Breaking Glass

A couple of weeks ago, I dropped and broke a glass while I was preaching at church!

Actually, it wasn’t real glass, and I dropped it on purpose to illustrate a point. Took me longer to make it then it did to write the rest of the sermon!! (Plus I spent the rest of the service sweeping up the fragments). But I digress…

I believe the Bible teaches that there is a cost to sin, which Jesus takes on (or “covers”) in our place, as a substitute. Now I greatly dislike the “cosmic child abuse” charicature set up regarding substitionary atonement – that there is an angry God who has to punish someone, and so decides to punish his own innocent son instead of us. I believe that is utter nonsense, and poor theology in almost every regard. But I’ve found Tim Keller’s book “The Reason for God” really helpful in shedding some light onto why sin has a cost, and it is his analogy which I adapted and developed in my sermon.

Suppose I was to drop a glass, and it shatters. There is now a cost to making this right. Firstly, someone has to “pay” the time and energy to sweep up all the bits of glass, to tidy up the mess. Secondly, a new glass has to be purchased (or donated) to replace the one that has broken. Anyone can pay these “costs”, but unless someone does, there will remain a dangerous mess on the floor, and we have one less glass. The cost is inherent and unavoidable. I may have deliberately broken it, I may have accidentally knocked it over, I may not even be aware that I broke it. None of this changes the fact there is a cost to making it right, to putting things back to how there were before.

And so sin is a bit like the dropping of a glass – there is an inherent and unavoidable cost which must be “paid” to put it right. Paul writes in Romans 6, “the wages of sin are death”, or in other words the unavoidable and inherent cost of sin is death. Somehow in Old Testament times, the blood of animals served the purpose of paying this price, of putting things right again. That the sacrifice of the animal is in way spiritually analogous to sweeping up bits of glass. I don’t claim to understand the mechanism for this, and it can seem offensive to modern Western ears. I utterly and absolutely do not believe there is a capricious or angry God demanding a blood-letting. I think rather that there is a deeper spiritual truth in play, and that part of the reason we struggle with this is because we are more put out by the fact we can’t sort ourselves out then we are by sin (to paraphrase John Stott).

So on the Day of Atonement (or “At-one-ment”, as it is more accurately written), the High Priest would offer sacrifices of animals for himself and the whole company of Israel, to “pay the price” of sin. But the Day of Atonement didn’t actually work. Glasses kept being broken. Israel kept on sinning. The cost of putting it right kept coming back. So each year more animals, more ritual, to try and deal with this sickness.

But the glass shattering brought to mind the title of another book, by Stanley Hauerwas, called “Cross-Shattered Christ”. Could it be that what happened (in part) on the cross was that Jesus took the ‘shattering’ once and for all? So that the glass no longer even breaks when it is dropped? That instead of the glass shattering, the one who takes its place shatters. That instead of the glass being broken, the body of the one who has taken its place is broken.

Was this what he foresaw at the Last Supper – his body being broken, his blood poured out? “This is my body, given for you”, and “this is my blood, shed for you”.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed. (Is 53:5)

 

As with any analogy or model, it only tells a small part of the story of course, and has limitations. I offer it only as one way of thinking about the miriacle of the cross, and as an invitation to wonder and worship. I am not for one second suggesting that sin no longer has any consequences, or “doesn’t matter” – just that we no longer have to bear the cost of being made right (or becoming “at one”) with God; the temple curtain has been torn, and the Most Holy Place is open.

Further reading
Keller, T.J. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008)
Stott, J. The Cross of Christ, 2nd edition (Leicester: IVP, 1989)
Hauerwas, S. Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2004)

Person of Peace

Last time I wrote about people of peace – that is people who are already close to the Kingdom of God. The reason I wrote that blog was because the phrase has stayed with me, albeit flipped around, and I’m coming to see this another kairos moment. The question that has stayed with me is to what extent am I a person of peace? Especially at my 9-5 work during the week.

It is easy, in many ways, when I’m at church, in my dog collar. My job/role is to be a person of peace, and a minister to everyone I come across. If people do happen to rant and rage at me, part of my role is to listen, help, pray, and be with the person who is obviously not in a good place. “Success” is measured in terms of bringing people closer to God. I should add that my experience of curacy to date hasn’t been being ranted and raged at! But I have been in situations where people are hurting, and deep emotions are expressed.

At my work place, it is a different scenario. My job there is to write software, and the people I come across are colleagues and peers, or sometimes customers. “Success”, at least from my employer’s perspective, is measured in terms of happy customers, by delivering quality projects on time, and to budget (while operating in line with the culture of the company, of course).

It is in this second context, I realise, that I am not always a person of peace, especially when the pressure is on, and a project isn’t going too well. I guess that this won’t come as a surprise to the people I work with! Truth is that I do sometimes lose my cool and perspective, and get drawn into arguments which are disguised as a technical discussion. In theory we are trying to determine an optimal approach to the particular problem in hand. In practice, it can become something much more visceral, and an exercise generating heat rather than light, in talking rather than listening, in wanting to be heard more than wanting to hear. I don’t think that theological discussions are immune from this either!

But I believe that God is calling me – and you – to something better, and deeper, than this. I believe He is calling us to be people of peace. Both in terms of our own inner peace, and also peace-bringing (or peace-making); I believe the two are related. I don’t mean the emotion-less “teflon”, almost smug, peace of the “zen master”, who is never rattled by anything. If you’ve seen the film Serenity, the Operative is a good example of this. No, I mean such a deep peace and confidence that emotions are fully felt, but don’t challenge identity, so there is no defensiveness or “defended-ness”. In fact it’s quite the opposite – they are vulnerable and open.

If I think about the people I’ve come across over the years, and especially in my training, the people who I admire the most, and most want to emulate, are the people who I would describe as people of peace. People who respond to situations well, calmly. Who aren’t threatened by difference, and don’t feel the need to be right, or to “win” the argument. People who can identify points of common ground between warring factions, and put aside themselves, and their own opinions.

Now please don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about being a doormat, or that there is no “right” and “wrong”. The people of peace I’m thinking of can challenge in a way that is kind and gentle, keeping the conversation open. They can point out the flaws in an argument in a way that is trying to move the conversation forward, and not to “win”. They don’t feel the need to reach a consensus, or to resolve everything, or feel the need to take responsibility for other people’s “mistakes”. Who, I suppose, don’t even see them as mistakes. People who have the wisdom to recognise what truly matters, I suppose, what is worth fighting for, but still fight for it in a peaceful way. Who know what the Truth is, but don’t force it down peoples’ throats.

So my prayer at the moment is that I will be (more of) a man of peace, at work, at home, and at church. Seems like an appropriate activity for Lent!

People of Peace

A week or two ago in our leadership huddle, we were reflecting on the sending of the seventy two in Luke 10, specifically this idea of them finding a “man of peace” (v. 5). At the time, we particularly thought about what this might mean in terms of recognising how God is already within the people we meet. In no sense whatsoever do Christians hold exclusive rights to working God’s purposes out – whenever anybody makes a stand for the oppressed, helps the vulnerable, challenges corruption, stands for truth, protects the environment, seeks justice, or shows mercy and forgiveness, they are acting as an agent for the Kingdom of God. Whether they mean to or not, or indeed whether they like it or not!

The (Anglican) church globally recognises this with its “Five Marks of Mission“:

  • To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  • To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  • To respond to human need by loving service
  • To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth

I love how this counters the tendency of the Church to try and limit “mission” to either the first mark (e.g. an evangelistic Beach Mission) or the third (e.g. sending Missionaries overseas). Don’t get me wrong – I’m not knocking these activities, just saying they do not capture the full scope of God’s mission on their own. The theology of this is rooted in part in Genesis 12:2-3, when God calls Abraham (my emphasis):

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessingI will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

And then in Genesis 18:19 the way in which Abraham will do this is shown (again my emphasis):

No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.

Incidentally, Chris Wright’s amazing opus The Mission of God develops and explores it far more ably then I can, and I commend it to you. I think I’m right in saying that he coined the phrase “international agent of blessing”, which I love (although it always makes me think of Austin Powers too, which is perhaps less helpful).

Anyway, “Righteousness and Justice” (Hebrew mishpat and tsadaq) are a foundational part of God’s character, and form a couplet, i.e. two words go together to form a composite phrase which means more than the individual words. (There is a proper/technical word for this, but I can’t remember it!). Another example might be “Health and Safety”. Where you have one, you have the other, and it is only when they are paired that you get the full picture.  There is a great article on misphat and tsadaq on Eden’s Bridge website.

Maybe “people of peace” are those people who are already close to God’s heart and character, but don’t yet realise it? People who are being a blessing to those around them. Perhaps we can start to recognise God working in and through them? A lot of damage has been done in name of religions generally, and Christianity specifically. Even today, Christians (and what is passed off as Christianity) often aren’t Good News for the people who are closest to God’s heart in either sense; neither the poor and the oppressed, nor those working for misphat and tsadaq. Perhaps we could, and should, start to recognise and call out in others where they are Good News, and challenge ourselves where we start to think that Christians have the exclusive rights to this,

Edit – I’ve just realised that today’s collect (second Sunday before Lent) has something similar to say:

Almighty God,
you have created the heavens and the earth
and made us in your own image:
teach us to discern your hand in all your works
and your likeness in all your children;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who with you and the Holy Spirit reigns supreme over all things,
now and for ever.

Christmas Eve

The following is the text of my sermon at Midnight mass today.

Well, we’re nearly there, the wait is almost over!

I don’t know if your household is anything like mine, but we’ve all been getting really excited as Christmas has drawn closer – and my younger son even wanted to set up a “santa-cam” in his bedroom so that he could catch Father Christmas filling his stocking!

But I don’t know if it has ever struck you as odd to have this huge celebration now – at this time of year? I mean, here we are – it’s literally the middle of the night, on mid-winter’s evening (give or take a day), the longest and darkest night of the year. And in any case why do we even remember the birth of a baby born over 2,000 years ago, to an otherwise entirely anonymous teenage couple living in Palestine? Not exactly front page stuff, is it?

Except, of course, it is front page stuff – or at least it became headline news. Because this baby wasn’t just another baby. This baby grew up to become Jesus Christ – that strange and mysterious figure that history simply won’t let go of. As his followers today, we believe him to be the Saviour of the world. We believe that this baby was the only person in the whole of history who chose to be born – and that he chose it out of love to rescue us from darkness and sin. This baby, who we believe to somehow be God himself in human form, come to earth, to be born in an occupied backwater of the Roman Empire. Who came to be the light – to show us the way back into relationship with God. As we heard in the reading:

“The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9:2)

And this perhaps is a clue as to why we have gathered here this evening in this long, dark, and cold December night – exactly because it is a long, dark, and cold night. The truth is that the world needs a light because it is dark. We need only look at today’s headlines to see just how dark these times are. War, death, corruption and violence. But into this darkness comes the Good News, the glad tidings of the angels that Isaiah goes on to talk about:

“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.” (Isaiah 9:6,7)

This is the Good News of Christmas, that God has come to earth to be our light.  I think the wise men were onto something when they studied the stars – you see, each and every year, a cosmic drama is played out in the heavens, which in some way reflects the whole story of creation. We start in June, when all is new and good. Life abounds, the sun shines. But then our sin and selfishness spoils God’s good creation, and the darkness gains a foothold. In the same way the sun starts to be slowly but surely beaten back by the night. Every day a few more minutes are stolen by the night. The darkness grows, and the light retreats. Until eventually we reach the end of December, where the night lasts almost twice as long as the day, and it feels like the sun barely rises above the horizon.

Will it just continue getting darker and darker, colder and colder? Is there any hope?

But then, in the deepest midwinter, something changes. It takes several weeks before we start to notice, and the coldest time still lies ahead – but the balance of power has shifted, and the sun is now in the ascendency. From here on, it is the night which must give up the minutes, and the light which will return – bringing with it as we know the new life of spring, the warmth and long days of summer.

So it is with this baby, born in Bethlehem. The balance of power has shifted, if you like. This baby, when grown up, will defeat the power of darkness, by giving up his life on the cross. The true light has come into the world, bringing the promise and first fruits of the new, eternal, spring.

We are still living in cold, dark days – as our newspapers and televisions daily remind us. Darkness is not giving up without a fight. But Christmas reminds us that the tide has turned. That there is hope. That one day the darkness will disappear completely, and that we are invited to live in a new heaven and new earth, where there will be no tears, suffering, or sickness, where God himself is our light. The baby in the manager is our own winter solstice. The turning point of history. And unlike the astronomical dance of the planets, this is a permanent solstice, which will never be reversed.

So, this Christmas eve, maybe you are already living in the light of the Son. You are living in the hope of the spring – in which case hallelujah, let’s celebrate the birth again with joy and wonder.

But maybe you are in the middle of a deep dark winter. Maybe you need a winter solstice in your own life, a glimmer of hope, a hint that maybe lighter days are ahead? If so, this Christmas time is an invitation for you to dare to believe the message of the angels, to dare to believe that this helpless baby is God himself, to trust him and accept him as your saviour.

Isaiah promises that a great light will come to those living in a land of darkness. Jesus is that light. For unto us a son is given, the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.

Rest

Sometimes certain words or phrases sometimes leap out, and niggle away at you – and at least some of the time this is God trying to draw our attention to something; what might be called a kairos moment. I have had two such incidences in recent weeks, both around the idea of busyness and rest. Kairos is a shorthand way of saying just the right thing at just the right time. For instance, harvest is a kairos time – when the fruit is ripe and ready to be picked.

The first moment was a phrase I read somewhere (and I can’t now find the source, so apologies for no attribution) that as Christians we can offer the gift of not being busy. In the frantic pace of modern life, we have the chance to model an alternative – that you don’t need to be busy. It’s oh so easy to see busyness both as a virtue and as a source of identity: I’ve got lots of things to do, so I must be important! Christianity offers a different narrative – that our identity and worth comes from being, rather than doing. We are loved by God just because we are loved by God, not because of anything we do. This gives an extraordinary freedom – it doesn’t matter what we do with our time, or for work, or indeed whether we are of high station or low, male, female, slave, free, black, white (see Gal 3:28). Therefore in terms of our core identity, we have nothing to earn and nothing to prove. We don’t have to achieve anything, either on a daily basis, or indeed with our whole lives. This flies in the face of our Facebook/Instagram culture, with its pressure to “do” and present photoshopped versions of ourselves and our lives.

I think this particularly struck me because of my role as a leader in the church. My temptation is to be busy and important. When people ask me what I’ve got on, I want to be able to reel off a long list of vital jobs! Ultimately though, this approach is for my own benefit and security. I want to feel needed and useful, indispensable even. But, just maybe, what people actually need is a leader who is rested? Who models and “gives permission” not to have a full diary, or to live a 100mph lifestyle? Who withdraws to take time out, rest, and spend time with God. A leader who can say “no”, and encourages us to say “no” (at least some of the time!) Doesn’t that sound like a breath of fresh air? Come to that, it sounds quite a lot like Jesus….

The second kairos moment came up in our leadership huddle at church, and much of what follows is drawn from the discussions we had there – I don’t claim these idea are all mine! Anyway, the phrase was “missional rest”, based on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 11:

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

and also John 15:

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

The sense here is that we need to learn to rest, we need to learn to abide in the freedom that comes from being loved from God. It doesn’t come naturally! Who of us doesn’t read “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” and internally say “Oh, God – yes please”. Maybe it’s just me (but I don’t think so). It’s as if we recognise that being driven and stressed isn’t the way we want to live, or is ultimately satisfying, but we don’t know any other way. Retirement becomes this great nirvana we spend the vast majority of our life working towards. As much as I enjoy Bon Jovi’s claim “I’ll live while I’m alive, and sleep when I’m dead”, the truth of the matter is we can only live when we’re alive if that includes both sleep and rest (and if don’t sleep at all, phrases like “severe psychosis” and “death” are not far away). Of course, Bon Jovi is really talking about living fully in the present in that particular song, but the point still stands that we need to rest.

This rest, then, is missional because it really is good news. To live in God’s rest is to have a deep security and joy, and freedom from trying to live up to other people’s or society’s expectations. That if we can’t or don’t “contribute” to society (whatever that means anyway), that in no way impacts our worth or value. And once we have learned how to rest (and it is something we need to learn in today’s culture), we then have an alternative to offer, something to teach (or at least offer) our society, perhaps?

Just a couple of provisos are needed. Firstly freedom is not licence. What we do still matters, and I believe ultimately we must account for the choices we have made in life. Christians or not, we all have responsibilities to God, one another and our environment, and living in freedom doesn’t mean freedom from those responsibilities. But the crucial factor is that my identity and beloved-ness is not contingent. I work out of a sense of freedom, security, and joy, and not out of fear and coercion. Secondly, it is easy to view this rest as another burden, yet another thing on the “to-do” list. While it is true to say that it requires effort, it is Jesus who teaches us, and carries the load alongside us. So while in one sense it is yet another pressure on our time, to consider this the whole picture is short-sighted. Thirdly, and finally, I recognise that busyness is not everybody’s experience, and many face the opposite problem, that of an empty and/or lonely life.  Or indeed a “worthless” life (in society’s eyes). I write this from the perspective of having a job, paying taxes, juggling a busy household, being part of a large and quite complex church, and living in a very driven and consumerist corner of England. I don’t take these things for granted. But I also believe Jesus can offer peace, identity, and security and – yes – rest whatever our circumstances. And, for all her flaws, church is one of the best antidotes to loneliness or boredom that I know! (If you can overlook the odd duff sermon – but then I do only preach a few times a year, so you should be safe enough).

It seems particularly apt to have our attention drawn to rest on the cusp of Advent. Maybe this year in the run up to Christmas, we can seek out God’s rest – whether in the everyday (walking in the snow, cup of coffee with friends), or the transcendent (Carol Services, Midnight Mass). Take his yoke upon you, for it is easy, and the burden is light.

Advent Wonder

Death and Gospel Hope

At this time of year we do a lot of remembering. We remember those who have gone before in the faith at All Saints and All Souls, we remember the Bonfire Plot, and of course – yesterday and today – we particularly remember those who gave their lives in the Great Wars. This year we have also been remembering the Reformation, 500 years after it “started” in Wittenberg.

Death is a part of life, and will come to us, and those we love, sooner and later. One of the privileges the church has is to mourn alongside those who grieve, and offer both comfort and the hope of Jesus Christ.

The death of a loved one makes us stop, even if only for a moment, and step outside ordinary life. Something has changed, which will never change back. Someone has left, who can never come back. In the news recently there was a story about the collision of two black holes. It was a cataclysmic event, causing a shock-wave to travel through space at the speed of light. By the time it got to us in August, it was just a ripple – but the extraordinary thing is that the collision happened almost 2 billion years ago! Such is the un-imagineable vastness of space that the shock-wave has taken literally thousands of millions of years to reach us. Certainly puts second class post into perspective.

But there is something even more amazing. And that is that you and me – tiny specks of dust as we are within this huge cosmos – are each known and loved by the one who made it all. You and me are known by name, since before we were born, say the Psalms. And not only are we known and loved, we are invited to become his children. God’s sons and daughters. And if that wasn’t enough, this invitation extends beyond the grave, beyond death itself. And all this has been made possible by another cataclysmic event, which happened 2,000 years ago, in the Middle East, when God himself died, in the person of Jesus. God died. God died at the hands of the Romans. And he was buried. For you, and for me.

But the story doesn’t end there. Jesus didn’t stay in the grave. According to the gospel, Jesus came back to life a few days layer. In John’s gospel Jesus promised that he is the way to God. That he is the resurrection and the life. That he is the good shepherd who will bring us, his sheep, home. And we have this hope – this sure belief – that whoever trusts in Jesus shall never truly perish, but have eternal life. Not only life after death, but a complete and meaningful (although not necessarily easy or safe!) life before death. That God so loves the world, that he did this for you, me, and all creation. And Jesus proved it by rising again from the dead, all those years ago. Death could not hold God then, and cannot hold Him today. In our sorrow, then, there is a hope. As we mourn, we stand in the shadow of one who has tasted (and conquered) death. As we face our own black holes, our own cataclysms, we can know the one who is light itself. Who cries with us in our pain, but offers the hope of joy everlasting today, and in the life to come.

Baptism

I recently had the privilege of preparing and baptising two babies at church, and I could not have asked for a pair of more lovely families or babies for my first time. Both sets of parents showed such generosity in welcoming me into their homes, as we thought about baptism together, and then entrusted me with their precious child while I poured water over him or her!! Little T. and R. were absolutely delightful too, and were very kind in not screaming/throwing up/poo-ing in my arms (not that those things would have mattered, of course, but I’m still glad they didn’t happen).

Infant baptism (or christening – same thing, different name) is one of those potentially divisive issues in the church. Some folk only practise what you might call a “believer’s baptism” (namely, that the person being baptised owns and believes the faith for themselves). In the Church of England we practise infant baptism, where the parents and godparents own and believe the faith on behalf of the child, in the hope that that child will grow up into that faith him- or herself. As I understand it, the differences in opinion arise in part from an individualistic vs. a communal outlook on life, and in part as a reaction to the historical/superstitious practices of the medieval period (cf. the Reformation).  I’m not sure that the Bible is definitive either way, and it basically hinges on how you interpret certain passages, and how much weight you give them (although it’s only fair to observe that Christians also disagree about this!!) As a member of the Church of England it is academic in any case – we baptise children, and we think that it’s a good thing. Anyway, if this sort of things float your boat, there are plenty of resources to look into this further – and a booklet from Grove Books is usually an excellent (and good value) starting place on almost any area of Christian thought.

What Christians do agree on, at least, is that baptism is something important and significant, and fundamentally the “why” comes down to the dominical command (which is a fancy way of saying that Jesus told us to do it!) in the Great Commission of Matthew 28, when Jesus says “Go and make disciples of every people group, baptising them in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”.

So we agree on the “why”, we disagree on the “how” – but what I have been particularly thinking about is what baptism means, and what “happens” during it. Thankfully we have largely moved beyond the theology that anyone who isn’t baptised automatically goes to hell (and conversely, that anyone who is automatically doesn’t) – although once again some see this differently. I personally cannot reconcile God’s infinite grace, love, and unknowability with a formula that says “baptised == saved”. But I do also think that something happens.

I reckon part of the key is in symbols and symbolism. Now the danger with symbols is that it is very easy to think that, if something is symbolic, then it’s not real. One of our tutors at St Hild pointed out the wording on bank notes – “I promise the pay the bearer on demand…” In other words, the bank note itself isn’t money per se, but rather a promise that it can be exchanged for money at the bank. Or, you might say that the bank note is a symbol, a physical representation of something else. Yet I challenge you to find anyone who says a tenner isn’t real money! Something similar is going on with wedding rings and marriage. The gold band on my finger is still, essentially, just a lump of metal (who says romance is dead?!) I am no more or less married whether I am wearing the ring or not. I am no better or worse husband. Yet the ring is a symbol of the love and commitment – the visible sign of an invisible reality (to misappropriate St Augustine). Come to that, marriage itself is not – really – the definition of the relationship; I loved my wife no more one minute after the wedding then I did one minute before. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that marriage isn’t important (far from it), and actually something did change as we made a public and legal commitment to one another. My point is just that it is perhaps helpful to start to disentangle the underlying reality (in this case the relationship) from its physical/visible expression (wedding rings), especially when thinking about baptism.

So in baptism there are 3 main symbols/symbolic actions that occur in the service; the water, the candle, and the signing with the cross. The water is particularly rich in imagery and theology; although a lot of it hangs on the idea of full immersion – which is to say going completely under the water for a few moments. We don’t tend to do this with babies!! However, the sprinkling/pouring of water is intended to represent the full immersion. Most obviously, the water is about being washed clean. Being made utterly new, as if we had never known dirt (or done anything wrong).  It also carries the less obvious imagery of dying and rising, with the submersion representing being buried, and the coming out of water like being raised to life again. There is something about being (re)born – emerging from the waters of the font as if from the womb? (This not my favourite element of the symbolism!!) There is also a sense of being clothed in Christ; the water completely surrounds and encompasses, so Jesus completely encompasses us with new spiritual “clothes”, befitting of our new status as daughters and sons of God. I suspect there are other images in play as well. The signing with the cross and the candles are a bit more straightforward in their imagery, I think, but no less powerful. Anyway, there are many more accomplished theologians than me who can (and have) unpack all this, so I will leave that as an exercise for the reader…

Instead, and at the risk of completely going off on one, drawing the oblique analogy between marriage and baptism above set me to musing that maybe baptism is actually quite a lot like marriage? It’s not as strange as it might sound at first – after all the church (i.e. the baptised community of believers) is repeatedly described as the bride of Christ, and the Kingdom of Heaven is likened to a wedding. And if you describe marriage as making a public commitment, supported by friends, family, and the church, and entering into a lifelong relationship then suddenly it sounds just like (adult) baptism to me. With infant baptism it falls down a bit with the fact that a marriage is between consenting adults – clearly not the case here. So maybe infant baptism is a more like an engagement or betrothal? By which I mean a concrete promise made regarding a future commitment, with the hope and expectation (but no guarantee) of the fulfilment of that promise. To extend the analogy, in the Church of England, we call this fulfilment Confirmation (but I’m not going there in this post!)

We do have a little bit of translation to do; these days engagements don’t carry quite the same level of commitment and gravity that they used to, where breaking off an engagement was almost like a divorce. And to push it a bit further, maybe infant baptism is almost a bit like an arranged marriage? In the West we react very negatively to the concept of arranged marriages, obsessed as we are with rights, individual choice, and eros (romantic/erotic love). But if we can move beyond our own cultural filters, then someone (who knows us best and loves us the most) making a choice on our behalf (which they believe is the very best for us, our families, and local community) doesn’t sound entirely without merit… or a million miles away from infant baptism? Might there be some sense of the parents betrothing their child to Christ?

I fully admit this sounds a bit odd, and I’m not convinced that it is a helpful line of enquiry… I probably won’t be preparing my next baptism family by telling them they are putting their child into an arranged marriage! Yet I kind of think that there is something here. Either way, the symbols help us catch a glimpse of a deeper and wonderful reality, but one which is always ultimately going to end in mystery. Do I know what happens at baptism? No, not really. But at some level it is saying “yes” to Jesus, and at the end of the day that is enough for me.

Dick and Dom and Dog Collars

Earlier this year, I took my two boys to Harrogate Theatre to see Dick and Dom (from CBBC). Inevitably, perhaps, I was volunteered to go up on stage to play some daft game. Of course, the whole point of these games is that the parent is (a) hapless, and (b) ridiculed in front of several hundred people, especially his or her own children. Fortunately I have plenty of practice at both of these things.

However, one thing I did chicken out of was saying that I was training to be a vicar, at least in part because I hadn’t really thought it through as a scenario, and I figured that the conversation probably wouldn’t have gone the way I would have wanted it to. Note to theological colleges – be sure to cover how to handle an interview with stars of kids’ TV, while wearing boxing gloves and dribbling baked beans!!

But the occasion has stuck with me. As a complete digression; one of the things I’m fascinated by is why some people seem utterly comfortable and natural on TV (or stage, or at the front of a room), while others seem very awkward and unnatural. You see it on any sort of panel programme, and it’s especially interesting to contrast Pointless with Pointless Celebrities, say. I (theoretically at least) could have bounced up onto stage, larger than life, and bantered with Dick and Dom as if I was an equal part of of the show – but I actually think that would have been a bit weird, as well as making me a “pro-active self-starter” (as we used to refer to this kind of attitude at one of my old jobs).

Anyway, back to Dick and Dom, here’s how the conversation might have played out:

Dick: And what do you do?
Me: I’m a computer programmer, and a part-time vicar.
Dick: Wow, that’s amazing – Please, tell us all the good news about Jesus, and how we can give our lives to Him today.

Now I admit that this is a fairly unlikely scenario, so my back-up scenario was as follows:

Dick: Wow – but where’s your dog collar?
Me: Not with me today – but we can soon fix that, if you’ve got a bit of card?
James quickly fashions a dog collar using origami jujitsu, does up his top collar, and inserts it, to the amusement and amazement of the theatre audience.
Dick: Well, that’s worth a round of applause – but why do you wear one at all?
Me: It’s mainly so I don’t run off when I’m taken for a walk, and also so that people don’t think I’m a stray.
Cue extended hilarity from the audience, and Dick and Dom cancelling the rest of the show because they couldn’t follow that.

Such is my inner world – do pray for me.

But there is actually something potentially quite profound in my imagined glib response. After enjoying my own witty repartee in the privacy of my head, it struck me that one could phrase this another way.

The dog collar helps me stay safe, from wandering too far from the path; and it shows everyone I am owned, loved, and cared for by someone.

Suddenly there is something else, and much deeper going on here. And it’s something which applies to all who would call themselves follows of Jesus (not just the nut edge cases who are ordained). The well loved Psalm 23 talks of being led, and being kept on the right path: “He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.” Proverbs speaks of those who walk in wisdom “Then you will go on your way in safety, and your foot will not stumble.” In a slightly different, but related, vein, in John’s gospel Jesus asserts: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Please understand, I’m not saying that life is automatically a bed of roses as soon as we become Christians – if anything the opposite. But it is, perhaps, a little bit like the difference between being a stray roaming the streets, living off scraps, with nowhere to call home; and being known and loved, having a home, and being fed.

As Christians, we are all living witnesses of what it means to be owned and loved by someone – and unlike with our real canine friends, there is an open invitation for others to be adopted and have this ownership and love for themselves. Maybe part of the point of the dog collar is to keep this invitation on the cards? Sticking with our four legged friends, there is perhaps something about a voluntary submission to a master as well. The bible repeatedly uses the language of doulos (which means slave) to describe the Christian life, and even Jesus himself is described as a servant. Of course, slavery doesn’t have many positive connotations these days, but maybe couching this in terms of a dog being a “slave” to his or her master can redeem the language a little? Utter faithfulness, devotion, happiness, security (and at this point you realise that it’s a while since I have owned a dog!!) I don’t claim any of this to be particularly novel, and you must forgive my continued reflections on “The Collar”.

As with any analogy or metaphor, it has its limits, and the Bible far prefers to talk about us as children of God rather than pets!! And lest we forget, a dog lead is really about limitation and control, which is more or less the opposite of the point I’m trying to make.

In any case – Richard and Dominic, if you happen to be reading this, and want me to demonstrate my dog collar origami next time you do a show in Harrogate, you know how to reach me…

Salt of the Earth

One of the things I am getting used to is being out and about with a dog collar on. I should say that at this point that wearing a clerical shirt and a collar doesn’t sit particularly comfortably with my theology of ordination, priesthood, and ministry – but that’s a topic for another day (and in any case is still a work in progress)!

What has been interesting though is that, in a very small way, people’s behaviour around me appears to be influenced by the fact that I am wearing a dog collar. It seems to me that people are just a little bit nicer, or more polite, or kinder. At one level this is very superficial: people don’t want to swear in front of the vicar! In that sense I suppose it’s not unlike the police? So a couple of days ago I was out driving when I noticed a police car behind me. What was my immediate reaction? To check that I was driving within the speed limit, and to try and be a “good driver”. Of course, as soon as the police car turned off, I relaxed and stopped paying quite the same degree of attention to my speed!! You see this even more clearly on motorways, when cars will zoom up at 90 – see a police car and cruise steadly by at 72, then accelerate again as soon as they’re out of sight. This is not an entirely positive thing; after all it is essentially motivated by fear, and almost certainly a localised and temporary effect. But that said, the visible police presence (or, I suppose, clerical presence) is enough to make us pause, and check how our behaviour measures up against some sort of perceived standard of what is good/acceptable/appropriate. In my rose-tinted world world, this would lead to further self-reflection and change!!! (i.e. If  my driving changes when I see the police, doesn’t that say something about my normal driving?)

As I thought about this a bit more, it struck me that – localised and temporary as is it – the world is actually (in general) a slightly safer place immediately around a police-man or -woman. And in the same way, in some sense the world is a slightly kinder or nicer place immediately around someone in clericals. People do genuinely seem a little friendlier around me when I’m collared. They seem more willing to meet my eye and smile (although I accept that this cuts both ways, and when I’m out in my collar I am also more intentional about meeting people’s eyes and smiling). The really interesting thing about it all is that I am not actually doing anything. The effect is entirely down to our presence. The posh word for this is ontological – it’s about being rather than doing.

I suppose there are a couple of thoughts that follow.

Firstly, I am reminded of Jesus describing us (i.e. his followers) as the salt of the world, in Matthew 5. At the risk of doing some damage to the original context, I think that part of his point was about seasoning – salt flavours and preserves the environment in which it’s put. This is maybe why he goes on to describe salt which has lost its taste as worthless. Salt doesn’t do anything as such; rather it is just by being there that it has a positive effect on its surroundings. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus chose that particular metaphor for those who follow him?

This in turn got me thinking of how much I (and the rest of us) can – and arguably should – have this effect, whether or not we’re wearing special clothes. I love that advert that was on the telly a few years ago, of a kindness “ripple” being spread from person to person, as each one is the recipent of someone being randomly kind, which inspires them to be randomly kind to someone else, and so. It obviously wasn’t a particular effective advert, as I can’t now remember the product, but there are plenty of “kindness ripple” videos on YouTube which portray the same sort of thing. This is where the salt metaphor breaks down a little (unless we venture into the realms of alchemy!!), as salt doesn’t turn other things into salt. But as we lighten someone elses day, in some sense this lightness can be passed on in a ripple.

The challenge for me, then, is to what degree am I making the world immediately around me a little kinder, or nicer, or better, or more like the Kingdom of God through my presence and – yes – my words and my deeds too? Do I always have an open countenance, a positive presence, whether or not I’m wearing a collar, or do I go incognito when the bit of plastic comes off?

Food for thought.. Oh, and pass the salt, will you?

Any old iron

It struck me yesterday, as I was doing some ironing, that Christian ministry is a little bit like ironing (bear with me!)…

The obvious analogies didn’t strike me at first (more on them in a mo), it was simply that I had half-an-hour, I ironed solidly for that whole time, starting with the most pressing (boom boom), and then I stopped. At the end of it, the ironing basket was still full of clothes which needed ironing, but that was my ironing slot over.

This may sound perfectly normal to you, but it is almost entirely contrary to my nature! To stop a task before it is finished, and just leave stuff hanging around for another opportunity!?! I would previously always have soldiered on through the whole pile of clothes, and than collapsed happily, feeling fulfilled and satisified at a job well done (or at least over for another week). But I have other things to do with my time which, superficially perhaps, are less important. I’ve been trying to put my finger on this idea of intentionally choosing not to do things which are good and important without it being about procrastination, laziness, or irresponsibility.

What I’m getting at, I think, is that the task is endless. There is no defined “end” for Christian ministry, there will probably never again be the point where I have got to the “end” of my list of jobs and collapse satisified with a glass of wine. To wait for these moments of completion before going out to play simply means the time of going out to play never comes. It’s a bit like Covey talks about in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – an appreciation of the choices we have and the decisions we make (and the language we use). I seem to have mislaid my copy of the book, so I can’t give a direct quote, but I remember finding it challenging reading as a Christian when I read it many years ago, and it has stuck with me. I must also give a nod to Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by Richards and O’Brien, who have undermined by (previously) unquestioned acceptance of the Protestent work ethic as a biblical virtue!!

Of course, this is absolutely not limited to ordaination, or ordained ministry – all followers of Jesus are, by definition, full time Christian ministers. But it is also true to say that I am now much more aware of the need to carve out time for the stuff which isn’t, ostensibly, important at the expense of the stuff which is, without feeling guilty about it. There is something about sabbath rest in here too, of course.

I promised the obvious analogies – well, we’re all wrinkled in one way or another, and Jesus is the one who helps us becomes spotless and pure… and he often uses his church as the means. Also, an iron is just a lump of cold metal, which is pretty ineffective at doing anything, until it is filled with power and hot, including the steam of the spirit. It is the heat and steam which do all the work. I always worry that analogies like this border on being trite, and reduce God to a domestic chore; but I guess some people may find them helpful? Perhaps I’ll work one into a sermon!

As for the stubborn creases? Well, whoever heard of such a thing in church….