Saturday, May 24, 2014

lifestyle choices

My good friend Tom Fuerst has blogged about the debate in the US about NFL player Michael Sam. Most UK readers won't know the first thing about Michael Sam; it's a sport that most of us know little about, and many of its characters remain a mystery to us.

Michael Sam is the first openly gay player in the NFL. It's as if we had a Premiership footballer come out; it's that story.

If you haven't read Tom's blog, do so now. Tom writes well on any number of issues, and his blog is always worth a visit for his insight and his humour.

After I read the piece, I messaged Tom with a few comments, and he asked me to post my thoughts as a blog so that we could have a public conversation.

This (slightly adapted) was my response to Tom's article...

As you know this is a subject I think & write about, and I’m always interested in what others are saying. We find ourselves in the middle of a debate, and one of my concerns is that whatever position we hold in that debate we do so with generosity and kindness. Tom, you do that really well - thank you. It has to be the way forward for all of us.

I’d like to reflect briefly on one of your points, if I may?

‘Gay Lifestyle’. Thanks for raising this issue. I see this term more in US writings than in UK works, but we get it here too, and I often feel the urge gently to challenge it. A gay friend of mine describes his ‘gay lifestyle’ as: go to work, watch TV, shop at Walmart, catch the occasional ball game & then church on Sundays. That kind of lifestyle is pretty dangerous... he needs to get out more! 

One of the issues at play here is the minorities question. This also speaks to the justice issue, the lifestyle/habit descriptor and the raising of the gay question to such prominence in current evangelical thinking.

Evangelicalism can have a tendency to see itself as a persecuted minority. The few. The narrow gate. When there are too many of us, we fight amongst ourselves so that it’s clear that somewhere there really is a righteous minority. Minorities always end up being defined by their differences. Make up your own list - but (simplistically) people need community and that means finding sameness with their own and that means finding difference from the majority. The majority is very good at enforcing the latter (‘first openly gay footballer; in case you’d forgotten what makes him special’).

‘Gay lifestyle’ doesn’t mean going to work, shopping at Walmart, catching the occasional ball game & then church on Sundays. It means Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend on TV. If it had been a girlfriend there would have been no comment. But difference is a neon sign, a billboard, the amplifier of minority turned up to eleven. 

These words can be a symbol of pride or a source of contempt but either way they are a mark of difference and a schism in the fabric of humanity. Usually difference ends up being harmful; the majority likes to win. Normally everyone loses. Whoever wanted there to be a ‘culture war’? Someone who wanted to beat someone else. 

So what do we do?

I’m working on Galatians as a way into this at the moment, and it’s slow, and I don’t want to go too far into it, but here’s the crazy notion:

We are called to put the things that make us the same in the spotlight, not the things that separate us.

But there are things that separate us! Hmm. I’m just not sure about that. The Judaisers in Galatians felt it, of course. If the Gentiles didn’t become Jews first, they couldn’t be Christians. Why not? Because of food laws? No - because Gentiles were simply sinners. The Bible said so. They were sinners because they were idolaters. It was because they were idolaters that they practised all kinds of dodgy moral stuff - from free love to shocking food, via no concept of holy days and the all-pervading presence of God and his wonderful Law. So make them Jews, and then they could follow Jesus. 

It’s great logic; great, but wrong.

It’s wrong because it clings to a concept of a two-tiered humanity, and St Paul drives a coach and horses through that. In Romans 1 he points out how idolatry pushes Gentiles to lose themselves in sexual (including, but not exclusively homosexual) sin; in Romans 2 he points out how idolatry pushes the Jews to the great sin of the exile - adultery; in Romans 3 he couples these together and declares that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. One humanity. One fallen humanity needing one saviour.

In Galatians he finds the new humanity - one redeemed humanity in Christ. No male or female, slave or free, Gentile or Jew, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. 

The work I am doing at the moment is looking at a comparison of our current debates and Galatians, because though we are looking at the gay question as ‘grieving over sin’, so (I suggest) were Paul’s contemporaries over the position of women, slaves and (vitally) Gentiles. And in the end, Paul argued for differences to be put away (you make a terrific point about how we all have a tendency to talk down our own sins but talk up the sins of others) as the spotlight hit instead the things in common. Jesus. All have sinned; all are justified freely. God showed his love for us in this: it was while we were yet sinners...

For us all. We were all.

We are the same.

One fallen humanity needing a Saviour, one redeemed humanity worshipping Jesus. 

Of course, though my application of a text may be interesting, useful, and even right, it’s not new. The fact is that people are people and as such as varied as the colours of the dawn. Do we begin our theologies with a grace-shaped positivity toward humanity (made in the image of God, loved by God) or with a sin-focussed outlook (aware of the fallen-ness of humanity, broken & sinful)? When we see Michael Sam do we see a human being loved by God or a gay man perverting the natural order of God’s world? As I get older, it’s not that I see both outlooks as ‘Biblical’. I see them as human, and as human, valid outworkings of human-ness in attempting to understand the Scripture. 

The debate isn’t about Michael Sam or really about the gay issue at all; it’s about us. Christians. How we view the world. How we read the Scriptures. Where we start and where we finish, and the fact that for some of us the Bible is a book best read on a long journey with a Friend and not as a ‘technical manual for life’. This helps me be kind when someone says something thoughtless about the minority that strangely I belong to, even without really knowing very many of my fellow travellers. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to return to my lifestyle. So far today I have shovelled five tons of gravel, mowed half an acre of grass, planned a funeral and still have a sermon to get right for the morning... I may yet need to reach for the Laphroaig.

Friday, May 02, 2014

When 'Rev' lost the plot...

I have mixed feelings about the third series of Rev, the BBC's clerical comedy. Let me explain.

I mean, I suppose (with others) I worry that faith has very little to do with the whole show; that community is thin; that the comedy value of the weaknesses of people serve to illustrate one man's journey, when that one man's journey ought to be about strengthening his flock, not just watching them flounder. But it's a comedy, right?

And yet...

Sometimes I stare at the screen in disbelief because certain moments hit a little close to home.

People often ask - is it really like that? I was asked this week at the choir in Steeple. I reply: on the whole, I think it's on a par with the Vicar of Dibley. Pretty wide of the mark. It's not about the church, it's about the underdog versus the institution, and that theme is universal. The setting is almost irrelevant - that's why it works. The politics, the failures of others, the surprises and occasional victories are stock-in-trade for this type of tale.

And yet...

The final two episodes of this third series dealt with Adam having a kind of breakdown, making a decision to leave behind being a priest, and then starting to find himself resurrected again.

This is where it gets personal for me. And hard to write about. But let's have a go.

I'm hardly alone in the clerical world in sharing Adam's experiences of breakdown for real. It was strange watching what took eighteen months for me (longer, much longer if we include the whole road back) play out over two half-hour episodes of a comedy. It was doubly strange because although many of the characters and events of my story were here seen in caricature,  yet here they were.

When the archdeacon sat in my kitchen and discussed how employable I would be beyond the church, I'm glad to say that he was a good deal more positive than Adam experienced. But we had that meeting. In that place. And my archdeacon (unlike Robert) was right: a good parish priest doesn't look employable - you have to work hard at the CV, and at getting through the interview door, but the skills we have are enormous. This made me very cross as I watched the TV show's very negative version. If someone was going through that now - if I had been going through that and saw that programme, the damage it might have done me... A vicar is a very skilled person. I've been both sides of the work divide. We have gifts others can only dream of.

When my bishop asked me not to resign, I was not in his home. He was in mine. And I was in the very fortunate position of having the Archbishop of Wales as my diocesan bishop. He was terrific. He couldn't solve my problems, but he supported me at every stage. He supported me as I hit a brick wall; he supported me as I coped with being knocked out; he supported me as I made the decision to stop - though he pleaded with me not to stop; and he supported me through the time away, offering counsel and helping me eventually find my way back into ministry. I wouldn't swap Barry Morgan for Ralph Fiennes.

It was painful watching all of Adam's close congregational friends turn on him. My experience was that it genuinely felt like many people turned on me. That feeling is a terrible part of what happens when you break. The truth was mostly very different, I guess, but even now at this distance I still have some trouble fully understanding everything. I also know I gave myself (even when falling apart) for others, only wanting to do good, and yet truthfully I fear that what I wanted to do and what I did were not always the same. Ah well.

That's what happens: you lose your reality - and I think the TV show put this across well. A small example of how the crash affected me: I never swear. Never. My grandmother washed my mouth out with soap when I was seven (truly). That stopped me. Yet when I was falling, something clicked, and I swore constantly for a while. It wasn't that a veneer of politeness cracked and the reality beneath seeped out; it was that I was broken and I had no idea how unlike me I had become. Afterwards, I didn't think about putting that right when I got better, I didn't consciously check my language. I just healed; I became me again.

Adam loses himself for a while in the penultimate episode. And in the midst of that, he finds God (Liam Neeson), who tells him - I understand.

I never saw Liam Neeson. I did find Jesus; constantly; surprisingly; wonderfully. And those two words - I understand - were stunningly powerful words I heard - felt - in my own journey. That felt very real as I watched. My story.

It hurt to see Adam quivering in bed. I remember those days. No - I remember that there were those days. I don't remember the days themselves with any clarity at all.

Two half hour episodes miss out so much. Concertina so much. Include so much. Make me remember so much.

And then Easter.

Let me be clear: though I had a crisis of me, I never had a crisis of faith. I never lost Jesus. I never doubted God. (I guess I did fall out of love with the church for a while.)

But there was a resurrection, a raising up, a restoring, a renewing, a bringing to a new life afterwards, and for me too it was at Eastertime.

I wondered for a long time if I'd ever be in full-time ministry again. And then I took an Easter service, and as I stood at the altar in front of the congregation I felt myself raised up with Jesus. He'd been with me in the depths, and now he was lifting me up again. I think back to that Easter service; it was extraordinary. For a moment I was a fish back in water - and in the moment I understood I would soon be swimming again for good. I speak in a different way now of the power of resurrection from the hundred little deaths that beset us when life lives us down, because I know it. It changed me. He changed me.

Watching when 'Rev' lost the plot was rather emotional for me, because it was a tremendously moving reminder of how Jesus never stopped writing my story.