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Sermon: Eternity Versus Meaninglessness

Ecclesiastes 3:1-22

How many of you drifted back to your youth in the 1960s when you heard today’s Bible passage and started humming this under your breath?

Of course, in the spirit of the folk-rock revolution at that time, Pete Seeger changed the last line about ‘a time for war and a time for peace’ to ‘A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.’

Or perhaps you have memories of funerals where those opening eight verses about a time for everything from ‘a time to be born’ to ‘a time to die’ (verses 1-2) have been read, and we may say that at death a person’s time has come.

But rather than default to the popular associations of this passage, we need to ask what problem the Preacher in Ecclesiastes is struggling with. I suggest to you that in this chapter he is grappling with the question of eternity. The faithful people of his day understood the idea of God’s eternal nature, but they didn’t have the perspective Christians have of eternal life. Not for them the understanding that Christ’s resurrection brings, and the hope it carries with them. There is very little in the Old Testament that connects with that.

The Preacher navigates three issues that we struggle with, and he knows they all require the setting of eternity. Let’s explore them together.

The first is the question of time. So yes, we’re into those first eight verses about there being a time for every activity under the heavens (verse 1). The point of the language here is that most of these areas of life are ones where we have some control over the decision-making, even though they don’t always sound like that in English. For example, we have no control over our ‘time to be born’ but the Hebrew is more about ‘a time for birthing’ and while expectant mothers can’t have complete control over when they give birth, the Preacher is alluding to all those decisions we freely make which lead up to the birth of a child. Similarly with ‘a time to die’: to a large extent we cannot control that, but we do make decisions over the years which contribute hugely to the outcome.

What Ecclesiastes is facing us with here, then, is the whole question of how we make decisions in the space and time allotted to us. Life is filled with decision-making. In our (still) wealthy western consumer society, we are faced with even more decisions. Go to the supermarket and view your options in the different categories of food. Just to type in the word ‘tomatoes’ on Tesco’s website returns 175 results for the Sandhurst store that makes online deliveries to Knaphill.  We have so many decisions to make, some important, others trivial, that we can become fatigued by the very need to do so. Go into my favourite world of computing and one reason a company like Apple has become so popular is because it has narrowed down the choices for people and made life easier.

Some of this for us is what is called a ‘first world problem’ – that is, we who live in a rich country are faced with many more possibilities than someone living in a famine-ravaged region of Africa. And that is undeniably true. However, all Christians have a responsibility to make good decisions in life, in the light of eternity.

I am not of course talking about seemingly trivial decisions. This is not a sermon about how to decide what shirt to put on in the morning, or whether to buy a Mars bar. I am not suggesting that we start seeking specific divine guidance over such matters. We have a range of decisions to make in life. In some cases, I believe we need to consult God specifically, and in others he has given us the freedom and responsibility to make good moral and ethical choices.

The point for all of us is that our decision-making in life has significance. If life ended in the grave and that was all there was, then despite what the atheists say, life would be emptied of all meaning. But because we believe there is more, and because we believe that our choices in this life impact the life of the world to come, Christians can rejoice that their decisions have meaning and importance. I do not say this so that we feel terrified about the consequences of every potential decision, but rather to encourage us. Whenever we thoughtfully and prayerfully engage in a life choice, doing so because we want to please Christ and work for his kingdom, then we are putting small yet eternal building blocks in place for the life of the new heavens and new earth that he will bring with him when he appears.

Be encouraged, then, that the holy decisions you make now will play out for eternity.

The second issue to think about this morning is our toil. Two weeks ago in the evening service, where we looked at the opening verses of Ecclesiastes in greater depth than we were able to in that morning’s all age worship service, we touched on the subject of work. To the Christian, work is something that was created as good by God, yet which was tainted with frustration and struggle through sin, yet which is redeemed through the resurrection of Jesus, in very similar terms to what I have just said about our decision-making. The work we do now ‘in the Lord’ is not in vain, but will be taken up into the kingdom of God.

Here, in chapter three of Ecclesiastes, we revisit that but go a little wider. The Preacher wonders what workers gain from their toil (verse 9), recognising the burden (verse 10) that although God has made everything beautiful in its time and set eternity in our hearts, we cannot fathom what he has done (verse 11). However much we labour and toil, and however much we know there is an eternal context, we still struggle to understand the meaning and purpose of what we do.

I have heard people talk about their sense of futility in their daily jobs. Some have thought that by giving up a regular job and working for the church or a Christian organisation, they would find greater fulfilment. It isn’t always the case. The other morning, I called in here at KMC after the school run and chatted with our friends who run the Pied Piper Pre-School. It was about fifteen minutes before any parents and carers were due to drop off their children, and Karen joked with me that I had arrived too early to play on any of the soft toys.

“Sometimes,” I said, “you don’t know how attractive an option that would be.”

Many – perhaps most, or even possibly all – of us go through periods of feeling like work is little more than a pay packet at best. How can we find some meaning and significance in that part of life? Graham Dow, who is now a retired Anglican bishop, gave this some thought when he was a tutor training ordinands for the ministry. He used to ask new students to write an essay about the jobs they worked in before their training. Many would refer to the opportunity for Christian witness at work, but few saw their previous careers as fulfilling a Christian calling. But Dow claimed there were three major purposes for all kinds of good work (not just ‘church work’) in the Scriptures[1]:

  1. Creative management of God’s world;
  2. Moral management for the good of all;
  3. A community of good relationships.

I cannot promise that when you arrive at the office tomorrow morning you will find that all eight hours (or however long) you spend there will suddenly  become fulfilling. Sin and futility will still have their say. But I can suggest that if you can look for the possibilities that in your daily work you can either creatively manage part of God’s world, or exercise moral management for the common good, or you can contribute to a community of good relationships then you will start to make connections between the eternity that God has set in your heart and the purposeful work of him who has made everything beautiful in its time.

The third issue we need to face in the light of eternity is testing. In the last few verses of the chapter, the Preacher gives us various bits of data that sum up the conundrum of living. He tells us there is nothing new in life (verse 15). He speaks about wickedness supplanting justice (verse 16), yet trusts that there will be a time for God’s justice (verse 17). God’s testing of human beings simply exposes us as no different from the animals, because like them we die (verses 18-21), so enjoy your work while you can (verse 22).

A famous Christian physicist and neuroscientist of a previous generation, Donald Mackay, used to bemoan a line of thinking that he called ‘nothing buttery’. No, it wasn’t anything to do with margarine or low fat spreads, for Mackay ‘nothing buttery’ was the idea that something or someone was ‘nothing but’: for example, in the terms of our passage, human beings are ‘nothing but’ animals; human beings are ‘nothing but’ mortal creatures. Mackay said it wasn’t the statement that people are animals or that people are mortal that was the problem. The problem was to say they were ‘nothing but’ that.

And that’s the difficulty here at the end of Ecclesiastes 3. If we say that humans are nothing but animals, then where is the special sense of dignity we feel? If we say that human beings are nothing but mortal and will die, then where do we stand in the context of eternity, because everything we do returns to dust and that’s that?

Mackay would say we are animals and we are mortals, but we are more than that. We are more than animals, because we are made in the image of God. While we share characteristics with the animal world, we have a special dignity due to the divine design. And yes, we are dust and to dust we shall return – but we shall not stay there. The God of eternity will one day raise us from the dead with new bodies animated by the Holy Spirit, and we shall live rejoicing in God’s new creation.

These are the truths to sustain us when life tests us, and test us is surely does. We do see injustice. People die, and one day we shall join them. Nothing lasts. Those who live without God may make brave statements about finding beauty and wonder within the confines of this life, but ultimately – on their own admission – it all disappears.

In contrast, the Christian can live with a sense of hope and purpose in the face of the bleak hand that life sometimes deals us. That doesn’t mean we know all the answers now. We have to hold on with what my former college Principal George Carey used to call a ‘reverent agnosticism’ – we don’t know, but we trust God. We too may walk in a dark tunnel, but we have reasons for our faith that we shall one day walk into the light.

However, I would hate for that promise to come across in some glib way. I have known times in my life when the darkness has seemed too intense, too all-encompassing. Only later have I known it was worth hanging on.

But because of my experiences, let me offer you the gentle word of hope that one day you will find the light again. Whatever life tells you, and however desolate the picture the Preacher of Ecclesiastes is at times, hear this promise and tuck it away in your mind: resurrection light is coming.


[1] Graham Dow, A Christian Understanding of Daily Work, Grove Books Pastoral Series #57, 1994.

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Theology Degrees And Spiritual Growth

Churchleaders.com has some interesting articles and videos; I’ve included some here before. But a piece that was highlighted in their daily email the other day bothered me.

The content of the post is fine. A man called Rick Howerton argues that pastors should not assume that because they have a Theology degree they are spiritually mature. Churches seeking new ministers should also not be seduced by that error. Spiritual growth is demonstrated in the fruit of the Spirit and increasing embrace of kingdom ethical standards, amongst other things. Quite right, too.

The problem came with the headline: ‘Are Theology Degrees Keeping Pastors From Spiritual Growth?’ It didn’t seem to me that was quite the thrust of the article. Moreover, a headline like that risked playing into the anti-intellectualism of some popular evangelicalism: “Don’t go to theological college, you’ll lose your faith.” Yes, the issue of pride in one’s academic knowledge must be confronted, but at best I want to argue good theological knowledge can enhance spiritual growth, when detached from pride. When I read a Tom Wright book and his vision stretches me, I end up in worship. Didn’t Jesus call us to worship with ‘heart, soul, mind and strength’?

For me, George Carey put it best. When he interviewed me for a place at Trinity College, Bristol, he told me, “Trinity is not just about information, it is about formation.” I think the two can hold hands. What do you think?

The Bishops, The Poor And the TV Presenter

So the bishops in the House of Lords supported an amendment that defeated government plans that would have limited benefits in such a way as to penalise the children of poor families. Predictably, the government didn’t like this. It feels like 1985 again, with ministers briefing that the ‘Faith in the City‘ report is Marxist.

Into this debate weighs journalist, TV presenter and poker player Victoria Coren. In a passionate piece in today’s Observer called ‘Attacking the Church is a Cheap Shot‘ (subtitled ‘Has everyone forgotten these are men of God? It’s actually their job to stand up for the poor), she puts it like this:

It doesn’t matter whether I think they’re right or wrong; I think it’s their job to do what the Bible tells them to do, ie look out for the needy, like the innocent children on whose behalf they raised the amendment, who might otherwise get lost.

The right-wing press that is so angry with the bishops has been complaining for years that Christianity (for better or worse, our national religion) is too weak and small a voice, that its values are not fought for. Now it’s happening, they hate it.

And later:

Their hands are tied. The gospels say what they say. If their lordships wanted to support the idea that handing out bread and fish is bad for people because it demotivates them from doing their own baking and fishing, they’d really have to leave the pulpit and get a job on a tabloid.

And while the Stephen Hesters of this world, already paid 1.2 million loaves a year of arguably public bread, are being given fish factories as bonuses, the church can hardly join in with a move to reduce herring portions for the hungry. It would look ridiculous.

If this were X-Factor for journalists, Louis Walsh would be saying, “You nailed it.” The Bible calls us to be fair, but it calls us to a special concern for the poor. She therefore argues it’s unfair for the bishops to be criticised. They are only doing their job. Quite right, too.

However, it shouldn’t surprise us as Christians. Critique the powers that be and opposition will come. Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jesus – all suffered. While being on the receiving end of criticism isn’t a guarantee of doing a good job, it may be a sign that the bishops scored a bullseye.
More worrying for me was the criticism by my former college principal, George (Lord) Carey. In an article in (of course) the Daily Mail, he seems to stereotype almost all people on benefits as being part of a dependency culture. Yes, some are, but overall – surely not! He knows all about growing up poor in the 1940s, but the pride of poor people he knew then in Dagenham still exists in many quarters, whatever else has changed. And yes, the national debt of £1 trillion is a scandal, but it was a scandal caused by the reckless folly of big business and a culture devoted to consumerism – a consumerism heavily promoted by the government that nominated him to the Queen first for Bath and Wells and then for Canterbury.

So well done the bishops, keep it up, whatever is thrown at you.

Sermon: The Church Of The Ascension

Acts 1:1-11

You may know that my ‘claim to fame’ is that I studied Theology under George Carey, and that he was one of my referees when I candidated for the Methodist ministry. When George left the world of theological colleges to become Bishop of Bath and Wells, he was soon asked to be present at the reopening of a post office in Wells. The reopening was scheduled for Ascension Day. George discovered that the organisers wanted to mark the reopening happening on Ascension Day by him going up in a hot air balloon while people sang the hymn, ‘Nearer my God to thee’!

The story of Jesus’ ascension is a problem for us. Developing knowledge of astronomy over the centuries has meant that it is difficult to believe that geographically heaven is ‘up there’ and hell is ‘down below’. Despite the fact that Christians have long since abandoned such over-literal interpretations, you may recall how in the 1960s the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev said that [Yuri] “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any God there”.

So we might think that the doctrine of the Ascension is worth rejecting. But in response to that we might say, how else do we know that Jesus Christ is reigning in the universe? If he didn’t return to his Father’s side, what did happen to him? If he returned to heaven in a different way without dying, how did he do so? Might we have in the story of Jesus’ Ascension what is sometimes called a ‘miracle of accommodation’? In other words, Jesus accommodates himself to the limited understanding of his followers by the miracle of rising into the clouds as the only way they would have understood that he was returning to his Father’s presence. In that sense, it’s similar to the creation stories – we’re not meant to take them literally, but they are written in the language of the creation stories of their day.

So if at the Ascension Jesus shows the disciples in their limited understanding that he is reigning at the Father’s right hand, what might he teach them – and us, too, with our limited understanding – through this event? I believe he has something to tell us about the church. I want to share ‘Three ‘W’s’ about the church that we see in the light of Jesus’ Ascension.

The first is that he calls his disciples to be a waiting church. Luke reports,

While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. (Verse 4a)

He goes on to show that that ‘promise of the Father’ is the gift of the Holy Spirit. At first, you might think this is not relevant to us, because since Pentecost Christians don’t have to wait for the Holy Spirit. When we turn from our sins and put our faith in Christ, we receive the gift of the Spirit.

And the thought of not having to wait fits with our culture. Do you remember the advert for the old Access credit card, which said it ‘takes the waiting out of wanting’? A society built on credit (or should we say debt?) does not want to wait for anything or anyone. As the rock band Queen sang, ‘I want it all and I want it now.’

It’s something that society does to religious faith and practice, too. Our great annual season of waiting, Advent, is crushed by the unwillingness to wait for Christmas. We are infected by the disease of impatience. We expect instant solutions to deep problems. One application of something that ‘works’ elsewhere and we think the tribulations of the church will be solved.

But God calls us to be a waiting church. The best things take time. They take God’s time, and come in God’s timing. We know it is unwise to give children everything they want, and especially at the moment they request it. So it is between God and us, too. He has wise reasons as a loving parent for making us wait, even for good things.

In particular, I suggest that one reason he keeps us waiting is that he wants to develop character in us. If we received all we asked for instantly, we would love God for the gifts rather than loving him for who he is. Sadly, too many of us in churches are infatuated with the blessings rather than the One who blesses. We want what we can get out of God, rather than to follow him and love him in Jesus Christ.

So God makes us wait. Holy waiting purifies our motives and focuses our hearts. We grow in grace and become more tuned into the purposes of God, rather than the lusts of our hearts. Our willingness to wait is a mark of true discipleship. And that is what the church is meant to be: a group of disciples, those who are learning the ways of Christ. Waiting puts us in a position where we learn Christ. Is that what we want? If it is, let us accept the grace of waiting.

The second characteristic of the church at the Ascension is that she is a witnessing church. What happens after we’ve waited and the Holy Spirit has come? Jesus is quite clear:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Verse 8 )

Make no mistake, the Ascension leads to Pentecost. In fact, Easter leads to Pentecost. With Pentecost comes the gift of the Holy Spirit. And with the gift of the Spirit comes the promise that we shall be witnesses.

In particular, the witness that happens starts from where we are and moves outwards. Just as the disciples were in Jerusalem when they received the Holy Spirit, so their witness began there but it didn’t end there. It went to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. Their witness may have begun with the people with whom they were most familiar, but gradually the Spirit drove them further from their comfort zones to be witnesses to Jesus Christ.

The Holy Spirit does the same today. We make a grave mistake when we think witness is about us staying where we are and waiting for people to be attracted to us. That’s actually a cop-out from being witnesses to Christ, and thus cannot be a work of the Holy Spirit.

No. Instead of the idea that we attract people to us while we sit comfortably (or uncomfortably) in our pews, the Holy Spirit sends us out from the place that suits us to the world as the witnesses of Jesus. The word is not ‘come’ but ‘go’. A witnessing church asks, how are we going into the community and beyond, carrying the love of God in Christ?

Similarly, a witnessing church does not say, how can we attract enough people into this congregation so that it survives for another generation? It won’t say that, because that is a selfish question, more concerned with personal preservation than the Gospel. Jesus said that those who wanted to save their lives would lose it. Those who lose their lives for his sake and the Gospel’s will save their lives.

So a witnessing church, filled with the Holy Spirit, says, the love of God in Christ is such a beautiful gift. Where are the people who need that love? And in the waiting time of Ascension, a true church is consumed with that vision of witness that its members plan how to move out from the church base, spreading God’s redeeming love in Christ to people in spiritual need, material need and social and emotional need.

If this happens, then the church will meet as much as she needs for worship, fellowship and discipleship – but no more. It will not simply become the centre of our social lives, but the refuelling station as we venture into the world, filled with the Holy Spirit. Our social lives will more likely  be fulfilled in the world as we network with friends who do not yet know how much Jesus Christ loves them.

At Ascension-tide, then, the church anticipates this mission. We allow this mission to be the organising principle of church life. And we long for the equipping power of the Holy Spirit in order to put it into practice.

The third and final characteristic of the church at Ascension (at least in this sermon) is that she is a watching church.

While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Verses 10-11)

This last week I went to the races. Sandown Park, to be precise. I go once a year. Before you think I have a gambling problem, let me explain that it was to attend the annual Christian Resources Exhibition. I was helping to staff the Essex Christian Healing Trust stall, but also found an hour or two spare to look around for myself, buy presents for the family and new clerical shirts for myself. When I was trying to hunt down a gift for Debbie, I was accosted by one stallholder who wanted me to know that his organisation had collected together all the scriptures about the Second Coming and it was their sole aim of their charity to make known what they saw as the truth on this subject. I took their leaflet and hurried on.

Similarly, it was only the other day that one churchgoer told me how a relative lectured him for twenty minutes about the imminence of Christ’s Second Coming.

Hence many of us become nervous of the fervent, if not extreme Christians who go overboard on this theme. We tend to think they’ve consumed too much fruitcake. And that’s before we get to the sects and the cults with their bizarre readings of Holy Writ.

Nevertheless, we are to watch for the coming of Christ. Not in a standing-around-waiting posture, for which the men in white robes seem to censure the disciples here. Just doing that achieves nothing. The doctrine of Christ’s return was never meant to reduce us to inactivity and inertia. Quite the opposite, in fact. When we look for the coming of Christ, we are anticipating the fullness of God’s kingdom, the new creation in which God will bring into being the new heavens and the new earth.

What does that mean? If we are filled with hope because Christ is returning, then while that may give us inner peace, it also gives us holy restlessness. We want to see the kingdom of God, so we get on with building for it. We call people to follow Jesus. We bring relief to the poor, and seek to change all that puts them in poverty. We bring God’s healing to the sick. We look after the creation that God is going to renew.

Such a church is vibrant internally and externally. Internally, it is a forgiving, loving and safe place to be, where the only fear is awe at the presence of God’s holiness, not a worry that people have to tread on eggshells in the presence of bullies. Externally, it is known as a people who would be missed by the community if they folded, who champion the poor, and who have a winsome but challenging word for the world.

Let me ask, then, whether we are a church of the Ascension. Are we willing to wait, so that God may form us more in the image of Christ? Are we witnesses, replacing the idolatry of church as social club with church as fuelling station for sorties of love into the world? And are we watching for Christ’s return, aligning our life and witness by the shape of his coming kingdom?

Too often in the Methodist tradition we ignore the Ascension. O that we embraced it and let it shape us.

Sabbatical, Day 26: George Kovoor Is Mad, Myers Briggs Is Sane, Worship Is Amazing

George Kovoor is mad. It’s the title of a Facebook group, and it’s true. I discovered the group last night when the man himself sent me a friend request and it was on his profile. He is a member.

As I thought, I wasn’t able to set up an appointment with him today, as he requested yesterday. When I was here in the 1980s, you needed to ask the Principal’s secretary two weeks in advance if you wanted to see George Carey. So when I went to see the current secretary, sure enough there was no window when both  GK and I were free.

However, she made a suggestion. Why not reserve a seat next to him at lunch? The staff and students here all have yellow chits they place on tables to reserve seats in the dining room. She tore up a piece of yellow paper, wrote my name on it and told me where George sits. I went and marked the seat next to him.

It was duly a crazy conversation. Just I am very clearly an introvert, so George is as clear an extravert as you are likely to meet. He conducted simultaneous conversations with about five of us. I referred yesterday to how he has a collection of projects all in addition to being Principal here. He referred to my bookmarking of Butler and Butler‘s fairtrade clergy shirts, and it transpires he has an involvement in the marketing of clergy attire himself.

During the meal, George asked for a bottle of tabasco sauce. We expected him to use it on his chicken and spicy rice. No. He drank it directly from the bottle. Tonight, I have learned from some of the students that it is his favourite party trick, especially in front of men. However, it has given the students an idea for something when they hold a ‘superheroes day’ here in a fortnight to support Comic Relief. Pastoral confidentiality does of course mean that I cannot reveal their plans on a public blog.

At the end of lunch, he said he was sad we couldn’t match our diaries but was still keen to meet. So I’m having breakfast with him at 7:45 am tomorrow, when he gets into college.

On a calmer note, the course today has been just what I wanted when I booked it last year. I’ve taken very few notes, but so much has fallen into place. Without turning it into the psychological equivalent of a horoscope reading, my personality profile under Myers Briggs makes so much sense of my strengths and weaknesses in ministry and in other relationships. Jerry Gilpin who is teaching the course is another former Trinity student. He was in the year above me. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to catch up over coffee tomorrow. Already he’s given me some recommended reading on personality type and ministry. So far it includes Faith and Psychology by Leslie Francis, Growing Spiritually with the Myers-Briggs Model by Julia McGuinness, In the Grip by Naomi L Quenk, and he’s going to check on the title of a book by William Bridges.

I’ll sign off soon. I need to pack stuff ready for leaving here tomorrow lunchtime. Lectures start at 9:15 and I have to vacate the room by 10. I need just my morning stuff and laptop bag ready to go.

There won’t be chapel worship tomorrow morning, because the students will be worshipping in their pastoral groups. So I have worshipped together with the community for the last time. And I wanted to say this. Whatever nit-picking comments I’ve made about services this week (and that’s my personality type, too!), I have so far failed to mention the extraordinary sense of devotion and commitment to Christ that surrounds you like a magnetic field in the worship. I’m struggling for a way to express this gracefully and without sounding condemning of others, but I have missed being in a community like that. I believe that when you are in a group of Christians like that, then iron sharpens iron. Others lift the level of your discipleship. Sometimes they don’t know they’re doing it, but they do. I wonder how much of this energy gets dissipated when people leave.

I don’t know whether it’s as unrealistic to reproduce this in the local church as it is to bring back to a congregation the ‘spiritual high’ some people experience at conferences. I’m tempted to think there is a difference here, though, because this is an ongoing, day by day, week by week community, not an annual gathering of thousands. Am I crazy to have lofty ambitions for the local church? I always have been a (failed) idealist in that cause. One of my tutors at my Methodist college, David Dunn Wilson, picked up on my tendency in this direction and told me to remember that the Church is a company of sinners. Eugene Peterson has a similar tone in his book The Jesus Way, in which he stresses the importance of forgiveness from the example of King David’s life. I agree with both of them up to a point, but Christians are more than forgiven sinners. It’s something the Methodist tradition knew in its infancy with John Wesley‘s call to ‘scriptural holiness’. Somewhere I still believe that a community of forgiven sinners also needs deep intentional aspirations to holiness.

Or am I barking?

25 Things

I’ve been tagged by my friend Jenny Vass on this web meme. This will take a while, so I’ll type a few random things as I remember them over the day, so here goes:

1. I was born in the Salvation Army Mothers’ Hospital in Clapton, north-east London. 

2. I have a big head (I hope only literally), which made my birth distressing for my mother, and explains why my parents waited six years before having my sister.

3. I grew up in the same road that Bruce Forsyth did. Not at the same time.

4. On a school trip to Whipsnade Zoo, my mum gave me nineteen shillings in spending money. When the teacher announced we could only take seven shillings and sixpence with us, I kept quiet. I spent every last penny in the zoo gift shop. Mum was distraught: she had given me the balance of her housekeeping and had only intended the extra sum for an emergency.

5. I became best friends with my mate Jean when he joined my primary school at the age of seven. Nearly forty-two years later, we’re still friends and he was best man at my wedding.

6. Once, while Jean and I were boys, we were stopped by a van driver asking for directions. We made it all up and off he went.

7. Jean is an accomplished guitarist. We used to write songs together, even though I’m not musical.

8. When I was eight and my sister was two, she hit me over the head with my cricket bat.

9. I was the only child from my primary school to go to my secondary school.

10. I hated school, even though I did well academically. The reason? Bullying.

11. Glandular fever-like infections seriously disrupted my schooling at fourteen and fifteen, and a neck problem at eighteen. But for the neck problem, I would have read Computer Science at Imperial College, London.

12. I was a union rep for my office when I worked in the civil service.

13. I used to go to winter nets to practise with my Dad’s cricket team when I was a teenager. I didn’t know until adulthood that the men couldn’t read my spin bowling. I’d have given up quick bowling if I’d known.

14. Theological study: I had three wonderful years at Trinity College, Bristol and three terrible ones at Hartley Victoria Methodist College, Manchester. 

15. On the surface I’m all academic, theoretical and conceptual, but underneath a creative person is trying to break out. That’s why I did a creative writing course at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity with the Association of Christian Writers in my last sabbatical, and I’m taking a photography course at Lee Abbey in this one.

16. I am left-handed, have blue eyes and have worn glasses since I was eleven.

17. My first computer was an Amstrad PCW 9512. I ditched the noisy, inflexible daisywheel printer, bought an Epson 24-pin dot matrix and installed that instead. I wrote my MPhil thesis on it. I’ve been fiddling with computers ever since. Had the neck problem not hit when I was eighteen (see 11 above), I would have done so from a younger age.

18. My first car was a hideous yellow Ford Escort with a grim gearchange. I backed it into a tree, the boot sprang open, and for a long while I held it down with a friend’s old tie (= ‘necktie’ for my north American friends).

19. I once saw Oasis before the were Oasis. They were called The Rain and were supporting Roachford at a Manchester University gig. They were rubbish. Still are.

20. Our son Mark is named after my favourite of the Four Gospels. We brainstormed four names, wrote them down, folded them up and put them into a hat for Rebekah, then a small toddler, to pick. Both of our children have middle names taken from grandparents. Mark’s is Alan after my Dad, Rebekah’s is Anita after Debbie’s late Mum. That gives both of them full initials that have something to do with flying. Rebekah is RAF; Mark is MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship). That’s a coincidence, but a nice one, since I come from an Air Force family.

21. I got into SLR photography after a mission trip to the north of Norway in 1981 when I was the only member of the party not to own a camera. Dad has been an amateur photographer as long as I can remember, and he took me to his favourite shop, City Camera Exchange by Cannon Street station in London, where I bought a Minolta XG-1.

22. I once tried to learn the guitar when a church member offered classes free of charge. As a result, I own a Fender acoustic. Unfortunately, the lessons began clashing with essential church appointments and I was unable to continue. The guitar and its electronic tuning gadget stay dormant in its case.

23. I studied Theology under George Carey. Shame he’s an Arsenal supporter.

24. I went from being a rabid teetotaller to a wine lover and now back to being teetotal. Originally, I held to a teetotal view on what I realised were legalistic grounds. Giving them up, I discovered the joys of wine. Unfortunately, medication I’m on for raised blood pressure now recommends I abstain.

25. The most serious surgery I’ve had is a pleurectomy on my left lung to prevent further recurrences of spontaneous pneumothorax. Go look it up. That’s why I inserted the links.

Right, that’s taken far too long on and off. I’m going to tag twenty-five people on Facebook, once this has uploaded to my notes there.

Children And Atonement

On Thursday, I took two assemblies at our children’s school for the first time – one with Key Stage 1 (a.k.a. ‘infants) and one with Key Stage 2 (‘juniors’ to oldies like me). I am doing this as part of a team from two or three local churches. We are taking incidents from the life of Jesus this term. Last week’s speaker, Helen, used the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. I couldn’t get anything together on the visit to Jerusalem when he was twelve. So, with the aid of Scripture Union‘s rather decent Big Bible Storybook, I looked at his baptism. I also purloined a doll of Rebekah’s, which Debbie dressed in the very christening robe she and her sister had worn as babies.

Further, I borrowed a portable font from church. It was interesting to hear the children’s answers when I asked them what I thought it was. Some thought it was an urn (wrong end of life, I guess). My favourite wrong guess was from the child who thought it contained tombola tickets.

Without going into the whole of my talk, I got to the point where Jesus asks John to baptise him and John protests, only for Jesus to say it’s what God wants. I took that as an early sign of Jesus identifying with sinful humanity (it’s OK, I didn’t use that level of language). Therefore, I said, it was a sign of what Jesus would do in his death on the Cross.

Thus I asked the children how they would feel if they had done something naughty and a friend offered to take the blame for them. In both assemblies, the answer was the same: ‘Kind.’ No worrying about whether it was just or ethical for an innocent person to be condemned in place of the guilty, they saw the heart of such an approach was love.

I couldn’t help thinking they might be further on than many of us who discuss the atonement as adults. There are crude statements of substitution that sound like Jesus was placating an angry God, that overlook the rôle of the Trinity or that forget the Resurrection. Some fail to see that the word ‘sacrifice’ is about more than a sin offering in the Old Testament. There are other images of the  atonement in Scripture. (I owe use of the word ‘image’ to George Carey, who prefers it to ‘theory’.) Yet you cannot completely expunge some form of substitution.

And these primary school kids got the fact that it’s about love. Great.

For a more nuanced discussion, Tom Wright’s article for Fulcrum two years ago is always a good starting point. He is glad the church has not defined the theories of the atonement too tightly, yet he rejects both those who caricature and dismiss substitution and also those who hold onto it in a severe way.

Stamps

Last year, I made a series of posts about an alleged controversy regarding whether the Royal Mail was willing to sell religious Christmas stamps:

Royal Mail Christmas Stamps

Royal Mail Christmas Stamps Update

Royal Mail Christmas Stamps Part 3

This Isn’t The Royal Mail Christnas Stamps Blog, Honest

I have now received an email from a friend, telling the same story. The main Christmas stamps this year are on a pantomime theme, but you can get Madonna and Child stamps as an alternative. He says he went to buy Christmas stamps and was only given the ‘secular’ stamps. Checking the Royal Mail site shows the panto stamps are the main ones, but the Madonna and Child ones are available for those who want a more ‘traditional’ image – see here. What is unclear from the Royal Mail is whether it is compulsory for their staff to offer customers a choice. It may be that if they offer a choice, that makes both designs equal in importance. That would contradict their policy of alternating between a religious and a ‘secular’ theme for the stamps. However, the other side is that you have to be ‘in the know’ to ask for the explicitly Christian stamps.

My friend who emailed me today entitled his message ‘Keeping Christ in Christmas’, and that is a wider issue than stamps, although I can see why they are part of the concern. The danger is the continued relegation of Christianity to the private sphere, away from the arena of public truth. That trend has been continuing for centuries: since the Enlightenment, if you believe the late Lesslie Newbigin, and since Thomas Aquinas separated grace and nature, if you believe the late Francis Schaeffer.

Where Christ fits into society’s Christmas (if that is even a valid question) is one symptom of the wider problem: what is the public rôle, if any, of faith? A classic Anglican view, especially in the UK where it would often be linked with established status, would see secular stamps as a threat. It would be about taking the spiritual out of the public sphere. I recall that some years ago George Carey argued against disestablishment on the grounds that it would be a further privatisation of faith. Whether he was right is another matter, but that would be a typical Anglican approach.

A more Radical Reformation (e.g., Mennonite?) view might be rather more ambivalent. Let the state and public sphere do what it will, Christians must get on with being faithful, even if there is opposition, hostility or apathy. We are the ones who keep Christ in Christmas. As we do so, it is part of our witness. Personally, I suspect this approach is more suited to the times we are in, where Christianity is largely out of favour in our society. We are being pushed to the margins. However, that is a potential advantage in the long term should generally postmodern conditions prevail for a long time. Postmodernity often welcomes the idea of truth coming not from powerful places but the margins. This is not the same as the privatisation of faith; it is about recognising that we are exiles in Babylon, a model that is increasingly important to many of us.

A third view might be that of the Revivalist. In a desire to see the Gospel command hearts and minds much more (or ‘as it used to’), there would be fierce protests against the secularisation of Christmas. This is one step on from the establishment view that ‘we are a Christian country’: it sees the issue as one of sin. I long to see a ‘revival’, but find this style unhelpful. Militant Christian protests backed by fervent intercession couched in terms of ‘praying against people’ will not help our cause. 

There are other views we could explore, but it’s late in the evening and I need to finish this. I suggest there is no harm in us asking nicely about the stamps, but we must be careful about our tone and we should not make this a crusade or act as if some terrible injustice has been done to us. The majority non-Christian culture just won’t understand.

Those are my initial thoughts. What do you think?

Waiting

It was the eminent American theologian Tom Petty who once sang that ‘The waiting is the hardest part.’ We, like millions of other families, are currently waiting. We are waiting for next week, when Mum enters the Brompton Hospital for her investigations. Admission is Monday, procedure is Tuesday, we are told the results Wednesday, and if surgery is feasible, that happens Friday.

Meanwhile, even a short wait from Monday last week when the consultant broke the potential news, feels like it is dragging. If it feels like that to me, I don’t know what it is like for Mum or Dad.

And there are others who wait much longer. In Scipture, waiting is often for years, decades, even centuries – for the hope of the Messiah to ease the pain of God’s people (and even then he wasn’t in the form they expected).

Yet one thing I must recognise is that God uses waiting positively. ‘Waiting’ and ‘hoping’ are interchangeable English translations of Hebrew, if I recall correctly. (Compare different English versions of Isaiah 40:31). I believe God can use the waiting period to shape us. George Carey once said to me at Trinity College, Bristol that theological training wasn’t simply about information, it was about formation. And isn’t that true of the whole Christian life? God is forming us. One means he uses is waiting. As we pray, struggle, wrestle and argue, God forms us more into the image of Christ.

I pray that God is doing that for us as a family right now. If you are waiting, is he doing it for you?

When the singer Sam Phillips was operating on the Contemporary Christian Music scene under the name Leslie Phillips, she wrote a song that I imagine her paymasters didn’t like. It was called ‘Answers Don’t Come Easy’, and it returns to me at times like this. She sang:

I can wait
It’s enough to know you can hear me now
I can wait
It’s enough to feel you near me now
And when answers don’t come easy
I can wait

I think she was wise.