Making Sense of the Bible and Violence

Beware of god

Below is the script from which I preached a recent sermon on “Making Sense of the Bible and Violence.” The Sermon was preached in the context of a series called Making Sense of the Bible based on the book of the same title by Adam Hamilton.

At the beginning you will see a list of traveling car games that will not make much sense. They were used as reminder points for me as I told an introductory story illustrating our (humans) varied points of relationship with violence. The main point was that we are both entertained by violence and sickened by it too.

After the introductory point, the script begins to make more sense as a readable sermon.

Sermon feedback was very positive. I sense a large number of our congregation have struggled with the problems of biblical literalism for some time. In this sermon, and in this series, they have discovered some freedom.

I post it here as a record of the preach

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We have an interesting relationship with violence, don’t we?

Think about it for a minute with me as I give you an example.

Car games:
License Plate Game
Skittles
The daddy of all car games – Punch Buggy
Jackson – caring, loving, non-violent soul (thank God)
– weak punch
– teaching him to punch – a rite of passage

We have an interesting relationship with violence.

We kind of enjoy it on one level
WWE
UFC
Mayweather/McGregor
Rugby
Hockey
Football

We are entertained by violence and we like it on one level

And we abhor it on another. We looked on in disbelief on September 11th 2001, as some individuals took it upon themselves to commit an horrendous act of violence which ended up changing our world.

Personally speaking, I have had a changing relationship with violence.

Growing up in a violent, conflict ridden country like Northern Ireland
– It normalized violence – the new reports, the hatred, the complete devaluation of human life was all just normal, and not shocking.
– It never made me bat an eyelid as a boy. It was just what humans do. Right?

– But i am not a little boy any more.
– I have made two wee humans of my own.
– I have seen the devastating effects of violence on a person’s life and I have concluded that, in fact, violence does nothing but beget more violence in the world.
– Dunkirk movie
– compelling watch, but not entertaining
– found it hard work because I was grieving it – grieving the violent depictions of those moments in human history.
– I was grieving what human beings are capable of doing to one another in the name of politics, territory, economy; in the name of war.

We have a strange relationship with violence.

We are entertained by it.

It is somewhat normalized in our world.
And yet we abhor it.

We never want to be the victims of violence. I imagine we never want to perpetrate violence either.

As humans, we have a strange, mixed up relationship with violence.

And, for sure, it can seem that the Bible does too.

We spend a lot of time in church reading in the NT about Jesus who is the very image of God.
We reflect on Jesus the Prince of Peace
– Jesus the one who said love your enemies and pray for them.
– Jesus who taught us to turn the other cheek
– Jesus who will turn swords into ploughshares and spears to pruning hooks.
– Jesus who said blessed are the peacemakers.

But we are people of the whole book.
Our story does not simply start in the New Testament. Our story starts at the very beginning when God created the heavens and the earth. As we have said in the last number of weeks, our story, as humans, is found in the story of Israel and their relationship with God.

In that story we see a God who is loving and compassionate and forgiving of Israel.
In that story we see a God who is willing to rescue his people from slavery.
In that story we see a God who is willing to make a piece of land available to these people; the Promised Land.
In that story we see a God, who they report, was willing to completely annihilate the occupants of that piece of land in order to give it to Israel.

Time and time again, the writers of the Old Testament testify to a God who regularly would take sides in a fight, and who would willingly wipe out the opposition – men, women, children, animals…
We encounter a God who, on initial reading of the words in the Old Testament, seems like a bit of a monster.

So how do we make sense of that?

I am going to begin to sound like a bit of a broken record in this series, but it all comes back to what your starting point with Scripture is.

If we take a literalist position on Scripture, that is that God dictated each and every word of the Bible as we know it today, and that there are no faults, contradictions or discrepancies there in, then we can conclude that God is a violent God, and that God does love and come alongside some humans more than others.

We can also conclude that since we are made in God’s image, and God uses violence, then it is okay for us to be violent too, because God is or was.

And finally we can also conclude that God is not the same yesterday, today and forever as the Bible says God is, because the images of God that we read in the Old and New Testaments are so vastly different in nature that one can do nothing but conclude that these are either different God’s, or else the one God of the Bible has an absolutely confused identity.

Now if we are Biblical literalists, then we simply accept all this. We accept the violence of God, by saying that God is God and God can choose to use whatever means God desires to get the job done. God can give and God can take as God pleases. If God did it that way, then thats just the way it is, and we can rejoice that God chose us and not the others, right?

But, like I have said already, Biblical literalism can get us into trouble.

If we are literalists then we better not be eating any shell fish. There’s a law against that.
If we are literalists then we better hope our children are not unruly, because the Bible commands the death penalty for such rebellion.
If we are literalists then we better hope our boss doesn’t want us to work on the Sabbath because that offense also warrants the death penalty.

And then there is already mentioned problem of Jesus, for the literalist. Jesus is the very image of the invisible God, according to the writer of the letter to the Colossians. If you want to see God, then look to Jesus because God the Son is one with God the Father. But Jesus, God the Son, is night and day different from the God we read of in the Old Testament.

So the first thing that we have to do is remember that the Bible is a complex collection of ancient inspired writing. It is the writings of people in very different times, in which they seek to communicate their understanding of God and God’s involvement in their lives. In essence, when we read the Scripture and are beginning to try to make sense of the violence in the Old Testament, we must remember the absolute humanity of the authors, and therefore the humanity of the text. These were human authors, with human experiences, in a human culture and a historical context different to our own. When we read these tough and violent texts we must do the work of understanding the world that was being written about – a world very different to our own world in these days.

You see, when we remember the humanity of the authors it becomes possible to remember that they were likely writing to represent what they thought about God, rather than than what God actually told them to say.

When they won a violent battle victory, of course they were going to say that God was with them and God gave them that victory. That’s what we do as humans who believe in the divine. In another movie about the military that I watched recently, there is a part where the Captain of the platoon is giving a rousing speech to his men, and when he is done he invites the chaplain to come and say a prayer with them; to invoke the mighty hand of God to protect them and go before them.

When Israel won a hard fought victory, or when the Hebrew people took control of the Promised land at great cost to the human life which had existed there before hand, God was given the glory and God was given the praise because God had given them the victory.

Make no mistake, friends, the first century Ancient Near Eastern world was a world in which conquest and conflict between tribes and nations was common. This was a violent world. Therefore the writers of the ancient works that we today call Scripture had to write in order to make sense of God in the context of a violent world filled with violent and power hungry humans.

And this world is the same in the New Testament. In the NT world it is the time of the Roman Empire – a battle happy and quite blood thirsty, conquesting empire. In the New Testament and in the gospels in particular, perhaps the best example of the violent world that it still was is in the fact that crucifixion was still an accepted form of criminal punishment. The human bent toward violence in Biblical times is absolutely witnessed to in the gospel accounts of the passion, crucifixion and death of Christ Jesus.

Jesus.

There’s that name again. The name that we can’t get away from.

You see Jesus is the fullest and most fathomable expression of God that we can ever look to. When we look to Jesus, we are looking at God, because Jesus is God the Son – the very Word of God. John’s Gospel states that – “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the very beginning God.” The two cannot be separated and that is why, Adam Hamilton argues, and i stand with him on this, we must read the words of the Biblical text through the lens of the person, ministry, heart and words of Jesus Christ. That means that when we read a passage in the Bible that seems contrary to the life, ministry and Kingdom message of Jesus, who is the Word of God, we are being invited to ask questions and to do the work of making sense of the passage in light of who God has testified to being in Christ Jesus.

So today, I put across the argument, which you might disagree with, that God is in nature and essence loving, good, compassionate and merciful. God seeks peace in human relationships and God grieves when we attack, maim and hurt one another. Today i put it to you that the violence attributed to God in the Bible is actually the violence of sinful human beings whose hearts perennially struggle to be in control of the world around them; whose hearts are power hungry and are willing to become violent in the pursuit of power and control.

Jesus invites us to declare that God is King and to surrender control. Jesus invites his followers not to the violent way of conquest and conflict, but to the way of peace-making and non-violence. In fact when we look at the cross we see that not only is Jesus non-violent, but in fact Jesus submits himself to the violence of humans. Jesus submits himself to a violent death at the hands of humans in order to show them that in God, death has no victory or sting; that death does not win; that in God we find life in all its complete; we find peace.

How do we make sense of the violence in the Old Testament?

We remember the times which were being written about – times very different to our own.
We remember the humanity of the writers and that in their humanity they were doing their best to testify to God.
We remember that they were interpreting the times around them with the tools they had in their box – the tools of a context and culture which was bloody and violent in a way that our context and culture is not.
We remember that we can only interpret the seeming violent God of the OT by looking through the lens of Jesus, the Word in the NT.

In this sermon I am not trying to excuse the violence by saying that this is just the way things were back in the day.

Rather, in this sermon I am trying to give you a framework within which you might begin to make sense of this difficult theme in Scripture.

In this sermon, and in every sermon, I am trying to point you to Jesus – the very image of God here on earth; the name above all names; the Prince of peace; our rock and our redeemer, who bore the violence of sinful man so that all of us may know freedom; so that all of us may know first hand the love of God; so that all of us might experience in Christ the transforming grace that calls us each to die to ourselves and rise up to new life in Christ

I am trying to point you to Jesus as the only lens through which we must interpret Scripture and the world around us.

How do we make sense of the violence in the Old Testament?

We develop a framework for understanding it by understanding the humanity of the authors and the culture and context of the world they inhabited and were trying to make sense of, of course. But ultimately we look to Jesus as our master and we hear Jesus’ say “Blessed are the Peacemakers…Love your enemies and pray for them…turn the other cheek.

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The Elephant in the Room

Talk about the white elephant in the room

Below is the main text of the sermon I preached on Sunday. The subject matter was one of great sensitivity as well as being one of a very personal nature. There was definitely a sharp intake of breath when I mentioned what I would be preaching about.

This sermon is preached in the context of a series based on Adam Hamilton’s book, “Making Sense of the Bible.” Some of the content has been taken from the book, of course, and the remainder has been built upon that foundation in my own preparations and thoughts. The text we read in the service was Luke 14:25-15:7, with the primary conclusion of the sermon being drawn from the parable of the lost sheep.

Below is the text as it was typed up for me to preach from. There were moments when I came off script, so what you read here is not the sermon in its final form. The recap on the series, mentioned at the very beginning of the sermon, was a recap of the main areas touched upon in the series so far, namely an overview of the Old and New Testaments, a sermon on the meaning of inspiration (as it relates to Scripture), a sermon on science and the Bible, and a sermon on making sense of the violence in the Old Testament.

Feedback was and has been positive from the congregation.

I post it here as a record of the preach.

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Recap on Series so far…

This week we are going to talk about the elephant in the room

The Elephant in the Room is a term that we use to describe something that is glaringly obvious in its need to be discussed, but is never actually discussed.

I have used that phrase as the title of my sermon today because I think that we have something that we need to talk about in church, that never really gets talked about – well not in the local church anyway. It gets talked about air higher levels in the church, by the men and women who write doctrines and policies, and come up with the discipline that we live under. But on a local level – we are not often given to preaching about the elephant in the room; we are not often open for discussion on the elephant in the room.

Today I want to talk to you about one of the most personal matters that human beings can talk about – and that is human sexuality.

Before I go any further, I need to say a few things in terms of ground rules. This topic is so personal to folks; I understand that it can can be profoundly sensitive.

Some of you have wrestled personally with the things I am going to touch on today. Whether that is in your own life, or in the life of a loved one or friend. For some folks in here I know that this is a deeply personal matter. My promise to you today is that I will be sensitive to that. It is a deeply personal matter in my own life too. My prayer is that all my words will be drenched in the grace and love that only Christ can give.

My job today is not to pontificate on what i think is right and wrong.
My job is not to lament the way things are in the world and dream of returning to the way they once were
My job today is to teach in a way that might help you make more sense of what the Bible says about human sexuality.
My job, as always is to point to Jesus.

Might there be somethings I say that you might find yourself in disagreement with? Perhaps. My job is not just to say the things that all 150 or so of you want to hear. But if that does end up being the case, let me remind you from the get go, that Christians, since the earliest days, have been able to disagree with one another, and still break bread together, in fellowship, in the name of Christ, and in the name of the deeper things that unite us, namely, the unconditional love of God.

So, with that in mind let’s get going!

In the world that I grew up in human sexuality was never really talked about in church at all. In fact, although i am from Northern Ireland, the influence of British culture was indeed great. We tended just to not talk about these kinds of things at all, and just hope that by some kind of osmosis, the right things would be learned. But it was never talked about openly and most definitely not in church.

Honestly.

I cannot remember one time in my entire childhood, adolescence, or young adult hood when i have heard anything said in church with regard to human sexuality. I never heard a sermon preached on it. I never sat in a Sunday School Class that taught on it. And I don’t think it ever came up at Youth Group either.

And yet…pretty much most of the Christians I met growing up and most of the Christians I meet these days seem to have a very strong opinion on matters of human sexuality.

Some times i wonder if i just missed that class, or if i wasn’t in church that day…

But seriously, even though there never seemed to be any specific teaching on matters of human sexuality, there always seemed to be plenty of overtones about what is proper and acceptable for Christians in matters of human sexuality. In other words…every one had an opinion…everybody had an idea…but no one really liked to talk about it. They just kind of pointed to the Bible and said, “It’s all in there…somewhere…I’m not really sure where…but I know it is in there…so this is what you should think”

When I was a child the social construct of western society was very simple when it came to human sexuality. Men and women fell in love with one another, got married, had children and kept the cogs of the world turning by doing the best they could to raise those children well.

That was kind of it.

When I read books, that was the model of relationships the author wrote about.
When I watched TV or movies, that was the model of family life.

As far as I knew that was just how it worked. And it was how it always worked for me too.

But we’re not in Kansas anymore…right? We are not in that world any more.

In fact, it seems like we never were in that world. Not really. All the while that I was learning what was supposed to be normal and acceptable in matters of human sexuality, there were others for whom what was being taught as normal, was actually very foreign in terms of their feelings and their personal realities.

Because of what was being taught as normal, and what we were accepting as normal, those others felt abnormal, different, and even below standard. They felt that they had to keep their feelings and realities a secret, hidden away from those who were nearest and dearest to them.

As I’ve said, we are not in that world anymore. The last 30 years has seen a total sea change in the way our culture and western societies think about human sexuality. Those things that people once felt they had to keep secret, they no longer feel they do. Although, it should be said that this is not the case for everyone – there are still many, many people who feel abnormal, different and below standard, and who continue to keep their realities and feelings secret.

That said though, the world is different. The so called norms of human sexuality that i was taught as a boy, and perhaps you all were taught too, are no longer the norms of the society around us. And in the same way as the church has always had to ask questions of it’s traditional stance when culture and society changes, the church in these days is faced with some major questions about human sexuality.

So it is important that we are able to make sense of the Bible on these matters. Right?

I can’t go into all of the Scriptures that pertain to human sexuality today, but there are a couple that I want to speak into. As I do so, I want you to know that I am not, in any way, saying definitively that what I am communicating to you is 100% the only way to interpret these texts. Remember, my job is not to pontificate today…my job is to help you make sense of what we read in Scripture.

So let’s start in Leviticus. Because that’s where every one love to start!!

In Leviticus 20, the writer, thought by some to be Moses, is writing a book of law and statute for the people of Israel to live by. In Exodus, the Commandments had been given at Sinai, of course, but Leviticus takes the Commandments and breaks them down into more detailed codes for daily living. In Lev 20, we are reading about the holiness codes. There is a bunch of stuff in here about what is not right and not right in terms of human relationships. And buried in there are these words:

“If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”

That seems pretty cut and dried. Right?

But remember what we have been emphasizing on in this series. As we reviewed the Old and New Testaments, as we discussed inspiration, and as we have tackled some of the big questions coming out of the Bible, we have been mindful to remember the humanity of the Bible writers – that they were imperfect minds, doing their best to interpret a perfect God in an imperfect world. We have been mindful to remember that the inspiration of Scripture is not the same as the dictation of Scripture.

It is easy for us to read our English translations of the Bible, with our 21st century minds and contexts, and to interpret in a such a way that we think we know exactly what the original writers of the Bible were thinking and wanting to get across.

But often times, in the Bible, things are not always as they first appear, which means that we often have a little more work to do, and some questions to ask if we are to think a sentence or paragraph through fully.

So what was the writer of Leviticus trying to get at? Well, in the rest of the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible) there are only two recorded references to same sex activity. One is the very famous one in Genesis 19 where we read of happenings in a town called Sodom. If you don’t know the story, let me overview it for you.

Two angels visit Sodom and get taken into the house of a man called Lot. Later that night, the men of Sodom hear that Lot is housing strangers in his house and they come and surround the property, demanding that the visitors be brought out to them so they could have their way with them.

Lot, being the amazing host that he is, refuses to give in to the demands of the townsmen, and instead decides that he will offer his two virgin daughters to the men, because these men have come under the protection of his roof.

I know. Right?

To your ears and mine, hearing about a father who is willing to protect two strangers at the expense of his two daughters is just not cool.

So, think with me for a minute. What is this story really about in Genesis 19? The answer is that this story is about power and force, and sexual violence, more than it is about same sex orientation.

When we talk about same sex relationships today, i assume that we are not talking about power and force and sexual violence. no. When we talk about same sex relationships today, by and large we are talking about stable, committed and loving relationships.

For us Sodom is a place that is forever related to same sex attraction because of this story, but the bottom line about Sodom is this: it was a fairly nasty and violent place to live and operate. It was known as a place of excesses and violence, and for their lack of care for the poor among them. The people of Sodom were condemned for much more than for what we have let their town name come to define in our own day.

The story of Sodom is the only record of homosexual activity recorded in the Torah before Leviticus. Is it beyond the realms of possibility that the writer of Leviticus was referring to the sin of homosexual rape as an abomination, and that he was not referring to committed, stable, and loving relationships between two members of the same sex as being sinful?

The other reference to same sex matters in the Torah is in Deuteronomy chapter 23. It is a brief and passing mention and it is in reference to Temple Prostitution. Yes.. You heard it right. Temple Prostitution. In these times it would not have been uncommon for religious temples to have had prostitutes on the premises. Engaging with such men or women would likely have been part of a fertility ritual of some kind, but ultimately much remains unknown about this.

But whatever it was – it is not a reference to stable, loving and committed relationships between two people. The comment here in Deuteronomy is a holiness code referring to momentary activity in the Temple.

Also worth noting is what the meaning of the word translated as abomination is. In the Levitical Law, things were usually very simply divided in life. Things of all natures were either clean or unclean; normal or abnormal. Clean/normal was good. Unclean/abnormal was not good. Another way of describing something as unclean or abnormal was to describe it as an abomination. The same word is used to describe the unclean/abnormal practices of eating shell fish or pork

So again, I want to ask, with all this in mind, is it possible that the writer of the Levitical Law Codes was using the word abomination to describe men lying with other men as simply not normal?

Friend, don’t get me wrong today. I am not trying to explain away these texts. I am not trying to lose you in the middle of a lot of information.

What I am saying is this: Perhaps we are often too quick to judge what the writers of the text really and truly meant when they wrote these words down a long time ago in a galaxy far far away

Essentially, the Old testament is not talking about stable, loving and committed relationships when it is talking about same sex attraction. The definitions of what is abnormal in the times that Leviticus is written, are some completely different from the definitions of abnormal in the 21st century western world.

So what about the New Testament?

Again, I cannot go into every single text, but I do want to take a look at Romans 1 where Paul is describing the guilt of humanity before God. In this section he makes reference to humanity’s rejection of God in favor of pursuing their lusts for one another, and exchanging up natural relations with one another for unnatural relations. Again, looking at the texts, Paul seems to be picking up on the themes of the Old testament in that he is referring to the idea of ritual sex or idolatry and also to the ideas of abnormal/normal/unclean/clean acts. He is likely also referring to the ancient Roman practice of pederasty. Pederasty is when an older man takes on a younger boy as a student and lover.

Now, I am sure that we can all agree that rape, sexual violence, ritual prostitution and pederasty are all acts that are worthy of our all round condemnation, right?

But it also has to be pointed out that these are each different from stable, committed, and loving relationships too. Right?

Again…let me stress that I am not here today to pontificate on what is right or what is wrong. It would be easy for me to preach a sermon that was all in on one side of this debate or the other. But I am not sure that that is what Jesus would do himself, and I am not sure that it is what Jesus would want me to do today. To preach such a sermon would be to alienate and exclude, and I am not convinced that alienation and exclusion of humans is the business of Jesus’s ministry.

So what would Jesus say about human sexuality?

The truth is, we don’t know. You see, Jesus never said anything about it. He talked about marriage, but only in the context of a teaching he was giving to his listeners about divorce.

I do know this about Jesus though.

Jesus is the very image of the invisible God. When we look at Jesus we see the heart and character of God in human skin.

Like I said a couple of weeks ago, when we look at the Old testament, the temptation can be to see a violent and violence justifying God, but when we look at Jesus we do not see such a God. We see the Prince of Peace. We see the one who says love your enemies and pray for them; who says Blessed are the peace makers. When we look at Jesus we see the God who absorbs the violence of the world rather than orchestrates it.

Also, when we look at Jesus we see one who was willing to fly in the face of ancient teachings about the place and status of women in the world as they knew it. We see one who was willing to break with the ancient traditions and codes in order to meet the woman at the well. We see the one who was willing to kneel down and protect a woman who had been caught in adultery.

When we look at Jesus, we see an image of God as the friend of sinners.

And when we look at Jesus we see an image of God and realize that before this God we are all sinners.

Every single one of us has something about us which should essentially maintain the distance between God and ourselves.

If you came to church thinking that I might define sin, and specifically sexual sin, for you today, then I am sorry. I am not here to do that.

Today I am here to remind you all that each of us is broken; each of us is sinful; and each of us stands in dire need of God’s unconditional, unwavering and persistent love.

Today I am here to point you to God the son, Jesus; the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep and who is willing to go all the way in order to find every single one of us; to find you.

We are each of us broken. Each of us sinful. Each of us ashamed of one thing or another in our lives.

And we are also, each of us, invited by Jesus to walk with him and to walk in the way of the Kingdom.

We are each of us welcome into the family of God, as sinful and broken and ashamed as we might be.

And it is in this family, with God’s love abundantly available among us, that we will find out what it means to humble ourselves, be transformed in Christ and to become the beloved community.

I read an article this week that said this about the church: Church is a group of broken individuals united only by our brokenness traveling together to ask to be fixed.

If you are here today and you think that homosexuals are more broken than you are, then I am sorry, because I just don’t think that’s true.

If you are here today and you are homosexual and you think that you are not at all broken, then i am sorry, because I just don’t think it is true.

We are all broken. We are all lost. We all stand in need of God’s rescue and restoration in life; of god’s transforming grace in our lives.

I read an article this week that said this about the church: Church is a group of broken individuals united only by our brokenness traveling together to ask to be fixed.

So today, broken people, will you the hear the call of your equally broken pastor as I tell you that all broken people who are asking to be fixed by God are welcome here. And will you join me in assuming that all broken people, no matter how they are specifically broken, will find partners for the journey join this place.

How do we make sense of the Scripture on this matter?

We ask the questions that need to be asked of the text.
We look to Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith.
We look to Jesus who says that all are broken and yet all are welcome to be fixed by grace and love.

My Journey to Civil Rights Alabama…

There are places in the world that are of significant importance in terms of the events that have happened in those places and the impact said events have had on a world scale afterwards. Perhaps one would think of Auschwitz in Poland as such a place, or Ground Zero in New York City. These are examples of places where significant human suffering happened. They are also examples of places in which, in the face of human suffering, humanity appeared to ultimately unite in order to recover well and subsequently find a new way forward, making the world a better place.

This week I have found myself in a series of such places.

The State of Alabama (U.S.A.) is home to three places that are, in my opinion, three of the most significant sites in the world in terms of the importance of the events that took place in them, and also in terms of the ripples of impact that spread across the world, ripples that were generated by these events. These three places are Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma.

During the last week, as part of my studies with Wesley Theological Seminary, I have had the opportunity to take a class/make a pilgrimage to these sites in order to study the stories and legacy of the American Civil Rights movement. In the following paragraphs, I would like to offer some of the primary reflections I noted as my week there progressed.

1. Human beings in so called civil societies possess the ability to treat horrendously their fellow humans.

I knew this already. Having grown up in Northern Ireland, where hearing stories of abhorrent acts of violence between humans was a normal part of daily life, I absolutely knew just how badly we can treat one another. But this last week it was impressed on me again as I heard the stories of lynchings, the general de-humanizing and mistreatment of African Americans, the bombing of 16th Avenue Baptist Church in which four little girls had their lives robbed from them, and the brutality with which local law enforcement beat and trampled the black people of Selma as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Recently, I find myself grieving the violence that humans inflict on one another. As I watched the movie Dunkirk, I could not help but grieve what humans do to each other. As I moved through Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, I felt exactly the same. I was just so deeply saddened by the human ability to cheapen life and see it as something that is expendable in the name of a cause or ideology. The Declaration of Independence states:

…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

How can it be that in a nation founded on such truths; a civilized nation, such abhorrent treatment of human beings could be allowed to take place?

Human life is precious.
Even when human life exists in the most depraved and cruel human beings, it is still precious.
Humans are created in the image of God. Therefore, human life is absolutely precious and should ALWAYS be highly valued.

2. “What will I be willing to die for?”

This question came back again and again as the week went on. In each site we visited we were told of attacks upon the African American people; attacks which, in some cases, led to terrible human loss. For example, in the 16th Street Baptist bombing, 4 little girls lost their lives. In Selma blood was shed as marchers absorbed the violence of the authorities. On Christmas Day in 1956, Fred Shuttlesworth’s parsonage was bombed (an attack which Rev. Shuttlesworth survived). Although each attack brought its own pain, and inflicted unimaginable suffering upon families and entire communities, the pain and suffering seemed to be that which galvanised these communities to take their next faithful steps to freedom. Rev. Shuttlesworth recognized that in the fight for freedom, “Somebody may have to die.” and proved himself willing to take the hits which came his way again and again and again.

As I reflected on this thought with my classmates, I could not help but ask myself what it is that I am willing to die for? What is it that I am willing to go all the way for? What cause or situation will I willingly bear pain for?

In churches across the world, privileged, well-off Christians like me sing the old refrain, “I surrender all” with passion and gusto. We kneel in submission to God at the alter rails of our churches, symbolizing our willingness to go all the way for Christ. But are we really willing to submit and surrender? Am I really willing to take up my cross and join Christ in his sufferings for the sake of the Kingdom; for the sake of my suffering fellow humans in the world? If I am honest, I can say that in my head and in my heart, I absolutely WANT to be willing to follow Christ all the way into the world, but will my desire to follow Christ prove substantial if it ever begins to cost me physically? Shuttlesworth, Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, and many un-named and not so famous members of the African America community made a choice and declared that their personal freedom and the freedom of their people was important enough that it was worth suffering for; worth deliberately putting themselves in harms way agains and again and again for. Their courage, faith, and rugged determination is not only admirable, but also enviable.

As I got to the end of the week I had found myself reflecting on the fact that Dr. King and his peers had sold themselves out to a philosophy, and sold themselves out to a vision. Completely. They had a goal to move towards and they resolutely set out towards the fulfilling of that goal.

What are your goals?
What philosophy are you sold out to?
What are my goals?
What philosophy am I sold out to?
What is my cause?
What I am willing to suffer for it?

I personify the idea of privilege in life. I have never wanted for anything. I have never been looked down upon because of the color of my skin. I have never been discriminated against because of my gender or sexuality. I have never been so poor that I do not know where I will get my next meal. I am an immigrant, but I am a white, English-speaking immigrant, so I have never experienced any kind of maltreatment as other immigrants do. I have never experienced suffering personally, or among my people group, that would have put me in a position to have to fight for freedom or for legally protected rights that were being with withheld from me.

I, too, sing that refrain, “I surrender all” but would I really be willing to? This alone was the most massive challenge of my week: I am called to not only sing, “I surrender all,” but to live it out. My sincere prayer is that my willingness to surrender all will only increase from this point forward.

3. Civil Rights leaders were young.

Martin Luther King was only 24 years old when he was appointed as the Senior Pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. He already had achieved his doctoral degree by this time, and he would go on to spend the next 15 years at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement before his untimely death in 1968. Fred Shuttlesworth was 31 when he became the Pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham and spent 8 years there at the forefront of the Civil Rights struggle in America’s south, before moving to Ohio (Incidentally, Shuttleworth remained in close contact and regularly flew back to meetings with the movement leaders in Birmingham).

My point is that these were not leaders who had served their time in a system which would eventually reward them with esteemed positions of leadership. They were young men who were willing to step out in front and lead their people in the march towards freedom. They preached with authority. They kept their eyes on the prize, and kept moving forward towards it.

As I stated, Dr. King came to the fore at 24 years of age, and his life was ended prematurely at the age of 39. He had 15 years.

15 years.

I had never really thought about that until this week, and, even though I myself have just turned 39, I could not help but ask myself this: As a still relatively young leader in the Christian faith, if I had only 15 more years to live and lead, what would I be determined to achieve in that time frame? Again, the question has to be asked – what am I sold out to, and what am I willing to suffer for?

4. The march towards freedom must continue.

American society has come a long way since the Civil Rights movement of the mid 20th century. Many of the specific struggles of the 1950’s and 60’s may no longer appear to be the primary struggles of the Civil Rights movement. However, the reality is that while some landmark achievements were indeed made, there is still much work to be done in order to right some of the wrongs that continue to exist in America. This was so clear to me as I walked through Kelly Ingram park, across the street from 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. The park is designed as a memorial of the hardest days of the Civil Rights struggle in Birmingham, and celebrates the end of segregation in the south. As I walked through the park, I saw several homeless people asleep in the park. In seeing them both, I could not help but remember that the march to freedom that we had been learning about all week is far from over. Economic Inequality, educational underachievement among working class minority communities, discrimination in the work place, gender inequality and the general effects of relative poverty are still all stark realities in the United States. The work of the Civil Rights movement is not finished and must continue, and the church can absolutely play an important part in that.

5. Size doesn’t matter.

Before this last week, the dominant image, in my mind, of the US Civil Rights was always the image of Dr. King speaking and preaching at mass meetings at which vast crowds had gathered. My impression was that it was his celebrity that drew crowds, and that the currency of the movement was the size of the crowds. However, the reality is that much of the work of the Civil Rights movement was lead and made real in little churches. The church was at the center of the movement, because the church still had pride of place at the center of African American communities. The churches we visited last week were not large churches. Dexter Avenue Baptist Church only ever had a couple of hundred members at it’s height. Brown Chapel AME had a similar number in it’s congregation.

Often, in our culture, we can be guilty of assuming that the power to achieve great things only lies with churches or groups that are well resourced, but the evidence of the Civil Rights Movement tells a different story. The evidence of the Civil Rights Movement of 1950’s and 60’s American suggests that where there is a people who are motivated and united; where there is a people who are led diligently by focussed, informed, organized and dedicated leaders, great and significant things can be achieved. Success and the achievement of goals is not limited to large and seemingly influential groups. Any body of people can achieve their goals if they are sold out to the vision, led ably, and are willing to stand together in unity. Size does not matter.

6. Leadership matters.

This, also, is a well known truth, and I have already made several references to it throughout this piece. The Civil Rights Movement shows that leadership absolutely matters. Without Shuttlesworth, Martin Luther King & Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, Rosa Parks, Jo Ann Robinson, Diane Nash, etc, the movement would not have had the widespread impact that it ultimately did have. These leaders were captivated by a vision of freedom, they were willing to suffer in order to win this freedom, they were committed to leading non violently, and they were united.

____________________________

The Civil Rights Movement was without doubt one of the most, if not the most significant civilian movement of the 20th century. The ripples of its impact spread far and wide throughout the world, and they continue to do so. I have been inspired by the example of strong and focussed leadership, the willingness to suffer and pay a price for a cause, and the ability to influence and bring about change through non-violent means.

The Bible and Science: Can they Live Well Together?

Below is the sermon I preached today. Throughout the summer, I have been preaching a series of sermons based on Adam Hamilton’s book, Making Sense of the Bible. The previous few weeks have been spent overviewing the Old and New Testaments, and discussing what we mean when we talk about the Bible being “inspired.” Today we started the second half of the series, in which we will tackle some of the big questions that arise out of the Scriptures. Today we looked at the area of science and the Bible, and asked whether or not they can live well together.

I ad-libbed the beginning of the sermon, basically stating what is written above, and also making the people of my church aware that I am uniquely unqualified to speak with any authority on science, having royally failed GCSE Biology…

After that, I pretty much stayed on the script below. The Scripture reading for the day had been Genesis 1:1-2:3

Science fact and the bible

The Bible & Science: Can They Live Well Together?

I can remember the conversation really clearly.

We had just played a game of rugby together, and now here we were in the club house, enjoying the usual post game festivities. I was stood with Jack and Phil. They were two young rugby players who were barely out of high school at that time. Phil was at university studying law. Jack was also at university where he was studying to become a doctor. It sounds like the beginning of a joke: A Lawyer, a Doctor, and a Reverend are standing at the bar…

We were standing there together and had been carefully dissecting the game together, when the conversation started to take a different slant. The boys knew what I was doing with my life – training for the ministry – and they knew I was a man of Christian faith. It was almost like they could not help themselves that day. They were hungry for conversation about the Christian faith.

Jack, the medical student, took a very common approach in making his point to me. He was/is a scientist by nature. He has learned the ways of objectivity; of hypothesizing, experimenting, and proving beyond doubt. For Jack, my faith in an unseen deity was just too much, and he began to question my faith and belief. We ended our conversation that day when I reminded young Jack that thus far, as far as I was and still am aware, no scientist had ever proved beyond doubt that no God exists, and until that became the case, I would continue to put my faith in God and in the Christian tradition.

The conversation that day was one of many conversations of that type that i have had over the years, with various people, in which the discoveries of science and realities of the physical world are set forth in an attempt to crush faith. Perhaps you have had similar conversations with family members, neighbors, colleagues or friends.

This gulf between scientific discovery and theology and religious belief has been around for literally centuries. Back in 1616 the Holy Office of the Roman Catholic Church condemned the view that there earth moves around the sun as false science which was contrary to Biblical teaching.

“It has come to the knowledge of [the Church] that the Pythagorean doctrine – which is false and altogether opposed to the Holy Scripture – of the motion of the earth, and the immobility of the sun…is now being spread abroad and accepted by many.”

Galileo himself, who had been teaching this “preposterous” idea that the earth moves around the sun, was asked by the Church to cease teaching such things. However he was courageous and kept going with what he utterly believed to be true. But, in 1633, he was summoned to appear before the Grand Inquisitor in Rome. He was found guilty of teaching falsehood, forced to recant what he knew to be true, and placed under house arrest for the remaining eight years of his life.

The gulf between science and religious belief has been around for a long long time. They are seemingly incompatible with each other.

But that doesn’t work for us. It can’t. Right?

We use science every single day. We need science every single day.

When we first moved here and my back was in bad shape, I needed a doctor who had studied the sciences; who knew his way around my nervous system and my spine. When I found that doctor who said he could help me, I was glad that he had studied, and that he did know what he was doing. And because of his knowledge and ability – I haven’t looked back, in terms of back pain and sciatica, since then.

That’s just one example – you all have your own examples, I am sure. So it is fair to say that we do use science every day and we need science every single day.

But we also need God. Humans do not live by proven, objective facts alone. We are not objective and emotionless beings. We have feelings and thoughts. We are moved in ways that are sometimes inexplicable. We seem to have this God shaped hole in our lives, that no amount of knowledge or science or stuff can ever fill.

We need facts and figures and objective proof. But we also need love and relationship, faith and belief, and feelings too.

So for there to be such a gulf between the world of science and the world of the bible and theology and faith, is not such a good thing.

And, therefore, we have an important question to ask and answer this morning:

Can science and the teachings of faith as they are found in Scripture live well together?

Of course, for us, the biggest way in which the seeming incompatibility of science and Biblical faith manifests itself is in the questions that arise over the beginnings of everything: the questions about creation.

That day that I was talking to Jack and Phil, the biggest question they had was around the bible’s creation narrative. And still, to this day, it is the biggest question on the lips of most people I meet who have questions or doubts about Christianity.

So how do we handle it?

How do we handle the fact that the Scripture dates the birth of creation at around 6000 years ago, and, in Genesis, accounts for creation by saying that God made the earth in 6 days. How do we handle the fact that the Bible says those things about creation, but most scientists in the world believe that the earth is around 4.75 billion years old, and is the result of something that we call “The Big Bang” In the Bible, humans, as we know them, are formed on the 6th day of the creation process. However, in science, the earliest humans (as we understand humans) are dated to around 200,000 years ago and have been evolving ever since.

Again, this all boils down to what our starting point with Scripture is.

Do you remember last week we talked about what it means to say that Scripture is the inspired word of God?

When we discussed that I said that inspiration is not the same as dictation or composition.

When we discussed it, I said that inspiration is not the same as perfection.

Last week we said that the words contained in Scripture are words that were inspired in the hearts of the writers by the power of the Holy Spirit. We said that these inspired words are living and breathing and that they continue to inspire you and me today. Hold that thought for a minute while I say the next couple of things I need to say.

You see this problem; this conflict; this thought that we must choose either science or religion in life, only comes about if we take a literalist understanding and view of Scripture. By literalist view, I mean taking each word of the Scripture as literally dictated by God; taking each word from Genesis and understanding it as God’s account of precisely how, and how long ago God created the world and everything in it. The problem that arises when we take a literalist view of Scripture is that it creates a conflict for us when science suggests anything other than what we are reading in the Bible. It puts us in a position where we must believe one and reject the other.

Now I might be preaching to the choir here, and this might be a church in which no Biblical literalists exist, but the polls would suggest otherwise. In 2012 Gallup reported that 46% of Americans indicated a belief that God created human beings, fully formed, not evolved, less than 10,000 years ago. This poll would indicate that. potentially, almost half of us here today would happily adopt a literalist view of creation.

Of course, that is okay – but it presents its own problems in the face of science.

In the Genesis account that we read today we read a specific order of creation as it is noted there.

Day 1. Light and darkness
Day 2. An atmosphere
Day 3. Dry land and plant life
Day 4. Sun, moon and stars
Day 5. Fish in the sea and birds of the air
Day 6. All other animals and, lastly, human beings
Day 7. Rest.

This order is fine, but it presents a problem when we think of some of the things that we definitely know and have proven to be true in the world. Namely the fact that Genesis 1 teaches us that the earths atmosphere, dry land and plants were created before the sun. But we know that it is the sun’s gravitational field which makes the earth’s formation possible. We know that sunlight is needed in order for plants to grow.

Is science wrong? In this case it certainly is not wrong. Did God give us a deliberately misleading account of creation? If that is the case, then God is not very nice at all. Right?

But, friends, what if Genesis was never actually supposed to be a science lesson? What if the purpose of the creation accounts in Genesis was not to communicate the specifics of our origins, but rather, to teach us something about God instead?

This passage in Genesis 1 is an absolutely stunning passage for sure, but it was never meant to form the basis of our science lessons in school. Rather, I think, the these accounts, like the rest of the Scripture are inspired so that they might keep on inspiring humans to a greater existence. Friends, Genesis 1 is not a science lesson – it is poetry. It is poetry written so that humans like you and me, will see and begin to ponder and fathom the greatness of God. Genesis 1 is not science. It is theology. It is a statement that says there is a God, and this God is good. There is a God and this God created all things. There is a God and God’s creation is good. There is a God and God made humans, male and female, in the image of God. There is a God who has given the gift of life – and it is a precious gift. There is a God, and God is the rightful creator and ruler of all things.

Genesis 1 is not a science lesson, friends. It is a theological poem which reveals, from the get go, that God is God and we are not. These inspired words were written to inspire in us thoughts and reflections on the greatness and goodness of God. They were never written in order to develop in us a knowledge and understanding of our origins.

Of course then, there is the other account of creation in Genesis 2 and 3, which is completely different in so many ways from the account in Genesis 1. God makes everything, yes, but everything is made in a different order in this account. Man is made first and then the Garden is planted. And in this story there is much more detail and instruction for man from God. We learn about the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil in this account. And we learn that humans were not to touch it. We learn in this account that God walked with humans in the Garden. We learn that humans were made for relationship when God declares that it is not good for the human he created in his image to be alone. And then we learn the story of the fall of humanity.

God loves his created beings and enjoys them. God gives them one rule. God tells humans they can enjoy everything in the garden except for one thing – they are not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Unfortunately though, Adam and Eve are humans. When they see a “Do Not Touch” sign they immediately want to touch what they are commanded not to touch. When they are told not to eat the fruit of one tree, they immediately want to eat the fruit of that tree. They hear the serpent whispering in their ear all the reasons that they ought to try the forbidden fruit…

As Adam Hamilton says in the book – this is not ancient history. This is your story, and it is my story too. Which of us has not heard the whisper of the serpent in our ears, beckoning us to do what we know is wrong? Which of us has not been Adam and Eve, eating the forbidden fruit, feeling ashamed, and blaming someone else for our mistake; for our sin?

Again, I want to say to you, that like the different account in Genesis 1, I do not think that this account in Genesis 2 and 3 was meant to set the curriculum for any science class on the origins of the universe. Rather, this second story, like the first is a story, is told in order to engender a deeper meaning. This story is told in such a way that it is to be a defining story for our lives.

And that’s what it is.

Friends, the Bible was not written to be a science manual. The Bible was written to point our hearts and minds to a loving, merciful God; the Bible was written to speak to us about the existential realities of our lives; the Bible was written to help us understand that there is a good, good God who created all things, and included in that creation the human minds that have the ability to investigate, discover, understand and apply scientific knowledge in our world.

After my surgery in 2014, a friend approached me and, tongue in cheek, said the following words (or words to this effect):

“Well, Charlie, isn’t it great what science can do?”

I believe the implication was that my religion had not helped me with my back pain and that science had.

I replied by saying that science is absolutely wonderful, and that I was (and still am) grateful to God that created minds, greater than mine, exist in this world to understand how gamma backs like mine can be fixed.

Can science and Biblical faith exist together?

Absolutely they can.

Absolutely they should.

They were always meant to exist well together.

If you have made science and Biblical faith an either or option, I wonder would you let me set you free of that this morning? Your Christian faith is not threatened by science, and neither is science threatened in any way by Christian faith. The two ought to live well together and give their very best to one another, because when they do, the world around us is better for it.

The Church of Johnny

My way2

So I had an experience this week, one which has stuck with me and caused me to reflect a lot.

I was in a local hospital visiting with a church member on Monday afternoon. He was in a room which had two beds, which is not uncommon in some settings locally. I made my way in. passing the individual who occupied the other bed, and I visited with my church member. The time then came for me to leave and on my way past the other bed, the individual sitting in it, who had obviously worked out that I am a pastor, asked me if I would say a prayer for him. Of course I said I would and I stepped over to his bedside. The following conversation then took place:

Me: What’s your name?

Patient: Johnny

Me: Hi Johnny. I’m pleased to meet you. My name is Charlie. Where are you from?

Patient: Felsmere/Sebastian.

Me: Wow, you are a long way from home. I have a good friend that lives down there, I know the area a little. Do you have a local church family down there?

Patient: No. I have not gone to a church for a long time.

A slightly awkward silence then took place, lasting around 5 seconds before the patient looked up at me and said this:

“I go to the church of Johnny. I pray every day and I believe in God.”

I assured Johnny that he was not alone and that there are many, many other people in the world like him who believe deeply in God and who pray regularly but yet do not belong to a local church. I then proceeded to pray for him before saying good bye and walking out of the room.

I encounter folks like Johnny very frequently. They have no connection to a local church either because they never have done so in their lives, or because they have become disillusioned with the local church or with God, and they have given up on church attendance/membership as a means of expressing any faith they have left.

This is, of course, troubling to me in some ways. I am a pastor and therefore I do very much believe in the local church, and I believe in being part of a local church as a vital aspect of maintaining healthy faith. Does this mean that I blindly affirm all that happens in local churches? No way. I am more than happy to critique local churches and admit oftentimes the local church can make a real mess of living out the Christian life. That said though, I also know that in most cases the local church also does the very best job it can of professing and witnessing to the love of God in both word and action in the local communities where the church exists. Any criticism of the local church which does not also affirm the brilliant work done by people of faith through the local church, is not worth listening to, in my opinion.

But back to the Church of Johnny and why it troubles me.

The Church of Johnny is the church of the individual. It lacks any sense of family or community. In the church of Johnny, there is no sense of life together, or loving one another. There is only life in Johnny’s way, lived out on his own. Spirituality in the church of Johnny is a spirituality made up by Johnny as he is going along through life. Whatever feels right in the moment is what is right. There is no sense in which anyone can question the spirituality of the church of Johnny. There is no-one to question it, because in the church of Johnny there is only Johnny. In the Church of Johnny there is no accountability of thought or action. The single member, Johnny, is the sole arbiter of all doctrinal statements of belief which the Church of Johnny adheres to. There is no-one to question you or your thinking in the Church of Johnny. The church of Johnny is the very epitome of the rampant individualism which is tearing western civilization and culture apart, as millions of Johnnys all over the world sing along with Frank Sinatra and do life “My Way…”

You might be reading this and thinking that there is absolutely nothing wrong with life in the Church of Johnny.

Respectfully, I disagree. Let me illustrate why by telling you a little more about the man I went to hospital to see that day.

He was an 89 year old man. He had been married for over 60 years, raised 4 children, who in turn had raised their own families. This man had served in the US Navy, and then worked on Cape Canaveral, helping to send humans into space. He loved his family, bluegrass music, and his garden. He was a Christian man and had been a regular (weekly) church attender throughout his lifetime. He had been a member the church where I pastor for over 30 years. He was a gentle soul who loved God and knew that God loved him. He was a treasured member of our church family. He loved the people of our church and they very much loved him too.

As I spoke with him that day, it was very clear to me that he was approaching the end of his life. We talked about how that felt, and he told me that he had absolute peace. He told me he knew God, who is the creator of all things, and that he knew he would be okay. That day he embodied ‘eschatological hope;’ actual peace and hope, which, I believe, is only found in God’s love through Christ and the Christian community. His was a spirit which was at peace with the world, and with life.

He passed away three days later.

As I walked away from the hospital that day I reflected on the experiences of the two men I was talking to.

The member of my church was completely at peace and utterly bereft of any fear of what the future might hold. In his pain, he had peace. In his struggle for breath, he had peace. In the thought of the end of his life he had peace. His was a peace which was born in his faith in Christ and in his experience of the Christian community.

Johnny, on the other hand, appeared to lack any peace. His life was not in danger that day – he had had a relatively routine surgery that morning, and yet he still felt fear and discontent, and he appeared to have no sense of peace.

Both men were believers. My church member professed his faith in a loving God, and Johnny told me he too believed in God.

Both men were men of prayer. My church member was faithful in prayer, and Johnny told me that he too prayed every day to God.

And yet…both men seemed to have very different levels of peace within their souls. My only conclusion that day and since was to note the difference in the ‘belief experience’s the two men. One stands alone, developing his own beliefs about the world and about God; he is utterly dependent on his own thoughts for any sense of spiritual security. The other stood in the fellowship of Christian community, and has his beliefs about the world and God shaped in the context of that community. His sense of peace and hope is found in Christ; born in the 2000 year old Christian tradition; lived out over a lifetime in Christian community.

And this is where my problem with the Church of Johnny lies – ultimately it lacks any depth to its foundation, and when the fragility of life comes to the fore, the Church of Johnny collapses and is found wanting. It offers no real hope, and no lasting peace.

As I reflected on my brother’s life when I was preparing his funeral service, I couldn’t help but think that when my time comes to leave this earth, I want to do it with all the peace and all the hope that my brother, Dean did. The only place I will find that peace is in the divine love of God, made manifest in Christ and Christ’s church.

The Church of Johnny might be great in the here and now; it might offer the illusion of personal freedom and spiritual autonomy in one’s life. But ultimately it is foundationless, and, at in moment of fear, worry or desperation, the whole structure could, and probably will, in most cases, come crashing down, and I find that deeply saddening.

On the Sudden Passing of a Saint…

She was here last week, as she had been every other week before that.

She was old school in that way.
Church wasn’t a side show in her life – it was her family away from family, her community, her tribe.
That’s why she lived here alone with no blood relatives near by.

She loved us.
And we loved her.

“Didn’t your heart burn within you when the preacher preached today?”
Those were the words she would say to me on her way out of church on the days when her heart had been stirred by the words I had preached.
They were the words she had heard within her own family of origin.
I can’t remember whether it was her father, her grandfather or an uncle in her family…
…but those were the words she had heard when she was young; the words she would use to affirm a good sermon.

She loved us.
And we loved her.

And she could sing. Good Lord, but she could sing!
Each word, each note ringing out from somewhere deep.
Each word, each note telling some of the story of her people.
Each word, each note singing out in praise to God.

She loved God.
And God loved her.

She could sing on her own and lead the church in song:
“His Eye is on the Sparrow.”
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
“Glory, glory, hallelujah! Since I laid my burdens down.”
Each time she stepped up we knew we were in for a treat; a holy moment.

She loved us.
And we loved her.

She could sing in the choir too.
Our choir. Her choir.
That special group of people committed to each other;
Meeting, praying, and singing together every single week.

She loved them.
And they loved her.

And she could sing in the congregation.
She raised her voice alongside the people of her tribe.
And so many times, at just the right moment,
When the tribe needed to know that the words they were singing were deep, and meaningful and true…
*CLAP, CLAP, CLAP*
She would clap her hands in praise.
She would clap her hands to tell her people to sing louder; to lift their praise higher.

And we would.

She loved us.
And we loved her.

She was a lady among ladies.
Well spoken.
Well dressed. Always immaculately dressed.
Assured in her identity as a daughter of the King of kings.

Faith ran deep within her. So deep.
If you had poked a hole anywhere in her, I am sure that Jesus would have oozed out.

She loved him.
And he loved her.

__________

She is gone from us now.
Such shocking news to hear and share with her tribe in church yesterday.
She is gone from us and will not be coming back.
And that makes us sad. Deeply sad.

__________

But even in the sadness we rejoice.

“To live is Christ and to die is gain!”

That’s the faith story of this tribe.

That was her story.
That was the song she sang among us.
It’s the faith story that gives us such hope.

She is no longer with us, but she is dancing with God now.
She is no longer with us, but she is embracing her beloved daughter who went on ahead of her.
She is no longer with us, but she is clapping her hands and leading the choirs of Heaven
Oh yes! The angels and archangels are singing louder today than they were last week. That’s for sure.
She is no longer with us, but she is in a place where there are no more tears; where there is no more grief and no more broken hearts.
She is no longer with us, but she is with her savior.
In this we rejoice.

And in faith we declare that we will see her and sing with her again. Some day.

Rest in peace, dear, beloved sister in Christ.
We love you and we will miss you.

Martin McGuinness: Some Thoughts on the Passing of a Terrorist Turned Peacemaker

McGuinness meets HM Queen Elizabeth

Long before the language of ‘the war on terror’ became popular in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks on the USA, terms such as terror, terrorism, and terrorist were already commonly used in everyday language and conversation by anyone, like me, who had grown up in Northern Ireland during the years of the modern day ‘Troubles’ of my homeland. They were words commonly heard on television and news reports, as well as often being overheard in the conversations that adults were having around children and young people. These words were used so much because terror and terrorism were a part of daily life in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1998.

One of the names synonymous with the term ‘terrorist’ was that of Martin McGuinness. He was infamous as a key player in the Republican cause, and widely known to have been a senior commander within the IRA. For someone like me, who grew up in the protestant/unionist side of the fence in Northern Ireland, when Martin McGuinness’s name was mentioned on TV, or in conversation with others, the emotional response within was not a happy or pleasant one. No, the very thought of this man, for a young ‘prod’ in Northern Ireland in the 1980’s and 1990’s, was enough to make the blood boil because we all knew, without any doubt, that Martin McGuinness was a man who most definitely had much blood on his hands.

But then Northern Ireland began to change. Paramilitary organizations announced ceasefires. Peace was now, apparently, a possibility in our troubled country. Politicians were sat around the table with a determined hope to create a new Northern Ireland with a brighter future.

And Martin McGuinness was right in the middle of it.

The terrorist was now becoming the peacemaker. And ultimately, the terrorist did become a peacemaker.

Martin McGuinness died today, aged just 66.

Understandably, news of his death has brought about a wide spectrum of responses from politicians, members of bereaved families who lost loved ones during the troubles, and other political commentators. I suppose I want to throw in my own ‘2 cents’ worth too.

As I awoke to the news this morning I could not help but be gripped by the story. Like I said above, there have been years in my life when Martin McGuinness’s passing would not have caused me to have a second thought but this is not the case today. Today I have been gripped by the talk radio programs that are giving a lot of airtime and attention to McGuinness’s passing, and I am paying close attention to the words and tributes of my friends on social media too. Today, I can’t help but feel that Northern Ireland has lost one of its political giants who, despite his evil past, has ended up being central to the creation of a new Northern Ireland; a Northern Ireland which is unrecognizable when set beside the Northern Ireland in which I grew up.

I lament and abhor Northern Ireland’s past and the suffering that took place in those years. I spent three wonderful years in ministry to the Shankill Road community, a Belfast community ravaged by the Troubles. In my congregation I had many people who had lost close relatives and loved ones at the hands of Martin McGuinness’s IRA, including two ladies who had lost their husbands to intentional violent, terrorist attacks on the Shankill Road community. I spent time with and listened to the stories of the people of that community, and I find myself very much in sympathy with them. Their personal loss and pain is one which still deeply scars their lives, and the life of the wider community around them. In love for, and in sensitivity to, my friends there, and the wider community of the Shankill, I do not wish to glorify Martin McGuinness’s life of violence, or play down the pain which was caused by his organization in those most horrible of days. However, whilst McGuinness’s life and actions were almost certainly responsible for much of the pain suffered in those days, it would not be fair to label him only as a terrorist, because, whether folks can bring themselves to accept this or not, Martin McGuinness ultimately laid down the weapons of warfare and terror, and took on the role of peacemaker in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland is a complex little country in which the divisions of the past have completely defined how a couple of generations worth of people have formed relationships. Protestant children went to state schools. Roman Catholic children went to Roman Catholic schools. Protestant young men dated and, by and large, ultimately married Protestant young women. Roman Catholic young men dated and ultimately married Roman Catholic young women. The areas in which we lived would be clearly defined by the colours of the various flags and emblems on display: red, white and blue for the unionists, and green white and orange for nationalists. One would always know the ‘identity’ of the community one was in by the presence of those colours. We grew up knowing who was who by where we lived, or by what school uniform we wore, or even by how we spelt our names (unionists tended to use purely anglo names and spellings, whereas nationalists might have been more likely to use more Irish names, and even use Irish spelling of such names). In a culture like this it was all to easy to comfortably live in a society that embodied a “them and us” mindset. In this kind of culture and society relationships could not easily be forged across the lines of division which existed in every aspect of life. But when the peace process gathered pace things began to change. Paramilitary organizations that were once shooting at and blowing each other up were laying down their weapons. Political parties that would never have spoken to one another were now in dialogue. The governments of Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland were now, seemingly, committed to finding a way forward for Northern Ireland.

Martin McGuinness was a major player in this process. That is a fact that cannot be denied.

Inasmuch as Martin McGuinness bears considerable responsibility for the violent past of Northern Ireland, he also must be credited and applauded for his role in shaping a new Northern Ireland – a Northern Ireland with bright hope for the future; a Northern Ireland that has no desire to return to its dark past; a Northern Ireland in which those lines of division are no longer as clear as they once were (although they do still very much exist!)

Martin McGuinness has played a role in shaping a Northern Ireland in which the work of reconciliation and building relationships across the lines of division is possible. This reality was exemplified in McGuinness’s personal and professional relationship with Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley when together they held the office First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland. In those days the two of them became affectionately known in the popular media as “The Chuckle Brothers” such was their relationship and public persona. They were diametrically opposed politically and even religiously, but they were able to put their significant differences aside in order to lead the way in the new Northern Ireland that was evolving, and in order to leave a legacy which would be in contrast both their pasts. Together they were able to model something that many people worried was impossible in Northern Ireland: a hopeful relationship which crossed the traditional lines and broke down the barriers of division.

In the new Northern Ireland many things have progressed and wider society is in a much better place than it was 30 years ago. However, for all the good work that has taken place in that time there is still one thing that holds us back: dealing with the past. Martin McGuinness, for all his achievements in peacemaking, was still a man who had blood on his hands and had not been brought to justice. The bereaved families of Northern Ireland’s troubles are still grieving and still have questions as to how and why the things that happened were allowed to happen during those dark days. And this is why the passing of Martin McGuinness today is such a hard event to comment on. In my opinion, the only way the people of Northern Ireland can ultimately move on from the troubles of the past is to work out what forgiveness means for us.

Forgiveness does not mean forgetting the troubles of the past.
Forgiveness does not dishonour the memory of the loved ones we have lost.
Forgiveness does not mean the end of the ongoing pain of loss and bereavement.

But forgiveness does invite us to become reconciled with our lives as they are and with all that has happened in them.
Forgiveness does invite us to live well into our futures – even with the atrocities of our past.
Forgiveness does invite us to break the ties that bind us and stop us from moving forward both as individuals and as a society.

In the various reactions to Martin McGuinness’s passing I have heard today I have been struck by two in particular. First, I heard the Rev. David Latimer, a Presbyterian clergyman from Derry/Londonderry (McGuinness’s home town), being interviewed by William Crawley on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback program. In that short interview Rev. Latimer made reference to his friendship with Martin McGuinness, a friendship developed over the last ten years, which had become something that Rev. Latimer expressed deep gratitude for as he spoke. He told of how he had been able to visit with McGuinness in recent days and express gratitude for the friendship, and even to pray with him. As I listened to Rev. Latimer I found myself deeply moved by the example of reconciliation and, ultimately, forgiveness that he was sharing. I felt myself wanting to be a person who builds deep relationships across lines of division. I felt myself wanting to embody the same hope in my relationships that Rev. Latimer was testifying to as he shared of his friendship with Martin McGuinness. You can listen to the interview here (8:05 minutes into the show).

Second, I heard the former Conservative Party politician, Lord Norman Tebbit, offer his comment on McGuinness’s passing. Lord Tebbit was staying at the Grand Hotel in Brighton when the IRA bombed it in an attempt to murder Margaret Thatcher. As a result of the attack Lord Tebbit’s wife was permanently paralyzed and 5 of his friends and colleagues lost their lives. His response,  understandably, was not as gracious or as praise-filled for Martin McGuinness’s life as that of Rev. Latimer. Tebbit stated that the “world is a sweeter and cleaner place” now that Martin McGuinness is no longer in it. You can read the details of that interview and hear it here

In Rev. Latimer’s response I hear the voice of a Northern Irish Protestant who has lived through the Troubles and all the division of our past, but has become willing to work at forgiveness and reconciliation that is so important for the future of Northern Ireland. I hear a man who has been able to face the realities of ‘the other’s’ violent past and make a decision that it will not be that which defines his relationships or the long term future of our country. I hear a man who is willing to listen to and be in relationship with one of the perpetrators of the atrocities of the Troubles, and model a new hope for a new way forward.

Sadly, I do not hear a similar voice in that of Lord Tebbit. In his voice I hear the voice of a man who may be trapped in personal pain for whom moving forward in reconciliation is profoundly difficult. 

Please understand, I am aware that it is ultimately very easy for me to say all this as one who has not experienced direct loss as a result of the IRA’s terror campaign. Nevertheless, I still believe, wholeheartedly, that the work of forgiveness and reconciliation is the work that Northern Ireland will ultimately have to go through in order to make the distance from its ugly past even greater than it is now.

Today, I mourn the loss of Martin McGuinness. I lament the events of his life which first brought his name in to my recognition – events which permanently stained my home country and scarred the lives of the bereaved and injured. But I also celebrate his life as one which was turned around and transformed. Martin McGuinness was a terrorist, but that is not the whole story of his life. Ultimately, when all was said and done in his life, Martin McGuinness had become a peacemaker of such significance that his work shaped a brighter future for all the people of Northern Ireland. And so inasmuch as I lament his violent past I also celebrate the transformation which took place in his life, and I celebrate the legacy of peace building and reconciliation he now leaves behind.

Blessed are the peacemakers.