Oct 212008

Professor Richard Dawkins is supporting a publicity campaign to have London buses carry ads saying that “There’s probably no God”. I can’t help but think that he could have been a bit more positive about it given his hard-line atheist stance. Surely he’s not having doubts?

I also wonder if it won’t backfire somewhat. Surely it’s in Dawkins’ and the British Humanist Association’s interest to not have people talking about God at all. Wouldn’t the old adage of ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’ be very appropriate here? And in fact, I’m all in favour of people thinking about faith and religion. If they choose to reject it, then so be it. But at least it’ll be done from a point of knowledge rather than simply go along with Dawkins’ accusations of religion being brainwashing and superstition. After all, he’s an eminent professor so what he says must be true, surely? Just remember he’s an eminent professor of evolutionary biology, not of religion (and don’t call me Shirley).

Feb 052008

Duct tape, duck tape, gaffer tape. Call it what you will, it provided me with a ‘theme’ for the youth club last Friday. I had been asked to step in since the regular leader had a prior commitment and the other leaders weren’t too experienced. Not long before a ‘youth leader email’ had dropped into my inbox extolling the virtues of duct tape for silly games. Now the interesting thing about duct tape is that it can fix just about anything, has a million and one uses but it’s rubbish at the one thing it was designed for – sealing ducts. Apparently the adhesive dries out too quickly and it starts to leak. There are now better products on the market for sealing ducts, but duct tape is still a huge seller. Anyway, duct tape was my theme for the night. And here’s how it went…

We started off the ‘themed’ part with a silly game. The group had to get themselves into three teams. Each team had a roll of duct tape. I scattered lots of small squares of paper on the hall floor. Each team member in turn had to have a single wrap of duct tape round them, sticky side out, and then had 20seconds to ‘catch’ as many of the paper squares as possible. The team that collected the most were the winners and got to be first in the queue for the tuckshop. (The losers got to pick up any paper still lying around.)

Next up was the ‘God-slot’. I spoke about the million and one uses of duct tape, how good it was at so many different things and explained to them why it was rubbish at the one thing it was intended for. I then spoke about creation and how humanity was made ‘in God’s image’. We spoke a bit about what that meant, always nudging towards the idea of ‘relationship with God’ being one of the key things it means (God, as Trinity, is the perfect relationship of grace). And, of course, like duct tape, we have many talents and uses, but generally speaking, we’re pretty hopeless at the one thing we were meant to have – a relationship with God (and for that to be reflected in our relationships with each other). However, unlike duct tape, we haven’t been replaced by something better (skimming swiftly around the flood story at this point). Rather, God seeks to reconcile us to Him, imperfect as we are, through Jesus. There endeth the lesson.

I then set them another duct tape challenge. Back in their teams they had to see who could build the highest tower using only newspaper and duct tape. As they were building them, they were intent only in making their own tower as high as absolutely possible. Of course, they started to keel over and had to be propped up or guyed to try and get them to stand. At this point I had a burst of inspiration. During the chat about what it meant to be made in God’s image, someone suggested that we should have been perfect. I pointed out that in the creation narratives, God doesn’t declare creation to be perfect, but ‘very good’ – good enough, fit for purpose, just as it was intended to be. After calling time on the tower building (2 of the 3 had collapsed by this stage) I called everyone together and pointed out that what I had asked them was to see who could build the highest tower – that is, the highest of the three – which didn’t mean that it had to be a towering edifice, just higher than the other two – good enough, fit for purpose. We so often strive for perfection, driven by a false sense of what perfection is – fastest car, slimmest figure, biggest house, most money. We forget that we haven’t been made perfect, but we’re often good enough. It doesn’t quite fit with the highest tower analogy, but it did give me a chance to slip in another message.

So, there’s the gospel according to duct tape. Contrived, I’ll agree, but it sort of worked.

Jan 242008

Well, maybe not so much confused, but yesterday I was certainly dazed and more than a little brain-dead by late afternoon. In the morning I was on my hospital placement followed, in the afternoon, by my follow-up PDI – that’s Personal Development Interview in 121-speak.

Each of those on its own is taxing enough. Both together on the same day was perhaps not one of my brightest scheduling tasks. The hospital placement is with the chaplaincy team and I have a ward assigned to me to do visits in. Up to this point, conversations have been fairly mundane but on Wednesday I had a particularly ‘heavy’ chat with someone. I can’t, obviously, give any details but there was some pretty serious stuff being shared with me. I’m still sorting it through in my mind and working out all of the ramifications. I’ve also agreed with our supervisor to discuss the issues with the group next week. It’s difficult to prepare for something like this, especially when it comes on you out of the blue – the conversation up ’til that point gave no indication that some ‘heavy’ stuff was coming. I guess the point is that I should expect anything and be prepared to go with the conversation wherever it heads. It would be too easy and a bit of a cop-out to steer the conversation away from something I’m not prepared to deal with. After all, the person is sharing this, very personal, information for a reason. For all I know this may be the one and only time they will get it off their chest and I can’t judge the effects of that. I guess it also means that a chaplain/pastor/minister should never treat any conversation as mundane. The true meaning of it can only really be known by the person telling their story. It’s a pretty awesome responsibility and a huge privilege. My hope for this placement, regardless of the academic outcome, is that I will be better attuned to the nuances of pastoral conversations. More to the point, this hasn’t scared me off and, in a way, it’s quite exciting being drawn into that sphere. It’s a challenge, but one to look forward to.

Then on top of that I had my second PDI. That, to all intents and purposes, is a slow roasting on a spit by a psychological assessor who picks your personality apart to make sure you’re not a total fruitcake (or, at least, not the wrong sort of fruitcake). In actual fact, it wasn’t too bad. I’ve nothing to hide and do feel I’ve grown considerably over the last months and years as a reflective person. I know myself better. I better understand my strengths and weaknesses and I can face things I’m not comfortable with in a way that isn’t stressful because I know I’m not comfortable and understand the reasons why. Perhaps most crucially, I can articulate all of this in a way I struggled with before. In this respect I would only have myself to blame if I don’t come across well at my forthcoming local review and then, hopefully, the assessment conference. I have the ‘tools’ and the understanding (albeit still on the learning curve) to ‘sell’ my calling to those who will be looking for it.

It may well sound like it was a pretty intense day, and in many respects it was, but it was one of those crucial points where a lot of pressures came together at once and what it forced out the far side was me with a few more rough edges knocked off and a better appreciation of God at work, reshaping and ‘fitting out’. I was shattered last night. My head was buzzing and I’m still wrestling with a lot of what happened. But I don’t feel stressed by it and I don’t feel defeated by it. In a bizarre way, I feel quite exhilarated, particularly now as I type this blog entry, looking back on yesterday and considering the significance of it all.

Dazed? Most definitely. Confused? A lot less so.

Jan 212008

It looks as though my soap box this semester is going to be the different methods of approaching scripture. I’ve just been reading about form criticism and that’s not actually what I want to blog about, but it did spark off a train of thought. I’ve also been reading recently some of the debate over scriptural inerrancy, infallibility and so on.

Claims for inerrancy always seem to be accompanied by great long riders over what constitutes an error. Literary gymnastics then ensue to wriggle round the very obvious inconsistencies and ‘errors’ we indisputably (I use the word reservedly) find in scripture. It occurred to me this evening that when God created this world it was ‘very good’. Not perfect, not absolutely right, not without error, but ‘very good’. Good enough, fit for purpose, just as God wanted it. It also occurred to me that our God-inspired/breathed scripture is much the same – good enough for purpose. And what’s its purpose? To point to and witness to Jesus Christ so that we may know Him and claim Him as our own Lord. And it’s good enough for that. We don’t need the letters that Paul was replying to, we don’t need Paul’s missing letters, we don’t need to know who wrote Hebrews or whether any of the other books were written by the name we put at the front. Because what we have is good enough to witness and point us to Jesus. Because when we get to that point then the Spirit has something to work with and, all too often, we forget that we worship a Trinity and that the Spirit is God as well and the Spirit has a purpose.

I really wonder if ‘inerrancy’ springs up through an unreconciled sense of doubt, a need to ‘know’ absolutely. I think it also springs up through a real misunderstanding of what/who is God’s Word. We invest that word, ‘Word’, with too much of our own meaning – text on paper and so we create a fourth member of the Trinity (if you see what I mean). And for that to be the case, the Bible has to be perfect, inerrant and ‘absolute’ – like God and not just like God, but to be God.

But I can live with doubt. The more I learn, the less I realise I know. I also realise I can’t know absolutely. But I do have faith. I have faith that God is much bigger than my doubts; that God can accommodate my doubts far better than my knowledge can hope to accommodate God.

For me, scripture is ‘good enough’. It points me sufficiently towards Jesus. It leaves room for the Spirit to work. I’ll always wrestle with scripture because I’ll never properly understand it. Even it it was perfect, it’s being read and interpreted by a very imperfect person; a person with doubts and faith.

ps – just in case this apparent ‘evangelical-bashing’ is giving liberals a sense of righteousness, I’m just as opposed to allowing scripture to be interpreted however we please, but that’s a subject for another blog, another day.

Dec 082007

I’m currently reading some NT Wright as part of revising a block on the “Third Quest for the historical Jesus” for Modern Christology. One particular essay has an anecdote that I particularly like, so I’ll paraphrase it here:

When he was chaplain at Worcester College, Oxford, Wright would welcome all 1st year undergraduates and speak to them, albeit briefly, personally. He would often get an embarrassed comment that he wouldn’t be seeing much of the person as they didn’t believe in God. To their consternation and surprise, he would ask them, “Which god don’t you believe in?” Thereupon a confused jumble of definitions would be trotted out: the being who lived in the sky; sometimes did miracles; sent bad people to hell; let good people come to heaven. His reply (predictably enough) was, “I don’t believe in that god either.” Following it up with, “I believe in the god I see revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.”

I suspect that it’s actually a common enough conversation, or at least potentially so, for most Christians. It raises loads of questions, I think, not least of which might be:

  • How often do we assume we’re speaking about the same God?
  • How mixed up is our Christian witness with cultural ‘myth’?
  • Is our Christian witness centred on Jesus, or some comfy interpretation of Him?

There’s loads more, but it’s interesting how such an innocuous, and amusing little anecdote can raise such big issues.

Nov 252007

I had 2 very interesting conversations after church this morning. Each quite different, but each challenging in their own way.

The first was as I was heading through for a coffee. I was ‘collared’ and asked if I could explain something. “Why, ” I was asked, “did Jesus cry out on the cross that His Father had forsaken Him?” I was asked, apparently, because this had been bothering the person for quite some time and, since I was currently studying such things, then I might be ‘up on such stuff’. Thus ensued a conversation about Jesus being fully divine and fully human and the implications thereof. I’m sure I could have offered different/better explanations had I not been put on the spot, but what I said seemed to make some sense to the person. It does make me wonder though how many people wonder/worry about such questions and never pluck up the courage to ask, thinking that perhaps it’s a dumb question and something they ought to just know. As I have told people in the past, the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask.

The other conversation was, in some ways,  more challenging. The person I was chatting to had tried a number of different churches and didn’t feel entirely settled in any of them. The only one that they had sort of liked was a local charismatic evangelical church but they had now moved away from that area and it was no longer local or so convenient for them. They liked it because that particular church ‘accepted anyone, regardless of who they were’. Further chat revealed that the person felt other churches were full of ‘good people, who were more sorted’. Judging others based on appearance, speech, behaviour, whatever, was this person’s biggest hate and they felt that too many churches they had tried did just that – immediately judged and ‘categorised’ visitors. We spoke about how churches, despite appearances, were ‘full of sinners’ and all too often those who were ‘inside’ lost sight of that. And, for that matter, so do those who are ‘outside’. How often do you hear comments like, “The church is full of hypocrites”? Anyway, we chatted about how those in church were no different from those outside, but many recognised that, in the light of the Gospel, they were very far from perfect. The big thing is acceptance. Most (not all) churchgoers realise that they are accepted by God, despite the sort of person they are. What they often forget is that the others they meet and see and ‘judge’ are every bit as accepted and that we are called to accept and love those others in the same way. The person said I’d given them a lot to think about. If only we’d all think a bit more about what being a Christian really means.