Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A visit to Westminster Cathedral

The other week I popped in to Westminster Cathedral, the home base of Roman Catholicism in England and Wales.  I've walked passed it quite a few times, but never been in, and I was curious to take a look.  I liked it.  I enjoy a church building in the Byzantine style (I assume everyone has a favourite style of ecclesiastical architecture?  No?) and the decoration is tasteful and not so baroque as continental Roman Catholicism tends to display.  It is massive, as you'd expect, but seems to scale; one is dwarfed but not crushed.  It's a lovely building.

One thing I noticed is that some of the ceiling decoration remains unfinished.  This is apparently deliberate.  Here space is provided for future generations to add to the Cathedral, to express their own faith in the architecture.  The leaving of space seems to me to be a statement of faith by this present generation, too; it says that despite the history of Catholicism in this country, they expect to be here in the future.  They expect the church to go on.

This has got me thinking about models of church, and of the relationship between church and eschatology.  I come up with two basic models.

Here on the one hand is Westminster Cathedral, displaying its faith in the future, or rather its faith in the God of the future, through architecture and decoration.  It's about the incarnation, isn't it - this stable faith, this understanding that God has entered history and therefore the church is in history, a human factor (albeit established by God) in the midst of other human factors.  The church is a contributor to the wider culture, because all humanity is affected by the reality of the incarnation, whether they know it or not.  The church belongs here, because Christ was here.

On the other hand is the little band of disciples of Christ meeting in a community centre on a Sunday afternoon.  Their faith is displayed differently.  Because they believe in the God of the future, the God who is always breaking in, their community looks more like a band of rebels.  They don't expect to be able to make a positive Christian contribution to the wider culture, or at least not necessarily.  The wider culture represents the mission field, something they go out into for the sake of Christ but not the place they live.  They don't have the money to build cathedrals, but they wouldn't if they could; it's not about bricks and mortar.  There is something unsettled and unsettling about them.  They belong elsewhere.

What are we meant to be?  Cathedral builders or eschatological warriors?

Maybe the question is wrong.  Maybe we need both.  I wouldn't want to be without all the artefacts of Christian culture - the music and the art and, yes, the cathedrals.  But what about being strangers and exiles?  Yes, we need that too; at the moment, I think, we need that most of all.

Should we say, perhaps, that the spiritual reality of the cathedral builders is still that they don't belong, that they are exiles?  And perhaps at some level the exiles are spiritually at home in the world which Christ their Master claims as his own?

I feel the tension.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Learning to Pray

The introduction to Bonhoeffer's short book on the Psalms - The Prayerbook of the Bible - is worth every penny you might pay for the book, even assuming you didn't read and benefit from the rest of it, which you ought to.  In noting that Jesus' disciples ask him to teach them to pray, Bonhoeffer probes and pops on of the great prayer myths that circulates in the church.
"To learn to pray" sounds contradictory to us.  Either the heart is so overflowing that it begins to pray by itself, we say, or it will never learn to pray.  But this is a dangerous error, which is certainly very widespread among Christians today, to imagine that it is natural for the heart to pray.
We imagine that prayer comes spontaneously or not at all.  Not so, says Bonhoeffer, for if it were so how could Jesus teach the disciples to pray?  There is plenty of stuff the heart can do by itself - "wishing, hoping, sighing, lamenting, rejoicing" - but these are not yet prayer, and ought not to be confused with prayer.
Praying certainly does not mean simply pouring out one's heart.  It means, rather, finding the way to and speaking with God, whether the heart is full or empty.
This has implications.  How should we learn to pray?  Why, the same way we learn to talk in general: by imitating our parent's speech.  In this case, taking on the speech of God.  "Repeating God's own words, we begin to pray to God."  We encounter this language of God in Holy Scripture.

This allows Bonhoeffer to develop a particular, and a particularly Christological, view of the prayers of the Bible, and particularly the book of Psalms.  Here in the Psalms we have the Word of God - but they are also prayers to God, which is to say they are particularly human words.  (What is prayer but a human word?)  How can they be both?
We grasp it only when we consider that we can learn true prayer only from Jesus Christ, and that it is, therefore, the word of the Son of God, who lives with us human beings, to God the Father who lives in eternity...  In Jesus' mouth the human word becomes God's Word.  When we pray along with the prayer of Christ, God's Word becomes again a human word.
Jesus prays, and we can pray along with him, because he includes us in his prayers.
If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible, and especially the Psalms, we must not, therefore, first ask what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ.
Recognising that we must learn to pray, and that we can only do so as we pray along with Christ Jesus, we learn to pray beyond our own immediate interests and feelings, to pray more than what it is in our hearts at the moment - sometimes, indeed, "it is precisely the case that we must pray against our own heart in order to pray properly."
Not the poverty of our heart, but the richness of God's Word, ought to determine our prayer.
All quotations from The Prayerbook of the Bible, in volume 5 of Bonhoeffer's Works, pages 155ff.

Friday, March 16, 2018

On handling sacred things

One thing that worries me about being in full-time Christian ministry is the danger of becoming over-familiar with sacred things.  I 'use' the Bible every day.  I pray with and for people as part of my 'job'.  I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about God.  It can all become a bit - comfortable?

Sometimes the tone of conversation is just a bit too jokey, a bit light, betraying a casual disregard which is creeping into my heart.  Sometimes I know the effect I want to have on the congregation, and I am getting better at tweaking what I do to get the result I want - and where, then, is God?  Sometimes - and honestly, I notice this most hanging out with other Christian leaders - we show by the way we talk that at some level we have stopped feeling the awesome weight of glory that there is in the gospel - and it's made worse by the fact that I know that I will still speak, on Sunday from the front of church, as if that weight of glory were real to me.

I don't mean that it's always like that.  I don't mean to imply that we're all hypocrites.  I just want to warn myself: to remind myself, perhaps, of Nadab and Abihu, or of Uzzah.  Holy, holy, holy is the Lord.  Don't forget it.  These are sacred things.  Handle with care.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Letter to my MP

Here's what I wrote to my MP.  Maybe you could consider writing something similar?

I am writing in relation to the letter from Stella Creasy MP to the Home Secretary, dated 8th March 2018, to which your name has been appended as a signatory.  In the letter, the Home Secretary is asked to consider using the forthcoming Domestic Violence Bill to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland, thus bringing it into line with the rest of the United Kingdom.  The letter cites the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as stating that the criminalisation of abortion itself constitutes violence against women.  I am writing to express my own opposition to the viewpoint contained within the letter, and to ask you to reconsider your support for this position.

I am myself convinced that every abortion involves the deliberate ending of a human life.  When my own children were in their mother's womb, I had no doubt that they were already 'people' in every morally significant sense.  I understand that many people would not share this conviction.  I hope, however, that you would agree with me that if it were the case that abortion ended a human life, then it would be appropriate to consider abortion a criminal act.  Otherwise, we would be creating a class of human life which was not legally protected, something which I hope we all want to avoid.  Assuming you agree, the disagreement about abortion is not primarily about ethics, but about a question of fact: is the foetus in the womb a human being?  Please can I ask you to consider with what level of certainty any of us could answer in the negative.

May I separately ask you to consider in particular dropping your support for any plans to use the Domestic Violence Bill to drive this agenda.  Domestic violence is a serious and terrible issue, and deserves to be addressed without drawing in the constitutional and ethical controversy that would inevitably follow from making it about abortion provision in NI.  The claim of CEDAW that criminalisation of abortion itself represents gender-based violence is unfortunate, and I fail to see how it can be justified.  The separation of these issues will allow for good legislation on domestic violence.  In the meantime, it is to be hoped that devolved rule in NI will be re-established and the issue of abortion in NI can be considered by the representatives of the people of Northern Ireland.

These issues are complex and difficult, and I am grateful for your willingness to serve as an MP and therefore engage with them at the highest level.  I am also grateful for your willingness to listen to your constituents, and I hope you will be able to consider this point of view even if you do not agree.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Flee for refuge

In Ruth 2, Boaz blesses Ruth: "A full reward be given to you by Yahweh, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!"  The image of the bird spreading out its wings over its vulnerable chicks is tender and magnificent; it is heightened in Ruth 3 when Boaz himself agrees to spread the 'wings' of his garment over Ruth, becoming the answer to his own prayer, being the shelter of the Lord.

But what has been particularly striking me in the last couple of days is how much fleeing for refuge there is in the Old Testament.  The lectionary yesterday took me to Psalm 5 ("But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you.") and then to Psalm 7 ("O Yahweh my God, in you do I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers and deliver me").  In the evening at a church prayer meeting, Psalm 46 was read ("God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.")

Some reflections:

1.  This means life is hard.  Nobody flees unless they have to, nobody becomes a refugee willingly.  Life is hard.  Circumstances are difficult, ranging from mildly irritating to impossible to sustain.  Our own brokenness is hard, whether it is physical or mental health struggles or just the sense of homelessness that comes from being a human in a fallen creation.  The struggle with sin is hard, whether we're winning or losing.  Guilt is hard, hard to repress or ignore and even harder to acknowledge.  Flight to refuge is surely the experience of all of us at one time or another.

2.  The God who directs providence provides protection.  Surely the hardest thing in life is God himself.  I mean, the God who stands inscrutable behind providence; and more, the God who stands at the end of everything as Judge.  It is striking that the book of Ruth, which unless I am badly misreading it is primarily a story of providence, contains Boaz's blessing in the middle.  It is God who has directed the hard providence of Ruth 1, and yet it is God to whom Ruth has fled for refuge.  Is there a parallel here that needs to be thought?  It is God who sits on the seat of judgement and condemns my sin and wickedness, and yet it is this same God to whom we flee for forgiveness and a covering of righteousness.  The flood is his, but so is the ark.

3.  Jesus.  Where, other than in Christ, does any refuge appear?  Under whose wings can we take refuge, other than his?  Here in Christ we see that the direction of providence, the rule of the Judge, is by no means an impersonal fate or a harsh legalism.  Here I see God himself raising a lament over those who have resisted his grace: "How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!"  Here is the loving hand that guides even the darkest providence.  Here in the God who hangs on the cross is the fortress of my soul, the rock which is split so that I can hide within.  Here is refuge.

Hangs my helpless soul on Thee;
Leave, oh, leave me not alone,
Still support and comfort me.
All my trust on Thee is stayed,
All my help from Thee I bring;
Cover my defenseless head
With the shadow of Thy wing.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Little less conversation

"For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power."

In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul sees himself as up against people who talk a good game, especially when it comes to the kingdom of God and their part in it.  The position they seem to hold would probably nowadays be called 'over-realised eschatology' - they think they have all the blessings of the kingdom now, they think that they are reigning now, and (to pick up some hints from chapter 15 of the letter) they may even think that they have been resurrected now.

Paul's response to this and similar positions held in Corinth is the theology of the cross.  God displayed his power in the weakness of Christ crucified; God displayed his wisdom in the folly of Christ crucified.  Paul has modelled his ministry on Christ - perhaps not deliberately, perhaps just inevitably as he has sought faithfully to proclaim the gospel.  He hasn't been impressive, humanly speaking.  He hasn't come with strength or with glorious rhetoric.  He preached the weak and foolish cross, in a weak and foolish way, and God worked.

But within that context, Paul asserts that the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.

If there isn't a contradiction here, it must be a funny sort of power Paul is talking about here - a cruciform power, the power of God revealed in weakness.  But still, it's power.  It is all very well for these folk in Corinth to talk about their kingly enjoyment of the kingdom of God - which they seem to see displayed in exalted and lofty ideas, a refined spirituality, a liberation from the moral strictures of human society, a deliverance from the suffering that is the common lot of humanity.  But Paul has power, a power that will puncture all this talk.  The power of the gospel of Christ crucified, presented in a cruciform way, by the apostle whose ministry is shaped by the cross.

Here's what I wrestle with.  In the church as I know it, there's a lot of talk.  But there's not a lot of power.  And the temptation is to try to substitute more talk for what's missing.  The more we feel the gap between the NT description of the Christian life and our own experience of it, the more we're tempted to talk up the Christian life.  Papering over the weakness of our experience of the Spirit with words.  But that's not the kingdom of God.

Praying this morning for genuine power, not to bypass the cross or the weakness or the suffering, but to take the cross and the weakness and the suffering and make them the place where God's power is displayed.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Iceland, circumcision, individualism, religion

You may have seen in the news this week that moves are afoot in Iceland to put an end to the circumcision of baby boys for religious reasons.  It's a move which has much popular backing, and would probably enjoy similar popularity in this country.

There are lots of dimensions to the arguments around this action.  There is the medical/psychological angle; there is the issue of religious freedom; there is the cultural question.  What really strikes me, though, is the radical, atomised individualism that stands behind many of the arguments I've seen advanced by those in favour of a ban.  The argument runs: how dare you religious people impose your religion on a child who hasn't chosen it, to the extent of not respecting the bodily integrity of the child?

The first key assumption behind this argument is that we are born completely neutral and entirely autonomous.  Our identity is defined from within ourselves, and has nothing to do with the family into which we are born.  This position is absolutely essential to modern Western secularism.  We resist any attempt to define us extrinsically, by our relationships or our circumstances.  But this is nonsense, and dangerous nonsense.  Every child is born into a family, and so much of their identity derives from those relationships which are (so to speak) thrust upon them.  You could say the same about being born into a nation, or, indeed, a religion.  To deny this is actually to be anti-culture.  Culture is all about that network of relationships, stories, and institutions which define us just by being there around us.  Atomised individualism means there can't be culture, which means there can't be human society.

The second key assumption is that religion is about my choices and beliefs.  I might decide to get circumcised later in life (personally I won't!), but that will be down to my own independently derived religious beliefs.  Actually, I pick up from some of the comment around Iceland that even this isn't quite right.  We're not very happy with the idea of circumcision because religion is meant to be a spiritual, private thing - something in which you can indulge if you want to, but which should leave no trace in the 'real world'.  But what if religion has much less to do with me and my choices and the way in which I choose to view the world, and is much more like being confronted by something real which one cannot deny and which has a transformative effect not only on the mind but on politics, ethics, and yes even the body?

A question for Christians like me surely is: given we're not going to be engaging in infant circumcision for religious reasons, are there nevertheless ways in which we ought to be resisting these assumptions of secularism and demonstrating the way in which identity is extrinsic (most fundamentally in Christ!) and religion is public?