One vote – use it wisely.

16 Apr

7PartyLeadersGeneralElectionAfter the complexity and incoherence of the recent televised debate featuring the heads of the seven major parties competing at May’s general election, I guess many of the Great British voters are doubly confused. British politics is just not what it used to be. Times have changed and we are no longer faced with the simplicity of a two-party system, an “either-or” decision. It’s not even going to be like the current three-party stand-off with the LibDems holding the balance of power. With the significant recent advances of UKIP and the growth of the Green Party, the predicted landslide of the Scottish National Party north of the border and Plaid Cymru hoping to see the same political shift in Wales, it’s a whole new ballgame.

Whatever we feel about the relative merits or problems this will cause, that’s how it is, and no amount of moaning will change it. No more red, blue, or maybe yellow as the only available options; as voters we are going to have to think a lot harder about what we want and what our votes will accomplish. We may actually have to read the party manifestos or watch the TV debates, decide which party is most aligned with our values and convictions and vote for what we believe in and the candidate who will best represent our concerns.

This is no bad thing. Politics in a democracy is meant to reflect what a population wants. In a world where democratic values are under increasing threat, I would encourage us all to engage with the political process, think through how we want to see our country governed and vote accordingly.

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating – it’s not just in politics we get to choose. God is no tyrannical dictator who forces himself upon us, like it or not. It’s totally up to us whether we give him the time of day or not. Now, and for eternity. If you want to know what his “electoral programme” is like, pick up a Bible and read one of the gospels – how Jesus lived out his life here and what he taught will give you a good idea. (And if you’ve not got a Bible, as you’re reading this, then I guess you’ll be able to find one online. But if you’re really stuck, drop me a line and we’ll sort something out.) Then choose, one way or another.

Unlike a general election, you’ll never be lumbered with a government you didn’t vote for. As far as God goes, your vote is the only one that counts. Choose well :-)

Image credit: The Trump – http://www.thetrump.co.uk/the-parties-in-a-nutshell/

Life after Easter

12 Apr

LifeAfterEaster“With hindsight”… it’s easy to believe in the resurrection. We have been raised on centuries of Christian tradition and all “know” that Jesus was raised from the dead. Whilst questioned by our materialistic world, the Easter story is so much part of our Western cultural tradition that there is little that surprises us. But that certainly wasn’t the case for Jesus’ early followers.

Life with Jesus had been unpredictable at the best of times. But after his resurrection, it went haywire. I mean, how on earth do you “get on with normal life” when the one you have followed for a couple of years, the one you had watched as he hung on a cross and died, then appears alive a few days later – not to mention walking through walls and nicking your supper!

Jesus came back to life, but not to the life he had left. It wasn’t “as you were”, back to the good old days of travelling the Judean and Galilean countryside with a happy group of disciples. Yes, he certainly appeared to the apostles “from time to time” in the forty days following his death and “proved to them in many ways that he was actually alive” (Acts 1:3). But he was not about to follow anyone else’s agenda, much to his friends’ frustration, no doubt.

Take John’s account, for example. That first Sunday he appears to the disciples – all except Thomas, that is. The short visit is over all too quickly and then Thomas (not to mention the rest of the disciples) has to wait another week before getting his turn. Imagine that, Jesus is back from the dead pops in for the afternoon, then makes himself scarce for a week. It was worth the wait, particularly for Thomas, but still, I mean – a whole week! Some time later Jesus turns up again when Peter had given up on this particular version of hide-and-seek in Jerusalem and gone back to fishing in Galilee. John records the deep conversation that ensues, and that is that.

Luke adds some detail of what happened between Jesus speaking to the women at the graveside and appearing to the disciples in the upper room. A couple of his followers (and I reckon they were just that, a couple, husband and wife – but that’s for another article) are on their way to Emmaus, a few hours’ walk from Jerusalem, when Jesus joins them in disguise – well, they didn’t recognize him, at least. They have a good long natter on the journey before Jesus accepts their invitation to stay on for supper. After a spot of Bible exposition he breaks bread and suddenly “their eyes were opened” and they recognize him – at which points of course he goes and disappears into thin air… Argh!!! Naturally, they then rush back to Jerusalem to meet with the others and are just recounting their own merry tale when Jesus does his now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t trick in reverse and appears amongst the lot of them. Luke also writes of how Jesus at some later date leads his followers to Bethany, home of Lazarus & Co., only to leave them gawping as he heads for heaven.

After narrating Jesus’ appearance to the women, Matthew bypasses Jerusalem completely and has the disciples head back to Galilee – presumably where Peter was doing his fishing the morning that Jesus cooked them breakfast on the beach. Maybe it was here that Jesus appeared to the five hundred at one time that Paul talks about (1 Corinthians 15:6), who knows.

All in all, there was more than enough for them to know that he was alive – but life could never be the same again. You see, he had trained them and set an example for them; now it was time to leave them to it, not to put himself back at the centre of their lives. So he popped up unexpectedly, talked with them about the Kingdom of God and made his commission to them absolutely clear. He promised them that God’s Spirit would be their new guide – God within them, not God in him. A new era had begun, and they were to lead the way.

We are the heirs of this same promise. No, life with Jesus is not predictable. He doesn’t fit into our neat plans today any more than he would back then. We may prefer a less messy world with a neatly regulated Jesus showing up regular as clockwork at our prearranged festivities. But that’s not the way it’s meant to be. We follow a subversive God who calls us to learn to live according to our values and convictions as we follow the Holy Spirit to the best of our (often meagre!) ability. Welcome to life after Easter :-)

Extraterrestrial communications confirm biblical numerology

1 Apr

nabalFrom ancient Jewish Kabbalah to Michael Drosnin’s “The Bible Code”, Biblical numerology has always had its adepts and detractors, often being the subject of much criticism as well as ridicule. However, today the veracity of biblical numerology has finally been confirmed with a remarkable new discovery. Researchers from the Interdisciplinary Department for Interstellar Observational Theology and Science issued a report this morning that unequivocally confirms the reality both of extraterrestrial intelligence of some sort and the Bible as an out-of-this-world piece of communication.

Researchers started to notice unusual periodic variations in the high frequency radio emissions from pulsar UMBJ-01/04 situated in the remote Nabal galaxy. Realising these could not be explained by any natural causes, further investigation focused on the minute variations in the periodic emission of electromagnetic radiation characteristic of pulsars. Normally “regular as clockwork” and more accurate than atomic clocks in their time-keeping, the emissions from pulsar UMBJ-01/04 varied by fractions of a millisecond in a regular pattern that could be likened to digital Morse code. Months of patient observation have borne fruit as the hidden message has now successfully been decoded.

If the encoding of a message in the disruption of the natural rhythms of a pulsar is remarkable, the content of the message is all the more extraordinary. When decoded, the message points to a sequence of letters within a biblical text. Analysis of the petabytes of data collected so far is expected to reveal other results, but in the first fully decoded message, researchers were directed to what must be the Bible’s most famous verse, John 3:16, in the New International Version.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Fluctuations in the x-ray emissions then indicate which letters are to be read (in order, including spaces) from this text to reveal a message. Undoubtedly the work of some extraterrestrial intelligence – and we will leave it up to readers to decide whether we are looking at the work of a deity or an advanced extraplanetary civilization – we invite the readers to repeat the researchers’ work and decipher the first message for themselves. Count the letters from the beginning of the text given above, F being letter number 1, moving backwards and forwards according to the values transmitted by the pulsar variations. So the first letter in the sequence given would be A.

+64 +37 +2 -25 +17 -5 +37 -58 +29 +25

Remarkable! Enjoy your day :)

And the Oscar goes to…

9 Mar Julianne_Moore_Oscar

Julianne_Moore_OscarIt was red carpet time in Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre at the recent Oscar ceremony with Hollywood’s stars vying with one another for the most striking outfits – as usual. Birdman emerged as the overall winner – no surprise there. And no surprise either for the best actress award – Julianne Moore for her role in “Still Alice”.

Moore plays Alice Howland, a linguistics professor who realises something is wrong when she starts to forget words and is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The film accompanies Alice and her family as they struggle to adapt to this changing reality and the transformation in their relationships caused by the illness and the corresponding need for care-giving.

It’s a film that should resonate in many, many peoples’ lives. Like it or not, as the post-war “baby-boomers” generation ages and medical science hugely extends our life expectancy, caring for ageing relatives, including those in various stages of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, will become more and more part of “normal” family life. The role of both family care-givers and professionals are crucial to sufferers’ later years.

The pain of Alzheimer’s, of course, is found in losing a loved one before they actually pass away. As memory fades and with it recognition even of close family, it is all too easy easy to lose sight of the person that was and hard to maintain the same level of love and care. Even without Alzheimer’s, though, there’s so much we all forget. How many times have you met a person and thought “I’m sure I recognize them but can’t think where from…”?

But God never forgets. In a striking passage written by one of Israel’s prophets, God reminds us:

“Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? Never! But even if that were possible, I would not forget you!”

That means you. Yes you. Whatever your situation, however dark the world may seem and however much you may feel that no one understands or cares, God has not forgotten you, and never will. Ever.

“Not in the Bible”

27 Feb

BishopLibbyLaneFinally – the Anglican church has its first woman bishop. After decades of sometimes acrimonious debate, the General Synod adopted legislation permitting women to take on this role, opening the door for Rev. Libby Lane’s consecration as bishop of Stockport in a historic ceremony in York Minster on 26 January.

But the event was not without incident. As the archbishop of York, John Sentamu, asked the congregation whether they would accept Rev. Lane as bishop, a conservative priest, Rev. Paul Williamson (most famous for his attempt to bring a lawsuit preventing Prince Charles’ marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles) interrupted with the words “Not in the Bible”.

Indeed. There are lots of things that are “not in the Bible”. Electric pianos, youth groups and church magazines for a start. But arguments from silence are always to be handled very carefully. The New Testament does not record that Jesus ever clapped in worship, but does that mean that we shouldn’t? Examples could be multiplied but I’m sure you get the idea.

For some, the whole idea of women bishops is totally anathema, while others wonder quite what all the fuss is about. Still others accept the idea but aren’t really sure why and have this nagging feeling that Saint Paul in particular probably wouldn’t approve.

So… Without going over the reams of arguments for and against, what are we supposed to make of woman bishops?

The term “bishop” is the English version of the Greek word episkopos, which itself is not a religious word but simply means overseer or foreman. Early church leaders were not venerated dignitaries or an elite group in charge of a national movement – they were servants of God’s people. Overseer (bishop), pastor (shepherd) and elder (presbyter) were interchangeable labels given to those who served in leadership in the infant churches; it was only with the growth of the church and the death of the first apostles that bishops took on a wider role as overseers of other leaders and numbers of churches.

In this way, even if women bishops are “not in the Bible”, the current role of bishop in the Anglican communion – a far cry from that portrayed in Scripture – is also not there. Like it or not, today’s church is the product of historical development beyond that recorded in the New Testament when the infant church was just taking shape.

With that clear (!), we then have the next question: does the Bible close the door to women as bishops in the sense of church leaders? After all, Paul does say to Timothy that anyone seeking to be an overseer must be “the husband of only one wife”, literally in the original a “one-woman man” (1 Timothy 3:2).

Whilst clearly referring to married men, few insist that it excludes single men from the office of church leader – although this is the necessary conclusion with a strict or “literal” interpretation. (The Anglican communion itself rejects this, admitting single men to the contemporary office of bishop.) An open interpretation looks rather at the principle behind this statement: that sexual purity is essential for a church leader. Once we accept a wider application than solely married men, where to draw the “non-literal” interpretative line becomes a matter of conviction, usually motivated by previously held opinions, rather than exegesis of the passage as such. If we open the role to non “one-woman men”, there is no intrinsic reason to limit the role to men – whether male or female, single or married, an overseer’s “private life” is to be taken into account in evaluating a person’s suitability for leadership. This fits the context of Paul’s requirements for elders in which moral character is fundamental, much more than any theological qualification.

And finally, whilst uncommon in the male-dominated world that Scripture portrays, the Bible does give us examples of women in leadership roles whose inclusion indicates that it would be wrong to simply prohibit women from leadership. The Old Testament gives us Huldah and Debora, for example, whilst in the New, in addition to Priscilla who teaches accompanied by her husband, Junia appears to be called an apostle and Phoebe simply a “leader” (Romans 16).

Interestingly, Phoebe is also said to be a “deacon” (perhaps better translated “minister”) using the masculine term, not the anticipated feminine “deaconess”. Two immediate applications can be drawn from this. Firstly, that other apparently “male” roles or offices should be open to women – a masculine label can apparently equally be applied to a woman. And secondly, we need to return to Paul’s discussion of leadership requirements in 1 Timothy 3. Like overseers, deacons are there also required to be “one-woman men”. But if the Scriptures themselves give us an example of a woman deacon, it is evidently wrong to limit the application to married men; by the same token, if “one woman-men” deacons can in fact be women, there is no reason to reject women as overseers, that is, bishops.

Yes, we are sexed beings. Gender is part of our earthly identity and we will always be either men or women. But in Christ it is irrelevant whether we are Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. And in his body, the church, it is to be no different. We are called to be a charismatic community, where role is determined by gift, not gender.

Bishop Libby Lane, welcome :-)

(PS I realise that this short discussion cannot cover all aspects of the issue – it is not intended to do so. Whilst personally, I unreservedly accept women in any and every role or position in church, I accept that not everyone holds that view. I am encouraged by the Anglican communion’s ability to pursue unity in worship and witness, despite the evident theological disagreements, and trust that in other branches of the church we can do the same.)

Image credit: http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/

Je Suis Charlie

13 Feb

charlie-hebdo-coverNo, I am not Charlie. Personally, I find the kind of humour that characterized Charlie Hebdo distasteful, albeit certainly quite amusing at times, and often offensive. No one is spared, whether politicians, religion or “the famous”, all can find themselves objects of ridicule.

So Charlie Hebdo is not a paper I would generally buy. But I do respect the right the publishers have to produce this material and others to buy it. Their cartoons lampoon Jesus Christ and the Christian faith as much as (if not more than) Islam but under no circumstances am I justified to react violently. The Kouachi brothers’ action to “avenge the prophet” is simply not an option.

The West’s reaction to the jihadist attack on the Paris HQ of the French satirical publication has been unanimous – Je Suis Charlie, this could be me; we are all potential victims of extremist Islamist violence. As much as an attack on the cartoonists and editors themselves, this is an attack on some of the values that we hold so dear, in particular tolerance and the freedom of choice. And our response must also be rooted in these same values.

But freedom, tolerance, truth, justice, respect and particularly forgiveness do not come naturally; they are the fruit of Jesus Christ’s radical teaching, built into our collective psyche from centuries of Christian influence.

In this respect the cover of the last edition of Charlie Hebdo is so apt. Picturing Muhammad (unidentified, but drawn in the way that they have always depicted the prophet) crying and holding his own “Je Suis Charlie” placard, the defiant declaration reads: “Tout est pardonné”, everything is forgiven.

Indeed. In Jesus Christ, everything can be forgiven. Everything, from childish spite to the most horrendous atrocities committed in bitter anger and hatred – everything can be forgiven. Wonderfully, whatever we have done that we regret, we can be forgiven by God. And equally wonderfully, our own hearts can be changed by God so that we are able to forgive those that cause us pain. Forgiven and able to forgive – maybe I am Charlie after all.


 

PS Yes, after 20 months of silence, this is me blogging again. Well, recycling something I wrote for somewhere else. My apologies for the silence – with other events of the last couple of years, I have simply not been able to maintain the creative energy to write regularly. And once a month goes by… it is easy just to drop it totally. This is my attempt to start the ball rolling again, albeit as I say by recycling writing I have on file from other projects.

“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.)

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