Monthly Archives: December 2008

Rescuing God from our attempts at belief

A great reflection from Simon Barrow at Ekklesia on the way the Christmas story challenges the false idol many have instead of God, the ‘god’ who is “a person like us, only much bigger and able to do anything at all”. 

As each year passes, I am struck more and more by the strangeness of the Christmas story in our culture. Not by the romantic Victorian accretions which have become, for some, either indistinguishable from its celebration or a barrier to receiving it, but by the core Gospel message in all its gratifying inhospitality towards our ‘natural religious sensibilities’.

The God who is portrayed in the Gospel stories about the birth of Jesus is indeed a stranger to dominant ideas about divinity—including those which, according to recent research, may be hardwired into our infancy. (I doubt it, but biology as destiny is popular at the moment, with pontiffs as well as scientists it seems.)

When human beings go about making gods to worship, they are able to do so only as projections of their own image. This is particularly true of the infantilising cosmic tyrant who haunts the imagination of those who would use faith as a self-asserting weapon, and those (like Richard Dawkins) who see this kind of false deity as the be-all and end-all of God-talk.

The god of human imagining is, as someone once put it in my hearing, “a person like us, only much bigger and able to do anything at all”. In contrast to such fantasy, the God whose nature and purpose is disclosed in the flesh of Jesus is neither a metaphysical proposition, nor a cosmic being nor an unassailable entity. God is, rather, unconditioned and unconditional love—beyond definition and specification, but disclosed in the truth of self-giving.

As recent tragic events in Britain have confirmed, a small child is dependent and defenceless. The story of Jesus is of a birth into obscurity at the edge of Empire in debatable circumstances and of dubious parentage.

Moreover, this child grows up to become someone who defies the attempts of religious and political authorities to capture God for their own purposes. For them, unbounded grace and healing for the ‘impure’ is too much to bear. He is subjected to a criminal’s death and his vindication is not by might but by the gift of life beyond captivity.

There is no way that this picture of God can ever ‘fit’ in with our conventional expectations, religious or otherwise. The god of human construction operates through inviolable fiats, inerrant texts, incomprehensible commands and unquestionable manipulations. This is a god who says, “in order for me to be more you must become less”.

The God of Jesus is nothing like this. Here is God beyond all our concepts of ‘god-ness’, being found not as an alien intruder, a competitor or a member of a class of things called ‘gods’, but as unfathomable life encountered in and through our vulnerability—not over and against it.

When we get to the heart of the Christmas story we find ourselves challenged to become more, not less human. We are asked to stop treating each other, and God, as ‘objects’ to be contemplated, traded, argued about and disposed… but instead as “mysteries to be loved”, as T. S Eliot beautifully put it.

The Word becomes Flesh not in order to be turned into words once more, or to encourage us to speculate about the essence of divinity beyond the only world we can see with the only eyes we have, but precisely to tell us that this is neither necessary nor desirable.

It is in welcoming a poor child into the world and into our hearts that we begin to meet a love that cannot be contained or used as a pawn in any war of position. Yet the paradox is this: only God’s love is like that, because only God has no need to compete.

This repays careful reading many times.

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“I bring you good news of great joy for all people.” All. means. all.

The Pope has ignited a row just before Christmas. The BBC says, 

Speaking on Monday, Pope Benedict XVI warned that gender theory blurred the distinction between male and female and could thus lead to the “self-destruction” of the human race.

Giles Fraser, an Anglican priest, reflects on this in a forthright way, and one that highlights a broader sweep of the Bible than usual here. He could have mentioned the Ethiopian eunuch too! (Acts 8.26-40)

The Christmas angel tells us: “Fear not, for I bring you good news of great joy for all people.” The pope, on the other hand, has been using this Christmas season to spread entirely the opposite message, a message of fear and exclusion that seems more bad news than good. For, apparently, gay people threaten the existence of the planet in a way that is comparable to the destruction of the rainforest. I guess the idea is that if we all were gay, then we wouldn’t be making any babies. Yes, it’s a bit like saying that if we all were to become celibate priests we wouldn’t be making any babies either. Except that would mean the Catholic church has itself become a threat to the planet. OK, that’s a cheap shot. But the Holy Father has the ability to put even a vicar like me in touch with their inner Polly Toynbee.

So where does this religious obsession with making babies come from? I had a moment of epiphany some years ago in a refugee camp in southern Gaza. So many families had so many children, often a dozen or more. It was explained to me that the Palestinians’ secret weapon against the Israelis was “the Palestinian womb”. That women were regarded as part of a wider demographic struggle, and that having babies was vital to the war effort.

The writers of the early Hebrew scriptures were similarly caught up in a struggle for survival that made having babies a part of one’s moral duty. Right at the beginning of the Bible, Noah is told by God to “be fruitful and multiply”. Later Abraham complains that “I continue childless”, to which God replies: “I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.”

This is the great obsession of much of the early history of the people of Israel. From this perspective, fertile women are politically valuable, and infertile women, homosexuals and eunuchs considered almost traitorous. Thus, for instance, the rather bizarre stuff you get in Deuteronomy that “no one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord”.

But there’s a twist here. For when it comes to the book of Isaiah, Jesus’s favourite book of the Hebrew scriptures, this more enlightened biblical author realises that the obsession with children has warped the moral values of his culture. In direct opposition to the theology of Deuteronomy, Isaiah writes that “to the eunuchs that keep my Sabbaths and hold fast to my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name that is better than sons and daughters”. Note: better than sons and daughters. And what is true for eunuchs is true, by direct analogy, for people who are gay. Inclusion is not a piece of trendy modern theory. It is a biblical imperative.

Those who take the Bible as if it were a reference book cannot mentally accommodate the idea that the story being told is about the developing consciousness of the people of Israel, of how they got it wrong and how they are led to a new understanding by God. For Christians especially this new understanding is that God is there for all; that, as St Paul is very keen to insist, you don’t even need to be a Jew for God to be there for you. Which returns us to the message of the angel: that Christ is good news to all. This is the ultimate communication of religious inclusion.

The broader theme of the pope’s address concerns gender theory. His idea is that trendy philosophy has obscured the distinctiveness of male and female, which ought to be regarded as rooted in the order of creation. As it happens, evangelical Christians are often incredibly suspicious of this sort of line. They are afraid that it endorses the argument that, because homosexuality is actually prevalent in nature, and because people seem to be “born gay”, natural law ethics could be won round to regard homosexuality as natural and thus good.

In light of this, conservative evangelicals have begun to take an interest in precisely the sort of gender theory that the pope excoriates. It seems bizarre to me that evangelicals have started to read postmodern philosophers such as Michel Foucault with approval, but what they argue is that because our sexual inclinations are not stubbornly rooted in nature, they are more plastic and thus they are capable of being changed. In this way they can argue that gay people are not gay because of intransigent nature but because of wilful disobedience. Foucault would turn in his grave.

And one last thing. Why on earth did the pope think Christmas a good time to ignite this sort of row? For while we are all spitting tacks, those worryingly androgynous angels are trying to get their own message across: peace on earth and goodwill to all. And all means all.

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Getting there this Christmas?

I find every year that I am fine at getting ready ‘professionally’ for Christmas—services prepared etc—but not personally. I have written a few Christmas cards for relatives in the UK, which I sent last month. But not even a Christmas letter to bore my friends with this year. When I think of writing one, I get this unaccountable feeling of fatigue…

On hols from Boxing Day. Won’t blog much (at all?) for two weeks, but if I can get a letter done I’ll put it out. Or up.

It’s not that we had a bad year, you understand. My highlight was going to Avril Hannah-Jones’ ordination on 5 October. Oh, and—of course!—celebrating 25 years of fulfilling marriage with Karen on 17 December. And Chris bungee-jumping for his 21st. And Erin coming home from Barcelona for 7 weeks over Christmas. And Ben finishing school, and being confirmed the other week. And Sam being himself—he does it so well! And Karen getting to the end of a gruelling year in one piece. And of course, Karen went to Bali with Global Walking. And Ben went to a small village in Fiji to live the simple life for Schoolies. And it was fun having Kerry Pierce as a student for half the year. (Would have been more fun for all of it though.) And I celebrated 20 years of ordained life. All in all, a great year.

I suppose that’s almost a Christmas letter…

A happy and a holy Christmas to all!

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A simple ‘Yes’

Sermon for Advent 3 (14 December 2008 )

Luke 1.46b-55
Luke 1.26-38 

 

My soul magnifies the Lord,
 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…

So begins the Song of Mary, a outpouring of ecstatic joy which we usually call the Magnificat, after the first word of the Latin translation.

We’re going to look at an aspect of the Magnificat, but before we do, let me take you back a bit. In St Luke’s first chapter, he tells a story. Let’s be clear: while some believers take it for granted that this story should be understood literally, others aren’t so sure. But either way, we can receive the meaning that the story carries.

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More Christmas messages

Firstly, from the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches:

Reconciliation is a glorious message. It offers the promise that some wrongs of the past may be set right, the truth may be discovered in all cases, forgiveness may be sought and even ancient enemies may come to live together in mutual respect. It is a message of mercy and hope that reflects the great gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

And one here from the Moderator of the Queensland Synod of the Uniting Church (complete with odd photo!):

Shaken by the global financial crisis we are confronted with a new truth. We have too easily trusted that the financial markets would secure our way of life and provide for our futures. This trust was seriously misplaced, and many of us are now feeling insecure and asking, “Where does our hope come from?”

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Gabriel’s muse—a meditation for Advent 4

It was a very interesting mission, a very interesting mission indeed. Yes, it was…

I knew I was in for something really important when the Almighty called for me. It was something in the tone, a sense of urgency, yes, but also a sense of excitement. And it takes a lot to get the Almighty excited!

Of course, any job I was called to do would have to be important, I know that. The archangel Gabriel doesn’t get summoned to do menial tasks, no, I’m loooong finished with that sort of thing. No, I am sent to kings and great prophets. I announce great portents and forecast great events. I’d just been to see an important priest, Zechariah, whose wife was to bring the forerunner of the Messiah into the world. He didn’t believe me, so I struck him speechless. Serves him right!

So I unfolded my wings and hurried up, flying across heaven, narrowly missing a group of newcomers unused to dodging an archangel with things to do, places to go, the Person to see…

If it were possible for an angel to be out of breath, I would have been when I finally arrived at the Throne. I brushed some gold dust off my gown, and waited.

I wasn’t kept long, and then I was ushered into the Presence. I was almost intoxicated with anticipation! What could this assignment be?

(Of course, you do know that the word ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’? That’s what I am, a messenger of God. When I am sent, I go with God’s authority to speak God’s message. I just love it!)

Well, I was flummoxed, baffled, bewildered and bemused when I came out of the Presence. I had my message, I had the name of the person I had to see, I had a location. 

I had to see not a king, not even a priest, but some slip of a village girl called Mary. There are lots and lots of Marys. Never heard of this one. And the message was—well—embarrassing. If I could blush, I would!

And the place? Nazareth? Where was that? I was so indignant about this so-called mission that I forgot to ask! And I just knew it was doomed to failure!

I tried to find one of the other archangels to get it off my chest, but Michael and the rest were all out on missions too. Important missions. I on the other hand had to find a one-horse town called Nazareth.

Luckily for me, I knew it was in Israel somewhere. I flew backwards and forwards across the country about a hundred thousand times before I finally located it. Took me three whole nanoseconds! Not one of my better efforts, I must admit.

I entered Nazareth, and there she was. Mary. Just a skinny young girl really, but even I could see there was something about Mary. I quickly looked into my reflection in the village pond, saw that I was presentable, and walked up to her. And I said,

Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.

It always happens. No one expects to see an angel. They’re always scared. So I said,

Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.

And I went right on:

And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

I knew she’d say this next bit. I didn’t want her to, but here it came. She said:

How can this be, since I am a virgin?

This was the embarrassing bit, the bit I didn’t want to do. I said (because I’m just the messenger):

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

I don’t know how that was supposed to happen, but that’s the message I had to give.

I expected her to say No thanks, not today thank you very much, I appreciate you thinking of me, but I’m washing my hair tonight. But no. She said,

Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.

I’ll do it, she said. Just like that! Not knowing where it would take her or what would happen, she said Ok. She surely knew the tongues of the village gossips would start clacking, but she went ahead anyway.

From that moment, my admiration for Mary knew no limits.

I’d delivered the message, so I left her then. I knew the Son of God would be in safe hands. Mary’s ‘Yes!’ was going to change the world.

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Government refuses to face the heat

UnitingJustice Australia has today criticised as “woefully inadequate” the Australian Government’s target for a 5-15% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

“The Australian Government has failed to put forward a credible target for greenhouse gas reduction by 2020,” said Rev Elenie Poulos, UnitingJustice National Director.

“The Government’s refusal to face the heat of climate change is bitterly disappointing,” she said. ”Australia is now one of the countries holding back the global agreement that we need in order to avoid dangerous climate change.

“Australia will suffer much greater impacts from climate change than other developed countries if quick and decisive global action is not taken. It is in our interests to lead by example,” Ms Poulos said.

Read the rest at Journey Online.

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