the values vacuum

22 03 2015

The person or people or God you look up to, value, worship; that is where your own core values are likely to come from. We build up on those fundamentals as we develop our own thinking. 

Maybe it is the self-made rags-to-riches kind of hero we look up to, value, worship; and so commend, approve, and emulate. Hardwork, financial success, personal gain, self-improvement, becoming something from nothing. Sacrifice, for personal gain.   

Or maybe its the self-made riches-to-rags kind of hero we look up to, value, worship; then what we commend, approve and emulate might look very different. Self-giving, personal loss, uneconomical generosity, becoming nothing from something. Sacrifice for someone else’s gain. 

Two polar opposites, to make a point. 

values vacuum

My core values come from who I believe God to be. God, as the creator and foundation of everything, including me; his character deeply influences mine. Forms mine. God who does not clutch power like a toddler; God who made himself nothing (Phil 2.6-7); God who endured humiliation. My internal script, my blueprint, my drivenness; they honour and respect this type of God, as revealed in Jesus, who entered the community he cared for, lived in it, listened to it (John 1.14), died for it, rose again for it.

Where do yours come from? Certainly not from a neutral vacuum. 

These values necessarily affect our politics. They have to. And maybe in unexpected ways. Because unlike our current politicians obsession with tiny variations in numbers, being £700 better or worse off over a year does not override all other values. Because of our values, we may have to make political choices that do not directly benefit us, which goes against the visionless politics of ‘what’s best for me’.

Can we do that?  I plan to explore some of these over the next few weeks, putting out questions and challenges to myself, and maybe to you.    

lite of the world

20 07 2014

I’m not usually one to bang on about duty. The Protestant work ethic ends about 10am after my first hot chocolate. But. Yes, a cheeky but.

I have a worry that there are too many people like me in danger of leading the faithful into a lackadaisical lazy religion-lite. I’m so fearful of placing a burden on people – the burden of religion, of ‘works’, of doing lots of churchy things and being busy – that I fear I under-emphasise the commitment and the cost.

lite of the world.001

 I wrote this at our last parish Day of Prayer:

Lite of the world
means you just come and go
as you feel like it
especially when you need something
or have nothing better
to do.

Light of the world
means we are sent
into darkness
to serve the needs of others
often at great
intentional cost. 

So many people do not realise that the faith, fully and properly lived, is about intentional cost. Duty. Service. But it is so hard to talk about this sort of thing without sounding like a grumpy old vicar who just wants his church full of busy guilt-ridden high-achieving religio-warriors with no time for their family or work or getting out there being the light of the world. Believe me, it’s really not that.

It’s just that it’s tough being the light of the world. Religion-lite is so much easier. So much less demanding. But let’s not settle for that.

interest in religion is dead, right?

19 11 2013

It’s a drum people love to bang, that all wise and civilised folk have ‘moved on’ from childish beliefs in gods of any description (apart from 95% of the world), and that nobody is interested any more. So, I just thought I’d highlight this major TV series that took America by storm and is being shown here in December:

Oh, and this tiny little film featuring an unknown actors called, erm, Russell Crow and Anthony Hopkins:

You see, in the midst of our obsession with personal mini-stories has been the resurgence of the mega-story, what theologians call the meta-narrative. We’ve seen it in the big stories of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars, and even the Batman Trilogy and Superman reboots, among others. How did we get here, how did things end up like this, is there redemption, if there is a God then what does he say, and what would he have us do?

We desperately want to to believe there is something greater than us. We know there is more to life than what immediately surrounds us. We are endlessly fascinated by stories, myths and legends that show us something about ourselves. It just so happens some of them are true.  

It seems interest in religion isn’t dead, after all.

the missing page

6 01 2013

I talk to myself. Sometimes out loud. On Sunday though it was in my head, because I was preaching at the same time. Not a case of being bored with my own sermon or getting in touch with my inner Gollum; but as I turned from page 2 to page 3, I had a  conversation a bit like this:

“That’s a strange link.”
“Yeah… how do you get from the last sentence on that page, to the first one on the next?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s almost like there’s a page missing.”

“Eeeek, I think there is a page missing!”
Frantic scrabbling around among various papers ensues.
“Poo, there’s a page missing.”
“Where is it?
“I think it’s on a printer, or maybe I dropped it… or…”
“Does it really matter?! It’s not here. What are we going to do?”
“Try to remember what the missing page said. You did write it, didn’t you?”
“Yes but my memory is saved for useful things like the words for Bon Jovi songs from 1992.”
Frantic scrabbling around among various memory synapses ensues. 

All that happened during one spoken sentence. Isn’t the brain amazing. More amazing than my waffly half-remembered words that followed. 

Yes, I write on parchment. Doesn't everybody?

Yes, I write on parchment. Doesn’t everybody?

This is what the missing page actually said:

So, Jesus, the King, the Light, was born not in a palace in Jerusalem but in a peasant house with the animals. The first people to visit were Jewish peasants who would have been very at home in that environment. And the next people Matthew tells us about who visited… were they important Jewish priests? Were they religious locals? No, they were foreign, of a different religion, drawn by the stars. 

I wonder what we think about foreign people. Maybe we are foreign here. What would we think of foreign people in our own country? Especially foreign people of a different religion. What kind of God, who has previously seemed quite territorial and protective of the Jewish identity, chooses to announce the birth of the Messiah to non-Jewish followers of another religion?

A God whose grace extends beyond boundaries of race, of culture; a God who pulls us to stand above prejudice about foreigners or exclusiveness of religion. A God who doesn’t limit his communication to being through particular priests of the religious elite. A God who shouts from the rooftops, through Jewish peasants and foreign aristocrats, through religious scholars and an illiterate underclass, that the light has come. Where the marginalized foreigners are brought to the centre, and those usually at the centre – the local religious priests – are marginalized. 

I think that page has been missing from lots of Christianity over the years. Maybe if we took a bit more notice of the people at heart of the incarnational story our attitude to foreigners, and to other religions, might be different. We may argue they shouldn’t be here; we may argue their beliefs are wrong. But we can’t contend with the fact that God chose to place such people at the centre of his salvation story. Imagine if our attitude to Arabs of another religion was influenced by how much God unexpectedly placed them at the centre of the salvation story we tell every year.

We can’t hate. We can’t despise. We can’t simply condemn or ignore. We can’t allow our faith to be adopted by nationalists or racists. But we can live in hope for God’s unexpected plan, and wait to see how they might point us to Jesus.    

Interesting. Unnerving. Liberating? 

to the unknown god

28 03 2012

I wonder when you last prayed? Was it this morning, that the alarm clock wouldn’t go off, or when you realised you hadn’t done the right homework and would be in even more trouble? Was it a few days ago when you nearly got hit by a car crossing the road in the split-second of blind panic you shoot a prayer like an arrow ‘just in case’ there’s a power up there listening. I take a lot of funerals as part of my job, and most of the people in those families are not church-goers or religious but they believe in God when someone dies. They pray then. 

A couple of weeks ago the Bolton footballer Fabrice Muamba had a heart attack on the pitch, and the response from his team mates and thousands of supporters was what…? To simply wish him well. To write a card? To send him good vibes? To read his star sign to see if it mentions recovering from a heart attack? To tell his family all the bad things religion has done? Or… was it to pray? 

His whole team came out in t-shirts saying ‘pray for Muamba’. Which is fantastic and demonstrates that the doo doo hits the fan we know – we know! – there is something out there, someone out there, someone who might just be able to help. It’s an instinct we have, it’s a connection we have with out creator that even if we have forgotten about, our souls haven’t. 

So when we pray, who do we pray to? A nameless face, a ball of gas, a statue, an idea? Maybe we are praying to a mystery, maybe we are praying to whoever you want God to be? 

I think not. 

I believe that I know who the God is that we pray to. I believe that God isn’t nameless and faceless, that God doesn’t hide away behind the clouds. That God in’t just for certain people at a certain time. And that God isn’t reserved for those who ‘feel’ the spiritual or like to have a fuzzy feeling and say [Darth Vader voice] *The force is strong with you..*.

And I believe God is here.  

My faith is rooted in actual historical events. I believe that the God we pray to in emergencies is revealed to us through Jesus, who is present here by his Holy Spirit. I believe that the man Jesus was actually God, that he actually gave us a face and a name. I believe that God so loved the world – that is, you and me and this earth – that he came to earth as one of us to show us, to be present with us. I believe that he so wants to be in relationship with us that instead of staying far way and hoping one day we’ll discover him for ourselves he came looking for us. 

You see, there is this dividing wall between us and God, it’s what prevents us from being in a relationship with him. God is a God of love and goodness and compassion and every time we don’t live like that, like he does, and all the time we don’t recognise him as God, it’s like a new brick in the wall. Jesus came to break down that dividing wall between us and God. And not just to break it down, but at the same time to transform us so that we might be able to approach God and be in relationship with him. 

Because all that bad stuff we do when we don’t live lives of love and goodness and worship sticks to us like charcoal, makes us dirty. And God is clean, like Morgan Freeman in a white suit in Bruce Almighty. So he makes us clean. When we trust in him, when we follow him, Jesus makes us clean. When he embraces us. We don’t have to be clean before God will embrace us. That is so important. Morgan Freeman’s suit takes on our dirt. We don’t have to be good, fine, sorted, religious to be embraced by God. In fact, it’s because I’m not good, sorted and religious I know I need Jesus. 

That is what happened that first Easter. Jesus took all the bad stuff – we call it sin – on himself, so that we might be holy and be in relationship with God. Paid the price to free the slave. That’s me. You.

This is the God I believe in. A God who came to be with us, who searched us out; a God who answers prayer, who isn’t a nameless and faceless force; a God who is Jesus, who came to break down the wall that divides us and God so that we might live as we were meant to live, in relationship with God who made us and loves us. A God who is personal. A God who shows us love. Love that is real and true and deep, not a love that goes up and down on a tide of emotion like a teenage crush or tugs at the heart strings like the backstories on X Factor. Love, unconditional and unfailing love. 

That is the God I believe in. This is the God to whom we pray. He’s called Jesus, and he is here right now by his Holy Spirit. Do you want to know him? 

Jesus > Religion

25 01 2012

This is doing the rounds on the web at the moment. I saw it. I liked it.
“If grace is water, then the church should be an ocean,
It’s not a museum for good people but a hospital for the broken.” 

What do you think?

fearday the thirteenth

13 08 2010

Fate led me to accidentally walk under a ladder, but touch wood everything was fine – my star sign said it was going to be a difficult day, but I’m a good guy so I figured what goes around comes around and karma would treat me well. Anyway, as luck would have it I was wearing my cross and I took communion yesterday so I pretty much knew God would protect me. Even it had all ended in tears I know I would be ok because I was baptised so I’ll got to heaven. Touch wood.

be afraid

Superstition is everywhere. Beliefs that denote a wish, a desire for something; a hope that there is a higher power that looks out for us. Touch wood  – many say it, but does anyone actually believe that wood has special powers? Fate – a fear that there is some power that directs us like 2 blobs on a GPS into situations that we have no control over. Luck – an entity with a quota we might use up. Superstition comes from fear, fear that something somehow somewhere is going to make bad things happen. Fear that someone is out there trying to trip us up.

Religion often acts in the same way. It also stems from fear, fear that God looks on us badly, fear that we need punishing, fear that in the end he will make bad things happen or send us to hell. We bargain with God in the hope that he won’t trip us up; we look busy doing our best to please him; and if that is a bit much, we try to win him over (or con him) with some superstitious beliefs in the power of church attendance or the eucharist or baptism or confession or jewellery or money or quiet times or piety.  I know I haven’t given you much time over the years, Mr God, but here is my baptism certificate and my lucky cross to show I hadn’t forgotten you.

Should we be more afraid of the very real and tangible Mr God?

I am afraid but I am not afraid. I am afraid because God is God – beyond our comprehension and understanding, beyond planets and universes and full to the brim of creative wonderment and overflowing with so much love we could not look upon his face. I am afraid because I am human and he is God.

I am not afraid because God is not like a holy Subbuteo player ready to flick us from this world. I am not afraid because God does not demand endless superstitious acts to keep him onside, acts that I might get wrong and muck it all up and have to start again. He is remarkably irreligious. I am not afraid because Jesus asks for our whole lives and when we give him everything it would be totally out of character for him to turn round and say thanks for this but you forgot to touch the wood. And by the way, its Friday the 13th so you’re out of luck…

I am not afraid because he bursts through and breaks and shatters all ideas of luck and karma and fate with his wonderful, endless grace, grace we cannot earn or bargain for but grace which is given and which we can receive.  As the prophet Bono says: Grace travels outside of karma. Grace makes beauty out of ugly things. Grace is the thought that changed the world. Grace is real and tangible and is called Jesus. I said that last one.

And some classic Mumford & Sons:

killing the irreligious god

27 07 2010

I’m not religious, people say to me when they think I expect them to go to church. Good for you, I say. I am not religious. They look confused. You ought to be religious. Surely? Nope. Jesus was very religious. But unlike most religious leaders, he did not expect his followers to be as religious. Not religiously, anyway.

Instead of being all religious about religion Jesus was about taking the walls of religion and blowing them wide open. Religion so easily looks inwards and takes care of itself as religious people do their best to be religious, and do religious things in order that God notices and gives them religious points. So we inside who are apparently religious brush up nice and pick up heavenly brownie points by negotiating the Total Wipeout course of religious observance hoping that we don’t negotiate everything only to bounce off the huge balls at the end as God looks on and laughs. ”]

Jesus told a story about a religious father who according to his religion did lots of things wrong, when his irreligious son demanded his inheritance and ran off with the money. He should have said no; then he should have punished him; then he should have disowned him. He should never have welcomed him back. Religion says so. Innate human desire for fairness says so. The religious older brother certainly said so. By their religious standards the religious community should shun and disown the religious father for his reckless and irreligious behaviour. Unfortunately, the irreligious father represents their God. Unfortunately later on they really did shun and disown and kill the irreligious god.

Thankfully God is not a religion and God is not fair. He is wonderfully and beautifully not fair. Or religious. God says love me with all your heart soul mind and strength and love your neighbour, love me enough to turn around from your old life and turn to me and I will welcome you whether or not you tick the boxes and do the stuff and look all religious because that is peripheral to being real in fact to be honest I can’t stand all that stuff it’s all just fluff and bubble and pointless when what I want is your heart. Love me, don’t label me. Come to me, don’t categorise me. Feel me, don’t fillet me. Dance with me, don’t dissect me.

At least, I think that’s what he said. I wasn’t really listening. Not religiously, anyway.

21 “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
I cannot stand your assemblies.

22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.

23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.

24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!

(Amos 5)


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liberation from wee

9 03 2010

Blog-land is an easy place to point the finger. Even when we don’t mean to. I wrote the previous post originally as a talk for my little congregation, and I thought I would share where it changed at the end as I preached. Because I think I began by pointing at the mythical ‘they’, and ended up pointing at very real ‘we’.

Jesus saved – the Greek word is loosed – the woman in Luke 13 from being physically bent double by her condition, and from being socially and psychologically bent double by her religious leaders. That is great and it is interesting and like all Jesus’ actions, in itself it stands alone as worth telling.  But the question is always, what about us? What about me?

bent double, by who?

I love my small congregation. With some notable exceptions, they are mostly ladies over 70, who have been following Jesus all their lives. I know some of some their stories. When you’ve lived over 70 years there is a lot of story to know. The question for me was, have any of these wonderful people been bent double by the weight of obligations and expectations from their religious leaders? From me?

The same question is for you. Have any in your congregations? If you, like me, are a ‘religious leader’, have we done it ourselves? How have our people – even us – been treated by the church (which is us) as we have gone through life? If we’ve been divorced or got pregnant outside marriage; if we’ve fallen out with the vicar or the powerful people in the church; if we see life differently; if we find it hard to read and so cannot offer ourselves for the rota; if our children no longer come. Things might be ok now, but we humans can carry hurts for so long. A year becomes 5, becomes 10 becomes 30 and we still hurt. We become bent double. Who is holding us down?

Sometimes it is easier to keep people down rather than let them challenge us, sometimes the oppression is easier to maintain and safer to implement than to allow free-thinking and free expression. Sometimes it is easier to let people think the clergy/priest/minister/pastor is different, on a higher level, above reproach, got a hot-line to God and a ticket to the front of the coffee queue than it is to join the queue for coffee at the back and wait like everyone else.

There is a difference between leadership, which we have to do, and elevating ourselves, which we must not do. There is a difference between encouraging people to be good apprentices of Jesus, and accidentally enslaving them on a conveyor belt of expectations and obligations.Even with my low view of ordination and the priesthood, I sometimes find myself enjoying the tiny pedestal some people put me on by virtue of my collar. I am part of the establishment. There is no ‘they’, only ‘we’.

So let’s not always think the liberation is for others and the liberating has already happened. And let’s not underestimate the hurts people carry with them from school all the way through to old age. If we are a part of it, we need to address it. We are our people; our love must not betray, dismay or enslave, but it must set free. It starts with we. With liberation from we. For that is what Jesus did. Simples.

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faithworks 1: liberation is everywhere

5 03 2010

How can it be that for so long we followers of Jesus have completely missed the point. So many of us read the Bible and see hell everywhere. Just look at Christians who post on blogs and sites (not this one, of course), who are like Mr Angry on a radio phone-in. Judgement, judgement. Hell, hell.  If we actually read the gospels we see that suprisingly, Jesus didn’t  bang on about going to heaven after we die and leave it at that. Most (all?) of his strongest words were for those already ‘in’, the already religious, the already ‘saved’.

brian mclaren - i guess you had to be there...!

At the Faithworks Conference Brian McLaren gave excellent examples of us historically missing the point, which I will write about soon; for now, I found one of my own. Writing a talk on Luke 13.1-9, I was confused. What is this all about? Read it and see yourself. Galileans blood, falling towers, repentance, perishing and another vineyard tale. What?

Pilate was a violent and cruel ruler. He had a history of violently suppressing rebellion. He had a history of trampling on the sensibilities of the Jews. Once, when a group of Galilean pilgrims had gone to the temple to sacrifice, Pilate had slaughtered them, perhaps fearing a riot. The blood of the Galileans mixing with the blood of the sacrifices. Horrendous, offensive – like occupying forces storming a church on Christmas Day and smearing their blood on the communion table. According to Tom Wright, this is the environment Jesus, and his band of Galilean pilgrims, are working in. Should they still go?

Jesus knows the danger. He knows he will be killed in Jerusalem. But that is not the point he makes here. He says, If you do not repent, you too will perish, be destroyed in the same way. Not hell after death, as this is often understood to mean. Not eternal perishing and pain. Not here. Many of the groups that Pilate suppressed and killed were leading rebellion against Rome. They were violent. One of Jesus disciples or apprentices is Simon the Zealot, one of these very people. Jesus means that unless you turn away from and repent from violent, armed rebellion against Rome, you will die as the Galileans did. If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword. And if not by the sword, then when Jerusalem is crushed by Rome, you will die as the walls collapse. As they did in 70AD.

Jesus’ message – you must repent! Which here means not the 5 -point prayer and carrying a leather-bound bible to work to bash people with until they escape the fiery flames of hell, but you – WE –  must turn from violence and rebellion, and instead follow my teaching – of peace, of loving enemies, of carrying an occupying soldiers cloak an extra mile. The vineyard story reflects this – there is time to repent, there is time to choose the way of peace.

Then it gets interesting and uncomfortable. The old adage of one finger pointing = 3 fingers pointing back at you comes to mind. Read the next passage in Luke 13.10-21. It is a story about Jesus healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath. Why is it here? I think Luke puts it here deliberately. He makes no claim to be chronological. The Jews hate the Romans and want them out. Jesus says, you want change, you want revolution – start here. Start with yourselves. Their culture was such that that a crippled woman was low in status, probably not married, therefore in that culture probably very poor. Unnoticed. Invisible.

Jesus made her visible. Jesus healed her.

Jesus liberated her – saved her – from the oppression of her position. And what do the religious leaders say? You can’t heal on the Sabbath. They still don’t even notice her. They don’t want to notice her. Her presence offends them. Jesus is angry, and he says they treat their donkeys better. Their tight religious observance and rules oppresses and enslaves their own people, even before we start on what the Romans are doing.

Make this women visible! Repent from your violent rebellion – and repent from the way you do violence to each other by chaining people up or bending them over double according to their illness or ability or ‘holiness’ as defined by you. You the dominant ones.

Liberation is everywhere. This is the heart of Jesus’ message. See it!! Be it!! Or, as he says, we will all perish.

I finish with a quote from Sigh No More by Mumford & Sons, who despite their mandolin have hit upon something profound:

Love it will not betray you
Dismay or enslave you, it will set you free
Be more like the man you were made to be

There is a design, an alignment, a cry
Of my heart to see
The beauty of love as it was meant to be

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