Early Years

What did I learnFront only about God in my early years? This is going to be difficult for me to write about, because I can easily give you the wrong impression, about my church in particular and the denomination of which it was a part. So I do need to say that these were basically happy years, and the church was full of good, well-meaning, committed Christian disciples, and led by godly and wise men (and it was men!). But I can only report what I, as a child and then a teenager, picked up and understood. Sadly the God whom I believed in and sought to follow was basically not very nice.

First of all he didn’t like us doing anything, and especially not on Sundays. Fun was banned, as were things like ice-cream. We weren’t allowed to do anything which remotely involved shopping, not that there was much opportunity a) because shops didn’t open in those days, and b) because there would have been no time anyway, as we spent most of the day at church. As children we had to be quiet, because Sunday was a day of rest, and I’ve already told you about the shellfish, although I don’t think to be honest that that had much to do with God. But it all added to the general unpleasantness of the day.

Then there were the other sins. People who smoked, drank, swore or gambled were beyond the pale, and were severely looked down upon by us good Christians. The job of parents was to protect their children from any encounter with such activities. I can remember during my Beatles phase leaving the sheet music for Sexy Sadie on the piano. When it was discovered there was a major row, and the offending music had to be removed from the house lest it polluted us all with the S-word. We also had to be protected from the harsher realities of church life. I can remember our organist resigning and leaving the church, accompanied by many sage looks and shaking of heads. Only many years later did I discover that this was over some crisis of faith, but it clearly wasn’t something to the shared with the youngsters. It could have done us real harm.

 

Don’t get the wrong idea: my family were basically loving and committed to God, and genuinely wanted the best for us. Most of the time we got along fine. But with hindsight the God whom we sought to follow was fundamentally a God who didn’t want us to do things. I developed the belief (and please understand me that I now realise that this is not official Baptist doctrine) that your eternal destiny, heaven or hell, depended entirely on what you happened to be doing at the moment of Jesus’ return. As you can imagine this led to a somewhat insecure faith, although the upside was that I did learn to sin very quickly and get it over with. But the clear message was that you pleased God by not doing stuff.

 

This is another excerpt from God’s Upgrades … My Adventures Published by Authentic at £7.99.

 

More next week!

OT Lectionary Mar 30th Mothering Sunday Ex 2:1-10

A double whammy this week, what with it being Mothers’ Day and all, but if you’d rather use the Lent 4 readings, click here: http://wp.me/p3W7Kc-4F

At first sight this story seems more like child abuse than a model of good motherhood: Jochebed bungs her baby in a basket, floats him in a river, and then gives him up for adoption to a foreigner. This sounds like something the Daily Mail would do an exposé on! But of course we know more than this, and her risky actions were designed to save her baby, not to endanger him. In fact he was already in quite enough danger: a people in slavery were quite deliberately being culled by a paranoid Pharaoh as means of controlling the population explosion. I won’t dwell on the seven million children slaughtered in the name of ideology and freedom since the 1967 Abortion Act, but even when children do survive birth there are many parts of the world where they are unlikely to last very much longer.

So what does this story tell us about motherhood? There is something deeply wired in to human parents which seeks to protect their vulnerable children, at least into the vast majority of parents. It still shocks us to hear about mothers who sell their toddlers to sex traders in order to fund their drug habits, and long may it continue to do so. But Jochebed is a good mother, and takes considerable risks first of all to hide her baby, not an easy job as most babies I know like to have their say! Then in committing him to the waters she is talking another risk: who will find him first, a human or a crocodile? And if a human, one who is moved to compassion by his innocent vulnerability, or a nasty one? It could all have gone horribly wrong, but she had no choice.

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But underneath this story is a deeper one about a mother trusting God. To the Egyptians the Nile was a sacred river, almost a god itself. It was this god who once a year flooded and gave them the rich water for their crops. So it could be that Jochebed had lost her faith in Yahweh, and had lost the plot and gone native. Maybe she was trusting the Egyptian gods to preserve her son’s life. I don’t think so. I reckon she knew that her God, the true God, was able to save her son, and by placing him in the Nile she was almost making a statement that, in the words of the song, ‘our God is greater’. And of course not only did God use this greatest of leaders to free his people from the slavery which had been their lot for so long, but he even arranged it so that Jochebed got paid for it.

Jesus himself was later to be protected from the death-threats of a paranoid monarch. Today we might give thanks for that protective care wired into us by a loving God, pray for those who are under threat, and for those sad mothers whose circumstances have taken from them the ability to care and protect as our Father does us.

OT Lectionary Christmas 1 Isaiah 63:7-9

One of the things about the Anglican lectionary with which some people feel really unhappy is the practice of ‘filleting’ or cutting out verses or paragraphs, usually because they are not ‘nice’. The church has an amazing ability to want to make everything lovely, so verses about dashing children’s heads against the rocks aren’t quite the sort of thing we want to read during Evensong. Christmas is a great time for this, being the time of ‘peace on earth, goodwill towards men’ (or, as the text actually says, ‘goodwill to those on whom God’s favour rests’, which is a very different thing.

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Today’s OT reading is a song of praise to God for all his goodness to Israel, for his kindness in choosing them and saving them. He has recognised in them a people who will be faithful to him, and he has been good to them through good times and bad. When things went badly for them, he felt their distress and acted in their favour. He truly is a great God to them. It doesn’t take much to see why this passage in chosen in the aftermath of Christmas, when we celebrate again the kindness of the God who has felt our distress, chosen to step into our world and save us, acted for our salvation, and invited us into relationship with him. But then the compliers of the lectionary, in their wisdom, stop there, rather than going on to verse 10:

Yet they rebelled
    and grieved his Holy Spirit.
So he turned and became their enemy
    and he himself fought against them.

It seems to me that this is one of the central dilemmas of preaching and living the Christian faith: we do try to make it a lot nicer than it actually is. Today in my cathedral (well not mine, just the one I go to) they will be celebrating the martyrdom of Thomas a Becket, martyred in 1170). Yesterday was the celebration of the Holy Innocents, the ‘collateral damage’ children slaughtered by Herod around the time of Jesus’ birth. I have rarely found churches who did anything about this festival: after all it kind of spoils the mood of Christmas a bit, doesn’t it?

But the truth of today’s passage is a truth which runs deeply through the biblical record at all levels: God’s kindness demands a response. The reason there is still not peace on earth or goodwill to all is that human beings have chosen war and cruelty instead. God can be kind to us until he is blue in the face but unless we respond positively to him it will be worth nothing. And perhaps we need to hear that particularly during the time of greatest sentimentality, and resist the temptation to make the good news nicer than it actually is, or God kinder than he actually it.

What’s church for? Church as Fortress

I made the point previously that whilst most churchgoers know pretty well how they actually ‘do’ church week by week, very few of us have ever stopped to ask the question ‘Why?’ What are we meant to be here for, and therefore how should we be occupying our time? It seems to me that this is a highly urgent question, and I continue to meet more and more people for whom, for one reason or another, church just isn’t cutting it. Neither are we cutting it nationally or culturally, as we lose confidence under the onslaught of secularisation the new atheism, and marginalisation by the society for whose benefit we exist. 2013 has seen us fail signally to affect the political agenda as it has eaten away at historic Christian orthodoxy in the interests of ‘equality’ and political correctness. Church needs some attention, I reckon!

I began with the Bible – suggesting that at its most basic level church is there to carry on doing the stuff which Jesus did whilst he was incarnated here on earth. I could then skip on through church history and explore different understandings which have come to the fore from time to time: church as empire, church as withdrawal from society,  ‘christendom’, where it is assumed that everyone is a Christian really, and so on. But I want instead to get a bit more personal, and reflect on my own lifetime, and my own experiences of church for nearly 60 years.

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I was brought up as a nonconformist, and it seems to me now on reflection that the model of church which formed me was Church as Fortress. Even in the 50s and 60s we were aware that the new post-war culture was hostile to Christianity, and so what we had to do as Christians was to make sure we didn’t get tainted by the ‘naughty world’ around us. Certainly any engagement with culture was frowned on, because it would probably corrupt us. I can remember an impassioned sermon about why we should all make it an absolute priority to attend the mid-week Bible study, because we went out from Sundays into a world where people swore and drank, and we needed a mid-week top-up of God, because what we had received last Sunday would not on its own be enough to last us for seven days. My prevailing sense of the Christianity of my childhood and youth was all about what we weren’t supposed to do. I even developed the understanding (and I am now sure that this wasn’t official doctrine, just a child’s misunderstanding) that my eternal destiny, heaven or hell, depended on what I happened to be doing at the moment Jesus returned. At least this belief taught me to sin quickly, but if we did conform to the world the consequences could be deadly and eternal.

Is this understanding, of church as the fortress into which we barricade ourselves, alive and well today? I believe it is, although in some subtly different forms, since holiness has become a lot more unfashionable than it was back then. But the ‘change and decay’ mindset, in which the church is the final bastion of unchanging faith while the world around us goes to hell in a handcart, is alive and well among older people. This in turn has implications for those leading churches, whose job therefore is to protect their people from anything which might rock their equilibrium, like change, for example.

There is clearly much in the Bible about being holy, separate, blameless in a corrupt world and so on. But are we really here simply to pull up the drawbridge and try to be good?

Is there any of this fortress mentality in your church?

How does it manifest itself?

What does it demand of its leaders?

What is Church meant to be for?

I have a friend who is training for ordained ministry in the C of E, and quite frankly he’s struggling a bit with it all. The problem, he told me, is that while everyone thinks they know what church is all about, there has never actually been any discussion about it, and certainly, therefore, no agreed consensus. So much of their learning isn’t really aimed anywhere, or certainly anywhere which he would recognise as being useful. There tends to be a kind of lowest common denominator pretence that we all understand it really.

This problem, I realised, is a microcosm of the church at large. Not many of us, I would dare to suggest, have ever had much discussion about what it is we think we’re doing by belonging to this venerable organisation. Yet we all get on with it week by week, and most of us, if we have ever thought about it, will be working on our own personal agendas.

I have some thoughts about church myself at the moment. I find myself in the position of being a vicar without a church, having been bullied out of my last job and finding it difficult to find a new one. I tell you this so that you will understand that I might just be a bit jaded at this stage of my life. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with it if I’m honest.

So I want to take a few weeks of my blog to explore this question. I’ll begin with a few historical reflections, based on changing fashions during my lifetime, but I want to go on and ask some deeper questions about the way we do church, and get a few rants of my own off my chest.

 

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I’m going to end this series with a model of church which I believe is a useful and biblical one, but it’s probably right to begin with the Bible too. Why did Jesus set up a church? Quite simply, I would argue, because he wanted the stuff which he had been doing carried on, by more people in more places. When St Paul called the church ‘the body of Christ’ he was literally right: the things which Jesus had been doing with his body were the same things he intended his followers to keep doing. As the famous prayer of Teresa of Avila says:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out with Christ’s compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.

Now that right there would be an interesting thing for a church to do: look at what Jesus actually did do while he was physically on earth, and compare it to the things which occupy your church’s life. Now of course time does move on, and we can’t recapture all the simplicity of organising twelve blokes and plop it down into a world-wide organisation. But surely we ought to be able to recapture something of Christ’s priorities. That is going to be my starting point, but for now let’s take a trip back 60 years while I invite you to consider some of the models of church which I have experienced.

Next week: Church as fortress.

 

Preaching the OT Advent 2 Isaiah 11:1-10

Sunday Dec 8th Advent 2

Is 11:1-10

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Like Advent itself OT prophecy often has more than one focus and fulfilment. I can remember in the early days of charismatic renewal the passage from Joel 2 about God pouring our his Spirit was much bandied around. We could explain the current wave of phenomena by looking back to the prophecy and saying ‘This is that’ which was spoken by the prophet. Yet that was exactly what the Apostles said on the Day of Pentecost to explain what was going on. Clearly Pentecost was the fulfilment of Joel 2, but it didn’t exhaust its meaning, and much later generations could claim that what they were seeing was exactly what Joel had foretold. (There’s a great PhD for someone – the history of interpretation of Joel 2:28-32.)

This passage from Isaiah also seems to have that (at least) dual focus. It begins sounding suspiciously like one of the famous ‘Servant Songs’ which appear later. It suggests that someone (or some renewed nation, or some faithful remnant …) will appear to work on God’s agenda for the world, empowered by his Spirit. But then there is a leap in the logic, and no doubt the chronology, to that time when nature itself will have been renewed, as manifested by the lack of desire to eat each other. Whilst the church has understood the first bit as having been fulfilled by Jesus (indeed passages like this must have informed Jesus’ self-understanding as he read them whilst growing up), we clearly can’t claim that as a result of the incarnation it’s safe to let your kids play in the snake pit or the lion’s cage. During Advent we telescope different results of the coming of Christ into a multi-layered celebration, just as this passage does.

But the real question is what we do about it. This passage invites our gaze to fall on the distant horizon as well as the immediate situation. It inspires us with a future vision, but it also has a moral dimension to it. If we are to be working with the coming King, to whom as in last week the nations will one day stream, then we have to be engaged in his work now, for the needy and broken and against wickedness and injustice.

There are two equal and opposite errors which beset the Christian church. One is to sit and wait (prayerfully, of course) for God to come and sort our world out for us, smash the baddies and distribute harps and clouds. The other is to believe that by our own efforts we can sort out all the problems of the world. There is much we can do, but we look for the time when God himself will appear and complete fully what we have tried partially to do. Isaiah encourages us to resist both these temptations. In the words of the Advent Sunday postcommunion:

… make us watchful and keep us faithful …
that, when he shall appear,
he may not find us sleeping in sin
but active in his service
and joyful in his praise.

I’ll be thinking further about this in my new Wednesday blog starting this week: What is church for? #whatschurchfor

Why doesn’t God do something?

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Perhaps the most frequent question about suffering is the one I haven’t addressed yet in this #godingrimtimes blog. It’s fascinating to know what I think is the origin of evil and suffering, and yes, perhaps it does make sense that suffering is only a problem for orthodox Christians. But when life kicks me in the teeth actually none of that matters too much. The agonised question which springs to my lips is far more urgent and poignant: why doesn’t God do something? Who cares about the origins of suffering when the pain of it is gnawing at me: I just want to know why on earth God allows it to go on. That’s the real question, perhaps the only one at all worth asking. Why doesn’t God do something?

I want to suggest first of all that far from being inactive and unconcerned God is most deeply and passionately hurting with those who hurt. I can remember being impacted many years ago by a picture which Graham Kendrick described of seeing the face of Jesus, and focussing in until he could see that Jesus’ eyeballs were in fact spinning worlds, which were being washed by his tears as he wept for the world he created, sustains and loves. His heart breaks for his suffering children: the gospels are full of that. The Greek word which we rather lamely call ‘compassion’ actually describes real gut-wrenching agony. But of course that only makes us want to ask the question again; then why doesn’t he just make it go away? Why doesn’t he do something?

I want to say three things towards in answer to this: No. 1: God has done something. Rather than leaving us to get on with it, like some great but uninvolved architect of the universe, he stepped into our world in Jesus, and went around among the sick and suffering curing pain and alleviating hurt. That of itself doesn’t do that much to help me now, but it does give the lie to accusations that God simply doesn’t care about our fate.

Secondly, God is doing something. I wouldn’t want to say that only Christians do positive things in our world, but the fact is that the Christian church down the centuries has been responsible for the betterment of life and the alleviation of suffering worldwide. Health care, education, care for animals, horticulture, abolition of slavery – too many projects to mention have been and continue to be inspired by the involvement of Christianity’s founder in his world. Countless of his servants have gone to extreme lengths, even to their death, in the attempt to help the world’s lost and suffering people. Remove the Christian faith and its effects from our world, and we would live in a radically different and worse place.

But thirdly, God will do something. The promise of Christianity is that the sufferings of this present age are worth nothing to be compared to the glory which awaits Jesus’ followers. For now we live in a world where appallingly bad things happen to us, and if that were the end of the story it would be tragic indeed. But one day we’ll wake up as if from a bad dream into a reality where all our agonised questioning will seem irrelevant.

Why does God allow suffering? Presumably because he thinks it’s good for us. Why doesn’t he stop it? No idea, but that’s how it is, so we’d better get used to it. But we simply can’t say he does nothing about it. It’s what he’s all about.

 

Coming next week – a new series: What is church for?