Tuesday 29 March 2011

My song is ...

And now for something completely different ...
I have been inspired recently by a number of friends who have posted songs on their Blog's and Facebook pages.  Some have really touched my heart - a good example is "Strumming my pain with his fingers" by Significant Truths - and they have made me reflect ...
Music is a big part of my life.  It feeds my spirit and nourishes my soul. 
It can also be a great release when things get too serious.  I remember one evening when my wife was in hospital fighting for her life after her road accident in 2003.  I had just taken our children to see her and the visit had not gone well.  She had been given some bad news that day and was quite upset - she was also in too much pain to be able to hide it, and our kids (aged 3 and 5) came away from the hospital very quiet and withdrawn.
When we got home, I put a some music on.  It was a loud raucous CD by Linkin Park.   It turned out to be exactly what we all needed, enabling us to let go of the pain, fear and frustration that we felt.  Before I knew it, I had picked the children up, one in each arm, and we were dancing like lunatics around the living room with the volume up as high as it would go.  When the song finished, we fell onto the settee laughing and crying all at the same time.  When I took them up to bed a few minutes later they both said to me "Daddy - that was fun - can we do it again?"
Often my Blog ends up being a bit too serious.  It is often fed by observations of misunderstandings, injustice and prejudice.  Yet the Christian Gospel is Good News.  It is meant to be something which brings life, love,  joy and colour to our lives.
So I am going to start interspersing my more serious Blog postings with something a little lighter - a song for each week.   It will be a song which feeds me, which nourishes my soul, and just might do something for you too.
Today's song is 'A Message' by Coldplay, which was written around the a lyric "My song is love unknown" from the famous hymn.  It speaks to me of the love that God has for us - constant, unconditional, faithful, life-giving, warm, refreshing, inspiring, healing, personal, inviting!  As I listen to it, I find God singing those words to me.
It also speaks to me of the love which God wants us to live out in our relationships, our churches, our communities, our world.
Today's song is 'A Message' - Click below to enjoy...

For the next blog in the series click here

Tuesday 22 March 2011

Bible says No - Part 3 - Corinthians and Timothy

This is Part 3 in a series inspired by the 'Little Britain' sketch "Computer says No".  It seeks to challenge the perception that the Bible issues a blanket prohibition on same-sex relationships.
You can read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.
The Apostle Paul has had quite a bad press in recent years.
As the Church has modernised its attitude to women, some of Paul’s statements have sounded antiquated, even prejudiced.  Not allowing women to speak in church is one example that stands out but there are others.  Protracted discussions about head-covering, and indeed headship seem a long way from the experience of many Christians today in an age of equality.   And that is before we grapple with other enigmatic verses about women being ‘saved by childbearing’!
In some places, this has resulted in some aversion to readings from the Epistles.  There have been services where I have almost heard a sharp intake of breath among the congregations when such passages are read in church.  The fact that orthodox theologians have felt the need to address this in recent years in books like “Did St Paul get Jesus Right?” shows how deeply this has been felt.
But to succumb to such a point of view is to underestimate and devalue Paul’s contribution to the New Testament in a way which is far from justified.  Alongside the few passages which seem to sit uncomfortably alongside modern understandings of society, there are a whole host of other areas where Paul’s radical and inclusive theology blaze a trail for which we should be profoundly grateful.
His uncompromising insistence of salvation through faith alone, freedom from the Law and life in the Spirit, are just some examples which are at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian.  His beautiful and universal description of love in 1 Corinthians 13, quoted by people of all faiths and none, deeply inspires us and moves us.
And on a deeply practical level, all men have cause to be deeply grateful to Paul for successfully opposing those who wanted to impose circumcision on male converts to Christ!
The secret to understanding Paul is to discern between theology and cultural practise.  Paul's theology is timeless and reveals to us in wonderful vivid ways the glory of God.  His cultural practise on the other hand, is focused within the culture of his day, the culture in which he lived.
The theology we find in Paul’s epistles is truly remarkable.   It is the theology of equality – in Christ there is no slave or free, no male or female, no Greek or Jew.  It is the theology of equal grace – it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, so that no one may boast.  It is the a theology that rejects the constraints of religious law in favour of being led  by the Spirit – the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace…. against such things there can be no law.  It is the theology of growing in understanding, not religious repression - for now I see in part, I know in part, but then I will know fully, even as I am fully known.
We can only be inspired by the love and power of God at work in this most zealous of Pharisees, called while he was a persecutor of the church, and yet who, in God’s grace, became the Apostle to the Gentiles – those outside the people of God, who were dismissed and looked down on by God’s chosen race.
But alongside this, we also see Paul grappling with the cultural issues of his day, and the impact they had upon the new, fragile churches he was writing to.  He was writing to a world very different to the one which we observe today.  He was writing to a world which accepted slavery as a cultural norm, where spectators revelled in seeing death in the arena, and in which human rights were limited and dependant on political status. He wrote to fledgling Christian communities made up of Jews and Gentiles with very different norms and expectations about what was proper and socially acceptable.  He wrote in a world where the religious practises of the vast majority of the population would seem bizarre and alien to us today.
So in the midst of all these issues, he tried to set down norms which would enable these Christian churches to function and grow in the Roman world, and yet not be conformed to it.    This is where we find Paul's pronouncements on the role of women for example - statements that were motivated by considerations of cultural practise rather than expressions of the radical new theology of the Gospel.
He also lived in a world which he did not fully understand.  Although he was clearly an educated Jew and a Roman Citizen, his culture was set firmly in the Jewish world, and as he went further and further in his travels across Turkey, into Greece, and ultimately to Rome, we find him grappling with the subtleties of Greek faith and culture as well as Roman politics.
It is within this mix that we find the briefest statements in Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 1 Timothy which appear to address the issue of homosexuality.  Today we will look at the 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10.
The first thing to notice is that the word ‘homosexual’ did not exist in Paul’s day.  In fact it only begins to appear in the in English language in the 19th century.  The concept of homosexual orientation is one which is relatively new in human society.  There was certainly homosexual sex in the Greek world which Paul moved through, but that does not mean that monogamous, faithful, committed same-sex relationships were the norm.
Same-sex acts of various kinds existed in the Greek world between teachers and pupils, in the  military, in religious worship, and at the gymnasium.  Even today scholars find it a huge challenge to try to unravel their complexity and significance. 
But this is not the issue that Christians are grappling with today. 
The overwhelming majority of gay Christians today are not fighting for the right to indulge in promiscuous, religious, or hedonistic sex.  They simply want the church to recognise the same Christian ethic for them as for heterosexual couples, and increasingly want the same structures and sacraments to frame their relationships.  This would not have been what Paul saw as he journeyed through the Greco-Roman culture of his day.  What he would have been aware of, was the bewildering array of sexual activity which existed - much of which, as a Jew, he would have had little understanding of.
As a result, gay Christians have, for many years, said that they don’t recognise themselves in the things Paul writes about in respect to homosexuality (if indeed we can even call it that).  Put simply, the things that Paul condemned are not the things that LGBT Christians aspire to today.
On top of that, there are considerable problems in translating the words which Paul uses.  In 1 Corinthians 6:9 we find the verse, often quoted that says,
9 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  (NIV, 1984)
But the words translated as ‘male prostitutes’ and ‘homosexual offenders’ are far from clear in the Greek which Paul wrote.  The two words are ‘malakoi’ and ‘arsenokoitai’.
Malakoi also appears in the Gospels.  In Matthew 11:8 and Luke 7:25 Jesus asks people what they expected to see when they went to John the Baptist. 
What did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings' palaces.
The word translated as 'fine' is malakoi.  More usually it means 'soft' and was often used in Greek language to speak disparagingly about people who were soft willed, spineless, or lacking in courage.  In English translations, it was not until the 20th Century that malakoi was given a homosexual meaning.  What was more common before that, was the meaning found in John Wesley's Bible Notes.  He defines "malakoi" in 1 Corinthians, as those:
"Who live in an easy, indolent way; taking up no cross, enduring no hardship"

Arsenokoitai is even more difficult to unravel.  It does not appear in any contemporary Greek texts, and appears for the very first time in 1 Corinthians.  One tool in discerning the meaning of words is to observe how they are used in a variety of contexts.  In the case of arsenokoitai, we have no contemporary contexts outside of Paul's writings to compare.  The only other use of the word is in 1 Timothy 1:10, where it is translated in the NIV as 'perverts':

9 We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine.

This lack of comparable examples to cross-reference has prompted many to ask how we can know for sure what Paul meant by it, and how can we translate it with any degree of certainty?

The most likely explanation is that Paul invented the word, by putting together two words from the Greek translation of Leviticus 18:22 which condemns someone 'who lies with a man as with a woman'.  But as we have seen previously, (Bible says No - Part 2) this condemnation was almost certainly linked to religious prostitution and worship of idols.  The command was designed to keep Israel separate from the dubious religious practices of the cultures around them, and free from idol worship.

This of course brings us back to what Paul saw in the Greco-Roman world.  He would have been aware of same-sex acts in the context of Greek religion, Greek education, Greek gymnasiums - in short 'Greek Culture' -  and he knew that the church must be kept pure from that in the same way that the holiness code of Leviticus was designed to keep Israel pure from the dubious practises and idol worship of those around them. 

So if we can have any degree of certainty about these words, it is that they condemned the Greek expression of same-sex acts , which are very different in context to that of gay men and women today, in loving, committed, faithful, exclusive same-sex relationships.

As we try to unravel 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10, the case against homosexual relationships today becomes less and less clear.  The words Paul used are either unclear in their meaning, or are simply not found in other contemporary texts, inside or outside of scriptures.  Even Greek scholars find it hard to translate them with any degree of certainty.

I had always been told that ‘homosexual offenders’ in the Bible meant all homosexuals who had sex, regardless of the context, but I now find this impossible to justify.  There is a world of difference between a man and a woman having sex together in prostitution, as opposed to marriage, and we would never dream of treating those situations as comparable – so why do we assume that all homosexual sex is condemned in the Bible? 
If these verses can be translated in a way which condemns homosexual acts, then the acts they condemn are the wicked, immoral, idolatrous, adulterous expressions which the first part of 1 Corinthians 6:9 refers to - not the self-giving love that we observe today between people of the same sex who genuinely love each other and want to commit their lives to each other before God.
Next time - Romans 1 ...

Tuesday 15 March 2011

When the world falls apart ...

Like many people, I have been struggling to take in the awful events in Japan over the last few days.  The scale of destruction, suffering and loss are simply too great to comprehend, even from the distance of being half a world away.  What it must be like for those who are having to live through this disaster on the ground is beyond imagination.
But I have also been disturbed at some of the language which has been used in the TV news reports.  More than once the scenes in Japan have been described as 'Biblical' by reporters trying desperately to find words to express the scale of destruction.  "Scenes of Biblical destruction" is how one correspondent put it.
This disturbs me because destruction is not the first picture which comes to my mind when I read the Bible.  For me the Bible is primarily about the story of God restoring humankind after the fall, not destroying it.  And yet there are the stories of Noah, Sodom and Gomorrah, and of course the prophecies  about the end of the world.  Is that the picture which others see first?
There is another problem of course.   Describing the scenes in Japan as 'Biblical' also point us to that thorny question of where God was in all this.  Did he cause the earthquake and tsunami - thus making him a capricious destroyer?  Or did he just allow it - implying divine apathy?   Was God powerless to stop it, or was it part of his plan - a divine wake-up call or punishment? 
When huge natural disasters strike, they can often remind us of the lesser tragedies we have all experienced in life.  The times when these same questions rear their heads to disturb us.  The "Why me?" moments.  The "It's not fair" moments.   The times when the foundations of our world and faith are shaken.
My own experience of tragedy came on a sunny April morning in 2003.  Like the earthquake in the Japan, it came out of the blue with no warning, as an 18 ton truck turned left without checking, and my wife on her bicycle was dragged under its wheels.
I was phoned by a bystander, and arrived at the scene just as the first ambulance crew arrived.  I saw the scene of destruction with my wife lying on the road in the shadow of the huge wheel that had ripper her body apart, leaving parts of her strewn across the tarmac.
Over the weeks and months that followed, as she fought for life in hospital, I faced the same questions which the earthquake in Japan evokes in us.  Some of those questions came from within - others from people around me.  Some tried to encourage me with phrases like "It's all for a reason" or "God has a purpose - you'll see" as if some divine plan had caused or allowed the pain and suffering of this random act of negligence.  
One woman in my congregation asked me "How can you get up and preach every Sunday after what has happened?".  To this day, I don't know if this came from her own questions of what kind of God could allow this, or if she somehow felt this must be some kind of punishment from God for a secret and unspecified sin.
In midst of it I was angry at God - felt betrayed by God - let down by God - when I had given my life to following him, and all my energy to working for him.  The least he could have done was to watch my back.  
It took several years for my relationship with God to be repaired.  Even now I struggle with those same questions when I see events such as those of the last few days.
As I reflect back, it was not those with easy answers who helped me during those dark days after my wife's accident.  It was not those who had a reason ready to explain what had happened that eased my pain.
The ones who helped me were the ones who simply sat with me in the pain.  The ones whose presence and prayers reminded me that God was there in the mist of the suffering, the anger and the confusion - even when there were no answers.  The people who put their arms around me when I didn't want God's arms around me.  Those were the ones who helped me come to terms with my own minor tragedy.
I have been surprised to see how quiet Christian bloggers have been over the weekend about the earthquake.  Perhaps we have all been taking time to get our heads around it?
In fact this is no bad thing.  Blogs can tend to be about quick answers and instant comment, whereas this is one of those situations where neither does any good, and those who rush in to make sense of these things are often those who do most damage.
My tragedy pales into insignificance when compared to the loss and destruction in Japan, but eight years on from the day my world was shaken, I simply know this.  Bad things happen.  They happen to good people as well as bad - and to the vast majority of us who are somewhere in between.  They are often random, bewildering and unfair.  Why does God allow them - I don't know.  But I do know that God is there, wanted or unwanted in the midst of them, just as God was there in the violence, injustice and pain of the cross.  He is not distant and aloof, and he shares our pain.  And it is here that the Bible does speak:
"For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."  (Romans 8:38&39)

Friday 4 March 2011

Towards a Theology of Gay Marriage

As the UK Government begins to explore the possibility of new policies on marriage for same-sex couples, do we need to revisit our theology of marriage and ask "Is it really as Biblical as we think?"
I often find myself feeling sorry for the Pharisees in the Gospels.  It is easy to dismiss them as legalistic 'stick in the muds' but at least they tried their best to be faithful to the Word of God, and to hold the line against the secular influences of Roman politics and culture.
Their problem however, was that in their zeal to be faithful, they often got the wrong end of the stick.  As a result, over and over again, they missed the point of what God was doing, and ended up fighting against His purposes in the process.
It was in this context that they ran up against Jesus over and over again.
Food laws are one example - their focus on clean and unclean foods led to a theology which implied that it is what goes into your body which makes you unclean, rather than the declaration of Christ that it is what comes out of your heart that matters.
The Sabbath is another example.  They spent so much time and energy upholding the Sabbath that they transformed something which God intended as a blessing and made it a burden.  What God intended as a means to an end - that we should have time for rest and recreation - became the end in itself.   Again Jesus countered this by turning it on its head, pointing to the purpose of the Sabbath, rather than the institution.  "The Sabbath was created for man, not man for the Sabbath."  The Pharisees saw the 'end product' and allowed that to become pre-eminent, rather than seeing the intention of God.  As a result, the need which God was addressing in the creation of the Sabbath became overwhelmed by their observation of the institution of the Sabbath.
But we too can fall into the same trap when it comes to understanding marriage.
In the account of Adam and Eve we find our paradigm for marriage.  Although not the only consideration in forming our theology of marriage, it is the foundation which is taken up by both Jesus when questioned about divorce, and Paul in his advice to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5. 
In the account we observe that male and female come together in joy to 'complete' one another, and become 'one flesh' in a way which is unique in creation.  If we follow this form, then marriage must be between one man and one woman. 
Such an observation precludes, of course, any contemplation of same-sex marriage.  'God made Adam and Eve - not Adam and Steve,' is one way of expressing this, and silences all argument to the contrary.
Yet if we merely look at the 'end product' in Genesis 2, without seeking to understand God's intentions, we run the same risk as the Pharisees whose limited view of the Sabbath went so far out of kilter with what God had intended.
Genesis 2 is not primarily about understanding creation - it is about understanding relationship - our relationship with God, the world, and each other.  Neither is it about procreation - the command to be fruitful and multiply is found in the first account of creation, not in the story of Adam and Eve.  In Genesis 2, we find Adam created first and placed in the garden of God's blessing.  He has everything he needs to feed his body and a pure untainted relationship with God to feed his spirit.  Yet there is still something missing. God says, "It is not good for the man to be alone".  There is still a need for another relationship to complete the paradigm of life in all its fullness.
God created the animals, but still no suitable partner was found.  So finally God created Eve as the one who is "bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh" and  Adam rejoices in the one who completed his need for that unique relationship.  In their coming together that 'one flesh' is re-united in what we call marriage and we can all relate to that yearning desire for the one who completes us - the one with whom we fall in love, and express that love in life-long commitment.  Whilst we must recognise that not everyone finds their life-partner, there is always that hope, that possibility, of meeting the person who 'completes' us.
But what of those whose attraction is not toward the opposite sex?  What if the person who we fall in love with  - who completes that God-given need within us - is of the same sex?  Does that negate the fundamental human need which God addresses?
Those who are attracted to people of the same sex still have the same yearning for that relationship which will bring a sense of fulfilment, a sense of completeness, a re-uniting of 'one flesh' from what God has created.
By focusing on the 'end product' (male and female) rather than the need which God is addressing in the Garden of Eden (relationship), we risk making the same mistake as the Pharisees did with the Sabbath at the beginning of the same chapter.
They elevated the Sabbath to monumental proportions because they thought it was something greater that our human needs, and Jesus had to correct them by reminding them that the Sabbath was created by God to meet human needs, not to be an end in itself.
When we elevate marriage to the same monumental proportions and restrict it to our observation of Adam and Eve, we need to be reminded that marriage was ordained by God to meet a human need, not to be an end in itself.  This is radical thinking sure enough, but it is just as Biblical as the challenges which Jesus brought to the Pharisees.
Is it not possible that the yearning to find the one who 'completes' us is the same for everyone - gay straight, bi, or transgendered?  Is it not possible that God's response to that yearning is also the same for everyone, irrespective of their sexuality - the opportunity of marriage for all, with the person who 'completes' them, no matter what sex they are?
Until we are prepared to look deeper, and frame our theology of marriage around God's purposes, rather than just the 'end product' we continue to run the risk of following the Pharisees, and completely miss the point.
(Also published in The Church of England Newspaper - 4th March 2011)

Tuesday 1 March 2011

Accepting Evangelicals ...?

There are 2 significant lies at work among Evangelicals today.
The first lie is that you can't be an Evangelical Christian and be pro-gay - ie. support and affirm same-sex relationships.
It has been a useful lie for more conservative evangelicals in the struggle against the rising tide of inclusion in society and the church - but it is nevertheless a lie.
To begin with, it is a factual lie.  Research by Evangelical Alliance in the UK (with an impressive sample size of almost 15,000) has found that 27% of Evangelical Christians declined to agree with the statement that "Homosexual actions are always wrong"  Of those, 16% actively disagreed, and 11% were unsure.  While this is still a minority of evangelicals, it shows conclusively that there is now a significant proportion of evangelicals who have moved beyond the traditional teaching on this issue, and begun to embrace a more inclusive understanding.
But more than just a factual lie, it is also a theological lie.  Being an evangelical has never been defined by your attitude to homosexuality.  It has always been about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, preaching the Gospel, and understanding the Bible as the inspired Word of God.  And the same survey amongst evangelicals revealed that this is still the case.
99% of those questioned said that their faith is the most important thing in their lives
95% said that the Bible was the inspired Word of God
94% believed that Jesus is the only way to God, and that the Bible has supreme authority in guiding their beliefs, views, and behaviour.
The difference is that more and more evangelicals are realising that the Biblical evidence for condemning same-sex relationships is nowhere near as conclusive as they had been told. And many are coming to the conclusion that the Bible doesn't talk directly about same-sex relationships at all - merely the  twisted forms of sexual activity which are just as much a danger for heterosexuals as homosexuals.
Fact:  It is possible to be an Evangelical Christian and be pro-gay.

The second lie is that you have to be either pro-gay or anti-gay.
Again this lie has been encouraged by those who want to polarise the issue in people's minds.  They pretend that there is no middle ground, and yet there clearly is.
In addition to the growing number of 'gay-affirming' evangelicals, there is also a growing number who are willing to 'accept' the Christian integrity of same-sex relationships, even though their own understanding of the Bible does not allow them to affirm them.  To begin with, this may sound confusing, but it is a position which we find in many areas of Christian life and fellowship. 
Baptism is one such example for evangelicals.  Many evangelicals outside the Church of England, do not practise infant baptism.  They believe firmly and truly that to be baptised, you have to be able to make a conscious decision to repent and believe the Gospel.  There are good scriptural grounds for this, and it is more difficult to make a watertight case for infant baptism from the verses of the Bible.  It is an issue which evangelicals could have heated debates on (indeed, I have had such heated debates on a number of occasions!)  But it is not something over which evangelicals fall out today.  Baptists, Evangelical Anglicans, and Pentecostals are happy to stand side by side, to work together on mission, or worship together at  the big Evangelical Festivals.  There are very few people who would say "If you baptise babies, you are not an evangelical" and Evangelicals who disagree quite profoundly about baptism still find themselves able to pray together and bless each other.  Those who believe in 'adult only' baptism do not affirm infant baptism, but they accept the Christian integrity of those who do.
The same is beginning to happen in attitudes to same-sex relationships.  There is a greater openness to acknowledging that we won't always agree in our interpretation of Scripture, but that does not need to stop us accepting one another in the love and fellowship of Christ.
The group Accepting Evangelicals, which I help to lead, is a network of just such people who want to see the church move past the polarised and highly charged debates which are often displayed on the issue of sexuality.
It is made up of a wide spectrum of people - both those who would affirm same-sex relationships, and those who would simply accept the Christian integrity of those relationships even though they disagree.  It is a network where evangelicals can listen to each other, rather than shout at each other.  It is made up of gay Christians, straight Christians, men and women, old and young.
So - here is the advertisement - if you haven't visited the Accepting Evangelicals website, why not have a look.  We have just given it a face-lift, and made it easier to navigate.   We are also starting a weekly 'AE Blog' on the site, with the opportunity to comment on the issues raised.  You can sign up to receive our monthly newsletter without any commitment, or if you want to join, membership is free.
Fact:  Evangelicals do not have to be polarised on the issue of sexuality.