Why talk about Sexuality

TonyCampoloPlease take time to read this rather long invite to the above meeting. It is a long letter because I have taken time to think about how to communicate on this sensitive issue. I hope you will take time to read and come to the event. I hope you will also accept and respond in the spirit I have written to you.
As an organisation Signpost International has wrestled with how to respond to the worldwide debate within the church on the issue of human sexuality. As a Christian Community dedicated to expressing our faith through eliminating violence, poverty and injustice and establishing Shalom we found that we are not immune from this issue. Signpost International is made up of a group of Christians who have different perspectives on this issue. Our different church partners around the world also see this issue in different ways. We have found for instance that in Uganda where evangelical Christian are calling for the death penalty for gay people we have had tried to challenge that extreme view and been cast in the ‘liberal’ role. Equally we have found ourselves cast in a more ‘conservative’ role when faced with abusive behaviour. The board of trustees have concerns that by even raising the issue we may be courting controversy and stirring up feelings that are unhelpful and yet feel that there are real issues that need to be explored in a wider context. So with prayerful concern Signpost has partnered with the Episcopal Church to host an evening with Peggy and Tony Campolo.
The evening will explore two peoples different views on human sexuality and the bible. How as a married couple they fundamentally disagree on what the bible teaches and how they have managed to live as a happily married couple. They will tell their story

Stories are sacred, and at this event we will try to treat them as such.
PHOT0014.JPGAs the Director of Signpost International my wife and I have sat across the room as a young woman, looking down at her hands, told us her story….complete with the difficult parts…. each word chosen with the kind of care and courage that made me recognise that moment as a precious gift. It was a gift because it cost her something—vulnerability, painful memories, the possibility of rejection. And it was a gift because it honoured us to know we were trusted with something so valuable, so fragile, and so personal.
Stories faithfully and bravely told are sacred gifts, and in this evening, we will treat Tony and Peggy’s story with gentleness and respect. There will opportunity to hear others stories, the stories from both sides of the issue. When people tell their stories, whether we agree or not, we will be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. This is not an evening for those that want to win, or force their point; nor is it intended to change anyone’s stance. It is intended to be a safe place where we can meet and elevate the discussion from what is currently seen as the acceptable medium of cultural engagement—the polarising back-and-forth, win-lose rhetoric in which no one wins; because when Christians talk about sexuality we tend to revert to sides or stance. As in, we take other people’s stories and make them about us: where we stand on “issues” like homosexuality and premarital sex. Perhaps we do this because we are frightened by the complexity of sexuality, a complexity that does not lend itself to the comfortable categories that assure us that we’re right, that we’re “in,” that we’re safe, that we’re talking about “other” people from “other” places in “other” communities.
We have been advised by some people not to go here so why do it.
In some ways we have felt trapped by fear. When faced with fundamentalist Christians in Africa calling for the death penalty for homosexual people dare we speak out as a more moderate voice, when friends and colleagues dare to share the secrets they have been hiding how do we walk with them.
So, at its heart, this meeting is not about stance, but about people. Homosexuality is not a mere “issue.” Singleness is not a mere “issue.” Marriage is not a mere “issue.” As any mother of a gay child or survivor of sexual abuse will tell you, when we talk about sexuality, we are talking about real people, real bodies, real families, real lives. To forget this is to subject our fellow human beings, created in the image of God, to a sort of theological objectification that robs them of their humanity and renders their stories, their experience, their backgrounds, their spirituality, their relationships, their struggles, and their joys down into something I can either “affirm” or “condemn,” something that is either “pure” or “defiled.” Yes, we are called to “test the spirits,” to think critically, to make judgment calls, and at times to call out sin, but above all, we are called to love. And love does not objectify. It is not rude or self-seeking. It does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth. And without love, our discussions and debates and polemics are just clanging cymbals that hurt the ears of God.
And so, as we listen to one another’s stories, we must quiet ourselves. We must listen. We must love. We must take off our shoes. For we are on sacred ground.
Scripture is sacred, and we will treat is as such.
This means recognizing our own biases and presuppositions when it comes to interpretation, educating ourselves about the culture and context in which the Bible was written and assembled, and resisting the universal tendency to conform the Bible into a weapon or an idol of our own making. Taking the Bible seriously, means accepting it on its own terms, living in its tensions and confronting those texts we don’t like or understand and sitting with them for a while, perhaps even a lifetime. It means respecting the Bible enough to wrestle with it.
That an ancient collection of history, poetry, letters, laws, prophecies, proverbs, and stories might have something important—indeed, sacred—to say about sexuality may seem like foolishness to many, but we are as committed as ever to the notion that Scripture is inspired by God, and useful for teaching, correcting, and training, so that the people of God are equipped for the good works we are called to share with the world.
And so, as part of the meeting, we will be discussing what the Bible says about sexuality, looking at the “big picture” as well as the particular texts that tend to spark debate.
We do not intend for these discussions around Scripture to stand in contrast to the stories we share, but rather to complement them. After all, the Bible is mostly stories, and even the letters and laws we tend to read as dry directives themselves arose from the context of a story.

Sexuality is sacred, and we will treat it as such.
How is sexuality sacred?
Well, we are not entirely sure, to be honest. That’s something we will be exploring together as part of the meetings
We are however sure that preserving the sacredness of sexuality means speaking about it with reverence, respect, and truth (and with some humour now and then too, as I’m convinced that our ability to laugh at ourselves has a direct correlation to our ability to spot the idols in our lives). It may also be true that preserving the sacredness of sexuality means giving up control, relinquishing power, and leaving space for mystery.
Perhaps the hardest part of recognizing the sacredness of sexuality is acknowledging the fact that we will not master it, that we won’t ever be able to “get it right”—not exactly. As Christians we make the most beautiful things ugly when we try to systematize a mystery. I suspect this is why much of what the Bible has to say about sexuality is said with poetry.
Peggy and TonySo please come ready to listen and if you would like to ask a question please write it down and hand it to a steward on the night. We will only take question written and handed in so as to ensure that the space we create remains a safe place for people to share.
Tony and Peggy Campolo – A dialogue: 12th September 2013- 7:30 p.m. St Pauls Cathedral, Dundee
There is no charge for the event but a retiring collection will be taken to cover the costs of the event.
Please let your congregation know about this event. Everyone is welcome. I look forward to seeing you there,
Warm regards,

Kerry Dixon

Are We Better Than Them?

Buckingham Palace Gates

The train into London has just been cancelled because someone has thrown themselves under a train from a footbridge just outside the station. Annoyed at having his Saturday plans ruined, the man next to me snarls,
“Well I hope they died in f***ing agony!”
Another woman, standing nearby on the platform, agrees with him;
“Selfish b*****d! Why can’t these people find somewhere else to kill themselves?”
I am frozen to the spot. I glance at my wife and a knowing look of horror passes between us – we are both hoping our two young boys haven’t heard what has just been said.
I am appalled by this lack of compassion and frightened by the verbal aggression on display. I am also wondering about the person I did not know, who jumped from the bridge just a few minutes ago on this sunny, summer Saturday morning.
But despite my shock at the event – and the attitude of those around me – I remain silent.
Since that fateful Saturday I have told this story several times – and always with the aim of showing how far society has fallen and how shockingly cynical the world has become.
I can tell this story because I can’t imagine myself ever thinking such thoughts, let alone saying them out loud in a public place!
And, as I recount this story to my friends, we can nod and tut at each other, safe and smug in the self-realisation that we are better than them! We will not, of course, openly declare ourselves better than them, but deep down we know it is true.
Now, I’m not saying that there are any circumstances in which expressing no compassion and spewing out hatred are right, but I do wish that I had found the courage to say,
“Come on, guys! Let’s have a little humanity and compassion for that poor lost soul who has just ended their life”.
But I didn’t. I just managed to judge them and elevate myself in the process.
And, while I genuinely believe that I would not act, in that instance, as my fellow passengers did, I am still guilty of a deep hypocrisy that comes from self-deception about how good I really am.
Until the moment they opened their mouths, I was ambivalent to those standing with me on the platform. I did not think myself to be better or worse than them. But, once they spoke, it all changed in an instant: I looked at them with distain; made judgments about their behaviour; and elevated myself as a result, making me superior to them.
Jesus tells a story about this sort of behaviour:
He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’
“Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’”
Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”
Luke 18:9-14, the Message
In the book ‘Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting out of the Box’, one particular story illustrates this phenomenon of self-elevation very well:
A man and his wife have a new baby. One night, as the couple lie in bed, the man reflects contentedly on what he has: he is happy with his wife; she is a good wife and mother; she is working hard to bring up their baby.
As they lie in the warm, cosy darkness the baby begins to cry. At first the man thinks to himself,
‘My wife is tired; she has been busy all day with the baby. I will get out of bed, see to the baby and let her sleep.’
But then the man pauses, feeling the warmth of the bed, and he thinks to himself,
‘But it’s warm in here and cold out there, and I’m tired.’
So he lies still, pretending that he is asleep in the hope that his wife will get up and go to the child. But, after a few minutes of lying still and the crying getting louder, his wife has still not made a move.
Finally the man flings back the covers and gets noisily out of bed. He stomps to the cot to pacify the baby and, as he goes, he mutters under his breath,
‘What kind of mother would leave her baby to cry? Doesn’t she know I have been at work all day and have to get up early in the morning?’
In a short space of time this man’s attitude has changed. He has gone from contented to critical, and his wife has gone from being a great mother and loving wife to being a poor mother and a selfish wife.
And this man has betrayed himself in the assumption that he is not part of the problem.

When I am critical of others I am often self-deceived and inclined to create my own problems – in reality often transferring the blame from me to them. But Galatians 6:3 tells us that,
“If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves.”
This is not that I should artificially inflate my own sin and minimise that of others, but it is a matter of focus; understanding that I am part of the problem is also to realise that I can choose to be part of the solution.
Resolution would mean I have to see myself as I really am, accept that the problem is also in me, and repent.
In his book ‘Samson and the Pirate Monks’, Nate Larkin brings a challenge to our leanings towards self deception and grandiosity. When choosing accountability partners, says Nate, we tend to choose people who we think are our equal or better, when all that is really needed for someone to be able to speak into my life is not to be me.
After reading that passage I knew I was guilty.
I thought of my friend Mike, a former drug addict and alcoholic. Although he had managed to turn his life around, Mike still lived on the edge. I knew that I would not have thought about asking his advice about any issues I might be facing – but this said so much more about me than about Mike!
Embarrassed by this truth, I sought Mike out and apologised.
I wish I had not been cowardly, that day at the train station.
I wish I had done the right thing because – when we do not do good, or we do it ungraciously – it becomes of moral importance, because the heart of the problem is in our refusal to do what we know to be right.
When we are true to our sense of what is right we have no need to explain ourselves. But when we are untrue to what we believe to be right, there is much to explain. Or, as the Bible puts it:
As it is, you are full of your grandiose selves. All such vaunting self-importance is evil. In fact, if you know the right thing to do and don’t do it, that, for you, is evil.”
James 4:17, the Message

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
Amen.

What happens when Jesus is not the answer?

While I was a theological student, a heated debate broke out during one of the Principal’s lectures around the issues of evangelism and suffering.

The Principal’s view was that preaching faith in Jesus to hungry people was unhelpful because it did not meet their need for food. He argued that salvation had to be socio-economic, as well as spiritual, or it was of no use.

In my youthful zeal I reacted strongly against this ‘deviation’ from the truth – that people really need to be saved from hell, so they can go to heaven when they die – and I shouted across the room,

“Jesus is the answer! Now, what’s the question?!!”

Fast forward nearly three decades to last summer, when I was visiting development projects in India…

On this particular occasion a man – who insisted on calling me ‘Master’ despite my strong protestations – fell to his knees and asked me to bless him.

I found it excruciatingly uncomfortable.

His mother needed medical treatment and his father could not work because of an infection that has now rendered him incapable of doing the hard manual labour he has done all his life. This man had prayed and searched for many hours for a job, or for some way of paying for his mother’s medical treatment, but had no answer.

Now he hoped that my prayer would be more effective than his own.

But what should I pray? Jesus is not the answer to this man’s prayer – he already knows Jesus! – so what is the answer?

What is the Good News?

As evangelicals, we have often reacted badly to anything that puts a greater emphasis on people’s physical wellbeing over their spiritual well being. We have labelled those who believe in bettering people’s physical lives as ‘do gooders’, or we accuse them of believing in a ‘social gospel’, like some kind of heresy, because it lies outside the narrower view of a gospel that saves souls for heaven when we die.

In the 1920s a progressive movement came to prominence, led by liberal theologians, that believed the Lord’s Prayer to be a mandate on Christians to be operational: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). These ‘Social Gospellers’, as they became known, believed that the Second Coming could not happen until humanity had freed itself of all social evils, and that the Church’s role in society was to work to that end.

The movement was influential, inspiring people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King and Gandhi, and eventually seeing most of its ideals enshrined in today’s labour laws.

It was also controversial, with many Christians rejecting the Social Gospel in favour of a theology that focused only on people’s spiritual salvation, whatever their physical circumstances.
That was where I was at, in that rather explosive lecture many years ago, and many evangelicals still remain largely ‘single agenda Christians’. That is to say, willing to consider social action only if it leads to conversion.

When good for good’s sake is not good enough
Now, when I speak on behalf of Signpost International, the Christian development agency that I work for, I tell stories of the hungry being fed, children going to school, jobs, livelihoods and incomes being created.

And there is always someone who asks me, “But how many got saved?”

I usually answer them by asking how many people they would like to see saved, with “All of them, I guess”, being the usual response.

Fortunately I can guarantee that!

“Before we build another house, dig another well or create any more small business opportunities I promise you that I will first ask who, in that community, wants to become a Christian,” I say.

“And I can assure you that everyone in that village will put up their hand and then pray the ‘sinner’s prayer’”

The problem, of course, is that it isn’t real.

When William Wilberforce set out to end the slave trade, no one asked ‘how many got saved?’  Wilberforce worked for justice, to right a terrible wrong and to see people set free in this world.
When we work to end poverty we work for justice, to end the slavery that comes from poverty, and so that there is not food for some, while others starve, or that some have houses while others live in slums.

And as I read the gospels, I find that ‘salvation just for heaven’ was not on Jesus’ agenda either. He quite gratuitously, as Luke put it, “went about doing good”; healing sick people, feeding hungry people, loving the unlovable, and befriending and accepting even those on the fringes of society.

So, when Jesus talks about separating the sheep from the goats, it is not on the basis of belief but on doing good. Because, if worship is to acknowledge the worth of God, then reaching out in love to those made in His image is true worship. Or, as it says in James 1:27, “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
Doing good cannot be an optional extra for Christians, but must be at the core of our existence. For our faith is not measured by a list of sound doctrine, but instead by the fruit it produces in doing good.
Unanswered prayer?

Returning to my friend in India, I would have to say that it is not a lack of prayer or faith that stops this man. Rather, it is a lack of answered prayer.

But this is not because God does not hear this man’s prayer – or the prayers of the millions like him –but maybe it is because those of us who live in plenty struggle to hear God’s call to us for a different way of living.

What happens when spiritually regenerated people see their loved ones suffering for the lack of small amounts of money, while others of us live lives of luxury and comfort unimaginable to most people in the global South?

You either have to conclude – like the man who asked me to bless him – that we are somehow the spiritual ‘elite’, whose prayers answered because we are somehow ‘more worthy’ than those who live in poverty.

Or we may have to consider that God wants those to whom He has given much to take seriously our responsibility and requirement to share. As the Bible puts it,

“The heart regulates the hands. This isn’t so others can take it easy while you sweat it out. No, you’re shoulder to shoulder with them all the way, your surplus matching their deficit, their surplus matching your deficit. In the end you come out even. As it is written,

‘nothing left over to the one with the most, nothing lacking to the one with the least.’”

2 Corinthians 8:14 (The Message)

It is this shift in the way we live our lives that is at the heart of the Gospel, as we follow the example that Jesus set for us and do the good works that has God prepared in advance for us to do.
I would love to see the evangelical church reconnect with the social gospel, seeing thousands of small projects spring up around evangelical churches in the West, all working for justice and ‘doing’ good.
Because, for the times when Jesus is not the answer to the question, then maybe we are?

Because, for the times when Jesus is not the answer to the question, then maybe we are?

Revisit the “DECLARATION OF SENTIMENTS ADOPTED BY PEACE CONVENTION. “Boston, 1838.

This declaration came about under the following circumstances: William Lloyd Garrison took part in a discussion on the means of suppressing war in the Society for the Establishment of Peace among Men, which existed in 1838 in America. He came to the conclusion that the establishment of universal peace can only be founded on the open profession of the doctrine of non-resistance to evil by violence (Matt. v. 39), in its full significance, as understood by the Quakers, with whom Garrison happened to be on friendly relations. Having come to this conclusion, Garrison thereupon composed and laid before the society a declaration, which was signed at the time–in 1838–by many members.

“DECLARATION OF SENTIMENTS ADOPTED BY PEACE CONVENTION. “Boston, 1838.

“We the undersigned, regard it as due to ourselves, to the cause which we love, to the country in which we live, to publish a declaration expressive of the purposes we aim to accomplish and the measures we shall adopt to carry forward the work of peaceful universal reformation.

“We do not acknowledge allegiance to any human government. We recognize but one King and Lawgiver, one Judge and Ruler of mankind. Our country is the world, our countrymen are all mankind. We love the land of our nativity only as we love all other lands. The interests and rights of American citizens are not dearer to us than those of the whole human race. Hence we can allow no appeal to patriotism to revenge any national insult or injury…

“We conceive that a nation has no right to defend itself against foreign enemies or to punish its invaders, and no individual possesses that right in his own case, and the unit cannot be of greater importance than the aggregate. If soldiers thronging from abroad with intent to commit rapine and destroy life may not be resisted by the people or the magistracy, then ought no resistance to be offered to domestic troublers of the public peace or of private security.

“The dogma that all the governments of the world are approvingly ordained of God, and that the powers that be in the United States, in Russia, in Turkey, are in accordance with his will, is no less absurd than impious. It makes the impartial Author of our existence unequal and tyrannical. It cannot be affirmed that the powers that be in any nation are actuated by the spirit or guided by the example of Christ in the treatment of enemies; therefore they cannot be agreeable to the will of God, and therefore their overthrow by a spiritual regeneration of their subjects is inevitable.

“We regard as unchristian and unlawful not only all wars, whether offensive or defensive, but all preparations for war; every naval ship, every arsenal, every fortification, we regard as unchristian and unlawful; the existence of any kind of standing army, all military chieftains, all monuments commemorative of victory over a fallen foe, all trophies won in battle, all celebrations in honor of military exploits, all appropriations for defense by arms; we regard as unchristian and unlawful every edict of government requiring of its subjects military service.

“Hence we deem it unlawful to bear arms, and we cannot hold any office which imposes on its incumbent the obligation to compel men to do right on pain of imprisonment or death. We therefore voluntarily exclude ourselves from every legislative and judicial body, and repudiate all human politics, worldly honors, and stations of authority. If we cannot occupy a seat in the legislature or on the bench, neither can we elect others to act as our substitutes in any such capacity. It follows that we cannot sue any man at law to force him to return anything he may have wrongly taken from us; if he has seized our coat, we shall surrender him our cloak also rather than subject him to punishment.

“We believe that the penal code of the old covenant–an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth–has been abrogated by Jesus Christ, and that under the new covenant the forgiveness instead of the punishment of enemies has been enjoined on all his disciples in all cases whatsoever. To extort money from enemies, cast them into prison, exile or execute them, is obviously not to forgive but to take retribution.

“The history of mankind is crowded with evidences proving that physical coercion is not adapted to moral regeneration, and that the sinful dispositions of men can be subdued only by love; that evil can be exterminated only by good; that it is not safe to rely upon the strength of an arm to preserve us from harm; that there is great security in being gentle, long- suffering, and abundant in mercy; that it is only the meek who shall inherit the earth; for those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.

“Hence as a measure of sound policy–of safety to property, life, and liberty–of public quietude and private enjoyment–as well as on the ground of allegiance to Him who is King of kings and Lord of lords, we cordially adopt the non-resistance principle, being confident that it provides for all possible consequences, is armed with omnipotent power, and must ultimately triumph over every assailing force.

“We advocate no Jacobinical doctrines. The spirit of Jacobinism is the spirit of retaliation, violence, and murder. It neither fears God nor regards man. We would be filled with the spirit of Christ. If we abide evil by our fundamental principle of not opposing evil by evil we cannot participate in sedition, treason, or violence. We shall submit to every ordinance and every requirement of government, except such as are contrary to the commands of the Gospel, and in no case resist the operation of law, except by meekly submitting to the penalty of disobedience.

“But while we shall adhere to the doctrine of non-resistance and passive submission to enemies, we purpose, in a moral and spiritual sense, to assail iniquity in high places and in low places, to apply our principles to all existing evil, political, legal, and ecclesiastical institutions, and to hasten the time when the kingdoms of this world will have become the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. It appears to us a self-evident truth that whatever the Gospel is designed to destroy at any period of the world, being contrary to it, ought now to be abandoned. If, then, the time is predicted when swords shall be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, and men shall not learn the art of war any more, it follows that all who manufacture, sell, or wield these deadly weapons do thus array themselves against the peaceful dominion of the Son of God on earth.

“Having thus stated our principles, we proceed to specify the measures we propose to adopt in carrying our object into effect.

“We expect to prevail through the Foolishness of Preaching. We shall endeavor to promulgate our views among all persons, to whatever nation, sect, or grade of society they may belong. Hence we shall organize public lectures, circulate tracts and publications, form societies, and petition every governing body. It will be our leading object to devise ways and means for effecting a radical change in the views, feelings, and practices of society respecting the sinfulness of war and the treatment of enemies.

“In entering upon the great work before us, we are not unmindful that in its prosecution we may be called to test our sincerity even as in a fiery ordeal. It may subject us to insult, outrage, suffering, yea, even death itself. We anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and calumny. Tumults may arise against us. The proud and pharisaical, the ambitious and tyrannical, principalities and powers, may combine to crush us. So they treated the Messiah whose example we are humbly striving to imitate. We shall not be afraid of their terror. Our confidence is in the Lord Almighty and not in man. Having withdrawn from human protection, what can sustain us but that faith which overcomes the world? We shall not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try us, but rejoice inasmuch as we are partakers of Christ’s sufferings.

“Wherefore we commit the keeping of our souls to God. For every one that forsakes houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for Christ’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.

“Firmly relying upon the certain and universal triumph of the sentiments contained in this declaration, however formidable may be the opposition arrayed against them, we hereby affix our signatures to it; commending it to the reason and conscience of mankind, and resolving, in the strength of the Lord God, to calmly and meekly abide the issue.”

Immediately after this declaration a Society for Nonresistance was founded by Garrison, and a journal called the NON-RESISTANT, in which the doctrine of non-resistance was advocated in its full significance and in all its consequences, as it had been expounded in the declaration. Further information as to the ultimate destiny of the society and the journal I gained from the excellent biography of W. L. Garrison, the work of his son.

 

Confession

Have you ever noticed how our motives can be deceitful? While thinking we are living a true Christian life, we can at the same time miss the point – we can be completely self deceived as to our true motives.

I have been thinking about how honestly I confess my sins and my motives for my confession.

Water of life!

If I confess my sin so that I am free from my guilt and my sin but do not at the same time confess and struggle against the injustice I see against the poor, oppressed and marginalised people of the world, I don’t believe I am being a true disciple of Christ (for my concern is on my need and remains a base and selfish act).

To be a true disciple I should not only confess my sin, but also confess the injustice I see in the world and thus fight against the powers of darkness and hell to help eliminate the societal sins and their root causes that keep people living in poverty.

When I fail to do this I fail to love my neighbour as myself.

Towards a post modern view of the Christmas story

Towards a post modern view of the Christmas story

Texts: Isaiah 52:7-10, Hebrews 1:1-12, John 1:1-14.

Christmas is, at the same time, the most beautiful of festivals, and also the most puzzling. For, at this season, the church tells the story of a virgin who gives birth to a child, of angels coming to earth to announce the good news, of a strange heavenly body, star or comet, which certainly does not appear to obey Newton’s laws of motion.

We, by and large, are the children of the age of enlightenment, the age of reason, of the modern period, in which knowledge has come to be equated with scientific discovery, and history asks the question “what really happened?” It is small wonder that we are dominated by these ways of thinking. They have, for five hundred years driven western society. Not only that, but they have been spectacularly successful. Who among us would want to live in a world without electricity, without modern means of transport and communication, without modern medicine?

But the benefits of modernity have come at a price. The externality of life has become so all-important and all-consuming of our resources and energy, that we have lost contact with innerness, with our own innerness and the innerness of the whole of creation. From being a place of awe and wonder, the world and its creatures, including our fellow human creatures, have become an object of exploitation for our profit and benefit.

The reason why Christmas is puzzling is that, in line with this whole way of western rational thought, we come to the foundational stories with the question “Did it really happen?” “Were there really angels and shepherd and kings, was there a star, is a virgin birth possible?”

I suggest that to place such questions against the story of Christmas is part of the price we have paid for modernity. With our concentration on rational discovery, scientific method and historical accuracy, we have lost all understanding of the role of narrative in our lives. The reading of novel and poetry becomes a leisure activity, music becomes entertainment, story is something for children, legend and myth become synonymous with untruth. Both theology and popular thought have applied these modern canons to the Biblical stories, and one of three things has happened…

  1. For the vast majority, the stories of the Bible have become simply meaningless and irrelevant to their world. At Christmas time even Santa Claus has greater credibility that Matthew or Luke.
  2. For the liberal theologians, the mythical and legendry elements have been pruned out of the Biblical narrative, leaving bare historical facts, which are interesting, but of little worth celebrating.
  3. In fundamentalist thinking the myth and legend have been translated into rational fundamental fact, cute if we are talking about shepherds, kings and angels, (just been to see William and Thomas in school nativity)but dangerous if we try to make Biblical story into political controlling agenda. Fundamentalists may feel that they are battling against forces that threaten their most sacred values. During a battle it is very difficult for those fighting to appreciate the other persons position.

What is clear is that modernism is reaching the end of its dominance of our world, of its intellectual, social and political life. We are realizing that the concentration on the external, together with our de-valuing of story, myth and legend, has led to a deep impoverishment of our lives.

In post-modern thinking we are beginning to realize that the important question is not “Did it really happen?”, but “Is it true?” As we try to begin, again, to fill that deep hole of spiritual yearning which modernism has left at the heart of our human experience, we ask whether the Christmas story among others, can bring us to a deeper and fuller humanity.

The end of modernism has begun to teach us that rationalism is a thin veneer on the surface of our humanity. We have begun to realize again that the roles of art, music, poetry, prose, drama and dance, together with story, myth, legend, religion and psychology are intertwined as they take us beyond that thin surface of our lives. As we begin to value again their place in the search for truth rather than fact, they will be our companions in that twin journey into the depths of our own being and into the heights of the infinity and unity of all being. This is the double journey, which is so often today described by the word “spirituality”. It is I think no co-incidence that a widespread renewal of interest in spirituality comes with the demise of modernity.

A journey to the depths of the self and to the heights of heaven is a journey fraught with many dangers. Those who suggest that it is simple and open to anyone to try, are not unlike those who would suggest we set off to the North Pole on skis or across the Atlantic in a rowing boat, without charts, compass or support system. The church community in all its breadth  exists to offer the guidance needed through the many pitfalls of the journey of the spiritual life.

I would suggest three starting points for the journey of the spiritual life, which I hope more and more of us will want to undertake in the coming years.

The first is an encounter with story, with text, with the Biblical story. The Bible is a collection of stories, which chronicle humanity’s encounter with itself and God, and God’s encounter with humanity. I think the time has now come to enter into the story as story and to find there, the echoes and guideposts of our own spiritual encounter and journey. That we become part of the story, (here Eugene Peterson’s bookEat This Book” is helpful) Thinking of the Christmas story, the angels, the shepherds the star and the wise men, the baby born in the stable all relate to how we find the message and the meeting with the one who gives us new birth, new depth of meaning, new direction and new mission. We meet our God in a text, which takes us beyond fact and offers us insights into truth. Here I find my own new birth, my own vulnerability and experience my own humanity.

The second is to directly encounter God, this we can reach through inner stillness in the centre of our lives. Christian have meditated on the Word for thousands of years, stilling their minds and discovering again the sense of peace and joy and wholeness that can come from the discipline of meditation. I am reminded of that old carol “It came upon the midnight clear”

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world hath suffered long;
beneath the angel-strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

Through such encounters with the divine we find a new vocation for our lives with new and deeper meaning, which we may have been searching for and thought we had lost forever.

The third is the meeting with God in the context of the meeting of the community. Our story is maintained through ritual and liturgy. Today, and each day of the year, we tell the story in word, in action, in poetry, music, art and dance. Through the telling of the story together, we affirm our community, we find new faith and hope, and again we find a new sense of the mission and a vocation of humanity i.e. to be human in our de-humanizing world – to be the image of God.

At this Christmas season we hear a story of journeys, the journey of Mary and Joseph, the journey of the shepherds, the journey of the wise men, the journey of angels and even of a star. May I invite you on a journey, a journey to the discovery of our true selves, a journey to find a new sense of humanity, which our world so desperately needs.

I was inspired by a sermon written the Very Rev Michael J.Pitts, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal and while I have largely copied his work it has been change and edited by me.

Redevelopment on Rotten Row

Work has started on redeveloping our neighbourhood.
In the sixteen and seventeen hundreds the Hilltown where we live was known as rotten row. It was outside the city walls and was home to artisans, buckle makers and the like. They were separated from the rich by a city wall. In the 1960’s it was redeveloped but the problems persisted and it reputation for crime continued to get worse. Now the bulldozers have arrived once again and we wait to see what happens next! The residence who lived in these flats are no dispersed many north of the Kingsway (the dual carriageway that bypasses the city) – I wonder if this will be the new city wall!

Power and Authority

“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…” Philippians 2: 5-7a While travelling with Tony Campolo this summer, he told me this story: ThAngrye health board in an American community asked the local government to grant permission for the opening of ‘halfway’ houses for people being discharged from a local psychiatric hospital. The homes were intended to be a safe place where those who had previously suffered from mental illness could rebuild their lives. The local community (many of whom were Christian) rose up in arms at this proposal. They did not want these homes in their neighbourhood! The lobbying machine went into overdrive, with a concerted local media campaign swelling the protesters support. When it was time for the next meeting of the local council hundreds of angry residents arrived to bombard the elected members with their opposition to these homes. Seeing the mood of the meeting, the council members voted unanimously not to allow the health board to open the homes. Just as the vote was passed the door of the hall opened, and in walked the frail figure of Mother Theresa. In the area to speak at a conference, Mother Theresa had heard of the furore raging over this issue. With the room suddenly silent and every eye on her tiny frame, Mother Theresa walked to the front of the hall and knelt in front of the Council. “Please give these people a chance,” she begged, “Please, please, please!” Faced with the kneeling nun, the council rescinded their recent decision and – with no opposition from the onlookers – the halfway homes were duly built. What was it about the plea of one small woman that carried such sway against hundreds of outraged citizens? The protesters in the local community used their power to try to force their will on the local council – a media campaign, and many angry voices – but Mother Theresa spoke with a compelling authority. Where did this authority come from? It came from the fact that Mother Theresa had given up everything for the sake of the poor, living a life of sacrifice and selfless giving, truly identifying with the people she served in every possible way. When we, as Christians, speak out on issues that face us today, do we speak with power or ? If we want to make a difference to the communities in which we live then we need to be sacrificially involved with those in need: giving our time and money, letting go of our own agendas and truly serving our communities.

Should a Christian own a BMW?

Just a thought – but if we work on the WWJD principle how much “stuff” would we buy?  If when faced with the latest consumer must have gadget, we stopped and thought about Jesus as he is portrayed in the gospels, and asked what would Jesus do or could I imagine Jesus buying this?  How many things would weBMW buy?

A BMW is more than a car, it is a status symbol.  I don’t mean to pick on BMW owners anymore than anyone else, but it is a good example to use as an illustration of how far away we are from living out the values and simplicity of Jesus.  In basic terms, if Jesus had £50,000 to spend and he knew that people were dying from the lack of the basic necessities of life – such as food and clean water, would he buy a status symbol or feed the poor?

The heart is deceitful above all things and it is easy to convince ourselves that we need things or deserve things (I recently heard a friend say they deserved a new car due to the stress they had recently endured).  I find it difficult to imagine Jesus saying I need a holiday in the Maldives, or I must have an iPod, and yet I hear this kind of language on the lips of many Christians including my own (I have never been to the Maldives but I do own and iPod).

Some years ago I had a conversation with an up and coming business manager.  He and his wife lived in an ex-miners’ terraced cottage.  It had three bedrooms and small garden.  The manager and his wife were both committed Christians.  When he got promotion at work he told me he had to buy a bigger house as his clients would expect it.  “It is important for my career.”He said.

I replied with the following question “I wonder what would happen when your clients knowing you could afford a bigger house, discoverer that you had chosen to stay in your cottage so that you could give more money to the poor?

He bought his big house and has been successful in business but I still wonder what the impact would have been if he had not moved and would he have been more or less successful in business.

It is easy to see the speck in my brother’s eye but the plank in my own is trickier for me to spot. As I said, the heart is deceitful above all things and it takes considerable effort to examine my own motives, but it is imperative that I do it. I try to focus on Jesus and compare my morality against him and in this process give permission to some members of the community of faith to speak into my life.  I need those who God has placed me with because they see the plank in my eye far more clearly than I do, they are not caught up with my fantasy – in fact we should all make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves , seeking others who can honestly reflect back to us what they see in us and turn both our will and our lives over to God.

In 1946 Mother Teresa heard Christ’s miraculous call to “Come, come, carry Me into the holes of the poor. Come, be My light.” “Will thou refuse?” How could Mother Teresa refuse? For in 1942, she had made a personal, secret vow to Jesus, “Not to refuse Him anything, however small.” When I became a Christian in 1978 I prayed a prayer very similar to Mother Teresa’s vow – the prayer was in a booklet written by Norman Warren entitled Journey into Life.  The prayer was as follows…

Lord Jesus Christ, I know that I have sinned in my thoughts words and actions

There are so many good things I have not done. There are so many sinful things I have done.

I am sorry for my sins and turn from everything I know to be wrong.

You gave your life upon the cross for me.

Gratefully I give my life back to you.

Now I ask you to come into my life.

Come in as my Saviour to cleanse me.

Come in as my Lord to control me.

And I will serve you all the remaining years of my life in complete obedience.

Amen

What set Mother Teresa apart is the speed and faithfulness in which she honoured her vow.  I have been trying to fulfil my vow for 31 years, it has been a wonderful and exciting journey and it is a journey that is still challenging.

The thing I want to do I don’t do and instead I do the very thing I do not want to do – this is my story – so when I challenge others I am confronted by my own hypocrisy and my falling short.  I am fortunate to be part of a Christian community that challenges me to push in harder to God and who also forgive me when I don’t.  Who will save me from this body of death? Yes you know who!

A new vision of Church or an old one?

Cloisters

What if…

What if being a ‘member’ of a church wasn’t about accessing communion, or submitting to the church’s  authority, but was about committing to one another’s lives no matter what.  A covenant even, that we will pursue God’s best for one another.

That we will do life together – through good times and bad.

That we will take down our masks, revealing what’s really going on in our lives and hearts.

That we ask each other difficult questions.

That when you sin against me, and when I sin against you, we are committed to forgive and work through the issues.

That there’s no bailing out when things get tough.

What if we made that covenant to each other?

What if the ‘church community’ wasn’t about weekly meetings, but about being in and out of other people’s homes and lives, day in day out?

What if it involved breaking down the different compartments of our lives – our homes, our families, our work, our friends, our neighbours, our communities – but instead tried to integrate them?

What if it didn’t pursue ‘ministry’ – but simply ‘life’?

What if it was committed to a specific geographical community, dedicated to bringing God’s values to that area?

What if it committed to pursuing love and justice, no matter the cost? How far is it willing to go for the sake of the lost?

What if it really believed that each time we walk past someone in need, we walk past Jesus?

What if it didn’t accept hard-heartedness to sin, selfishness, and poverty as an option?

What if it rejected the notion that Christian values = middle class values – that Christianity shouldn’t be ‘respectable’?

What if it committed to building friendships with the types of people Jesus himself preferred to spend time with – the broken, the forsaken, the poor?

What if it opened its homes, not just to one another, but to those in need as well?

What if we’re holding out for some sort of revival that we actually need to initiate?

What if our ideas about love have to take a step up?

What if Isaiah got it right when he said that only when we spend ourselves on behalf of others, then our light will break forth in the darkness?

(This blog was sent to me by afriend in my community http://www.communitychurchdundee.org)