Cleansing the temple

On Sunday morning, the bishop of Christchurch, New Zealand, was interviewed on the radio.  She was talking about the cathedral there, which was so badly damaged in the earthquake that it’s not going to be feasible to rebuild it.  People in Christchurch are heartbroken by this, as the cathedral was an iconic landmark and considered to be the heart and soul of the city.   Asked about the future, the bishop said they will build a temporary place of worship, and in about ten years time they will probably build a new cathedral.  The bishop said, “What we must now do is become the living cathedral.  Christians must embody that which we had projected onto a symbol and we need to become the heart and soul of the city ourselves.”

Church buildings have taken up so much of my time and energy over the years, and can so easily pre-occupy the congregations that occupy them – the building possessing the congregation.  A lot of this is because our church buildings are no longer appropriate and we need to re-order them if our mission is to be less tightly controlled by them.  This, plus routine repairs, plus the management of lettings to raise money for the church, plus fund-raising for bigger building projects, all greases its way into becoming the main object of our attention.

Three cheers for Bishop Victoria Matthews.  The church is not the building.  It is the people.  The building is a means to an end – and only one means among many by which Jesus will build his living church.


Gaining the world, leaving your soul in the woods.

On Saturday we drove up the A23 to visit my sister and her family in Croydon.  Just before the motorway starts, there is a piece of dual carriageway that winds a little as it climbs a steep hill.  Until recently, the road went through mature woodland.  Now it goes through a barren landscape of tree trunks.  The road is being straightened out and widened to three lanes each way.

I am so sad at the loss of some lovely mature trees, all for the sake of shaving a few seconds off the journey time for motor transport.  I will admit that I don’t often use the road, and hardly ever in peak times; I have never been in a traffic jam there, and it’s only the gradient that slows me down.  I will also admit that I find hold-ups frustrating.  And I will admit to being sentimental about trees.  But was it worth the destruction of several hundred beautiful trees (and the habitat they provided for other wildlife) in order to speed up the traffic?  Roads are ugly, most cars are ugly and something ugly seems to happen to many people’s attitudes when they get behind the wheel of a car. They seem to regress through several millennia of evolution, back to the jungle where rules don’t matter, and the lives of people who get in your way or slow you down don’t matter, be they elderly, children, cyclists or other drivers.

Our culture is too fast.  We have become used to being able to travel distances that would have been unthinkable to our not-so-distant ancestors.  We seem to be willing to pay any cost in order to travel as quickly and conveniently as possible – family life, community, woodland, Pacific islands, polar habitats – all sacrifices worth making.

We are hell-bent on gaining the whole world at the cost of losing our soul.

I wonder what I do to opt out of this.  How do I say “no”, when I live in a culture so dependent on burning oil and travelling easily?  I have a few ideas:

  • use the car less.  Be more thoughtful about journeys I make, about planning holidays and about food miles.
  • resist the temptation to make economies of scale in church life.  The localization of life is surely part of a sustainable, low-impact future.  Small is beautiful in many ways, even when everyone seems to be screaming out for bigger, brighter, louder, flashier and high-impact.
  • learn to make do with less stuff, and perhaps less variety of stuff.
  • travel to Croydon by train next time.

Psalms with a flourish

Last week I went on a Biblical Studies Break at Sarum College, Salisbury. Stephen Dawes led four days of study of the book of Psalms.  I love the Old Testament.  I came away with lots to think about God, life, the universe, and so forth.

Here are a few starting points:

  • God’s call to Abram in Genesis 12 and God’s covenant with him.
  • Jesus’ call: “Come and follow me.”
  • The opening words of the 10 commandments in Exodus 20: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery . . .”
  • Jeremiah’s word (or God’s) to the exiles in Jeremiah 29.11: “I know the plans I have for you, plans for your shalom and not for harm.”

The call of God comes first.  Liberation comes before the law.  God’s plan for us is shalom – peace, well-being, flourishing, whole-ness.  That’s a big picture that includes everyone and everything – all flourishing.

So it’s important to take care with relationships and with the whole way I live, so that I am whole-some – nurturing whole-ness and trying not to do harm by objectifying, degrading or using someone or something for my selfish ends at a cost to their flourishing.

Scary stuff.  Using the car because I’ve got to carry something; being irritable with the family because I’m tired and can’t be bothered; letting friendships drift through want of making the effort to stay in touch; wasting money when there are others who need it; eating meat (uh oh) – it’s all anti-shalom.  And because God loves the people hurt by my sin, and because in hurting them I set back the coming of his peaceful kingdom, I hurt God.

On the other hand, some Psalms remind us of the enduring love of God and of his covenant with us.  The covenant survived the exile.  God patiently and persistently calls and liberates a people to follow Jesus and be joined in a new covenant, to be part of a new creation of peace, well-being, flourishing and whole-ness.  God’s mercy is new every morning.  I don’t need to feel guilty, but I do need to respond to his call.  In that way, I can walk in forgiveness and hope and new life.

That’s my big thought right now.  Reconciliation, integrity, the gift of the Spirit, the life of the Spirit making all things new – all of us together.

Here endeth the sermon, here beginneth the lesson.

Meat Is Murder

I was preaching on 1 Corinthians 8 on Sunday – about meat sacrificed to idols.  Not really a live issue for me or the good people of Hove, but I took the line that thinking about others is a live issue – especially those who are vulnerable.  I dealt with it along the lines of how we deal with disagreements – whether we try to score points and win the argument, or deal in love with each other to build each other up and build up the body of Christ.  (“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” – v.1).

However, maybe I was avoiding an obvious, more direct challenge of the text: meat.

I love eating meat.  But for some time I have been troubled by how I see the ethics of it.  Bacon, more than anything else, keeps me omnivorous, as the hot fat sears my conscience.

There are two main issues that bother me.

One is that a sentient being was killed so that I could eat it.  Whether meat or fish, an animal was killed.  It may have been killed humanely (although that’s difficult with a fish), but it may not.  I don’t really know.  We try to buy good meat – free range, organic and local where possible, but we put a lot of trust in a big system – trusting that the farmer cared for his/her animals.  We don’t visit the farms or the abattoirs to see for ourselves.  Sometimes when the children say grace, they don’t just thank God, they thank the chicken too.  It’s a bit off-putting, but maybe without that awareness of the death of the animal, it’s irresponsible to eat it.  But however kind the farmer and however humane the method of slaughter, to kill something seems essentially violent.  I’m not sure I really want to take part in that violence.

The other thing that bothers me is the thought that eating meat on anything but an occasional basis is unsustainable.  I could bore you with the figures, but the basic point is that farming meat is a very inefficient use of land.   When my brother and sister are starving, should I (or people acting on my behalf) be feeding grain and soybeans, etc to animals so that I can then eat the animal?  If seven billion people are going to have enough to eat, that ‘enough’ will not be able to include much, if any, meat – there simply isn’t enough agricultural land.

So on both those counts, my meaty diet is causing poverty and hunger for my weaker brothers and sisters somewhere in the world.   Am I eating meat that’s been sacrificed to the idol of my own pleasure?  Am I engaging in a combination of violence, exploitation, greed and stealing the bread from the mouths of the poor?  That’s not quite St Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians, but is it that far removed from it?  Maybe I should stop eating meat and cut back on dairy produce while I’m at it.

On the pro-meat side of the argument, though, there are farmers who rely on me eating their animals.  Also, I have an omnivorous digestive tract.  Also, according to Luke 24.42-43, Jesus ate fish.   Also, catering for vegetarians is a rotten nuisance.   Also, I love eating meat.   All this talk of eating has made me peckish, and I think there’s some ham in the fridge which would go nicely with a little chutney in a sandwich . . .

What made me start a blog

My 16 year old son is very irritating.  He sits in the kitchen with the radio on, and as soon as one song finishes, he flicks to another station.  He doesn’t like listening to the presenters or adverts, and he is quite fussy about the songs he is prepared to listen to.

I think the trouble is that I have let Google wire his brain.   He is evidence of a world in which experiences are chosen by an individual in short packages depending on how attractive the heading is on a results page.  Those experiences might be entertainment or information or interactions with friends.  Everything is individualized, atomized and fragmented.   Or is it actually more connected, but in a different way – a giant web with many nodal points, each centred on a person with the webs from that node constructed according to that person’s choices but interwoven with webs from other personal nodes?

Educationalists (including the Education Secretary) speak about the days of thirty children in front of a teacher being numbered.  They paint a picture of personalized learning, with students choosing their own curriculum, which they access on a computer in a booth.

I don’t like the look of this new world.  In our house we have Radio 4 on all day (just not in the kitchen when our son is there) and we learn lots of interesting things we didn’t know we were interested in before.  I spend a lot of time putting together programmes of worship, hymns, prayers, sermons, teaching and so on.  My idea is that these programmes will engage people’s attention, most importantly in God, and challenge them and stretch them.  I also think that community is very important, and one of the things I am trying to do is encourage people to join together and build deeper and more committed communities.  I am perpetually puzzled that most people are not interested.

Am I being a complete Luddite?  Am I just worried that what I have to offer would be impossible to market attractively on a results page?  Is my son being a prophet to his old Dad?  Is he channeling the voice of God to me to get with the new world, to be better connected, to join Facebook, to write a blog (done that, just now), to buy a smart phone, to drag the Radio 4-style church into the 21st century?

Or am I right to be concerned?  Is this new culture leading us away from engagement with a world of pain and need and finding God within it?  Is this new culture so dependent on technology (and devices that are out-of-date as soon as you buy them) that it is obscenely wasteful and unsustainable?

Or is the choice more complex than that?  Is a world of sustainable justice and peace for over 7 billion people only possible through the creative use of new technologies?

My decision will have to wait.  I’ve got a 20-minute sermon to write and choose some suitable hymns for everyone on Sunday.