Tag Archives: Christianity

Reflections on Advent

I preached this morning on what I understand the point of Advent to be. In the hope it might be useful for others, here’s my sermon:

 

Waiting for Advent

1 Thessalonians 3:9 – 13, Luke 21:25 – 36

 

When I was growing up, Advent was always a very frustrating time. I’ve never been a particularly patient person – on many occasions I’ve found myself praying ‘Lord, give me patience, and make it quick!’ – and I found counting down the days till Christmas and waiting for a new batch of toys to play with difficult to say the least. Why wouldn’t December just hurry up? I remember the sense of anticipation being exhausting – four weeks is a long time when you’re seven! Added to the mix, we never knew exactly which relatives would decide to descend upon us, whether mum would get through cooking the Christmas dinner without a nervous breakdown this year, and if we’d be made to eat the dreaded Brussels sprouts again. In other words, Advent was a time of waiting for something, without really knowing what it would look like.

Fast-forwarding twenty years or so, I’m no longer so overwhelmed with enthusiasm for ‘the big day’, despite always looking forward to the John Lewis advert and M&S Christmas cake. However, I’m convinced that thinking of Advent as a time of waiting without quite knowing what things will look like in the end is a helpful way for Christians to approach this time of year. We await the coming of Jesus Christ, God’s anointed Son andIsrael’s Messiah, into the world once again, and hopefully in the midst of the busyness find some time to ask ourselves some deep questions. Have I really let God into my life as fully as possible, or are there bits of myself I keep back? What would it look like if my relationship with God were that little bit deeper and fuller? Letting our defences down enough for that to happen isn’t easy, and the results can be deeply painful as well as deeply joyful. After all, as others have put it, God loves us just as we are, but too much to leave us where we are, which means change. However, it’s change that stems from God’s longing for us to have life in all its fullness. Advent is thus a time of waiting, of encounter, and of transformation.

Our two readings this morning are stories of waiting, both in the face of tremendous pressures. Let’s start with the Gospel reading, which plunges us straight in at deep end of Luke’s Gospel and has Jesus warning the disciples of the turbulent events surrounding the coming of the Son of Man. It’s part of a passage that speaks about the destruction of temple inJerusalem, Christians being forced out of synagogues and wars and famines coming, events that had taken or were taking place by the time Luke wrote his Gospel, sometime around 90 AD. When Jesus talked about strange things happening in the sun, moon and stars, and roaring seas and raging tides throwing countries into despair, he was using apocalyptic language, which generally refers to ‘end times’. It would’ve been understood by people at the time to mean there would be friction among the nations, yielding great instability.

It was against that backdrop that Jesus talked about the Son of Man coming on a cloud with great power and glory. Here, he was drawing on the prophecy in Daniel chapter seven, in whichIsraelwould be vindicated and set free from oppression. The Son of Man was one of Jesus’ favourite titles for himself. It came to be associated with the Messiah, but the Aramaic means ‘weak man’ or ‘humble man’. In the context of our passage, the Son of Man acts as a judge over the nations, reflecting Jesus’ sense of what it meant to be the Messiah. He saw himself not as the military leader that many expected, but instead as bringing God’s judgment on anIsraelthat’d failed to be the people of God, had marginalised the vulnerable and turned their noses up at outsiders. He was calling them back to faithful living – that was his mission.

The passage ends with a warning to keep watch and wait for the Son of Man to come. God’s transforming judgment would come, and Jesus would be vindicated, but it’d happen in the midst of the chaosIsraelhas brought on itself. The disciples were being prepared – keep your eyes open and stay alert. Following the cross and resurrection, there would be a period of waiting, and when they saw the warning signs, they weren’t to stay inJerusalemout of loyalty, but to leave quickly. This was waiting with an urgent purpose, not knowing exactly how things would play out, except that they would be challenging to say the least. However, as promised in Daniel and highlighted by Jesus’ concern for the disciples, God would be with his people in the midst of their troubles.

Now, while it’s true that most of us are unlikely to find ourselves caught up in such turbulent circumstances as those Jesus described, waiting on God can be a very tough business. It’s not for nothing that patience is one of the fruits of the Spirit. However, that’s the challenge that Jesus lays down for us, to keep faith through the ups and downs of life, and to watch for his coming into our lives once more, being ready to receive him when he does. It seems that the community that Paul had founded in Thessalonica had been open to this encounter. In our second reading, Paul seemingly can’t wait to visit the Thessalonians again, so inspired is he by their faith in the midst of adversity. His prayer is that the love among the congregation will be strengthened and deepened, and that they will be made perfect and holy in the sight of God. They are to show the fruit that waiting on God can yield.

So, what are to make of all this, on this first Sunday of Advent? Well, I think the readings offer us three key points worthy of note. Firstly, in both cases, God asks this question of his followers: when the chips are down, are you going to remain faithful to God? Easier said than done, I appreciate, but that’s the challenge. When the disciples were being warned of the dangers to come, they were effectively being asked: will you stick with Jesus and faithfully wait for the Son of Man? Secondly, for the Thessalonians, the hope was that they would grow in love for one another despite the pressures upon them. Will we manage the same? Thirdly, through all the ups and downs of life, God is with us and is faithful to us, even though that means being vulnerable, and ultimately enduring the cross. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection means that God’s love isn’t an abstract idea found in textbooks, but a concrete reality. As the clip said, God has a face and a voice. God showed up.

A few weeks ago, I was at a conference for local preachers held inWarrington. During one of the services, we were told about one of the regular congregation we were joining having passed away a while back, in circumstances that the minister didn’t specify but which were obviously distressing. She described driving passed the person’s house one day and seeing police officers outside. When she went to investigate, she found her friend lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Before the body was taken away, she knelt down in the blood, anointed her friend with water and prayed for her. One of the police officers, obviously moved by this, asked her in not such polite terms why she’d done that. Her reply was beautifully simple and profound: “Because that’s God does. Every day he stoops to meet us, not worrying about getting mixed up in our mess, and loves us as we are”.

Advent is a time of waiting on God, waiting for the ultimate divine act of stooping to meet us as we are: becoming human, sharing our life, our hopes and fears, our death. It’s that vulnerable and costly love that lies at the heart of God and the heart of the Gospel, and as Paul says in his letter to the Romans, neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ. So, whatever life throws at us, the challenge is there, as it was for the disciples, to stick with God. But so is the promise that no matter what, and no matter how hard we find the waiting, God will stick with us.

Reflecting on Pride and Naming

This weekend was a big weekend for me – on Saturday, it was Milton Keynes’ first ever Pride event, and on Sunday, I had my naming service at church.

                               The Faith Tent (c) Karl

At said Pride, we (TractorGirl, our local Venture FX pioneer minister and I) were running a faith tent, providing space for people to chill out and offer a positive witness, trying to show that being an LGBT person and having faith are not incompatible. It was a team effort; TractorGirl had the idea, which was taken on by Rob (the aforementioned pioneer minister) and I had the idea for the content, which the others refined to produce a great chillaxing space. We all gave out leaflets on the day and had some great conversations, and it was very cool to be part of a team helping to break down barriers, one step at a time. More than that, it was great how well the whole Pride event came together, and it was a huge credit to the folks who gave up so much of their time to make it happen.

 

 

I’ve now been in Milton Keynes for a little under two years, and it’s been exciting to reflect on how things have changed during that time. When I first arrived here, I hated it on sight – it seemed like an endless mass of carparks and soulless buildings. As time has gone on, however, I’ve got used to the oddity of the place and got involved in various things, making some awesome friends that I hope will, like many of my university friends, be friends for life. When I first arrived, if someone had told me I’d find myself running a faith tent at Pride, I’d have laughed in their face! I guess it’s a mark of how much more comfortable in myself I feel that those parts of my life (my faith, gender identity and sexuality) are very closely integrated, and I can happily deal with meeting people in the territory where they intersect. Moving here has done me so much good in many ways.

That brings me nicely onto my naming service. The idea came about when I attended a baptism at my church. It occurred to me that I’d made the promises one makes at baptism and confirmation in my ‘old’ name, and that actually, one’s name is a big part of the liturgy. I wanted to have the chance to come before God and re-commit myself to him, but this time as I really am, in my new name, Karl. For me, it was really important that this happened as part of a Eucharistic service, as I believe that in Holy Communion, the Church is really fully being the Church, fully present to God, who meets us, fully human and fully God, in the bread and wine. All are welcome at the table and all have an equal place. There was a very deep sense in which this felt like me taking my proper place in God’s family.

The litugry we used for the naming part of the service was shamelessly stolen from Nadia Bolz-Weber, whom I first came across at Greenbelt last year, and thought was cool. As part of the service, I gave my testimony, which I’ve reproduced below:

 

A little over six years ago, I was confirmed in the beautiful surroundings of Bath Abbey. That evening, I made for myself the promises my parents and godparents had made on my behalf at my baptism, when I was just a baby. It was a hugely important occasion for me, as I’d been an atheist throughout my teens, and had only recently come to faith. This was me saying, ‘Here I am, God. I’m yours’. That day was the start of a journey with God that’s taken me to some interesting places, not least the accident and emergency department of Bath’s Royal United Hospital, as the Bishop of Bath and Wells injured my knee, but that’s another story!

At the time, I was doing my best to be what I thought I was expected to be – I was living as a woman and had a long-term boyfriend, despite the nagging doubts at the back of my mind saying, ‘this isn’t me’. The relationship was somewhat unhealthy to say the least, and I finally found the courage to kick him out about a year later. A couple of months after that, I had a bit of a breakdown, which sounds grim and at the time was, but which forced me to stop trying to cope with life by bottling things up, and actually begin to come to terms with both my past and who I was. There began, with the support of amazing friends, a very patient minister and an excellent counsellor, a process of forgiveness and healing, in which God has cropped up in some very unexpected places.

Along the way, I found myself falling head over heels in love with Sally, who thankfully felt the same way! I therefore had to come to terms quite quickly with my sexuality, which wasn’t too bad, as I felt able to be quite bolshy about it – ‘I’m here, I’m queer, get over it!’ seemed to work quite well! However, I knew that this was still not the real me. In due course, I left Durham, graduating a few months later, and moved to Milton Keynes. A fresh start was just what I needed; both proving to myself that I could do it and enjoying my job helped to build my confidence. Gradually, I began to realise that I couldn’t go on pretending to be something I wasn’t indefinitely, and that led me to come out once again, this time as transgender. You see, despite having a woman’s body, I am very definitely emotionally and psychologically male. I’ve felt like this since I was four, and the feelings have only intensified as I’ve got older.

Coming to terms with this was rather harder than sexuality had been, partly because this was at last the real me and so it felt achingly vulnerable, partly because of the hormone treatment and surgery I’ll need to undergo for my body to finally match my brain, and partly because I was scared stiff of other people’s reactions. It was bumpy at first, and still can be very painful, but this latest part of my journey with God has already been hugely life-giving. I’m finally able to be something like the person God has made me to be. That’s why I’m here this evening. I want to thank God for all he has done and continues to do in my life, and to come before God, this time not as Katie but as Karl, a transsexual man, to say the same thing I did at my confirmation – ‘Here I am, God. I’m yours’ – and to commit myself once again to love God and others with all that I am.

 

The naming service was a real rite of passage; I now feel I can take my place at the table as Karl, an unashamedly transgender man. The love and acceptance I’ve found from many in the Church, which I dreaded would become an impossible place, has been deeply healing. That isn’t to say that I’ll never encounter people who have an issue with it all, and I reckon my incredibly supportive superintendent ministers may have dealt with more hassle, or at least confusion, than they’ve let on to me. However, it does mean that I feel confident to not let my gender reassignment process get in the way of whatever I want, or more to the point whatever God calls me, to do. Whether that proves to be in the Church or the bank or some other path altogether, I know that I am as much a child of God as the next person, as are all my LGBT friends. That’s all that really matters.

Learning to Party with God

Inspired by reading TractorGirl discussing Nehemiah, this is my sermon for Sunday,  on learning to party with God:

Partying with the Community of God

Nehemiah 8 : 9 – 12, Mark 3 : 31 – 35

 

A few years ago, I lived in the beautiful city of Bath. Legend has it that it was founded by a Celtic king, Bladud, who was cured from leprosy by its waters. Centuries later, the Romans built a spa town there, named after both a local deity and one of their own gods. Sadly, Aquae Sulis was abandoned when the Empire collapsed. Yet in time, the city regained prominence, and Edgar, the first king of all England, was crowned there in 973 AD.  However, Bath as it is today was built mostly during the Georgian period, with Bath Stone quarried by Ralph Allan. The Abbey, the site of Edgar’s coronation, is the third such building to have stood on that spot,  and was heavily refurbished in the 1880s. Moreover, the façade of the famous Roman Baths is actually Victorian.

Bath’s story illustrates how easily things can be forgotten if we’re not careful; most of its Celtic and Roman past was only rediscovered by archaeological work carried out during the nineteenth century.  History had to be re-learnt, and stories of old brought to life once again.

Something similar happened to the people of Israel when they returned from exile in Babylon. They were held captive for roughly seventy years, and all apart from possibly the oldest in the community had forgotten much of their pre-exilic past, including it seems the teachings of the Law, which had defined them as a people, and shaped their relationship with God. That heritage needed to be unearthed, just as much as the bricks and mortar of Jerusalem needed restoring.

When Nehemiah saw the ruins of the city, he set about having the wall rebuilt, in the face of a good deal of opposition. Once security had been established and the people had resettled,  his attention turned to restoring Israel’s worship and spiritual life. On the first day of the seventh month, Nehemiah gathered the people by one of the city gates and, with the help of several of the priests, began to read from and interpret the Law of Moses to them.  This unnerved the populace, because it highlighted the shortcomings that led to their exile in the first place, and they began to weep.  However, Nehemiah told them to stop, and instead to go away and celebrate. This wasn’t a time for tears; Israel had to re-learn how to have a party! Why, you might ask?

Well, festivals were a hugely important part of Israel’s national life; they reminded them of what God had done in the past, particularly his bringing them out of slavery in Egypt, and of his goodness to them in the present. Pentecost, which we celebrated a fortnight ago, has its origins in the Jewish festival of Weeks – their harvest festival. These events helped to lay bare what it meant to be the people of God. It was vital, therefore, that Israel learnt to reconnect, after the years of austerity in Babylon, with that rich heritage.  The God who’d brought them out of exile wasn’t interested in laying on the guilt, as Nehemiah realised, but instead in encouraging them to live his way, so that they could have life to the full, and through them, all the nations would be blessed.

That call to be part of God’s community and to live his way is there in our Gospel reading, too.  Jesus’ family had been unnerved by the numbers of people coming to him for healing, and no doubt influenced by the scribes who were ready to brand him demon-possessed, thought he was going mad. When they tried to pull him away from the crowds sitting at his feet, Jesus declared that anyone who does the will of his Father – that is, lives life God’s way – is part of the family. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that they are no longer servants, but his friends. In both cases, and whichever language we prefer, we’re being invited to enjoy an intimate relationship with God, made possible because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. That grace sets us free to live life to the full, and to be God’s community in the world, so that others might know his love too.

However, it can be all too easy to lose sight of this, because the Church often acts like it’s forgotten how to celebrate, how to bring God’s story alive, so that we can be swept up by it, and be ready to help write another chapter. It strikes me that learning how to let ourselves go, and really enjoy God, is something vital and urgent that we need to focus upon. The Diamond Jubilee provided an opportunity for people to come together, share stories and build relationships. That’s exactly what we need to do; after all, we have an amazing story to tell.

Now it’s your turn to do some work. I’d like you to turn to the people next to you, and spend a few minutes talking about a time when you’ve experienced God at work in your life. It doesn’t matter if it was a happy or sad occasion, or whether it happened yesterday or many years ago. If nothing immediately springs to mind, then feel free to talk about something that happened to someone you know. Either way, let’s spend a few minutes sharing stories of God’s goodness.

______________________________________________________________________________

I hope you found that encouraging. Being comfortable talking to each other about our faith and our experiences is important, because often we don’t do that and so miss out on such a lot, and because we’re likely to feel more confident talking to people outside church about our faith, and why it matters to us, if we can do so in a ‘safe space’, if you will. It’s a first step to learning how to really let ourselves go and celebrate with God.

However, it also matters that we don’t fall into the trap of glossing over the difficult bits of our stories. God doesn’t need us to make him look good, nor is he somehow disinterested in the complications and the muddle of everyday life.

Bath makes a great deal of how Jane Austen lived there for a time; there’s even a heritage centre dedicated to her. The reality, however, was that she hated Bath, which she felt was basically a cattle market.  She was sick of being made to intend endless balls,  in the hope of attracting a suitably wealthy husband! When Queen Victoria visited the city at age sixteen, she was apparently told by a charming young child that she had dumpy legs! She resolved never to visit Bath again, which she didn’t, and she hated it so much she used to pull the blind down whenever she was on a train passing through it. More seriously,  Bath has a serious homeless problem, and the South-West edition of the Big Issue was started there to try to address the situation. These stories are just as much part of Bath’s history as the ‘good stuff’ I told you about at the beginning of this sermon. Leaving them out would give a false picture.

The bottom line is that we have a God who knows full well what it’s like to be human, because he’s lived among us. He’s not a distant and disinterested God, but instead one who wants all people to be part of his community, to be his brothers, sisters, close friends, and to party with him. The Life with a capital ‘L’ that Jesus came to bring is a foretaste of that we’ll experience in the great heavenly party, when God restores the heavens and the earth. Will you be going?

Faith, doubt and Advent

I’ve been making a serious effort this Advent to address something I know is a bit of a problem – my prayer life. I find it really hard to get into the habit of setting aside regular time simply to pray, whether using a daily office or simply sitting with God, not trying to do anything.

I started out with the best of intentions – I was going to say evening prayer every day, having realised that however much I try to be, I am just not a morning person and setting my alarm earlier doesn’t work as I just doze through it. That lasted two days before life got in the way and having let it slip once, it just vanished into the ether.

Part of the problem is, I think, that if I’m going out of an evening, I’m often on a very tight schedule. I often don’t leave the office till gone 5.30pm (sometimes it’s more like after 6pm) which isn’t by choice but reflects the volume of work I have on, and it takes 30mins to walk home. I’ve then got to cook myself dinner, which if making something nice from scratch can take anything between ten minutes and an hour, eat it and do the washing up. By the time I’ve done that, got changed out of  my suit and run out of the door again, I’m often running late as it is.  Time to pray feels like wasted time in the rush to get back into town. Even that doesn’t really wash as an excuse, though, as days when I’m doing nothing other than flopping in front of the television in the evening are still devoid of a daily office, mostly due to sheer fatigue after a long day’s problem solving.

I have realised that I’ve hit several walls at once:

  • Until about four months ago, I lived in Durham with a Cathedral on my doorstep and was able to go to a daily Eucharist and Evensong. I’m so much better at going to something scheduled like that and am much better at praying with others. There is no real equivalent in Milton Keynes and I miss it.
  • I find it hard to read the Bible because my inner academic kicks in and worries about hermeneutics and context and differing interpretations and doctrine and it forms a kind of mental wall. I worry I’m ‘not doing it properly’ and there is no point if I don’t. In short, I’ve lost the art of devotional reading of the Bible.
  • A year of undergraduate-level theology and biblical studies in Durham raised far more issues than it solved. For example, I had to write an essay on how to read the first eleven chapters of Genesis and in researching that came across so many different perspectives and opinions that apart from being sure what I didn’t like and the pre-existing theological bias driving that, I just wasn’t sure how to evaluate these. On what basis could I compare the thoughts of people far more knowledgeable than me and fluent in the original languages? It left me not sure what to think anymore. I think this sort of thing is the cause of point two.
  • Last year, I lived with someone who placed a great deal of emphasis on the use of daily offices, seeking the intercession of the saints and theological reading. This wasn’t a problem in of itself but his habit of making me feel guilty for not persuing these things with same zeal was. It seemed to me that all this stuff and the full-blown conservative Roman Catholic devotional life could easily be used as an excellent way to hide from God, or at least to keep her at arm’s length, and my trying to have an altogether simpler devotional life was ‘just not good enough’ and was frequently criticised. I also found it very hard having my beliefs attacked regularly and having to defend and justify myself all the time, and I don’t think I’ve entirely ditched this person’s baggage.
  • I’m still struggling to come to terms with leaving the ordination process. This might sound an odd thing to say given that it was several months ago and I’m about to embark on the adventure of becoming a Methodist local preacher. However, I think before then I’d had lots of doubts and questions floating around my head that I didn’t dare let surface. The pain of leaving the process and feeling distanced from the church removed that barrier and released a lot of stored-up anger with God, all of which has brought into question several theological assumptions that I suppose I simply accepted without examining them.
  • Further to the previous point, I am sick to the back teeth of church politics getting in the way of real encounter with God in so much of the Church of England. I’m not just on about women bishops and homosexuality and the covenant, but all the stuff about things being done a certain way because ‘we’ve always done it that way’ or ‘that’s how Father likes it’, and liturgical trappings of vestments, acolyting etc becoming so much more important than the God to which they are supposed to point. I JUST DON’T CARE! YOU DON’T EARN BROWNIE POINTS WITH GOD FOR DRESSING UP LIKE ELVIS-MEETS-THE KKK AND WALKING IN RIGHT ANGLES!!! I should add that the forced jollity of charismatic services and the usual evangelical cliches also drive me round the bend these days. Enough of the formulae, I want God!
  • I miss having a spiritual director to hold me to account.
  • I have a massive lazy streak.
  • I find maintaining my own routines and structure difficult.

So where does that leave things?

I’m not 100% sure.

What I do know is that God has been working in my life in the last few years to bring about a lot of healing and through particular things that have happened and the people he has brought into my life, especially TractorGirl, I’m so much more like the person God made me to be and infinitely more comfortable in my own skin. I know that whatever happens, I am loved from top to bottom purely and simply because I am. It’s not about achieving things or never messing up. It’s about pure, unearned, freely-given love. What’s more, that’s true of every single person and every single part of creation. The challenge is to live in the light of those two things and to make time to enjoy God for her own sake.

There’s a great quote from a former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, which I can never quite get right but goes something like this: knowing God, and being known by God, doesn’t depend upon, nor does it guarantee, being right about God. I think this needs to be my motto over the coming weeks. My last year in Durham made it difficult to hold onto this, but I now see that it’s key, because it not only leaves room for the inevitable errors we all make when thinking about God or reading the Bible, but it also leaves room for doubts and questions and being able to say ‘I don’t know’. Having room for grey areas rather than feeling pinned down to only black or white is something that has been missing for a while now in my faith. That isn’t to say that truth doesn’t matter, but is simply to admit that I don’t have things sorted all the time and like TractorGirl, recognise I need to engage openly and honestly with my doubts.

In practice, I think this will mean having to figure out a way of giving my prayer life (in whatever form) the time it needs and so engaging with scripture, but also finding time, however ad hoc (and ad hoc may well be the best thing at the moment), just to enjoy God. Not having answers is hard for me as a scientist who likes to have things well-defined (which I know is ironic giving how much of science is really groping in the dark) but also as someone who likes to be in control. It feels vulnerable.

That brings me back to Advent, which is my favourite time of the Christian year. God didn’t come into the world on clouds descending, in a blaze of glory and power and might. Instead, God in human flesh was born as a small baby, entirely dependent on his parents, themselves very ordinary and at the mercy of the political situation of their day. which made them forced pilgrims and refugees. It’s an enormously vulnerable position fraught with risk, with the risk of loving all of us so much as to give up the thing that matters most.   God in the vulnerability, the mess and the ambiguity of the world is the only God that makes sense to me in my vulnerability, mess and ambiguity. Sometimes it’s all I can hang onto.

One Bible – Two Testaments

I’m part of a group called Bible School which meets in the home of the person who runs it on Thursday evenings. We study the Bible in the sense of looking at the background, origins and usage of it, and in the past I gather the group has also spent time wrestling with doctrinal issues.

Yesterday evening we had an interesting discussion on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments and were asked to consider the theological relationship (as opposed to the sociological or historical) between the two. After some further reflection, I’ve come to a few conclusions I thought I’d air to see what others think.

One of my personal bugbears is the way some people seem to look at the Old Testament and be able to ‘see Jesus’ all over the place. Now, I’m NOT saying that this is impossible or an illegitimate practice. If God is Trinitarian then this has always been the case as the divine nature is eternal and unchanging, and, as Michael Ramsey put it, God is Christlike and there is no un-Christlike-ness within God at all. Consequently, it is not surprising if reflections by the people of Israel about the nature of God have a Christ-like character, if you will, and that profound resonances with the Gospel narratives can be found within the Old Testament. This is, I suppose, the beginnings of a doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture, though I would not wish to go as far as postulating the infallibility or inerrancy of Scripture as there is clearly a journey being made by the people of God (in Israel in the OT and Paul and others in the NT) in terms of their understanding of the divine nature. For a couple of examples, note the gradual move from a tribal understanding of God to a more universal conception following exile in Babylon and also the changing understanding of the consequences of sin down the generations (re the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ healing of the blind man where the disciples ask about the origin of the man’s blindness).

Having said that, I want also to highlight three potential pitfalls:

1)  The OT has an integrity of its own which can get lost if we ‘Christianise’ it too readily. Canonical criticism (reading a passage in the light of the whole of Scripture) is a sound hermeneutical technique (Walter Moberly is, I gather, a principle advocate) but we need also to consider the historical and literary critical questions in order to form a rounded picture. Some texts such as the early chapters of Genesis to pick a common example suffer from being ripped from their original context and re-interpreted to suit Christianity, both in terms of their riches being lost and difficult questions being side-stepped.

2) It is tempting to use the Old Testament simply as a proof-text for Christianity. We search through the Bible for texts which appear to point to Christ (or at least can be read that way) and disregard the rest. We then fail to appreciate the OT at all. Moreover, this approach ignores the possibility that just as the NT authors drew heavily on the OT and no doubt came to understand it in the light of Christ, seeing prophecy fulfilled (see the Road to Emmaus story), maybe they came to understand Christ in the light of OT and recast the stories of Jesus’ life in the style of these narratives. I understand that the practice is called Midrash and was common in Jesus’ time – the Gospels are not journalistic accounts as we know them today (which does not mean they are ‘fiction ‘ devoid of historical content) but are narratives told  by people steeped in a particular culture and shaped by a national history and expectation (even Luke, a gentile author, draws heavily on the OT). 

3) We can come to Scripture with a particular doctrinal position already established and search for evidence to back it up. For instance, I’ve had discussions with Christians about penal substitutionary atonement who have focused on Isaiah 53 and the Suffering Servant. (It’s true that there are remarkable similarities between the Cross and the OT text, but Second Isaiah has a history of its own and ultimately we are not sure to whom the author was referring. Whilst my point about the guidance of the Holy Spirit comes into play here, I think, we must not forget the very Jewish origins of the text, of exile in Babylon and the hope of deliverance from the God of the Exodus. Both readings are useful and insightful.) While again I do not think it is illegitimate to see how well doctrines measure up to Scripture (in fact I believe it is vital so as to maintain the proper balance between Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience, in which, at least for Anglicans, Scripture is the final authority – in that sense we believe in sola scriptura), I think we need to be doing solid exegesis and not trying to force the Bible to fit pre-conceived views, and this is arguably harder with the OT than the NT, simply because of the time-gap between its authorship and now, and the comparative lack of knowledge of it in Christian circles.

So, at the end of all of that, I want to affirm the continuity between the OT and NT but want to stress

1) we need to let the OT speak for itself and take it seriously without ‘Christianising’ it;

2) there is a radical discontinuity with the resurrection of Christ, which is simultaneously the completion of the old and the beginning of the new creation, to paraphrase NT Wright’s Easter sermon from a couple of years ago. We are not bound to the entirety of the OT world-view and new possibilities are open. I believe it’s no accident that Mary Magdalene saw the risen Jesus and mistook him for the gardener…

Time for a re-think?

I spent the weekend on retreat with a group from GCN at Buckfast Abbey, which is near Totnes in Devon. It’s only the third GCN event I’d been to, and I was nervous that I would be stuck spending my weekend with deeply irritating camp blokes or people all too like some folks I’ve known in Durham who aren’t very comfortable with their sexuality and act like jerks to hide the fact. Thankfully, I couldn’t have been more wrong about it!

The first evening we had a lovely meal, much wine and a talk about 1 Peter from the priest leading the weekend. On the Saturday, TractorGirl and I led a session looking at the prologue to St John’s Gospel in the morning. As a couple of people requested it, I’ve added the text of my talks. We had a nice lunch at the Abbey’s cafe, which does extremely tasty-but-bad-for-you puddings. In the afternoon, one of our members talked about his experience of the ex-gay movement and we had a good discussion about being gay in the church. That evening saw us decant to the pub for a lovely meal (or at least it was when my food finally got there!) and I spent the Sunday morning chilling while TractorGirl went to mass.

For the most part, the weekend gave me much-needed space to relax, to catch up with people (though some all too briefly – methinks some travel might be in order) and make new friends. It did me good to get out of Durham for a while, and I got to spend some quality time with TractorGirl which I really appreciated and was lovely.

So far, so good. However, God was also doing his thing of unsettling things. One of the people on the retreat was an Anglican priest and after hearing me preach, told me he thinks I am a natural preacher, teacher and pastor and that in his belief, I am called to some sort of ministry within the church. This wasn’t the first time someone has told me that – it has happened several times after preaching and when getting to know people in the church – but what scared me a bit was his certainty.

Now, since I left the ordination process in Durham Diocese, for what I think was a sensible and principled reason, I’ve been doing a certain amount of re-assessment of my faith and place within the church. I had initially concluded that Anglican ordained ministry was not for me and that I would be better giving up altogether or looking at switching denominations. However, in the last couple of months, I’ve been wrestling with all of this and the jolt over the weekend confirms my initial thoughts:

  • Within my remaining time in Durham, I would like to keep worshipping at the Methodist Church that has become ‘church family’ and who have loved and accepted me unconditionally. The Cathedral is lovely and I will still go there sometimes, but I’ve had enough.
  • Joint Anglican-Methodist membership is something I would like to do purely for its own sake, because it does express my journey and theological roots. However, I don’t think I’d pursue local preaching unless after the move I end up in a Methodist church. First and foremost, I am an Anglican. The Church of England, despite its many faults, is my home and I love it very much. I feel deep down that it’s where God wants me to be, and after all, it won’t change if everyone who struggles in it flees.
  • Leaving the process hasn’t lessened my desire to serve God in the church as well as the world of work. I don’t think full-time parish ministry is for me, but NSM or reader training do appeal, and I need to stop running away and look at them.

In short, the conclusion I’ve come to is that God doesn’t seem to want to give up on me in ministry in the church of some form. The task now is to discern the right expression for that. This means dealing once again with the thorny issue of sexuality and after the weekend and sharing my story and, far more interestingly, hearing from others, I just about feel in a position to do that. I will have to get better at ‘playing the game’, but I think stepping back for a while and talking to so many encouraging people has helped me see how that might work.

I think, through all the ‘ifs, buts and maybes’ of the last few weeks, what has emerged through much prayer, thought, wrestling and tears, is a sense of the need to step out, take risks and use my gifts to serve God. I can’t really talk about the other part of my life where the need to take a leap of faith and just live with the uncertainties has become apparent and I hope I’m responding appropriately, but in both cases, I’ve realised that I can either carry on running away, or take the risk of love. It’s very scary, but I honestly believe I’m doing the right thing in both cases.

There’s a clip from one of the best films of all time, in my humble opinion, ‘Good Will Hunting’, about taking risks. I couldn’t find the specific clip I wanted, but the end of this illustrates my point about safety nets and the need to risk getting hurt to find love:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAF8zRUdp18&feature=related[/youtube]

Durham Mystery Plays, Fascism and general life stuff

The other day, TractorGirl and I went to see the Durham Mystery Plays, a series of modern attempts to carry on the tradition from the 15th Century of using drama to re-inact stories from the Bible. The most famous series of these is probably the York Mystery Plays, though they have also been revived in Chester. Most of the cast were sixth-formers who did a really great job.

The first play, ‘The Fall of Lucifer’ was at the Gala theatre and based on Britain’s Got Talent; the second was at the Cathedral, ‘The Fall of Creation’ and was an operatic piece with lots of schoolchildren running about, and the remainder, four based on the Old Testament and four on the New, were down at the Sands, a sort of park about five minute’s stroll from said Cathedral.

I think the best and most thought-provoking was ‘God’s Day Off’, imagining what God found when he couldn’t resist taking a look at the Creation on the seventh day. It shows God not being too impressed with the consequences of giving human beings free will and perhaps regretting his decision. It got me thinking about the vulnerability of God and the risk of creation. Probably the most fun play was ‘Noah and the Fludd’, where they made a ‘nark’ to save them and God was a feisty North East women. I don’t think the play in the Cathedral really worked; it wasn’t possible to hear what was  being said most of the time and it all felt a bit silly. I do wonder what the young people re-telling the Abraham and Isaac story made of it…

The day after that, we went on an anti-fascist demonstration with United Against Fascism. I’ll upload photos when I get around to it. The English Defence League came to protest in Newcastle and even on match days I’ve never seen as many police. According to UAF, we outnumbered them; the Police seemed to suggest the numbers were about even. Either way, I think it was really important to stand up against fascism in whatever forms it takes these days. The scary thing though was listening to a bunch of young lads on the train home talking about it all as if it was all great fun. Quite how young some of the lads being groomed are is frightening, as is the level of violence that was casually talked about. One wonders if they really have idea of what they’re getting mixed up in and the consequence for those affected by them.

On a lighter note, my search for a job continues. I have a phone interview to arrange at some point and also an assessment for what they (the uni disability people) think is dyspraxia, which will make my life a lot easier when it comes to psychometric testing. On top of that, I am trying to refresh my memory of my PhD thesis ready for Tuesday’s viva. Apart from a wobble yesterday, I think all of that is going well. But, now for once the sun is out, so I’m going to enjoy working outdoors for a while. TTFN 🙂

Grey night of the soul

There has been a lot of change in my life of late. In the last few months:

  • I have submitted my PhD and am waiting for the viva (and working hard to prepare, honest!)
  • I have left the C of E ordination process (which I’m pleased about)
  • I’ve done some serious re-thinking of career plans
  • I could well have joint Anglican-Methodist membership soon

On top of that, I don’t know what I’ll be doing, where I’ll be (in particular in relation to TractorGirl) and maybe how I’ll put food on the table (though that is almost certainly me panicking) in a few weeks’ time.

All this and a conversation today with a friend on a similar topic has got me thinking. Where is God in all of this change? I suppose because I’d been thinking about ordination for so long (and still feel a deep sense of call, though am glad to be out of the process) it’s shaped how I see and understand my faith. Now that’s not on the agenda, how do I tell my story, and what is God doing? I must admit as well to a deep sense of boredom with a lot of church stuff, which feels increasingly pointless, and a degree of apathy about prayer. When you’ve prayed for guidance, made a real effort to listen to God, prayed about and discussed it through with others who’ve encouraged you to follow a given path, you think you have some idea of what God wants. The failure of that has left me wondering just what my faith is about and the point of prayer.

It taps into a major theological issue I really struggle with anyway – in what sense can we speak of God’s action in the world? To hear some people talk, God micro-manages their lives. I can see that it can be comforting to believe that God is in charge, and I’m not knocking anyone who has a really deep sense of that, but I can’t help but ask about the problems God seems incapable of resolving. On the other hand, belief in a distant God who just stands back (like the Deism of Locke, for instance, or the only sort of ‘God’ Dawkins can deal with) is just not the Christian God. A solid doctrine of creation tells us that God is moment by moment creating, sustaining and redeeming the world, so that if his attention lapsed for a moment, there wouldn’t be a creation. Moreover, God’s desire for that creation is to have life in all its fullness, which is why he sent Jesus. Grace is a constant reaching out to what is not God in love to draw it into the life, the very heart, of the Trinity (think Rublev’s ikon) which is made possible through salvation history culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

I know the various answers such as the free-will defence and the need for the creation to be free and open to risk in order to have any integrity. I like Rowan Williams‘ idea of a sort of ‘membrane’ between us and God that can be thinned out by prayer, a holy life, a combination of events, so something new can break through. I’d use this sort of reasoning to reconcile the resurrection with science – a deeper level of reality, of truth (indeed truth his very self) has broken through. But, however satisfying such explanations might be intellectually, they don’t cut it emotionally. I know some (one person in particular) would find it hard to accept that more than rationality is needed, but we are inherently emotional beings (indeed, there is evidence that without emotions, we find it nigh on impossible to put decisions into action – such is the case with some folks with brain damage) and if God takes all we are seriously, the emotions matter to him as well as our ideas.

Last night, at the Cathedral, I went to a service for the Venerable Bede’s saint day, and found the sermon very moving. It’s the most down-to-earth thing I’ve heard for ages, and I wanted to give the preacher a big hug. God felt present in that service in such a powerful way. I can’t say I’m experiencing a sort of dark night of the soul, because God is there, but nor can I say that last night is the norm and keeping faith feels like a real effort, though I’d never abandon it because I really do believe Christ is risen. That’s why I’d call it a ‘grey night’ of the soul; I need a re-think about what is at the heart of my faith. Applying for jobs has shown me that use of my gifts to serve others has to be at the heart of career choices, but the rest is all a bit vague…

The ‘Christian Hustings’

Following on from an earlier post, last night I went to the ‘Christian Hustings’ hosted by ‘Christians and Candidates’ with TractorGirl. Chairing the event was the former Bishop of Rochester, the Rt Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, and the Labour, Lib Dem, Tory and UKIP candidates were there. It was held on my home territory, in Elvet Methodist Church, and all the downstairs and about a third of the balcony was full of young people, a remarkable sight given I’m used to seeing a mostly empty church. The organisers had a clear agenda, to address what they considered to be vital issues for Christians, namely freedom of speech, homosexuality, the family, abortion, embryo research and euthanasia. As one can see from the links above, the view taken on these issues was mostly a conservative evangelical one, with which I often find myself being deeply uncomfortable.

I was not impressed with the UKIP candidate, Nigel Coghill-Marshall. He came out with some sexist gems like working women “have their Gucci handbags, now they want a child” and some of his other views were racist. TractorGirl tells me that he was articulate and thoughtful for a UKIP candidate, which is worrying.

The Conservative candidate, Nick Varley, is a twenty year-old local lad and I have to admit I was impressed by him. He talked sense and while I don’t share all his views, was impressed with his integrity, how he handled disagreeing with the vast majority of the audience and dealt with the Bishop’s questioning. He was against section 28, which is important, as I’ll explain later.

The Lib Dem candidate, Carol Woods, came across as very nervous and uncomfortable dealing with a religious group with whom she disagreed. I was uncomfortable with her statement that religion and politics should be kept separate in public life and her desire to see the bishops removed from the House of Lords. Having said that, the rest of what she said was good stuff and I liked her, even her focus was perhaps too ‘town not gown’ given the audience.

The Labour candidate, Roberta Blackman-Woods really impressed me. I admired her for sticking to her guns over the Equality Bill and other issues like abortion, and I felt that she cared about representing all of her constituents. She seemed a genuinely warm person and handled the disagreements with the Bishop and audience members well.

For the most part, the debate consisted of a grilling of the candidates by the Bishop, who was genuine, gracious and fair. While I struggle with the assumption that the conservative evangelical view is the biblical view, he did, in fairness, give me the opportunity to take the mic when TractorGirl and I were the only ones applauding Nick Varley’s disagreement with Section 28 in a church with about 400 people in it!

I felt it was really important to challenge the idea that there is only one Christian view on issues like human sexuality. Before the debate began, TractorGirl was nervous of introducing me to a fellow Streetlights person as her partner, and this confirmed to me the need to speak out, even though I must admit that given 95% of the audience disagreed with me I was terrified, and there were cameras there for some sort of Christian TV channel.

When given the unexpected opportunity, I explained that I am both a Christian and gay, that Section 28 was a bad thing because ‘no promotion of homosexuality’ was interpreted by my school to mean ‘no discussion of homosexuality’, which left me feeling that my sexual orientation was a dirty secret to keep hidden (not least to avoid being bullied any more than I already was – I was different enough already!), and that where I am is a painful place to be as one gets a hard time both from the gay community (who often assume conservative Christians are homophobic, which is mostly not the case) and from the Church (I’ve been told I’m going to hell several times and either insulted, humiliated or at best just blanked by people). The Bishop was very gracious in response to this, and we had a lovely chat afterwards. I collected another picture for my ‘Me with Bishops’ collection of photos (an odd hobby of mine), which I’ll post when TractorGirl gets it developed.

The evening has convinced me that I will vote for Roberta, despite my reservations about some aspects of Labour Party policy, which has moved so far to the right as to be vastly different from the ‘democratic, socialist party’ on my old membership card. I had been worried the candidates would be bullied into submission, but they all held their own and liberal Christians like me will hopefully have a representative who listens to their views as well as engaging with more conservative folks. I was upset a bit by the nasty looks some people I know from Christchurch gave me as I left, but I think I did the right thing in standing up for what I believe, while doing my best to respect others.

In response to a discussion on Facebook, I’ve got some book and website suggestions:

Rowan Williams, ‘The Body’s Grace’

Gene Robinson, ‘In The Eye of the Storm’

Michael Vasey, ‘Strangers and Friends’

Daniel Helminiak, ‘What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality’

Robin Scrogg, ‘The New Testament and Homosexuality’

Kim Frabricius, ‘Ten Propositions on the Church and Same-Sex Relationships’

Homosexuality and Elections

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook their reasons for not signing the Westminster Declaration which is currently doing the rounds with the election looming and the perceived threat of Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill to Christianity in Britain. It’ll be pretty obvious to anyone who knows me that I won’t be signing and have profound issues with it, not just relating to sexuality but the whole idealisation of the nuclear family. It got me to thinking about various encounters I’ve had with people in the Church in the last few months:

Person A is heterosexual and, due to the teaching of the church they belong to, believes that sex is wrong outside of heterosexual marriage.

The range of responses I’ve had when coming out to such people goes from ‘I don’t think it’s God’s plan for your life’ to ‘you’re going to hell’, with various in-between views. What I find difficult here is not disagreement itself, as healthy dialogue helps everyone to be better informed, but the lack of respect and willingness to listen inherent in some people’s responses (though liberals (including me, for which I’m sorry) have also done this to more conservative Christians).

Person B is side B and has been deeply hurt by their experiences of the gay scene, which they have found to be exploitative and dehumanising. They share A’s belief but hold it with much greater vehemence than most.

The person I’m specifically thinking of is a good friend of mine and maintaining the friendship in these circumstances has been deeply costly for both of us. While I want to be understanding and there to support them, (partly because I respect their integrity but mostly because I love them) it is painful because of their unwillingness to acknowledge that part of the reason I’m a happier bunny these days is because of being honest with myself about my sexual orientation and being in a loving, faithful, committed relationship. I think admitting this would be too threatening to the religious view that allows this person to move on from their past, and they have been (almost uncertainly unintentionally) very hurtful in how they express their views. Tied in with this is their opposition to the ordination of women.

Person C used to be side B because of the teaching of the church they were in but gradually has become side A. They consider it crucially important that the views of A and B are respected and will go out of their way to avoid offending them.

On the one hand, I agree with this. The command to love one’s neighbour as one’s self does not just apply to those who agree with my own views on issues of human sexuality. On the other hand, there is a fine line between respecting opposing views and compromising integrity. While being ‘in your face’ is not helpful, neither is hiding away. Further, this view can be naïve about how some people will appeal to the Bible or ‘nature’ to justify their existing prejudices. Hatred is hatred, whether or not there are Bible verses to back it up (re. the BNP’s claim to be authentically Christian).

Person D is side A and attends the Metropolitan Community Church. They cannot understand why anyone would want to belong to a mainstream denomination that can make life hard work for gay and lesbian Christians.

I have some sympathy with this as the ordination process in the Church of England makes sexual orientation a defining characteristic (where as I have finally(!) realised that actually it is a very small part of who I am) and reduces relationships to what happens in the bedroom. It can be very difficult to be in a mainstream church and I know people who attend MCC because of their experiences and how much it hurt them. My experience of it is of a loving group of people who made me very welcome. On the other hand, for me, mainstream denominations are not going to change if all LGBT people jump ship, and this does make sexual orientation pivotal, which I am uncomfortable with doing.

—————————————————-

My reason for pondering these encounters is the upcoming election hustings in Durham, chaired by the former Bishop of Rochester, which as the links in TractorGirl’s post on this show, has a definite agenda in terms of the Equality Bill. According to some of these folks, because of my relationship, I am not a real Christian. It seems to me that homosexuality is being used as a set piece issue for people who are struggling with the lack of automatic deference in a post-Christendom age, and is something about which they feel they must ‘make a stand on’ over and against the wider culture.

All four of these encounters, especially that with B, have been difficult as they highlight the loneliness one can experience being Christian, female, gay, in a committed, loving relationship and in a mainstream denomination. I am happy to engage with and hope I manage to respect those whose views are different to my own within the C of E and the wider Church. However, I often feel that I am treated with very little respect and am expected to bend to the opinions of others. Having said that, the churches in Durham of which I am a part have been wonderfully supportive and my sexual orientation is much, much less important than the fact that I am happy.

I’ve drafted this e-mail which I attend to send to the Labour and Lib Dem candidates (as realistically our next MP will be one of them):

Dear Candidate,

I am writing to you about the forthcoming election hustings at Elvet Methodist Church on Friday 30th April. As is clear from my research into the motives of the organisers, there is an agenda in terms of opposition to the recent Equality Bill and a sense that issues like homosexuality are forcing Christians to act against their consciences. Some of the language implies that gay Christians in relationships are not really Christian at all. As someone in this position, I hope that you will bear in mind that there are many Christians who are gay and in committed, faithful and loving relationships, which is a very lonely place to be, given the hostility one sometimes encounters from both the Church and the gay community. The message that the Equality Bill sends out is, in my opinion, very important as it affirms the value of LGBT people in society. While clashes of this with individual conscience are difficult to resolve, please do not forget that those of us stuck in the middle often have the hardest time of all. I pray that instead of getting bogged down in such discussions, these hustings give an opportunity to discuss the issues that really matter, like care for the poor and disadvantaged, climate change and care for creation, and human rights and dignity, which are so central to the Christian Gospel.

TOH