As any consent activist will tell you, boundaries are crucial to your health and wellbeing. Transgressing boundaries is inherently unfaithful. It’s no accident that in the Lord’s Prayer, in its traditional form, we ask God to forgive us our ‘trespasses.’
I’ve long believed it’s important to respect God’s boundaries. If God has set them, then they must be both ethical and important. But whilst I still believe this is true, I don’t act on it in the way I used to.
You see, I used to believe I had stay well within the lines. I’d be nervous not to get anywhere near God’s boundaries. I believed the onus was on me to build up my own little guard rails to stop me from coming close.
But then I wondered: what if I don’t need to be like that?
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 6, Day 3: Ways
Apparently, Google translates “Kyrie eleison” as “Sir, take it easy.”
Christians are more familiar with “Lord, have mercy.”
But the Google Translate rendering strikes home with me.
Christians often say that mercy is not giving people bad things that they nevertheless deserve. But this has problematic overtones.
I’ve heard it stated, or strongly implied, that the slightest error warrants a gory death in God’s eyes. This is considered the reason behind Jesus’s awful death: supposedly, he took the punishment we deserve.
Again, I find this highly problematic.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 5, Day 7: Gentleness
I’m a feminist but… I’m still a sucker for good princess stories.
I love the idea of being special (who doesn’t?). I love royalty being bestowed upon good people who serve their kingdom. I especially love the idea of a young daughter fearlessly weighing in on matters of state, albeit seasoned with just enough decorum for what’s at stake.
Of course, not all princesses are born into royalty. But when they are, there’s so much baggage of the state. It’s hard to shed the feeling of being a prize, a treasure, a someone-born-for-someone-else. It’s easy to think of her as merely a trophy for some handsome prince who’ll later be king.
The church does not help in all this. Borrowing from texts like Ephesians 5, 2 Corinthians 11:2 and Revelation 21, Christians often say the church is the bride of Christ – metaphorically speaking.
But I dare say this distorts our perspective. I can understand the appeal of saying the gospel is like a fairy-tale, but some of those tales have a sickly-sweet edge. Count me in for the magic and the mystery, but I don’t want a faith draped in pretty white veils. And I don’t want to be dolled up to fit the image.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 4, Day 6: Princeling
The Greek word ‘skandalon’ is the root of our English word ‘scandal’. It means ‘stumbling block.’
But it should mean ‘something that causes people to argue.’
The idea of ‘stumbling blocks’ recurs throughout the Bible, especially the New Testament. And it’s a bit weird.
When Jesus’ warned his close friends that he would be killed, one of them, Peter, said it would never happen. In response, Jesus called him a stumbling block (Matthew 16:23).
The early churches were told to consider their example so that they didn’t mislead or be a ‘stumbling block’ to others (Romans 14:13, 1 Corinthians 8:9).
And with graphic hyperbole, Jesus preached that if parts of our bodies cause us to stumble then we would be better off losing those parts altogether. (Seriously, don’t take this literally! Matthew 5:29-30; Matthew 18:6-9; Mark 9:42-47.)
So stumbling blocks are… bad?
But on the flip side, the New Testament says Jesus is a stumbling-block.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 4, Day 2: Scandal
I always loved the nunc dimittis.
That might sound contradictory. Earlier I said I hadn’t thought much of Mary’s song when I was growing up. Because we sang it to boring tunes and referred to it by its Latin name ‘magnificat.’
Well, we also sang Simeon’s song to the same kinds of tunes and used its Latin name. But for some reason, I loved it.
It conjured the feeling of a peaceful evening. When everything is winding down and all is well with the world.
As we’ll see in today’s reading, Simeon was an old man who lived in Jerusalem around the time of Jesus’s birth. He met Mary and Joseph in the temple a few weeks after Jesus was born. He had been waiting to see this promised child and, even though he was old, he knew he would live to see Jesus face-to-face.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 4, Day 1: Departure
“With hindsight, some could see why things had gone wrong and recognized they had been hard to work with.”Ruth H Perrin, Changing Shape, The Faith Lives of Millennials
Ruth Perrin’s book studies the experiences of emerging adults who, when they were teenagers, described themselves as Christians. Given that I’ve met a number of people who are now ‘ex-church’, I was particularly interested in the chapter about ‘the disenchanted.’
She found nearly all the ‘disenchanted’ millennials she interviewed had been strong contributors to their churches. But then that was derailed, and the fallout was deeply damaging.
In retrospect, some could now see how it happened, however as Perrin writes: “had they been better managed, or had communication been clearer, events might have turned out differently.”
Her study focussed on the cost to the individuals she interviewed, but the wider opportunity cost was undoubtedly huge.
At least, it was for me.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 3, Day 7: Cause
Let’s talk about priesthood.
You may have noticed that the ‘Faith in Grey Places’ logo is a staff with leaves and flowers. It’s a reference to the staff of the first Israelite priest, Aaron, who was Moses’s brother. The story goes that when Aaron’s position was challenged, God made Aaron’s staff bud and produce almonds.
The role of the priest resonated with me when I first fully read the Old Testament. I was filled with a sense of awe for God and an aspiration for right living. And I couldn’t get over it.
My reaction was unusual. Many Christians are discomforted by the animal sacrifices and laws about ritual purity. The whole system seems built on exclusion, rather than inclusion. Plus, a number of priests in the Old Testament were thoroughly corrupt.
Don’t get me wrong, these concerns are valid. But, for whatever reason, they aren’t what I took from the text. Instead, I saw a God who deeply desired intimacy with his people, and mapped out paths to make that possible.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 3, Day 1: Priesthood
I never used to address God as ‘Father’.
Instead I would just say ‘Lord’ or ‘God.’ It didn’t matter whether I was addressing Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, or…
OK – Christians have this belief that God exists in three persons. They’re separate, but they’re one. And therefore not separate. It gets confusing very quickly.
But we believe “the Trinity” is the best way we have of describing a being who is beyond comprehension.
And it explains things that we see in the Bible.
For example: Mary was told she would become pregnant with Jesus, who would be called the son of God. When she asked how, she was told the Holy Spirit would come upon her. And the power of the Most High would overshadow her.
Three persons, one God.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 2, Day 7: Mystery
“God lets his children tell his story.” Peter Enns, biblical scholar
Today, people believe things are true when the history, facts and science stack up.
(Well… I mean… most of us do…)
Being people of faith, Christians want to show that things about God are true. And sometimes they do this by showing how the facts stack up.
Now, I have time for this – up to a point. There is reliable historical information, outside of the Bible, to show that Jesus lived and died. There is science behind the study of ancient texts and earliest the New Testament manuscripts date from very close to Jesus’s time.
But, trying to prove God or the Bible by using science has its limits. For one thing, history cannot be reproduced in a lab experiment. For another, the stories of the Bible aren’t scientific in that way.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 2, Day 4: Translation
Servants wait to be called. But children approach anyway.
Christians often share their stories about how they’re living out their faith. Many of these are filled with hope and fresh ideas, fitting for our time. But there’s a phrase I’ve heard so many times, “I realised this was what God was calling me to do.” The emphasis is on finding God’s will.
We talk negatively about our own will much of the time. We acknowledge that God is a loving God, so we can trust his call will enliven us. But our will has to be couched within his will.
And… on one level, I get this. I believe God is good. I want his will to be done on earth because I know he’s unselfish and wise. I get that. I’m not interested in doing anything outside of God’s will.
But… I find it dissatisfying when the search for “God’s will” consumes our life of faith. It’s like “the Calling” becomes more important than what God wants to achieve through that calling.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 2, Day 2: Children
This week, we’re looking at the song of Mary.
If you ask me, it’s massively underrated.
I’ll talk more about Mary on Thursday, but she was Jesus’s mother. A young Jewish woman, most likely a teenager, she totally knew the music of her culture.
Growing up, I didn’t think much of Mary’s song. We sang it in very high English, to boring tunes. And we called it by its Latin name, the ‘magnificat.’
But there’s also what people didn’t say. No one said, “Hey, you want to know what Christmas is about? Read Mary’s song.” If someone tried to explain the good news, they would give you an analogy or draw a diagram. They wouldn’t point to this song.
I guess it’s partly because she was writing within the Jewish tradition – which the church hasn’t studied well. And maybe the church preferred to think of Mary as a musician, but not a theologian.
Whatever. I get to appreciate it now.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 2, Day 1: Blessing
“Never surrender dreams.”J Michael Straczinsky, screenwriter and author
I once read a fantasy novella called The Emperor’s Soul, by Brandon Sanderson. It was all about a magic of forgery, where you could make alternative identities for people and even objects. But for an alternative identity to stick, it had to be plausible. The more plausible it was, the longer it lasted. (I highly recommend the book.)
I found this a fascinating and creative take for how we bring about change. Change only happens if people can envisage the new way of being; ideas only get traction if they’re seen as achievable.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 7: Dreams
I have a strange relationship with legal codes.
On the one hand, I love seeing how they interact. Geeking out on Old Testament laws is one of my pastimes.
On the other hand, there is something very dead about written regulations. They are static. They always have cracks and limits. And legal documentation can be dry as a bone.
But sometimes things need to die before they can really live.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 6: Bones
At the start of this series, I said the Christmas story both begins and ends with tears. Today, I want to look a bit more at that ending. Sorry, it’s not easy going.
A woman once told me her account of when she’d been sexually assaulted. When I said I believed her, she said people often doubted her because she was calm when she spoke about it.
I replied saying that she had become practised at telling her story; after all, she’d had to tell it to police, to social workers, to family, to friends, to her employer and to domestic violence workers. I said she probably wasn’t nearly so calm the first time. And she laughed; she hadn’t thought about it that way before.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 5: Politics
It’s funny how stories help us bear the unbearable.
A couple of years ago I watched a Danish crime-thriller series called ‘Department Q.’ Based on a series of books, it was about two police officers who investigate cold cases. Fair warning: these stories are very grim and violent!
The last episode, A Conspiracy of Faith, was about a serial killer and extortionist tried to destroy devout believers’ faith.
What struck me was how, despite his cruelty, despite his cunning, despite his having the upper hand, the police officers and their colleagues didn’t give up. Good people died, sustained serious injuries, or lost a loved one, but they all kept going. They didn’t hold back saying, “If we keep going, this might cost us even more.”
I found it healing to see the police team’s determination, even in their weakness, to keep going until the killer was caught and stopped.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 3: Endurance
A couple of years ago, I heard a short talk about how Christians share personal stories about their experience of God. We often call this ‘testimony.’
The speaker highlighted how during the 80s in the UK, testimony in churches became sensational. You would hear polished packages of very dramatic stories. But along the way, these stories lost their authenticity and their usefulness; they became repetitive and weren’t easy to relate to. Partly because of this, the word ‘testimony’ can have tainted connotations within the church.
And yet, if a Christian was asked to write a letter to a younger person, to convey something about their faith, then the letter would probably be a form of testimony. They would be sharing their lived experience and showing a part of why they believe what they believe.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 2: Testimony
This is a story that begins with tears.
Well, that’s where many biblical authors chose to start when they told their stories. And
I am glad. 2020 has been a year of tears for many people. Christmas needs to meet us in our tears. It has to understand lament. Otherwise, how can it speak about hope? How can it offer comfort?
All that said, I found something else very uncomfortable about the Christmas story: it also ends with tears.
Continue reading Christmas 2020: Week 1, Day 1: Tears
I wrote this poem as an alternative ‘remix’ version of these verses to raise a contemporary challenge to the church. I want to get us thinking not just about the causes we campaign for, but also about the methods we use in our activism, and what it is that produces lasting and fruitful results.
Like many of the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah spoke about injustice, calling the people of Israel and Judah to account for their actions and appealing to them to change their ways. And I know it’s a cliché but: many of his words, written hundreds of years ago, are deeply resonant today. Especially when it comes to ending oppression and showing hospitality to the poor.
Continue reading Isaiah 58:1-9a (remix) – a call to Christians who campaign