Minister’s blog

Fake news and pinches of salt

Earlier this year Facebook removed 00s of accounts used by the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Association which was involved in trying to influence the 2016 US election.  It was just another example of fake news and propaganda spreading unchecked through social media.  I’m pleased to say I did not encounter much pro-Putin / anti-Clinton propaganda through Facebook at the time, but I often encounter views which I find upsetting or annoying or which I know to be based on half-truths or untruth.  Which sometimes makes me think why bother exposing myself to this madness through social media?

This world is a messed-up place.  Not because of the internet but because of human beings and their innate ability to put their need for money, sex or power above the needs of their fellow humans or their accountability to God.  Sin, the bible calls it.  The reason social media sites carry so much fake news is because they are driven by human beings.  Jesus said that it’s not what goes into a person that defiles them, but what comes out of the heart (and through the smartphone onto the internet).

God’s approach to this broken world is unambiguous in the teachings of Jesus and his followers.  Sin defiles us to the extent that none of us can stand before a Holy God.  But God does not pull the plug because he loves us.  Through Jesus he comes into the world to tell us of God’s love and God’s standards.  Jesus suffers with us – not just life in this broken world, but unjust punishment and unnecessary execution.  God suffers loss as his son suffers to bring us the message of his love.  (This story has a terrific happy ending which you can read for yourself).

So I’m keeping my Facebook account – at least for the time being, because I think God gets involved and he wants his people to be involved.  ‘Being salt and light,’ Jesus called it.    I’ve given up responding to mile long arguments from friends whose views differ from mine on matters theological or local – Facebook isn’t a good medium for discussion anyway, especially when more than two parties are involved.      But I’m going to keep posting stuff about God and the way he gets his hands dirty dealing with us and about my Christian life and things that bring me and other people joy, wholeness and peace….   And I’m going to continue using Snopes and Hoax Slayer and liberally applied pinches of salt.

 

Creationism vs Evolutionism: why the debate is unhelpful.

So I heard a panel commenting on creationism in the UK on Radio 4 this morning.  As you’d expect from Auntie these days, creationism was being denounced as a conspiracy of ignorance against the overwhelming evidence for evolutionary intelligence.  It’s the third time in as many weeks that the creation vs evolution debate has passed through my headspace.

I have undergraduate degrees in theology and geology and THIS MEANS THAT I KNOW ENOUGH TO KNOW THAT I AM NOT AN EXPERT on science and/or faith.  I’ve been around this debate for around 25 years however, and would like to use the space afforded by my blog to offer a few thoughts:

Creationists are not idiots.

Some of them are my friends.  Many of them hold down responsible professional jobs (holding the relevant higher education qualifications) with they do with excellence for the benefit of society.  They are mostly Christians who believe (as do I) in the reality of God as creator and that the bible has authority and should be taken seriously.  They recognise that evolution is often provided as evidence against God and as justification for the kind of behaviours the bible prohibits.  So they don’t like the theory of evolution.  Modern creationism originated in the US in the  1920s as a reaction to the lines which were being drawn between the ‘survival of the fittest’ in Darwinian theory and the rise of ‘might Is right’ nationalism in Germany.   I don’t like Naziism, creationists don’t like Naziism and I hope you don’t like Naziism.

Mainstream Science is not a Godless conspiracy theory

Whist there are emerging pockets of alt-liberal bigotry in the scientific community, my observation is that mainstream science is dedicated to a wholesome pursuit of peer-reviewed truth-seeking.  The reason creation science often does not get a hearing is that it is often popularist and  widely published before rigorous peer review.    Evolutionary theory has held sway as the mainstream of Biological & Palaeontoligcal sciences for the last 150ish years because it is the most compelling theory with the most evidence in its favour.

It’s possible to be a Christian and believe in evolution

The 19th century church in the UK did not protest widely regards the idea of evolution.  Simon Conway Morris, one of the most senior Palaeobiologists in the UK is a Christian.  Billy Graham believed in evolution.  So it seems that it is possible to believe in God, follow Jesus, hold the bible in highest regard AND think evolution is plausible or likely.

Evolution cannot be a governing philosophy for life

If you are just evolutionary flotsam and jetsam, then the atoms in your body have no more intrinsic value than the atoms in the screen you’re reading from.  If evolution is all there is as a guiding principle then you exist to pass on your genes and prevent competitors from passing theirs on…  If this is alarming to you, it is because you have adopted a philosophy of life which was either revealed to you or you made up and cannot be a consequence of evolution and I am very glad about that.   I think the worldview which stems from the life, death, resurrection and Spirit of Jesus is the one that makes the most sense, but I’m happy to hear about yours.

 

I rarely bother to join this discussion as it produces a great deal of relational heat and not much ethical or spiritual light.  The shouty shouting of extrapolating evolutionists and young earth creationists tends to drown out the voices in the middle ground.  I think the Genesis creation stories can legitimately bear a range of modern ‘how it happened’ interpretations whist still asserting with clarity that there’s only one God who made everything out of nothing and made people in his image.  Consequently I believe that people are not just animals and the atoms in my body are worth more to God than those in my keyboard or in the sparrows in our garden (as are the atoms making up your body).  These truths were taught by Jesus and I believe they matter.  I don’t think this debate does.

The Cross on the Monument

I recently re-watched this drone footage of the Tyndale monument at North Nibley, starting with the cross on the top.  The film is a reminder to me of the privilege it is to live in a peaceful community among these beautiful hills.  But that’s not why local Victorians built the monument.  This is a monument to a man who was not only denied the privilege of Cotswold life but was compelled to leave his homeland and give up his life because of his conviction that God’s word should be available to all.  It’s monument to a Christian martyr.

William Tyndale was a smart guy – Oxbridge trained,  learned in ancient Latin, Greek and Hebrew and posessing a way with words in his native tongue.  His conviction led to action and he began to translate the bible into English.  This made him some powerful enemies including Henry VIII, Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey, so he left Little Sodbury and continued his work in hiding on the continent.  Accounts of his life at that time describe a frugal existence, giving much of his earnings to the poor and encouraging the community of exiles in Antwerp.    After the secession of the English church, his work put him in more danger from the Holy Roman Empire and it was was one of their agents, Henry Phillips who eventually betrayed him.  Tyndale was strangled and burnt at the stake at Vilevoorde, Belgium in October 1536.  Whether his disputed last words ‘may God open the king of England’s eyes’ are historical or not is irrelevant.  His life had already said as much.

Tyndale’s New Testament had to be smuggled into England during his lifetime, but it was a commercial success due to massive demand.  It wasn’t the first vernacular translation of the New Testament, but it was the most readable and the most available.  When the monarchy changed tack and demanded an English version for the national church 80 years later, 80% of the King James New Testament was lifted from Tyndale’s work.  He never finished his Old Testament translation, but King James’ committee used a similar proportion of the books he had translated.  If we attribute equal honours to Shakespeare and the King James in the beginnings of modern English, there’s no question that  Tyndale had a substantial hand in the formation of our language.

Tyndale was not afraid of a fight – you can see this in his hard-nosed and earthy correspondence with More and others.  He was not risk-averse.  He gave up everything for the aim of making the Bible available to all England.   But Tyndale never took up arms for his cause – preferring giving his own life to taking that of others.  Christian martyrs use words, prayer and charity to oppose tyranny, they don’t use weapons to impose it.   They follow Jesus in self-giving, sword-staying, cross-bearing lives.   Crosses can be thinly decorated power or fashion statements.  This one is a reminder of a genuine Christian martyr.  Battered, gilded and glorious.

What was it about Billy Graham?

I cannot think of a stronger candidate for the most influential Christian of the 20th century than Billy Graham.  Even in our little Gloucestershire church, stories are emerging of how Billy Graham’s preaching changed lives and families.  How could one farmer’s son from North Carolina possibly impact so many lives?

Part of the answer has to be his harnessing of the technology of the age.  His insistence on quality P.A. systems and the use of public spaces and sports stadia meant that he could address crowds of up to 1 million at a time.   Satellite TV feeds for live-link audiences extended his lifetime audience to 210 million people in 185 countries.

He was also a man of unquestioned integrity in an age of cynicism and scrutiny.  Mike Pence has been squarely mocked for his avoidance of travel, meetings or meals alone with any woman other than his wife.  No one is mocking Billy Graham now (please see my comments on Pence’s boss below before you count me as a fan).    Combined with his insistence on external scrutiny of his financial affairs, this policy led to 58 years of public life and ministry without major scandal.

Billy Graham was an American patriot, but that was not his message.  He met with and prayed for politburo members and Chinese premiers and even gave Kim Il Sung a bible.  Billy Graham was a white middle class man, but white middle class values were not his message.  He preached with MLK Jnr and hung out with death row prisoners.    Billy Graham was a Baptist, but that was not at the heart of his public preaching.  He met with popes and archbishops and encouraged his converts to connect with the local churches his campaigns partnered with.  Billy Graham was a theistic evolutionist –  but that was not the heart of his message, so he retained his popularity across the spectrum of US Christianity.

Billy Graham preached Christ crucified.  Look at the footage in the obituaries, watch a film of one of his rallies.  View the recent (and brilliant) myhopeuk you-tube remixes http://myhopewithbillygraham.org.uk/programs/the-cross/ …. Billy Graham only ever preached one message – that God loves you; that you’re a sinner; that Jesus died on the cross to deal with your sin; that your response to Jesus death and resurrection is what determines your earthly direction and your eternal destiny.  Clear, simple, powerful.  The kind of message the most influential preacher of the first century was talking about when he wrote in a letter to the church in Corinth:

‘but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,  but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’

Why was Billy Graham so influential?  Technology and integrity played a part, but the real key to Billy Graham’s influence was that he exercised very little influence of his own.  He stuck like glue to his core message, seeking to expose people to the influence of his crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ.

Pruning Kevin

I had to prune Kevin down to about half his height.  Apparently the dead wood would be in the way of new growth.

In late 2007 I got fed up and removed all the conkers our four year old had scattered across the garden, but Kevin’s conker escaped the purge.  We found the seedling that sprouted from it under a sandbag the following spring and Kevin lived and grew and moved with us for eight years.  When he was three feet high and just about too big for his pot, he was adopted by Wotton Community Sports Foundation and planted as a feature tree.  This delightful turn of events turned sour for Kevin when local deer took a liking to his sticky buds and tasty bark and munched his top half to death. WCSF provided Kevin with a big new deer-proof jacket & he’s raring to go with this year’s sticky buds, but 3 years-worth of main stem had to go.

Thus far in my life, nearly all of the (comparatively minor) physical and emotional pain I’ve experienced has been self-inflicted – by having a family and by falling off my bike.  I have seen plenty of other people’s pain and have probably been to more funerals than you, but I can’t speak with any personal experience of major betrayal, injury, illness or loss.  As a church leader, funeral celebrant and ‘community personality’ I do a lot of listening.  Speaking out pain helps people to make sense of the waves of grief and anger and to plot their own course through injustice and pain.  Speaking can be cathartic and listening therapeutic.  But sometimes I’m called on to speak.  What can I say when my own experience of pain is so limited?

Jesus said I’m the vine, my Father is the gardener and you are the branches.  The gardener prunes the branches to make them even more fruitful.  Old wood and dead material is cleared away to make space for new growth and fruit.   In both my own limited experience of suffering and in the lives of those to whom I have listened I’ve seen the pruning hand of God at work.  It’s not always obvious in the years of loss and pain, but the presence of God and the experience of perseverance and learned lessons can lead to flourishing and fruitfulness that may never have happened without the pruning.

The idea that loss and suffering can lead to gain and flourishing is at the heart of the Christian message.  Jesus death – the ultimate tragedy becomes the source of forgiveness, friendship with God and eternal life for all who believe and his resurrection is the d-day defeat of death and the devil.  So our suffering is swallowed up in the unstoppable victory of God and his good purposes over all opposition.

Often as I’m listening, God gets the blame. But as people talk it out, it becomes apparent that there are a thousand other culprits in this broken world – muntjacs, me, you, them, powers and authorities we can see and understand and powers and authorities we can’t.  All are allowed by God to exist with free will for the time being and all will be called to account on the day of Jesus’ return (okay maybe not the muntjacs – they were just doing their thing).

For me this Christian view of suffering is so much more satisfying that saying ‘**it’ happens..  When you think about it, you can’t even say that much if we’re just Godless phenotypes configured by selection pressure.   ‘It’ happens would be more accurate – there being no positive or negative value to what we consider to be suffering.

Apparently Horse chestnut trees take at least 14 years to flower and produce their own conkers.  Kevin hasn’t got off to the best start and no doubt there are more challenges ahead, but maybe his conkers scattered across the lawn will irk dads in generations to come.  Any maybe, just maybe, my pruning will create space for a 300 ring trunk..

 

Simple Sex

And today’s celebrity sexual abuser is….allegedly Dustin Hoffman.

I am sick of sexual abuse.  I am sick of sexual abuse in the news.  I am sick of sexual (and physical) child abuse lying behind the presenting issues of every tenth (conservative guesstimate) person I have a pastoral conversation with. I am sick of ‘me too’.  I am sick of a society which hangs it all out for you to see, where no surveys find that less than 50% of us watch porn and where a sense of sexual entitlement leads to a feeling that my wife / sisters / daughters / female friends cannot go out without being leered at.  SICK SICK SICK

Here’s a simple idea from the old school:

What if we got the idea into our national consciousness that the best place for sexual intimacy, sexual contact and sexual arousal is in a lifelong, committed relationship between one man and one woman, recognised by the community and blessed by God as suggested in the second chapter of the bible, or by Jesus in Matthew 19?  (For the sake of a those more liberal than my reading of the bible, let’s also include lifelong same sex sexual relationships here).  Could it be that we could then all talk openly about sex and relationships without tittering innuendo and embarrassment?  Could it be that couples struggling with sex could talk with counsellors with the aim of restoring their lifelong relationship to sound emotional and sexual footing?   Could it be that the sex industry would collapse and sexual slavery would end?   Could sex and relationship education climb out of the too little, too late, too biological, too much peer pressure to perform trap?  Could it be that we’d realise that habitual porno self-love is antithetical to sexual relationships between human beings? Might my daughters be able to walk down the street without the feeling that they’re being objectified?  Might the housing crisis draw to a close? Might I feel less sick?  Might we be less sick?

Occasionally someone thoughtfully shields the innocent ears of a Christian pastor from sexual detail…..   Which is lovely…. But it’s too late.  Because I’ve heard too many confessions and seen too many broken lives and have also watched the news occasionally and let me tell you…. we are sick sick sick and the answer is SIMPLE SIMPLE SIMPLE.

 

 

 

 

 

Growing Glory

2nd November 2017

Last night my boys aged 10 and 14 were under the Wembley arch watching a little bit of sporting history-in-the-making with Nana.  They will have heard all the usual pre-match tannoy hype ‘the game is all about glory’. For once, there was something in it.  They’ll probably tell their own kids about last night. I couldn’t hear their individual voices on BBC Five Live, but I could hear the 80000 strong crowd clear enough as Ronaldo and co slunk away.  ‘glory glory Tottenham Hotspur’

I have seen glory too.  Mountain peaks peeping through clouds, sunrise over mountain lakes, storm waves battering the cliffs, occasional moments of mountain biking genius/survival, more frequent viewings of beautiful human warmth and generosity.  Those moments of overwhelming, silencing awe.

Beating the champions, clouds, sunrise, storms, survival, kindness… wonderful … glorious….  transitory.

The story of the Old Testament is a story of glimpses of glory. Moments where the reality of God breaks into the lives of his people. Often it’s transitory – leaving a mark for a few short weeks or the tenure of one leader before life fades back into grey and the glory is forgotten.

The New Testament, the story of Jesus and his followers speaks of a different kind of glory. Growing glory. It is seen first in Jesus – ‘the Glory of God in the face of Christ’. And then it gets a hold of those who encounter him. ‘Treasure in clay jars’ Paul calls it. It grows as Jesus’ followers are transformed into his image. I’ve seen it. Lives turned around. Faces lifted up. ‘Dirty glory’ as Pete Grieg calls it (yes, I know Pete Grieg is not a New Testament writer, but it’s a New Testament thought). It’s not aloof and holier than thou: this glory follows Jesus into the mess of the world and spreads the light. Homeless people get housed, sick people get well, lonely people find a family. ‘Glory to be revealed’ Peter calls it. The light sometimes gets obscured, but there’s a not yet to this glory. A coming surpassing glory that’s beyond comparison to what we see now. A glory worth living and hoping for. A glory that has enabled Stephen and countless others to face down death for Jesus. Peter Hicks, my old college lecturer had a way of saying the word “glory” like it was heavier than lead and shinier than diamond. He died in 2013. He’s seen more of the glory than me now, but the New Testament says that neither of us has yet seen the fulness of this growing glory.

Train Preachers: Leave the rucksack at home for the time being

5th October 2017

I have seen the new OCR GCSE R.E. syllabus and it is ENORMOUS.  Apparently compulsory R.E. is part of the bookish-rote-learning-for-exams drive of the new Tory education.  You’ll gather that I’m not a fan of this system generally.  I don’t think the UK needs more accountants, bankers and lawyers with exam skills.  I think we need more plumbers, entrepreneurs and nurses with hands-on training and people skills.  But I’m VERY glad that more kids will be learning more about more religions.

This Monday, something utterly ridiculous happened in Wimbledon:

A man began to read passages from the bible aloud on a train carriage and panicked passengers self-evacuated, leading to delays for thousands of commuters.   Thankfully there was a guard on the train with some common sense to calm things down, but the damage to an already flaky public transport system in the morning rush hour had been done.   I don’t know anything about the preacher in question and I’m not convinced that train preaching is the best way to evangelise, but I think the incident is a window into a spectacular religious illiteracy in British society.

Let me conjecture for a moment what went through the mind of the woman who cried terrorist.   In the post 9.11 UK, we live in a nation where successive governments have rightly tried to crack down on religious extremism.  We are all on the lookout for radicalisation.  Meanwhile noisy atheists shout about all religion as the root of all evil, the sole and culpable cause of crusades, jihads, atrocities and wars across the world.  The centre left media seem to love any opportunity to attribute a religious cause to any wrongdoing (did anyone else notice how many times the illegal BBC reports into the illegal police raids on Cliff Richard’s house used the word ‘evangelical’) or to mock religious sensibilities in public figures.  And so we find ourselves in a situation where religious = insidious in the minds of many people, where lawmakers are unable to distinguish between extremists who are good for society (like Justin Welby) and those who are bad for society (like Abu Hamsa) and where the reading of the bible in a public place can cause a stampede.

So…  I’m sorry kids…  I know that is a lot of rote learning about Islam and Hinduism and Christianity.  But you need to understand this stuff better than the current crop of UK grown-ups.  Honestly, I don’t mind if you flunk the exam, but it’s important to me and for this country that you hear and understand the differences between Jesus and Mohammed, between Wahhabiis and Menonites, and between Hindutva and Anglicanism.

And whilst this current GCSE cohort are becoming the next generation of commuters, reporters and politicians I would encourage train preachers to carry a small bible and leave the rucksack at home.

And they shall beat their bicycles into

WBC church members think I talk about cycling too much. But this will be it’s first – and possibly last – mention on this blog page.

I remember as a teenager being captivated by an article in Mountain Biking UK magazine about swiss mountain biking commandos. For about a century, the swiss army trained troops to use bicycles in “radfahrer” regiments – at first they were a branch of the cavalry, issued with special bayoneted pistols, but later, the units transferred to the infantry. They rode 40lb bicycles over-laden with military gear (mortar rounds, machine guns, camping and cooking stuff etc over rough terrain. Even as a super keen teen cyclist, it struck me that you would have to be superhuman to pedal one of those beasts on a level road, let alone on a mountain track. One of my classmates at theological college had done his Swiss military service with one of these units and he confirmed that it was tough going. In 1995 the Swiss army withdrew the units, presumably realising that on uneven ground, a heavily laden bicycle is pretty much dead weight.

There are a whole load of reasons why I’m a cyclist:
1. My dad and my granddad cycle(d). I guess it’s in my genes.
2. We’re stewards of God’s creation. We should grasp zero carbon transport with both hands.
3. Fresh air, exercise, extended life expectancy, (crashes notwithstanding!), space to think.
4. MOUNTAIN BIKING – lung busting climbs, breathtaking views, flying descents.
5. I believe that car useage and social cohesion are inversely proportional to one another.

I occasionally get asked whether I think there’ll be mountain biking on the new earth. I don’t care very much about this. The key ingredients of the new heaven and new earth are God and God’s people. But I wonder….. Bicycles have been of enormous benefit to humankind – the first form of affordable mechanised transport – helping to alleviate poverty, connecting isolated communities and liberating oppressed women, driving peaceable innovation in metalworking. Furthermore, as the swiss army has finally realised, they are utterly useless as weapons of war. Isaiah says that in the age to come swords will be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. Jeremiah Wright added tanks being beaten into tractors in his prayer at Obama’s inauguration. But what about bicycles. What would they be beaten into? Bicycles perhaps?

Why I can’t Watch Poldark

8th August 2017

I got sent out. I start to fidget and involuntarily crack my knuckles and grind my teeth. In truth I can’t stand it. It’s not that the characters aren’t compelling, or the scenery lovely or the story well told. I don’t mind costume dramas and I’m reasonably confident that I’m not unduly prudish – Hot Fuzz and A life Less Ordinary remain in my top five films – see my comments on Rev. below. But I have tried to watch Poldark and I cannot do it.
I can’t relax….
Poldark reminds me of the slow grind of relational breakdown that it ruining lives all around me in the real world and against which I find myself striving when I’m trying to help people to follow Jesus. When Mrs X is secretly carrying Mr Y’s child and when Mrs A is being repeatedly raped by Mr A and when Mrs Y is being seduced by Mr Z and Mr A is also sleeping with Miss C I cannot stand it. I see the emotional pain and relational carnage that manipulative, carnal, use and abuse of relationships in general and marriage in particular brings. I do see this from time to time in the church – because churches are made up of people. But I see it amplified in communities with their moral anchors in Celebrity Love Island, the London Stock Exchange and Snapchat. I know that emotional tension is what makes a good story. But real life is full of this kind of emotional tension created by riding roughshod over God’s straightforward guidelines for relationships, so it’s not a story I can relax to.
Stereotypical christians..
I’ve seen enough to know that Poldark is yet another example of the portrayal of Christian faith as held by morally repressed simpletons (who don’t understand the real world yet) and by hypocrites who understand it full well and use religion to feather their own nests. Neither of these points of view do any justice at all to the gritty realism and moral purity of Jesus or that of the writings of his first followers in the New Testament (seriously – read them). Poldark christianity does not reflect the life and teaching of the Christian communities I have been privileged to live and work in and it perpetuates negative stereotypes which I’m working hard to overcome.
Is it just me?..
I remember a conversation I had a few years ago about the abundance of parallels between the Christian narrative and the 90s sci-fi classic The Matrix with a friend who had been involved in counselling kids after the Columbine high massacre (following his own involvement as a child in the troubles in Northern Ireland). It was out of the question for him that you could ever use a film that had spawned such awful violence in the cause of the gospel. His experience meant that the wider narrative of a parallel (real) universe behind our own was lost to the violence of the action. Maybe there’s a redeemable narrative to Poldark – something about Ross’ concern for the poor or Morwenna’s self-sacrificial love for Drake.. Maybe someone who has read the book will tell me that there’s a happier ending. Maybe it’s just me. But my experience of ministering to (and sometimes just helplessly observing) broken relationships means that Poldark series 3 is not on my agenda. I’m pretty sure the knuckle cracking would get me barred even if I tried to watch it.