Monday, 21 August 2017

Four Generations of a Dysfunctional Family

It all goes back to the great-grandparents. Abe and Sally were an aging childless couple. Abe, longing to become a father, had an affair with Sally's  maid and got her pregnant. The maid then started gloating about it, and Sally responded by ill-treating her. At one point the maid ran away, but was persuaded to come back. A few years later Abe and Sally had a child of their own, and Sally felt uncomfortable seeing the two boys playing together. One day she blew her top and said to Abe, "I refuse to have that woman and her child in this house any longer". So the maid and her young son were turned out and became homeless. They survived, but the boy grew up to be a loner and a delinquent.

Abe and Sally's son, Ike, married Becca and had two sons, Ed and Jake. Ed was a real he-man with a hairy chest and a fine beard: he was his father's favourite. Jake was altogether different: a mother's boy, a stay-at-home and a bit of a softie. He was also devious and crafty. He played a trick on his father when he was old and blind, and so managed to get a promise of inheritance that Ike had meant to give to Ed. This led to a violent quarrel in which Ed threatened to kill Jake, so Jake ran away from home and stayed away for fourteen years.

In his wanderings he found work with Ben, a sheep farmer. There he fell in love with Ben's daughter Rae, but Ben tricked him into marrying his other daughter, who was older and rather plain. Jake carried on living with both of them anyway. Over the years he cheated Ben out of almost all his property, absconded and eventually went back home and curried favour with Ed. He went on to have thirteen children by four different women.

Out of all his children Jake had a special soft spot for Jo because he was the child of Rae, the real love of his life. Jo grew up thoroughly spoilt. He didn't go out to work like the others, but stayed at home wearing a luxurious and rather feminine gown his father had got specially made for him. He thought he was a cut above his brothers, and was a bit of a tell-tale, reporting back to his father about all their little misdemeanours. They came to hate him so much that one day they kidnapped him and sold him to some people-traffickers. When they got home they faked evidence to make Jake believe he had been murdered. The mean trick Jake had played on his own father came back to him in an even crueller way.

After many struggles in the foreign country where he was taken, Jo's honesty and hard work eventually got him into a position of great power. Some years later the family became quite poor, and some of the brothers unknowingly turned up in Jo's office looking for help. They didn't recognise him in his exalted position, but he recognised them and played some rather mean tricks on them before eventually making himself known and becoming reconciled with them.

Meanwhile, something even more disreputable and weird had happened with Jude, one of the older brothers. He had three sons. The oldest one married a woman called Tanya, but died soon after. Tanya then married the second son, but he too died. The third son was a young boy, but Jude promised that if she stayed single he would arrange for her to marry the boy when he grew up. Years went by, the boy grew up and nothing happened, probably because Jude had a superstitious fear that if he married Tanya he might die too . In any case, by this time Tanya had no wish to marry someone so much younger: she was more interested in  Jude. So, true to the family tradition, she played a trick. When she heard that Jude was going to do some business in another town, she took off her respectable widow's clothes, tarted herself up. veiled her face, and went there and sat by the roadside. Jude had recently lost his wife and was feeling the need of some comfort. Thinking Tanya was a prostitute, he availed himself of her services. He didn't have enough money to pay what she asked, so he promised to send the money and gave her his signet ring as security. When he got home he sent a friend to pay her, but the friend came back and said he could find no trace of her. A few months later he was told that Tanya was pregnant. He was livid. He even threatened to kill her. How dare she disgrace the family like that? But she of course produced the ring and said, "The owner of this is the father". At that he relented and openly acknowledged the twins she had as his own.

This sounds worse than Eastenders! If you know the Bible, you have probably seen through my ineffectual attempts to disguise the names and change the cultural setting a bit. Yes, it is the story of the origins of Israel - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the twelve tribes - as told in the Book of Genesis. If ever there was a rough dysfunctional family it was this one.

And, believe it or not, there is a positive message in it. It tells us that God's purpose is not necessarily carried out through squeaky-clean "righteous" people. God's love for these people was unchanging however they behaved. Abraham still became (as the New Testament says) "the father of all those who have faith". The deserted single mother Hagar became the mother of the Arab nation. Jacob, running away from home in disgrace, was granted a vision of a ladder between earth and heaven. God used the cruelty of Joseph's brothers to ensure that the family survived in the famine. And perhaps the most mind-blowing thing of all is that the whole tribe of Judah, the Jews, including David, and including Jesus Christ, would not have come into existence without that weird, deception-based incestuous relationship of Judah and Tamar. Yes, God really does "move in a mysterious way".

Monday, 14 March 2016

Creationism Lite?

It seems to me that much of the debate about homosexuality boils down to one basic theological question: the question of creationism versus evolution.  Most Christians now, apart from some extremely conservative believers, accept evolution as the scientific explanation of life. They do not believe that God literally made everything in six days. God created the world, they say, but he created it through evolution. But if they use expressions like “the divinely ordained  order of creation”, or “God’s plan for human life”, they are actually creationists at heart. Evolution is not just a way of explaining how we human beings “came from apes”. If we take its implications seriously, it is a fundamental fact about the nature of the universe, the way things are. There is no order laid down from the beginning. The whole universe evolves: it always has and it always will.

The evolution of life mostly happens by accidental mutations, only a small minority of which give rise to a survival advantage that is reproduced in subsequent generations. Often they produce a one-off anomaly or a variation that has little or no effect on survival. In spite of what the Bible says about God creating male and female, we know from actual experience that sometimes babies are born with mixed male and female characteristics. When this is an obvious physical fact it cannot be denied, but when it is psychological – someone feeling they are a woman in a male body or a man in a female body  – it can be very hard to convince other people of it, and this causes enormous pain to the person involved. Similarly, it is all very well to quote the Bible about a man leaving his father and mother and cleaving to his wife (Genesis 2:24), but there are men and women in whom this instinct is not present: they have a deep need to cleave to someone of the same sex. Again, because this is not physically obvious, some people deny it, saying that homosexuality is a life style choice and so causing a lot of hurt to those who know within themselves that it is not a choice. Whatever we may say about the “divine plan”, it doesn’t always seem to work.

If there is a creator God, we can best imagine him as an experimenter. His experiment with dinosaurs seemed to work for a few million years, but proved non-viable in the long run. He is currently experimenting with human beings. Among them are lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transsexuals and lots of other variations. Experience, not abstract theory, will tell us whether they work or not.

This kind of perception of God is in fact reflected in parts of the Bible. Even in Genesis we are told that when God saw the way human beings were behaving he regretted that he had created them and decided to destroy them with a flood. Just one man seemed to be an exception to the general sinfulness of humanity, so God arranged for him and his family to survive. Then, after the flood was over, he regretted what he had done and resolved never to destroy the world with a flood again. But the subsequent story of Noah and his descendants shows that in any case sparing him and his family wasn’t such a bright idea as it had seemed! The Bible itself seems to suggest that there is no fixed “divine plan”: God keeps experimenting, and sometimes gets it wrong.

God is also open to persuasion by human beings. Abraham haggled with God over how many righteous people it would need to stop him destroying Sodom. Soon after bringing the Israelites out of Egypt God found them so ungrateful and rebellious that he wanted to destroy them, but Moses persuaded him not to. God sent Jonah to the city of Nineveh to tell them that it would be destroyed in forty days, but when the people repented and prayed he changed his mind. We tend to dismiss stories like this as examples of a primitive view of God, but perhaps they are telling us something very profound. This is a dynamic, evolving, unpredictable, open-ended  universe, and so is God’s relationship with the human race.

If this is so, there is no divine blueprint, no preordained order, and the moral decisions we make should not be decided by eternal laws laid down by Scripture or by the “natural order”. Christian faith at its best has always been oriented to the future. Modern science has discovered things previously unknown and this has led to achievements once thought impossible – like flying, or having conversations with people thousands of miles away., or walking on the moon. In the same way a deepening understanding of human experience and a more attentive listening to previously unheard voices has taught us to welcome things once thought impermissible or “unnatural”. We have discovered things about human life that were previously unknown, or known only to minorities who were ignored or persecuted.

To base our morality on experience rather than law or “revelation” does not mean throwing all morality to the winds. Nor does it mean, as some people put it, turning our backs on God’s way and choosing our own. The God presented in the Bible may be unpredictable at times and even cruel, but through the many-sided conversation of the Bible another view emerges and comes to its full-blown expression in Jesus: a God who is pure, universal love. Guided by our faith in this kind of God we try in all the dilemmas of life to find the most loving solution. We can never be a hundred percent sure that we have found the right solution. In fact there is no “right” solution, only the “best” solution as it appears at the time. Science advances by experiment leading to theory and theory being tested by further experiment, and if this reflects the way the universe is, then our understanding of God and of morality have to proceed in the same way.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

This is That

As a child I often attended chapel with my parents and heard sermons that were way over my head. Sometimes a recurring phrase, or maybe just the preacher's text, stuck in my memory. I remember one preacher who constantly repeated the text 'Remember Lot's wife'. I remember nothing about the sermon, but I still remember Lot's wife!

On another occasion the text was 'This is that'. All I remember of the occasion is thinking what a daft text it was! It sounded like one of those examples of taking a few words completely out of context, like 'Hang all the law and the prophets'. I have since found out that the words came from Acts 2:16, when on the day of Pentecost Peter stood up to explain the strange things that were happening and said 'This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel'. It was the promised pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh.

I was too young to understand the subtlety of that sermon (assuming there was any), but have since come to see those three words as a central element in the whole nature of Christian faith and in our reading of the Bible. In fact the main point of reading the Bible at all is that we see a connection between something in the Bible and something in our own experience or in the world situation. There is that thrill of recognition, that light-bulb moment when we say, 'Ah yes! This is that!'

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Isaiah: Poet, Dreamer and Angry Young Man

Here is the gist of a sermon I preached recently.
I read from Isaiah, chapter 5: "Let me sing for my beloved a love song concerning his vineyard ..."

 Those of you who are of my generation will probably remember the rise of the “protest song”. In our young days, practically all popular songs were about romantic love, with rhymes like “moon” and “June” etc. Then, around the 1960s, we started hearing songs in the same kind of style, but their content was about war and peace, nuclear weapons, social justice etc.

This passage starts like a love song. Even “vineyard” in the Old Testament culture had associations with romantic love. The tone makes it obvious that it is not just about an agricultural failure, The vineyard owner is not trying to analyse what went wrong – he is angry with the vineyard. He even wants to command the clouds to stop raining on it! This is obviously the song of a spurned lover. But then it takes another turn: “For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel”. It is not just a love song – it is an indictment of the whole nation. “Vine” was also a symbol of Israel.

The end of the song is shocking and stark: “He expected justice (mishpat) but saw bloodshed (mishpach), righteousness (tsedakah), but heard a cry (tse’aqah).”

We do not often think of the prophets as singers, but they probably delivered many of their messages as songs. They were certainly poets. Their books too are like an anthology: we shouldn’t expect to be able to read the"m from beginning to end and follow a plot. It’s best to dip in and read one short passage at a time.

Poets are sensitive people who feel things very deeply. They have visions we think are unrealistic, nightmares we would rather not think about. Their logic is sometimes difficult to understand, but we can feel the passion of what they say. Their anger was not grim, puritanical “righteousness”: it was the anger we see today in demonstrators, marchers and protest singers. They were controversial, often mocked, imprisoned or even executed.

They were dreamers. The Book of Isaiah begins with the words “The vision  …”. He and the other prophets could have said “I have a dream”.  Martin Luther King was a preacher. His message was the dream of a world that could be different. It led him into political engagement and into death. Yet that dream has begun to come true.

We think of the prophets as predictors of the future. In a sense they were, but only because they saw deeply into the present time. Their messages were for their own time. Isa 7:14-15 is about a child who is about to be born and named “God with us” in confidence of a better time to come. 
Isa 9:6-7 is the celebration of a royal birth. The prophet is perhaps acting in the role of a Poet Laureate. The grandiose titles "Mighty God", "Prince of Peace" etc., were normal for kings in that culture. Isa 40: 3 is about the imminent return of the exiles from Babylon across the desert to Jerusalem.

These sayings acquired new meaning in new situations. But we do the prophet an injustice if we think he was only making some sort of magical prediction that would mean nothing to anybody till 700 years later.

The best way to read the prophets is:

  • don’t try to understand everything
  • don’t try to square it all with Christian doctrine
  • don’t feel you have to read it all
  • read what inspires you, give other passages a try, but treat it like an anthology of poetry
  • read it aloud
  • enter into the passion
  • try to imagine the story behind it
I closed by reading Isaiah 1:1-20. It is a young man’s rant. God is not impressed with religion. He’s tired of all the sacrifices, festivals, songs and prayers. What he wants his people to do is “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”.

How can we say that the Old Testament prophets are not relevant today?

Saturday, 28 March 2015

People of the Book? Or People of the Word?

When Christians meet with Jews and Muslims and want to emphasise their common heritage, the expression “Abrahamic faiths” is often used. This is an accurate description historically, and it also helps us to remember that our differences of belief are in a sense disagreements within the family.

An expression that is not so helpful is “people of the book”, the description given to Jews and Christians in the Qur’an and often used by Muslims today. It is often hard for us to explain that this does not adequately describe the relationship of Christians to their Bible. It is not true that “just as” Jews have the Tanakh, Muslims the Qur’an, Sikhs the Guru Granth and so on, “so” Christians have the Bible. Christians do not see it in quite this way. Some sects on the fringe of Christianity, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, base their whole system of belief on the Bible as God-given data, and there are perhaps some extreme fundamentalists we can rightly regard as more biblical than Christian. However, even the most conservative of Christian Bible-believers would say that see the heart of their faith and experience as a living relationship with Jesus Christ: the Bible is not the ultimate object of their faith, it is the vehicle that conveys Christ to them. The Christian faith is faith not in a Book but in a Person. Christians do not lose sight of the New Testament statement (John 1:14) that the Word of God is Jesus.

“People of the Book” is thus not a good description of Christians. But perhaps “people of the Word” is nearer the mark. Many people call the Bible “the Word”, but the two expressions are not the same. A book, however sacred, is an inanimate object that remains unchanged. It can be interpreted and discussed, but you cannot ask it what it means and get a direct answer. A word is the utterance of a living person at a particular moment in time. It speaks to the present situation.

A word is not necessarily just a piece of information. It often addresses us at an emotional level: comforting, cheering, encouraging or challenging, making us laugh or cry. A word can be an action: sealing an agreement, making a promise, opening a new relationship or restoring a broken one.

The story of the Jewish and Christian faiths is one of hearing the word of God. In the Hebrew Scriptures a prophecy is often introduced by “the word of the LORD came to …”. The prophets had no canonical Scripture to study and interpret: they believed God had spoken to them directly. Sometimes they contradicted each other: there were “true prophets” and “false prophets”. The only reliable definition of true prophets was that their prophecies turned out to be right, but there was no infallible way of knowing at the time which was true and which was false. Sometimes the prophets themselves argued with God and doubted their own call, or the words they felt God wanted them to say. Just as in human relationships, so in relationship with God, a word cannot convey absolute certainty: it can only be taken in trust, and in the context of a relationship.

 “Word” can sometimes mean promise, as when we say “I give you my word”. When the preacher in Isaiah 40:8 said, “the grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever”, he was not referring to Scripture, but to God’s promise to restore Jerusalem. He was quite probably referring specifically to the prophecies of the original Isaiah.

In the New Testament, when we read (Acts 6:7) that “the word of God continued to spread” it doesn’t mean that the apostles went around distributing Bibles! The “word of God” was the message about Jesus. The expression is sometimes still used today, as when a preacher is introduced with words like “so-and-so will now bring us the word”.

No, Christians are not “people of the book”. We are something much more dynamic, more immediate and more challenging: we are “people of the word”.

Monday, 19 January 2015

When the Answer is 'Neither'

The story of the meeting of Jesus with a Samaritan woman is meaningful on many levels. One feature of it seems to me to suggest a model for inter-faith dialogue.
The Jews and Samaritans in Jesus' time were a bit like Christians and Muslims today – worshipping the same God, but deeply divided and disassociated from one another.

When the woman started feeling uncomfortable with what Jesus had to say about her personal life, she decided to change the subject. Religion was a safer topic! So she said, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is Jerusalem". This was a stock point of controversy between Jews and Samaritans.
The answer Jesus gave was to raise the whole question to a higher level: "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem ... the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth".
Jesus seems to be saying that what matters is not where people worship God but how.
Perhaps the equivalent controversial question Muslims raise with Christians is something like this: "We Muslims believe in Jesus as a great prophet,  but you Christians say he is the Son of God."
I wonder whether the best response would be that the real question is: how close are any of us to the spirit of Jesus? Are we in the end judged on what we believe about the nature and status of Jesus, or on whether we follow him? 

Friday, 9 January 2015

A Wake Up Call from a Little Known Prophet

Zephaniah is one of the least known books of the Bible. A fairly short book, it seems to consist mostly of "doom and gloom" - the sort of book we are inclined to ignore as "typically Old Testament". But it is well worth looking at.
Zephaniah preached in the reign of Josiah in Judah (639-609 BC). This was a heady time of promise and threat. Judah was experiencing a brief moment of relative freedom as the Assyrian Empire was in its final decline. In this situation, Josiah presided over a radical reform of religion. All artefacts associated with idolatry were removed from the Temple and destroyed, the offering of sacrifices in places other then the Jerusalem Temple was abolished, the shrines destroyed and the priests removed.  A ceremony was held in which Josiah led the people in a covenant to obey the laws of God, and a reformed Passover was celebrated. Josiah is recorded in the histories as an outstandingly godly king.
However, the sense of a new beginning was short-lived. By that time the days of Judah as a kingdom were numbered. About ten years after these reforms, Josiah was killed by the King of Egypt while trying to prevent him from going to the assistance of Assyria against Babylon. This attempt to help Babylon did Judah no good in the long run. Twelve years later the Babylonians took control of Judah and deposed Josiah’s son, and after another eleven years they destroyed Jerusalem and deported most of its leading citizens to Babylon.

As Zephaniah looks out over the devastations  being wrought by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians, his book begins:

“I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the LORD.
I will sweep away humans and animals;
I will sweep away the birds of the air
and the fish of the sea…..”

However, this does  not apparently include the kingdom of Judah. God’s purpose there is to cut off all remnants of the worship of Baal and other gods, and to seek out and punish all those who have participated in these practices. Other nations, meanwhile – the Philistines, the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Assyrians and even the faraway Ethiopians – will be utterly destroyed.

Along with this will come a humbling and purification of the “remnant of Israel”. The proud leaders will be removed, leaving behind “a people humble and lowly” who will seek refuge in the true God of Israel and live in his ways.

Like most of the prophets, Zephaniah projects his fears and hopes for Israel and surrounding nations onto a cosmic screen. This is part of the style of prophetic hyperbole, a feature still found in poetry today. But looking from the point of view of our own time there is perhaps a new relevance in Zephaniah’s language. Today, with nuclear weapons and climate change, the inability of human beings to act justly, to curb their inordinate greed and ambition and to live together in peace is posing a threat to the whole global environment. There is now a real possibility that not only human life but even “the birds of the air and the fish of the sea” could be swept off the face of the earth. Or, if that does not happen, there could remain a depleted human race, “a people humble and lowly” to start the hard task of rebuilding civilisation on sounder principles. That rather obscure and grim prophet who lived 2,600 years ago is still able to furnish a “wake up” call to humanity in the twenty-first century.