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Tag Archives: discipleship
Once Hogmanay is over (or, depending on your “bah, humbug” factor, maybe even earlier), the celebration of Christmas easily starts to feel dead and buried.
However, fellow-sufferers of the “January blues” may care to join me in reflecting instead on Epiphany, in which some solace is to be found. Although it’s primarily marked on 6th January, it goes goes on being celebrated in the Anglican church’s calender for 4 Sundays.
Epiphany translates, roughly, as “revealing”. It’s about God revealing himself to us, and at this time of year we’re encouraged to reflect on the way in which Jesus’ coming heralded salvation for “outsiders” as well as Jews. We remember how the Magi recognised, gave gifts to and worshipped the Christ child.
What, though, was their experience like? Not a “moment” I think. Rather, in their story we see God’s revelation to humans as a journey.
Matthew (chapter 2) recounts that wise men travelled to Jerusalem having seen a bright star. These were Magi: learned advisors, men to whom others looked for guidance, wisdom and discernment. On Jesus’ birth, they looked into the sky and saw something extraordinary: a star that wasn’t normally there, which didn’t fit the map of the skies they knew. Perhaps they knew something of Jewish culture, that a Messiah was predicted to come. Maybe they had even read Jewish scripture and had it suggested that a star would star signalling his arrival. But these were Gentile men, not Jews. Even if they knew what the Jews believed, why would they take off on a journey to search out a God who wasn’t theirs?
We don’t know the ins and outs of it, but it something pretty powerful must have motivated men to leave their homes and travel at short notice to Jerusalem. Think about it – setting out on a journey because you saw a star?! The story goes even further. Not only did they make a physical pilgrimage, but somehow, somewhere along the way they became convinced that what they were seeking was something with more than physical significance. “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” they said. “We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” They wanted to worship. Their journey had became spiritual.
The Magi who arrive in Jerusalem are changed people; not men who changed themselves, for there is no suggestion they had become, or sought to become, Jews. Rather, they are a people who have been changed. They are thirsty for God – a God who seems already to have revealed something of himself to them, and who invites them to follow his lead. So they continue to seek after him, following the unlikely leading of a star, and in time, after yet more journeying, they find him. A defenseless baby.
In Jesus, God is revealed. In the most unlikely form, in the most unlikely place, by the most unlikely means. Their epiphany – and maybe ours – is not only a moment, but rather it is also a mysterious, time consuming, captivating process.
Trudging through the January blues, let’s remember that we journey with God, and that as we follow his lead, he shows up where we least expect to find him.
Politics. The mere presence of the header was enough. My right forefinger twitched: “click”. Previous page, please. I don’t want to read political garbage. Life’s too short. I’m not interested in stupid games.
That’s how I used to approach things: apathetic.
It’s not that I didn’t care about the world: homelessness, poverty, famine, the environment, war. But these are huge, complex problems, aren’t they? I doubted they could be solved. I doubted that politicians could see beyond their personal career aspirations to want to solve them. Therefore engaging with politics seemed pointless. I was busy enough, after all, taking care of my own happiness: building a career, financial security and success. Other people and “bigger” issues came second.
Perhaps that sounds callous. Or maybe you and I have a common thread of experience.
Now fast forward 3 years. It’s 2010.
Things have changed – or at least have started changing. Now don’t get me wrong; I don’t excitedly leap out of bed each morning to scour the headlines for the latest political heist, and I don’t much care about whether Gordon Brown or David Cameron is having the better week. Nevertheless, issues that politicians get involved in catch my attention now. Why?
My faith has started to have an impact on this part, as on other parts, of my life. There are over 8000 verses in the New Testament. At least 718 of them deal with issues of poverty and justice. That’s nearly 10% of the whole thing, and the proportion is similar when you include Old Testament references. Jesus is recorded as talking about these issues at on at least 290 different occasions (The Poverty and Justice Bible). Perhaps, then, it’s unsurprising that as I read more about God’s plan for the world, what he’s doing in it, I find myself challenged to get involved.
That’s what Jesus did – not by becoming an MP or a high flying executive, but instead by understanding the political world around him and then engaging it in God’s way, on God’s terms. His actions were both profoundly political and profoundly simple. He got stuck right in, loving people without compromise and refusing to allow love’s expression to be limited by state politics. It was a love so radical as to see him tortured and killed.
As I look at pictures of the injured and bereaved of Haiti, I don’t know what to do to help. I’m disappointed with myself for my lack of knowledge of these peoples’ plight; with my lack of concern about how they might be helped; for my lack of knowledge about the political system of which I’m a part. I’m frustrated: as I read of responses by governments and charities, the power of nations like the USA and the UK over Haiti is obvious, and though there’s huge potential to help, there are even bigger questions about how best to do so, and a huge risk of entrapment for the Haitians of the future if the wrong approach is adopted.
Do we really know the best ways to go about helping Haiti in the long term? Of seeing the Haitians liberated? And do we honestly desire to identify them? Naomi Klein spells out the dangers. Bill Quigley suggests positive actions.
I have no idea exactly how the biblical principles I believe should be worked out in the world in this instance. Politics are so complicated. Thank God for the aid agencies working round the clock to bring relief, for the people who have chosen to give sacrificially of themselves to help.
Even while I’m so aware of my inadequacy, though, I see that something has changed in me. I thank God that he gives me a desire, nowadays, to love others: that I am affected by these events in a way I never was “before”, so that thoughts translate into action. I thank him that he loves the people of Haiti as he loves me, and that we have an opportunity to see positive change start as the Hatian people, over the enxt months and years, begin to rebuild.
So here’s my resolve: to get informed, at least a little, and take an interest, armed with what little knowledge I glean, in the actions of my state and of NGO’s. Which means that even I, the most apathetic non-politician I ever knew, am going to have to engage.
How about you?
My view… I’m not about to join the crowd who were penning hate-fuelled placards, that’s for sure.
First though, let’s be clear. Was Jesus transsexual? Highly unlikely. In the 4 accounts of his life (the gospels) Jesus is consistently and exclusively portrayed as a fully human male.
However, do I think God is male? No. Does God transcend sexuality? Yes. God is triune (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). John’s gospel starts by explaining (describing Jesus) that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning”. Jesus lived on earth as a man around 2000 years ago, but he existed before then, at the creation of the earth, and he continues to live today, one interdependent part of the trinity. For another modern characterisation of God you need go no further than a (fabulous) book like The Shack to have your preconceptions challenged.
Is the play intended to cause offense? I haven’t seen it, so take all of this with that caveat, but I don’t think so. According to an interview with Clifford in the Scotsman:
“Jesus, Queen of Heaven, which portrays Jesus as a transsexual woman and has been condemned by elements of the Christian community, is “about rescuing Jesus from the fundamentalists”. But it’s also about Clifford’s pride in being transgendered; she insisted on performing the role herself. Her honesty is striking and within minutes I get a one-woman show of her memoirs, starting from the beginning, Clifford peppering her lines with laughter and relishing the story of her own life.
It’s taken her a long time to get here. “There is an awful lot of hostility towards transgendered people,” she says softly. “I’d internalised a lot of that and was terribly ashamed. I was ashamed for most of my life.” These feelings formed the subject matter of a play Clifford wrote in 2002, when she still was identified as John, called God’s New Frock. The new play is the sequel. “God’s New Frock was partly an autobiographical piece about growing up transgendered and trying to suppress it,” she explains. “The story I told was of me and God in parallel.”
There’s a trailer for God’s new frock here. It looks to me more like an autobiographical attempt to understand how Jesus relates to a personal situation than anything else. Or am I wrong? I’m open to suggestions as to how else I should look at it.
No doubt there are those who will discard both plays out of hand as blasphemous. Maybe they’re right; I’m not sure. Even if I was, I don’t think shouting it down would be helpful. Building relationships and getting round the table to work through an issue isn’t usually facilitated by reciprocal insult-slinging.
What I do think is that it’s complicated. I think there’s something to be said for Clifford’s desire to “rescue Jesus from the fundamentalists”. We (and I mean everyone, but maybe especially people of faith, who seem to think we can claim “right” understanding of the Bible) need to consider what it is we know about God through the Bible very carefully. I do believe that objective truth is there to be had, but the Bible is a complex ancient collection of texts, and must be recognised as such.
I was privileged to hear and be challenged by a gay bishop, Gene Robinson talk on the subject of our biblical understanding of sexuality earlier this year at Greenbelt. It was interesting to hear just how persuasively he made the case for the alternative to the mainstream evangelical view. It encouraged me to reflect on how easy it is for us to twist (in many different directions) the Bible’s teaching to fit our cultural norms. God’s Word needs and deserves to be handled with care, respect, and with a realisation of our potential to twist it. For those of faith – in which I include myself – that means being self-aware, studious, careful and most of all prayerful in considering what God wants me to understand from scripture.
The other thing that strikes me as I ponder Clifford’s interview and the trailer for God’s New Frock is (yet again) how sad it is that the best we seem to be able to do as a Christian community is to react to things in such a way that, as Jesus’ followers, we’re viewed as judgmental and exclusive rather than loving and accepting of people for who they are. I struggle to see how protesting outside the Tron fits with following Jesus’ example. Surely we can learn to love better than that.
A minister got up to do his sermon. He said ‘love one another’ and sat back down. Some were very annoyed at this while others were perhaps delighted. The next week he did the same thing. He said ‘love one another’ and sat back down. As before, some were annoyed and others were pleased. He repeated this performance week after week, until those who were angry before were now raging and even the ones who were previously happy were somewhat perplexed.
Eventually, one week, after the rather short sermon, a furious member of the congregation piped up. ‘what sort of joke is this!? week after week the same few words… what are you playing at!?’
The minister responded calmly. ‘when I see signs that we have really grasped what it means to love one another, we’ll move on.’
Thought provoking. How often can we really say we’re living this stuff we hear? Big challenge.