Monday, March 23, 2009
Saturday, March 21, 2009
The "Though for the Day" slot on BBC Radio 4's flagship news programme "Today" has been hotly contested for some time – the presenters (especially national treasure John Humphries) make no bones about the fact that they see it as a waste of space, the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society have tried to have it either removed or get humanist/rationalist thoughts for the day included as well as religious ones, and to be honest most of us with a faith also find it impossibly bland and irrelevant a lot of the time.
But every now and again it hits the nail on the head – and the two speakers who hit that nail the most often are Britain's two best loved Rabbis – Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and Rabbi Lionel Blue.
It was the latter yesterday morning who hit a nail on the head for me. Reflecting on a comic mess up at Obama's speech on St. Patrick's Day, he reflected that life does not always go as planned:
Then it dawned on me that life is like that autocue. We think our life is scripted. We've made our plans, written our words, know what we're going to say. Then something happens: an illness, an accident, an unexpected crisis, and suddenly the words no longer fit. We're thrown off balance. We improvise. A sense of humour helps. And we stumble through.
At least that's what I used to do until I made a decision that changed my life. Instead of getting angry or sad when things didn't work out the way I'd planned, I started asking, what is God telling me through this mishap? What is he trying to teach me? What does he want me to learn?
In preparing for our staff devotional earlier in the week I was leading from Ecclesiastes 3: 12-22 . Now I love Ecclesiastes, it is the most atypical book in the Bible – it seems nihilistic, almost Taoist – the Tao te Ching (written more or less contemporaneously I believe) has similar echoes about how life is short, wealth, learning and power are fleeting and illusory, and we all share the same fate – death. Cheerful stuff, but it is refreshing to find space in the scriptures for a frank assessment of the meaningless nature of so much that we lay great store in. Verses 12-14 and 22 of that passage remind us that for all that, work and the fruits of our labour are good things to be enjoyed as gifts from God.
Not that we are to live for these things either. Jesus had another take on it – Matthew 6:34 – live in the present, live now. It is not enough to be always looking to the future or harking on about how good things were in the past – here and now is where God is, and it is in the moment that we must live, because we cannot alter or bring back the past, and we cannot know or fully plan for the future. Of course, we have confidence in the fact that God is at work in our past and future too, and we have hope for that future coming of His Kingdom, but as the rest of that passage in Matthew's Gospel reminds us, don't worry about all that stuff – food, clothes, money, status, etc. Focus on God and His Kingdom, the rest is in His hands alone.
One of the lessons I am learning is to live in the present and to ask what God wants of me in my circumstances here, now and today – whether things are going to plan or otherwise. As I reflected earlier in the week, sometimes the most unwelcome turn of events is God's doorway. But we cannot second guess Him, we need to learn to walk with him each step, however unexpected.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
I heard a most useful sermon today, based on Acts 27:1-26, on how the path God has for us is less a straight line than a winding mountain path, full of digressions, resting places, and places where the path divides in different directions, yet still leading to the summit. God does not put us on rail tracks, he lets us find our own way, even when we wander off the path, get lost, double back or stop too long somewhere that was meant only to be a resting place.
God also sometimes sends us on other, unexpected routes, maybe placing obstacles in our paths, maybe using our own mistakes to take is in new directions.
My own Lenten journey has gone through an unexpected digression this last week. I had set out with my own idea of the journey, with a plan of prayer, fasting and study. Maybe I was a bit arrogant, too confident in myself, thinking I could self-discipline my way into God's presence, maybe feeling a couple of fasts and some prayer time each week would bring me in to a right relationship with God. Such attitudes can afflict us all when seeking to draw closer to God in times of self-examination and self-denial, and they leave little room for God's grace.
But barely two weeks in I was thrown an unexpected curve ball – a diagnosis of diabetes! Having been well and showing none of the usual symptom of diabetes this was a surprise (to put it mildly). My fasting plan went out of the window as I sought to make sure I was eating properly (interesting how fasting and following a strict diet can affect ones relationship to food in similar ways – it is no longer a simple pleasure and rapidly can become a focus of obsession). My cycle of prayers was disrupted by appointments with my GP and at the hospital, and my inner confidence that I could seek out God on my own terms went way out of the window. My sense of self control, of my body being under my will, was completely shattered.
I also felt a sense of shame and embarrassment – I knew the risks (family history of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus, carrying 2-3 stone more weight than I should, fat stomach, sedentary job, etc, etc.) yet had not taken them seriously enough to make lifestyle changes before the damage was done. I had had no warning shots across the bow – from feeling fine and well, I suddenly found that my body had gone wrong, and that youthful sense of immortality finally got shattered.
God is loving and works the best for His people, but Scripture and everyday experience gives us scant reason to expect that this will always be worked out in happy, cuddly and safe ways.
On Sunday evening, still mulling over the sermon I had heard that morning, I read the story of Jacob wrestling the Angel of God at the ford of Jabbok in Genesis 32:22-32. Jacob, the swindler and scoundrel, charismatic, living of his wits, self reliant. Here he was about to confront the brother he had swindled of his birthright, about to confront all the demons of his past, and once again was using his wit and charm to try and get out of a potentially lethal confrontation. Then a stranger turns up, wrestles with him all night, and finally, as dawn breaks, dislocates Jacob's hip to end the fight and get away. Only Jacob realising this is no ordinary mortal he has been fighting so long and hard, demands a blessing before he will release him from his wrestler's embrace, and so gets the name by which he and his descendants will be known – Israel – "wrestles with God". Jacob would forever be marked by that encounter, limping the rest of his life from a damaged hip. But more deeply he learnt that all his struggles had ultimately been with God, not men, and through them God was turning this supremely self reliant and flawed man into a leader who relied on God first and foremost, and on his native wit only secondarily.
The lesson for me has been similar. As Paul was given a thorn in the flesh, and Jacob a dislocated hip, God has given me more than a reminder of my own mortality – this diagnosis has been an opportunity to stop being so self reliant, and rely on God, and other people (my family, my doctor, and friends, have all been a huge source of support and encouragement already).
Even more, it was a reminder that God meets us on His terms, not ours. We cannot twist His arm; rather we can but receive His Grace as it is poured out in unexpected, and sometimes unasked for ways. And this diagnosis is but the start of a new and unexpected journey for me – not one I fear (although it would be a lie to say I have no anxieties), nor one that I would have sought out, but one I am learning to embrace.
I reflected earlier in Lent how we find God at the most unexpected junctures. Little did I realise how this was to work out. But then, none of us ever do.
Friday, March 13, 2009
As we near the G20, the Micah Challenge campaign is urging people to pray and lobby for real decisions that will genuinely benefit the poor.
The UK Government evidently sees this as an opportunity to make an impact - civil society and the churches in particular both here in Britain and around the world need to keep up the pressure to make sure that some genuine decisions are not only made, but put in to practice.
Thursday, March 05, 2009
The credit crunch is hitting the income of the world's poorest people the most and will make the UN's Millennium Development Goals more difficult to achieve than ever, according to research released today. The Global Monitoring Report from Unesco estimates the 390 million poorest Africans will see their income drop by around 20% - far more than in the developed world.
There is an old African saying that I have heard - "when elephants fight, it's the grass that gets trampled". The wealthy nations caused this economic collapse, but the poor, who had least to do with creating the boom or its subsequent bust, suffer the worst.
I have said more on this elsewhere, and for now no more needs to be said.
History repeats itself.
Wednesday, March 04, 2009
I always find lent an austere and difficult time. In part that is a conscious choice on my part – to deny self by some kind of regular fast to focus the time on praying rather than eating. In part it is because it usually falls in the still, dying throes of winter, before spring's new life has had a chance to break out. But mostly it is because I inevitably find that trying to focus on God, and set aside time to pray invariably means other things try to crowd in on my time. And when I do finally get to pray, my mind cannot focus, I pray in meaningless clichés, or my mind wanders butterfly like on to a host of random irrelevancies.
Prayer is work, work is prayer, so goes the old saying. While the latter deserves a whole season of blog posts (OK, I can hear the groans – not seriously), the former is very true. If we are going to do business with God we will face opposition – whether that is from external, demonic forces or the simple stubbornness of the human heart that refuses both true repentance and grace, it is a sign that we are drawing closer to God when it gets harder to find Him. The paradox of God's grace is that the more we need it, the less we believe we can receive it, the more we seek God's face, the further He can seem to be. But then He breaks in, like those rays of light on a dark cloudy day where the sun shines through, illuminating the shadowed ground. Always when we least expect it, always when we least feel we've done anything to earn it. That, in the end, is the maddening, paradoxically delightful nature of grace.
So, it has been a dry, hard Lent so far, and past experience teaches me to roll with it – not to expect sudden revelations, sudden clarity, even while I hope for them. But I also suspect, in the words of Bruce Cockburn, that
this is part of a group Lenten blog orgnaised by Christine Sine of Mustard Seed Associates. Their Lenten Guide is available online
"nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight/got to kick at the darkness 'till it bleeds day light."
Tuesday, March 03, 2009
"Rather than litigating against the nation's confusion, and adopting the victim pose that demeans our faith in a Lord who rejoiced in martyrdom, we should use our strength trying to model real Christianity – chastity, hope, poverty, stability and love."With thanks to the guys and gals at Ekklesia
Monday, March 02, 2009
It seems you can barely pick up a newspaper at the moment without reading that such and such a Christian has been suspended or sacked for speaking about their faith or praying, or that a Christian organisation has been denied funding or told to take down a cross or other religious symbol, etc, etc. These stories are being seized upon to suggest that Christians in the UK are becoming a persecuted minority.
I have three issues with this. The first is that Christians in the UK seem all too readily to be buying in to the cult of the victim that has overtaken Western culture in the last two or three decades. It seems unless you are from a persecuted minority, you have nothing of value to say about life, so everyone seeks to be a victimised minority – including now white heterosexual males and Christians. In fact, the result of this is to trivialise the genuine suffering of minority groups that are excluded by wider society, and leads to a negative mentality that looks for signs of offence or exclusion when there may not be any.
Secondly, this trivialises the genuine persecution that fellow Christians do experience in many parts of the world. It is a widely quoted statistic that there have been more Christian martyrs in the twentieth century than in all the history of Christianity in the previous 19 centuries. If that is true then the reality of persecution is not trivial. It involves people being imprisoned, tortured and murdered or executed for their faith – and there is plenty of documentary evidence that this is happening in many countries of the world even as I write (see the Persecuted Church Blog as one example). To suggest what Christians are experiencing in this country goes anywhere near that is, frankly, arrant nonsense.
Finally, labelling this as persecution misses the point. What is happening is a complex readjustment from a culture where the Christian church was seen as mainstream and privileged, to one where it is but one of a plurality of religious and secular voices. It is a confused time, and a confused process – neither Christians nor secular culture really know how it works any more – the rule books are not only ripped up, but are being re-written by different people in different places in different ways. As a result some silly cases do occur, and people genuinely fall foul of the system.
There are genuine cases of discrimination, based on Christians stepping outside the boundaries, or by secular authorities not being sure what the boundaries are and tightening them unnecessarily. There is no doubt that some of the cases cited show examples of genuine discrimination and prejudice against Christians. What they do not add up to is a systematic persecution of the church in modern Britain.
The example that I am closest to is that of the nurse suspended for offering to pray for a patient. The story is reported in detail here, and what emerges is less persecution of a nurse offering care to her patient than a misunderstanding over the role of spirituality in nursing care. Nursing has deep roots in the Christian faith, and unlike medicine has always tended to see people as whole human beings rather than isolated systems. Nurses are required to assess and care for the spiritual needs of their patients in the same way as their physical, social and psychological care. But they are not well taught in how to do this. When a nurse asks a patient if they want prayer, it should be in the context of an assessment of the wider spiritual needs of that individual – but only once it is clear that the patient has a faith and/or would appreciate some support in that area. To suspend a nurse for making such an enquiry was based on a misunderstanding what was going on. Her reinstatement was with explicit guidelines about the context within which that enquiry into a patient's needs was made, and the misunderstanding has been cleared up in this instance. That I know of other cases where this is still happening shows that there is a long way to go!
A lack of training in spiritual care means that hospital chaplains do not get asked to see patients who want to see them, because the nursing staff do not want to explore that issue, either through a lack of personal understanding or a lack of training and awareness. A recent Nursing Times survey highlights this problem – with a majority of nurses seeing prayer as a appropriate care in the right context, but expressing a concern that they are not well enough trained nor do they have adequate guidelines in which to conduct spiritual care.
As we have become a more secular and pluralist society, we have not become any less human and spiritual, but it has become more complex to address those needs. We need a new engagement by our healthcare system, and by all levels of society, with the spiritual reality of our human nature.
We need not be fearful or apologetic about this. A recent poll suggests that the majority of the population would like to see faith at the centre of our ethical and legal frameworks as a nation - indeed even amongst members of Britain's non-Christian faith communities there seems to be a support for a Christian framework to remain central. It is interesting that secular India keeps a religious framework at the centre of its national identity, and does so as a one of the most culturally and religiously plural nations on Earth. Maybe we have lessons to learn about holding the tension between secular and spiritual from the developing world?
As Christians we should not be sitting on the sidelines in all of this, pointing to all the injustices we are apparently suffering, but rather we should be using these cases as opportunities to show grace and engage with the secular systems, helping them to see that there are gaps in their understanding and provision that we, among others, can help them bridge.