Seven Olympic Values: Courage

Olympic sports are not for the faint hearted. When watching the gymnasts spring triple back flips off horizontal bars, I have half expected to see a “don’t try this at home” disclaimer across the screen. There is always a risk of injury in Olympic sports, and yet for Olympic champions like BMX rider Shanaze Reade, who apparently has had to have 32 pins after a past injury, there is still the competitive drive to hurtle full speed round the track.

Today’s Olympic Value is Courage. Wikipedia states, “Courage (is referred as “bravery, boldness, fearlessness, mettle, fortitude, or intrepidity) is the ability to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation” [1] It requires considerable bravery to be prepared to take physical risks in the drive to beat the elite of the elite. But noted too by the commentators was the amazing courage and bravery of tae kwon do fighter Sarah Stevenson, who lost both her parents in he space of 11 months, her mum to Cancer, but who showed the endurance and will to carry on competing at the highest level.

Courage, it seems to me, is the value of being ready to take risks – to dive into the unknown – to be prepared to throw yourself fully into the tasks that lie ahead even where there are no guarantees of success. As a Christian, I am reminded of God’s words to Joshua as he prepared to conquer the promised land – “be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.” (Josh 1:6). Jesus also said to his disciples when they were afraid after seeing him walk on water “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” (Matt 14:7)

All of us have times in our lives when risks need to be taken – when our ideals and dreams demand the fullest level of commitment. It is at those times, which will not be easy, when we can take to heart the encouragements from the Bible to keep going – as 1 Corinthians 16:13 says, “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.”

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Courage

Seven Olympic Values: Equality

The Olympic value of Equality is best understood by the amazing testimonies of athletes that have stood out against racism and other forms of discrimination from those who viewed them as inferior. Jesse Owens is famously known for his four gold medal victories in the sprint, long-jump and relay races of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. At a event when Hitler was intending to spread propaganda about the “superiority” of the Aryan race, this momentous achievement by an American black athlete blew to pieces this racist lie.

The virtue of equality is in recognising the worth and value of all people, of whatever race, gender, background or culture. But more than that, equality means recognizing for ourselves that however strong our personal patriotism or pride in our own culture, we have lessons to learn from others, and there will be many ways in which their ways are better than ours.

However, the concept of equality has been often misused, because like so many values, it can be twisted around to be used as a weapon. “Equal rights” can quickly become “Equal demands” which can become “Demands to suit me whatever others might think. “George Orwell’s famous line from animal farm, “All animals are equal – but some animals are more equal than others,” is a sharp warning of how societies and people groups can use the disguise of equality to further their own agendas and seek power.
To be equal to someone does not mean to be identical. In fact, the true value of recognizing that another has equal worth to you is accepting that worth despite the fact that they may be very different from you with regards to their lifestyle, opinions, personality and hobbies. I am very pleased that Woman’s Boxing has been included on the Olympics programme – but not because it implies that woman are identical to men, but because it shows that women are different and diverse in the sports they like, and some of them love boxing. I would support those who would want to include Men’s Synchronized Swimming in the Olympics programme for a similar reason.

Neither does equality mean accepting that all opinions or arguments are equally valid. In our postmodern society, there is some pressure put upon is to assume that “what I believe and my culture believes” defines who I am, and therefore to disagree with my beliefs means to discriminate against me. But as was demonstrated by Jesse Owens, whose victory challenged Hitler’s racist ideals – not all opinions and beliefs are equal – many need to be challenged.

For Christians, the value of equality comes from recognizing that we are all created beings before God, and so one person is no better than another. So Jesus said the first and most important commandment is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matt 22:37) . The second is the mark of true equality – “Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matt 22:39)

Seven Olympic Values: Inspiration

The Olympic value I am writing about today is also one of the four paralympic values – inspiration.
In an interview on the BBC before the gymnastics horizontal bar final, British gymnast Sam Oldham expressed how he hoped that Britain’s historic successes in the event would “inspire a new generation” of British gymnasts. For each of the events in the Olympic Games, the athlete’s passion for their sports has been clear. But notably, those events where significantly more medals have been achieved than is expected have been met with particular jubilation, and a sense of hope that it will inspire more youngsters in Britain to excel in  particular sports.

Inspiration is an amazing quality. It is the opposite of under confidence – it starts with belief, and hope in an ambition or a goal that can be achieved. But it is more than just a vague hope or dream that “I would like to have been good at that sport”. It is an ambition of someone who has a vision that they can achieve extraordinary success in an event that leads them to undertake strenuous training programmes, pushing themselves to the limits of their strength and ability. It leads to the tenacity to keep going when things go wrong, the willingness to make sacrifices of time, career or other ambitions in order to enable the visualized goal to become a reality.
Sadly, for some athletes, these sacrifices and dreams do not come to fruition as injuries and disappointments at the last minute bring the dream to an end. But the possibility of failure does not deter those who are inspired to aim for their dreams from giving them everything they have got. I remember a poster of a rock climber my sister used to own. He is ascended half way up a rock face with no ropes – a scary position to be in – but the caption was “don’t let your fears get in the way of your dreams.”

What is it that inspires us? What is our ambition, be it large or small, that we want to achieve? Perhaps we have a desire to excel in a particular sport, or in music, or in something that we love. Perhaps it is a humanitarian cause – a desire for justice. Perhaps it is a project which we believe will bring tremendous joy to others around us.

I believe that God gives us all gifts. 1 Corinthians says of Christians:

27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues.

There are many, many gifts God generously gives all of us – not just teaching and healing, but gifts of diligence, sporting and musical gifts; character qualities of kindness and compassion, and many other gifts. God can guide Christians to use these gifts, and through prayer and the power of his Spirit enables us to work to use those gifts.

I also believe that God can inspire us to reach beyond what we believe we can do by ourselves, for his glory. Saint Paul recognized the strength that God gave him to endure the trials and hardship he faced, when he wrote: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:11)

So inspiration is about having dreams, and believing that those dreams can become a reality. Christians have the surest hope of all, in that we believe in the certain hope and future of knowing Jesus for ever that was made definite to us through his resurrection. So it is good for everyone to have dreams – to be inspired to achieve what seems almost impossible.

Seven Olympic Values: Friendship

Today’s Olympic value is friendship.

This is my favourite of all the seven Olympic values. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it is an Olympic value, because true friendship is such a precious thing, and today friendship is shouted down and overshadowed by its more brash cousin “the one relationship”.

Friendship is defined in Olympic terms as “how, through sport, to understand each other despite any differences”. I think it is this, but the Olympics have shown it to go far deeper than this. Two days ago I was watching the women’s triathlon, and was amazed in particular at the dedication of GB triathlete Lucy Hall. She finished first in the swimming, but what amazed me was her determination in the cycling leg not to try to lead the pack herself but to cycle in front of her fellow teammate Helen Jenkins, helping Helen save her energy levels for the running, since she had the best chance of a medal position.

Admittedly, it could be viewed in terms of tactics and teamwork rather than friendship, but there is something very special about the willingness of any athlete to be prepared to expend their own energy, and medal prospects, to assist and enable another athlete from their team to shine. Equally noticeable is the manner in which teams really seek to cover and repair the weaknesses of other team members. In the men’s gymnastics, after one athlete lost marks for falling off a bar his teammate seemed to work extra hard and produced an amazing performance to reduce the deficit.

It is in particular in the team events, not only cycling and gymnastics, but also tennis doubles, team fencing and team showjumping, that the selflessness and support of the athletes has struck me this week. Athletes of very different personalities, techniques and ages have shown how effectively they can work together: see for example the different ages and build of Tom Daley and Pete Waterman, yet they compete together for synchronized diving, a discipline requiring an extraordinary level of co-ordination!

True friendship is not superficial but sacrificial. There are so many aspects of it that became apparent at these Olympic games – encouragement, relying on others and allowing them to rely on you, putting aside personal ambitions to improve the chances of others on your team, and working seamlessly together.

Jesus said “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13). True friendship is the value of being ready to run the extra mile for your friends – looking out for their needs rather than your own, and sacrificing your own personal wishes desires for the benefit of the stronger friendship. It is that which makes it such a wonderful Olympic value.

Seven Olympic Values: Excellence

Olympic fever has gripped the nation – and it is as I watch the rowing that I am writing this next series of blog posts. To make up for the recent sleepy Summer break my blog has been having, I have felt inspired to write 7 posts in 7 days on the Seven Olympic values. Not as much as a mammoth effort as Jessica Ennis’ heptathlon, but for me, still a worthy Olympic feat.

The Seven Official Olympic Values are 3 for the Olympics (Excellence, Friendship and Respect), and 4 for the Paralympics (Inspiration, Courage, Equality and Respect) . They sound pretty worthy. But as a Christian, the question I have is – how am I to interpret these values? Are they truly Christian values, or just secular values?

Today’s Olympic Value is Excellence.

When I first heard about the Olympic Values, I joked that surely there was only one Olympic value as far as most countries are concerned – winning. Some countries which will remain nameless, seem to take this “value” more seriously than others – even in some events viewing the silver medal as a failure.

I am overjoyed at the impressive medal haul of Team GB at the Olympics so far – but I find it interesting that in some events, where a gold is expected, a silver medal is met with disappointment. I am just watching two British rowers who have been defending a gold medal title, and “just” getting a silver medal is described by commentators as a disaster, and the rowers are in tears. For those expecting a bronze however, a silver medal can cause elation. There have also been some 6th place finishes where the British athletes are jubilant – having smashed their personal goals and bests!

At an initial glance, this Olympic value of Excellence can seem the closest to “winning” that we have in our seven values. The word excellent is sometimes seen as being similar to outstanding. To be outstanding is to be the best – to be marked out as distinctively above all the rest. The official Olympics slogan “faster, higher, stronger” highlights this.

Yet I remember when my Primary School changed its motto from “Truth, Faith and Godliness” to “Truth, Faith and Excellence”, being rather miffed. “Godliness” was deemed to be an outmoded virtue, but for me, adopting the word “Excellence” was selling out to the Ofsted-fueled bandwagon of the Education system in which schools sought to promote themselves to the top of the table at the expense of all others. The egalitarian in me has always balked at the relentlessly driven nature of all schools pursuing the golden “outstanding” rating – because not every school can achieve it. If all schools were “outstanding” – none of them would be – they would all be normal. An outstanding school therefore might be tempted to gloat and look down upon the efforts of lesser schools. And yet simultaneously, I remember my early school teachers assuring me that excelling was not as important as “doing your best”.

Is it a Christian value to be “the best”? To stand out head and shoulders above the others? Jesus famously said “the last will be first and the first will be last” (Matt 20:16). Jesus served others, and he wasn’t self promoting. But he clearly was the best, and did everything to the best of his ability. In Phillipians 2:5-8, Saint Paul says:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very natureGod,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very natureof a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death —
even death on a cross!

 

But when I am cheering on the GB athletes from a comfy armchair as I watch them push themselves to their limits, and proudly sing along to our National Anthem each time Team GB gets a gold. In Olympic terms, the dedication and drive and hard work of all the athletes have done is wonderful. We rightly celebrate every victories – and the genuine achievements of athletes that pushed themselves to their limits. I certainly am not advocating that we take the “first shall be last and the last first” literally when Great Britain sits in 3rd on the medal table!

But what is the real quality of excellence? The official Olympic statement, describes Excellence not in terms of “winning” but as “how to give the best of oneself, on the field of play or in life; taking part; and progressing according to one’s own objectives.” Of course, this can lead to being devastated if your objective is to win a gold and you win a silver. But there is something more to excellence than the result you achieve. It is about striving and pushing to be the best you can be.

The Bible applauds excellence in this fashion. Paul says in Philippians 4:8; “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” The Christian life is not about resting on our laurels. It is about straining to use the gifts God has given us to be the best we can be – as good, holy, strong, diligence, servant hearted and impacting as we can. But not for our own glory – for the glory of God.

The wisdom of God vs The wisdom of the world

This post is the transcript of a recent sermon I recently preached at St Sebastian’s Church, Great Gonerby on 1 Corinthians 1:25-2:16, on the theme of wisdom. Being a sermon it is longer than a normal blog post, and breaks all my rules of blogging. However, it gives me some time to think up my next topic!

For God’s foolishness is God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”(1 Cor 1:25)

Have you ever had a speak on a topic of conversation, where you felt out of your depth, and not clever enough? Perhaps you’ve been in a situation at your work where you had to give a presentation, and you were well aware that those you spoke to were experts? I’ve found this more and more the case whilst at college having to give sermons in front of my tutors – the fear of sounding foolish when everyone around you seem to be learned and wise.

It’s one thing to feel our of your depth on a work topic, but how about when you get asked a difficult question as a Christian, or a churchgoer? What do you say when one of your friends comes and asks you to explain how God can exist in a world of suffering? Or how can you be sure about life after death, that what you read in the Bible is true, or how to explain the theory of evolution? And what about when they ask you about politics, and how the church can help the world solve the current economic crisis?

Well, at those times, we might feel foolish about what to say as Christians. We might get worried that we can’t understand the Bible well enough to give good answers. We wonder what message we have to share as Christians, as a church, that will help.

And the consolation is, that one of the founders of the early church, the great apostle Paul, felt exactly the same as us. He says is 1 Corinthians 2:3, “I came to you with great fear and trembling”. Because Corinth was a great city, in worldly terms. It was a bustling trade city in the Roman Empire. There were plenty of rich, influential, people of importance in Corinth. And they were were proud of their philosophers, and debates. They would have been interested in hearing from Paul, but only with the intention of testing his worldly eloquence and wisdom in a debate, just as the Oxford Union might find it interesting to invite the Archbishop of Canterbury to debate with Richard Dawkins. They wanted to know what cleverness Paul had to bring to Corinth. And they would have laughed at and scorned the small church of ordinary, simple folk at Corinth who were not people of great power and learning.

So how does Paul respond?

Firstly, by explaining that God’s wisdom is for all, not just the clever. My first point today is that the wisdom of God is for all, not just the wise. In fact, Paul says that the people that are wise in the eyes of the world often ignored God and he in turn overlooks them.

Paul says to the church in Corinth in verse 26, “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” God has a habit of picking people who are fairly flawed by human standards. Moses wasn’t a great speaker and murdered a man. David had a good heart but was led astray when he slept with Bathsheba and murdered her husband. Paul himself was accused of being a babbler and not good at public speaking.

That’s what the church is full of. Ordinary people from all walks of life. Not just great theologians and Bible scholars, although some people are called and gifted to study in depth. Not just people who seem to have lived a charmed life. The Christians I have known have come from all sorts of backgrounds: they have day to day jobs in factories, schools, colleges, hospitals; they are full time mums, farmers, secretaries; some are unemployed, some are former prisoners whose lives have been changed by Jesus. Sometimes people who have lived troubled lives are great witnesses for the church are great witnesses because they can understand what those in difficulty in the world are going through.

Paul says in verse 27, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” God chose to shame those who think they are so clever that they don’t need God. Imagine how horrendous it would be if God only accepted the clever people. Yet clever people in the world regard themselves as superior. Scientists like Dawkins who think they have all the answers. Politicians who think they don’t need to answer to anyone. Bankers who think they can take all the money off the poor and it doesn’t matter. But God didn’t build the church of Corinth out of such people. He didn’t rescue an “elite class”. He called weaker people to show up the strong, to say to them – you need God as much as the rest of us.

So don’t put your status in who you think you are. Don’t see yourself as superior. As children of God we are are all equal. Look at the person in the pew next to you. You are no more important, or less important, than that person. And don’t think you aren’t clever enough to spread the good news of Jesus. It doesn’t matter whether you have a theology degree, or a new Christian who hasn’t read much of the Bible. We have all come to know the wisdom of God.

So what is that wisdom? It is the wisdom that comes through Jesus Christ. This is my second point – God’s wisdom comes through Jesus Christ. Paul says in verse 30 of chapter one that “Christ Jesus became for us the wisdom of God, and righteousness and sanctification, in order that as it is written, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” We are all wise, not because of our learning and ability to win arguments, but because we follow Jesus and he alone has saved us. The fact that Jesus has rescued us all is a great leveler. It has nothing to do with our degrees, or our finances, or how useful we’ve been to society, or how many good turns we have done. He came to earth, died for us on a cross, to forgive us from all our sins, and to rescue us, so we can have eternal life with him for ever. He didn’t do that because he thought we were the clever, and influential people to be saved. He did that because he loved us. We did nothing – Jesus did everything for us.

So we have no reason to boast of our achievements. If we are to boast, it is not in our learning, and we need not be ashamed of our lack of learning. We can all have pride in the fact that God, in his wisdom, sent Jesus to save us. Paul wanted his hearers to boast in Jesus Christ. As the song we will sing shortly goes, “I will not boast in anything / no gifts, no power, no wisdom / but I will boast in Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection.”

Which brings me to my third point. God’s wisdom is the message of the cross. Paul says in verse 2 of chapter two “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. The philosophers of Paul’s day wanted to know what he felt about grand wordly questions, about the nature of existence and morality. And it is no different today. Those around us in our country, in politics, in the media, all want to know what we have to say about scientific theories, and other religions and grand economic schemes to save the planet. The only time that our media is interested in Christianity is when they want to report our Archbishop criticizing the government’s Big Society proposals, or else when they want to mock Christians in TV comedies, to present them as simple minded people. But Paul didn’t get embroiled in such conversations. He had one, simple message to preach – that we are all sinners, who need to turn to Jesus Christ, the only son of God for our salvation. That’s it. I’ll say it again, because even though Paul addresses all sorts of topics in Corinthians, this is the message of God’s wisdom – that even though we are sinners, deserving of death, Jesus was crucified on a cross to die for our sins so that we can be saved.

You see, the people of Corinth totally misunderstood wisdom. They thought it was all about deep knowledge of God, and philosophy, and religion, and reasoning the hard questions of life. But the wisdom Paul had to offer was a response. God’s wisdom is not about what we know, it is what we choose. It is all to do with whether we accept that Jesus’ death on the cross is our only means of salvation, or whether we consider it foolishness, and decide not to follow Christ. It has been the same all throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, the book of Proverbs 111:10 says that Wisdom is not about recognizing the authority of God over us; “The Fear of the Lord is wisdom.” Jesus, in Matthew 7, described wisdom as being like the Wise Man who built a house on a rock, and said that this meant that those who heard his words and followed his teaching were wise.And the ultimate secret wisdom of God was revealed to the apostles, such as Paul, who recognized that Jesus’ death on the cross was the only hope for humanity, and that the only human response was to follow Jesus and accept this. Paul was only interested in one thing – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, through whom all could be saved.

So the wisdom of God is the message that Jesus died on a cross for our sins. And the wonderful thing about this message is that it is simple. It is a simple message that God wants us to share with all those around us. This is the good news that everyone can spread – not just vicars, or people who have gone away to study at college like me, but all of us. And because Jesus has saved you, as an individual, through his death on the cross, you have a personal, unique story to tell to those around you – a story which is very, very special.

And finally, the wisdom of God is given to us through the Holy Spirit.

How do know what other people think? How they will act? The better we know them, the more we are likely to say we know their mind. We know what their habits are – whether they will rush over to the TV to watch the tennis or football, or bury themselves in a book or the garden whenever the football or tennis is on. The more we know people, the more we know their views on politics, how they might vote, what they are passionate about.

But Paul says, that if we really want to know someone, we would need to know their thoughts, and to do that, we would need to have their Spirit in us. He says in verse 11, “Who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.”

When we invite Jesus into our life, we receive the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit reveals to us the wisdom of God. The first way the Holy Spirit revealed God to us was by showing us the truth about the death of Jesus on the cross. The Holy Spirit helped us understand the truth of who Jesus was and why his death was important when we first became Christians.the very fact that we know this to be true, is God revealing it to us, through our spirit.

There are also other ways in which the Spirit reveals to us things to us to guide us, when we pray. For all of us the Holy Spirit speaks through the Bible to show us the wisdom of God, as I believe he is now, as I share 1 Corinthians with you. Sometimes the Holy Spirit reveals truth to Christians in very visible and spectacular ways, sometimes he pricks our conscience to do the right things. But the Spirit in us guides us into the wisdom of God as shown through the words and actions of Jesus. So Paul says in verse 16, we have the mind of Christ in us.

Facebook: Social Network or Social Nightmare?

Yesterday I was at a training weekend for a Christian Summer camp I am helping lead for teenagers over in Wales. Our camp overall leaders are very tech savvy, and as such the main way our leadership team will communicate before the camp is through Twitter and Facebook. As part of the training, we were asked to make sure our Facebook timelines are in good shape, i.e. not too many embarrassing photos of parties or posts from unruly contacts.

That got me thinking if there was anything embarrassing on my Facebook site. Memories of a certain notorious Vicar reported in the press sprang to mind. Fortunately, after checking my page, I decided there was nothing on it that I wouldn’t be happy with people seeing.

Personally I use Facebook a lot, and am fairly indiscriminate as to which friends and contacts can see my timeline. As a Christian, it is very important to me that the image I present on Facebook is both an honest depiction of the fun-loving character I hope I am, and a good witness to Jesus Christ, who I follow. But then it struck me how absurd a creation Facebook actually is from a social perspective. In addition to making lots of money, Mark Zuckerberg managed to break the tightest social (and very British) conventions of mixing up our public and private lives. Instead of being able to live a beautifully compartmentalised lives where I can have civilised conversations about English novels and classical music with my parents, debate theology with my tutors, and invite my Bristol mates over for a game of poker; I risk inviting my tutors over for games of poker, trying to interest my friends from the pub in Tchaikovsky and Beethoven – you get the picture.

Mark Zuckerberg didn’t just invent a social network. He invented the ultimate cyberspace social nightmare. He linked together people – people that should never have been in the same room together, let alone talking. Facebook became a grand virtual wedding party, only instead of being able to keep bawdy Uncle Joe and prim and proper Aunty Mabel safely on different tables as any respectable British Bride or Groom would, they are all invited to converse and argue over a simple status update such as “Roger Federer beat Andy Murray at tennis :-(”

Let’s take the dinner party analogy further. Suppose you have, say, 500 friends, that you invite to a party. (Remember this is just an analogy – don’t actually do this on Facebook unless you want your home trashed). In Facebook terms, this means 500 people can come and visit your virtual home – your “timeline” (used to be wall), look at your photos, read all your comments, and start the one thing that hosts at dinner parties all dread – conversation.

Of course, not all 500 people will turn up. Probably about 25 will accept the invite to drop in periodically to the party and check on what you are up to. But be warned, these will not be 25 of your inner circle of friends. They will be the Facebook addicts, a random selection of 5% of your friends, but invariably will including at least the following:

  • your mate you go out to the pub with on Fridays, a lady from church who prayers for you each week;
  • your extrovert friend who has 3000 Facebook friends and counting;
  • one work colleague (possibly your boss);
  • your vicar;
  • one liberal leftie political campaigner;
  • one right wing conservative who will argue with the leftie about everything,
  • one philosopher,
  • one friend you knew at primary school,
  • one of your old teachers;
  • one lady who has known you all your life and still remembers you as a ten year old,
  • your mum (who may be the lady who has known you etc…),
  • one games addict, who wants you to play Pizza Tycoon so he can win 30000 points and build a new pepperoni tower,
  • and saucy Sally. Saucy Sally is the well-intentioned friend who naively wants to play the equivalent of “spin the bottle” at your Facebook dinner party and has found an app which posts the tantalising question “Do you think Mark would look good in a tutu?” on your public timeline.

Suppose such people met in real life, at your wedding. You wouldn’t sit them at the same table, unless you had the constution of Chuck Norris or the patience of the Archbishop of Canterbury. But on Facebook, you sit them in the same virtual place, throw in the odd controversial topic such as “I don’t agree with the government on…” and try to clean the virtual blood and carnage off your timeline later. The Facebook host has to be the ultimate diplomat.

And for those of your friends that aren’t into conversation – be warned – there will always be some who want to browse through your photo albums (which means looking at every amusing picture you posted on Facebook in the past 6 years). Alternatively, they will be fascinated by all the places you have been in the past week (the shopping mall/the pub/at home/in bed), which Facebook has time-stamped to the nearest minute using a surveillance system that makes the one from the 1960s series of “The Prisoner” look positively blind.

As a Christian, it is very important for me to be a person of integrity. What this means, is I want what is seen of me on Facebook (despite my flaws and failings) to honour Christ. But the challenge is that it is impossible to be schizophrenic on Facebook. There will be sides of me that I am used to showing to some friends that will become visible to others through Facebook. Another challenge for me is that I am one of those people who has friends who are so polarised in their opinions that I very much doubt they would get on with each other in real life. Perhaps I was destined to be a diplomat.

I know people have different views about Facebook. Some people avoid it altogether (saving themselves a lot of time, unlike addicts like me). This is a bit like not hosting large dinner parties for peace of mind, which is understandable.

Some people are selective who they invite as friends. This allows for a more intimate, closer dinner party – but there is always the risk of those who are left out of the party getting miffed.

Others, the techno-geeks, have actually figured out how to custom adjust the settings on Facebook so that there are different levels of privacy. I suppose this is a bit like gagging Uncle Joe at the dinner party and putting ear-muffs on Aunty Mabel.

So, I guess I am a sucker for punishment, in that I like all my friends to visit my Facebook page, despite the occasions when they disagree. But as a host, when the cyberspace carnage descends on my timeline, I will reassure myself that it was not I that created this social nightmare – it was all of you who couldn’t get on!

Should the Church of England have a party line?

I am often asked as a Christian, why there is so much disagreement in the Church of England, and why we can’t just make its mind up about where we stand on issues and what we believe. After all, we worship the same God, read the same Bible, so ought we not to agree?

Some people ask me, why has the Anglican Church spent so long trying to decide whether or not it should ordain women as bishops?  Can’t we be more like the  Roman Catholic Church, and just take a clear stand on things, under the pronouncements of the Pope?

The Catholic Church, it seems to me, has a very clear stance on many issues. Clergy should not marry and should remain celibate. Only men can be ordained priests, since this is the church tradition. Contraception shouldn’t be used (I’m not sure actually whether this Catholic stance is changing). People know where they stand as a Roman Catholic. They might not agree with the judgements of their church leaders. They might feel called to be ordained as priests, but find an obstacle in their being a woman or married, but at least they know what their church teaches and they obey it. They know the party line, and it is in accordance with church tradition and the traditional reading of Scripture, even if it frustrates the modern liberal.

However, to me it seems a bit too much like a dictatorship. A person (or group of people) makes the rules and others follow. Historically this has at times got out of hand (Pope. But there have been times when I have asked myself, should the Church of England have a Pope? Should the Church of England be a dictatorship, even?*
My answer is an emphatic no. For protestants, it is the Bible that should be our supreme authority, not the leaders of the Church. Unfortunately, of course, this means that we will always argue as Christians about how to interpret the Bible today. It is conveniently easy for all of us to want to argue the Bible into saying what we want, and can be scarily easy to convince others that this is the truth. But we have to recognise that there are genuine, faithful, Christians who will disagree on what the Bible says.

So we are left in the Church of England with a glorious democracy (heavy sarcasm) where it has taken 20 years between the decision to ordain women as priests and the final deliberations about whether to ordain women as bishops. Today significant events take place for the Church of England, as the general synod finally shows signs of the slow moving democratic wheels coming to a conclusion. So why so long?

However, for me, slow progress is a necessary price for making provision within the Anglican church for differing views. When asked why there is division in the church, my instinctive response is to say, would you expect the Labour and Conservative party to agree so readily, even though both parties would claim to be rational and democratic? Equally, the church encompasses a diverse range of beliefs. Some believe that women should not be allowed to preach to men, or have authority over them (a legitimate interpretation of 1 Tim 2; “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man”)and so oppose women being bishops. Others believe that women played important roles as leaders in the New Testament church (such as Priscilla in Acts 18:19; Romans 16:3), and so argue that ordaining women as bishops should be accepted today.

We should not be afraid of differences of theology and conscience in the Church of England. What we should be afraid of, and what I am vehemently opposed to, are those who interpret the Bible in one particular fashion to fit with their agenda (ie. women bishops should be ordained) and insist on imposing it on others. Or else they insist that because the majority have democratically voted in favour all others must conform their theology to fit. So it is with sadness that I read in today’s Independent (Can The Church finally accept women bishops) that it seems that some are wanting to reject the Women Bishop’s bill on grounds that it permits those who cannot in good conscience serve under a women bishop from having an alternative male one.

In good “democratic” fashion, this is all done by playing the discrimination card (your beliefs are discriminating against my “rights”, so I will not allow you to be in the same church as me any more). But if the Church of England starts imposing a party-line (ie. insisting all vicars must accept women bishops, and serve under them) then what unites us as members of the church? Not the historic creeds, not saving faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but whether I think women bishops are biblical. I think faithful Christians can argue either way on the subject, and as such neither side should be forced out of the church for refusing to do what they cannot in good conscience do.

That is why, ultimately, I like the fact that Christians in the Church of England can disagree on issues such as whether women should be bishops, without having to leave to join the Roman Catholic church (I couldn’t personally do this – I’m too protestant!) or set up independent churches. I see it as good that the Church of England for the present can exist as a body of faithful Christians without having too much of a  party-line that all must follow.

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*This was to be the original title of my post, but though it is catchy, it seemed a bit too unfair on the Roman Catholic church to call it a dictatorship! I suppose I want to say that the Catholic church has more of a weight of authority and the tradition of its Popes and councils when pronouncing directly on issues.

Love: Beyond sex and marriage (Part 2 of 2)

In this post I want to ponder the question of what loving relationships are, and whether marriage is the only place for the most loving relationships.

In a lecture last year where I was being taught about taking funerals, a minister expressed to us how moved he had been when taking the funeral of a man who had been in a civil partnership, with the depth of sorrow his bereaved partner felt for him. He had been very struck by this. The minister was wanting to say to us that whatever our views might be about civil partnerships, pastorally the situation could be as difficult for the bereaved as a wife who had lost her husband.

This was, I think, supposed to be surprising news to us. But I admit my gut response was to think – duh, of course the man loved this man as much as a woman might love her husband. For me, it didn’t seem at all logical to assume that someone is incapable of loving someone of the same gender less than a person is capable of loving someone of the opposite gender. Equally, although it is in a sense ridiculous to attempt to rank the depth of emotional feeling someone feels after losing their beloved on a kind of scale, I would not see a man losing his life partner of the same gender as being “lower down” the scale of grief a man losing his wife.

However, the more I have come to think about it, the more I have talked to people, it seems that lots of Christians do genuinely believe that the surest act of love must take place between a man and a woman, and that all humans are naturally hard-wired to love someone of the opposite sex more than someone of the same sex.

Often, as with pretty much all Biblical teaching on relationships and marriage, this understanding arises from Genesis 2. The familiar verse, “It is not good for man to be alone, I will make him a helper as his partner” (Gen 2:18), in response to Adam’s loneliness, is answered with the creation of Eve. Adam is overjoyed at Eve’s creation, her being different from the animals, and he sings “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken” and the first marriage is instituted, with Genesis saying “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Gen 2:14)

The standard assumption that many Christians make when reading these verses is to view Adam and Eve as a direct pattern for all men and women to follow. A single man (Adam) is lonely, and the solution is for him to marry and start a family with a single woman (Eve). Therefore, the logic runs, all single men must marry single women to combat loneliness, or else they will remain alone. To not be lonely, to love and to be fully loved, Christians believe they must marry.

This assumption has a lot of logical flaws, however. Although certainly the Israelites would have seen marriage and procreation as the norm, the point of Adam and Eve uniting together seems to be that Adam is the only human in existence and needs human fellowship. The marriage of Adam and Eve is not just their individual benefit, but for the benefit of human society at large. Adam and Eve’s marriage leads to the creation of a new fellowship – namely, humanity. So the cure to Adam’s loneliness is not just one woman, but a helper who faithfully helps him to found an entire dynasty.

All men and woman need love, friendship, company and fellowship to save them from loneliness. Not all will find this in marriage – though that should be the principal means for most to express their love.

However, this does not lessen the significance of the fact that in the Bible, love shows itself in a multitude of ways between men and women.  As I mentioned in my last post, Jonathan’s love for David was “wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam 1:26). This is not, as I have sometimes heard, just because David had a series of bad marriages! Neither does it imply that in any way Jonathan and David’s relationship was sexual or that they should have got married. But this does not lessen the quality of their love.

The supreme example of love, is of course, that of a single man for all of humanity – Jesus Christ. Jesus, explained that the greatest love of all was sacrificial: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) The apostle John explains how Jesus showed love in exactly this manner, in dying for us; “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

So those who are married should strive to love one another dearly. But those who are not married are also called to love one another deeply as well.

Love: Beyond sex and marriage? (Part 1 of 2)

Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage.” So sang Frank Sinatra in 1955.

I love it when people get married, especially in church. It is wonderful to see a man and a woman express their love for one another by making promises before God, embarking on a journey to commit to one another for life, the beginning of the creation of the new family. I very much look forwards to the time when I will be able to marry people (as a vicar, that is), and will be praying that their marriage will indeed be one of love.

However, when recently reflecting on the Coalition For Marriage’s petition against the redefinition of marriage as anything other than “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others,” it struck me that the petition mentions nothing of love.

In a sense this shouldn’t be surprising, in that those defending the traditional view of marriage are not, ostensibly, arguing against two people of the same gender loving each other, but against the legal institution of marriage being altered. It seems to me that legal terminology is more to do with matters such as adoption rights, inheritance, benefits and whether or not you feel someone is discriminating against you than love.

For many Christians, it is also the religious institution of marriage that is at stake in the government’s proposal. In the eyes of Christians, marriage is not just something that society came up with, but God. Most traditionalist Christians believe that God ordained marriage as a union between one man and one woman, who show fidelity to one another through sexual union (and don’t have sex with anyone else) and who seek to raise a stable family in the context of this relationship. This can be supported by the statement in Genesis 2:24, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (quoted by Jesus in Matt 19:5-6)

But the question I want to ask in part one of this post (the topic is too big for me to express my thoughts about in one go – sorry!) is, is marriage the ultimate expression of love? Hear me out on this. I am an idealistic optimist. I recognise that marriages are flawed, but I see it as the intention of people who marry to aspire to give themselves to one another through faithful sacrificial love. But is marriage always the carriage that follows the horse of love? Is the only way two people can express their complete intimacy to one another through a marriage, and is the love between two people of the same gender (friends or civil partners) somehow of a lesser quality because they are not married?

There are numerous ways in which people define marriage. (I think that is why politicians are struggling when thinking in terms of redefining it, as no one seems quite sure what the original definition was first off).

The Coalition for Marriage’s petition defines marriage as “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others.” But what then would be their definition of a gay marriage, so redefined, that they are objecting to? In shorthand (leaving polygamy aside for the time being), if it is merely the reversal of this definition, it would seem to be, “the voluntary union for life of two men or two women to the exclusion of all others.” Which sounds to me suspiciously like a civil partnership, by another name. However, the Coalition For Marriage’s website makes it clear that “Civil partnerships already provide all the legal benefits of marriage so there’s no need to redefine marriage. It’s not discriminatory to support traditional marriage. Same-sex couples may choose to have a civil partnership but no one has the right to redefine marriage for the rest of us.”* So the argument seems to be, that homosexual civil partnerships are one thing, but heterosexual marriage is something else. A marriage and a civil partnership are different. Fair enough.

So what are some Christian definitions of marriage? As someone training to be an Anglican vicar, I probably ought to be much less muddled in my definition of what marriage is than I actually am. But for what it’s worth, I think there are several different definitions of marriage going around in Christian circles, which is where half the confusion seems to be arising. Let’s look at some:

1) Marriage is a lifelong union, instituted by God, between one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others. It is consummated by sexual union, and is the only valid context for sex. It is the context in which children should be raised and nurtured.

2) Marriage is a public commitment, made in the eyes of God, where two people declare their love and commitment to one another to the exclusion of all others. It is blessed by God.

3) Marriage is the context where two people can most fully express their unconditional love and fidelity to each other. Within marriage, two people are able to physically express the level of their intimacy through the most intimate bond ever – that of sexual union. It is in the context of marriage that two people are able to most fully give their love to another individual and receive love from them in return.

Definition one, I would say, is the traditional view of what Christian marriage is. Personally, I think I am in broad agreement with this view, that marriage should be exclusive, and the context for rasing children, and the proper context for faithful sexual union. For me, this is what the Bible sets out to say when it explains marriage. The conservative in me says that the Bible intends marriage to be heterosexual, and that homosexual sex is wrong in God’s eyes. The liberal in me wants to say that it is actually promiscuous, lustful behaviour that the Bible primarily speaks out against, and that a gay marriage, if permissible, should aspire to those qualities of fidelity and providing a stable family unit. I confess my internal jury is still out on this one.

Definition two could apply to a blessed civil partnership – it need not be called a marriage. It says nothing of sex, and could be celibate. What it does promise is that the couple will aspire to loving faithfulness, and exclusivity. I can’t see as there are any Christian grounds for opposing such a union, yet sadly some Christians seem vehemently opposed to even a civil relationship of this nature.

Definition three is in my view, seriously flawed. It implies that for all individuals to know true love (which lets face it, every human desires), marriage is vital (as is sex). It idolizes marriage too much as the least lonely and most desirable state for all individuals, a form of idolatry that the modern protestant church seems to sadly succumb to. But the supreme example of love is the sacrificial love of Jesus, who died for our sins. Jesus was the most loving being ever to have lived, yet he was single and celibate. Another Biblical example is the example of David. David was married to several women, and lusted after and raped Bathsheba, but he also sings that Jonathan’s non sexual love for him was greater than that: “Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.” (2 Sam 1:26)

I would be interested to know what others think on this topic before I write part two of this post, and in particular, what married people think, as I am writing from a single point of view.

Mark

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*A statement which inadvertently seemed to alienate same-sex couples in civil partnerships from signing the petition, by assuming they are not “us”.