Is God a man? No, of course HE’s not!

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… or, the art of choosing words carefully when we speak of God.

One of the most fascinating conversations I have had in recent years was about what to call God. We were writing our prayer, which is a response to the Lord’s Prayer. Although it is the term Jesus himself used, we really didn’t feel comfortable with using the term translated into English as ‘Our Father.’

I suspect that, when we hear the word ‘God’, each of us conjures up a different image. It might be negative or positive, one that either we have had since childhood or which has developed over the years, and it might be visual or otherwise, depending on how our mind works.

For those familiar with Christian language there is an ocean of imagery to draw on. For a start we describe God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or Trinity).  We hear the prologue of John’s Gospel which tells us that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  Jesus called God “Abba”, meaning Father, and in the letters of John at the end of the Bible we read that “God is love.”

But strip away all that Biblical foreknowledge and what do we have? I would like to suggest that the most famous image of God is Michelangelo’s in the Sistene Chapel at the Vatican.  In his ‘Creation of Adam’ painting, God is a depicted as a white haired, bearded man, loosely robed in a Romanesque toga, frowning as he reaches out from his heavenly cocoon to not-quite-touch Adam. Such an image hardly correlates to a creative, loving God who, through the Word, gives shape and meaning to life.

The members of Hug Cullompton who participated in the six week process of creating the Hug Prayer agonised for many hours, days and weeks over how we would address the divine creative power who is entirely beyond us and yet in our midst.  In the end we settled for ‘Divine Embrace’, because no noun seemed adequate. The only option left was to use a term that summed up our collective experience of him/her/it.

It might seem this post is about language, but actually it is an attempt to raise a far deeper and more profound issue we in the church face: not only how we articulate the shared concepts which have shaped our understanding of the world and the one whom we believe created it, but the very concepts themselves.

I know very few Christians who, when shown the picture of Michelangelo’s picture of God, think it’s an accurate depiction of what God is like.  And yet, the way in which many Christians name, address and speak of God gives the impression to the outsider that the God we believe in is imperialistic, judgemental and very, very male.

So what are we to do? Should we abandon all those terms we have grown up using, and which roll off our tongues comfortably? Should those who pray addressing God as “heavenly Father,” be told they can no longer do so?

Of course not.  I would not dream of robbing anyone of the essential elements of their faith and the way in which they name it.

But we do have to realise that such terminology could be alienating to others who have already considered and rejected the image of God as a white haired, bearded man, loosely robed in a Romanesque toga, frowning as he reaches out from his heavenly cocoon to not-quite-touch humanity.  Using terms such as ‘Lord’, ‘Master’ and ‘heavenly Father’ with them could be positively unhelpful.

Language is a powerful thing. Terminology comes with a lifetime’s back-story, rendering the phrase “sticks and stones might break my bones but names will never hurt me” null and void.  Let us choose it carefully, lest we unwittingly turn away those who most need to experience God’s ‘Divine Embrace’ for themselves.

living creatively with difference

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or, getting to the heart of what really matters

When I started training for ministry in 1999 I was introduced to a whole new range of terms – well, not introduced, actually.  I was expected to know them. They included the words conservative, liberal, fundamentalist, evangelical and open. I knew the first two – although I associated them with political voting preferences rather than types of theology – the others were new to me.

I realised very quickly that I was supposed to select one or two of these terms to describe ‘where I stood’ theologically. Whichever combination  I chose would also tell people what style of worship I preferred.  Invariably people would say, “Well, I don’t like boxes, but I suppose I would describe myself as…”, immediately putting themselves in whichever shaped box most suited.

My introduction to those terms also signalled the start of my education in how much the Church struggles with difference.  I have observed over two decades how using such labels creates divides within churches and denominations.  Even today there remains a legacy of suspicion, deflecting the church from its main task of demonstrating, and introducing people to, the joy of a faith in Christ.

One of my most inspiring theological discussion partners is a local Christian about my age.  There are fundamental differences between us.  She would probably describe herself as an ‘evangelical’, while I hail from the more ‘liberal’ end of the tradition. Embarking on a missiological journey alongside non-Christians has enabled us to set aside those differences which, in other circumstances, might have caused problems.  We can accept that only one of us believes in creationism (the idea that God made the world in six days), and we can agree to differ on whether the image of the future as depicted in the book of Revelation is meant to be taken literally or not. What might potentially divide us pales into insignificance when set alongside what really matters: following Jesus and enabling others to do the same.

Moving beyond such issues, in order to hear what God might be calling us to do and be, has been profoundly important for both of us.  Working alongside people, for whom these sets of labels have no meaning, has exposed how theological difference has impacted on the Church’s sense unity, and inspired in us a greater determination to follow the path that God has set for us – to be disciples of Christ in communion, each in our own way.

I am saddened when I hear of faithful Christians seemingly unable to move beyond the unhelpful divisions of the late twentieth century.  I am not saying that the issues on which churches differ don’t matter; but I wish they could work more creatively to resolve them, adopting an attitude of openness and listening rather than barely disguised hostility.

Perhaps then we could focus on reaching the 94% of people in Britain who don’t go to church, rather than tying ourselves up in knots over what divides the 6% who do.

For an article about reaching the 94% of British people who don’t go to church click  here.

learning to search for common ground

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

…or, delving beneath the surface of linguistic difference

One Easter the local Baptist Church hall was transformed from preschool into Art Exhibition. On Good Friday, I agreed to steward, on the proviso I could nip out when the joint churches ‘Walk of Witness’ arrived so I could do a reading.

That morning the other volunteer steward arrived to be greeted by crowds at the door. She hurried inside, wondering what was going on.  On finding the exhibition deserted, she came out just in time to see me, sporting my clerical collar, reading the story of the Crucifixion.

Afterwards, we sat and talked. We had met through a previous Hug Cullompton art exhibition, and had become friends. Over previous cups of tea she had shared with me her childhood experiences of church – where she was told not to ask such awkward questions, and was sent off to play elsewhere as she was thought disruptive to the other children.

Her questions had, in my view, been quite typical ones. She had wondered why God should be described as a man and how ‘he’ had created the universe.  What I would consider a healthy curiosity had been deemed by her Sunday School teachers insolent.  As a consequence my friend had rejected the church, much as the church rejected her, and taken her own, rich, spiritual path, totally away from formal Christianity.

As we drank tea and ate the homemade cakes she had brought, we discussed the meaning of the Easter story. She said:

“If you’d told me two years ago that I would be sat here talking about Jesus, I would have laughed in your face. Nowadays I even find myself praying to him.”

What my friend described was not a ‘conversion’ experience. That’s not what this was. Fundamentally my friend’s views had not changed. Her belief in a divine, benevolent, creative power remains, as does her passion for nature. She continues to understand Jesus as a powerful energy to whom she can pray. Her issue is not belief; it is the accompanying doctrines of the church with which she cannot identify.

I have found it is often the doctrines and practices, which we ‘in the church’ take for granted, that present huge problems for those struggling to articulate and make sense of their beliefs. Language that rolls off our tongues without a second thought can alienate and exclude, to the extent that many walk away from Jesus, rather than try to work out what they consider to be unfathomable concepts.

I have often been heard to say, “I find that what people believe tends to vary a lot less than the differences in the way they describe it.”

As fewer and fewer people associate with the Church and its way of articulating itself, missional conversations are increasingly going to require delving beneath the surface, listening for what people actually mean by the language they use.  I often find that people who speak about their beliefs in very different ways to me actually believe the same things.  If Christians are to communicate successfully what they hold dear, it is for them to step outside the comfort of their own doctrines and traditions, and listen without judging. I suspect that, if they did, they would often find they are standing on common ground.

For more about the how to go about sharing the faith in secular England, click here.

 

forming community through (a) prayer

lords-prayer-statueThe story of the ‘Hug Prayer’

A friend recently asked me, “Why do they keep changing what they put in the Bible?”

I was confused. As far as I was concerned the contents of the Bible were more or less fixed in the second century, give or take the odd section, and a bit of arguing over the ordering of it its contents.

The person with whom I was speaking was actually referring to the modern version of the Lord’s Prayer. She couldn’t understand why the ‘proper’ one was no longer used in her local parish church. I explained the history of the Lord’s Prayer, the words of which were originally spoken by Jesus, probably in Aramaic (a dialect from the first century CE),  then later recorded in Greek.  By about the fourth century most people who could read the Bible, read a Latin translation of it.  It wasn’t until the fifteenth century that the Bible began to be translated into the vernacular (national languages, including English), with what we now know as the Authorised, or King James version, being used from 1611. The version to which my friend was referring, using a modern translation from Greek into English, is the one formally adopted by the Church of England in 1989.

The Lord’s Prayer has played an important role within the life of Hug Cullompton.  In February, 2015, while we were starting to think of putting some of our values onto paper,   we decided that, rather than write a vision or values statement, we would compose a prayer, outlining our beliefs and motivations as a community.  One of the Huggers came across an interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer  online.  It is written by Mark Hathaway, who describes it as “something between a poetic translation and “midrash” based on the ancient roots of the Aramaic words of the prayer.” 

Mark Hathaway’s interpretation helped us think about our own understanding and response to the words of Jesus and, after much debate (including a three month email conversation making sure we were all happy with the terminology we used), we adopted our own ‘Hug Prayer’ in May, 2015.

The process we went through might sound simple and short-lived. The reality is that the prayer was three years in the making.  Until we had relaxed into a way of being and thinking together, respecting each others’ very different spiritual views, it would have been impossible, even to open up such a conversation, much less to write a prayer we could all agree on.  The issue of the way language is used to understand and communicate ideas about faith is a huge one, which is probably why I will return to it again and again. This was a mere example of the complexity.

I await permission to reproduce Mark Hathaway’s interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer, so in the meantime, here is The Hug Prayer without it:

Hug Prayer copy

 

 

 

the problem with the word ‘church’

DIEWoUzWsAAqMfHA few years ago my husband and I went to visit the ‘Sagrada Familia’, in Barcelona. Designed by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, and begun in 1882, it is as famous for being unfinished as its magnificent architecture.

Consecrated despite being unfinished, it is intended as a place for people to go and praise, pray, learn and reflect.  Gaudi himself said, “La Sagrada Família is made by the people and is mirrored in them. It is a work in the hands of God and the will of the people.”

The Spanish word for ‘church’ is iglesia, derived from the Greek word κκλησία (ekklesia). Like the English term ‘church’, iglesia is used to describe both a place of Christian worship and the community of people who meet there.

However, for the earliest Christians, ‘church’ was never about buildings. They met in each other’s homes (Col 4.15; Philemon 2) to break bread, pray and worship together.  Each day they would go about their daily lives, telling others about what they were learning and experiencing as followers of Jesus (Acts 2.41-47). They were κυριακός (kuriakos) – meaning they belonged to God – the term from which ‘kirk’ (Scottish) and ‘church’ (English) are derived. And if the book of Acts (2.47) and Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (1.6-10) are accurate in their depiction of how their example impacted on their wider communities, as a way of life it was irresistible.

These ekklesiae (plural of ekklesia), as the churches were known, were not only irresistible in the way they demonstrated love, generosity and grace. They were radical too.  The term ekklesia, literally translated, means ‘the called-out’.  In Jesus’ time it was a term routinely used for an elected civic body in the Roman Empire. By adopting it for their own use, the earliest Jesus-followers were demonstrating that they were already operating as organised groups. More notably, they adopted an egalitarian structure which was, at that time, totally counter-cultural. There was no distinction between slaves and free citizens, women were as likely as men to lead the churches, and Jewish believers had parity with Gentiles (non-Jews). Most importantly and radically of all, they refused to acknowledge the Roman Emperor as a god – and that was what really marked them out and set them apart from others.

I dearly wish we had two words for ‘church’ – one for buildings and one for communities – but we don’t.  The Sagrada Familia teaches us that there is nothing wrong with the awe-striking magnificence of an iglesia/church – after all, our ability to appreciate such beauty is a gift from God.  But there is more to ‘church’ than draw-droppingly beautiful buildings. As Christians we are called to ‘be’ church – shaping our lives as Jesus taught and the early disciples demonstrated: to love God with a passion, and to live in community with an attitude of generosity and grace that others just won’t be able to resist.

To read about a theology of church based on love click here.

 

 

Communicating Christianity in a strange new world

fullsizeoutput_138cHave you ever thought about the sheer strangeness of the church? As an institution it has so many particularities: the way its customs are practised, the terminology that is used, the many assumptions made about all sorts of things, from the beliefs one must have to the way furniture is placed.  While these things are food for the souls of many regular churchgoers, to those visiting for the first time they might seem, well, just plain weird.

Pioneers wrestling with trying to breach the gap between church practice and common cultural experience tend to use the language of “unlearning”.  However, as one Hug Cullompton volunteer pointed out, “You don’t want to unlearn everything you believe. What you need to decide are those things on which you won’t compromise, then stick to them. Everything else becomes open to discussion.”

Existing missionally in the gap between a clearly defined set of Christian doctrines and the experience of people who have no knowledge of, or background in, the church, has had interesting ramifications for me.  To be open to encounters with people outside the church, and managing not to not baffle them with Christian language or concepts, requires a level of generosity in hearing – not only people’s faith stories, but also their attempts to articulate their beliefs.

As I have listened to, and conversed with, people in the community who have no historical association with the Christian faith, I have realised two things.

  1. Many of their beliefs are similar to mine, but they either have no language to articulate them them or do so in terminology that might be described as ‘folk superstition’ or ‘alternative spirituality’. 
  2. For people to sense that I value their beliefs, they have to feel I respect them, whether I agree with them or not. 

I therefore decided on a personal policy of never telling anyone they were wrong.  I could disagree with them if I felt it would be helpful, but I couldn’t disrespect them.

People experience the divine in different ways, and have profound questions about the meaning of life. But often they struggle to articulate these thoughts and experiences, and feel as though there is nowhere they can safely explore them. For many with whom I have walked this journey, the story of Jesus is as foreign as the Greek Classics, and the last place they would look to find meaning is the church.  Some consider it a bigoted and outdated institution, others have had negative childhood church experiences, some reject the church because of the way it is portrayed by the media; but mainly, they just see Church as an irrelevance that has nothing to do with them.  To turn the tide requires walking, not only into today’s culture as it is, but trying to do so whilst looking at the church through the eyes of someone else.

A fascinating reflection on speaking of Christ into a foreign culture is Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered (1970, 2nd ed. 2001). Donavan was an American Roman Catholic priest, sent as a missionary to the Masai Mara in Kenya.  He arrived at the church compound, with its huge church, hospital and school, all virtually empty. “Where is everyone?” he asked. “They don’t come,” was the reply.  Disconsolate, Donovan tried to work out why the Masai didn’t want free education or hospital treatment, and why they didn’t come to church. Eventually he decided the only way to find out was to ask them.

Donovan bought an old truck and headed out into the desert. When he located the Masai, a nomadic people who existed using centuries old practices, he joined them.  Over a period of time they told him about their god, ‘Engai’.  Donovan heard elements of his own faith reflected in these descriptions, and gradually he was able to begin speaking about Jesus.  He told them about God made human, a God present with them there in the desert, a God who is love.  Donovan’s ministry did eventually result in the emergence of a Masai church community. But they never did develop the habit of visiting the compound. The European culture they experienced there was just too foreign to them.

Donovan’s is obviously an extreme example of inculturating church into a culture utterly different from his own experience. However, what he learns about meeting people where they’re at, and communicating the gospel in a way they can understand, provides a useful reflective tool for those wishing to work with people who have never ‘been to church’.  Where we go, how we live and the way we speak all have implications – and unless we can speak into our culture in a way those we want to hear can understand, the prospect of success is always going to be limited.

So how do we go about equipping ourselves to take on the task?  There are all sorts of resources: books, websites, training courses.  Here are a few:

  1. The London Institute of Christianity has a huge number of free resources for those wishing to start thinking about sharing their faith in the community.
  2. The URC’s Walking The Way initiative has lots of helpful suggestions of how to develop a whole-life sense of discipleship, including sharing one’s faith.
  3. The Church Mission Society publishes a variety of devotional texts and courses on the theme of mission and discipleship.
  4. Robin Greenwood’s book, Sharing God’s Blessing: How to Renew the Local Church, has great advice for churches.
  5. Aimed particularly at those working with young people, but which is just as relevant to anyone wanting to communicate Christianity to those with no church background, is the excellent Here be Dragons by Richard and Lori Passmore.
  6. If you’re looking for a good survey of a number of well known resources try Mike Booker and Mark Ireland’s Making New Disciples: Exploring the Paradoxes of Evangelism.
  7. For inspiration you could try Brian McLaren’s The Great Spiritual Migration.
  8. If you’re only going to read one thing to challenge and inspire you, do read Vincent Donovan”s Christianity Rediscovered. You won’t regret it!

It is my belief, however, that you can’t ‘learn’ talking into a culture from a book, however good and worthy that book is.  The only way to do it is by getting stuck in: go out into the world, listen to what people are talking about, and respond. For those not used to explaining their faith it might sound really difficult – and to start with it probably will be. But I promise, it does get easier.

A few weeks ago I was conversing with a deeply committed Christian who wasn’t used to speaking about her faith. She asked how she might do it.

My response was, “Practice. I assume you are here (at church) because it makes a positive difference to your life.” she nodded. “I assume you’d like others to experience it.” She nodded again. “Well, they’ll never know that unless you share it with them. So why not just be honest and tell them what it is about being a Christian that’s so great?”

I haven’t seen her since. I wonder how she’s getting on!