Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Looking Forward to a Long Weekend

Friday this week is a public holiday. The public holidays here can be on any day of the week. In the UK, they are always on a Monday so that you can have a long weekend. It is a very nice treat to get a long weekend here especially in October. There are still things to do, of course: the services on Sunday, for example, but the pace is different and that's good. It means there's more time to enjoy a leisurely dinner and a glass of wine.

I like food. I also like food writers. I love and adore Elizabeth David. No-one comes close to her. I like Jane Grigson, Elizabeth Luard, Claudia Roden, Madhur Jaffrey, and I quite like Delia Smith. I say quite like as she has produced so much that it is inevitable that there should be some variation in quality. Among other modern cookery writers, I rather like Nigel Slater.

One cookery writer I have not read until very recently is Rick Stein. I have seen some of his recipes, but have not been tempted to to try them. I have, however, just bought the DVD of his programme, a French Odyssey, and the book that goes with it. I did this in a moment of weakness as I rather enjoy classical French cookery. You know, the sort with loads of cream, garlic, and wine, and I fancied watching his programme which is based on his culinary trip through France.

I have now watched two episodes and I am hooked. It's a visual treat to watch his journey, but his descriptions of the food and the recipes he cooks make you want to rush out and try them. I have not been a big fan of eels in the past, but seeing him cook eels in cream and garlic has convinced me to give them a go.

Where, however, he scores maximum points was sitting in a French open-air market reading Elizabeth David's description of French markets from a well worn copy of one of her books. For an ED fan, there is little that is more moving than that. Well done, Rick!

I love the emphasis on eating and meals in the Gospels and the way Jesus is pictured as liking food and wine. There are still plenty of arguments and debates, but it sounds a much better way to conduct meetings than sitting around a table in a church hall.

Enjoy your weekend when it comes!
Lessons I have Learned: 1. The Importance of the Bible (Part 1)

Well, I didn't quite make it by the end of last week with the first post in this new series, itself a part of my Personal Journey Series. Part of the reason is that I wanted to finish reading the Summing Up by Somerset Maugham. In his own way he does in that book what I am trying to do in this series of blogs, although he writes much better than I do! He went on to live for the best part of thirty years after he wrote the Summing Up and I have to confess that I hope I do too. He spends a great deal of time talking about his life as a writer and his approach to writing. Not unreasonably given his career as a writer.

What I found particularly fascinating was that his attitude to being a writer was very similar to my own attitude to being a preacher and there is still a great deal of helpful advice in what he writes that I think a preacher could use today. Advice about getting out among people and living life so that you know your readership, for example. But I digress.

I have been thinking about this blog series, though, and preached on the Bible last Sunday. It's on the web-site for those motivated enough to listen to it. I will be preaching on the Bible again this coming week. How could I not with 2 Timothy 3:16 as part of the readings? I also have a confirmation class to lead tonight. You've guessed it. It's on the Bible!

Anyway, I certainly can't say all I want to say about the Bible in one blog, so I am afraid the account of this first lesson I have learned is going to be in several parts. How many parts I really don't know!

Lessons I have Learned: The Importance of the Bible (Part 1)

When I became a Christian one of the things that was most stressed to me was the importance and authority of the Bible. The Bible was the Word of God. It was without contradiction and could be relied on completely. It was infallible and inerrant. Indeed, so great was the emphasis on its divine inspiration and divine character that the role of the individual writers was rather lost sight of. The great enemies were those who failed to take the Bible seriously, that is, those who did not see the Bible in this way. They included liberal Christians, on the one hand, and Roman Catholics, on the other.

This view of Biblical authority was the position of both my friends in the House Church movement and of my Anglican Church on the Wirral. It was the view of my friends and of most of the people I mixed with.

Now before anyone smiles smugly and says that such people are naïve and misguided, it is worth saying that this conviction at least led us to read the Bible. In fact, we read it regularly, thoroughly, and enthusiastically. I still have my Bible from those days. It has no paragraph headings, drawings, or notes. It is just page after page of dense text, all in Shakespearean English, that is to say, it was the King James Version translation of the Bible.

None of this bothered us precisely because we were convinced that the Bible was the Word of God, and, if it was the Word of God, why would it bother us? If this was a communication from God, what mattered was to get on and read it, understand it, and obey it.

Things have moved on since those days, and we all have modern translations that are clearly laid out with headings and paragraphs, and every conceivable aid to help us understand it. Of course, we place far more emphasis on the humanity of Scripture and the problems of interpretation now, so that even if – and it is a big if – we think we know what a passage says, we still have trouble working what it means today and even more of a problem obeying it.

Given a simple choice between the attitude we had back then of seeing the Bible as the divine Word of God and the contemporary view which, while seeing it as a divinely inspired text, sees so many problems with interpreting it that you are exhausted even before you have begun, I know which I would choose.

For all the advances we have made in understanding the Bible, do we now read the Bible more? I don’t think so? And even when we do read it, do we have a clue what to do with it? I am reading a book on the Bible by a leading evangelical at the moment. While helpful in many ways, it focuses on the problems in reading and understanding the Bible. This I suggest is how many preachers and teachers approach it. It’s hardly any wonder, then, that people are discouraged before they begin.

I am glad then, for all its problems, I began my Christian life with the view that the Bible is the Word of God to be listened to and obeyed. Simplistic maybe, but at least it meant I read the Bible, went to discussions about the Bible, attended conferences about the Bible, memorized the Bible, enjoyed sermons about the Bible, and bought books explaining the Bible. It was also why when the time came to decide what to do after sixth form, I decided to study for a degree, not at a University, but at a Bible College.

The College I decided to go to was London Bible College, now renamed as London Theological College. But what’s in a name? Quite a lot, I think.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

I have just acquired a copy of The Summing Up by Somerset Maugham. It is out of print and I needed to search for a copy second-hand. The nice people at Albris found one for me. It is older than me!

The Summing Up is a reflection by Somerset Maugham on his life and writing. It is not and was never intended to be an autobiography as some seem to think! It is written in 77 short chapters, which read much like blog entries. Somerset Maugham writes that the three principles he abides by in his writing are:

that it should be clear
that it should be simple and
that it should sound right

Admirable qualities for blogs!

It would also help if theologians adopted them. I read quite a lot of academic stuff and the writers of it seem to think that if their work isn't complicated and difficult, it won't sound academic enough. Being profound isn't the same as being incomprehensible.

One of the benefits of age is that I now have more confidence, when I don't easily understand what an academic writes, to blame him or her rather than myself!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Getting Rid of the Pews?

I am a big fan of the Archers a BBC radio soap opera about 'country folk'. Actually, it is the longest running drama of its type in the world. I have listened to it since I was a teenager. It was sad not to be able to hear it when I first came here, but thanks to the internet and the BBC, I have for some time been able to listen to it online.

It is set in Ambridge, a fictional village in middle England, with a pub, a village green, and a Church. The programme looks at modern life through the villagers' eyes. Ambridge has a Vicar and, to the credit of the programme writers, they include him in a serious way in the various programme plots.

Alan, the Vicar, has decided that it is wrong for St Stephens, a medieval Church building, to be empty six days a week, and wants to make it more of a community centre in use 7 days a week. To do this means, amongst other things, getting rid of the old pews. Inevitably, on the one hand, there are those who think that this is sacrilege and, on the other, those who think it is what Christianity is all about. Those most opposed to getting rid of the pews are those who don't come to Church!

I have just listened to last night's episode, which had as its main feature a discussion about the issue at the Church Council. It really is very good in the way it presents all the arguments and feelings about the issue. If you are interested you can listen for the next few days at the following link. It is the episode for Tuesday, October 9, 2007.

What I found surprising was how I found myself siding in the discussion, not with those who wanted to get rid of the pews, but with those who wanted to keep them! I wonder what you think?

Monday, October 08, 2007

Back to the Journey

I have written at length on this blog about my Personal Journey (see posts under the label, Personal Journey) from my time as a teenager in Liverpool to that as an Anglican priest here in Hong Kong. Before the summer, I wrote of Present Challenges, that is, of the challenges that I find facing me here. They were:

1. Baptism
2. The Schools
3. The Congregation
4. The Buildings
5. The Challenge of Inclusivity

Over the summer, the problems that I wrote about under the Challenge of the Schools were graphically illustrated when one of our teachers was arrested for alleged corruption. The Challenge of the Buildings has also been reinforced by the need and surprise of having scaffolding up inside the Church over Harvest!

After writing about these challenges, I wrote about Where I am Now and focused specifically on three areas:

1. Mission
2. Theologically Orthodox
3. Liturgy and the Eucharist

I also reflected a little on my 25 years as a priest under the post, Disappointed. This one did not go down too well. People either thought I was clinically depressed, in the wrong position, or more kindly, just getting old!

There is probably a bit of truth in all three. Getting older brings a realisation of dreams that have not come true, mistakes that have been made, and expectations that have not been fulfilled. This does lead to sadness, if not exactly depression, but hopefully there is hope as well. I do find my present job leaves little time and opportunity for what I believe to be my main strengths, assuming I have them, even if I still believe I am in the right place. In other words, there is the paradox that all Christians are called to live with in this world and which we feel more at sometimes than others.

With the arrival of summer, I thought it would be good to have a break from reflecting on my Personal Journey, but have also felt that it is incomplete as a reflection of the journey so far. So now with the arrival of autumn and the passing of another birthday, and at the risk of boring you, I am going to resume. This time I want to write about the Lessons I have Learned trying to relate them to what I have written about my life so far.

It is going to take a little time in writing the posts in this series, but I am looking forward to it. The first will be on the Bible. I have started work on it and hope it will be posted before the week ends.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Life on Mars: 5. To Save Us

The end of the week already! The work in Church is progressing well, but the scaffolding is still up, and will be up for harvest festival. I am bracing myself for all the complaints!

Today I post the last in my series 'Life on Mars'. I promise to shut up about the TV series - for a while, at least. It is very good, though.

Have a great weekend!

Life on Mars: 5. To Save Us

So why? If God went to so much trouble in sending Jesus and choosing precisely the time and place to do so, why did he do it? What was it all about? I have talked a bit about the BBC television drama, Life on Mars, and Sam Tyler, a detective from the present who, after an accident, wakes up in 1973. Sam thinks coming from the future that he knows best. After a while, he begins to realize that he does not have all the answers and that the he can learn from the past no matter how different it may be to the present.

It isn’t just in the world and in society in general that changes have occurred over the past two thousand years. The Church seeking to keep up with and adapt to the changes in the world has perhaps forgotten why Jesus came and why it was so important that he did.

St Paul says: ‘The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’. Christ came at a specific time for a specific purpose. It was not to be a moral example, not to leave behind a body of teaching or doctrine, not to create a community of people for us to belong to, but to save sinners. Sin, human sin, your sin and mine, brought him here. This idea pervades the pages of the New Testament.

It is there whether you turn to St Paul: ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’. Or St John: ‘if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’. Or in the words of Jesus himself: ‘the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost’. But all this means that there are the lost to be found and saved. All of the New Testament takes it as read that we, you and I, are lost sinners who have incurred God’s displeasure and that unless something is done about it, we too, as Jesus puts it, are going to perish.

This is a perspective in the Church that we are in danger of losing. We prefer to celebrate human goodness, not discuss human wrongdoing. We proclaim the love and acceptance of God, not his judgement. We offer the welcome Christ gives to all, not his demand that they repent. The Church following the lead of the world sees the concept of sin as primitive and outdated. Something that belongs to another world. Yes, we do go wrong as human beings, we are weak and make mistakes, but’s that because we are human, not because we are lost sinners.

We argue that we need to emphasize the positive, not the negative. We need to see the role that a person’s environment and upbringing play in what they become and do. Focussing on blame and responsibility are not what it’s about. We want a loving God who understands us and accepts us: just as we are.

We have to make our minds up whether Jesus and his followers got it right or not. Whether the way they looked at it was a revelation of God or just the product of a less enlightened age. Like our fictional detective, Sam Tyler, we have to overcome our sense of superiority, our pride, and our arrogance and listen to what these people have to say. Jesus could not help the Pharisees because they did not think they were sinners: on the contrary, they were the righteous. But a doctor cannot help someone who won’t accept they are ill. If we insist we are not sinners or that sin does not matter, that it’s not really sin, then he cannot help us either.

The message of the New Testament is that Jesus welcomes sinners. Welcomes, that is, those who realize their sin, admit to their sin, and knowing they are lost because of their sin, are prepared to swallow their pride and arrogance and throw themselves on the mercy of God.

This mercy is to be found in Jesus of Nazareth who lived and died 2,000 years ago, but who, Christians believe, rose from the dead and is alive today. By understanding what he did for us in the past, we can know him in the present. And knowing him brings the peace, purpose, and forgiveness that our world cannot give.

In other words, it saves us.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Life on Mars: 4. At the Right Time

A good National day here and a quiet birthday as befits one of my advancing years.

We are currently getting ready for our Church Harvest Festival at the moment, so you can imagine my surprise to find contractors erecting scaffolding inside the Church this afternoon.

I spotted a couple of weeks ago that paint was peeling on part of the interior wall of the Church. As we have recently repainted the interior of the Church - against my advice, let it be noted - I was not best pleased. To give them their due the firm concerned offered to put it right and asked if they could start today. I made arrangements for them to be let in and called to see how they were getting on. I expected a ladder and a bucket of a paint. Imagine my surprise to find a team of scaffolders erecting scaffold above the altar and to be told it will take a week!

To their credit, they are taking it seriously; on the down side, I was told it was a minor job that would take three days. Now I have to explain why we have scaffolding all round the altar at Harvest Festival.

These things take up so much time and energy!

Life on Mars: 4. At the Right Time

Christianity claims that in the person of Jesus and in the events surrounding his life and death, God revealed himself to us. I have been arguing, in the past few weeks, that this places an obligation on Christians to attempt something very difficult, that is, to travel back in time, in a historical sense, to see what these events were and whom they concerned.

Sometimes, we try to avoid doing this by reducing the Christian faith to a set of timeless truths or to a body of doctrine or to a code of ethics. Others make it about our relationships with each other here in the present. Others about using the idea of someone dying under an imperial power as incentive for changing the world around us. Sadly, often all these sincere approaches do is to avoid the problem.

St Paul sums up the preaching of the early Christian leaders in these words:

‘For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:21-22)

Elsewhere he writes:

‘But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.’ (Galatians 4:4-5)

When the ‘fullness of time had come’, in other words, ‘when the time was just right’, God sent his Son. We have been talking, in this short series, about the problems that Jesus being born 2,000 years ago cause us living as we do in a very different age. And it does cause problems. As we have observed the world was so different then. How can a message about a person who lived then have any relevance for us now. And again, we must stress that Christianity is first and foremost about a person who truly and really lived in a specific place at a particular time and not a creed, code of ethics, or community. These may follow, but they are secondary and subsidiary.

The early Christians acknowledged that this brought problems, but made the amazing claim that what must inevitably seem like foolishness and cause problems for humans was God’s deliberate choice and decision. The time that Jesus was born was neither coincidental nor accidental in any way: it happened in exactly the right place and at precisely the right time: the time, that is, God had decided it would happen.

This means that Jesus’ birth was not an accident of history or something that God decided to do when he thought the circumstances created a good opportunity. It means that Jesus could not have been born as an American in 2007, a Briton in 1807, an Indian in 1507, a Chinese in 1107, or as anyone else in any other place at any other time. This was the place, time, and person. And everything before it led up to it and prepared for it and everything since has proceeded from it. God decided in advance that this was the moment.

It didn’t just happen that Christ was ‘born of a woman’, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and was ‘crucified under Pontius Pilate’.

Carl Sagan said: ‘In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.’

St Paul said the same thing about what God was up to in Christ, albeit in different words: ‘With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.’ (Ephesians 1:8)

The Biblical writers claim that what God had in mind when he set about creating the universe was the coming of Christ at precisely the date and time he came.

We like to think it is our age that is wise, our age that is superior to all the rest, that we know more and can do more and, obviously, on one level this is true. I am glad that because of vaccinations I won’t catch diseases that people in the past routinely caught. But we need to have the humility to see that God decided that it was to be in this age, 2,000 years ago, that the decisive moment in history occurred.

After all, that is why our calendars work as they do.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Life On Mars: 3. And was made man

Today is National Day here in China so we get a day off! As it is my birthday tomorrow I get to celebrate today. I am also taking the opportunity to catch up on work in my study.

Here is the third in the Life on Mars series.

Life on Mars: 3: And was made man

In the same Creed in which we say that Jesus was ‘crucified under Pontius Pilate’, we also as Christians say:

‘For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven;
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.’

These words are part of the Nicene Creed, a Creed from the fourth century, accepted by all the Churches as expressing the central tenets of the Christian faith. This is as near the heart of the Christian faith as it is possible to get. Christianity with this statement has taken an incredible gamble. It has staked all on a person who lived at a precise moment in history. Let’s be clear about the claim. It is that the God who made everything there is, and who is above everything he made, and upon whom we all depend for our existence has chosen to reveal himself to us in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, who entered our world and lived as one of us at a particular point in history.

This means we see the face of God in the face of a first century Palestinian Jew. This is a breathtaking claim and while a source of wonder and worship for Christians, it does also create problems for those who believe it. First of all, Christians are gambling everything on the person of Jesus. Now you may say: ‘of course, what’s so strange about that?’ Well, it means the significance for the Christian of Jesus is not what he taught, not what he did, nor even how he lived, but who he was. It means, as a consequence, that being a Christian is not about what you believe, how you live, or where you go on Sunday, but about your relationship with this man, ‘born of the Virgin Mary’. It is the person of Jesus that counts more than anything else.

St Paul says to people who had stopped believing in the resurrection that if the resurrection is not true then Christians are of all people most to be pitied. In other words, that for Christianity to be true then Christ must be alive now. But it also means that he must have lived and that he was who his followers claimed he was. That is, that Jesus of Nazareth, who walked the streets of Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate, was the incarnate Son of God sent by God to reveal himself to us and to save us.

It also means that if either Jesus did not exist or was not who his followers said he was, but simply another mortal religious teacher, then Christianity is a fraud. Christians were first called Christians as a nickname in Antioch because they made so much of Christ. Everything stands or falls on what they claimed for him being true. Take away the existence of Jesus or make him just another teacher, then he has nothing to say to us. Yes, he might have said some nice things about how we should live and, doubtless, he said them in a very charismatic way, but what he says about himself and what his followers say about him is what matters.

St Luke records Jesus saying these words: ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’ (St Luke 14:26)

John records him saying these words: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ (St John 14:6)

These are incredible demands and claims. The Biblical writers from a distance of two thousand years are asking us to stake our own lives on what happened at a particular moment of history: under Pontius Pilate. Christianity isn’t asking us to believe in abstract ideas, but in a historical person.

As I have been arguing in this series, if Luke and John are right in what they say of Jesus, it means that Christians are bound to history: bound to making the effort of going back in time no matter how hard and challenging it is, and it is hard and challenging, for in the past something happened that can change our lives in the present and give us hope for the future.