Thomas and Thaddeus, Jonah and Mosul

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Thomas is remembered as the doubting apostle, which always seems a little unfair, given that he went on to take the gospel to India, Iran and Turkey. A community of Christians in Kerala still bears his name.

Thaddeus, however, doesn’t have a defining moment like that. He’s something of a mystery, a man of many names, the other Judas who became known as Jude (for obvious reasons). Maybe he’s best know as the patron saint of hopeless causes, or the Patron Saint of the Impossible.

In the period after the gospels, a hazy time of history, tradition and legend, it’s said that Thomas and Thaddeus brought Christianity to Iraq and, in doing so, founded one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Over the centuries, Christians lived alongside their Muslim neighbours, the ebbs and flows of history bring times of peace and times of persecution; despite this, the Christian presence in Iraq, particularly Mosul, has remained for over 2,000 years.

Until this weekend.

The biblical connection to Mosul doesn’t begin there. The city is located near to somewhere best known as part of the story of Jonah. Because this is where Ninevah was founded, where the prophet was sent prior to, and after, his encounter with the whale, where he’s now buried. And yes, okay, he’s also buried in Israel and Lebanon, but tradition remains a powerful thing.

Until this weekend.

Because this weekend the Tomb of Jonah was destroyed. Because this weekend, the Christians of Mosul were given an ultimatum: leave, pay a protection ‘tax’ or die. Mass wasn’t said this weekend; congregants have been murdered or raped or driven to suicide instead.

It’s difficult to reconcile the two situation – 2,000 years or more of history vs a flurry of tweets. No time to take a step back to appreciate context or perspective. And maybe that’s a good thing – the people fleeing with nothing but the clothes on their backs don’t have that luxury.

But there’s still a shared heritage here, a common tradition and iconography, a brother and sisterhood based on being followers of Jesus. Christians in the west have it easy, but that should never blind us to the pain and persecution experienced by our family elsewhere. We need to recognise that unity, that membership in the one body of Christ, and when one heart breaks, all should break in response as we say the same prayers, sing the same songs. We remember the Christians of Mosul. We remember the Christians of Nigeria. We remember the Christians of Gaza. They are our family.

And of course that’s not to say we ignore everyone else. We are not called to celebrate the deaths of Arab children, we are not called to promote anti-semitism, we are not called to shame our neighbours or despise immigrants. We are called to respond to suffering as the hands and feet and voice of Christ and any other response is just our own politics and prejudice. We stand up for our family so our family can stand up for others. The cities we read of in the Bible are often still inhabited today, individuals walking among the Scriptures. And so often they need our prayers.

(Information on an Open Doors appeal to support refugees from Mosul can be found here.)

If David Becomes Goliath

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Who are you in that picture?

We often like to think of ourselves as David. He’s the plucky underdog who defeated a giant when no-one else had the guts or the faith to face Goliath. We like to see ourselves in his story; we face enormous odds, set upon by giants. We love a David and Goliath story, especially when we can cast ourselves as David.

But David didn’t stay there on the battlefield, a giant fallen at his feet. David got old, became king, became the father of a dynasty. And along with that he became complacent, an adulterer, a murderer. His successor is known for his wisdom; we’re less inclined to remember all those he forced into slavery.

Once David was a shepherd boy; then he became his own kind of Goliath and the kingdom deteriorated from that point forth. The same pattern emerges down through the centuries; the church in the west was the underdog until Constantine came along. Then we became legitimate and along came inquisitions and crusades.

We believe our own myth and inhabit the idea that we’re still the young boy with a slingshot going up against a relentless, enormous evil. We like to tell ourselves that even when by any realistic measure we’re loaded down with money and influence and nuclear weapons. If you’re bringing an aircraft carrier to the party, you’re probably not a David.

No, it’s Goliaths who trust in swords and power, and that’s a form of idolatry. “Some trust in chariots, others trust in horses,” says Psalm 20, “but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” That Psalm’s attributed to David, who, near the end of his life, conducted a census to determine the size of his army. This is a man who genuinely loved and served God, but the temptation to become a Goliath is always present when power is involved.

Check your privilege. It’s become a bit of an internet cliche, but it’s worth keeping in mind. Maybe it’ll keep us from silencing genuine David’s . Because this much is true: if you have the capability to commit genocide, to unleash a war machine that can reduce cities and civilians to ashes, you’re not a David. If you can exert enough political power to get laws written in your favour, you’re not a David. If your church keeps you on a pedestal and in a mansion and thousands of people hang on your every word without question, you’re not a David. You’re a Goliath and you need to look at things differently. You’re not looking up at a giant; you’re looking down at a kid with a catapult.

Here’s a blessing of grace though: Goliaths can be disciples too. Power can be leveraged for good. But forget the source of that power, forget who you’re following, and that’s when trouble starts. Because you’re following God Incarnate, who came to earth and commanded us to do crazy things like love our enemies and feed the hungry and be a light to the world. You’re not going to do that while you’re obsessed with your chariots and riches; you’re not going to do that when you’re building your temples on the back of slaves; you’re not going to do that when you’re massacring your enemies instead of loving them.

Jesus could have acted like Goliath. His disciples even talked like that sometimes. But when they did, Jesus knelt and started washing feet. Out in the wilderness, he resisted the temptation to become a giant; unfortunately, plenty came after him to take that deal, and who blasphemously did it in his name.

David was a man after God’s own heart. There were times when that got obscured, when the boy with a slingshot and a reckless faith began to transform into a giant. There are times, when we’re blessed with resources and influence, that we run the risk of turning from saint to monster.

Lord protect us from that transformation.

The Sacrifice of Innocence

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Sunlight bounces off a blade on the peak of Mount Moriah as Abraham, with relief in the depths of his soul, hears a voice commanding him to spare his son. Against a cultural backdrop of child sacrifice, the patriarch sees something – a ram, yes, but maybe something more – that rewrites religion and proclaims that no, children should not be sacrificed on the altars of our dogma and our security.

80 children on flight MH17. Three Israeli teenagers found dead in a pit. 39 children killed in air strikes and the invasion of Gaza. Human shields, four kids bombed as they played on a beach, Mohammed Abu Khdeir burned alive. The last few days have been a relentless parade of violence and death, the paradoxes of the 24/7 news cycle connecting us and hardening us to drone strikes and rockets and shattered buildings. And in the midst of all this, as always, are children. Not that we call this child sacrifice any more – that would be obscene. Nowadays we call it “collateral damascene”, as if the euphemism hides the idolatry.

Abraham’s revelation didn’t last forever. We live in a precarious world, at the mercy of the harvest or the weather or the marauders at our gates. We look for ways to appease the gods, to earn their favour, and so, in the valley of Ben Hinnom, kings Ahaz and Manasseh burned their sons as an offering to Baal. Fortunately King Josiah eventually put an end to this, the valley became Jerusalem’s rubbish dump, fire burning trash day and night.

We don’t haggle with fertility gods any more, nor gods of the storm; we’re better at controlling our environment, millennia of technology under our belt. Now we sacrifice to more abstract concepts; security against The Other is one, power another – look at how the British Establishment has been shaken by accusations that it dismissed or concealed or empowered child abuse, leaving traumatised and neglected survivors in its wake. That in itself is a sort of sacrifice.

The shadow of Ben Hinnom lived with people through the ages, a reminder of the sins and idols tries of their forefathers every time they put out their bins. Thanks to the wonders of etymology, the name of the dump shifted and changed, taking on new meanings and associations. We know this because it was a word used by Jesus when he wanted to summon an image of suffering and horror.

Gehanna.

Hell.

Attacks on children are decried, of course, but still they happen. It’s a deeper sacrifice that we leave on the altar, of innocence, of compassion, of our great taboos. And if children are emblematic of the future, what does it mean for society when kids grow up wanting to avenge their murdered playmate, when abused children feel they can’t go to authorities for fear if being disbelieved?

It hurts to say this, but we know it to be true; there are times when religion empowers this; we join in with the blasphemy, and echo, in our own way the idolatry of Ahaz. Until we find a way to confront this, to repent of it and become a safe space and an advocate for the children around us, the sacrifices will continue.

Gehanna’s garbage keeps on burning.

Killer Opening Lines (Genesis 1:1; John 1:1)

q7244486This post was inspired by a flurry of tweets using the #medialit14 hashtag.

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

Really it’s just a sci-fi way of saying “once upon a time”, and that works; after all, Star Wars is basically a fairytale in space, a folktale with robots. Forget the rest of the scrolling preamble, that one line let’s you know what you’re in for.

And then a stonking great spaceship flies across the screen and shakes you out of your seat. Awesome.

Everyone who’s browsed a library or studied literature or tried their hand at writing knows the power of the opening line. Never mind judging a book by its cover, those first few words are what really counts. Take 1984 as an example: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Fourteen words in and you know you’re somewhere else, somewhere wrong. And yet it’s still April, there’s still a spring chill in the air… Maybe this world isn’t as distant as you’d like.

It’s also a line that’s almost made for Twitter. There have been a flurry of tweets from CODEC‘s MediaLit training course (hashtag #medialit14) around the use of social media in communicating religious concepts – basically, can you nail the essentials of the Christian faith in 140 characters? Or can you use the vernacular to explain something like atonement theory?

But that raises the question of whether we’re using the right tools for the job. Twitter, for instance is all about instant impact – it’s fast-moving and transient, and that’s great but it’s probably not the best place to explain the Trinity in all its complexity. Maybe Twitter’s not a tool to explain the mysteries of the universe, but a way of drawing people into story that they can then begin to explore for themselves. The equivalent not of a theology textbook but that killer opening line that gets into your head and lives with you until you see the story resolve itself.

I don’t know if that’s how the writers of the Bible saw the world, but you’ve got to admit, they hit on some great openers, even if by mistake. “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people”; no-one ever preaches on Lamentations, but that’s a great opening. And I so wish “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the Temple” opened Isaiah 1 and not Isaiah 6.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Wait, which God? How did he create everything? You mean he stands outside of the created order? That tribe next door says there are hundreds of gods and they made the world from the entrails of a sea monster, you mean they got it wrong? Dr. Sheldon Cooper keeps talking about the Big Bang, where does that leave God, huh?

You’ll never resolve all those questions in 140 characters. You can invite people into the questions though, and you can practice your humility and your listening skills, because you won’t know all the answers, but if you practice love and respect, that won’t matter. The conversation is what counts.

But that’s all a bit technical. Look at the Message’s paraphrase of John 1:1 – “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.”

Now, I’ll admit I’m not always the greatest fan of the Message, but I love this line. It’s like Bruce Springsteen has discovered theology. “The Word became flesh and blood” is all a bit cosmic, “moved into the neighbourhood” is contemporary and everyday. Bring the two together and you get something mysterious and poetic walking the streets around us, a glimpse of the Incarnation in the space of a tweet. Does it matter that it uses the vernacular? Does it matter that we lose some of the links to the Old Testament stories of God? Well, maybe, if we ignore them completely, but this is just the first line of the story, the opening of the conversation. There’s time for the rest later, but at the very least we’re left with a couple of questions:

Who exactly became flesh and blood?

What happened when they moved into the neighbourhood?

Of course, Christians get obsessed with answers more so than questions. We sometimes worry that the whole Kingdom of God will come crashing down if we can’t answer every theological question and mystery in words of one syllable. And sure, there’s a place for apologetics, but there’s also a place for testimony, for inviting people into a story. My timeline has lots of people tweeting random Bible verses, but when a pastor from Australia tweets that he and a bunch of his colleagues have been arrested for protesting the treatment of asylum seekers, well, that makes me sit up and take notice. Jesus is somehow present in those tweets in a real and compelling way; they explain a theology of incarnational mission in a way that mere concepts can’t.

So maybe communicating through social media isn’t so much about being a digital theologian but a digital storyteller. Again, it’s a different set of tools, and maybe we shouldn’t see Twitter or Facebook as a simple method of communication but as the campfire around which we can gather and start telling our stories. And those stories will evolve into relationships as a natural consequence of us talking to each other.

So budge up and give God a seat at that campfire.

Bible Jukebox: Faith and Music

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Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen.

That’s been my favourite song for years. Bruce calls it a rock and roll lullaby, and that’s a nice way of describing the song’s dreamlike, iconic landscape. It’s true and quietly mythic at the same time.

Now, religious songs, that’s something else. My favourite is Be Thou My Vision, and while it’s a great hymn in and of itself, it really became a favourite when I heard the Van Morrison version. Because sometimes, no matter how good your church choir might be, sometimes you really need to hear hymns sung in the original Irish.

It’s World Music Day, and while I’m tone deaf and have an ambivalent reaction to the Beatles, I’m fascinated by the use of music in the Bible. We’ve probably done it a disservice by turning it into prose, but that robs it of a power that only music has.

For instance, it’s in the music of the Bible that we often hear the voices of the marginalised; the Magnificat falls into a tradition of women singing about liberation, while elsewhere a Shulammite woman is unapologetic in her celebration of her beauty and sexuality.

Songs seem to give voice to emotions and frustrations and ecstasies that we don’t always associate with the Bible. We’ve lost some of these traditions – we don’t know how to lament in the church (I’m struggling to think of an overtly Christian song as raw as, say, Johnny Cash’s version of ‘Hurt’), and some of the songs already mentioned are saturated with radicalism and outspokenness. The Psalms aren’t just the ancient version of a CCM download, they cover a breadth of human experience that can leave us feeling uplifted then battered within the space of a few verses. More importantly, they give us permission, give us the words we need to express some of our deepest hopes and sorrows; the Psalms tell us that we’re not alone.

That connection isn’t just between individuals separated across centuries. Most of the Psalms should be considered corporate worship, hundreds of voices harmonising and praising and crying out. We continue with that tradition today – in some ways it’s bigger than ever – and that’s both a privilege and a danger for worship leaders. At best, leading a corporate act of praise can guide people towards a new encounter with God, or a renewed freedom in worship; at worse it can become performance idolatry. It’s a fine line to walk, a faith saturated in song but with a tendency to worship the music rather than the God it points to. And yet that shouldn’t stop us rediscovering and reinventing some of the great biblical songs.

But worship music can transcend the confines of services. Why else would Amazing Grace be sung by displaced Cherokees walking the Trail of Tears? A Salvation Army brass band in a town centre somewhere can turn a cold, miserable winter’s day into Christmas. Music has power, and so the song of God could change everything:

In his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing.

That’s a powerful image of grace. There’s a joy in it, an abandonment, an excitement that can only be expressed with music. The idea of God singing about us is glorious; maybe the use of music here is the only way to convey the enormity of divine grace and love.

Because there are times when only a song will do.