Relion True of False: thoughts from Uganda.

Now I have always liked the book of James. I know that Martin Luther famously described it as an ‘epistle of straw,’ but, I simply can’t agree.

One of my favourite verses is James 1, 27 ‘religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself undefiled by the world.’ (NRSV).

The Message Bible puts it is as follows: ‘Anyone who sets himself up as religious by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and the loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.’

So there we have it: religion defined. So if we know what true or pure religion is, from a New Testament perspective, we can also begin to perceive what an irreligious church / society / individual looks like: Full of hot air but, no action?

In Kabubbu, rural Uganda, this week I have been privileged to meet and pray with many widows and orphans and, believe me they understand terms like ‘distress,’ and, ‘plight.’ They know what it is to feel ‘loveless.’

I met a lady who is regularly beaten by her grandson, despite the fact that she, a widow, looks after and cares for him. This afternoon I visited another elderly lady, a widow, who is paralysed from the waist downwards. She likes to shuffle, on her bottom, to her front porch, where she can watch younger, able bodied neighbours go about their daily chores. Frequently she is prevented from doing so, because her ‘daughter,’ locks her inside. She believes her daughter wants her dead.

Sadly, the daughter proclaims a strong Christian faith, as a ‘born again.’ To be fair she has undertaken acts of kindness in the community, yet, seems unable to exercise compassion within her own home.

The daughter also regularly belittles her own girl, and, leaves her to look after grandma. When we arrived Grandma tried to shuffle out of her room on a foam mattress, when she could no longer move her granddaughter, who loves her deeply, pulled he along on. . Whilst we prayed with, and for, the family Grandma had an ‘accident.’ We were able to leave food and clothing, which her granddaughter pledged to hide from her own mother. A stark, but sadly not atypical, example but, which of these family members was practicing religion ‘pure and undefiled?’

For our part how seriously do we take James pastoral epistle within the context of our own communities and, the world at large? We should do so if we are serious about the plea ‘thy kingdom come on earth, as in heaven.’


To Uganda: on a wing and a prayer

Well, I am off to Uganda, courtesy of British Airways (don’t worry I haven’t got a free flight.)

I will be spending a week doing some teaching, visiting friends and acquaintances in the village of Kabubbu and, getting acquainted with  an initiative called Godly farming. I am going with a small party from Quicken Trust, a charity I have been involved with for the last ten years. It should be an interesting week.

In my teaching role I will be leading a series of reflections based on the Lord’s Prayer. Now I know that reams and reams of books have been written on this most famous of prayers but, I thought it might be interesting to provide a few points for reflection, as sometimes familiarity breeds, not necessarily contempt, but, some form of liturgical stupor, where we just trot out the words, because we trot out the words.

So here we go:

  • The introduction, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,’ and the doxology, ‘for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever, Amen,’ remind us that all things flow from, and are gifted by God (the Father) and, that our earthly life is just one part of our eternal journey (the forever and ever bit). Our response to is to be one of humility and praise, both of which are integral to the word ‘hallowed.’
  • The intersession begins with a plea for the kingdom of heaven to be made known, brought to bear, and so forth, ‘on earth as in heaven.’ The implications of this are theologically enormous. Through the Lord’s Prayer we ask to be provided with a picture of heaven. Christianity is frequently attacked for having an inadequate world view, or an apologetic that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny when compared with other robustly presented world views; both Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin were criticised for this over the Christmas period. But, as Christians we don’t pray for a world view, we instead ask for a view of heaven. Our heaven-view will, presumably, inform our approach to mission, this is the only way I can make sense of the phrase ‘thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.’ Those who seek a world-view may well be disappointed, but in reality even if we could reduce Christianity to a world-view it would be difficult to see how it would effect real, transformational, change.All a world-view can do is capture the mind, a heaven-view is far more holistic; it is concerned with capturing body, mind and soul.
  • We also ask for our daily bread and in doing so accept that sufficiency is a theological motif. This request applies to all aspects of our being; we need sufficient spiritual nourishment and we need sufficient material nourishment. We also need to nourish others; otherwise we fail to ‘love our neighbour as ourselves.’ I think we need to recapture the essence of sufficiency in order to grow in the Christian life and, this is a real challenge.
  • The invitation to confession, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others,’ reminds us that we exist in a Trinitarian relationship, as individuals, with others, before God and, that we are called upon to be agents (or angels) of peace and reconciliation. This is a major New Testament theme. When the disciples were sent out in pairs they were instructed, by Jesus to begin any conversation with the words ‘peace be with you. ‘St Paul reminds us that we must repair damaged relationships before participating in corporate worship. Wisdom suggests that we would be foolish to ‘let the sun go down on our anger.’ 

So there you have it, some brief reflections, the Lord’s Prayer asks us to reflect on the following questions:

Do you ‘hallow’ God?

Are you inclined to a world view, or a heaven view of things?

How seriously do you take the theology of sufficiency? And,

Are you an agent of peace and reconciliation?

Are you /me /we truly praying the Lord’s Prayer, each and every day – it could make all the difference in ,and to, the world.

Theologising with Alan Bennett and Dr. Seuss

There is a great line in the History Boys:

‘I’m a Jew….I’m small…..I’m homosexual and I live in Sheffield…….I’m f…ed.’

Why does Posner (Bennett’s character), feel this way? 

Because, I suggest he has been sold a lie. The lie goes like this: to be normal – to feel normal – you need to be middle class, white, educated, I.T. savy, and, wear branded clothing.

To be the absolute epitome of normality it would be better if you were white, male, straight, able bodied and highly rational, although a leaning towards some form of eastern spirituality may be acceptable as long as you don’t overdo it (and don’t fess up to being religious!). An interest in sport helps, as does a body which indicates that you are currently an active participant or reached some form of acceptable peak in earlier years (if this is a stretch too far try eulogising about your children). You should be able to talk knowledgeably about all things wine! One final thing, make sure you go to the right holiday destinations.

While I’m on it, sorry, just one more thing: get yourself a fancy job title, one which slightly exaggerates your real position in the corporate hierarchy but which indicates that you do have responsibility for the P and L (even if you don’t.)

So why are these accoutrements necessary?

Because they are the modern equivalent of the fig leaves Adam and Eve used to hide their private parts in the Garden of Eden. Consumer society has sold us all a pup (and a mongrel pup at that): in order to feel normal you need the right fig leaves. Oh, but the lie gets worse: Once you have the right fig leaves you will feel normal (you won’t, you will just devote increasing amounts of time and money acquiring new and better fig leaves).

In the consumer society we are required to create an image in order to disguise our neurosis; The relationship between creator and created is inverted, we are tempted to forget that all people (even / especially short, gay, Jewish scholars from Sheffield) are made in God’s image. In God’s creation categories such as normal don’t exist.

Dr. Suess, the children’s philosopher, has an excellent handle on this: This is what he says:

‘We are all a little weird and life’s a little weird, and when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness and call it love.’

Go on make 2014 the year when you embrace your weirdness (and someone else’s too) it might be the most enriching thing you do.

Washing line theology

Sin is an old fashioned word. It also a word we now longer like to use. There are good reasons for this. We can use the word sin to categorise ourselves and others. The very word sin under this scenario can be used to create in and out groups and, as a means of creating feelings of guilt and, confirming where power and influence reside in a given community. Sin is in this sense an absolute term, such and such an act (often sexual) is deemed by me / us / whoever to be sinful. The subliminal message being ‘if you want to belong conform.’ Sin in this schema is reduced to moral conduct.

Now in Christianity there is a clear moral and ethical code. The Ten Commandments give us our morals and, disobeying them is presumed to be an act of sin. The Golden Rule, which by contrast with the Ten Commandments, is expressed in the positive provides us with our ethical code. Liturgically the General Confession provide worshippers with the opportunity to confess failures to live by the standards of our moral and ethical sins, after all, we ask for forgiveness for both ‘what we have done and what we have failed to do in thought and word and deed.’ 

Liturgy also reminds us, however, that sin cannot, should not, be reduced to moral and ethical failures. The Collect for Purity makes precisely this point in its proclamation: ‘Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden’. Before, through its intercession, asking that God ‘cleanses the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.’

I recently discovered that the Collect for Purity predates the Book of Common Prayer (it formed part of the Sarum Rite). The implication of this being that the collect takes us back to an earlier era where sin was, in part, understood as ‘disordered passion,’ (Augustine’s definition). Normal everyday sin is about the direction of our hearts, revealed to us through our desires. Our desires need not of course be sinful, desire is healthy and motivational. Sexual desire, for instance, allows us to partner with God in the ongoing project of creation. Sexual desire can also, of course, lead to hideous crimes and abuses. Money also can be used for positive or negative ends,was the banking crisis in reality the result of disordered passion? (No need to answer this one!)

So how can an understanding of sin as disordered desire help? What are the practical implications for the Christian life? 

Well, I think before confession it is worthwhile examining our desires and just checking whether they are healthy or otherwise. Perhaps asking ‘do our desires help us partner with God in building the kingdom here on earth as in heaven.’ Or, ‘would acting on our desires help affirm another person as being made in God’s image’ or, possibly, how do our desires measure up against the standards of love?’

What we can, of course do, is to offer all our desires back to God for his blessing, confirmation and cleansing (right ordering in other words). We can allow God to metaphorically wash all of our desires and hang them out to dry, in the light for all to see. The Psalmist takes precisely this line (really bad pun – I know – sorry:)

‘But you delight in sincerity of heart, and in secret you teach wisdom. Purify me with hysopp till I am clean, wash me until I am whiter than snow,’ (Psalm 51, 7&8). 


Are you prepared to let God hang out the washing?

The 7 (no 8) characteristics of highly effective recipients: (learning from the Christmas characters).

I don’t know about you but I find the first couple of chapters of Luke’s Gospel very uplifting indeed, surely ripe pickings for a musical, as there appears to be rhythm to the story surrounding the birth of Jesus which goes like this: Angel of the Lord, or Holy Spirit, appears to frightened person, delivers some good news concerning their favoured status, recipient of good news bursts into song. This is the pattern of receipt for Mary, Zechariah and, Simeon. All three of their songs of gratitude are included in Anglican liturgy: the Magnificat, the Benedictus and, the Nunc Dimitus.

So what can we learn from the ‘Christmas characters,’ (Mary, Joseph, Zechariah and, Simeon) in terms of their ability to received the most precious of gifts from God?

I would suggest the following:

  • An openness to the word of God. Each of them responds to a visitation from either and angel or the Spirit.  Their openness is staggering considering their total, unequivocal, commitment to the Jewish way of life. These characters remind us that we can be both totally embedded in our culture whilst, at the same time, being free from its restrictive boundaries.
  • Bravery. Mary and Joseph in particular are told not to fear. Simeon must have been afraid that he would not see the Messiah before he died. Elizabeth and Zechariah were also oldies and, as a childless couple, subject to ridicule.  Jesus’ healing ministry, it seems, began even before His birth; how ridiculous, paradoxical, marvellous!
  • Obedience. They not only receive the word of God, they act on it. Think of Joseph and his renewed sense of commitment to Mary, and what about Mary herself? Zechariah calls his son John, against all cultural norms. 
  • An awareness of right relationship with God and each other (righteousness). All of the ‘Christmas characters,’ understand that their children are pure gift whilst Elizabeth and Zechariah accept that their son, the eldest cousin, is called to play second fiddle, (the hardest instrument in the orchestra!)
  • Patience. For Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon and possibly Joseph, the cherished gift is a long time in the making.
  • Humility. Just look at the words of the Magnificat.

So there we have it, if we want to be grateful recipients of the most cherished of gifts – Jesus- we need to cultivate, openness, bravery, obedience, righteousness, patience and humility.

Of course the Christian narrative of receipt does not end with the birth of the Messiah, for after his death and resurrection, his followers are given the Spirit, the disciples when Jesus breaths on them (John 20, 22) and, the entire company of His followers at Pentecost (Acts 2, 1-4).

 From these accounts we can deduce one more characteristic of grateful, communal, recipients: solidarity (I thought about unity but could the disciples, at this stage, have possessed unity of purpose?).

From John 20 we learn that the disciples, who were all terrified, were together, in Acts 2 we read that ‘they were all together in one place.’  But more on this at Easter time…………

So there we have it the seven characteristics of highly effective recipients (to paraphrase Steven Covey), openness, bravery, obedience, righteousness, patience, humility, solidarity. But, I hear you say you have forgotten the most important characteristic of all gratitude.

Are ‘we’ (whoever we might be) grateful recipients?

p.s. Don’t worry about the size of the gift, after all Jesus was a babe, the widow offered her mite and two loaves and five fish weren’t really sufficient – or were they?