Biblically speaking……..

No, I am not writing about what it means to be a ‘biblically based Christian!’ Instead I would like to give a few thoughts on what it means to speak biblically. 

Last week I bumped into John Bercow in Tesco’s carpark. He told me that he was passionate about reforming behaviour in the House of Commons during PM’s questions because, parliament is one of two institutions where quality of speech is a moral obligation. The other? The Church.

He is correct. How we speak to each other is a large part of our mission and ministry. How we speak is a highly tangible testimony to the loving quality of the church. 

The bible is unequivocal about this. I strongly believe that Scripture presents a theology of speech based on four overarching principles: truth, love, humility and, silence. Yes, silence plays a significant role in Christian dialogue!

We are called on to speak the truth. The prophet Zechariah puts it like this:‘These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another; render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace,’ (8, 16). Defining what truth is, of course, difficult, as Pilate put it, ‘what is truth?’ As Christians we must be very careful not to confuse truth with opinions, however strongly held. Truth can be found in many places and expressed in many ways. Truth about God is revealed, for the Christian, in and through Jesus. Truth is therefore both embodied and personal. Christians also affirm the propositional truths of the faith through the creed. Truth can be experienced; I know that I love or hate because I feel love or hate. So, this leads onto my final point about truth – we must be honest about our motives. Christian truth must always be spoken from a position of love and humility. Truth can be thought of  “sincerity in action, character, and utterance.” Zecharia reminds us only judgments that ‘make for peace,’ are real,sustainable, truths. 

Cardinal Donald Wuer suggests that Christians must use the language of charity. He uses 1 Corinthians 13 as his base for describing how Christians should speak, both in our internal conversations, and, more widely. Our speech should be ‘patient,’ ‘kind’ ‘not jealous,’ ‘not pompous,’ ‘not inflated,’ ‘not rude,’ ‘it should not seek its own interests,’ ‘it should not rejoice over wrongdoing,’ but it should ‘bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and, endure all things.’ The Book of Proverbs (22,11) reminds Christians that whoever ‘is gracious of speech has the king for a friend.’ If the Proverb is correct,the quality of our relationship with God, is contingent on the quality of our dialogue with others!

Mary, in the encounter with the angel Gabriel,  reminds us that our language is to be grounded in humility: ‘You see before you the Lord’s servant, let it be to me as you have said,’ (Luke 1, 38). Is this how we see ourselves, as the Lord’s servant. Can we, just occasionally, follow the Virgin’s example and render ourselves linguistically passive? Can we trust, like Mary, in the authority of someone else’s words? ‘Let it be to me as YOU have said.’

And, finally sometimes we should simply remain silent. Do we have to have an opinion on everything? Should we sometimes willingly give way to the preferences of others?  Proverbs (17, 28) reminds us that ‘even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.’ In his general epistle James (1, 19)  urges readers to let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger,’ whilst in chapter 3, verses 1-18 he provides a comprehensive theology of speech, why not spend some time reflecting on this passage in the week ahead?. 

So there we have it; Scripture is concerned with the manner and quality of our speech. The way we communicate is a living testimony to the quality of our beliefs, but much more importantly, the image of the God within us.

Speak and communicate wisely for, as Christians, we claim to re-present for God to the world.
  

 

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‘I am a Christian,’ so………judge me

This week I read about the appalling case of the Sudanese woman Meriam Yehja Ibrahim who has been sentenced to death by hanging for apostasy, and flogging for adultery. But, she hasn’t committed adultery in the sense that you and I might understand the word, for the ‘crime’ of this 28 year old doctor is her marriage to a South Sudanese Christian. Meriam has steadfastly refused to renounce her Christian faith. When invited in court to affirm allegiance to Islam she simply, without equivocation, said I am a Christian.’

We all of us hope ,and pray, that religious tolerance is exercised and that Meriam is spared the whip and the gallows. And, I suspect we are all in awe of her bravery and, the strength of her faith.

But let us also reflect on what the implications are for all of us when we say ‘I am a Christian.’

I suggest that to say  ‘I am a Christian’ is to invite judgement. Indeed if Christianity implies a pattern of life based on Jesus’ earthly life then it is hard to dodge the fact that judgment is inevitable. For some judgement might lead to death, but not for the majority of us; so what forms of judgement can we anticipate? Four possible  forms of judgement can be readily identified from the Gospel stories.

  • Straightforward apathy – this will be the reaction of people so caught up in their own lives that they simply can’t afford the time to come and dine with Christ (Luke 14, 15-24).
  • Injustice – Jesus experienced the worst kind of human injustice. He was put to death by an unholy alliance of the religious and political elite. Currently the same fate, by an equivalent group of actors, awaits Meriam.
  • Positive rejection – the message is heard, perhaps even the experience of an encounter with the Divine entered into but ultimately the message of Christianity is rejected. The Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10, 17-31) knew that Jesus offered something different, better even, but couldn’t let go of his allegiance to the material world. The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13) reveals a less explicit form of rejection, for one of the seeds fell on what appeared to be fertile soil, only to be choked off as hurdles to growth were encountered.
  • Negative rejection – this might be our fault! It will take place when the zeal of our words are out of kilter with the quality of our lives. We come over as all logos but no ethos. We provoke a reaction akin to Gandhi who was greatly inspired by Christ but completely turned off by Christians.
  • Acceptance – occasionally the quality of  faith is so infectious that  a genuine conversion experience becomes possible. But don’t bank on it, after all, to paraphrase the cat food adverts, nine out of ten lepers, received  their healing and then went on their merry way without accepting their ongoing spiritual healing (Matthew 17, 11-19).  Sometimes we have to accept that we will be used!

Western Christians are unlikely to face the gravest of injustices, outright injustice enacted through flogging and hanging. Our  judgement is much more likely to be apathy or positive rejection. This is part of the pattern of Jesus’ own judgement.

I hope that tolerance wins out for Meriam. I pray that it does.

But, what can we learn from her story? Simply this, that to say that ‘I am a Christian,’ is to invite judgement.  

How comfortable are we with this? I suspect that the answer is not very! I have said I pray for tolerance for Meriam but, at the same time I get slightly worried when I hear western Christians asking for tolerance.  Could it be that at times  we really crave the ease of apathy? In asking for tolerance are we in danger of entering into some form of uneasy pact where we trade religious freedom for silence or acquiescence on other issues? I watched Bonhoeffer – Agent of Grace with a group of parishioners this week and was struck by how the Lutheran Church traded freedom of worship for silence in the political sphere. Bonhoeffer criticised the Lutheran Church for ‘peddling cheap grace,’ without paying the ‘cost of discipleship.’ We must make sure we don’t do the same, we must like Meriam and Bonhoeffer accept that judgment is the cost of discipleship. Are we prepared to do so: that is the question.

 

Christianity, depression and healing: personal reflections.

This week is Depression Awareness Week.

There is a bittersweet irony in this for many depressives are incredibly adept at keeping their depression quiet, for two reasons: stigma, yes mental health problems are still regarded as character defects (they aren’t – in fact depressives score highly in terms of stamina and resolve), and the impact of the disease itself. As any depressive knows social isolation and retreat into our innermost recesses are classic symptoms of depression. Sadly, we can also be very good at disguising our retreat, at least until we get to the point we feel so crap that our continued absence from community becomes obvious even to the most inept of observers.

Depression is awful, truly awful. I know because I have suffered from depression. Whilst my condition is largely held at bay, I know that I am susceptible to attack. Suffering from depression can be particularly problematic in communities of faith, aren’t we after all supposed to have responded to the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ? Well, yes we have, but………

So what can Christian depressives do? And, how can non depressives stand in solidarity?

I can only talk about the strategies that I have, and continue, to use.

  • Recognition that depression is systemic. It is a condition effecting mind, body and soul. It is a physical, mental and spiritual condition. It is, in fact, ‘proof’ that we are holistic entities. Learning to recognise where I feel depression bodily (neck, shoulders, back and bizarrely forearms and wrists) has been incredibly useful. Often I feel my depression physically before I experience it mentally and spiritually. Awareness that I am beginning to ruminate on a problem, or situation, is a sure fire mental clue that I am in danger. Spiritual manifestations are harder to identify, but I think that a continuing sense that ‘I’ need to be in charge, to do something to remedy the situation, is akin to a rejection of trust in God and, others. The important thing in managing my susceptibility to depression is breaking the negative discourse between body, mind and soul. The really good news is that  this can be done both proactively (managing the condition) and reactively (treating the symptoms of the condition). Prayerful meditation  using the body scan is one of my preferred methods. Bible verses such as physician heal thyself (Luke 4, 23) and come unto me all who labour…….(Matthew 11, 28) are used as stimuli. I could not manage my condition without  a meditative process that specifically invites the Divine into the healing process. Also try and include gratitude and thanksgiving in your mediation, even if you don’t feel like – sometimes I have to fake it to make it.
  • Exercise – my wife oftens says fresh air is good for cuts. Fresh air is also good for our mental health. Go to the gym, go for a walk, get the oxygen flowing. Make this part of your preventative discipline and when you know you are suffering make yourself do something.
  • Be realistic – just like alcoholics recognise that you are always vulnerable  In the past I have been encouraged to ‘claim my healing,’ I prefer to take the words of St. Peter to heart: brethren to be sober be vigilant your adversary the devil is on the prowl seeking whom he may devour….(I Peter 5, 8-9). Prayerful mediation, exercise and the other strategies discussed below are part of an ongoing healing process. I have discovered that bouts of depression come and go, but over time they can become both less frequent and less aggressive.
  • Use a metaphor descriptive of your condition. I have found this invaluable; the metaphor creates a sense of space between me and the condition allowing me to reflect objectively on my depression. My preferred metaphor is the tomb of Holy Saturday – it is dark, damp and gloomy and yet shafts of light are evident and there is always the hope that the stone will be rolled away. Metaphor is a representation of reality  not reality itself. Knowing that I am not, cannot be reduced to the metaphor, is vital. In using the metaphor I am sometimes able to discern the nature of the stone keeping me trapped in the tomb (most recently fear).
  • Talking about the condition. Depression likes nothing more than darkness. Its preference is to remain in the tomb. Just letting a few people know that your are suffering is important: lighten our (my) darkness we beseech thee O Lord. I have two or three close friends I know I can call and simply say ‘I am beginning to feel depressed.’ But, avoid those who want to fix you; they can’t. When I am vulnerable all I want is solidarity and friendship (and maybe encouragement to get on and do something). I don’t want a critique of my prayer life, a prophetic word, a strategy for healing or a crass remark such as ‘I know how you feel.’ What I want is your friendship I want to borrow from your bank of strength and sensitivity.

Eighteen months ago I could see no way out of the tomb; I really didn’t care whether I lived or died. Now I do care, I want life in all its fullness. Grace, healing, friendship, solidarity, exercise and above all prayerful-meditation have been the key ingredients in my ongoing process of healing.

Could they become part of yours?

If anyone out there is interested in developing a Christian response to living with, through and beyond depression please do get in touch.

‘Just a minute;’ an unfavourable reflection on inclusivity

I know that I am supposed to be all for inclusivity (and diversity, for that matter), but I’m not. So there you have it! Perhaps, I better explain:

I am actually all for inclusivity if, and when, it is the natural outcome of a prior set of beliefs and behaviours. 

Let’s start with beliefs and, Genesis 1 26-28: ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…..so God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.’ 

Now, if the writer of Genesis were to appear on Just a Minute he / she would surely be a crashing failure. The word image (and this excludes the reference to likeness)  is mentioned three times, in relation to humankind, that is to say all of humanity, before the any categorisation into male and female is mentioned. This is staggering stuff.

So our most basic, foundational, grounded belief, taken from our foundational Scripture, is right there in the first chapter of the Bible: all humans are made in the image of God, full stop! Yes, we sin through our behaviour but we are all created of the right stuff; we are all the very image of God. If this is a foundational belief, it must, if really, sincerely, held drive our resulting set of behaviours?

I suggest that our only authentic responses, that is to say responses that reflect the fact we are made in the image of God are love and solidarity – not inclusivity.

Inclusivity has a ring of phoniness about it. Inclusivity, like tolerance, belongs to the realm of political ethics. Love and solidarity don’t see difference; they see similarity. And, this takes us into the realm of Christian ethics. The Trinity isn’t inclusive, it’s an all loving holistic entity where the Father, Son and Spirit stand in solidarity with each other. Each and everyone of our relationships should reflect the relationship within the Trinity.

There are, perhaps, two forms of inclusivity we need to be particularly worried about: contingent inclusivity and political inclusivity.

Contingent inclusivity says, ‘please do join us but your real level of inclusion has got to be based on the unequivocal acceptance of everything we hold to be true.’ Contingent inclusivity allows little or no room for doubt, or error. Contingent inclusivity was much loved by the Scribes and Pharisees as described in Matthew 23. 

Political inclusivity obsesses about diversity. It is the agenda of political correctness verified by statistics. Political inclusivity refuses to accept the message of Galatians 3, 28: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’

If we want a truly inclusive church we need to forget the inclusivity agenda and go back to Genesis 1, 26-28 and learn to walk in love and solidarity with all. 

Is this what we desire?