transcendence and tent pegs

15 02 2015

There seem to be two obvious extremes in religion. You either go rules-based and practical, clearly labelled and top-down authoritarian; or you go mystical-transcendent, about self-discovery and waftiness. With Christianity, both are clearly present, though Jesus embraces neither. But neither does he reject them.

Unlike vast swathes of the church in his name, Jesus very rarely, if ever, got caught up into either a dominant-authoritarian or a mystical-candlelight narrative. He didn’t carry a clipboard and checklist; yet neither did he waft around carrying tea-lights and pebbles. 

One of the events that holds this tension clearly for me is the transfiguration. Usually in encounters with Jesus, everything is quite earthy. There’s people, walking, eating, touching, speaking, all quite easy to visualise and translate into our present reality.  But in this event the very ordinary –  a walk up a hill with Jesus (what is it with him and hills?) – becomes extraordinary, a strange, mystical event, with brights light, clouds, voices from heaven… It isn’t something that can be easily explained, especially for rational evangelical minds.

The event could be in danger of disappearing up it’s own transcendent artiness… I can imagine the disciples talking about it and wanting to add bits, to make it even more dramatic. The arrival of Elijah and Moses could be bolder, unconventional, maybe swirling in on chariots of fire; instead of covering Jesus, the cloud could make an arrow, and as the voice speaks fireworks could burst from the centre… I mean, if you’re going to have a spiritual experience like this, why not embellish it a bit?

But they don’t. In the middle of this mystical encounter with the long-dead, Peter asks (out loud) whether he should build a shelter for them. I can imagine them re-telling this story, and wondering whether to put this bit in. It’s a bit silly. But maybe for Peter this is an authenticating moment, one that proves that as a hardened, working fisherman, he wasn’t dreaming, hallucinating; he had his wits about him, he was really there. And his brain was engaged.

Therein lies the attraction of this account for me. It balances the mystical and the practical, because both are real, both are true, but neither should dominate the other in our narrative. Our faith isn’t just about doing things, following rules, and life isn’t just about eating and feeling and seeing. But neither is faith an escape from those earthy practical moments into a incense-fuelled mystical trance of other-worldliness. Jesus takes the ordinary and infuses it with the mystical, where we can get caught up in the Spirit but not leave our brains at the door. 

Or the bottom of the hill. 





i am nothing

27 01 2015

I am nothing
I am just me
I have no divine right to speak for you
or to you
I have no pedestal I can call home
Though some would try and barricade me on one
And have me live their faith for them
I am nothing
I am just me
I have no certificate of authenticity
Or qualification
I have nothing from my ordination that sets me apart from anyone 
I am nothing
I am just me
I have no power residing in my fingertips
I cannot command holiness to appear at will
I cannot pray in a way that bypasses the queue
I am not owed any favours by God and
I cannot command him with my whispers
I am nothing
I am just me
Anything else I appear to be
Any power
Any wisdom
Any heroic tendencies
And that recurring pedestal of owning holiness
Anything I appear to be
That is beyond anyone else
I repent of
All I am is because of who He is
And I claim nothing as my own.

In response to the ordination of Libby Lane as the first female bishop in the Church of England, one of my friends commented “Women bishops? The jury is still out on male bishops“. And that got me thinking about church leaders of all shapes and sizes and flavours, and how each of us find ways to elevate ourselves, or those who lead us. The greatest gift God can give those with responsibility and authority is humility. Because all of us are nothing without Christ.

God bless Libby Lane, and all who serve and follow Jesus, in all forms and with whatever badges, with grace, patience and humility. And, hopefully, a sense of humour.   

 





dodging the telegram

21 01 2015

I was running when I got the phone call telling me my granny had died. A few weeks short of her 100th birthday, this was a blessed relief for her, living as she has been in a fog of dementia and sightlessness; and she would probably have been embarrassed to receive The Telegram anyway. 

this is not my granny

She dodged The Telegram, and instead got the Book of Life, and maybe even my grandad, although having told him on his deathbed 8 years ago that she would see him soon, he may well be a bit cross she took so long. 

As a vicar I take a lot of funerals, so I am used to the talk of hope beyond death. But there are precious few times that I believe it fully and wholly for those I meet; by which I mean I always have hope that God receives all, but that there is no doubt for those who follow Jesus, or ‘have given their lives to him’, or ‘are saved’, however we choose to put it.

My granny committed to following Jesus 90 years ago, and served him faithfully ever since, through the highs and lows of life, being married to a post-war Baptist minister for over 60 years, through the death of her daughter and the treasures of her remaining children and theirs, and theirs, through birth and adoption. 

She was faithful to her husband, to her family, to the church, and most of all to her God, on whom her life was grounded. I know she was far from perfect. But she was a great example to us, from a generation that knew true hardship, and terror, and sorrow – at Remembrance Day I still show the machine-gun bullet that came through her window during the generation-defining WW2. 

As I continued my run after hearing the news, God worked through the shuffle playlist to play Awake My Soul by Mumford & Sons, with some appropriate words that made me chuckle as I ran:

In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die
And where you invest your love, you invest your life
Awake my soul, awake my soul
For you were made to meet your maker

The legacy of my granny lives through me, and the rest of her family, and I would like that not to just be the shape of our noses or the names that we bear, but this: where we invest our love, we invest our life. That won’t always make us popular, and as I also have a life in ministry I know the cost investing your whole life can bring to your family. And I know it can be exhausting. 

But I take comfort – which literally means ‘with strength’ – from the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, which is not a vague and fuzzy optimism, it is not a half-baked hope of being a star in the sky that twinkles, but it is the costly life to which we are all invited. For we are made to meet our maker, and we do not have to be afraid. 

My granny was one of the few people I know who was utterly convinced of that.  





why are religious people so easily offended?

13 01 2015

I don’t like being described as religious. But when religious-inspired catastrophe happens, I find myself guilty-by-association. Us God-botherers with our irrational beliefs and Kalashnikovs. Justify yourself and your medieval sensibilities!, I hear the secularist voices shout.

It’s crap. I can’t explain why some people kill others. But perhaps I can give a glimpse into why “we” – religious types – get offended, and can react all out of proportion. This is not to justify it, but to give an insight into it.  

To outsiders, non-believers, religious belief seems like a moral or ethical decision. A choice, that can be questioned and debated without any real challenge to our core being. When I studied theology at university with mostly non-religious people, to them questions about God and belief were an interesting exploration of human character; to me, sometimes an assault on my very being. An assault I willingly put myself through, because I wanted to test my beliefs to the limit. Not everyone wants that. Not everyone invites that. 

My relationship with God is core. It’s not very rational, but don’t be fooled into thinking we all make rational choices except about religion. Why you choose your car, your coffee chain or your partner are rarely based on rational fact-based objective data. I talk about loving God; I also talk about loving my wife. If you tell me I do not love my wife, but am simply a slave to rational chemical reactions and twitches in my synapses rather than the irrational beauty of love then you’re beginning to dispute my core feeling of love.

If you take it further and not only dispute my feeling of love, but insult & ridicule my wife, whom you have never met, yet deem it ok to call her foul names or publish offensive cartoons of her… Now you’ve crossed a line. You’ve offended me. Religious people will often hold our beliefs as dearly as we hold beliefs about family, and sometimes more strongly. And as anyone who watches Eastenders knows, insult me as much as you like, but if you insult our family and we are likely to become irrational.

It’s hard to find something to compare the strength of religious belief and the way it can form our core identity. Ironically for religious debate, sexuality may be one. Or national pride. This is why religious people may not always look wholly in favour of ‘free speech’. But then, neither is our society. We pick & choose. We can support deeply offending Muslims in public cartoons, but not the right of black footballers to send tweets with jokes about race; suddenly our politicians ‘suis Charlie’, but few will highlight the massacres of Christians that have occurred in the last 3 years in Iraq and Syria.

Because we don’t actually mean ‘free speech’, we mean the freedom to be critical, to challenge, to question. Those are hallmarks of an open, free and democratic society, but they are not easy to manage, and neither should they be.  

Je suis Ahmed

As a follower of Jesus, he said when we are publicly offended with a humiliating backhanded slap in the face, we should turn the other cheek. We should not respond with violence, whether verbal or physical. We do not respond to offence by offending back. Jesus said love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. We do not all resort to violence. 

So, us ‘religious types’ may become more offended that seems rational, because our beliefs about God are tied up with our core identity far more than many realise. And maybe we are frightened of being unravelled, just as atheists who have a religious experience are. But it’s your job as a non-believer to pick the threads of our beliefs, and our responsibility to let you. The tapestry of faith looks better with frayed edges.  





natural (s)election 2015

6 01 2015

Darwin’s theory of natural selection sounds quite lovely, as soft-focus nature browses to select the prettiest flowers to match it’s rousing theme music. But is actually part of the cruel evolutionary process of survival of the fittest; or, elimination of the weakest. Funny how we don’t call it that. Such a cruel process of nature, it was one of the reasons Darwin, a ‘sort of’ Christian, began to question faith in the God of natural theology. How could there be such cruelty in a godly world?

We humans like to think we’re above the cruelty of nature, but in these turbulent political times I think it’s clear we’re not. Christians can be unpopular when we talk about humans being innately “sinful”. It sounds unfair, harsh, after all, just look at all the goodness in the world… But it is in our nature to survive, our instinct to preserve our own at all costs. That’s why Jesus’ teaching about actively loving those who are not our kin were controversial then, and still are now. Which is how we get from Darwin to the election.

This upcoming election will not be about the economy, or immigration, or the NHS, although it will look like it is. Instead it will be about innate human selfishness. It will be the election of natural (s)election – the ‘what’s in it for me’, survival-of-the-fittest generation grabbing whatever toys they can and clutching them like angry toddlers. Black Friday in a suit. 

Or can we be better than that? Can we choose to vote for policies that don’t directly benefit us? Can we put our own situation in second place to society’s need? Will wealthy Christian individuals and business leaders openly speak out for intentionally paying tax? Will the capable and motivated campaign for issues that do not just affect them, but the weakest around them?

The Christian story doesn’t stop at the sinfulness of humanity. Our story goes on to speak of the generosity of God, of his grace that transforms our sinfulness into love and kindness and sacrifice. Our story overcomes natural selection to a very unnatural selection, in which our model is Jesus, who did not clutch his equality with God like a toddler, but made himself nothing for us; in which we look to love and support the weakest, not eliminate them.  

May this upcoming election campaign be one that does not degenerate into a selfishness competition, in which our greatest value is tolerance; but one in which outward-looking values of love, generosity, humility and loving our neighbour triumph. To do that, it must begin with us. 

thingsjesusdidntsay8tolerance





the light that shines in our eyes

21 12 2014

In the beginning when it seemed that the darkness was winning
and all was chaos and swirls and water and mud
and you couldn’t tell the earth from the flood
God spoke
God spoke and the world came into being
God spoke and breathed life and the chaos became living
and breathing
and his breath was sustaining
God spoke in the beginning

God spoke to the prophets
God spoke to the kings
God spoke to the prostitutes
who no-one else sees
God spoke to the farmers
And when nobody heard
God spoke and kept speaking
And called himself The Word

God spoke but way back like that can seem distant
and sometimes God can seem almost non-existent
so John in his book when he’s telling the story
of Jesus arrival doesn’t have angels in glory
but he reminds us that God spoke the world into being
by starting his gospel where God began
in the beginning

But god didn’t stay in the beginning you see
That wouldn’t make a very good story in which to be
But God is always moving like life I guess
In this part of the story God became flesh
God took his place and he tented among us
So close we could touch him and know how he loves us
Adores us
Sits with us
Not bored by us
Not abhors us
But adores us so much that

God spoke to Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah
God spoke to the shepherds and wise men who admired
the way God spoke through stars and through dreams
and through angels and visions and for Joseph more and more dreams

When you speak to someone you acknowledge their presence
you know we’ve all done that thing when we ignore someone
pretend they are absent
like a shepherd maybe or injured man on the road to Jericho
keep our heads down don’t look them in the eye
they won’t notice as we walk by

But God holds our eye contact and embraces our presence
His isn’t someone far away, a distant existence
This is one of those things that we see at Christmas
That he is close, he is here, emmanuel, God with us

2014.12.21 Carols by Candlelight.001

In the beginning God spoke and the world came into being
In the present God speaks and he will keep on speaking
Through hell and high-water through birth and bereavement
Through abuse and abusing through failure and achievement
to the hopeful and the hopeless
in the fruitful and the fruitless
the joyful and the joyless
God spoke
and God speaks

Could it be true that if we listen
truly listen
through the melee of life
and work and family
and if we put our expectations aside
and maybe our pride
could we hear The Word say a word
feel the breath of God give us life

Could it be that God with us he still dwells
and that we need him if our life is going well
or if it feels like every day is another hell
could it be that he is still emmanuel
god with us
god for us
god in us

It is true that he spoke and it is true that he speaks
The Word who is Jesus not mild or meek
but a powerful force who changes our lives
if we let him, if we let go, and allow his light
to light up the world
to light up our lives
to be the light that shines in our eyes

Yes he will challenge us and we have all been changed
Who have been embraced by him none are the same
He will help us let go of the things that enslave us
he will break the chains that hold us and hate us
I won’t lie to you, it’s not always an easy life
Submitting to living for the one who is Life
Not for Mary or Joseph or for all who follow today
But there’s no better life, there’s no better way

God spoke God is speaking
To all of us as well
God is here he is with us emmanuel
God spoke, God is speaking
May we hear him well
God is here, he is with us, emmanuel.

© Kevin Lewis 2014

….

This is a spoken word piece I wrote for our carols by candlelight service. It works better spoken out loud, but I thought i’d share it anyway! 





hopeless despair and a neutered santamentality

17 12 2014

There is a time and a place for hopeless despair. When 132 children are massacred in a school, that is one of those times. A friend of mine who grew up in Pakistan changed his profile picture to plain black. It was a truly back day.

But it’s Christmas. This is no time for the hard-hitting reality of a life that can be painful, brutal, touched by evil. Is it? Enforced smiles, kittens in Santa hats and children singing Christian rhymes. Hide reality with a Christmas card myth of white Christmas and roasting chestnuts, of nostalgia and made-up stories and the fat guy in the red suit.

132 dead, though. That’s like all the kids singing in my son’s Christmas play yesterday. Dead. What does Christmas santamentality have to say to that? And this is my greatest problem with the neutering of the power of Christmas. Yes, there’s loads of issues about the actual event, Jesus not born in a stable etc… but my Big Problem is not specifically about that. It is this.

Real Christmas has an answer to the utter pain and emptiness of hopeless despair. Real Christmas looks the massacre of 132 children the eye and says I am God, and I take your pain, I take your anger, I know it is real. Because real Christmas is not dressed up in sentimentality or nostalgia. There was nothing sentimental about giving birth among animals, fleeing in fear of your lives, or the massacre of Bethlehem babies. 

Real Christmas doesn’t demand that bad things don’t happen at this time of year; real Christmas takes bad things that happen and places them at the heart of the story. They are the bloody point. When we take the truth of god becoming human and taking on the evil in our world and reduce it to a twee children’s story with no enduring truth we do vandalism to the incarnation. 

Christmas is not a time for hiding from reality because reality is real and shit happens even at Christmas so let’s give ourselves permission to feel hopeless, to be angry and to rage against whatever evil causes people to murder children, or whatever pain and outrage we feel today; and let’s take that into the story with us, feeling the pain of brutal Roman occupation, of dashed hopes, of fearing for your life as children around you are murdered and your tiny child is the answer of God to your cries for justice and revolution and freedom: 

This staggering God
Takes his first steps towards us
On feet that will grow strong enough
To carry a cross

It will change the way we tell the story because Christmas isn’t a story by itself. It will change the way we do Christmas because Christmas really is every day for us who believe in it. And it is an answer to hopeless despair that a neutered Christmas santamentality can never be. 

……..

Other posts about Christmas:
talking angels and elephant dreams
a christmas theology of political power
the biggest, most divine total blunder (’twas the night before Christmas)
the weakness in [christmas] love
the nativity that needs saving





talking angels and elephant dreams

15 12 2014

Talking angels, moving stars, interpreting dreams?! Admit it, they’re incredibly awkward for credible thinkers. When was the last time you heard a sermon on any of those things? Probably last Christmas. And then it  was skipped, like we always do with bits of the Bible that don’t quite fit with our view of the world or the story we are wanting to tell. 

And yet, out there, are so many people who won’t call themselves religious but do believe in angels, stars and dreams. Maybe more than we do. So perhaps we should listen to them more. Yes, their beliefs won’t be theologically developed. But how about this:

Instead of dismissing those who believe in guardian angels, we could tell them about the angels that spoke to Mary and the shepherds about Jesus.

Instead of dismissing those who look to the stars for guidance, we could tell them God used the aligning of planets & stars to point to Jesus.

Instead of dismissing those who interpret dreams, we could remember God spoke to Joseph and the magi in their sleep, about Jesus.

God uses the fantastical, the bizarre and the ordinary; God speaks the language of the mystic as well as the bookish scholar; in cryptic apocalyptic and orthodox doxology; to kings and ravens and priests and donkeys. God spoke to a sleeping man to tell him to trust the story his wife was about to tell him, a talking angel to persuade her to tell it, and a moving star to lead the people to them. Bonkers.

We might be secretly afraid of these elements of the story. They don’t fit our rational sensible evangelical framework. They’re not our usual model for listening to God. But if we are being truly evangelical, we have to include them. Let’s not be scared. Admittedly, I’ve never knowingly seen an angel, and in my last dream an elephant turned into a gun-wielding passenger plane. No, I don’t know either. But don’t let that put us off.

We need to use the language those around us understand and show them that Jesus speaks it too. They won’t expect it in their wildest dreams. 

And you never know, the stars might align just over Jesus. 





a christmas theology of political power

9 12 2014

The Christmas story is a sledgehammer to the politics of domination and self-protection. The Chancellor’s Christmas Budget Autumn Statement, along with A Theology of the Autumn Statement, got me thinking about this.

There is a theology that lies behind everything we do. Everything we do stands on the foundation of what we believe about God, and what we believe God believes about us. So in politics, where different beliefs about God or not-God or many gods permeates through each MP, the policies that they choose to support cannot help but be affected by their theology. And by implication, they represent us, so their theology represents ours. 

I believe there is a dangerous narrative running through our politics and media that deeply challenges a Christian theology. A narrative of power, of blame, of self-protection and short-term thinking. Christian theology – and more importantly, Christians – are flawed and broken and get it wrong, so forgive me some optimism in what follows:

  1. Christian theology shows that God does not prioritise those with money and power. God chose foreigners of a different religion and the lowest earners to be the first to see the incarnate Son of God. This is a familiar story but matters. Christian theology must not prioritise those on ‘our side’ with money and power. King Herod was so cross and felt so threatened by this that he killed babies. Christian theology should be threatening to those with money and power.  
      
  2. Christian theology shows God does not just blame everyone else. Not the previous government, or poor people who receive benefits, or immigrants, or anything other than our own people. Rarely do we hear ‘we’ have messed up, people like me, the wealthy, white, middle/upper classes, those who needed a bank bail-out. Christian theology begins and ends with repentance, with humility. God did not simply blame humans for mucking up his world, but became incarnate to be part of the solution, not the bully-king but the servant-king. Christian theology confidently says we mucked up and we spend our lives being the solution. 
  3. Christian theology shows us that God’s priority is not self-protection. A tiny newborn baby human is one of the weakest living things. The Christmas story practically screams self-giving and sacrificial generosity at us. We have assumed, in our society, a culture of entitlement, and so we expend masses of time/energy/money defending that entitlement, protecting our wealth. God gave away his power, gave away his story to the weakest of humans and the most insignificant of human families. Christian theology holds lightly and gives generously. 
  4. Christian theology shows long-term thinking. I guess if God could make a baby he could make a grown-up. He chose not to. He chose the long game. A long set-up, a community growing, a lifestyle change, not a quick-fix. Our politics demands short-term solutions to a long-term problem. 

When I hear of more cuts to the welfare budget, I wonder what theology lies behind that? When I hear positive employment figures trotted out, but businesses do not pay a wage you can live on, what theology lies behind that? When the only profitable rail network is nationally-owned, but sold to the private sector again, what theology lies behind that? When years of struggle for employment rights is extinguished with zero-hours contracts, what theology lies behind that?

The Christmas story is a sledgehammer to the politics of domination and self-protection. Let’s not lose that.





things jesus didn’t say # 11 | help

2 12 2014

God helps those who help themselves. This is another of those things that sound a bit like Jesus might have said it. It sounds kind of… motivational. But the only time I think we ever use it is an excuse to not help somebody we don’t think deserves it.

thingsjesusdidntsay11help

Jesus didn’t say it. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God; the second is to love your neighbour. We do not just actively love ‘hard working families who do what is right’, we actively love those who struggle, those who cannot help themselves at the moment, those who don’t work, those who have fallen no matter who’s fault the fall was. We don’t fill out a ‘deserving’ questionnaire. It might just be our help that gives them the leg-up they need to help themselves. It might not. We still help.

Ultimately, we are not about self-help. We are not about watching others struggle from our positions of power. We are about active love within shared community. Within that, we might be taken advantage of. And we might find we ourselves are helped. I am not afraid of either. Are you?  

More things jesus didn’t say:
1. whatever doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger
2. follow your dreams and believe in yourself
3. everything happens for a reason
4. pray harder and I’ll give in
5. on the third day nothing important will happen
6. I won’t give you more than you can handle
7. other your neighbour as you other yourself
8. faith hope and tolerance, and the greatest of these is tolerance
9. touch wood








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