You are not on your own…

It always comes as a punch to the gut to hear about someone taking their own life. That punch sometimes feels harder and deeper when it is a member of the clergy, and I don’t think that shock is just for those in “the business”.  When someone with a vocation takes their life because they don’t feel they can cope any longer it unsettles everybody.

Part of that unsettling flows from the myth that if anyone knows how to cope with the darkness of stress it would be a priest.  There is the cozy stereotype of the blissed out person who just can’t believe they get to do what they love and get paid for it and after all they only work for an hour one day a week and they’re so helpful and nice and gracious and they are free from the petty squabbles and troubles of “real life”.

Of course, clergy exist in real life and are not immune from all the foibles that seem to define human life. They are not superhuman, super capable or super strong.  They have money troubles, relationship troubles, family troubles, they do the work of several people, have long hours, self doubt, conflict in the workplace and sometimes a nagging feeling they might be happier if they had pursued another career.

Clergy stress is not greater or more special than anyone else’s. But it is not always recognised as a reality.  As it is for others, this stress gets kept under wraps and those who suffer it refrain from telling spouses, bosses, friends or parishioners. “I’m the one everyone is relying on to keep it all together” says the inner dialogue.

The real fear is that if you are unable to cope then others will doubt you. Doubt leads to lack of confidence. Lack of confidence leads to replacement.

Remember Gazza’s tears in the 1990 World Cup?  Paul Gascoigne received a booking in the semi final between England and Germany which meant if England won, he would not be able to play in the final. His reaction? He cried. It has now become a national “Awwww” moment as he was overwhelmed with a feeling for having failed himself and his team mates.

However, the other iconic image is the England captain, Gary Lineker, signalling to the sidelines to get a sub ready because he didn’t think Gazza could carry on.

We are all afraid of that pragmatic message being sent to the sidelines about us.

Why? Because while we  want to be supportive of those who suffer mental illness, there is a still a powerful cultural myth that mental illness is really just a bad choice when faced by hard times or it means you are dangerously wired up. Social media has been a powerful way to keep this myth alive as you can see in these two photos:

dyerhopkins

Our culture fears perceived weakness and failure. Our current government makes policy on the basis that someone in need is more likely to be a scrounger than a worthy recipient of our care. The Wayne Dyer quote on the left encourages us to believe that we live in a vacuum untouched by the choices of others, of systems and situations of limited choices. Katie Hopkins….well don’t get me started.

In the face of this, scripture tells us a different story. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us that God is most powerful when we are weak and devoid of our superhero complex. He writes in other places that it is assumed that we will crumble and stumble which is why it is better to be brothers and sisters together rather than to be alone and isolated.

As Christians we need to remember to put aside our labels (lay and ordained) and our acceptance of the false myth about our power to change the world and ourselves by just trying really hard. We need to stamp out our own tendency to judge others who struggle.

Instead, we are called to journey together and bear each other’s burdens.

And maybe it looks like this. On that eventful World Cup evening, the game went to penalties. Gazza was still distraught but look at the response of the England manager Bobby Robson. He could have berated Gazza for his error. He could have kept him from taking a penalty because his mind wasn’t in the game. Instead he put his arm around Gazza and offered himself. The language may not be recommended therapeutic words, but the attitude is spot on.

In my darkest times, it has not been the wise words of others that saw me through. It was the love, inclusion and the care they had for me even when I felt unloveable, incapable and bewildered.

We are here for each other. You are not alone.

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What did you mean by that?

When the US Supreme Court handed down its ruling that no state in the union can bar people of the same sex marrying, there were two reactions. One involved celebrating with rainbows and flags. The other involved wailing and the gnashing of teeth like a crowd of spectators whose team lost on a questionable last minute penalty kick.

Regardless of which side you are on, it is the court’s job to make the call. The US Supreme Court exists as one of three branches of US government. Its job is to ensure that the other two branches (and by extension the States) don’t pass laws or take actions that are either outside of their constitutional powers or which infringe the rights of citizens.

The US Constitution is a written document which is precise in some places and imprecise in others. It was written and amended at set points in history but intended to be a dynamic document which would be the foundation for the nation for all time.

This “for now and always” status required the constitution’s authors to entrust its interpretation to a court who could maintain it as a living document over time in greatly changed circumstances which the authors could never imagine.

Interpretation is the key word here and it sheds much light on use of the Bible as a similar living document.  In the UK the debate about whether someone can be “actively gay” (which makes them sound like a yoghurt rather than a person) and also be a full participating member of a church comes down to two interpretation laden questions:

        a) How authoritative and prescriptive is scripture (in order for me to “submit” to it)

       b) Who gets to decide that and control the dialogue?

Many would want to say the bible is clear on certain behaviours; you only have to read it for yourself. The problem with this “clear as day” argument is that it is possible to read scripture in a faithful way and yet come to a conclusion that it is clear as mud.

In constitutional law, this is the bread and butter for professors, lawyers and commentators. In most cases where there is an argument about whether rights have been denied or not, it is rare to read the constitution and say “Ah, here is the answer”. Take for instance the second amendment, the one about owning a gun:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Okay, clear as day. So can a law be passed regulating gun ownership? What does infringed mean? If you aren’t in a militia can you own a gun? Can ownership and militia membership be separated? Can you stop certain people from owning guns? Who are they? Why them and not other citizens?

To answer these questions Justices listen to debates, apply their own biases, apply their own understanding of constitutional law, read scholarship, debate with each other, look at precedence…it’s a pretty subjective process. The court then votes. It doesn’t have to be unanimous, just majority.

What limits this court is that they can’t go back and ask the authors what they meant and what exceptions they assumed. They have to use the tools at hand and interpret the document. In this way they submit to its authority but they still have to come to a conclusion about how elastic this fixed document is within the dynamics of human development and history. The process is the same no matter which side you are on.

And once they rule they haven’t added to the constitution. There is no amendment which says “same sex marriage is here to stay”. This issue may come up again one day and they may choose to rule on that too.

Appealing to the bible for answers is the same. We might ask a precise question and get a precise answer: “Was Paul a Roman citizen?” Yes he was. “Did Paul believe women couldn’t be church leaders?” “Well, you see it is a bit more complex than appealing to a couple pieces of scripture that might suggest that is the case”.

We can’t go back and ask the author of Leviticus or Paul or even Jesus what exactly they meant on a given subject. Instead we take the tools at hand and try to work it out the best we can. What one generation says is the final word often isn’t and the church’s history bears that out. Add to that the plethora of protestant denominations it is hard to work out exactly who gets to draw the line in the sand and say, “no further”. It doesn’t mean that scripture is wrong or flawed, but rather that we can be limited by what we know, expect and are willing to recognise. We are a people gaining understanding rather than just memorising the facts.

Scripture is not a list of FAQs. It is hard to pick up a bible and honestly say “God said it and I believe it” without using an extra-biblical filter. It is easy to forget that the earliest church spread across the near east didn’t have access to a canon of Paul’s letters or the gospels or their own personal copy of the Old Testament. It is easy to forget that personal ownership of a good translation and interpretative tools is a development of the mid to late 20th century.  Everyday christians have been working with scripture for a short amount of time and discovering a lot of stuff that makes sense to them.

We do ourselves, and the world, a disservice in any conversation about scripture where the outcome is the intentional exclusion of others when we forget what a human infused task interpreting scripture is.  Jesus is the supreme sign from God that broken fragile human beings are loved and worthy to be called into his midst.  When I ask someone else to be excluded or to make massive sacrifices because they are not deemed holy enough, I forget that God included me. I can never be holy enough to make the cut.  I rely on Jesus being the author and completer of my faith. I rely on his grace to cover my shortfall as I try to follow him. So I have to tread carefully about seeking others to label as “unholy”.

We do need to guard against a faith based on “I want it so give it to me”.  And we need to guard against a faith that doesn’t talk about what makes for a good relationship in keeping with the purposes of creation (like the importance of fidelity, mutuality and love). However, God has given us brains and wisdom and the Holy Spirit. We can spot an abomination a mile off. It just takes courage to see that two people mutually pledging themselves in love to each other isn’t one of them.

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Just a few hours more…

The Chancellor of the Exchequer believes one thing about your life. All Tory policy is built around this belief. I’d even go so far as to say that every government in power since Margaret Thatcher has believed this.

You are an economic unit serving UKPLC. 

You are a bad citizen if you aren’t productive enough, if you don’t spend enough and worst of all, if you are perceived as a drain on the economy. With this ideology in mind, George Osborne is about to further reform the Sunday trading laws. You can read more about it here.

It would appear that the one day of shorter working and shopping hours is holding back the economy.  And for George that needs to change because if it is good for the economy, then George is for it. Whether it is good for people is a secondary issue.  People come and go, but the economy soldiers on.  People are disposable but economies are forever. If you don’t believe me, read this.

The bible is pretty consistent on describing its abhorrence of Idolatry.  Not just a few verses here or there. Scripture is infused with an anger about how idolatry destroys humans and creation. Idolatry take two forms: something which usurps God’s place at the head of creation and therefore retells the master story in its own image or it is something which sits in God’s place and asks people to serve it regardless of the cost. Things like flags, nations, ideologies, doctrines, family, economics, holy books.

George is inviting us to serve the idol and gospel of the thriving economy. Economic growth shall set you free.  Work more hours for less pay. Spend more. Cooperate understandingly when the elimination of your job makes the company appear more profitable. If you don’t go along with it, there is something suspect about you because UKPLC needs this to happen and therefore you do too.

In the case of the Sunday trading laws, he wants retail workers, who traditionally have been low paid and who have little job security to exchange a few precious hours of leisure for more hours of toil. He discourages us to think that maybe in the big scheme of things, it would be better to spend a couple of extra hours around a table with friends, in a park or forest or on a game of Scrabble  or a good movie or (gasp!) doing nothing but being. Do we all really need more hours to go buy more stuff?

I’ve just read Walter Brueggemann’s “Sabbath as Resistance”. In this book he suggests that when Israel were slaves, Pharoah’s  way was more work, more growth. Israel were slaves serving a 24/7  imperial economy which had no place for people and their petty needs.  Every moment is about production.

The Sabbath, on the other hand, is about being. To be human is to participate in relationship and neighbourliness. Relationship is with people, creation, with nature, with God, with ourselves and maybe even a relationship with all the stuff we already own. Neighbourliness is about mutual care for each other which no market and no amount of productivity can provide. It is the antithesis to productivity and its demands.

The Sabbath was created as a counter-point to Pharoah.

Increasingly, governments of all stripes see the population as a collective of economic units. Our intrinsic worth is what we can contribute to the economy. That’s why so much of our national debate is focussed on who is creating wealth and who is draining it . It is a debate that encourages us to think about who are the heroes and who are the villains. The villains are the ones who don’t deserve, the ones who have pressing human needs that require precious resources to be diverted from our thriving economy, the ones who seem to want a free hand out. Such myths are built on other myths of  self reliance, fear and the concept that wealth is a sign of deserved blessing on those who have it.

Sabbath says no to the idolatrous myth George serves. Sabbath says that here is a different income and expenditure sheet that our national health is judged on.  Sabbath says the economy should serve us. There are no “shirkers and workers” but rather stewards who are offered a great gift and are called to share it wisely and generously with each other. Sabbath invites us to rediscover our neighbour, not as a competitor or an asset, but as a fellow person made in the image of God.

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All that glitters…

glitterbomb

Glitter.  The enemy of church cleanliness.  Let’s do Messy Church in the church! Let’s make cards with loads of glitter! It will hoover up easily!  Pigs will fly and  the church will have no divisions!

Of course, I think all these thoughts in my head.  Motivated talented children’s workers are far more important than my pet peeves.

But now, glitter has broken out of the world of crafts. It has been weaponised.  A couple of weeks ago, the Guardian reported this.  And then, this followed pretty much straight away. It would seem that revenge may be sweet for the revenger but not for the supplier.

I think this story filled that tiny gap during all the coverage of revenge violence in France which is meant to make us believe there is still something to laugh about in the darkness. It was meant to make us light hearted. Instead, it revealed some truths we’d rather avoid.

The glitter bomb website crashed because of a tidal wave of revenge. People may not feel they can pull a trigger but they can bomb someone with glitter. The same emotions that led to hostage taking and cold blooded murder are the ones that make you go to a web site and ask someone to prepare what is effectively a mail bomb full of glitter.

Jesus once pointed out that the same emotion that makes you call your brother a fool is the one that makes you pull a trigger with murderous intent.  Jesus didn’t use words lightly and he didn’t underestimate the power of emotions. Later he would talk about the best way to deal with your enemies:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.   Matthew 5

When I make my enemy my concern and his/her wellbeing my concern then I keep them human and recognise that they share many of my hopes, dreams, mistaken perspectives and motives and narrowness of vision. At worst by keeping my enemy human I shame them when they treat me as least than human; at best, by keeping my enemy human, I offer them the chance to be human and take their anger seriously.

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Lincoln and the Kingdom of God

Sometimes it is good to sit down and learn something. The DVD of Lincoln has sat on our shelf for over a year and I decided to watch it on a cloudy uninviting morning.  It really is a good film, though at times it feels like the great film you hoped they would show you in history class but never did.

What struck me most were the scenes of Lincoln debating with his cabinet or close allies. They were debates which were elegant, articulate and full of passion. The reason for this was the scope of the subject matter. How could this great experiment in democracy called the United States be kept from being derailed by slavery and the conclusion of a civil war.  Keeping it alive and dynamic was the important aim. Once the nation settled into the purpose of just carrying on was the day the nation began to die.

Unfortunately, regardless of which side of the Atlantic you live on today, you can see the signs of what happens when you settle for just existing and holding on to what you’ve got.  In the West, we have stopped being an experiment in human freedom and progress and instead become an experiment in serving prosperity.

In this new experiment of prosperity for its own sake, the idea that prosperity only benefits everyone when everyone has a stake, both as contributor and recipient, has died. When that crucial element is ignored leaders are transformed into managers of a system that cannot be changed or challenged. All you have to do is apply rules and dig in your heels and hope for the best. Leading an experiment meant to be for the general human good requires wit, imagination, resolve, negotiation and partnership. It requires a bigger vision than hoping that enriching the rich will enrich us all.

In this country the general election has truly started even though we don’t vote until May. We will be offered a ballot paper, for the most part, full of managers who seek only to serve prosperity as a good unto itself.  And when one of those parties have the votes to form a government they will be looking for the scapegoats for our current financial situation.

It won’t be bankers or theorists who told us credit could buy us happiness. It will be the poor, the working poor, disabled people, immigrants, public sector workers and anyone else who can be construed as takers of prosperity. In short, there will be people branded as losers who are taking prosperity from the winners. And they will bear the brunt of the coming cuts of public spending.

We already see this in profitable companies when their profit isn’t high enough for their shareholders. Walk into any major supermarket and ask why there are more self service checkouts than human staffed tills. It’s not to make shopping more convenient. It is because a group of machines can be looked after by one paid human being. Machines don’t need time off or pensions or wages or national insurance paid.

The state is trying to learn the same lesson in the name of prosperity.

After the election in May the national discussion led by our manager-politicians will not be about how we live together but rather about how we all live with money. It won’t be about living within our national means for the good of all but rather how we live within our national means for the “winners”.

The bible has many grand visions of the future. You might even argue they are proposed experiments in what the Kingdom of God might look like. They are never for the winners nor exclusively for the poor. They are exclusively for all those who want to be a part of God’s great experiment of dwelling with his creation, on his terms. Terms we see so unclearly through the cracked and dirty glass of humanity in the process of being restored.

There is one picture I love from the Old Testament. It speaks of peace, security, employment and a place one can call one’s own. It speaks of a share in God’s Kingdom which does not favour the winners but rather those who desire a great future and existence for humankind.

He will judge between many peoples
and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the Lord Almighty has spoken.
All the nations may walk
in the name of their gods,
but we will walk in the name of the Lord
our God for ever and ever.

Micah 4:3-5

There is no place for managers in the Kingdom of God. The only place is for those who are not afraid to walk into the unknown future of a creation that nourishes and benefits all rather than the few.

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Remembrance Sunday

Anzac_poppies

One hundred years ago, there was no Remembrance Day. Wars were far away things which tended not to empty whole villages, remove generations of young men from the gene pool and were not fought on an industrial scale with industrial weapons.  In their remoteness, they were perceived as the stuff of adventure and honour. So no one really was all that bothered about cenotaphs and poppies and veterans doing their bit for our freedom.

It only took four years to change that. Men were told they were marching off to a war they would return from by Christmas. It would be a jolly jape with your mates and a bit of a sabbatical from the drudgery of the factory or being in service or a farm hand on an estate. They would return by Christmas but not Christmas 1914.

The reason we have cenotaphs and poppies is because those young men marched off to a nightmare; a contagious nightmare which made people confront a very real human tragedy that all could take credit for. It seems that we all had a taste for war and glory. We discovered that we could send someone to go and die for their country with relative ease.

There is an argument that we don’t need Remembrance Day anymore, but I’m not so sure that is true. We can argue about tone and style, but if we use today properly, as a pebble in our shoes, then we will always require today because we always send people to war. This month British troops are coming home from a war in Afghanistan which has gone on 3 times as long as the first world war and has cost over £30bn. True, the casualties are much lower and the war was much “cleaner” but after all that expenditure in time, lives and treasure if you asked 100 people what was achieved you’d get probably 85 versions of “I’m not really sure”.

We still need a day where we are forced to say, “What was that all about?”

For Christians, today should be a day of tension. That tension is caused by believing that Jesus’ death and resurrection inaugurated the Kingdom of God, that we can firmly plant our lives in that Kingdom as we await its coming in all its fullness. We can interpret reality not with the question “What would Jesus do” which is more about earning reward points, but rather “does this look like the kingdom” which is about the compatibility of my life with the reality that God is revealing.

In the beatitudes in Matthew, Jesus lays out a sort of manifesto that describes that kingdom life. It looks cryptic and alien because our lives are so far out of whack with them. But when we commit to living them, and letting today be a day of practicing them, we find ourselves transformed in the process.

Today we remember blessed are the peacemakers. Peacemakers believe that war is not inevitable, that often there are deeper “non-kingdom” agendas at work in the demands for war and question the value of the sacrifices demanded for those agendas. We, like Jesus, ask the hard questions and wait for legitimate answers. As we learned from the First World War, national leaders saying, “Trust us” is not a good enough answer to go to war on. There are times when we will not get a perfect situation where we can say no, there will be times when war is “unavoidable” but there is never a time when war is a default position. Peacemakers know that.

However, this is real flesh and blood we are talking about. These are sons and daughters and friends and workmates. I was at a school event this week and one teacher spoke about a classroom discussion about the First World War. She said the best part of it was when a child said, “There must have been upset Germans too”.

Exactly.

The beatitudes also tell us that those who mourn are blessed. Those who lament with God that we haven’t found a better way of sharing the planet and brushing up against each other. That we haven’t learned to see flesh and blood as too high a price to pay for ideas and economics and unattainable security.  To lament that for every name on a cenotaph or war memorial there is another ten whose lives will feel empty and shattered.

To mourn means setting aside our anger and activism and simply shedding tears at the futility of human endeavour to make peace. To mourn the loss of a human being, someone who is made in the image of God and beloved of God in the same way I am,  is another way of asking that scrutinising question:“Is this a good enough reason to go to war?”

Today does need to exist, but as a godly irritant day where we remember that, to quote Paul, we have fallen short of the glory of God and to shed tears to lament the cost of that state of affairs.

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Go Team!

 IMAG0326

I went to Wembley Stadium this week to see the Atlanta Falcons play the Detroit Lions in an NFL game. It was exciting and ended on a nail biting field goal. The atmosphere was friendly and jovial with lots of laughter and people experiencing their first ever game of a sport they have admired from afar. It was a first for my son who was almost vibrating with excitement as he devoured every detail and colour and sound.

Apart from those who were actual fans of either of the teams, no one in the stadium really cared who won. What was important was being there celebrating something we all loved and sharing it with thousands of other people who loved it too. Of course, we hoped the two teams would put on a worthy display.

There was a lot of drinking but no fighting. I’ve never seen such a low key police presence at a stadium filled with  80,000 people. There was no fan segregation. There was good natured ribbing between people wearing rival shirts but there was no malice. Everyone seemed genuinely interested in the other fans around them and their experiences of football.

The old lags happily explained to new converts about why a particular play was stopped or why  the punt returner was waving his hand in the air. There was no telling people to shut up, no one was treated like a distraction.

In short, it was less of a sporting event and more of a festival of people celebrating something they really loved with loads of others who loved the same thing.

I’ve thought about this over the week  and I’ve been struck by how much I wish the Church was like this. We, the Wembley crowd, were a diverse group of men and women united by our love of football. We all came with different views on football, different favourites, different doctrines about how the game should be played and who should play it. Yet none of that got in the way of celebrating what we loved and sharing a sort of fellowship. No one was told they couldn’t come in because they were Cincinnati Bengals fans or because their all time favourite player was John Elway. No one refused to talk to their neighbour because they preferred teams with a running game.

In short, our starting point was the thing we loved and celebrating that love a with loads of others who loved the same thing. And that really should be the church’s starting point too. When we are part of a church because we love Jesus and his way and revel in being with others who love him and his way too, all the other stuff falls into place.

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