Saturday, 27 July 2013

Skin in the game

Somewhere in the world, a child dies from hunger every 15 seconds. 1 in 8 men, women and children go to bed hungry every night. 165 million children are so malnourished by the age of 2 that their minds and bodies will never fully develop. In a world where there is enough food for everyone, this is an unspeakable scandal. We must weep with those who weep, and then get up and do something.

The Enough food for everyone IF campaign was set up by 200 organisations to highlight our responsibility as a nation towards the hungry millions in the run-up to this week’s G8 summit in Northern Ireland, at which David Cameron has put the issue firmly on the agenda.

The IF campaign has prepared a carefully-though-out action plan for addressing food inequalities. The plan includes strategies to provide aid, to ensure that big businesses do not avoid paying tax in developing countries, to deal with the issue of vast tracts of land being sold for the production of biofuels rather than food for local people.

Ethics in business is one of the issues covered in a fascinating article by George Pitcher in a recent issue of the New Statesman about new attitudes to business among Christians in the City of London. 

An older generation of Christians felt it was enough to run your business ethically, and to make charitable donations from the profits. In contrast, many Christians in business today are realising that business shapes the world in a way which religion once did. Therefore as Manoj Raithatha a property entrepreneur quoted in Pitcher’s article says, being in business is about ‘more than being ethical. It’s about having a spiritual impact, encouraging Christians to think what impact their business is going to have.’

In Raithatha’s view, lots of Christians in the workplace are ‘still living the sacred/secular divide.’ By this he means that those he speaks of are living compartmentalised lives. There’s a holy, God-focussed part. But in the rest of their living they are pretty much indistinguishable from everyone else.

Where this is the case, it is so wrong. Being Christian is not about holding certain beliefs intellectually – Christianity, where it is genuine, affects every aspect of our being.

A vivid phrase used in Pitcher’s article is ‘skin in the game.’ This refers to executives who buy in to the company they work for, investing their own money in it. They are personally on board. They have ‘skin in the game.’

It’s a powerful phrase which resonates with us as Christians. God does stand not remote from Creation. God came among us, in Jesus. God has skin in the game.

And Jesus emphasised the need for holistic, non-compartmentalised Christianity, teaching not just spiritual transformation, but whole-life transformation. When he said that through his coming among us ‘captives will be released…the blind will see…the oppressed will be set free’ he was thinking physical as well as spiritual.

And Jesus expected his followers to have the same approach in not only preaching, but feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned. Jesus identifies so closely with people in those situations that to help them is to serve him.

Faith is therefore not about escaping from the world, about protecting the flickering candle of our faith from the gusting wind of challenge. It is about transforming the world, and seeing the flame burn more brightly as we do so.

And what the business people George Pitcher writes about have grasped is firstly that organisations need saved as much as individuals, and secondly that Christianity transforms. It is, in the view of those Pitcher interviewed, ‘disruptive of systemic greed and corruption.’

Organisations, political parties, whole nations are best transformed not by legal controls (though these are necessary) but by the awakening and transformation of the people within them until the whole spirit of the organisation is reborn.

Pitcher’s London city folk seem remote from our experience. But we all have skin in the game of live. We all can work for change – in our workplace or office or school, in the campaigns we support (like IF) – bringing transformation and supporting those who ache for transformation. Living the change. Being the change. One prayer at a time, one conversation at a time, one Tweet at a time, one loving action at a time.

And we wait and long for and work for the coming of the kingdom, when there is no corruption, no greed, where there is justice and peace and equity. Where there is enough food for everyone, and everyone has enough.

And as we wait, Christ comes to us in the 1-in-8 who sleep hungry. We are Christ’s skin in the game.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 20th June 2013)

Sunday, 21 July 2013

The Christ-centred life

A sermon preached at Hilton Church, Inverness on 21st July 2013

Bible reading: Luke 10:38-41
These verses report a domestic conversation which took place almost 2000 years ago, which we are remembering and discussing today. Just imagine if the conversations which take place in our living rooms were recorded and recalled!

Those of us who come to church regularly are probably familiar with this story. Martha and Mary were sisters, who lived in Bethany, not far from Jerusalem with their brother Lazarus. Martha seems to have been the home-owner – possibly she was a widow.  This is the Mary who, on another occasion, anointed Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume (John 12:1-8)

My wife Lorna pointed out to me that in Jesus’ time, it was men, not women who sat at the feet of a rabbi, and so Mary’s action, and the encouragement she was given in that action by Jesus were both countercultural. Today, perhaps it is women more than men who are more likely to be religious – and it is countercultural for men to be willing to be seen sitting as it were at the feet of Jesus. Or perhaps these days, when there is such emphasis on busyness and activism, all reflective stillness is seen as deeply and provocatively countercultural.

We read these stories from the Gospels because we believe that with God’s help we can learn lessons from the stories which will make a difference when we apply them to our own lives.

So what can we learn from the story of these two sisters?
I think there are answers to two questions in this story. 
  • What is the distinctive feature of Christian faith?
  • How do I balance resting in God, and doing stuff for God?
We will find that the answer to the first question is that Christian faith is first and foremost about encounter with God rather than following a program.

We will find that the answer to the second question is that we are getting the balance right when the stuff we do for God flows from encounter with God.

But let’s unpack the story by looking at the personalities of the two women involved. Many of us have been familiar with Martha and Mary for years. Martha, the doer. Mary the contemplative. We’ve asked ourselves whether we have the Martha personality type or the Mary personality type. Of course men too share these personality traits so we could be talking of the brothers Martin and Matthew rather than the sisters Martha and Mary!

But let’s look at these women, beginning with Martha. I personally feel I understand Martha very well, because I have a Martha-type personality!


According to Jesus, Martha got it wrong, worrying her head off over what needed to be done to get tea on the table rather than chilling with Jesus and her sister.  Now we’re not given enough information to give an accurate psychological profile of Martha, but what dynamics in our own lives could give rise to behaviour like Martha’s?

1.    Forgetting that we don’t need to worry. Martha was getting frantic about preparing the meal. Perhaps she was aiming to deliver a rather more sumptuous feast than was necessary. But she had forgotten some basic teaching of Jesus. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? (Matthew 6:25-26) Or perhaps when Jesus was sharing that bit, she was too busy doing something else to hear. It is hard not to worry, and many of us do worry, but Jesus assures us that our lives and our futures are in God’s hands and that we don’t need to worry.

2.    Being over-busy.  It’s likely that Martha was trying to do more than was strictly necessary. We too often fill our lives with busyness, and persuade ourselves that it’s a good way to be. Why are we over busy?
  • Perhaps we feel as Christians that only holy stuff – helping at church, volunteering with Christian charities – counts as work done for God. And so on top of our day jobs, or looking after our kids we try to add another layer of activity, the God stuff, the stuff which, we feel, really matters. And so we end up with feverish, action packed lives. But in fact every last thing we do can be done for God: stocking shelves in Asda; changing a baby’s nappy; encouraging a friend who is depressed; washing dishes. ‘Thank you Father God that you are with me in this task. Thank you that I can make a difference in everything I do, helping to sustain and repair a broken world.’ It is all for God, and grasping that is a wonderful liberation.
  • Perhaps we feel that somehow we’re different, that somehow we are beyond the pale of God’s wonderful, accepting, gracious love, that God lays heavy burdens on us, that he will only love us if we perform and serve, and yet it never seems that we’ve done enough. We’ve somehow been indoctrinated with the thought that love is conditional upon our behaviour and performance. ‘Martha, Martha, God loves you. God accepts you. Nothing you can do will make God love you a fraction more than he has loved you from the moment you were conceived. Nothing you can do will make God love you a fraction less than he has always loved you. Serve God because you are secure and loved and because you love God, not because you have to.’
  • Perhaps we are busy because we feel somehow, that it’s all down to us. That if we don’t do x, y, or z, then it won’t be done. And there always seems to be more and more to do, until we end up frazzled and burned out. It is not all down to me. I’m one of a vast community of God’s children. And if some things don’t get done, then I need to learn that if I am open to that inner sense calling me to what is important for me to do – as Jesus listened to the inner sense as he wisely used his time – then I can leave with God the things which I can’t do. It’s not easy, but if we are to survive and to thrive we need to learn to do what we are called to do in a given day, and leave the rest.
  • Trying to make others as busy as we are because we do not understand their centredness and it threatens us. Martha asked Jesus to say to Mary that she should really get up and help. (v40) Are we sometimes guilty of spiritual blackmail, making people whose lives are not as hectic as ours feel guilty and join us on the treadmill. Do we ever project the message that ‘busy is best?’ And what about those who would love to be busy but can’t, for whatever reason? What message is our emphasis on activism giving them?
3.    But some personality issues can also be involved in making us too busy
  • A need to be needed. Some of us will be familiar with this. Somehow we find our meaning and purpose in helping others, in having those who are dependent upon us, and so we crave engagement to meet our own needs.  ‘Martha, Martha, your meaning and purpose is rooted in your identity as my precious daughter; you are my child, and that fact fills every moment of your existence with meaning. Don’t seek to earn the meaning with which your life is already invested. Rest in me, and help others in my name and for their own sake, not to meet needs in yourself which have, as I will continue to teach you, been already met.’
  • A need always to be host in relationships, never guest. When we are balanced and healthy, sometimes we will be ‘host’ in relationships, ministering to the other; at other times we will be the ‘guest’ allowing others to help and bless and minister to us. Some of us feel it easier to be in control, to be the one’s doing the ministering. We don’t like to be in a vulnerable situation because we have not yet faced up to our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. We must learn to be guests as well as hosts. And above all, as Martha was taught, to be a guest at the feet of Jesus.
  • Perfectionism. Do we add to the busyness of our lives because we try to do everything just perfectly? It is great to do good work, but none of us is perfect. We don’t need to be perfect parents, employees, church members, because we can’t be. God is perfect, not us. God helps us, and with his help we can be ‘good enough’, but it’s not in our humanity to be perfect. I always remember William Barclay writing that ‘if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.’
  • A fear of stillness. Some of us are so busy because we can’t cope with the bustle of wild thoughts which floods our minds when we try to still our hearts. And we’re not really sure what sitting at the feet of Jesus would look like in practical terms. Some people talk about having, and seem so sure about having a ‘relationship with Jesus’, but all we’ve experienced is the silence of heaven, or, sometimes a faint whisper that may just have come from God, and it seems a really odd kind of relationship. It’s easier just to fill our lives with busyness. We’re afraid of being still in case we hear nothing from God. ‘Martha, Martha I love you. My friends hear me in different ways; some hear me more clearly than others, but I love each of them equally. Be still, and listen, be ready for me to speak in ways you don’t expect, and I promise you that you will hear from me.’
4.    Not choosing the ‘one thing’, the ‘better thing’ (v42) This is the fundamental issue. Get this right and we will be on the road to healing of all the problems and issues we’ve been discussing. If on the other hand, rather than founding our lives on Jesus, we have many goals, many gods, then we will be torn apart. The more we can find the way to centre our lives on Jesus in the hurly-burly of everyday life, the more peace and purpose we will experience.

So that’s some of the lessons from Martha. What about Mary?


We were looking at Martha’s problems and issues. Are there problems and issues associated with the contemplative personality?

I can imagine – and here as a ‘Martha’ I am not speaking from experience – there might be some. I suppose it would be possible to so focus on contemplation and stillness that we fail to act when the time for action comes. I suppose there might be a temptation to pride that somehow we are ‘further in’ with Jesus than other Christians.

But Mary’s priority – the priority of listening to Jesus – is praised by Jesus, and so if we are to heal our over-busy lives and fulfil our role in repairing a broken world then we need to learn the way of reflective stillness.

I personally find this very hard. The other week I paid my first visit to the Bield, the Christian retreat centre in Perth where I spent a couple of days. After I’d walked the Labyrinth, and taken a stroll round the garden, and had a session with someone who listened as I discussed where I was on my faith journey and gave some helpful responses, I sat back and wondered ‘what do I do next’?

When I was telling this afterwards to Iain Macritchie, he told me ‘just be, John.’ What I actually did was to pop out to Tesco for the paper.

But I am learning ‘to be.’ Simply to rejoice in being loved by God, God’s child in God’s world, needing to do nothing to earn love or acceptance. But even this stillness comes as a gift. I can’t generate it, I can only, knowing me need of it, create the circumstances in which the gift may, or may not be given.

And, perversely, seeking silence, seeking reflective stillness can become simply another thing to do, another activity to fit in.

Duncan quoted from a book the other Sunday which I have found really helpful. It’s called An Altar in the World and it’s by an American Episcopalian priest Barbara Brown Taylor. I enjoyed her take on the Sabbath.

The Sabbath is the principle of rest given to the Jewish people, every seventh day, every seventh year, and in the 50th year, the year of Jubilee.  After creation, God rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. (Genesis 2:2b-3)

When I was a kid, Sundays were boring. You were only allowed to read holy kids’ books and they really were dire. And then I grew up and heard the teaching that in Jesus we have a kind of perpetual Sunday – we are resting in what he has done for us, and don’t need to work to earn salvation – and so we can be more relaxed about the actual day. Now it is absolutely true that we find rest in this way in Jesus, but I was puzzled as to why Sabbath keeping is up there in the Ten Commandments if it isn’t timelessly relevant like the others.

And I was touched by my old friend John Brown in Edinburgh, long since passed away, whose Sabbath began at 4pm on Saturday when all the garden tools were put away, and he had a bath and had his tea, and prepared for the Saturday evening prayer meeting at Holyrood Abbey Church, and the stillness of Sabbath hung around him.

Barbara Taylor describes her discovery of Sabbath:

I went out on the front porch and said morning prayer with the birds. Then I read until lunchtime. Then I made an egg sandwich. Then I took a nap. By the time the sun went down, I realised that I had just observed my first true Sabbath for more than twenty years. In the years since then, I have made a practice of saying no for one whole day a week: to work, to commerce, to the Internet, to the car, to the voice in my head that is forever whispering, ‘More!”’ One day each week, More God is the only thing on my list.

She quotes a Jewish rabbi who said that the seventh day was ‘a palace in time’ into which human beings are invited every single week of our lives.

For some of us, of course, a whole day just isn’t possible, but finding times of Sabbath each day and each week is vital for our spiritual health. ‘Only one thing is needed.’

So where does this leave us with our two questions?
  • What is the distinctive feature of Christian faith?
The distinctive feature of the Christian faith is that is not a religion of earning God’s love by keeping rules or jumping through hoops. It is a religion of accepting that God loves you, and basing your life on his reality and in so doing find joy and freedom and the challenge to make a difference.
  • How do I balance resting in God, and doing stuff for God?
The secret is to integrate our resting in God and our actions, so that our actions don’t compete with our openness to God, but express it, so that our every action flows from our awareness of God’s presence. Every day of our lives we are challenged to live out that secret in the nitty gritty of life, and often we will fail but we know that whether or not we fail, we are secure in God’s love.

So what should have happened that day at Bethany? Well, they had to eat. They couldn’t send out for an Indian. Perhaps they should have aimed at a more modest menu than Martha planned? Perhaps they should have sat together chilling with Jesus and listening to him, and then together gone to the kitchen and fixed the meal together, and asked Jesus to come through and given him a glass of cool red wine to drink as he watched them cooking so that the three of them could still enjoy one another’s company.

  • Have I found the treasure, the ‘one thing’ that is needed, or am I still, even without being aware of it, in pursuit of lesser treasures?
  • Have I chosen what is better? What choices face me to today? How has our reflection on Martha and Mary helped me make my decision?

And to finish with the beautiful writing of Barbara Brown Taylor, writing, I think not just about the Sabbath day, but about every day, days flowing from that connectedness to Jesus which Mary exemplified:

Your day begins when you let God hold you because you do not have the slightest idea how to hold yourself – when you let God raise you up, when you consent to rest to show you get the point, since that is the last thing you would do if you were running the show yourself. When you live in God, your day begins when you lose yourself long enough for God to find you, and when God finds you, to lose yourself again in praise.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

And did these feet?

The first precious thing to happen last week was at church on Sunday. There was a baptism, and a particular sense of joy and peace. Someone mentioned the baptism of Jesus, when the Holy Spirit descended like a dove, and words from God were heard: ‘This is my beloved Son.’ And when I heard this, I sensed, at some level much deeper than mere mental knowing that I too was a child of God, beloved.

Sunday 9th June was St Columba Sunday. This year is the 1450th anniversary of Columba’s voyage from Ireland to Iona in 563AD.  Columba means ‘dove’ – it’s the name he was given at baptism. His birth-name was Crimthann, meaning ‘fox.’

Born into a royal Irish family, he was destined by his parents for the church. Columba served Christ long and well, a strong, stern yet tender, prophetic presence. We sense his struggles to balance Christian vocation and political allegiance, to live as a Christian in a culture of druidism, to choose the way of the dove rather than the fox.

Our knowledge of St Columba’s life is sketchy. This has allowed different groups of Christians down the centuries to reconstruct his life story, claiming him as the spiritual forefather of their own particular strand of Christianity. In recent years, for instance, charismatic Christians have seen their emphasis on the miracle-working God reflected in Columba’s work, while those who draw encouragement from Celtic Christianity have seen themselves as walking in his footsteps.

At work the other day I was sitting in the office in Ardross Street, Inverness wrestling with IT problems. On the rooftop outside the open window a woodpigeon perched, cooing lethargically, speaking peace to my heart. I remembered Jesus’ words about the lessons birds teach – don’t worry about tomorrow, focus on being what God has made you to be, entrust yourself to God, make music.

Yet it’s OK for woodpigeons to be calm and untroubled, but surely the challenge human beings are called to is to grow, to overcome adversity, to embrace difficult tasks? Thus Columba travelled, founded monasteries, copied manuscript, led the bustling community on Iona, and travelled north east to Inverness, climbing the steep path up to Craig Phadraig to explain Christian faith to King Brude.

How can we both live in the moment and plan for the future, both rest in God and embrace action-filled days?

I have two thoughts on this. The first is that we should be who we really are. It seems to me that not only do we reconstruct historical figures like Columba, but we also reconstruct our own lives. Our living can be shaped by other people’s expectations of us, or by our own powerful drives. I know I’m driven to achieve, to be significant, to have a legacy, to count. I am aware that I tend to serve these drives, and that serving them makes me less the person I am meant to be.

When I recognise what’s driving me, and realise that the only power these drives have over me is the power I give them, then I am set free to be the real John, blossoming in the moment, serving only Father God.

And the second thought is that, like Columba, we need to have a rhythm in our lives – time for activity, but time too for being still in God’s presence. Time apart which Columba created in his commitment to prayer and his solitary retreats on the unidentified island of Hinba.

Adomnan’s Life of St Columba, written a century after Columba’s death contains many accounts of miracles, healing and supernatural knowledge associated with the saint. We are right to be sceptical of some of these accounts, but not of them all, for Columba seems to have been one of those people in whose life the kingdom of God breaks through. His was a God-filled life. Adomnan quotes St Paul: ‘He that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit.’

The other precious thing last week came when I was talking to my dear friend Andrew who has Asperger’s, and lives in Shetland. Perhaps because of his condition, Andrew finds that sermons rarely connect with him. But he taken one of his long walks, and told me that in the flat landscape, the heaving ocean, and in particular in the fragile reality of the seabirds with their lively movements and sharp cries he sensed the presence and beauty of God.

We need the insights into faith which the words in the Bible give – words well known to Columba and his fellow-monks. But ours is the God who came down in the dove, who whispers through the whole of creation in ways each can understand: ‘My beloved child.’

In Columba the dove of Christ set foot in our land.

(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 13th June 2013)