Don’t look away

“My God, my God. Why hast thou forsaken me?” – Matthew 27:46

‘The cross is about Jesus, the eternal son of God,
being forsaken by his Father.’

‘How great the pain of searing loss,
the Father turns his face away.’

‘One final breath He gave
As heaven looked away.’

‘The light of the world,
Abandoned in darkness to die.’

I love the depth of the cross. I love the weight of Jesus’ sacrifice. I love the certainty of ‘It is Finished!’ But I really struggle with the idea that the God who promised Israel, and all of Humanity (whom Jesus fully represents on the cross), “never will I leave you or forsake you” breaks that promise at the very moment Jesus needed it most.

And, as far as I can see, there is nothing in scripture that actually suggests God abandoned Jesus on the Cross. In fact it seems quite the opposite when the psalmist prophetically writes ‘you will not abandon me to the grave’ (Psalm 16:10).

Even in Jesus cry “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” there is hope. Those agonising words are the opening lines of Psalm 22.  And in feeling abandoned, he finds the fulfilment of God’s promise in v24….

“For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” – Psalm 22:24

What if the cross isn’t about forsaking, it’s about Father, Son and Spirit faithfully working together to bring healing and wholeness even in the most agonising of suffering?

What if, rather than turning his face away in the midst of our suffering, at the very moment we need him most, when we’re at our end and feel totally alone… our heavenly Father hears our cry for help and, by his Spirit, stands with us until it is finished? What if  it is when we are poorest and when we are persecuted that we find the King of Heaven standing up for his citizens (Matt 5:3 & 10 and Proverbs 31:8-9)?

If that is the case, we need better ways of describing what happened on the cross. We need new ways of expressing how our Heavenly Father relates to Jesus and to us, in his time of need and ours.

God said “never will I leave you or forsake you” and I believe my Heavenly Father honours his promises.

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A letter to America

Dear Friends,

Once again we find ourselves in a world reeling from the news of another shooting in America. And once again the media coverage, emotional responses and political spin form their familiar dances around the issue.

President Trump has been quick to label the tragedy as a mental health issue and ‘not a guns situation’ (not that he has any intention of addressing either!). The perpetrator was a young, white, American veteran and is therefore deemed by the media outlets not as a terrorist but as a man with a ‘difficult’ background; a ‘lone wolf’.

And once again the gun lobbyists and enthusiasts have been quick to jump on their 2nd Amendment bandwagon; proclaiming with ‘patriot’ passion their ‘right to bear arms!’

I am not an American citizen. But I struggle with the 2nd Amendment argument from those quick to fall back on their Constitutional prooftext.

I am a Christian. I am a pastor of a local church. I teach from the Bible. I have received academic theological training, part of which was the art of critically reading ancient texts – a skill largely lacking in many 2nd Amendment arguments. I know all too well the dangers of proof-texting and am often challenged on how I can possibly allow my 21st Century life to be so influenced by ancient manuscripts; manuscripts written in other languages, in other cultures, thousands of years ago. And my answer is this:

  • I study the text – what it says in and of itself.
  • I study the culture in which it was written – what principles were the authors trying to convey.
  • How can I learn from and embody those principles in my own life?

There are many complicated verses and passages in the Bible. There are chapters and books that appear to contradict one another. It is difficult, to say the least, to take the entirety of the Bible literally and embody each and every teaching accurately.

Perhaps the same can be said of the American Constitution. Whilst a relatively young document, the Constitution was written in a time and culture not our own. It would be dangerous to take 18th Century principles and slam them into 21st Century America. How can we critically read, for sake of this argument, the 2nd Amendment?

What does the text say?

“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

What of the culture in which in was written? A fledgling country finding its feet and establishing independence from, in their view, a tyrannical regime. Wanting to secure for themselves a new country based on liberty, they installed within their constitution the right to collectively defend their cause by military means if necessary.

What principles can we bring into our contemporary lives?

Firstly, a ‘lone wolf’ is not a ‘well regulated militia’. The definition of militia is ‘a military force that is raised from the civil population to supplement a regular army in an emergency.’ Individuals carrying guns for ‘personal protection’ is not a ‘well regulated militia’.

Secondly, shooting the general public – including children – in schools, churches, shopping malls or concerts are not the actions of a well regulated militia defending and ensuring the security of the state against a tyrannical or oppressive force.

Thirdly, as I understand it, the 2nd Amendment is about defending the country you love from powers who would seek to destroy it from within or without; so defend it. Protect it, not by shooting one another but by forging a society that is fair, benevolent, equitable and peaceful. Forge a country your forefathers would be proud of. Forge a nation so renowned for its respect for the life of each of its citizens that the thought of using a gun against any of them for any reason is repugnant. Those struggling with their mental health need access to health care not assault rifles.

The Government has a responsibility to act. Millions of prayers have been offered up over the years for the victims of mass shootings in the U.S. Thousands more for those affected by smaller gun crimes across that country. I believe in prayer. I believe it provides a comfort for those who mourn and a peace that surpasses understanding for those who grieve. But I also believe that we can so often be the answer to people’s prayers. And those in power in the U.S. Government have the power and responsibility to answer the prayers of its own citizens, and citizens of the global community of which the United States of America is a part.

President Trump swore an oath to ‘preserve, protect and defend’ the constitution. It is well within his job description to prevent U.S. citizens from misusing the Constitution for their own selfish end.

Gun control is constitutional.

Yours,

A concerned British Friend who shares your pain.

Rockets and Reform

Just a few days ago, the church was commemorating and even celebrating the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. On 5th November, England remembers (for she knows no reason why it should be forgot) a direct consequence of that Reformation process.

No revolution or reformation is without its casualties and in 17th century Jacobean England there were plenty on both sides.

Remember, remember the fifth of November; gunpowder treason and plot. We see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.

The violent tension between Protestants and Catholics fuels the volatile motive to religious terrorism in the gunpowder plot; the complex relationship between church and state forms the heart of the potentially explosive means; the state opening of Parliament by King James I on 5th November 1605 provides the opportunity.

Groups of Christians at war over political power. Groups of religious extremists ready and willing to torture and kill those who disagreed with their beliefs.

How then should the church mark this occasion? With the customary pyrotechnic reminder that the plot failed and Catholics remained second class citizens (until relatively recently!) or by reenacting the burning at stakes of those who would rather die than deny their religious principles? (Of course Guy Fawkes was hanged, drawn and quartered for treason rather than burned at the stake for heresy!)

The church is often quick to condemn the dark connotations of All Hallows’ Eve, disapprove of the fancy-dressed sweet requests and lock the doors. But while we English churches gaze into the dark skies this fifth of November, perhaps we would do well to remember, remember our own dark histories and ponder a more tolerant and inclusive future.

Reformed Worship

500 years ago, On 31st October, a young monk challenged the status quo of the church by pinning his thoughts to the door of a church in Germany. He challenged the principles of the Roman Catholic church, in particular the practice of charging money for absolution of sins; paying for salvation.

The monk was Martin Luther, and his actions triggered what we now know as the Protestant Reformation in Europe.

500 years later and we are making the same mistakes again on, quite literally, an industrial scale. This time it is not salvation that is up for grabs for a price, but our worship; that feeling of connection with God, the ability to express our faith in creative ways, that artistic expression of eternal gratitude and recognition of who our maker is… is being sold to us.

We can purchase it for 79p a track or £9.99 for an album’s worth of blissful spiritual escapism. If we’re really desperate for a ‘worship fix’ (because of the hard week we’ve had, the difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves, or just that we ‘need’ that warm fuzzy ‘worship’) we can pay out for a ticket for our favourite priests worship leaders’ concerts worship events.

In this environment, worship songs is not so much a bad description of a musical genre that shouldn’t exist as much as it has become a command: worship songs.

Musical expression, singing together, worshipping ‘in spirit and in truth’ are all fantastic and sacred acts in our individual and collective spiritual experience. But the industry that has developed around it is flawed.

To charge people to worship (in the narrowly defined way the industry has taught us to understand the very nature of that worship!) is surely wrong. To have transformed into a commodity material specifically created to facilitate worship experiences – and by definition turn those who purchase into consumers, albeit informed to a greater of lesser extent – is wrong.

Jesus had some very sturn words to say about those in his time who charged the public to worship; “you’ve turned the house of God into a den of thieves!” He threw them out. He removed their means of prohibiting people from worshipping unless they had the right currency, or the right album and the merchandise to go with it. He put an end to that system… and in the creation of this ‘worship industry’ we have merely reassembled the money-changers’ tables and sold CD’s and downloads from them instead.

What would worship look like in a re-reformation era? What would the Church’s gathered expression of worship sound like if we were free to express our worship indigenously in each local congregation instead of feeling coerced into replicating album after album? How different would our churches be if everyone brought to the table something of personal and vulnerable sacrifice instead of hiding behind bland, rehashed, boring lyrics accompanied by over produced backing tracks?

What if the record companies went the way of the indulgences salesmen of the past and worship was reclaimed, re-calibrated, refreshed and reformed. Just as the printing press was the new technology of the Protestant Reformation giving everyone the opportunity to read the Bible for themselves instead of relying on priests, what if we used the technology available to us – the internet, social media, live streaming apps – to distribute worship material across the globe for free?

It’s not about which mountain, it’s not about which record label or which singer, it’s not about the songs or the currency: A time is coming, and has now come when the true worshippers will worship in spirit and in truth.

Reformation.

Why wouldn’t you push the button?

Last night I watched a TV audience despair at a politician for refusing to use nuclear weapons if he was elected to lead the country. After all, it isn’t much of a deterrent if one is reluctant to use it, right? Surely a strong leader is one prepared to ‘Push the button’.

Allow me to remind us what happened the last time someone ‘pushed the button’.

World Map Inked

“And this is what happened on 6 August 1945 at Hiroshima: 8:15am. The streets are full of people; people going to work, people going to shop, people – smaller people – going to school. It was a lovely summer morning, sunshine and blue sky. Blue sky stands for happiness in Japan. The air raid siren sounds. No one pays attention. There’s only a single enemy aircraft in the sky. The aircraft flies across the city. Above the centre, something falls. It’s hard to see – the bomb is very small, two kilograms in weight, a little larger than a tennis ball in size. It falls for ten to fifteen seconds, it falls and falls.

“Then there is a searing flash of light, brighter and hotter than a thousand suns. Those who were looking directly at it had their eyes burnt in their sockets. They never looked again on men or things. In the street below there was a business man in charge of large affairs, walking to his work. A lady, as elegant as she was beautiful. A brilliant student, the leader of his class; a little girl, laughing as she ran. And in a moment they were gone. They vanished from the earth. They were utterly consumed by the furnace of the flash. There were no ashes even on the pavement. Nothing but their black shadows on the stones. Scores of thousands more, sheltered by walls or buildings by the flash, were driven mad by an intolerable thirst that followed from the heat. They ran in frenzied hordes towards the seven rivers of the delta on which Hiroshima is built. They fought like maniacs to reach the water. If they succeeded, they stooped to drink the poisoned stream, and in a month they too were dead.

“Strength is only strength when it makes the weak strong.” – Kosuke Koyama.

“Then came the blast, thousand of miles an hour. Buildings in all directions for kilometres, flattened to the ground. Lorries, cars, milk-carts, human beings, babies’ prams, picked up and hurled like lethal projectiles, hundreds of metres through the air. The blast piled its victims up in frightful heaps, seven of eight corpses deep. Then the fireball touched the earth and scores of conflagrations, fanned by hurricane winds, joined in a fire-storm. And many thousands more, trapped by the walls of flame, that leaped higher than the highest tower in the town, in swiftly or longer agony, were burnt to death. Then all went black as night. The mushroom cloud rose to 40,000 feet. It blotted out the sun. It dropped its poison dust, its fall-out, on everything that still remained not lethal in Hiroshima. And death by radioactive sickness from the fall-out was the fate of those who had survived the flash, the river, the blast, the fire-storm.”

– Philip Noel Baker.

Is this really what we want our elected officials to inflict on anyone? Is this description really an accurate depiction of the effects of ‘strong and stable leadership’?

And let us not wash our own hands of this responsibility. It is not enough to say ‘not in my name’. Our elected officials represent us; they work on our behalf therefore we share responsibility for their actions: If our Prime Minister or President pushes the button… we push the button!

I suggest that the leader in question maybe stronger than some think when, confronted by a room of people apparently comfortable with unleashing the kind of destruction described above, he stayed true to his principles of peace, communication and reconciliation instead of bowing to the vocal ‘Bomb now, talk later’ tactics; one who is prepared to meet, talk and negotiate with those who are different; one who is willing to try something new and not, even hypothetically to win votes, repeat the atrocities of the past.

The truth is simply this, there are no positives in the possession or use of nuclear weapons.