Monthly Archives: September 2011

Pilgrim’s Progress

A minister’s real passion flows from the things that are particularly meaningful to them. It may be healing or leadership or servant ministries or teaching. For me I think it is encouraging ordinary people to believe they are good enough to be loved by God and to serve God.  In the 13 years I’ve been ordained I seem to have spent a lot of time around people who are underconfident about their faith and their worthiness in God’s eyes. I don’t think that is a coincidence.

While looking for inspiration for Sunday’s sermon I was trawling the net. A lot of it wasn’t helpful. But what caught my eye and made me write was a banner across a page proclaiming that this particular ministry’s course would “be the breakthrough in faith you have been looking for”.

Imagine my response to that red rag.

Breakthrough is a very loaded word. Is it the kind of breakthrough that comes from hard work and practice? Or maybe efforts that have produced a competitive edge? Or does it mean an outcome that originates from being frustrated at how poor we are at something and receiving a sort of magic bullet that makes up for our deficiencies?

I suspect it is the latter because I’ve needed to do some repenting of falling for the same sales pitch myself.

My oldest son is taking his GCSEs this year. One of his courses is Chemistry. It is interesting that none of his teaching has been focussed on one level as the destination. He is expected to make a journey through Chemistry. He will struggle with some of it and master some it. But no one has a flag marking where the journey stops. It doesn’t stop except where he chooses to put down his book bag. He is being taught to recognise that progress is what we make when we apply ourselves to learning and living what we are learning.

To entice faithful people to your course because they perceive they are “getting it wrong” somehow encourages them to believe that faith is a technique that produces results rather than a life that is lived. Learn the technique, claim the prize. Ignore the technique, fall behind. I know far too many Christians with a faith that causes them so much anxiety because of their fear of missing the final piece in the puzzle if they ignore the latest techniques or books or DVDs.

It is a deeply ingrained western habit to see everything as a problem to be solved or a goal to be obtained. That’s why lots of money can be made in this breakthrough business.  Better teeth, trim figures and a package of obvious but scholarly sounding concepts about the bible, prayer and Christian living seem to go a long way to convincing us that these breakthrough teachers have the final word (until their next final word comes out).

Now I’m not criticising the dress sense, dental work or scholarship of my best teachers, but they tend to be people without a big breakthrough plan. They tend to be people who freely offer me, a fellow traveller, the gift of what they are learning at Jesus’ feet. It is offered not as a Eureka moment but rather as a quiet calmness which comes from knowing there is truth in the room seeking to infect us all.

My favourite story in the Gospels (apart from the fish with the tax money in his mouth…but that’s for another posting) tells me that Jesus is the breakthrough. The rest is conscientious following.

Jesus came to a town called Jericho. In the town there was a tax collector called Zaccheus who kept his office under a tree.  Jewish tax collectors were hated because they were seen as collaborators with the occupying Romans. While they collected Caesar’s tax they added a commission for themselves. If you wanted to define a sinner in 1st Century Palestine, he was your poster boy.

Anyway, Zaccheus hears the big crowd coming and wants to have a peek at who this celebrity was. He was short so he climbed the tree to get a better look.  While he was up there Jesus stopped and singled him out saying he was going to Z’s house for his supper. A big surprise for Z but he agrees and off they go.  We’re not given the transcript for the mealtime conversation but I wish we had it.

After the meal Zaccheus, the hated sinful corrupt tax collector, comes out and acknowledges how wrong he’d been in the career he’d chosen. He offers to repay several times the amount he took from each person because he’d rather start a new life poor than be burdened with an old life of oppressing the poor.

That is a breakthrough you can’t get buy. It is what happens when your heart responds to the Christ who doesn’t define you as a tax collector but as a Child of God. It’s what happens when you have enough faith to follow and build your life around that faith to see what happens.

Injecting another perspective

The execution of Troy Davis set the social media networks alight last week. The death penalty is always divisive because executing a citizen raises lots more questions than it answers.

Should the state legally be able to kill citizens? How “without a doubt” can we know someone is guilty? Does it really act as deterrence or is it vengeance?  Is there a point where a citizen’s behaviour deems them unworthy of living? How movable is that threshold?  Should we eagerly execute people, especially when that eagerness mimics most of the countries we’ve been told oppose everything we stand for?

As you can imagine, Jesus wasn’t a big fan of state executions. And I would imagine that he probably wouldn’t encourage us to be big fans either. After all he’s the one who summarised all the commandments in two short phrases: love God with all that you are and love your neighbour in the same way. Sharp eyed readers will spot that he was quoting the Old Testament. Love doesn’t dismiss justice but it does temper vengeance and the overriding desire to be the final judge.

The earliest church preached Jesus’ coming as the dawning of a new age with the Kingdom  of God breaking into the present.  They preached that Jesus was the last victim and his own dubious state sponsored execution was subverted. While it was meant to silence him and his message, instead it became the means for human salvation, the defeat of the power of sin and freedom for all slaves.

Like all people I struggle with what we are to do with murderers and paedophiles. I would like to see them exterminated rather than maintained at our expense for the rest of their lives. Yet I also know that exterminating people for failing to be properly human is a slippery slope as we continually define what properly human is.

I’ve learned that a healthy faith is the result of asking questions and reflecting on the answers.  When I want evildoers to know no mercy where does that leave me? Clearly it is good that God has offered me mercy, but then again, I’m a nice person. Does he offer it to the “bad” sinners too?  The cost of faith is answering yes, he does offer the bad sinners mercy. I’m supposed to pray for my enemies and desire their salvation.

And sometimes when you want a dose of feel good revenge that really sucks.

Scripture tells me that I am no one’s ultimate judge; it tells me that even the foulest sinner can come right and it tells me that my main job is to bring light into darkness by declaring the kingdom of God is near.

I don’t mean opening the jail doors and releasing criminals because one day they may be redeemed. I mean believing that maybe the one thing I can’t do is take their life away, no matter how worthless I might perceive that life to be, because I’m not God. I can enact justice to the best of my ability but I cannot enact judgement in the sense of an ultimate outcome.

I’ve learned to be saddened at followers of Jesus relishing an execution. I’m not sure how we can say on Sunday that Jesus has saved us from the wages of sin (death) and express our thankfulness for this undeserved pardon and then on Monday say executing this person is good news.

If I have received so much from God why be so keen to see someone else receive so little, particularly when I believe that one day that person, same as me, will be judged justly on who they chose to be.  We don’t have the luxury of giving a message of life to the world that is contaminated with such an enthusiastic support for death.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Here is a useful article about how to make every home safer:  I really don’t know what is more disturbing – the article or a website full of articles like this, produced daily.

I still watch with wonder as everyday people  show this kind of devotion to guns as an essential part of the American dream. My wonder grows even more  to see this kind of  devotion to guns by christians who call themselves bible believing, God focussed and hungry for righteousness.  It’s not surprising though because the gospel in the West has always had to accommodate the Western myth first and the radical gospel second.

Reverend Lovejoy of Simpson’s fame, was asked if he opposed a casino in Springfield. He brightly answered, “Once something has been approved by the government, it’s no  longer immoral.”  Owning a gun is not illegal in America.  However, just because you can have one doesn’t mean you should.

Scripture teaches that the “way of the world” is a fractured understanding of a fractured world which produces fractured solutions. When we embrace gun ownership as something compatible with the way of a disciple it shows less about our living by the gospel and more about living by the myth of redemptive violence.

Redemptive violence permeates our culture. It works like this:  Right+Might=Evil righteously vanquished.  Luke Skywalker does it. Batman does it. Rambo does it. Even Popeye does it.  When Navy Seals put Osama bin Laden down we all cheer; evil is vanquished.  But it’s not. If it was why was there so much security surrounding the 9/11 commemorations?

The answer which every superhero and every Navy Seal knows is that when all the villain bashing is over they will have to get up and do it again tomorrow. The victory is simply one episode in a cycle of violence none of them have the power to control.

The remarkable transition of power in post-apartheid South Africa owed much to the decision not to create more victims with violence but rather to pursue truth and reconciliation.  Perpetrators were invited to tell the truth about what they had done. In doing so, much evil was revealed and our humanity (the vessel that carries the image of God in us) was allowed to be repulsed by the violence and in turn allowed to see how it was something we might prefer not to see as a solution.

Likewise the violence perpetrated by public officials against peaceful civil rights protesters in the United States helped turn the tide in favour of equality. People would sit down to dinner and watch on the news people attacked by dogs and hit with ax handles for simply claiming the rights the constitution promised them as citizens.  They weren’t comfortable with being associated with that violence once it was revealed. So they called for it to end.

The earliest church believed that the cross revealed the way of the world – the grasping for power, the false security of armies, of rules that exclude the outsider and the poor and the broken. It proclaimed Jesus as one who revealed the powers that be for what they were: murderous and antihuman. The church recognised that clinging to a fractured world and its false claims was not its calling. Instead it was to challenge those claims and reveal them as false.

A gun is a fine image of  a lack of faith and an acceptance of the myth of redemptive violence. Fear is at the heart of gun ownership because a gun only has three uses: to threaten, to wound or to kill. Why would a follower of Jesus want such an item?

I’d want it if I believed the myth that it would keep me safe when nothing else will. I’d want it if I believed that another person can forfeit the right to live because of how they behave. I’d want it if I believed my belongings were sacred to me and that fear is the primary emotion we live by.

But Jesus was pretty clear that when we live for our things and when we are happy to make enemies (or to see others as the enemy) we gain falsehoods and lose the truth. He’s pretty clear that when we live the same way as the world does all we do is become more deeply mired in it.

The world is full enough of those who are ready to threaten, wound and kill without a second thought. It doesn’t need us to add to their number. When we conceal a gun, we reveal ourselves for who we are willing to be.

Fossil Anthology of Poetry?

“No educated person believes the Adam and Eve myth nowadays, but it is surprising how many parents think that it is somehow fun to pass on this falsehood (and others in the same vein) to their children…perhaps they think it is harmless, like Father Christmas. Or maybe they think the truth is less poetic, less “fun” or harder to understand than the myth.” Richard Dawkins, The Times “Eureka Magazine” September 1, 2011.

Richard Dawkins has written a book explaining the universe to children and adults. His motivation is to educate us, not just about the process of evolution, but to help us see it as full of poetry and fun. Having dismissed poetic myths as useless he seeks to establish evolution as the monopolistic poetic truth that should satisfy us all.

Dawkins is no poet or script writer. If you want to read science as a “wow, imagine that” read Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Everything” or watch David Attenborough or Brian Cox. They see the poetry in their subject and help others to see it so they can bring it even further to life. The point that Dawkins (and most of us miss) about creation stories is that they are not generated from an earnest desire to explain the mechanics of creation. They are generated from a desire to explain meaning in the midst of those mechanics.

“Why do I matter?” asks most good religious literature. It fills a gap in the evolutionary poetry because the only answer it can give you from its poetic tale is that beyond your genes, you don’t matter.

And yet people want to matter.

Imagine this conversation between lovers: “Explain to me again the mechanics of sexual and filial desire. What chemical reactions make you feel this way towards me”? Does that get you hot under the collar? No? Not surprising, is it?

That’s because wooing one another requires a bit of a catalyst and effort and investment. The whole point of love poetry is to get natural reactions bubbling inside us rather than explaining the process. The question “why do you love me?” invites the suitor to become Shakespeare or Neruda (or at least copy them).

Humans have been exploring the truth through poetry as long as they have been able to communicate. It hasn’t been a means of sidestepping the truth; it is how we are inclined to explore it in the cut and thrust of everyday experience. We create myths and sentiments that can’t be proved but do make us more whole than we were before their telling.

WH Auden knew this when he wrote two poems which explored  grief and the Royal Mail. One is called The Night Mail and the other is called Stop all the Clocks (there are links to them below).

Auden could have saved himself a lot of time if he had just said, “Grief sucks the colour out of life and to the person suffering it, everything seems to be over. They feel trapped in a bubble that they may never get out of. And by the way, there are trains that sort and deliver mail of all kinds through the night as we sleep. Let me explain now how modern national communications systems work.”

Instead, his poetry makes us imagine how deep and lonely grief is by telling us to stop all the ordinary every day things because they are distracting the mourner from the loss of the extraordinary. It makes us wonder about this train chugging past us as we sleep, delivering all the things dreams deliver. It fills the train with our lives.

I believe that I am a created being and I believe that evolution is a process that helps explain how we got here. I recognise that like all “answers to everything”, it is a work in progress. The evidence still leads to a lot of guesswork. But that’s fine because a life of faith is full of guesswork too. I find my poetry in both places.

Any knowledgeable reader knows that Genesis is telling the tale that we are an integral part of creation, that our lives matter because we were wonderfully made and somehow, we chose to throw it all away by breaking every relationship that mattered. The story doesn’t explain mechanics, it argues that there is something special about us that needs reclaiming. At the same time that knowledgeable reader will note the authors of Genesis were pretty keen observers of humans and how easily they fall out with one another and themselves. They note that we are more than just animals and that living by tooth and claw isn’t really a good way of making society and is a waste of our potential and vocation. They tell us a truth to wrestle with.

The dismissal of transcendent stories that tell us about where we’re from and where we are going is something we do at our peril.  You can’t prove justice or peace or companionship. They are in their own ways myths in the midst of a bigger tale of a cruel brutal impersonal world. Tell me why I should care about these things if they don’t really matter because evolution has no need of them? Poetry and myth tells me I should care.

So I am indebted to stories and storytellers who tell me the truth that there is more to life than just surviving. I need stories that tell me about the truth of hope and that I matter. I need these stories because I need a life rather than an existence.