Welcome to part time priest. Bits of life come together - priesthood, part time worker, mum, wife, person. Not really part time ontologically, obviously, but I do have other things to do, quite apart from being...and one of them is enjoying sharing ministry experiences and reflections with you.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Luther vs. James

A disgruntled looking Martin Luther. Maybe he was reading the Epistle of James at the time.
James 2: 14-17 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Down the years the Christian faith has tended to battle with the tension between faith and action.
Things came to a head during the Protestant Reformation, when a priest and theologian called Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517.
These were essentially objections to the status quo in the Church and they sparked intense debate around the authority of the Church and how believers received salvation.
The great cry of the Protestant Reformation which flowed out of this was for a rediscovery of the grace of Christ – that we cannot save ourselves, but that salvation is a free gift.
‘Justification’ is a technical word for salvation, and the Reformation tag line was simple and profound: that justification was ‘by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone’.
Martin Luther (above) favoured the book of Romans, where justification is by faith in Christ alone, so you can imagine why the book of James was not one of his favourites.
As we heard last week, he called it the Epistle of Straw because it seemed to contradict the teaching of Paul and suggest that faith alone was not enough, going as far as to say that faith without action is dead (verse 17).
This is biblically where the tension between action and faith is most acute.
As James writes, if you know someone in need and you say a blessing for them whilst ignoring their physical condition, what good is that?
It makes sense – words are not going to help that person in need – only action will.
I think it’s still a topic today: every time you hear someone say, “I don’t believe in God but I try and lead a good life”, you’re hearing an unresolved tension between faith and action, often based on a misunderstanding of what faith actually is.
We tend to privatise the idea of faith, but in the bible, faith is understood as acting on your beliefs, not just talking about them.
The bible talks of ‘works’ and faith, but they don’w have to be in tension if we remember that good works do not have a role in leading to our salvation, but in demonstrating it.
Someone has wisely said that faith is invisible – you cannot see faith.
So no one know whether faith resides in you until you show it by your actions.
To the outside world then, we Christians need to show that we love God by acting on our faith as well as talking about it.
Actions, as we all know, speak louder than words, and that is what people will notice.

Let’s for a moment look at the twin challenges of separating faith and actions, in order that we might be better at keeping them together. These challenges are typified by two types of people: the good unbeliever and the (forgive me) clueless Christian.

1. The ‘good unbeliever’.

We’ve all met this person – the friend or neighbour, or family member, who appears to be a good person but doesn’t (apparently) believe in God.
So they have the actions but apparently not the faith.
Has this ever puzzled you?
Perhaps it makes you think it’s not really worth believing if you can be good without God?
There are a couple of responses: when we say that somebody is good, we often have quite a low benchmark for goodness, compared with, say, the expectation and example of Jesus.
Someone called Jesus ‘Good Teacher’ once and he came back with the comment ‘No one is good except God alone’.
I think this is helpful to near in mind philosophically.
If anyone exhibits goodness, it is either coming from within themselves, or er believe it originated in God, even if that person says they don’t believe in God.
Not believing in someone’s existence does not cause them to cease to exist.
Another point is that it’s not so difficult to love and care for your immediate friends and family - Jesus said ‘even the pagans do that’.
Instead Jesus raised the bar considerably when he encouraged his followers to love their enemies.
Of course we love our friends and family – who wouldn’t - but Jesus calls us to love the stranger, the outcast and the person who persecutes us.
It seems to me that that kind of standard is pretty much impossible without recourse to a higher Being.
In addition, people who say you can be good without God, are often unaware of the illogicality of disconnecting morality from religion.
Someone who doesn’t ‘do God’, yet holds to the fundamental equality of all human beings, believes in compassion and forgiveness and self-sacrificial love is actually holding to fundamentals of Christianity whilst perhaps ignoring the first part of the word – Christ.
In a way this separates good deeds from faith.
The entire Law, says Jesus, is summed up by ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength; and love your neighbour as yourself’, so self, others and God are inextricably linked.
Often when we see someone who appears to be good without believing in God, it is likely that they are simply unaware of God’s activity in their lives.
It may even be that their desire for charitable works is a displacement activity for a former faith in God that has become disconnected.
Have you noticed how popular charity events are amongst some people who don’t go to church?
Posters and fliers constantly remind us of the walk or run, or cycle, or swim, or sail or climb, that’s taking place for a good cause, that people have raised hundreds of pounds for?
People fill their spare time up with charity events and it’s all good stuff.
(And of course many Christians and other religious people are involved with this too).
But in all this action we need to be aware also of our inner lives.
Outer and inner harmony of faith and action is the goal.
We often see the outside of someone’s life, we say they’re good; but God sees the inside too, the life of the imagination, the life of the spirit, what we fantasize about; our fears, our day dreams – all these reveal our nature before God and sometimes we need inner healing and forgiveness, or a complete change of direction.
God is as interested in our faith as he is in our action.

2. The ‘clueless Christian’.

By this I mean someone who’s faith doesn’t actually make any difference to the way they live.
They have faith, but no actions.
This is the person who looks into a mirror and goes away and forgets what they look like (see James Chapter 1).
‘Be doers of the word’, not just hearers, says James.
So, trying to do just that, I wonder what you think of when you hear James’s portrayal of ‘the rich’?
He hasn’t really got a good word for them.
They oppress others, take people to court, are given all the best places in dinner parties and are themselves spiritually poor.
Who are these people?
We tend to use the word ‘rich’ relative to those we live amongst, and we compare ourselves with those who are a little bit better off than we are.
But in global terms, most of us are rich beyond the wildest dreams of thousands of human beings with whom we share the earth.
There’s a website (see link) that can calculate how rich you are globally – you put your annual income in and it’ll tell you what % of the population is richer than you and what % is poorer.

I don’t have an income, but I’m lucky enough to be married to an experienced teacher.
I put an experienced teacher’s salary into the calculator and I came out in the top 1% of the global rich.
I halved it and still came out in the top 2%.
Okay, it doesn’t account for the relative value of outgoings, but it makes you think.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Refugee Crisis in Europe.
If you think about countries and relative wealth, it’s surely no coincidence that thousands of refugees are now making dangerous, often life threatening journeys from the Middle East and Africa, to Europe.
This is a complex issue possibly involving economics as well as war and violence - but surely anyone who takes their family across the Mediterranean in a rickety over crowded boat searching for a new life must believe that the sea is safer than the land they’re leaving behind.
And that is a terrifying thought.
What this unfolding human displacement shows us is that the gap between the haves and the have-nots, globally, is bad for everyone.
Why should it surprise to us that the poor and desperate what to share our lifestyle?
The refugee crisis is a crisis of conscience for us all.
When the poor are 1000s of miles away, in countries I am unlikely to visit, only on my TV screen when there are no other stories to take the limelight, it’s easy to forget I am rich.
When the poor are travelling across Europe, arriving at a station in Hungary where my daughter recently went Inter-railing; when the poor are dying on train tracks the other side of the Channel right where I recently came back from a French holiday, then being one of ‘the rich’ becomes much, much more uncomfortable.

The Archbishop has put it well; you can look up his thoughts on the subject here: http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/5606/archbishop-of-canterbury-on-the-migrant-crisis).

It's a fair balance of belief and action of which I hope even Martin Luther would be proud.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Is religion good?

The other evening I listened to an interview with a well known Christian singer song writer and one of the questions to her was, 'So how can we keep Jesus and religion apart?' It was a depressingly familiar take on the usual dichotomy between religion (bad) and spirituality (good). Surely (I thought to myself, switching channels) we need to have Jesus and religion as connected as we can?

People sometimes say to me 'I'm not very religious', which is code for 'I don't go to church and I think I might feel uncomfortable if you start talking about religious things to me (usually in the context of preparing a funeral). At least you know where you are. Was Jesus religious? Yes. He identified as a Jew, was brought for religious dedication at birth, taught in the synagogue and knew the Jewish Scriptures inside out. He prayed, taught and lived God.

The Letter of James, which was set as a reading this morning in church, doesn't shy away from the word: 'Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world' (James 1:27). It's not a warm fuzzy spirituality developed in your front room with the latest diet/self help book, but sustained practical action for people whom society has forgotten, along with the implication that the pursuit of holiness is not to be neglected either.

Are we religious in Britain? The secularisation thesis posited that as the technologically advanced Western world increasingly turned away from formal affiliation to the Church, religion in Britain would die out. In the 60s, it looked like this might come true, but several things hadn't been factored in. One was the rise in interest through the 60s and 70s in Eastern religions; another, the advent of politicised Islam, and finally the effect of waves of immigration to places like the UK from other parts of the world where religion was still alive and well. All this of course continues today. 

So far from dying out in Britain, religion in daily life is instead complex and multi-faceted. A speaker at New Wine who is a journalist pointed out that in Fleet Street, the attitude towards religion is changing rapidly. Religion can no longer be ignored - clearly it makes a life changing difference to millions of people. In fact, in the history of the world, not to be religious is actually a strange 21st century Western anomaly.

As Graham Ward helpfully shows, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BuXjPFLpWK0 today religion is on the news agenda and in the cultural domain more than ever before and people are having to make complex decisions about whether religion is a force for good or evil. I suppose it's like food - there's good food and bad food; but bad food is not a reason to stop eating. As the practical, often acerbic and no-nonsense Letter of James points out (Martin Luther called it the Epistle of Straw), don't drop religion; just make sure your religion is good religion.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

New Wine matures

What happens when a new movement of the Spirit enters middle age? 

I was left wondering this recently as we celebrated ten years of attending New Wine, the summer camp that has grown out of the evangelical charismatic wing of the C of E, with its origins in St. Andrew's Chorleywood, UK. From small beginnings in the late 80s, some Christian friends in a field, the movement has grown to number 24,000 attendees, all eager to pump some kingdom renewal and encouragement into their veins before returning to their churches and communities to make a difference.

Every stream of Christianity has its weak points and blind spots, and the charismatic movement is no exception. New Wine is on its third generation of leaders, people now more our less our age. What has changed, what has developed and what has felt like a growing up? Three things stood out this summer for me.

1. Diversity.
I'll be honest: New Wine hasn't always been the most affirming place for an aspiring woman bible teacher/preacher/leader. A plethora of male role models seems to have (at last) given way to something more diverse. For the first time this year I was obliged to choose between women speakers of an evening, across three different venues. I don't recall this happening before. From conversations about the circular problem of why there aren't many women bible teachers/speakers (women don't want to put themselves forward, therefore there aren't many women speaking; nothing can be done about this) we seem to have arrived at the happy position of having a really good number. Even my mornings were spent happily listening to a woman bring the bible to life, alongside a man: different approaches, different blessing. It meant that through the 6 days of morning and evening teaching, I listened to a total of 6 women and 7 men. To some this won't be an issue, but to me, just right now, it is still important. The women were always out there, of course; these things are often problems of imagination, as much as problems of reality. I was left thinking (happily) 'well that wasn't so difficult...'

2. Charismatic/contemplative worship.
The 'Acoustic' Venue (quite a departure from the big Arena norm) is my natural millieu. Here are no massive drum kits, electric guitars, people jumping up and down or famous Christian bands selling their CDs. Instead there are musicians whom no one has heard of, just doing their thing and getting out of the way when necessary. We experimented in worship with 'psalm surfing', i.e. singing the refrain of a psalm over and over, interspersed with short songs and tongues singing, but always coming back to the psalm, the effect of which was not unlike how I imagine the chanting at Taize, the Roman Catholic monastery in France. We sang lament, never far form the Psalmist's repertoire, because lament is the natural response of looking at injustice and crying out to God as to why he appears to be absent. As Richard Foster has pointed out in Streams of Living Water, joyouslythe charismatic and the contemplative are not as far apart as one might imagine, and sometimes worship brings us eventually to silence (see an earlier post on 'either/or' spirituality

3. Theologies of suffering alongside healing.
A third and major theological stumbling block for me within the charismatic movement (until recently) has been the insistence on miraculous physical healing, when for the most part my experience has been that good people, people you pray for, people who fill our churches, regularly get ill and die. I understand that when you are trying to redress the balance (the equally erroneous view that God is always silent on healing) you have to put the other side of the story forcefully, especially in the light of the example of Jesus. But in the past I have struggled with stories of miraculous healings of people who've slipped over in the shower on the campsite, etc. What about those who get cancer and die, like the person whose miraculous recovery from something terminal we all cried out for one year in the main meeting, fervently, ardently; all 6000 of us. I think she was married to one of the leaders. She died in the autumn. 

But the stories had more authenticity this year, resulting in me coming home (weirdly) with a stronger conviction than ever, that God does bring healing, in whatever way he wills, and wanting to take that into church and community. The stories were much more, yes, someone was prayed for; they appeared to get better but then the illness returned and they died. But the years had shown that the faithfulness of God had not failed - he had worked out his purposes in succeeding generations and prayer always made a difference. In other words, reality. 

In these three ways  - diversity, contemplation and balancing healing/suffering, I wonder if, alongside New Wine, now in its 26th year, I might be growing up, maturing, like good wine is supposed to....?

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Songs of Praise does Calais

Migrants Church in Calais

There's a recurring sketch on the Catherine Tate Show where she plays a neurotic middle class mother (Aga Saga Woman) who lives in fear of taking her two neurotic children anywhere, in case they have to rub shoulders with anyone outside their very restricted, protected social circle. One day, driving along in their SUV, they take a wrong turn into a rougher part of London ('Good God in heaven above... we seem to have driven into a place called "Tott-en-ham"') and start to panic when a man with long hair approaches with a bucket of water to wash their windscreen as they sit at the traffic lights. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5vQoLtd-mpM

I had a neurotic middle class woman moment on holiday this summer, so I'm not going to judge Aga Saga Woman. Returning via the Eurotunnel from France in the middle of the so called 'Migrant Crisis', we saw migrants in small groups walking the sides of roads near the Calais motorway as we tried to find out how to exit 'Cite Europe' (our compulsory pre-tunnel middle class shopping trip for all things French). I suppose I imagined desperate people seeing an opportunity, an English car going slowly round a French roundabout, and I had one of those anxious travel moments and blurted out, 'do you think we should lock the doors?', to which I received the terse reply 'don't be ridiculous'. I feel pretty embarrassed about it now.

So well done the BBC, who this evening broadcast part of their long running Christian programme, 'Songs of Praise', from the migrant camp in Calais, a place where focus and hope are centred on something much more important even than life, as one of the migrants explained - that is, in the heart of their makeshift church. Well done, because the political is apt to eclipse the personal and without alternative coverage, this time from a specifically religious viewpoint, one is in danger of picking up the media whiff of panic, the fear that 'the swarm' is about to descend our borders, the swarm of faceless, unnerving foreigners...

Songs of Praise is often criticised for being twee - shots of older people singing hymns is hardly going to set the world on fire....or is it? The juxtaposition of scenes of migrants worshipping amid the uncertainty and mess of life, with the hymn 'There's a wideness to God's mercy' and Revd. Giles Fraser, a priest from London emerging from the makeshift church, announcing 'these are my brothers and sisters in Christ', topped of by a very middle class lady from a church in Kent explaining that if it weren't for Jesus, she wouldn't be there; and you did get the strange idea that actually this Christian gospel, this thing we sing and pray each Sunday in church, is in fact radical, inclusive and potentially world changing.

So while some Politicians have felt compelled 'not to do God', I'm glad that the BBC 'did Calais', and proud to be part of the universal Church of Christ, the church that meets in tents on the sides of motorways, the one where we are one through the One who became a refugee as a child and who once declared 'foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head'.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Love letter to the Body

Sermon for Trinity 7B.

Ephesians 2: 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 

Mark 6: 31He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.

56And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

Love Letter to the Body

Dear Body,
You know, don’t you, that if you’re saved at all, you’re saved in your body.
It started with a body, taking flesh, being born of a woman, coming in frailty, the ‘mewling and puking’; the growing; the growing up; the slow realisation that death would be, of course, bodily.
The Jews circumcise the body to mark themselves as separate, as superior to the uncircumcised Gentiles. It was always thus.
The humanity into which I came was a humanity bitterly divided.
Years of fighting over difference – a dividing wall of hostility.
‘We know God; you don’t’.
‘You’re crazy, we’re not.’
The Jews wanted me dead: the Gentiles carried it out.
But on that cross, the one that killed the body, slowly, painfully, in my flesh, the two became one household – Gentile and Jew welcomed into God’s family with open arms, the arms of my Father in heaven.
Because all who come to me are family.
And all who are in me are my Body.
That is why I long for you all – who does not love their own body, tending it, feeding it, grieving when it hurts and waiting for its final redemption?

Because of this, you must love the body.
Come to me when you’re weary, and I will give you rest.
Those early days of ministry, Peter, James and John and the others would dash about, breathless with excitement!
Everything was so good, so new, the life of the Son of Man, the teaching and healing, cooking and laughing under the stars.
The abundant life is so attractive; it draws people.
The abundant life of God can be difficult to handle though; it can be overwhelming.
(By the way, if you only know scarcity, you must have the wrong God!)
I urged them to rest, so many were coming and going, so much need.
Once you unstop the lid, out it all spills – hungers, pain, unforgiveness, illness, bereavement, feuding, envy, anger, lust. 
Out it comes, seeking healing, seeking reconciliation.
The clamouring for my presence, like sheep endlessly bleating in the green pasture, not really knowing one end of the pen from the other.
If you don’t rest you’ll burn up, like kindling on a hot day.
The pattern is there – work, rest, play.
So many evils come from abusing the pattern.
Too busy to pray, too greedy to stop, digestive problems, palpitations; the body will rebel.
It is a finely tuned instrument, like a lute.
Let me play its tune.
Treat it carefully, this temple of the Holy Spirit. I dwell there.
The body is good.
It thrives on good, honest, sweaty labour, like the labour of carving wood, shaving off the end of a beam, sawdust filtering down in the sunlit air, the fresh odour of sap released.
Your body craves water, fresh air, the great outdoors, sunshine on skin, long walks.
Listen to your body. Care for it. Tend it gently, love your body like a child; never harm it willingly, for you are fearfully and wonderfully made.
It is in the body that you are saved.
It is in resting that you remember you are not the Creator.
It is in eating that you remember man does not live by bread alone.
Don’t over-eat; don’t hide from yourself that you’re drinking too much.
Attend to where your hungers are coming from.
Did you know that eating is a sacrament?
A living sign of the goodness of God.
Food restores both body and soul. Eat together and be thankful.
Remember that in a world where some of my children go to bed and wake up hungry, the rich are often poor before God, and the poor rich, like Dives and Lazarus.
Remember the last time we eat together, last week, the week before….?
That is true fellowship, one with another.
Take, eat, this is my body, broken for you.
Take time. Notice every mouthful; eat with thankful hearts.
Never let it be true that you have no leisure even to eat.

Despite its glory, however, the body will let you down.
It is destined for a greater glory, so first it will wear itself out.
There will be times when you feel that your very being is dissolving, that you’re being poured out like dust.
There will be times when you’re so tired, three hours sleep will seem like a gift from heaven.
There will be times when you bless those who have spent years studying the infinite complexities of your insides and who can knit you back together, as far as is possible.
There will be times when death disrupts the order of things, a little one lost; a child before a parent; a parent before a grandparent.
This is dark, like Lazarus entombed, but not dark enough not to be redeemed, finally brought into the blinding light of day.
Unwrap them now!
All of creation groans to be delivered – your sufferings will seem like the pangs of childbirth, the cries of pain before deliverance.
Mary knew all about that.
So don’t curse the body that wears out; befriend it. Tend it.
Let others serve you. Let me serve you, let me tie a towel around my waist and wash your feet in the basin, wash away your tears.
Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.
Reach out and touch the fringe of my cloak, like the sick who were brought to me in the market places, the farms, the fields.
When you reach out and touch me, I will know that power has gone out from me, but that is why I came - to destroy all the works of the evil one, to entrust my body to death, to rise with a resurrection body, a sign of what is to follow for you.
Just imagine those walks we’ll do on the new earth, on the new grass, sharper and greener and harder than diamond...
I cannot wait!
But I am waiting...

From your loving Saviour and Brother,