Weblog

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.

Alienation or Separation?

The church makes a big thing about our separation from God, and uses scripture to back up the notion that our sin causes God to be angry with us, and to reject us. I want to explore that a little, and see if there is an alternative way to look at it.

But first of all, let us consider the sunset. Seen from our perspective, the sun sinks into the western horizon, often quite spectacularly.

Sunset

Sunset over Morecambe Bay

That is a phenomenon that we observe. And it is followed, some hours later, by sunrise. And it appears to us as though the sun has ‘gone’ during those hours.

But if we take a (cosmic) step back, we can see that the phenomenon is entirely due to our point of view. Looked at from further away, we can see that the sun remains in place, and sunrise and sunset occur because the earth rotates - meaning that wherever you are standing on the earth, there are times when the sun is visible (which we call day), and other times when it isn’t (which we call night). Sunrise and sunset are ‘real’ when observed from our point of view standing on the earth, but not so much from the perspective of, say, someone standing on the moon.

Bibles, Translation and Interpretation.

It’s been a while -about six weeks in fact. Partly that was because I needed to think - I didn’t really feel as though I had much to say. We were away a lot too. On top of that, I’ve been finding life tough, mentally and physically. I’ve been a bit ‘off-colour’ physically, which is probably not unconnected to mentally struggling with ‘life’.

This post follows on closely from the one before. When we read our bibles we cannot really know the writers’ intentions. They were diverse people, from diverse times and places. They had different experiences of life and different spiritual experiences. They spoke, and wrote, different languages, and they lived within different cultures. And they lived a very long time ago.

That means that it’s very hard to understand what they meant to say, unless we believe the bible was literally written by God (more on that thorny little issue a little later), and that all subsequent translations have also been performed by God, and that somehow he made those ancient writers write in such a way that what they wrote would be perfectly intelligible to people living in different cultures, thousands of years later. There are those who believe that is exactly what God did. I used to count myself among their number, but many years of careful study have shown me that it can’t be true. There’s too much 'wrong with' the bible for it to have been authored by an omniscient, omnipotent God. And it doesn't, once you really begin to examine what it says, say the same things to 'us now' as it did to ‘them then’ - we each come at the words with our own ‘cultural baggage’, our own expectations, etc., and those things all colour how we read, and the interpretations we place on the text.

The Word of God?

The first five verses of John’s gospel tell us:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The Greek word which our English bibles translate, rather baldly, as ‘word’ (or frequently ‘Word’), is Λόγος (Logos). The translation actually does the word a huge disservice - it reduces it to a mere collection of letters on a page, or a spoken element. But…

Logos has a huge ‘back-story’, which our translations conveniently ignore. Our translations allow us, mostly (with the notable exception of the passage quoted above), to propagate the fiction that the bible is the Logos - and why wouldn’t it? After all, the English word has, effectively, just that one familiar meaning - and even using it to refer to a book (or, rather, collection of books) feels like a bit of a stretch.

Broken Bread and Wine Outpoured

These thoughts are ‘raw’ and unprocessed - and as I begin to write I’m not entirely sure where they’ll take us… They began to come to me during the night and still feel incomplete.

Last evening we were invited to a meal by a friend, together with several other friends. The food was delicious, and the company more so. Some of us have known each other for a lot more years than we care to remember, though we’ve seen too little of each other during the years of the pandemic. It was good to catch up. As well as that though, I think I learnt spiritual lessons - or, at the very least, was reminded of things I had known but perhaps forgotten.

Holy Communion, the Eucharist, Mass - call it what you will - is a rather formal church ritual. In many churches it can only be performed by an ‘ordained priest’, and it is hedged around with many rules and regulations to keep it ‘pure’ and ‘holy’. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate it hugely - there’s something very powerful about the ritual, and the form of words used. And there’s something powerful about it being essentially the same, wherever you are and whatever interpretation you place upon the words and symbols. In my case, the examples I think of are a small baptist church in Carnoustie, Angus; my own church in Lancaster; the sumptuous surroundings of the Roman Catholic church in the monastery in Rome at which we sometimes stay. In each of those places, although beliefs around the meaning of the ritual are quite different, somehow the same thoughts are brought to mind, and the same mental picture is painted. It’s very special, however it’s celebrated.

Difference and Reconciliation

A couple of weeks ago, Linda and I were supposed to be in London, attending the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ‘address’ on reconciliation. Instead, because of travel disruption, we participated from the comfort of our sofa.

It was an interesting event, and his speech was interesting, funny, and poignant by turns. The Archbishop is, clearly, passionate about reconciliation, and about what we do to be reconciled to one another in the face of the many things which can divide us. He and his advisors in the church have devised a course - ‘The Difference Course’ - which is designed to make us think about how we can live alongside one another harmoniously, despite our differences. Rather than try to describe what the course is about, or try to explain its three principles, I’ll just provide you with a link to the course website (it is, by the way, well worth taking the time to do the course, whatever your beliefs, Christian or otherwise).

https://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/priorities/reconciliation/difference-course

More thinking about the Law

My previous post doesn’t tell the whole story - of course - how could it? Following a conversation with a friend, I’ve decided to expand on it a little. This expansion is a bit ‘rough and ready’ - it hasn’t been subject to my usual level of diligence, so it may have even more lacunae than usual. Bearing that in mind, here goes.

Many Christians treat the following part of the Gospel of Matthew as ‘doubling down’ on the need to obey the commandments.

“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister, will be subject to judgment…” Matthew 5:20-22

I have my doubts though, especially given that (a) the commandments were never aimed at Gentiles and (b) Jesus fulfilled, completed, accomplished, all of the requirements of the Law of Moses - so that we aren’t bound by it - see my previous post.

The Ten Commandments

So, what’s the deal with the Ten Commandments (and the Law of Moses in general)?

What we’ve been taught to think, is that they were given as a set of rules which God expected humans to obey in order to live righteously and to 'stay on God’s good side’. Whether, with the institution of the New Covenant, we’re still supposed to obey them is a knotty problem which has caused a good deal of argument. Effectively:

Some hold to the view that the New Covenant sort of ‘supplements’ the old, and that we still have to obey all the laws or we won’t be ‘saved’ (but God has given us the Holy Spirit to give us the strength to do so?).

Others hold that the New Covenant entirely replaces the Old; and that, therefore, we are not bound to obey them, because we gain our righteousness from Christ’s death on the cross. The Apostle Paul seems to be in this camp - he makes it quite clear that the Mosaic Law never applied to Gentiles before, and so it absolutely couldn’t now.

Paul supported this idea by pointing out that the Gentiles were being filled with the Holy Spirit when they first believed in Christ, not after they had become Torah observant:

The Lion and/or the Lamb

On Sunday evening at church, we sang the Bethel song ‘He’s coming on the clouds’ (by Brenton Brown,Brian Johnson and Leeland Mooring). Actually, everyone else sang it - I can’t. Sometimes, something about a song leaves me feeling uneasy. This song, in particular, ‘sticks in my craw’. Why? Well, let’s see shall we? We’ll start by reading some of the lyrics.

"He's coming on the clouds
Kings and kingdoms will bow down
Every chain will break
As broken hearts declare His praise
For who can stop the Lord Almighty?

Our God is the Lion, the Lion of Judah
He's roaring with power and fighting our battles
And every knee will bow before Him…"

Some of it is very good, but I have a problem with the first lines of the chorus:

"Our God is the Lion, the Lion of Judah
He's roaring with power and fighting our battles"

The Jewish nation, in the first century AD, was oppressed by the Romans, and groaning for ‘rescue’ - they longed for a messiah who would come in and, with fire and sword, liberate them from Rome’s grip: they wanted a lion - they wanted ‘right-handed power’. Instead, they got Jesus. Almost universally, they failed to recognise Jesus for what He was - even His disciples didn’t really ‘get’ him.

God is Love, Part 27

Well, perhaps I haven’t written 26 previous posts entitled ‘God is Love’, but it certainly feels that way! This particular post isn’t going to be one of my (relatively) carefully crafted, meticulously edited, posts… It’s going to be more ‘stream of consciousness’ and so it may be a bit rough around the edges. In a way, I want to write about the latest, awful, school massacre in the USA, but I don't know what I could add to the debate. So I won’t comment, even though ‘business as usual’ feels rather flat and hollow in the circumstances.

On Tuesday evening my wife Linda was leading our church lifegroup meeting. She asked us to think of ways to describe God’s character. I found myself thinking (almost inevitably, given that it’s an obsession of mine!) God is Love (from 1 John 4). But then I thought on from there, in a fairly meditative way, and found myself reading a chunk of 1 Corinthians 13:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

The Really Good News

In my previous post ‘Grace is Outrageous’ I made it fairly clear that I believe in ἀποκατάστασις πάντων (apokatastasis panton), meaning the restoration of everything and everyone (derived from Acts 3:21, but implied in lots of other places too).

Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. Acts 3:21

When I say that this is what I believe, I encounter a number of objections, but one in particular crops up most frequently. It is usually expressed something like this:

“If everyone is saved anyway, then there was no point in Jesus dying on the cross.”

I’m sorry, but I completely fail to see the logic behind that argument.

God’s stated aim is that everyone be saved.

God ourSaviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2:3-4

I suggest that, if Jesus’ life and death saves anything less than everyone and everything, His incarnation is a pointless failure and God is a serial liar…

Grace is Outrageous!

We can’t cope with grace. We find it offensive. It seems unfair to us. We want rules; we want obedience to the rules to bring reward; we want disobedience to bring punishment. To us, that’s ‘fair’ and how, in our transactional mindset, we feel that the world should work…

It’s the way we try to make the world work - with our ideas of working for a living; being paid for what we do - and in the words of the Lord High Executioner’s song from Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘Mikado’:

My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time -
To let the punishment fit the crime…

Indeed, most of our theology is set up this way - those who are ‘good Christians’ - those who ‘accept the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour’ and who then lead squeaky-clean lives of service to the church - ‘go to heaven’ whilst all the rest ‘go to hell’. This seems natural and right to us.

And then we come across scriptures we can’t deal with. The parable of the workers in the vineyard, where everyone receives the same wage, regardless of whether they worked all day or just for an hour at the end of the day, is bad enough, but then we get to things like this:

Homosexuality: The New Testament

Now we move forward to the New Testament in our quest to understand the bible passages supposedly condemning homosexual practice. Three passages are relevant here: Romans 1:24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, which we won’t look at because we examined it previously; and lastly 1 Timothy 1:9-10.

Let’s start with the passage from Romans. This has all the appearance of being an ‘open and shut case’ - but appearances can be deceptive.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator - who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. Romans 1:24-27

Homosexuality: Continuing to Examine Scripture

We move on now to two laws found in Leviticus. We’ll deal with both together, because they are very similar. I am quoting here from the NIV, not because I think it’s a particularly good translation, but because it’s widely used and familiar.

Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable. Leviticus 18:22

If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads. Leviticus 20:13

The original verses were written, obviously, in Hebrew. I don’t know much Hebrew at all, so I’m relying on others for anything connected to the language used. What I do know is that translating from Hebrew to English is very difficult; it’s made even more so by the huge gulf between ancient Jewish culture and modern Western culture - many things we think are ‘obvious’ have no correspondence in ancient Jewish culture, and vice versa. So some concepts don’t translate well, if at all.

Homosexuality: More Scripture to Consider

At the end of the official ‘Living in Love and Faith’ course, we had a sixth session, in which the Church of England statute on marriage was explained, along with what is considered to be the traditional view on what the bible has to say about sexuality.

This traditional view is based on six or seven verses from the bible, which some would argue condemn homosexuality the (so-called ‘clobber verses’), and although there have been recent attempts to reinterpret them, some would still argue that actually the only way to read them is to read them literally.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t agree. Yes, the English translations of those verses are very clear, and make it all too plain that the translators are almost universally of one mind on the matter: that homosexuality is a sinful life choice. That’s probably not surprising - not least because they’re working for ‘Christian’ publishing houses, whose aim is to sell bibles. The work of translating bibles isn’t cheap, and you don’t want an expensive ‘flop’ on your hands, so you’re going to go with what sells… In this case a ‘traditional’, quite conservative, interpretation.

The Narrow Way

This post is going to be a bit political. But actually, that’s okay… Jesus was political. It’s partly what got him killed.

This morning, the newspapers here are full of outrage over the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter Day sermon, in which he ‘intervened’ in the growing row over Priti Patel’s plan to send single male asylum seekers to Rwanda for ‘processing’… A ‘process’ which, it seems to me, is a blatant attempt to ‘offload’ the problem onto a struggling third-world country - there’s no plan, apparently, to allow any men whose applications ’succeed’ to return to the UK. The plan is probably illegal anyway, and is certain to result in huge legal costs… Overall, it’s an ideological ‘stunt’ - and likely to cost far more than simply allowing the men to apply for asylum and settle here if their applications succeed.

Anyway, returning to the point I want to make. The headlines are quite vicious.

‘Outcry at Welby’s Attack on ‘Ungodly’ Asylum Plan’ screams the Daily Mail.

‘MPs Attack Welby Rant’ takes up most of the Daily Mirror’s front page.

Loving God?

This post is related in a way, to a the one before last - in ways which should, I hope, become obvious as you read.

Here I am, yet again, about to start banging on about God’s love. But this time looking at it from the other side, specifically, thinking about how we love God. It has taken me some days to write and, yesterday, I thought I was about finished. But then Fr. Richard Rohr published one of his Daily Meditations, which turned out to be saying almost precisely the same thing. Here then, is a somewhat ‘nuanced’ version of what I was going to say.

Jesus told a questioner, when he asked which was the greatest commandment, that there were two:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. Matthew 22:37-40

The second is easy to understand, and is related closely to the ‘Golden Rule’, found in all major religions ‘treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.’

Precious

Yesterday we were at the wedding of two young friends - a couple we’d got to know when they were students attending our church. The invitation had come as a complete surprise - we neither of us felt we could have ‘mattered enough’ to deserve an invitation to their wedding. Sometimes it’s a case of ‘how wrong can you be?’

It was a very special, blessed day, witnessing the ceremony, and celebrating it with them.There was much joy and laughter, as well as moments of seriousness and sadness mixed in - life’s rich tapestry in microcosm.It was made more precious because others from that same ‘student crowd’ were there too. It was so good to see them all, and to spend time with them, celebrating and catching up with what’s happened to us all in two years of ‘pandemic life’. A real blessing, and quite cathartic to see them and spend time with them, after all that’s gone on.

This morning I went out for a walk, and some much-needed solitude after all the noise and blessed busy-ness of yesterday.

Why?

I thought, for a moment, of entitling this post ‘Shit Happens’, but thought better of it. It’s inspired by it having been ‘Mothers’ Day’ here in the UK recently. It isn’t always an easy day for either of us, for a number of reasons.

I have spent many, many, years wrestling with the concept of what are known in theological circles as ‘theodicies’ - i.e. theories as to why a supposedly loving God allows suffering. The short answer is that I don’t know and neither, really, does anybody else. The long answer says essentially the same thing, but in a lot more words.

When our first child was stillborn, the loudest question, which at times even drowned out our grief-stricken wailing, was

‘Why?’

That question propelled me into questioning my faith in God. And, in that questioning, I found no easy answers. But I did find companions.

It has to be said that there were people who had simple, black-and-white, answers.

For some ‘it was God’s will’ or ‘it was God’s plan.’ Well, if that’s what God is like, He can think again if He imagines I’m going to worship Him - I want nothing to do with a god who has plans like that.

Talking about God

Here are a couple of ‘musings’ which have been developing over some time. Neither is big to form a whole blog post on its own (at least, that’s what I think as I start writing - but who knows, maybe they’ll grow as I write), but they are related, so I’m leaving them together for now.

The first concerns how I refer to God. It is mostly related to my discomfort with the word ‘God’. It’s a word loaded with ‘baggage’. Not least because it makes ‘God’ seem like just another god among many gods, although it seems that this one has been going to the gymfor a whileas well as taking anabolic steroids and is ‘ripped'. I almost feel as though I need to use a different word, so as to break the link between ‘God’ and ‘the gods’. And that’s because of what I might call both God’s supremacy and his transcendence. He is, in a very real sense, ‘way beyond’ and ‘way above’ other gods humanity has worshiped. Those other gods - Zeus/Jupiter and the rest of the Greco-Roman pantheon; Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and the other Hindu gods; Odin and the Norse gods; Amun, Horus, Ra and the other Egyptian gods; I could go on and on. Somehow God is above, beyond and, in a sense, ‘behind’ these other gods - in that they’re all attempts by humanity to either invent or explain what is ‘beyond’ humanity’s understanding. They all have very ‘human’ aspects and, yes, flaws… Having been 'made in humanity’s image' that isn’t surprising.

God is Love

I don’t want to try to count how many posts I’ve written and published with this title in the past six years. It must be some sort of obsession. And yet, I don’t think we should stop talking about it. Love is God’s very essence; it’s who He is.

It’s very easy to be deceived into thinking that God doesn’t really love us, and that we need to be afraid of Him. Either that or, like me, never really believe it in the first place. It’s a very hard one to get over too, particularly given what we’re told about God in our churches.

We’re told that God is love, but that He only loves us if we repent; that we have to keep a ‘short account’ with Him; that He can’t abide sin and can’t bear to be near it. We get these very mixed messages a lot of the time, and end up asking ourselves

‘Does God really love me?’

If you’re like me, the conclusion you come to is

‘No, not really, because I’m not obedient; I sin all the time; I don’t really trust him’ - and so on.

And so we end up feeling like ‘second class citizens’ - if we feel like citizens at all. I spent years and years being afraid of God - afraid of really ‘letting Him in’ to see the ‘mess’ which was my life (despite knowing that He knew anyway!) - instead of believing I was loved.


Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022