Couldn't have said it better myself...

"We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are."

Anais Nin

Monday, June 30, 2008

Open Doors

On arriving at Faith UMC in Grand Rapids I was delighted to see that the tag-line for the Congregation, proclaimed on 2 beautiful banners outside the front doors, is:
Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.
Certainly a sentiment I want to endorse.
But it reminded me of a recent experience when I was asked to do a presentation for an congregation in north Belfast about Church, Community and Change, a Bible-based community engagement programme developed by Tearfund UK and administered by CCWA (NI). It must be said that the congregation I had been invited to, are already doing a good job of reaching out to their local community in a very difficult area. They have already established an independent Community Charity, but I was struck by its name: Open Doors Limited. In the United Kingdom any organisation which has that wee word “Limited” in its title is an incorporated body with specific rules governing its activities and the liabilities of its board of directors, protecting them from the implications of reasonable risks.
But it struck me that the title “Open Doors Limited” could be a good description of the church as a whole… We have open doors... but at times only to a limited extent…
People are welcome in… But they’ve got to play by our rules… dress like us, speak like us, act like us, think like us… So long as new-comers believe the right things and behave in the right way, then, after a breaking in period of about 40 years, we will treat them as if they truly belong… Its as if we think that once we believe in Jesus all the other things we are supposed to believe as Christians will fall into place, that will automatically change how we behave and only then will we be allowed to belong…
Increasingly we are finding that those three things can happen in all sorts of different orders… But certainly, in today’s world, if people are going to listen seriously to what we believe… they first need to feel like they belong…
And that is a risky business... There is no limited liability for a church that takes seriously the aim of having "open doors."
I'm sure we've all heard the story about the man sitting or a kerbside outside a church where he had been turned away because he wasn’t properly dressed and had alcohol on his breath… when to his surprise he sees Jesus coming along the street and sitting down beside him… “Don’t worry” says Jesus… “I haven’t been welcome there for years!”
Of course we wouldn’t turn anyone away for what they wear… We’re not that callous. But what about how they live? I in my own congregation I had one person who said they weren’t coming back here because on Christmas day they sat in front of someone else who spent the whole service criticizing their relationship with another person. I suppose it was appropriate that on Christmas Day, when we remember that Jesus was born into an unwelcoming world, under a cloud of possible illegitimacy that he should once more be made to feel unwelcome in the form of this person… Who, let it be said, has kept his word and has never been back!
But it’s a chicken and an egg thing… We will never welcome others as we would welcome Christ, until we truly welcome Christ… Until his will rules our will, we will continue to be our normal judgmental, self-seeking, opinionated selves…
You are probably overly-familiar with the words:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
Revelation 3: 20 (RSV)
You’re familiar with the words… I'm sure you're equally familiar with the picture the “Light of the World” with Jesus on the outside of a door with no handle on the outside… We’ve all heard sermons preaching that the handle is on the inside and we have to open the door of our hearts to Christ… But how often do we miss the fact that the letter this verse was written in was not to an individual but to a church… A church which was well-off, prosperous, seemingly needing nothing… But which Christ described as “lukewarm…” “Bland...” “Wishy-washy...” “Neither one thing nor the other.”
The only solution was to welcome Christ in…
To welcome Christ into the church…
But perhaps our doors are only open Christ to a limited extent.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Cead Mille Failte

Cead mille failte... A sign that you see all over Ireland, although perhaps not in Ballybeen where I work, since Gaelic is not the lingua franca there. But it wishes guests a hundred thousand welcomes... And frankly I feel as if I and my family have received a hundred thousand welcomes since our arrival here in Grand Rapids. I only hope and pray that my exchange partners Geoff and Pam Hayes feel as welcome back in Belfast.
Both Geoff and myself decided to preach on the theme of welcome this morning since the lectionary reading from the Gospel for today was from Matthew 10 when Jesus sent his disciples out telling them
"He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10: 40 Revised Standard Version)
But its all very well when the person you are to receive comes with a lot of notice and wearing a clerical collar, but how welcoming are we when Christ comes incognito and unannounced.
A few years ago I spent a 3 month sabbatical going round worship services in various churches in Northern Ireland that had a reputation for engaging with their local communities, and the sad thing is in only 2 churches out of 22 was I welcomed by anyone other than the official meeters and greeters, or someone else who actually knew me…
Elsewhere, in Matthew's gospel in chapter 25 where Jesus tells the great parable of the Judgement Day, when the Son of Man divides the people like a shepherd dividing out sheep and goats, one of the dividing criteria was the welcome offered to others… It says in the Revised Standard Version:
I was a stranger and you welcomed me… (Matthew 25: 35 Revised Standard Version)
I prefer that translation to the NIV which says:
I was a stranger and you invited me in… (Matthew 25: 35 Anglicised New International Version)
There is a world of difference between inviting people in and welcoming them… In church we constantly invite people to come and join us week by week as we seek to worship, serve and follow Jesus… We may invite them, but do we really welcome them?
I'll return again to this theme tomorrow... But in the meantime, remember the words of the writer to the Hebrews, who, drawing on the story about Abraham in Genesis 18, says
Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2 Anglicised New International Version)

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Journalling a Journey

I am a hypocrite of the highest order...

I'll come back to that later, but first to say that I haven't posted anything for a week because I have been working flat out to get ready for my US exchange in Grand Rapids... clearing my desk... preparing material to take with me... cleaning house (well Sally largely did that, doing without sleep in the process)... preparing material for our exchange partners etc. Add to that the fact that I had another funeral (people die at the most inconvenient of times), had to dash back and forward to doctors and hospital with Owain (who not only has a broken arm but also tonsillitis) and I just ran out of time to even look at the internet, never mind post anything.
But now I am safely ensconced here in Grand Rapids, and I thought I would start as I mean to go on by posting some reflections... And in this case it doesn't reflect too well on me.
You see, I'm forever telling people things like "The journey is as important as the destination..." and that journey or piligrimage is an important concept for the church to get hold of... that's one of the things I hope to share with my new friends here at Faith UMC in Grand Rapids, and why I've brought them a copy of the above picture of the Bantry Boat, by Wildgoose Studios as a wee gift, remembering a previous generation of Irish pilgrims who crossed the Atlantic to America... but in a Currach rather than an Airbus 330.
That is all very well and good, but when it comes to real, honest to goodness journeys, such as the 22 hour trek it took to get here, I am a complete bundle of neuroses... and I make life almost totally unpleasant for everyone around me. Starting out 40 minutes late from home didn't help, cutting short our handover meeting with our partners in Dublin Airport... 45 seconds as opposed to 45 minutes. But check in went well and I calmed down, until, as we were descending into Washington DC, I realised that we hadn't been given boarding cards for the next leg of our journey to Detroit. This then precipitated 45 minutes of anxiety on the queue through immigration and customs... But in the end I learned that they don't do through boarding on United and the issuing of boarding passes was straightforward... But by that stage we only had 25 minutes to get through security before our flight was due to board, which led to me descending into the sort of person you really don't want to be around... I would have stampeded over my mother to get through security and onto those peculiar shuttles that ferry you around Dulles International, but everything was conspiring against us making our flight... the man in front of us had lost his ID, the security men wanted to swipe Owain's plastercast but there were no machines available... Everything was leading to raised blood-pressure and missing that flight, until, when we got to the gate, we learned that the flight had only just been delayed and would now not be departing for a further 2 hours.
All that anxiety for nothing.
Yet isn't that always the way.
So, remember, the journey is as important as the destination - therefore, travel well.
But if you remind me of this blog the next time I am wound up over travel arrangements, I might well do something unpleasant with an itinerary...
ps. My grateful thanks to all those who helped on the journey on both sides of the Atlantic.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Shema and Response

A call to worship and act of corporate confession based around the Shema (Hebrew for "Hear..."), which is the call to worship in Jewish Synagogues (Deuteronomy 6: 4-5), and Jesus' incorporation of this in what he described as the 2 greatest commands in the Law.

Hear, O Israel
the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Which is the greatest commandment in God’s Law?
'Love the Lord your God with all your heart
and with all your soul
and with all your strength
and with all your mind'

The second is?
Love your neighbour as yourself.
All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.
There is no commandment greater than these.

From Matt 22:36-40, Mark 12:29-31 and Luke 10:27-28


O Lord our God, the one and only
We confess before you our lack of love.
We have not loved you as we should.
We have not loved others as we love ourselves.
We have been self-centred and self-satisfied.
Yet out of your eternal love for us you sent your son
To show us how to love and to reunite us with you.
In his name we ask your forgiveness
And pray that you would fill us with his spirit
So that we may truly love and serve you
Loving others as you have loved us
Loving not just those who love us, but those who count us as enemies.
Through your reconciling love forgive us and help us to forgive others.
Write these laws of love upon our hearts.
In Jesus name.

Can't Stand Losing You (Not)

This week Stormont has hosted 2 acts playing what is likely to be their last gig in Ireland this week… And I was proud to be there for one of them. The second one… the Police Concert on Friday night… spending an outrageous amount of money to stand in the open air trying hopelessly to recapture my youth, when I could have saved my cash and listened to the whole thing from a hundred yards away where my house is! Ah well, the foolishness of middle age!
But I was not there for the first one, on Monday, when George W. Bush and his gas-guzzling, gun-toting entourage brought the whole of East Belfast to a grinding halt as he popped in to meet the Folks on the Hill… I couldn't be bothered walking the 5 minutes it would have taken me to get to the gates of Stormont, be it to cheer nor jeer. And, by the looks of the TV coverage, very few people, were there at all. There was a widespread feeling of “What’s he doing here?” And none of the euphoria which surrounded Bill Clinton’s visits, nor the warm welcome that the people of Northern Ireland extended to the Queen recently.
I may have been a long term Police fan, even though it isn’t terribly cool, but I’ve never been a George W. Bush fan, despite the fact that he is a professing Christian, and, like myself, a Methodist (although I did read this week that he might be thinking about becoming a Roman Catholic... Any way of speeding up the transfer process?) I have never understood how his profession of faith in the prince of peace allowed him to take his nation, and ours, led by fellow believer Tony Blair, into war, without any thought of the long term implications of their actions and how to bring that war to a close. But at least we, and the people of America have the chance to eject our leaders via the ballot box if we don’t agree with them… And very soon George will be leaving the stage… hopefully with no encore.
However, let us pray for those who do not have that liberty, and continue to live under murderous tyrannies. Let us especially pray for Zimbabwe, whose leader, Robert Mugabe, shows no desire to leave the political stage. They are going to the polls again this week for their presidential run-off, but there’s little hope of change because of ruthless intimidation by Mugabe’s veterans. And with that in mind I finish with the words, not of a Police song, but a Zimbabwean hymn supposedly dating from their War of Independence.
“If you believe and I believe, and we together pray,The Holy Spirit must come down and set Zimbabwe free…”
Come Holy Spirit…

This was broadcast as Review of the Week on Downtown Radio's Dawn Reflections, on Sunday 22nd June, 2008.
Immediately after posting this the news broke that the MDC have decided to withdraw from the Presidential run-offs because they had been so badly compromised by violence.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Round Robin Religion

It's confession time again. Yes... I publicly admit it. Every year at Christmas my wife and I add to the unnecessary slaughter of trees by sending round a circular letter to all the people we haven’t managed to catch up with the previous year… We’re not the only ones who do it. I’m sure you send or receive them yourselves. Well last Christmas, someone (perhaps as a form of revenge) bought us Simon Hoggart’s book entitled “The Hamster that Loved Puccini” (Don't ask...), a second volume of extracts from Christmas Round Robin Letters… Extracts that do not show such letters in a very good light… And which reveal how much many of their recipients dread them landing on their doorsteps in the run-up to Christmas.
It has made me seriously rethink sending ours again this year… especially when I read the chapter devoted to specifically Christian round-robin letters. Full of pious platitudes and glib answers to difficult questions, the examples quoted from do not reflect the proud tradition of Christian Circular letters begun by people like Paul and his New Testament epistles.
But Simon Hoggart’s correspondents reserved their most bilious attacks for those who use these letters to tell all who will read them of the wonderful achievements of the writer’s children… These are, without exception, grade A academics, concert quality musicians, gold medal athletes, and thoroughly good eggs. So, at just that time of year when your own children are nagging you for the most expensive Christmas presents possible, you have just read their school reports which are less than glowing, and you are facing the traumatic experience of having all the family under one roof for 3 whole days… these letters illustrate just how imperfect your home and family are.
Martyn Atkins in his recent pastoral address at the Irish Methodist Conference, when he wass speaking on "Faith Sharing in the 21st Century", suggested that there is an extent to which we in the church can tend to paint an unrealistic picture of Christian life to people outside the church… We talk about how wonderful the Christian life is… All the great things that God has being doing in and through us… But this does not encourage others to come check out what Christ has to offer them. Rather, they can tend to feel inadequate… Or else write Christians off as smug so and so’s who (hopefully) are headed for a fall.
But the fact is, as revealed in Paul’s round Robin letter to the church in Rome, we are all inadequate, with no reason for feeling smug… We’ve all fallen well short of God’s standards, and it is only through the help of his Spirit that we can be anything like the people he created us to be… Children that our heavenly Father can be proud of.Counters

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

But Meanwhile... Back at the Talkshop

Back to Conference then, and further reflections on Martyn Atkin's challenging address on "Sharing Faith Today".

Moving on from the assertion that, in the words of Donald English, lives and lips need to be in agreement, he quoted the words of Minucius Felix, a church leader from the mid second century, who reputedly said:

'Beauty of life... causes strangers to join the ranks... we do not talk about great things; we live them.'
Minucius Felix c160ad

Not terribly familiar with the writings of Mr. Felix, but it does chime well with the Elvis Presley song, sexed up for Nike's 2002 World Cup Ad, A Little Less Conversation... a little more action please...

Now, on the whole, this is a sentiment I heartily agree with. I want to see a lot more action. But I don't want us to stop talking... I believe we can actually talk and act at the same time. The problem is that we don't EVEN talk about great things, never mind live them.

We talk a lot, be it in Conference, Church Councils, Committees and Bible Studies, but all too often it is about the minutii of life... Lets have a little more conversation about great things to inspire action, PLEASE!?

May the Force be With You. And Also with You...

It isn't often that I directly cite another blog in mine... But this one amused me... It is on Ruth Gledhill's blog, Articles of Faith, on Timesonline. Generally her blog is almost totally interested in the "affairs" (and I use that word advisedly) of the Anglican Communion in all its forms, and so I don't visit it much. But I picked up on this one because it includes a short essay by one of my favourite writers, Garrison Keillor. It is his reflections on the American Episcopalian Church. Anyone like to cite a similar list of characteristics for their own denominational tradition?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Happy Birthday NHS

Haven't posted anything this weekend as I have been otherwise occupied. I was already operating at top speed trying to get everything ready for Sunday, and trying to clear up stuff in advance of us all heading to the US in less than a fortnight, but then I got a phonecall on Saturday night at 9.30pm telling me that our eldest son Owain was in the casualty department of our local hospital with a suspected broken wrist.

So instead of having a nice Fathers' Day lunch at a local hotel, Sally, I and Ciaran spent it in the hospital cafeteria, while Owain fasted, waiting for his surgery, which took place at 8pm last night. Thankfully everything went smoothly, and he was discharged today... Now we await the verdict of the fracture clinic this Friday, regarding the proposed trip to the US.

But it is always the same... In 3 out of the past 5 years we have ended up in the fracture clinic with Owain, before heading off on holiday. So it really shouldn't have come as a surprise... Indeed the only surprising thing is that we haven't been reported to social services for child abuse! He has had 6 fractures (3 to his left wrist, 1 to his right humerus, 1 rib and 1 right ring finger) in 9 years... That sort of record is usually the result of engaging in dangerous sports for a living... In Owain's case, walking across an empty room could be deemed a hazardous activity!

But we are thankful that he is largely intact. And in that we are deeply thankful for the NHS, and the people that serve within it.

When Owain had his big break 2 years ago he experienced the NHS at its worst and best... His experience in casualty was appaling... little short of callous and incompetent... Largely due to a chronic lack of experienced staff. He wouldn't have been refered to orthopaedic specialists for 3 weeks if they had had their way... It was only my stubborn refusal to move that persuaded them to refer him to the fracture clinic that week, and when he attended it the consultant was furious that he had not been called on the night of the injury, as he feared that their delay may have meant that the growth in Owain's arm would be retarded, the rotation of his shoulder limited and he would be unable to play any contact sports again. But thanks to the first class care he recieved from that point on, despite complications, he has been playing rugby and tennis throughout this past year. Until now that is... His sporting activities will once again be severly curtailed for a while. But this time his treatment from beginning to end has been exemplary.

So I thank God for our NHS... For those who serve in it, those who thought of it and those who seek to improve it.

She may be showing her age a bit, but happy birthday NHS!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Spitting in the Loving Cup

I generally go to the Methodist Conference every year with the same joy that I go to the dentist... It is an important discipline, but can either seem to be time wasted, or extremely painful.

I certainly don't go expecting to have the President of Conference, recommend a song which includes a naughty word in it!!! But this year The Rev. Martyn Atkins, President of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, and hence President of the Irish Conference (more on that arcane arrangement another time) was speaking under "Pastoral Efficiency" (don't ask) at the Ministerial Session of Conference last Friday, and he referred to a line in a song by his favourite singer Joni Mitchell (I wonder how many Irish Methodist Presidents have had Joni on their ipods? I wonder how many Irish Methodist Presidents have ipods?).

It was a throwaway line referring to some of those who claim to proclaim the good news of Christ "spitting in the loving cup." Colourful image.

Yet that is what many do. We preach one thing, with one side of our mouth, and out of the other spew forth words of hatred and violence. Even where we don't openly proclaim contradictory messages, so often our lips and lives don't match (to use a phrase beloved of another former British Methodist President, the late Dr. Donald English).

It can be on many grounds - the militarism and materialism that Joni Mitchell attacks in her song... or the sectarianism and racism that has often been underpinned by inappropriate use of scripture... or as in recent days, with our new "first lady", MLA and "Bible-believing Christian" Iris Robinson, intemperate language about homosexuality, that, regardless of your understanding of scripture on this issue, against the background of a brutal assault on a gay man, comes across as callous and uncaring. The easily trotted out phrase about "hating the sin but loving the sinner," is not only unbiblical in origin, it is also unhelpful pastorally, as "the sinners" in question are immediately alienated, not hearing any real sense of love for them in that statement. Real love does not condemn through a megaphone then try to demonstrate that love in private. When we condemn people publicly for their sins, we completely shut off any chance of meaningful communion with them. We haven't just spat in the loving cup... we have vomited bile into it!

(Jools Hamilton, William Crawley (here, here AND here), Glenn Jordan and Cheryl Meban have also commented on Iris's "defense of Biblical Christianity" to one extent or other in their respective blogs)

Anyway... here are the lyrics of the song "Tax Free" by Joni Mitchell (from the album "Dog Eat Dog.")

Front rooms... Back rooms...
Slide into tables... Crowd into bathrooms...
Joke around...Cheap talk...
Deep talk... Talk, talk
Talk around the clock...
Crawl home... Lie down...
Teeth chatter... Heart pounds...
I don't feel so good... I don't feel so good...
Push a button to escape...
Preacher on the tube crying "Lord!"
There's evil in this land...
"Rock and roll music!"
Cast down these dope-fiends and their noisy bands!
"Damn their souls!"
Preacher preaching love like vengeance
Preaching love like hate...
Calling for large donations...
Promising estates...
Rolling lawns and angel bands...
Behind the pearly gates...
You know, he will have his in this life...
But yours will have to wait...
He's immaculately tax free...
"Mulitiple hundreds of thousands of ..."
Tax free...
"Hundreds and millions of dollars"
Tax free...
"A hundred billion dollars!And who is paying the price?"
Who, who?
"Your children are"

Pissed off... Jacked up...
Scream into the mike...
Spit into the loving cup...
Strut like a rooster...
March like a man...
God's hired hands and the devil bands
Packing the same grandstands...
Different clothes
"Pot in their pockets!"
Different hair
"Sexually active"
Raise a screaming guitar or a bible in the air
Theatre of anguish... Theatre of glory...
God's hired hands and the devil bands...
Oh come let us adore---ME!

Lord, there's danger in this land...
You get witch-hunts and wars
When church and state hold hands!
Fuck it!
Tonight I'm going dancing
With the drag queens and the punks.
Big beat deliver me
From this sanctimonious skunk!
We're no flaming angels
And he's not heaven sent.
How can he speak for the Prince of Peace
When he's hawk-right militant?

And he's immaculately tax free
"Our nation has lost its guts!"
Save me...
"Our nation has lost its strength"
Tax free...
"Our nation has whimpered and cried"
Save me...
"And petted the Castros"
Tax free...
"The Khomeinis' and the Kaddafis"
Save me...
"For so long"
Tax free...
"That we don't know how to act like a man"
Save me...
"I think that we should turn the United States Marines loose on that little island south of Florida and stop that problem!"
"I am preachin' love, I am!"

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Number 1 Dad... Not!

Fathers, do not exasperate your children...

Ephesians 6:4

Well… that is yet another Biblical command I have broken…
This week I noticed that the number of unique hits on my blog had suddenly increased. That was unusual since I had been at conference last week and hadn’t been posting anything regularly… I will post a few reflections on the conference over the next few days, but I’ve been too busy until now… So I was a bit surprised to see so many new visitors in such a short period of time.
Then last night my poor, long suffering, eldest son, Owain, informed me that someone in his class had stumbled on my blog when googling the names of other members of his class, and, having found various references to Owain, had promptly circulated them around the whole class… So, at least temporarily my average hit rate is up, but the average age of my readers is way, way down…
But it made me rethink the reason I blog…
There is no doubt that part of it was originally a cut-price, electronic form of vanity publishing. A number of things I had written had either languished in a publishers in tray for an annoying length of time, while others were too ephemeral to be bothered killing a tree for, so committing them to virtual immortality seemed a reasonable way to make them accessible to anyone else who might want to use them. Most were originally written for a particular context, so I don’t need or want to make any financial profit from them, so if anyone else wants to use them great… Although maybe in years to come I too will be involved in outrageous copyright litigation like the many claimants to the “Footprints” poem…
The second reason was that for years people I respect have urged me to journal, but in much the same way that I turn up to play football because there is a team of people expecting me to be there, whilst I can always find 3 million excuses to put off the solitary experience of going to the gym, a journal which is only ever going to be read by me requires too much by way of self-discipline. Whilst this blog can hardly be described as a deeply reflective spiritual journal, it is probably as close as I am ever going to get, with my small but regular readership keeping me posting…
But now I have a third reason for blogging… Winding up my teenage son! It is a formative part of the father-son experience…
So, for the benefit of all my son’s googling peers… Owain Campton… Owain Campton… Owain Campton…

ps. I had toyed with the idea of dropping a baby-photograph of Owain into this blog, but then I thought he probably wouldn't speak to me again for a number of decades!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Psalm of Penitence

Out of your unfailing love, O God, have mercy upon me;
Out of your grace, wipe out my wrongdoing.
Wash away my guilt
Cleanse me from my sin.
For I know what I have done wrong,
My sins are always staring me straight in the face.
You, above all, are the one I have sinned against.
You have seen the full extent of my evil.
You have all the facts before you
So your judgement of me will be fair.
I have been sinful since my birth
A sinner born of sinners.
You want us to be true from inside to out.
Enter then, and renew me with your wisdom within.
Cleanse me with spiritual soap, and I shall be clean;
Wash me, so that I might be whiter than snow.
Let my ears hear songs of rejoicing and happiness;
Let my heavy limbs dance for joy.
Turn your face from my sins
Erase my errors.
Create in me a new holy heart, O God,
Breath a new steadfast spirit into me.Do not turn me away from your presence
Or remove your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore within me the joy of your salvation
Grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Then I will tell other wrongdoers your ways,
and more sinners will turn back to you.Save me from death, O God, my Saviour, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
O Lord, unbutton my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
You don’t take pleasure in public acts of penitence, or I would make them;
You don’t desire showy sacrifices, or I would bring them.
The sacrifice you desire O God, is a broken spirit;
A broken and repentant heart, O God, you will accept as your own.
From Psalm 51:1-17

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Seussian Theology

I am a huge fan of Dr. Seuss... The sad thing is that my boys are now at the age where they are putting such chidlish things behind them... So I'll have to wait another 20 years or so until I unearth them again...
I have used a couple of them in various ways within talks and church events in the past, and have previously blogged a version for 2 voices, but I have never attempted to discern an overarching "Seussian Theology". However, Robert Short, tired of mining the Peanuts cartoons for theological nuggets, has, and has just published "The Parables of Dr. Seuss" which seems to read FAR too much into them (just as he did in his former books). When will people learn that good parables (e.g. those told by a certain carpernter from Nazareth) are generally metaphorical, NOT direct analogies, and are to be inhabited and appropriated by the reader!? Sorry, just got side-tracked into a litero-philosophical rant...
The reason I was posting was to direct fellow Seuss fans of a theological bent to a brilliant poetic tribute to Seuss and Karl Barth, inspired by a review of Short's book and a book of Barth's prayers on Ben Myers' Faith and Theology blog. Check it out... its worth a minute or two of your time...

Monday, June 2, 2008

Petrol Parables

At the end of this month I am heading off to the US on 5 week exchange programme with Rev. Dr. Geoffrey Hayes from Grand Rapids in Michigan, and one of the things I have been at pains to explain to him is the colossal price of fuel here… Americans are worried about it being just under $4 a gallon there, whereas it is thought that is may top the equivalent of $13 per gallon here by the end of the summer. So I hope his heart doesn’t give out when he finds that it might cost him as much as $140-150 to fill up my car…
Now for the sake of the planet we could probably do with burning less oil… But the world as we currently know and enjoy it is entirely dependent upon petro-chemicals… And its increasing price is creating huge waves right across society. Airlines are going out of business or putting enormous fuel supplements on pre-booked flights… Lorry drivers are protesting because the rising costs may cripple their industry too… causing knock-on effects at the supermarkets, who have essentially used lorries as rolling warehouses for years now… Then add to that the costs of producing foods… Fishermen across Britain and Europe have also been protesting in recent days, because, apparently over the period that the cost of fuel has gone up 300%, the wholesale price of fish has actually remained static (although my cod supper has almost doubled in price!)… Farmers will feel the pinch too… both in terms of keeping their tractors rolling and the cost of fertilizers, which are made from petro-chemicals…
Then there is the issue of heating homes. It may not be a big problem at the moment, but come the winter, some people are going to have to make a serious choice between little luxuries, like food, or turning on the central heating… whether it be oil, gas or electric… The costs of all of them are going to go up enormously.
The huge escalation in the price of fuel is apparently not purely because of the law of supply and demand, but because some stock market speculators are currently investing heavily in oil futures, while other corporate bodies are buying up fuel for the future. They are banking on the fact that with ever-increasing demand throughout the world, and a rapidly reducing finite resource, their investments will massively grow in value. On Saturday the Independent newspaper claimed that both rich and poor will be affected by the higher fuel prices. But I’m not going to shed too many tears for rich stock brokers, as their big flashy cars may cost more to fill up and their first class flights may be more expensive, but their increased costs will be offset by the profits from their oil portfolios, whilst the poorer shiver and starve in the cold and the dark. As ever, the rich get richer, and the poor pay the price…
What is happening with oil is a small snapshot of the state of a fallen world: where we misuse, abuse and selfishly use up God’s gracious gifts, regardless of the effects on others; whether those others be halfway round the world, down the road in a council estate, or our own great-grand children. Yet we are not owners of this world and the wealth of resources within it… We are stewards and will be called to account for our stewardship.
According to Matthew’s Gospel, towards the end of his ministry on earth Jesus told two stories. In the first one, which we know as the parable of the talents, Jesus seems to admire wheeler dealers, pursuing profit, but next story makes it clear that this is not an endorsement of self-serving capitalism.
In that story people are divided up at the last judgement, like when a shepherd divides sheep and goats, and Jesus makes it clear that the dividing line will be how we relate to the poor and the oppressed.
Taking these two parables together, therefore, we are encouraged to use the gifts God gives us… not leave them buried in the ground… But, we are to use them wisely and compassionately… not for ourselves but for others…
So whatever the price of petrol, we must remember that it is precious… let us use it well, it and all the other precious gifts God gives us…

Originally broadcast in a shorter form on Downtown Radio's dawn Reflections on 1/6/2008