Category Archives: Religion
Back in July, I wrote about the controversy attending the discovery of substantial fictional elements in Tony Anthony’s book ‘Taming the Tiger’. I noted the evangelical obsession with celebrity, and the lust for dramatic conversion stories as drivers in promoting such books, with an attendant risk of pastoral damage for Christians who do not have a spectacular story to tell. I began the piece with reproducing a cartoon from Ship Of Fools when it was a print magazine, not a website. ‘Born Again Testimonies’ asked, ‘You may be, but has your TESTIMONY been born again?’
Now I’ve found an antidote in Ashley Cleveland‘s memoir, ‘Little Black Sheep‘. i have loved her music for a good twenty years. Many say she sounds like Melissa Etheridge: I say she makes Janis Joplin sound like Janet Jackson. A blues-rock singer with notes of soul, she sings with passion and honesty about faith and life. In the book, she writes with the same passion and honesty about faith and life.
Superficially, her story has elements that Christian publishers and readers love. Blaming herself as a young child for the divorce of her gay father and vain mother, she slides into multiple addictions – food, alcohol and drugs. She seeks love in all the wrong places and believes that God only wants to punish her. She has no concept of a personal, loving God – although eventually she is – if I may borrow Brennan Manning‘s word – ‘ambushed’ by God.
But hers is no quick fix fairytale of the ‘When I met Jesus, everything was happy ever after’ variety. She slides back, still fighting alcoholism while winning Grammy awards for her music. She struggles to establish a healthy marriage. The Christian community is locally welcoming, in the non-judgemental members of her church, but the wider Christian constituency is offended when she dares to sing about sex – even as a married woman. But hers is the tale of the God who lifts her up by love every time she falls.
There is much more that I could say about the book, but what I essentially want to say in this post is that all sorts of people would profit from reading this book:
* Music fans should read it;
* Pastors should read it;
* Most of all, broken people should read it.
I’d better end this with some music:
The song which provides the title for the book:
Queen Of Soul – her take on being a woman of God:
An exhortation to others, based on her own experience:
Covering the Rolling Stones:
One reason for light blogging in recent weeks has been pressure of work. But we have also had a fortnight’s holiday in East Looe, Cornwall. One night near the end of the two weeks I jotted down some of the highlights. Here goes:
Food – a supermarket that sells Dark – yes, dark! – Chocolate Hobnobs again.
The Smugglers’ Cott must be the best carvery we have ever visited. A choice of four meats. Not just beef, pork and turkey, but lamb, too. And the beef was offered in rare or well done joints. The kids asking for ‘a piece of crackling for my mum, please’.
Being introduced to the Baobab fruit at the Eden Project, especially when its powder is added to a Pineapple and Coconut Smoothie. The most refreshing drink of the summer, and apparently an energy booster. Will it help us keep up with Mark?
Kelly’s award-winning fish and chips. Beware the Trip Advisor reviews, many of which are based on the over-priced eat-in restaurant: the takeaway is excellent.
Moomaid ice cream: when a dairy farm made losses on milk sales, it decided to use it’s milk production differently. They tried cheese, and then struck gold with ice cream. Cornish ice cream is great anyway, but this beat anything else we tasted. No additives, so the choc mint crisp flavour is white, not green. Shame the Eden Project stopped selling it, because Moomaid wouldn’t drop their prices to uneconomic levels (they must have learned their milk-selling lesson, but how ethical and Fairtrade was the EP on this issue?).
Worship – Steve Wild trying everything to involve our children in worship at Riverside Church. Bringing Horace the Frog with him. Asking them to pick a favourite hymn (a lost cause when the church only used 1982′s Hymns and Psalms and still the 1936 Methodist Hymn Book). Purloining Jaffa Cakes for them from the refreshments area before the service ended. Mark hearing ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic‘ as an actual hymn for the first time, but nevertheless singing, ‘Glory, glory, Tottenham Hotspur‘.
Place – I’ll mention it again: the Eden Project. Stunning is an inadequate adjective. We want to return. Twice.
Looe itself: even with all the tourist shops, it retains an old charm. Fishing trawlers share harbour space with pleasure boats.
Family – aside from the four of us and Rebekah’s sand sculpture of the word ‘family’, the good was to see cousins. My cousin, his wife and son. Debbie’s cousin , his wife and children. The bad – my mum falling and fracturing her hip on our second day here, the burden falling on my sister and her family, and us powerless at two hundred miles’ distance.
Today’s Supreme Court decision confirms that Methodist ministers are office holders, not employees, and as such have no redress to Employment Tribunals for claims to unfair or constructive dismissal. I have blogged about this particular case twice before. The court has pointed out three issues in support of this judgement:
1. Our relationship with the Church cannot be analysed in ‘contract of employment’ terms;
2. Our receipt of a stipend and a manse are by virtue of being ‘received into full connexion’ and ordination, they do not constitute payment for duties;
3. We ministers cannot unilaterally resign, even if we give notice, because we need the consent of Conference, the Stationing Committee or a disciplinary body.
The official Methodist statement from Revd Gareth Powell, Assistant Secretary of the Conference, says:
“The judgement of the Supreme Court has determined that an Employment Tribunal does not have jurisdiction over Methodist Ministers. It sets out very clearly the nature of the relationship that exists and that such a relationship is defined by the Standing Orders of the Conference. It is important that we read the judgement with great care as we continue to ensure that our practices reflect the calling of the Church.
“No court ruling could change the gratitude I have for the immense amount of work undertaken by our ministers, now and in the past. Those in ordained ministry, as well as those in lay ministry, continue to be vital to the Church as we share the Gospel and seek to live faithfully in response to the call of God. I ask you please to pray for those who have been part of this case and for all who are affected by its outcome.”
What are we to make of this? While I am partly relieved by the judgement, I do not think it solves the problems our denomination clearly has. I am happy not to be an employee in that church life is vulnerable to tinpot Hitlers throwing their weight around. It shouldn’t be like that, and I certainly don’t experience anything like that in my current appointment, but I am afraid it does happen. Had we become employees, then depending on who was deemed to employ us, that was a risk.
Where I am I less than happy? I admit this is more about the experiences of friends than my own story, but this leaves Methodist ministers entirely dependent upon the ‘covenant relationship’ with the church, and no protection if that goes wrong. I know of instances where ministers have been left exposed to abuse, and where there has been no redress. One commenter on the UK Methodists page of Facebook describes the covenant relationship as an ‘empty promise’ and calls for a system of independent arbitration. Essentially, the church – should it so choose – is free to sweep uncomfortable things under the carpet. There is certainly now a risk that things could be loaded against ministers. I do not know whether this is true, but there is one other comment (which I can’t immediately find again) suggesting that only ministers ‘in stationing’ (i.e., looking for a new appointment) who are unwilling to put any geographical restrictions on where they serve will be guaranteed a manse and stipend if no appointment can be found for them. We are supposed to be at the disposal of Conference for stationing, it is true, but that same Conference promises to bear all sorts of personal circumstances in mind. Geography is by no means the only limit some ministers request.
Tonight, there will be some ministers feeling a sense of relief at the judgement, and others feeling more vulnerable and afraid. I can certainly understand those of my colleagues who have joined the Faith Workers’ Branch of the Unite union. It certainly seems uncomfortable that our denomination has shown no willingness to let the ‘covenant relationship’ be scrutinised by outsiders, so that justice is not only done, but seen to be done.
In my last appointment, an ecumenical church I served ran a ‘Week of Accompanied Prayer‘. I missed out somehow, and was jealous of the members who clearly had a wonderful spiritual experience. So when our Catholic friends here in Knaphill offered to put one on in the village, I was an enthusiastic supporter. It started today. It’s like a mini-retreat without going away, where you have the benefit of low-key spiritual direction in your prayer life from a ‘prayer guide’ each day.
We began with a simple service and got to meet our prayer guides this afternoon. I was invited to choose a Bible passage to pray on this evening before I meet my prayer guide for the first formal session tomorrow morning. I chose Isaiah 43:1-5 from the selection offered. It made me think of an old song by Andy Piercy and Dave Clifton, from the same CD as contained their more famous ‘Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow’. I can’t find a video online of them singing this, so here is someone’s cover version of ‘Precious In Your Eyes’:
As for other reflections on the passage itself, I had thought I would just read it pietistically, but I can’t deny the ‘theological’ side of me. So I brought into my reflections the fact that this comes from the section of Isaiah that is directed to them in exile in Babylon, when the prophet tells them that God will bring them home. They are precious in God’s eyes despite their sin. God does not give up on his people. That is something for all God’s people – me included – to cherish.
I’ll see how tomorrow goes. One thing I’m looking forward to is this: I mentioned to my prayer guide today that I find it hard to enter for myself into the kinds of prayer where I am expected to imagine what my five senses tell me. I can lead those sessions for others, but they don’t work for me, and I think it’s because in Myers Briggs terms I’m an ‘N’ – an Intuitive. I am a ‘sixth sense’ person who sees the big picture, not an ‘S’ – a Sensory person who uses the ‘five senses’ and concentrates on fine detail. Yet I enjoy photography, which as Jerry Gilpin pointed out to me on my last sabbatical, is definitely an ‘S’ practice. On quiet days in the past I have been known to take my camera gear out and about, and use it to meditate on creation. My prayer guide mentioned something about knowing a retired Anglican priest who may have some material on using photography this way, so we’ll see.
A survey of single Christians in church does not surprise me at all. Single Christians often feel ‘isolated , alone and lonely’ in church. Single women feel they are seen as threats to married couples.
Why does this not surprise me? Because I was 41 before I married, and I experienced some of this. I was told that marriage was ‘the norm’, which made me feel abnormal. There were questions raised behind my back about my sexuality. To some extent, things changed when I began as a minister, because one of the positives about that was to find myself on the receiving end of many kind offers of hospitality. But I also heard married Christians say they did not think I would be able to help them – without a thought for all the single Christians who might feel that married ministers could not understand them.
I have reflected in the past that there is an assumption in the world that you are not fully human unless you are having regular sex. Since the church usually confines sex to marriage, that is adapted to a notion that you are not fully human unless you are married.
What are your experiences? Do you have some better examples, some stories of best practice?
After all, it’s ironic how often we don’t notice that our Lord and Saviour was single.
He’s back. Plastered all over the God TV home page, with pictures, blog posts and a live feed. It’s just that he’s had to move a few miles away from Lakeland – to Durban, South Africa, for his latest ‘revival’, humbly called ‘The Great Awakening’. Yes, folks, the ever-modest Todd Bentley, whose trophy healing cases end up dead, is implicitly comparing himself with Wesley, Whitefield and Edwards.
Of course, the publicity machine has had to be dragged out of the garage for this. There is a powder-puff interview with him this evening, and the God TV founders, Rory and Wendy Alec, have had some explaining to do. You see, apparently, they’re going to be persecuted for putting Bentley on screen again. That’s right, the secret police are going to turn up in the middle of the night and cart the Alecs off for interrogation under torture.
No, actually. They will not be persecuted. Other Christians will disagree and criticise. That’s not the same thing. Please stop using the word ‘persecution’ in this way. It’s utterly disrespectful of the suffering church throughout the world and throughout the ages.
However, we’re all right, because the ground has been prepared. The Alecs interviewed Bentley in January, and the controversial matter of his marriage separation, his ‘inappropriate relationship’ with Jessa, whom he went on to marry, is all subsumed under a ‘David and Bathsheba’ motif. Jesus forgave Peter for his three denials, and told him to forgive ‘seventy times seven’. Is Bentley simply a case of someone with a besetting sin who keeps needing the grace of a loving God, in the manner I spoke of Brennan Manning? If I argue that Bentley remains in the relationship that arguably broke up his first marriage and could therefore biblically be said to be adulterous (even though in the eyes of the law he is duly married), then David and Bathsheba are invoked. However, in that case, Bathsheba’s first husband was dead (albeit bumped off at David’s behest). Shonnah Bentley is alive, although in the interview apparently her pastor gave a statement on her behalf, saying she has forgiven Todd and she endorses his on-going ministry. Does that make it right?
There is still the uncomfortable question of verification around Bentley’s ministry. I’ve linked to evidence above that many claimed healings were nothing of the sort. In the current ‘revival’ in Durban, there are alleged manifestations of gold. But no, that’s not enough: there are diamonds as well. So how about some independent testimony? They could pay the expenses of the outreach if they truly are diamonds. There is also a Wendy Alec prophecy, that names specific places which will be affected in the claimed forthcoming revival. You might think that would make things potentially verifiable: will these cities and nations be strongly impacted with the gospel or not? However, it’s a little too vague, even for that, because there is no time frame, apart from a general ‘It is time’ statement. If someone says, ‘Johannesburg has not been transformed, Bulgaria has not been touched’, it will still be easy to say, ‘It isn’t that it hasn’t happened; it just hasn’t happened yet.’
My gut instinct, then, is still to draw a clear line between a Todd Bentley and a Brennan Manning. Both of them, like all of us, are or were sinners in need of restoration, but I am more at ease with one than the other. I think you can guess which.
For those who want to see the whole interview, this seems to be it:
I was sad to pick up the news today about the death of Brennan Manning. His books, with their radical embrace of God’s grace, have meant a lot to me in recent years. I recall someone once saying that you have not truly preached grace until you are falsely accused of antinomianism – well, if that were ever true of anyone it was true of Brennan Manning. His message that ‘Abba is very fond of you’ was too much for many contemporary Pharisees.
And the same Pharisees had a field day with the self-confessed evidence of Manning’s own life. In many places, not least his final book, a memoir entitled ‘All Is Grace‘, he talks ruthlessly about his failings and his unconquered sins. To the horror of many fellow Catholics, he quit the priesthood to marry (not that I see that as a sin). However, his marriage didn’t last. He never broke his habit for alcohol. To the scandal of many, he would return to his room after giving a powerful sermon or a homily at a retreat and hit the bottle. He knew the gutter at the same time that he knew Jesus Christ. He said that he was dying of a disease caused by his alcoholism, ‘wet brain‘. Where did he stand on the New Testament conviction that Christians will not continue to sin? Some felt this made him a false teacher. Others felt the accusers were not being honest about their own besetting sins.
Time and again, Manning the sinner came back to the message of grace. He brought his readers and listeners back to grace, too. If you have never read ‘All Is Grace’ or classics such as ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel‘, then I commend them to you highly.
Sleep well, child of Abba. A reward awaits you on the Last Day when you awake.
Often on this blog I’m aware of negative and hostile contemporary attitudes to the Church. Yesterday, I came across a much more benevolent view about the benefits of church-going for a family from a site I wouldn’t normally come across – Live-In Nanny. Of course I would want to go much further on this subject than the author of this post does, but it was at least pleasing to read a positive evaluation.
Taking my iPod for a walk the other morning after dropping the kids off at school, this great old song came on:
For one so young at the time, it was such a mature song, and I began to think about the disappointments that crush our dreams:
- You dreamed of a long and happy retirement, but your spouse was struck down by a terminal cancer
- You thought your work was going to change the world, but instead you clung on for retirement
- Your children’s choices in adulthood broke your heart
- You longed for children, but none came along
- You expected to marry, but either the right person never came along, or they did and they were a disappointment, or they left you for someone else
- You wanted to be a church leader, but the church didn’t share your conviction
- Your heart ached for reconciliation with your family after those dark early years, but it never came and the parent who so let you down died before it could be resolved
Parents, teachers and church leaders all encourage children, teenagers and young converts to dream big dreams. “You can change the world!” Years later, many of those former young people are sat among the shards of shattered hopes. We could live differently.
We could sing the cynical words of ‘Always look on the bright side of life’, – you know, ‘Life’s a pice of sh*t when you look at it’ – as the best an atheist, nihilist world can offer.
But I can’t accept that. Wouldn’t it be better to live with that Christian balance of Cross and Resurrection? The disciples thought their dreams had been destroyed at Calvary. ‘We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel,’ said one on the Emmaus Road. The discovery of an empty tomb and witnessing the One who blessed and broke bread changed everything.
A sermon I preached about three years ago and which you can find here on this blog was built on some personal experience of walking through such dashed dreams and darkened hopes. It was based on the last verse of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great chapter about the Resurrection. His conclusion is not to sit tight and look forward to heaven, but to keep on striving, because ‘in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’ The God who will make all things new – even new heavens and a new earth – will make something good out of broken dreams.
Perhaps we can therefore encourage young people to dream differently. Dream on; dream about God’s kingdom purposes, which cannot be thwarted, even if he takes us on a detour to get there.