God in Nappies: A Post for Christmas

One of the miracles of Christmas is this: God enters this world as part of the world, living and breathing, growing, active. Much as art brings beauty and challenge to the world, all those Nativity scenes fall short of capturing this miracle, because God is life and so can’t be trapped in paint, in ink, in wood or marble or pixels. Instead he is wrapped in DNA and stardust, grows within Mary, emerges into the world and takes his first breath in a cave. Having called oxygen into being he now inhales it, exhales, joining humanity it all its physicality. The Word becomes flesh – not some demigod, not an avatar or reflection, but flesh and blood, genes and joy and heartbreak. Biology and theology intersect, science and the supernatural dance in his mother’s womb as she feels him kick. God becomes helpless, learning to walk and talk and bathe; God becomes vulnerable, subject to illness and accidents, carpenter’s calluses and executioner’s nails.

For all this exalted language, the Incarnation is a very tangible, physical thing. God is present on the earth, in the form of Jesus. The follow-up is that Christ should then be present in his church, and sometimes the less said about that the better. But it would be easy to let this become condemnation of others when, in reality, I need the Immanuel this Christmas, need God to be With Us.

Because I’m aware of my own humanity, my own fragility. I have sleep apnoea, I need glasses, I’m overweight – yeah, yeah, big deal – and my mental health isn’t what it should be, and that leads to anxiety and stress and depression. It hasn’t been too bad lately – medication and therapy and grace for the win – but I can still feel those metaphorical ghosts and demons nipping at the edge of awareness. The truth is, I need the Incarnation, need Christmas, need the belief that God understands what it’s like to walk this world. Maybe that’s why grace is so important; we all fall short of the glory, so better God comes to us rather than us building a futile ladder to heaven. Despite what the song says, God isn’t watching us from a distance, he stepped down into the mud alongside us.

So my Nativity scene is messy – the smell of animals, the sweat of the journey, the cries of childbirth, frankincense and myrrh, sleepless nights. Even the angels get political. Because life is messy. The world is messy. My heart is messy. And a God who stands with us in the mess is worth worshipping for love’s sake rather than fear’s.

The night draws in; so does the cold. As Christmas Eve draws to a close, I remember that God knew both as he walked our streets. The carol singers sing and I pray that I’d remember the God of genes and dust as the silence draws in, as the stars come out.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth,

The ever-lasting light.

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight.

Refugees and the Image of God

Refugees aren’t always seen as human beings.

Last year, David Cameron drew criticism for referring to “swarms” of refugees. It’s a rapacious, fear-laden image, biblical locusts poised to consume everything in their path, leaving the land barren in their wake.

The tabloid press latch onto this, of course, because they serve as the Id of a society. “Send in the army!” cried the Daily Mail, because we’re being invaded by a hostile force that wants to take our country and everything we hold dear. And don’t forget all the terrorists embedded in this army, that means we should all be really scared.

Meanwhile, “Go back home!” has become a common piece of venomous advice on British streets.

This language is dehumanising, a toxic removal of the dignity and personhood of individual human beings, and it’s insidious because language shapes perceptions and perceptions shape actions. Maybe that’s a good reason for Genesis 1:27‘s emphasis that humanity is made in the Image of God. That’s a better statement to make, a better bit of language to shape better perceptions and better actions. The great sin is that we’ve refused to recognise that shared humanity, allowed too many voices to strip refugees of their humanity.

That’s why it’s great to see Team Refugees at the Olympics. Yes there’s the emotional reaction to seeing them join the opening ceremony, but beyond that it’s the sport that matters, the cheering and the celebrating, the competition and the consolations. In the face of all the dehumanising that’s been going on, this is a moment of re-humanising.

But that’s not a rehumanising of refugees, it’s a rehumanising of us, those who have allowed themselves to embrace propaganda, those who have allowed privilege to blind us to suffering, those who have been taught to fear those running for their lives, who might be transformed by seeing those same people running for gold, swimming for medals, not to save lives.

Why do you think Jesus told us to love our neighbours and our enemies?

When we deny the image of God in others, we dehumanise ourselves. Other people pay the price of that – refugees doubly so, I guess. When we allow ourselves to listen to rarely told stories we can allow ourselves to rediscover the humanity in others, because those stories can give us empathy, can show us our similarities not our differences. We can take the specks out of our eyes that have prevented us from seeing God’s Image behind the eyes of those from who we’ve stolen dignity and respect.

This is only a start, of course, there’ll still be poisoned media and opportunistic politics and drunks ranting about foreigners on street corners. The Olympics won’t wave a magic wand, and we all need to examine our own prejudices and rage and do something about them; we’ll need to keep on telling better stories. But I’ll cheer for Team Refugees because they’re human like me, and sometimes we need to look behind the flags to see God’s face smiling back at us.

Joseph the Dreamcoated Oppressor (Genesis 47:13-26)

The Old Testament story of Joseph is great, right? Young man gets sold into slavery by his brothers but slowly rises from the ashes to become the second most powerful man in Egypt… Just in time to save his family from a devestating famine. You can see why they turned it into a musical; the coat thing is just the icing on the cake.

And then you read Genesis 47.

Famine has struck the land, but thanks to his visionary dreams, Joseph has been able to prepare Egypt for disaster by stockpiling grain. Only Joseph’s idea of famine relief involves everyone selling all they have to buy food. And when they’re out of money, he takes their land. And after he’s taken their land, he makes them work for their survival.

Yep, Joseph and his boss Pharaoh become very rich on the back of this particular act of philanthropy. This is the context in which Joseph’s family come to live in Egypt – little brother has pretty much enslaved the population

There’s a theory that the Bible’s story of liberation starts with Exodus, with Genesis serving as more of a prequel. This casts something of a dark light over the story of Moses, which is set about 400 years after Joseph. The Israelites are now slaves. Their fortunes were reversed.

You think there might be a connection?

There’s s lesson here – Joseph used the famine (and, I guess the divine insight into the situation given to him by God) to oppress the vulnerable of Egypt, and in doing so bound himself to a system that would ultimately result in his descendents being enslaved). And so God gets them out of Egypt, but hundreds of years later the Israelites decide they want a king and wise guy Solomon ends up making the same mistakes and the whole cycle of oppression then exile starts again.

It’s easy to create systems that we think are benefiting ourselves and our communities, but which end up oppressing those around us. And whether that’s through society and politics, or through religion and the church, a system that binds others also binds us alongside them. Problem is we don’t notice this because we’re reaping the rewards.

Until, of course, the day we turn around and notice the system is collapsing, and those people on the receiving end of oppression aren’t as sympathetic as we’d like them to be.

The easiest answer to this is not to oppress people in the first place. Trouble is, when you’re embedded in abusive systems, it’s hard to see that. That’s when it’s time to ask some searching questions: who isn’t represented on our boards and legislature and church councils? Who’s on the receiving end of our tracts and polemics and yes, our vitriol? Who have we weaponised our systems against? How do we start to beat those systems into ploughshares?

And when we’ve answered those questions, ask where God is at work among the people who don’t benefit from our dream coated utopia as much as we do. Because he’ll be there, on the margins, speaking to those we render voiceless, standing alongside those we wish were invisible. The question is whether we want to stand with him, or with the idols we’ve created in our own image?

Disability Parents and the Church: Gifts

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“Calling” isn’t something I’m good at; I turn 40 in November and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I work on the assumption that I’m called to preach, but that just raises other questions about how that gets worked out over the months and years to come. And, as autism parents, my wife and I have to help our kids navigate those same questions.

Here’s the thing: we’re all made in the image of God. And so, wherever possible, our children deserve the dignity of being able to figure out their place in the world and in the church. And that means focusing on what they can do rather than what they can’t do.

That’s important, because churches and other institutions can often focus on the ‘duty’ of dealing with disability rather than embracing the gifts and talents and insights of disabled people as part of the wider Body of Christ; there’s a danger of seeing projects, not people.

Okay. So. My eldest loves tidying up after services (Ironically, he also hates tidying his bedroom. Either that or he’s trying to catch me in his Lego death trap, but I digress.). He likes putting away mics and chairs and Bibles. He also likes doing the collection. And it’s possible to look at that and say ‘aww’, but behind all that is a gift of service.

Now some of that is rooted in him wanting to organise his environment, and he can get stressed out when something is ‘wrong’, but he’s the thing – he’s autistic, it’s part of who he is, his gifts and calling and everything else are tied up with that. We’re not able to separate it, nor should we try. And one day, fairly soon, he’s not going to be a little boy we ‘aww’ at, he’s going to be an ten-foot man who needs to be respected and honoured as someone who has gifts to offer the church, even if he can’t articulate and ‘spiritualise’ that without our help.

(That’s really just a case of catching up with where God is already.)

The same process is true for my youngest, who loves art (but melts down if his art project goes wrong) and who loves reading. And those are gifts that need maturing and developing, because God can use them to build up the church; God sees beyond the meltdowns.

There are other gifts the church needs to think about nurturing (and I’m talking to church leaders here – this is a pastoral thing and shouldn’t just be the concern of disability parents). I’ve met people who seem to have an innate ability to engage with disabled children. I’ve met people who make sure Santa is up to date with BSL every Christmas (because of course Santa and his helpers should know sign language).

Heck, if your church has a few autistic kids in it, maybe one of the elders needs to be speaking nicely to the adults who like making train sets. Autism parents know what I mean!

Think outside of the box; there are gifts and talents and interests that aren’t listed in the Bible but which God can use. One of the Holy Spirit’s roles is to build up the church through the gifts he gives; that includes gifts of (and for) disabled people. And those gifts may not always look the way we’d expect, but they’re there, and the church is impoverished without them. And we discover the existence of these gifts by having genuine, caring relationships with people; we discover these gifts by talking to them.

Let’s look for the gifts the Spirit has given us. That may be where we start to see an exciting – and inclusive – future for our congregations.

Skills to Pay the (Metaphorical) Bills (Mark 6:3)

joseph-untersberger-jesus-the-carpenter-s-sonJesus spent 18 years as a builder.

Traditionally we know him to have specialised in woodwork, but the word we translate as ‘carpenter’, tekton, also encompasses masonry and building in general. Whatever his trade, he spent 18 years on it; that’s more than he spent as a wandering rabbi. That’s more than he spent at school. The majority of his life was spent in workshops and on building sites.

(And that makes me wonder what 1st century building sites were like, and how the labourers acted, and how Jesus navigated that.)

All of this resonates with me, because I’ve always struggled with the idea of calling – what does God want me to do with my life? Now, I know that part of that is something of a distraction – ultimately, I think God’s more interested in how I live rather than what’s on my CV – but still, I can’t shake the idea that God has different roles he wants us all to play, based on our individual personalities and talents and circumstances. And it’s not always easy to find out what that is, and it’s not always the time for these roles to kick in. So what do you do in the down time?

I’ve prayed about this, and the answer that seemed to jump out was ‘learn’. And that’s inspired me, because I’m not someone who tends to say that answers jump out at me about anything.

‘Learn’ is interesting, because it covers a range of things. The word ‘disciple’ means ‘learner’, and that’s key to remember, because even when you don’t have a specific calling in mind to work towards, we’re still called to be more like Jesus, to learn his teachings and live them out. That’s standard, that’s the baseline, that’s the stuff you need to do before you can even think about some fancy, high-powered calling. And that’s a challenge in many ways, an ego-leveling reality check. Jesus doesn’t need people with excellent resumes or experience as long as their leg, he needs disciples.

But there are specific things we need to learn, there are things that need to be done. Jesus knew he was the messiah, but he still learned how to be a builder. And there are things that each one of us can start to learn, because we know what our communities look like, we know where our jobs might be heading, we know where our churches might be heading. I struggle with the idea of calling, but there are things I know I need to learn, skills I know I need to develop: sign language, preaching, the impact of megacities on training, autism acceptance, a whole bunch of things. And I can sit on my butt moaning about my calling and my destiny,  or I can get on with learning what I need to learn.

And that’s wider than what we might consider ‘spiritual’, because, in the words of Wendell Berry, “There are no un-sacred spaces, there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” Read theology but read history and science and literature, because they’ll dance with your theology and expand it and help you to see God as greater than our doctrines. The hands that rose Lazarus from the dead also knew how to build a table, and there’s no contradiction in that.

So read more books. Read more blogs. Make connections between the stuff you’ve already learned. Expand your horizons. Talk to people. Listen to some TED Talks. Listen to people who think that TED Talks are ADHD utopianism. Read your Bible. Pray more.

Be a disciple.