Thursday, December 29, 2005

Getting right our relationship with God for 2006

The wisemen are the only people in the Christmas story who come to worship Jesus. They have seen his star in the East, and they just can't wait to pay him homage.
Herod doesn't want to worship Jesus. His only thought is to strangle God's new initiative at birth. He's happy with the way things are, he doesn't want his life turning upside down by a baby who needs to be worshipped.
The shepherds make haste to Bethlehem to see this thing which has taken place, and they make known the amazing story of their encounter with the angels. But they don't worship Jesus. Even Mary doesn't worship him. She only ponders all these things in her heart.
Aren't these responses all too familiar among the people we meet? Many are prepared to acknowledge Jesus as a great and inspiring teacher. But they don't want to worship him, only to borrow some of his ideas perhaps, to pick and mix with other teachings and philosophies, or to ponder the amazing story of his life and death. Some even see him as a threat, which they deliberately shut out of their life and their thinking, because they don't want their world view and their hopes and ambitions to be turned upside down. It takes faith and commitment to worship him.
The beginning of January, when Methodists traditionally observe the 'covenant service', is as good a time as any to ask ourselves whether we have truly aligned ourselves with the tradition of the wisemen. Are we committed to offering him our most precious gifts of love, devotion and service?
Even though they had good intentions, of course, the actions of the wisemen had unintended consequences. They went to the wrong place looking for Jesus, and a lot of people died as a result.
Over Christmas we were talking about a film which our children had watched called 'The Butterfly's Wing'. It didn't sound like a barrel of laughs so I certainly wont be going out to look for the DVD, but the theme of the story was how tiny changes in the way we behave or act can have huge repercussions for good or ill.
I guess the makers of the film got the idea for the story from Chaos Theory, which describes how the world as we know it has been brought about by the interaction of lots of tiny random events. A good example is someone braking on a motorway. The person behind them brakes too, but just a little harder, and so does the next driver behind them. Then someone swerves from one lane to another, and soon drivers in all three lanes are braking, and before you know it we've got a tailback stretching for half-a-mile – all because of one, tiny, random event.
There's a short story called 'The Butterfly's Wing' as well, in which some hunters go back in a time machine to shoot a dinosaur that was about to be killed anyway by a falling branch. The leader of the expedition explains that the whole thing has been carefully planned so that nothing, absolutely nothing, about the past will be altered by their intervention. A special path has been laid down for them to walk on so that they won't crush even a single bug or caterpillar. They are to stay on the path, and they are to shoot only the one dinosaur. But, in the heat of the moment, one of the hunters panics. He blunders off the path and, when the leader of the expedition looks at the bottom of his boots, there's a butterfly's wing stuck to them. 'Well, it's only a butterfly,' the hunter says in his defence, but – of course – when they arrive back in the present, the world is a totally different place.
It sounds like a fanciful idea, but the covenant service makes similar claims. The way we behave can make a difference to the world. More than that, it makes a difference to God. God cares about what we do, each day, and wants us to enter into a covenant to work with him for good. What an amazing idea! What a challenge!
The wisemen took a right turn instead of a left. They ended up in Jerusalem, asking, 'Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?' If only they had ended up in Bethlehem, talking to the shepherds rather than to Herod. Debate rumbles on about whether or not the massacre of the innocents is a real story or a legend. Herod was certainly capable of such a thing, because he didn't even hesitate to kill his own children when they got in his way. But the story is true even if it isn't historically accurate. It's true because it recognises that how we behave – little, ordinary you and me – does have consequences for other people, for our community, perhaps even for our world – and, certainly, it matters to God.
One thing the wisemen did was to go with the flow. God called them to do something, and they made themselves available – not knowing, necessarily, what the outcome would be. The covenant service asks us to do the same – to make ourselves available to do God's will even when we cannot see where this might lead, and to be open to the guidance and inspiration of the Spirit.
Finally, of course, science meets religion in the story of the wisemen – not only in all that stuff about Chaos Theory and the consequences of our actions, but in the star which they followed.
They were astrologers, rather than astronomers, so it's easy to scoff at them. But, just as the origins of chemistry and physics lie in alchemy, so the origins of modern astronomy lie in astrology. The ancient astrologers were scientists. In their attempt to measure the movement of the stars, astrologers from Persia and Iraq invented many of the things we now take for granted, such as the measuring of time in units of sixty called 'hours'. There are properties about the number 'sixty' which make it ideally suited for this.
The ancient ancestors of many people in Britain studied the sun, moon and stars with amazing accuracy, too, but they never got around to writing down their findings in calculations which other people could easily check and confirm. They wrote their findings on the landscape in enormous henges and monuments. The wisemen wrote their findings down on paper or clay tablets, in columns of arithmetic. It was a great advance on the way to modernity.
Yet, when their calculations lead them to Jesus, the wisemen can only kneel down before him. Their science can only take them so far. It can't help them to understand his significance for their lives. From a scientific viewpoint he is, after all, just another baby.
Sciences categorises things in order to make them predictable. Religion deals with the unpredictable, with the things that lie beyond the boundaries of calculation and experiment. It's about love and joy and peace, things which we all know are important but which are hard to measure and put in boxes. Science is objective, religion is subjective. Science tries to stand outside things and observe them dispassionately, whereas only through relationship can we find true religion. The covenant is about getting right our relationship with God for another year.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Jesus of Bethlehem

One of the most common titles for Jesus in the Gospels and in the early Church is 'Jesus of Nazareth'. He is never called 'Jesus of Bethlehem'. He didn't come from Bethlehem, you see, any more than I come from Guildford, the place where I was born. He came from Nazareth. That was the place where he grew up as a child and learned to speak with a Galilean accent. That was the place where he learnt his trade and learnt about his faith. And yet he wasn't born in Nazareth. All of the Gospel writers, except St Mark, mention that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
The puzzle is, 'What was he doing there?' The Gospel writers agree that it's got something to do with King David. Jesus is a descendant of David. He may come from Nazareth, but he was born in the place where David used to live. So what's the connection between the two places? How does Jesus come to belong to both Nazareth and Bethlehem?
St Matthew speculates that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem before Jesus was born, and then fled to Egypt as refugees because the wicked King Herod wanted to kill him. Even after King Herod's death they dared not go back home, but moved to Nazareth because it was in Galilee, outside the Herod family's control.
People from Galilee were a bit suspect in Jesus' day. They were Jewish people, but only because their ancestors had converted to Judaism. And in many people's eyes that made them second class citizens. Some people looked down on Jesus because he came from Nazareth. How convenient, then, to discover that he wasn't really from Nazareth, although he grew up there and sounded like a Galilean. The New Testament agrees that his ancestors were not just Jewish, they were royals.
St Luke has a different theory about how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem. According to him, Mary and Joseph came from Nazareth, although Joseph had been born in Bethlehem and needed to go back there – with Mary, his new wife – because a census was taking place. How inconvenient for Mary, who was heavily pregnant! Later generations speculated that she could only have made it to Bethlehem if she had been able to ride on a donkey.
Unfortunately, St Luke's story falls to pieces on close examination. Quirinius was not governor of Syria when Jesus was born. He did order a census, but not of the people who lived in Judea. And even if there was a census in Judea, why would anyone bother counting people in the wrong place? Isn't the whole point of a census to find out who's actually living in a place? Why would you ask someone to go back home to be counted if they had already left home?
We shall never know for sure why Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem, but a more likely reason might be that they wanted to avoid a scandal. If there's a bit of doubt about exactly when a baby has been conceived, the best way to avoid wagging tongues is to go away for the birth. And what better excuse could there be to go away for a bit, than to visit your new husband's family?
Whether you opt for St Luke's explanation or St Matthew's, the Christmas story has a very contemporary feel. It's just like our Christmases. We live in complicated families where the person that children call 'Dad' sometime isn't their father, although he takes care of them like a father would. And we live in families that are often separated by long distances and where it's very complicated for people to see one another at Christmas. Sometimes they're on different continents, and can only see one another via a video link, if they can see one another at all. Sometimes we're in exile with no foreseeable hope of return to where we feel we belong. According to the first Christmas story, Jesus has been there and done that.
For St Luke a stable seemed like an extraordinary place to be born. He couldn't imagine that it would be normal for babies to be laid in a manger. The inn must have been full, he reasoned. But actually, that's not true. In Palestine, at the time of Jesus, it's probable that most ordinary people were born in the part of the house where the animals were kept – especially in winter – because it was the warmest place to go and babies need to be kept warm. Jesus was probably born in the most ordinary surroundings imaginable at the time. And, again, that gives us a link with the Christmas story. We're ordinary people, and here we are celebrating a God who comes to live in an ordinary place, in an ordinary way, with ordinary everyday folk.
St Matthew makes exactly this point when he has the wisemen go, by mistake, to the King's palace. In the end, they find Jesus not in a stable but in an ordinary house. And St Luke re-emphasises the point in a different way, when he tells us that the birth of Jesus is announced to ordinary shepherds, not to special people like priests or leaders.
The Christmas story is about the extraordinary breaking in to ordinary life so that all of us might have something to celebrate even in the darkest time of the year. If, today, people have lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas, if it has become an ordinary celebration for them, all about family and friends, and eating, drinking and being merry, isn't that – in some ways – quite appropriate because it reminds us that the birth of Jesus only becomes special when we understand that God is found in ordinary people and in ordinary places?
When we confront our own ordinariness, when we face up to our poverty of spirit, when we stop pretending about ourselves and when we get down to basics, then we find ourselves in solidarity with the saviour of the world.
Prayer of Concern
Dear Lord, it is wonderful that a tiny baby can change the world.
Thank you for the love you have shown us by giving up your only son.
We pray for those today who do not even have a stable – who are on the streets or who cannot afford to celebrate Christmas.
We pray that people of all ages, rich and poor of all nationalities, might respond to your message of love.
We praise you on this day of celebration, in the words of the angels' song:
'Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth.' Amen

Last July in Beeston

I now know that the so-called journalists' notebooks which you can buy in stationers' shops are aptly named. Almost every journalist seems to carry one, unless they're armed with a microphone. So it was easy to spot the journalists in Beeston last summer as they stood on street corners, scribbling away in their notebooks.
Before last July I had never met any journalists from the big national dailies. Now I've met journalists from international newspapers too – from America, Spain, France, Brazil and Japan, to name but a few.
Many journalists came to Beeston with preconceived ideas, and simply sought out someone who would confirm what they already believed. So one TV journalist strode down Lodge Lane, behind the Building Blocks and Hamara Centres, confidently declaring that Beeston was a 'tense and divided community'. The Times informed its readers that 'extreme views' are 'disseminated in mosques by ill-educated imams' – this despite the fact that the imam from the mosque in Stratford Street delivered an impassioned denunciation of violence at the end of the two minute silence on the Thursday after the 7th July attacks. But then the Times reporter didn't wait until the Thursday before jumping to conclusions. On Wednesday the paper lamented the divisions its reporter had supposedly found between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Beeston. Under the headline, 'Where partition walls are the only things they share,' the reporter said that 'in the course of three hours [in Beeston], I saw not a single mixed group' of young people.'
Well, three hours is not a long time, is it? I have spent more than nine years in Beeston and it's true that young people of different races don't mix very much on street corners. But they do play football together in the park, and sometimes cricket too. And they do sometimes walk together to school. And if 'young people' includes young mothers, they mix very well at the Building Blocks Centre where I work, and so do their children.
While print journalists were happy to draw remarkably quick conclusions from the flimsiest of evidence, TV journalists were often guilty of arriving with the script already written so that it could be delivered straight to camera. Beeston served merely as a vivid backdrop to their story, a kind of living wallpaper.
I have known the leaders of the Muslim community in Beeston for many years. They are honest and totally law-abiding people, some of whom have worked tirelessly to regenerate Beeston and improve community and inter-faith relations. When they say that they had no inkling whatever of the desperate plot being hatched in their midst, I believe them implicitly. But not so the leader writers of The Daily Telegraph, who insisted it was 'inconceivable' that nobody around the young men noticed what they were planning to do.
The Financial Times claimed that, while 'racial integration has worked in prosperous London, it has failed in the old textile towns of the north.' Whether or not that's true, and I don't know any old textile towns well enough to comment, it is hardly an explanation for terrorists coming from Leeds, one of the most prosperous places anywhere in the country.
In a democracy, we do need journalists and I for one was happy to welcome them, and to talk to them. If the media didn't come to places like Beeston to report breaking news, how would the rest of the nation – and the rest of the world – find out about it? So I don't subscribe to the view that journalists are worthless parasites who can safely be ignored by the rest of us; but nevertheless I was shocked by the lack of professionalism and the lack of healthy curiosity and interest in the truth shown by many members of the press.
Yet some of the journalism was very good, and I don't just mean the journalism which quoted me! Even 'The Sun' had the good sense to condemn 'imbecilic' reprisal attacks by the racist 'thugs' who damaged people's cars in Beeston and went out at night to daub racist graffiti. Despite the young man who told one of my acquaintances that she should be ashamed to sit next to an Asian man on the bus home from work, I think most of the racists came from outside the area, drawn to it by all of the publicity on TV and in the press – and especially by some of the claims that Beeston is a deeply divided place.
Going some way to redress the balance, 'The Guardian' contained a sensitive article about the two minute silence in Beeston to remember the victims of the bombings, and the way it began optimistically as people of all faiths and races gathered together outside the Hamara Centre. Despite coming to some totally unjustified conclusions in its leader columns, 'The Telegraph' was also one of the first papers to publish a condemnation of the London Bombings by a local imam.
One of the best articles about the events of that week was published in a French Catholic newspaper, La Croix. Perhaps because the writer, Brice Arlet, comes from another country, he was prepared to give his readers some uncomfortable questions to consider.
'How are we to explain the inexplicable?' he asked. Beeston Hill is a poor neighbourhood, but – with its hillside covered in little red brick houses all the same – it isn't penniless, unemployment is low and the family of one of the people involved in the bombing is actually quite wealthy.
'Everyone is shocked and no one can understand it,' Mohammed Aliaz told him, all the more so because the lives of the three young men were so ordinary. And, far from finding a divided community, Monsieur Arlet met people who told him that people mix well in Beeston, and women and people of faith play an important part in this. 'The different communities live side by side without any problem,' someone called Mary told him. And she should know because she has lived in Beeston for sixty-two years. The implication is that if terrorists can come from a place like this, they can come from anywhere!
There have been calls for the Muslim community to banish radical young men from their mosques and community schools. The trouble is, of course, that neither Islam nor Christianity can operate in this way. Jesus' story of 'The Weeds Among the Wheat' makes the point that all communities – including religious communities – are bound to include both good and bad people. If we try to keep our communities pure, by guarding them against people with the wrong kind of motives, or attitudes, or upbringing, how are we going to decide who to allow in and who to exclude? And isn't there a danger that we'll exclude essentially good people who are just going through a wobbly patch, or who are experimenting with ideas which we don't happen to like but who are basically harmless? And what should we do about people who have changed their opinions, and come round to our point of view? When would we decide that they have done enough to be readmitted to our churches or mosques? In any case, bad people are often good at pretending – so some of the weeds would still sneak into the field, however hard we tried to keep them out.
Political parties can exclude people. Perhaps countries can do it, too. But religions can't, because religions are about giving people access to God and helping them to cultivate the spiritual side of human nature. If we seek to deny people that opportunity, we are trying to play God and denying them their birthright. No truly religious person can do that, which is why churches go to so much trouble to try to include child abusers in Christian congregations, with suitable safeguards to make sure they cannot re-offend, and why both Christianity and Islam have prison chaplains to work alongside criminals and put them in touch with their spirituality.
To ask Islam to exclude people from prayer and worship is like asking Christians to root out the weeds from their field while the crop is still growing. It is contrary to our entire ethos. What believers must do, of course, is to try to make sure that members of their communities get sound teaching, good advice and a reliable moral compass so that they can make the kind of life decisions which will bring them closer to God and help them to love peace and justice and live compassionately.