Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Penis Envy

Good morning God,
I have never wanted equality with a man - why settle for less than you already have has been my motto. But now I find I have a peculiar case of Penis Envy It's a little late in developing I know, but previously I have never had a real problem with being a woman in a man's world. Whether in Information Technology or Lecturing, it was always easy to deal with sexism simply by being better at my job than the other 'guy'.

It took the Church to make a sort of feminist of me!
I confess that I have tended to play down feminist theology as a 'red herring' theology - one of those side-avenues that 'real theology' can dally around in whilst it muses over the real questions of who YOU really are and why You have any interest in us, and who on earth Christ was, and what in heaven's name has happened to the trinity as a result.. you know the sort of things I mean.
Feminism always seemed so stamp-the-foot angry, and, if I am honest - too one-sided for me. What's the point in making women into men? What's the point in being so aggressive that we lose who we are? I can't be a man hater - I love too many of them! From my experience training and working with male ministers, I just can't believe women are any more caring or creative, loving or flowingly liturgical(?) than any male minister fulfilling their calling to love Christ's flock.

Moreover, feminism has always seemed keen to categorise and define women as a group of people I didn't belong too. I am highly creative, but wouldn't know how to wear a scarf around my neck properly or apply a modern mascara. I enjoy a soak in the bath, but can't be bothered with make-overs or make-up (the very expression says it all for me!) I prefer mixed company where possible - but to be honest I don't care what the gender or sexuality of the person is - as long as they can laugh and converse,  preferably about theology, but I'll settle for anything cultural, political or scientific as a substitute!

I hate the very notion of Network or as it is now renamed 'Women in British Methodism' and the assumption built into it that just because I wear knickers I belong to a special group which the Church must pander to by allocating a place at Conference to a women who dares to claim she speaks in my name (as though I lack the ability to speak for myself!!!)

I am a woman not a wimp - I can speak for myself thank you - and I hate the very notion that such women's groups are based on -  that women are so waspish and wimpish that in order to succeed they have to have special consideration of their needs.

So that's my prejudices nailed to the mast - but what then of my anger and righteous indignation of the state of the Church? Of the disgusting male exclusivity built into every element - from the liturgy with its conditional offering, to the priesthood!

I could of course, take the attitude suggested by the David Hallam in a comment on my last post and simply thank God that I am a Methodist and a product of the Reformation..
Except, of course, as most women in Methodism know - the problem of exclusivity is as much a Methodist problem as a Catholic one.
Do the figures..
what percentage of an average congregation is male, what percentage is female.
Now.. what percentage of our Connxional Team is Male? What percentage of our District Chairs is Male? what percentage of our Circuit Superintendents is Male? And of our ministers.. our district officers, or our new  Pioneer Leaders?

The only place where the ratio of male to female  even begin to match the Congregation is in terms of local preachers... but even here I still hear complaints from women about women local preachers with their high pitched screachy voices!
I am incensed at how delighted everyone is that we have a female president and vice president - why so delighted? this should be NORMAL - we don't experience the same joy when we have the usual twosome - or when (increasingly more common) we have a male president and a female Vice president
Our very delight in the elections of Alison and Eunice show how much this is OUR problem as well as the catholic Church's problem.

What - did we think having women ministers was enough?
we have prided ourselves on the idea that no office in our Church is barred to women - but we have our own glass ceilings, they may not be in CPD - but the figures make it clear that they do exist in the hearts and heads of those who appoint and select our ministers, officers and pioneer leaders (albeit, I grant, perhaps subconsciously).

BUT Gender justice is a gospel issue - not just a Church structure issue.
Our structures are but a reflection of our underlying theology and liturgy (we are what we pray as a Church) 
So for me this cannot aford to be about helping the little woman out - I demand gender justice, and although, yes, I am little(!) I am not wanting special privileges or special consideration.  I dont want a different job, I don't even want women to want access to the sort of jobs men in Methodism currently hold - I want a more radical change. I want the underlying theology exposed so that we see how we got into this mess and are more able to use the gospel light to find a way out of it.

I want for myself and for other women in our Church what you God, have given to all - full and unconditional access to your grace, to your love and to your power to change what is wrong, to transform the world and assist in the building of a kingdom of justice and peace. I want everyone to have what my male colleagues have, the theological and biblical freedom and confidence to be who they are, and to grow fully in grace and holiness in a Church which follows Christ's example and celebrates both genders.  I want for everyone to have the same access to authority, the same rights within our Church, the same respect and the same consideration as every man is granted naturally - and I want it without anyone having to stamp a foot to get it.

I want an end to theological Penis envy..

Ironically God, the Vatican is full of male statues, each with the penis chopped off... there's got to be a feminist sermon in there somewhere!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Ecce Homo

Good morning God,
I'm trying to unpack some of what I witnessed and experienced at St. Peter's Basilica recently.. I need your help on this because at the moment I am deeply disturbed by my initial reactions.
I went to St Peter's to see - to witness - to experience the beauty and grandeur of the place. I went to pray, for healing and for hope for myself and for others.. but most of all - I went in search of answers, little realizing that what I was questioning would be so brutally laid bare. 

There was an annual thanksgiving and commemoration service for the Italian Air Force taking place in the heart of the Basilica on the day that I visited.The air was heavy with incense and gold glittered from every surface, sparkling in the lights illuminating the raised altar above St Peter's tomb. Inscribed in marble above our heads were the words and the language of those long since departed, reminding us of the solemnity and majesty of your actions and dealings with humanity - and everywhere Myrrh was present - scenting the statues of the dead, oiling the bodies of the embalmed and soaking into the bones of past Popes - all celebrating the powerful, centuries old message of the cult of death.

This was liturgy as I had never experienced it before: Here was the Church in all its pomp and power - dozens of priests and acolytes, cardinals in their brocaded costumes - all playing their part in the re-enactment of a murder , ready to offer, to those deemed worthy,  the opportunity to share in its spoils in order to preserve their own skins.

We were not allowed to join with those who were worshiping, we were excluded, cut off from the priests, denied access to the light - kept behind the barricades, only allowed to peer at the privileged as they engaged in their rituals.  And so we watched as tourists at another Vatican spectacle.

Whilst a big part of me died.

Here, laid bare, were all the lies I would rather not own up to about the Church...

  • The deep-rooted masculinity of the faith. I stood and witnessed the exclusive act of the Church at worship: a male collective worshiping a man re-imaged according to their own desires, overlooked by larger than life statues of men, and magnificent artwork celebrating and commemorating the glorious deeds of men - primarily the acts of either killing or dying
  • The cult of death, pain and suffering - the celebration and veneration of pain and anguish - whether of Christ - or of his saints. Not a single work of art, word or gesture that I saw at the Basilica was designed to celebrate life, sound joyous or evoke laughter and wonderment.
  • The blatant exclusivity of the Church. 
  • The power of the priests and their all too obvious disdain for the people. 
  • The obscene wealth on display compared to the great poverty of the majority of Church members..

Unexpectedly, at the end of the service, I was served the consecrated host without words, from a Gold cup, held by a Priest escorted by a guard who led him along in front of the barriers. I, and those with me at the front of the barricade were served as beggars might be served by a Lord with too many scraps from a table to dispose of by any other means. There was no grace in the giving, and I struggled to find grace in the receiving.

Ecce Homo

Behold the MAN...

But I couldn't find you there Lord - not in the host, nor later in prayer.
Your real presence  eluded me.
In spite of so many portraits, so many statues - I couldn't find you amongst the things that were created for your glory. Too much of it seemed simply an artistic orgy in celebration of death and dying. The greater your pain, the more accurate the portrayal of your agony - the more people liked it. It was as though the resurrection never happened, was not something to celebrate, as though there was no Good News - only the cry to repent or be damned.

I can, of course, rationalise my initial reaction much of the above. I can say that what I saw was not 'normal', that what I experienced was not 'typical', that the Church really is so much more inclusive, open and joyous - but that obviously the Vatican has to take things more seriously, has to have guards in order to take care of the treasures it has been given, has to be more careful, exclusive, authoritative - MALE?

All this I could say, but none of that helps me dispel the question - what am I doing associating myself with any part of this?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Past Present and Future Advent expectations

Good morning God - oh, and happy new year to you.
Today is the first day of the Christian year and we begin it by focusing on your absence.
Here we are again waiting, longing, aching.. for your presence, for your incarnation..for our salvation. As though you are somehow magically missing from our lives - as though we don't know what our 'salvation' requires (do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God)

Of course, this is only the liturgical year, its not a 'real' year - its just something that we have made up in order to try and tell your story and our stories as the seasons pass and the festivals cycle round. We use time as a narrative medium.. and rehearse the events of long long ago in the hope that they will help us make sense of the world today.
And on the whole, it works.
We like order in our lives - and the Christian story has a very definite time-line. We hold on to that because it tells us something of the reality, believability of the story. This isn't  a myth, we say, Jesus really did exist in time and space.. he was born on a particular date (although it was unlikely to have been December 25th) and he died thirty something years later.. He is a historical figure, other people from that time wrote about him, historians wrote about him! - this is no son of Zeus, this is a real person we are talking about...

Time and dates matter to us in grounding our beliefs.. the 'When' of things is profoundly theological.
In the fullness of time God sent his son - says scripture.
'In days to come' -says Isaiah
'You know what time it is' says Paul
The Son of man will come at an unexpected hour' says the author of Matthew's gospel.

So where and when in the narrative we start our New Year matters - theologically. It is a part of how we understand the narrative..
So why start with the time when it was once believed Christ was absent?
Is that really where the Christian story begins?
In spite of the way it contorts trinitarian theology, some would insist that it is - because that means that we start with the sin of humanity and the need for salvation rather than with the grace of God and the gift of redemption.

So liturgically, we begin each new year by wishing it away in longing for a future which is based on a condemnation of the present.
The reformation didn't go far enough - it needed to reform the liturgical cycle as well!

Now I agree that there is much that is wrong with the world, the injustice, inhumanity and violence that we show to one another shatters me, makes it difficult to hope that we will ever evolve.. but there is also much that is beautiful, loving and inspiring which is evidence of your presence, your love and your grace in creation. And I want to be motivated to keep up the hard work, not be encouraged to damn it all and wait for the coming of Christ to fix it! I want to look forward to the second coming of Christ as a celebration of what we have been able to become by your love and your grace. I am tired of denying you, and of being asked to play make believe about your presence in my life.  You are not absent to me, you are very present!

So I wonder, isn't it time to stop inducing this longing for a second salvific coming, and start living with the reality of the current eschatalogical incarnational presence of Christ? Is there no way that we can start our story with your presence and grace? Is it possible to  acknowledge what you have done, and are continuing to do in our lives without dwelling on some mythical tale of an absent God?

I want to start each new year in the same way that the Bible starts its narrative - no - not with some mythical fall - but with the statement that You have made all things GOOD. That you are in the world and engaged with your creation, that in the fullness of time you expressed that belonging and being incarnationally to share with us the how and the wherefores of what we were created to be.

I want to dance with delight at another year in which Christ is present as promised.  I want to be so full of joy at God's presence that by the time Christmas comes, the retelling of the nativity narrative will inspire me to grow in grace as well as fill me with the wonder of love.

Today is the New Year - today we celebrate the presence of Christ in the world, the love of God in us all and the power of the Holy Spirit to lead us into understanding the truth that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again - in each and every one of us as promised.
And great will be our rejoicing on the day that we share with Christ all that we have been working with You, God, to achieve.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The missing generations...

Good morning God,

'I get it'
 I get why so many young people are turning their back on the Church, I get why so many young people feel disenfranchised and disillusioned and - lets be honest disgusted.
As they should be. It is disgusting, despicable and undemocratic for children as young as ten to have been corralled and kettled, charged upon and in some instances even beaten like criminals for daring to have an opinion and being willing to use their democratic right to protest. All whilst the Church was busy preparing for Advent.. or engrossed in a debate about 'Draft Ecclesiastical Offices (Terms of Service) (Amendment) (No.2) Regulations 2010'

I get it God
I get why young people think we are so outdated and irrelevant, after all, where were we when we were needed ? Did the city centre Churches stand in solidarity with the young people? Did they help by  providing blankets against the cold, refreshments against the hunger, basic first aid, support, encouragement.. Did we - as Church - shout with them, protest the appalling conditions that they were forced to endure for daring to speak against the government?

Could the Churches have responded - and shown that they too believe in a future based on meritocracy not inherited wealth, where all have an equal right to the best education that they can aspire to based on their ability not on their parent's status? Didn't the Church have a duty to stand with them and denounced the way in which the hopes and the dreams of so many of the nation's children were being dashed under the hoofs of the horses ridden against them and beaten out of them by the truncheons of those they are supposed to be able to consider the guardians of justice and peace!  Should not the Church have protested - really protested - such violence and abuse of our young people?
Or do we simply mutter 'suffer little children' at baptisms? Yesterday was certainly a baptism of fire for many young people who had their first taste of so-called democracy, and discovered it to be bitter indeed.

But did the Church offer anything sweeter?

I get it - we flunked again.

Once again we demonstrated that what matters to young people, doesn't quite matter enough to us to get involved, to make our own concerted protest on their behalf. What matters to young people doesn't quite excite us enough to dream with them for a fairer future for them - after all - we wont be here to enjoy it. The Church is clearly too busy with ecclesiology and liturgy to get too involved with reality. How can any young person see anything other than betrayal in this - the Church's apathy concerning their highest aspirations? Is it any wonder that another generation is slowly but surely being added to those missing from the Church?

Is it too cynical of me to suggest that the Church's apathy concerning education might just have something to do with the fact that it is easier to peddle the gospel amongst the poor, uneducated and uninspired of the world...?

As the Church prepares for the coming of Christ as an infant, as it gets itself embroiled once again in whether these are the 'winter holidays' or a Christian festival, as it fights its campaigns for Jesus as the reason for the season.. my prayer God is that it also remembers that what matters to Jesus is not His name, but what is done in his name... for the sake of the Children everywhere - including those who hope to go to university one day, who dream of being the first in their family to have a masters degree, or even a doctorate. Children who want the chance to discover who they can be, and what it is that they could do if they were no longer defined and penalized by the class-ridden stereotypical expectations and limitations implicit in this government's educational policies.

Please God, help us.
Let the Church's Advent sermons cry out to you God, as the God of Justice, for you to inspire us to participate in making way for the future you dream for us, instead of simply expecting our Children to make it for us.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Science, Hellfire and Damnation

Good morning God,
It would appear that there is a link between support for religion and a willingness to inflict punishment. The New Scientist has a report on a team of scientists, led by Emst Fahr of the University of Zurich who have been wondering how religion survives in spite of the fact that it can be so painfully costly.

I have to admit God, I wonder too.
I too wonder at how people can tolerate the perversion of Good News into Bad News, week in and week out. I confess that I had long ago come to my own private conclusion that a frighteningly large percentage of religious people take a perverse pleasure in abasing, humiliating and punishing themselves and others.. they must do.. to do it so often and with such enthusiasm - and be prepared to pay for it too!

The Good News says - your sins are forgiven, go and sin no more.
The Good News says - Perfect love casts out fear
The Good News says - you are a child of God - and there is nothing better, higher or more important.

But somehow, by the time religion has finished with it - what is often proclaimed is

God loves you BUT you are a miserable sinner
Even though Christ died for your sins, that's not enough, you must confess, beg forgiveness, say three Hail Mary's, wear a Cilice (a spiked chain worn around the upper thigh), and a horsehair shirt for the next x number of days
God forgives only those who love Jesus
Only those who love Jesus are Children of God

Truth be told, the Church historically probably talked more about sin and hellfire than about You and your love God.
The Church has tended to use punishment and the fear of punishment as a means of control and cohesion, to bind the people together and draw in the weak and fearful.

IF you do/do not (delete as appropriate) ___________ (fill in the blank)
When you die, you will be damned for all time and cast into the eternal fires of hell..
If you believe what we tell you, do what we say
Then we can ensure that this wont happen...
In fact... you might even get to go to heaven (so much nicer than hell)


so sorry... I thought Jesus had dealt with sin?

The scientific team investigating - wondered how religion survived despite the predilection to punishment and came up with this:
"The punishing may be unpleasant but it's in the service of the greater good for that particular group or religion, enabling them to thrive and spread the word,"

And I find myself wondering - what word - the word of truth that declares us worthy - or the lie that demands we punish or be punished?

I'm Wesleyan through and through - Christ died to save us.. from the worst in ourselves  - and others.
For me that includes the push to dwell on, and hence empower, what people call 'sin'.
I am saved from the perverse habit of repeatedly revisiting, anguishing over and punishing myself or someone else for what has already been done and cannot be undone, what has long been forgiven, but not yet forgotten. I am also saved from my worst fears about how unworthy and undeserving I am.

The Good News is that I am in Christ - therefore I can sin no more.
The Good News is that Christ has declared me worthy
The power of sin has been broken - 'no condemnation now I dread' - nor punishment do I fear.

Sure, I still make mistakes, get things wrong, and regret my actions or words - but I take heart from the fact that as I work to overcome such imperfections, You forgive them because You know how I am made, and You have called it Good.

No Punishment needed (or wanted!)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

How do you read yours..?

Cadbury's creme egg by Saatchi & Saatchi 2008
Good afternoon God,
Several comments and posts on the Blogosphere lately have had me wondering about the way in which other people read the Bible... and how I read it.
Each day I read the set lesson from the Methodist lectionary from the Bible I was given at my ordination. As part of my discipline of discipleship I spend some time with that text, not in exegesis as such, but reading and reflecting on what I have read. What verse (if any ) jumps out at me, what does the text say to me about you, or about me, or about other people and the world we live in. I then write a single page of 'commentary' in my journal - as a way of not just reading and moving on.
I gain much from this practice, a deep appreciation of the text, a love of your Word, a knowledge of the peoples and places of the Bible, and a conviction of the power of the Bible to speak to me and to the World today, not in an authoritative commanding manner, but as a challenging transformative opportunity.

But I have been provoked into thinking more deeply about how I read the Bible.
'How' do I read it? Do I read it as a feminist, as a liberal, as a Methodist, as an Evangelical, as a preacher, as a pastor - or as all of these things?
'How' do I read it? Do I read it as your truth, as history, as a source of inspiration, as instruction, as a conversation with you - or as all of these things?

It matters because how we read the Bible determines what we bring to the text and what we expect to take away from our encounter with it.  There are some people who are fortunate enough(?) to know exactly how the Bible should be read. They often beat us over the head with it.. but I'm not so fortunate.
I find that I am very inconsistent about how I read the Bible - it all depends on why I am reading it, and who I am reading it for. Like the best of friends, I find the Bible offers its wisdom and wit in the manner best suited to the occasion or the query. So if I am reading for a Sunday service, to preach the Word - the Bible reads differently than if I am reading for personal discipleship, or for class meeting, or for Bible Study..

The words don't change - but I do, according to my needs and expectations the text seems to suggest first one meaning, then another - and then invites me to be transformed by that interpretation.
As a result, I can't read the Bible as a straightforward text.. I find no 'plain' meaning - instead I find revelation (and revelation is a complex and tricky act of grace!)

As I read Scripture, it reveals to me my prejudices, presumptions and needs - it reveals to me my hopes dreams and deepest desires for myself, for those I love, for the whole world. The Bible reveals the gap between where humanity should be and where it actually is - and repeatedly it reveals to me the wonder and majesty of creation and of your love for it all. 

And then reveals to me the need, and sometimes even the best way, to change/act/do something as a result of what I have read!

That's a lot of revelation - but it doesn't come all at once - or every time I read..
But I do read expecting revelation - and that's really the 'how' of how I read the Bible. I don't read it specifically as anything or anyone in particular - but I do read it every time in expectation, believing that YOU are particular - and that you can and will use this means of grace to enlighten me.

So to answer my question - How do I read Scripture? 
Expectantly - from the inside out, nibbling at the edges as necessary to ensure I can dig deep for our transforming gift of grace.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Royal Weddings..

Good monring God
Here we go again.. another Royal Wedding to delight the masses. Forgive me if I can't get that excited about two highly privileged people who have decided to do what thousands of other people are not yet allowed to do by the laws of this land - regardless of how much they love one another. 

And yes, what troubles me most is the way in which the Church colludes with this.

The Church has a stake in marriage, you could almost say that it has defined what Marriage is meant to be. From being a legal contract defining possession of goods, it has been transformed into a 'holy state', a 'Sacrament' even,  but most of all - an expression of love.

But it is this relationship between love and marriage that makes our current laws so repulsive and offensive. By refusing to allow same sex couples to marry, the law is essentially saying that some people do not have the right to love, or do not have the right sort of love..
So says the law - and so says the Church..

Shame on us.
Shame on the way we use our oh so clever theological and biblical arguments and Church discipline to defend such injustice. If you have seen fit to let love flourish between two people God,  then who on earth are we to deny either its validity or acceptability? Do we really think that you, the God of love, are best served by our denial of love just because we are uncomfortable about the sexual dimension of a relationship?

As a result of the Royal Wedding next year many more young couples will decide they really do want to get married. Some will be able to. Some will not. Not because they can't afford to, or because they don't love one another enough to make this life-time commitment but because society will not let them. It is a lie to say we are an open tolerant society. The fact is that civil partnerships are not the same as marriage. Both legally binding forms of relationship should be open to all,  otherwise all we are doing is practicing a form of love-apartheid.

And the Church could lead the way.. it could have the courage to face the fact that you love everyone and that, in spite of our protestations, you do not partition us by either our gender or our sexuality. You give us all the gift of love and the ability to express it.
It's time to own up to the fact that you did not create marriage - humans did, as a way of keeping control of certain things(women and their money mainly!).
That you have blessed the state of matrimony is amazing, a gift of grace - but surely that makes it all the more important that marriage should be open to all your children?

If the Church were to clamor for marriage to be open to all - the state would very quickly concur.
What on earth are we waiting for - a Royal civil partnership?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Persistent Memory

Dali - The persistence of Memory
Good morning God,
Memory is clearly both a gift and a curse. It is essential to everyday living, but it can also play cruel tricks with us. It can betray us when it falters, leaving us bereft and empty of names and faces we once loved. It can surprise and delight us with childhood moments in adult years. But it is also frighteningly easy to develop false memories and to create a selective memory which chooses to remember only the 'good' things or (in certain cases) the 'bad' things about someone or some situation.
By far the most disturbing aspect of memory however is its persistence. Dali recognised this and depicted both the horror and the morbid fascination of persistent memory in his surreal landscape  of the same name.
In the picture he brilliantly captures the distortion of human form that occurs when we cannot forget.
Ask most people who have suffered from abuse about the persistence of memory about the way in which it is impossible to forget - even when the claim is made that the abuser has been forgiven. And about the way that the persistence of the memory of their abuse continually shapes and defines their world and their self-image.
Forgiveness is seemingly linked inextricably to the ability to forget. The argument is simple enough, if the hurt and the harm can be forgotten, then it will prove easier to forgive the person who inflicted it.
But this is not really forgiveness, this is merely forgetting. 
Real forgiveness is related to the persistence of memory, it's what make forgiveness so difficult to do and what makes the simple statement 'Your sins are forgiven' so mind-blowing.
To be able to forgive remembered sin (real or otherwise) takes grace and the unique ability of grace as your power to transform life, regardless of who committed the sin.
Your grace alone can provide us with a place where we can stand in safety to look into the past and truly acknowledge it, to feel the power of its hold on us, before learning how to forgive ourselves and others for it. You offer us a new life where memories can be hung as pictures, rather than used as weapons to continue to hurt and harm, and where forgiveness transforms and empowers us to try again to build a new world..

And this is as true for inherited memory as it is for personal memory.
I do not personally remember the crusades, the inquisition, the shoah - but they are part of our inherited memory - as are the masacres in Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, the acts of terrorism in Israel/Palestine, the USA, UK and Ireland and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 
And as long as the memory of those acts are used as weapons to create further hatred and fear there can be no peace: we are doomed to repeat what we remember. When we say - we will remember them - what will we remember of them? What will we change as a result of them? What is the power of this persistent remembering? How is this remembering shaping us and our future?

The Scriptures make it clear, our own history similarly teaches us that forgiveness is essential to transform the power of memory into a force for good - no matter how evil the deeds were or are.
How long oh Lord, How long will we harbor grudges, remember grievances and build new prejudices on the memories of the dead?

Only by your Grace God, can we obtain the power to forgive as needed and to proclaim that in spite of the memories of the past, in spite of the agitation of those who try to bind us to the past, we choose to build a new future free from its bitterness and gall. 

Why - because you have declared - your sins are forgiven, and have said to us:

Do this in remembrance of me -
forgive your enemies,
love those who spite you
go in peace and sin no more.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Of Saints and Heroes

Good morning God,

One of the most moving moments at Conference is always the service of remembrance. This is a small intimate service of remembrance held in the ministerial session of Conference to which the immediate families of those ministers who have died that year are invited. There is no long sermon, no point to prove - the Scriptures alone are needed to speak the truth that we all hold dear - of service to God, of life everlasting and of the communion of the saints.
And then the roll is called.
Each name sounded as a word of truth and and thanks for a life sacrificially spent in service to God for the sake of God's people.
Time is taken, to remember, to give thanks and to honour the saints.
 Christ is present in grace and fellowship, in the word and in the love and respect that each saint is shown. It is a service I would hate to miss, and a service I have often paid to attend as each minister has the right to attend at their own expense if they are not sent to Conference as a representative.

The same cannot be said of this Sunday's services up and down the country - and on TV and radio!
This Sunday is not one of my favourite days of the year. As a local preacher I blocked the date as one that I would not be available to preach on, but as a minister that is seldom an option. This year, as I am on sabbatical, I am thankfully spared the dilemma of trying to reconcile my belief in the Gospel with what people 'want or expect to hear' on Remembrance day. I will not be attending worship this coming Sunday morning.

I agree with the principal of a national day of remembrance, but I believe it should be a secular and civic affair, when we honour and recognise all those who have died in the service of their country, soldiers, firemen, police, spies...regardless of their religion or ours. Dying the in service of one's country has nothing to do with Christianity per-se - although of course, as Christians we would want to pray for the dead and acknowledge our part in the communion of saints.When more people attend the Mosque on a Friday than attend a Church on a Sunday, it is foolhardy to presume that only Christianity can and should address the grief and remembrance of the nation. Besides, this is a secular state we are repeatedly told, a state with the power to deny the real meaning and purpose of our high-days and holidays, turning them instead into vacuous commercial feel-good factors.

So let the state - this secular state that is so intent on ridiculing religion - host its own service of remembrance - and from its Constitutional texts and dispatches from the field, let them find some fine stirring words that truthfully declare why these young men and women are remembered. I'm sure Churchill must have said something worth repeating - Blair likewise - how else could the nation have been persuaded to go to war?
I could understand and respect a civic service of remembrance that gave thanks for all the lives that have been lost in service to the state - that at least would be honest. In spite of my objection to the war and to the idea of 'might = right' peacemaking, I could join in and give thanks and remember the lives lost doing what our govenments have asked them to do. I could accept in humility the gift of heroism that some in the past have displayed to defend my freedom to blog, to criticise, to speak my mind without fear of imprisonment or worse.

I guess I just need my Saints and Heroes to be properly separated -  and for the difference betweeen their sacrificial giving to be stated:
The Saints are those who sacrificially give their lives in service to God

The modern day heroes are those who sacrificially give their lives in service to the state.
Some Saints are also Heroes - thank God
Some Heroes are also Saints - thank God
I will take the time to remember and honour them both,

but above all this, this Sunday I will remember that only Christ has died that I might live.

Monday, November 8, 2010

I promise..

Good morning God,
Can I be honest and tell you now that, as much as I love you, as much as I recognise your supreme authority over my life, I will not kill for you, neither will I hate for you - that is my promise to you.
That, regardless of how I may be provoked and stirred up, I will strive to hold to the core of your teaching and own that any violence I commit is my own - and that you have no part in it. I will remind myself daily that human righteous wrath does not exist, except as the hatred which fills the empty hearts of the lost.  I will fill my heart with your love and find the means to grieve every brother and sister lost to such empty, life destroying passions, and hold fast to your call for us to pray for the perpetrators as well as the victim of such pains.

I make this promise and state it deliberately in the hope that others will do the same so that the blood that we smear you with, and the hatred we place in your mouth might cease - before it destroys us all.

One of the tables in our cafe at New Malden Methodist Church is unofficially reserved for a small but loyal handful of Iraqi refugees, many of whom are Christian - Syrian Catholics and Orthodox. They repeatedly remind me that their homeland is part of the cradle of Christianity. Their presence in our cafe, enhances our faith and enables us to be obedient to our own calling here in the West.

And last week we were witnesses to their grief at the massacre in the cathedral. I sat and listened and was told the stories the newspapers are only now getting hold of, the stories of faith hope and persecution. The dilemma of whether to stay or flee. (a question exacerbated by what is seen as the lax Christian standards here in the West.)
I learned that this is not just about the preservation of life - but of faith - real faith. The faith that is bound to the heart, to the land, and to the world. Faith that has enabled these Christians to live alongside Muslims for centuries, the faith that promotes unity and peace. This is a faith that refuses to deny the evil in humankind, but will not bow to it either.

I was ashamed at how small we make it by reducing it to a question of survival, of asylum.

They know that this is not just a question of whether Christian's should flee - but whether people of faith can ever be people of peace. Can Iraq ever be healed? Can the middle-east ever find peace? This is not just about avoiding another massacre, this is about denying fear and hatred the right to decide the future of humanity and partition the world into pseudo religious states. They are convinced that there can be no peace in the middle east (and hence in the world) until Muslim, Christian and Jew are able to live as neighbours not strangers.

I am likewise convinced this will never happen until Christian, Jew and Muslim alike promise not to kill or hate in your name. When the veil of religious fanaticism is removed,  the greed, hatred, fear and politics that are the real root of this discord will be exposed and rendered impotent.

So I make you my promise God -  my covenant of faith
I will not kill or hate for you,
but will live to share the love of you,
regardless of how I am provoked or stirred up.
I will pray and grieve for my brother and sister 
who are lost in violence and hatred.
I will do all that I can to hold to your covenant of peace

'Your will not mine be done in all things,
wherever you may place me,
whover my neighbour may be,
Your love be in all that I do
and in all that I may endure.'

Thursday, November 4, 2010

It's not fair.

Good Morning God,
When did we stop being human and start being body parts? 3706 organ transplants were performed by the NHS this year, but apparently this is still not enough, people are still dying for lack of suitable organs. To borrow the phrase of the  TV campaign designed to shame us into signing the donor register - It's not fair!

No, it's not fair.
It's not fair on the whole human race that one gene pool, sick and diseased though it is, can come to dominate the species gene pool through the direct application of medical science simply because it can afford to do so..

Here in the West, our bodies have become the essential but uncomfortably fragile vehicles that we travel around in through this journey of life. It's not fair that our life-style and social evolution results in our bodies becoming diseased or broken, but we can generally find some way of patching them up - for a price. Life and health are commodities, the must have accessories to 'being' who we really are. They are a costly luxury for the sick and the poor, but the sick can harvest what they need from the poor - if they can pay.

Money is effectively halting the genetic and spiritual evolution of humanity - and we will all pay the cost later. Leave aside for one moment the sick irony of the growing market in organs which results in some of the poorest people world-wide selling their body parts to donor banks in order to survive. What is really happening here is the ultimate in the commodification of life. People get the life that they can pay for.

YES - of course, I would want to see those I love live longer lives - but only because I am selfish, not because I believe it is right for them - or for me - or for society. Grief is the bitter-sweet side of love that we do not want to taste. But we can't have everything we want - no matter how badly we want it, usually for good reasons!

So, even though I know that good people, even young people and new born babies, friends and family members might otherwise die, I still struggle with the idea of organ donation:

Firstly there is the inequality of it all - the cost of one liver transplant could pay for millions of newborn tetanus vaccines... whose life is more important - why is it the one who can pay? Where is the justice in this? Where in the gospel does it say that only those who can pay can have life?

Secondly there is the subtle but insidious signal that it sends to humanity that 'death' is the devil which must be defeated at all cost, that sickness and dying are not 'normal', and that it is imperative that we do everything we can to 'keep people alive' - as though dying is not a normal part of living. Dying is so normal that even you did it God, to show us it is not the end of us. We need have no fear of dying.

Thirdly there is the presumption that all that is necessary for us to live are bodies that work.  We start treating bodies as something separate and distinct, which fail us or let us down. We stop thinking of ourselves as whole human beings with a physicality and spirituality which are intended to combine to create a reality which transcends both.

Fourthly - and perhaps most importantly, we start behaving like gods - making decisions over who lives and who dies according to the organs that we have. We start convincing ourselves that we have life sussed, we don't need your help. We can now create life in a test-tube, clone it when we need to, educate it, milk it for its worth to society, mate it and when we deem it necessary or expedient to do so, heal it or fix it when it breaks and kill it humanely if we must. But what we create and manipulate is but a shadow of life in all its fullness.

Lastly, keeping people 'alive' in this way stops humanity evolving, growing, changing, developing. It keeps the diseased genes in the gene-pool, whilst we kid ourselves that it doesn't matter - we will find a medical fix for that too!

I am aware that what I have written is not confined to organ transplants, but transplants epitomize the problem underlying the demand for 'right to life' medical care. They are at the pointy end of a very sharp and pressing pair of questions which will in the end define us all...

What is the price of a human life?

And what is the real cost to humanity?

Personally, I think these questions were answered over 2000 years ago, by someone who paid the ultimate price so that we could learn how to obtain real healing, and gain life in all its fullness.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Disowning the Church

Good morning God,
I've been thinking about the vogue to publicly disown things, Children disown parents who have abused them, parents disown children who have shamed or humiliated them, politicians disown parties when they are no longer happy with their policies and, of course, people disown churches - often for the strangest of reasons..

I confess there have been many times this week when I have seriously contemplated disowning the Church. I have wanted to distance myself from the very valid accusations of what Christians have done in the past - and what many still do today, to Jews, to Muslims, to non-believers.. and worse - to one another. The blogosphere has been an uncomfortable place recently to try and be a means of grace in.

In some ways this is nothing new. As you know I have struggled often with what it means to belong to this family of faith with its irrational hatreds and violent dogmas. I hate the caricatures of the Christian and the religious in the media and in novels like Pullman's 'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ' because I know they are all too accurate.. Why, I wonder, would anyone want to belong to something that has such a negative image,  that is so ridiculed and scorned, most often with just cause? What is it that holds people to this historically corrupt and self-serving body called Church?

Belonging. The defining issue of this age. The freedom to disown, disavow, disconnect and divorce is enshrined in law in most western countries - it is a human 'right'. You can no longer be forced to 'belong' to that which you do not choose to belong to. Don't like your country and nationality - emigrate, don't like your family - divorce or disown them, don't like your politics - change parties, dont like your religion - change it or drop it altogether. This is the libertine age when we are all free to cast off the chains that once defined us. We are able to decide for ourselves who and what we are - aren't we?

It was once normal to think that blood was thicker than water - that we should always put the family first - that charity begins at home. Family was something people were taught to value - and if necessary defend - even if they didn't really feel that they 'belonged' - they were 'part of the family' regardless of what they had done or how they behaved - and the onus was on everyone else to make people believe that they were really welcome, and not outsiders.  Which is what made the parable of the prodigal so powerful,  the opening words of John's gospel so redolent with meaning.. and Paul's insistence on  Christian adoption so important. Above all, it is what has given the Trinity, the core of Christianity, its theological rationale. The mutual self-giving Parent - Child relationship modeled  for us by the Trinity sets the standard for our own belonging.

Salvation, are were taught, is all about being a part of your family God - Today salvation has come to this house, for he too is a son of Abraham' says Jesus of Zacchaeus. And from the Acts of the apostles onwards, the Church has worked to foster this doctrine of belonging and preach the idea of of one human family overseen by you as our divine parent,  a family of natural and adopted children living in peace and growing in grace and holiness. But the Church has also tried to insist that it alone knows who is, and who is not - a  part of your family, And historically only the Church could sign the 'necessary' adoption papers of baptism or write of excommunication which would decide if someone belonged or not.

Now of course, we are part of a generation which does not care about 'the Church'.  They are happy to not be associated with it, they even pity those of us who do belong to it. As do I. If I am honest then I would have to acknowledge that there is little that can be said about the Church worldwide that is redemptive, or even uplifting.  As a whole, the Church takes more from the poor in terms of moral and intellectual growth than it ever provides in terms of bread in mouths. It slaughters millions for the sake of its 'doctrines' concerning contraception and abortion and knowingly whips up hatred, fear and prejudice of anyone who is 'different' from the Church's idea of the 'norm'. It subjugates and humiliates women and children alike and does all this in your name.

Why would anyone want to belong to something so sick and abusive, so anti-intellectual and repressive?

Because as broken and disturbing as it is - the Church is still the only vessel charged with carrying the real gospel of belonging - of being a new thing - in you. Of belonging to something so much bigger than all of our petty human tribes and parties, something worthy of complete loyalty, dedication, commitment and sacrifice. Of belonging to YOU, not the Church or the nation.
That Gospel is the only hope humanity has to evolve past its current self-obsession.
Though I often loathe what it currently is, and sometimes the part that I play in that, where else can I go Lord - for you have the words to eternal life?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Antisemitism redefined

Good morning God,
A very distressing and disturbed night. I have been following and participating in a blogged debate on the Church's report on Justice for Israel Palestine and the bizarre threat of one Methodist to take the Church to court over its contents. 
There can be no doubt that the report has raised some emotive issues, but that is no excuse for the appalling lack of grace in some of the posts.When Christians slander one another, evil flourishes.

The charge being made against the Church and certain individuals is of Antisemitism.. a charge designed to raise the spectre of the Holocaust and shame us all into silence - regardless of what atrocities are currently being perpetrated. In a nutshell the argument is - Gentiles committed the holocaust therefore the Gentiles have forever forfeited the right to censor a Jew. Any and all criticism of Jews or of Israel by Gentiles is antisemitic.

This is, however,  a shallow and dishonest definition of antisemitism. It mocks and makes a lie of the past by reducing it to a vacuous insistence that it is never politically, spiritually or socially 'correct' to criticize or question anything Jewish or Israeli.

I have spoken out against some of the abuses of power in  Zimbabwe - but I am not anti-african
I have protested the Catholic Church's policy on the use of condoms - but I am not anti-catholic

It is time to put the fear of being called antisemitic into perspective:

It is not antisemitic to seek to be informed about the current plight of the ordinary Palestinian
It is not antisemitic to be offended by the wall
It is not antisemitic to question why human rights are being denied to Palestinians in Israel.
It is not antisemitic to ask what can we do to which might help Palestinians.

It IS antisemitic to not question or challenge any of these things, to hate the Jew so much that we would be prepared to stand by and watch whilst they perhaps commit crimes against You and against humanity which we know from our own bitter experience will only result in long-lasting spiritual, social and political damage.

It IS antisemitic to allow religious fundamentalism, be it Christian, Jewish or Islamic to narrowly define what it is to be Jewish based on some literal interpretation of a few verses of the Hebrew Scriptures (texts which many Jews enjoy endlessly debating!)

But more to the point - you have taught us repeatedly God that it is not right define and limit a human being by the happenstance of where they were born or to whom. It was incredibly costly to teach us that in YOU there is neither Gentile nor Jew. Our human divisions and habit of 'taking sides' is an anathema to you. It is not antisemitic to love the Palestinian, it is not an either-or situation. Not all Jews are in support of the wall, not all Palestinians are members of Hammas, but all Jews and all Palestinians are your children God.

Methodists believe that Christian conferring is a means of grace - we extend that and say all Godly dialogue is a means of grace, ie a way to grow closer to you God and to one another. Such dialogue cannot begin with accusations, but by invitations. The report 'Justice for Israel/Palestine' was produced in response to a request by Methodists for information for Methodists about the plight of the Palestinians - it therefore naturally has more to say about the Palestinian than about the Jew.  If people feel that this creates an imbalance, the solution is simple, I invite those Methodists who think that we are antisemitic to use our Church procedures to request a report on the state of Israel and the evils of antisemitism. No doubt that will not only enlighten and inform Methodists but also lead to further controversy as the Church struggles with its past, for the sake of its future. What I am confident of, however, is that such a report would be well written and would receive a warm welcome.
What isn't welcomed are the current ungracious comments, accusations and slander.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Theology first.

Good morning God,
Today promises to be a good day. A day filled with deliberation and celebration over how the Church communicates and shares its theology. Such days are rare!

I know that our Ministerial students are still required to study theology - it's there on the curriculum somewhere, along with Church History, Liturgy, Hermeneutics, Evangelism, Missiology, World Church, Old Testament, New Testament, Greek, Hebrew, Science and Religion, Philosophy of Religion, Sociology of Religion, Inter-faith studies. Pastoral Theology, Ethics,Pedagogy, Adrogogy, Christian Anthropology, Black Theology, Liberation Theology, Feminist Theology, Queer Theology, and of course Methodist Theology..

Sorry God, lost myself in a wish list there...

The sad truth is of course that some sections of the British Methodist Church have long since lost Wesley's love of theology and have managed (with Conference's consent) to reduce most of the Church's theological output to a compulsory second section in some Conference reports (and now for the theology...) oh yes.. and to a dreaded subject at seminary. (If the looks of some of our students when they come to their first theology lesson is anything to go by, theology is about as popular in our Church as a pickled onion is in an apple pie.)

I suspect that the root of the problem lies in our having lost the 'groundwork' of theology - the pew theology that fed and nurtured the love of theology, of searching the Scriptures and studying God's world in some of our members and local preachers. From Wesley's time on, the Methodist people were fed theologically by the works of popular theologians and - in particular - by the published books and reports of the Church. Wesley even rewrote and abridged a few works in order to make them more accessible. The Agenda's of earlier conferences up to the 1990's are an amazing collection of theological works. Embedded in the reports from each division of the Church is clear evidence of the Church as church, wrestling with scripture and faith, not just its necessary order.
It would be hard to say the same today. Although there are some good reports being produced, on the whole, the paucity of religious language in any of our Church's official paperwork is now well past scary.

Current council papers, for example, are now prefaced with neat little tick boxes and columns which summarize the report's expected impact on :-
  • Standing Orders
  • Faith and Order 
  • Financial 
  • Personnel 
  • Legal
  • Wider Connexional
  • External (e.g.ecumenical)
  • Risk

It's all very business like and official - and I guess it's important for us to be able to see at a glance what the impact of any piece of the Church's work will be on these areas.

And it's good to see that we have our priorities right - there's faith and order - way up there - next to rules and regulations!  But this faith and order tick box isn't quite the same as asking whether or not something is theologically sound or in keeping with our faith and order. It can't be - otherwise surely there would be some input from faith and order required on - say the report  MC1089 Selection Criteria for Candidates for presbyteral and diaconal ministry After all, I can't imagine Wesley thinking that selection criteria for ministers would have no impact on the faith and order of the Church!

Bottom line - it ALL impacts on our faith and order!

This is an old drum of mine - but it still beats to the same tune.

As a Church we should start with the theology - not with the business. Good business practice does not always mean good theology or good ministry. Church reports and papers are a part of our public proclamation as well as our internal business. I really believe we are drowning out our proclamation of God's grace with official, business management language instead of God language. We have good news to share which is lost amidst the jargon of impact and risk assessment!


Luckily - for people like me - theology is actually compulsory for a Church - no matter how business like and professional it wants to be (or thinks it has to be!). It can't be tidied up or pigeon holed or reduced to a column or section because You delight in turning us upside down and inside out - you want to know we are talking with to and about you, not just ordering your affairs!

The simple fact is that it's just not possible to be either a good and effective minister, or even a good Christian Disciple without doing theology. The hard part is discovering how we as a Church, learn how to do it so that it is profitable for the whole people of God.. not just so that we get another report adopted by Conference. Wesley insisted that Searching the Scriptures is a means of Grace, as is Christian Conferring (which doesn't just mean conferring with Christians but conferring as Christians).
Conferring and searching can be done in community - in a seminary or college or church or house group, or in private - with a book, or as part of a distance learning course. (See in particular the European Methodist eAcademy's brilliant courses on Methodist Theology)

And that's where the joy of today comes in for me.
Today I will be exploring with others in the Connexional team and in Circuit ministry how the Church can help to make the means of grace available, through the books that we publish. And then - I will travel to Durham to celebrate the Church's continuing investment in theological education as I attend the welcome service for the new Director of the Wesley Study Centre in Durham.
A good day to beat a drum for theology first..

Monday, October 18, 2010

un-Natural Selection?

Good morning God,
I've just been learning about the charity Project Prevention and their plan to offer money to drug addicts and alcoholics if they will agree to sterilisation (referred to as long term birth control).

I appreciate the concern for the children.
No... that's an understatement.
I am appalled at the damage that can be done to children born to parents suffering from alcohol or drug addiction. I know from first hand experience how life-shattering and soul destroying it can be for the child AND the parent.
To knowingly offer one more binge or fix in return for a life-time of sterility?
How sick and manipulative is that?

It's called Eugenics.. the deliberate attempt to manipulate the gene pool of society - human intervention in the whole process of natural selection. We've done it before,  in America in some states there were programs to sterilize those with mental illness, Indirah Gandhi tried mass sterilization in India, In Czechoslovakia Roma women were forcibly sterilized..
Forced Sterilization is recognised as a crime against humanity - but coerced sterilization?
Can you coerce someone who lacks the emotional and mental capacity to fully understand what they are signing up to - or is that just abuse?

If Project Prevention was really concerned for what happens to the Children of addicts, it would spend its money on providing care for them - not making sure that they dont exist!
I think this is just a very nasty way of dealing with what we dont want to face.  It allows us to ignore the plight of the addicts because we wont have to worry that their children will be a drain on our emotions or finances or the social services of the state.  It is easier to make sure that children aren't born, than care for them when they are, after all, what sort of life will they have? A life worth living?

Who knows - except you God. and of course, the children of alcoholic and drug addicts
I wonder how many of them seriously wish they had never been born..

The problem is NOT the child - but the parent and the society that fails to address the problems of addiction. The best way of resolving the 'problem' of these children is to fix society, not  manipulate the gene pool. We need to invest in putting an end to the sort of suffering, social deprivation and injustices which almost inevitably leads to addiction in the first place.

It highlights the real difference between a secular and a Christian society. YOU cared enough to come as one of the least of us - a back-street bastard not a middle-class do-gooder. You cared enough to find a way to work with natural selection, to change behaviour, to transform society, to save the lost, not to destroy us or 'prevent' us from even being born. You take the risk with free will, and, even though you do know better, you believe in our future, in the possibility of our redemption, enough to work with us...

Its important that we see this 'project' for what it is - Project prevention is just a nasty ungodly way of stopping the problem of OUR pain, distress and discomfort at the lives that are damaged by abuse..
It does nothing for the addict to rehabilitate them, for society to make it better, and even less for the Children who might have been.
Its certainly not Christian
Its a cop out.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Pastoral Possession

Good morning God,
There are a significant number of stories in Scripture about possession which are hard to explain or relate to in a world that doesn't believe in either demons or possession. But that doesn't mean that such demons don't exist, or that possession isn't real.

Possession is very real - we try and possess people all the time, at one time we even made it legal! We speak unthinkingly of MY Husband, MY Wife, MY Children... But, if you really want to see a demon at work, you need look no further than at the sort of possession that ministers sometimes fall victim to... MY ministry, MY church, MY people. The harm that this can do is truly demonic ie divisive. ( The etymology of the Greek word for demon is from the verb daiesthai "to divide, distribute.")

I was asked this week if I was really able to take my sabbatical, to leave the Church in the care of others. Thankfully I believe that the answer is yes.. We have such well blessed Churches here that I genuinely have no fear or worries. The worship will be wonderful, the pastoral care second to none and the Churches will continue to grow in grace and holiness through this opportunity to explore ministry without me being there to tell people what to do.

I have seen the other side to this coin however.. I have seen a church divided and hurt by ministers who were so possessive that they simply could not let Your people go.

Ministerial possession really can divide and harm a Church. Whether through love, grace, guilt, insecurity or fear, ministers are the world's best at trying to 'own' the people that they are sent to share in the pastoral oversight of. They can get upset at the very idea that a member might prefer to be cared for by another minister, another Church, another preacher.. As though it is a competition, as though popularity is a valid measure of ministry... As though a minister has somehow failed if someone doesn't want the individual ministry being offered them.

Pastoral possession is ugly - and like all forms of possession it robs us of grace, love and reason.
Worse.. it works its mischief on the very people ministers are called to minister to. That same love, grace, guilt, insecurity or fear and sense of failure, begins to overshadow the pastoral relationship with the person needing care. Instead of being able to respond in grace to the pastoral need which provoked the possession, the minister takes on the role of the aggrieved one, the hurt and inconsolable one, in need of your love and support.. It's not that pastoral needs are neglected, but they often lack the fullest extent of the grace and love which would mark it as Christian.

This is in spite of the fact that time and time again, scripture teaches that your ministers are seldom  popular - or loved when they are with your people. Look at Paul, or Timothy, Paul in particular wrestled with pastoral possession! But if ministers are true to their calling to follow you, then they will be ignored and slighted as well as loved and appreciated for their ministry. Ministry is both the best, and the worst calling that there is. Ministry is not about the ownership of souls but the cure of souls - an old odd expression, which means the nurture and care of souls through admonishment as well as teaching and sacrament. So Ministers are called to be offensive and challenging as well as supportive and comforting.
All of which means...
some of our members will like us and appreciate what we are trying to do
some never will.
Some of our members will always prefer the last minister they had.. even after we have left!

Of course this hurts because  ministers care for the people they share in pastoral care for. One of the most amazing gifts of your grace has always been the bond that you establish between a people and those you send to minister to them in your name.  But I have always found it a worthy hurt to offer back to you God, a token of my love.

Thankfully in Methodism we are encouraged to remember that no matter how many Churches are in a section, we never have sole pastoral responsibility, rather each minister is 'charged' to share in the pastoral care of your people with all of God's people. At local level we share with the pastoral committee and the stewards. At Circuit level we share with the circuit staff and Circuit officers, ditto for District level, and so on to Connexional level. The Connexion is an ecclesial expression of practical pastoral care. For Methodists, Pastoral care belongs to the priesthood of ALL believers, it is never one persons sole responsibility. Ministers might forget it sometimes, in their desire to serve your people well, but Church members seldom do.
They cure us of possession by reminding us - You call all of us to care - in your name.

And that's the glorious truth isn't it, the truth that sets us free to enjoy sabbaticals, to move stations, to minister to more than one congregation:
You didn't say to Peter 'Tend YOUR sheep, or feed YOUR lambs.. you made it perfectly clear - the sheep are not ours..

Tend my flock.. feed my sheep..

Your people are ours to love, feed and tend, not own.

Your people remain YOURS forever. (even when I'm on sabbatical!)
My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.
John 10: 27 & 28

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Good morning God,
Should ordained ministers wear clerical collars?
At one time of course, the question wouldn't even be asked - after all - what sort of ordained minister doesn't wear a clerical collar? Are they ashamed of the gospel, of their calling, of the Church?
Nowadays it is said that the collar 'gets in the way' of ordinary conversation - that it inhibits evangelism because people wont talk to ministers in collars.
Apparently it's not 'fresh' or "cool' or even sensible to wear a clerical collar at a family service or youth service, school assembly, cafe church, messy church etc etc...
Collars have come to be associated with all things stuffy, high-brow, liturgical, and - well - clerical!

It's starting to boarder on the predictable, isn't it.
Could the fact that the minister has started to wear light chinos and a polo shirt with a sweatshirt tied loosely around the neck or waist, be the first hint that congregation has that a fresh expression of Church may be in the offing?
Is the ministers preference for jeans to be understood as a preference for youth ministry?

Does it automatically follow that a cassock and collar means bells and smells in the service?

Isn't this all rather a shallow view of ordained ministry?

I made a deliberate choice to wear a clerical collar as a reminder to both myself and those that I meet that You are not absent from this world, and that my life cannot be lived without You God.
I choose to be marked out as different by what I wear because I own that by your grace and the Church's acceptance of your calling, I AM different - I am ordained.
It wasn't getting ordained that made me different, ordination is, in that respect,  just the confirmation of difference. You called me to dare to be different, to be set-apart to proclaim your gospel in word and deed with all that I am. Your calling was not just to minister to the saved, or to those it was safe to minister to, but to be a light on a hill, a public unashamed, in-your-face statement that YOU are here for whoever needs you.

I cannot tell how many conversations have not happened because I was wearing a clerical collar - but I can testify to the number of amazing conversations I have had. Conversations in hospital waiting rooms, airport lounges, on trains and on buses, in the hairdressers and cinema! I haven't had to do anything but be accessible. The collar has provided the prompt, given the permission, begged the question, created the link..acted as a means of your prevenient grace.
From my experience, I think I would want to say to those who insist that the collar 'puts people off' that perhaps what is off-putting' may have more to do with the person than with the collar!

As our Western world grows increasingly more secular, surely it becomes ever more important for the Gospel to be seen as a life-choice not just a private Sunday habit?  Whatever else can be said about it, the fact remains that when it is worn in the pub or the car park, the supermarket or the cinema, the train or the restaurant, the clerical collar does serve as a reminder that there are some who believe, who commit their whole life to that belief, and who choose not to hide that fact.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Justice for Israel/Palestine

God - can we talk for a while?
It's about justice, and compassion and about identity and belonging.
I'm genuinely confused. To my way of thinking, the gospel has little to offer anyone in the Western world unless they are able to own the truth of St Paul's statement that in Christ there is now neither Jew nor Gentile. You chose not to send a Jewish Messiah AND a Gentile Messiah, and yet you offer grace and salvation for all.  So at the very core of Western Christianity, whether we acknowledge it or not,  is a deliberate choice by the Church to no longer see old divisions, especially not hereditary divisions, those fostered upon us unwittingly by accident of birth.
Which made me genuinely puzzled as to why any Christian here in the UK might insist on putting politics before people - or categories before compassion no matter how 'complex' or 'contrary' a situation might seem to be.

Until I read the Methodist report entitled Justice for Israel/Palestine.

Let me make it clear, I am not interested in getting into a debate about Jews vs Palestinians, neither am I interested in discussing whether or not the report is balanced or biased (that is already taking place at local Church and Circuit level here) What I am interested in, is finding out how Western Christians ever managed to lose sight of the fact that what is at stake in Israel Palestine is not who owns a piece of land but the answer to the question 'who is my neighbour..'

The answer surely should be - every single soul there. The only identity that should matter is the one that you give to each of us - and to every Jew and Palestinian - we are all your people. The parable makes it clear that our neighbour is the person in need, not the person of a particular politics or race or religion.

That we have lost sight of this is evidenced both by the report itself and by the debates currently taking place about it on the Methodist Blogosphere and elsewhere. 

It is astonishing how much energy this report has generated. 

I had some sympathy with Israelis who insist that they have been misrepresented in the report - not because I think that they have been (I dont) but because the report refuses to play the old games of trying to offer a classic 'say nothing but sigh plenty' approach on the grounds that this is just too complex a socio-political religious problem to get involved in.  

This means that the report is not about what Palestinian's have been doing to Israelis or Israelis to Palestinians, it is about the heartache and grief of not loving our neighbour as ourselves. The report works hard to present the core religious and political issues whilst stating clearly that they have been allowed to play too big a part in excusing the inexcusable and blinding the Church and the world to the obvious - people are suffering and dying needlessly and it is time that it stopped

What little sympathy I had is however being slowly but steadily eroded by the lobbying by those who disagree with the recommendations of the report - not least, the recommendation that the Church be encouraged to read and reflect on it.

As a minister, I have received a variety of emails and letters over this mater. Sadly, not one of them could be considered courteous for all of them began with the presumption that I am anti-Semitic. Many have referred to the Holocaust and several have made direct accusations about a hate campaign against the state of Israel. Some of those who sent the mail have also sent copies of the Jewish Board of Deputies response,. others have written their own responses, and in one case, I was provided with over 40 pages of additional information which it has been suggested I must allow my congregation to read in conjunction with the report in order to offset the presumed bias implicit within it. 
All have insulted my Church and presumed that behind the report there is an institutional 'it' to blame. None have taken the trouble to ask me what I personally think of the report and what I might be inclined to do as a result.

I suspect the same degree of lobbying (which is beginning to feel like religious bullying) has been happening elsewhere. What  else would persuade one Methodist local preacher and blogger to throw away his better judgement and threaten to sue the Methodist Church over the report? It would be very interesting to know whether or not he intends to finance the action from his own personal funds only. My suspicion, given the amount of lobbying going on by a few activists, is that he has allowed himself to act as a foil for a fight, rather than a light for a Gospel cause.

I can't help but wonder what he/they  really hope to achieve by the action..
It wont further the work of the Gospel
It wont strengthen the witness of the Church to your love and unity
And it wont enable us to recognise all our brothers and sisters in Israel Palestine as our Neighbours 

All it will do is hide the loss of life and suffering in Israel/Palestine behind the same old ancient hereditary prejudices that Christ died to end.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Comedic Grace

Sir Norman Wisdom 1915-2010

Good morning God,
Today is a day for discovering grace - that peculiar heart-lifting, grin making, peace affording, pain stilling energy which permeates this world and provides us with a glimpse of your love.

Finding grace is not like counting blessings, its far more comedic than that. It's far more 'Norman Wisdom'; like playing peek-a-boo with your infant self.  It's packed full of giggles and moments of wonder that something so simple can give rise to so much joy and contentment - even if there were a million tears just thirty seconds earlier.
There are, of course, proven 'means of grace'... Wesley wrote enough about them (come to think of it, so have I!) but there are also the more spontaneous and less religious means which we too often forget about, but which God chooses to remind us of - if we go looking.

Great comedians like Norman Wisdom had that rare gift of being able to remind us of that fact. It was impossible to take yourself seriously when watching one of his films.. and who can see his face without wanting to smile?

Yet in his films he often played the most vulnerable, love-lorn, helpless characters - 'real' people, not 'clever' people. The ones that did fall down, get pushed around, live in a daze, and yet make the whole world laugh through their childlike innocence and generosity of Spirit. His films frequently turned on a moment of grace, when his character was helped to see that he was loved, just as he was. 

In his real life he epitomized the bizarre comedic nature of grace - after all who would have thought that someone born so poverty stricken could rise to become such a star - ending up a cult figure in communist Albania no less! - and all by making the world laugh!

In memory of Norman who died today aged 95 - I shall try to enjoy it when I fall down today. Instead of complaining or resenting the inevitable embarrassment of looking an idiot in public,  I shall try and find some way to pick myself back up, dust myself down, and look around in surprise for whatever tripped me up.

In his honour, and for my own benefit - I shall spend today looking for the unexpected, for the comedic, for the moment of grace that teaches me to not only 'get a life' but to live it laughing for as long as I can.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Problem with prayer...

Pneuma: Breath of God Gwen Meharg
Good morning God,
It's been a long and painful night recovering from yesterday's surgery. My guess is that I would not have minded the pain and discomfort so much if I had known that there had been some gain as a result of it. But if you don't mind me saying God, to go through the whole process only to be told in the recovery room that it had not been possible to achieve the desired objective was bitterly disappointing, and not just for me. I wanted to be able to breathe without effort again... was that too much to ask?

So I have spent the night reflecting on yesterday's prayers..
And on the answers to those prayers.

The problem with prayer is that it is a relationship not a miracle machine, and whilst prayers are answered as relationships are deepened and the world changes, it is not a magic solution or some sort of heavenly qwiki-mart where needs and desirables can be bought and paid for by the weight of words or intent of the faithful.

In times of need however, it is easy to forget that. It is easy to succumb to the idea that being in a good (or even great!)  relationship with you means that I have some sort of discount at this store of salvation. That there is shelf somewhere with my name on it, which has my health and wealth and happiness waiting to be bought, if only I have enough faith or grace to pay for it or enough friends to make up the shortfall if I dont.  There are, I know many Christians who think this is what Christ came for - to pay for those things on our personal shelves which we could never otherwise afford - but I'm not one of them - thank you God.

I think we tend to slip into this sort of understanding of prayer whenever life threatens our relationships with you, with ourselves and with one another. But whilst miracles can and do happen, and whilst I believe prayer is the most powerful force in the universe - I do not believe that it is as a result of any credit or debit balance of faith or grace. You are not so cruel or so crass as to deny life, health or happiness based on how many people have prayed, or how much they meant the prayers they offered.

So when I start to reflect on yesterday's prayers, I have to begin with the small but frequent prayers  of thanks we shared throughout the day for the number of wonderful supportive friends and Church family who were holding me in their prayers - especially for the fact that so many were able to let me know by facebook, email and twitter - it was wonderful throughout the time of waiting for surgery and in the recovery room afterwards to receive that steady stream of grace.. just a word, often a joke or something to make me smile - to quell fear, and to remind me that I am not alone in all this, I am with you and I am in the minds and hearts of those we both love.

I prayed as I let go of consciousness. to be safe in your keeping.
And that prayer stayed with me until you woke me with it's answer.
 I am with you Always.

And it will always be thus.

So, OK, I am denied the quick-fix..In my case, at this moment in time, the combination of constriction of the bronchial tubes and the cancer which is in the glands surrounding them made fitting a stent more dangerous than not fitting a stent.

But there are other, albeit slower, ways of gaining the air that I crave.

I am going to have to learn to breathe properly again, to work at it and not just take it for granted - its not rocket science but it will take time and effort. I have to practice breathing deeply and fully all the time, and resist the bad habits of just snatching at breath as and when I want it without care for how my body will supply it!

A bit like prayer really..
Never a quick fix

But surely well worth the effort to live fully.

So, a new verse to my favourate hymn:

Give me air in my lungs keep me praying
Give me air in my lungs this day
Give me air in my lungs keep me praying
Keep me praying til the break of day.

all together now...
Sing Hosanna, Sing Hosanna, Sing Hosanna to the King of Kings
Sing Hosanna, Sing Hosanna, Sing hosanna to the King

p.s. cant help but notice the glorious wry humour in all this God - given my passionate dislike of those who insist in introducing a hushed 'breathy' note into their voice when they are trying to be 'Christian' and caring.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A last Eucharist

Good morning God,
Its amazing how the knowledge of impending absence is affecting the way I feel about this week's Eucharist. This will be the last supper that I will preside at for a long time. The words of the liturgy seem to have acquired a hitherto undreamed of meaning and clarity as I prepare to leave a people that you have enabled me to love and serve by your grace.

Please don't misunderstand God,  have no 'fear' for those I love. I know that in my absence they will be more than well provided for by you and others - Christ alone is the indispensable minister of grace (I learned that a loooong time ago!)
But I find I am torn by conflicting emotions and grief competes with joy as I prepare.
Reflecting on this, and on the words I will be saying, I am astonished to discover an absence at the heart of the Eucharist which I had not allowed myself to notice before, probably because I have always been so concerned with trying to mediate your presence God.

The words of the liturgy are very definitely all in the wrong tense -
We declare the mystery of faith
Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again ,
instead of 
Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ is come again...
and we pray -
'send down your Holy Spirit' - rather than giving thanks that your Holy Spirit is already present.

In these, and so many other ways, we speak eschatalogicaly - in terms of a promised future presence - ie a very present absence! (and for the theologically aware - nope, I dont really think realized eschatology cuts it here)

Lex orandi, lex credendi -  what we pray is what we believe.. in which case,  liturgically speaking at least, I  would have to say that the Church believes in your presence as the risen Christ by praying about Your absence!

This 'last' Eucharist will be a very special. We are a small group, who have learned to bear one another's burdens. My presence is not an essential component of this act of worship, merely a welcome one. Your presence on the other hand, is crucial. Without YOU God, the Eucharist is merely an empty ritual, a remembering less we forget.. that once, a long time ago, you loved us enough to come as one of us.. and that you promise, one day, to come again.

do this - to remember me...

like binding words on our foreheads, counting beads, or tying knots in tassels

I can find nothing in the words we say, in the liturgy we use, to suggest that you are present in anything other than the future promised to us..

which begs the question God...

is this why transubstantiation is deemed so necessary by so many?!!