Amy Winehouse & Daniella Westbrook. Both were young and famous. Both had serious drug addictions. One died, the other survived and has been clean for ten years. One is dead, the other is born again. That’s the reality of faith in the Lord Jesus.
While I share Christian faith with Dave I would put it slightly differently, since Westbrook had been clean for drugs for about eight years before she found faith in Christ. However, there is certainly a poignant contrast to be made between these two famous young women who consumed vast quantities of narcotics. In addition to Dave’s words, I received this afternoon the weekly email from The Word Magazine, in which the lead quote was from Winehouse:
I don’t need help because if I can’t help myself I can’t be helped.
How tragic is that? Westbrook sought help – first to be rid of her addiction, second in faith. Winehouse ruled out the possibility. Some criticise Christianity for being a ‘crutch’, but what if we all have broken legs, so to speak? While there are certain forms of dependency that are immature, to deny the need of dependence upon others is dangerously foolish, as Winehouse’s words show.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not writing this to join in some pious post-mortem condemnation of Winehouse. I hope and pray that whatever went on in her final hours and days, the God of mercy was reaching out to her. But perhaps an age that talks of either not needing help or only of self-help needs to hear again that a true mark of maturity is knowing when and where to seek help.
Life and eternity depends on it.
When I used to read that dismal publication the Methodist Recorder you could guarantee that every year when the Glastonbury Festival came around there would be a reference to its founder, Michael Eavis, as ‘a Methodist’. Well, we learn exactly what kind of Methodist Eavis is in an interview published in the July 2009 edition of Word Magazine. It’s in their ‘Word to the Wise’ column, where well-known people dispense the ‘wisdom’ they have learned over the years. It makes for depressing reading. He says:
I’m a Methodist, we’re chapel people. That’s strange in the 21st century, but Methodism is the social side of religion. We don’t care whether there’s a God or not, really. We’re not that interestested; it’s all about the social side. Charles Wesley, our founder, was a believer in love divine. I’m a believer in love but my love is not divine. I believe in love on earth. We need love for breeding and procreation. Without the love factor on earth we could all be rapists, and that would be dreadful. Love is the most important thing to me personally – but it’s not divine. As Methodists we have enormous social responsibility bred into us. If we make any money we have to spend it on our fellow humans – not all of it, I hasten to add – but most of it. We’ve just built some social housing in Pilton for 22 salt-of-the-earth working-class families with children. And that’s the greatest things I’ve ever done in my life. We have fun, too – we enjoy ourselves, we’re not bearded Mennonites. I’m all for praising nature and you have to tell someone, so we sing loudly and with excitment about creation – we just don’t care precisely how it came about (explodes into laughter)! (Page 60)
Later, he says this:
But with drugs it’s just not my job to stop people doing what they want to do. It’s the Methodist in me. We have broad shoulders. We put up with everyone! (Page 61)
Well, where do I begin? Methodism may – for good or ill – be a broad church, but one thing is for sure: Eavis’ Methodism sure isn’t mine. Yes, my Methodism breeds a sense of social responsibility (although it’s a curious one that cares about homelessness but not about drugs). But to disconnect it from belief in God and God’s love kills the roots of it. (Oh, and to nit-pick: our founder was John Wesley, not Charles.) Eavis might just be a’ cultural Methodist’, to coin a term, much in the same way that we might say there are ‘cultural Catholics’, who have been brought up in that faith but who do not embrace the core beliefs, but that’s about it.
You could say that the Eavis article is typical of much contemporary malaise. The idea that someone famous can dispense wisdom and pronounce on weighty matters such as religion and God is ludicrous and shallow. Much as I might welcome the fact that he still has some kind of social conscience, he is typical of a society that wants social projects but without the religious capital behind many of them. Then, what do we make of his attitude to drug use? Would I be being too cynical if I suggested that it wouldn’t be in the interests of the Glastonbury Festival’s founder to oppose it? No, it must be a coincidence.
Perhaps I am being hard. Maybe I should be more sympathetic and compassionate. I just think the Methodist Church should speak for Methodism (even if I disagree with our hierarchy from time to time). Letting a Michael Eavis trumpet his ignorant views of Methodist Christianity perpetuates ignorance of the Gospel.
But then a ‘secular’ magazine should not be responsible for the Gospel, of course. So maybe this becomes a cry for all of us who do find the core experiences, values and doctrines of Methodist-flavoured Christianity to make them more well-known. Like the need for all to be saved; the belief that no-one is beyond that redemption; that anyone can know they are loved by God in Christ; that personal and social holiness is possible, and we can have an optimism of grace for just how much transformation the Holy Spirit can bring about in and through us.
Because when it comes down to it, God doesn’t rely on the famous. God isn’t dependent upon celebrity culture to spread the Gospel. God calls the ordinary and the obscure to do that job. If you’re as mad as I am by the nonsense spouted by Michael Eavis, let’s rise to the challenge and do it better.
Father Christmas has let me in on the present my parents have bought for my wife. It’s the DVD of Mamma Mia. You may have heard that this has become the fastest-selling DVD or video of all time in the UK – faster even than Titanic. Maybe it’s more than the catchy songs of Abba.
Or it might have to do with the fact that when times are hard, we look for some good old-fashioned escapist entertainment. Admittedly the current revived interest in stage musicals predates the recession, but it would be nothing new for there to be a revival of them during a recession. Certainly that was true in the nineteen thirties.
In the current climate, how many of us are spending less this Christmas? Or are we putting even more on the plastic and postponing the evil day? Could the Christmas story have a message for people whose credit is being crunched?
I think it does.
Sometimes we get the wrong image of Mary and Joseph. Some people assume that Joseph as a carpenter is some kind of self-employed businessman with a decent income – rather like the reputation of plumbers. Then we grab hold of the attempts to book into an inn and think of them trying to get into the Bethlehem Travelodge. It’s not quite what you’d expect from people on benefits.
However, the traditional English translations that say ‘there was no room at the inn’ are almost certainly mistaken. The word translated ‘inn’ from the original Greek of the New Testament is one that means a guest room. That could be a guest room in an inn, but it could also be a guest room attached to a typical single-room Palestinian peasant dwelling.
Given the Palestinian emphasis on hospitality, that is more likely. Joseph’s relatives try to do what is expected of them and take the couple in, but all they can offer is the raised area where they keep their livestock. And hence the baby is laid in a feeding trough. This is a picture of poverty.
And later on, when the infant Jesus has to be dedicated in the Jerusalem Temple according to Jewish tradition, his parents make the lowest cost offering, the offering prescribed for the poor.
What do we have, then, in the arrival of Jesus to his mother and legal father? We have the presence of God in the middle of poverty.
The recession will mean poverty for some (although not on first century Palestinian terms), and reduced standards of living for others. But Jesus promises to turn up in the middle of difficult circumstances. Focussing on his presence – rather than presents – will make Christmas a celebration, whether we have a lot of gifts to open or not.
So if you are struggling this Christmas, invite Jesus in. He’s probably hanging around somewhere close already. Ask him to make his spiritual presence known in your time of difficulty. He’s used to that kind of situation. And his love transforms it.
Something else about my wife. Until she married me, she had lived all her life in the town where she was born: Lewes in East Sussex. If there is one thing for which Lewes is famous, it is the annual bonfire. Six ‘bonfire societies’ produce amazing public displays for the Fifth of November every year. You may know that historically, as a town steeped in the tradition of dissent, the Lewes Bonfire has paraded an effigy of Pope Paul V, alongside one of Guy Fawkes and of contemporary bogeymen, such as Osama bin Laden, George W Bush, Tony Blair and Ulrika Jonsson in recent years.
But you might recall the national controversy five years ago when one of the bonfire societies from the village of Firle made an effigy of gypsies in a caravan. The effigies are traditionally burned every year to the cry of ‘Burn them! Burn them!’ A group of travellers had particularly annoyed the residents of Firle that year, and hence the choice.
But several members of the bonfire society were arrested by police, and an investigation was carried out into whether criminal offences relating to racial hatred had been committed.
Why talk about Bonfire Night at Christmas? Because if you get a flavour of popular disdain for travellers and gypsies, you will get a feel for how shepherds were regarded in Palestine around the time of Jesus.
We have cuddly images of shepherds from our nativity plays, Christmas cards and perhaps from our carols, too. But the reality is that they weren’t liked that much. Oh, the Bethelehm shepherds could supply sheep for the Temple sacrifices in nearby Jerusalem, but they wouldn’t be allowed inside the Temple themselves. Popular opinion saw them as thieves.
Yet the angels show up for a group of first century pikeys. Excluded people. A group that suffered discrimination and prejudice. Were the birth of Jesus to have happened in our day, we might imagine angels showing up in a deportation centre for failed asylum seekers or an AIDS clinic.
Perhaps there is some aspect of your life that pushes you to the fringes of society. Maybe it’s a reason for people rejecting you. If so, then the Christmas message is one of Jesus coming to offer his love precisely for somebody like you.
But what about everyone else? It’s very nice to say that Jesus has come for the poor and the excluded, but didn’t he come for everyone? Yes he did, and the message of the angels to the shepherds is a message for us all. The newborn baby is a Saviour (verse 11), and the angels sing that God is bringing peace on earth among those he favours (verse 14).
Now if we’ve heard the Christmas story over and over again in our lives, these references to ‘Saviour’ and ‘peace on earth’ might become part of the words that trip off our tongues without thinking. But we need to connect them to one other detail in the story. It came right at the beginning. Who issued the decree about the census? The Emperor Augustus (verse 1). Who was described as a saviour, because he had come to bring peace and an end to all wars? Augustus. Whose birthday became the beginning of the new year for many cities in the Empire? Augustus’.
Did he bring peace on earth? What do you think?
I don’t mention all this just to give you a history lesson, two days after the school term has finished. I think it has important connections today. Having talked about the poor and the excluded, let’s talk about one person who this year has been far from poor and certainly not excluded. Barack Obama.
Remember his slogan? ‘Change we can believe in.’ As one magazine said, it sounds like Yoda from Star Wars came up with it. Change was the word he kept emphasising. So much so that even his ‘change’ slogans kept changing!
The same magazine that likened his slogan to Yoda also interviewed John Oliver, the British comedian who appears on the American satirical TV programme The Daily Show. The journalist asked him, ‘How long will we be living in an Obama Wonderland?’ Three weeks, or at most four, said Oliver.
Well, you might reasonably say that Jesus hasn’t brought peace on earth, either. Sometimes the Church has made sure of that, and we have a lot for which we need to apologise. It isn’t just the wars in the name of religion (although atheism and liberal democracy have a lot to answer for, too). It’s been our attitudes in ordinary relationships.
What we the Church have departed from has been the prescription of Jesus for peace on earth. Peace on earth means not only peace with God, because Jesus would die on the Cross to bring the forgiveness of our sins. That peace requires peaceable attitudes with one another.
The Christmas message, then, for all of us, is one not of indulgence but of sacrifice. In Jesus, God descends – even condescends – in humility to human flesh and a life of poverty, blessing the poor and the excluded. The descent continues all the way to the Cross, where he suffers for all. And having done all that, we cannot presume it’s just to receive a private blessing of forgiveness. It’s so that the peace we receive from him at great cost can be shared with one and all.
May peace be with us all this Christmas. May the peace of Christ be the most precious gift we give and receive.
Most mornings I go for a walk after the school run. As I stride out, I gaze upon the architectural wonder of our 1980s housing estate.
No, that isn’t the reason. It’s blood pressure. Longstanding friends will know how I used to have a dog. While he was still vigorous, he used to take me for a daily walk. He was a lively, if obscure breed in this country – a Finnish Spitz. When he died three years ago, I started putting on weight. Eventually, a medical paid for by the church nearly two years ago raised concerns. To cut a long story (largely filled with my procrastination) short, my prescription is mild medication and regular brisk walks.
But how to make the walks interesting? I decided that an MP3 player would make it worthwhile. Not being able to stretch to an iPod (or at least, not to the 160GB model I would have wanted for my CD collection), I bought a phone with an MP3 player.
Unfortunately, the Sony Ericsson W810i is a pain in the neck, despite outstanding reviews. The software on the PC always crashes, and SE technical support tried to blame other software I had installed (not that they could say which). When you transfer CDs to it, the tracklisting is scrambled. The first track may be put at the end, they may be put in reverse or even random order.
But it’s OK with podcasts. You only have one ‘track’ there. Even the W810i can’t foul that up.
So I’ve started to entertain and edify myself by listening to podcasts while I walk. For music, the weekly production from The Word magazine is entertaining and informative, as is their occasional ‘Backstage’ interview. On the latter, I’ve heard conversations with folkie Pete Atkin and his famoust lyricist Clive James, and a sci-fi author whose name escapes me, but who believes in ‘mathematical Platonism’, jsut at the time when Platonism is long discredited in theology.
Christian-wise, I’ve subscribed to the Sunday talks from HTB and heard the odd decent sermon. Godpod from HTB’s St Paul’s Theological Centre has so far been a little worthy but dull. Less intellectual on the surface but LOL-funny has been the podcast from the American show Steve Brown Etc. Other pleasures await from the Internet Monk, including his coffee cup apologetics show.
These are just my early explorations. What do you listen to? Any recommendations? Anything to avoid?
“He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice.”
– Albert Einstein
From the weekly Word Magazine email.
Neil Young was interviewed in November’s Word Magazine. They questioned him about his new CD Prairie Wind and in particular about a song called ‘When God Made Me’. Apparently it sounds like a hymn and the interviewer, Robert Sandall, goes on to ask him whether he is a Christian. He replies:
‘I don’t know. I don’t think so. I certainly don’t say, don’t be a Christian. Everybody needs something to hang their hat on. But I really don’t buy into any particular story. The Indians had something going on with their ‘great spirit’ as a term for God. They were more concerned with the trees, the grasslands, the animals and a sense of balance. It’s a pagan thing and there’s nothing bad about paganism. It only became bad because of the insecurity of the church. That song is about the self-righteousness that makes certain people think God created man in his own image. What a conceited idea! What about the squirrel? What happened to him? We’re all here together, we’re all nature. One big thing.’
A quote, then, that may continue to give the impression that this blog is turning into the squirrel blog (see last two entries). It would be easy to be smug with Young on his views, given that in the same interview he makes much of the importance of the full moon. ‘I am a strong believer in the full moon as a good time to be creative so I try to record all of my albums based on that timing. It’s an old thing in farming: if you plant on a full moon you’re going to get a good crop … when the moon starts waning is when everything starts falling apart … Look at the way the moon affects the water in tides. Since we’re mainly water we’re bound to be affected if we open ourselves up to it.’
Rather than dismiss Young due to those apparently strange views it would be better to look seriously at what he says. Of course as a Christian I don’t believe that the doctrine of God making humankind in his image is about conceit or arrogance: it’s an act of pure grace and it should not make us careless with the rest of creation. But the problem is, that is precisely the way it has been taken for centuries and we now have an environmental problem. It is an idea that still lingers in extreme conservative circles. I recall a few months ago reading a transcript online of an American TV interview featuring both Brian McLaren and Tim LaHaye in which the latter said that the environment was made for man – not a view McLaren shared.
Some Christians have wanted to anchor their doctrine of creation in a different place due to this misuse – see for example Creation Through Wisdom by Celia Deane-Drummond. But maybe we also need to rediscover the imago dei and interpret it in a more humble way. And such an interpretation will not be solely the task of lectures, seminars, books and journals, but the interpretation seen in human flesh. We need to hold this together with Young’s statement that ‘We’re all here together, we’re all nature’, except that I would just change that last word from ‘nature’ to ‘creation’.
Brian Eno has some interesting comments in August’s issue of Word Magazine:
‘The interesting thing about [the iPod Shuffle] is you can’t control the order. Suddenly some of the surprise of music reappears. It’s the first commercial product which uses randomness and this is a very interesting response to the oversupply of choice. We’ve had a whole generation of people saying, ‘You have more and more choice, anything you want.’ But there’s really been no attention to what happens when you have all that choice. How do you organise it? And what this little iPod says is, actually you don’t. You just let it surprise you.’
Psychologists talk about ‘choice fatigue’, something we Westerners hit at the supermarket. But we couldn’t shop via the shuffle method. Or could we?