Abortion and Homosexuality

This week we are on holiday in the Republic of Ireland, which has just held a referendum in which 64.4% of the population voted to remove from the constitution a clause which gave an equal right to life to a mother and her unborn child.  The referendum result does not immediately legalise abortion, but it paves the way for the Irish Parliament to do so, and the necessary legislation will certainly be passed in the very near future. 

I include here a column from the weekly bulletin of the church we attend in Ireland.  It is written by the Parish Priest, whose identity I will withhold as I don’t have explicit permission to republish his views (they are in the public domain on his own church’s website), and some in the Catholic Church may take issue with him.  His reference point is obviously Catholic theology and tradition, but I believe he has something to say to the whole church. 

The result of the Referendum surprised some of us – but that’s democracy.  It doesn’t change a lot – the problem remains and we have to work at developing a society that cares, and provides effective support for all those in need.  Life goes on, God is still in the heavens, the sky won’t fall in and if the fine weather continues for another few weeks the farmers will be praying for rain!  We live in a rapidly different society from 30-40 years ago.  That era wasn’t perfect either.  Society is constantly changing and evolving – remember Slavery was the accepted norm onetime up to the end of the 19th century and still goes on in some places today. 

One of the issues coming to the fore in our time is the issue of homosexuality.  As with unwanted pregnancies, much of this issue was not addressed properly in the past – things were swept under the carpet and there was much wrong and a lot of hurt. 

Pope Francis has reminded us many times that life is not black and white – that there are all kinds of grey areas that society has difficult dealing with.  A Spanish Newspaper is quoted this week as saying that a gay man named Juan Carlos recently met the Pope who said the following: “He told me, ‘Juan Carlos, that you are gay does not matter.  God made you like this and loves you like this and I don’t care.  The pope loves you like this.  You have to be happy with who you are,’” (Greg Burke, the Vatican’s chief spokesman, did not respond to questions about whether Cruz’s statement accurately reflected his conversation with the Pope.) 

It is not the first time it has been suggested that Pope Francis has an open and tolerant attitude toward homosexuality, despite the traditional historical Catholic church’s teaching that gay sex was wrong.  In July 2016, in response to a reporter’s question about homosexuality he said “I am glad that we are talking about ‘homosexual people’ because before all else comes the individual person, in his wholeness and dignity.”  He continues, “and people should not be defined only by their sexual tendencies: let us not forget that God loves all his creatures and we are destined to receive his infinite love.”  Francis said: “Who am I to judge?”  The new remarks appear to go much further in embracing homosexuality as a sexual orientation that is designed and bestowed by God.  It suggests that Francis does not believe that individuals choose to be gay or lesbian, as some religious conservatives argue. 

Christopher Lamb, the Vatican correspondent for the Tablet, said the comments were remarkable and a sign of a shift in attitudes taking place.  “It goes beyond ‘who am I to judge?’ to ‘you are loved by God,’” said Lamb.  “I don’t think he has changed church teaching but he’s demonstrating an affirmation of gay Catholics, something that has been missing over the years in Rome.” 

The remarks come as several high profile members of the clergy have sought to publicly make inroads with gay Catholics, many of whom have felt shunned and unwelcome in the church and have been ostracised.  Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest in New York has led the outreach effort and was chosen last month to serve as a consultor to the Vatican’s secretariat for communications.  Martin has argued in his book “Building a Bridge” that the onus is on the church to make LGBT Catholics feel welcome in the church and to stop discriminating against people based on their “sexuality”. 

This is not just an issue for the Catholic church.  In many churches of all persuasions are gay Christians who feel unable to reveal their sexuality for risk of persecution.  Others have left church after church as they have felt unwelcome, and end up giving up on church altogether, if not giving up on God. 

There is a scriptural argument for saying that homosexual practice is wrong – some will agree with that argument, others will not.  Some of us may wish to encourage gay Christians to remain celibate, others will not feel this to be necessary.  But there is no basis in the Bible, or in wider Christian theology, for condemning someone based on their sexuality – being gay is not inherently wrong, even if acting on those impulses may be.  

There are many gifted and sincere followers of Jesus who just happen to be sexually attracted to members of their own gender.  Our first response must be to love them, to affirm to them that God loves them, to welcome them into the community of the church so that we may walk with them as they discern the voice of God’s Spirit, that they may live in obedience to him.

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What price obedience?

Amongst the stories in the news this week, one that caught my attention was that the government is considering the introduction of schools with a ‘military ethos’.   

None of the online stories I could find did much to define what ‘military ethos’ meant, but seeing as the details included reference to schools with discipline issues, it seems probable that at least part of what is intended is a strict disciplinary regime.  The online comments certainly assumed so, with lots of people responding positively that kids today need to “learn to respect their elders” or “learn to do as they’re told.”  In other words, diagnosing the “problem” with the youth of today as a lack of obedience, being too willing to rebel or answer back. 

As a Christian I have a big problem with this assumption that unquestioning obedience is a good thing.  I’ll come on to the reasons why in a minute.  But unfortunately this idea has crept into the church too.  Conservative evangelical culture has always placed high store on authority, whether that be parents and children, church leaders and congregation, or God and humanity.  That is not in and of itself entirely a bad thing but, partly due it seems to the influx of resources from America, there is an increasing tendency to demand unconditional obedience in all those areas.  Parents will demand their children obey simply because, whatever the request may be.  Church leaders will take a “my way or the highway” approach to leadership.  And “God says” has become the ultimate trump card in any question of what choice someone should make. 

My problem with this is that I don’t think it’s Biblical or healthy.  There are 206 uses of the word “obey” in the NIV.  The vast majority of these reference obedience to God’s commands.  Some appear in a narrative context, such as references to people obeying the king.  Very few are instructions for people to obey other people, and those that are never make that unquestioning. 

To consider the handful of most relevant passages.  Deuteronomy 21:18-20 speaks of a son who is disobedient to his parents, but the details makes clear that the issue here is more than just not doing what he is told, but of underlying attitudes: “stubborn… rebellious… glutton… drunkard.”  Joshua 1:17 and 22:2 speak of the people’s obedience of Moses and Joshua, but this clearly stems from and is conditional on their obedience of God and his continued presence with them.   

Ephesians 6 is the passage that comes closest to requiring unconditional obedience, of parents to children and slaves to masters.  But even here it is in the context of reverence to Christ, and the obedience is to be “in the Lord.”  And there is a reciprocity in the way parents are told to treat their children and masters their slaves.  But even if we were to take that one passage as demanding unquestioning obedience, that is scant Biblical support for something to become so central. 

We do not have to look far for examples where an uncritical acceptance of authority has caused hurt or pain.  Unquestioning deference to positional status has allowed far too many parents, clergy, teachers, and others to continue to abuse children.  On a national scale it was the attitude that allowed leaders such as Hitler to flourish.  And even when it comes to religion, an unquestioning acceptance of what is (wrongly) perceived to be God’s will has caused Christians to support the crusades, slavery, racism and more. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating bringing up children to be anarchists.  I hopefully show my boys the importance of doing as mammy and daddy ask, and I tell them that they should do what their teachers tell them.  But I hope that in an age-appropriate way I also teach them the importance of their conscience, and that there may be occasions when an adult asks them to do something which they just know to be wrong.  At those times I want them to have the confidence and the permission to stand up and refuse to obey. 

Because we live in a world where there are unfortunately still those who seek to abuse positions of authority, particularly when it comes to children; where sections of the media increasingly push ideology based on fake news; where those wishing to become UK citizens must pledge unconditional loyalty and allegiance; and where there are those who would brand anyone who questions government actions as traitors.  In such a world we all need to be prepared for those times when we may need to say, “We must obey God rather than human beings.”  (Acts 5:29)

Thoughts and prayers

This morning the world wakes to the news of yet another shooting in the US. And as usual the social media channels are full of people offering “thoughts and prayers.” Some of this is doubtless from people of faith who are genuinely praying for those caught up in the incident. But how much of it is really just the culturally expected response?

And what does it mean to pray in this context? Or indeed in any context. Surely our prayers must be active – we cannot use “I am praying” as an excuse not to respond in other ways – it can’t be a case of I’m leaving this to God so I don’t need to do anything. James is abundantly clear about this:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14-17, NIV)

Is this not what sections of the American church have been guilty of time and again? Offering “thoughts and prayers” to the victim of gun crime while doing nothing to support efforts for greater gun control. Indeed far too often it is those who claim the name of Jesus who have been arguing for a continuation of the current right to bear arms. I am usually cautious in criticising the views of those who are in a very different cultural context than myself, but in this case I have no hesitancy in stating that this is wrong.

To be blunt, if you continue to support the free availability of instruments that exist for no other reason than to injure and kill, while claiming to worship the God who said clearly, “Do not kill”, then you lose the right to offer “thoughts and prayers” for those who have been injured or killed.

Most people reading this will not be in the US, but many of you may know people in America. If you do, please do talk to them about this issue. If they are not yet speaking out in favour of gun control please urge them to do so. If, like all of my American friends, they already see the importance of this issue, then please encourage them to continue in this fight.

My thoughts and prayers are with those caught up in the incident in Texas. But they are also with all those involved in political and religious leadership in America – that they may have the courage to follow the leading of Jesus, to put faith into action, and to see the responsibility and the power that they have to be agents for change and to reduce the probability of this happening again.

Is church too complicated?

In common with many churches, we run something of a ‘skeleton operation’ over the school summer holidays.  Many of the congregation are on holiday, and so some of what we normally do becomes unnecessary or not possible.  That has been compounded this year by a move to a new venue for Sunday worship, and we have been gradually finding our feet.

Things have been different over the summer, but in some ways they haven’t.  We haven’t had a Sunday school, our music group has been smaller, for a couple of weeks we had no hot drinks after the service etc.  But we have still met together, we have still worshipped God, we have talked, we have prayed, we have loved one another.

All of which increases my growing sense that we make church too complicated.  How many of our congregation are there on a Sunday morning because they are on a rota?  How many do what they do because they feel they must, rather than because they want to?  How many of us spend more time during the week preparing for our Sunday worship than we spend actually worshipping?

It has become almost a truism that church can’t function without rotas, but I wonder if the opposite is the case.  What would a church look like where everyone was guided in our contributions by the Holy Spirit rather than a piece of paper?  Where if I feel inspired to bake biscuits for the post-service coffee I can do so, rather than instead forcing myself to do a flower arrangement because that’s what the rota says.

Yes, this might lead to church that is a little more spontaneous and a little less ‘polished’.  But surely that is a price worth paying for a church where people genuinely enjoy their contribution.  And it could be a good way to discover what people really value about the church community, and what is being done simply because we feel it should be.

Some examples of how this might work:

  • Get rid of the flower rota and encourage people to bring flowers as they feel inspired.  Some weeks there will be none (and some people may need encouraging that this is okay, and they don’t have to bring some just in case no-one else does). Other weeks the church may look like the Chelsea flower show, and even those who never normally notice the flowers will be inspired to glory in God’s creation.
  • No tea and coffee rota.  Not, I hasten to clarify, no tea and coffee!  In the church where I grew up the first person into the kitchen after the service put on the kettle, someone would throw some teabags into a pot, and if you wanted a drink you went through and made yourself one.  I recognise that was a congregation of only about 40, and yes we did keep a pot of powdered milk for the occasional week when no-one had realised that the people who usually brought fresh were on holiday, but by and large it worked – and there was always someone who had brought some biscuits.
  • And we don’t need to stop at practicalities such as flowers and coffee.  Even key parts of our service could be handled this way.  What if we encouraged everyone musical to turn up whenever possible with their instrument, or ready to sing in the worship group?  Depending on how your church structures worship you may need to still rota a leader for each week, and there is the risk that occasionally they may end up playing alone, but some churches may find musicians who they didn’t know they had.
  • And if we want to go all the way, why not dispense with a preaching rota, at least on occasions, and encourage everyone to reflect on the passage for the week and bring their Spirit inspired thoughts.  That of course is nothing new, it’s how the Brethren have often done things, and 1 Corinthians 14:26 would suggest it was familiar to the New Testament church.  But how many churches do it often these days?

Every congregation is different, and depending on the available gifts there may always need to be some rotas to ensure that essential areas are covered.  But I think there is a sound principle behind all this.  How do we do church in a way which means that people are coming joyfully to offer themselves in service in a ministry to which they feel called, and in a way which uses their gifts, rather than just to fill a gap on a rota for something which may not actually be necessary?

 

 

 

Taking the Christ out of Easter

Every Easter the news carries stories of complaints about the religious significance of Easter being pushed out by chocolate, bunnies, and flowers.  This year the issue seems to have gained particular momentum, helped by the alleged omission of the word “Easter” from advertising for a National Trust egg hunt, and the decision of the Prime Minister to speak out in response.

I’ll be honest, I’ve read few of the stories about this, but the ones I have followed predictable lines.  Well meaning Christian voices protesting that Jesus is the real meaning of Easter, being driven out by a secular agenda.

I would, of course, affirm completely that the central meaning of Easter is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But I disagree that this is being pushed out by other celebrations.  Jesus has long since been pushed out, past tense.  Easter for the vast majority of people is a secular holiday involving time with the family and lots of chocolate, on which these Christians do keep trying to impose a religious story.

As just one example of this, I occasionally complete online surveys, and four times this year I have been asked how I will celebrate Easter.  Of the tick-box options given, not one of those surveys included an option for attending church.

So how do we respond?  I would suggest that the answer is to stop trying to pretend that our religious remembrance and the secular chocolate-fest are one and the same.  They are two distinct events that happen to share a common date.  (Incidentally, I would suggest a similar approach for Christmas, but that’s another blog post).

What does that look like?  Well it doesn’t look like retreating into our church buildings to hold our religious observance hidden from the world.  But it does look like making our faith in the events of Easter known in a way that recognises that the Jesus story of Easter is completely alien to most people, and completely ‘other’ to everything they associate with the word Easter.  It looks like letting people celebrate Easter according to their understanding of what it means, without moaning that they haven’t recognised our understanding.  It looks like telling our own story, and celebrating our own events in a way which doesn’t try to pretend they are the same thing.  And it is important that we do tell our story, and continue to celebrate our faith in a public way, as the Christian story of Easter still has the power to transform lives.

Tomorrow I, along with others from my church and other churches in our town, will stand in the main shopping street and hand out free Easter eggs.  Each of these has a sticker saying, “Easter shows that God loves you” with a picture of a cross.  At first glance this could seem to contradict some of what I am saying here.  But for me it is important that this isn’t an attempt to browbeat others into seeing Easter our way, or to claim that they have got it wrong.  Rather, it is a means for us to communicate what for us as Christian people is central to our understanding of Easter, and the fact that we can do so in a way that recognises the other meaning of Easter simply makes it all the more powerful.

Lent

Tomorrow is the first day of Lent, the period of the year when Christians turn their minds and hearts to the coming Passiontide and Easter season.  Traditionally Lent is a time of reflection and penitence, 40 days mirroring the 40 days which Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted.  Often it has been a time to give something up as part of a process of refocussing of life on what really matters.  But increasingly it has become a time instead to take up something new and positive.

This duality of both consciously fasting and also positively refocussing is expressed in the following, words of Abbot Tryphon of All-Merciful Saviour Orthodox Monastery, Vashon Island, Washington, USA, which were sent to me by a member of our congregation:

Fasting is not just about food.

Fast from self-concern and feast on compassion for others.

Fast from discouragement and feast on hope.

Fast from lethargy and feast on enthusiasm.

Fast from suspicion and feast on truth.

Fast from thoughts that weaken and feast on promises that inspire.

Fast from shadows  of sorrow and feast on the sunlight of serenity.

Fast from idle gossip and feast on purposeful silence.

Fast from problems that overwhelm you and feast on prayer that sustains.

Fast from criticism and feast on praise.

Fast from self-pity and feast on joy.

Fast from ill-temper and feast on peace.

Fast from resentment and feast on contentment.

Fast from jealousy and feast on love.

Fast from pride and feast on humility.

Fast from selfishness and feast on service.

From what will you fast this Lent?  And on what will you feast?

Who we are, not what we do

The course on which I am currently studying is excellent.  But there is one module with which I, and many others, are struggling: Missional Leadership.  The focus of the syllabus is around how we can lead our churches to grow numerically and spiritually.  So far so good.  But the content is based round a number of models, mainly taken from secular management and fitted into a church context.  The problem is, they don’t fit.

People today are in many ways more individualistic than previous generations.  But they are also seeking relationship, and that relationship has to be genuine.  The Millennials and younger will see immediately if they are being put through a “sausage factory”.  When it comes to evangelism, discipleship, and church growth, one size doesn’t fit all any more, if it ever did.

To be fair to the college, none of the models are being held up as the solution to everything – they are being suggested as tools from which we can pick those that will help in our context.  The problem is, I’m not sure any of them do.  Because no model, tool, or strategy, however good, can replace genuine, loving relationship.  People are individuals, with their own needs, hopes, questions, and aspirations.  Jesus knew that, and he approached each person he encountered in a unique way which would deal directly with what they needed in their situation.  We don’t have his insight, so for us that will take costly time and effort to get to know people, but it is time and effort we must be prepared to commit.

Ultimately, what will attract people to Jesus Christ, will encourage them into relationship with him, and will enable them to grow and deepen that relationship, is not a model or strategy, however well thought out.  It is as they see him shining through us, see his love at work in our lives, and see that Christians have something they are lacking.  If we genuinely understood how much God loves us, began to grasp the depths of the grace he has poured out upon us, our lives would be transformed in such a way that we couldn’t help speaking of him, and our actions would naturally back that up in a way that could not be ignored.  In other words, people will be won to Christ not by what we do, but by who we are.

So my strategy for Missional Leadership?  Well actually it’s God’s strategy, that he’s been speaking to us as a church in many ways over the past few weeks.  Pray, pray, pray some more.  Pray that we will be filled with the Holy Spirit, transformed into the likeness of Christ, and so become people who constantly attract others to the Jesus who lives in and through us.