Sunday, 24 January 2021

Say it like you mean it - The Campfire Church ministry of the word for today. Grace Garner speaks.

We have talked a lot around our campfire about forgiveness, and we have talked a little about confession, and we have even touched on saying sorry when discussing the Ho’oponopono prayer. (“I’m sorry, thank you, I love you, please forgive me.”) But we don’t talk much in church about apologies: even though, in the Sermon on the Mount, where our call to worship came from, Jesus also said: “ ‘Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”
In a conversation about kindness on Facebook this week, my sister identified a common problem in church culture. She said kindness is often interpreted as “pretending things are ok when they aren’t - excusing behaviour that is not acceptable because it is ‘kind’ (easier), rather than honestly addressing wrongdoing in the community (particularly where the wrongdoing comes from ‘authority’ figures). It seems to me that this principle is regularly used emotively to manipulate situations, and to keep people from protesting against wrongs... It is sometimes very hard to hold wrongdoing to account, and raise issues of truth and justice, without appearing ‘unkind’.”
Yes. Yes! Apologies are the other half of forgiveness, and I think our understanding of both is wrapped up in this. As a consequence, I think many people don’t even know how to apologise, because the choice seems to be between stern refusal to admit the slightest fault, or utter abasement of self, conceding all.
So, this week, though I have doubts and misgivings, I am going to talk about apologising. During my prayers, this is what the Spirit laid on my heart to bring to you today; the words I was given were, “Say it like you mean it.” I don’t know who needs to hear it, and I want to reassure you that this isn’t passive-aggression directed at any individual or group on my part! This is not a lecture. Also, despite the landmark events of this week, my focus is on interpersonal connection, not social justice – although the same truths may apply to each. These are simply some of the things I’ve learned about how to say sorry, as I believe the Spirit has asked me to share them with you today.
I chose the reading about Jacob and Esau that Sue read so beautifully for us, because I remember how deeply it struck a chord with me when I first read it as a child. The sense of fear and guilt over wrongdoing, growing dread in facing the hurt party, wrestling over what to do, and the relief of forgiveness and reconciliation; these were all things that I recognised from my own experience. In childhood, the events may be small, but the feelings are writ as large as in any epic. I am a person who has regularly been in trouble, inadvertently insulting and angering others, failing to meet basic expectations, responding from self-centred ignorance, and more. I have had much to apologise for, and always will. I know I am not alone in this.
There may be plenty of people who owe you an apology, and you may be certain that it will never be forthcoming. And, likewise, you’ve probably had people demand apologies of you for no good reason when you felt you had done no wrong. So the whole topic may provoke very unhappy feelings in you. I want to honour those feelings and their validity. There are people who have hurt you and done nothing to put it right. I am sorry that they have treated you this way. May Jesus hold you and ease your suffering.
Can you think of a time when someone did offer an apology that was sorely needed? I can. I can feel the relief in my body, how the tears welled up, how the knot of tension was undone by their sincere and contrite words. Like Esau, I rushed to embrace them.
And yet I didn’t really learn to apologise myself until I was an adult. What can I say? I’m a slow developer. First, I had to learn to admit when I was wrong, and not to reflexively defend myself or justify my mistake. Apology, not apologetics. Although, in order to put things right, you may at times be called upon to explain yourself, explaining yourself is not itself an apology, and will often undermine your efforts to repair damage.
The need for apology arises when you have hurt someone. You may not have intended to hurt them, but if you can see you have, and if you care about them, then an apology is due. It may be hard if you aren’t used to it! Just like anything else, apologies grow easier with practice.
Sometimes you may choose not to offer an apology. I was in an altercation this week in which someone remarked on Facebook on British vs American spelling, I disagreed with them, and they responded, “WRONG!” in all caps. When I queried their behaviour, the person said that I had not even apologised for being wrong, and that now I was tone policing them, and this was abusive. Of course, I thought he was entirely wrong, and told him so, and neither offered an apology nor required one of him!
You don’t have to apologise just because someone says you should. Apologies are relational, like forgiveness. They shape the relationship you have with another person. Just like forgiveness, it may take time before you feel ready to offer an apology. But you offer it because you care about someone you have hurt, and because you are seeking to make amends. From that point of view, you might sometimes choose to apologise even when you felt that you were in the right, because healing the relationship might be more important. Relationships that come with scorecards are inherently stressful, and I encourage you to avoid them.
Having said that, there is an important caveat. I am thinking at this time about the regular hurts and grievances of friendships and family relationships. Where there is abuse, or where hurt is severe or ongoing, being the one who is required to submit and make apology may be part of the toxic power dynamic of that relationship. Hurt feelings are often two-way. Part of learning to apologise is learning to go first. But if this is always a one-way script, in which one party is the apologiser and the other party the forgiver, there is probably a bigger issue with the underlying dynamic of the relationship which needs investigation.
Apologies can also be weaponised for emotional blackmail. You don’t have to forgive someone just because they apologised to you. Apologies can also disguise or be undercut by their secondary clauses. I saw a picture this week of the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, captioned with the words, “I’m sorry if you feel you have died.” Hah! An apology that turns fault back on the other party, or that fails to specify and own what has been done, does not do any good, and may do further harm, while robbing the aggrieved party of their legitimacy. It’s a sneaky, fake apology. You are not obliged to accept apologies in lieu of restorative justice.
Perhaps worse than “I’m sorry if” is “I’m sorry, but”. When you follow up an apology with “but”, you will almost certainly destroy any positive effects of your apology and fan the flames of the argument. It is an apology for a gun shot while your finger is still on the trigger. To do its work, an apology must stand alone. No ifs, no buts. Say it like you mean it!
To be able to do this demands humility of us. Not a degrading, sycophantic, total abasement of the self. Remember how Esau stopped Jacob’s bowing by rushing to greet him? He didn’t want that. Apologies come from a place of love and authenticity, and they make us vulnerable, but when we make them, we stand in power. We don’t collapse before the other person, we stand and reach out to them. They are relational. We are like a human offering to cut the human-made nets that are binding the flippers and fins of ocean creatures.
There are two more things that come with apologies that make them work. The first is that they should be accompanied by efforts to change problematic behaviour or put right harm done. Without work, the words of an apology are often empty. The second, which might be the scary part, is accepting that there will be consequences to what we have done which we might not like.
When Jacob finally chose to put things right with Esau, he sent hundreds of animals ahead of him as gifts, in contrition and as a demonstration of his good intentions. They were given from the blessings that God had given Jacob – an effort to return to Esau what should have been his birthright. Jacob sought to make amends for what he had done to his brother. But he was so frightened of what he was going to face. Lying alone, wrestling with the angel of the Lord, he arose limping but the victor to do what he knew he had to. In our reading, we heard how he kept the women and children behind him, fearing the potential consequences for him.
And we saw how Esau struggled at first to accept Jacob’s efforts at apology, wanting to sweep it all under the carpet; but it was important that he accept it, and that Jacob should be allowed to do something to put things right. We know the power we have in relationship to heal and relieve someone when we accept their apology and forgive them.
So, apologise when you have caused harm and wish to repair the relationship. Reach out to the hurt party, acknowledging how you have hurt them. Attempt to make amends. Recognise the consequences. Say it like you mean it. This is one of the tools we have for building the kingdom; it is a sword beaten into a ploughshare.

Sunday, 17 January 2021

Cultivating Shalom

Ministry of the word from The Campfire Church on Facebook today. Tony Collins.

The Cultivation of Shalom - Campfire Church, 17th January 2021
Today I want to speak about wellbeing, which is one of the possible meanings of the Hebrew word Shalom. Other translations are peace, harmony, wholeness, healing, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility.
The headlines in the UK have been filled with the fallout from events in Washington. I am afraid there are likely to be violent clashes around the United States over the course of the next few days. When one of the world’s largest and most deeply-rooted democracies can tear itself apart like this, it fills us with dismay. This is just one expression of a profound disturbance that is happening around the globe. Between COVID, Brexit, the political convulsions in America, climate change and the progressive extinctions of the natural world, we are a race deeply in need of wellbeing.
We are interlinked. COVID has driven this home. The latest studies on COVID transmission suggest that it is being spread by aerosol, not by droplets. Droplets spread relatively short distances, which is why the six-foot rule was introduced. Aerosol transmission is very similar, but with vastly smaller particles which travel far greater distances: cigarette smoke is an aerosol, and think how easy it is to be aware, from many yards away, if someone has been smoking. This basically means that we really, really have to stay in our bubble.
The problems we face are not just viruses. Bad ideas are also contagious. Think how quickly a superficially plausible concept – such as irresponsible ‘covidiots’, for example, who ignore the dangers of infection – can take root in public discourse and be given headline treatment by both politicians and the popular media. However, recent studies have shown that those who break the COVID restrictions – a very few – are overwhelmingly the marginalised and desperate. Be very cautious about clickbait headlines. Remember that the objective of newspapers is to sell newspapers. And, since a lot of media input is tailored to your perceived preferences, ask yourself, what am I not being told?
Because we are interlinked, our mental health, or its lack, is also contagious. Most of us live in family groups. Think how swiftly the depression or unhappiness of one individual affects the whole. We all need to be alert to our own mental wellbeing. As the saying goes, ‘If you don’t heal what hurt you, you’ll bleed on people who didn’t cut you.’
We are interlinked, perhaps most profoundly of all, in that we are all inhabitants of the same planet. A recent report from Frontiers in Conservation Science identifies three threats we all face: biodiversity loss; population growth; and climate disruption, all compounded by political impotence. The authors call for fundamental changes to global capitalism, education, and equality, and the abolition of perpetual economic growth. The challenge, as they describe it, is not what to do – there is no shortage of good ideas and sound advice – but how.
Let’s take a step back. The whole Christian enterprise is concerned with wellbeing. Our faith puts forward the thesis that the peoples of the earth are sick: alienated from their Maker and the world He has made. There is a fundamental breakdown in relations both with our God and with our neighbour. Into the breach has stepped Jesus, our Saviour, who by his sacrifice and by his example has opened the way back home.
This morning I want to explore, in two different arenas, what the way back home might look like.
First, I’d like to explore how to restore and maintain wellbeing as individuals. I am indebted to a recent book by Dave Smith, called Wellbeing, for some of these ideas.
A Christian psychologist, Dr Henry Cloud, has spoken, in the context of the pandemic, about how to maintain personal equilibrium. Dr Cloud offers the thought that for many of us, faced with turbulence on so many fronts, the key issue is one of security. He suggests that as part of getting a grip on things is to make two lists, one featuring the things we can’t control, and a second listing those we can.
The first list might include: How long lockdown will last; What’s happening in Washington and Westminster; Brexit; Climate change; Accidents; Ageing; The macro economy.
The second list might include: Thought life; Relationships; Work; Personal behaviour; Personal economy; Use of resources; Your skill set; Diet.
Obviously the two lists overlap. But it is helpful to identify the limits of your accountability, and the matters which you can pray about, but over which you have no control. Each of us has only so much bandwidth, so much energy and so much prayer time. In terms of your mental health, and your effectiveness in the world, it is surely wiser to spend your capital where you can make the greatest difference.
But how, on a daily basis, do you find sources of cheerfulness? I have three suggestions to offer.
First, remind yourself that not all the news is bad. The natural world will bounce back in remarkably short order if we just give her a chance. Just look at footage of the way that, in the space of only 35 years, animals and birds have repopulated the area around Chernobyl. I’ve included a link in the transcript of this sermon*. It is incumbent upon us all to learn how to live well, but remember that God designed the Earth to be resilient.
Second, draw upon the strength offered by the Almighty. Stephen kindly read Psalm 91 for us today, which is one of the most comforting of the canon, but we might have turned to Psalm 139, or Psalm 23. From Psalm 91 I cherish the idea that my God is a refuge and a fortress. We are constructed to worship God and enjoy his presence; it’s in our DNA. When we offer praise to God something is reset within us, something slots back into its groove. As an example, many years ago I was given the gift of tongues, but I am shy about using it. Then I discovered that when mowing the grass I could pray or even sing in tongues, though things went badly wrong if I tried to close my eyes. When I speak in tongues, my spirit expands and things look better. In terms of wellbeing, worship can offer a way back home. It affirms who we are in Christ, and I’ll say more about this at the end.
Third, allow yourself treats. Schedule a moment or two each morning and afternoon to do, read, or watch something that amuses or comforts you. For me the mind candy of choice is fiction, especially science fiction. Ever since I can remember I have been hooked by narrative, and a good story consoles and boosts the spirits. Treats matter, so go for a walk, or listen to a favourite piece of music. Phone a friend.
Private wellbeing is vital, but we also need a way to rediscover public wellbeing. I am thinking here about political or social wellness. Christians will always hold different political views, and that is reasonable. But how should we seek to debate, with intelligence, care, and without rancour? Some decades ago I trained as a missionary, and studied Islam, Hinduism and other world faiths. An admonition from one of our tutors has stayed with me. ‘Always look,’ he said, ‘for the best in those of other faiths, and when you reach out to them in Christ, strive to keep in mind the most noble and praiseworthy aspects of their religion.’
We need the same kind of respect if we are going to heal our broken body politic. We have to allow people space to listen, and to speak, without betrayal. How do you build trust? A friend this week drew my attention to the Charlie Brown cartoons. You will remember that a regular feature of the Peanuts strip is when Lucy promises to hold the ball steady so that Charlie Brown can kick it, but every time she whips it away so that he lands flat on his back. Charlie Brown never learns, but repeated betrayals of this kind will poison political and social dialogue. Neither left nor right has a monopoly on broken promises. If we are going to heal, we need to re-establish trust.
One way forward is to be appropriately sceptical about your own sources of information. Those sneaky algorithms determine that the news you see is the news you like, so be especially suspicious of stories that confirm your opinion. One of the most durable cries of the last few years has been ‘fake news’, and fake news can come from both left and right. Fortunately, there are places where you can find reliable information. I particularly recommend the Snopes website if you want to check your facts.
None of this is at all easy. Trust has to be earned, as does wisdom. This means courage, and persistence, and a willingness to listen. We need to move beyond the partisanship of blinkered patriotism. Jeremy Corbyn put it this way, ‘Patriotism is about supporting each other, not attacking somebody else. It’s about loving your country enough to make it a place where nobody is homeless or hungry, held back or left behind.’
As COVID has shown us very clearly, we are all members of the same group. If I can be permitted to update John F Kennedy, ‘Don’t ask what your planet can do for you, ask what you can do for your planet.’
Let me conclude with some biblical statements about who we are in Christ, which have always given me a thrill. (I first came across a collection of these in Neil Anderson’s Victory Over the Darkness, and a shorter list appears in Dave Smith’s Wellbeing). These statements are simple, and will no doubt be familiar to you, but when I read them it always boosts my spirits. Here is a selection, and in the transcript I have provided the biblical references.
I affirm that in Christ:
I belong to God (Romans 14: 7-8)
I am personally chosen by God (John 15: 16)
I am saved by God’s amazing grace (Ephesians 2: 8-9)
I am adopted into God’s family (Romans 8: 15-17)
I am a new creation (2 Corinthians 5: 17)
I am deeply and unconditionally loved by God (Romans 8: 38-9)
In the name of Christ, Amen.


Friday, 25 December 2020