Monthly Archives: August 2012

Liars wet the bed

Despite studying politics at university and believing with Churchill that of all the systems that don’t work democracy is the best, I get queasy around election time in both the US and the UK.

What disturbs me are people, who usually despair of politicians and their varying degrees of competency, but then suddenly get all fired up about the “right” candidate. Paul Ryan is one such “right” candidate. I’ve been reading accounts of his Vice Presidential nomination speech at the Republican convention and have been holding my head in my hands not knowing whether to laugh or cry.

As Ryan made all sorts of verifiably false claims in his speech about Obama, two highlighted responses in a Huffington Post account bothered me. First,

Jodie Layton, a convention goer from Utah watching the Ryan speech, said she was blown away by the vice presidential candidate. But she said she was surprised to hear that after his speech about taking responsibility, he’d pinned a Bush-era plant closing on Obama.

“It closed in December 2008?” she asked, making sure she heard a HuffPost reporter’s question right. After a long pause, she said, “It’s happening a lot on both sides. It’s to be expected.”

“It’s to be expected”. They all lie on both sides; he’s just fighting fire with fire.

That’s fine, but you’d best not be upset when he lies to you while in office, because, from past experience that is to be expected too. Surely you should be deeply concerned that a man who wants to be so close to power doesn’t believe the truth is a strong enough tool to work with.

But then maybe the candidate isn’t worried about the strength of the tool because of the weakness of the minds who desperately want him to be elected. The second disturbing statement is

Ryan, however, appears to have made the calculation that the misleading won’t hurt him with voters. He might be right. CNN’s David Gergen, while acknowledging some “misstatements” in Ryan’s address, suggested that pundits focus elsewhere. “But let’s not forget that this was a speech about big ideas,” he told his audience.

The pundit says “misspeaking” ( the 21st century phrase for “telling a lie”) won’t really hurt Ryan because he talking about the big picture. Misspeaking allows a liar to claim they made a mistake rather than told a lie. I was taught at a pretty young age that there is a simple way to tell the difference: a mistake is that I had the wrong information or misunderstood; a lie is when I know what the truth is, I choose to ignore it because I know that you have no idea of what the truth is and no inclination to check the facts.

A politician willing to lie to you to get into office will lie to you while in office for “your own good and for the achievement of the good big picture”.  The big picture may be good for them, but always for you.

I mentioned that I get queasy at election time. The queasiness comes from a dislike of partisan politics. I dislike how a candidate is presented as one Christians should support over the other candidate who they shouldn’t. They are encouraged to be passionate about candidates, more often than not Republican ones, and to invest the same hope and dreams in the candidate as they do in Jesus. Election time rolls around and there he is: the man who can save us.

They seem to forget the basic biblical theology that no man can fix the world which is why we need a saviour.

Every four or five years people  forget that they don’t like politicians and talk themselves into believing  this one will be different leader who will make life wonderful. They forget that every candidate is mistaken in believing they have the power and ability to change the world and can control all the variables on which security, prosperity and well being rely on.

Mr Bush believed it, Mr Obama believed it, Mr Romney and Mr Ryan believe it. They always forget that everything they say about what they will do is a theory rather than a blueprint.

In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus lists the “people who can save us” in the telling of the parable of the sheep and goats. That army of humble people who don’t run for office but rather roll up their sleeves and serve their neighbours as if they were serving Jesus. Who love their neighbour because if God saw fit to make them then they must be worthy of love. If the president didn’t turn up for work for a month, we’d get by. If that army of the humble (both believing and unbelieving) didn’t turn up, God help us all.

Jesus spoke a lot about truth and love and how the two go together. He said to treat your enemies as if you love them. It’s better for your soul and theirs. If they do something wrong, call them on it. But don’t twist the truth to ensure  your enemy stays your enemy and becomes an enemy to someone else.

You’d think if someone claims to be a follower of Jesus when they declare their candidacy they could do something as simple as telling the truth. But then we all know that they aren’t running for Jesus, they are running for themselves.

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Being Dario Gradi’s not bad…

At the moment, the church is going through a small revival in its thinking about how we present ourselves. Everyday someone draws my attention to an article that has the generic title  “make your church look like this if you want to attract new people and grow”.  The most recent one  I read was posted by the most excellent Bishop of Buckingham Alan Wilson who posted it on Facebook as a “what do you think” discussion starter.

As some of you know I operate in the “Dario Gradi” school of ministry. Let me explain. Dario Grady was manager of Crewe Alexandra Football Club for over 25 years. In that time the highest the club ever reached was Division 1 (now known as the League Championship). He never managed at the highest level nor did his club ever reach the highest heights. Crewe is not where you go for managerial or playing glory but he was no failure. His teams played well, they worth watching in football terms and many star names got their start under Dario. Crewe may not be the most attractive place but they still need a manager.

I see churches the same way. My current post is not a road to fame and fortune but someone’s got to do it and while I’m here it allows me to be amazed at how God calls people to himself.

Over the last few years I’ve watched people sit down on the back row on a random Sunday (that is where they always start, though a couple have braved their way to the front) and I would have bet money I would never see them again. Yet to my surprise you can still find them turning up, happy to be there and happy to find their way towards the kingdom in either of my congregations.

I’ve been around for awhile and I’ve seen churches grow wildly and be the one “everyone” goes to. But I tell you, those church leaders work really hard trying to keep their congregations interested and up to date. When you try that hard to get the people who aren’t in church to like you, to have a gimmick or novel outlook that draws attention, most of the people who are attracted used to go to someone else’s’ church and will be prepared to leave yours the minute you’ve “lost it”.

When Bishop Alan put the article on his Facebook page I commented with what seemed to me to be the only sustainable marketing strategy the church could follow

or maybe we just do what we do over 2000 years, love each other, seem to be more together than we are apart and discover that Jesus becomes more and more real to people who don’t know him the more and more we look like him. To paraphrase Garrison Keillor talking about his brethren upbringing, “if we had spent as much time on love and compassion as we did on cards and dancing, the world might have become a better place”.

I hesitated before pushing the enter key fearing I sounded awfully pious. That fear often  stops us from commenting on these great new ideas that inspire mostly diocesan growth officers, churches that feel guilty about their inability to attract large enough numbers and churches who feel stale if they don’t have a “new” angle for this year. We’re afraid of sounding simple and out of touch.

So you can imagine how  encouraged I was by a recent Sunday lectionary reading where Jesus says something simple in the midst of some quite hard teaching

He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”  John 6:65

We like to think that if we were just this or just that then the people will come flooding in. Before Jesus started getting down to brass tacks lots of people loved to come and hear him. Then he got a bit weird and political and the numbers dropped. Then he got crucified and was left with only a handful of disciples. If it was a matter of marketing he would have had thousands following him.

Jesus tells a stark truth: the people who stick and stay (in high and low numbers) are the ones who didn’t come because of the gimmick; they came because they sensed that this is where they should be and where God might find them. God doesn’t care if your band or choir is great, you preacher excellent and your Sunday school is full. He cares that your church looks like Jesus when people decide to cross that threshold, to let the vicar in to discuss a funeral or baptism or when you all open your mouths and speak.

So if you feel you are attending or leading a church in the lower divisions simply because not many turn up or it all feels less than trendy, take heart. People come and stay where they feel they might meet the God who called them.

People like me…

In my life I’ve had some exceptional experiences. I’ve met royalty, been to film premiers, met a president to be, raised millions for a national charity, been to China at a time when a westerner was still an oddity, sat with people taking their last breaths and those taking their first. I’ve married people, buried people, forgiven people and blessed them.

The one exceptional experience I’ve never had was being excluded from something simply because of who I am: a man. When I offered myself to the church I never encountered:

You can’t be ordained because of who you are. Or you can be ordained but you can’t be a bishop, you can’t preach in this parish, you can’t celebrate the Eucharist in that parish and you can’t be a vicar throughout the church because to some, you aren’t supposed to exist.

I can imagine how I would feel if I was confronted by this attitude where there is no argument about competency but simply exclusion based on being an excludable category of human. It’s an argument is driven by fear. Fear that God might be angry and smite us and fear that if we let “them” in they will taint something special causing the world might spin off its axis.

Changing years of tradition and accepted practice is always painful and that pain tends to drive opposition harder than reason does. In the case of women’s ordained ministry, this has led to a fear, held by some, that if we allow women to be bishops then we introduce a taint into the apostolic succession and into anyone touched by that line of succession.

That might sound a harsh way to describe the fears of opponents of women in the bishopric but all the attempts in recent debates to placate and cater for those in opposition mimic quarantine protocols during plagues. You build up lots of insulation and distance between the healthy and the infected.  You hope no one passes it on.

I won’t rehearse the arguments and counter arguments except to say that anyone who appeals to scripture will find it conflicted on women’s leadership, authority and ministry in the church. You’ll find prohibition and you’ll find women in leadership and apostolic roles. You’ll find cultural roles and ideas that we Christians have abandoned in every walk of life except the church. You’ll find ideas that were radical for their day and for ours.

The Apostle Paul was as capable as any of us in seeing his time as the time. But he was also able to look ahead to a different time when the rules might be different; where people would be free of slavery, oppression and diminished personhood. Such yearning rings clearly in foundational passages as Galatians 3:27-28:

As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Paul is naming categories by which we judge the worth of others. Paul knows that categories are how we divide and exclude. For him, the only category that matters is the person clothed with Christ. Baptism is the sign and seal of our new personhood in a kingdom that judges human worth and inclusion in a radically different way than the kingdoms of this world.

Perhaps this is why God chose a woman to be the first witness to the resurrection and the first apostle of the risen Christ. “He is risen”, Mary tells the unbelieving male disciples who are cowering in fear. She teaches the men the truth that defines the new age.  But to hear some tell the tale,  apparently she wasn’t supposed to because it wasn’t her role. Really? God dropped the ball over who would deliver the words that changed all reality? Not likely.

The church fails in its vocation when it resorts to institutionalised  categories to include and exclude rather than prayerfully scrutinising vocation on the basis of how God given those vocations may be.  When “people like you” is the language of vocation, then we are all lost.

Those who inhabit the kingdom are flesh, blood and spirit rather than impersonal categories. The rules of the kingdom denies permission  for us to declare other residents untouchable, incapable, unable  and unworthy simply because of who they essentially are.

Jesus chose men and women to follow him on the basis of who responded to his good news in their flawed and unworthy ways.  He was less concerned with who they were and more concerned that they “believed” and followed. What are we to do when the wrong people pick up their cross and follow him? Do we tell them they are not supposed to? Do we tell them to put it down before they get hurt?

In the end we make the church not out of categories but people who are called by God. We would do well at recognising what someone clothed by Christ looks like and rather than being proficient at ticking boxes that make us more comfortable.