“Now join your hands, and with your hands your hearts”

30 May

CENN8G_2425131b Having successfully navigated the choppy waters of the House of Commons, on June 3rd the UK bill on same-sex marriage will be debated in the House of Lords. Promises to be an interesting day! The proposed legislation has captured huge media attention whilst tending to polarize the views of the British public, both Christians and others.

It does appear that the legislation is being rushed through without an enormous amount of thought into the long-term implications or finer points of law associated with the bill. Issues such as annulment of marriage in the event of non-consummation or how to define adultery within same-sex marriages remain unanswered. It is also not clear how the government proposes to continue to restrict civil partnerships to same-sex couples when marriage is open to partners of any gender. The unique place of the Church of England in UK law and clergy obligations regarding marriage towards their parishioners, of whatever religious persuasion, have also not been adequately examined. If, as seems likely, the bill is passed, we will no doubt hear more about this in future.

Whilst personally holding to the conviction that marriage is, in its nature, a lifelong union of one man with one woman, there is a lot more going on here than simply defending a traditional definition of marriage or attempting to stop the erosion of “traditional values” in society. We are witnessing a redefinition not solely of marriage, but of the relationship between legislation and Christian faith.

The Church in Western society has for so long enjoyed a privileged position that we find it hard to imagine life in any other terms. Yet we find ourselves returning to a world which has much more in common with that inhabited by first century Gentile Christians, one where faith inspires counter-cultural convictions and practices not shared by the majority. That may not be such a bad thing.

With very divergent views on display, the current debate amongst Christians centres round the “rightness” of same-sex marriage and the pitfalls of the redefinition of marriage that is being contemplated. These are very real. We are certainly engaging in experiments in social engineering with unforeseen – and largely unresearched – consequences. Future generations will reap the benefits of our wisdom or pay the price of our recklessness and at this stage only time will tell.

In this context, however, the debate is largely polemic and utterly fails to recognize one key dimension: the missional dimension.

UK gay marriageAs Christians we are called to live our lives in a way that connects meaningfully with society around us and invites personal transformation through faith in Christ. Social transformation is not achieved by the imposition through legislation of moral convictions on people who think differently. On the contrary, such action can effectively alienate us from those we wish to impact and prevent the very influence we hope to exercise. We must allow our convictions to be shaped by the lost “one” rather than the safe “ninety-nine”.

Britain isn’t the same country today that it was 50 years ago. We are no longer a “Christian country”, whatever that might mean. We are a secular multi-cultural society and law cannot be based only on one religious option. Perhaps in the past Christianity could provide the basis for UK law, but that is no longer the case today. Legislation establishes what is lawful and what is criminal, not what is ethically right. I believe that lying is wrong, but would not want legislation to punish liars. I consider sexual relationships outside marriage – a man who chooses to sleep with a woman at work, for example – to be damaging and wrong, but again would not want the UK government to legislate against this.

Ethical choices motivated by religious conviction cannot be imposed on others. The separation of church and state is a reality and UK legislation, whether we like it or not, must cater for all.

Fundamentally, marriage is a public commitment between one man and one woman carried out in a way that is recognised by society. In a religious context, this commitment is also made in the sight of God. The current question is whether this should be extended to same-sex couples. Understandably, most today do not see why not.

Same-sex civil partnerships are already allowed in law so in the end it is a matter of semantics – what we think marriage means – rather than approval or disapproval of same-sex relationships as such. (This is why it is vital to realise that the current debate is not about homosexuality or whether as Christians accept homosexual practice. That is a completely different issue and the two must never be confused.) The important element in such relationships is the socially approved life-long commitment made to each other, not the label used. I realise that there are legal differences, but from an ethical standpoint marriage and civil partnerships essentially amount to the same thing.

Gay marriageMarriage is a social construct, defined and regulated not by divine diktat but by social convention. In Spanish gypsy weddings, for example, though not ‘legal’ in terms of national law, nor carried out in church, the commitment shown to each other in front of their society means the couple are married in their eyes and those of their community, and ultimately the state too.

So please, let’s keep all this in proportion. The institution of marriage is under much more threat from other factors, like casual relationships, extra-marital affairs and the splitting of the family caused by divorce and remarriage (and re-divorce…) than from same-sex legislation. And whatever happens, don’t lose sight of the essentials. Love your neighbour. Your straight neighbour and your LGBT neighbour. Single, married, in civil partnership, or just plain shacked up together. Let them meet in you Jesus, the friend of “sinners”. This, legislation can never redefine…

(Title quote from Shakespeare’s Henry VI part III. Image credits: Daily Telegraph, Reuters, CNN.)

Fun on Sunday

20 May

AnniversaryThere’s a first time for everything, they say. This weekend saw one of those for me.

We were celebrating the church’s 125th anniversary and had an afternoon of activities for families organized for Saturday. Shame about the weather, but that’s another story.

Anyway, one young couple came along with two kids of their own, along with various nephews / nieces / aunties / uncles / cousins / (grand)parents (-in-law); I didn’t get the complete family tree but they certainly all belonged together. The young man looked a little nervous and eventually let on to me why. “I’m going down on bended knee in there”, he whispered to me.

Sorry?”

You know, getting down on one knee. I mean, we’ve got the house, and two kids.”

What, you don’t mean…?”

Yeah, gonna ask her to marry me.”

Does she know?”

Hasn’t got a clue!”

I couldn’t quite picture it. Not the most romantic of settings, perhaps, in a church hall amidst castle-bouncing infants, cream teas, a cartoon quiz, face painting and who knows what else. But I’ll give him full marks for originality at least.

design-your-own-engagement-ringAnd so, an hour or so later, his younger cousin came running up to me to let me know he was ready – I was to be impromptu official photographer of the act – and away he went. True to his promise, down on one knee, out came the ring box, and to her utter amazement he proceeded to pop the question. Cheers, applause and passionate embrace, so I guess she said yes. Stuff the movies are made of.

As I said, hardly what I was expecting on a church “family fun day”, but there we go. We can be pretty certain that two members of this particular family at least had fun…

It’s strange how “church” and “fun” don’t tend to go together in people’s minds. Or in their experience, for that matter. Somehow when we step over the threshold of church we expect things to be different to “outside”. Who says church has to be solemn and serious? Or reverent? (And why are quiet whispers more reverent than playful chatter and laughter anyway?) Why does church have to be boring?

9781596383944-Cosby-Giving-up-gimmicks-Reclaiming-youth-ministry-from-an-entertainment-cultureWe live in an entertainment culture. True, we are not to offer a concoction of sensual imagery and mind-numbing musical rhythms in an attempt to draw people into church. But at the same time, we are part and parcel of the society in which we find ourselves living and we must express our faith in ways that “fit” with the world around us, that ordinary people can relate to and identify with. Our calling is to Christ, and to live out his life in our time and place, fully part of the world into which he has placed us. There is nothing better or worse about our society today; like any other, it provides a people with an identity, a way of relating to the world – including church. Yes, there is plenty of scope for sin, but that’s hardly new. There is also plenty of scope for engaging with visual media, music and contemporary means of communication to help us all meet with God and grow in him. Making sure that church is enjoyable as well as meaningful is not in and of itself any guarantee of spiritual health. But it certainly is a step in the right direction.

One of the psalmists knew this too: “I was glad when they said to me: ‘Let’s go to the Lord’s house’.” This is not meant to be a dry theological statement. True, there’s a whole context that needs exploring, but at its simplest this expresses the heart of someone who expected to enjoy what he was going to. Stuffy formality is not synonymous with spirituality. Church can – should, dare I say – be fun.

“Where thieves do not enter…”

30 Apr

cybercrimeToday saw me running a session on computer security and privacy issues for trainees on the World Horizons Equipping for Service course. (In other words, yes, I probably am a bit geeky…) Identity theft and maintaining individual privacy online has become a big issue.

Now my main concern in doing this is to help people protect their identity and personal information. Privacy is a right which is not always taken seriously by governments – and I am not just talking of the Irans and North Koreas of this world. Unless we actually want to make all our private communications and data available to whoever happens to want to look then we do need to take some simple steps to protect ourselves. Not that any of these are 100% uncrackable – but like any security, in the end it is about putting enough safeguards in place to make it difficult for an attacker to find a way in. It’s just like putting a better lock on your front door; hey yes, with a big enough sledgehammer they will still get in. But if they don’t have enough time or resources, or they don’t consider your stuff is worth the effort, they will go and look somewhere else.

There’s more to this than not clicking on “suspicious” links and “being careful”. Few people really understand the inner workings of computer code and the security issues that there are. Computing has become like modern cars – you used to be able to take a look at an engine and find bits to unscrew, replace or mend yourself, but nowadays, it is all in sealed plastic units, with no “user serviceable parts” to be seen. Likewise computing – in the early days, you could roughly see how a program worked, understand the basics of code behind what the operating system was doing. Not today. Though estimates vary (and are at best only estimates), there are around 80 million lines of code in Windows 7. So security issues are actually complex beasts and users do in fact need to know a little more than they might be comfortable with to make sure they are safe. The ruthless have always preyed on the naïve or ignorant and probably always will.

passwordYou see, there are always the “bad guys” out there who want to get their hands on your stuff. We live in a real world where thieves do break in and steal, only today they can do it from the comfort of their own homes on the opposite side of the planet. Password hacking is no longer the remit of “script kiddies”; cyber crime has become big business. Dedicated mafia groups pour huge resources into the creation of ever expanding bot-nets and ever more effective tools for phishing scams, all with the aim of gleaning personal information, stealing intellectual property, gaining access to financial assets and scamming their way to millionairedom.

But we knew that already. There really is nothing new under the sun. That our seemingly boundless human creativity – no doubt part of the image of God in humanity – can be turned to evil as easily as it can to good should come as no surprise. Innovation works on both sides, from those who follow the late Steve Jobs’ axiom in wanting to “change the world” (for the better) through technology to those who are happy to invest their lives discovering how to relieve others of the burden of their wealth.

WorstPassword-InfographicSo do take all reasonable precautions. Educate yourself. Lock down your cyberlife in such a way that makes it difficult at least for others to steal from you. But at the same time be sure to heed Jesus’ advice – don’t make this your treasure. Don’t lock your heart in encrypted secure storage with a password that keeps even the Holy Spirit out. We are bigger than that. We are called to love a broken world, including the scammers, to make the healing of the nations in the name of a self-giving God our treasure. No criminal, cyber or other, can ever take that from you.

Oh. And if Password1 is one of your favourite passwords, do me a favour and change it…

Image credits: pbs.org, splashdata.org

“Hi, I’m Paul and this is Barnabas…”

26 Apr
Paul&BarnabasLycaonia

Bourges cathedral stained glass (image source: Wikipedia)

This last week I’ve been tutoring a group of trainees in ethnographic research methods. Sounds grand, but basically  this is about conducting formal interviews with a cultural informant in order to better understand a culture from an insider’s point of view.

All this made me wonder what Paul and Barnabas’s trip to Lystra might have looked like if they had enlisted the help of a local informant before heading straight into the market place to preach…

Paul & Barnabas: So, you’re from Lystra?

Random Lycaonian: That’s right, born and bred here. And proud of it {laughs}.

P&B: Thanks so much for being willing to speak to us.

RL: No problem. I saw you looked a bit lost, and well, as I speak a bit of Greek, I thought maybe I could help.

P&B: That’s great. It’s probably obvious, but we don’t understand a word of Lycaonian, so we sure do appreciate it. Do you think you could tell us a little about life here?

RL: Fire away. What d’you want to know?

P&B: Religion, for example, do you go to the temple to worship?

RL: Absolutely. Can’t be a true-blood Lycaonian without going to the temple.

P&B: Quite. So could you describe what a typical visit to the temple would look like?

RL: Sure. Well, you go to the temple. But you knew that already right?

P&B: {laughs} Yeah, we figured that one out! Can you go to any temple?

RL: I guess so, though most of us go to our local shrine, it’s just easier like that. Unless there is a festival and half the town is going, then we go to the big Zeus one, just outside the city.

Wilhelm Lübke's illustration of the temple as ...

Wilhelm Lübke’s illustration of the temple of Zeus as it might have looked in the 5th century BCE (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

P&B: Oh yes, we saw that one on the way here. Let’s imagine you are going to the big temple of Zeus then – what do you do when you get to the temple?

RL: Well, it depends. If there is a special festival it’s different.

P&B: What about a normal day when there’s no festival?

RL: OK, so I go in, and I stand at the back for a minute. That temple is something else. Just awesome, man. Then I go to the front and talk to one of the gods.

P&B: So you have various gods? Can you give me the names of your gods?

RL. There are dozens of them! Do you want them all?

P&B: Another day maybe. Which are the most important ones for you?

RL: Well, Zeus is number one. He’s my favourite, and this is his temple after all, so I would always talk to him first. And then there’s Hermes. There are a few others but I guess those are the most important two.

P&B: Zeus and Hermes. That’s really interesting. What kind of things would you say to Zeus that you wouldn’t say to Hermes?

RL: Well Zeus is mega busy, I mean he’s the top guy. So I wouldn’t bother him most of the time. Only for something really important that I don’t think the others would be able to cope with. Or sometimes if one of the others is giving me grief I’ll go and ask Zeus to get them to cut me some slack. Especially that Ares guy, I just can’t make him out.

P&B: And what about Hermes?

RL: To be honest, I don’t say much to him. He won’t stand still, flying up and down from Olympus. He’s the one who speaks to us, brings us Zeus’s messages, you know, but he’s too busy to listen. No point talking to him!

P&B: And what happens in a festival?

RL: Well, normally there’ll be a sacrifice.

P&B: A sacrifice?

RL: Yeah, not a human one {laughs}.

P&B: Phew! What animals can be sacrificed?

RL: Well it can be a sheep or a goat, but for that really special occasion, it’s just got to be a bull. Or two. Or more even on a really special occasion.

P&B: What would be a really special occasion?

RL: Well, imagine that Zeus came here. I mean here, not Athens or Delphi, but suppose, just suppose, he turned up here. And did something amazing.

P&B: What sort of thing would be amazing for you? I mean, what would make you think it was Zeus?

RL: Oh I don’t know. Like, see that guy sat over there? The one begging?

P&B: Um-hum.

Raphael: The Sacrifice at Lystra (image source: Wikipedia)

Raphael: The Sacrifice at Lystra (image source: Wikipedia)

RL: Well, he’s never walked. Born like that, poor chap. What if Zeus came along – with Hermes, of course, he never goes anywhere without Hermes – and Zeus says to him – I mean Hermes, Zeus just tells him what to say – so Hermes says to him “stand up”, and he does. Now that would be something else. Boy, would we celebrate that. There’d be flowers, garlands and garlands of them, and we might even make it to a dozen bulls. The priests would start playing their drums and shouting, then they’d come out from the temple all dancing and singing, it would be wild. You’d know something special was going on and the whole town would turn out to sacrifice to them. Ooh, I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it.

P&B: Us too. Really appreciate the heads up {nervous laugh}.

RL: You’re welcome. See you around then. By the way, what did you two say you were doing here?…

Capisci?

18 Apr

1173672104_fThe end of the Gérard Dépardieu epic film 1492: The Conquest of Paradise graphically depicts the failure of the Spanish expedition to curb the greed and violence of the Conquistadores. In the midst of a tropical storm whose physical violence matched the inner destruction of the colony, Columbus’s faithful translator Utapan once again shaves his head and dons his tribal face paint ready to abandon his patron and return to his native people. He runs across the yard towards the beckoning forest and is entreated by a bewildered Columbus: Speak to me! But he finds no comfort. Before smiling and disappearing among the foliage Utapan exposes the depths of pain in his soul as he shouts back: You never learned to speak my language!

You never learned to speak my language.

80693-19Something as simple as this, but it seems it never ocurred to Columbus or his companions. The Tainos people had managed to learn Spanish, how come the Spaniards never learned theirs? It was certainly not lack of intelligence or curiosity, rather an insidious cultural supremacy that held that everything Western was superior to local mores, whatever shape these may take. And nowhere is this more clearly found than in language.

Language is more than the ability to communicate. It defines us, becomes part of us, draws many of the lines of our identity. It links us to the world around us, but only by separating us from part of that world. Language enables us make our mark, to leave a lasting impact on society, accessible to those that share our linguistic identity.

We are created speechless – a baby’s crying communicates loud and clear, but can hardly be considered speech – with a blank page on which language is slowly written by those around us. And so we acquire the ability to express ourselves, to relate socially to another – the Thou of Buber’s world – and  to pour our innermost self out through our words.

It seems to me that this innate capacity for language is part of the image of God in humanity, and a most significant part at that. In the beginning was the Word – communication, self-revelation, expression, thought-given-form – and the Word was with God, for communication needs recipient as well as expression. And the Word was God. God was, and is, Word.

1301595118.motLanguage is not a bolt-on extra. A mother tongue is the gateway to the heart, sitting at the core of who we are. No wonder when the Word became flesh, he learned our language.

Tomorrow I come to the end of another course teaching language learning skills to a bunch of those who will make it their life’s purpose to bring Jesus to people and communities across the world. Perhaps better than anything else,  learning local languages will connect them with the people they go to serve. As Eugene Nida rightly said:

“Language learning is not a matter of acquiring a simple mechanical ability to produce acoustic signals so as to buy, sell etc. It is a process by which we make vital contacts with a new community, a new way of life, and a new system of thinking. To do this well is the basic requirement of effective missionary endeavour.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself!

Do you speak Christian?

9 Apr

WS4It’s that time of year again when I find myself in Llanelli, South Wales, teaching a group of trainees introductory linguistics and language learning skills. I trust that by the end of this two weeks they will have learned a thing or two about how languages work, and how they can best learn one. And somewhere in the midst of all this, I hope that they will also understand why language is important. As for me, it gives me an excuse to write again about language. Way to go!

In an engaging scene towards the end of the adventures of Don Quixote, the brave knight, his faithful Sancho and their entourage come across a traveller and his companion, a lady dressed in “Moorish” style. Poor thing, she didn’t seem to understand the kind words they spoke in her direction, for she merely crossed her hands over her chest and bowed in appreciation. She evidently did not speak “Christian”.

QuijoteHow many of us speak “Christian”? However we want to define “speaking Christian” – and in Cervantes’ day, it was a simple synonym for Castillian Spanish – that isn’t really the main issue. More to the point is how many people beyond the walls of our churches speak Christian? Because if we are not speaking the same language, we are never going to make ourselves understood. As Taylor Swift would say, “never, ever, ever”.

God has always come to humanity speaking our language(s). Whenever you find an angel in the Bible, they speak in the language of their interlocutor, not in “the language of angels”, whatever these might be. God’s words to people in dreams and visions were always perfectly understandable. Jesus used his native Aramaic but also seems to have managed to communicate happily with Greek speakers in their own language. And the vast majority of the New Testament is written in Koiné Greek, “common” Greek, or that which was spoken by the masses, the trade language of the Mediterranean world and beyond, not the cultured Attic Greek of Homer and Plato.

God addresses people in their own language. And we should too. The second century epistle to Diognetus says it well:

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. [...] But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.

Christians did not stand out from the crowd in anything but their godly living. They dressed the same – I guess that might mean hoodies and low-slung jeans these days, not to mention the odd piercing –, ate the same food, did the same jobs, spoke the same language… yet somehow displayed a “striking method of life” that was soon to overrun the mighty Roman Empire.

To “speak Christian” roots us firmly in a bygone age and severs our connection with those that actually need Christ. We risk becoming an irrelevant relic, a quaint nicety that is tolerated, more or less, by outsiders, but little understood.

imagesAnd it’s not just the “thees and thous” that mark us out as travellers in time. So much of our communication is built on an overestimation of the place of “preaching”, a premise of shared values and shared knowledge and basic “biblical literacy” that can in reality no longer be taken for granted. Concepts of sin and morality, the question of whether God even exists, the reliability of the Bible… we assume so much and fail to connect.

And so our message misses the mark, quite simply lost in translation, from “Christian” to however we wish to label contemporary communication.

We simply have no alternative – to follow faithfully in the footsteps of a communicative God, we must live out our faith in ways that other people can understand. Whether in the way we construct our corporate life, our communication style or the very words that we use, our language must be their language; anything else is a distortion of the gospel.

It’s time to stop speaking Christian and live it.

P.S. If you are interested in one theologian’s perspective on Speaking Christian, see this review of Marcus Borg’s book of the same title or an interview with the author.

A veil of tears

1 Apr

MaryMagdaleneBut Mary stood outside the tomb weeping.

Mary — the first on the scene. Confusion. The stone’s been moved from across the entrance. Panic. Wait, no body? What the… Quick, Peter, he’ll know what to do. Or John. Come on! They’ve taken him. Gone. Gone!

Peter and John did little but confirm what she already new. He’d gone. And Mary understood no more than they did. But when the disciples went home,

Mary stood outside the tomb weeping.

Maybe it is unfair and a gross gender stereotype, but — typical men. “No point hanging around moping, nothing we can do now. And anyway, if we’re not careful we might get accused of nicking the body. Best get home…”

But Mary stood outside the tomb weeping.

Mary’s tears kept her where she needed to be, the place where she would be the first to meet the risen Jesus. Yet the same tears blinded her from seeing him. Through a veil of tears her eyes were kept from seeing; it was his voice that penetrated the grief.

“Mary.”

John was right. “He calls his own by name and [...] they recognize his voice.”

“Rabboni.” Teacher. But wait, it can’t be. Master. Is it you? Lord. Jesus. It is you. OMG…

“Go and tell my brothers.”

MaryMagdalene1“Who, me?”

“Go and tell my brothers.”

“But they just left…

“Go and tell my brothers.”

“What if they don’t believe me?”

“Go and tell my brothers.”

“But I’m only a woman.”

“Go and tell my brothers.”

Even in death, Jesus turned the tables on the sidelining of women that ran through the society he lived in. Who else would choose a woman as the first and — until that time at least — only witness of his resurrection? The Talmud is clear:

Any evidence which a woman (gives) is not valid (to offer)…This is equivalent to saying that one who is rabbinically accounted a robber is qualified to give the same evidence as a woman (Rosh Hashannah 1.8).

And Josephus was no less blunt:

But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex…since it is probable that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment (Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.15).

MaryMagdalene-NoliMeTangereEaster is about resurrection. Life conquering death. The vindication of the Son of God before all creation. A way into eternity being paved for humanity. A message of hope and purpose. All entrusted to a woman.

Its significance may be lost on us today, accustomed as we are to the Hillary Clintons and Angela Merkels of this world. But the Bible is to be lived in its context, and this was momentous. A woman, bearer of the good news of the resurrection. Mind-blowing. Quite simply unthinkable.

In this deliberate act of cultural rebellion, Jesus, the risen Lord, delivers another blow to the male-dominated status quo of his day. Faithful to the script he had lived throughout his earthly pilgrimage, so now in his life-after-death. Mary. The one he had healed. The one he had delivered…

“Go and tell my brothers.”

“I have seen the Lord.”

 

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