The subtle power of words

What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet, Act II, Scene 2

Shakespeare makes a valid point: the name that we give to something, the label we attach, does not fundamentally change its characteristics. A rose is still a rose, even when the people of Somalia call it “kacay” or the Romanians “trandafir”.  But that doesn’t mean that the labels aren’t important, and sometimes they can be created or chosen in order to subtly affect how we view the object in question.  In its mildest form this can be brand creators seeing a label for their product that captures the essence of its qualities; at the extreme it becomes Doublespeak, the deliberate contortion of the meaning of words described by George Orwell in his novel  1984.

There are two labels that are rapidly becoming part of our everyday language which I am attempting not to use, because I believe they are subtly changing our perception of reality.

The first is “social distancing.”  To me this is a complete oxymoron.  The definition of social in the OED is “needing companionship and therefore best suited to living in communities.”  In other words, the complete opposite of distancing.  A “socially distanced” meet up is impossible.  You can be social, or you can distance, you can’t do both.  Obviously there’s nuance here, and it is possible to get close enough to be social with someone while still keeping a level of physical distance from them, but by using the phrase are we beginning to undermine the concept that the full expression of being social beings requires closeness, physical contact, intimacy?

The second phrase, which I am even more determined not to use, is “new normal.”  Yes, the situation we find ourselves in now is new, unlike anything we have experienced in this part of the world for centuries, if ever.  But it is decidedly not normal, and to pretend that it ever can be is disingenuous.  I’ve deliberately kept this post non-theological, to hopefully appeal to a broad audience, but if I can be allowed one Bible verse:

The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.  I will make a helper suitable for him.”  Genesis 2:18, NIV

I don’t believe the early chapters of Genesis to be a scientific textbook, but I think they include important principles of what it means to be human, and this is one such.  We are social beings; being alone, being apart, being separated is not normal.  So our current situation where we are required to keep a level of distance from one another, to limit social interaction, to go about things in a different way may be necessary for the time being, but it will never, ever, be normal.

We all have difficult decisions to make over the coming weeks.  How much are we prepared to go along with the guidelines?  How do we weigh up our own needs with those of our families, our friends, and wider society?  How do we express our innate social natures in a way that is not irresponsible?  We will not all reach the same conclusions, and we must be careful not to be quick to judge others for doing what they believe is right and necessary.  But most importantly, lets think carefully about the language that we use, so we don’t lose sight of the horrific abnormality of what we are being asked to do, and of the central human need and desire for physical interaction with others.  I pray that it will not be too long before we can begin to express that again in all its fulness.

It’s OK not to be OK

Coronavirus has been a dominant theme in life and ministry over the past couple of weeks, and is set to become even more so.  Time will be spent dealing with the practical implications for family, the pastoral care of those in the church, and looking out for those in need in wider society.

Alongside this has been the nagging feeling that as a Minister I should have something more profound to input into this situation, but a lack of anything to say that hasn’t been said many times before.  Over the past couple of days, however, it has become clear what I must speak into this situation: It’s OK not to be OK.

The phrase is the subtitle of a book I read recently,  Honesty over silence, by Patrick Regan, which deals with how churches fail to cope with people expressing that things are not ok, and the way this isolates those with mental health difficulties, fractured lives, physical trauma and a whole manner of other situations.  He urges us to become communities that truly listen, allowing people to express themselves honestly without resorting to trite responses or making them think that their faith is somehow lacking for feeling as they do.

In the current situation with Coronavirus it needs to be said loud and clear: It’s OK not to be OK.  To feel anxious, uncertain, traumatised by everything that is happening is not a sign of week faith.  There is no need to be guilty for feeling you are not sure how you will navigate the difficulties this throws into you life, even if you feel they may be less than those faced by other people – they are your difficulties, and your feelings, and you must be able to express them.

Many people have expressed fear about the effects of the virus on “the most vulnerable.”  By which they usually mean the physically old or those with particular medical conditions who are most likely to fall seriously ill or die if they catch it.  This is of course important, but physical frailty is not the only vulnerability.  Just within my own congregation I can name those who are vulnerable to the virus in the following ways:

  • Those for whom long-term shutdown will mean temporary or permanent loss of income, leaving them unable to pay for their housing or feed their families.
  • Those whose mental health is being negatively affected by the uncertainty.  If you have never lived with mental illness or are naturally someone who thrives on spontaneity and risk, please never underestimate the percentage of people who only manage to get through life because they have spent years carving out routines which give them just enough control of their situation to be able to appear okay – routines which may suddenly have to be cast aside.
  • Those with young children for whom the prospect of long weeks of school closure will causes issues with work/life balance, problems with acquiring affordable childcare, strain on their marriage, extreme exhaustion, or affect their emotional and physical health.
  • Those who are separated from close family members for an indefinite period of time as a result of travel restrictions, or have had to cancel trips to visit loved ones and family.
  • Those who have family members who have contracted the virus, or who are in a very vulnerable group for doing so, who can be extremely concerned about the health of those family members.

Taking that list, and I’m sure it can be added to, most (maybe even all) of us could be seen to be vulnerable to this virus in one way or another.  Sending a message to anyone that they can’t express their concern and vulnerability because it’s “not as bad” as someone else’s is unhelpful, and goes against the example of Jesus who approached each and every individual as one who was in need in one way or another.

As the effects of this virus become even more acute, let’s remember that looking out for others is about more than not panic buying, or doing the shopping for the elderly lady next door – absolutely right as both of those responses are! – but about allowing each one the freedom to express their concerns, to be listened to, to be engaged with, and so hopefully to feel the love of others and the peace of Christ at this time.

Are we willing to be challenged?

I am a member of a Facebook group for church organists, and yesterday one of the members posted the lyrics of this hymn by John Bell and the Iona Community, which had apparently caused some consternation amongst the members of her choir that morning:

Inspired by love and anger, disturbed by need and pain,
Informed of God’s own bias, we ask him once again:
“How long must some folk suffer? How long can few folk mind?
How long dare vain self-interest turn prayer and pity blind?”

From those forever victims of heartless human greed,
Their cruel plight composes a litany of need:
“Where are the fruits of justice? Where are the signs of peace?
When is the day when prisoners and dreams find their release?”

From those forever shackled to what their wealth can buy,
The fear of lost advantage provoke the bitter cry:
“Don’t query our position! Don’t criticise our wealth!
Don’t mention those exploited by politics and stealth!”

To God, who through the prophets proclaimed a different age,
We offer earth’s indifference, its agony and rage:
“When will the wronged by righted? When will the kingdom come?
When will the world be generous to all instead of some?”

God asks, “Who will go for me? Who will extend my reach?
And who, when few will listen, will prophesy and preach?
And who, when few bid welcome, will offer all they know?
And who, when few dare follow, will walk the road I show?”

Amused in someone’s kitchen, asleep in someone’s boat,
Attuned to what the ancients exposed, proclaimed and wrote,
A saviour without safety, a tradesman without tools
Has come to tip the balance with fishermen and fools.

These words were felt to be “hostile” and “offensive”.  Interestingly, most of the organists in the group disagreed, and felt that this was a hymn which spoke into the modern world in a way which was direct and necessary.  Many commented that church should be a place where we expect to be challenged and disturbed, and that too often it has become somewhere where we just have our previous prejudices reconfirmed.

I would agree.  The Old Testament prophets were forever offending their audience, and the church sorely needs more of those prophetic voices into our 21st Century Western comfort – I believe John Bell is one such prophet for our day.  Paul even goes so far as to describe the cross of Jesus as offensive (Galatians 5:11).  The Christian faith is not a comfortable one, it strikes at the very heart of who we are and calls us to become something very different.  That is difficult; we don’t find change easy, we don’t like being told that we are wrong.  But if the church is not issuing that challenge then we are watering down the message of Jesus and failing to be a true witness to him.  To use the well-known phrase, we are to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

If I have any criticism of Bell’s hymn it is that is doesn’t go far enough with the first half of that phrase.  The idea hinted at in the final two lines, that in issuing this challenge Jesus also walks with us to help us fulfil it, could probably have done with an extra stanza to develop and reinforce.  But that is not to take away from the powerful effect of what he has written, which does offend, but in the right way of making us all think again about the society in which we live, and our part within it.

So let us come to church ready to be challenged, even offended, as we encounter the Jesus who works with us to “tip the balance” of our own lives, so that together we may turn the world upside down.

(I do recognise there is a valid question of whether hymns/songs are the best place within our worship to express this challenge, or whether using the same words as a poem or reflection may be more appropriate, but that is a tangential question to the main issue here).


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.