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).

 

What is going on?

A question that is being asked by many people in the United Kingdom, and indeed across the world, at this time.  The events of this week have made an already confused Brexit process appear even more in disarray.  One journalist used the word “omnishambles” and that’s probably as good a description as we could get.

No-one seems happy with where we are now, neither those who wanted to leave the EU or those who wanted to remain.  No-one seems to be in control, no-one really seems to know what is going on.  With two weeks to go until the date set for Brexit we still don’t know if, when, or how we will leave.

But there are some certainties about what is coming, and there are some responses which I believe Christian people must make at this time, irrespective of political persuasion.  Many of these are also valid responses for people without faith.  I offer a list below, and I may amend it or add to it over the coming days.

  • We must continue to pray for our politicians.  On Sunday I will be preaching on Romans 12, where Paul urges us to bless people rather than curse them, even when they are hurting us.  That doesn’t mean we can’t hate their decisions, and fight against them, but we must try (and it’s not easy!) not to hate them as people.  We must pray for wisdom, for a desire to do what is right for people rather than their own political games, but above all for honesty and integrity – two virtues which are sadly too often lacking in our culture.
  • Whatever happens, the poor and marginalised will lose out, because they always do.  The church must continue to be challenged by Scripture, which calls us time and again to care for those who are disadvantaged, on the margins, unable to speak for themselves.  You could argue that if we as a society had done that better we wouldn’t be in the current mess, but we must take particular care of those who are vulnerable, as at times of political uncertainty they are the ones most likely to be trodden on.
  • We must take a stand and say that racism and xenophobia are not acceptable, in any form.  Sadly over the past two years they have become an every day experience for many people in this country.  All people are made in God’s image, irrespective of the colour of their skin, where they were born, or what language they speak.  The love of God is not contained by our arbitrary geographical boundaries, and we must fulfil our Biblical mandate to welcome and love all people in Jesus name.
  • Pray for the island of Ireland.  I am just old enough to remember the troubles in Northern Ireland, but I didn’t really understand what was going on.  But those who were there know it is not something they ever want to go back to.  Pray for continued peace.  But it’s not just about that; even if there is peace, any closing of the border will cause serious economic issues on both sides, so we must pray that a solution can be found.
  • Above all, remember this is not just about us.  The events of the next few weeks will affect UK citizens in the UK, UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU, EU citizens living in the UK, the jobs and livelihoods of thousands, and who knows what else.  In this, as in everything, we must resist any tendency to protection of our own interests, but instead seek what is right for the whole of God’s creation.

There’s a few things to be going on with!  As I say, I may add to this as we watch the continuing unfolding of events over the coming days.  If you have suggestions of other ways we as Christian people should respond then please let me know.

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.

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.

Do we want a Christian Prime Minister?

With the Conservative leadership election under way the Christian press and social media have kicked into action.  Some are celebrating the fact that all the candidates profess the Christian faith.  Others are trying to reach a judgement on which of them is the ‘most Christian’.  Lots of prayers for God to raise up a “Godly Christian leader.”

But is that what we need?  Before the referendum a clergy colleague of mine cautioned, “Which of us would have voted for the Emperor Nero?”  Yet it was under Nero that the church was persecuted, Paul was imprisoned, and as a result the gospel spread to the ends of the earth far more quickly than it was doing in more peaceful conditions.

And the same is true in the modern world.  One of the fastest growing Christian populations in recent times is in Communist China, where the church is still oppressed, greatly limited in its activities, and under the constant watch of a suspicious government.  Meanwhile in the West, with freedom of religion and a succession of leaders who have claimed to be Christian, the church is declining numerically and to a large extent in spirituality too.

Which is not to say I would suggest praying for an oppressive dictator to lead this country.  It is just to question whether an active Christian leader would necessarily be the most advantageous for the Christian gospel.

I thank God when our political leaders act according to gospel values.  In recent days some leaders have taken a stand to engage with and welcome minorities in our society – most notably Nicola Sturgeon (Atheist) and Sadiq Khan (Muslim).  Some of our leaders seem genuinely concerned for the plight of the poor and working for a more equal society – at the lead here are Nicola Sturgeon (Atheist) and Jeremy Corbyn (Atheist).  Meanwhile a previous Christian leader, Tony Blair, has been condemned for involving the UK in an unnecessary and possibly illegal war.

There are of course Christian leaders doing good things too.  He doesn’t get much air-time but I like a lot of what I hear from Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats and Evangelical Christian.  But the point is that selecting a leader who will be best for the gospel, the church, and the country, is far more complicated that looking at their self-declared religious affiliation.  How a person lives and governs is more important than where they say their loyalties lie.

So I am not praying for a Christian Prime Minister.  What I am praying for is the person who God knows will be the best for the cause of his gospel.  I pray for a leader who will work for justice, equality, and peace, the values of the Kingdom of God, whether or not they can be found in a pew on Sunday morning.