31 July 2006

Guilt and Innocence

For those who argue that there are innocent States in the Middle East, I offer these words from Miroslav Volf's Exclusion and Embrace. (Abingdon Press, 1996, p. 80)

No one will dispute that the perpetrators are guilty; they are guilty by definition. But what about the victims? Are not they innocent? No doubt, many a person has been violated at no fault of his or her own. Yet even if they are not to be blamed for the violation suffered, should we call them innocent? Let us assume that they were innocent before they were violated. Will they remain innocent after the act? Will they stay innocent as they are drawn into a conflict and as the conflict gathers in momentum? Some heroic souls might, but will the rest? Moreover, rather than entering conflicts at their inception, people often find themselves sucked into a long history of wrongdoing in which yesterday's victims are today's perpetrators and today's perpetrators tommorow's victims. Is there innocence within such a history? With the horns of small and large social groups locked, will not the "innocent" be cast aside and proclaimed "guilty" precisely because they seek to be "innocent"? The fiercer the battle gets the more it is governed by the rule: "Whoever is not fighting with you is strugglings against you." Can victims sustain innocence in a world of violence?

In May, I blogged that I Am A Sinner (who has been forgiven). Don't we love to say that? "Oh yes, Lord, I confess that I'm a sinner." And don't we hate to admit it? "Sin? Because I took revenge on the person who harmed me greatly? Oh no, that's not sin, that's "just retribution."

In Exclusion and Embrace, Volf quotes Cornelius Plantinga (in Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin William B Eerdmans, 1995, p. 99)
The heart of sin is…the persistent refusal to tolerate a sense of sin, to take responsibility for one’s sin, to live with the sorrowful knowledge of it and to pursue the painful way of repentance.
We can't tolerate the idea that we ourselves, or those who we support, are sinners. So we make up theologies that directly contradict what Jesus taught about "just war" and "just retribution" and we tell ourselves that our carefully-calculated violence isn't sinful.

Man-Talk / Woman-Talk

And now for something completely (I hope!) trivial...

We're moving house next week and I went into town today to have a good-bye lunch with some of my former colleagues from work. There were ten of us and we tried not to sit with the men at one end of the table and the women at the other end of the table but that's how it worked out anyway. I was sitting the middle and so had the men to my left and the women to my right and could hear both conversations.

At one point, the conversation stopped and someone remarked that the women and men had each been having their own conversation. What were the men talking about? Pregnancy, the language development of two-year olds and the impossibility of teenagers. What were the women talking about? Hardware stores and where was the best place to buy electrical fixtures. True; I heard both sides of the conversation.

Who says that there is no such thing as natural gender difference? ;-)

30 July 2006

Hymn: We Pray for Peace

We Pray for Peace
- by Alan Gaunt

We pray for peace,
but not the easy peace
built on complacency
and not the truth of God.
We pray for real peace,
the peace God's love alone can seal.

We pray for peace,
but not the cruel peace,
leaving God's poor bereft
and dying in distress,
we pray for real peace,
enriching all the human race.

We pray for peace,
and not the evil peace,
defending unjust laws
and nursing prejudice,
but for the real peace
of justice, mercy, truth and love.

We pray for peace:
holy communion
with Christ our risen Lord
and every living thing;
God's will fulfilled on earth
and all his creatures reconciled.

We pray for peace,
and for the sake of peace,
look to the risen Christ
who gives the grace we need,
to serve the cause of peace
and make our own self-sacrifice.

God, give us peace:
if you withdraw your love,
there is no peace for us
nor any hope of it.
With you to lead us on,
through death or tumult, peace will come.

28 July 2006

Another Point of View

A Lebanese Christian[1] who responded to my post on 'Lost for Words - No Answers' has posted a link to a Christianity Today article entitled Another Point of View: Evangelical Blindness on Lebanon

I think this article is so important that it deserves a post all it's own. As I said to the person, I know Lebanese Christians and this is exactly the sort of thing they have been saying for years.

From bitter experience, I know that I can say I used to be an evangelical until the cows come home, but if I express this kind of opinion, I will always be someone who is 'kicking against the goads'. But here is the voice of one of the most respected evangelical magazines in the US. (I have to say that I am almost always impressed by their theology and prophetic Christian stance.)

[1] I am happy to link directly to the post and to name the person's handle in this post, just let me know. I didn't want to be too 'up front' with the information if that was unwanted. However, I do want to give credit where credit is due.

What True Liberalism Really Wants

There is a stunning article in this week's Church Times by The Revd Dr. Giles Fraser entitled 'What True Liberalism Really Wants". (link here)

As a lecturer in philosophy, Fraser is able to provide a philosophical background to frame liberalism in a much more responsible way than the traditional caricature we hear of 'no standards, do what feels good'.

For me, the 'sound bite' to the article is the following:
Liberty is an important principle in so far as it protects human beings from those who are convinced they know best; those who are convinced they always know the truth. Liberal freedom is not wilful self-assertiveness: it is an insurance policy against dangerous bullies who believe they have God on their side.
This is what liberalism is for me. Not the selfish, self-seeking, no-standards model that so many people tell us we are advocating. Unquestioning obedience to a supreme authority is fine as long as the supreme authority is benign or loving. But how many people have the moral fortitude and character to resist thinking that they are demigods when given supreme authority? Not many.

Lost for Words - No Answers

I've been trying to think what it is I have to say about the situation in Israel/Lebanon and, the truth is, that I'm lost for words.

I had lunch with a friend yesterday, and we both agreed that we had no words. We both agreed that we can't take sides and that the most atrocious thing about the whole situation was seeing dead bodies on the nightly news - especially those of very young children and babies.

My friend said that all she can do at the sight of dead bodies is cry. So she changes the channel for a few minutes until the news moves on to something else. Then she feels guilty. We should be crying at the fact that human beings are killing other human beings, shouldn't we? But how can a person stand to watch that all the time?

And then the big question - if we can't cope with this sort of pointless death as human beings and if we keep seeing it on television and in the papers, do we just end up desensitising ourselves to the whole thing? What can we do other than donate to relief agencies? But isn't that too simple and just a way to assuage our own guilt?

As a Christian, I believe passionately in forgiveness and reconciliation. I said passionately and I mean 'passionately'. I am a passionate pacifist. A lot of people do not understand that. Some seem to think that pacifism is born out of a stance of 'I can't be bothered. I don't want trouble. Let's all just get along so that I can get own with my own selfish life.'

I believe that pacifism, forgiveness and reconciliation are at the core of the Gospel. They are not pink and fluffy easy-peasy things to do. They are damn difficult things to do; if they weren't the sort of hatreds and rivalries that we have in the Middle East would not be occuring.

Jesus called those who follow him to forgive endlessly - seventy times seven. The twelve recognised that this was an 'unreasonable' and outrageous request when they challenged him and said 'Surely you don't mean that.'

From the point of view of Christian theology, as far as I am concerned, there is no such thing as a just war. At best, there is only the regretably unjust war that we may have to engage in for survivial - but it is still sinful.

As a US citizen, I abhor the fact that the US government is refusing to talk to Hezbollah until the latter do what the former want. As a UK citizen, I abhor the fact that the UK government seems to be following lock-step with US policies. As a Christian, I abhor the fact that so many other Christians cheer the fact that Lebanese babies are dying. I do not believe Lebanon are innocent, but I also do not believe the apparent US view that Israel are innocent either. The whole situation is a paradigm of mimetic violence on both sides.

27 July 2006

Guidance of a Good God

The posts on my retreat and on Ignatian discernment seem to have struck a chord, so I thought that I would post some resources that I've personally found helpful.

For a fairly detailed exposition of the process of Ignatian discernment itself, with practical exercises you can do, Margaret Silf's Landmarks is really excellent. Silf has been called by some one of the best spiritual writers alive today and I would agree with that view.

An excellent book that deals specifically with the Examen is Sleeping with Bread: Holding what gives life by Dennis Linn. The subtitle of the book pretty much explains what the Examen is. It's a review of the day (or week, or month or year) where we simply notice what has given life and what has not given life, without trying to make any sort of evaluation of the events - that is left to God.

Margaret Silf's Wayfaring takes you through the big themes of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, again with practical exercises for the reader.

Finally, for those who are looking for a much more academic or intellectual approach to the exercises, Michael Iven's Understanding the Spiritual Exercises
is 'the definitive commentary' on the Exercises and David Lonsdale's Eyes to See, Ears to Hear is a much-respected overview of Ignatius, the Jesuit order and the Exercises.

23 July 2006

God is Good - Part 2

If you've grown up with the idea that God is Good, then this post probably isn't for you. This post if for all the people who have a voice in the back of their head that wants to say 'Hold on a moment, it depends what you mean by 'good'". However that voice got there.

At my church this morning, the preacher ended his sermon by saying that if anyone ever tells you that something is God's will and doing that thing saps all the joy and energy out of your life, then it's not God's will for you. I don't know if this preacher is familiar with the Ignatian way of praying, but that is one of the cornerstones of Ignatian discernment - that for those people who are seeking to do the will of God, doing God's will is life-giving rather than soul-destroying.

When I was growing up, people around me seemed to think that doing something that ripped you apart was from God and doing something that gave you life and energy and passion was from Satan. I'm not talking about obviously moral and immoral choices. I'm talking about ordinary decisions. Do you desperately want to be a teacher when you grow up? Must be a desire from Satan; God asks us to suffer. I hasten to add that this was no-one's official theology, but it certainly was the way that people behaved.

This morning the preacher used the text from Matthew where Jesus tells us to take on his yoke and that it will be a light yoke. This was not the official lectionary reading for today, but it was the daily lectionary reading during the week when I was on retreat, so I heard it preached twice this week. (Coincidence? I think not.) I've preached the same sermon myself.

Jesus' yoke is one that we can bear rather than one we can't. As I said in a post here a couple of months ago, God never asks us to suffer simply as some sort of abstract discipline. He does ask us to stand up for the Gospel truths of justice, righteousness and Truth and sometimes doing that may cause us to suffer terribly. But he doesn't ask us to overburden ourselves simply to suffer for the sake of suffering.

No great theological defenses in this post - just encouragement. God is Good. He created each of us as unique individuals. If God gave you a passion (that is not immoral or unethical), it's likely to be something that God wants you to use in service to the Gospel and for the glory of God.

Pray. Listen to God. Your talents and passions are gifts of the Spirit - charismatic gifts. Use them in the service of God.

God is Good - Part 1

I've been away on a four-day silent Ignatian retreat. It's hard to know where to even begin and hard to know what to say other than 'God is Good'.

After a really incredibly hectic year at theology college where I felt like I had more to do than was humanly possible in the time allotted, I got to be alone in the silence, just me and God.

At the beginning of the retreat, we were asked to be silent for a few minutes and think about God looking at each of us and to notice the manner in which God was looking at us. I was really surprised to see God chuckling at me. I think that there was an elbow nudge there too. That pretty much set the scene for the next four days.

A lot of what happened on retreat is private, but I'd like to share the events of the first morning. I went for a walk into the town and I saw these daisies in someone's garden. I've never seen daisies like these before - they look like they've had a bad hair day. When I saw them, God said to me, 'You may be weird, but you're beautiful'. That seems about right.

And then just to make sure I'm listening to God - OK hit me over the head if you have to - I'm walking down the street when I'm approached by a woman who seemed to be about eighty. She was making a determined beeline for me and I thought we were going to stop and have a chat. Instead, she threw both arms up in the air pointing at tree above our heads and said with a big enthusiastic smile 'Isn't it beautiful!?!?' and kept on walking. :-0

It was a good retreat. God is Good.

16 July 2006

The Present Value of Future Agony Flows

On several other blogs, there are on-going discussions about the reality and nature of hell.

This Dilbert Cartoon manages to appeal to me as both a minister and as an ex-pension professional. It's a niche area, I know, but that's what makes it especially funny. :-)

The Dance of the Trinity

Today I preached my last sermon at my home church before moving from North London to Kidderminster in a fortnight. It was an incredibly emotional experience, much more than I expected. The last time I was in that church as a preacher was almost exactly a year ago when I went to finish my training by doing a full-time year of study at Cambridge.

This is the very first totally thematic sermon I've ever done. I very rarely deviate from the lectionary, but it seemed appropriate today. Paul Fiddes' concept of the Trinity meets Miroslav Volf's concept of embrace; add a bit of St. John's Christology and shake thorougly until mixed.


Texts: Esther 2: 17-23 and John 17:17-23

In 1990, a playwright named John Guare wrote a play entitled Six Degrees of Separation. The play was based on the idea that any two strangers in the world are separated from each other by an average of six other relationships. So, if I wanted a personal introduction to George W. Bush, in theory, I should know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows George W. Bush.

This theory is absolute true. Something like it was first proposed in 1929 in a short story called Chains.

Then in the 1950s, an American sociologist attempted to solve what he called ‘the small world problem’ by measuring the ‘degrees of separation’ between two people. He randomly selected people in the mid-West to send packages to a stranger located in Massachusetts. The senders knew the recipient's name, occupation, and general location. They were instructed to send the package to a person they knew on a first-name basis who they thought was most likely, out of all their friends, to know the target personally. That person would do the same, and so on, until the package was delivered to its target recipient. The sociologist actually thought that there would be hundreds of intermediaries between the two strangers. But, in fact, the usual number of intermediaries was between five and seven.

The experiment was repeated using email and the internet in 2001. Using the internet allowed many more people to participate in the experiment, but again, the average number of intermediaries was six.

It is indeed a small world.

Who we are, what we do and how we treat others is important, because our lives affect the lives of those around us.

In this morning’s Old Testament reading, Esther’s well-placed relationship with King Xerxes put her in a position to plead with him that her people be spared. Elsewhere in the story, her uncle Mordecai reminds her to think of the fate of her people and not to be complacent simply because she herself is resident in the King’s house.

For good or for evil, our lives as human beings are intertwined. As Christians, we would expect that our lives would not only be intertwined with other people but also – in some way – with the life of God.

I think that this is what Jesus is saying and praying in this morning’s Gospel reading Jesus talks about how his own life is caught up in the life of the Father. Earlier in this same discourse, Jesus talks about how the Spirit is in the Father and the Son and will be sent to the disciples – and to the church – after Jesus’ departure from this world. This is an image of Father, Son and Holy Spirit relating to each other in movements of love – or as one theologian has put it – in a dance of love.

There are dynamic relationships between the persons of the Trinity, expressing Divine love – a love so vigorous and dynamic that it does and must pour itself out into the world. And I think that Jesus is saying here that the glory of God’s self-giving love is poured out to the church so that the church can be the bearer of God and of God’s love in the world. In some very limited sense, when we are Spirit-filled, the church gets to participate in the very life of God

Of course, we have had a relationship with each other. All of you and I. In speaking with someone after the evening service a few weeks ago, it occurred to me that you all ought to know what you have meant for me on my journey to becoming a minister. Because I honestly don’t think I would have even started on this journey to ministry if I hadn’t ended up here at xxxxxxx.

I really do believe that God brought me here in order to open up the pathway for me to studying for the ministry. When I came to xxxxxxx, I found that I was quickly able to be myself. People were open and courteous, and sensitive and caring. For me, the thing that I think that xxxxxxx does really well is care for and about people. And that was obvious as a new-comer.

You welcomed me, and as I joined activities I didn’t feel like I was stepping on anyone’s toes by joining without knowing hundreds of unwritten rules. For me, what I found at xxxxxxx was an attitude of openness that I particularly needed. You let me ask my difficult questions without getting too upset with me. You supported me – as did xxxxx and the rest of the circuit – in becoming first a Local Preacher and then in applying for Foundation Training.

For me, having the opportunity to become a Local Preacher before applying for Foundation Training was important. It was a step along the way and allowed me to test my call. What if God was calling me to be a Local Preacher but not to be a minister? Again, God’s hand seemed to be in the situation by putting me in the place where I needed to be.
For five years we worshipped together, talked together, prayed together and cared about each other. Your openness had a healing and encouraging effect on my life and I hope that I was able to encourage some of you in some way too.

I think that openness is an important part of the Christian community and that it’s an important part of living out God’s love.

If you think about the image of the church universal participating in the community of the Trinity, I don’t think that there can really be a community without openness. In order for the church to invite others to participate in its life in the Triune God, openness is necessary. It is simply not possible to be closed in on ourselves and to expect to invite others into our dance with God.

To show an open heart and mind to others is to say: ‘It is not enough for us to be alone. We need to be in relationship with you.’ This is true for the church’s relationship with God and it’s true with the church’s relationship to individuals outside the church. Our openness invites others into our community life.

And just as God holds out his hand to us and then stands waiting for our response, so too are we called to wait. I don’t mean that the church waits passively for something to happen because it has failed to issue an invitation to the world around it in the first place. I mean that, having issued the invitation, the church waits without overwhelming those we have invited. We’ve invited them because we are besotted with our communion-dance with the Trinity and we want to share this marvellous miracle with others. We don’t pull them into our building by force because we need more people to fill the pews.

When our invited guests join the dance, they join the dance floor and interact with us and we with them – we’re in now in relationship. Our community is going to be changed in some way. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be a genuine relationship. We enter each other’s space, each other’s life. We remain ourselves but the other person’s style of dancing is going to have an effect on the way we dance. Ultimately, of course, the church looks to the dance of the Trinity and prays that God will teach us his perfect way of dancing.

And finally, of course, every genuine relationship on this earth means that there will be an ending. Some dances end because God calls that particular community to dance a different dance. Some endings come because God calls people to dance elsewhere. Other endings come because God calls the person home to dance with the Trinity in the New Creation. But one way or another, genuine relationships between human beings must end. Genuine love risks everything.

And so we are here together this morning as a community of believers, worshipping God as we come before this communion table to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

Here we come together to proclaim our unity with all who confess Jesus Christ as Lord

Here we come together as the church to meet our Saviour and our brother who charged us to do this in memory of him

Here we participate in some small way in God’s dance of life.

May the blessing of God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - be with us all. Amen

15 July 2006

Interrupted by Life

I confess that I am a product of my upbringing and my experience. After more than twenty years working in 'industry', I'm very 'production-oriented'. I must 'do'. I must 'be productive'.

I am trying to learn another way but it's surprisingly difficult. Old dog and new tricks, as they say.

The article Interrupted by Life hits the spot. It's exactly the sort of thing I need to keep reading and reminding myself about. Life is not primarily about what we do; it's about how we relate to God and to God's children and creation.

12 July 2006

Everyone's Poster Boy?

I hope I can write a coherent post without naming this person. The reason I'm not naming him is that I feel it could be viewed as "damning with false flattery" when it's absolutely not my intention to do that whatsoever.

In fact, this post is not about him at all. At least not about him as a person. I think it's about him as a symbol, though.

Everyone loves him. Heck, I love him, I really do. The man is an incredibly gifted Christian scholar and he's incredibly gifted at communicating his ideas to the proverbial person in the street or the proverbial person in the pew. And he's opened up new worlds of understanding to me as - I'm quite sure - he has done for many others. There is no "but" that follows this paragraph; unqualified admiration chez PamBG - long may he live, long may he publish, long may he open up new theological insights to the Church.

What I've noticed, though, in my trawls through blogdom is that there are lots of people who are waving various theological flags in the Christian theology wars who seem to want to claim him for their very own poster-boy.

This makes me wonder again about the utility of these theology-wars. My gut instinct is that if factions who hell-bent on denigrating each other (and I'm not just talking about the h-topic) all want to claim him as a theologian who really understands where they are at, maybe just maybe we're not actually as far apart as we like to make out? Maybe just maybe our own theological necessities are actually nit-picking rather than necessary.

What is it about the human psyche that makes us think that we can only be good in the light of the other guy being bad?

11 July 2006

Be Careful What you Preach

They say that every preacher has a handful of sermons. I hope that I have more than a handful, but I know that "peace" and "unconditional forgiveness" are two of the topics I tend to bang on about. I happen to think that there is something holy about being able to agree to disagree and that there is something holy about being able to forgive.

So now, I'm caught by my own words. I can't go into much detail at all but I have spent a goodly number of hours in the last 24 being quite seriously angry. Being a passionate sort of person, I think I need to let my feelings die down a bit. I can't see past them at the moment. I don't want to hurt anyone else, but if I could get my way, I'd dearly love to feel heard even though I know that ain't gonna happen.

So I guess the first part of the journey is to calm down and remind myself of the truly important things in life. I am alive and healthy; I have a husband who I adore who is alive and healthy and good friends. I am trying to serve God to the best of my ability. Those are the important things and they'll have to do for now.

Improvisational Music with Jesus

Believer Blog has a post on Making Improvisational Music With Jesus which explores the concept of "Falling in Love with Jesus". Quite similar to my concept of falling in love with God but much more artisitically expressed!

08 July 2006

Too Too Funny!

Need a laugh?

I suggest Angry Alien.

Thirty-second parodies of your favourite films enacted by animated bunnies.

Facetious? Moi?

cartoon from www.weblogcartoons.com

Cartoon by Dave Walker. Find more cartoons you can freely re-use on your blog at We Blog Cartoons.

May I also add that I am awed by the fact that your car is as wide as the road and I'm impressed by the grid-lock that that creates. I really do believe that your one child's physical safety would be at risk if you owned a Ford Fiesta. So, you are welcome on the narrow side-roads of London anytime!

06 July 2006

New Head of BBC Religion and Ethics

Today's issue of The Methodist Recorder reports that Michael Wakelin has been appointed Head of Religion and Ethics at the BBC. The BBC's Press Release can be found here.

Wakelin, a Methodist Local Preacher, has been the series producer of BBC's Songs of Praise for the last five years. He replaces Alan Bookbinder - a self-proclaimed 'open-hearted agnostic' - who stepped down from the position in March 2006.

Women's Service in the New Covenant

On Wednesday, I had the privilege of hearing Mimi Haddad speak on Galatians 3:28: Women's Service in the New Covenant & Bible Translation. Mimi is the President of Christians for Biblical Equality.

Mimi's a really gifted speaker and, as an historian, she offered some very interesting perspectives on Paul and the early church. She has a talent for being able to explain quite complicated subject matter in every-day language.

And now a confession. I've been on CBE's email list for about five years. A few weeks ago, I probably would have ignored the email, but recent blogging about how the bible does not permit women to hold leadership roles in the church woke me up to this issue again. After the seminar, I had a chance to speak briefly with Mimi and I promised her I would join CBE; so if you're reading, Mimi, my subscription has already been sent.

If you have a chance to hear Mimi speak, go. She's an interesting and engaging speaker. And I have the feeling that she's used to audiences that are a bit more hostile than me and thirty Salvation Army officers of the 'female persuasion'.

Faith and Creeds

Over at Faith and Theology, Kim Fabricius quotes Roman Catholic spiritual director Herbert McCabe on the subject of “faith” and “creeds”. I confess to not having heard of McCabe before although I very much like this quotation.

Someone recently remarked on a discussion group that they felt they could no longer be a Christian because they couldn’t recite the creed and believe every word 100%. This is the answer I would like to give to anyone who thinks along such lines.

Preaching Peace

For those of you who are familiar with the Preaching Peace website, they have also now started a blog at: Preaching Peace.Blogs.

While I'm writing about the general subject area, other helpful websites of the same genre include:
Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary and the James Alison website.

01 July 2006

Convent blogger

...um, well sort of.

Debi Ireland, one of the women featured in the BBC's programme, The Convent, has just begun blogging over on http://majikbunnie.blogspot.com/.

Welcome to blog-world, Debi.