Sunday, 25 May 2014

Why I didn't vote UKIP

I exercised my democratic right to vote this week and took myself off to the local polling station for the European elections. I believe whole heartedly in voting but it inevitably always feels like choosing the lesser of several evils. Though personally I ruled out on principle the 'evil' of voting UKIP.

Sadly UKIP seemed to dominate the media coverage. Even if I agreed with any of their ideas, I couldn't vote for a leader like Nigel Farage. It's just an intuition/gut thing. And not agreeing with any of their policies. Though I suppose you could argue (and a Christian friend did, this week) their two ideas are on the face of it, at least simple - Euroscepticism and curbing on immigration - and perhaps reasonable...

But dig deeper...

It hasn't helped UKIP that certain high profile individuals have brought them into (further) disrepute, though I understand Godfrey Bloom is now an Independent MEP, but after comments about sluts and bongo bongo land and hitting someone over the head with a magazine, there's got to be a large bad taste left in the mouth, even by association. It was enough to see him on Have I Got News For You, being taken apart by Victoria Coren. That was a good episode.

So I've tried to ask myself is what is wrong with wanting to curb immigration and leave Europe? Isn't it all very reasonable? Christians disagree on many political issues - we can be right wing, or left, apparently...But can you really be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, and vote UKIP?

And what are UKIP policies, beyond curbing immigration and leaving Europe? I couldn't find any. It seems the party's main 'success' is to do with being driven along by the charisma of a leader who has a populist way of appealing to 'Britishness', whatever that is, and the need to defend it.

I'm suspicious of anything based on defensiveness. The gospel last Sunday began 'Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me'. The UKIP party website begins 'These are anxious and troubled times. Our politicians do nothing in the face of dangers rising up all around us.' 

If there are so much anxiety and danger rising up around us why do so many people want to come and live here? And why is it, as Matthew Parris pointed out in the Times, that in London, one of the most multicultural places in the UK, UKIP actually did poorly; whereas in parts of Essex which are 80% 'White British', UKIP did very well. The reason is this: 'fear and resentment of immigrants does not reduce as proximity to living, breathing immigrants reduces'. (Parris summing it up rather well). Fears of 'the other' flourish in ignorance. A UKIP spokesperson was even forced to admit that it's difficult to gain ground among 'cultured and well educated' Londonders. Says it all really.

The more you tell people 'these are anxious and troubled times' the more they'll believe it. UKIP feed on people's fear of the stranger, and their desire to protect what is theirs by right, a sentiment I find deeply troubling theologically. The Israelites were told to welcome the stranger in their land because they too had been aliens in a strange land, and knew what it was like to long for a better life somewhere else. Their land 'flowing with milk and honey' was a gift from God. Look where feelings of intense ownership and proprietorial-ism have got us... Jesus wasn't plagued by such a need to defend any land, building or set of customs...And people derided him for that too.

So I howled at Stuart Lee's comic take off of UKIP Deputy Leader, Paul Nuttals, who couched his fear of a deluge of Bulgarians to the UK by saying 'Bulgarians need to ensure that their brightest and best people stay in Bulgaria and make it economically prosperous, instead of coming to the UK and serving tea and coffee'. 

You can look up the whole sketch on Huff post (Warning: VERY strong language). By reductio ad absurdum Lee shows how very fed up we English are that all these people have been coming over here, teaching us all these foreign customs, like inventing us a national cuisine (Indians) bringing us lace (French Hugenots) laying down the basis of our entire future language and culture (Anglo Saxons) and showing us how to drink out of cups (Beaker Folk). Shocking.

Curbing immigration and leaving Europe. It sounds almost reasonable till you look a bit deeper, listen to your gut, consider Jesus, and watch Nigel Farage on the TV for more than ten seconds.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

The way, the truth, the life

Sermon for Easter 5.

John 14:1-14
Jesus the Way, Truth and the Life.
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe* in God, believe also in me....

I’ve been thinking a lot about anxiety recently.
A recent radio show said that anxiety in UK adults in on the increase.
Many young people suffer undue anxiety during exams in an increased results - oriented education system; I know of one young boy for whom SATS at age 11 were a trigger for Tourrettes syndrome which then went on to lose him a full years education.
Generalised Anxiety Disorder was featured on a radio show this week; sufferers believe they have some sort of life threatening illness or that it is dangerous to even venture out of the house and this can lead to depression, agoraphobia or even suicide.
So it’s topical that our gospel opens with these words: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me’.
We have to clarify what we mean when we say ‘I believe in God’, because we’ve misunderstood the sense of the word ‘belief’ in the bible.
Belief, faith and trust are the same Greek word.
So when we say in our Creed: ‘We believe’, it’s not believing in a concept.
People will say ‘I believe in God’ as if that is it; but they don’t know what kind of God they believe in; it’s just a vague feeling that he probably exists; but that’s not what Jesus means here.
He’s talking about trust, and trust implies a relationship, and a relationship is just what Jesus is talking about.
Do you have a relationship with God?
Or do you just believe in the concept of God?
As soon as we use the word relationship we’re making it personal. And it is personal.
Poor disciples, we do feel a bit sorry for them: Thomas says ‘Lord, we don’t know where you’re going’; Philip says ‘just show us the Father, and it’s enough for us’.
They’re still at the stage of thinking God’s up there somewhere.
Whereas in fact, He is standing there right in front of them.
Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
These days it’s perhaps a controversial claim: what about other ways to God?
‘No one comes to the Father except through me.’
How can we say this today with our knowledge of other religions and spiritualities?
NB: he doesn’t say ‘No one comes to God except through me’; but no one comes to the Father except by me...
What we have in this passage is a detailed and full development of the concept of God as Trinity which is unique to Christian faith.
Jesus uses the word Father 13 times in 14 verses.
It can be a problematic image for people these days if Father is a word which conjured up something negative, critical or absent.
We need to reimagine a loving and gentle parent who always seeks our welfare – this is the Father image Jesus gives us. Or the mother image, if that helps...
And of course it’s impossible to have a father without the Son; so it’s logical to say ‘no one comes to the Father except through me’.
(Tom Wright quotation: John for Everyone, pt 2: p. 59-60).
But there’s a catch: if the world do not see us doing the things that Jesus did – sharing the good news, healing the sick, unbinding the oppressed, washing the feet of others, they won’t be able to see Jesus, let alone accept the claim that he is the Way the Truth and the Life.

Let’s look at those statements one at a time:

1   1. He is the Way: ‘hodos’
John’s use of imagery is so rich…Jesus in often depicted as on the way somewhere.
He invites others to join him on the way.
He is on the way to Jerusalem.
This doesn’t just mean he knows the route.
It means he knows what’s going to happen there and why he’s going to go there.
Knowing where you are going in quite important…physically and in purpose
One spring I set out for a day on Fresh Expressions at Osney Mead in Oxford.
This is ahuge warehouse on the edge of an industrial estate, with a large car park that is...... not for delegates
The Diocese, in their wisdom, have created a centre which you are not supposed to reach by car, unless you’re very important – instead, to be green, we are encouraged to park at Hinksey church and walk across the meadow, or take the park and ride.
Two map, three phone calls, and two stops to ask strangers and thirty minutes later I finally arrived, late, on foot...
‘King’s Centre, Osney Meade - much further than you realise...’

So I eventually found the way.
But I also knew why I was going there…part of my vocation to find fresh ways of expressing the Good News.
So it’s important to know where you’re going…literally and figuratively, and Jesus knew.

    2. He is the Truth: ‘alethia’
He spoke the truth but also embodied the truth.
In the Western intellectual world, ‘to know’ something has been reduced to knowing facts.
My children are in the middle of exams…learning facts and remembering them is of first importance.
We have facts pinned up all over the house.
Whenever you look in a mirror, or go to open the fridge, a post it note fact leaps up to assault you:
‘Mutation is spontaneous change in DNA’;
‘The nature of an element is determined by the number of protons’
 ‘Radiation is measured in seiverts’.
Knowing in the world of the bible and Semitic thought is more about embodied knowledge…you know a person…Adam knew Eve (and we’re not talking here about Eve being some casual acquaintance of Adam’s; they knew each other…)
Some languages reflect this: two verbs in French for ‘to know’:
To know Jesus is to know Truth as a person.

3   3. He is the Life: ‘zoe’
This goes back to John 10 where Jesus says he has come that they might have life, and have it in abundance (last week’s talk).
This life is the eternal life, or life of the new age, which springs up in us as we immerse ourselves in Christ; it begins now!
The trouble with funerals is that they give the impression that now we live physically and then we will live spiritually. No; we live by the Spirit now. After death it just carries on; and will involve physical resurrection!
The Greek for ‘real life’  is ‘zoe’, meaning the ever-living life of God; as opposed to ‘bios’, the word for being alive just physically.
Of course it’s possible to be alive physically but not alive spiritually.
We do so much to preserve and make healthy our physical life, without sometimes giving much attention to the other real’ life.

So, he is the Way, the Truth, the Life.
Basically everything you need.
Are you confused about the direction of your life; or need guidance about a decision? 
He is the Way.
Do you struggle to know what is right and good in life; do you need to re-centre your identity, so that negative thoughts and accusations are dismissed and you become the real person God intended you to be? He is the Truth.
Are you living the real life He calls you to? Or just existing?
He is the Life.
Do you think if we found ways to live this truth and be this truth, others wouldn't become extremely interested in Jesus? They would. And they are.
Take a few moments to contemplate these words as we use the image and words to refocus our lives on Jesus this morning.


Monday, 12 May 2014

Two 'novel' takes on suffering

Two books I read recently shared a similar theme and got me thinking about the perennial question often held up against religion - the problem of suffering. How much of it is our fault; how much is undeserved, and is there a God in it all?

It's a theme around which one treads carefully as an ordained Minister. I felt a bit bad recently when a group I belong to was being encouraged to signal commitment by attending all scheduled meetings, and all I kept thinking was - well, we'll try, but what about the sudden death of a loved one, or sudden illness or accident...none of us knows what is around the corner. A bit morbid, I know. That's perhaps what taking a lot of funerals, and frequently working with bewildered and bereaved people, does to you.

The Cellist of Sarajevo is a grim reminder of how the innocent suffer in war. More than 11,000 men, women and children were killed during the 44 month long Sarajevo siege, which is the book's subject. It begins with a mortar landing in a bakery queue, killing 22 civilians. A cellist, witnessing this atrocity from the window of his flat, decides to play Albinoni's Adagio every day there for 22 days, to honour the dead. 

Meanwhile the novel explores the everyday life of three disconnected residents of Sarajevo and how they deal with the struggle for existence in a city where even buying bread and fetching water are life threatening activities. Their fears are detailed minutely, but they seem rather under developed as people - the main character is really the city and what it has sadly become.

The philosophical question of the novel centres around a female sniper calling herself Arrow, who is charged with guarding the cellist from a distance, but this means killing in order to prevent him being killed. The morality of killing in war and who is in fact the enemy, is complicated enough for her eventually to abandon her identity as a sniper, which she finally does, by reclaiming her real name in the last sentence of the novel, seconds before the arrival of other killers, sent to kill the one who no longer wants to kill.

There should have been palpable tension but I found the whole thing a bit muted and flat, and I was left feeling underwhelmed by the book as a portrayal of human suffering. There was an overwhelming amount of local place detail and hardly any deeper exploration of relationships. I plodded through, out of a kind of loyalty to those who suffered in the real siege, but sadly I wouldn't say my mind, heart or soul were in any way expanded. 

In contrast, I became instantly hooked on John Green's The Fault in our Stars, unable to put it down until the final gut wrenching page. It made me think afresh about whether it is appropriate to expect meaning to emerge from what seems to be entirely undeserved suffering. 

Because that's what we want, in the end, to make sense of it all.

The subject is children dying of cancer, which sounds so morbid, but the book is clever, profound and funny as well as being immensely sad. It's full of witty one-liners which peel back the mask of all cancer sufferers being saintly and heroic, to reveal otherwise entirely normal people who do not primarily wish to be defined by their illness.

Hazel, a sixteen year with terminal lung cancer, starts attending a Support Group in the local church. It's full of clich├ęs and platitudes ('the Support Group, was, of course, depressing as hell') but there she meets Augustus Waters, amputee and gorgeous seventeen year old, who proceeds to (successfully) persuade her to be his girlfriend.

At first she resits because as he is in remission and she will die one day soon, she wants to spare him any pain; but they fall in love anyway, sharing as they do an acerbic sense of humour and love of reading. In a romantic trip to Amsterdam they track down an author whose own cancer novel Hazel loves, only to discover he is an embittered alcoholic with a penchant for telling hurtful truths. On returning home, Augustus reveals he has has relapsed into final stage cancer: it will now be Hazel who is left to mourn. 

The big questions are all there - mortality being the one which frames all the others, of course. Rumbling away in the philosophical background is how we deny our own mortality, until inevitably faced with it. Hazel observes 'whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But in fact depression is not a side effect of cancer - it's a side effect of dying. Almost everything is, really.'

Religion is present but shaded: the support group takes place inside an Episcopal church, described by Hazel: 
'We all sat in a circle, right in the middle of the cross, right where the boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been'. 

It's noteworthy that John Green was a hospital Chaplain before becoming a writer, which he refers to at the back of the book: 'I was a terrible chaplain - for one thing I often fainted at the sight of blood. Also I never knew what to say to anyone, or how to comfort them (...) I kept the Book of Common Prayer in one pocket and it was always banging against my knee'. 

I can't help thinking that writing this book was Green trying to come to terms with what he couldn't do as a twenty two year old Chaplain on a children's cancer ward - make sense of the apparent randomness of an illness which can prematurely and cruelly end the life of a young person.

There is no 'problem' of suffering unless we start from the premise that life should be happy, meaningful and whole. If we're all here by chance and heading for oblivion, 'suffering' is just normal existence: 'the fault is in our stars' (a quote from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar). But if we're here looking for purpose and some higher good, then we will continue to grapple what CS Lewis called 'the problem of pain' and people will continue to write novels that either dabble in the subject, or plunge in with abandon. 

Green has done the latter, and having laughed and cried my way through it, I do get a sense (admittedly with ministerial antenna out) that at the centre of it all, and at the centre of all Christian explorations of suffering, albeit often hidden from many participants, is the fact of the crucified one. 

Friday, 2 May 2014

On the Road

Sermon for Easter 3.

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 

‘Lord as we gather around your Word now and meditate on the story of the Emmaus journey, may you draw alongside us today as you did then, and open our hearts and minds to you afresh. Amen.’

Today in our Gospel reading, we are ‘on the road’.

I’m bound to think of Jack Kerouac’s novel of the same name in which free spirited friends from 1950s America travel across the States in a car, in search of freedom and self identity, fuelled by poetry, jazz and not a little drug experimentation.

Or the even more gritty novel by Cormac McCarthy, ‘The Road’, about a father and child who trudge the road in an apocalyptic scene set some time after most of the world has destroyed itself and only those who roam and scavenge can survive.

In both novels the main characters are on the road. They travel from A to B. The road is the only way ahead and it must be walked.

On that evening of the first day of resurrection, we find two disciples on the road. We assume they were disciples because it says ‘two of them’. One is called Cleopas and the other is un-named.

We don’t know why they were journeying to Emmaus, a small village about seven miles from Jerusalem, but we might imagine that in the light of all that has happened, they are still digesting all their conflicting emotions and disappointments. They are trudging.

They talk while they trudge. They talk of all the things that have happened – how their hopes have been dashed and how sad they are it has all come to this. How the hoped for Messiah did not win against the powers of evil.

And then Jesus comes alongside.

He walks with them, he gives them an incredible bible study and, once they reach the village, he is known in the breaking of bread.

I wonder what it is you find on the Emmaus Road?

It would seem that in accompanying them, opening the Word of God to them and making himself known in the breaking of bread, Jesus gave all the sustenance we could ever possibly need for the journey.

So how’s your journey going?

I don’t know how often you are able to consider how your life’s journey is going, or if you have anyone with whom you can reflect on this question…it is perhaps a sign of the paucity of our spiritual relationships that we find it difficult to find anyone with whom we could ask some searching spiritual questions, such as: how have I grown nearer to God in the last year? How has my prayer life grown?

In their book Sleeping with Bread, Jesuits Dennis and Sheila Linn, and their son, Matthew, write of how they meet annually with trusted friends to spiritually review their lives under God. It sometimes means driving a distance to find such friends, friends who aren’t afraid to ask searching questions and who don’t mind you asking these of them either. Friends who understand that life is a spiritual journey; that if we gain the whole world bur forfeit our soul, we are truly to be pitied.

Dennis writes: ‘for about twenty years, Matt and I met with a group of six Jesuits each summer at a lake. Each person took half a day to share his year and hear the others’ reactions. We did this because we wanted to be known by one another so well that we could help each other discern new directions’ (p. 38).

He talks about new directions though he is well past middle age – but this is a sign of walking the road and keeping close to Jesus.

Staying still in the Christian life is not an option. We are all journeying, but how do we discern the presence of Jesus in that journey? One thing to think about might be to find someone with whom you could review your journey on a regular basis, someone who can discern the presence of Christ in you, and what new directions Christ may be calling you into.

Secondly, that bible study. We heard in the reading how the disciples reflected that their hearts burned within them as Jesus revealed all about the Messiah in their Scriptures; about what had to happen to the Messiah as he lay down his life for the world.

And Jesus chides them gently.

I love that phrase ‘slow of heart’ that Jesus uses to describe how they have been a bit dense when it came to interpreting the Scriptures. Not slow of mind, note: slow of heart. We can read the Scriptures for all we’re worth, but if we’re not finding ourselves in Christ within those pages, it might as well be just an academic exercise.

When was the last time you read something from the Bible and it sank slowly in, sounding fresh and making an actual difference to your inner being? When was the last time you (or I) chewed over a word or phrase at some leisure, not assuming we know what it means, but being open to a new relevance?

Have you been reading the same bible notes for decades with nothing new to challenge you? Why not try a different writer, from a different Christian tradition? Jesus’ admonishment to his disciples reminds us that the Word of God is alive and active; in it we meet the Living Word. If this doesn’t happen, we need to have a fresh bible study with Jesus.

And finally, the breaking of bread.

As if company on the road and bible study were not sufficient, Jesus makes himself known in the breaking of bread.

It’s very simple. He took it, blessed it, broke it and gave it. It’s the exact same pattern used in all services of Holy Communion since.

And it was in this taking, breaking, blessing and giving that he was finally recognized. Their eyes were opened and he vanished from their sight.

He feeds us still every time we break bread together.

The service of Holy Communion can become so familiar too that we forget that it is here that we are supremely fed, and fed together, which is significant.

I wonder what you find on the road to Emmaus?

Is the companionship of Jesus on the journey that feeds you?

Is it the bible study that warms your heart?

Is it the taking, breaking, blessing and giving of bread?

Jesus is so generous he gives himself to us in all of these, and more.

We take a moment’s silence to meditate on these 3 things we find on the Emmaus Road: the companion, the living Word and the broken bread. Please use the illustrations to engage afresh with the risen Christ and pray we might meet him again today.