institutional disgracism

26 02 2013

We can’t move for distrust at the moment. Trust in the institutions we know and take for granted is being dismantled, news report by news report. The BBC, the Police, banks, MPs, supermarkets, Lords, the EU, the Church, the NHS, Premier League… by the time you read this I will have been be discredited for talking out of my horse.

I’m not sure if it’s real news or lazy news. It is important if there has been a cover-up of historical wrong-doing, yes. Meanwhile Syria burns, Sudan falls apart, and UKIP pretend their breed of selfish nationalism is ‘mainstream’. 

What does it all mean? I know every generation has its ‘what is the world coming to?’ moment, and maybe this is mine, but really, what does it all mean? A suggestion. Our culture has a few meta-narratives that don’t quite work together. One is that the individual is the most important thing. Me and my life. The most important thing is that am able to ‘be myself’. Great. This could work, if humans knew when to stop.

Another meta-narrative is that ‘I’ can be trusted. We don’t need old-fashioned regulation and supervision, we are post-modern, civilised adults. Trust me or you disrespect me. This could work, if humans knew when to stop. 

Worked through to its logical conclusion, without a framework of accountability you end up with people in finance making money for themselves whilst society pays the price. Well, nobody told them they had social responsibility. You end up with politicians/supermarkets/NHS contractors getting the best deal for themselves (and their friends) whilst society pays the price. Well, nobody held them accountable to their social responsibility. The same goes for the church, the Police….

Our institutions are a disgrace, at times, because they are full of disgraceful people, at times. At least, they are full of people. A meta-narrative I hold is that we people, whilst we try to be good, are not very good at it. This is why we ask God to help us. This is why each week in our church we say the sorry prayer, the confession, remembering our wrongdoings of action and inaction. This prevents us from joining in the sport of institutional disgracism, in which we point the finger at everyone else for their wrongdoing, setting ourselves apart from them with the arrogance that comes so easily in the self-righteous. Remembering being the opposite of dismembering. Remembering, in order to put things back together.

Image from ASBO Jesus

This is not to say we let the disgraceful behaviour go on. Of course not. But we challenge is fairly and robustly, and where we are a part of it we do our best to influence for the better. We try not to generalise, ‘all bankers’ are not bad in the same way Jesus did not say all tax collectors were bad. I believe he invited one into his inner circle.  All priests are not bad, in the same way Jesus did not say all Pharisees were bad. I believe he was very kind to Nicodemus.

Jesus slated the institutions as much as we do for their dishonesty, hypocrisy and oversight of the important things. But he did not just shout and point and lead a high horse to an abattoir. No, he was about redeeming from within. Questioning, challenging, holding to account especially for the needs to society over the individual; specifically, the weakest of society over the strongest of individuals. 

So as we continue to hear more and more about why we cannot trust anybody or anything, remember that our third cultural meta-narrative is called inaction. Disconnection. It’s got nothing to do with me. It’s their fault. Abdication of responsibility. Combined with individuality and freedom from accountability, this is the fatal third blow. And as followers of Jesus we cannot subscribe to it.

We are to be people who think and who act, who get cross and then act against injustice or inaction or wrongdoing or whatever. Knowing we too are sinful and we too need forgiveness. We cannot rant and then sit down. Our institutions are people. We are people. Let’s claim them back, not just shout at them. 


… [ waiting ] …

1 12 2011

I wonder what your symbol of waiting is. The bus stop, train station, school gate; red brake lights, red traffic lights; the egg timer on the computer, the slow-boiling kettle, the long-winded preacher…

We spend a lot of our time … waiting.

I struggle to enjoy waiting. Some might take the opportunity whilst stuck in a traffic jam to pray or worship or something equally holy. I just get cross and put the Foo Fighters on.

Advent is about waiting.  Advent isn’t just ‘that bit before Christmas’, like the check-in desk is to a holiday. And advent isn’t Christmas itself, whatever the shops would have us believe.

Advent is when we remember that the people of Israel waited for their expected Messiah for a very very very long time. And we remember that we are waiting for that Messiah to return again and finally and once and for all sort everything out. So advent is definitely not just the bit before Christmas.

There’s a lot of biblical precedent for waiting. Noah waited. Abraham waited. Moses waited, Joseph waited, Ruth and Naomi waited. David waited, the prophets waited. All these different people pleaded and begged and bribed God to do things at their speed, rather than his, and all failed. Because God will not be rushed.

As we wait for Jesus to come again, I wondered which biblical characters we might find ourselves behaving like.

The story of the golden calf tells us a lot about waiting. Moses had gone up the mountain and had been gone ages. Aaron and the people got fed up with waiting. Things were better in Egypt, at least there we could do things to make the gods work for us – rituals and sacrifices and we could touch and see the Egyptian gods because they were made of real stuff. So instead of waiting for God, they made their own out of gold.

A lot of people have got fed up with waiting for God and decided to make their own. Or to go back to their old ways. Or make church like the golden calf – familiar things, familiar rituals, that feel like they are achieving something. But God will not be bribed with ritual.

Maybe we find ourselves waiting like the zealots or Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Two very different groups that both wanted to make the Messiah come quicker because he would overthrow the Romans. So they busied themselves with forcing God to act quicker – the zealots with violence and the Pharisees with holiness.

It can be very tempting to try and rush God. How many times have you heard people say that once everyone in the world has heard the gospel Jesus will come; or if we all say the right prayer;  or return the Jews to Israel; or believe the same things about Jesus or moral and ethical issues… then Jesus will be forced to return because we’ll have done our side of the bargain. I’ve done a, so will you do b. Bargaining with God. We always try it, but he doesn’t do it.

The prophets had a lot to say about waiting. They were constantly addressing a people who were waiting. And their message I think is the same as the message to us as we wait.

Wait patiently. And while you wait, be faithful. And by faithful I mean worship God even when he doesn’t work at your speed; submit to God even when he doesn’t do what you want when you want; and serve God even when it feels like a waste of time. 

There is hope.

Jesus will come again. That is our hope. We will meet him and welcome him here to earth where he will renew all things. In the meantime we live lives in which we do not get distracted into making our own gods or bribing or bargaining with God but in which we wait expectantly, live hopefully, and serve faithfully.   It won’t make him come any quicker, but the waiting will be much better, and allowing God to break into our lives like he did at Christmas is the best type of waiting there is.


4 09 2011

A woman arrived at the party.  This was a fragrant gathering, there were fresh-cut flowers, a novelty in such a desert place. Fragrant because the people there were important, and wanted to leave the dirt and grime and smells of the outside world behind them. Feet washed, hands scrubbed. Separation complete. All was good.

Except the woman was not invited. Neither was she welcome. An imposter, bringing with her the stink of dirty sex into a gathering of the righteous. Anyone who recognised her would not acknowledge her. Certainly not here. But they knew her. They knew what she stood for. She stank, in every possible way. She contaminated their world in the way she contaminated their dinner party. She had to go.

But she is not done yet. From her dirty bag she took the most unlikely of gifts. Perfume. She washed the feet of the man she had come to see. She didn’t have a lot, but what she has she risked for Jesus’ stinky feet. Feet the host should already have washed. But he had not. 

This woman knew what she was. Jesus knew what she was. But more than that he knew who she was. A woman worthy of dignity and respect. A woman loved and not a woman to be scorned. Unlike everyone else at Simon the Pharisee’s house, she had no position of power or respect to protect, she had no reason to seek Jesus out except to show love. Maybe a desperate love, but love nonetheless.

Jesus honoured that. He honoured that because when they left the party, they smelled the same. Jesus – rabbi, incarnate Son of God, Lord and King – and a dirty, stinky prostitute. Now, they smelled the same. The stink of dirty sex to the fragrance of forgiveness.

That feels like a challenge. To respectability, to formulas of salvation, to the efforts we go to to protect ourselves from the stink of everyone else. That feels like a challenge to me who stinks a challenge to approach God and allow him to pronounce me clean, and for him to walk proudly with me. Smelling the same. The same? THE SAME?

Surely such a God would be insane. It certainly stinks of something.

copyright for this artwork is unavailable.

Read the full story from Luke 7.36-50.

censored sensibility

17 02 2011

Come-backs are still in full swing at the moment. As teenagers wear dodgy skinny jeans with 80‘s hairdon’ts, grown-ups of a certain age look back nostalgically at their youth and record companies say ‘ker-ching’ and so the bands of the 80’s and 90’s re-form (for better or worse) and stun us with their mediocrity. Quite how man-band Take That (whom I secretly love!) can win Best British Band at The Brits against Mumford & Sons who can tell.

When Jesus stormed the charts back in the day, he blew the current chart-toppers, The Pharisees, out of the water. They were like the X-Factor machine of their day, they had all the marketing bases covered for making sure everyone did the right things and behaved the right way. Namely, conforming. No-one was considered righteous unless they did what the Pharisees did. Which was to hang around each other patting themselves on the back for not being like ‘them’, the others, you know, the hoi polloi, the massed ranks of people. Think X-Factor auditions.

Almost as big a surprise to the ruling elite as The Streets were back in 2001, Arctic Monkeys in 2006 or Mumford & Sons in 2010, Jesus showed a new way, an original way, a much better way. Jesus challenged the Pharisees by saying (among other things) that separation from the tainted masses was not the way to be holy, and was definitely not the way to show love. In fact, for Jesus there were no tainted masses, there were no great unwashed. There were just – people. And he reserved higher condemnation for the hypocritical religious Pharisees than he did for the adulterers or prostitutes or cheating tax collectors.

Jesus took religion out of the white-washed tombs of respectability and plonked it slap-bang (pardon the expression) in the middle of the brothel, the drinking house, the messed-up marriages, the poverty-stricken abandoned widows and the dirty foreigners. So why is it that like the opposite of an indestructible 70’s prog rock band, respectability keeps on making a come-back. The church becomes so respectable, our faith becomes about being respectable. Of course when faith moves into the brothel we want the brothel to be transformed and changed – but not into a WI Knitting Circle.

Reading the story of Joseph (of the Technicolor Dreamcoat, not he of the pregnant fiancée) as part of the e100 Challenge it struck me how we even try to censor and make respectable the characters of the bible and the stories about them. Why, when the Bible doesn’t? The story of  Jacob & Joseph contains multiple wives, surrogate mothers, oppression of slaves and even rape; it contains sibling rivalry so bad it almost ends in murder and (only!) ends in Joseph being sold into slavery. And we expect our children to be well-behaved with this family as a role model?! No wonder Children’s Bible’s are so much smaller. They have to cut so much out.

What designer are you wearing tonight?

Of course we want to be changed and transformed. Of course we want messed up lives to be untangled and hopelessness replaced with hope. But let’s not pretend that that is anything remotely like coating ourselves with a veneer of respectability and hoping for the best. God looked at our Bible characters honestly, he judged them accordingly and guess what – by his grace he loved and nurtured and forgave and moved on with them, not without them.

Maybe this is a particular challenge to church leaders, of all denominations, when we so easily get caught up in being thoughtful intellectuals or organised managers or inspiring leaders and forget the primary calling to be real and to be immersed in our people and the messy lives that entangle us all. Maybe it is a particular challenge to followers of  Jesus who have been around the light so long we have forgotten what it is like to live in the dark and we expect so much of hurt and broken people that we frighten them away with our whispering about their swearing or our sssh’s to unruly children or we simply don’t give them the freedom to bring something new to our community that has become static and respectable.

Jesus went out there and mixed with the uncensored sensibilities of people the religious elite avoided. May we do the same. And let’s stop respectability making another come-back.

This comeback by take That, though respectable, was actually quite good – Ed

the unlikely profiterole

2 09 2009

Mmm, tasty

Mmm, tasty

There is something wonderful about profiteroles. Something enticing, enchanting… the darkness of the chocolate melting over the softness of the pastry, ebony against the ivory of the Devonshire cream… I can visualise the M&S advert now: “These are not just ordinary profiteroles…”

Yet behind every profiterole lies a dream dashed, a hope lost, a potential future lost like a kite torn from the hand of a child by a gust of wind… Ok, maybe not that bad, but do profiteroles not disappoint every time? Do they not promise greatness – rich chocolate, soft pastry, full cream – yet pretty much always leave you thinking “is that it?”

James Murdoch, son of Rupert and heir to the News Corporation (owner of Sky, The Times, The Sunday Times, News of the World, The Sun, HarperCollins Publishers, FOX TV), made a much publicised speech recently in which he decried the lack of ‘independent’ news coverage, because in this country, unlike the US, there are rules about having to give a balanced view. This makes him feel stifled, because he is forced to present news as opposed to opinion, and he wants a free reign.

Ruperts bear

Rupert's bear

James Murdoch’s argument seems to me a bit like a profiterole. It looks good on the outside. We need opinion, we don’t want over-regulation, we want a ‘free press’. Amen to that. But read his final sentence, and see where the lovely profiterole suddenly becomes simply a recipe for heart disease.

“There is an inescapable conclusion that we must reach if we are to have a better society. The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.”

What?! Seriously, you’re having a giraffe. And this profit is coming from where exactly? From advertisers, customers, subscribers. So who do we aim the news at? Those who the advertisers need, those who can pay the money to subscribe… So news is skewed because of the need to make money. It is not rocket science. It is not independence. Check out Fox News for all the evidence you’ll ever need.

I could say a lot about this. But instead of attacking him (or discussing him further), let’s see if we are any better.

Because churches can be drawn down this ‘profit’ road too. We have news to share. We need money to share it. So, are we tempted to tailor our (good) news to those who will keep us financially viable? Do we try not to upset the wealthier people because we need them more? Do we pray for the streets with new cars rather than mouldy sofas on the drive? Do we rejoice more at the thought of a Premier League footballer being told to sell all he has and give it to the poor (bingo!), or a delivery driver? After all, we need to pay the gas bill, the maintenance bill, the parish share. My church has a leaking cellar, no heating in the hall and a broken front door. Are we ever tempted… honestly?

To paraphrase Jesus, we’d better not be. I’d better not be. We spread the news of life to all, regardless of the depths of pockets. What we offer is a prophetic vision of lives transformed and fountains of hope springing up from barren places: we have the prophet’s role of good news of life in all its fullness, not the profiterole of hypocrisy in all its foulness. If we ever let the need for money in our churches influence our good news then we are, as Jesus called the Pharisees, no more than hypocrites, actors, pretenders; white-washed tombs, as in looks good on the outside but contains only emptiness and death.

Profit can be good, for it subsidises those with none, like the ancient OT laws about not harvesting the edge of your field, so the poor can come and claim some. But it comes with  a stark health warning. Thank you James Murdoch for reminding us, in an unlikely prophetic role.

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