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Friday, 12 August 2016

Madeira Fire: A View from Above

As I write this I am on holiday in Madeira, which sadly has made international news in the last few days because of the serious forest fires which have destroyed not only countryside areas but part of the largest town, Funchal. Now that the fires are subsiding, tourists are being encouraged to resume their gawping so today we went to Funchal and rode the cable car to visit the tropical gardens.

The fifteen minute ride up the hill was a shocking experience for as we looked down we could see the blackened ruins of homes recently destroyed. The path of the fire, like so many negative experiences of life, defied logic - at one point we hovered over a house that seemed perfectly intact and could see a family sweeping the yard even though the entire neighbourhood around them was gone. It is an image that will stay with me for a long time and which, of course, can be read in many ways. Perhaps we might even see ourselves in this - the world around us seems a crazy, mad place but in our homes and our churches we just keep sweeping up and responding to crises by putting the kettle on. We feel inadequate but what else can we do?

The tropical gardens were as beautiful as people say but there was an awkward, muted feel among the visitors and the smell of smoke was a constant reminder of the destruction around us - no doubt the family down the hill will be suffering this for some time to come. Awkward as it was to be at the gardens, there was some solace in finding beauty amidst all the recent destruction and perhaps in some way the same is true for the family sweeping the yard. Today they swept the yard which looked a little crazy from above but they can see how this neighbourhood used to look; how it can look again if people sweep, and plant and build.

As we think of our world, this Spaceship Earth, may we learn a lesson from the Funchal family sweeping the yard - may we see the beautiful potential in ourselves, our families, and our neighbourhoods and sweep and plant and build to make it so.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

When the Mountaintop Experience is out of Focus

I had a mountaintop experience yesterday but it wasn't very good. Tracey and I were on a one-day tour of the Dolomites in northern Italy and after seven hours on a coach, we were finally given some free time for a cable car ride to the top of a mountain from where we were promised the most fantastic view the region had to offer. Our guide even gave us a guarantee that the experience would be spiritual but there was a catch. Our spiritual experience had to be completed at a pace because in just over an hour we needed to be back on the coach to travel back down the 27 hairpin bends that had taken us to this height. It's hard to have an authentic spiritual experience under this kind of time pressure and I haven't even mentioned the fact that I was in urgent need of a loo stop.

Despite all this I had high hopes for the mountaintop. I recalled visiting the Rocky Mountains for the first time many years ago and getting this incredible sense of coming home in a place I'd never been before. Back in Wyoming I just stopped and stared at the view, drank it all in so effectively that my thirst for that moment is still being quenched to this day. Yesterday I skipped all that and reached for my camera. We were on a schedule and had to be back on the coach. There wasn't sufficient time to drink it all up so I would snap a few pictures and hopefully get something out of the moment later, back at home when the holiday was over.

Is this how we now are? Are we so obsessed with digital representations of the moment that the moment itself is lost to us?

After a few minutes, Tracey took the camera off me to take a few snaps herself. At this moment the camera battery ran out and thinking myself fantastically well-organised, I told her that I had packed a spare battery that very morning, which she could find in the side pouch of the camera case. However, further investigation revealed that I had been less alert than I thought and had, in fact, packed a chocolate from my hotel pillow instead of a battery. Oops.

The absurdity of the situation - going up a mountain only to discover you have taken a chocolate instead of a camera battery - continues to entertain Tracey and the 28 friends who have so far 'liked' my mention of the incident. Still there are interesting points to ponder. How many of us are so digital now that special events are not real, not quite authentic, unless they are photographed, shared or 'liked'? How many of us are so used to being frenetically busy that we habitually hurry through moments that ought to be savoured and in so doing entirely miss their significance, grumbling, for example, because it's too bright to see the view from the mountaintop on the tiny screen on the back of a camera when we ought to be drinking in the moment and not worrying too much about the pictures we take?

Now I'm a day older but maybe not wiser and I'm sitting by the clear blue water of Lake Garda writing this. We had big plans for the day but we came back to the hotel early because it is incredibly hot even for here. Tracey is swimming in the lake along with a duck and her brood of ducklings. The sound of the water lapping against the shore is soothing and the coffee I'm drinking tastes good. I have been sitting here for ages and have no idea what the time is.

If I stay here long enough I think this could count as a mountaintop moment. Good job I haven't got my camera.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Down with that sort of thing



In a recent service at Cheltenham, Cressida invited the congregation to take to the streets and be heard on an issue that matters to us. It was a good message until it became apparent that she meant that we should do it immediately. TODAY. Inspiration turned to perspiration because this wasn’t Selma in 1965 or even the London anti-war marches of 2003. This was Cheltenham in 2015 and people might see.

In the course of the service we had explored that great idea of being the change you want to see in the world. Cressida’s point was that good deeds emerge not so much of their own volition but out of our ‘being.’  I thought of Martin Luther King and the non-violent philosophy through which demonstrators were not only supposed to submit to the violence of those who oppressed them, even when they were physically beaten, but confront evil with the power of love. Non-violence was not just about restraining your fists but training your mind and spirit in the ways of complete compassion. Being led to doing.

In Cheltenham, my being let me down pretty quickly. Cressida had produced a makeshift poster to campaign on behalf of migrants, following the terrible Mediterranean ship tragedy in which up to 900 people died. As we walked out of the church and into the street I worried not about getting the message across but whether the font size on my placard was big enough or whether passers-by would think we were barking mad. A few of us started talking about that Father Ted  scene in which the two priests campaign outside a cinema with placards that read ‘down with that sort of thing’ and ‘careful now’. Would people think we were like them? Worse still, would we be regarded as a strange cult, bent on brainwashing the vulnerable? Would the latte-sippers of Cheltenham consider a street campaign vulgar and out of keeping with the character of the town (I’m not saying Cheltenham is posh but some refer to the local gym as James)?


Such concerns caused most of us to be pretty ineffectual street-campaigners. Ludicrously, our first move was to attempt to set up shop as far from any people as we could because we didn’t want to be a nuisance or get in the way of anyone’s day. Dorothy, our oldest member and a street protest veteran, was having none of it and insisted we move to the middle of the shops AND speak to people as they passed by. We stood sheepishly in a row, like freshly-coiffured teenagers terrified that a hair might be out of place even though for some of us that hair left the premises long ago.

“We need to talk to people,” said Dorothy so we started saying hello and some people ignored us, and a few said hello back and then look bewildered when we didn’t try to sell them anything. After a while, Dorothy started chanting, “Migrants matter! Migrants matter!” We joined in (still sheepishly) and I wondered if the message didn’t need to be unpacked a little more to be meaningful but I couldn’t see how that would work (which roughly translated means I felt a bit of a berk shouting the same two words over and over). Eventually, I made myself raise the volume a little. “Migrants matter!” I bellowed and someone shouted back “Do they?” and a thought went through my mind that you wouldn’t hear in Sunday School and which was hopelessly out of tune with the ways of complete compassion practiced by Martin Luther King and Gandhi before him.

After a few minutes we started to relax. At one point a young man stopped to talk to us about our cause and when he left he asked for a leaflet about the Unitarians because he thought we sounded like an interesting organisation. This was a far greater shock to us than we were to anyone who passed us in the street.

Our street experiment ended because Dorothy’s bus came and we still need her expertise to make us better at this sort of thing. Several  weeks later I’m still thinking about the relationship between ‘being’ and ‘doing’ especially as experienced that day. Sometimes the people we know encourage us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise do and those shared activities can transform us, however gradually into better states of ‘being’. It’s not a one way street.

The plan is to take to the streets again, next time a little more removed from our embarrassment and a little more focused on the cause. Thousands of migrants are dehumanized, stripped of their dignity, exploited and condemned to injustice because they conveniently pass under the political radar. Shouldn’t I be prepared to risk a little of my dignity in support of theirs? And in the end, what is more dignified than to stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed?

I am reminded of the simple but profound words of Mother Pollard, a famous activist in the long and ultimately successful Montgomery Bus Boycott, a campaign in which the dignity of African Americans was such a central theme. “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.”

Like her, may you be the change you want to see in the world and may your feet be tired and your soul rested.


For more on the Migrants Matter campaign go to:

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Missing the Point?


Today I have been thinking about missing the point. I read a news story this morning about some women who were prevented from breast-feeding in public at a conference about promoting breast feeding. Then someone tweeted a piece about a 12 year old boy who was refused admission to any screening of The Theory of Everything (a new film about Stephen Hawking) at Harrogate Odeon because he is a wheelchair user. At work, a frustrated student told me that she didn't understand how all this reading could possibly help her to teach literacy to children. I wonder, how much of life do we waste, how much energy do we spend, busily missing the point?

An online Unitarian conversation this week focused on the bible with much of the attention devoted to those aspects people found offensive. Sexism, homophobia and slavery all reared their ugly heads. Fair enough. But even as I read these comments my thoughts wandered to some other sections - turn the other cheek, faith, hope and love in 1 Corinthians 13, the recurring theme of rebirth and renewal following on from situations that seemed dead, the challenge of living well that is represented in the Sermon on the Mount. There may be aspects of the bible that cause offence and that is worth exploring but to write off all biblical texts as a result of this is surely to miss the point.

One of the strange things about many Unitarians is how much time many of them spend talking about the trinity. Personally, I have always perceived the doctrine as a human construct. It does not offend me in any way, I am neither for it or against it; for some people it is useful and for others limiting - if I said whatever floats your boat I might be accused of flippancy but it's late so I'll say it anyway and hope that anyone who reads this takes it in the right spirit. It does strike me though that for liberal thinkers there is sometimes a danger of putting so much effort into expressing what we don't believe that we neglect to focus on what we do believe.

Personally this leads me to Jesus. I am a Jesus Unitarian and I take a strange kind of comfort from the fact that a defining characteristic of Christianity is not allegiance to a book but relationship to a person. There's a lot that gets in the way. As I've said before, possibly in this very blog, separating the claims made for Jesus with his own actual teachings is a difficult job but it's surely worth a little effort. I can no longer get excited debating whether or not Jesus was divine, not least because my sense of what that even means is far removed from where it once was. However, Jesus is a person to whom I can relate, a radical whose example and teachings make him a character apart from the history to which he belongs, a voice of warmth, love and compassion in a cruel world. At the very least, he is to me the best example I have yet found of what (to borrow some trinitarian-echoing language) the 'spirit-filled' / holy / Godly / Divine / good life can be. Or am I missing the point?

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Staring into the Abyss on Crosby Beach

In the last couple of months before leaving Cheshire, there were a lot of goodbyes. In people’s homes, in coffee shops, in two universities and in church there were more goodbyes to be made than I’d realised. Whilst living in Crewe, it turned out I knew a lot of really nice people. By the time I’d done my round of goodbyes I was heartily wishing I’d done more helloing over the past few years. ‘Helloing’ isn’t a verb, of course, but in future I hope to get better at it anyway. It’s not a good state of affairs when you find yourself saying, ‘It’s a shame we haven’t seen each other in a couple of years but I thought I’d pop in to say goodbye.’ That’s like waking the sleeping patient to give them sleeping pills. Wake up! It’s time to go to sleep! Surely that is not what friendship is about.

As an escape from the trauma of packing and trying to sell a very reasonably priced and luxurious house (see Rightmove for further details), Tracey and I took a drive to Liverpool and ended up on Crosby Beach, home to Antony Gormley’s ‘Another Place.’ This art installation consists of 100 cast-iron male figures stretched over a long stretch of beach. The figures are meant to be some kind of reflection on the relationship between humanity and nature. As time passes the wind, rain and sea are changing the appearance of the statues as, no doubt, would be the case with any of us who chose to stand naked on a Liverpool beach for a few years.

These middle-aged metal men are spread fairly evenly apart and whilst they are identifiably a group each has a solitary presence; each seems disconnected from the rest, unaware of others facing the same sea salt plight. I thought of the filmmaker Werner Herzog, who is always talking about staring into the abyss and I wondered if this was what these statues were doing. Standing on Crosby Beach, staring into the abyss or at least towards Birkenhead.

The scene was made particularly eerie by the fact that even as I joined them in their dispassionate stare into the abyss, some of the figures were gradually becoming submerged by the approaching tide. Most maintained their dignity whilst the waters consumed them but one had a seagull perched on his head. Anyone who has lived a life knows that keeping your dignity with a seagull on your head is a big ask.

I liked the Antony Gormley figures, but I wanted them to be freed from their isolation, to recognise their metallurgical mates, to abandon staring into the abyss in favour of discovering the meaning in each other. Others clearly are moved in a similar direction. Do a web search for images of these figures and many feature some kind of interaction between statue and human visitor. On a daily basis, these metal men are distracted from staring into the abyss by generous hugs, people dressing them in silly hats, trunks and other paraphernalia, silly jokes and kids digging holes around them – ‘Stop digging, he’ll fall over.’ Perhaps instead of staring into what cannot really be seen somewhere slightly out of view on the far horizon, it’s time for these figures to look around, to see and value what’s close to them right now. Maybe that’s true for all of us.



Picture by Gavin Edwards

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

It matters what you believe (New Year address - Chester and Warrington)


A few years ago, I was doing some research on the Primitive Methodist movement in the United States and was amused by this rather serious editorial from the Primitive Methodist Journal:

With some of the readers of the Journal the morning of their existence is gone, with others the noon has passed, while with others the night is at hand. Spring time has gone, the summer sun is setting, autumn days are passing, and the white frosts of life's winter has covered some of our heads. We sincerely wish the readers of the Journal a merry Christmas and a happy new year.

There is something about this time of year that makes people serious and reflective. Christmas has now gone and any new year celebrations we had are behind us. Maybe that makes us sad or maybe we're relieved, maybe it was stressful. We have been through the indigestion of Christmas and we welcome the high-fibre, low-fat possibilities of a new year. I have long thought of January as a time of re-invention, a period when our thoughts naturally turn to how we can be better versions of ourselves than we were before. We make resolutions, we might even start a reflective journal, we are prone to reflecting more on who we are and what we are about perhaps than in the warmer days of summer.

With this in mind, I want to talk for a few minutes today about this idea of reinventing ourselves, particularly in terms of belief, our attitudes towards what we believe and some of the claims that are made about Unitarianism and belief by those who, for whatever reason, don't get it.

One of the anti-Unitarian arguments I have heard is that this is not a religious movement at all – there are no creeds and people can just believe what they want and what use is that? The charge is that because we don't have formal creeds, we don't take belief seriously enough.

The best defence against this charge is the stories of the people who identify themselves as Unitarian. As I have met people over the last couple of years I have been struck by how many, like me, started their spiritual journeys in another denomination but ended up calling Unitarianism home.  Sharing stories reveals that people are Unitarian BECAUSE they take belief seriously, not because they don't. Personally, I still have great respect for Methodism, a church I belonged to from birth to the age of 43 – it's a broad church with many people expressing the kind of beliefs I do – for example advocating gay marriage or, on a more abstract level, thinking of God not so much as a great supernatural being but as a concept of being unifying all that is. In the end, though, I left because I didn't feel I could quite say what I wanted to say when in the pulpit. Over the years I sat in Local Preachers' meetings and training sessions and heard people talking about the need to be wary of upsetting people. 'Don't upset people's simple faith,' was the message. 'Don't rock the boat.' I understood this point of view. It argued that Sunday worships was a time when people should have their faith reinforced not undermined, that we should be about building a community, not get tangled up over our differences. I understood but I wasn't comfortable with it and when controversial subjects came up as they so often do in a religion with writings that refer to a virgin birth, people coming back from the dead, eternal punishment and more, I found myself dancing around the edges, not quite saying what I meant, and avoiding issues that I thought were important.  In the end I left Methodism so I could do what I am doing today. I left Methodism so that I could speak as honestly and openly about belief as possible. I left Methodism because I longed for that ability to be as honest and open about my beliefs in the context of a Sunday service as I could be in a friend in a coffee shop and that is what Unitarianism is doing for me. It is helping me take belief seriously, to share my own beliefs and learn from the beliefs of others.

When I was planning what to say today I found it surprisingly easy to find a counter-argument to each of my points and if I was my own critic at this point I would charge that I am not consistent, that whilst I claim to be serious about belief, I keep changing what I think as I go. This is true. But in the course of a lifetime, everybody changes their beliefs. I found a strange little website the other week where people posted some of the things they used to believe when they were children and here are a few:

I used to think that those masks doctors wear during surgery was to prevent them from vomiting when they saw their patient's insides.

 In my childhood, I believed that when people fasted, it was forbidden for them to swallow their own saliva.

When I was a child, I would always let go of my balloons when I was outside. I was convinced I was sending them up to Heaven to be with my grandparents.

I used to think that as soon as the palms of your hands were together God could hear everything you say, sort of like a walkie-talkie button. I was afraid to say anything bad or stupid if my palms were touching in any way.

When I was little, I used to believe that whatever someone believed is what would happen to them after they died. If they believed in heaven and were a good person, then they'd go to heaven. If they believed in reincarnation, they would be reincarnated. If they didn't believe in any afterlife, than nothing would happen. Then, I grew up and people tried to convince me that one belief was correct above all others and that everyone who didn't believe like me would go to hell. I liked my childhood belief better.


Belief is not a fixed phenomenon. It changes as we change. At this point, my inner critic would say, what about truth? Unitarians include people who draw heavily from many religious traditions. They can't all be right.

I could get very postmodern now and talk for ages about what we mean by truth and whether that is even a meaningful concept but I'd probably even bore myself so let me just say this. When it comes to the beliefs we have and our own faith journeys, maybe being right is not the most important thing. Maybe the most important thing about our beliefs is not whether they are right but what they do to us and how they shape what we do in the world.

Sophia Lyon Fahs was an American Unitarian who became a minster in the fifties, was a great champion of inter-cultural dialogue and racial reconciliation between different countries but also within the United States and someone who, in her day, became quite a controversial voice in children's religious education. She argued that children should learn about religion experientially and not be told what to think. Some of her critics misinterpreted what she was trying to achieve, portraying her work as some would still portray the Unitarian movement, as not being serious about belief but this is what she wrote on the subject:

Some beliefs are like walled gardens – they encourage exclusiveness, the feeling of being especially privileged. Other beliefs are expansive and lead the way into wider and deeper sympathy. Some beliefs are divisive, separating the saved from the unsaved, friends from enemies, other beliefs are bound in a world community – sincere differences beautify the pattern. Some beliefs are like blinders, shutting off the power to choose one's own direction whilst other beliefs are like gateways opening up wide vistas for exploration. Some beliefs are rigid, like the body at death, impotent in a changing world while other beliefs are pliable like the young sapling ever growing with the upward thrust of life.


My conclusion from all of this is that what we believe matters because it shapes our ability to care for others, to demonstrate compassion for situations and people we don't know well, to be good people of the world community.

So I invite you in the cold, reflective time of a new year to spend time seriously thinking about what you believe or don't believe and how that affects the way you interact with others. May we each also continue to grow through the beliefs and stories of others. And let me conclude by recalling a line from a wonderful Methodist sermon I heard more than 20 years ago which you might find helpful in those times when the universe seems too complicated, you can't quite make sense of it all, and truth is an elusive thing. The preacher took as his text a beatitude that you won't find in the bible. He said, 'Blessed are the cracks for they let in the light.' His point was that when it comes to spiritual truth, spiritual experiences, spiritual insight, maybe we only get brief glimpses but if we are open to them, they can transform our whole being. You might not need to spend weeks and months researching in the library to have a transforming experience that changes your belief. Maybe at this time of year you just need a clear sky full of stars on a winter's night. Look up at those stars and let them fill you with warmth and wonder as they did when you were a child. Then take that warmth and wonder home with you and use it to make the world a better place.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Will the real Jesus please stand up?

The following is an address prepared for a service at Chester recently which ended up being a discussion instead so was never delivered.
 
I remember a comedy car sticker from the eighties that was supposed to be funny but always worried me. It read, 'Jesus is coming back: Look busy.' We probably all know what this meant. It was a reference to this idea of an end of history, a judgment day, when according to some, Jesus was going to come back as a kind of warrior king, rewarding those who followed him and condemning the rest. It was an idea that I found, and still find, pretty unsavoury, and it seemed a long way removed from the Jesus of my earlier childhood, the man from Nazareth who talked about forgiveness and equality, the man so often referred to as the 'Prince of Peace.'

 

I decided to talk about Jesus today because I consider myself a Unitarian Christian. My spiritual journey has evolved over time but instinctively I have kept Jesus at the centre and I think I always will. In talking about Jesus I am, of course, getting to the heart of what Christianity is all about. It is interesting to note that in Judaism the decisive revelation of God is considered to be found in a book, the Torah and similarly Muslims consider the Qur'an to be the decisive revelation with Muhammed being the revealer but not the revelation itself. In Christianity, however, the decisive revelation of God's character is not the written word but a person – Jesus. That, I think, can be both liberating and constricting. It's liberating because it suggests that what matters is a relationship rather than obedience to a prescribed set of rules. Any kind of healthy relationship allows a person to be, to a large extent, themselves and that is how it is with Jesus. Read the gospels and you see a pattern of Jesus meeting people where they are, whether they are important interpreters of religious law, tax collectors, fishermen, prostitutes or whoever else. In the world view of Jesus, everyone is a person of worth, everyone matters, everyone can be themselves and Jesus won't behave as if they are beneath him.  On the other hand the idea of Jesus as the decisive revelation of God's character is tricky because many Christians feel unable to be properly critical of some of the claims made for Jesus.  This is the Christian holy-of-holies and messing with it seems profoundly dodgy.

 

Here's my problem, and bear in mind I am speaking only from my own experience and no one has to agree. One of the barriers in my own faith journey has been that ever since my adolescence, I have been aware of at least 3 different versions of Jesus in the bible and my view has been further fogged over the years by the different claims made for him by people coming from different theological and political positions. I am indebted to Dr Andrew White, who I heard recently speaking on a Unitarian podcast recorded in Quincy, Illinois who explored the very issue that I am talking about today. He teaches New Testament at an American college and he was referring to the fact that many of his students attend his courses with very little knowledge of the gospels but very fixed ideas of who Jesus was, based less on the bible than the cultural values they have grown up with. He says that when he asks students who they think Jesus was they tell him that he was white, he talked a lot about ethics, particularly those revolving around sexual purity, he opposed abortion and gay rights and his main message was believe in me or go to hell. Doesn't that sound terrible? And doesn't something within you say that can't be right and recognise it as a contemporary cultural obsession rather than any kind of eternal truth? It's an uninformed mindset that scholars readily dismiss but it illustrates the extent to which the real Jesus, insofar as it is possible to get to him, has been lost amidst centuries of cultural baggage with which we have weighed him down. As I said I grew up with 3 Jesuses – the first was a human being who spoke about social justice and cared for people – the pre-Easter Jesus if you like. The second was post-Easter, a Jesus who had risen from the dead, who was recognizable but not recognizable, human but able to walk through walls, a Jesus I could only really make sense of symbolically. The third Jesus was very different – he was a warrior king, the one from the car bumper sticker I mentioned earlier, the one who would judge people and who was used by people I met to judge others. Andrew White referred to this version of Jesus as faith reduced to fire insurance against hell with Jesus being the policy product.

 

White also referred to six main literary sources that contributed to the portrayals of Jesus we get in the bible, from Q, which does not survive but is a clear influence on the early gospels and emphasizes the more human aspects of Jesus right through to the warrior king language of texts like Revelation. It seems to me that the process of telling stories and making claims about Jesus over time has been like a game of Chinese whispers. I’m sure everyone has played Chinese whispers. One person whispers something in someone else’s ear, and they whisper to the next person and so on and so on. Thus you start out with ‘Jim is wearing blue trousers today’ and you end up with ‘Tim is swearing very loudly okay.’ In the process of remembering Jesus, I feel this kind of process may have happened. In early texts, we see a very human Jesus, with no claim of a virgin birth or being raised from the dead, a Jesus with a lot to say about social justice, right relationships, and fairness. In subsequent texts Jesus appears more divine and less human. By John, divinity looms larger than humanity, with Jesus making 46 ‘I am’ statements, each referring to his divine status in some way.

 

What I don't want to suggest is that all of these later ideas about Jesus have no value. I must confess to being completely put off by the warrior king of Revelation, not least because that Jesus seems so very far removed from the Jesus of earlier texts. Perhaps this Jesus is more a fantasy scenario for early followers of Jesus than a prophecy of things to come. The Post-Easter Jesus texts make more sense to me in a symbolic way. Indeed, I think there is something profound about this idea of Jesus as simultaneously human and somehow divine that attracts me to this day but it works for me in large part because I don't take it literally.  So, for example, I don't want to stop celebrating Easter because I've moved to the Unitarians. I might not believe in a literal resurrection but I see tremendous value in this story of life overcoming death, hope triumphing over despair, and love overpowering hate. It has inspired Christians for 2000 years and continues to inspire me. That Easter story is echoed in the natural world in the coming of spring, when through an annual miracle of nature, life springs in places where there did not appear to be any sign of life just a few weeks before – hope in a hopeless situation.

 

I love the Easter story as a story but for the most part I draw my inspiration from the pre-Easter Jesus. The issue of divinity I would explain in this way – Jesus was a human being, sharing all the frailty of the human condition. He lived and died as all people do but human though he was, Jesus is, for me, the ultimate example of what the God-filled, spirit-filled, or love-filled life looks like. I think we see this most clearly in the early accounts of Jesus. I think of the Jesus of Mark's gospel, a reluctant messiah in many ways, a human being crying out to God from the cross. I think also of aspects of the Jesus story we find in Luke's gospel, a Jesus of social justice who advocated an upside down kind of kingdom in which the last would be first and the first last. This is a radical Jesus, challenging us to think about our own role in making our communities and our world better and fairer. It is a vision of Jesus that is at the heart of liberation theology, a way of thinking that invites us, to coin a phrase, to recognise the face of Christ in the poor and oppressed.

 

This Jesus, this radical, loving human being whose life experiences included times of sorrow and times of despair is a person I suspect we can all respond to with warmth. More importantly this Jesus challenges us to lives of radical love in action. But so much of the time, that Jesus is lost in the fog of many of the claims that people have made about him so that the dominant issues in much of the discourse about Jesus is on themes such as the virgin birth, the existence of evil spirits or the idea of the warrior hero who may return at any moment to judge us all.

 

In his talk on Jesus, Andrew White made the very good point that as far as possible we should try to reclaim the teachings of Jesus and distinguish these from other people's teachings about Jesus. I remember years ago someone telling me that it was wrong to pick and choose what to believe when it came to Jesus. It was either all right or none of it was but that seems a smokescreen to me. It seems to me that the Jesus who lived and breathed on planet earth would probably be baffled by virgin birth stories circulating about him. As a human being, he may have felt very closely connected to God but would he have thought of himself as God or were those words put into his mouth by a later author aiming at a different kind of truth? And would Jesus really have recognised himself as a person obsessed with sexual ethics? I suspect not but I recognise that even raising these questions in some churches would get me in trouble. Andrew White has faced the same problem teaching New Testament and offers students the following story:

 

Two men are talking about how much they love their wives. The first says, 'When she was younger, my wife won Miss World, she went on to be a film star, and she made some really shrewd business decisions and now she has millions. She's loaded and that's why I love her.' The second man says, 'My wife and I don't always get along. Sometimes we argue a little bit and we need to get away from each other. Still, I don't know how she does it but she always seems to know when I need time to be alone, when I need to talk and when I need a hug and I try to do the same for her. She's my companion on the road of life and that's why I love her.'

 

The obvious question is which man loves his wife the most?  The one who was all about what people see, the superficial details, the appearance of wealth or the one who recognized that his relationship with his wife was not perfect but who appreciated the way in which his life was fulfilled by those moments he shared with her that did make sense.

 

An evangelical preacher might ask how your relationship with Jesus is and in a different way I pose the same question today. Are we put off engaging with the Jesus story by all the baggage that has crowded around it? How well do we really know Jesus?

 

Perhaps it's time to try to get back to the teachings of Jesus rather than the many conflicting stories and doctrines about Jesus. Less of Jesus the judge, the post apocalyptic character to be feared, and more of that remarkable, loving man of 2000 years ago, who met people where they were and whose story still meets people where they are, whose life and ministry continues to change the lives of millions, who earned the title 'Prince of Peace.'


 

A Reading: Nick Cave on Mark:

The Christ that the Church offers us, the bloodless, placid 'Saviour' – the man smiling benignly at a group of children, or calmly, serenely hanging from the cross – denies Christ His humanity, offering us a figure that we can perhaps 'praise' but never relate to. The essential humanness of Mark's Christ provides us with a blueprint for out own lives, so that we have something that we can aspire to, rather than revere, that can lift us free of the mundanity of our existences, rather than affirming the notion that we are lowly and unworthy. Merely to praise Christ in His Perfectness, keeps us on our knees, with our heads pitifully bent. Clearly this is not what Christ had in mind. Christ came as a liberator. Christ understood that we as humans were for ever held to the ground by the pull of gravity – our ordinariness, our mediocrity – and it was through His example that He gave our imaginations the freedom to rise and to fly. In short, to be Christ-like.

From Revelations: Personal responses to the Books of the Bible (2005).