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Epiphany: At the hour of our death… January 6, 2014

Posted by Phil Groom in Death, Life, Theological Reflection.
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2 comments

SOMETIMES the truth hits you right between the eyes and leaves you reeling. That’s epiphany, I guess, and this was one of those moments for me, especially in this year of 2014, the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

From the funeral service of an old soldier:

At the hour of our death, it is to Jesus alone that we have to justify our life. He will not look at our accomplishments, he will look at our wounds, because he came not to be our judge but to be our saviour. No one is so lost that they cannot be redeemed by Christ.

There will be a final reckoning for all of us, of that I am sure: but that reckoning will not be by what we have achieved; rather by the wounds we have borne. So many lives lost, but not one wasted: by human standards, their wounds and the price they paid may well appear wasted; but to the One who sees all and knows all, those wounds are both salvation and healing. Judgement overturned, mercy in its place; or as James the Apostle put it, “Mercy triumphs over judgement.”

If you look back over your life and see only a string of failings, do not be afraid: for the One to whom we must give account does not weigh us up by our successes or failures; he sees the scars inflicted along the way. Do not despair at your failings, gentle reader, and above all do not be ashamed of your wounds: they are your salvation:

He will not look at our accomplishments, he will look at our wounds, because he came not to be our judge but to be our saviour.

Your Certificate of Vocation May 8, 2012

Posted by Phil Groom in Christianity, Church, Life, Theological Reflection.
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7 comments
Vocation is not a career: it is a life surrendered to God - Martyn Percy, 29/4/2012 (pdf, A4 landscape; 1.2MB)

Vocation is not a career: it is a life surrendered to God – Martyn Percy, 29/4/2012

As heard on BBC Radio 4, Sunday Worship for Vocations Sunday, 29th April 2012, from Ripon College, Cuddesdon: Called Together (transcript differs slightly from the broadcast programme, but captures the essence).

Shadow Dancing: A conversation about faith, hope and gay love in the church April 28, 2012

Posted by Phil Groom in Christianity, Current Affairs, Life, Theological Reflection.
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18 comments
An Evangelical Apology

An Evangelical Apology

IT’S UNUSUAL, I GUESS, for a conversation to start with someone else’s apology to a third party, but that’s where this one started, courtesy of my good friend the Revd Kevin Ellis, who posted an apology to one of his fellow priests for the way that some evangelicals have treated her as a gay Christian: An Evangelical Apology

It’s a exercise in grace that many evangelicals would do well to learn from, rejecting homophobia, inviting dialogue, acknowledging difficulty. Kevin does not hide his personal discomfort with respect to his friend’s sexual orientation, but rather than allow that discomfort to control his attitude, he sets it aside and reaches out to build bridges; and whilst he does not spell this out directly, his post highlights the tragedy, irony and contradiction in the typical evangelical response to homosexuality: condemnation. The very people who name themselves heralds of good news — for that is what being an evangelical must surely mean above all else — have all too often become heralds of bad news as they seek to exclude those with whom they disagree, those whose lifestyles do not meet their approval.

I thanked Kevin for his post; a couple of others commented; and the following conversation emerged. My further thanks to Kevin and Stephen, my conversation partner, for their kind agreement to my reposting the conversation here. Obvious typos and misspellings have been corrected, but no other changes have been made.

Stephen J March, April 20, 2012 at 9:10 pm

Kevin, as is often the case, your grace and love are exemplary of the Christ we love and serve. However whilst your position has much to commend it fraternally, pastorally it leaves much to be desired. For those who give leadership to the Body of Christ, a clear position on this issue, making clear what scripture teaches is essential. Personal relationships can operate in grace-filled obscurity, leadership of a community of faith cannot.

For myself, regardless of how much I feel for my brothers and sisters who struggle with homosexual drives, I cannot see any way in which the practice of a homosexuality is posible unless we disregard completely the 7 or so biblical texts which clearly speak against it. For me there is no way we can re-interpret these texts without doing serious violence to the whole of the exegetical process. This causes me much pain, but I cannot believe that God is confused about what is best for human society. As I would stand against contemorary mores for a biblical view of marriage and heterosexual continence outside of marriage, I feel bound to do the same against the allowance of homosexual practice for those who wish to be followers of Christ. Certainly I deplore all hatred and oppression. I am also highly sceptical of mooted “re-orientation” programs. Human sexuality is something that still defies the best efforts of genetic science and psychology to come up with a globally comprehensive survey. So I am clearly aware that I am expressing an exegetical view that would require life-time celibacy for homosexually inclined Christians. However, I cannot disregard Scripture on this, or any other area. It is a hard teaching, but if we would be faithful to the love of God expressed in Christ we must be faithful to all Scripture – even those parts that hurt or cause confusion.

Stephen J March, April 21, 2012 at 8:46 am

On further reflection I am reminded that the first temptation of human-kind was to doubt that the limits placed upon their freedom by God, were for their benefit. Our proto-ancestors were convinced by the lie that God was acting thusly from an unworthy motivation. We know what followed.

However, this still remains the hardest temptation to resist. I cannot but class the contemporary movement to reject the divinely ordained limits on human sexuality – both in scope and type – as the same type of temptation.

Kevin Ellis, April 21, 2012 at 9:04 am

Actually, Stephen, I do not disagree with you. I was not offering a comprehensive theology; but responding (a) to a particular encounter and (b) to some extremely offensive comments made by some British evangelicals, who should have known better. For that offensiveness, I was offering my own small apology.

Phil Groom, April 21, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Grace knows no limits, Stephen. Grace steps over the lines that we draw in the sand and rewrites the rules: God’s radical action changes everything. Everything. Everything we thought we knew about right and wrong, about judgement, sin and the devil … it’s something Jesus’ opponents could never get their heads round when he went around upsetting their precious applecarts, touching the unclean, associating with prostitutes and tax collectors, gaining himself a reputation as a drunkard and a glutton … but seriously, what else should we expect from a man who starts his ministry by turning water into wine at a party where the guests had already had too much to drink? Hmmm…

Me, well, I’ve read those half dozen or so Bible passages that seem to damn gay sex; I’ve read all those others that condemn the seemingly endless variety of sexual misdemeanours that our dear old human species is capable of dreaming up; and the more I read the more I see one clear message emerging: God loves faithfulness. That’s the overriding context, the central message from beginning to end — from Adam & Eve’s betrayal of God’s trust in Eden through to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus in Gethsemane, and everywhere in the Law, the Histories and the Prophets, right through the New Testament letters into Revelation: unfaithfulness sucks, kills and destroys.

The Bible simply knows nothing of faithful same-sex relationships: what it addresses is an idealised heterosexual world, and in that world, the sex acts it condemns are those which betray faithfulness in that context. But that idealised world never existed, hence, for instance, the concession of divorce; and at this point I don’t think I can say it better than Trace James in another, parallel conversation:

I think we can say without question there were things in the ancient society of Israel which fell well short of the creation norms for generous, fruitful, shalom-bringing practice which were outlawed in Israel. Some we understand clearly and others, not so much.

Mixing the threads of two cloths, say cotton and linen, in the same garment was among them. A teenager who refused to receive correction was also stoned and his body was left outside the camp as an example to others was another.

We probably all know we live under a different covenant from that of Moses and Israel and that what was so in the early chapters of the great story does not always work so well in later chapters, say, for instance, polygamy? So what can we bring forward from the earliest chapters of our story into our present time?

It is clear to me that the original norm for married life was one man with one woman for a lifetime. And we know creation, as it is, contains many broken situations. Some things, apparently, can be mended and others cannot.

I usually make everyone hate me when I say this yet I cannot see another way to say it, at least not yet: Homosexuality, like warfare, is apparently not only not a normative condition; it is also apparently not something which can be mended in the here and now. Perhaps we will see an end to war some day prior to the consummation of all things but it seems unlikely because situations do come to pass, such as despots like Q’daffi and Hussain, murdering their own people, situations which make war, after all other recourses have been exhausted, a better choice than the status quo. So I ask, are not committed unions between persons of the same sex a vastly more healthy circumstance than the deadly promiscuity of “the gay lifestyle?” While almost nothing is said about what we now call homosexuality in the Bible, a great deal is said about promiscuity and none of it is good. So, given violence, war may be better than some other choices. And given promiscuity, is not marriage a better choice for everyone than deadly intimacy?

The problem, of course, and the reason why most conservatives who have actually thought this thing through are so opposed to this “grace” solution in this broken situation is the knowledge that what becomes “lawful” becomes “normal” in the eyes of most (low information?) people. That is a circumstance which, I think, cannot be helped.

Of one thing I am sure: as Christians we are utterly disobedient if we continue to push God’s same-sex oriented people away from our fellowships.

- From a comment on Peter Kirk’s Hypocrisy and Gay Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage

Stephen J March, April 21, 2012 at 10:48 pm

I agree entirely with you Phil that grace knows no limits. I agree entirely that revelation is progressive and that we see at times God ordaining a model for patriarchial society in the Old Testament, both the beginning of the Old Testament and the New Testament reveal this temporary model as being far from ideal – but perhaps it was the best that was possible at that time. Certainly it was far more protective of women and children that any of the contemporary models for society.

I also understand your focus on committed faithfulness in sexual relationships and would agree with you that this is certainly what God shows as being crucial and the key criterion in heterosexual unions.
However you extrapolate God’s desire for faithfulness in heterosexual relationships to infer that God must consider that faithfulness in homosexual unions is preffarable to promiscuity and therefore God approves of such unions and (hence presumeably that the Church should recognise them and bless them with some kind of marriage).

I don’t follow the logic of your extrapolation. I don’t see that the forms of sexual perversion condemned in Scripture are so condemned simply because they express unfaithfulness. The texts themselves do not seem to me to make that connection. The texts themselves seem rather to state that certain expressions of sexual behaviour are condemned by God, presumably because they are not good for human beings – if we believe that God knows best (surely the baseline belief of those who would call themselves Christian).

Your remarks about some of the Levitical laws are significant. When we cannot see the logic of a divine interdiction it is important to identify the cultural context that it speaks to. So doing often reveals that many of the ‘bizarre’ (to us) Levitical codices are actually focused on refuting contemporary superstitious practices, or pagan religious practices of the surrounding nations.

In the New Testament, and in the practice of succeeding generations of Chirstians, it is clear that they have not felt themselves bound to follow these Levitical Laws because in the contemporary context those particular dangers no longer exist.

However Scriptural faithfulness calls us to look behind these laws and identify the principles which are eternally valid and still demand our obedience.

When we look at the condemnations of homosexual practice in Scripture, it does not seem in any way clear to me that we can treat these texts in the same way i.e. that the underlying principle concerns faithfulness and that it is this we should focus on. Whilst homosexual acts were sometimes a part of pagan religous practice, these texts do not in any way seem limited to this application.

I cannot find any way of treating these texts in this way without doing violence to the exegetical process that the Christian church has upheld and developed over 2000 years.

If we reject these texts, then it seems to me we are also able to reject any other biblical text that we find difficult to live with.

I feel the pain of this position. I regret the anguish that it wauses. I wish there were some way that I could say, don’t worry it is not serious, carry on. I do not see homosexual practice as more or less serious than any other form of human disobedience towards God. And I have enough of my own weaknesses to contend with, that I have neither the energy nor the the will to start telling other Christians how they should live.
But if we are to regard the Bible as God’s revelation of his will for humankind, which I fully believe, then our human sexuality must also come under the authority of that revelation. I cannot see how accepting homosexual practice, even in the context of life-long committment, can be coherent with God’s revelation of his will for human kind.

We either choose to stand above Scripture or below it.

Phil Groom, April 22, 2012 at 4:36 am

Alternatively, we stand alongside scripture, in that long, long line of those who have wrestled with, and continue to wrestle with, the ongoing revelation and our own experience of God at work. The Anglican tradition, to which I belong, has never embraced the approach of sola scriptura but rather looks to scripture, reason and tradition … and, thankfully, has shown willingness to change when tradition becomes folly!

I do not reject those texts, but I do not give them a weight that they will not bear in the overall context of my life and faith, which exists in the real world where I — like Kevin — see God blessing the work and ministry of gay Christians.

I find myself like Peter in prayer: but Lord, these things are unclean. I have never… but the Lord gently replies, What God has made clean, you must not call profane.

When the Lord indicates that it’s time to move on, who am I to disagree? We do not live under the authority of scripture but under the authority of God, from whom scripture obtains whatever authority it may or may not have.

Stephen J March, April 22, 2012 at 8:38 am

When God opened Peter’s eyes to see that Gentiles were now to be included in God’s grace, it was not in direct contradiction to what God had been saying for the whole of human history about the gentiles.

We see from God’s first encounter with Abraham that the Gentiles were to be included in the orbit of God’s grace. That the Jews had failed in their mission, or failed to comprehend their mission, was the issue. The Joppa event was God re-stating what he had already made clear to Abraham. He loves Gentiles.

So the argument that we can now disregard what God has said about homosexual practice is only valid if we can see earlier evidence in God’s revelation to man that would indicate the same mechanism at work.

Unfortunately, from the first reference to homosexual practice in the Old Testament, to the last refence in the New there is no difference in how homosexual practice is viewed. It is always deprecated and held up as something displeasing to God.

Your comment about God blessing practicising homosexual priests (I assume this is what you mean) can be answered by your very first response to this subject. Grace. God uses who he uses. This does not condone their lives, or even confirm their holiness (something I am very aware of in my own ministry). A survey of Scripture makes it very clear that God only uses broken and often rather dirty tools, to do his work.

Phil Groom, April 22, 2012 at 2:45 pm

… and those tools with which — or rather, through whom, because we’re talking about real people, real lives here — God chooses to work, let no human set aside as unfit for purpose; which, sadly, is what many Christians seem to seek to do.

The problem with your argument, Stephen, from my perspective, is that you’re still reading those texts through a heterosexual lens, from a perspective in which homosexual behaviour can only exist as an aberration: any engagement in same-sex activity can only constitute unfaithfulness, betrayal of what was regarded as normative behaviour. That idealised heterosexual society never existed, any more than the society in which all debts were to be cancelled in the year of jubilee existed … indeed, any more than the idealised covenant community, wholly compliant with all the statutes of Leviticus, ever existed…

We do not live in that society: we live in a society that has learnt — or rather, is still learning — the uncomfortable and painful lesson that same-sex attraction is a normal part of being human: whether people are born that way or develop that way is a moot point; but in attempting to force gay people to live outside the covenant community — when God has quite clearly welcomed them in — is to repeat the error of the older brother in the tale of the prodigal son.

The church puts gay people in a Catch 22 situation: you can’t have sex, it says, because you’re not married; and you can’t marry because you’re gay.

What is sin? Is it not that which harms another or harms oneself by driving a wedge between the self and God? Same-sex activity in the context of a loving, faithful relationship quite clearly does neither: it is sexual activity outside of such a relationship that does harm; that is the behaviour that scripture consistently condemns.

Last but not least, nor would I equate what the biblical writers say with what God has said: it is not a question of, as you put it “disregard[ing] what God has said about homosexual practice”, but rather of reading what the biblical writers say in its historical, cultural and social context, then asking ourselves, in the light of our own experience, whether or not those things can be applied to our situation. I guess that you and I have somewhat different approaches to the question of hermeneutics…

Stephen J March, April 22, 2012 at 3:20 pm

I am finding this exchange very thought-provoking and I want to thank you Phil for taking the time to share this with me. Your perspective is very helpful and illuminating and I appreciate it.

My perspective is that we should seek to choose leaders for the Christian community who best evince a life of holiness. Certainly they will never be perfect, but they should at least be honestly seeking to live lives faithful to the divine will for humankind as globally revealed in Scripture.

The comment you make about “lenses” is always a conversation finisher, because we can never be other than we are – no matter how hard we try. So am I a heterosexual – yes. Does that make it impossible for me to exegete Scripture – I cannot believe this is so.

Scripture must have a meaning that relates to its obvious reading – although certainly deeper and fuller readings may subsequently become evident. However those Scriptures whose obvious reading condemns homosexual practice, seem incapable of any reinterpretation that would read them as being in favour of it. Such as position, in my view would be illogical and undermining of any exegetical treatment.

Sin is disobedience to the revealed will of God for human kind. Sin is always primarily directed against God – the human aspects are always secondary.

It seems that if we wish to approve of homosexual practice we can do so either by so twisting and straining the very meaning of words to the degree that we destroy any possibility of exegetical science giving us access to God’s truth revealed in Scripture, or we must deny the divine origin of Scripture, in which case elements which “dérange” can simply be regarded as human ‘errors’ and easily removed.

I find both of these unacceptable, as for me they undermine the Christian faith at its most basic level. It has always been intrinsic to Christianity that God has revealed himself and his will for human kind in the revelation that we have access to in scripture.

But thank you again for your helpful insights and thought-provoking responses.

God bless you.

Phil Groom, April 22, 2012 at 5:51 pm

and my thanks to you, Stephen, for taking the time to engage with me here, for forcing me to think things through more thoroughly (and thanks, of course, to Kevin, for hosting the conversation).

I sincerely hope that recognising the lenses through which we see things isn’t a conversation finisher: it certainly wasn’t intended to be! To quote George Herbert,

A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye,
Or if he pleases, through it pass
And then the heaven espy

That’s always going to be a challenge, of course, and none of us will ever see except as “through a glass, darkly” this side of eternity. I myself am constantly asking questions… and I’ve only reached the point where I am now after a long journey, constantly asking myself, is this right? I find myself like Jacob, wrestling with God through the night — and God smites me on the hip but.I.will.not.let.go. until he blesses me, stubborn fool that I am, and I walk away limping… limping but blessed by the encounter…

I agree: we need to engage with the text that we have; any attempt to force it to say the opposite of what it does is folly. Nor should we simply sweep difficult texts aside: that too is folly. We need to read with open hearts, ready to change … and that is so, so difficult when everything within us cries out against it…

On sin … I ask what is “the revealed will of God for human kind”? Is it not that we live in love? In faithful relationships?

Some journeys we take with our heads; others with our hearts. This, for me, is a journey of the heart, into the heart of the God who tells us, through Jesus, that ultimately these questions of gender, of who is married to whom, will be no more, for we shall be like the angels, whatever that means… but for now, we must live in the world we find ourselves in…

Perhaps I can leave you with a link to a piece written by my friend, Emma Jayne: Notes from a Gay Christian Woman

Blessings to you, too.

Stephen J March, April 23, 2012 at 9:17 am

You explain very clearly the reality of our struggle to walk with God, I like the reference to Jacob. I am very much in that place too.

Thank you for your blessing.

You are certainly correct that love is the fundamental calling of human kind – firstly to love God and as an expression of that love, and empowered by that love, to love our fellow man. That is certainly more than enough challenge for me to face in one lifetime. I’m a long way from having ‘cracked’ that particular nut. I struggle on…

I also agree that the future state of those who turn to God – whatever it may be – does not seem to be one in which gender survives. That is a mystery that I cannot get my head around, but I trust that the God who gave me this wonderful life – even in a body which is broken and marred by sin – will give me something far better when sin can no longer twist and maim his creation.

I have read the linked article. It seems an angry article. I assume that Emma has been horribly hurt by her Christian brothers and sisters. I can only feel for her and pray that she would know God’s peace and healing.

However her arguments are not convincing to me of her position.

She seems to infer that it is Christians who are making the rules about inappropriate sexual behaviour, that they have decided what is right or wrong and invented an Angry God, to stand behind these rules.

Christian faith is surely the opposite of that. It is a response to the God who has revealed to us the reality of himself (his total character – which expresses righteous anger, justice, mercy, love, compassion etc.) and the reality of human existence, in particular the reality of sin (in all its forms), with its savage seriousness. It is this sin that Christ comes to liberate us from, its corrosive effects on human life and disastrous consequences for the life to come – without Christ we were doomed.

Emma points out that Christ’s ultimate word on a specific situation where sin was brought to his attention was “Go and sin no more”. In the context that Emma cites, this word was addressed to the woman who was guilty of sin – not to the accusing crowd – which rather defeats her argument. Why the crowd dispersed is rather a mystery. Some believe that Christ started to write a list the sins which the individuals in the crowd were guilty of. The elder (perhaps less hot-headed and more aware of their human brokenness, were the first to get the point and to slope off, convicted and chastened). But surely Christ’s words to the woman are words to us all, to all Christians – of all sexual orientations – we are called to seek holiness, to be holy because God is holy. “Go and sin no more” is our daily challenge.

Perhaps moot question is “How is sin revealed to us?” Do we decide for ourselves individually what is wrong and right? Do we vote and let the majority decide?

The Judaeo-Christian tradition is one that holds that it is God who has revealed to us what sin is. Generally, it consists in opposition to God and to God’s will for mankind. More specifically the Scriptures, which Jews and Christians have always believed to be God inspired, give us clear examples of what God’s will is for human kind in the specifics of a middle-eastern patriarchal culture.

The challenge of the Church has been to seek to understand these texts and to obey them. Where their meaning is unclear, due to contextual differences, we nonetheless believe them to contain serious truth, because we hold them to be inspired by God. Thus we have developed tools, such as the ‘ladder of abstraction’ exegetical method, which help us identify and apply the eternal principles these texts reveal and then to apply these principles to contemporary life. Doing so we find that these texts still speak with a profound force because humanity hasn’t at all changed and we face exactly the same struggles and issues merely expressed in different forms.

My great obstacle in seeking to find a means that one might allow homosexual practice for those who would be followers of Christ, is that I cannot find any intellectually honest way of de-classifying homosexual practice as sin. The texts that speak of homosexual practice in the Bible do not seem to me to be obscure of meaning or application, or to be so narrowly culturally tied that they require massive reinterpretation – a reinterpretation which for a positive homosexual theology must reverse their original meaning.

That is my struggle.

Phil Groom, April 23, 2012 at 12:36 pm

I share that struggle. To me, however, it is not a question of “declassifying” but rather one of … and here I’m struggling to find the right word … perspectivising…

I refer back to my earlier comment, where I quote Trace James. The vast majority of Christians would agree that killing people is wrong; but sometimes warfare becomes necessary as a lesser evil and people — innocent people — are killed, and the church has developed a very convoluted “just war” theory to allow this. Jesus spoke very plainly about divorce: to marry a divorced person is to commit adultery; yet Christians have found their way clear to accommodate divorced and remarried people into the church — even into positions of leadership — without requiring them to live in celibacy or to split up. Jesus also specifically forbade taking oaths, a teaching reiterated by James: “Let your yes be yes and your no be no” — yet the first thing the C of E requires of its ministers is to take oaths of allegiance holding the very book in which that act is forbidden! This goes directly against Jesus’ own teachings yet people do it.

Now we have a situation about Jesus said not a single word: same-sex relationships … and we have people living in faithful, committed same-sex relationships, something that none of the biblical passages under discussion — that no biblical passages — address.

Upon what basis do we accommodate soldiers, remarried divorcees and wilfully disobedient oath-takers, yet refuse such accommodation for our LGBT brothers and sisters?

And I am again driven back to that question: what, exactly, is wrong with the same-sex activity that the biblical writers condemn? It is precisely that which is wrong with all sexual activity outside of marriage; it constitutes betrayal and unfaithfulness: it is not the activity itself but that which the activity represents.

So I find myself with at least two reasons for supporting marriage equality:
1. First, I am not convinced that those biblical passages that appear to condemn same-sex activity do in fact condemn it;
2. Second, even if same-sex activity is sin, grace is greater, mercy triumphs over judgement, and I can see no justification for allowing grace in the cases of warfare, divorce/remarriage and oath taking whilst refusing it here.

To condemn same-sex relationships simply because they are same-sex relationships is to condemn an orchid as a weed merely because it is growing in the wrong place. We need to ask deeper questions: what is a weed? Is a weed really just a plant growing in the wrong place? Should we not rather take that orchid and plant it where it will flourish?

As for Emma’s story: it is a story to be read with the heart rather than the head; and as I read it, it is seeing Jesus turn things around, taking the anti-gay hatred into himself, the intentional reversal as he addresses the crowd rather than the accused with those words, “Go and sin no more”, that gives the story its power. Jesus refuses to condemn her; then neither shall I.

Stephen J March, April 24, 2012 at 8:15 am

Dear Phil, I do want to thank you for your response. It has provoked many hours of reflection on my part and I am grateful for that. If I can respond to you points in turn.

You talk about God’s command not to kill, and yet you rightly point out that Christians have nonetheless been involved in killing and have even developed a theology which supports killing in specific situations. It seems to me that your argument is rather – we can set aside God’s clear command not to do something when it becomes inconvenient.

If “thou shalt not kill” was the only word God speaks about killing then your argument might have validity. However, we find many other texts that speak of the taking of human life. God’s word to the Old Covenant community was that some sins were so destructive to godly community that death was to be meted out to those who committed them. God also sent his people into war. God also laid obligations of civil protection on leaders, who were required to put their lives on the line to defend their people – like a good shepherd to protect his sheep from predators.

Thus the just war theology is not a theological construct created to put aside the clear teaching of Scripture, but rather an attempt to take seriously the whole of Scripture.

Even so, as you are aware, the divine injunction on the taking of human life was from the start held very seriously by the Church. In the early centuries, with the reality of forced military service, many men would delay their baptism until after that service, for fear that they would be forced to take life unjustly, for such a serious (mortal) post-baptismal sin might jeapordise their salvation.

One might take issue with their theology but it certainly shows that they were still taking very seriously the divine injunction on the taking of human life. Even today many Christians would rather die themselves than take another human life.

Thus I don’t agree that this argument supports your contention.

Your second point tries to infer the same argument from Christ’s interdiction on the taking of oaths. Jesus said don’t swear oaths. We swear oaths. Thus we can disregard the clear teaching of Scripture when we want.

However, if we examine the case in point, Jesus was not addressing primarily the taking of oaths, but rather the contemporary issue of an endemic untrustworthiness of a man’s words. (One can’t but help thinking of contemporary ‘spin-doctoring’).

It appears that lying and false witness were so prevalent that a man’s words could only be counted on as even an approximation of the truth (of his testimony, or of his true intentions) if accompanied by the most serious of oaths whereby a man called down the most blood-curdling wrath of God upon himself should he be lying, or subsequently break faith.

Christ’s point is that a Christian should just speak the truth, period.

If you look at the sacramental vows, you find that we are required to make a promise, to simply give our word. We do not add any statements such as, “And may God put out my eyes, cause my entrails to rot inside my body and kill my wife and children, should I fail to keep my word”.

In effect we are obeying Christ’s command rather than putting it aside. Our simple word is our bond. Thus I do not agree that this supports your argument.

Your third point is the most moot in my opinion. You refer to divorce and seem again to infer – the although the Bible condemns it – Jesus himself very specifically – yet the Church has now accepted it. Hence, we can put aside the clear teaching of Scripture should we so wish to.

It is helpful to look at the history of this issue in the Christian Church. If we regard the history of the Church we see that it was Christ’s clear teaching that held sway at the beginning and for several centuries. Divorce was not allowed, period.

However, with the involvement of the Church with the human power structures there came pressure upon Church leadership to allow kings to put aside wives, often for the reason that they were no longer politically or militarily convenient.

In its weakness the Church acceded to these pressures and a new situation was created whereby those with wealth and power could, in return for appropriate favours/support, pretty much get their marriages annulled whenever they wanted to. In recent decades we have seen this willingness to recognise divorce extended to all, not just the rich.

It will be clear to you that I do not regard the acceptance of divorce as a positive development. For me Christ’s clear teaching is that “God hates divorce”. Jesus taught us that the Old Covenant allowed divorce only because human sinfulness made it the lesser of two evils.

Jesus further pointed out that marriage is not merely the physical union of two people (which can be broken), but also the spiritual union of two people (which cannot). Therefore whilst Christ, who again recognised that in the most extreme case of betrayal – adultery – perhaps divorce might be the least worst option. This did not, and could not, undo the spiritual union of the marriage partners. Thus re-marriage was not possible – the partners were not single spiritually thus any subsequent relationship, could not be regarded, or blessed, as a marriage union.

The driving force that has led the Church to accept divorce has not come from a desire to take seriously the clear teaching of Christ, but rather because the Church has found itself increasingly distant from the values and practices of civil society. Western civilisation, having abandonned Christian faith, is in the process of removing the laws and statutes that had their foundation in that faith.

So I think this is a very moot point for our consideration of homosexual practice. Should the Church simply jettison elements of its faith when they clash with the majority view of (a now lagely) pagan Western society, or should the Church maintain the biblical understandings, practices and beliefs that it has held throughout its history?

It seems to me that the Church has been so willing to bend over backwards to accommodate contemporary mores, that it has gone to the trouble of removing its own backbone. Certainly this has made us flexible, but at the cost of ever being able to stand up for anything anymore.

The Church has abandoned the Christian understanding of marriage as a life-long physical and spiritual union of two persons (and God), and taken on board the contemporary societal model, whereby marriage is a temporary contract, breakable at any time, by either partner, for no reason. I do not see this as something to celebrate or to take as a model for further action.

It seems to me that the Church needs to stand for the power of the gospel to transform sinful lives, not that the priority of the gospel should be to condone sinful lives.

I would like to suggest to you a thought experiment.

Imagine the 21st century Western Church transposed to the first or second century.

Faced with widespread persecution that entailed the loss of social position, the confiscation of goods, physical maltreatment and possibly even martyrdom, how do you think the 21st century Church would react?

All of this persecution is easily avoidable by the simple means of burning a handful of incense as an act of worship to Ceasar.

Is there any possibility that the 21st century Chrurch would stand firm to the teachings of Scripture and to the unique divinty of the person of Christ. Or do you not think that in a matter of minutes a theological construct would be developed and put in place that would validate and support the worship of Caesar? No doubt in return Christ would be assimilated as a minor deity into the Roman Pantheon, but the Christian faith would disappear. And you and I would not be worshipping Christ today, but Apollo or Diana.

Sadly, Western Christianty has chosen to accommodate contemporary mores rather than proclaim the historical Christian faith. We are more concerned not to cause offense to our surrounding culture in its rebellion against God, than we are not to cause offense to God himself.

“Speaking the truth in love”, has been abandoned for a policy of “agreeing with whatever society says”. This is clearly not an act of truthfulness, neither can it be act of love.

Sadly, I think it is your position on homosexual practice, rather than mine, that will win the day. A friend recently visited an Anglican seminary and found that 100% of the seminarians were practising homosexuals. This the increasing presence of homosexual clergy will certainly force the issue through, and sooner rather than later.

Once this battle has been lost, there will be an unending succession of others – perhaps the official adoption of pluralism, or maybe life-issues (euthanasia, or the use of foetus’ as ingredients in medical treatments, gene therapy). Once you attach yourself to a particular wagon, you go wherever the wagon goes.

I remember the (non-Christian) historian Will Durant’s reflection on human history. He remarked that no civilisation has ever survived the death of its gods. And I think this is where we are in the West. Our civilisation, having abandoned the Christian faith that was its foundation and support, is now in terminal decline – spiritually decline always leads inexorably to social and economic decline.

I am no prophet, I do not know if we will see a revival that will return the Church to historical Christianity and to life and health, to the power to transform lives and families and communities, the power to support a just and worthy civilsation. Or perhaps it will ba another faith will take the centre-stage. In this case it may be through the experience of subsequent persecution that the Christian Church will come to its senses.

I note the striking contrast between the Southern hemisphere Christian Church – which believes God’s word and proclaims it and is growing faster than at any other time in human history, and is transforming lives, families, communities and nations; and the Northern hemisphere Church – which abandons any doctrine or practice which proves at odds with contemporary mores and is in continual decline and increasingly irrelevant to its society.

I know which Church I would rather be a part of.

Phil Groom, April 24, 2012 at 10:17 am

Thank you, Stephen. You have indeed given this much thought and I hear what you say … especially about the church today, were we to transpose it into the 1st Century setting…

I cannot help wondering, however, whether that thought experiment can ever be valid: the church today exists as it does today precisely because it has grown from those roots, has grown through 2,000 years … in those first 300 or so years the church was a tiny seedling, an almost insignificant thornbush, a weed to be rooted out … a twist of history and it became a dominant force, a mighty forest in whose branches nations and states built their nests and under whose shade they fought their wars… and today, we live in an increasingly deforested world, where the church must once again take its place alongside the other trees, shrubs and bushes… are we now a hedgerow church, marking the old boundaries? If so, what are those boundaries? Do they have any relevance to the world today or are we simply marking them out for our own protection?

I guess in a way I’m asking Nicodemus’ question: how can a person return to their mother’s womb? And I hear Jesus’ reply:

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

… and what I see is my LGBT brothers and sisters coming into the light, not running from it… welcomed by the light, living in the light, shining as lights in the world where, so often, the so-called ‘straight’ community has done — and continues to do — everything it can to bend the light, to twist it, avoid it, evade it … to live in the shadows…

… and as I read your response, and I hope you’ll forgive me for speaking plainly, I see what seems to be more of that shadow-dancing as you seek to defend just-war theory and oath-taking as acceptable, yet deny the possibility of LGBT inclusion in the church…

You say,

the just war theology is not a theological construct created to put aside the clear teaching of Scripture, but rather an attempt to take seriously the whole of Scripture.

yet when I set out my argument that the whole of scripture points towards faithfulness as the key to understanding those few passages that abhor homosexual activity — abhorrent precisely because they could only take place as a betrayal of a heterosexual relationship in a society where a faithful homosexual relationship simply could not exist — you reject that argument…

And then, we come to the “slippery slope” … yes, there are slippery slopes out there, there are places where if we move a pebble, an avalanche will descend; but I do not see this as one of them. There is no reason to link acceptance of gay relationships to those other issues you refer to; this is no part of a bandwagon to throw aside all moral restraint. To the contrary, this a battle for faithfulness and restraint, for recognition of those who stand for integrity not only in their relationships in their own self-understanding — a battle against forcing people into lives of hypocrisy, into doomed relationships, into living in fear of who they are.

If it’s the church in Africa that you’re thinking of when you refer to Christianity in the southern hemisphere — a church where bigotry is rife, a melting pot where groups such as “The Lord’s Resistance Army” emerge, where bishops call for the death penalty for gays, where extremist fundamentalism leads to witch hunts and hatred, where the worst of the West’s mediaeval theologies are re-emerging — then I want no part of it. Because that, sadly, seems too often to be the grim reality of that growing southern-hemisphere church behind those vibrant colours and joyful singing…

For me, a church in which grace abounds, where outsiders are welcomed in Christ’s name, where sins are forgiven, where faith, hope and love touch and transform people’s lives: not condoning sinful lives but rejoicing in lives of integrity and faithfulness.

I guess that this is an area where you and I may never agree; but I am glad of this conversation, glad that we can disagree agreeably, even if uncomfortable with one another’s views. Grace and peace to you and to all who seek to live in the light; for I suspect that I too am a shadow-dancer: may we ever dance closer to the light and further from the darkness…

Phil Groom, April 24, 2012 at 10:41 am

Stephen and Kevin — with your permission, I’d like to reproduce this conversation between Stephen and myself on my own blog. May I do so, please? Linked back to here, of course…

Kevin Ellis, April 24, 2012 at 12:46 pm

I think Stephen’s permission is paramount.

One of the things that has struck me about the conversation that the two of you have had is that it has been seasoned with graciousness and respect. Part of the reason for my original posting was that I sense that such ingredients have been sparse in such dialogue; and that is true of Evangelicals as much as it is true of those who argue for a more “Inclusive” approach.

The problem with such a virtual debate is that as I have observed you talk; I have been able to hear the nuances of your speech; perhaps even more fully than the two of you have; given that I am fortunate that both of you are friends.

For my part, it is with the two of you whether it is reproduced. However, I would hope that others would act with same graciousness and respect as the two of you have done. Perhaps we could agree to delete the contributions of others who may indulge in insult and caricature? This is not censorship. It is have a sort of covenant that allows each other to be heard without rancour.

With thanks

Kevin

Phil Groom, April 24, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Thanks Kevin; and I’d have no problem whatsoever with deleting such comments: as the saying goes, don’t feed the trolls! And yes, of course: Stephen’s permission is paramount.

Stephen J March, April 24, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Thank you Phil for your thoughtful response.

Over these past few days I have found this dialogue difficult and stretching. The arguments you put forward for the condoning of same sex practices are full of deep Christian truths about the place of love, acceptance, humility, the awareness of mutual brokenness.

However, and this is my problem, to create a biblical construct which would support such an affirmation Scripture must either be put aside, or so twisted and tortured that its ‘revealed sense’ is the opposite of its obvious reading.

You cite Jesus’ text about men hating the light and preferring to live in darkness. Is that not about men choosing to ignore the will of God and instead live their lives as they please? Does that not speak to all biblical revealed patterns of behaviour that are called sin?

I do not hold up Southern hemisphere Christianity as the model of Christian perfection, I hope you did not infer that from my statement. The point I was trying to make was the vibrancy of that faith which tends to takes Scripture much more seriously than in the Northern hemisphere and its evident growth and power to transform lives, in contrast with the moribund, ever-decreasing and ineffectiveness of the Western church (globally measured).

Although deeply enriching, I have been troubled and disquieted by this dialogue and last night found myself lying awake in bed, way after midnight, still poring over these questions. In the darkness I decided to put on my ipod, which was on shuffle mode. As ‘chance’ would have it “If My People Prayed” by Casting Crowns was one of the first songs to play. Within 20 seconds of hearing this powerful call to stand by and to proclaim biblical truth, I found that I had my answer.

I remain confused. I am still searching for an understanding of how Christians should respond with Christian love and compassion to those affected at the deepest level of their being by this issue. I don’t have any answers, and I don’t think any easy ones will be to hand. I feel the pain and the hurt that this causes and I grieve over it.

However, in my confusion, I cannot but choose to stand on the solid and unchanging word of God as it has been understood and affirmed throughout the past two millennia. I must let Scripture speak to me in its own voice. I cannot take my stand on the shifting sands of mens’ theologies – regardless of their evident cleverness and obvious facility. In my confusion I must stand on the obvious reading of Scripture – whether or not I can understand it.

I am deeply grateful for this exchange. I emerge from it humbled and much more circumspect – which is always good. We are far too confident of our ability to know the mind of God.

If Phil wishes to copy this dialogue I give my consent and I hope that those with a much deeper knowledge of the Word of God than I might bless us with their insight.

Blessings

Kevin Ellis, April 24, 2012 at 3:37 pm

The strength of this conversation has not only been the grace in which it has been conducted. Whilst it would be too tight to put Phil in one category and Stephen in another in terms of churchmanship. Knowing them both, their journeys cannot be pigeon-holed. I am reminded by the book produced sometime ago by David Edwards and John Stott, which seems to be a good example of courteous disagreement.

I will make further observations later. What I am sure of is that (a) Scripture cannot be dispensed and (b) Rhetoric should not set aside pastoral need

with thanks

Kevin

Phil Groom, April 24, 2012 at 3:17 pm

Thank you, Stephen. It’s not been easy, has it? I too am challenged: how is it, I find myself asking, that others cannot see this underlying issue of unfaithfulness and betrayal that has become so plain to me? Read in that light, there is no twisting of scripture to make it say anything that it does not, no denial that those ‘texts of terror’ are anything other than they are; rather, they are set in their historical/cultural context and we find a deeper, universal truth unveiled: God’s call to faithfulness. No special pleading, no shifting sand, just the obvious — to me, if not to anyone else! — reading of scripture…

Will leave a comment here after I’ve transposed the conversation, if WordPress doesn’t get here first with a pingback…

Health April 24, 2012

Posted by Phil Groom in Life, Theological Reflection.
Tags: , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

FOR ALL MY FRIENDS who, for one reason or another, find themselves, like me at present, unable — unable, not unwilling — to work:

Our society arbitrarily defines health as the capacity for work and the capacity for enjoyment, but true health is something quite different. True health is the strength to live, the strength to suffer, and the strength to die. Health is not a condition of my body; it is the power of my soul to cope with the varying condition of that body.

— Jürgen Moltmann, The Power of the Powerless, SCM Press, 1983, p.142

Where Moltmann speaks of the body, I would also add mind:

Health is not a condition of my body or mind; it is the power of my soul to cope with the varying condition of that body and mind.

May you find the power you need in your soul today.

 

 

Reboot and Restore: Resurrection in Progress April 9, 2012

Posted by Phil Groom in Lent & Easter, Theological Reflection.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
1 comment so far

RESURRECTION: it’s the very core of the Christian faith, the belief — reaffirmed by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in his Easter sermon yesterday — that Jesus came back to life. Not that he recovered from a near-death experience, as some have attempted to claim, nor that someone else such as Judas Iscariot was crucified instead, as some Muslims have claimed, but that Jesus himself died, was buried, and was raised from the dead on the third day.

Nor is this a throwaway belief, an added extra for addled minds: it’s the essence, the kernel, the central tenet without which the entire edifice falls apart to become nothing more than a pick & mix set of Cameronesque common-decency values that “people of any faith, or no faith, can also share in, and admire” as outlined in our beloved Prime Minister’s Easter Message. Not that there’s anything wrong with such values, of course, but without the resurrection they’re values without power that those with power can ignore as they please, which is, of course, precisely what Mr Cameron does as he cites Jesus — “Do to others as you would have them do to you” — then presses on with his welfare and health service reforms regardless of their impact on those at the bottom of the social ladder, trampled underfoot by those eagerly clambering to get to the top as they live out that twisted version of Jesus’ words — Do unto others before they do unto you — that seems to resonate so much more with so much government policy in practice.

Enough of Mr Cameron and his ilk, however. For me, this Easter weekend, belief in the resurrection has taken on a whole new significance as I’ve been forced to think about what a reboot means:

Reboot and restore: my ankle

Reboot and restore: my left ankle

Every morning, I have to reboot my left ankle, literally, strapping this contraption in place to hold it together to give the broken bone a chance to restore itself whilst still allowing me to get about on it. The medics say it’s going to take at least six weeks, then I go back for an X-ray and reassessment and hopefully — hopefully — get to ditch the boot and the crutches.

But with Jesus we’re not talking about a slow recovery, nor even a rapid one: we’re talking death, total shutdown and complete reboot into a whole new way of being human: new bioware configuration, complete mindware rewrite-and-restore and a brand new Resurrection-OS install that takes him to another level of existence. He doesn’t come back as a ghost or a disembodied spirit or even as an undead zombie but as a living, breathing, eating, drinking human being throwing beach parties for his disciples, upgraded. Here’s how I expressed it recently in another post:

[Jesus] dies and — the ultimate coup — suckers Satan into doing the dirty work of killing him: God’s biggest ever fart, right in Satan’s face, and Satan doesn’t even realise until it’s just too damned late. Once again, God does what Satan can’t: he dies, and he dies horribly with all the wrath, agony and hatred of humanity poured into his soul, into his very self. Satan, the one who hates humanity, delivers the death blow that finally nails God into the human story with no way out — and nails the lid onto his own coffin, for ever. The deceiver, deceived; the usurper, usurped; and whilst Satan throws a party in his fantasy world where he thinks God is no more, Jesus throws a party in the underworld, kicks down the gates of hell, breaks the chains, heals the wounds and sets every captive free — then returns, reboots his wreck of a body with a brand new Resurrection-OS, and throws a beach party for his confused disciples.

This is Christianity at its best, at its most basic and its most glorious: completely down to earth with the God who undermines every rule of religious propriety, turns every dogma and social norm on its head, tears down the walls and raises the dead. God with us, God incarnate, God one of us; and it doesn’t stop there: once God has written himself into the story, the story itself is rewritten with the promise of the same Resurrection-OS reboot for the entire universe. Quantum theology: time and space explode, ripping the old order apart as the Jesus Event reverberates backwards, forwards and every which way in time, rewriting history and writing an even better future. New creation, new beginning, new everything. The old dividing line between spiritual and physical, between heaven and earth, becomes nothing but a line in the sand, washed away by the tide: everything becomes sacred, gender distinctions are wiped away, the first become last, the last become first and in God’s new creation there is neither slave nor free, rich nor poor. Jesus becomes the point at which creation begins and the anchor holding it in place.

It’s hard, very hard, to get your head around that when you’re on the outside looking in, when you’ve got friends and family battling all sorts of illnesses, mental and physical; when you see nations tearing themselves and their neighbours apart in bloody warfare, missile launches, terrorist atrocities, roadside bombs and security cordons; when you see natural disasters, earthquakes, avalanches, famine, fire and floods; when you see road and rail accidents, ships sinking, aircraft crashing and senseless shootings, bigotry, hatred, inequality, injustice, unfair trade, sweatshops and slave labour, child abuse, adult abuse, sickness and disease raging out of control… the list goes on and on… and even the church, the very community that should know better, just as wartorn and divided as the world around it…

But when you’re on the inside looking out, then it’s another story. You’ve still got the same problems, the same fears as you face the same world; you break and bleed just as easily as the next person; but inside you, you’ve got this kernel planted: the complete package downloaded. You won’t find it with a surgeon’s scalpel anymore than you’ll find a software download on a computer with a screwdriver. In the Bible, it’s called the Holy Spirit: God’s guarantee, the down payment, the deposit; and at times it’s like a fire in your bones, like lightning in your veins, an explosion in your heart waiting to happen; other times, it’s a quiet presence, a calm in the storm, a voice that whispers; and sometimes it’s an ache, a void, a gutting absence. But you know, you know that no matter how shitty it gets out there, no matter how much shittier it gets inside or outside, when the shutdown comes — and it will — there’s a reboot waiting.

That, my friends, is what the resurrection is about: death defeated in a transformation that puts every science fiction writer’s dreams of nanotech upgrades into the shade. Why? Because it’s already happened. And because it’s available, gratis, to anyone who wants it. Which brings me full circle back round to the Archbishop’s sermon:

How do we know that it is true? Not by some final knock-down would-be scientific proof, but by the way it works in us through the long story of a whole life and the longer story of the life of the community that believes it. We learn and assimilate its truth by the risk of living it; to those on the edge of it, looking respectfully and wistfully at what it might offer, we can only say, ‘you’ll learn nothing more by looking; at some point you have to decide whether you want to try to live with it and in it.’

Or as the people who run the national lottery say, you’ve got to be in it to win it. Only in this lottery, every ticket’s a winner.

That is what gives those values summarised in that statement of Jesus their power: when you’ve got the full download, when you know there’s a reboot waiting, you don’t need to trample everyone else underfoot to get to the top. You can give yourself away and you can give yourself away and you can give yourself away.

And I’m not talking about dying and going to heaven or any of that wishy washy nonsense. I’m talking about God’s kingdom come, here on earth, living it now: do to others as you’d have them do to you. Get the download and join the revolution.

If you dare.

I saw camels dancing on Satan’s grave March 8, 2012

Posted by Phil Groom in Lent & Easter, Life, Theological Reflection.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,
7 comments

And lo, I looked, and I saw camels dancing on Satan’s grave. And I spoke to the angel standing beside me, and I asked, “Who are these camels and why are they dancing?” And he replied, “When camels dance, the universe roars with laughter: for behold, these camels, they’ve got soul, and Satan, he’s got no soul, therefore these camels dance and the universe rejoices. Blessed shall be the ox who gets the yoke.”

— Recently discovered fragment of an early MSS of the Book of Revelation

Have you ever seen camels dancing? No? Then believe me, my friend, you haven’t lived: dancing camels are an absolute must-see phenomenon — and as this ancient writer discovered, they rock the universe with laughter. Total hilarity. Especially when they’re dancing on Satan’s grave.

Yes, that Satan: the ancient enemy of humanity, the betrayer, the deceiver, the usurper, the Father of Lies, the Whisperer of Dark Thoughts, and any other unpleasant and nefarious title that you can think of. The one who wants you, above all else, to believe that he does not exist — because once he’s won that little battle, he can get away with anything, from murder to rape to theft, even to the point of you taking your own life without you realising that yours wasn’t the hand that took it. Satan sucks, and given his way, he’ll suck you dry, drink your soul and leave you feeling like an empty husk wandering the empty pathways of despair.

Why? Because he exists; because you exist; and because God doesn’t. He hates that, because he wants to be all in all and he can’t be. Oh, there was a time when he was nearly there: top dog amongst the angels; but top dog wasn’t good enough for him: he wanted to be top god. But God — and how I love those two words, But God — put a stop to those satanic ambitions, simply by creating you. Yes, you: the you reading this and wondering what on earth that nutjob Phil Groom is on about this time.

Prepare to be amazed: he’s on about you. Because you, like the dancing camels, have got soul. Which means you can dance too, with or without the camels, and all that damned Satan can do is rot in his grave and fade away. True, he’s a pain in the butt right now: lop off a chicken’s head and it’ll run around flapping and spurting blood and making a right mess for a minute or two before it drops; and Satan’s one big headless chicken who’s gonna be running around for a while yet. But up there in the future, the camels are dancing on his grave: it’s just a question of laughing in the meantime, along with more than a bit of weeping, sure; but God’s promise is that damned devil is done for, finito, for ever.

How? One word: Jesus. In Jesus, God steps out of the realm of the Almighty into what might be and makes all things possible. The non-existent God steps into human space-time and takes on existence: the author writes himself into the story, the artist paints himself into the picture, in a way that Satan simply cannot copy. Oh, Satan and his pathetic bunch of minions can possess, certainly; and as we all know, possession is nine tenths of the law. But as anyone who has ever faced a Compulsory Purchase Order knows only too well, that final tenth has more power than all the other nine put together — and that’s all God needs, all God has ever asked for and all Jesus needs to send Satan packing into that empty no man’s land where the camels dance on his grave.

Proof? You want proof? Simple: God farts and Satan flees. It’s right there in the Bible: Jesus went into the wilderness, where he farted for forty days and nights; and when the forty days were over, Satan fled. Ask Martin Luther: fart and the devil flees. The Christian God is a God who farts, and this — one of the most profound parts of the Christian message — terrifies Satan, because it’s something he can never do: he’s full of wind, but he can never fart. Try to imagine what that must be like: for ever flatulent but unable to fart. The best he can do is fart by proxy when he or one of his minions manage to possess a human being that they’ve sucker-punched into submission; but he can never fart himself. But God can: because God didn’t simply take over someone else’s human body, he grew his own and suffered all the indignities that went with it — alongside all the joys and pleasures. Seriously, you don’t think Jesus turning water not merely into wine but into the best possible wine was a one-off, do you? Practice makes perfect: Jesus knew his wine because he enjoyed the stuff, and if it had been a wedding today you can be sure that at least one of those water jars would have become Guinness, as well as maybe a flagon of champagne. Go ask his mum: she understood.

Our God farts. He also sings, dances, drinks, laughs, weeps, bleeds, parties, loves camels, tells stories, tells the bigots to bog off and makes friends with prostitutes. This is life in all its fullness. This is Jesus, God with us, one of us and loved and hated in equal measure by those who meet him.

He also dies and — the ultimate coup — suckers Satan into doing the dirty work of killing him: God’s biggest ever fart, right in Satan’s face, and Satan doesn’t even realise until it’s just too damned late. Once again, God does what Satan can’t: he dies, and he dies horribly with all the wrath, agony and hatred of humanity poured into his soul, into his very self. Satan, the one who hates humanity, delivers the death blow that finally nails God into the human story with no way out — and nails the lid onto his own coffin, for ever. The deceiver, deceived; the usurper, usurped; and whilst Satan throws a party in his fantasy world where he thinks God is no more, Jesus throws a party in the underworld, kicks down the gates of hell, breaks the chains, heals the wounds and sets every captive free — then returns, reboots his wreck of a body with a brand new Resurrection-OS, and throws a beach party for his confused disciples.

This is Christianity at its best, at its most basic and its most glorious: completely down to earth with the God who undermines every rule of religious propriety, turns every dogma and social norm on its head, tears down the walls and raises the dead. God with us, God incarnate, God one of us; and it doesn’t stop there: once God has written himself into the story, the story itself is rewritten with the promise of the same Resurrection-OS reboot for the entire universe. Quantum theology: time and space explode, ripping the old order apart as the Jesus Event reverberates backwards, forwards and every which way in time, rewriting history and writing an even better future. New creation, new beginning, new everything. The old dividing line between spiritual and physical, between heaven and earth, becomes nothing but a line in the sand, washed away by the tide: everything becomes sacred, gender distinctions are wiped away, the first become last, the last become first and in God’s new creation there is neither slave nor free, rich nor poor. Jesus becomes the point at which creation begins and the anchor holding it in place.

Following Jesus is not about some airy fairy pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die afterlife where we’ll all be floating around on clouds playing harps or cellos or whatever musical instrument takes your fancy with occasional breaks to laugh at the torments of the damned. Following Jesus is about life on earth now, in a world where Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Your Kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Christianity is firmly rooted in reality and reality is rooted in Jesus who makes all things possible; and the future hope Jesus holds out to his disciples is reality rebooted.

Earlier I said you’ve got soul; I was wrong: you are soul. Be careful how you say that, but don’t be fooled by anyone who tries to tell you you’ve got an immortal soul that’s going to heaven or hell or some place in between; you haven’t. You are soul, body/spirit/mind synched together in imperfect harmony, but in God’s reboot the imperfections get the boot, your hard drive gets defragged and you get the upgrade that Apple, Microsoft and all the other computer geeks out there can’t even dream of, even in their wildest flights of imagination. Doesn’t matter if the original hardware’s rotted away, been incinerated or recycled because Jesus saves and he backs up too. Which means there will be cats and dogs in heaven because heaven will be here on earth; and for those with eyes to see, it’s already arrived.

God farts, Satan flees, camels dance, heaven, earth and humanity are rebooted and in the words of the hymn writer, Jesus sets our souls ablaze: be careful how you sing that; and I don’t know what was in those mushrooms I ate last night, but the shop assistant told me they were a special purchase from Patmos: blessed shall be the ox who gets the yoke.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

Revelation 21:1-4


Acknowledgements: Post inspired by my good friend @narky, who apparently believes there won’t be cats and dogs in heaven; and I owe the ox who gets the yoke gag to Kruppe, a character in Steven Erikson’s ‘Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen’ … everything else, apart from the bits I made up, is true.

What is Church? A Calendar of Events or a Community of Disciples? How do we get it right? February 24, 2011

Posted by Phil Groom in Christianity, Church, Theological Reflection.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
5 comments

Refreshing thinking from Fresh Expressions:

… but how do we rise to the challenge? I’m updating our church website at www.henlowchurch.org.uk and www.langfordchurch.org.uk (mirrored domains for two parishes in a united benefice to ensure that each church gets its own but can’t get away from the other!).

All suggestions welcome on how to avoid the Calendar-of-Events syndrome appreciated, please…

A Tale of Two Photos: Inside Outside October 24, 2010

Posted by Phil Groom in Life, Photos, Random Musings, Theological Reflection.
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3 comments

TWO PHOTOS I TOOK after church this morning as I stood in the church doorway:

Outside looking in...

Outside looking in...

Inside looking out...

Inside looking out...

In the first, I’m standing on the threshold of the church, looking in, with the bright autumn sun streaming from behind me to cast my shadow into the porch. I’d wandered out and just happened to glance back, decided to capture the moment. Then I turned around to face the light and was struck by the contrast. Again, the autumn sun streaming in, now inviting me to go sit on that bench by the war memorial, my shadow somewhere behind me.

There’s an old ATF song, “Back to the Light” (from the album Signs of Change), that’s more or less permanently etched on my brain, and it ends with these verses:

… I step up and onwards, and what do I see?
There’s a mist of darkness and it’s creeping up on me.
Many times before this road I’ve been,
But never alone, never alone, depression walks at my side again,
It’s creeping up on me,
I can feel it in my soul.

There in the distance, a tiny point of light,
It’s growing and glowing, and swallowing the night,
But I’ve still got darkness in my eyes,
I must turn around, and face to where the brightness shines…

I guess you can see why these pictures bring those lyrics back to me again. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, when depression dogs your footsteps, to be able to turn around, and face to where the brightness shines? But life’s not that straightforward. Most of the time you turn around and it’s just as dark the other way too. And yet, and yet, and yet… moments like these: they’re there to be savoured.

I look back into the church and see the people milling around. They’re in another world, somehow. Did any of them see me point my phone and capture that moment? I turn around. The autumn sunshine streams through the trees. The war memorial stands there, mute testimony to humanity’s inhumanity to humanity. The bench is empty and for all the light shining, it too speaks of death, of a once proud tree now cut down and shaped to humanity’s convenience.

But the light still shines, and no amount of darkness can ever put it out. The light you think you can see at the end of the tunnel isn’t the headlamp of an oncoming train: it’s a man with a candle. He’s walking ahead of you. The reason the light keeps flickering is because he limps as he walks and his body keeps blocking the light; but every so often he holds the candle up high, beckons us on, and the light shines brighter than ever.

This morning was one of those moments. Savour it with me.

Let there be Emma! September 1, 2010

Posted by Emma Jayne in Christianity, Life, Theological Reflection.
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1 comment so far

OK, I know it’s kinda rash — but I like living dangerously and as much as anything I wanted to keep an eye on what these people are peddling to their younglings: the idea of thousands of teenagers all reading the Bible together sounds kinda scary — and awesome if it works. So I subscribed to the Soul Survivor Bible in One Year blog. Here’s Andy Croft getting carried away by the idea:

Today’s the day it all kicks off and I’m annoyed already. Doesn’t bode well really, does it? Here’s a happy clappy excerpt from Day 1, 1st September: Genesis, Matthew, Psalms, talking about Genesis 1.1 – 2.17:

This passage shows us God designed us the way we are. You’re not a mistake. God said let there be light, and there was light. He said let there be Andy and there was Andy, let there be Emma and there was Emma. Just as God looks at creation and thinks it’s good so too he looks at you and thinks you’re pretty great. We can enjoy his pleasure over us… in the same way we enjoy it when our parents or mates tell us we’re great.

Let there be Emma! Well yes, amen to that; love the affirmation of my being a gay Christian woman: not quite what I’d expected from the Evangelical frontline. Thanks guys. But really? Seriously? God designed us the way we are?? Forgive me if I fall about laughing, because that’s one God with a seriously warped sense of humour at best, if not an outright monster at worst.

So… God  designed us the way we are… God designed us to be susceptible to all kinds of sicknesses and diseases … which God also designed. God designed us with minds that fall apart under stress or trauma. God designed us to go mental at the flick of an invisible inner switch. God designed us to be tasty snacks for crocodiles, mosquitoes and piranhas … which God also designed. God designed us for life on a planet that’s ultimately gonna disappear in an amazing starburst as dear old Sol goes nova a few million years down the line… which we’re ruining in the meantime with our supposedly God-given talents to uproot and destroy, to the point where it’s likely to be uninhabitable long before that amazing starburst….

Yeah, right. Some God.

Wrong, wrong, wrong: #fail. And puh-leeese don’t give me mythology about “the Fall” and “sin” taking down the whole of creation by way of explanation, though I suppose we’ll get that within the next few days *sigh*

Sorry guys, but the universe does not hinge upon the human race. The claim that our mythical Adam & Eve rebelling against God in the Garden of Eden led to the corruption of the entire cosmos is simply breathtaking in its arrogance — like the belief that the Sun revolves around the Earth, only a billion times worse. You have only to open your eyes and look out at the vastness of the universe to begin to realise how puny and insignificant the human race is. We are specks of dust bouncing around on a bigger speck of dust in orbit around another speck of dust, albeit a hot one.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us like bloggers on WordPress, only on a much vaster, incomprehensible level. WordPress is a platform, with themes and widgets and all sorts of lovely-jubbly add-ons, with free hosting for the faithful here at WordPress.com and a standalone version for those who want to go it alone via WordPress.org. And we are invited to perform upon this platform. WordPress sets us free to blog as we will: they provide the platform; we provide the content … and somewhere out there, our readers join the dots and we become an amazing community in our social media matrix.

There are good bloggers and bad bloggers and there are every kind of blogger inbetween. There’s facebook and twitter and youtube and the list grows on and on. Platforms designed for us to dance on.

That’s God, my friends: the Ultimate Platform. Let’s dance!!

Broken Church July 23, 2010

Posted by Phil Groom in Church, Theological Reflection, Watching and Waiting.
Tags: , ,
19 comments

RECENTLY I tweeted:

What is church? It’s people, broken people … pretending not to be broken … and that’s what breaks it…

… but things, maybe people too, are easily lost in the twittersphere, so I thought I’d say it again here.

I find church difficult: I love the fellowship, the shared communion, the sense (sometimes!) of common purpose, of being on a journey together; but then we get to the Bible readings, creeds, hymns, liturgy, prayers … and inside of me, just beneath the surface, there’s a voice screaming, “It’s not real!”

Or is it? Is there, somewhere amongst all the hype about God almighty, something real? Something deeper, something … transcendent?

People — myself included — talk about mission, evangelism, good news. But what’s good about believing fantasy? On what basis are we, is anyone, expected to invite people to become part of a community that so often can’t even see its own brokenness? What’s the good of lighting candles only to snuff them out? What’s the good of faking it for Jesus when Jesus reserved his harshest words for fakers?

And Jesus himself? Where are you, Jesus? Would we recognise you if you came to one of our services? Would you recognise our church services, meetings, fellowship groups — whatever we want to call them — as having anything to do with you?

Or would we find you sitting on the wall outside, having a smoke, broke and broken and wondering what it’s all about?

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