Saturday, March 31, 2018

Behind this heavy stone

What have we buried here, behind this heavy stone?
Why the effort, why the seal?
What is it that we've buried here?

We buried sin,
and death and curse and hell.
We buried wrath.
The end of everything is buried here,
behind this heavy stone.

Is that all that we buried, behind this heavy stone?
Is that all?  Nothing more?

We buried all mankind, each one,
still and dead.
We buried you and me.
All folk are buried here,
behind this heavy stone.

Just us?  But why the guards?
The stone is heavy.  What need for them?

We buried God.
The Creator lies entombed.
We buried Sinai, we buried Zion,
the glory and the cloud.
We buried God,
wrapped sheets around his face;
we looked on it and did not die.
But he died.
We buried him behind this heavy stone,
and placed the seal,
and set the guard.
We buried God.

Well that makes sense.
We wouldn't want him getting out again.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The church in Holy Week

Not to keep harping on about the same things, but Holy Week surely has something to tell us about the being of the church in the world.

Look, Jesus gets some cheers and some crowds as he enters Jerusalem, presumably mostly from the people who have followed him along the way, but the people of Jerusalem on the whole don't know him and won't have him.  The influential, in particular, are against him.  The cleansing of the temple (which in the Synoptic gospels takes place in Holy Week; not in John, but that's another story) is an action which must surely be deliberately divisive.  The Supper is taken with a small band of disciples, but even here there is a traitor and the group is divided.  Even on the cross, a division is made between a thief who sees and a thief who doesn't, and therefore between life and death.

This, I think is what the author of Hebrews meant: the Word of God is sharply divisive, cutting through all the appearances and shams that we can put up.

There are lots of words in the world, lots of messages, lots of causes.  Some unite people and some divide people.  Most do both in different ways.  But nothing cuts through like Christ crucified.  Here is the divine scalpel, which penetrates our individual existences, right to the heart, slicing away me from me.  All the other divisive-uniting words exist within the system and complex of human words.  They are relatively divisive, but they work because they recognise that underneath there is a commonality; the divisions are not essential, the wound is not mortal, the crisis is not existential.  Not so the Word of God.  Here is the Man from Without, the God who has stepped Within.  Here is division that goes all the way down.

What about the church, though?  Many churches delight to be, or aspire to be, at the centre of their communities.  But can the church speak the Word which divides from that place?  We want to serve our communities, but if our service means giving people what they already recognise as good, how are we serving the Word?

Friday, March 23, 2018

Going outside

Reading Hebrews 13 at Morning Prayer, I'm struck by how much I naturally want to be On The Inside.  My guess is that this isn't just me.  My guess is that even people who glory in being On The Outside, out of step with society, secretly or not so secretly cultivate a sense that they are On The Inside of something.  Hence all the close-knit little sub-cultures.

But if Hebrews is to be believed, that desire to be On The Inside could keep me from Christ, who was crucified outside the gate.  I think we read this wrong if we imagine that here in the church is the community where we can be On The Inside.  The church is always going to be wandering back into the camp; institutions and communities as well as individuals feel the strong draw of The Inside.  So we are always called to "go to him outside the camp", a constant movement into The Outside that reflects the fact that our citizenship is not here, but is in another city.

Perhaps not coincidentally I read this editorial this morning on my way into town.  Religion is on the retreat.  But what should be our response?
In the past few decades, some parts of the church that tend to reject the trappings of religion have tried desperately to appear “normal”. But for a generation that prizes authenticity, maybe that’s just a turn-off. Rather than being just a slightly rubbish version of the rest of the world, with slightly rubbish coffee and slightly rubbish music, maybe it needs to embrace its difference, its strangeness, its weirdness, its mystery.
Be more weird.  Go outside the camp.  That's where we meet Jesus.

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.