Someone once said that most of the Bible speaks to us, but the Psalms speak for us. Enter the famed Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann:
HT: the Pastors’ Weekly email from ChurchLeaders.com.
Brueggemann proposes there are three things we can do with our anger when something unjust has happened to us:
1. We can act it out – but surely Christians don’t want to do that;
2. We can deny it – but then it comes out somewhere else, perhaps in our family;
3. We can give it to God.
It is that third way which he says is present in the ‘imprecatory Psalms’.
I love Brueggemann’s illustration of the parent who has to deal with two children, where one has been hurt and accuses the other of having caused the injury. The wise parent doesn’t say, “Don’t be angry,” but, “Let me deal with it.”
Yet so often I see options 1 and 2. I see option 1 in the way some Christians support aggressive international policies by their governments. I see option 2 among those Christians who know they need to forgive, but mistakenly think that means denying their anger. Brueggemann is right, it does come out somewhere else. Either they take it out on an innocent party, or on someone who has only wronged them a little. Or they suppress it and it turns into something like depression. (Not that I am saying all depression is caused this way – it isn’t.)
Option 3 is the ‘healthy option’.
Yann Martel is the Canadian author who won the Man Booker Prize in 2002 for his novel ‘The Life of Pi’. In 2007, he was invited, along with forty-nine other distinguished Canadian contributors to the arts, to the Visitors’ Gallery of the House of Commons in Canada, where they would celebrate fifty years of the Canada Council for the Arts, the equivalent to our Arts Council. One artist for each of the fifty years that this body had been making grants to aspiring artists. Martel himself had received a grant from them when he was beginning as a novelist.
The Arts Minister, Bev Oda, stood up and gave a speech of less than five minutes. The Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, spent the time shuffling his papers and did not even acknowledge the artists with eye contact. After the speech, it was all over. There had been a reception the day before, when only twenty-five of the 306 MPs had attended.
Martel was devastated. What could he do? Doubtless these people, the Prime Minister, especially, were busy people. But they still needed stillness, and they needed something to stimulate their imaginations in that stillness.
He made a plan. He would send the Prime Minister a book, every other Monday, in the hope that he might read it. During an election period, he even sent an audio book instead, so Mr Harper could hear the book while travelling.
After sending the hundredth book, he gave up. Never had Harper acknowledged him. Only five times did he receive a three-line reply from the Prime Minister’s staff. In an interview with The Independent newspaper in February, Martel said,
“I can’t understand how a man who seems never to read imaginative writing of any kind (novels, poetry, short stories, high-brow, middle-brow, low-brow, anything) can understand life, people, the world,” … “I don’t care if ordinary people read or not. It’s not for me to say how people should live. But people who have power over me? I want them to read because their limited, impoverished dreams may become my nightmares.”
We are celebrating the end of Addlestone Arts Festival. We have enjoyed music, crafts, poetry and even valuation of antiques – although I confess I’m at something of a loss to understand how Bingo fits into an arts week! I imagine that many of our contributors have seen their art as more than entertainment. They have been glad to entertain us, I am sure. But I suspect many had a bigger vision than merely entertainment.
For example – we’ve had two Disney events. Don’t the Disney films try to take you into a particular world, and see life a certain way? Poetry – don’t poets want to engage our imagination to hear the world with fresh ears? The music about royalty encourages a certain understanding of national life. And so on.
So what does a Christian minister like me have to do with this? I had a failed attempt to learn the guitar some years ago. I can’t sing – although a friend of mine swears he could teach me. My art doesn’t get much beyond matchstick men, and I am embarrassed into inferiority by my eight-year-old daughter. I used to write the odd bit of poetry and song lyrics, but they tended to head in the pretentious/Sixth Form direction.
Where does that leave me? To advocate the historical position the Christian churches had as patrons of the arts? No – because we don’t have the money any more! Although when we did so, it reflected our belief in a good Creator.
It leaves me offering you something that I believe is rich beyond measure. In this year when we mark the four hundredth anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, think about the Bible as a work of art. It’s a compendium of sixty-six books, representing a wide range of literary styles, not only history and poetry but also some literary forms rarely seen any more. It tells of a God who not only speaks, but who sings, dances and tells stories. All these things combine to tell one great story, spread over centuries, if not aeons, that invites our imaginations to see the world differently from the culture in which we live.
So whereas Richard Dawkins urges us to see a universe that is pitiless, indifferent and lacking any basis for morality, the biblical story invites us to see a creation rooted in the work of a good, loving and purposeful God.
Or take the way our culture thinks that the leopard can’t change its spots. We see broken people causing damage and pain to others, and we say they can’t change. Yet the biblical story invites us into a kingdom where people are forgiven and transformed.
We live in a society where dreadful things happen to people and they say, “That’s unforgivable. I could never forgive them.” Yet the Bible invites us into a story where the one who was on the receiving end of the greatest injustice of all prayed, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Or how do we view the future? As ending in death? As the chaos of environmental destruction? As something that science will solve, despite the fact that for all the advances it gives us, it also hands us other gifts such as the ability to cause mass destruction? Or do we think all our troubles will be alleviated by the next hot consumer product? The Bible invites us to imagine something much bigger, with a universe made new and freed from suffering.
A couple of minutes ago, I disparaged my artistic abilities. In truth, there are one or two artistic pursuits I enjoy. One – when I have the time – is photography. Another is writing. I belong to a group of writers who are Christians. Like most novelists, we know the truth of one telling approach about getting our message over:
Show, don’t tell.
In other words, don’t in your story tell people the message you want them to hear. Show it instead, by the nature of the tale. Now the Bible has its ‘tell’ moments, to be sure, but a surprising amount of it is more like ‘showing’ than ‘telling’. Jesus tells stories, like the parable we heard Ben read, and he invites us to see where we fit in the story. Who are we? Are we those who are ludicrously self-obsessed that the invitation to a banquet – yes, a banquet – means nothing? Or are we the people on the margins, not the folk you’d normally expect to be associated with God and religion, but to whom Jesus throws open the doors? Might there even be jazz musicians in the kingdom of God?
So at the end of this year’s festival, I thank God for the artists of all types who have both entertained us and also given us an illuminated commentary on life.
And I also commend to you the greatest Artist of them all, the One who invites us to improvise within his general script, the One who invites each of us to take a rôle in his story.
I wonder whether you know the story of the devout Methodist who refused to get married on principle? He said he didn’t believe in games of chance.
The Lectionary today presents us with readings about marriage and divorce. When these lessons came around three years ago, I preached on the Mark reading and explained that Jesus does not here completely prohibit divorce and remarriage. Indeed, the prohibition on a woman to divorce her husband is actually about not deserting him.
But today, I want to go to the reading from Genesis. In some ways, this is the most fundamental text in Scripture about marriage. Both Jesus and Paul quote this passage when they teach about relationships, especially verse 24:
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.
And in a culture where marriage is regarded as simply one of a number of relationship options, we need to think again about our Christian beliefs regarding it. We hear that ‘marriage doesn’t work’. We hear that people should do whatever two consenting adults decide between themselves to do, provided it doesn’t harm anyone else.
Before I launch into this, I want to say one other thing. As both a minister and as someone who didn’t marry until he was forty-one, I am aware this subject may not immediately apply to everyone. We are a mixture of single, married, widowed and divorced people. However, it’s hard to look at all these in one sermon. Just as I explored divorce from the Mark reading three years ago, this time I am thinking about marriage. On other occasions (not in Chelmsford, admittedly) I have preached about singleness. Another time it would be appropriate to think about widowhood and bereavement. Nor do I have time to offer any reflections this morning about homosexuality.
So come with me back to this ancient, inspired text as we explore some basic elements of Christian marriage.
The first point I want to make is that marriage is social. This is not an argument for wife-swapping! It is to say, though, that although marriage is exclusive, it isn’t private. What do I mean?
The context of our passage is about how the man will look after the garden God has created. He needs a helper, a partner. The woman is created so that she and the man may steward God’s creation together. Marriage has a social function. It is designed to bless the world. Whatever goes on in our relationships, they affect the world. This has a negative and a positive consequence.
Negatively, this is where I beg to differ with those couples who choose to live together and not marry, saying they don’t need a piece of paper to prove their commitment to each other. I don’t doubt their sincerity. However, I believe they are mistaken in thinking their exclusive relationship doesn’t have social implications. That’s why marriage is a step of social recognition.
Positively, it means a couple when they come together do not do so simply to enjoy one another and support each other. As a couple, they can have an effect for good on other people, on society and on the environment. Let me repeat something I said in a different context once. The love between the members of the Trinity had to be expressed from and beyond them, hence the creation of the universe. Likewise, the love that exists between a couple has to go from and beyond them to others. The most common way in which this happens is if they are blessed with children, but they may also share their love by serving the community. Marriage is designed to radiate the love within the home to the world.
This can involve simple acts of kindness. Opening up our homes in hospitality to those in need is one obvious way (and of course is not limited to those who are married). Just the other day, Debbie and I found ourselves talking to a friend who is Australian but married to an Englishman. A dear friend of hers back home is gravely ill with cancer. We promised to pray for her and her friend, but we also said our door was always open if she wanted a coffee. It was just a simple way of extending our love to her. It is something married couples and families should, I believe, normally aim to do as a token of God’s love.
Secondly, marriage is equal. You may find it surprising to hear such an argument from the Bible. Isn’t the woman here called a ‘helper’, and doesn’t that make her subservient to the man? Didn’t the Apostle Paul tell women to submit to their husbands, and wasn’t he an ignorant single man? Let’s dismantle this.
Take the ‘helper’ description first. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, God is called ‘the helper of Israel’, and it’s the same Hebrew word for ‘helper’ as here. I hope we are not going to suggest that God is subservient to men! The great Puritan Bible commentator Matthew Henry made this point about the woman being made from the man’s rib: She was
Not made out of his head to top him, not out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.
As for the texts about submission, let it simply be said that we also need to note what Paul required of husbands: we are to love our wives as Christ loved the Church – that is, we must be ready to die for them! The equality of marriage is not so much about equal status and rights, it is an equal relationship of self-giving, sacrificial love. This is what makes for the companionship of marriage. It is not whether we have compatible personalities, it is what we are each willing to do for our spouse for their well-being. The Bible teaches an equality of helping that leads to deep companionship.
Oh, and by the way, Paul probably wasn’t single! He says in 1 Corinthians that he isn’t married, but as a Pharisee it would be unthinkable that he hadn’t married. It’s far more likely, I believe, that he was a widower. I think he did have experience of marriage when he was young.
Thirdly, marriage is a priority. When verse 24 says, ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and mother’, that is a rather curious statement for a Jewish text. Usually it was the other way around: the bride left her parents to move in with her husband, who stayed close to his parents.
But ‘leaves’ may be translated ‘forsakes’, and this is a relative term. Marriage establishes new priorities. It is not that we stop caring about our parents, but they are no longer our first concern: our spouse is.
And I might suggest that this reordering of priorities applies not only to our parents. It applies to the rest of our lives. Which comes first, work or family? Some large companies think their employees can just uproot their families and follow the latest economic whim.
But before we get too self-righteous, we should remember how the Church has sometimes expected members and ministers to show commitment to meetings and programmes at the expense of family life. There was once a church where mysteriously a banner appeared one week across the notice board. It said, ‘All meetings cancelled.’ The stewards set up an investigation to find out who the vandal was. They discovered it was the minister’s teenage son, who felt he wasn’t seeing much of Dad.
It’s why, although I technically work a six-day week, one of the first things Debbie asked me to do when we married was to block one night a week just for us. We can’t get by as a couple simply on one day off a week. So when I look at weeknight meetings from Monday to Thursday (allowing for Friday as my usual day off), once three of those four nights are filled with appointments, I refuse any more. I don’t always get my priorities right as a husband, and I wouldn’t have thought of doing that myself, but it’s what my wife needs and it’s right to do it. After all, those who want their pound of ministerial flesh would soon express disapproval if we drifted apart and separated.
This area of priorities is one where Christians could go against the flow of society. We might not all get the promotions in our jobs that we want, but marriage makes for new priorities.
Fourthly, marriage is a covenant. In verse 24, the man ‘leaves’ or ‘forsakes’ his parents and ‘clings to his wife’ – the old word for ‘clings’ is ‘cleaves’. He leaves and cleaves. It has the sense of sticking to his wife. It is about ‘both passion and permanence’. And that raises the idea of covenant: a permanent commitment that is not simply a legal contract (marriage is more than a piece of paper), but backed with passion, with love.
This, then, is the ‘for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until we are parted by death’ element of the marriage vows. The man sticks to his wife and sticks with his wife, if you like.
Sometimes people say their marriage just died. I suggest that’s based on a false understanding of marriage. I once read some wise words on the subject. The writer said, it’s not love that will keep your marriage alive: rather, marriage will keep your love alive. In other words, it’s that decision by the grace of God to stick with your spouse in bad times as well as good that makes the difference. It’s the covenant love that loves even when we don’t feel like it. We stick to one another.
And that, I know, can be enormously difficult. A musician friend of mine, Bryn Haworth, once wrote a song called ‘Working for love’, which sums up what the covenant nature of marriage sometimes requires of us. It requires work and effort to maintain that ‘stickability’. But the good news is that the God who calls us to such effort in order to maintain and grow our marriages offers us grace and power all the time and especially at our time of need. For where God guides, he provides.
Finally, marriage is a unity. In marriage, man and woman ‘become one flesh’, says verse 24. In an age of individualism, the unity of two people in marriage reminds us we are not isolated and separate people who make our own decisions regardless of anyone else. The partners in a marriage may be very different, and that may cause tension and conflict, but they act as one. Marriage is not about ‘me’: it’s about ‘us’.
But note the unity isn’t simply that the man and woman ‘become one’, Genesis says they ‘become one flesh’. This is, I believe, a poetic allusion to the act of love. For Christians, sexual intercourse is not simply a pleasure to be pursued, like buying an ice cream (although God does intend it to be pleasurable, as the Song of Songs attests). Rather, it is, as the great spiritual writer Richard Foster says, ‘a life uniting act with life uniting intent’. The sexual act is virtually sacramental for Christians in marriage. No wonder we talk about it as the ‘consummation’ of a marriage.
This means, though, that we find ourselves vastly differing with the beliefs and practices of millions today, who believe in mutual consent but not necessarily in union. It’s another reason why I don’t believe Christian faith can agree with living together, however sincere many cohabiting couples are. If they live together as trial marriage, that makes little sense. Marriage is about total commitment, so you can no more have trial marriage than you can have trial death. Besides, all the research I have ever read shows that couples who live together are much more likely to break up than those who marry without living together first. Sexual relationships without the abandonment to unity are houses built on sand.
In conclusion, then, I cannot state an entire Christian view of marriage from this one passage, but we can find some fundamental building blocks. And what we have here makes for a distinctive witness in our society, if not a thoroughly counter-cultural approach. We take marriage to have social implications rather than being entirely private. We agree with today’s view that it is between two equals, but we say that is about mutual service and sacrificial love, not inflicting my rights over and above another person. We see the marriage relationship as a high priority above the allure of money and career. Furthermore, it is not merely a piece of paper or a legal contract, it is a covenant requiring total commitment and love. Finally, the one-flesh unity cemented in the sexual relationship distinguishes us from the tentative approaches to commitment today and the disposable attitudes to sex found in some people.
This lines us up to be distinctive in today’s world, even to the point of being mocked. May God grant us the grace to hold to our witness, and to hold to it winsomely.
 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, p51, calls this ‘the far agenda’ as opposed to ‘the near agenda’ of sexuality and sin.
 Op. cit., p71.
 I owe this insight to Doug Barnett in a seminar at Spring Harvest some time in the 1980s.
After dipping into it over a couple of weeks, I’ve finally completed Patrick Whitworth‘s book ‘Prepare For Exile‘. When it first arrived in the post and I looked at the contents pages, I was disappointed. Ninety pages of history and only fifty of contemporary application: I wanted more of the latter. Further, when I read the final three chapters that concentrate on how we should prepare for exile in the western Church, I thought I was reading little I hadn’t encountered elsewhere or already concluded for myself. Many of the usual authorities are quoted: David Bosch, Walter Brueggemann, Michael Frost, and so on.
Yet I think this is a significant book. Why?
Firstly, because the history matters. What Whitworth shows in those first ninety pages is just how fundamental the category of exile is to vibrant faith. Not only does he establish it as a much more critical theme of Scripture than we generally acknowledge, he shows from centuries of church history how it is often people and movements who have been forced into a posture of exile that have brought renewal to the church and society.
Secondly, because Whitworth writes as an Anglican. My guess is that being the Established Church has made it harder for the Church of England to come to terms with the thought that the Christian Church is going into exile in this country. For someone like him to write persuasively about a stance of exile is important.
Thirdly, because Whitworth seems to be writing as a charismatic, where one might expect him instead to write a book called ‘Prepare For Revival‘. However, revival gets scant mention in the book. I think its first mention comes only on page 134, where it is admitted as a possibility but Whitworth expects something different:
But if the historical process identified in the central section of the book still has some way to run (although arguably it could be overturned by an extraordinary Christian revival), which I believe it has, the process of secularization may well continue apace.
I don’t want to make it sound like the desire for revival is unworthy. At its best, it is a longing for a society suffused with the Gospel. However, in some charismatic circles, it has degenerated into something else. It is the cavalry coming over the hill to rescue the poor beleaguered church. Worse, it is the fantasy we indulge to prevent us thinking about painful reality.
Next in my reading project for the rest of the sabbatical is to look at some of the stuff on ministry. Not the ministry and personality type stuff yet, for two reasons: firstly, the survey for ministers doesn’t finish until the 30th, and secondly, Waterstone’s still haven’t got my copy of Leslie Francis‘ ‘Faith and Psychology‘ that I need to accompany my thinking. It’s still out of stock at the publisher’s.
At this point, I want to look at whether traditional doctrines of ministry are fit for purpose in a world where, in Whitworth’s expression, we have to prepare for exile. That is, a world where the church needs to be missional. A diverse culture that calls for varied Fresh Expressions as well as some continuing forms of traditional church. That is, the ‘mixed economy’ church of which Rowan Williams has spoken.
In this world, emerging church and missional church thinkers have criticised our inherited understandings of ministry. They say that ordination to a ministry of word, sacrament and pastoral care might make sense if we lived in a true Christendom where all were believers and the task of the church were to call people back to a faith from which they were lapsed, but it is not our situation. So writers like Frost and Hirsch in ‘The Shaping Of Things To Come‘ call for churches (not necessarily individuals, note) to express the fivefold ministry of Ephesians 4: apostolic, prophetic and evangelistic as well as pastoral and teaching.
I want to examine the strength of this critique. If it is valid (my gut feeling is that in some form it probably is), then what does it mean for those of us in the historic churches? To do this, I see the need to look at three key areas.
Firstly, New Testament understandings of ministry and leadership as a foundation. However, that is not necessarily simple. Is there one pattern of New Testament leadership? Many think not. You can pick the ‘fivefold pattern’ out of Ephesians, and you can pick ‘bishops and deacons’ from Philippians. Which (if any) do you choose, and why?
Secondly, I need to look at the tradition. In my case, that means Methodism, with its official stance and varying views – some of it difficult to pin down, because our approach is rather pragmatic.
Thirdly, it means looking again at the missional literature and practice. Neil Cole‘s ‘Organic Church‘ and (when it arrives from Amazon) ‘Organic Leadership‘ come highly recommended, and I’ll be tackling them on top of my already wide reading in the emerging and missional area.
Obviously, this is going to occupy me beyond the sabbatical, and I’m going to want to read other things that interest me too! In the long term, this could well be the core of the PhD dream.
Starting out with a book from the first of these phases means that today I’ve begun to tackle ‘Stewards, Prophets, Keepers of the Word: Leadership in the Early Church‘ by Ritva H Williams. It’s not simply an aggregation of texts: she says in the Introduction she is going to argue that the early church took some of the social conventions about leadership and subverted them for their own purposes. If that is the case, then we might have an interesting foundation for creative approaches to Christian leadership and ministry in our culture. It could make the case for Methodist pragmatism being extended beyond what we say we have ‘received’, which is sometimes treated in a rather fixed way, despite our pragmatism.
All this talk about ministry could be so introspective, and that would fit my nature as an introvert (but then we’re back to the Myers Briggs stuff again!). However, I want to offer something to the church, not simply clarify my own thinking. If all I do is sort out my own thoughts, I’m still left with tensions and frustrations with the institution.