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Sunday, 1 February 2015

When the Person Who Really Wanted to be Welcomer Got the Job

Hello - lovely to see you!

I'm Amie, and I'm here to ensure you've got everything you need. Have you been to St Martha's before? You'll need a hymnbook, and the extra sheet. You don't really need any of the tax paperwork just yet - but obviously we hope you'll come here again. We're a really friendly fellowship.

Do you live in Little Tremlett? That's wonderful. Have you lived here long? And what's your name, young man? And your sister? Do you go to Great Tremlett School? You must have met my friend - she's a dinner lady. That's right - Aggie. Do you know if her phone is working at the moment? Oh.

And - I hate to ask, but just so I don't come across as all clumsy and insensitive later - are you married? Oh. That's great. I just wondered, as you don't look like little Danny. Remarkable. Do you have a lot of recessive genes in your family? Just asking - no offence.

I've been coming to St Martha's for nearly six weeks now. I moved here from Luton. Yes, Luton's lovely, but they're unfriendly people. Every time I walked down George Street, everybody was diving into shop doorways. You can't believe in a town that big that everybody would be so afraid of talking to other people. But in Little Tremlett, everybody seems so friendly. Although I'm worried that the beer they sell at the "Half Moon" must be quite strong. People always seem to be falling into hedges when I see them out in the street.

I'm here every Sunday, of course. Although I've got a week off in April. I'm hoping to go to Bournemouth with my husband. No, I'm not married. But I've got my eye on Rodney. Yes, he's a regular attender. Although it doesn't look like he's here today. I wonder where he is? I promised him last week that I'd make sure I always sit in his pew. He was ever so happy. Happy inside. He's a quiet type.

Anyway, anything you want to know - just ask. I'll keep an eye out in case you don't understand anything, or you're standing up or sitting down at the wrong time. Don't worry. I'll be watching you. Very carefully.....

Candlemas

In a traditionally Beaker piece of Christian/authentically traditional compromise, we are celebrating Candlemas today and Imbold tomorrow. Bad news for St Brigid, who will have to be transferred somewhere else. But then if you have your birthday on a major feast day, this sort of thing is gonna happen. It's a bit like having your birthday on Xmas day. But without the only-one-present problem, of course.

So the good news for me is I get to be all waffly about my favourite bit of scripture. And the bad news for Hnaef is that it's his job, tomorrow, to obtain a lactating ewe. And wonder how it fits in liturgically.

The essence of revisiting Scripture, re-reading it, is its re-application. We know the story until we know it and it knows us. With the feast at the other end of the Nativity Cycle, this is a problem. It's been so read, so repeated in Nativity Play and 9 Lessons And Carols, so sung, so provided 3-part specials of Only Fools and Horses, that we think we know it when we don't. It's been gift-wrapped, gilt-edged, recycled as imaginary Pagan feasts, blinged and glittered until we, like archaeologists, have to dig our way through the Little a Drummer Boy, Slade and It's a Wonderful Life strata, knock off the coating of Dickens and chocolate, and peer down to see what's there.

Whereas Candlemas doesn't have this problem. This is where the Messiah - having been revealed to the outcasts on the hillside - is now revealed to faithful Israel. And nobody makes a great song and dance about it - there among the Temple precincts, without a hint of snow or reindeer.

Simeon, you had one job to do. One simple job. To wait and be faithful. And now you're old and maybe your eyesight is failing, and yet it seems your faith isn't. And now here you are - gazing into the eyes of a special one. The priests, in their bustle of endless sacrifice, haven't noticed. Yet the whole world lays in your arms, as you look down at that baby. As your time ends, his is beginning - and with him will come the salvation of the world. Your eyes have seen the salvation - you have seen that the Lord saves. You had one job to do. You've done your one job. 

And Anna, you too - you've waited and prayed and been thankful. And maybe, knowing what Simeon was doing, you've caught on his coat-tails and wondered what he will see. And in your faithfulness you've served the Lord. And now - the one enthroned between the cherubim is enthroned in your old companion's arms. You have been faithful Israel - waiting for the true God to appear in his temple  - and here he is. The Shekinah is now the flesh of this human baby - revealing, yet also concealing, the God of Israel.

You've done your jobs. You've waited and seen the day of the Lord - not as a mighty king, but as the most potent, powerful, beautiful thing there is - a baby. You can go in peace, according to His word.

Nativity of Peter Sallis (1921)

Beaker Folk assemble in Liturgical Dress [ie two vests, shirt, sweater, waistcoat, suit jacket and raincoat. If it's a warm day.]


Archdruid: Cracking cheese, Grommit!

All: Mmm Wensleydale!

Archdruid: How you all keeping?

All: Bowel's playing up. God moves in mysterious ways.

Archdruid: You've got to remember, Compo, that Cyril's a Tory, and Tories can't stand it if you're filthy and obscene.

All: That's what the Labour Party's for.

Hnaef:  Wives never understand. They don't understand the masculine urge to test oneself to the limits in some alien environment.

All: That reminds me. I must go to the post office.

Blamire: It's an open question, life. Anything's possible. I mean, what do we really know about anything?

Clegg: Maybe we're already dead.

Compo: Tha what?

Clegg: Maybe we had to die to get here, from some other place.

Compo: Ah, give us a fag afore I get headache.

Blamire: So this is Heaven then. Or the other place.

Clegg: Well, it can't be the other place.

Blamire: Why not?

Clegg: In Yorkshire? Be further south, wouldn't it?

Beaker Folk file off into the hills, pushing bikes, baths, inflatable swans, motorised salad-strainers and mobile hot drink vending machines.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

50 Shades of Dawk

Richard Dawkins makes the news with his remarkable theory that we can cause theocratic dictatorships to fall apart through the power of rude and norty films.

We've been kicking around a bit of a "treatment", as I believe the word is, for the sort of Dawkins-approved erotica that would be effective. We've loosely based it on the plot of the Good Professor's (rather good actually) book, The Greatest Show on Earth.

In the film version we are proposing, a lusty Swedish housewife is bemused when, instead of the plumber, the dark handsome man at the door is a famous but sadly un-Nobel'ed scientist. When she asks him to talk dirty to her, he tells her at great length about the circuitous route of the vas deferens, and how - if Design really were Intelligent - the whole arrangement could be made vastly more efficient.

The Islamic State must be quaking in their Hush Puppies.

Debating Discipleship

"In the Synoptic Gospels and John, the word nearly always refers to The Twelve....
...... Scripture might therefore suggest that discipleship is not the best description of normative Christian life." (Angela Tilby, Church Times)

"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

The Proof-text of the Pudding

Revd Paul Williamson writes on the First Things blog about why he objected to the consecration of Libby Lane.

Now, liturgically I do feel a certain sympathy for him - after all, he was at that part of the service where the congregation is asked if they approve. And he didn't. So I guess he was within his liturgical rites. Albeit he's not somebody you'd want to see at the back of the church at your wedding.

That said, I'm not convinced of his logic. He tells us:
"In 1 Timothy 3.1,2 we are told that “the bishop is the husband of one wife.” To be a bishop was to be a man."

So firstly I look forward to Revd Paul Williamson turning up at the ordination of the next unmarried male bishop with the same objection. I believe there will be one along shortly.

But also, I'm confused. If Revd Paul Williamson is the kind of thorough chap I expect, to have read 1 Timothy he must have read through 1 Corinthians 6 on the way there. And there we find:

"If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!  Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers!  The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. "

But Revd Paul Williamson has brought so many legal cases against the bishops of the Church of England, that he has been declared a vexatious litigant, who has to get permission to sue anybody else.

So it seems to me that the literalness of the Bible depends upon the verse he's reading. You know, I can't read anybody's mind. But anyone would think there was something else behind the protest than just the Bible?

Friday, 30 January 2015

Not Totally Disagreeing with Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry is in the news again, then.

On this occasion for telling an Irish TV presenter that God is evil, mean-minded and stupid.

And I think he's got quite a point. A lot of the evidence is in his favour.

Stephen Fry envisages a situation where, contrary to his theological beliefs, he is in fact at the Pearly Gates in front of the Great Judge, and decides to take God to task:
"Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?  I'll say: bone cancer in children, what's that about? How dare you how dare you create a world where there is such misery that's not our fault? It's utterly, utterly evil."
To which, if it happens, the likely response from God - if God were capricious, mean-minded, and stupid - would be "because I made the rules up. Now go back as a tapeworm" If God really were like that, it would be no good telling God so - because there is no higher court to appeal to. If God really is evil, then that's how things are, and the best thing to do at the Pearly Gates actually would be to grovel and hope things didn't get worse. Thomas Hardy reflects on our ability to make God kinder than the evidence warrants and says: 
“Human beings, in their generous endeavour to construct a hypothesis that shall not degrade a First Cause, have always hesitated to conceive a dominant power of lower moral quality than their own; and, even while they sit down and weep by the waters of Babylon, invent excuses for the oppression which prompts their tears" -- Return of the Native
They didn't, of course. Or, at least, not exclusively. While weeping by the waters of Babylon, the Children of Israel were also calling blessings down upon anybody who smashed their enemies' children on a rock. But if you're holding God to a higher standard, then God isn't really God. If God has let you down compared to an absolute standard, then God is merely another creature, subject to judgement like ourselves.

Maybe that's why some Gnostics came up with the idea of the Demiurge. The fallible little god who makes the world, getting it wrong because the Demiurge isn't the real God. Or maybe there's an inferred difference between the god who wants Isaac slain, as opposed to the God of Jesus Christ. The god who made the dodo, not the one who resides in sublime glory among the blessed ones. Maybe this earth was just made by a lesser god.

To which the Hebrews said "no".  There's only one God. And that God - although we bow down to our Creator - can also be held to account on account of the divine nature. Take a psalm like number 74:
God, why have you turned away from us for so long?
    Why are you still angry with us, your own flock?
Remember the people you bought so long ago.
    You saved us, and we belong to you.
And remember Mount Zion, the place where you lived.
God, come walk through these ancient ruins.
    Come back to the Holy Place that the enemy destroyed.
The Jewish people have never been strangers to calling God back to God's own nature. Their appeal - in a bold way - is this. "God, you have left us down.  You've let the Covenant you have given to us down.And, do you know what? You've let yourself down." That's some nerve, right there, but combined with the faith that God will - somewhere, somehow . respond.

So I'm not totally disagreeing with Stephen Fry. This world is beautiful in places, awesome - in the real sense - at times. Some of us respond by imputing goodness and love to a perfect creator.

But I also want to say to God, so what about a child with bone cancer?  What about a child that never saw the light of the sun? The woman raped in an African civil war or the orphans of Syria? How can you stand by and watch and doing nothing?

And I guess I end up with the odd, unsatisfactory resolution that, though God is great and God's purposes are loving - yet somehow God actually is acting like an irrational gambler. That the bad things of this world are, in God's eternal arithmetic, a downside worth taking on in the short term. That somehow, in a way I can't understand, an eternity of God's presence is worth a finite amount of pain. It's even possible that, through God's free love and no goodness of his own, a complaining, ranting Stephen Fry will somehow one day be caught up in the bliss.

It's only through volcanic activity that life is on this planet. It's only because stars have died that I can write these words. It's only because creatures die that this world is not littered so tight that none of us can move. To scream at God because a child has cancer is totally reasonable. God has let us down - again. These are God's laws, this is God's universe. To have made a world where this could happen - is total recklessness. There's death, destruction and pain written into this world from beginning to end - and the pain seems to be a precondition of the life. Maybe that's how it is. Maybe that's not how it should be, but I lack the full picture so maybe I can't judge.

At the depths of human pain and misery, amongst the lowest that you can go, is a man in the prime of life - a young man, an intelligent one, one who can hold his own in debate against the best-educated they can throw at him. Flogged to within an inch of his life. Nailed through the hands and feet, and left to die on a pole, naked in the sight of anyone who passes by. And the reckless maniac of a God who created this cruel and hideous universe says "that's my boy". And that boy responds, "so why have you forsaken me?"

So why?

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Things that can be Weaponised

Chairs
Flower arranging tools
Grave digging equipment
Hymnals
Musical instruments
Boiled sweets (if you have a gallery)
Hat pins
Fear
Liturgical Dancing
Coffee rotas
Scripture
17th Century English
Children's activities
The Past
Money
Sermons
Sulking
Organisational Change
Former pastors
Gossip
Umbrage

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Reimagining the Church for a New Generation

That was a challenging time. We booked a Mini-Moot to discuss our vision for the church of the future.

This is key, bleeding-edge stuff. In a world where connection is more important than linear logic, where community is being rediscovered and restructured - how do we reconfigure the Gospel? We have to be bold - to break new ground - to pretend to see the future.

So we threw around some radical ideas. The challenge of the Millennials - the need for rebooting Gen X as the dreamers and visionaries instead of the embittered, cynical rebels. The need to be relevant to life on the street, to the places where it's happening. The old binary ways are melting - the new world is one of configurable identity; constant partial belonging; a new world where propositional language is replaced by prepositional attitudes.

So it was a hard time, a fun time, a visionary time. And I think we've got the arrangement of the seats about right in the end.