Friday, 15 February 2019

Belle Fisher on Psalm 33

Facilitating the ministry of all God's people in a given place is in many ways what being an incumbent is all about. Christians are called to minister throughout our communities and neighbourhoods. I long to see more Christian discipleship outsides the confines of the church but I am delighted to have identified a young person within Monken Hadley church whose calling may well include a ministry of the word. I recently invited Belle to take a break from preparing for her A levels and preach at the evening service. Those of us who were there to hear her sermon on Psalm 33 felt very blessed. With her permission, I want to share some of that blessing with you. Here is a script of her sermon:

1)   We’ll be looking at tonight's psalm, Psalm 33. But first of all, I’d just like to start of by asking you to have a think about something. I won’t ask you to say anything out loud, but just have a think. So, my question is, what are you grateful for, what do you give thanks for, who do you give thanks to, who are you grateful to….

2)   Because, I think as humans, we have a tendency to cling to our own achievements, reluctant to share the credit with anyone else. Particularly, when it comes to acknowledging the hand of God on our lives or successes.

3)   I wonder if you’ve ever been in a situation like this: where you’ve been perhaps awed by the incredible skill of a doctor, or the diligence and inspiration of an activist.

4)   And then, you hear someone say, or you think perhaps yourself, oh thank God he’s alright the surgery was successful, or thank God justice was implemented. And you think, what. Because I didn’t see God down here with a scalpel, or setting his bone in place.

5)   And actually, the main, or only time  when the reliance, or trust in God becomes really easy is really when our problems go beyond our abilities, and we are forced to trust him. We entrust to God things like, our future, or our health, or the health of people we love, because to an extent, they are completely unpredictable, and so beyond us.

6)   I have big exams coming up, in a couple of months very important ones, but I’m mindful, that I don’t forget, in the pride of all the hard work I’ve put in, or the worry and stress, that I can lean on God. That my future, at this relatively unpredictable time in the world, and my own life, isn’t just on my shoulders. I have a source of infinite love, and wisdom and comfort right there, and it’s something we can be utterly reliant on.

7)   So before we discuss how we can be thankful, or trusting in God, at all times. I think there’s something very important that we have to first understand from all this, that, we are completely dependent, utterly reliant on God. So I think the question is...If the key to being truly thankful, lies in trust and reliance, how do we learn to rely completely on God.

Well, Psalm 33 gives us some great answers.

1)   The first few verses are an exuberant call to praise God in song and with musical instruments, and it really sets the tone for the rest of the psalm. Then the psalmist, we’re not entirely sure who wrote it, but they begin giving the reasons, as to why we should praise God.

2)   Verses 6-7 declare “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth. He gathers the waters of the sea into jars, he puts the deep into storehouses”.

3)   Until we believe that God created everything, you, me, the trees, stars, oceans, we won’t accept that the world is controlled by, dependent on, his wisdom and power.

4)   Believing that God created the world, it leads us to the truth of his providence in ruling the world. So to develop that thankful mindset, we must be in awe. And truly it is not difficult to be in awe. I found out last week that you produce 2.5 million red blood cells, every second! And apparently, the human eye can differentiate approximately 10 million different colours. It is not difficult to be in awe

The second reason the psalmist gives us, is that God, is the designers of our fates.

1)   Verses 10-12 “The Lord foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.”

2)   We all think we are in some way steering the course of history, in many ways this is quite wrong. It is estimated that about 108 billion members of our species have ever been born. What are we amongst that, what real difference can we make.

3)   Now, I do not want us to go away feeling insignificant, or unimportant. In fact, quite the opposite of that. We are important because we are part of a much greater plan, and purpose.

4)   Even more incredible is that we all share in the likeness of God, we each contain reflections of his nature. In our love, kindness, mercy, empathy, compassion. We are part of a beautiful creation…

The third reason

1)   Verses 13-17  “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord...from heaven he looks down and sees all mankind...he watches all who live on earth, he who forms the hearts of all, considers all they do. No king is saved by the size of his army, nor warrior escapes by his great strength.. The eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, to deliver them from death”.

2)   Essentially, we cannot save ourselves, I cannot alone be successful in my exams, or my later life. I do not live by my own methods and successes, but by God’s will.

3)   We are today, in a world that is inundated with methods and techniques for how to live a Christian life, be a good, loving person. Take the example of self-help books, literally spelling out how you can be a better person, or another example, people commonly ask the question What Would Jesus Do?

4)   And of course, many of these methods are pretty credible, often these self-help books are based on scripture or teaching, and the question What Would Jesus Do, asks us to draw inspiration from his life. But the important bit, I think, is to use these methods, enforce these habits, because we trust in God to enable them, not ourselves in our own intelligence and power.

Fourth reason

1)   So we’ve just heard in verse 13, that God sees everyone on earth, and now in verse 18, the psalmist states “the eye of the Lord are on those who fear him”.

2)   What does this mean?

3)   Well I think it means that God looks out for those, looks with favour, on those who fear and trust in him to deliver them from those overwhelming, and painful situations.

4)    God works, not by finding those with the most power, and strength, and authority, but through those who trust, and rely in him. We do not have to be strong, or self-sufficient. But humble. Those who learn to be thankful, must first learn to trust.

Last reason

1)   The last verses, 18 to 22, are filled with synonyms for trust in the lord, fear, hope, “our help and our shield”.

2)   The psalms generally are big on trust, indeed the Hebrew word for trust appears more frequently in the psalms than in any other place.

3)   Again, it’s not that our methods, or habits, are wrong, it’s our trust in them that is faulty, our trust must be in God alone, and what is the result of this? Well go back to the beginning of the psalm.

4)   Complete trust in God results in a thankful, worshiping heart, they are bound up, you cannot have one without the other.

5)   The secret to being grateful, being thankful is to recognize you are in a desperate situation, and from that, delight in salvation, and. You can’t help but sing for joy.

Heavenly Father,
Open our hearts to welcome your eternal love, and devotion. You who designed the stars and the heavens, and drew together the seas, who fashioned out hearts and minds. The same God, who calls us to praise, and draws near in comfort. You cry out for us to trust.
Help us to recognise our dependence, our reliance, and place our lives into your hands.
Open our eyes to see this wonderful creation, help us to never feel ashamed, or afraid, or unworthy to give thanks for it.
Lord, you have given us so much, but we pray lastly, for a grateful heart.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Transforming Conflict

I participated in  the Bridge Builders Course Transforming Conflict 1: Leadership, Discipleship & Community on 3 -8 February 2019. It was brilliant and I am grateful for the facilitators who led the course. I want to jot down a few things to embed my learning.
One of the objectives of the course is to transform our attitude towards conflict and engaging with conflict, another to increase our self-awareness as leaders facing conflict. The poem Conflict – what art thou? suggests that conflict has always been with us. The difference between A and B is not a problem but a difference with tension leads A and B to C for Conflict, out of which flows predictably D and E.
There is diversity within unity in the Trinity; there is no grasping within the Trinity (cf. Philippians 2). Difference becomes a problem where the unity of love is lost. It is lost by the fear of not having enough, the desire with which we seek to grasp rather than receive.
Wants Needs
Needs must
“Conflicts are power struggles over differences.” (Hugh Halverstadt)
Some people fear conflict, others relish it. Fearing conflict can lead to avoiding it but avoiding conflict can feed it, make it bigger and more difficult to handle. Conflict can come across as a force but there is nothing automatic and inevitable about it. In the poem Conflict – what art thou? D and E lead to F, G and H but these are denied (“not to be Giant...”) and the sequence is broken. Power lies with people (within relationships), not with the conflict as such, and we must take responsibility for the power given to us (as well as the power grasped by us). It helps to realise how much power we have and how powerful adopting a certain stance can be, e.g. the offer of a non-anxious presence.
It is right that conflict questions and rattles us but with the right skills and motivation we can engage with it and having been transformed ourselves, released from the need to justify and defend ourselves, we can help to transform conflict.
Conflict brings danger and opportunity. The danger is represented in the poem as the stinger of a scorpion. Poetically the chiastic D-E-E-D sequence of lines 3-5 is echoed in the (less obvious) R-S-S-R sequence, interrupted by revisiting B and C, but part of the new ‘narrative’ (Q-R-S in the middle stanza followed by T-U-V-W-X-Y in the final stanza). The new sequence (‘narrative’) is the result of a decision to frame conflict from a new perspective and the use of new skills. These allow C to emerge as a positive word (“Comfortable”), once the danger has been removed. In fact, the middle stanza does not mention “Conflict” but this does not mean it is ignored (it is after all the implied subject of “Questioning” and “Rattling”). Rather, it is not allowed to dominate. Space is made, embodied in the beginning of the stanza, not least by the refusal to engage in tit-for-tat.
The opportunity conflict offers is the lifting of veils, allowing two unknown entities (“X and Y”) to see each other “face to face / For the first time.” (I was thinking of the wonderful novel by C.S. Lewis, Til We Have Faces).* The absence of Z suggests that the story is not over; the absence of the letters between H and P maybe signals that not everything can and needs to be said.

*In the poem, counter-intuitively, it is the seeing that removes the veil not vice versa, emphasising our decision to see as the action that enables conflict to be a lifter of veils. The novel suggests that only  honesty gives us faces, making it possible for “the gods” to engage with us.

Conflict - What Art Thou?

Conflict – what art thou?
Ancient, Always Bubbling
Ever Deepening
Conflict – not to be
Feared. Thou art no Giant,
Holding the Power.

Conflict – Questioning us,
Rattling us –
A Scorpion:
Beautiful and
Comfortable, the Stinger

Conflict – what art thou?
To be trusted to un-veil: when
X and Y see face to face
For the first time.

Felden Lodge, Hemel Hempstead, 8 February 2019

Friday, 1 February 2019

More on the Guidance for Gender Transitioning Services

The Pastoral Guidance issued by the House of Bishops for parishes planning services to help trans people mark their transition has been give a response in an open letter asking the House  to revise, postpone or withdraw this guidance until significant concerns have been properly addressed. This letter in turn has received an angry response by some with the agreement of the Bishop of Liverpool among others. These may be signs that the plea to listen will fall on deaf ears but a more measured response came from the Revd Dr Tina Beardsley, retired healthcare Chaplain, researcher and co-author of This is My Body and Transfaith. Her response makes me want to underline a few things and make a note of a few questions in the hope of developing my own understanding if no-one else’s.
First, it seems to me that the Open Letter never speaks of trans people because it does not seek to speak about people; it speaks to a Guidance which commends the unqualified celebration of a process. There is of course a relationship between trans people and the process of gender transition but the Letter questions the assumption that the only way to welcome trans people is to celebrate their gender transition liturgically – and to do so in every case.
Secondly, if the Guidance had merely cautioned against dead-naming and mis-gendering people, it would not have caused this Response. There is a difference between welcoming people, using their preferred names and pronouns, and offering a liturgical stamp of approval on gender transition. The former we can do while remaining agnostic about any specific transitioning process, the latter demands that we make a (positive) judgement on the process which in turn requires an agreed understanding of what gender transition is and why it is always something to be celebrated. Hence the call for serious theological analysis.
Thirdly, Tina Beardsley queries the focus on gender dysphoria, observing that the trans experience is broader. The reason for this focus on gender dysphoria lies in the fact that the Guidance specifically speaks of celebrating gender transition. This appears to assume that someone has received a gender recognition certificate which at present, here in England, is only possible after a diagnosis of gender dysphoria or after sex reassignment surgery. The latter also falls in the category of gender dysphoria, understood, with the American Psychiatric Association,  as “a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify.” It is not clear that the Guidance issued by the House of Bishops is meant to apply to gender nonconformity as distinct from gender transitioning that seeks to resolve a mismatch (gender dysphoria), whether the mismatch had been experienced as distressing or not.
Fourthly, if being trans means to understand, feel, and identify oneself as having a gender mentality that conflicts with the sexual characteristics of one’s body and with the gender which society stereotypically attributes to people with those sexual characteristics, trans identity has a long history. Nevertheless there have been significant developments in the 20th century which change the context and raise new questions (see below) and there have been new developments in recent years in relation to pre-pubescent children which raise new concerns (Peter Ould makes reference to these in his comment).
Fifthly, the last few decades have seen a noticeable move away from gender stereotyping among many, even though elements of sexism and rigidity about gender roles remain. At the same time our ability to make someone’s body conform, to some extent, to their dissonant gender mentality has increased. This means that today the process of gender transitioning, in particular connected with sex reassignment surgery, often tends to affirm and reinforce gender stereotypes, when in the past a lived trans identity more commonly undermined gender assumptions and stereotypes. This is an issue that concerns society as a whole, not just individuals.
Sixthly, the new possibilities for manipulating our bodies raise afresh questions about how we think of our bodies theologically, especially given that the conflict between gender mentality and sexual characteristics is no longer considered a mental health issue.[1] Tina Beardsley points out that “the therapeutic consensus today is that being trans is a human variation, not a pathology” but in those cases were being trans leads to medical intervention[2] it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it is a health issue. If it is not a mental health issue, should the dis-ease be located in the body? Should we think of the body of a trans person as “disabled” or “ill” until it is (to some extent) healed by sex reassignment surgery?
Finally, to affirm gender transitions liturgically seems to grant an ontological reality to “gender” as something separate from biological sex. This raises the questions about how we are to think about gender which have not yet been really addressed by the church.  Are we to assume that our souls are gendered in the way our bodies are sexed? Is there a difference between self and soul? Is dissonance always essentially about what it means to be “male” or “female” or is “gender” in some cases unrelated to “male” and “feamle”?
We do not need answers to these questions in order to welcome trans people, using their preferred names and pronouns. It is the recommendation of liturgy which in affirming gender transitions makes certain assumptions which demands that such questions are addressed.

[1] Mental health problems still carry a stigma which is why many are keen to avoid any suggestion that gender dysphoria is a mental health issue.
[2] I recognise that the desire to make one’s body conform to one’s gender identity is not universal among trans people. It is however one of the contexts of the Guidance and the Guidance does not distinguish between gender transitions with and without sex reassignment surgery.