31 December 2010
Mercy, Not Justice
"Tell me about your parent" I asked. The children told me that the parent had been angry with God on account of the tragic death of another one of their siblings a number of years ago. Then one of them asked me a question that I've been asked once before in my short tenure as a Chaplain: could God accept their parent into heaven if that parent had been angry with God over the death of that child? And then one of them said "We want you to pray for mercy, not justice."
Justice? I passionately believe in God's justice. But I'm not so sure that God's justice has a lot to do with the "sending to hell" of a person whose heart is broken. And that's what I said: "I don't think that God condemns a person to hell for having a broken heart." Now, I have no idea if this particular individual was "going to heaven" but I'm certain in my own heart that they aren't going to be "sent" to hell against their will for not being able to get over their grief.
I also noticed that, when I said that, all the children started crying and they all thanked me afterward.
Here is one place where I think popular notions of salvation and what it means to be a Christian do Jesus and Scripture a disservice. Popular Christianity has turned "faith in Jesus" into some kind of an intellectual assent that has nothing to do with Justice. So, we name people as "just" who assent to certain ideas about Jesus. And they don't even have to actually try to change their lives according to Jesus' teachings; all they have to do is assent to certain ideas about him. And we name as "unjust" people who don't assent to certain ideas, even those whose heart is broken. And we are certain that such people are "unjust" even if they visit the sick and imprisoned and feed the hungry.
This accounting-version of what it means to be a Christian also does a disservice to the concept of "Justice". Any honest reading of Scripture on the subject of "justice" will demonstrate that the biblical concept of justice is not some kind of complicated, abstract, doctrinal mental Olympics. Scriptural justice is very similar to plain, straightforward, everyday justice: don't harm others. Don't steal, don't exploit, don't take advantage just because you can. And it's also more than that: God's people are called beyond the don'ts into the realm of the do's: Do help, do give a hand up, do empower.
Faced with an unjust person whose soul cries out to God: "I harmed, I killed, I stole, I was self-centered, and I'm proud of it. I don't want anything to do with repentance and I don't want anything to do with You. Eternity in Your presence would be hell" I believe that God will grant the person's wish to be outside of the Kingdom for all eternity.
I do not, however, believe in a God who sends a broken-hearted parent unwillingly to eternal torture on grounds of "justice".
If God's mercy is ultimately smaller than the best mercy that we humans can conceive of, then ours is indeed a very small god.
27 December 2010
Blogging on blogging / blogging on chaplaincy
So here is my blog on my blogging.
I haven't been blogging a lot. But I'm not contemplating giving up. And I'm not going to vow to blog more in the near future either.
A good part of the reason is my new "job". Or rather the Clinical Pastoral Education Chaplaincy training that I'm doing at a very large hospital near where I live. The job, you see, has a way of putting things in perspective. By "things", I mean mainly life, faith and theology.
Theology is actually very important in Chaplaincy, because if you don't know what you believe, it's hard to help other people sort out what they believe. And it's hard to set people in the right direction if you don't know what you believe about God. "Does God forgive me?" "Am I not getting better because I don't have enough faith?" "Why did God let my newborn baby die when she didn't do anything wrong?" These are big questions. And they are difficult questions without easy answers.
Maybe that's why historically the church has liked to keep its eyes on the kind of theology that tries to count how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Will 5-point Calvinists get into heaven? Does God really love Arminians? Can God save those who hold a Christus Victor theology of atonement instead of a penal substitution model?
Don't get me wrong. I still love theology. But some of the more esoteric stuff strikes me as not having anything to do with real life and real faith and the kind of relationship with God that sustains a person through a long illness. Oh, and by the way, the "Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour" model also doesn't really cut it either.
The wonderful thing about being a chaplain is that I get to see real, genuine miracles every day. I also see real, genuine people of deep, deep faith being told by God "Your loved one will not receive a healing or a cure; it's her time to come to me." And it's inexplicable why some people get the miracle and others don't. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.
Oh, there is one other dirty secret of Chaplaincy. Non-Christians get miracles too. People of other faiths and people of no faith. God actually does appear to be as merciful as the best mercy that human beings can conceive.
So that's the background to why I'm not blogging much. I'm still taking this all in. My faith in God is rock solid. My faith in the church and in platitudinous theology not so much. I feel like I'm going through a "dark night of the words". I can't describe the kind of faith that I think really gets us through the crises. But I think I know it when I see it.
21 November 2010
A Word in Time
19 November 2010
Faith in Your Damnation
Don't get me wrong. You and I might both very well be damned. But, thanks be to God, it's not my job to decide who, if anyone, is damned. That job belongs to God.
However, you might very well have got the impression from many of my fellow Christians that the main meaning we Christians derive from our faith is that you are damned and we are not. And I don't blame you if you've got that impression because I think that's the main message that Christians have communicated.
After all, some would argue, why be a Christian if everyone else is going to get into heaven too?
We've made the "good news" into the message "Good news! God will love you if you are just like us and believe exactly what we tell you to believe." But the flip side of that belief is "Bad news! God doesn't love you for who you are."
The only people who can't seem to see through this message is us.
That's a funny kind of faith - a faith that mainly focuses on the question of who is outside the Holy Fence. To talk to a lot of Christians, it's as if there isn't actually any meaning, reconciliation with God or salvation to be found inside Christianity, so we need to find our meaning in the idea of "Thank God I am not like that sinner." (Oops, didn't Jesus have a parable about that?)
Do we Christians really believe that there is good news at the heart of Christianity? Can we stand before God, just me and God, and find forgiveness, reconciliation, transformation of life? Or can we only feel "saved" if we have the comforting knowledge that there are some people who God just doesn't like - not now, not ever?
04 November 2010
Obama, a Socialist?
Joke of the Day
The Democrats are to the Right of our Right wing Party, the Conservatives. Our Left Wing party, the Labour Party, is Socialist. To any American readers please be aware that European Socialism is not the same as Stalin's Gulags or Kim Il Jong's worker's paradise. Some of you would get along just fine here: democracy, free press, a fairly civilised political landscape ... oh no, not that last one: you wouldn't recognise that. And we tend to lock up dangerous people rather than giving them talk shows to host. Just saying.
I become mildly offended when some folk insist on discussing Socialism as if it's symbol is 666. Really people, think before you speak!
24 September 2010
Naming the Demons
Over on the blog of my cyber-friend, Allan Bevere, I've been ranting a lot recently about what I call "the institutional church". This evening, I came across the quote below by Richard Rohr.
I'm prepared to own these words, but I didn't write them - I wish I had. I'm happy to dialogue with readers (if there are any of you left) about what these words mean to me. Sometimes it's just good to know that you haven't totally gone off the deep end. (Please, no comments from the Peanut Gallery!)
The three great things that in my opinion we have to let go of are the following. First there is the compulsion to be successful. Second is the compulsion to be right - even, and especially, to be theologically right. That's an ego trip, and because of this need churches have split in half, with both parties the prisoners of their own egos. Finally there is the compulsion to be powerful, to have everything under control. I'm convinced that these are the three demons Jesus faced in the wilderness. And so long as we haven't looked these three demons in the face, we should presume that they're still in charge. The demons have to be called by name, clearly, concretely, practically, spelling out just how imperious and self-righteous we are. This is the first lesson in the spirituality of subtraction.From "Simplicity: the art of living" by Richard Rohr, (Crossroads Press, New York 1992) p.44
That lesson also has many social and political implications and leads us to letting go of our political mythologies: for example, that we're the best country in the world, as many Americans believe. Pretty soon we've got to overcome nationalism - there isn't a lot of time left. We also have to give up the compulsion to possess so many thing and to have our own private stock of everything. The fact that not every one of us needs our own auto or washing machine would naturally make a good argument for physical community.
I'll just briefly say that I think the church goes wrong when it buys into the ideas of being successful and powerful and when it pushes congregations and clergy to be these things. I think the point about being theologically correct is self-evident.
21 September 2010
God is a Woman and She is Growing Older
(Hat tip to Rachel Barenblat at Velveteen Rabbi)
05 September 2010
In the book, he talks about a practice in the Jesuit community that is called "faith sharing". I immediately recognized this process as the one we used when I belonged to the Ignatian lay community called the Charistian Life Community.
Many Methodists talk about reinstating the original Methodist classes and many people wonder what they might do in such a "class" when they gather to hold their fellow members accountable in love. My own experience of "faith sharing" (I didn't know of this term until I read the book) was that it was the most profound experience of fellowship and growth in faith and prayer that I have ever had. And Fr. Martin can explain it better than I can, so I offer his words here:
Every Sunday night in the novitiate our community gathered for "faith sharing," which meant speaking to one another about our spiritual lives: where we had experienced God in our daily lives and what our prayer was like.I've wanted to write about my experience in CLC for a long time. But it's hard to write about because it's so simple. I personally found the rule of "no talking except to clarify" to be rule that made the entire process work and I think that many people find it a bit silly. But here is what I found:
There were two rules. First, everything was confidential. Second, no comments were allowed after someone spoke, unless it was a question asked to clarify something.
The first rule made sense. The second seemed ridiculous. Early on, when people expressed their struggles, I wanted to say, "Why not try this?" If someone talked about being lonely, I wanted to say, "Knock on my door." I couldn't understand why the novice director wanted us to be silent.
Gradually I realized: it was so we could listen....
Gradually I grew to love faith sharing. When my fellow novices, as well as Gerry and his assistant, David, shared about how they had experienced God in the previous week, I was fascinated. What a wonder to see how complicated these men were and how much they were all trying to grow in holiness, trying to be better men, better Jesuits.
* When no one can tell another that they disagree with his or her experience of God or that the speaker has got their doctrine wrong then people begin to be totally honest with each other.
* When no one interrupts others, the speakers don't get desperate to talk more in order to be heard and the listeners actually listen instead of worrying about what to say.
* The Spirit of God does move to challenge people and hold them accountable without any human in the group needing to don the mantle of Spiritual Rule-maker.
* When people are really honest about what is genuinely going on in their faith-life, the group members grow to love and appreciate each other and to understand their challenges.
In my experience in CLC, neither accountability nor faith-sharing required a human police(wo)man to make sure everyone was on track. God managed just fine without human intervention.
I'm not an historian of exactly how Wesley did things, but my hunch is that this format would work well for many accountability groups in our time. But the urge to make exceptions to the second rule really does need to be resisted at all cost.
28 July 2010
Profit and Productivity
15 July 2010
If you can't abuse a child, ordain a woman instead
And how did the Vatican do this? In what document did they choose to make this important pronouncement? Why, in a document written to deal with the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. Guardian Article here.
Apparently, on some Planet Ratzinger in a universe of parallel morality far far away, violating the stricture of Church tradition and ordaining women is equal in immorality to sexual abuse of a child. Wow, if that's the case then we really had better get cracking and make sure that we pounce on feminist theologians. We wouldn't them influencing anyone to think that women can usurp the priestly duties and stand as an intermediary between god and Man (capitalizations deliberate).
This has got to be one of the most egregious violations of common sense, decency and natural justice.
I really hate to appear to be some kind of Protestant who makes knee-jerk attacks on the Catholic Church for no good reason. Half of my family is Catholic and I studied theology at a Catholic university.
But sometimes you just have to stand up for what is right. I've heretofore refrained from speaking about the ordination of women in the Catholic Church because I felt that it wasn't my place. Now the Vatican is comparing the ordination of women to the sexual abuse of children. The Vatican has lost the plot although I'm confident that many millions of faithful Catholics have not.
This pronouncement is morally bankrupt.
12 July 2010
Rolls of Needy Swell
For those who don't know me, I assure you that I am being facetious.
There is a recession on, people. There but for the grace of God go you and I. Pretending that "my" get-up-and-go in contrast to "their" laziness will keep me in a job is just a form of magical thinking.
11 July 2010
Broken Covenant? Not.
This report is about Christians listening to the cry from our Christian sisters and brothers. They cry out to us to help Israel and its occupation. The end of the occupation is the key to peace in this troubled land of The Holy One as is the renouncing of violence by all. All the peoples yearn for security but security only follows from justice, not the other way around. And justice is the prophetic priority for all God’s people, as students of the bible know well.
In the bible we learn of The Chosen People. Who are they and what are they chosen for? Genesis tells us again and again that God choose Abraham and makes a covenant with Abraham and his heirs. A covenant being a two-sided agreement with obligations on both parties, like marriage. God’s covenant with the Children of Israel, Abraham’s heirs, is that he will be their God and they will be his people if they walk humbly before God, obey God’s laws and are a light to the nations.
Of course, Israel today is not the same as Israel in the bible. In the bible, Israel refers to the people of Abraham’s descendants who are in covenant with God. Israel today is a modern, secular State, created in 1948. Where, if you live in the West Bank: Bethlehem, Hebron, Ramallah, there is no freedom of travel, no freedom to leave the country and return, no freedom to plant your olive trees or tend your land, no freedom to marry and live together where you choose.
Last Sunday marked the anniversary of my ordination into The Methodist Church. It was 26 years ago (I was very young at the time!). For years I cherished the Galatians text: “In Christ there is no longer male or female.” Now I read it properly: “In Christ there is no longer male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek – we could say ‘Jew or Arab’ – we are all one in Christ. We are heirs of Abraham and so inheritors of the promise to Abraham.”
Jesus, who makes with us a New Covenant which transforms us utterly, never speaks of the land or owning it; he speaks of the Kingdom and joining it and invites us to do so. He teaches us God is not a racist God who has favourites. God loves all his children and blesses them.
“What is it God requires of you?” asks Micah today. “To do justice, to show mercy, walk humbly with God.” So we look for the day when that is true for all of Abraham’s children – Christian, Muslim and Jew – that they can live together freely and know God’s justice and peace.
02 July 2010
A Thought on Immigration
My husband is a UK citizen with a British accent living in the US. For 21 years, I was a US citizen with an American accent living in the UK.
Maybe people were too polite to say so, but no one ever complained to me that I was taking a job away from a native-born British citizen. Quite the opposite. A number of times, people complained to me at length about immigrants and then when I'd point out that I was an immigrant they said "Oh, but I don't mean you!"
In the same way, no one has yet challenged my husband about his immigration status to the US. OK, it's relatively early days, but I bet they don't mean him - that nice white man with a British accent - when they are worried about all those people coming over here and taking our jobs.
However, the ironic thing is that we were and are the people who are coming over here and taking away jobs from the native born. We are not doing the hard-grafting work that most immigrants do because native born sons and daughters don't want to do such hard work.
I'm pretty sure that it helps being white.
31 May 2010
Sunday 30 May 2010 - The Servant King
The sermon can be found on my sermon blog.
19 May 2010
It would be interesting to see how this eventually works out.
Very briefly, the former CEO of Panera Cafe, Ron Shaich, "has converted a former Panera-owned restaurant in an urban area of St. Louis into a non-profit restaurant dubbed Saint Louis Bread Company Cares Cafe." The cafe serves the same menu as a standard Panera Bread Cafe but instead of facing a cash register at check-out, patrons face a donation box where they can leave the suggested price for their meal, leave more or eat without paying.
This past Sunday was the first Sunday that the free-will cafe was opened and revenues were up 20% over the previous week.
I hope that USA Today keeps us informed of what happens.
17 May 2010
Heck is for People Who Don't Believe in Gosh
I asked him to do this because it arose out of another discussion on his blog. Also, his blog gets a higher readership and discussion rate than this blog, so I'm hoping that there will be a good discussion. In the event that you read my blog and not Allan's, please go over and comment on the post: Heck is for People Who Don't Believe in Gosh.
If it tempts you over, let me say that I don't believe that going to heaven and avoiding hell is a foundational Christian doctrine. I also don't believe that "going to heaven" is our hope for eternal life although I do believe that "being resurrected into the New Creation" is.
13 May 2010
Women of the Kingdom
One of the joys and delights of being a Methodist is that women achieved full equality in the Church some decades ago. The US Methodist Church gave full clergy rights to women in 1956 (although some prior historic Methodist denominations had ordained women in the 19th century) and I believe that the British Methodist Church first ordained women to ministries of word and sacrament in the 1970s (although women had been admitted to the office of Local Preacher long before that).
It's also been my experience in British Methodism that men can often be quite fierce in their defending the equality of men and women before God and in our respective roles in the Kingdom. As a woman raised in a "headship" context, I know that I sometimes feel that I dare not get too worked up about the issue for the emotional toll it will take on me if I focus too much energy on the issue. I therefore appreciate men like my colleague, Dave Warnock who speak out forcefully on the subject of equality.
One of the frustrations of being a Methodist, however, is the often widespread view that the matter of women's equality and ministry has been "settled" long ago and that "no one" believes in headship any more and "no one" believes or acts as if women are inferior.
I invite those who think that this is a minor matter to read the following article: Women of the Kingdom by author and house-church promoter Felicity Dale. (Hat tip to Allan Bevere.)
Far from using language that suggests that these attitudes are in the past, Dale says that "the Holy Spirit is beginning to change sexist attitudes".
Which Methodist or other mainstream Protestant Christian would think that anyone in the 21st century would say something like
- “Of course, we’ll put both your names on the front cover. This book is far too important to have been written by a woman!”
- "God will use a woman—but only when there is no man available to do the job."
10 May 2010
Rise in Glory
I can't add a lot to the many memorial posts on the death of Octogenarian Methodist Blogger Olive Morgan of Octomusings so perhaps I can add a different photo instead. Like some other British Methodist Bloggers, I met Olive at a "Methodist Bloggers Conference" in early 2008.
An ever-present figure at Conference running the Methodist Evangelicals Together booth, Olive made a point of attending my ordination in Scarborough in June 2008. This is a photo of the two of us outside the Scarborough Spa Convention Centre after the service of Acceptance into Full Connexion and hours prior to my ordination.
I called this post "Rise in Glory" after the traditional wish: "May she rest in peace and rise in glory" because, although I can certainly imagine Olive being peaceful I somehow can't imagine her resting. The two times I met her in person, she was full of life and energy and enthusiasm for the Lord. She is the sort of person that I want to be like when I grow up. Blessings on your family until we meet again in the Kingdom, Olive.
03 May 2010
Sermon: Touchstone Moments
02 May 2010
A Word in Time
08 April 2010
Judy was one of the first people I met when I went to university and we were friends throughout the four years. We both sang in the chapel choir and we were both Theology majors. I was her Maid of Honor when she and Mike got married in the university chapel a year or two after university. Somehow, after the wedding, we drifted away and then, not so long ago (18 months? two years?) we reconnected.
It turned out to be one of those friendships where you just pick up where you left off with very little self-consciousness. I was amazed at how in-synch we still were. When we were in university in the 1970s, we both envisaged the day when women would be accepted in ministry. And both of us ended up "going into ministry" in middle-age. Because she was Roman Catholic, Judy took her M.Div. and became a Chaplain; I eventually ended up as a Methodist minister.
Facebook turned out to be a good venue for the two of us because we just interacted daily with each other, usually in trivial matters but sometimes in bigger matters. We played Farmville and Cafe World and together we righted the wrongs of the world in our status updates. When we wanted to "talk privately" we sent each other emails, but a lot of the interaction was banter.
We also talked on the phone a couple of times. Judy had been battling cancer since I'd met her again and, at one point, she talked about seeking quality of life rather than quantity. Well, as much as you can do whilst battling cancer, Judy got her quality over quantity, dying suddenly and unexpectedly on the 21st of March.
And, if I'm being brutally honest, I miss her all the more for having that several-times-a-day contact with her and all the little banterings. The last thing she wrote on my status update was in response to me being pleased about getting a product to review on "Amazon Prime" for the first time. She wrote "I'm so very glad for you" and I was going to respond that that seemed like a big emotion for such a small thing. But I didn't and now I guess I'm probably glad that I didn't; it's good to be happy for others, no matter how trivial the matter and I'm glad I didn't diminish that.
Judy also wrote something else a few weeks before she died and I'm using that on my signature in a Christian forum. She wrote: "People waste so much of their lives on hate and fear." Truer words were never written.
I know that we both shared the hope of Christ's resurrection for ourselves and I know that we will share in his presence for eternity. But this isn't really supposed to be a theological piece, just some thoughts about missing my cyber-friend and real life friend. May Judy rest in peace and rise in Glory.
01 April 2010
Christian Economic Life - Post 3: Human Rights
The first problem I have is about talking about human rights is that, theologically, I don't believe in them. According to Christian theology everything that human beings have is mercy or grace, including our very lives. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord. Therefore, if we are speaking strictly in Christian theological terms, we can't really speak about "rights".
However, I'm not ready to dismiss the concept of human rights out of hand. I suspect that, no matter which position one takes in regard to economics, all of us would have an instinctive problem with the "tough luck" approach. "You are poor, despite working 18 hours a day, tough luck; in the eyes of God you have no rights." Or "You worked hard for that money, but we're taking it away from you in order to help others less fortunate than you; tough luck, in the eyes of God you have no rights." I suspect that at least one of those statements will rankle you!
For me, the concept of "human rights" is a secular expression of the Arminian (and catholic) theological belief that "God is no respector of persons" (to use the KJV/AV language).
Theologically, I believe that God wants all people to come to him, regardless of rank, status, skin color, community affiliation, sexual orientation, gender or any other characteristic that people can think of. God does not love aristocrats more than peasants. He does not love rich people more than poor people. He does not love men more than women. As the African congregation I served in London often said at the beginning of the service: "Whoever you are, you are welcome here. Whatever you nationality, tribe, language, skin color or gender, everyone is welcome in the house of God."
This message seems like something so natural to many of us in the United States, that we don't even question it. Yet, it was certainly part of Jesus' original Good News, because it was taken for granted in the Greco-Roman culture that the gods did prefer some people to others and that - for example - aristocrats, men, and the freeborn were ontologically better people than peasants, women and slaves. My African readers can correct me if I'm wrong, but one of the reasons this message was so powerful in the London African congregation was that, back home, different tribal groups were often viewed as being ontologically better than others. This congregation understood this part of the Good News because the opposite reality had been part of their life experience.
I think that this theological conviction that "God is no respector of persons" can very adequately be expressed in secular language by the idea that all people are endowed with certain inalienable rights. It is actually the matter of "What are these rights?" that is probably going to be the big bone of contention. I'll try to start thinking about that in the next post.
30 March 2010
Christian Economic Life - Post 2: Capitalism
My take on popular American culture is that capitalism is regarded as both a way to run an economy and as a philosophy. I also think that, in popular American culture, the opposite of capitalism is communism. Socialism is the soft-form of communism, but it is still viewed as a form of stealing: stealing from those who have worked hard in order to give to those who do not work hard.
I also think that the specter of The Cold War is embedded deeply in American culture. And, since major social experiences typically live on for generations, our culture will carry the shadow of the Cold War for many decades into the future. The shadow of The Cold War provides us with the belief that "Communism and socialism are the enemies of Christianity and the enemies of capitalism, therefore capitalism is a Christian virtue."
This causes many Christians to view capitalism in a very uncritical way. After all, God clearly does not want us to have a communist or socialist society, therefore God must want us to have a capitalist society.
It might surprise some people to hear that I'm actually in favor of capitalism. I'm also in favor of socialist values and I don't think that the two are mutually exclusive.
But I don't believe in free-market, laissez-faire capitalism. I don't believe in the capitalist mantra that allowing capital and labor to flow into and out of sectors according to the laws of supply and demand will result in the greatest social good. I also don't believe in "trickle-down". As I say these things, I also acknowledge that the question of "How should an economy be regulated?" is a difficult one with no easy answers.
And, if I believe in socialism, I'd much rather that the socialism was embedded in our value system of how we want our society to behave. What I mean by that is that my dream is a society where there is a broad consensus that governments, communities and individuals will work to "love their neighbor".
In sum, I believe that capitalism can be used as an operating system to further an objective (philosophy) of "the greater good" or "loving one's neighbor". Using a capitalist operating system doesn't necessarily mean having to follow a survival-of-the-fittest philosophy. And pursuing a philosophy of "pursuit of the greater good" in our society doesn't necessarily have to mean top-down direction and, as far as I am concerned, it certainly doesn't imply iron-fisted totalitarianism.
I'm imagining at least one person saying that pursuing an approach of "loving one's neighbor" is not something that can be legislated, that it requires a conversion experience. I agree. But I am talking here about a Christian approach to the economy. But I also think that, to a large extent, European Socialism does embody more of a social consensus to love one's neighbor and to look out for the poor. I do believe that, however much empathy an American individual might have for those who are down on their luck, that as a society we believe in and embrace the pursuit of profits as the greatest social and spiritual good that we can collectively pursue.
28 March 2010
Christian Economic Life - Post 1: Foundation
So here are some initial thoughts for a foundation:
1) Christian thinking on economics should begin with Christian and biblical principles, not with economic principles.
2) That being said, it seems to me that a good principle for a Christian thought experiment on our economic life would be: honor God and love your neighbor. (There are actually a number of principles that the bible expresses on economic life that a lot of us might not like; forbidding the giving or receiving of debt is one of these.)
3) As I think and write, I will try to separate "What works" from "What should be". I will recognize that "What should be" doesn't always work well. In separating the two principles, I intend to avoid what seems to me to be a usual problem in Christian economic thinking: "That operational method doesn't work, therefore it is unjust".
4) The unconscious, unarticulated principle of American economic life is free-market capitalism. I do not accept free-market capitalism as being uncritically "good" or "just" in Christian terms. I intend to reject a lot of the values that under-pin free-market capitalism, particularly the view that the possession of money (capital) endows an individual with more status in the eyes of God.
Your thoughts welcome.
27 March 2010
I think not.
12 March 2010
Once upon a time, the general culture was amenable to church-going for a lot of reasons that didn't have anything to do with God or to a commitment to being a disciple.
Now, the general culture is less amenable to church-going.
Instead of focusing on trying to get people into the door, churches should focus even more on faithful worship, faithful teaching and committed discipleship. If this results in declining church membership, so be it.
Whatever the format is of the above commitments, I don't care. I expect that different formats will appeal to different disciples and I think that's fine. Just let's stop trying to make ourselves attractive to people who are not primarily interested in worshiping or learning about God. All we're doing is watering down the Gospel.
11 March 2010
The Emperor has no clothes
The idea is this: lots of people who want to follow Jesus hate Sunday morning services. They find them energy-sapping and exhausting, like a terrible meeting at work that you really don't want to attend but have to. Only the thing about church is that you don't have to attend if you don't feel like it.
I think that this is actually the real challenge to the Church today and no amount of contemporary worship, no amount of praise songs and no amount of "modern worship" is going to "fix" the problem. Trying to make existing Sunday services attractive to people who would rather go to the dentist is just a no-win game and I think that's what we're trying to do. US congregations, not having yet declined in the way that the Church has done in the UK, seem even more stuck in the mode of thinking that if Sunday services just get more "modern" that more people will come.
Now, my only problem is that I don't really know what to "do" about this. I do think that small groups may be part of an "answer" and I suspect that this is part of where the Emerging Church movement is at. But I think that small groups are going to have to be places where individuals can share of themselves and be real and contribute to the growth of others in the group so that everyone can go out from the meeting into the world. They can't be just another meeting. And they can't be primarily led by one person week after week or they just turn into mini-Sunday services.
Any other thoughts?
08 February 2010
Other languages use different words
Other languages use different words. You think that this would be obvious. But when it comes to the word 'God', apparently not. While we're happy to let the French use the word 'Dieu' and the Germans use the word 'Gott', apparently we English-speaking Christians need to panic and object most strongly when Malay-speaking Christians want to use the Malay word for God, which is 'Allah'.
In what seems to be becoming a fashion of being misinformedly-informed, today I heard yet another person praying for the salvation of Christians in Malaysia who want to use the Malay word for 'God' to speak of 'God'.
Apparently, many English-speaking Christians seem to think that 'Allah' is the name of a god - like Zeus or Thor - rather than the Malay word for God. And, of course, it's also the Arabic word for 'God'; the Malay word has Arabic roots.
I wish this idea that Malaysian Christians are not truly Christian because they want to use their word for 'God' would go away. Today's pray-er actually prayed that Christians do not worship Allah, but we worship Jehovah. Well, actually, 'Jehovah' is a highly debatable pronunciation of the tetragrammaton which should not be pronounced in the first place. But how many English-speaking Christians studiously avoid saying 'God' in order to say 'Jehovah'? Not many that I know.
So before we start praying for the conversion of the heathen, let's make sure we know what we are talking about in the first place.
I'm putting on my tin hat now, because I reckon I'm probably going to get quite a bit a flack on this.
01 February 2010
Laughter is the Best Medicine
God created humor. Humor is healing. I was promised donuts.
On Being Nice
In light of the discussion over the Methodist Social Media principles, I want to say that I believe in being nice, although I don't always achieve it. Or rather, there is one kind of "nice" I do believe in and one kind of "nice" I don't believe in.
The kind of "nice" I believe in is the kind of "nice" that we are called to in what Christians call The Great Commandment. (I recently heard a Jewish Rabbi say that Jesus' disciples asked him what was the greatest commandment and that, like a good Jewish Rabbi, he gave them two answers rather than one!) I believe in the kind of "nice" that is defined by "loving your neighbor as yourself". Christians call this "agape" love, taking on board the Greek concept of the kind of love that comes from positive actions that we actively decide to engage in. As opposed to the kind of love that comes from romance or parental or familial ties.
Many leaders will say that it's way too simplistic to simply say "Everyone should be nice to each other" as if this will solve all the power struggles in the world. Yes, its true that this is a simple concept. Yet I believe that this simple concept is necessary, if it is not sufficient, for those bigger initiatives of peace to begin. Agape love doesn't require us to stir up warm feelings in our gut for someone who just punched us in the face. But it does ask us to use our will to restrain from punching the other person back. In a sense, I think agape love is freeing: we don't have to be all warm and fuzzy about those who have done us wrong. But we are asked to use our wills to treat the person fairly.
But there is another kind of "nice" that I don't believe in. And I suspect it's the kind of "nice" that people think about when they are sneering about being nice. And that's the kind of "nice" that is not about agape love but rather about the path of least resistance or "I just want a quiet life". The kind of "nice" that doesn't want to stand up for injustice or truth or fairness because it is either afraid or it can't be bothered. That sort of "nice" I don't believe in. At it's very worst, this kind of "nice" can destroy clubs, schools, congregations and sometimes even communities: when no one will stand up to destructive factions out of fear or "laziness".
31 January 2010
Methodist Social Media Guidelines
I'm afraid I've only seen links that jump right to the report and because I don't know how to create links in this situation, I cannot give a link to the report. However, a number of other Methodist bloggers have already provided links. Angela Shier-Jones' comment A place to Confer...? has a link and also one of the best comments on the matter that I've read.
There seems to be a view amongst some bloggers that the paper is an attempt to stifle on-line free speech amongst Methodists or even to discourage the use of blogging and social media altogether. I honestly don't see this.
On the theory that most people probably won't follow the links, I have copied below what I think is the substance of the guidelines. I note that the paper itself says that the guidelines will not be as stringently applied to office holders or ministers as they will be to Connexional Staff. That could be construed as "well, it's OK for Connexional Staff to have their freedom of speech suppressed" except that I don't think this is a paper about suppressing freedom of speech.
Before I became a minister, I worked for a large US company and the guidelines on internet usage and blogging (there was little social media at the time) were far more stringent. It seems to me to be reasonable - indeed, a no-brainer - that I would not want to gratuitously bring the Methodist Church into ill repute for no good reason. (And if I felt it necessary to go after the Church hammer and tongs for a gave injustice, I personally would not want to be part of it.)
I don't understand why this is arousing so much anxiety. I know that Methodists are an ornery lot but it appears that the idea of being team players and treating others the way we'd want to be treated ourselves makes a lot of people nervous.
Anyway, here is the substance of the guidelines:
5.1 Connexional Team staff are bound by ‘Speaking for the Methodist Church’ and
its appendices. Repeated failure to follow these documents can lead to disciplinary
action, and the same will be true of the following guidelines on social media.
i. Engaging in social media for your own purposes should be done in your own
time. Even social media used in your own time and on your own equipment has
the potential to raise disciplinary issues. The easiest way to prevent most
problems is to state that the views being expressed are your own and not the
Church’s, but you still need to avoid making statements that could bring the
Church into disrepute.
ii. Staff may only respond to or participate in social media for Church purposes
either as an explicit part of their job description, or with permission of their line
manager. In the latter case, this might either be a blanket approval or on a case
by case basis. The staff member and line manager should agree roughly how
much time this should take, and review regularly to make sure that this limit is
realistic and being met.
iii. The Church aims to have a single spokesperson on any topic. If that isn’t you,
you should at least find out who that person is and see how they might respond if
you were to speak on the issue, or ask if it would be more useful for them to
respond in their own name.
iv. Don’t share anything inappropriate about yourself, colleagues or any projects
that are not yet ready to be publicised. Treat things you learn at work as
confidential unless explicitly cleared to talk about them publicly.
v. You are ultimately responsible for your online activities; both the content and
the time spent. If either or both of these do not meet acceptable standards, then
your line manager will raise it as a concern. If the unacceptable behaviour
continues, then you could face disciplinary action.
Represent the Church properly
vi. Above all, remember that we are a Christian Church. Whatever your own faith
story, do not do or say anything that damages or undermines our reputation as a
Church, and respond in all ways with Christian love.
vii. Clearly state your name and position with the Church. Do not take part
anonymously, or under an alias (except as noted below in section 9)
viii. Where possible, link to relevant papers, such as Council or Conference
reports, fact sheets, press releases or foundational documents, especially if the
Conference has adopted a statement on a particular topic, therefore making it the
official position of the Church.
ix. Be professional in all your online activities. Check your spelling and grammar,
don’t be offensive or say anything improper. Make your arguments clearly and
truthfully. Even if people disagree with what you say, they should be impressed
with your manner. Don’t do or encourage anything illegal or improper.
x. Respect others and their beliefs and positions, even where you disagree.
xi. Make your cases and arguments constructively, factually, and with respect for
the need for good quality public discourse. Be truthful and honest.
xii. Respect the outcomes of our governance processes, which are based on
democratic and representative principles. You should not undermine a governance
outcome you disagree with. If you feel you must discuss it, then do so
constructively, stating the official position of the Church first and then stating
clearly why you disagree.
Ministers and other office holders of the Church
6.1 As noted above ministers (presbyters and deacons) and other office holders are
in different positions to that of Connexional Team staff. In practice this means that
these groups have more freedom than Connexional Team staff, but the principle
that all are responsible for what they write still applies. The core summary of being
responsible, respectful and good representatives of the Church remains true, but
different people will have different ways of following this in practice. Standing Order
740 clauses (2) and (3) give an outline of what the Church expects of those
admitted into full Connexion or recognised and regarded and of probationers.
08 January 2010
Blame, Shame and Learning
This is a worthwhile sentiment which can also be a tricky one and those who read this blog-post today will likely recognize the very "tricky" context in which it was said. The most obvious objection to this sentiment is does this mean it's perfectly OK to be sloppy, incompetent or uninterested in doing a good job? If you are not pulled up for being sloppy, incompetent or uninterested, how will you learn to do better next time? And what about those individuals who may end up unintentionally victimized by your incompetence? Don't they deserve the satisfaction of seeing you punished?
I acknowledge these objections. I acknowledge the fact that sometimes individuals have responsibilities that, for whatever reason, they are uninterested in fulfilling and which they deliberately shirk. I acknowledge that there should be consequences for irresponsibility and that people who are deliberately and willfully irresponsible should not be constantly let off the hook.
But the thing is that things do go wrong in life. There are many times when failures are systemic and the failure is not really a matter of an individual being uninterested or incompetent. Sometimes there can be systemic failure even with everyone doing their job correctly. And yet we still love to try to single out an individual on whom to place the blame, whether or not they could reasonably be said to have caused the problem or even had the power to stop it.
We are often more interested in finding a scapegoat to punish than we are in learning from our mistakes and fixing the system. I think I might go out on a limb and suggest that more often than not, we are satisfied when we have found someone to punish and we don't even bother trying to learn anything from our mistakes. Wouldn't it make a lot more sense if we put the majority of our efforts into learning from our mistakes?
I've just started a new job and there is a lot of detail involved in the training. Yesterday, a co-worker worked with me for a few hours and she caught many of the mistakes I made. And this is how I really learned: I made a mistake, she caught the mistake, asked me what was wrong, I removed the mistaken item and placed it in the correct place and moved on. I learned from this because *I* physically corrected my own mistakes. I learned from this much more than I would have learned by watching my co-worker do the job.
I think that there is theology here too. Christianity tells us that God is a God of grace, mercy and forgiveness. God is like my co-worker: catching our mistakes, asking us what we did wrong, asking us to correct our own mistakes and then helping us to learn from our mistakes so we can move on into a new future. God is not like many of us; God is not just waiting to blame and punish us with no care or thought about whether or not we have learned anything.
I want to live in a world where I can learn from my mistakes. What about you?
* Disclaimer: I am not trying to comment specifically on today's news item about the failure to catch "the Christmas bomber". I am also not trying to signal blanket or uncritical approval for everything President Obama said, says or will say. I am not interested in a partisan conversation here; I'm interested in the idea and the attitude behind this statement.
07 January 2010
Thoughts on Prayer
My three thoughts for this morning are:
1) Pray as you can, not as you can't
2) Prayer, just do it
3) Prayer is not a vending machine, it's an exercise
Pray as you can, not as you can't.
Anyone who has attended Guy Chester Centre in the past will recognize this saying as taught by the beloved Sister Anne Marie Farrell. In fact, it's a saying that many regular practitioners of traditional Christian prayer disciplines will tell you.
Prayer is not an easy thing and there is no point in making it harder by getting a whole load of "shoulds" into your head about how prayer "should" be done. Some people are familiar with more contemplative prayer and they think that this sort of prayer just doesn't work for them because they hate silence and can't sit still for ten minutes. Others are more familiar with spoken verbal prayer and may think "Well, Fred the Local Preacher in my congregation is fantastic at praying out loud, but I get my tongue all tied up; I can't pray and won't ever be able to."
Each individual is going to have approaches to prayer that at different from others. There are a number of good books which give suggestions on various ways to pray to help you try out a few of them. Richard Foster's book called Prayer; Finding the Heart's True Home stands out as one of these. Some people find it easier to pray while walking, some find it easier with music, some with silence. Some pray out loud in their own room, some pray out loud with others, some pray silently with others.
There is no "Right Way" to pray and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. I also find I pray differently in different situations. Sometimes I want to pray silently on my own. Sometimes I want to pray out loud with others. Neither way is better than the other.
2) Prayer, just do it
This is kind of a "bridge" point between points one and three.
Don't worry about your prayer technique. Just pray and try to pray regularly. Try various ways of praying until you begin to understand which ways work for you and which way you pray in different circumstances. For example, if I'm really in a crisis situation, I ideally want to be praying with others. That's not always possible, but I now know that this is my preferred way of praying in such a circumstance.
Also, like exercise, praying regularly is helpful but every little bit helps. Personally, I have found saying the Daily Office (there are many versions of this in books as well as on line) to be incredibly helpful in "just doing it". The Daily Office is especially helpful when you are distracted, sad or depressed. Rote prayer, in my view, is far from the vain praying that many more passionate Protestants claim it is. It's a way of showing up to be with God even if you don't feel like it.
Regular prayer, like regular exercise, is helpful and it all "accumulates". Which brings me to my third point:
3) Prayer is not a vending machine, it's an exercise
A lot of people have a lot of things to say about whether or not prayer "works". It seems to me that no matter what side of this argument you take, both sides seem to think of prayer as a vending machine. To be a bit absurd for the sake of making a point: "My friend's heart is failing and a transplant can't be found, so we're praying for a miracle cure for her heart and when it doesn't come we decide that our prayers to God have failed or not been heard."
Now, don't get me wrong, I do believe in miracles. I have personally seen someone delivered from an illness that was diagnosed as fatal; this middle-age person's cure/healing was incomprehensible to doctors, was apparently complete and came a few days before the person was supposed to die. However, I'm not actually expecting to see another miracle like that in my lifetime.
What I do think is that prayer can help us see the everyday miracles more clearly. Prayer helps us see key-hole appendectomies as miracles, new cancer treatments as miracles. But probably more importantly, prayer helps us recognize that the fact that we got up this morning is a miracle. That the fact I have a warm house and a roof over my head is a miracle. Prayer helps us see that the good Samaritan who just happened to have a can of petrol on that isolated road is a miracle and not a coincidence. And I don't think I'm down-playing the word "miracle" here.
Just like exercise helps make our physical muscles stronger, so too does prayer help make our spiritual muscles stronger.
What do you think?
04 January 2010
Wrestling with Doctrine
Johnny's mother and grandfather told stories that didn't make a lot of sense to Johnny when he was little. There were stories about how human beings were children of Mother Earth; Johnny had seen his brothers and sisters born and he knew that's not where babies came from. There were stories about how all human beings are brothers and sisters, but Johnny knew that his brothers and sisters had the same parents he did. And there were stories about how, if you hurt another person you would hurt too. But Johnny knew that if he pushed his friend over, the friend would get the skinned knee, not him.
But Johnny grew up and he slowly began to understand that the stories were about the deeper things in life. They were not stories about where babies came from or about how to hurt - or avoid hurting - other people physically. Rather they were stories about the interdependence of human beings and the human relationship to the natural world.
Then one day, when he was 13, Johnny's mother told him that it was time for Johnny to become a Community Story-Teller too. Johnny asked his mother if he could make up his own stories. His mother told him that the role of Community Story-Teller was an important role in the community. While Johnny could make up as many stories as he wanted to for his own family and friends, when a Story-Teller was standing and telling the Community Stories among the Gathered People of The Community, the stories had to be told faithfully. These stories needed to be accurately memorized and repeated. "Why?" Johnny asked. "So they can be passed down faithfully from generation to generation" his mother replied.
Johnny understood what his mother was saying and so his training as a Community Story Teller began. Johnny put all his effort into faithfully learning and repeating the stories as they were passed down from generation to generation.
As he told the stories over the course of his life, Johnny was amazed at the power of the stories. He started out thinking "this story means this" and "that story means that" and then someone would come along and offer a very different interpretation of the story. Sometimes the other person's interpretation was the opposite of his understanding, but often he was able to see the other person's point of view. Johnny never failed to be surprised at the power of these stories and his wisdom grew and grew over his life as he learned from the stories and from other people who also wanted to learn from them.
I just made up this story and it probably has several levels of meaning. I wouldn't even be surprised if someone came up with a meaning that I hadn't thought when I wrote it.
One of my intentions in writing this story is to give an analogy of how I see doctrine in the Christian Church. In my opinion, doctrine should be passed down faithfully from generation to generation. So, for example, to me this means we don't mess with the words of the Apostles' Creed or the Nicene Creed. Individuals don't start changing them to try to fit their own individual understandings or interpretations of the creeds. Rather, we pass them down faithfully from generation to generation.
On the other hand, passing down the stories faithfully doesn't mean that we are not allowed to have our own interpretations of the creeds. I have known individuals who seem to regard their own interpretation of the creeds as litmus tests by which they believe themselves able to judge the orthodoxy of other individuals. So, they will tell us, no one is allowed to question the facticity of the idea that Jesus was born of a virgin and still be judged as an orthodox Christian. And these people seem to think that the Creeds were given in order to judge the faith or salvation of other individuals. I don't agree.
On the other hand, it is equally wrong to say "I find the idea of the virgin conception difficult, so I'm going to remove it from the creed" or "I find it difficult to believe that Jesus' body was resuscitated, so I'm going to remove the statement about resurrection from the creed."
To fiddle around with the creeds because we feel the need to wrestle with some of the text is to confuse our interpretation with what the creeds say. To use the creeds as a tool to judge the eternal salvation of others is to confuse our interpretation with what the creeds say.
I think the Church and her officers are called to pass on the creeds faithfully from generation to generation. And we are also given the grace to wrestle with our own doubts and interpretations and we are asked to be gracious unto others as they wrestle.
New Year's Resolution
I think I might end up re-blogging on some subjects that I've blogged about in the past. But one thing I've realized lately - from my experiences blogging and from my experiences in talking to people In Real Life - is that for various reasons we in the Church don't often get a chance to really hash out theological ideas that are important to us. So that's what I'm hoping to do a bit more of this year.
By the way, "theology" is simply "talk about God". It doesn't have to be high-fallutin'. I know that sometimes I use fancy words but I actually try not to do that for the most part. I usually try to translate fancy academic words of theology into "real English". And every person of faith "does theology" whether we think we do or not. When we ask questions like "What would Jesus do?" or "What would be a godly response to this situation?" we are asking theological questions.
I'll also be honest about another motivation. Since I'm not currently preaching, blogging can be a different way to "preach". In an ideal world, I'd rather see "preaching" as a dialogue between people rather than a monologue. And blogging is a much better venue for dialoging with others than most traditional Sunday services (although I frequently led services where discussions replaced sermons when I was leading worship).
So, my question to anyone who is reading is: What questions would you like to discuss here? What "God talk" subjects are of interest to you? I don't claim I'll have answers, but anyone who knows me knows that I can always add another question to the pile!
02 January 2010
Tired of being Undeserving
Speaking as someone who presently can’t afford healthcare, I’m tired (there is a LOT of emotion behind that word “tired” that I can’t properly communicate) of fellow Christians telling me that I don’t deserve healthcare or that “people like me” don’t really want it.
The church has very clearly called upon us to tithe our income which does not currently pay the bills. We do tithe and would have done so anyway, but truth be told, having been told to tithe I now resent doing it. I have gone from feeling good about giving to God sacrificially to feeling that people might be wondering why we are giving so little – surely they must be making more than THAT?
What would happen to us in the event that we had a big medical crisis/bill? Well, we’d be left to accept the charity of the hospital or possibly of family. The church will maybe come up with a casserole. But, in the face of such opposition we certainly can’t be real enough with anyone at church to admit that not having healthcare is a worry. And no one would actually help us out with our real needs. I wouldn’t really expect that either, but I really MIND it in the context of being told that we would not deserve to have medical care on account of not being able to afford it at the moment.
Now that I’m finally getting a job and we’ll be able to pay our bills – although we’ll still worry about medical care and won’t really be able to afford preventative dentistry or checkups – am I supposed to: a) Say “Whew! Now I’m part of the mainstream in my church. I’ll join in the view that people in the condition I was in a few months ago don’t deserve healthcare? or b) Remember what it was like to worry? I’m pretty sure it’s going to be option (b). And we’ll still be worrying that we’ll get away with good health until we are able to earn an upper-middle class wage with all the perks.
01 January 2010
New Year New Job
Probably like tens of thousands of people, I sent out hundreds of resumes and applications and got very few interviews. But, in a perfect example of all the buses coming at once, I answered two job adverts this past Monday, promptly got two interviews and then two job offers. Both jobs pay the same hourly rate (just above minimum wage) and both were offering 28 to 32 hours/week, but the first job was located about an hour's drive away and would have meant working until 9:45 pm 3 days a week as well as working on Sunday. The second job is in town - about 1 to 2 miles away - and there are no Sunday hours. Even better, I'll be working four 7-hour days instead of a few hours 5 days a week, which was the case with the other job.
I'm not going to give specifics about the job, but it's a locally-owned business providing a service. The owner works on the premises and the atmosphere is in the shop is very good. I've used it myself as a customer and the workers are friendly know many of the clients who come in. The work will be varied; all the employees take turns doing the different functions and I'll be on my feet, which is something that I wanted.
I had a good long chat with the owner (who is a bit older than me) when I was having my interview and he asked me about my job-hunting experience. I told him that I'd sometimes felt there might be some age discrimination going on. I felt this especially with a temporary agency that I signed up with. I did very well on their skills tests and the agency would ring me and say that they had a match of a job for me and they'd just send my resume (CV) over to the client "and then we'll have you out working". Then the client would say that they didn't want me. This happened about 5 or 6 times. Now, I understand someone maybe thinking I'm "over-qualified" for a data-entry or typing job, but I couldn't see why this would matter for temporary jobs. I began to wonder if they really wanted someone young and pretty to look at more than they wanted someone to type.
The owner looked at me with a look of recognition and said "Do you know what I think it was about?" I asked what. He said that many of the middle-aged people he'd hired couldn't deal with the computer. This particular business has a rather complex filing system to deal with clients' orders and it runs on proprietary computer software. He said that many of the people "our age" that he'd hired would get really lost and flustered with the computer and just couldn't cope. Whereas the younger people could intuitively figure their way around the software. He'd stopped worrying about that when I pulled out my iPod Touch to put our appointment in my calendar (diary) and was even more reassured when he had happened to see me in a local coffee shop working on my laptop.
I thought this was a very interesting observation and I think he may have had a point. I'd been trying to figure out possible objections to hiring me and I'd even written on my resume that I am a US citizen and eligible to work in the US without sponsorship, since all my experience for the last 20 years was in the UK. I also wrote in my self-profile that I am "fit and healthy and not taking any medications" since someone mentioned to me that they thought an "older" (hello!) person might be off sick a lot (actually, I suspect that might be a false stereotype, but if the bosses are 30-something and they think that, then I might as well tell them I'm energetic and healthy).
I'd actually thought about "the computer issue" once before when a twenty-something expressed surprise that I knew what a USB-port was. But I never actually took seriously the idea that someone would assume that I couldn't find my way around a computer.
Anyway, I am very relieved to have a job and it's going to make a big difference to our situation.
Here's hoping for good things in 2010.