Monday, 1 March 2021

Statues and images

Our Granddad used to have a picture that he always hung in the entryway of his home opposite the front door, Herbert Beecroft's The Lord Turned and Looked at Peter.

It is overwhelmingly unlikely that Jesus looked at all like that, and our Granddad wasn't stupid. He knew Jesus would have been different in his physical appearance, and that whoever sat for the painting wasn't Jesus. 

But somehow that image spoke to him of whatever Jesus meant to him. It brought the Jesus of his imagination into vivid reality that Granddad could hang in the exact place where it would be the first thing he (or anyone else) saw on coming in through the door.

It wasn't meant as a whitewashing culture appropriation marginalising people of colour. This representation of Jesus looked like the people of his own culture, and he would have known the image from his boyhood. It spoke to his heart. 

I'd imagine a person of African or Chinese or Maori descent might have a culturally and racially relevant representation of Jesus to speak to them in the same way, like this image by Bmike:

There's a website selling art that has an image of Jesus fused with one of a Lion (sorry I've closed the window and can't now find it to link it for you) — there are several similar online.

Someone commented on the site about disliking it because lions are lazy — I'm thinking maybe that person hadn't read The Chronicles of Narnia . . .

Four years ago on Facebook, George Takei shared a picture, adding the comment, "Looks like her images got crossed." 

I guess whoever originally posted it concluded her/his mother had mistaken the Jedi knight Luke Skywalker for Jesus because of his robe, and thought that was hilarious. I recall finding it similarly funny as a teenager when one of the elderly nuns in the place I worked happened to come in to the common room when we were watching Dave Allen in one of his skits where he was the Pope being carried in a papal chair on telly and crossed herself in reverence because she thought Dave Allen was the actual Pope, God's Vicar on earth.

But maybe the Facebook poster hadn't understood. Perhaps the mom who had the picture of Luke Skywalker knew what it was and where it came from, but liked it because, for her, it spoke of Jesus as she imagined him and could relate to him.

I have something similar. On Facebook there are two or three pages called either Jesus ben Yosef or Yeshua ben Yosef, and for a while one of them had as a profile picture this image.

I loved it. 

It's just how I always imagine Jesus would look, how I used to draw him when first I got to know him when I was fifteen. It's my idea of Jesus — the way Jesus looked in my mind when I wrote The Wilderness Within You and Into the Heart of Advent.

I took the image and had it made into a little photo cube thing for the altar in my bedroom.

I have it on my computer desktop too.

Now, I do know it isn't Jesus. I do understand that it's just a man from the twenty-first century who made a Facebook profile that also isn't actually Jesus. 

I also love this painting by Yongsung Kim, called The Hand of God (you can get it from all sorts of places including Amazon).

What I like best about The Hand of God and the Jesus on my little altar is that they look warm and friendly and kind, not mournful or stern and forbidding and sour and accusatory like so many depictions of Jesus including the Herbert Beechcroft one. They look like a Jesus I could relate to, that gives me hope. And that's why I have the little photo on my altar.

A while ago, in our Facebook church, when I was responsible for leading the meeting one morning, and it was a eucharist,  I added in an image of the Jesus on my altar. Now this time I really was naive because I imagined it would be received and understood as I saw and beheld it — as a representation of Jesus. End of. But no.

There followed a series of people saying, "Isn't that Jonathan Roumie from The Chosen?" (no) or "Who's that? It isn't anyone I know", etc. A number of women posted pictures of similar men. 

I was quite startled (thinking, like a child, "No! No! No! That's Jesus!"), and swapped out the picture for one of bread and wine. 

I have never been into the ogling beautiful poster men thing over which women bond, and I felt embarrassed by the reaction. In the course of the meeting when our sharing of bread and wine was concluded, I posted an image of the empty vessels and alongside them the little Jesus picture — but again it evoked the same reaction (I was surprised; a slow learner) so again I swapped it out.

I guess this is just a mismatch of social currency — which relies on shared assumptions. It made me realise (I don't really know why I didn't see it before) that how we visualise the face of Jesus, whose presence is so strong and clear even though it is invisible, has to remain a very private thing — it's not something one can share; it goes wrong.

I have another little altar in my room, with Our Lady on it. Here she is.

I love it because she is dear and beautiful and Hebe made her for me, and I like to have something honouring Our Lady in my room. Uh-oh — I see the little shelf needs dusting.

But I think, while I will always keep the statue of Our Lady, I might not keep the picture of Jesus, because I feel a bit ashamed of the connotation it has now acquired to do with pin-ups and actors — Jonathan Roumie and Mark Hamil and so forth. Maybe the face of Jesus can only live inside my heart, and that's how it has to stay.

Because these devotional things are very personal, aren't they?

Sunday, 28 February 2021

WEAREALLNOWHERE — Ministry of the word from The Campfire Church on Facebook this morning

The English poet John Donne fell seriously ill from typhoid fever in the winter of 1623. We who have been passing through this coronavirus season are perhaps in a better position now to appreciate what it must have been like to live through the waves of disease in the Middle Ages and on through the 17th century, when news of someone’s death was relayed by the tolling of the passing bell from the village church.  Donne came very close to dying that winter, and recorded the impressions that emerged as he passed through his time of illness. One of the poems he wrote, published after his recovery the following year, was this:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man 

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; 

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe 

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as 

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine 

own were; any man's death diminishes me, 

because I am involved in mankind. 

And therefore never send to know for whom 

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

But of course we belong not only to the human race, we are part of the whole web of creation. The stars tell our story, the moon pulls the tides of our blood, the salt in our tears has the same briny balance as the sea, we depend on the bees for the food in our supermarkets, and without the forests to stabilise the earth there would be no more rain and no more harvests — flood and drought would bring life to an end. We inter-are.

I saw this very vividly this week in two brief moments.

The first of these was that Tony came bounding forth to step into his beautiful white car parked outside our house on the road, to find it covered with a fine layer of orange dust.  This had blown on the winds of the world from the Sahara, and we depend upon it.  Dust from the Sahara brings iron (that was the orange colour) and phosphorus to nourish our depleted earth, fertilising the Amazon over 5000km away from it, bringing vital nutrients to the fields of Southern Europe, the islands of the Mediterranean — and on this particular occasion, also to St Leonards in East Sussex where I live. We inter-are.

The second thing was a tiny snatch of conversation overheard — a young man coming up the steps mounting the steep hillside from the park, saying to his girlfriend: “I care about family. I don’t really care about wildlife.”

I wondered whether to stop and tell him about the dust from the Sahara, about the bees holding the line to keep humanity fed, about the trees who watch over us like angels, slowing the movement of water through the landscape, about how the purring of a cat on his lap helps to heal his bones — but I didn’t. It was not for me to intrude into his conversation. I walked on.

The word ‘universe’ means ‘one turning’— that is to say, it is about elements combined by being folded in with each other, like folding in the flour when you make a cake. The nearest synonym I can find to ‘universe’ is ‘enfolded’; turned into one. What Buddhism calls dependent co-arising — where each one has its own form and being, and yet is a part of the whole; like the ocean waves that each have their own shape and identity, no two exactly alike, yet each one made up entirely of the same sea that conjoins them all, going down to depths unimaginable. We are in God as the wave is in the ocean, and God is in us as the ocean is in the wave; and so we belong to one another, we inter-are.

An aspect of Biblical thinking we tend to lose sight of is that, as we heard in our readings today, the covenant God made after the Great Flood was between God and all creation, not just with humanity; and the healing of the cross and the Christian work of reconciliation are not for humanity alone but for all creation. We inter-are.

The eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment brought a movement away from seeing the beings of other species as ensouled, introducing instead the concepts of mechanistic thinking. So began the long, dismal and continuing era of vivisection and cage farming, the arrogant presumption that sees only humanity as illumined by the possibility of divine indwelling. And of course it was only a short step from there to seeing human being also as an assembly of components — a view that still ramifies into the thinking of our day. I’d put money on it that somewhere in the course of your life you’ve read a medical or biological treatise proposing that “your body is just a like a machine” or “your brain is a computer”. But I hope you know — it isn’t. You are alive.

And this is the thinking that leads to a spare-parts approach to medicine and wilfully ignores — or even despises and belittles — the routes of holistic healing. It’s the thinking that leads to the cruelty of meat plants and unthinkable practices in abattoirs that I won’t even describe to you because they’d keep you awake at night. It’s what leads to the stupidity of Elon Musk thinking we can all eat lab-grown meat and that’ll be just as good for us as meat from animals who have roamed free on the moors. It’s the thinking that has perverted Christian belief away from the awareness of the light of God in all creation, to seeing holiness only in humanity, and mistaking the rest of creation as a collection of insensate items to use as we see fit.

But we are made of light and healed by light and meant to keep our light shining until the end. The breath of God is in all creation, and when we see the light sparkling on the sea or meet the amber gaze of a fox in the garden at dusk or behold the colours of the dawn or listen to a blackbird singing as night falls or watch the stars one by one begin to shine, we are looking into the eyes of God.

So the work of addressing climate change is not a niche interest separate from our Christian calling — it is the work of reconciliation God has entrusted to us in Christ. It is the work of peace the New Testament envisions.

Our devotion is not just the time we spend sitting down reading the Bible and saying things to God, it is the garden we grow, the food sources we choose, the vote we cast, the economic patterns we support. If it isn’t holistic it isn’t of God, because the purpose of God is shalom. No one is an island entire of itself; every one is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. We are in God as the wave is in the ocean, and God is in us as the ocean is in the wave. We inter-are.

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Outside the Camp - thoughts for Campfire Church 21/02/2021 (Ministry of the word — Grace Garner)

The Old Testament stories sometimes gain a twist in the telling, which can cause Christians to draw lessons from them that are quite different from those understood in Jewish tradition. In looking at this story, I found it very helpful to turn to the Midrash, the collection of Rabbinic teaching that accompanies the Torah.
Moses had taken a Cushite wife. We may take this simply to mean Ethiopian (as Cush was the Hebrew name for Ethiopia), but this overlooks the idiomatic meaning. Cushite referred to anything that stood out so obviously that anyone could see it, in the way that a dark-skinned Ethiopian stood out in a crowd of people with lighter skins. It was a positive term; a Cushite was someone unique and outstanding. Moses had one wife, Zipporah, who was a Midianite. Her exceptional beauty and virtue are what made her stand out among other women, according to the rabbinic teachings. She was a Cushite in the sense that she was an absolute gem, and anyone could see it.
In the previous chapter of Numbers, two young men (Eldad and Medad) are preaching in the camp. According to Jewish texts, Miriam hears Zipporah saying, “Alas for the wives of these men. If they are moved to prophecy, they will separate from their wives the way my husband separated from me.” This doesn’t mean that Moses and Zipporah had divorced, but that they were no longer having any kind of sexual intimacy.
So Miriam goes to challenge Moses on Zipporah’s behalf. It is their separation she objects to, not their marriage. Once we understand this, it makes sense of Miriam and Aaron pointing out that they are also prophets. They prophesy, despite not keeping themselves set apart from other people, and ritually pure. (Although there is no reference to Miriam ever having married or borne children, Aaron was certainly married.) Why, Miriam asks Moses, should being a prophet cause you to abandon your wife in this manner? It’s not fair on her.
The three are then suddenly summoned before God, who explains that Moses is different from other prophets because of the way he might be in the presence of God at any moment. The unspoken part is that he must therefore be ritually pure. God’s immediate presence burns Aaron and Miriam, because they aren’t prepared for this meeting. Miriam is then struck with a skin disease. Our texts label it leprosy. The Hebrew word for a leper derives from a phrase meaning ‘bringing out a bad name’; in other words, a slanderer. So Miriam’s slander has bounced off Moses and stuck to her as a skin condition that leaves her ritually impure. It is Moses’ great humility in prayer that alleviates God’s anger and leads to Miriam’s healing.
I don’t know what you make of this story. As with so many Old Testament stories, I don’t feel that God comes out of it looking very good! In some ways, it leaves me with more questions than answers. But these are ancient stories of an ancient people, with fragments missing or distorted. So I think we must draw from it what we can, and accept a degree of mystery and of difference in thinking between us and the people who first told these stories.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and the lectionary gives the Gospel reading from Mark that we heard from in our call to worship. Jesus encounters God at his baptism, and is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, where wild beasts and angels attend him. When I was thinking about this, I thought of the reading we heard a few weeks ago about how Jesus made his sacrifice outside the camp. Paul said, “Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” (Hebrews 13:13-14) And I thought about the ten lepers Tony talked to us about a couple of weeks back, and the idea of the flow being reversed between Jesus and the lepers; so that, instead of being infected, he purified them.
And I thought about Miriam outside the camp, and how the people of God waited for her. When I think about this story in terms of anger and punishment, it feels unfair. Miriam was advocating for Zipporah in a patriarchal system, and what she said to Moses was fair comment, it seems to me. But when I think of this story alongside the story of Jesus in the wilderness, I draw some different things from it. The wilderness, in the Bible, is indeed a place for the unwanted and the unclean; the place where the scapegoat is driven, bearing the sins of the people, the place where the rubbish is burned in Gehenna. But it’s also a place of shriving, a place of encounter with God, and a place to go after seeing the face of God.
Jesus and Miriam were both touched by God and were both driven into the wilderness. Perhaps, for Miriam, like Jesus, this was a place of facing demons. Perhaps it was a place of change, of stripping things away, of preparing for the challenge of a unique role in the service of God. Miriam was a midwife of the faith, a gateway person, like Jesus. She was a prophetess, a teacher and a leader. She had stood alone by the river, watching over the baby Moses, just as God watched over his people in exile; and therefore, Moses and the people of God waited for her.
Perhaps this pandemic time, with its own wilderness spirit, gives us some insight into this situation. A mystery disease strikes, and this ancient people knows that quarantine is important, however painful, to save lives and keep disaster at bay. We are well placed to understand the loneliness that entails, the sense of injustice, the fear and the unknowing. Will Miriam, beloved by the people, return? They can only wait and see if God will answer their prayers.
Jesus’ time in the wilderness was a shriving time – that is a time of confession and absolution, a spring cleaning of the soul. And it was a shriving time for Miriam. Her encounter with God had marked her on the outside. After seven days, she was readmitted into the camp, healed of this affliction. But I wonder how it marked her on the inside? Had she needed that wilderness time to recover from her meeting with God? Did she make confession? Did she remain unbowed in holding power to account? Did she need time to recover from the wilderness upon her return to the camp?
Jesus came back from the wilderness to his family and friends, and began his ministry. Miriam already had a ministry to return to, teaching Torah to the women, prophesying, and leading the people alongside her brothers. Years later, when she died at Kadesh, the people were without water. The association of these two things leads to the Jewish folk tale about the miraculous well that moved with the people of God, which was attributed to Miriam (as the pillars of cloud and fire were attributed to Aaron, and the manna to Moses). Without Miriam, a source of sustenance and strength dries up. Aaron and Moses are immediately almost overwhelmed by the challenge of providing for the people. Without the courage and passion of Miriam, even these great men of God will not reach the Promised Land.
Standing alone, guarding the infant Moses, and standing alone outside the camp, Miriam was undaunted and undiminished in her determination to see the people of God to safety. So, whatever happened between Miriam and God in the wilderness, it didn’t take away her unique gifts. It didn’t disconnect her from God or from her people. It was a necessary part of her journey with God. As for the people, I think Moses and Aaron’s terror over something bad happening to Miriam, and the willingness of the people (who loved to complain) to wait with her – to wait for her – speaks volumes about what she meant to them. Miriam, with Moses and Aaron, had brought the people out of slavery, and through the wilderness towards the Promised Land.
We, too, are going outside the camp now. We are going with Jesus into the wilderness. We do not need to be afraid, even though we know where this road is heading. Death is not the end – it is a doorway to life, and to the city that is to come.

Our opening prayer from morning worship at The Campfire Church today (by Grace Garner)

 God, you are alive in the wilderness

And your still, small voice speaks so closely to anyone who will listen.
In our wilderness of uncertainty, loneliness, disease and chaos,
We, like Abraham, find you already here.
In this moment, we build our altar to you,
Marking this space where we encounter you
And declare that God is great
That God is with us
And God is beyond us.
We behold the mystery of you.
Jesus, you walked in the wilderness.
God spoke to you and you came out here alone.
You lived with hunger and emptiness, and difficult choices.
You asked the difficult questions
And came to a point of understanding.
You came back changed, and ready.
When we walk through the wilderness, we face challenges and choices,
And we know we are changing too.
In places we thought no one else had been,
We find your footsteps
And we follow.
Spirit, you carry the wilderness in your heart.
You have loved and nurtured it since the first moments
When you hovered over the face of the water.
You tend the cauldron and you hold the crucible,
And from them you draw nourishment and beauty.
We invite you into our hearts
And make a home for the wilderness within us;
And make the wilderness without us a place of promise,
A place of creative power,
A place of nurturing and love.
We thank you, Gracious God, for the wilderness, as we begin our Lenten journey of making ourselves ready for the time of struggle and renewal that we know is over the horizon. We lift up our prayers and praise to you this morning, in the name of your son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

THINKABOUT — TELLING THE STORY — from The Campfire Church today (a Eucharist).


Celebrating the Eucharist, which we often call “holy communion”, is about encountering Jesus for ourselves.

It’s about gathering in a circle of which he is part, opening our hearts to him in confession, bringing him our world in intercession, and entering the re-membering of his broken body and spilt blood.

It’s about finding him made whole in the circle of belonging and, by doing so, finding the healing and strength to embody him in our world.

Some of us grew up understanding Eucharist to be a very focused and specific event — a robed priest standing at the altar saying the special prayers, and then ourselves reverently  eating the blessed wafer of bread, sipping from the chalice of holy wine, returning with bowed heads and folded hands to kneel in our pew and wait to be dismissed.

But gradually, we have come to realise, it is so much more than that. What we saw and did in the church service was the ritualised re-enactment of something so huge we could never realistically bring it into focus.

Here is all the brokenness of the world. Here is every child whose only playground is the rubble of bombed buildings in a war zone. Here are the refugees in the biting cold of northern France, watching the flimsy shelter of their tents torn down and their belongings thrown into the mud by the police — the representatives of society. Here is the frightened Covid patient clutching the gloved hand of the anaesthetist who has come to put the respirator tube in. Here is the mother who drowned in the relentless exhaustion of lockdown pressure and suffocated her terribly disabled child. Here is the corrupt politician pocketing public funds. Here is the divorce and the redundancy, the bailiff knocking at the door, the food bank queue. This is the broken bread. This is humanity dismembered, Christ’s arms pulled out of joint by the weight of his body on the cross. This is the spilt blood of life, trickling down from the feet that brought the gospel of peace, held in place by a five inch forged iron nail hammered through them. 

But the miracle we express when we make our Eucharist, is the re-membering of our humanity — Christ’s humanity. We, who have so much to forgive, and so much for which we need to be forgiven, find hope and peace beyond our wildest dreams in the simplicity of bread broken and shared, of wine passed round.

There is a special Greek word — well, isn’t there always, in church? — for the moment of consecration: “epiclesis”. In this moment of blessing, our theologians have taught, the Holy Spirit becomes one with the bread and wine — and so, when we eat and drink, the Holy Spirit comes right inside of us.

May I dare to suggest it is not so one-directional? That maybe, in this re-membering, we are seeing life come to meet life, spirit recognising spirit, parts that always really belonged to one another draw into communion. For what are we anyway, if not clay (which is really star-dust) that lives by the breath of God — Holy Spirit? 

In the Eucharist, not only Christ, but we ourselves are re-membered. We are made whole.

But look, we belong not only to Jesus, and to one another in our familiar circle of fellowship — we also have families and colleagues, we have neighbours and acquaintances and friends. We are joined by a skein of invisible threads to everyone we have heard of, and everyone who has ever heard of us.

In this re-membering, light pulses along the whole web of interconnection. We are not separate. The sacred heart of Christ sends forth his blood into us, to circulate and nourish all humanity.

This small gathering, this home-based make-shift act of communion, this Eucharist, is not for ourselves only but for the healing of the world.

Do this, Jesus said, to re-member Me.

Sunday, 31 January 2021

Holistic thinking, biblical Christianity and miracles

Ministry of the word from The Campfire Church (on Facebook) for today.

Holistic thinking, biblical Christianity and miracles

A few days ago I was in a conversation about a recent book written by a wise and thoughtful eco-Christian, advancing the proposal that we are mistaken in ascribing to ourselves the role of stewards of the Earth. We are, so my friend described the book’s argument, not over and above the Earth as stewards, but part of the Earth. We belong to Earth as part of the web of creation.

I took issue with this. 

I certainly believe we are an integral part of creation; we are no more valuable or more important than any other part of it. As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, we inter-are — we all arise together as part of an interdependent fabric of nature. We are not lords of creation, not the pinnacle of creation, we are integrated with it. But that integration includes and implies a role to play; which in our case is that we are the stewards of the Earth. 

I believe we are the stewards of creation for two reasons.

One, you can see it. We have influenced and affected the entire eco-system, and the Earth’s well-being and regeneration, or its destruction and extermination, will be determined absolutely by what we choose and decide in the next very few years. If that is not a role of responsibility for the stewardship of the Earth, I don’t know what would be. 

All beings bear responsibility, all are in covenant with God and all are guardians of the well-being of creation. Bees, for example ensure our harvests, and trees protect us against both drought and flood, stabilising the Earth’s nutritious layer to prevent its erosion, and slowing down the movement of water through the landscape. But we have power over the bees, to kill or protect them, and power over the trees, to safeguard the forests or cut them down for soya bean plantations — and that’s what makes us stewards.

Secondly, I believe we are stewards of the Earth because the Bible says we are, and I am a biblical Christian. To clarify, I take the Bible as my rule and guide, but what I think it is saying and how I receive my understanding of its words may be different from yours — and this is what we mean by interpretation. So I think I’m a biblical Christian but plenty of other people who think they are  have scoffed at what I have written and taught, and dismissed is as being — I quote — “infected with the taint of liberalism”. All of which is exactly what interpretation is about.

Now, when I say I think we are stewards of the earth, because that’s what the Bible says, I’m referring to the Original Blessing of the Book of Genesis, in which God sets humanity free into the eco-system, saying, “Fill the Earth and subdue it.”

But then comes the question, well, what do we mean by that?

“Subdue” can mean beat into submission or dominate.

Or it can mean bring quietness and peace — enable something turbulent to calm down.

These are both forms of mastery but different in character, not least because the first is about dominating and subjugating others, where the second is primarily about self-mastery and taking responsibility.

Jesus models the second for us in the stilling of the storm, the healing of the Gadarene demoniac, and the healing of the epileptic boy. His mastery, his stewardship, brought peace and shalom — the quiet, harmonious integration that is the proper condition of someone who is well. 

Of course illnesses, and storms on the Sea of Galilee — and indeed in any life situation — are entirely natural; but what we saw in Jesus was an integrating of all the factors, the natural propensity to storms and the presence at that time of some human beings tossed about in a small boat. He integrated the conditions to bring out the best outcome. And I think that’s what the Bible means by stewardship.

It’s not meant to be a tussle. “Fill the Earth and subdue it” is, according to the Book of Genesis, part of Original Blessing. Bringing forth crops in toil and the sweat of your brow is the masculine half of the curse that came later in the story of the Fall. The feminine half of that curse is being dominated by men, experiencing family life as painful and a source of sorrow. Tussle, strife, one person dominating another instead of two working in harmony, equally, together — Genesis calls this a curse. The way of blessing is all about integration. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. One integrated whole. Shalom. That’s where we want to be headed.

I think when we read the Bible, it helps to have the largest possible understanding of its truth. So when it says God told Adam and Eve to fill the earth and subdue it, we shouldn’t think in terms of a concrete being — an old man with a long white beard — addressing a man and a woman. Humanity thinks in stories and explains truth in metaphor. That’s how our understanding develops. We move from the seen to the unseen.

It helps if we see that we live and move and have our being within God. That all truth and all creation proceed from the Spirit of God. So the Bible is speaking with the vocabulary of mythology — ie, weaving a story as a bag to carry truth — to tell us that the reality is that humanity will increase in numbers and come to assert influence over every aspect of life on Earth. And that’s just true, isn’t it? We know it is. It’s historical, it’s scientific, it’s happened. But the question is, are we going to choose the way of blessing, of responsible stewardship in this role that is ours whether we like it or not, or the way of curse. The way of curse is about separation, domination, polarisation and antagonism. The way of blessing is about integration, healing and shalom. Two styles of stewardship. One leads to death, one leads to life. It’s there in the Bible, but if you don’t like the Bible it’s right there in modern politics and ecological science. It’s just reality, which is another name for truth, which proceeds from God, because God is our context and there is nowhere else for us to be. Living biblically is a discipline of adaptation to reality — which we were made to do; so though it is not easy, it is more natural for us than trying to fly in the face of it and going the path of curse.

So now then, what about filling the Earth and subduing it the Jesus way — by integration, healing and speaking peace? 

We call the stilling of the storm, the exorcism and blessing of the Gadarene demoniac and the epileptic boy, “miracles”. And please note, when the disciples asked Jesus, about the epileptic boy, “How did you do that?”, he said it needed prayer and fasting — which should alert us to the reality that personal holiness, spiritual discipline, including bodily discipline, is part of this mix.

“A miracle” is what we call something we don’t understand. The disciples had no luck with trying to heal the epileptic boy, so we say Jesus came and did a miracle. The disciples were overwhelmed by the storm and about to sink, so they woke Jesus up and he told it to calm down and be quiet and it did — so we call that a miracle. But where we’ve gone wrong is, with our usual arrogance, thinking that if we don’t understand it, then it must be against the laws of nature. But that doesn’t make sense.

The way nature works proceeds from the reality within which all of us live and move and have our being — God — and the ways of nature *include* the effects we can’t understand and don’t personally know how to reproduce, that we therefore say are miracles and a suspension of the laws of nature. To say nature’s laws are suspended is, literally, nonsense. It doesn’t mean anything. 

It is necessary to grasp that nature is not merely mechanistic and physical, but is also subtle and spiritual. Holistic. Integral. Nature will organise up differently around someone like Jesus who lives and breathes peace, from how it organises up around someone who is combative and antagonistic. Like Masurai Emoto’s experiments with the structure of water, that either organises beautifully or degenerates into chaos depending on the words you speak into it.

If you look at this from the other end — the antagonistic end, the way of curse — you can get a better handle on it. Because you may not think you can make someone well just by announcing peace and healing, but I bet you know how to make someone ill. If you browbeat and bully a person, if you are domineering and contemptuous to them, if you gaslight them and hem them in, if you isolate them and malnourish them, they’ll get ill and it was you who made them ill. You know that, don’t you? And it’s no miracle. You can even kill someone by treating them like that. Remember those horrendous experiments they did on babies in the 1940s? All they had to do was never cuddle or hold them, and the babies just failed to thrive and died. 

In the same way, you can take the way of blessing and make people well. Touch them, hold them, love them, pray for them — embody the fruit of the Spirit (which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control) and things will organise up around you for health and well-being.

When I was a teenager, I worked with nuns. Sister Carmel was a sour old git — I don’t think I ever saw her smile — who was steadfastly rude; whereas Sister Philomena had a smile like a sunbeam and was a kind as the day is long. I only had to be near Sister Philomena to feel better. Sister Carmel didn’t have the same effect, not even on herself. She just looked worn out.

But being like Sister Philomena not Sister Carmel is a choice — and it’s supported by natural things like wise dietary choices, including fasting, and getting enough rest, and living simply, and singing, and spending time in nature; and laughter..

And this is how we start work on making miracles happen, and on taking up our blessed role within creation as stewards of the Earth — to infuse all of it with shalom.

We start, like Jesus did, by a discipline of holiness and love, by working on producing the fruit of the Holy Spirit, by living so simply that we give ourselves enough space to examine our choices — and checking that in all of them (how we speak and act, how we respond to others, how we spend our money, how we interact with the rest of creation, which is all sacred, all in covenant relationship with God) — in all these things we choose life, follow the way of blessing, work for integration, healing and peace. 

Then we’ll see miracles sprouting up like the desert blossoming after a shower of rain.

Monday, 25 January 2021

The importance of strategic voting

 This applies both in the regular sense of casting your vote in a political election, but also in the wider sphere of how you allocate your resources of energy, time and money, to create the world you want to see.

Going back a couple of posts, a conversation developed between me and a very good US friend of many years, about the place for voting with a single issue in mind — abortion, in this case, and that's a very clear example but there are others.

When somebody holds strong principles over a single issue in this way, they may cast their vote in favour of that issue specifically and in isolation, without consideration for the effect of their vote on the wider picture. This can have the unobvious outcome of getting the opposite result to what they wanted.

Mentioning matters of deep and strong principle always triggers connected reactions, so I'd like to lift this right out of our actual social and political sphere into calmer waters (I hope) to try and demonstrate what I mean.

Imagine a scenario where 11 people are going to vote on their menu for the next three weeks. They'll all be eating the same thing every day, and once the menu is selected they have to eat it whether they like it or not.

The two main options are dressed crab or cheese omelette.

Of our diners, three have serious shellfish allergies and may die if they eat shellfish, five don't care what happens to anyone else, like shellfish and just use their vote to get what they want, and three are opposed to the taking of life to produce food.

So, when the votes are cast, you get three who vote for the cheese omelette because they don't want to die, and five who vote for the dressed crab because they care only about themselves. That makes up eight of the eleven votes.

Everything hinges on the remaining three votes. 

There are actually no options available that allow the diners to not kill in order to eat, because dairy farming inevitably implies the slaughter of male calves, and egg farming the mass gassing of male chicks; that's how it works. 

Our three outstanding diners (those opposed to taking life) might cast their votes as follows:

One votes for the cheese omelette option, on the grounds that doing so will stop crabs being slaughtered and also save the lives of three of the other diners. This voter knows that you don't actually have to gas male chicks or take calves from their mothers and slaughter them as babies; it is possible to work towards a kinder world.

The other two voters say their principles about taking life matter so much to them that they are going to cast their votes for the vegan option. There isn't one, so their votes are in effect lost.

The outcome is that you get five diners voting for crab, four for omelette, and two whose votes go for nothing.

The result of this is that everyone has to eat crab for three weeks, three of the diners die, and so do a great many crabs.

But there was another way, as follows:

The five shellfish voters choose crab, because that's what they want.

The three diners with the allergy vote for omelette so they will live.

The three opposed to taking life all vote for the omelette because, although vegetarianism involves a certain proportion of taking life, it has wiggle room for compassion and at least will save the lives of the crabs and the three allergic diners.

The outcome is that you get five diners voting for crab, and six voting for cheese omelette. The allergic diners and the crabs are saved. 

Two days into the experiment, the diners discover that the dressing on the crab includes chopped egg and cream, so if they'd voted for that they would have lost the crabs, the other diners, and the calves and the chicks.

This is not a perfect world. You have to vote strategically.

Here in the UK, at the last election I cast my vote for Jeremy Corbyn and to remain in the EU. I lost. We have Brexit and a government that includes Boris Johnson, Priti Patel, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove. As a result, we have the highest Covid death rate in the world (partly driven by poverty), thousands of hungry children, refugees kept in the most appallingly inhumane conditions, corruption and misuse of public funds on a breathtaking scale, and every week the rich are making a killing while the poor sink into destitution.

Meanwhile Keir Starmer has taken over as leader of the Labour Party. I have a very low opinion of the way Keir Starmer was willing without scruple to throw Jeremy Corbyn under the bus in our UK political in-fighting. Corbyn is a principled man and Starmer let him down. I don't admire it. But if, at the next election, Starmer still leads the Labour Party, then I'll vote for him. I won't forget what he did, but I will do everything in my power to stop the dressed crab going through, because I don't want any more diners to die.

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.