In this blog, I shall attempt to record my thoughts and feelings as I go through life.  Don't expect too much logic, great wisdom, or theological perfection.  I am liable to ramble over all sorts of topics, some overtly Christian, others rather less so.  See it as a stream of consciousness.  I hope and pray that you get something out of it.

Some Thoughts on LGBTQ+ Inclusion

As I said in an earlier post, I have been helping facilitate the CofE’s ‘Living in Love and Faith’ course - which is basically a conversation about the church’s attitude to LGBTQ+ inclusion.

Being me, I felt the need to do a bit of deep mining and examine why the church has, traditionally, failed to include LGBTQ+ folk fully in church life, and whether I feel that’s justified. In this post, I’m only going to deal with the ‘LGBQ+' part - we’ll come back, at a later date, to look at the transgender issue - because it’s quite different and therefore deserves different treatment.

There are about seven places in the Bible where it has traditionally been supposed that homosexuality is condemned. These verses are known to LGBQ+ Christians and their supporters as the ‘clobber passages’. They are as follows:

Genesis 19:1-14 and 24-26

Judges 19:1-30

Leviticus 18:22

Leviticus 20:13

Romans 1:18-27

I Corinthians 6:9-10

I Timothy 1:8-11

In English bibles the issue seems pretty clear. But the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, which was later (circa 300-200BC) translated into Greek, giving us the Septuagint. Most English Old Testaments are translated, instead, from the very much later (circa 600-1100AD) Masoretic text. Some scholars argue that that was partly re-written (particularly in key passages, such as Isaiah 53) in order to make it seem less likely that Jesus was the Messiah (though Christians seem to have ‘accepted’ those changes readily, despite them appearing to set God the Father in opposition to the Messiah); it’s not that simple though, because the Masoretic text seems to follow some fragments of the (1st century AD) scrolls found at Qumran pretty closely. 

The Cry of Dereliction

The pandemic has been tough on everyone. Whether or not you’ve had Covid, whether or not you’ve lost friends or relatives to this dreadful plague, it has been tough. We have an excuse, if we need an excuse, to be struggling simply to get through the days. I’ve been fine, physically, as have most people I know (though one or two have suffered unbelievably); but there’s been this sort of ‘existential threat’ hanging over me (and everyone else) for almost two years. So, if you or I are feeling a bit low at times that is, you know, excusable…

It’s okay to not be okay.

During one of my ‘not okay’ moments, I fell to thinking about Christ’s ‘cry of dereliction’ - uttered on the cross:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

Traditionally, in evangelical circles, the view is that Jesus taking on humanity’s sin makes him ‘unacceptable’ to a God who cannot abide sin and hates sinners, so the Father turns His back on Jesus, and that’s what the ‘cry of dereliction’ is all about. That doesn’t make logical sense, when you think about the nature of the Trinity... I don’t think the Trinity is ‘breakable’, but what that ‘standard’ view of the crucifixion implies is that the love shared between the persons of the Trinity is weaker than the alienation caused by sin.

An Angry, Wrathful, God?

Most of what I’ve written in the past few posts has been rather cerebral and intellectual… And in a sense that’s inevitable, given my background and training. But actually, the ‘underpinning’ of my faith is something entirely ‘experiential’ - and without that, there would be nothing - in fact, I’d probably still be an atheist.

It was an experience of ‘something’, which I’ll call God, that finally ‘tipped me over the edge’ into belief way back, more than forty years ago now - rather than anything intellectual. Yes, I’d spent the best part of a couple of years ‘exploring’ ideas around God, but I think it was just a sort of ‘idle intellectual curiosity’, and I’d been around in circles several times, never really getting anywhere other than deeper into more complex questions.

But there came the point at which that ‘someone’ appeared in my world, in a way I couldn’t deny or explain away. Initially, it was pretty darned scary. Going from ‘nothing exists which can’t be measured or explained’ to ‘there’s someone else in here with us as well’ is a pretty big, and threatening, ‘leap’ of experience and understanding.

Love and Judgment

Christians seem, by and large, to expect a ‘second coming’, and a ‘day of judgment’ - in which, apparently, vengeance against God’s enemies will be enacted and everyone who hasn’t repented will get their just desserts - this forms the ‘stick’ of what I might describe as the ‘popular gospel’; the carrot being, of course, the forgiveness for sins, and subsequent acceptance of the believer into ‘heaven’.

And yet, I wonder. If Jesus came to show us what God is really like - as he said himself:

“Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves…” John 14:9-11

then it’s hard to find much evidence in the gospels for Jesus predicting that God is angry and that therefore he’s going to return with ‘fire and sword’.

Can God’s Will be Thwarted?

Many Evangelical Christians describe themselves as ‘bible-believing Christians’ - as if other Christians aren’t. And yet, some also have an annoying habit of ignoring those bits of the bible which don’t ‘fit’ their chosen narrative, or which are otherwise ‘awkward’ (though, to be fair, I think we all do that - the bible is an awfully long and complex collection of writings).

For instance, a favourite evangelical verse is Romans 3:23:

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 

which is frequently used when trying to convert people, to convince them that they’re sinners on the way to hell. But the second part of the antithetical couplet, in verse 24, is all too frequently forgotten about or ignored, because it doesn’t seem to fit that ‘neat and tidy’ narrative:

and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Some English translations have two ‘alls’ in this couplet, and some biblical scholars have been known to argue that each ‘all’ refers to a different group of people. But in the Greek version there is just one ‘all’ (Greek πάντες - pantes - meaning all or everyone). Therefore what it says, essentially, is that everyone has both sinned and been justified by Christ. It is plain and simple, and, if we’re truly being honest, there is no getting away from it, or denying it: to do otherwise is to do violence to the biblical text. It’s by no means the only place where such things are said - there are a large number, once you start to see them (and I may get around to exploring a few more in the future)… But they don’t fit the ‘narrative’ the church (particularly the evangelical church) likes to teach, so they tend to be ignored. 

Coming Out: This Is Me (Part 2)

In a way, this sort of follows on from my previous two posts… In that I am about to begin to reveal that I am in some way ‘other’ - and I hope that, if your first reaction might otherwise be to react with anger and condemnation, that you will first read this post, and that you will also remember Jesus’ words:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48

This post has its origins right back at the beginning of my Christian ‘journey’. I had become, it appeared, a fully ‘signed up’ charismatic evangelical Christian, believing all the ‘right’ things, saying all the right things and gradually learning all the ‘right answers’ to the permitted questions… Generally not being guilty of ‘rocking the boat’.

Coming Out: This Is Me (Part 1)

Now, the title probably had you worried, didn’t it? Go on, admit it!!

But this isn’t that sort of ‘coming out’. This is a theological ‘coming out’, rather than a statement about my sexuality: last time I checked I was still heterosexual! This post more or less follows on from my previous post - particularly in that I’d like you to bear in mind what I said there as you read this. 

I haven’t posted much to this blog for a few years. That’s largely because my views on God, the gospel, and the church, have been changing; at first a little, then quite radically. In 2016 I experienced what I can only describe as an outpouring of God’s love - an epiphany - it was incredible - like nothing I’d ever experienced before. And it went on, and on, for months. Considered alongside things which had happened earlier on my faith journey, it seemed to leave me no choice but to begin to examine, forensically, what I had been taught by the church - which appeared, in some ways, to contradict what I had been experiencing, and the things which I felt God was saying to me now - chiefly through scripture. 

Whitewashed Tombs?

The Church of England has begun a ‘conversation’ around the topic of LGBTQ+ inclusion. The main focus at this stage is on a course, and associated supporting resources, known collectively as ‘Living in Love and Faith’. I did the course myself a few months ago, and found it interesting and thought-provoking. At the moment I am helping to facilitate another course for our deanery (a deanery is a local group of churches). It is proving, again, interesting - perhaps more so than last time, because it’s a much more diverse group.

Something has been ‘bubbling away’ in the back of my mind for a while, but really came to the boil after the most recent session, regarding how members of the church see themselves.

We seem, naturally, to identify with the characters in the gospel stories whom Jesus, rescues, ransoms, heals, restores, forgives. Understandably so, I think, given that many people in churches feel as though they have been rescued, ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven. But something odd, if not to say disturbing, seems to happen then, in a lot of cases - something which I think we’re usually completely blind to.

Christianity, Love, and Hair Shirts

This is ‘newish’ thinking, and as yet only partly formed, so it may be a bit disjointed and rough around the edges.

The West in general has a problem with love; not least because, in most people’s minds it is associated, at best, with romance, and at worst (maybe) with sheer animal lust. The church has an even bigger problem (or maybe even a whole suit of problems) with love. I want to ramble around the word a bit. 

Let’s leave aside the whole romance and lust thing, at least for the moment - what is probably best described, in Greek, as ἔρως (eros) - and think about love in other forms, but particularly the unconditional, sacrificial, form of love called in Greek ἀγάπη (agapé), mainly associated with God and epitomised by Jesus’ death on the cross. Virtually everywhere English New Testaments use the word love, they are translating ἀγάπη.

But I don’t want to do a whole lot of theology, or etymology, or indeed any other ‘ology’. This is, I hope, going to be about experience, and practice.

Martha & Mary

First of all, please bear with me - we’re going to need to dig into some Greek - but don’t be worried, because this isn’t particularly difficult. The story of Martha and Mary is found in Luke 10.

38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.
39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.
40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things,
42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Where does this take place? Bethany, where Martha and Mary lived, is a village on the southeast slope of the Mount of Olives, a couple of miles from Jerusalem. Tradition has Lazarus living there with them too.

Are We Asking the Wrong Questions?

A few days ago, our vicar sent me a link to a YouTube video, which made me laugh. It also made me think - or, at least, to look at my feelings, and dredge up the thoughts which had been lurking in the dark corners of my mind.

I was sent it, as a joke, because he’d asked me to look at ways we might reopen our church building - first for ‘private prayer’ then, later I assume, for ‘worship’ - in these days of Covid-19 and social distancing. I won’t go into detail but, basically, a church building like ours is designed to ‘cram’ lots of people into a relatively small space: the opposite of what’s required to keep people safe from the novel coronavirus. The more I think, and calculate, and draw, the more complicated and the more, ‘de-humanising’ and intractable the problem seems to become...

And ridiculous; especially that. 

If we keep strictly to the 2m rule, and also expect that someone, anyone, sitting near the platform might need the toilet at some point, we can fit a grand total of eleven individuals - or somewhat more if we allow ‘lockdown bubbles’ to huddle together - but never more than about 10% of the church’s ‘capacity’. If you decide not to allow people to leave to go to the toilet, and insist that the first arrivals fill the church from the front, then you can fit about sixty people. How do you select which small percentage can come on any given Sunday? I have to say, I find this model of ‘church’ most unattractive and unlikely, therefore, to attract many people to ‘hear the good news’.

Tough Times and the Church

I think I want to start a conversation about grief, trauma and mental ill-health, and the church’s response. 

I should say, first of all, that I’m no expert, and this is entirely personal perspective, developed over forty years of being around evangelical churches. I’ve had my share of tough times, and I’ve seen and experienced both the brilliant and the bad in churches’ response to people struggling through hard times. I’ve also been part of conversations around those issues, and churches’ response, for almost as long.

I remember one conversation, it must be almost thirty years ago now, in which a GP acquaintance was openly critical of evangelical churches, describing them as places which fostered a sense of unreality - that sense that you weren’t a ‘proper Christian’ unless you were always ‘up’ - always happy and smiling - and how harmful this was for those who aren’t always ‘up’. He also described the ‘quick fix’ culture (pray for someone’s healing, believe they’d been healed, and move on) as equally harmful - ‘leaving a trail of broken, hopeless, people in its wake, for the NHS to pick up and try to put back together’ was how I think he put it. His words stuck with me - because they illustrated neatly how wrong the attitude was; how wrong-headed the reasoning behind the church’s response can be. It was pretty damning and, sadly, in a lot of cases, all too true.

Humility - an Easter Thought

The church is big on humility, and how we should be humble, and serve others. It even talks about Jesus being humble. But then, in the next breath, it sets him up as a glorious, triumphant, king - the sort of conquering hero who deserves, and gets, a big bronze statue set up in the main square of a capital city, celebrating his strength, his power, his might.

This week, I have read the ‘Easter story’ several times in each of the gospels - soaking in the imagery, letting my imagination (aided by what I know of the times and the places) run riot, and it struck me how ordinary, how humble all of the imagery is.

Reading about the ‘triumphal entry’ (as some bibles title the passage), something struck me...

The next day the great crowd that had come to the feast, hearing that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches from the palm trees and went forth to meet him and cried out, “Hosanna, blessed is the one coming in the name of the Lord, and the king of Israel!” And Jesus, having found a young ass, mounted it, just as it is written: “Fear not, daughter of Zion; see, your king comes seated on the foal of an ass.” John 12:12-15, quoting Zechariah 9:9

A New Spiritual Practice

Hand-washing is all the rage! The novel Coronavirus, which causes Covid-19, seems mostly to be passed on via droplet infection - so by breathing in droplets suspended in the air, or by touching something on which droplets have landed which is contaminated with virus particles, and then transferring them to one’s eyes, nose, or mouth with the hands. So thorough hand-washing is important. But how long should I wash my hands for? The experts say it takes about twenty seconds for soap and water to destroy the virus - so stages 2-7 in the poster below ought to take you at least twenty seconds. I would ignore the ‘visibly soiled’ part of the instructions below - the danger we’re dealing with here, is that your hands can be dangerously contaminated whilst looking perfectly clean!!!

How To HandWash Poster

How long is twenty seconds? If you say the Lord’s Prayer, and you aren’t racing through it, it should take you more than twenty seconds… It usually takes me twenty-five or more. Ample time to kill that virus! And to connect with God!

Be Still - Three - Lectio Divina

So, having established, in my last post, that we need to cultivate quiet in order to hear God as we need to, how might we go about that?

In theory, it’s simple. Find somewhere physically quiet. It might be a quiet, comfortable, space in the house, or a bench in the park, or somewhere else like that - somewhere one isn't likely to be disturbed. Sit down and do nothing.

I wish, oh, how I wish, that it was so simple.

I have, and I’m sure you do too, a mind which is full of thoughts, hopes, fears, ideas, memories, more thoughts, and so on. They race around inside my head, competing for my attention, until I’m quite weary of them, and feel like yelling "Be quiet, will you!!" I can’t just ‘switch them off’ - it doesn’t work that way.

So, what do I do?

Well, I sit. And I stay still. And I resist the urge to check Facebook, empty the washing machine, collect the post from the doormat, or any other of a dozen things which might distract me for the duration of this time. This is time for me and God, and I am determined not to let the world, even the good things of the world, intrude on that. Usually, I need to do ‘something’; some ‘spiritual exercise’, in order to focus, and to ‘drive out’ all those extraneous thoughts, so that I can hear God’s still, small voice. 

Be Still - Two

The modern world is noisy. It’s actually very hard to get away from noise. From the distant hum of aircraft passing far overhead; the noise of traffic on nearby roads; all the modern aids to living (washing machines and so on); the sound of conversations; to ‘music’ - every shop you go in has some radio station or other burbling away to itself and you. And most of us have ceased even to notice it with our conscious minds.

We have become accustomed to noise. Indeed many of us feel uncomfortable without it - we try to replace the silences by constantly ‘listening’ to music - i.e. having earphones in, and our devices playing music to us. 

Even in church - certainly in our church - a service leader will say ‘now we’re going to have a few minutes of quiet to think about what we’ve been hearing.' And then they proceed to talk via the PA system throughout the ‘silence’ - as if, actually, silence is a bad thing.

That is such a contrast to the rest of human history. Life was, to a large extent, quiet. Yes, there was conversation. And yes, there were some loud sounds - like horses and carts on cobbled streets, or the blacksmith working - and in towns and villages in the daytime that sort of thing could be quite deafening. And there was music - people played instruments, and sang - but it was deliberate, and active, rather than passive. But constant noise wasn’t the norm. Much of the time, the loudest sounds were birdsong, and the drum of rain on the roof.

Be Still...

This is a time when we are supposed to be ‘socially distancing’ - and church, as we usually do it, is about as far from social distancing as it’s possible to get - lots of people, crowded together in a confined space; handshakes, hugs, shared bread and wine - it’s an epidemiologist’s nightmare, and like having died and gone to heaven if you’re a virus.

The church is, I’m glad to say ‘stepping up’ and finding ways to help out the vulnerable and needy in our society. But it strikes me that, as well as reaching out to others, we need to be kind to ourselves too, and to find ways (perhaps new ways - or through the revival of ancient ways) to maintain our own spiritual lives, and to continue to grow in our knowledge and live of God.

The circumstances are difficult, but Christianity is the faith for difficult times - so often, down the centuries, it has been when times were tough that the church has stepped up and been there - both for its members and for those ‘outside’. And we have such a wonderful literature of wisdom for tough times - forged during the hard times its authors went through - and we can draw on that for comfort. At this time of ‘pestilence’, I find myself drawn to Psalm 91...

Where is God?

This follows on from the previous post - in a fairly tenuous way.

So, how do we meet God? Where is God? Conventional Christian doctrine tells us that God is everywhere - so, surely, we should be able to encounter Him anywhere?

But is that the experience of most believers?

I don't think so.

For many (or most?) Christians, God is not present in the here and now. He is someone they hope to meet 'in the sweet by and by'. He dwells in heaven, and they hope, by confessing that Jesus is Lord, saying the right prayers, and living good, Christian, lives - obeying the rules, giving to the poor, etc., to meet Him there when they die. God is out of reach, and the purpose of this life is simply to prepare us for the next life. Eternal life, as promised by the supposedly Good News, is something which begins when we die. This world is a melancholy place which cannot satisfy us - almost all satisfaction is locked away in the future. Any pleasure we get is fleeting, and cannot compare with what we will experience when we die, and so we should not get fixated on it. This is, as I said in an earlier post, mostly thought which can be attributed to Plato rather than the bible.

The Law of Love

I've touched on this subject before, but after several years’ worth of hard reading and thinking, I fancy I have a better developed, more nuanced, view. But there's a lot to it, and it's hard to know where to start. I suppose it sort of follows on from some of the thoughts in my previous post.

We humans appear to like rules. We know where we are with rules; they establish boundaries which we know we oughtn't to cross. But you know what? Most of us are rubbish at obeying rules - even though we like them. We 'push the boundaries' of whatever it is - at best. At worst, we ride roughshod over the rules and go our own way. That’s free will and our rebellious nature coming to the fore. And, somehow, it’s sort of ‘built in’ (some might call that the ‘sinful nature)… Unless something is forbidden, we aren’t all that bothered, but ban it, and doing that very thing becomes our obsession. Think of the child told not to touch the stove-top because it’s hot!

The church has rules - a mixture of some of the Old Testament laws, with a few other 'cultural' rules thrown in for good measure, all ‘papered over’ with a thin veneer of New Testament love. Really, the message often seems to be 'obey the rules and you'll go to heaven'. It's almost 'justification by works'. And we don't; we can't follow the rules (see above) - in pretty similar fashion to the Israelites who couldn't follow the Law God gave them! Guilt, fear, and shame ensue, all too often.

I am the Resurrection and the Life

This is, probably, the first in a series of about three posts around a developing theme - exploring the ‘implications’ of what was discussed in my previous post.

I have recently ‘discovered’ a different way of thinking about what Jesus did for our relationship with God - or, at least, a form of words which is different, and which sheds new light on it for me. It may, of course, be ‘old hat’ for you.

When Jesus cast the money changers, dove sellers, and other ‘traders’ out of the temple He was questioned as to under whose authority He was operating:

The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” John 2:18

And His somewhat enigmatic response was: 

“Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” John 2:19

Of course, the Jews thought he meant the physical, bricks and mortar, temple, whereas it turned out that Jesus was actually referring to Himself as the temple.

Under the old covenant, the temple in Jerusalem was the meeting place between God and His people Israel - the people He intended to be His ambassadors in the world. The temple was the place where heaven and earth touched… It was the place on earth where the glory of God rested. That changed when Jesus died on the cross. 

Copyright © Phil Hendry, 2021