Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Little Facebook Conversation

I was once described as being ruthlessly committed to the doctrine of grace. Rather nice I thought and it was meant positively too. Grace trumps everything. Grace means you can look at another person and bless them even when they tear you apart. Grace means you can see in others the struggle to live in a context of faith even when they appear to be messing stuff up. This is neither being delusional about sin nor unwilling to address it and discipline it when appropriate. Grace is not a way of avoid ing conflict.

Some people lack grace, to state the obvious. some express their faith through generating conflict in the name of truth. Convinced of their absolute rightness in all things, they quickly condemn or call out others. I recently had a very short Facebook conversation with someone that illustrates this. Now normally I follow the advice that goes something like: Remember, it's actually possible to read something on Facebook with which you profoundly disagree, ignore it, and move on with your life. Experience tells us that getting into an online debate is often pointless and people rarely change their minds. But sometimes it's important to engage and express a contrary perspective, even if it's only to keep the conversation honest. Anyway, here's the statement to which I rose the other day:

Standing face to face with these false teachers, Jesus Christ the Son of God, called them "hypocrites", "blind guides, " "blind, " "whited sepulchres, " "serpents, " and "generation of vipers" (Matt. 23:23-34). Yet, we are told today that we are to fellowship with men whose doctrines are just as unscriptural as those of the Pharisees. Some who say they are Bible believing Christians insist on working with Roman Catholics and other assorted heretics. Yet, according to many, we are not supposed to rebuke them for their compromise. We are to MARK them and AVOID them. "Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them " (Rom. 16:17). Those whose conduct and teaching contradicts the Word of God are to be marked and to be avoided. This requires discernment and judgment in the light of the Bible. 
Here's my response:

 I'm not sure I really want to get involved in this petty debate, but a friend of mine posted it and I do feel that there are unanswered questions and issues that need to be thought through. I'm concerned that the original author seems to assume that simply quoting Scripture is equivalent to declaring truth. That's a dangerous stand to take. Think about it for a moment and you will realise that a verse quoted out of context can be a dangerous thing. Secondly, who are all the other assorted heretics? Are charismatics heretics because they accept the use of gifts or are those who are cessasionist heretics because they don't? Are the Seventh Day Adventists heretics because they choose to worship on a Saturday rather than a Sunday? Are Methodists heretics because they practice infant baptism rather than believers baptism? What about those who hold a pre, post or a-millenial view of the end times? Who are the heretics and who are orthodox? How about the role of women in leadership or the practice of ordination? How about Calvinist and Armenians? Once you start down the road of being the only one who tells the truth, everyone else becomes a heretic. Do you think that the primary focus of the Kingdom of God is to dot the i's and cross the t's of orthodox doctrine or to populate heaven? I'm not really expecting a response, in fact I'm not sure I even want one! I'm not going to get into a tit-for-tat debate. I just wanted to suggest that some thinking needs to be done. 
I didn't expect the reaction to be "Oh, gosh, you're right. How could I have been so narrow-minded and arrogant. Thank you for pointing that out, I'll rethink my attitudes." This was their response:

We do not use scripture out of context. We can back up with scripture why the cults we call out are indeed cults. If your preferred cult is among them let us show you the truth according to the word of God in His one true book. 
I'm somewhat intrigued by the idea of a "preferred cult". I wonder what the writer would have to say if he actually knew my background and experience, not that that makes me immune to error of course. I might just be an heretical theologian after all! Anyway, I thought a short snappy reply was in order and wondered if the injection of a little humour might help. Okay, so a little sarcasm.

I have a sneaky suspicion that you are going to be terribly disappointed at who God allows into heaven. Perhaps you need to have a quiet word with him just to be sure he's on the right track. I would hate for him to make a mistake! Btw, I've never given the idea of a preferred cult much thought. How does being vegetarian sound?
I got no further response!

Okay, so I probably wasn't as gracious as I could have been. Do you think they spotted the sarcasm in my last response?

I guess the question I struggle with is whether it's actually worth the effort to engage with such theological naivety. Sometimes it is because at least that puts another perspective into the comments and one would hope encourages others to engage their brains. One can but hope.

All the time these simplistic pronouncements are made about who is right and who is wrong; who is going to heaven and who is not; who is a cult and who is not, the mission of God is left unattended as we focus our attention on who we think should be excluded rather than upon God's great desire for who he wants included.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Friday 9th September. Time to move Parliament and Grammar Schools

Two things have caught my eye this week in the news. The first was the announcement of the cost to restore the Palace of Westminster and the second was the government's plan to re-introduce Grammar Schools.

The Westminster building restoration is an interesting one and I read quite a few comments about it when an online petition popped up suggesting that a new parliament building more fit for purpose should be built elsewhere in the country. I think that's an idea worth considering. Stepping aside for a moment from the high cost of restoring the current building, moving to a new location and a purpose-built facility might not be a bad idea. Of course it might be too radical an idea for MP's to take. But just think about the potential upside of having a parliament centrally located in the country. Accommodation could be purpose-built, no more need for second homes, easier access to the wider constituency and a move away from a perceived Souht-East, London-centric bias. Moving Parliament to somewhere like Leeds or Sheffield might just be the radical kind of thing we need.

I doubt that the institution will go for it. Too many traditions. But what an opportunity to do something different and leave some of the stuff behind that at time seems to hold back progress. A new parliament, a new second chamber, a new democracy? Food for thought.

And then there's the Grammar School debate. Announcements to be made, opportunities to be had. Really? I came through the Grammar School system. It is not the panacea this government appears to want it to be. The problem remains selection. There were without doubt kids in the lowest "set" for maths for example who were easily being out performed by kids at the local Secondary Modern School. Their future would be decided by the old CSE and ours by the old 'O' Level (or GCE). Is that what we want for Secondary Education in the 21st Century?

Theresa May says that school selection happens by house price these day, but is going back to an 11+ the solution? House prices are high in the catchment area of the perceived good schools. What if we invested in making all schools good schools? By that I don't necessarily just mean academically good. I just wonder to whom has Mrs May been talking. It's easy to look at the evidence and presume that Grammar schools are the answer, but surely the question is far more complex than simple charts of GCSE results can provide as an answer. Reintroducing Grammar schools limits the choice of school by exam rather than house price. It simply shifts the goal posts.

If my memory is telling me the truth, then as I recall the last two years of my primary education was all about preparing for the 11+. It was going to be the defining moment of my educational life. Passing would ensure opportunity and success, failure would consign me to a second level life. I even remember the teacher coming after the first set of tests (the old 11+ was spread out over two or maybe even three days) and announcing that none of us was likely to pass given our performance the first day. Looking back I can't see how he would have known that unless he'd marked the papers the previous night and I don't think that is how it worked. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn't the most useful or encouraging approach.

So I'm far from convinced that Grammar Schools are the answer to our educational system's weaknesses. Perhaps a proper evaluation of the Comprehensive system needs to be undertaken to assess how best we can serve every pupil and not just those who are either blessed with academic skills or whose parents can afford to to buy a house in the favoured catchment area. Add to that a greater sense of the value of education across society and not just as a vehicle for social mobility and maybe we can move towards a truly comprehensive form of secondary education.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

The agony of faith

I started writing this post some time ago when yet another picture appeared on Facebook declaring that "religion" was the cause of all the violence in the world perpetrated by terrorists. I find myself wanting to shout back that it's simply not true and that if only people would stop and think for a minute then they wouldn't post such inane and stupid stuff. But I won't do that because I'm caught between personal outrage and the reductionist perspective at work and the desire to be "full of grace". I'm desperate for people to discover the grace of God for themselves and winning arguments over petty mudslinging memes is not the way. Perhaps this commitment to grace and desire to find a way to point people to God is what creates the agony of faith that I seem to experience.

I've been contemplating writing some reflections on the Psalms and calling them The Agony of Faith. It's an idea that has been in my head for a while. Agony because if anyone tells you being a person of faith is easy and comfortable, then I'm either seriously lacking something or their experience is not rooted in the same world as is mine.

I find faith hard. Not necessarily believing, but just making sense of life sometimes. Faith is not easy. I get angry too. Angry at the way faith is often portrayed as a crutch for the weak-minded, or an opt-out for those who are less enlightened.

I find myself angry at the portrayal of faith as the root of the world's problems as if terrorism never had a home in political ideology. I grew up in the 20th century. A time when left and right wing politics resulted in millions of deaths. But no one seems to remember that when someone using their faith as an excuse detonates a bomb in a crowded market. I remember planes being downed, pubs being blown up, hostages taken (and sometimes killed), all in the name of revolution or communism or supporting some right wing dictatorship. Faith does not have a monopoly on fanaticism. If you want an example, think about Stalin's purges or the Khmer Rouge. How about the genocide in Rwanda or the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.

If that is not enough, the triumphalism and selfishness of some expressions of 21st century faith also get me down. Do I really need to "feel" God's presence in order for it to have been a good worship experience? Exactly what does it feel like anyway? I remember preaching a sermon once based around the idea that worship was always an appropriate response irrespective of the circumstances. It is never a case of worship when you feel something.

So faith is hard. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. It's open to misinterpretation as well as misrepresentation. We get things wrong. When I read my Bible I read about struggles as well as triumphs, mistakes as well as successes. When someone tells me they can't believe in God because of all the bad stuff that happens and because of all the unanswered questions or because of things that simply make no sense, I understand. As for me, it can only ever make sense if God exists because that means there is someone to answer for it, some to address the the basic question we have: Why?