick a side in this one that makes you feel good about yourself.  In the end, whoever wins, it will be the people who are just trying to get on with their lives who will pay the price.

4. Surely the nations of the world are champing at the bit to act out of compassion? When the chemical attack forced Obama’s hand it was clear that the US (and UK to a lesser extent) response was driven by deterrence rather than compassion.  It appears to be acceptable to stand by the side and watch hundreds of thousands die by means approved by the Geneva Convention, but for a government to use a banned weapon it means a response must be made or they might do it again. Governments are worried about a conflict creating a chaotic region they cannot control, not about what is happening to people on the ground.

5. Surely it is a sign that the big J is coming? For all those who are rubbing their hands together that this might be the beginning of the End and Jesus will descend from the clouds, think again.  The best piece of advice when checking out any end times prophet who says Jesus is coming back in their life time: do they have a pension plan and a will? If so, they aren’t too sure. And they shouldn’t be sure seeing as Jesus himself said the date wasn’t written in his diary.

So, what am I supposed to do about a big problem I can’t solve as a little person?

Jesus’ advice was to start where you are.  Open your house and heart and wallet to those in need and sow the seeds of peace and justice in your locality so that civil wars and oppression have a hard time planting their weeds there.

Our reach is further than it was in the past and if the best we can do is care for the viciims of this war then make sure you help organisations do a job they unfortunately have to do well. The DEC  is the best place to start.

You can be part of an excellent pedigree of people who have believed that one day all this  will be overturned  and pray for the leaders of all the nations involved and for the people of Syria.  You can also prayerfully lobby your elected representatives urging them to see what can really be done rather than posturing and making believe that worthwhile solutions can be plucked from the air at a moment’s notice. Humans don’t tend to work that way.

Part of the way of faith is holding on to that hope when we aren’t given neat solutions to huge problems. They are called to be hopeful when humans seem to be allowed to continue acting human and they are hopeful when we feel powerless to help. The most excellent way is to act as if love and peace and justice may actually accomplish something, because they will in the end. It’s just such a messy path to get there.

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