Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Ethical repentance

“Jesus told us to clothe the poor…the poor are clothing us”.

This line from a blog smacked me across the face this morning. It went on to reflect on the heart-rending story of the recent disaster in Bangladesh when nearly 300 people died as the garment factory they were working in collapsed on them.

We’ve been hearing a call to repentance recently in the Jesus Army. It links to a prophetic call to be people of God’s fire, and an increased desire to receive that fire and be changed by that fire.

I’ve noticed that usually, when the call to repentance has been unpacked in our various gatherings it is couched in terms of morality.

Nothing wrong with that. Yet I’ve been increasingly aware of how biblical repentance must also include ethics as well as morality.

What’s the difference between the moral and the ethical? Wisegeek.org puts it like this: ‘Morals define personal character, while ethics stress a social system in which those morals are applied.’

Put another way, morality might ask ‘What do I do with my money?’ (a question that was indeed put to our local Jesus Army congregation just a couple of weeks ago). Ethics might ask ‘What do banks do with our money?’

A moral question might be ‘How can I clothe the poor?’ An ethical question would be ‘How do we ensure the poor aren’t clothing us (and dying in the process)?’

Justice and love for people, especially the poor, are close to our heart as the Jesus Army because we believe they’re close to God’s heart. It’s all over the bible. Jesus himself inaugurated his mission by quoting Isaiah’s announcement of ‘good news for the poor’.

The fire, I believe, will cause our ethics as well as our morality to be renewed. I reckon the time is coming and is now here when we need to look harder at what we eat, wear, consume, who we bank with, how we live, in ways we simply hadn’t considered before this wave of fire came.

Isaiah again. A friend pointed out to me that Isaiah 1:16-17 sums up what repentance looks like. ‘[16] Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, [17] learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.’ I note that verse 16 is mainly moral, verse 17 mainly ethical. Of course the two overlap – but I feel it’s in ethics we’ve got some real work to do.

Come fire! Change everything.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Jesus: perfect? Discuss!

A friend threw me a theological poser on Facebook today. (My friends know I like such things!) Here it is:
Having a few musings today..... Jesus/God was perfect, right. Ok good, Jesus also has been through everything we go through and knows what it is like. However feelings like - envy, jealousy, pride, unforgiveness - we would consider to be sinful. So then could Jesus have ever felt those things if he was in fact perfect - without sin? Did he know what it was like to feel those things? And further is it the feeling that is sinful or in fact the action that comes from it? - Discuss.
And here's my brief reply:
Jesus - what does his perfection mean?
Interesting question. Touches on some deep and mysterious stuff about the incarnation. If Jesus' humanness was genuine (which we absolutely believe it was), he must have had weaknesses: his 'perfection' didn't preclude them. He was afraid (Gethsemane), he was grieved (Lazarus), angry (especially with the Pharisees), exasperated (especially with his followers). He got hungry, tired, hurt. I think he must have had feelings prompting him towards envy, jealousy, pride, unforgiveness... But as you say, the crucial difference is that he didn't let the feelings (temptations if you like) harden into attitudes. As for his perfection - the book of Hebrews says he 'learned obedience', which implies his perfection was not a static state like a marble statue, but again a human reality, something he matured into as he made holy decisions.
Would you have added anything? Or said it differently? Or said something else entirely?

And here's another question for the keen. In our thoughts about Jesus, do we tend towards overemphasising his deity or his humanity (or do we get the balance right)? And what might be the implications of this (either way)?

As my friend said: 'Discuss'!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Woe is me, I'm so spiritual

It’s a miserable business being holy, isn’t it?

I remember a time, not long after I’d joined the Jesus Army, when I returned to my home town for a few days. While I was there I visited a friend, a young woman who’d played a pivotal role in my faith coming alive a few years earlier when I was 16.

She was charismatic (in both a theological and sociological sense) and attractive (ditto re theology, sociology, and let’s throw in biology for fun). A succession of guys had fallen for her (I, as it happened, had avoided this through the unforeseen and useful happenstance of falling for her sister instead).

Anyway, I wanted to make an impression. After all, had I not just discovered the best church in the nation, nay the world? I was gearing up for a life in intentional community. Hang it all, I was weighing up a call to holy celibacy. (That this didn’t come to pass was not due to my friend’s sister, I ought to say, but rather to the radiant creature who is now my wife. I didn’t know that – or her – at the time.)

I wanted to impress. I’d discovered something wonderful. I wanted her to know it. I didn’t deliberately try to look holy, I promise. But I did, nonetheless, try to look holy. My desire to convey the specialness of what I’d discovered manifested in a manner that was forcedly “spiritual”. And, with hindsight, downright miserable.

I’d wanted to foster an air of spirituality; I succeeded in coming across as depressive. My other-worldly air was woeful, my long meaningful silences stultifying. My attempt at gravitas was, in fact, just grave. Not surprisingly, my friend wrote to me not long after that visit to express some concern for me having lost my spark. She was troubled. I seemed unhappy.

I can look back and laugh now. And I think my friend has been long since reassured that I am, in fact, happy. Today, on Facebook, I saw a picture of her on some beach somewhere, the happy (if not entirely willing) subject of a photograph which I noted (thanks Facebook) was taken by a photographer with whom she is now "in a relationship". I smiled, happy for her. My memory drifted back to other happy memories, and back to that day of my forced solemnity. That’s why I write about it now.

Why is it, I wonder, that we often associate holiness with unhappiness? Misery as a measure of sanctity?

Julian of Norwich
Check out this cheerful saint, Julian of Norwich. It was once suggested to me that maybe she looks so miserable because she’s been saddled with a bloke’s name. But I suspect that hagiographers painted her sad simply because she’s a saint. Looking sad is what saints do, isn’t it?

Francis of Assisi
Check out Saint Francis, the new pope’s namesake.

Not exactly full of the joys of spring, eh? Even the bird in his hand looks like he'd rather be one of the two in the bush.

And before my dear Protestant readers spot an opportunity for controversy and start on about “Catholicism's attachment to unbiblical asceticism” or such like, check out these two Reformation pillars, Martin and John.

Martin Luther
John Calvin
Fancy an evening down at the pub with either of these two gents? (Not unless you want your party well and truly pooped.)

And let’s not even start on pictures of Jesus. Do a Google image search for “Jesus” if you dare. Once you’ve got over the fact that most of the results look like women (note to self: topic for future post) you'll notice you’re staring at a sea of miserable faces. Was Jesus, that magnetic gatherer of the common people, really so epically po-faced?

Why do these heroes of holiness all look like they could do with watching all twelve episodes of Fawlty Towers back to back? Why so miserable, Julian, Francis, Martin, John?

There is, of course, something to be said for the calling of God’s people, shaped as they are in the image of God’s Messiah, to carry the world’s sorrows. To pray with groans. To weep with those who weep. But this cannot be the whole story. Jesus skipped with delight when he saw his Father at work. Peter described a similar experience as “joy unspeakable”. Paul, writing to the Philippians, is positively bubbly (ironically, he was in prison waiting for the chop at the time of writing). We’re to rejoice with all who rejoice.

Put simply, to be holy does not mean to be unhappy. Holiness makes laughter and tears deeper. Holiness means that beyond happiness and unhappiness there is joy. The road of holiness is one along which a cross is carried, yet the destination makes the journey jubilant.

One of my favourite quotations from across the panoply of Christian saints is ascribed to Teresa of Avila – “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord deliver us!” Teresa is the same down-to-earth saint who advised her followers, if struck with melancholia and overdoing the “sighing saint” bit, to “eat a good steak and have a hot bath”.

I’m happy to be holy. But I’m not very holy, yet, which is why I’m not always happy. The holier I become the happier I’ll be – whether I’m laughing or crying. And when God wipes away every tear, I’ll be happy – because I'll be holy – forever.

And as for “rejoicing when others rejoice” – I'm so glad my friend's happy on that beach with her photographer. To her I joyfully dedicate this post.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Saint George the internationalist

Happy Saint George's Day that day when English patriotism swells in English breasts and St George's cross (the English flag) can be seen flying from windows and fences around the nation. This the day when our Prime Minister is prompted by that Saint Georgish feeling to declare how very 'proud' he is 'to be English and British'.

Saint GeorgeSaint George, as it happens, was not English. He was Greek. He served in the Roman army. He travelled the Near East before he was martyred under Emperor Diocletian. He was nothing if not cosmopolitan.

I love this beautiful island nation, too. Yet, with cosmo George the martyr in mind, I pray that Britain's greatness will not be walled in and hoarded by the Saxo-Normans who happen to form the racial and cultural majority in our era. I pray that we can be a nation with an open welcome and a generous outlook to those of other nationalities and races and in particular those who have suffered hardship or persecution or threat of death elsewhere.

It's what George would have wanted.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Is God a murderer?

Did God kill his son?

That was the question I had to address last Saturday night.

On Saturday nights, generally, we have a get-together in our community house; a time of singing, sharing, a zany game or two, a mug of tea or twenty. Last Saturday, one young woman led us all in a reflection on God’s forgiveness, which included reading out something she’d recently read.

It was good, edifying stuff, on the whole. But in the middle of it came this:
“When God says he forgives...he is referring to a sovereign decree of his will to extend grace to an undeserving person.
“He did this by killing his Son.

That’s a blunt statement, but it’s true.”
A blunt statement, certainly. But it isn’t true.

I grant, the wider purpose of the text was to emphasise both the steadfastness and sacrificial nature of God’s forgiveness. But to say that God ‘killed his son’ is simply wrong.

Theologians sometimes talk about a way of understanding Christ’s death called ‘penal substitution’ – that Jesus, in his death, took God’s punishment of sin instead of us. But the weakness of this emphasis is that it too easily descends into caricatures like ‘God killed his son’.

And this caricature – and others like it – often makes Christians have a hazy sense that God only loves them today because he took out his fury on Jesus yesterday.

Not surprisingly, this can leave them a tad insecure. Imagine how you’d feel if your mum was always nice as pie to you, but you knew it because she’d spent all her filicidal anger years before when she murdered your older brother.

Happy families, anyone?

There are people in my household group who I know are inclined to feel insecure like this. They know the bible says God is a God of love, that God loves them. But they’re caught up in a view of the central event of the bible as being mainly about not God’s love, but God’s anger, God’s punishment. And so in their heart of hearts, they’re not sure if they can trust his ‘love’.

At its worst, another caricature comes into play: ‘nice Jesus saves us from nasty God’.

It’s a travesty of what the Bible actually describes. God loves us. Before we care two hoots about God, God loves us. And, yes, before Jesus dies, God loves us.

And God forgives us. Yes, God's forgiveness begins before the cross and reaches its glorious climax at the cross.

It is because God loves and forgives us that he sends his son, and his son willingly comes. Forgiveness is not only the result of this rescue mission, it is what motivated the mission in the first place; the result is reconciliation. The way is opened for us to be reunited with God – even to the extent of his Spirit living within us.

It goes like this: love – forgiveness – rescue – reconciliation.

Reconciliation is a two-way process – it requires our ‘yes’ – but the good news is that the way is open back to a God who has always loved us and always will.

So – who did kill Jesus?

Sin killed Jesus. Read the Gospels. It was the corruption of Caiaphas, the apathy of Pilate, the cowardice of Peter, the bigotry of the Pharisees, the betrayal of Judas, the hypocrisy of the people... Panning wider, it was political sin, moral sin, social sin, economic sin... Or read the epistles for a spiritual take on the same answer: it was demonic sin – the powers behind human sin – that killed Jesus.

Sin – their sin, my sin, your sin, the devil’s sin, all sin – drew itself to its full height like a putrid river in flood and attempted to sweep away the son of God.

And the son of God let himself be swept away. And his Father didn't prevent him being swept away. This is as close as we can come to the notion that 'God killed Jesus' - he didn't rescue him by force: 'more than twelve legions of angels' stayed in heaven that day.

God – Father, Son and Spirit – refused to fight sin with sin, refused to fight fire with fire, to repay evil with evil. He turned the other cheek. He went the extra mile. He did not resist. He refused to keep evil in circulation. The result was that sin spent itself fully on him. Death used up its last on him. The putrid river emptied all that it had upon him until there was nothing left.

Away it flowed with him into death. And there it stayed. But Jesus didn’t. Which is why the resurrection is the first light of the dawn of a new world – a world without sin. And it offers me and you the possibility of a new life – one in which sin no longer has the final say.

Love has freed us. Freed from sin's domination. Reunited with God who loved us to hell and back.

Happy families remixed? Imagine how you’d feel if your mum was always nice as pie to you, and you knew that when you were little she'd watched your big brother rescue you from a mugger and get knifed in the process. Your brother nearly didn't make it. But he did, and you know they love you more than life.

So I had a little word with my household on Saturday night: 'God loves you' I said. 'He's always loved you; he always will. Be reconciled to God, and learn to live his way. Turn the other cheek. Walk the extra mile. Defeat evil. Walk the way of life.'

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Hell of a time

Someone I respect and love a great deal wrote this in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s death yesterday.
“Without wanting to jump on the Thatcher bandwagon... in the 80s her and Tebbit oversaw educational policy which saw me and many others sit quietly in fear while my teachers made my classmates laugh with lies (as I know) about 'queers'. I'm not negating the specific teachers’ responsibility, but Thatcher’s policies practically encouraged it. So personally, if there is a hell, I hope she's there, with other champions of hate.”
'Queers be damned'
Here is another glimpse of the little-known anguish suffered by LGBT people in the recent past. The comment may offend againt the principle of 'De mortuis nil nisi bonum', but it also betokens pain and anger. Sobering thought: while I was breezing through school, enjoying every minute of it (though I did have the pretension to consider myself ‘persecuted’ when someone scrawled an anti-God comment on my desk) – at the same school here was someone experiencing the blunt end of prejudice. And it wasn’t playground taunts; it was in the classroom, from the teachers.

I can’t hope anyone’s in hell (apart from anything else, for me hell isn’t an ‘if’) – but I do thank God (again, for me not an ‘if’) that our society is moving away from such woeful ignorance and prejudice.

'Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement'I hope the LGBT community can avoid the rhetoric of hate. It’s a big ask because there’s a lot of pain, and pain issues in anger, which can harden into hate. (It’s also a big ask from a Christian because the community of Christ has done so badly at avoiding such rhetoric – and that’s without having anything much to be angry about.) As my favourite gay wizard said: "Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement."

Only a determined effort from all to get beyond slogans, ignorance and stereotypes, to listen, to learn – only such determination can take us away from a hell of hatred that still threatens to engulf us.

On one occasion, at the aforementioned school, the Jesus Army came in for some unfair criticism at the hands of a sociology teacher. I wasn’t there, but I heard what happened. The same young gay man, who’d previously sat in fear whilst he and other gay people were mocked, took his courage in both hands and spoke out in defence of the Jesus Army. He did it because he knew me – and he knew what was being said was unfair and prejudicial.

I wish I'd known about what he was going through then so that I could have defended him. And I pray God will give me courage to speak out in his defence – and in defence of his community – now and in the future.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Waiting for Spring

Daffodills by kirsche222 of sxc.huBritain's waiting for Spring. Easter’s come and gone, but still snow lines the hedgerows. There’s ice on windows in the mornings. The daffodils in our verge have emerged but are shrivelling in the cold.

It illustrates, a bit, where we're at at White Stone (our community household and its wider members and friends). We hold together; we enjoyed our church’s Easter “Alive Festival”; we love having friends staying and coming round. There’s brotherhood and affection in our lives and that counts for a very great deal.

Yet our prayer is that God will rise over us like the sun bringing warmth, healing, new life and growth. "Let the long-term sick be healed; let new disciples rise; let prayers and longings be answered.

"Roll away the stone, great God. Unworthy though we’ll always be, let our faces turn from bewilderment to joy as we see You do what only You can do."