Sunday, September 30, 2007

The rich man and Lazarus

Amos 6.1 and 4-7
Psalm 146
1Tim 6. 6-19
Luke 16.19-31

No missing the point in the readings this week, then: What will it take for us to get the message that the choices we make and the lifestyle we adopt will have far-reaching consequences? That’s always a timely and generally challenging issue for Christians in the West, isn’t it?

In our religious scriptures, from Abraham via the life of Jesus to the earliest Christian communities, we confront over and over again the requirements of our discipleship and the role of money in our lives. “Alas for those who are at ease…who lie on beds of ivory and lounge on their couches…who drink wine from bowls” says Amos. I don’t know about the ivory beds, but I’ve a mental image of me lounging on couches and drinking wine on a number of occasions. I’m quite good at that. I could even lead the British olympic wine drinking team - if I could stay standing long enough!

Maybe too much about me there.

Today’s psalm (146) advises us to place our trust in God, who alone "gives justice to those who are oppressed…food to those who hunger…sets captives sight to the blind...protects strangers...sustains the orphan and the widow".

So, what’s the bottom line here?

That only in God can we ultimately trust and the other stuff that gets in the way, that maybe gives us status and a sense of well-being are dangerous things to put our confidence in. They give us a false sense of security.

On to the Epistle: As Timothy and Paul discovered in their experience with the early Christian church, clinging to God in the face of life's realities is no easy task. Paul warns Timothy against the dangers of wealth, for "Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires which plunge them into ruin and destruction" (v9).
Note: its not the fact of being rich, but the desire to be rich when we aren’t already and I include the desire to be richer in that too, not just rich.

Ever dreamed of winning the lottery?

Oh dear!

Me too.

Paul assures Timothy, though, that "godliness with contentment is a great gain" (v6). "Contentment," might be better understood as a detachment from worldly goods.
There’s a challenge then. I don’t know about you but when it comes to worldly goods, I’m a hoarder. Hannah is always saying to me: “new shirt/pair of jeans/shoes in: old shirt/pair of jeans/shoes into the charity bag.”

As if!

I just have a very full wardrobe.

I don’t know how it is with you. It’s possibly not clothes. Maybe it’s C.D’s? Flat screen T.V? The car?

A detachment from worldly goods eh?

A scary challenge.

Finally, we have Jesus' parable of Lazarus and the rich man where Luke also highlights the dangers of wealth, a theme which he comes back to both in his Gospel and in Acts. For Luke, possessions are a sign of power. Wealth is a great danger to those who possess it in these books, for they have a tendency to rely on money rather than God.

This parable is one of the most striking indictments of the corrupting influence of wealth and its consequences in the gospels. It has its origins in a traditional Egyptian story that made its way into Jewish folklore: in this legend, a husband repents after his wife sends him a warning from the underworld.

Not so in Jesus’ reworking of the tale.

The rich man in this story lives a life of comfort, while Lazarus suffers right outside the gates of his house. (Symbolically, the name Lazarus means “God is my help”). The rich man's preoccupation with wealth prevents him from acknowledging Lazarus or reaching out to ease his suffering during his lifetime.

Now I need to make this parable real for me otherwise it will remain as a story without the power to touch me. I need to find an application to my daily life: I don’t have a starving beggar living on my doorstep but I do find beggars in general, winos and junkies, often all rolled into the same person, a problem.

How about you? Who is it that you don’t see? Who is your Lazarus? Is it about race, sexuality, gender, age, disability, social class, weight, political affiliation? What?
In the strange synchronicity of these things we started to look at mission and Praxis at college this week. This parable is about praxis - the way we reach out to others in the name of God and that doesn't have to be evangelism (which is a good thing because I am pretty bad at evangelism, but I can make a good stab at standing in solidarity with people). The uncomfortable warning here is that in ignoring Lazarus, the rich man creates an unbridgeable chasm after his death.

Both men die: Lazarus likely of starvation and the rich man? Well, it’s tempting to imagine his cause of death as an over-indulgence linked heart attack or stroke. Lazarus goes to heaven; and the rich man to Hell and in the afterlife their roles are reversed, with Lazarus resting in the "bosom of Abraham" and the rich man suffering the torments of Hell.

"Send Lazarus," he cries out, "to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames" (v24).

No. Lazarus has found rest.

And there is of course this insurmountable problem of a chasm between the two men that cannot be crossed.

Then, in an apparently uncharacteristic burst of altruism, the rich man worries about his five brothers and asks that Lazarus be allowed to go and warn them about what has happened to him.

No, again. If they aren't willing to listen to the prophets' calls for justice, scaring the hell out of them (or into them, as the case may be) won't do any good.

As Lazarus was stuck with his lot in life, so the rich man is stuck with his lot in death. His sin? He refused to cross the chasm between him and Lazarus in their first life. His inability to walk outside his gate, to share his abundance, doomed him forever. He kept himself apart, and such is his sentence for eternity.

Now, there is an irony in this story isn’t there? Jesus would rise from the dead and in doing so would bridge the chasm between God and humankind that is caused by our selfishness and greed. What the rich man had begged for would come to pass. And there is an application for our own time and our own lives – well, two actually:
Firstly, if we want to follow Christ, we must struggle seriously with issues of wealth – or perhaps it’s fairer to say relative wealth - in our own lives.

Secondly, we need to examine our relationship with those marginalised groups around us. Let’s be clear: In not doing so, either by choice or omission, we don’t create an unbridgeable chasm after our death like the rich man in the parable: Jesus has dealt with that. But we, who are disciples of that same Jesus, can reveal him in our lives by crossing the many chasms that divide today’s society - between rich and poor, sick and healthy, powerful and powerless, straight and gay, black, white and Asian, you name it - to help bring to the world the fullness of life in Christ. Yes, and for me that includes the beggar, the wino and the junkie. I have to take it on board too.
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, then, who did you instinctively identify with as you heard it? Jesus’ disciples probably identified with Lazarus, because most of them were poor, too. When we read the story today, we should probably identify with the rich man and that should make us all feel pretty uncomfortable.

We are all the rich man to some extent, content with our life style, indulgent, wanting to move up: the better job which really means more money; the nicer house and so on. Many Christians today buy into the culture of consumerism with gusto, so that it is difficult to tell us from our non-Christian neighbours.

But we are all Lazarus too: beggars, poor and dependent on God. As we confess every week we cannot by our own reason and strength please God by ourselves or come to him worthy in our own right.

So, to wrap it up: God calls us to be different from the crowd around us, and God specifically calls us to care for the poor.

Let’s be clear about the motive here. This isn’t about currying favour with God. It can’t be, we know we can’t earn God’s approval. This issue of “good works” is about discipleship and obedience: we do it because that is what God wants us to do. And when we do it, we demonstrate that we have been truly transformed by our contact with Christ. Our dependence on God for life, for making some kind of sense out of our chaotic world, for the blessed assurance that our follies, mistakes, errors and self-indulgences will not keep us from crossing the chasm - and all this through Jesus Christ - should have a humbling effect on us, and move us to a lifestyle that sees all people as children of Abraham.

Or alternatively, visit Reverend Boy on my blogroll for a better version.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The new Catholic committment to the environment

I hear on The Sunday Programme that the Roman Catholic Church has a new committment to the environment and that the Pope, coming from a Germany whose Christians have long had a green conscience, is intending to make this issue key to his papacy. We may expect, it is hinted, encyclicals which will reflect the authority of the church on this essential matter.

One of the presenters expressed her fervent wish that the Pope would be seen celebrating mass on a retreating glacier, in a rainforest devestated by slash and burn and in a boat surrounded by a coaral reef.

Fantastic ideas all and to be welcomed, better late than never as this conversion to the green agenda is.

There is just one minor niggle: as overpopulation is a significant contributor to environmental degradation, are we to expect a new commitment to contraception as a key tool in protecting the environment?

Don't hold your breath.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Reflections on the first night of theological training

Brother John, my Anglican personal tutor, is a delight and I am so looking forward to spending time with him.

In our lectures we began with Praxis, which I now understand to mean the ongoing ways we reach out to people. This of course is linked to mission which itself comes from the Latin "missio" - to send - and is the same term used of the Father sending the Son and the Spirit. We need to understand mission, then, as being rooted in the theology of the Trinity and being about the overflowing of God's nature and activity into the world.

This is encouraging because it doesn't stand or fall on what we do and Barth sees the whole process as beyond our comprehension. The church plays its part in mission, of course, but it is in God's hands. This discredits the standard one size fits all approach to mission - find the right formula and all will be well. Now we recognise that we do not necessarily initiate, but instead participate, looking for where God is already working and joining in.

O.K. that's the theory out of the way. Our lecturer uses the example of Rosa Parks and the bus boycot as an example of missionary engagement. Mission is about the coming of the Kingdom of God with its healing, justice and peace and I see this very much in stark relief in the context of our times with the issue of human sexuality so current in both Anglican and Lutheran churches just now.

Many will have noticed the contradiction between the restrictive portions of the recent House of Bishops’ statement and the closing point: “We proclaim the Gospel that in Christ all God’s children, including gay and lesbian persons, are full and equal participants in the life of Christ’s Church.” This is deeply inconsistent because lesbian and gay Christians are not full and equal participants in the life of Christ's church.

It is of fundamental importance that, as we continue to seek consensus in matters of human sexuality, we also be clear and outspoken in our shared commitment to establish and protect the civil rights of gay and lesbian persons, and to name and oppose at every turn any action or policy that marginalises them, excludes them, does violence to them, encourages violence toward them, or violates their dignity as children of God. Let's be clear: this is another Rosa Parks situation and it is about mission and praxis in that broad sense of how we reach out to people in the name of God.

It is my fear that as with slavery, apartheid in the 19th and 20th centuries, keeping women from being educated, voting and being ordained in the 20th and 21st century, the church will find itself on the wrong side of history, morality and truth unless we get this right.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Packing for college

Well, I have my notebook, pen, new (and as yet unread) book on Praxis - must look that up in the dictionary before tomorrow evening. I also have my red carnation for Br. John, my personal tutor, to be able to pick me out in a crowd as we have yet to meet. (I have an Anglican monk as a tutor. I think that is just so cool!) I will probably also need my illegal supply of adrenalin as I will be attending college at the end of a full day of "teaching" other people's spotty, hormonal and defiant children ...well, and some nice ones too, if I have to be totally honest. (It will come as no surprise that I have resisted the Bishop's attempt to get me on board with children's work.)

So down to work: I am an ordinand, a Candidate Pastor, a Lay Minister and a theological student.


And I am so excited at what God is doing in my life.

Don't screw up!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Buddhist protesters show Christians the way.

Notwithstanding the proud tradition of non-violent civil disobedience practiced by Christians down the ages we are being shown the way just now by an incredibly brave show of non-violent civil disobedience on the part of Buddhist monks in Burma.

For several days now Buddhist monks and nuns, increasingly joined by ordinary members of the public, have protested against the oppressive military regime in Burma. It is a brave act because in the past such protests have been met with a ruthless response from the military who have opened fire on the unarmed protesters. This is a significant development: the clergy are deeply revered in Burma and after the military are the most organised group in the country. They exist on the alms given to them by the people and, in addition to marching, they have refused to accept the alms they traditionally take from the military and the regime. In so refusing they are effectively excommunicating those who they call "pitiless soldiers". This is an act of the most compelling moral circumstance. They may yet reap the whirlwind but they do so in response to a moral imperative, that still small voice of calm.

Let us pray that we soft western Christians have not lost that same moral imperative and that if push ever comes to shove we, too, will stand up to be counted in our hundreds of thousands.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Shoes (pt I)

The first issue I have with shoes is women out of them. I understand the sad pressure applied to ladies of all kinds to appear thin, sexy and fashionable at all times but, for f**k's sake, why try and wear shoes for a night out that you can't.

Nightclubs tend not to have too many seats, preferring customers to stand at bars or use the dance floors to exercise and build up a thirst. Ladies are well aware that a long night out includes standing in bars and walking between them, then moving to a nightclub where standing in the outside queue, standing at bars and basically standing on dance floors are all included. If you like pretty shoes, don't buy ones that will hurt your feet, or don't bring only them for a full night out.

If you're in a nightclub where there may be broken glass about at some stage, don't take your shoes off. If you have to move in a hurry,
for instance for a fire-alarm, there won't be time to put your strappy, glittery, small buckled stilettos back on, and you won't want to walk barefoot over the broken glasses of those ahead of you. That'll be why we ask you to put your shoes back on. It's also why we'll ask you to leave if you don't get the message. If you want to walk the cold streets barefoot feel free, just not our sparkling floored nightclub.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Prayer Request

It is my first theological college residential weekend. I would value prayers.
No more posts until Monday.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Caption competition

Nothing rude now!

Prize: A night out with Mad-Priest in the fleshpots of Newcastle. (Followed my Matins)

See Link on blogroll: "Of course I could be wrong...."

What hope for Anglicanism? Well, perhaps.....

From my Lutheran perspective, only when the intense heat of the current arguments that now bedevil the Anglican Church begins to cool can Anglicanism recover its poise, and its members start talking and listening to one another rather than shouting.

The key to Christian unity may lie here, and I suspect other Christian churches are watching with interest. If one denomination can learn to live in humility and grace with its profound differences then there may be hope for a deeper cross-party denominational rapport to develop. Ultimately, unity cannot be imposed: it has to be discovered and cultivated organically.

If the Anglican household of faith can discover a way of keeping itself together with its diversity, it will have made an important contribution to that elusive search for true unity - one that respects the dignity of difference. And in the midst of that, what may also be discovered is that difference is not a sign of weakness, but rather of strength. The diversity within Anglicanism has always been one of its most glorious treasures. It has created the possibility of staying within a faith yet changing, and of moving to and from traditions, yet without abandoning the denomination. Anglicans, like the rest of Christendom, need pray only one prayer this week: "May we all be one - but thank God we are all different."

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Two things...

that modern life has stolen from us.

If you can, cast your mind back to the days before usable, bright flash, low light capable, high resolution cameras were in everybodies mobile phones. Actually before mobile phones and digital cameras really. There were two great topics of debate when you actually encountered non-virtual friends after an evening of drinking.

The first of these classics was the beer goggle defense. A group of folks enter a nightclub after a session over-consuming premium continental lager. Despite most of the group being judgement impaired to a level where operating anything above the difficulty of a door-handle proves impossible, they suddenly encounter the opposite sex. Here one of the group, and one of a similar group, lets call them Brad and Jen, spy each other across a smoke filled bar and their loins act like two opposite charges. They get together and are passionately entwined for enough time for most of the group to get a good look at the coupling.
The next time the group gather Brad is expecting cheers for his stallion like efforts in getting off with the model-like good looking and raunchy brazen temptress that was Jen. Instead he gets smirks, abuse and general derogation for his poor taste, low standards and lack of shame for publically doing what he did with a beast of such horrifying vileness, the ugly-forest squatters-community spat her out for littering. This debate can rage on for hours and not truly be settled til multiple sober sightings are had of the disputed Jen without mitigating circumstances.

The second issue is the phantom event. In this scenario a member of the group of impaired judgement mentioned earlier, lets call them Ange, commits a controversial act. They pull a beautiful women or man. They pole dance around the fat balding DJ for a bottle of free house bubbly. They manage to steal the hen party's silver wigs and wear them as excess pubic hair and still get into the VIP area. These are the type of drunken anecdotes which would hold a party goer in good stead if only they could remember them.
The group will meet again and debate at length who did what when and whether it even happened at least one will always insist the whole group spent the entire night at the bar, chatting to the ever fitter bar staff and another will insist that all the great adventures were done by them first and obviously with more class. This again remains unresolved until they return the next week and find themselves barred or led straight to VIP and can press a sober witness for a true description of events.

Well both these two classic catch up conversations have been wrecked by the possession by just about everyone of a fully functioned cameraphone. The poorly lit smokey dens of the nightclub are now smoke free and penetrated by the power of LED flashes all night long. The true beauty of Brad and Jen and their lewd exploits can be seen in colour screen glory and texted, emailed, posted and put on a t-shirt for all to judge in the clear light of day. The image of Ange and her silver pubes are online in hours and all her friends and relatives from around the world can see her drunken face boxed and quick linked.
The onset of modern technology has stolen this from those just setting out on the drunken misadventure in club-land. I feel the vast and instant spread of personal drunken quests makes the she texted him what conversation more the cyber-pub debate of the future.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Reflections on Ramadan

My Muslim friends are fasting and are taking it very seriously but without fuss or show. The fast lasts during the holy month and is from dawn to dusk. I used to think this was a bit of a cop-out as you could feast after sunset, at the meal called Iftar. Apart from the fact that I would find it hard to go from dawn to dusk without eating or drinking anyway, my friends tell me that to keep within the spirit of Ramadan you should only eat and drink sparingly after dusk - enough to sustain your strength. The whole experience is not without meaning as the aim is to develop a sense of God-awareness, also known as Taqwa. This heightened awareness comes both through fasting and concentrated readings of the Quran.

The nearest thing we Christians have to Ramadan is Lent. Now I don't know about you, but my sense of Lent is that it generally pales into insignificance against Ramadan. Certianly here in the U.K. it has been reduced to the level of giving up chocolate, alcohol or crisps - and this to reproduce in the Christian an experience similar to that of Christ in the wilderness. We too aim for Taqwa, the heightened awareness of God.

I know which of the two is most likely to experience it.

I am grateful to my Muslim friends for putting me to shame. My prayer is that, come Lent, I shall strive more to get the balance of body and soul right. What an irony for me to be shown the way to correcting the imperfections of my own faith through the holiness of another faith community. Isn't it humbling that God is showing me how to be a better Christian through my Muslim friends?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Back to the Grindstone

Due to the ever shifting sands of who has which door contract and where I'm back in the city and working the one venue now 6 -7 days a week. This has some curious differences to my partly itinerant previous work.

The first of which is that I now begin to learn the bar-staff and admin staff's names, their children's names, their partners names, their ex's names and all of their bastard sodding gripes about work, home and screwed by shift work love-lives. I get to truly see who the regulars are. The ones who take as many nights off from the city's top nightclub as I do. That dedication to poverty and alcoholism is something to be praised. No, sorry there, it's something to be pissed on from a great height.

I don't get to see so many venues and different styles of night and only work with a rolling list of 4 or so management but fear not, the clu
b is big and busy, with the imminent return of the students, the gits are back this week for a fortnight of drunken misadventure, I can assure you there are many tales to tell.


Sorry for the ridiculously extended absence. I've been sunning myself in one of Her Majesties colonies for a while and after 6-months was returned to blighty. It's taken some-time to get back online but all is good again. Posting will resume shortly.
Oh there are some tales to tell.

Prayer Request

Tomorrow I start at Theological College. It will be a two year part-time course. I will remain in full time employment, maintain a family life and, hopefully, a significant hobby.

I would appreciate the prayer support of any friend who can take the time to fire off a quick arrow-prayer and if anyone can continue to uphold me in prayer in the longer term, I would be immensely grateful.

How do we know the Divine Will?

How do we know the divine will? Many times it has been invoked in order to justify war. The first crusaders, who attacked Jerusalem a thousand years ago, were promised salvation by Pope Urban II; the defending Muslims also strongly believed the Lord was with them. During the Gulf wars, both Presidents Bush and Saddam Hussein declared that God was with them. The Muslims who die in what they see as their jihad believe they will go to paradise and enjoy everlasting pleasures.

Quite a conundrum for God, it seems. How can he support everyone? So what is his definition of good and bad? It might be handy to know before we embark on any fierce campaigns.

A good place to start looking is scripture, though that, of course, is often the root of disagreement. Opposing parties usually have their different scriptures to quote in order to establish that followers of any other scripture are godless barbarians. My Muslim colleagues are tired of being told how wrong they are in contemporary Britain and demonized. So, whose book is right? Who is actually on God's side, doing his will? Perhaps Christ's instruction to judge a tree by its fruits is helpful.

If I am actually trying to please a person I love, then how can I hate others trying to please the same person, even if they are doing it in a different way? Hating others in the name of God because they are different - Muslim, gay or whatever - defeats the purpose of pleasing God. Rather than pleasure, it would be more likely to give the Lord pain, just as a father is pained when he sees his sons fight. And if I hold such hatred, I myself am not actually coming close to God.

Friday, September 14, 2007

I am a social pariah

If you are in a company of people of mixed occupations, at a party for instance, and somebody asks what you do, and you say you are a school teacher, a glazed look comes into their eye. If you are in a company of teachers from various subject areas, and somebody asks you what your subject is, and you say Religious Studies, a more glazed look comes into their eye. If you are on a training course with other Religious Studies Teachers, and somebody asks you about you job, and you say “Actually, I am training for ordination” you have effectively killed the conversation.
I am a social pariah.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Kids - who'd have 'em?

In my current frame of mind ALL teenagers are vile, hormonal, defiant and foul-mouthed. The logic behind this is that the teenagers I taught this morning were all those things and therefore all teenagers are.
Firstly you have to understand the language and recognise that all terms are used with a truculent voice tone.
"It's sham, that is!" means: "I'm really sorry, sir, but I don't think that's fair."
"That's gay, that is!" means: "I'm sorry sir, I don't like it."
"I wouldn't dare!" means: "I'm terribly sorry sir, I'd rather not."
Me: "O.K. folks, we need to go to assembly now."
Them: "Thats, sham, that is I wouldn't dare. Assemby is so gay!"
Then in to lessons:

One "young lady" told me very clearly and loudly - and once again just to be sure - exactly what I could do with myself in good anglo-saxon terms. (Good luck at church camp, by the way girl.) She is currently recovering in accident and emergency!

Every child on that register - all 28 of them, aged 14 - has a statement of special educational needs and most have that need identified as "behavioural issues". Well that's fine and dandy then! It's kindergarten with added acne. An hour with the class from hell who have the collective concentration span of a gnat, (What's a gnat, sir?) and all the charm of salmonella. Still they remained in their seats, no one hit anyone - today - and most managed to write a good six lines of misspelt musings on why some people do and others don't believe in God.

"How do you spell paedophile, sir?"


"You know, paedophile vicars and that."

These are the least well informed children in the history of the universe and yet thay have managed to pick up on paedophile priests.

"Sir, what's a vicar?"

"Is the Pope a Christian, sir?"

"I'm a Christian, sir. I was baptised."

Me: "Do you believe in God, then?"

"Don't be stupid."

Then this afternoon - an oasis of calm and civility. Eight 17 year olds: bright, personable, witty and high achievers taking their first year of Advanced Level Religious Studies. We looked at the Philosophy of Religion starting with religion and science. How nice to be able to talk sensibly with keen minds about oscillating universes, quantum mechanics and Aquinas and the First Cause. Aren't ALL teenagers wonderful?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A celtic-style prayer of morning commitment

Draw close to me as I look in the mirror, lord: help me to reflect you.

Draw close to me as I clean my teeth, Lord: give me honest speech.

Draw close to me as I have my shower, Lord: cleanse and forgive me from my sin.

Draw close to me as I shave, Lord: help me to cut away those things in my life which get in the way of you.

Draw close to me as I dress, Lord: help me to be aware of my vulnerability.

Draw close to me as I put on my shoes, Lord: guide and direct me.

Draw close to me in my dealings with those I come into contact with today. May I see you in them and may they see you in me.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Let's hear it for Bishop Spong!

I have received a couple of posts from people I respect questioning my theology on human sexuality. What I like about this is the courteous nature which is so lacking in the vitriolic hatred that characterises the same discussion in the Anglican/Episcopalian church. I am happy to have discussions on this level. So in the same spirit of respectful friendship I quote Bishop John Shelby Spong from his open letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Not my denomination I know but helpful even so.

“You continue to act as if quoting the Bible to undergird a dying prejudice is a legitimate tactic. It is in fact the last resort that religious people always use to validate "tradition" over change. The Bible was quoted to support the Divine Right of Kings in 1215, to oppose Galileo in the 17th century, to oppose Darwin in the 19th century, to support slavery and apartheid in the 19th and 20th centuries, to keep women from being educated, voting and being ordained in the 20th and 21st century. Today it is quoted to continue the oppression and rejection of homosexual people. The Bible has lost each of those battles. It will lose the present battle and {those who support it in this battle} will end up on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of morality and the wrong side of truth.”

I have to say, I think this is where I stand too, but keep talking to me folks, there is more that unites us than divides us and actually, I'd quite like to blog on those topics too. I am not a one issue Christian!

Friday, September 7, 2007

Revd. Jim and the St. Atrophy gays.

Sept 2007: Back at school after the summer break and I have "Simpsonised" my image. I stick the picture on the front of my mark book. Every pupil I teach wants the website details.
A new friend from St. Atrophy’s tells me that there are a number of gay men attending evening services there. I mull this over. What on earth would a non-masochistic gay man want with St. Atrophy’s unless they are self-loathers? Why don’t they go to St. Angst’s with its long and honourable history as an inclusive and gay-friendly Christian community? Staying at St. Atrophy’s is going to cause them pain in the long-term because the conservative-evangelical theology of condemnation will catch up with them and it is my hunch that they will already have been damaged by the institutional church. How much hurt and rejection can people take before they feel that the church is not their home and reject both it and Christ?

Jim tells me he intends to preach on the prohibitions from Leviticus in the near future. I tell him to have a look at Father Jake’s blogspot before he puts pen to paper. So for what its worth-my view on the theology of human sexuality:
Jesus himself criticized those who tried to make sexual relationships determinative for salvation, and seems to have viewed them as belonging purely to the provisionality of human life (Matthew 22: 23-33). Christian thinking has to begin with creation, rather than salvation. And one of the most fundamental statements about our experience of creation is its fallen-ness. All of us have fallen short of the glory of God. There are no special categories. It's not a matter of whether I am gay or straight. My sexuality is just as fallen as yours. The first problem with the way some evangelicals are framing the gay debate is that they appear to suggest that a gay sexuality is more 'fallen' than a straight one. The issue then becomes a question of how those of us who accept the Christian understanding of creation as fallen model a Christ-like life. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer is quite specific: if we are to contain our 'carnal lusts and appetites' then marriage is there 'as a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication.Given that all such relationships are provisional, if this is true for heterosexual relationships then there is a strong scriptural argument for recognizing that those gay Christians who manage to establish permanent, faithful and stable relationships are also modelling a Christian response to the fallen-ness of human sexuality.We need to move beyond the sterile argument of sin and repentance. Something can only be sinful if it is deliberately chosen in the knowledge that it is against God's will. But you can't choose your sexuality. What Christian in their right mind would chose a sexuality that denied them salvation and would cause them pain and rejection in this life?
Few Christians today continue with the mistaken belief that sexual orientation is a deliberate choice. And those who claim that orientation is acceptable whilst practice is not are increasingly seeing the error of their argument. Psychologically, a person is not only what they do, but also what they are. Theologically, Jesus confirms this view by condemning those who avoid the physical practice of adultery, but then commit the sin of adultery in their heart. On such terms, a gay Christian would not only need to avoid physical sex, but would have to avoid even thinking about it. Celibacy is not enough: on these terms all gays would need a lobotomy! Clearly, the argument falls.Theological methodology that remains an abstract fails the test of compassion unless it is earthed in an anthropology that recognizes physical sexual expression as hugely important for the psychological well being of our Christian brothers and sisters. Chastity is honourable if chosen, but a monster if imposed. And the imposition of a conceptual chastity, where gay people are taught that they cannot rejoice in the freedom of Christ as long as they feel homosexual attraction is an extension of that monstrosity. It cripples their sense of self-worth, and damages our witness to the inclusiveness of the gospel. It is the very opposite of the freedom of Christ.

I then learn that the gay men go to St. Atrophy’s because of Jim – and it’s not just for the quality of his teaching. Oh dear: my lovely, straight, conservative-evangelical clergyman friend, who is about to preach on the prohibitions of Liviticus, is a gay icon. I like that in a priest. This is priceless!

It is also a great responsibility and an opportunity if he handles it right. Talk to gays properly, Jim; find mature and politicised Christian gays and listen to them; log on to Father Jake; think outside the evangelical box because there are alternative theologies which are Biblical, and then preach on Leviticus and its sexual prohibitions to a congregation which includes gay men if you still truly believe that is where the Spirit is leading you.

I am falling in to a pattern at St. Small’s. Today I turn up in clerical shirt, feeling somewhat self-conscious but without a role in the service – or so I think.

“I want you to conduct the service this morning” says Carol, giving me a service sheet. “I’ll just preach.” I robe and realise that I do this now without the degree of awkwardness that I felt the first few times.

The service is fine and I am perfectly competent and at ease and all progresses well. In the notices I announce that I shall be missing from St. Small’s for three consecutive weeks what with next week at St. Atrophy’s and then two consecutive weekends taken up with starting on the course. I realise how much I shall miss this congregation, particularly with the expressions of support and encouragement about starting at Theological College.

At St. Atrophy’s I am encouraged by the Rector to go in to the church to collect Katherine, rather than lurk outside feeling self-conscious, and no-one makes any negative comments about my being dressed in clerical shirt. Another barrier crossed.

I have been thinking a lot about where I stand in relation to the authority of scripture, particularly in the context of Jim’s forthcoming sermon on the prohibitions of Leviticus.

I think I am probably a heretic again.

We cannot simply lay the Old and New Testament worlds across our contemporary world, as a kind of divine blueprint, and attempt to make our world conform in every detail to the ancient near East of biblical times. We cannot ignore differences of time, culture, language, knowledge and perception. Every age is, by its nature, contingent. The Bible itself provides much evidence of radical changes in belief and ethics in response to changing times and circumstances. This fact alone shows that the text of the Bible is not transhistorical and transcultural. The love and judgement of God alone are changeless. Men and women and the histories they create are certainly not. Our perceptions and expectations of the deepest human relationships have changed very considerably over the centuries as our understanding of what it means to be human has developed. How many conservative evangelicals today model their marriages on Old Testament law or on New Testament precepts which prescribe a subservient role for women? They rightly ignore much else in the legal codes and social conventions found in the Bible. How we see God’s love now, how we experience his grace now, and how the living Christ today confronts us is what matters to the contemporary Church and the world it serves.

When we read in Leviticus or Romans that a specific behaviour is proscribed, we need to decide straight away whether or not the biblical writer’s words are clear or relevant. St. Paul, as a first century Jewish male was steeped in the tradition that encompassed Leviticus and was, therefore, strongly opposed to same-sex relations even though he had reversed his position with respect to the issue of Gentile holiness. If we had Paul here, we might legitimately press him about the logic that crosses one boundary but not another. Since Paul wrote his letters expecting to have to defend his arguments, that approach is neither far-fetched nor unfaithful.

Paul himself invites his readers to “discern for yourselves” (1 Corinthians 11) what is natural or unnatural, the very issue which is at stake in Romans 1. Paul also seems to have thought that long hair for men is “unnatural” while it is “natural” for women. While Paul’s letters had the status of advice from a trusted apostle, the members of his churches who received them probably felt free to argue with him about what was natural and what was unnatural. But now, as a result of the canonization of his letters, they have become Scripture for us and we honour them appropriately. In doing so, however, we are in danger of closing the discussion.

Does this mean we can no longer engage Paul as if he were a living conversation partner? I don’t think so. As Jesus himself argued against the Sadducees in Mark 12, God is the God of the living. Like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Paul is alive in the Lord and very present in the current debates of the Church. It is useful to speculate about where Paul might be on these issues today, given his unusual and brave commitments to Gentiles, women, and slaves in his own day. The logic of Paul’s letters as a whole stands in some tension with the specific words he is credited – very possibly wrongly - as writing in Romans 1. I don’t think it is fair to blame Paul for what his ghost-writers have made him say.

An American friend sends me a piece on Talmudic interpretation which I think is also relevant.

The law that Moses received was not the end of the matter. It must have included within it the means of further deduction and evolution. There is the role of the priest and the judge and the framework of consultation and of majority opinion. All incorporated in the Torah itself. The rabbis accepted that once the original revelation had been given it was up to man to take it further and this was done by rabbinical debate which looked at the spirit of the law as well as at its literal meaning but also weighed scriptural pronouncements against other instances – a little like setting legal precedents in an ever developing legal code as new circumstances demanded solutions.

The classic narrative is that of the debate over Achinai's oven (a relatively minor issue of ritual purity affecting an oven that could be taken apart and reassembled and thus changing its status). "The rabbis declared it impure (contrary to Rabbi Eliezer's view). On that day Rabbi Eliezer replied (to the rabbis) with all the arguments in the world but they still did not accept him (his point of view). He said, 'If the law is like my (position) let this carob tree be uprooted a hundred amot from its place as proof (some say four hundred).' They said, 'We do not accept proof from a carob tree.' He said, 'If the law is like my (position) let the spring of water prove it.' The waters started flowing in the opposite direction. They said, 'We do not accept proof from a spring.' He said, 'If the law is like my position let the walls of the Study Hall prove it.' The walls stated to lean over to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua rebuked them and said, 'Why are you intervening in a dispute between wise men?' The walls did not fall out of respect for Rabbi Yehoshua but did not return to the upright position out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer and they stayed leaning. Rabbi Eliezer said, 'If the law is like my position let the Heavens prove it.' A voice came down and said, 'Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer? The law always goes according to him.' Rabbi Yehoshua stood up and said, 'It is not in heaven (Deuteronomy 30).'" What did he mean, "It is not in heaven"? Rabbi Yirmiya said that the Torah has already been given from Sinai and we do not pay attention to a Heavenly voice because the Torah has already said, "You incline your decision towards the majority (Exodus 23.)." Rabbi Natan met Elijah and said to him, "What did God do at that moment?" He said, "God smiled and said 'My children have defeated me.'" The rabbis show their right to decide law on the basis of a majority decision and, in a sense, Almighty God is not allowed to intervene.”

(Thank you ePiscoSours)

What could be a clearer statement of the fact that the after the initial revelation, it is the oral tradition that carries the power to decide, invested in human beings? Sinai allows the tradition to evolve. This need not affect the integrity of the original revelation. It simply indicates how that revelation was taken further.

I realise that this is where I stand on the authority of Scripture. Tie me to a stake and burn me!

I receive an e-mail in response to my blog from an organisation called Windows Ministry. They chide me for using the words “exciting” and “pilgrimage” as neither, they tell me, are Biblical ideas as such. Am I sure that it is the Lord’s will that I should expect an exciting journey or a pilgrimage? I don’t quite know what to make of this. I think my first response is flippancy: is it the Lord’s will that I should experience insomnia over this journey? (That’s probably not a Biblical concept either). I don’t know but the reality of the situation is that I am.

Should I not expect to be excited? I have struggled with vocation for years and now the church has discerned in me God’s call. I find that exciting.
I receive copies of the references Martin and Jim wrote for me for the LCiGB Examination Committee: as with Jez's reference, I am deeply touched by the comments they have made. For Martin to talk of my "quirky creativity" and the privilege of once accompanying me to school and for Jim to say that he values our frienship for my listening skills and discretion which allow him to be open and honest in enjoyable conversation is wonderfully affirming.

I ponder afresh the deep mystery which is male friendship but I also consider the reality that must exist for many clergy in having no-one to talk to or to trust. It can be a lonely ministry. I am truly blessed!

Back to St. Atrophy's this morning in civvies. Much to my surprise Hannah comes with us rather than to St. Angst's. The Rector interviews me in front of the congregation about starting theological college and why I am going to be ordained into the Lutheran Church. Over tea I am assailed by people asking for more information and wishing me well. I am even promised drop ins to St. Small's which will be fantastic. I'd really like to believe we might poach a few disaffected Anglicans: not too many, though, as St. Small's has a limited capacity. Perhaps just enough to replace the four returning Americans who will be very sadly missed.