The Advent Mandela

He was 72 when the final stage of his life’s work began and, it was not as though the previous four or five decades had been easy.

During his long period of incarceration he had plenty of time to think, reflect and, pray. He faced two options; cultivate an ever-deepening hatred for those who caused such terrible suffering in his native land, or to begin to understand what it might mean to truly forgive, to seek reconciliation and, justice for all.

For Nelson Mandela, unlike many of us in the ‘developed’ world, the third option, that of apathy and disinterest was not a viable alternative. Mandela, as we know, chose the hardest course, that of love and peace. Although he left prison to a hero’s welcome, in theological terms he left through the narrowest of gates; the gate peace and love, the gate through which the kingdom of heaven comes to earth. Michael Burke the BBC journalist, who was refused permission to work in South Africa during the latter stages of the apartheid regime, has suggested that Mandela was ‘sanctified through suffering.’

 It seems to me that although few of us will suffer Nelson’s fate, we all are faced with similar choices, in the face of suffering, disappointment, injustice (perceived or real) and pain. Do we choose to harden our hearts, or do we allow ourselves to be transformed into agents of peace and reconciliation. The second option is, of course, the disciple’s mandate.

So what has all this got to do with Advent?

Well maybe quite a lot, for Advent is a season of purposeful waiting, or anticipation. Mandela never stopped anticipating a better future, whatever new setbacks came his way he continued to hope. We must do the same.

Advent also provides us with the opportunity to reflect, in a spirit, of rigorous honesty on our own lives, in particular the orientation of our hearts. It is after all a ‘confessional season.’

Recently in one of the Celtic Daily readings I was reminded of the story of the novice monk, who was encouraged by his spiritual mentor to:

‘Go to your cell and your cell will teach you everything.’

Maybe, encouraged by Mandela, this should be our Advent challenge.

Maybe, we can accept the challenge encouraged by the Celts who affirm in one of the blessings that ‘patient endurance attaineth to all things.’

God bless, for the remainder of Advent,



Rohr, Mandela, Westboro and, a book shop

Today, something strange happened to me; well I thought it strange.

I went into a small Christian bookshop and asked if they would order me two copies of Richard Rohr’s ‘The Naked Now,’ subtitled Learning to See as the Mystics See. I was hoping to give the copies to friends as Christmas presents. To my surprise back came the answer ‘No.’

The retailer then explained that he couldn’t help me because Rohr, is – wait for it – a Catholic, worst still one of the Roman variety! Now the book is nothing to do with Catholicism. In fact Richard Rohr is frequently critical of his own tradition. He operates from the periphery of the Catholic Church. Through his work Rohr seeks to reach out to all denominations. He is not interested in selling to anyone Marian theology, doctrines of purgatory or, transubstantiation.

Earlier in the week the (in)famous Westboro Baptist Church saw fit to inform anyone who would listen that Nelson Mandela is now in hell, alongside Gandhi. Presumably Mandela and Gandhi are anticipating the arrival of Aung San Suu Kyi. Mandela’s crime? Divorcing his first wife. Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi? Simple, not being ‘Christians.’ If you are gay watch out, for you might get to meet some very interesting ‘world changers’ in the next life, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as he supports any form of minority going, especially those who are discriminated against. You might also get to meet the odd Roman Catholic writer. Hell, in the Westboro scheme, will be very large and packed with some very interesting souls! It might look a little like a community of those who stood in solidarity with, and sought justice for, the oppressed in this life.

Poor souls, they had obviously misunderstood the part of the ‘Lord’s Prayer,’ where we ask for the breaking in of the ‘kingdom on earth as well as in heaven.’  If Westboro and their ilk have got it right then the ‘reward’ for standing alongside the oppressed in love and justice (i.e. bringing a foretaste of heaven to earth) is hell! That’s just plain weird.

So in order to be saved do we need to:

a) explicitly declare an allegiance to Christ?

b) join a specific denomination, or church?

Is this what Jesus expects for those he admits to his many roomed mansion? I don’t think so.

It seems to me that Jesus welcomes all that seek to stand alongside the poor in solidarity, charity and hospitality whether or not they explicitly understand that in serving the oppressed they also serve Christ. Why do I believe this to be the case?

The (salvation) Parable of the Sheep and the Goats would be my key text. (Matthew 25 31-46). I would also site Paul’s encounter with the righteous Athenians (Acts 17, 23), ‘what you worship as unknown, I proclaim to you.’  In fact, I would go one step further and cite Matthew 7, 21-23:Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…………’

And, no we don’t need to belong to a specific denomination or church, for there really are ‘many rooms’ in God’s mansion, and in any case Jesus’ last prayer is that we should all be one (John 17, 20). I am not sure the oneness that Jesus desires is contingent on one group dominating all others. I sense that Jesus had quite a lot of experience of what this type of behaviour felt like!

Does this mean I am free to reject Christ, to assume that my salvation can be assured through living peacefully in pursuit of justice?

No, because in His grace, I believe that Jesus has revealed Himself to me, and that my ‘election’ is not a passport to heaven but rather an invitation to be one of the ‘first fruits.’ In strange and different ways God may elect others to take great risks for the sake of the ‘kingdom here on earth.’ I suspect that Mandela, Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Desmond Tutu and a whole bunch of Catholics (including Richard Rohr) may one day dine together not in hell, but in heaven. As for Westboro and their ilk, well that’s up to God.

If you forced me……..the problem with labels

I suspect many of us hate being labelled.Labels carry plenty of dangers, but they can be useful, in that they  provide consumers with necessary information; what are the ingredients, or the calorific value of a given food. Or, how long and what temperature should I wash a particular garment. In the Church labels can provide an indication of what to expect in an act of worship. So labels can be useful but…….

The trouble with theological (philosophical or political) labels is that they are abstract and nuanced. They are open to use, misuse and abuse. When we self-describe we need to be continuously aware of the potential discrepancies between that which we espouse and enact. Liberals and conservatives alike have an amazing tendency to throw away espoused positions as and when it suits. When labelled by other people we also need to be on our guard, for the label ascribed to us can be used to either align us with a particular group, or to exclude us. 

Many of us, throughout our lives and ministry, will be required to self label. This is a reality. If my back was to the wall and, I had no choice, I would label myself as a Liberal Catholic .But, what I would also ask for is a few minutes to explain myself for my real worry is the set of assumptions that any given label may lead to.

Let’s start with the easy bit, Catholic. I am quite happy to affirm a highly orthodox commitment to the Catholic (Nicene and Apostolic) Creeds. I have a ‘relatively’ (compared to some protestant) high theology of the sacraments. I also believe in the concept of representative ministry, where we are called onto to represent Christ in and to the world. My hope is that whatever your own position on these and other issues you will at least be able to regard me as an orthodox Christian. Now for the tricky bit; liberal.

First, I would want to suggest that liberalism is not some form of wishy-washy make it up as you go along version of theology (after all I have tried to convince you of my orthodoxy). Instead I would want to suggest that my liberalism comes from studying the gospels and, in particular the ‘person’ of Christ. Liberalism and humanism are after all close friends. Theological liberalism in this sense is highly humanistic. In no sense does this mean that I do not accept Jesus’ divinity. But what it does do is force me to consider how Jesus lived in the world as a human being. 

Studying Jesus the man allows me to suggest that when espoused and enacted liberalism are aligned three of the hallmarks are: openness, inclusivity and hospitality. One of the the criteria that allows me to stand next to Peter and declare Jesus to be the Messiah is the company he kept. He mixed with smelly people (fishermen), dodgy people (tax collectors, publicans, drunkards), clever people (Nicodemus), artistic people (John), female people, Romans, Samaritans, zealots Uncle Tom Cobbley and all. Liberalism is paradoxical in that whilst being a label, one of its real aims is the removal of other major distinguishing categories.Most liberals never get this far (in fact we haven’t even got as far as the removal of the categories Paul suggests for those who are ‘in Christ.)

This may not be possible because true liberalism is more of a process than a destination. It is a grounded way of thinking, feeling and behaving. (Thank you David). Process liberalism can for this reason make no claims to either perfection or destination.

I would like to suggest two further characteristics of theological  liberalism, both of which follow from the suggestion that liberalism is at its best about process and behaviour, rather than doctrine and dogma. First, and this draws on the philosophy of science, true liberalism is characterised by provisionality. Provisional truths (according to Karl Popper the Philosopher of Science) are judgements made following a rigorous process of enquiry yet, which remain open to falsification, as a new and more reliable ‘data’ is obtained. As an interesting aside this is why scientific (liberal) atheism is an intellectual misnomer – you cannot falsify God! The most the liberal can in reality say is that ‘this I hold to be provisionally true.’ Humility is therefore a mark of the true liberal, for liberals must always allow for the fact that their stance on a particular issue may be wrong. 

Because ‘process liberalism’ can be characterised by openness, inclusivity, generosity and provisionality it’s final hallmark is that of unity. ‘Liberal leaders’ (i.e. those who enact liberalism) may not be able to offer doctrinal certainty, and this is one of the reasons why liberal institutions are frequently smaller than conservative ones, however, what they can offer is breathing space and the acceptance of genuine and thought through difference. And this is where Catholicism (in the reformed variety) comes back into play through its ability to offer to any given community a set of binding practices (such as the Eucharist) as opposed to doctrines.

I hope I have explained myself!

So where exactly is God?

So where exactly is God?

According to the prophet Jeremiah God ‘is in the midst of us, and, we are called by thy name,’ Jeremiah then adds the plea ‘leave us not, O Lord our God,’ (Jeremiah 14, 9). Christianity holds that God is indeed in the midst of us through the all pervading, ever present, Holy Spirit.  Of course at Christmas we celebrate the human incarnation of the Divine, in the Babe of Bethlehem.

God, whilst always being present, may be mysteriously encountered through prayer, quite medication and contemplation. In his generosity God reveals His presence, His mystery, in the ordinary things of life; words, bread, water and wine, for instance. In calling us by name God is inviting us to relate to Him, to experience Him, to commune with Him, but also to serve and follow Him. So here is an  Advent question: Where are you looking for God? In our very midst, in the soup of life, in ordinary relationships, in the word, through the sacraments, or elsewhere, in some outer orbit beyond our ken?

Sometimes it appears the truth which can set us free is right under our noses? St. Paul certainly came to this conclusion, for in Acts 17, 27-28 we read: ‘From one ancestor, he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted times for their existence and the boundaries of the places they would search for God and perhaps grope for Him and find Him – though he is not very far from each one of us.’

Where are you looking for God?