I’m Tired of Being Angry at the Church

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I’m tired of being angry at the church.

Let’s be clear here; I’m not talking about the fellowships of which I’ve been a part over the years. I’m talking about the Church-with-an-upper-case-C.

To be more specific, I’m talking about the partisan politics. I’m talking about the arrogance. I’m talking about the press releases blaming bad weather on gay people. I’m talking about the shunning. I’m talking about the mega churches that are sleepwalking into becoming cults. I’m talking about the child abuse.

These are the things that are getting headlines. These are the things that leave all of us tarred as hypocrites. These are the things that are blaspheming the name of Jesus and they make me angry because there’s a seemingly endless list of failings and cover-ups and corruption hitting the internet almost every day.

I can understand why someone would refuse to be associated with all this. I can see why some look at the Body of Christ and see it as a corpse. I realise that the homophobia and sexism drives people away. You know what? If your church is constantly implying that you’re a second class citizen, or even an abomination, if an expression of ‘love’ feels more like abuse, you’re probably right to get out of there.

But the Church is bigger than churches. It’s a universal community, one that encompasses Desmond Tutu and Billy Graham and Johnny Cash and St. Peter. It’s bigger than the empires it so often tries to emulate, bigger than the buildings and bluster, bigger than the bigotry and bank accounts.

There’s an image used throughout the Bible to describe the relationship between God and his people. In Revelation and in Matthew, in the epistles and in Isaiah, God’s people are described as his Bride. It’s a beautiful metaphor, one that’s starting to speak to me the more Twitter explodes with news of another congregation’s failings.

I want to see the beautiful Bride, radiant in a white dress, and even though people might sneer, say she’s kinda plain beneath the make-up, say she doesn’t exactly deserve to be wearing white, I want that image of a joyous wedding to be the image people associate with the Church. And that’s a monumental task but it’s something to work towards.

But to see this I need to look for it, to see the glimpses of that beauty that are breaking through the static and the cynicism. I want to celebrate when we fast on behalf of the poor and hungry. I want to celebrate when our sanctuaries are full of sleeping bags. I want to celebrate when we do something that seems crazy because a vicar dressed as Elvis in Northern Ireland is more gospel than the religious tensions that have killed so many.

I’m tired of being angry, but sometimes it’s right to be angry. Maybe I’m more tired of being cynical. I want to see hope instead of another disaster; I want to see the Bride more than yet more imperialism and idolatry. That’s difficult when trying to see a glorious vision through frosted glass and acting surprised when I get frustrated.

I’m a part of the Church, for better or for worse. I pray that I would be less a part of the problem, more a part of the solution.

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Come and See (John 1:35-39)

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This post was inspired by a sermon by Nadia Boiz Weber, which you should check out.

I struggle with seeing God.

There’s something confessional about writing that, because it’s not that God can’t be seen or found. And yet I find it so easy to become blinded, blinded by the day-to-day, blinded by stress and worry, blinded by my own personal set of clobber texts that I use to justify why I don’t see God.

See, I’m better at theory than practice, always have been. I read the Bible and embrace the a-ha! moments when one verse or story resonates or argues or dances with another verse or story. But seeing how that waltz of the Spirit glides across the dance floor of my 21st century life? I find that trickier.

Maybe that’s why a certain phrase echoes throughout John’s gospel: “Come and see.” Jesus says it to potential disciples. Other people say it about Jesus. A grieving woman says it through tears to (finally!) bring Jesus into a situation. “Oh, the things you’ll see!” Jesus tells a sarcastic kid sitting under a tree. Yes, there are teachings and debates and moral lessons, but they come later, in the context of not keeping Jesus at a distance but of going where he’s going, planting your feet in his footsteps and taking the time to actually watch what he’s doing.

Of course, do that and he’ll start asking you to get you hands dirty – go to that disreputable part of town, hand out those loaves and fish, talk to the outsiders, shake hands with the lepers. Maybe that’s why I find it hard to see God – I prefer the comfort of the ivory tower, not because of its luxury but because of its safety. Because following means trusting, and if I’m being honest, my trust in God needs to expand its borders. The horizon is bigger than my boundaries.

Put that way, it’s better to come and see than to sit and read. Not that it’s wrong to sit and read (and if it is, Matt don’t want to be right!), but because Jesus is alive, God is love and the Spirit is on the move, and if we’re not engaging with or looking for that reality, faith becomes fossilised.

And so maybe it’s time to acknowledge that a messy, stumbling, following faith is better than running the risk of getting everything right but ending up as a clanging cymbal because something essential has been lost. The darkest moments of the church throughout the world and throughout the years have come when we’ve stopped seeing the love, grace and mercy of Christ and passionately embraced our dogma to the exclusion of our God. And change is delayed because we’re too focused on bemoaning the dark rather than adding to the light.

As with the church, so with the Christian. Same thing happens to me, far more than I like to admit. And that has to change.

Lord, help me to walk in your steps, and to see you in the following.

Nimrod, Babel and Why God Sometimes Hits Alpha Dogs On The Snout With A Rolled-Up Newspaper (Genesis 10:8-12)

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Nimrod was the biggest, baddest hunter in town. This is a man whose power and strength was renowned throughout the land, founder of an empire of city-states; cities called Erech and Calneh and Akkad.

And Ninevah.

And Babylon.

Immediately a red flag goes up – this is the man who founded two of Israel’s greatest enemies. Imagine being in exile in Babylon and hearing this passage; Nimrod would be a symbol of oppression and violence. No wonder he’s traditionally portrayed as an enemy of God.

Biblically speaking we don’t know much more about him; he’s another of the shadowy, primal figures that haunt the pages of Genesis. But we can perhaps link him to another story of rebellion against God; Genesis 11 tells us what happened when Babylon was settled, and if Nimrod was its founder, what happens next reflects his rule, or at least his legacy. Nimrod is a big dog, an alpha dog, and he’s dangerous enough to eventually turn around and bite.

Look upon the Tower of Babel and despair.

The proto-Babylonians settle on the Plain of Shinar in Mesopotamia and build a city. But stone is scarce in the region, apparently, and so they have to improvise and invent bricks. This means they can build bigger, more stable buildings, perhaps leading to what happens next.

Now they have the resources and know-how and power to ascend to Heaven without the help of God. They develop a unity of purpose, and that purpose is to climb a tower and shake a fist at God himself.

We sometimes read this as if the people of Babel are a genuine threat to God, but of course this is ridiculous. Genesis has already made this clear; unlike the creation myths of Israel’s neighbours, God doesn’t have to fight sea monsters or wrestle a primordial universe into submission, he just does it and declares it good. Heck, it isn’t even that long since the Flood; Nimrod and his followers are absolutely no threat to God. Genesis smirks at this when it reports that God “comes down” to see the Tower; in other words, it’s too far away and tiny to see otherwise.

So if Nimrod’s not threatening God, why’s he such a danger?

Well, who was building the Tower of Babel? Willing, skilled workers? Was Nimrod himself lugging bricks around?

Yeah, right.

Nimrod’s descendants were empire builders that would one day drag Israel off into exile. Imagine the damage they could cause with unlimited power; imagine how their neighbours were feeling. And so, maybe the Tower is a symptom, not a cause. God looks at the alpha dog about to bite and calmly and simply hits him on the snout. Never try to bite God.

That advice isn’t always heard. 

It’s an ongoing temptation, to impose your will on the landscape. The latest episode of 99% Invisible tells of Chrysler’s determination that his tower should dominate the skyline of Manhattan; a few years later, the Empire State Building ruled, casting a long shadow over poverty-stricken Hoovervilles. Marvel at them, these great big Look-At-Mes. Marvel at them and remember that Chrysler did his best not to pay the architect who created this monument to his greatness. Get powerful, screw over the little people. That’s how it so often goes.

Just don’t expect God to bless your Babel.

It’s easy to say that, but then I look at the news and realise the controversy behind this post. The UN has condemned the Catholic Church’s cover-up of child abuse. The Church of England invests in a payday lender that charges 5853% APR. Mega-churches are plagued by accusations of spiritual abuse. Is it more fulfilling to be a crusader rather than a saint?

We pray for unity, pray so hard that we’d be one, but have church structures become our own Babels? Are we building worldly kingdoms rather than heavenly ones? The church did alright out of Constantine after all; how much of our power comes from Nimrod rather than God? Does God put brakes on the excesses of the church?

Our unity could change the world, for good or ill; maybe we should pray for forgiveness and restoration. Maybe we should pray that God would replace Babel in our heart before we pray for unity.

Sarah Laughs (Genesis 18:1-15)

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An old woman stands hidden at the flap of her tent. On the other side her husband and a group of mysterious visitors are having a discussion about children and legacies. Bitterness wells within her; married for decades, she’s never been able to have children and the only way for their family line to continue was for her husband to sleep with a servant. He has a son now, but he’s not hers… But wait, one of the strangers has just said something crazy and alluring and heartbreaking. He’s said that, within the year, she’ll have her own child. But she’s old and barren and feeling every one of her years, and so, when she hears this, all she can do…

…is laugh.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for Sarah. For decades she would have heard how God was going to make her elderly husband the father of a great nation, but she might be forgiven for feeling on the fringes of that promise. From the moment we first hear of her, we learn that Sarah cannot have children. For a woman in that culture, childlessness would have carried with it feelings of shame and uselessness. She deserves some sympathy.

We’re not always giving that sympathy though. We think she should get with the programme, that she should trust God, even in the face of the impossible. She doubts the promise and we frown at her because we read the story with the beauty of hindsight; we know the stories of Mary and Elizabeth and Hannah. We know the stories of miraculous children.

This week I heard a question posed that made me reconsider how I’d thought of Sarah. The question was deceptively simple, a questioned to which I assumed I knew the answer. But, as we so often find with the Bible, the obvious isn’t always the truth.

So, the question: Did Sarah know she was part of the promise?

We assume she must be in on the plan because she’s Abraham’s wife and we know that sooner or later Isaac will be on the scene. But in the majority of God ‘s conversations with Abraham, in those promises where Abraham’s told that his descendants will outnumber the stars in the sky, Sarah’s name doesn’t come up.

Maybe this is where Hagar comes in. Sarah knows she can’t have children, knows that the family line needs to continue somehow. Hagar the servant is a convenient surrogate, and once she gives birth to Ishmael, maybe it felt like everything was sorted. Abraham finally had a son. Apparently the promise was fulfilled, leaving Sarah on the outside.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Because thirteen years after Ishmael is born, when the heir apparent starts to become a man, God reaffirms his covenant, this time emphasising Sarah’s role in it. She’s not on the outside, was never meant to be, but what’s Abraham’s reaction?

He laughs.

It’s Sarah who’s known for disbelieving laughter, and a lot of the comments I’ve seen online talk about Abraham’s disbelieving laughter being better than Sarah’s. I’m not sure I’m convinced; he laughs, and she laughs, and that almost becomes prophetic, because the name Isaac is a pun on “laughs”.

Laughing at God is something we scowl at, but let’s give Abraham and Sarah the benefit of the doubt. We forget this is still early in Genesis. We forget there’s no codified religion, no sacred writings, no Moses, no Messiah. There’s just an elderly couple carrying around a promise from a God who hasn’t yet delivered. They’re new to this; they have to learn to trust God.

Yeah, well, me too, and I don’t have their excuse. Trusting in God isn’t something I find easy; not the idea that God is trustworthy in general, I’m fine with that. It’s just that I, like Sarah, often feel on the outside of things. There’s no real rhyme or reason for this and lately the message has been coming over loud and clear: get over yourself and start trusting.

Anyway, one of the visitors, who turns out to be God himself, asks Abraham why Sarah is laughing. And maybe this reflects the patriarchy, but I have a little heresy; that Abraham hasn’t got round to telling Sarah about God’s promise and so this is the first time she’s heard that she’s a key player in the whole thing, that it ‘s her son who’ll be the child of the covenant, not the now adult Ishmael. And she reacts with apparent disbelief and maybe bitterness and, well, a little bit like her husband did.

She denies laughing, but God’s not fooled. And despite this she still ends up having a son within a year, still ends up seeing the miraculous. God comes through, even when it seems impossible, or simply just unlikely. And that’s a lesson Sarah and Abraham had to learn.

And there’s something about this whole episode that reminds me of an event that happened centuries later. A man called Nathaniel is sitting under a fig tree when his friend Philip tells him he’s met the Messiah in Nazareth Nathaniel scoffs – nothing good comes from Nazareth.

And yet not long later, Nathaniel meets Jesus, who’s well aware of his sarcasm, even though he wasn’t present.

“You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You’ll see greater things than that.”

Two people slowly encountering God, both receiving something of a rebuke but also a taste of God’s power and, perhaps more importantly, a promise that they’ll see great things very soon.

The Song of the Sword (Genesis 4:17-24, Matthew 18:21-22)

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There are shadowy chapters in Genesis, full of mysterious characters and events that give hints of a doomed primal world. Between the Fall and the Flood, dangerous figures lurk.

One of these is Lamech. The sixth generation from Cain, we know little of him; he was a polygamist, and his children would go on to become innovators in the arts and other technology. We also know that he was a killer.

We don’t know who he killed or why. We know it was an act of vengeance, but disproportionately so. It was also a way of declaring his independence from God; only a few verses earlier, God has assured the exiled Cain that he’ll be avenged seven times over if anyone kills him. Now Lamech takes matters into his own hands; if anyone hurts him, they’re going down. God only avenges seven times over; Lamech will make you pay seventy-seven times just for looking at him funny. His arrogant, threatening words declaring this to his wives have become known as the Song of the Sword; it’s not exactly edifying, and maybe Lamech should disappear into history, just another violent man to be forgotten.

But his words seem to have resonance centuries later. Look at the numbers used: seventy? Seventy-seven? Sound familiar?

In Matthew 18 , Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother – seven times? No, replies Jesus, seventy-seven times.

I’m not sure there’s a direct connection. It’s more likely that there’s a link between Jesus’s words and Leviticus 25; after all, he’s using the language of Jubilee. But it serves as a powerful contrast to the actions of Lamech. Within a few generations of the creation, humanity is majoring in revenge and a twisted form of Justice that states that it’s okay that to make others suffer if they’ve wronged you. Countering this with the idea that forgiveness should not only be necessary but boundless is a form of liberation.

After all, Lamech’s attitude was doomed to keep mankind trapped in a cycle of payback and vengeance for whole lifetimes. In the case of Genesis, that involved a life being snuffed out; nowadays it might mean decades of not speaking to a whole branch of the family because of something that was said to a grandparent just after D-Day.

Jesus steps into this debate and is pretty clear about it – you forgive. You forgive and you forgive again and you go on forgiving because ultimately it’s God’s justice that wins out, not Lamech’s. The cycle of revenge needs to be broken because it’s a trap that leads to anger and bitterness and destruction and those things aren’t of God. There’s a reason Jesus uses jubilee language, the language of release from slavery, when it comes to forgiveness. It’s because unforgiveness and the constant search for payback are just another form of captivity and Jesus, fortunately, is all about freedom.

There’s a reason Lamech is largely forgotten, a footnote of history sandwiched between other, more interesting stories. Because Jesus’ words of forgiveness are more compelling than Lamech’s words of blood; it’s far more liberating to sing songs of deliverance than songs of the sword.