No-one Ever Preaches on Lamentations (Psalm 137)

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You know one of the best songs ever recorded? ‘Hurt‘ by Johnny Cash. In it you can hear every regret, every mistake, every sin of an old man as they eat away at him. It’s devastating, and it rips your heart out every time, but the world’s better place him having recorded it. Sometimes we need the sad songs. ‘I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing‘ is fine, but Billie Holiday needed to record ‘Strange Fruit‘; the darker shades of human experience need expression too.

So why does no-one ever preach on Lamentations?

I mean, if we need to give voice to our less pleasant circumstances, Lamentations has to be the archetype – Jerusalem destroyed, most of the population dragged into exile, the remainder wracked with survivor’s guilt and driven to cannibalism. As an expression of grief, shock, fear and despair it’s hard to beat. There are slivers of hope in there, but on the whole, things are pretty grim.

And yet there it is, in the Bible. I’ve been going to church all my life and I don’t ever recall hearing a sermon about despair, don’t ever recall singing a sad song that wasn’t about the crucifixion, but here in the Bible are five chapters of people dealing with the fallout of a community torn apart. It’s not spaceship religion, it’s the heart cry of a faithful man witnessing his fellow survivors starving in the streets.

It’s 9-11. It’s the Blitz. It’s the Holocaust.

If faith is to be real it has to be able to confront catastrophe. That’s why Lamentations is important – it gives voice to the things we’re too scared to say out loud. I mean, I haven’t had my hometown invaded, looted and pillaged, but look at the following verse:

“You have covered yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can get through.”

I’ve certainly felt like that at times. I bet I’m not the only one. It’s not something we get to say that often, because we think we need to be living the triumphant Christian life, and because sometimes the biggest lie we tell in church is “Yeah, I’m okay”. But the shadow is still there and it needs to be confronted, which can be difficult because sometimes I struggle to confront an overgrown lawn. But I know from experience that bottling things up can be dangerous – better to offer them to God.

Yes, even when God’s the one you’re angry with. He can take it.

That’s why there are frankly messed up passages in the Bible, like Psalm 137 and it’s desire to see the babies of the writer’s enemies smashed against rocks. No-one’s suggesting that this is a good thing – it’s really not – but that’s one of the purposes of art, poetry, to work through the labyrinths of life and find a ‘safe’ way to express them. Here’s a Psalm that starts off as ‘By the Rivers of Babylon‘ and ends up a hardcore metal track. And that’s fine, because sometimes life’s like that.

I heard a quote recently – “All worship bands should have a break-up song”. Because sometimes we need to corporately express sorrow and anger and despair, express them and work through them and find a way to God in the midst of them.

We need more sad songs to help us see the hope behind them.

 

 

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Cooking for Christ (Acts 10; Matthew 9:9-13)

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Yes, this is the cheesiest title I’ve used in this blog but I couldn’t resist it. Besides, it’s only only post I’ve written inspired by a cookery programme (The Hairy Bikers: Mums Know Best in case you’re wondering).

Okay, so what do cooking and eating have to do with the Bible? Quite a lot, as it happens. In fact, eating is intimately linked to the religious practice of Israel. Look at the sacrificial system – sure, it’s all about religious ritual, but it’s broader than our stereotypes of that.

See, some – most – of the sacrifices offered by Israel could be eaten, either by the priests or the public. Yes, the primary recipient was God, but the offering was shared. There was a connection between worship and food – we remember that today with the bread and wine of Holy Communion.

But that’s an act of remembrance, a symbolic sacrament. Eating the sacrifices had a physical practicality as well – it was a way of ensuring people got a decent meal, and so the importance of faith and spirituality was also tied up with meeting day-to-day needs.

This was all about humanity’s relationship with God, of course, and look at how that’s expressed – sacrifice and worship and repentance, yes, but in many cases, also sharing a meal with God. This makes sense – sharing a meal with someone is an act of fellowship and community. That’s why Jesus kept getting in trouble for sharing meals with the ‘wrong’ sort of people – it wasn’t just about eating, it was about grace.

This was one of the big issues for the early church – who was in, who was out? Was this a Jewish movement, or could Gentiles be allowed in? And, interestingly, one of the key moments for this, is all linked to food. Peter’s faced with a choice whether or not to meet with Gentiles and tell them about Jesus; his answer for this is in a vision where God commands him to eat non-Kosher food. As a good Jew, Peter is repulsed by this, but the message is clear – “Do not call anything impure what God has made clean.”

In other words, the barriers are coming down. And yes, the vision is a metaphor for accepting Gentiles into the church, but look at what Peter does immediately afterwards – he invites a Roman centurion into his house, where we can assume they had something to eat.

Food and fellowship, all intimately linked.

So what can the church do with this? Well, maybe we need to make more of food in our ministries. I guess this is something that’s happening a lot – after all, the Alpha Course is based around the idea of having a meal with people – but that’s the great thing about food and cooking: (almost) anyone can do it and the possibilities are endless. What about using food to cement the bonds between the different cultures that meet in our churches? Are there ways to share recipes within our fellowships? What are the innovative ways of using food in cafe church and soup kitchens and among people who can’t or don’t eat properly? Can food and cooking get people more involved in the fellowship, people who might not be able to preach or play guitar?

I know this isn’t original thinking, but recently I’m being taught that things we often don’t think twice about, like sleeping and gardening and cooking can be ways of expressing God’s love for others, can be worship. And the more opportunities for that the better.

The Power of We: One Body, Many Parts (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)

Today is Blog Action Day, the theme of which is ‘The Power of We’. Which, of course, got me thinking about community and how this relates to the Bible.

St. Paul hit upon a great metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12 – a community, and here he’s talking about the church community, is a body:

“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptised byone Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.And so the body is not made up of one part but of many.”

Communities aren’t homogenous, even if they might look it at first glance – they’re a mixed-up, messed-up interaction of personalities and perspectives. It works, even if sometimes everything seems on the brink of flying apart.

That was the early church. The huge theological debates – how Jewish should Christianity be, should Gentiles be a part of things – were flash points enough, but look at the demographics – a mixture of classes, ethnicities, genders, lead by former radicals, collaborators and murderers. Somehow this group became a community that faced down emperors and fed the hungry.

There’s a lesson there, about the unity of the Holy Spirit and the importance of the church as the Body of Christ. Those are things that are always worth bearing in mind.

But look at that description of the early church again. Some followers of Jesus were former tax collectors, collaborators and fraudsters. Some were Zealots, terrorists or sympathisers with terrorists, and even if we’re more inclined to think of them as ‘freedom fighters’, that still makes us uncomfortable. And some followers once looked after the coats as early Christians were turned into martyrs. These people, on the margins of polite society due to their actions or their beliefs, became the leaders of the church, integral members of this new community. After all, sometimes community is an act of grace.

As Paul said, each part of the body needs all the others. People need to pray and preach and lead worship, sure, but people also need to clean the toilets and put the bins out. And the ideal of Christian community is that each of these roles is valued and honoured – with the people cleaning the toilets perhaps receiving greater honour from God because of their humility and relative anonymity.

(This sort of stuff also ties in with servant leadership and remembering the Sabbath…)

But here’s the thing. We’re living in a world where some branches of Christianity are based around who’s out rather than who’s in, ostracising based on a legalistic rule book or neighbourhood gossip. And the minute you ostracise someone, push them to the sidelines because their face doesn’t fit, you deal a body blow to the church; the kingdom isn’t allowed to be all that it could be, with all the consequences associated with that.

You want someone out of your fellowship because they don’t meet some arbitrary standard? Well, that’s down to you, but, to extend Paul’s metaphor, you’ll be cutting off your nose to spite your church’s face.

But that’s negative, and as it’s Blog Action Day, let’s celebrate the positive. The church, at its best, is an awesome community, bringing together those who’d normally remain apart and rehabilitating back into community those who are in need of grace. The power of God is seen through the power of we. That’s worth celebrating.

Take a Break: Why a Sabbath matters (Exodus 20:8-11)

20121007-132047.jpgI don’t normally post on Sundays – you don’t get the page views – but as it’s the (Christian) Sabbath it felt appropriate. Then again, if it is the Sabbath, does blogging count as working?

I can only speak from a British perspective, but Sunday as a day of rest was engrained into my childhood, yet it always raised questions – if we don’t go shopping on a Sunday, then why are we having newspapers delivered and watching TV which necessitates other people working?

That’s the thing though, it’s easy to get legalistic about this stuff; so easy, in fact, that the whole point of having a Sabbath in the first place gets lost among all the rules.

So in Exodus 20, when God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, number four is “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy”. In other words, go out and do your job for the rest of the week, but on the seventh day you stop – you, your family, your servants, even your animals. It ties in with the creation story and God ‘resting’ after six days – observing a Sabbath is a fundamental part of the rhythm of creation. Forget that at your peril.

Hmm.

It’s a tricky one, because let’s face it, we’re all busy and living in a culture where, implicitly or explicitly, we’re on call 24/7. It’s part of the modern corporate and technological world. Sabbath is for wimps. And yeah, stress related illnesses are on the rise, but hey, that’s just the price you have to pay, right?

The tragic thing is that the church has bought into this. Yes, we may sign petitions against changes to Sunday trading laws, but there’s something more insidious going on. You think there isn’t? Find the person in your church responsible for the audio-visual equipment and ask them what time they show up at church on Sunday. Or the worship group. Or the person responsible for the car park. Do they get a lie-in on the Sabbath? And the people serving the coffee, how long after the service does it take to wash up the cups?

Yeah, but that’s different, right? That’s all part of the church service, that’s worship. Okay, sure, but worship can turn into work very quickly, and in our attempts to create ever more relevant services, we run the risk of breaking at least one commandment by mistake. We buy into the corporate mantra that busy-ness is good and productive, and while hard work is a virtue, God flat out tells us to have a rest. I know you might have twenty different jobs at church, I know you’re trying to juggle them with family life and work and everything else, but God ‘s telling you to take a break, and if you can’t take a break, you need to prayerfully quit something.

There, I’ve said it. Start writing the resignation letter now if you have to. Your health, your relationships and your spiritual life are more important. Simple as.

(I know that sometimes we have to go to work on Sunday or lose our jobs. That can’t be helped, but even so, there still needs to be a period of rest. Your Sabbath could be a Tuesday if that works best for you, God and your family…)

(I also know that I’ve recently blogged about servant leadership – we have to serve, yes, but we also need to balance that against having a rest sometimes.)

And maybe churches need to embrace the concept of rest. Maybe our prayer spaces need to include sofa beds. Maybe we need to release people from multiple jobs. Maybe it needs to be a condition of formal membership that, if you’re physically able, you need to put your own chair away, or wash up your own mug, so that everyone gets to go home at the same time. Okay, those ideas might be over the top, but you get the point – if churches won’t observe the God-given rhythm of life, then no-one else will. The point of God’s people keeping the Sabbath is partly so that they can model a better way, not adopt the culture of the world around them.

Take Jesus for example. In Mark 6 he performs two of his most famous miracles, feeding the five thousand and walking on water. Yet right in the middle of these, he goes off to a mountain to pray. It’s not given a huge amount of coverage, but it’s there – Jesus didn’t bounce from miracle to miracle, he made time for God. He had a break. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that’s one of the reasons he was able to help others. After all, his temptations in the wilderness were all about doing the cool stuff but ignoring God. A Sabbath can help us avoid that.

This is important for two reasons. Look where the command about the Sabbath falls – it ends the first section of laws about how we’re supposed to relate to God, but maybe it also acts as an introduction to the section on how we relate to our community – after all, the commandment implies we’re supposed to enable others to observe the Sabbath too, to make sure they get a break. In other words, don’t exploit people, be in relationship, community with them. I don’t care if the jobs need doing, we don’t have the right to push someone to the edge of a breakdown. Your family has the right to see you.

So whatever you’re doing now, stop.

Sit down. Have a rest.

Remember the Sabbath.

Enter Password: What’s our Shibboleth? (Judges 12:1-7)

20121008-104057.jpgSince I started writing this blog, I’ve wanted to talk about Jephthah. At that same time though, I’ve been running away from it, because frankly the story of Jephthah is messed up.

However, it does have an epilogue which I’m a bit happier with, so I’ll go with that, even if it’s still brutal and uncompromising. That’s the book of Judges for you.

So anyway, one of Israel’s judges, a warrior called Jephthah (who I always picture as being played by Clint Eastwood) goes to war with a neighbouring tribe. How did they know who was on which side? Accents. The enemy pronounced the word ‘shibboleth’ differently, so if they couldn’t say the “Sh” properly, they got killed. If I ever get a voice activated computer, my password’s going to be shibboleth.

It’s a tough, violent story, but there’s a great use of it in The West Wing. The President has to decide if a group of refugee Chinese Christians are genuine or not, and so, just before a conversation with the leader of the refugees, this story gets quoted – the words of this man will decide if he’ll be granted asylum or not.

I really liked this use of the story until I was silly and thought about the implications. Because it’s my words that catch me out sometimes.

Yeah, I’m a Christian. Yeah, I’ve been to church since I was a baby. Yeah, I write a blog where I talk about the Bible. All these things are true.

But my words betray me at times. In the last 48 hours I’ve cursed, among others, my fellow drivers, reality TV stars, those responsible for traffic management, people who can’t use apostrophes and anyone who ever had anything to do with the construction of my iPhone. I’ve also developed a form of Tourette’s where I automatically yell scathing abuse upon any mention of the UK’s coalition government.

And that’s before the stuff that directly affects me on a day-to-day level.

Hypocritical? You betcha. At the end of the day, I struggle to say “shibboleth”.

What sort of witness is that? Do I sound like Jesus in any way, shape or form?

See, the people who say words will never hurt them are wrong. Sticks and stones may be an immediate threat, but words are insidious. How many of us have woken up at 3am, inexplicably upset at something awful someone said twenty years ago? How many of us find our lives crippled because, when we were young, others chose to tear down rather than build up, chose to not say the words we needed to hear?

How we use words is frighteningly important.

Of course, how we react to them is important too. Get your pronunciation wrong and Jephthah would kill you dead. What happens when people say the wrong thing to us? When they disagree with our doctrine or politics, when they’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Can they hear the words of Jesus when we’re getting ready to bite? Can we react with grace rather than rage?

Back to The West Wing. The President talks to the leader of the Christians about some biblical trivia, which he aces, but the moment of truth is when he speaks movingly of his faith. That’s when we can hear grace and and passion, that’s when his words reveal what’s in his heart.

That’s his shibboleth.