Monthly Archives: August 2011

Jesus, Teenager of God

You’ve probably now heard the story of the terrible Miner-Garrity Family.  Read all about it here.  Tutting will be involved in your response and for just a little amount of time, you’ll have the chance to feel smugly superior to these horrible people.  No one in this story comes out of it with any credit apart from the judge who could see where this was going a mile away.

Bad parents have been around for a long time.  Come to my parish and I could introduce you to some very questionable parenting. Ask most parents and they will  admit to being subpar more often than being top of the league. Nobody trains you to be a parent. No manual pops out just
after the placenta. There’s no exam.

So a good “the country is going to the dogs, will you get a load of these people” story should make us all think about how fragile this family thing is and always has been.  Jesus knew as well as anyone what these tensions were. For instance, he comes home to do some preaching and makes claims about what God is doing through him. His family ask him to come home and stop making so much crazy talk.  A prophet in his hometown and sitting at his mother’s kitchen table gets no honour.

We have a family joke in our household about teenage Jesus getting upset because of Joseph laying down the law. He shouts angrily, “You can’t tell me what to do! You’re not my real dad!” and Joseph stalks off angry and hurt knowing Jesus is right.

Mary and Joseph are in a relationship they want but with implications they didn’t ask for. They get this child who they have to care for and they get all their mistakes on the record. For instance when he is  12 they go to Jerusalem for Passover (Luke 2:41-48). They do all the things they need to do and then head off with the caravan back to their home town. After it’s been underway awhile, they realise that their son isn’t with them.  Bad parenting to the max.

So they rush back to Jerusalem and find him in the temple, sitting with his elders, teaching them like an old pro. After Mary does the “oh my god my baby/I’ll kill you if you ever do something like that again” routine she expresses how worried they both were about him.

Jesus delivers what to any parent must feel like a fatal blow: “Where else did you expect to find me except in my father’s house?”  Well, we expected you to be by our side, we expected you to be our boy. But no matter what we expect, you’re someone else’s boy in the end.

No matter how much good advice you can get, all you can really do is your best. Talk to your kids and ask how they’re feeling and take the hit when they tell you that you’re getting an F at the moment.  You have to remember that they act childishly because frankly, they are children.  My kids seem to think I’m okay and aren’t going to trade me in, though there are times when they are tempted. I need to remember that and honour it by treating them as people rather than accessories.

One of the potential blessings as minister (and being a member of a community of faith) is that your kids get to meet lots of adults of quality  and learn stuff from them and be treated well by them. My kids have learned great things from the people in their church. They’ve learned about service and tolerance and dedication. They’ve learned about justice and compassion and hard work. They’ve also learned that things don’t always go the way you planned them to. I’m grateful that they have been surrounded by lots of parents who, probably subconsciously, want to help us do our best. I hope that we’ve been returning the favour too.

So feel smug and move on. If you play your cards right, maybe your attempts at parenting won’t hit the papers too.

In England’s Green and Pleasant Land

Three Shires Head where Cheshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire meet

I probably will lose all credibility after this posting because I am going to make a shocking revelation.  Despite an excellent musical education  ranging from some fine old jazzers to Martin Imbach to some guys I play drums with every now and then, I still love english progressive rock music from the 70’s. While my kids think I am making trendy downloads I sneak in old dinosaurs. I even bought a cd on ebay to copy one song. Shocking I know, but we all have our secrets.

You may wonder when there are riots and lootings and mass punishments to blather about, why am I mentioning decrepit old rockers. It’s mainly because I spent a week this summer in a field in the Shropshire Hills gazing at the countryside. Shropshire is the least populated county in England and full of beautiful hills of farmland and wild rocky terrain like the Long Mynd. The countryside changes as the light changes and over the week, no two vistas were the same.

After a while, with the right imagination and musical background, you can see how people created these reverb laden, Hammond C3 driven soundscapes filled with weird lyrics sung by little pixie like men with Kevin Keegan perms. You can see how the land might inspire them to sing about caves and fairy kingdoms and strange conflicts between strange people.  The landscape of England produces English culture. Tolkien could not have written Lord of the Rings without the English countryside (even if it was all filmed in New Zealand). It’s believed that he used the Black Country (the heavy industrial wasteland that takes in Walsall, Wolverhampton and West Bromwich to name a few towns) as his model for Mordor. It’s no coincidence that Back Sabbath and Judas Priest came from there as well as Robert Plant (who was  once described as a genius as writing lyrics that mixed Tolkien with lots of sex).

We are where we come from. When you look at England’s pastures green (as Blake put it) you can hear the music it has inspired from Vaughn Williams to Yes. With my headphones on I could make the connection between the music and the landscape around me which was quite pleasing. In fact, it is always pleasing when things come together like they are part of some greater whole.

Too often, we see the components of our lives and our wider society as closed, independent entities which bump into each other randomly as if they have no relation to each other. In the recent riots/lootings/world as we know it coming to an end, all the talk in the aftermath was about them and us as if we have no connection.  But, like or not, we do. We are all created and are part of a greater creation intended to serve God’s pleasure rather than itself.   When we are falsely separated, we owe each other nothing and that’s when everything goes pear shaped.

In the Old Testament,  in Leviticus, God is pretty open about his view of wealth and poverty. The wealthy are seen as instruments of prosperity for the whole community and may enjoy the fruits of that wealth as long as they acknowledge it is from God and as long as the rest of the community have what they need for a meaningful life. God tells them expressly that in his new community, made from those who escaped slavery in Egypt, there was to be no poor among them.  Everyone had a stake in everyone else. Everyone had responsibilities and obligations to each other. In that society, no one has the right to tell others to fend for themselves and no one has the right to say they are owed anything.

What fractures society is when we see it as something to take from rather than a place to participate with each other.  If we analyse the riots/looting from that point, we begin to see that we have all failed to have a stake in each other and that analysis will be far more fruitful than if we just do a bunch of scapegoating.  However, seeing that no one in charge is doing that, brace yourself for tedious moral campaigns, rhetoric about getting tough on crime and criminals and counterblasts about the poor and vulnerable and social exclusion. We will be far apart and continue to grow apart.

We are created to be connected. When things connect, they bear fruit.

Papa does not have a new bag

30 years ago my parents bought me a state of the art sleeping bag. It was light, toasty warm and roomy.  I thought they were just giving me some camping gear but some simple things have a way of becoming important parts of our lives.

That bag was with me during some of the best moments of my adolescence.  Wrapped in that bag I sat on top of Tiger Mountain, both in summer and winter, watching the sunset with friends. As it became dark around us we’d idly watch the traffic lights change in Issaquah while we talked long into the night about girls, our futures and what was the meaning of life.  We’d go on long hikes to wild ocean beaches and in our tents, listening to the eternal surf, my friends and I would carry on about similar themes.  We’d hike into the Cascades and feel like pioneers with only the basics and talk to comfort us.

Those conversations were and are important to me. They were uninhibited in the way that only young people can talk without cringing. Cocooned by my bag I explored my world in the safety of friendship with people who wouldn’t laugh at my ideas as stupid or talk over me because my voice wasn’t important.  I do have to admit that once in the midst of a deep conversation, one of my companions was pouring out his heart about some stumbling relationship and when he finally finished he found that the rest of us had fallen asleep.

I look back and realise that at some point our words became our last conversation before we went out into the brave big world and went our separate ways.  Of course that’s not recognised that until later, when we’ve become adults.

The great thing about well made memories is that while I may think of them here in a little northern English town, thousands of miles away someone else may be thinking about them too.

That bag is still with me. I tried to get rid of it a couple of years ago, lured by the siren call of sexy new streamlined bags. I gave my old bag to my oldest son and settled into my new bag for the first night of a camping trip. One of the worst sleeps of my life. The next day I gave my kid the new bag and got my old one back. Lovely, warm, roomy. Old school. The added bonus is that when I climb into that bag everything comes flooding back.

30 years and the bag has kept its value in my life. A lot of marriages don’t last 30 years. It’s unlikely you or I will keep a job with the same  company for 30 years like our dads did. Economic booms don’t last 30 years. Most friendships don’t.  Your modern car won’t nor will most of the  junk we fill our houses with.

My sleeping bag is a reminder that some things last and add value to our lives. The least we can do is recognise them, celebrate them and cherish them.

Let me ask you this…

The faith I grew up with was full of questions that began with “how” and “what”. How can I please God? What does God demand of me so that I can be more holy?  The biggest question of them all? What do I have to believe to be saved and how do I recognise those who are not? It was all very mechanical.

It’s true that asking how and what can help us consolidate,discern and grow.  They are questions of measurement and explanation which is why they also form the basis of inspection regimes full of tick lists. They seek to define the standards of goodness and badness by which the inspected are measured.  It has taken me a long time to realise that following Jesus is more than just passing a periodic inspection.

Still, many faithful people are happy to oblige. An imam once told me that life is like an MOT (the British annual vehicle roadworthiness inspection). When your time comes to stand before God the Judge, your headlights and brakes better be in working order. I’m pretty sure that my  Sunday school teachers would probably have agreed. How and what makes for strange bedfellows.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life”, asks a rich young man in the gospel of Matthew.  He tells Jesus that he’s done everything else right; he’s kept all the commandments and is a clean living boy. But he senses that he’s missed a step somewhere. So he’s hedging his bets by seeking the opinion of this hip new teacher.

Jesus’ response is to probe the reason why the young man is there. Though he doesn’t say it he is really asking, “Why come to me if you’ve done everything right?” Nonetheless, he scratches his head and comes up with an answer: “try this on for size: go and sell everything”. Being rich was an accepted sign of God’s blessing; Jesus was telling him to chuck in that theology and find eternal life by faith instead.

The young man goes away sad; this wasn’t the solution he wanted. In fact it sounded like a joke.

Christians over the centuries have regularly accepted the young man’s approach over Jesus’. We itch for real success in every aspect of our lives. We itch for The Answer. If we just knew the right thing to do, everything else would fall into place.

Dealing with God on a How and What basis puts us constantly in the position of being people on a treasure hunt. What do I have to do now?  Always feeling we have to give an answer that sorts everything out leaves us eternally vulnerable to missteps and disappointment.

I remember once driving through the Oregon desert with my wife. The only radio station we could get was a Christian one featuring a guy called the “Bible Answer Man”. People would write in their questions and he would…well his title says it all. On this hot and dusty day he was asked if there were dinosaurs on the ark and if there were, what happened to them.

“Yes, there may have been,” he said boldly. “But they are not around now because the flood waters changed the environment so much, they couldn’t live in it any longer and so they died out”.   To this day, that remains the best, concise explanation of natural selection I have ever heard. By wanting things tidied up so that we feel better and complete, we miss the point.  The most die hard fundamentalist ends up sounding like Richard Dawkins.

However, we discover more about the mystery of ourselves and the mystery that is God by being truly biblical and asking more “why” questions. Why are we here? Why are we so destructive and yet so capable of love? Why should I care about famine victims? Why do we love? I can explore these questions and live out what I discover.

Jesus was pretty comfortable with why questions because he knew that they led to pragmatic answers.  For instance, read the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. Which question fits better: what must I do to make God love me or Why does God still love me, even though I fall short of the mark?

Maybe the latter question leads me to ask more questions: why do I fall short of the mark? What might life be like if I consciously cut back on what causes me to fall short of the mark?

We might be tempted to create a tick box laden plan of how not to fall short any more and try to make it look like salvation. But if it’s got tick boxes, it’s probably not salvation.

When God says “Thou Shalt Not” it is meant to cause me to ask “why not?” and then begin answering the question for myself so that I own the question and the answer. Why not covet? Because it leads to all kinds of rubbish for people, nations, foreign policy, corporations and relationships. Now maybe I understand God hates coveting because of what it does to the thing he loves the most: us.

The risk we run by letting “why” be our first question is messier lives, lives less defined by power, ambition, and wealth and seeing people as means to an end. That can only be a good thing for the world.

The Psalmist hit the nail on the head when he asked God why he cared so much about humanity. It’s a good question and fortunately we have
an eternity to answer it.