Friday, 9 December 2016

Finding our voice

I've been fascinated recently by the story at the start of Luke's Gospel (Luke 1:5-25, 57-80), of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who became the parents of John the Baptist. What struck me about it is the famous part with Zechariah losing his voice, basically because he doesn't believe straight away the angel's message. But maybe what's more important is the voice Zechariah finds at the end of this narrative.
It seems to me that this story is about prophecy, about speaking up and speaking out. But the whole thing is set within and against rich tradition.
The first thing to note about the 2 characters is their names.  Zechariah means 'Yah(weh) remembered'.  Elizabeth could be a derivative of Elisheba, which means 'God of the oath'. Elisheba was Aaron's wife (Exodus 6:23), Aaron being the brother of Moses and the first high priest of Israel. So tradition, and especially the priesthood, looms large in this text. Zechariah is a priest, of the division of Abijah (the 8th division named in 1 Chronicles 24). He is on priestly duty when he loses his voice. A priest was a fairly high class citizen in those days, and an establishment figure. As a priest, Zechariah probably benefitted from the maintenance of the status quo.
Another early reference in their story takes us, and this couple, right back to the start of their people, with Abraham and Sarah. Like the patriarch and matriarch, Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless (she was unable to have children, and both were too old, almost exactly what it says about Abraham and Sarah in Genesis). Barrenness is no obstacle for God in the Jewish tradition, as we see in the cases of Abraham and Sarah, Hannah (mother of Samuel), and the mother of Samson. All of their stories feature miraculous conceptions. So God had form here, in their tradition...
There is, though, an interesting juxtaposition of two details: first, both Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous and blameless according to another important tradition - Torah, the Law - but despite this, they were childless. The childlessness is presented as a negative. Notice Elizabeth's reaction to her pregnancy: she says that God "took away the disgrace I have endured among my people" (Luke 1:25). Children were traditionally a sign of God's blessing (cf Psalm 127:3-5). Indeed, in much of the Old Testament period, children were your life after death, as there wasn't really a doctrine of the afterlife. So, in most English versions, the broad Greek conjunction kai (very often translated 'and') is here (Luke 1:7) rendered 'but'. It's like, they were really good and godly, but despite all that, God hadn't blessed them with a child...
And so, it all changes when Zechariah is on priestly duty, offering incense at the temple sanctuary. He receives a vision and commission from God. This reminds me of one particular prophet in the Jewish tradition. The prophet Isaiah also had a divine encounter and received his calling in the temple (Isaiah 6). I've read here and there that Isaiah may also have been a priest first. And another prophetic and priestly connection to this story is that Zechariah shares his name with another Old Testament prophet.  The prophet Zechariah seems to have had priestly roots, his grandfather Iddo having been a priest, and both Iddo and Zechariah are named as priests in Nehemiah 12:16.
The child Zechariah and Elizabeth will have will be every inch the prophet.  Firstly, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth - Jeremiah (1:5) and Isaiah (49:1) both speak of their pre-birth vocation, although the latter may have been speaking about Israel. His ministry may include a call to repentance, a classic prophetic task. He will go before the Lord in the spirit of Elijah, perhaps the biggest hitter of all Israel's prophets, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord - again, very reminiscent of Isaiah 40 and Malachi 4:5-6. Again, John will be in the same category as Samson and Samuel, who were both consecrated as Nazirites it appears. So John the prophet, this marginal figure, is in fact in a fine tradition, a long line of prophets and reformers.
And despite the precedents, the traditions, the history, Zechariah fails to accept God's message at first, and that is why he loses his voice. And he gets his voice back only at the naming of John on the eighth day. Having been told to name his son John (which means 'Yah is gracious'), he finally gets his message out there when the relatives try to interfere, saying the boy should be called Zechariah. They don't agree with naming the child John because no one in the family has that name. In other words, they want to preserve tradition. But instead, God wants to pour out his grace and his Spirit to bring renewal, refreshing, reform, resurrection. How often do we say, or hear said, "You can't do that, because no one ever has..."?  Or, "It has to be like this, it's how it's always been..."
And so, having written it first, Zechariah is suddenly able to speak. And how. He has his voice back, except it's new, it's different. For the first time, he finds and uses his voice. It's a prophetic voice. He's filled with the Holy Spirit and begins to prophesy. This isn't so much about the future, as about the past and the present, all in the light of God's mercy and salvation purposes. Zechariah picks up on some of the big, key parts of the rich tradition of God's people, and sees John's part in how God is going to get back to that, and bring the people back to it. Note, by the way, that Zechariah ('Yah has remembered') prophesies that God has remembered his oath (Elizabeth = 'God of the oath'). Zechariah here is a different kind of prophet to the one John will become. John will be a marginal figure, out on a limb, on the outside looking in... Zechariah is well-connected, an establishment figure. And sometimes such prophets are the most important. They can influence from within the system, effect change from inside.
I want to suggest that all prophets are interested in tradition, in their heritage, but they want to get radical about it. In fact, perhaps it is an appreciation of the tradition(s) that fires them, as well as the anointing by God's Spirit. But this is often not about the religious trappings, the veneer, nor about the establishment, the maintenance of the status quo and the dominant structures...
Zechariah has stepped out. Raised his head above the parapet. He's found his prophetic voice.
Prophets speak often with and usually to a tradition. Prophets often speak against the establishment or institution, for its own good and for God's purposes. Because a prophet will speak and act for God, not the party line. So, let's find and use - or else we might lose - our voice.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

The thing about being born in a stable is you live with an open door policy

(OK, a disclaimer. I know that it's tradition rather than text that tells us Jesus was born in a stable. The text of Luke may suggest he was born at the animal end of someone's house, as there was no guest room available. On this occasion, the tradition is helpful....)
Have you ever worked into a room and left the door open, to which someone has called out, "We're you born in a barn?" Whenever I hear this, I think of the traditional nativity scene, in the stable. It makes me think, well, being born in a barn, or stable, turned out OK for Jesus...
In fact, the whole idea really got me thinking. When Jesus grew up, he was radically inclusive. He moved in some colourful circles. Tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, foreigners, women, children - he welcomed them all,  he included them all, he hung out with them all, he ate with them all. Eating with someone was a social statement.
In fact, it seems to me that Jesus never rejected anyone.  He challenged people with the invitation to the radically alternative, upside down and inside out way of living that is the reign of God. Some people couldn't accept it. Even still, I think Jesus accepted people. And sometimes, His heart broke, with theirs, as they walked away. I think of the rich young man, who couldn't re-order his life God's way, because he was too invested in his wealth.
It seems to me that Jesus had an open door policy.  He welcomed all comers. In fact,the open door is consonant with God's kingdom. In the closing chapters of the New Testament, in Revelation, John has this vision from Jesus culminating with the future city of God, with God's full and unshrouded presence at its heart. Of the city, John writes, "It's gates will never be shut by day - and there will be no night there" (Revelation 21:25). That means the gate never shuts. Ever. So maybe there's always a chance to come in? I think, with Jesus, his door is always open, because, yes, they say, he was born in a barn.

Friday, 16 September 2016

The Great Divide

  In a New Testament class once, we studied Luke 16:19-31. This passage is a parable of Jesus about 2 characters, the rich man and Lazarus.  I was amazed at the general consensus of belief about the meaning of this parable: that it is about heaven and hell.  Amazed, because this misses the point almost entirely.
  This text is not primarily about heaven and hell, or the afterlife, and we can tell his from a few clues.  First, neither heaven nor hell are mentioned at all in the text. The place of punishment in the story is Hades, the Greek underworld, well-known in the Hellenised world of Jesus. This concept may have informed Christian ideas of hell, but Jesus was simply using the ideas of the day to make a point.  On the other hand, rather than heaven, Jesus refers to Abraham's bosom. This was believed to be a place of comfort in Sheol, for the righteous, perhaps especially for Jewish martyrs. Again, Jesus is using contemporary, established concepts (and therefore, unlikely to be teaching about our modern day Christian doctrines).
  So, if he doesn't talk about heaven and hell, what does he talk about?  First, there's a rich man.  Tellingly, Jesus does not dignify the rich man with a name.  The other character, Lazarus, is a poor man, covered with sores, who lay at the rich man's gate. So, we start to see what the story might be about: something to do with money. After all, only a few verses earlier, Jesus has said that one cannot serve God and money, and let's remember that Luke's gospel has a particular interest in economics. It has been called the gospel of the poor, but equally it is the gospel for the rich, who need to be freed from the oppression of wealth as much as the poor from the oppression of poverty...
  Anyway, poor Lazarus is a very interesting character. When he dies, he is taken to Abraham's bosom.  It's worth noting here that Lazarus is the hellenised version of Eliezer. If that name rings a bell, it may be because of Abraham's servant in Genesis. Eliezer of Damascus was Abraham's most prized bondsman, so valued that Abraham saw him as his heir when the promised offspring was not forthcoming. A slave, the heir of God's promises? And a foreigner, at that. In fact, while we're there, and also picking up on Lazarus's skin condition, I'm reminded of another famous Damascene: Naaman the Syrian. Jesus, in Luke 4, uses Naaman's story (you can read that in 2 Kings 5) to talk of God's outrageously inclusive and revolutionary grace. Jesus was very nearly killed for speaking of that story, and very actually killed for (among other things) daring to challenge the established social order.
  Back to heaven and hell then. As I say, Jesus is, with this parable, using well-established images for illustrative purposes. That is what parables do.
  So this parable is not about heaven and hell. Too often, that has been the focus, and not just of this parable, taking attention away from the very real issue of poverty and wealth, and all that goes with it.
  If this story were literally about heaven and hell, then entry to those places is apparently based on social standing, and attitudes and behaviours, especially towards the neighbour and wealth. That would fly in the face of much doctrine pertaining to salvation and eternal destiny.
  The big issue in this story is the Great Divide. Unlike heaven and hell, this actually is mentioned in the text: a "great chasm has been fixed" between the rich man and Lazarus in the afterlife.  But the chasm, the divide, is not metaphysical, but socio-economic. It is set by the rich man, and gthose like him, and by systems and structures perfectly designed to maintain the divide. And Jesus' point in telling this story is that this situation is not acceptable.
  There have been different incarnations, throughout history, of the worldview that holds to a strict, fixed social ordering, with everyone in their place, whether that be feudal, caste, or whatever system. These systems propose closed, segregated stratification of people, classes, races, etc.
  But then, didn't Jesus say, "The poor you will always have with you"? Yes, he did (Mark 14:7; Matthew 26:11), and doesn't that suggest that some people will always be poor? Well, first, he wasn't saying that, in context, and second, he's probably paraphrasing the Hebrew scripture Deuteronomy 15:11, which encourages openness and generosity towards those less fortunate than ourselves. That text, in fact, relates to the Sabbath Year, which was part of the economic and social laws for Israel. The sabbath year, and especially the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25) were designed to end poverty by regularly redistributing wealth. This is the real Great Divide: a sharing of wealth. And the early church was an experimental community in this regard. In Acts 2 and 4 we read summaries of life among the first Christians, that they shared, they held possessions in common, they abolished private property. The result was that "there was not a needy person among them..." (Acts 4:34). They ended poverty in their community! Their Great Divide ended the Great Divide, creating a true common wealth.
  Of course, the issue is not just an economic or material one. In Jesus' story, he rich man continues to see Lazarus as inferior and subservient , expecting Lazarus to serve his needs even in the afterlife. The rich man needs an attitude adjustment,not towards his wealth, but his neighbour. And at every point here, Lazarus is his neighbour, they are juxtaposed in life and death. This speaks of a universal law that where there is wealth, there is also poverty, often in its shadow.
  The rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn the rich man's brothers. Abraham says they have Moses and the prophets, they should listen to them. This stuff is not a secret! It is on virtually every page of scripture. Yet it is ignored time and time again, because it's inconvenient, or it's less important than key issues like heaven and hell. And we're back...
  The story ends with the question over the value of someone coming back from the dead. After all,  if people ignore Moses and the prophets - supposedly the basis for their entire life and society - someone coming back from the dead won't change them, will it?  Perhaps Jesus (or Luke) is employing irony here. After all, Jesus' own upcoming resurrection wasn't enough to change some people's minds.

Sheep and goats today?

I was thinking about how immediate Jesus' parable of the the sheep and the goats was when he told it. It's recorded for us in Matthew 25:31-46. I wonder if today, Jesus might have said something like this...

I was on the street
And you washed my feet.
I was a refugee
And you welcomed me.
I was living with addiction
And you saw my affliction.
I told you I was gay
You said, 'Son, it's okay.'

You say, 'When? When did we?'
I say, 'Whenever you did, you did it for me.'

I was on the street
And our eyes didn't meet.
I was a refugee
You refused to recognise me.
I was living with addiction
To you, I was an infliction.
I told you I was gay
You said, 'Go, and stay away.'

You say, 'When? When did we?'
I say, 'Whenever you did, you did it for me.'

For those who cared
A place is prepared.
For those who didn't- well,
They can go to hell.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest

Next time you say grace before a meal, why not try this one...?

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,
May our food by You be blessed.
Stay, Lord Jesus, as we digest;
Fix our minds on those with less.

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,
May our food by You be blessed.
Let us, Jesus, get distressed
On behalf of the oppressed.

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,
May our food by You be blessed.
May we, Jesus, only invest
In stuff that passes the fairness test.

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,
May our food by You be blessed.
End, Lord Jesus, our wastefulness -
Move these food mountains of the West.

Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest,
May our food by You be blessed.
So, Lord Jesus, grant our request:
Make our very lives a protest.

Amen.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Thy kingdom come

I've always thought the Lord's Prayer is quite poetic. Maybe it's because we learn it in the King James Version,which is very poetic, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven..."

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven,
Where everyone knows how it feels
To forgive and be forgiven.
To let it go, not hold a grudge,
And remember that You, Lord, are judge.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven,
Where we can share whatever we have,
'cause what we have was given.
And when You send our daily bread,
We'll make sure our neighbour's fed.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Help us once again discover
The freedom of simple living,
That we won't keep chasing after 'stuff',
But know enough really is enough.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven,
Where everyone comes fully alive,
Life turned up to eleven.
Life so full, it's bursting at the seams,
Walking with You, living the dream.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven,
Where we won't need a place of worship,
'cause we'll see You, 24/7.
Sickness,sadness,suffering - no more.
You'll live with us in Eden: restored.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Home - where we live

Last year I took my son to the cinema to see the Dreamworks movie Home. I found it really enjoyable, and also deeply moving. It's about prejudice, ignorance and fear, told through the animated medium of amusing aliens and the near destruction of earth. In recent months my thoughts have turned again to that word 'home'. And, actually, the same themes from the film have been all too evident.
I think most of this came home to me when watching Paul O'Grady's excellent TV series The Sally Army and Me on the BBC. It was one of the later episodes, where Paul was sent on a special mission with The Salvation Army to Athens, a major hub for refugees arriving in Europe from North Africa and the Middle East. I cried as I saw the horror, hundreds of people, including very small children, sleeping in a town square, relying on sandwiches and tea provided by The Salvation Army. And then along comes a local resident, who starts shouting the odds, that the refugees are not welcome, and so on. Paul O'Grady then tells the woman to go home and leave them alone.
People who just want to live. And someone wants rid of them.
During that same show, Paul O'Grady (who is both openly gay, and a huge fan of The Salvation Army) asked about The Army's stance on LGBTQI, and was told that any homosexual would have to swear to celibacy to become a member. This upset Paul (understandably, I think), as he knew many people who would join but would not be allowed...
People who simply want to be included, to express their faith and serve.
Immigration continues to be a hot topic. Attitudes towards our LGBTQI brothers and sisters come under scrutiny.
But it seems to me that home is where we live. Not a place, not bricks and mortar, but a state of affairs where everyone can live - can participate and express themselves freely, can contribute and benefit. Home is where we live, as a human race, welcoming every member of the human family, all God's children.
Just a final note on prejudice. I was brought up disliking gherkins. I was told I wouldn't like them, and always removed them from burgers. And then, one day, I tried one. And it turns out, they're not so bad...

Monday, 20 June 2016

Love

I was inspired a while ago to kind of update 1 Corinthians 13 a little bit...

Now let's talk about love...

Love is central, essential, our first fundamental. Gentle, not judgemental.
Love's not elective, not selective. It's protective. Effective.
Love isn't rude, doesn't exclude. Love includes, exudes good.
Love isn't prejudiced. It's an edifice across the precipice. You getting this?
Love isn't based on your face, or your race, or your birthplace. It's an embrace, all grace.
Love doesn't hate, or segregate, small or great, gay or straight, of high or low estate - all can participate. Love won't discriminate.
Love cares. Love shares. Love dares. Love repairs, never despairs.
Love meets us in our shame, greets us by our name, defeats every false claim, acquits from blame, entreaty us do the same. Love completes us, that's the aim.
Love inspires. Love aspires, takes us higher. Love doesn't tire. Love never expires.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Not all problems are first-world problems

You may have come across the term 'first-world problems'. It is a way of relativising our difficulties, to say that what might seem terrible to us is probably nothing compared to the problems faced by people living in the third-world.
I've been reminded a lot recently that not all problems are first-world problems. I look at the horror of the refugee crisis (or perhaps more correctly, crises, as the people movements in question have different points of departure, although often similar root causes), and to compound the problem I see the responses of many of us. Reactions to it all vary, from genuine concern, wanting to help but feeling helpless, to a type of xenophobia that would not be alien to ethnic cleansing regimes.
When many of us look at problems like this, we are unable to truly sympathise. Put it in perspective: according to the UN, 700 migrants may have died last month.
When one celebrity dies, the Internet breaks. 700 unknowns, and what? Few headlines. Few photographs. We have allowed so many people to become non-persons, as the Liberation theologians would say.
And that's not entirely our fault. It's largely down to the fact that we are worlds apart. We are so (relatively) safe, well-fed, well-educated, free, comfortable (I could go on) in 'the West' that we cannot imagine or begin to comprehend the experience of so many in the world. We don't know what it is to walk miles every day for water that's probably not safe to drink, but what's the alternative...? We don't know what it is to live in almost constant fear of violence, rape, torture, death. We don't know what it is to spend everything we have to get crammed in to a boat with no toilet, at risk of sinking. we don't know what it is to be penned up in a camp indefinitely, awaiting permission to enter a new county that might represent safety and offer some hope for a new life.
We don't know these things. We can't.
And I don't want to trivialise our own many and varied problems. But most of them are first-world problems. And that can lead us to believe that all problems are first-world problems. That no one is worse off than we are. That all problems can be overcome by pulling oneself together, a good old-fashioned British stiff upper lip, or whatever it may be.
No.
Until we all learn that not all problems are first-world problems, we'll continue to have this problem of a divided world, even as our worlds collide.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Just because it's in the bible doesn't make it right

A disclaimer, before we begin here. I love the bible. I believe it tells us about God, it invites us and teaches us to live under God,'s rule, it has wonderful images and ideas, pictures and stories about God and us. I believe the historical narratives in the bible are theological reflections on events. I hope I have made my position clear...

I like to read the bible every morning and night, and in between sometimes too. In my personal reading I've been going through the book of Isaiah recently. A few weeks ago, I was caught off guard by one verse tucked away in this book. Isaiah 19:16 says,

   On that day the Egyptians will be like women,  and tremble with fear before the hand that the LORD of hosts raises against them.

 Maybe you're already shocked too. But just in case you're not with me, here's why I was shocked. This verse talks about God's impending judgement on Egypt, using the image of the Egyptians as women who tremble with fear before the raised hand of a (male) figure. The word 'women' here is the same Hebrew word that is most frequently used to talk about a wife in the Old Testament. The Inge, therefore, could be that of a husband, striking fear into the heart of his wife with his hand raised, ready to beat her. The fear, perhaps, is based on terrible experience...
 My difficulty with this text is not that God would strike like this. That's up to God. My problem is that both the prophet Isaiah, and his audience, would be so familiar with this image. After all, if it's not familiar, the simile doesn't work. It depends on the audience's awareness of the image. And so, it made me think about whether the 'practice' of wife-beating was widespread (this I don't know). And is this image of God, then, ok?
 I mean, how many of us think domestic violence is ok?
 I'm really hoping the answer to that is very few indeed.
 And so, we see how easy and necessary it is to critique the text, and to realise that what may have been acceptable then is not acceptable now. Just to go over that again, I realise that the bible is not commanding domestic violence here, but in some ways it could legitimise it (since it is a valid image for God's judgement). Maybe I'm overthinking it, but aren't we in 'cosmic child abuse' territory here?
 We can't allow the bible to endorse or justify any kind of oppression or violence or abuse.  Even when the text says it.
  The thing is,the bible is not timeless. It is time-bound, and it was written at specific times, by specific people, in specific places, to deal with their specific history and their specific experiences of God.
 But the bible always has something to say to us. God can always speak to us through the words of scripture. The bible is not timeless, but timelessly timely, as one hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) scholar has put it (I forget which one!). So, what the bible has to say is not always the face-value reading.
 This calls for a critical reading of the bible. We can critique the culture in which it was written. It is not honouring to the God or the people of the bible (characters, writers, communities) to treat the words as final, once and for all. It's not helpful to simply transplant views and values, beliefs and behaviours, doctrines and deeds, from the biblical context to our own. A tutor of mine used to say that if the good news isn't good news for everyone, it isn't good news. So, when we com to a text, we need to ask, is this liberating, or oppressive? In what ways is it life-giving? Does it show God's character and kingdom?
 Let's remember, Jesus was quite prepared to challenge the received wisdom on scripture, when he repeated the formula "You have hear... But I say..." I don't believe Jesus was trying to undermine scripture, he was reinterpreting it in ways that brought life more abundantly. Jesus was not afraid to challenge scriptures and interpretations thereof that were designed to exclude or oppress. At times, we see Jesus even setting aside some parts of the Law, in favour of showing a better picture of God's kingdom of love and grace.  But he could do this because he knew both the bible and God's kingdom, inside out.
 The call, then, is for us all to get to understand both better.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

All traditions were new once

As someone who does a lot of thinking, who loves coming up with ideas, wondering how things could be different - theologically progressive, ecclesiologically an innovator - that sort of person, I find myself sometimes at odds with traditionalists, who might not get or buy into all the change or new ideas.  However, it occurred tome recently that all traditions were new once. A tradition is simply something that is passed on, and someone started it sometime, somewhere. Like at school, when someone whispers something to the person next to them and says, 'pass it on'.  Rarely was it indisputable fact, unless you went to a really clever and studious school...
In the same way, traditions are always started off by someone who has an idea. At the time, it may be revolutionary. Imagine the person who came up with the wheel, they probably laughed at her/him. They probably got rejected by the Stone Age version of Dragons Den. But look at how that ended up.
I once heard a story about a young man, maybe in his very early teens, who complained that the songs in church were boring and irrelevant. So he started writing his own songs. Lots of them. I expect they were not well received by all at the time. But 300 years later, we all know them and many of us love them. The boy was called Isaac Watts. One of my favourites of his is 'When I survey the wondrous cross'.
When wereadthe Gospel accounts, we regularly encounter these pantomime baddies called Pharisees. The thing they are often criticised for - not least by Jesus - was their tradition, and their devotion to their traditions. They are presented as inflexible, conservative, closed-minded. But the origins of this group within Second Temple Judaism was actually the opposite to how we find them in the New Testament. This group emerged as a liberal movement, who believed that the Law, the Scriptures, did not speak for themselves in the contemporary culture, and so they started to interpret the Law, creating volumes of commentary on the Law, which became basically small print to help ensure that the Law was observed properly. So these guys were liberal, in that they wanted to make the Bible make sense in their culture. That, in fact, is a founding principal of classic Liberalism, the quest for a theology that makes experiential sense.  The trouble is, often very fluid or provisional interpretations, working theories, become cast in stone.
That's a problem we often encounter in theology. Theology is the study (ology) of God (theo). Now if one's theology never shifts, then one's understanding or experience of God doesn't either. In a sense, a theology that is closed, fixed, is presumptuous, in my view. It suggests we know all we need to know about God, or even that we know everything about God. Of course, such a presumption would usually be unconscious.
Anyway, I think theology can only ever be provisional. Like a scientific theory, if new observations, new data, disprove the theory, we can adjust it. That's not to say we give up our faith convictions. But it is to say maybe we don't need to hold tight to so many propositions.
To return to my initial point, all traditions were new once. This applies to traditionalists and progressives alike. New traditions often start as correctives to existing ones. Think of revolutions and reformations. And while we're there, let's remember that many totalitarian regimes started with revolutions. Many dictators stood for and fought for freedom first. Today's liberals may be tomorrow's conservatives. In fact, liberals can sometimes be the least liberal towards other people's views. So, not all traditions are bad, and not all change is good. But neither is all change bad, nor all traditions good. Let's be open to try new things and old ones. Let's learn from one another about faithfulness to what got us where we are, and fearlessness of what will get us to where we might go.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

"I like to beat my faith up" - Simon Peter at Simon the Tanner's house (Acts10)

The above quote, I believe, has been attributed to Bono, the frontman of Irish rock group U2. I take ittomean that he likes to put his faith under scrutiny, to embrace challenges to his faith, to be stretched. This is good practice. Beating our faith up builds resilience, the quality of a flexible durability, a strength, muscle memory we could say. It's like going to the gym - painful and difficult at the time, but of great benefit as it strengthens us. Gradually, the strain of the exercise eases.
  The New Testament book of Acts tells the story of what happened to Jesus' first followers when he was no longer physically with them. One of the main characters in this book is Simon Peter, who had been Jesus' right hand man. Like the rest of the Twelve disciples, Peter was Jewish. Even though he had taken the risk on following the unorthodox Jesus, Peter still considered himself a Jew. This still informed Peter's worldview, still influenced his behaviours and attitudes. He largely spent his time among other Jews.
  So in chapter 10 of Acts we come to a watershed in Peter's life, and the church's. Peter has been touring Lydda and Joppa. And while he's in Joppa, he stays at the house of another Simon, a tanner. And while he's staying with Simon, during prayer, he has this rather weird vision where he is invited to eat a non-kosher picnic, as a sheet is lowered from heaven with unclean animals in it (animals that Jews were not permitted to eat, not dirty beasts). Peter refuses, The voice says to him, 'don't call unclean what God has made clean'... And, because it's the bible, this happens three times. Then Peter is made aware of some men looking for him, and it turns out they've been sent by a Roman centurion called Cornelius, living in nearby Caesarea (about 30 miles up the coast). Anyway, Cornelius is a good Roman centurion (possibly retired), a God-fearer, well-disposed to Jews. He wants to hear about Jesus, so Peter goes with the men. And when they arrive at Cornelius' place, it makes sense to Peter: he's been discriminating against Gentiles like Cornelius, not mixing with them, not including them in the good news. And suddenly, the church takes its first steps away from Jewish sect toward multicultural, inclusive movement.
  But let's go back. Is Peter's realisation so sudden? He's been staying at a tanner's house. What is a tanner? Someone who converts dead animal hide into a flexible and durable material, often used as a tent covering, wineskins, bags and purses, shields, etc. Basically, they made leather. Leather is tough, but malleable. Bikers use it to offer protection.
  The tanning process involves steeping, washing, scraping, and more. It was often smelly business, so this was one reason why tanners, whose tanneries were probably their own homes, were marginal people. Simon lived in seaside town Joppa, but specifically he lived by the sea, so possibly out of town. Tanning may also have been religiously dubious occupation, given the contact with dead animals (I believe this issue has been debated).
  So maybe Peter, by moving in with a tanner, was already broadening his horizons. Maybe Peter was already re-thinking his worldview. His faith up to this point was never going to take him to Cornelius' house or beyond. But at the tanner's house, his beliefs and attitudes and thinking were converted into something flexible and durable. He learned to beat his faith up. We all need to go to the tanner's house sometimes.