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Fullstop theology

Dear Jeff,

Thanks for your letter. I’m glad you’ve taken time to write. Clearly you’ve read the things I have written on homosexuality and, more recently, in support of same-sex marriage. I am sorry you’re not happy with me. The truth is you join a good number of people who are disappointed by my views. Apparently I’ve been dropped off a few prayer lists and added on to others!

Among other things you’ve exhorted me to read my bible more. That’s good advice. I love the bible and have read it through, cover to cover, a few times now. In fact, the more I read it the more my regard for it grows. The fact is, the bible remains the most formative text of my life. Certainly as a Baptist I happily acknowledge its authority and am committed to taking it seriously. More particularly you’ve challenged me to read what the bible says about homosexuality. ‘Don’t try to interpret it to fit into your own thinking,’ you say; ‘God says it is wrong, fullstop.’ It’s here, Jeff, that you lose me.

You are right of course; there are texts in the bible that appear to make God’s view of homosexuality crystal clear. Words like ‘abomination’ and the command that perpetrators be ‘put to death’ make it a chilling read. It’s not your encouragement to read these texts that bothers me. It’s your final statement: ‘God says it is wrong, fullstop.’

The truth is, Jeff, I have some trouble with this ‘fullstop’ approach to the bible. It infers that I have no choice but to take the literal statements and commands of the bible just as they are, and that any effort at interpretation will lead me down the dark alley of compromise. If that’s the case, there is a long list of biblical exhortations that I simply don’t know what to do with.

  • ‘For I hate divorce, says the Lord’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling‘ FULLSTOP
  • ‘Women should be silent in the churches for they are not permitted to speak’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘If a man commits adultery both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘On the seventh day you shall have a holy sabbath of solemn rest to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘You shall not make any tattoo or any marks upon you for I am the Lord’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘All who curse father or mother shall be put to death’ FULLSTOP
  • ‘For no one who has a blemish shall draw near (to the presence of God), no one who is blind or lame, no one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles’ FULLSTOP

Good heavens, we’re all in serious trouble aren’t we?!

Yes, I know. For me to list these exhortations in this way is to take them completely out of context and thus to abuse any real truth they might point to. The fact is, every one of these statements has a textual, cultural and historical context absolutely essential to understanding how it applies to us today. You are right, Jeff; the art of biblical interpretation is a dangerous and risky business, but do we really have any choice?

I don’t mind at all that you disagree with my view on homosexuality. Join the queue! And I reckon having a respectful conversation about it is essential. But if we begin with a fullstop approach to the bible, then the conversation is over before it begins.

Regards,

Simon

[‘Jeff’ wrote anonymously to me some time ago, providing no surname or return address. My original posting of this response was provided in this form for want of no other way of replying to him]

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An evening prayer

Early last month I spent a week on the far north coast of England. With a distant view of the cold North Sea, I stayed at Nether Springs, the Mother House of the Northumbria Community. It’s here a small group of men and women live, work and pray according to the daily rhythms of a semi-monastic way of life. Their gifts of hospitality and welcome are extraordinary.

The time to be still was a gift. Time to write and read was restorative. And the daily disciplines of prayer provided a structure: morning prayers, midday prayers, evening prayers and the gentleness of compline to end the day. And all contained in a simple daily office. My introverted self was in heaven!

Included in the office are various ‘declarations’ of faith. These were especially helpful. They are not detailed credal statements, more affirmations — words through which I could name what I hold onto in faith and what holds me.

This evening prayer I have found especially helpful and have returned to it routinely since returning home.

Lord, you have always given
bread for the coming day;
and though I am poor,
today I believe.

Lord, you have always given
strength for the coming day;
and though I am weak,
today I believe.

Lord, you have always given
peace for the coming day;
and though I am of anxious heart,
today I believe.

Lord, you have always kept
me safe in trials;
and now, tired as I am,
today I believe.

Lord, you have always marked
the road for the coming day;
and though it may be hidden,
today I believe.

Lord, you have always lightened
this darkness of mine;
and though the night is here,
today I believe.

Lord, you have always spoken
when time was ripe;
and though you be silent now,
today I believe.

DSCN2698-200x300The Northumbrian Office, Northumbria Community Trust

DUBLIN, IRELAND - MAY 23:  People celebrate a landslide victory of a Yes vote after a referendum on same sex marriage was won by popular ballot vote by a margin of around two-to-one at Dublin Castle on May 23, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland. Voters in the Republic of Ireland chose in favour of amending the country's constitution to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage through a popular vote.  (Photo by Clodagh Kilcoyne/Getty Images)

We Baptists need to talk

A few weeks back Victorian Baptists had a difficult conversation. It was all to do with marriage, more particularly our response to the possibility of same-sex marriage in Australia. Anticipating future change to the Marriage Act to include same-sex couples, a motion had been tabled to affirm our Baptist commitment to marriage as between a man and a woman; further, to ensure that pastors who marry according to Baptists rites act within that definition no matter what legislative change lies ahead.

Breaking previous records, our attendance at the delegates’ assembly illustrates the importance of the issue. While we may not all agree, when it comes to matters of sexuality we are a zealous bunch. Understandably, our Union leadership struggled with the best way to frame and conduct the conversation. Consequently the possibility for open debate was minimized. Prior to the gathering, two one-page documents were circulated to the churches, one making the case in favour of the motion and the other against. Similarly on the night, one person was asked to speak in support and one opposed. Discussion was then limited to the tables at which delegates were seated after which there was a secret ballot. As expected, the motion passed.

It is no secret where I stand on this. My appointment to Union Council in 2014 drew considerable opposition, and I was also the one who made the case against the motion on the night. Though disappointed by the outcome, I was not surprised. I understand that I hold a minority view on this issue and as much as I personally grieve the implications of the decision, I remain committed to our Baptist community. My purpose here is not to argue the case any further, but to name my concern over the continuing tenor of our conversation.

As much as I would love to simply move on – to conclude that our talk is done and our decision made – this is not an option. Firstly, the conviction of those Baptists who believe marriage equality is a gospel issue is not so easily shelved. When it comes to the gospel, we Baptists are a stubborn lot. And secondly, a steadily growing majority of our neighbours consider this an issue of some urgency. Whether we judge it to be so or not, the strategy of labeling the issue ‘non-core’ or blocking our ears to community views won’t flush. The conversation, internally and externally, has to continue. How it continues is crucial. In a context where sensitivity to issues of perceived discrimination and the violation of human rights is heightened, our neighbours are listening. Indeed, I would go as far to say that how we have the conversation is as important as the conclusions we argue for. In light of that, I reckon there are some things worth holding onto.

We Baptists listen: By conviction, we are a listening people. Without a formal creed or governing council to guide us, we have always had to take the tasks of listening and discerning seriously. We listen in our congregations and communities, and we listen within our wider fellowship of churches. That said, I fear we are losing opportunity for this sort of listening. Forums for rigorous discussion – discussion that takes us beyond one-liners and one-pagers to a more nuanced conversation – have almost disappeared. Our aversion to conflict has whittled away opportunities for real and respectful debate. While I certainly don’t want to return to the ‘good old days’ of denominational trench warfare, the loss of opportunities to listen to perspectives other than our own diminishes us.

We Baptists reflect deeply: Most Baptist would agree that the days of ‘the bible says it and that settles it’ are gone. We have had to wrestle with too many issues, culturally and theologically, to be so naïve. That said, as those who continue to hold to the authority of the Bible, the business of its interpretation is deeply challenging. Early last year a pastor who holds a different view from my own on homosexuality contacted me. He asked is we could meet periodically to talk through our approaches to the Bible on this issue. We have done so now several times and it has been one of the most enriching and challenging disciplines I’ve experienced. Each time we have prayed, read the scriptures and laid our questions on the table. While our differences remain, we have pressed and honed each other along the way and with a common commitment to the gospel. What’s more, neither of us has asked the other to check our critical faculties at the door. I long for more of this in our Baptist community.

We Baptists are sensitive to the power of testimony: The truth is, whenever we talk about these issues, there are those within our own communities – sitting at the same tables, hearing the same arguments, even within our own families – for whom being gay is not an issue for debate but the daily reality of their lives. Some may be open about this while others keep it hidden. Even in that meeting of delegates, there were men and women who could not so easily separate themselves from the issue. Their personal testimonies are deeply entwined. Whatever our view on marriage equality, we do well to remember that our words, inferences and convictions are heard and felt. Indeed, each time we talk about these things we could do worse that imagine a person from the LGBTI community sitting at the table. The question is important: how would this change the tenor of what we say?

We Baptists preference faith over labels: On both sides of this issue we have an unfortunate propensity to label those who oppose our position. Clearly labels make dismissing those in disagreement so much easier. I often cringe at the ease with which those in favour of marriage equality dismiss the opposition as ‘bigoted’ and ‘homophobic’. While I have no doubt that bigotry and fear are alive and well within segments of the church, in my experience the majority of Baptists who oppose same-sex marriage do so out a genuine desire to be faithful to God and to the Scriptures. Similarly among those opposed to same-sex marriage, to speak routinely of ‘gay lobbies’ and ‘liberal agendas’ simply dismisses those who come to their affirmative position out of a genuine desire to follow Jesus. Of course, lobby groups exist on both sides of this issue and agendas run rampant in all corners of the church. But assigning labels does nothing but shut down conversation and push fellow Christians further into their trenches.

We Baptists pray … together: Earlier this year I received a visit from some Christian leaders who had asked to meet with me to discuss issues of concern. I agreed. Once we sat down it was quickly evident that this was an intervention. They were grieved by my public position on the issue of marriage and felt compelled to call me to account. Once I realised where we were headed, I asked if we could begin in prayer. The leader of this group was quick to respond, ‘We cannot pray with you, but we will pray for you.’ With that he led a prayer outlining my errors in dot point and asking for the conviction of the Spirit. On one hand I am pleased that these leaders came to me rather than speak about me from a distance, but I was deeply troubled by their perception that I was not someone they could pray with, as though my perspective on this one issue rendered me spiritually suspect. At its essence, prayer is an act of humility, a means through which all people of faith bow in submission to the presence of God. If we cannot begin there, I wonder if the conversation is really possible.

All this said, we Baptists do need to talk, and keep talking. More important still, we Baptists need to listen, and keep listening. If we are to find ways ahead on this issue that honour God and flow out of our common allegiance to Christ, there really is no other way.

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The parenting dance

I can’t dance to save myself. If there really is a condition called ‘two left feet’, I’m terminal. I remember waltzing lessons in the high school gymnasium. My unsuspecting partner was the lovely Georgie Peach. Any chance of my year 8 infatuation being reciprocated was in tatters once I’d stomped on her feet so many times she had to sit out the remainder of the class nursing her bruises. Decades later I’m no better. Truly, I reckon the connection between my brain and what’s below the knees is permanently ruptured.

To be honest, my parenting often feels the same. If good parenting has a rhythm, I struggle to find it. The meter of the dance is mystifying. Knowing when to step in and when to step back, when to hold close and when to let go is constantly puzzling. I misjudge it as often as I get it right. Generally my kids are patient with me, but sometimes, with bruised feet of their own, they tell me to back off — though in language less restrained.

The trouble is, reading the cues is difficult. We all know there are times when our kids push us away while, unconsciously perhaps, they’re hoping we refuse. Teenagers can be as confused by their own resistance as we are baffled by their mixed messages: I love you; I hate you; I need you; I don’t want you; go away; please stay.

Of course, the challenge is about more than reading cues. There is an inner wisdom to the dance than can be just as elusive. While I might sense it in my reflective moments, there is scant time for reflection in the ‘heat’ of exchange. Or when we see our kids hurting. Parental panic is a thing. But the questions are persistent. When is it my parental duty to lead and when should I follow? When do I offer my fraternal wisdom and when do I shut up and listen?

We all want our kids to be resilient and street-smart adults, empowered to ‘make the call’ and, even, free enough to fail. But we also love more deeply than we can rationally fathom. Our drive to protect is instinctive and strong. It kicks in with force if we intuit danger or pain of any sort. At the same time we know just as deeply, though not as instinctively, that intervention is not always in their best interests, nor ours. Sometimes we need to let our kids have the dance floor to themselves. But when?

The one encouragement that I hold onto in all of this is that the parenting dance is a slow waltz. Parenting is no one-night stand. It’s a long-term relationship. When I get it wrong and bruise my kids’ feet or they bruise mine, we’ll dance again tomorrow. And, who knows? We might even get it right. What’s more, ours is a dance of love. As I remind myself often, when my kids know they are loved and they know that our relationship is for keeps, there’s room for bad days. Even with two left feet, the waltz continues.

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Saints with winter colds

I visited the saints today. Not haloed ones from long ago, but sniffly ones with winter colds — older saints with thinning hair and woollen socks. One was in her hospital bed recuperating from a fall, and another in his armchair at home. It was balm for the soul.

The past few days have been tough — lots of big-picture wrestling with public issues of ‘truth’ and ‘justice’; a weekend of impassioned debate and stirring convictions. All important stuff, but wearing too. Big pictures demand an energy all their own and I come away wrung out and wanting to hide. But sitting with older saints brings me back. It reminds me that life is more than big pictures; that ministry is just as much about sitting with loneliness as struggling for truth.

For me, there’s something about being with older people that brings perspective. It focusses attention and brings my wandering mind to the most immediate things. These dear people are often as concerned for me as I am for them. We talk about hearing aids, bung hips and blood pressure. From there we take the small step to family — its joys and sadnesses — and sometimes share treasured memories of yesterday.

As for the future, these older saints don’t go there much. Oh, there are concerns about tomorrow’s appointments and, occasionally, some pensive thoughts about the mystery of whatever lies beyond. But underneath there is faith. There is always faith. It’s that bedrock that sits just below the surface. Rarely complicated, it’s often as full of mystery as it is of certainty. Yet it is there, deep and reassuring. It’s faith for today, for now and for here. It’s a wisdom all its own and it holds us in the moment together … and I can breathe again.

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She’s gone

My mum has gone. It is as hard to say as it is to feel. She is not here anymore. Gone from me. Gone from our lives. Gone from her chair and her garden, never to return. The finality of death is overwhelming. Whatever else there is, what’s now is finished.

I was there when she left. I was sitting beside her stroking her forearm when her laboured breathing stopped. It was sudden. There was no warning, no fanfare, not even a solitary violin. Just silence. It’s a quietness I’ll never forget.

I was not meant to be there. Of all the family I was the one far away. I was sitting on a train in northern England when the phone connection kicked in and I learned how close to the end she was. It turns out my brothers had gathered the night before expecting her to go by the morning. But now a reprieve. Hurried phone calls, flight changes, cancellations and apologies. I exited the train in the old city of York feeling gutted and confused. I had a long day to wait before the journey home could even begin.

I did my best to be positive. I walked. I drank coffee and took photographs. I even bought a hat. I wandered the outside of the colossal Minster, awed by its bulk though joining the queue to go in was more than I could do. Instead I found another place – a little parish church not far away. There was a small plaque on its wall that dated its beginnings in the 12th century. There was no queue outside, not even a sign of welcome. The entrance was littered and un-swept.

I pushed on the door and ducked my head to go inside. As the door creaked closed behind me, the silence was wide, the space empty, the air musty and still. I stood for a while, glad of the quiet. I looked up and saw the ancient stone arches spread out in formation. I looked down and saw the aisle underfoot paved with gravestones – anonymous saints, their names worn away. I edged my way into one of the wooden pews. Seated, I noticed a series of garish little Icons on the outer walls marking the Stations of the Cross. They were not pretty, but awkward, and so very much at home. I closed my eyes and felt an odd sense of peace.

With tears I remembered … I remembered sitting beside mum in church when I was a boy. We sat on a wooden pew. I liked it there. There were no Icons for us, no gravestones underfoot. We Baptists were not into ‘graven images.’ But when I looked up at mum I knew without a moment’s doubt that God was real and that all would be well. For fifty-two years of my life mum has been the one through whom I’ve seen God – my own personal Icon; my Stained Glass; my Saint. It’s as though she wrote God’s name upon my life and kept reminding me it was there. ‘You are a man of God,’ she would say with such conviction I almost believed it. ‘I am so proud of you.’

But now, now she is gone, her breathing stopped. My Saint has gone underground. My reference point has disappeared and my reassurance silenced. I feel so very sad. Yet so very, very grateful.

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Ordination: a pathway to uniformity?

Routinely I meet with men and women, mostly young, who aspire to pastoral leadership. They sense a calling to the church. The most common professional pathway to this end is ordination, a rite of commissioning for pastors and priests. In every tradition it’s done differently. For some there’s a high ceremonial ritual along with a uniform and a title. For others it’s less grand yet equally specific in intent. The purpose of ordination is to set particular people apart to lead and care for the church.

I’ve been done. It happened for me a long time ago. In fact, next year it’ll be twenty-five years since my ordination to ‘the ministry of word and sacrament’ in the Baptist tradition. I have a certificate on my wall to prove it! The preparation took a while; years in fact. There were those arduous programs of study, panels of interrogation, psychological testing, intense processes of formation, and apprenticeship with seasoned practitioners. The high moment of ordination itself was memorable and profoundly significant to my continuing sense of vocation.

A common critique of the process toward ordination is that it’s too much like a one-size-fits-all funnel that ignores the diversity of those who present. What’s more, it is said, the intent is to nurture a conformity of style in leadership. There may well be some truth in this, and I have no doubt those who lead such processes wrestle with the limitations of their systems. That said, uniformity has never been my experience of those who make it through. Quite the opposite.

I am often mystified by just how different we pastors are from one another. There are the gentle and caring types, the incisive minds, the charismatic leaders, the blusterers and pot stirrers, the gregarious and the introverts. There are the fine preachers, the poets, the liberals and conservatives, the thoughtful strategists, the bookish types and the ones who act more like coaches for the local football team. How they all got through the one funnel I have no idea. But I am glad for it.

The encouragement to me in this is that just as there are numerous types who get into this business, the business itself is broad and so very different from one context to another. Sure, the comparisons are inevitable: her church is bigger than mine; his sermons could do with some work; her way with people is extraordinary; I wish my leadership was a strong as his. Truth be told, in the midst of such comparisons I often wonder just how I scraped through. But if I have learned anything over the years, it’s this: I am who I am, and being who I am is as central to my calling as anything else.

UnknownA couple of years back, I had the pleasure of reading Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor. It’s a very particular story of ministry and open to critique for good reasons. But what was so very refreshing was Peterson’s refusal to offer anything formulaic to his readers. There are no five steps, seven habits or twelve secrets to successful pastoring. Only this:

‘There is no blueprint on file for becoming a pastor. In becoming one, I have found that it is a most context-specific way of life: the pastor’s emotional life, family life, experience in the faith, and aptitudes worked out in the actual congregation in the neighborhood in which she or he lives – these people just as they are, in this place. No copying. No trying to be successful. The ways in which the vocation of pastor is conceived, develops, and comes to birth is unique to each pastor.’

I like that.

Wisdom from Peterson

“I am a pastor. My work has to do with God and souls — immense mysteries that no one has ever seen at any time. But I carry out this work in conditions — place and time — that I see and measure wherever I find myself, whatever time it is. There is no avoiding the conditions. I want to be mindful of the conditions. I want to be as mindful of the conditions as I am of the holy mysteries.”

Eugene Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir, New York: Harper Collins, 2011, 7.

Your-strengths

Working to our strengths

I’ve returned to work this year with a small resolution in mind. Not small in the sense of being insignificant. More in the sense that my life is small, not grand, and any resolutions to do with its living will be, by necessity, humble.

The resolution is this: I want to work as much as possible out of my strengths. I have them, just like everyone does. There are things I do well, inclinations that are naturally honed, investments of energy that bring life and fulfillment. I am hoping that in this new year I can give the expression of these strengths a larger space to flourish in my days and weeks.

Profound or not, there’s something here that’s important. I have been conscious this past year that I spend a great deal of energy trying to make up for my weaknesses. While there are things I do well in ministry, the list of things I do less than well is long. Of course, I’m not alone. As I listen to the confessions of other pastors, I hear the same insecurity. We’re gifted, but we’re not all-rounders. The deficits are as obvious as the surpluses. Conscious of our lacks, we’re commonly driven to compensate, to work ever harder improving our skill-set and pushing through in areas of mediocrity. But the truth is, it’s exhausting.

The exhaustion is only exacerbated by the voices that speak loudly around us. It seems like every book I read, every conference I attend, every Facebook link I follow, every PD seminar I complete, I’m left with a new list of things I should really do better, or more of. If the church is struggling in areas X, Y and Z, it’s probably because, in part at least, I’m less than I need to be in capacities A, B and C. So come on, Simon, pull up your socks!

I know. Pulling up our socks is part of life. In every job, every role, there are things that just have to be done. Not everything we do can be about fulfilment and fit. But surely, in the longer term, the greatest impacts we’ll have upon our communities will arise out of our primary gifting. I am a good pastor but I’m not a charismatic leader. I’m a good communicator and teacher, but I’m not great at strategy and five-year plans. I have a passion for writing, but I’m exhausted by spreadsheets. I’m committed to community building and hospitality, but I’m not a great manager.

One of the things I’ve observed about myself and others is that as much time as we might invest in those tasks that sit outside our abilities, the longer term impacts are minimal, indeed far less than we imagine. The deepest impression that you will make upon your church will almost certainly arise out of what you are really good at and passionate about.

I reckon we owe it to ourselves and our communities to give these things a generous space in our lives and ministry.