Thursday, March 25, 2010

Another Treasure in a Clay Jar!

In my previous Lent Talk (click here to read it!) I talked about my love of Philosophy.  It's something that, as Di said last week, 'floats my boat'.  It's something that nurtures and sustains my faith.

I wonder whether you've noticed the differences between the subjects that float my boat, and those that help Di and Bev stay afloat.  Let's recap on what we've heard so far in this series.  Bev has shared her love of Celtic Spirituality - a sense of deep connectedness with the earth and with creation.  Then there has been her practise of meditation, which sustains her body, mind and soul.  Di has shared her passion for silent contemplation - looking for the flash of the kingfisher in her patient quest of God.  Both of their passions have been deep-down passions - they have been passions that feed the gut, which speak to something deep within.

On the other hand, what did I give you?  Philosophy!  That's a passion which can touch the inner core - the deep-down...but essentially its a passion of the mind.  Philosophy - the love of wisdom (as I'm sure you remember) is ultimately a quest for what is true.

Bev and Di and I were reflecting on the contrast between our treasures last week. And Bev reminded me that human beings are said to operate on either of the two sides of our brain.  The left side of the brain is the said to be the analytical part of our heads...whereas the right side of the brain deals with the more emotional, felt, experienced aspects of life.  It seems to be the case that women, generally, favour the right side of their brains, whereas men tend to focus on their left.  We must be careful not to over-simplify here - or to pigeon-hole people.  Clearly there are many men and women who naturally operate on the opposite side from what we're told is the case.  But in general, its not a bad observation is it.  Men tend to be interested in how things work, and whether something can be proved or not.  Women tend to be more interested in how something feels, or what the effect is on the inside.

That thought has challenged me this week.  Because I do operate on the right side of my brain sometimes!  I've been wondering which of the other treasures I have inside me I should pull out and reveal.  Perhaps my passion for music? - something which touches my soul on levels that I have no intellectual language for. Perhaps the love I share with my family, which sustains me at a deep and often unconscious level - even when I'm doing battle on the intellectual field of the latest statistical return from the Diocese.  Perhaps, I thought, I could share my passion for science-fiction - which leads me to dream dreams about the future of humanity.  Perhaps my love of gardening - when I get the chance. Perhaps, like Di, the developing passion I have for silent contemplation...but Di has pipped me to the post on that one!

The trouble is, that the more I thought about these right-brain aspects of my life, the more I had to acknowledge that none of them sustain my faith in quite the same way as the treasure I've chosen to bring.  They all sustain me emotionally - they all help me to live life that is rich and meaningful.  But, the treasure I've brought today is, I'm afraid to tell you, much more of a left-brain thing.

Last time I talked about philosophy.  This time, at the severe risk of making you groan, I'm going to talk about theology!

Now - let's get something out of the way at the beginning.  Like the word philosophy, which translates easily as 'love of widsom', the word theology is not something to be scared of.  Like 'philosophy', theology is basically two greek words sandwiched together:  theos (which means God), and "logos' which means 'word'.  So 'theology' is, essentially, 'words about God' - or, 'speaking about God', or even more simply 'God-talk'.

Philosophy helps me to find answers to those big questions we were talking about last time - who am I?  Where did I come from?  Is there a God?  As I told you last time, I have used the tools of philosophy to arrive at a conclusion that there is indeed a God.  But having established that, what comes next?  If you believe in God, the next stage is to ask questions like, 'what is God like then?'.  That's what theology - God-talk - is all about.  It's about asking those kinds of questions.  What is God like?  Where did he come from?  Is he a he?  Or perhaps a 'she'? Or perhaps both?  The questions can go on for ever...who was Jesus then?  Was Jesus God?  Or was he simply a great prophet? - as Muslims believe.

Theology is a subject which has fascinated people for thousands of years.  (I have to admit that most of such people were men!).  Like all investigative work, theology was for centuries classed as a science - such like biology or physics.  In fact, because theology dealt with trying to find out about the Creator of the Universe, it was known until only fairly recently as 'the Queen of Sciences'.  Now, because atheist views are taken far more seriously than before, and because there are less and less people who take the existence of God as a given fact, theology is considered an off-shoot of philosophy'; its one of the 'humanities', rather than a science.

But for most of the last 2000 years, theology dominated academic life in every major civilisation.  Answers to the question 'what is God like?' became the dominating factor for the way that whole societies were structured (and still are, to some extent).

Why is this?

Well, let's play with some theological ideas - and see what happens.  Let's imagine that a group of powerful, influential people decide together that God is like a strict headmaster.  This headmaster is a disciplinarian.  He stands guard over the world, waiting for naughty children to misbehave, so he can whack them with his cane.  But he is also just and fair...and if some of his children are good, he might reward them at the end of term.

That's not such a bad picture for the way that some people see God, is it?  Some people imagine God to be a jealous, angry God who can't wait for the slightest chance to throw them into hell - but who might just forgive them if they say the right words, pray the right prayers, believe the right things.

If that is your picture of God - and if you are a powerful, influential person (like a Bishop, or a Pope, for example) then your picture of God is going to colour everything you say and teach about God.  You are likely to start looking through the Bible very carefully, trying to spot the rules that your flock needs to obey in order to escape the fires of hell.  Sooner or later you fix on a selection of phrases and teachings from the past, and you start to shout them from the roof-top.  "Believe in the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved"!  You then start to lump together everyone who doesn't fit into your picture of what you think God wants...

"Thieves, murderers, adulterers, money-lenders, coveters, those who disobey their parents, those who paint images of God, those who pray to Mary or the Saints, those who put too many actions into the way they celebrate the Eucharist, those who don't believe in women priests, those who do believe in women priests, homosexuals!  You're all going to burn!"

Here, for example, are the words of Jonathan Edwards, a famous evangelical of the early days of the United States. Edwards believed that everybody who is not saved deserves to burn in hell for the sins they have committed, and God is in complete control of when people will be sent to the eternal damnation. He uses a metaphor to describe the situation, saying that "The god that holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire... he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire... thus it will be with you that are in an unconverted state." God views the people who are "unconverted" as spiders, little pests he can do away with at any time, simply by dropping them into the hell that they deserve. He is in absolute control over people's destiny, and as the Great Puppeteer, he can choose when and how people will die. God has great wrath towards people because of their sinful ways, and this is manifested through his practice of dispatching these sinners to burn in hell for eternity.

If you are such a person, and if your picture of God is such a picture, then that's the kind of 'theology' that you are going to display for the world to see.  It will be a theology of certainty - a theology which no-one can disagree with...because if they do, you worry that they'll burn!  It doesn't make you a bad person to believe that.  In fact, you might be a very good, caring person - who is desperately trying, out of pure love, to prevent the awfulness of hell that you fear for your neighbour.

Now let's imagine another group of people.  Let's imagine a group of people whose picture of God is very different.  Their picture of God is that of a Mother.  They see a loving, creative life-giver, who longs to see her children grow and to become all that they can become.  They see a Mother who forgives her children when they muck things up, and who picks them up and cuddles them, saying "That's alright.  I forgive you.  You are loved.  Go on, try again".

What would the preaching of someone who believes in that kind of God be like.  I suggest it will be a rather gentler, less rule-bound, more creative, accepting kind of preaching.

You see, it is important to think about what God is like.  Getting our view of God into the right focus is essential - because it has all sorts of consequences for the way that we will act.

Take for example, the current debate about homosexuality that is taking place in Uganda - a country that is close to my heart.  The Ugandan Government, supported by many Ugandan churches, proposes to introduce a law to not only ban the practise of homosexuality, but to punish active homosexuals with imprisonment and even execution.  Despite international outrage and condemnation, the Ugandan Church and State are united in their view that God condemns homosexuality.

On the other hand, the Bishop of Liverpool, a couple of weeks ago, described homosexual people's position as a 'given', and even as what he called a 'grace' - which is a theological term.  He describes a church in which people of different opinions on this issue can nevertheless learn to drink from a common cup.

Both of these views - the Ugandan view, and the more open evangelical view of the Bishop - are shaped by an understanding of God.  If you believe that God is a a sort of heavenly headmasters, dishing out rules, and punishing the law-breakers...then you are likely to want black and white clear answers on an issue like homosexuality.  If, on the other hand, you see God as a Mother-figure, who loves her children through all the mess and muddle of human life, you are likely to have a very different idea about whether or not something like homosexuality should be condemned.

Our view of God matters.  Our theology matters.  That's why I'm passionate about theology.

Let's pause for a moment and let me ask you to think about what your view of God is like.  Sit in silence for a moment - and ask yourself what kind of picture you would draw if someone asked you to draw God.  Or, if you are not much of an artist - like me - what words would you use to describe God.  (And then we'll share our ideas with each other).


The trouble with theology is that it is hard work.  And I'm not surprised that some people are scared of dipping their toe into the waters.  There are members of my family who get really fed-up with me when we have another theologian come for dinner.  "Stop talking about theology!" they say.  "It's boring!"

What they mean, of course, is that it is difficult to follow - unless you've started at the beginning.  When I start debating theology with another theologian, we use phrases like 'pre-destination' and 'anti-millenniumism'.  We talk about kerygma and hypostastis.  We get all excited about biblical hermeneutic of fundamentalism...and those around us can get rather glassy eyed.  Now please don't think I'm showing off.  I only know these words, and some of what they mean, because I've taken the time to study them.  That's all it takes.  Some time.  There are thousands of subjects I know nothing about.  If you were to start having a conversation about herbaceous borders or different types of Green or Black-leaf tea - I'd be just as lost.

Doing theology, like any subject worth studying, just takes time and willingness to learn.

And it does matter.  It matters because whole nations, and whole ways of life have been shaped by theological decisions.

Here's an example.  Have you ever wondered how we got our Bible?  I dare-say some of you may have never wondered.  Perhaps you've been brought up simply to believe that the Bible is the Word of God...and that is that.

But where does that idea come from?  Who decided that these words, this particular group of writings, should be bound together and called the Word of God?  What about the documents which they could have included, but didn't?  There are lots more books out in the world than the books of the Bible.  What makes these books, these Scriptures so special.  And who decided?

Let me offer you an answer by posing another imaginary scenario for you.  Imagine that you lived in a world in which there was no Bible...a word in which there were lots and lots of books about God, written by thousands of authors - but no definitive collection of books which authoritatively claimed to be the Word of God.

Now imagine that you picked up a newspaper today, and read that a group of bishops, led by the Prime Minister, had decided that it was time someone decided which of the books about God in the world were true, and which of them were not.  Imagine you read that these Bishops and the Prime Minister had just finished have a meeting.  During that meeting, they looked at all the books about God that had ever been written, and they sorted them into two piles.  One pile was marked 'true', and the other pile was marked 'false'.

Now image that books which were decided to be 'true' descriptions of what God was like had been stuck together - and were being issued as 'the true Word of God'.  Accompanying their publication was an edict that anyone who possessed copies of any other books about God would have them confiscated.  They would be put in prison, and, if they refused to shut up about their ideas of God, they could even be burned at the stake.

Now, ask yourself...would you be confident that the collection of books that the bishops and prime minister had decided on was actually the Word of God?

Or would you be just a little bit suspicious that they might not have chosen completely wisely.

Because that is pretty much exactly how we got our Bible.  Only it wasn't a British Prime Minister who decided to bring all those bishops together, it was a Roman Emperor, called Theodosius, in the 4th Century after Jesus.

What happened to all the other books about God?  Well, most of them were burned.  In fact the Christian Church ordered the burning of the great Library of Athens, which contained the largest collection of writings about God ever seen at that time.  Writings by other believers in God, if they didn't conform to the Church's view of God, were systematically routed out, condemned and burned.

And that's how we got our Bible!

Now again, I want to emphasise, these bishops weren't necessarily bad people.  Let's not imagine that these were all power-hungry megalomaniacs who were trying to control an Empire and unify it under one belief-system.  Let's be generous and say that many of them honestly believed that God wanted them to act in this way.  They thought it was their duty to protect people from the fires of hell.  They acted in good faith.  But did they act wisely?

The problem, I believe, is that these early theologians had forgetten something I said to you earlier.  They had forgotten that theology is a branch of philosophy.  God-talk arises out of loving wisdom.  Unless discovery about God is tempered with wisdom - we can quickly find our way onto a road of fanaticism. Theology gets in trouble unless it stays in a constant dialogue with philosophy, continually going back to the primary questions "what I am I here for?" and, crucially, "how can I be sure that what I think I know is actually true?"

That, I believe, is why the world is now so divided over questions of religion.  Fundamentalists, of every religious hue, are people who - I think - have only ever been taught what to think, not how to think.  The children of fundamentalists are brought-up in madrasas, or a fundamentalist homes, where they are drilled from an early age into believing that their thoughts about God are the only true ones, and everybody else's thoughts are wrong.  Is it any surprise that they quickly move from loving their own ideas about God and hating everyone else's?  Love turns to hate which turns into violence which turns into war.

It's not religion which causes war - it's badly taught God-talk...badly conceived and mis-understood theology.

That's why I'm passionate about Theology and Philosophy.  I believe that the world desperately needs more theological philosophers - who can ask the 'what do I believe' question, but also the 'why do I believe it?' one.

That's why I am hoping that after these two lectures, you might also be interested in learning more about both philosophy and theology!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mothering Sunday 2010 - The Agony and the Ecstasy

Luke 2: 21-35

When I was a child, I was into go-karts. No...I was really into go-karts...I spent my whole child-hood on go-karts!  Now these weren't motorised, or even pedal powered go-karts.  I mean go-karts made out of bits of wood we found in my Dad's shed, knocked together with any old nails we could find, with ancient, rusty pram-wheels that we picked up from the local tip rubbish tip.  Our go-karts were incredible creations!  We even made one which could carry four had ten wheels...with a main go-kart, plus two trailers!

We lived on a rather steep hill...which I realise might be difficult for you Flatlanders of Portsmouth to conceive! To give you a idea, let me say that it was a hill of similar length and gradient as the one that goes up Portsdown Hill, past QA hospital.  And like that hill, the one I grew up also had a junction at the bottom, on to a main road...which was itself, another hill. Overall, we had a run of over a mile from the top of the hill to the bottom...

My friends and I liked nothing better than to hair down our hill, on wooden go-karts, steered with string. To slow ourselves down before the junction, we would use our rubber Wellington boots as brakes...forcing them against the tarmac to slow our descent a little, before weaving into the traffic on the main road. That meant, of course, that Wellington boots had to be replaced with great regularity!

When I think back on those wonderful childhood days, I remember them with joy. I remember coming home at night, with new holes in my Wellingtons, scrapes and grazes all over my body, exhausted beyond belief...and yet wonderfully happy.

But when I look back on those days more objectively, I find myself asking an uncomfortable question...and one that might have occurred to you already...namely this; while I was careering over a mile down a hill on nothing more than a plank of wood, some pram wheels, a piece of string and my trusty Wellingtons at speeds of up to 30 miles an hour….where on earth was my mother?! (My father, of course, was for the most part out at work).

I asked my mother about this some years later...and learned precisely where she was. She was in our house, keeping out of my way...and terrified out of her wits. At any moment she expected a knock at the door, or a telephone call from the hospital, to say that her son had been discovered in a pile of blood and pram wheels at the bottom of the hill.

So why didn’t she stop me?

I think it was because my Mum was part of that generation which understood that young people don’t grow well when they are rooted to the sofa. She knew that for me to become the exceptionally well rounded human being you see before you - (ahem) - it was important that I had the chance, the free will, to explore my find my own make my own mistakes. Her actions, or rather her deliberate inactions, didn't arise because she was an uncaring fact exactly the opposite.  
Motherhood is of course something that most people have to grow into. It’s a road that is paved with all sorts of good intentions…many of which get thrown out of the window the first time that your darling little baby turns to you and says ‘No…I won’t!’.  Motherhood – and for that matter fatherhood – sort of creeps up on us. Here are five signs which conclusively prove that you have become a mother – which I found on the internet:
· You start spending regular half hours in the bathroom…just to be alone!
· You start hoping that tomato ketchup is a vegetable, since it’s the only one that your child eats.
· You find that, without thinking about it, you’ve cut off the crusts of your husband’s sandwiches
· You hear your own Mother’s voice coming out of your mouth when you say “NOT in your best clothes!”

And finally…the most telling sign of all…
· You use your own spit to clean your child’s face.

This morning’s gospel reading invites us to consider something of both the joy and the pain of motherhood. When Mary and Joseph presented their new son Jesus to the Lord at the Temple, Simeon prophesied over the child – whom he recognised by divine light to be the promised Messiah. And his prophecy contained some strange words – topsy turvey words: “This child is destined to cause the rising and falling of many in Israel…” (Luke 2:34)

Mary exalted at this prospect. There was real joy in the gift of motherhood she had been given, because she glimpsed something of the potential of the child she had borne.

But there is a darker edge to the prophecy of Simeon too. At the end of his promises, there is a dark foreboding in his final line: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Lk 2:35).

Simeon knows his Scriptures. He knows, for example, that Isaiah had prophesied that the Messiah would have to die to achieve his ultimate goal of redeeming Israel. He knows that the path Jesus must tread is going to a difficult one. 

Do you remember the story of Jesus, when he was about 12 years old?  It's the only reliable story that we have about his childhood, other than his birth.  It’s the occasion when the boy Jesus stays in Jerusalem to discuss theology with the priests – rather than returning home with his parents…(which is the very next story in Luke’s gospel).   Just imagine the worry and pain of Mary as she hurried through the streets of Jerusalem, searching for her lost son among the Passover crowds, and the invading Roman Soldiers.  

And do you remember the occasion that Jesus was told of his mother and brothers being outside?  I wonder how Mary felt when Jesus responded that his mother and brothers were now all those who hear and act on God’s words? (Lk 8:21)

And that is something that many mothers – and fathers too – must experience. As children leave the nest, and make their own way in the world – there can be pain at their passing.  There is a sense in which all parents are called to give back the gift of their child to the God who created them…just as Mary did.  

Worst of all, of course, is the occasion when Mary finds herself at the foot of her son's cross - watching him die, having been deserted by all the crowds, and all the followers, expect John.

So - from the example and story of Mary, we see that both joy and pain are inevitable, normal aspects of what it means to be a mother.  That's one of the reasons why I say that Motherhood is one of the highest callings on earth.   

There's something else about Mary's story which should give us pause for thought.  Like most mothers of her day, Mary worked out her role and task as a mother in community.   Mary had her cousin, Elizabeth, during the earliest stages of her pregnancy.  At Jesus' birth she had the companionship of Joseph, and the acclamation of shepherds and wise men.  In the story we've just read, Mary and Joseph present Jesus to the priests of the Temple, so that by his circumcision he can be welcomed into the community of faith.  During the visit to Jerusalem, when Jesus gets lost, the family travel with many pilgrims.  Even at the end of Jesus life, Mary has the support of Mary Magdelene, and of John. 

Motherhood is never something which should be done in isolation.  As a church, we have a duty to support mothers in the joyful, painful, testing, glorious calling of motherhood.  In our community cafe, over the next few weeks, we are going to be adding some play-equipment, out on a new front lawn...precisely so that mothers and children will feel even more welcome here.  At St Nicholas, we provide space for a Pre-School, to supplement and build on what Mothers do.  The Rev'd Bev, as part of our team, is currently planning a course on Spirituality for mothers, which we hope to deliver.  We are also hoping to run  a training course called 'Made of Money' which is designed to help families, and especially Mothers, to get a grip on their finances.  Our Sunday School teachers, week by week, are giving support to families, by teaching our youngsters the things of God.  Children have the chance to sing in our choir, which helps them to grow and develop, and therefore also supports their mothers.

All these things we can do because we are a church!  I feel so incredibly sorry for mothers who try to do the hard work of bringing up children all by themselves.  So many mothers in our city think that the only additional support they have as mothers is to plonk their child in front of a Playstation.  But as a church, a body of people, we are stronger together - we can support one another, as well as the local community.    

I wonder whether you've thought about that before?  Have you ever thought that one of the main reasons for coming to church, is quite simply - to serve our neighbour?  We can worship God at home.  We can pray on a mountain top, or walking by the sea.  In fact, Jesus was fairly suspicious of people who come together to pray...he recommended doing prayer in private (he even went as far as to say, "when you pray, go into your chamber and close the door"  See Matthew 6.6).  Although praying and singing and worshipping together might be wonderfully uplifting, and encouraging for us, I want to suggest to you that, believe it or not,  its not the main reason why the church exists!

The church's primary task - the primary goal given to it by Christ  is to carry the gospel, the good news about God, into the world.  (Matthew 28).  Part of that good news is that people are stronger, happier, better when they live in community with one another - as members of the body of Christ.

That is something worth bearing in mind the next time you don't feel like coming to church...the next time that you want to pull the duvet over your head and go back to sleep.  We don't come to church for our benefit - we come to church for the benefit of the community.  When we come to church, we show by our very presence that we believe in community.  By adding our body to the other bodies around us, we create a feeling of community that reaches out and touches others.  People walking into a full church of many people will be drawn to that community.  

But when we stay at home, when we can't be bothered to come...we leave a gap.  When we are not here, our seat is empty - and so are the hearts of those we would have encountered...including 
· that elderly person who has spent the week on their own, and is desperate for some human company
· including that young couple who are starting out in life, and need the guidance, love and support of people who've been married for years
· including that mother who has been coping with a crying baby all week - and needs to see your friendly smile, and gain your assurance that crying is normal, there's nothing wrong with her baby.
· including that young woman who has not yet been blessed with a child - but who is supported through her grief and anxiety by the love of those around her.
In other words - don't only come to church for your benefit.  Come to church because being here is part of your duty, part of your calling, your vocation, to be a Christian who lives in community with other Christians.  Come to church because it is as church that we have the capacity to become all God made us to be - people who need people.  Adam needed was not good for him to be alone.  I need you.  I hope you need me!  We certainly need each other, and mothers need us.

Just like Mary did.

So on this Mothering Sunday, we thank God for all Mothers - and for the joy, privilege and incredible challenge of motherhood.    We remember that motherhood is a calling which brings great joy, but can also bring great pain...and we pray for all mothers, and those who feel called to be mothers.  But at the same time we recognise that, as Mary taught us, the best motherhood is carried out in community with others and, I pray, we dedicate ourselves to being part of that community.

Just like Mary did.