Thursday, 23 November 2017

God bless Africa

In the wake of the bloodless coup in Zimbabwe, I thought it would be good to revisit my prayers for the continent. Most Sundays we were there, we prayed Bishop Trevor Huddleston's prayer:

God bless Africa
Guard her children
Guide her leaders
And give her peace
for Jesus Christ's sake.

I will update this blog over the next few days, as there are 54 sovereign states on the continent. But for now, this is an invitation to pray for:

  1. Zimbabwe, that Emerson Mnangagwa and the ZANU-PF government may build a new, prosperous and reconciled nation;
  2. South Africa, that President Jacob Zuma may step down, having learnt the lesson that Robert Mugabe failed to learn, that there is an end to everything; and that justice may prevail;
  3. Lesotho, for national unity following the assassination in September of the army commander by disgruntled former soldiers;
  4. Swaziland, that King Mswati may relinquish his absolutist and tyrannical grip on power, and allow modernization and development that benefits the poor;
  5. Angola, that the mineral wealth may not become a source of greed, blood diamonds and violence;
  6. Namibia, that SWAPO's (ruling party) National Congress may seek justice and serve the whole nation;
  7. Botswana, that this model country's stand against political and economic corruption, long lauded internationally, may continue and set a good example to the rest of the continent.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Is it my right to carry a gun?

President Trump famously said of the church shooting in Texas on November 5th that "This isn't a guns situation. This is a mental health problem at the highest level. It’s a very, very sad event." Meanwhile, a town mourns its dead and injured. Back in 1999, when we arrived in an equally gun-violent South Africa, we were told by our bishop that there was an absolute ban on guns in church in his diocese, and that any minister found to possess a gun licence would lose their church licence. For us, it was a relief to know that there was a clear choice.

About four years later, our racist white Irish neighbour was shot and killed while cycling to work. Why? Because the thieves wanted his proudly displayed gun, tucked into his waistband. I wish I could say that those who live by the sword die by the sword. The trouble is, that so often the innocent bystander and the vulnerable get taken down as well, or instead. I'm not a pacifist (I wish I could be, but the world is a fallen place), but I do not think that guns lead to a safer society. The evidence is quite clear.

So maybe it's a matter of human rights? The Second Amendment of the American Constitution says that "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." We'll leave aside the particular interpretation of this held by gun-rights advocates, as there is a debate about the implications of the text. I have two questions about it. The first is whether the right of the people is an absolute right or a right relative to other rights, like my right to safety, and society's right to walk in public without fear? I personally don't think that a constitutional right is a human right. It is a political and social right, and, more importantly, it is a political and social responsibility.

The second question is whether Donald Trump's denial that the shooting was a 'guns situation' is expressed as a conviction of the truth, a moral stand, a fear that he might lose his power base, or a deeply paranoid reading of the way to control the world. His approach to North Korea seems to me even more dangerous than the American love of gun freedom: let's all have a big shoot-out between the West and North Korea, and may the best gun win? Really? The costlier way is the way of dialogue, but it takes time, effort, and a commitment to play less golf...

The pictures that I have posted to accompany this blog are from Namibia and Angola, where mines, bombs and shells continue to maim and kill decades after they were laid or shot in anger. As for the fallout from a global nuclear conflict, Chernobyl is a sobering and terrifying reminder of the stain on all our lives, and consciences.

Monday, 6 November 2017

A disciple walks in the way of the Lord

Next year marks 50 years since I arrived at the University of Leeds to read Theology and Religious Studies under Professor John Tinsley. He was a somewhat stiff and aloof figure, and few of us warmed to him. But even then I was struck that he invited new students to his house for cheese and wine, clearly wanting to make the effort to be sociable and supportive. The only time that I saw him excited was when he was explaining to us how the mosaics at Ravenna, and the architecture of the basilica, demonstrated better than words the theology of the early church.

In the second and third years, he taught us Christian Doctrine, focusing in one on the Trinity and the Incarnation, and in the other on the Atonement. Much of my preaching and my own Christian reflection is rooted in all that he gave us, and I am deeply indebted to him. I only wish that I had told him so at the time, but students rarely thank their teachers!

He didn't give away much of himself, and when he became Bishop of Bristol, he had to walk with his wife through a traumatic time of illness and premature death from cancer. For some reason, I felt the need to go and see him when we were in North Devon, travelling from Barnstaple to Bristol with Jill. He welcomed us hospitably and gave us lunch at his kitchen table, though he was clearly the only person in our theological past who hadn't seen our marriage coming! "Oh, that came off, did it?" was his reply to our self-identification as fellow students of his.

The thing that I never did was read his book, and I'm making up for that now, 49 years late. "The Imitation of God in Christ" was published by SCM Press in 1960, the only book that he wrote, I think. At last, I'm beginning to get a measure of the man, and his spiritual journey, and it's very moving.

In the first part of the book, he deals with the theme of imitation in the Old Testament, and though I'm not here attempting to summarize what he writes, the key is that to imitate God is to walk in the way of the Lord. In this great 'journey' of faith, Israel is the imitator as it walks behind the Lord, miming and rehearsing all that God has done and is doing, by taking part in those works.

And here we come to the nub of it. Israel's covenantal discipleship is fivefold in structure: to walk after the Lord is first, to obey [to keep the commandments]. Secondly, it is to reverence the Lord [to fear the Lord]. Then comes love [to love the Lord and to cleave to him]; perfection [to be perfect in the Way] and to know the Lord. I love this, and it seems to me a powerful blueprint for Christian discipleship today rather than some intellectual assent to a set of plausible or provable truths or even an emotional and deeply felt passion which waxes and wanes with the ebb and flow of life. It is a covenant. We are called by a God who commits to us. In response we obey, worship, love, grow and know.

I wish I had known John Tinsley better, but this undeservedly forgotten little book is giving me rich insight into his faith and personal journey, and I find myself again giving thanks for one more saint in the unsung calendar of 'ordinary unremarkable but faithful children of God.'

Monday, 30 October 2017

Saints fit to follow

I'd love to be back in Trinidad tomorrow night, on the eve of All Saints', driving past the cemetery in the old capital of St Joseph after dark, nearly every grave lit up with a mass of candles. Ever since I was a child, it's reminded me of the way in which the risen Christ lights up the gloom of our lives and our deaths with a promise of the new creation.

Today, we're more inclined to make our own saints of our celebrity singers, actors and sports personalities. We idolize them and scour the newspapers for titbits of gossip. The glitter and razzmatazz draws us like moths to a flame, and consumes us with bitterness and envy as we approach. We can never be like them, try as we might. They are the icons of our broken dreams and failure to find meaning.

Which is why, in the end, we rejoice at their downfall. I am in no doubt that the spectacular 'fall from grace' of Harvey Weinstein and others is appropriate, and an object lesson in the danger that is inherent in our veneration of the secular 'company of saints'. Yet, having been poisoned by their narcissism and our voyeurism, we are even further corrupted by the danse macabre with which we surround their fall. Both celebrity heroics and the anti-heroic glee with which we welcome their fall to earth stain us.

The Christian gospel holds up a different band of pilgrims, of apostles, prophets, martyrs, teachers and confessors whom we revere, not because they are utterly unlike us, but because they show us in small and great ways what we also can be in Christ. They are models of what is possible, in Christ. They are beacons who light up a way that is open, in Christ. And of course, they challenge us to the narrow way of the kingdom, the way of ascent, the way of the cross, the way of dying to self that new life may come.

So tomorrow and throughout this week, I'll be remembering the unremarked and unremarkable saints who've shaped my life and my journey, as well as those whose names I carry: Thomas the doubting apostle who said 'My Lord and my God'; Francis, the little poor one, who stripped himself bare the better to follow Christ, and Adrian of Nicomedia, soldier in the Praetorian Guard who was converted and martyred at the beginning of the 4th century. May they, and we, rise in glory.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Three Loves

How to live well in the Kingdom of God

Hebrews 13.1-3

Hebrews 13 is a familiar end-of-letter exhortation to its audience, to live the life fully into which we have been invited by our Saviour Christ. When I preached on this in Crowmarsh Gifford in August 2006, I prepared a sermon on verses 1-3 as a manifesto for three kinds of love: mutual love, stranger-love, and love for the marginalized.

MUTUAL LOVE: Let mutual love continue - Ἡ φιλαδελφία μενέτω. This love is ‘brotherly love’ in the Greek, and the NRSV doesn’t preserve the force of the word. Love the family, love as sisters and brothers, love as those to whom you belong, certainly. More importantly, love with the full knowledge of the frailty and idiosyncrasies of those who are so close to you that you know them warts and all. It’s unconditional love, but it’s not careless love. It cares deeply that those we love are fractured, but it does not make love dependent on change. It is patient love, love for the addict who can’t find a way out; love for the sister who has wounded your life by a chance remark; love for the brother who doesn’t know how to treat you with respect. It’s redeeming love, because it frees those whom we love from the compulsion to prove themselves to us.

STRANGER-LOVE: Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers – The word used for hospitality - φιλοξενία – may be literally translated as love of strangers or of those who are strange. The love theme continues! There is a further reminder that love for others doubles up as love for God, and that one without the other is the absurdity shown clearly in 1 John 4. Hospitality offered to humans may be hospitality offered to God, and there are echoes for me of Abraham’s experience in Genesis 18. Perhaps there is a supernatural dimension to all hospitality? We find the unseen guest Christ makes himself known in the breaking of bread when we make space at the table for strangers. Eucharistic strangers make the Eucharist a sacramental miracle, and Christ presents himself in them too. Might they, in a strange way, be some of the broken bread?

LOVE FOR THOSE ON THE MARGINS: Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured [μιμνῄσκεσθε τῶν δεσμίων ὡς συνδεδεμένοι] the writer moves rapidly into more uncomfortable territory. We’ve been asked to make space at the table for those who formally don’t belong. Now we’re asked to go into inhospitable places, and make ourselves at home there, to be ‘in the flesh’ with them, as the text actually says. This is the core meaning of ‘compassion’, which takes us beyond empathy to participation, one of the ways of understanding what Christ means when he invites us to take up our cross. In a comfortable, warm and fuzzy church setting with glorious music and rich resources, it’s a challenge to remain uncomfortable and edgy ourselves.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The gifts of the Spirit

in 1 Corinthians 12
This blog is a collection of Facebook posts in 2016. I will add to them from Romans 12 and elsewhere in due course. For now, before I get into the detail, I want to make some general marks about God’s gifts.
The first is that God gives varieties of gifts, both to Christians and non-Christians. Here we are talking about gifts given to the church, and to individuals within the church for the sake of the church.
1.      Some of these gifts are naturally endowed: birth gifts.
2.      Some are learned skills: sweat of the brow gifts.
3.      Some are supernaturally endowed: I’m not sure what to call these.
4.      Some are a mixture of the 3 things above.
So we mustn’t separate out gifts that come from God and gifts that come from ‘nature’. They are all God-given! Having said that, let’s start in earnest.
λόγος σοφίας
This week I’m going to celebrate the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Today: Wisdom, who speaks for herself in Proverbs 8. This is the gift that Stephen had which gifted him to speak so eloquently when appointed a deacon, and which led him to die for the truth he spoke.
“Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water....
...then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.”
λόγος γνώσεως
The gift of knowledge is often trivialized as ‘a word of knowledge’ in an act of worship, through which someone identifies a person present who has a particular ailment or need. It may be that, but 1 Corinthians 12 uses the same word as 1 Corinthians 1, where ‘gnosis’ [knowledge] refers to the proclamation of Christ crucified. If I pray for this gift, I am most likely praying for the Holy Spirit to grant me the ability to teach and proclaim Christ our Saviour in a way that radically transforms the lives of those who listen. What a gift to pray for!
The third gift of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12 is ‘faith’. This doesn’t refer to the faith that is common to all who are in Christ. It is a specific way of living out of that faith that touches the lives of others. Anthony Thiselton’s commentary says “Probably this gift promotes an ebullient, robust, optimistic acceptance of God’s sovereign love and mercy in such a way as to put heart into a troubled church in times of uncertainty.” I love this, but would add that it is a faith that holds others in its embrace, encouraging and enabling them to believe and hope when they are doubtful or spiritually weak. Thirdly, it is a faith which excites, energizes and propels others into the mission of God.
In the New Testament, Paul himself seems to me to have this gift. In the history of the church, such people are sometimes leaders but more often seem to be found among the ordinary, unnoticed, faith-filled folk. The question to ask yourself today is, ‘Where do I see this gift at work in our church?’
χαρίσματα ἰαμάτων
The fourth gift of the Holy Spirit in our list is plural: gifts of healing.
1.      These are gifts given for the building up of the church; we do not ‘possess’ the gifts, but we steward them. Some of us exercise the gifts of healing for a season, or on one occasion only. Some are called to carry the gift as a central feature of their Christian discipleship.
2.      These gifts are exercised in prayer. We ask for healing in the name of Jesus, and the Spirit of Jesus responds graciously through us.
3.      Healing has a sacramental character. Laying hands on the sick and anointing them are outward signs of the inward working of the grace of God. We who pray for the sick are also outward signs of God’s inward grace.
4.      The healing miracles of Jesus were exercised in compassion. But they are also signs of the end, when all will be well and there is no more pain. The church continues this earthly ministry of Jesus, and in doing so, gives hope. Healing is partial now; then it will be complete.
5.      For those who are in Christ, death is a healing journey, the entry point into the eternity of God
ἐνεργήματα δυνάμεων
Gift 5 is the working of miracles, better translated as works of power. If I pray for this gift, I am praying that God will do powerful things in Jesus’ name through me. Those powerful things might be dramatic, but they are just as likely to be hidden, quiet, behind the scenes. The reconciliation of two factions in a church, the repairing of a threatened marriage, a person restored from despair, another enabled to forgive oppressors, these too are works of power. So if you desire and pray for this gift, don’t pray for drama, pray for God to turn a little corner of the world the right way up through you. If God chooses to act dramatically, that’s fine. But to pray to be gifted with works of God’s power is to pray to be used transformatively, not dramatically.
Continuing with our theme of the gifts of the Spirit, prophecy comes next. There are some cautions here: if we call people with a gift of prophecy 'prophets', we may unintentionally suggest [a] that they are fortune-tellers or oracles; [b] that they are infallibly speaking with the voice of God, as spokespersons, or [c] that they have high rank or status. Perhaps that is why Paul doesn't describe such people as prophets here or in Romans 12.
More positively, this is a gift of forthtelling rather than foretelling: forthright speech to the church, calling it back to holy living, active proclamation and costly service. Some sermons, undoubtedly, show this gift at work. So does godly conversation, or wise books. And though in 1 Corinthians 12 the gift is 'for the church', prophecy may be addressed to groups and nations as well as individuals. I for one, believe that Desmond Tutu has been such a person (and of course that doesn't mean that I agree with all that he says). I do believe that his words have on more than one occasion been words forthtelling God's challenge to the church and to the society.
διακρίσεις πνευμάτων
The discernment of spirits is the next in our tour through the gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12. It is relatively easy to cut through the thicket of opinions, perspectives and interpretations. To discern is to make a decision about the rightness or wrongness of something, to discriminate in the proper sense. As this is a gift of the Holy Spirit, this is an ability that is God-given rather than reasoned or intuitive, though of course God uses those faculties. What are the 'spirits'? They may be [a] the emotions and inner forces that pull us towards or away from God [consolation or desolation]; [b] the choices or claims we or others make in the name of God; and [c] actual evil spirits, the 'the cosmic powers of this present darkness'. It is of course a form of wisdom that we so desperately need in the church today. We always have done.
γένη γλωσσῶν + ἑρμηνεία γλωσσῶν
The last two gifts in the list in 1 Corinthians 12 go together. Paul here is not talking about the personal and private use of tongues, but about building up the church. Interestingly, in chapter 14, he says that this is a sign for unbelievers. I remember the unbelieving husband of a believing wife attending a service at which someone gave a message in tongues, followed by an interpretation from another. His remark afterwards was that this was the only thing that differentiated our church from the pub of which he was landlord!
Put simply, tongues are here
1.      addressed to God [14.2]: we ‘speak mysteries in the Spirit.’
2.      addressed to God in the church.
3.      addressed to God in the church for the sake of unbelievers.
It is as if unbelievers in church (are we bringing them in?) are invited to eavesdrop on our worship in tongues. And the interpreters must interpret what is happening, rather than what is being said. Interpretation is ‘spiritual explanation.’
More  importantly, our worship must be ‘in many tongues’ – God-breathed, inspired, ecstatic, supernatural, glorious praise, which does not dumb down. As we pray for these gifts, we are praying for our praise to be risky, to be open to the promptings of God, to be unbounded and unrestrained. It’s a prayer to ‘let God loose in our praise.’

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Ember cards

Several have asked me what an Ember card is. Ember Days are the four sets of three days in Advent, Lent, between Pentecost/Trinity and in September set aside for special prayer and fasting. They have become associated with times for ordination, as prayer and fasting are apt preparation. Nowadays, it is customary to pray for clergy and those to be ordained at Embertide. [Embers are, of course, ashes!]

So an Ember card is an ordination card, and many ordinations send them to family and friends to ask for prayer. In the way of the modern world, they have become very fancy, over-elaborate, and sometimes plain self-indulgent. They are not change of address cards.

I have copied one off the internet and put it below. If you choose to do this, all you really need to give people is where and when you are being ordained, and which ministry you will be serving in.