Sunday, 8 April 2018

Doubt and Faith

'Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need’.  Acts 4:32-35

This description in Acts seems like an impossibility – can it really be that through faith in Jesus humans can so limit their own pride, greed, wrath and envy that they live together in harmony, sharing and taking care of each other? Surely, this cannot be so?The Gospel on the other hand (John 20:19-end) explores the very human and realistic propensity to doubt. The figure of St Thomas is so important because his doubt, normal and understandable as it is, is also a major enemy to human well-being and flourishing. The story of Jesus standing in front of St Thomas inviting him to physically reach out and touch him, is, an invitation to all of us, to take the risk and reach out in faith.

Doubt has to be confronted in religion, as well as understood, because it can play a corrosive role in our relationships and in our communities – and this isn’t just about doubt in God, but in what God represents in Jesus: human equality, human potential and capacity for goodness, renewal and healing. For example, if we doubt the humanity and potential for good in others, we can justify all sorts of inhuman treatment of them (torture, murder, enslavement, indefinite imprisonment); if we doubt the potential of others to learn and contribute to society we can erode and devalue the principle of good-quality and well-resourced education for all; if we doubt life after death we focus on the preservation of life at all costs; if we doubt the capacity for healing and renewal we refuse to make the changes in our lifestyle that will enable such healing and renewal......

Our society depends upon our capacity to trust each other – the erosion of that trust means that the fabric of society disintegrates. It’s a trust that to a certain degree is independent of whether that trust is earned or justified. Jesus maintained his trust and faith in us as human beings even though we betrayed and murdered him. His trust in us is not dependent upon our goodness. God continues to trust us, to believe in us, even though we are making a mess of the beautiful blessed world He’s created. It’s why we have to maintain our trust in politicians, Dr's, clergy, teachers and public servants, even when there is every reason to doubt them. They are human, not divine; they will let us down, and they should be held to account, but if we give up our faith completely in our corporate institutions and our public officials and servants and so undermine their offices and roles, what will emerge in their place? Are we ready to re-create or are we just good at accusing and dismantling? If all we do is point the figure and attack, we already live in a hell of our own making.

Jesus comes back from his experience of murder and betrayal not to condemn but to forgive. As Christians we are shown that because we are betrayed, let down, robbed, hurt, etc. we cannot give up hope in ‘the other’ or in God. Hope and faith persist through pain and suffering, through adversity, through counter-indications of change and the persistence of evil.

Christians practice faith in the seemingly impossible – resurrection from the dead – in so doing they also witness to the seemingly impossible prospect of transformed human relationships and communities. Faith is a daily enterprise, it is a daily discipline, its takes courage and determination; it is not for the weak-willed, the easily disillusioned, the seeker of ease or comfort. The problem of evil and the problem of suffering, is, for the person of faith, the very reason for and the only way to challenge both evil and suffering.

Imagine, two people, experiencing the exact same life, the exact same things happening to them – one believes and the other does not. Faith is not about external events, it’s about internal resolve. It is easily laughed at and mocked because its innocent and foolish at the same time.

Innocence cannot however be naivete, nor can foolishness be taken as reason to believe in anything – the content and history of our faith is specific and Jesus shows us a particular response to evil and suffering. The church has been guilty of and continues to need to address its naivete and its false holiness. Holiness does not consist in giving titles and protected status to clergy – nor in protecting the institution that seeks to proclaim God; holiness consists in working for the transformation of our communities through the patient practice of faith. A faith that enables us to get up at night and do a night shift at the homeless shelter; that encourages us to share our wealth through giving to charity and paying a fair amount of tax; that helps us make the choice to recycle, limit car use, plant trees, collect litter; that enables us to support refugees that come to our community; that encourages us to live simply and so on and so on. Faith enables us to keep on making the practical and daily changes in our lives that are a sign that we are made in the image of a loving God and that we are forgiven and blessed.

Most people may look at Christianity in the West today and say it’s hopeless, it will die out in 30 years, why do people still bother, let’s just nationalise the churches and push aside people of faith from our lives all together. But our commitment to God is not dependent on its success, but rather on its beauty – a beauty that is a sign, a sign no less beautiful because it is weak and faltering, a sign of God’s impossible goodness, and our impossible hope.

As Etty Hillesum (a victim of the holocaust) wrote: ‘I am ready for everything, for anywhere on this earth, wherever God may send me, and I am ready to bear witness in any situation and unto death, that life is beautiful and meaningful and that it is not God’s fault that things are as they are at present, but our own’.

In this season of Easter when we renew our hope in the Risen Christ let us renew out commitment to being the change we want to see. Let’s put our faith in the possibility of transformation in a world crying out for good news and hope, and let’s refuse to let go of the one who made himself and outcast and a fool for our sake. Amen  

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Following the footprints of Jesus. Holy Week and Easter Reflection

From Palm Sunday to Easter Day the great liturgies of the catholic tradition encourage us to walk with Jesus, from his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, to his disappearance from the tomb. The journey of this week is an annual opportunity and it reminds us that the life of a Christian disciple is one of movement. It is a movement that is primarily about following, but also involves watching and waiting, and finally it brings an opportunity to witness. Who are we following? What are we waiting for? What are we seeing? What is it that we believe because of what we have seen?

These are questions that each disciple is invited to consider afresh in Holy Week. The movement and the journey work best if we engage with the story in its entirety. After following Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on Holy Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday we wait and pray. On Maundy Thursday Jesus calls his followers to gather with him in the Upper Room; it is here that we hear the invitation for the first time to receive the offering of Jesus’ body and blood in the common cup of the wine and the shared bread. It is here that Jesus gathers us around him and mirroring his servant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey, serves us his followers, by washing our feet. This intimate invitation and this generous servanthood is broken apart by the prophecy of betrayal, we are confused and worried, what will happen? Amazed and disorientated we try and wait with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, but our desire to be present with Jesus and pray is limited by our fleshly desire to sleep.

Before we know it, aroused from our sleep, Jesus has been betrayed and arrested by the soldiers. Our expectation and joy at the entry into Jerusalem has been dramatically shattered. What sort of king is this?  We turn to what we know and try and resist the disruption and the upset with argument and force. But it’s no good, Jesus looks at us like we understand nothing. Desertion and betrayal are at the fore on this day, it is here that humanity is found wanting. Crucified, Jesus is raised up before all the world. Today, Good Friday, Jesus asks us anew: where will you be?

Holy Saturday is a day of darkness and waiting, a day for nothingness, no liturgy, no prayer even, just a hole where hope and faith were. From earliest times followers of Jesus gathered together to read scriptures through the night and into the early morning of Sunday. The Saturday evening vigil service begins informally in half-light with scripture readings from the Old Testament. As the story changes and news of disappearance and re-appearance enter our ears, so we move to re-affirm our faith, lighting the new fire for the Easter Candle and renewing our baptismal vows.

On Easter Sunday, the question again addressed to us is: What have you seen and what do you believe? How, why, if, we rejoice at the presence of the Risen Lord depends entirely on where and when we encountered him as the Risen Lord. Our thanksgiving at his appearing is more personal and more intimate than that which has been experienced so far. His hand may be outstretched towards you now with a wound he’s inviting you to touch. A journey through Holy Week is one which is unlikely to leave you cold – will you accept the invitation?

Thursday, 18 January 2018

What's your name? Where are you from? What do you do?

Stock photos courtesy of

I grew up in Essex, so I know all about what it means to come from a place that is ridiculed and joked about. I used to dread the question, ‘where are you from?’ Yes, I come from a place where the women are routinely mocked as being sexually promiscuous with vulgar jokes. Of course, it can be traced back to the tenacity of the English class system in Britain. People dwelling in Essex were, after the 2nd world war, mainly former slum dwellers, who were encouraged to move out to the new suburbs in Basildon and Harlow in Essex. Former East- Enders, who, if they were lucky would go to Southend-on-Sea for a day out in the summer, became increasingly wealthy as they took the advantages of suburban living. As the decades progressed they enjoyed the economic boom time, no longer working in manufacturing or skilled manual labour. Slum dwellers became middle-class, and so we had better bring them down a peg or two! Can’t have social mobility in Britain! How do we characterise the working class who have money in Britain? - as vulgar and with bad taste; herald the birth of the Essex girl and her counterpart the Margaret Thatcher voting Basildon-man.

‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth’, Nathanael says to Philip? With this single comment we enter into the dynamics of the characterisation of place in Jesus’ time. Nazareth, we can assume, was not a popular place; indeed, it was a small village, from which nothing very much came at all. It wasn’t so much vulgar as insignificant; a place that you would only go to if you had to. And yet, from this small village God chooses to signify his glory in all the world.

Right from the beginning of Jesus’ birth our Gospel writers are keen to ensure that we understand the dynamics of this. Jesus was a Jew, born in Bethlehem, growing up in Nazareth, son of a carpenter, who never moved far beyond the geographical world of his people. He wasn’t rich, he wasn’t from a sought-after part of town, he wasn’t heading for any awards. And yet this insignificant boy challenges our notions of identity: he brings wise men from the East to his birth, gathers poor shepherds around him and flees to Egypt because he threatens the power of Kings. This ‘no-one’ is the Son of Man – the person for everyone – the saviour of the world.

The power of naming, the significance of place and the desire to become something are instructive. From our own birth we are named, we live somewhere in particular, and our future identity is constructed by the sort of aspirations we are encouraged to have. Where we come from, what our names are and what we do are all powerful signifiers in our culture – are you a grammar school boy, did you grow up in Clifton or Brownsover, what papers do your parent’s read, if any at all? What job will you have?

For Jesus, these questions were instructive too – but from them he taught his followers to come and see something different and to come and be a part of something radically different.

What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do?
These must be three of the most common questions that we ask each other and they form part of the way in which we categorise people and judge them.  In the kingdom of Heaven we are liberated from such judgments.

What’s your name – nuns and monks take on new names at their profession to reveal that they are made and named by God. At our baptism we are named; placing our naming within the context of our faith in God as the creator is important. The practice of taking a spiritual or Christian name is significant, for it mark's us out as God's child, not just the product of our parent's preferences, rank in society or other.  In can be liberating to take on a new name that marks out our identity in Christ. Perhaps you would like to do the same?

Where are you from – as Christians we are from the Kingdom – which means that we seek to live in a new relationship to one another, characterised by equality and mutuality. We are not defined by our towns, whether sought after or sink, but by God’s invitation to dwell in his kingdom.

What do you do – as Christians our most important identity is crafted from the knowledge that we are made and loved by God; and by the fact that we are made to love God and love one another. As Christians that is ultimately what we ‘do’ – how we earn a living is a different question entirely – but one that should be in line with our Christian vocation to love God and love neighbour.

The Gospel upsets our notions of respectability and status and asks us to re-appraise our stereotyping and judging. The story of Jesus should make us suspicious about worldly status, power and class; as a community of Christians we should be a mixed bag of people from every warp and weft of life. It’s a place where we’re all equal, not judged and condemned because we’re rich or poor, a carpenter or a surgeon, a business person or a teacher; we should value each other as the equals that we are - a new family made in God’s image - not structured by our human need to sort the best from the worst, to put other’s down and categorise, but made from God’s desire to see his people flourish and live in harmony.

Monday, 25 December 2017

God's Photos of You

Most of the time it’s possible to live quite happily with the absence of religion. Our lives are full and content without it, indeed most people would probably say less restrictive and less judgmental. But then Christmas arrives with its magical talk of angels, a miraculous birth and God with us. The nativity at school, the lit candle in the darkened church and the carol service remind us of a time when going to church and believing in God made sense. The tune of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ is grasped like an old friend – and it takes us to a place of remembered community, of solidarity, of a secure identity and experience. It gives us a story, which stretches way back, that we can be a part of. Our memories, faded and nostalgic as they are, nonetheless are full of hope, reminding us of an identity that we’ve lost, encouraging us to claim a future that will always be ours. Like the Queen’s Speech, Match of the Day, Strictly Come Dancing – Christmas is the photo frame which collects together the diverse experiences of our disparate lives, making sense of them, giving them some coherence.

It doesn’t matter that what we believe is tangled together - half remembered Old Testament stories from Primary School; a once recited prayer; a body’s memory of kneeling, but rather that we remember. Along with the Christmas tree, the mince pies, the sharing of gifts, the caring for the poor, the stockings and the charades, for one night we place ourselves in the photo frame that our maker has crafted of our lives.

The photos that he’s taken may surprise us. He sees as no-one else does: like the lover on the pillow next to ours who is full of joy, the joy of being close to the beloved; or, like a young child who only has eyes for its mother, is utterly devoted and enthralled; or like the father who gives his every breath to the needs of his baby, suffering and sacrificing so that that the baby can thrive. So, God’s photos of us reveal that he has numbered every hair of our head, been to every nativity play, turned up for every prize giving, every birthday. God has been present in the moments of our private grief and public joy, he has been there when we’ve damned him and when we’ve offered a stumbling prayer. He’s been there when we thought we were all alone, unwatched and disregarded. Like the neglected parent who waits for the yearly card, the annual phone call, the belated present, and holds onto each like they are paradise itself. So, God longs for us, for me and for you and waits to show us the beauty and the splendour that our lives contain.

The traditions of Christmas have the power to gather us together, they form community, they create a shared history and they offer us a shared future. Christmas is the reminder we need that despite our turning away, despite acting collectively like independent 20-year olds (determined to make up our own minds and make our own mistakes), that God is always there to come back to; waiting and hoping and delighting in our return. Christmas is an invitation to live again in the eternal hand of our Maker- who turns the cosmos and holds the key, but who most of all longs for us to receive and return his love.