A Hunch About Love

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Theology is…

‘Theology is the hunch that love really is the meaning of everything.’[1] So began my first ever theology lecture. Did any of us fresh-faced eighteen year olds really know what we had signed up to in undertaking a theology degree? When our intimidating, almost maverick, lecturer asked us what we thought theology was, our timid answers were noble enough: the study of religion, asking questions about God, tackling the tough topics in contemporary society. But the definition of theology we were left with, and which most of us subsequently ran with for the remainder of our studies, was one that rested on a hunch about love. Of all the things we learnt in that introduction to theology course, (the theological method, why we should read all thirteen million words of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, and a recipe for a particularly potent brew of parsnip wine), that hunch about love proved itself to be the driving force, however unconsciously or indirectly, of our theological endeavours at university, and perhaps beyond.

While not having a single concrete, agreed upon definition of theology is not inherently problematic, certain ideas or understandings of theology have often meant that the discipline has come under intense scrutiny over its place in higher education; ‘ever since the fading of its illusory splendour as a leading academic power during the Middle Ages, theology has taken too many pains to justify its own experience…theology has first to renounce all apologetics or external guarantees of its position within the environment of other sciences, for it will always stand on the firmest ground when it simply acts according to the law of its own being.’[2] Theology has seemingly fallen from being “Queen of the Sciences” to a pariah of higher education. In one of his many diatribes against theology, Richard Dawkins wrote, ‘what has theology ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has theology ever said anything that is demonstrably true?…The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t mean anything. What makes anyone think that “theology” is a subject at all?’[3] Perhaps this suspicion of theology in universities can be blamed on how it ‘usually exists not just as the most delicate but also the most spectacularly tiny department in most of our universities,’[4] or, more likely, on a post-enlightenment general misgiving about religion. But to go against Barth and justify theology’s place in our universities today, I have to appeal to a hunch about love. Storge (στοργή), Philia (φιλία), Éros (ἔρως), and Agápe (ἀγάπη) are the four Greek words for love which roughly translate as familial love, friendship, romance, and God-love respectively.[5] Under these four types of love, the role of theology in higher education will be explored, its potential examined, and the hunch about love may yet become something stronger than just a hunch.

Storge: on pursuing your passions

Storge, what C.S. Lewis refers to as Affection, is ‘the least discriminating of loves…almost anyone can become an object of Affection; the ugly, the stupid, even the exasperating.’[6] It is a form of Need-love, personified by familial relationships, particularly those between children and parents, and is paradoxical in the way it is a quasi-selfish love based on how children require something of their parents, but their parents long to give something of their selves in the first place. For theology, affection can be understood as pursuing what it is you are passionate about. These passions, these affections, are not to be dismissed. The pursuit of knowledge can never be trivial, as is often demonstrated in university mottos, like Cognitio, Sapientia, Humanitas, (Knowledge, Wisdom, Humanity, Manchester); Rerum cognoscere causas, (to understand the causes of things, LSE); and In limine sapientiæ, (on the threshold of wisdom, York). That theology offers so many avenues to explore is a testament to the discipline itself. As a student, my theology degree has taken me from religion in popular music, to the Gospel parallels in Quentin Tarantino movies, to the theological implication of Rembrandts, Bacons, and Bruegels. None of these affections are inconsequential to either theology or the person to whom the passion belongs. If theology’s sole role in higher education is only Storge, then that in itself justifies its existence.

Philia: on not doing theology from an ivory tower

‘Can other sciences really keep theology separated from themselves, isolated in some corner like a merely tolerated Cinderella?’[10] asks Barth. Theology is impossible to do in isolation; you cannot do theology from an ivory tower as what it means to be a theologian can only be lived out. To live out theology is to do it in community, in Philia, in friendship. As a complex and multifaceted discipline, theology interweaves systematics, biblical studies, philosophy, history, languages, sociology, anthropology and more, and is enriched by being in dialogue with other disciplines from biology to literature. Celebrating inter- and intra-disciplinarity does not dilute theology’s importance, but it points to how engaging and active a subject it is. If no man is an island, then no theology student can be an island either; there is much to gain from connecting disciplines and approaches. This Philia between departments is what makes universities flourishing and cohesive communities, and also helps in the development and discovery of Affections. Theology as a discipline is ideally structured for collaboration with other disciplines, its breadth and fluidity preserve it from becoming static. Take the area of biblical studies for example, a sub-discipline of theology with, quite literally, thousands of years of scholarship behind it, it has seen a rejuvenation in recent years through the discipline of biblical reception history, facilitating a fresh look at texts and their historical interpretations in light of contemporary ideologies and cultures, and allowing for critical theological engagement with relatively new media such as film. The inherent relevance that theology will always hold should not make it complacent but determinedly ready to engage with new developments in culture and society as they arise. And as universities have a duty to be at the forefront of academic engagement with the world, having a place for theology within higher education should therefore be a necessity.

Ultimately, ‘theological work is service…it cannot be pursued for its own sake,’[11] it has to act over and against itself, point towards an other. Historically, theology has worked in service for faith communities, and this can be seen in the confessional foundations of many theology departments. Today, theology is in service for and in Philia with a whole host of communities, secular and sacred. Theology, at its best, works for preferential treatment of the vulnerable and works against the oppressive status quo. In what Gorringe terms ‘over-againstness,’[12] theology’s duty is not to be an end in itself, but to look beyond itself. Sometimes theology has failed in its duty to do this; ‘it is a challenge for religious studies and theology departments to be inclusive without making an unspoken but nonetheless conspicuous truth claim like those associated with theological pluralism,’[13] and insider privilege remains problematic. Theology has not always been in Philia with all those trying to do theology. Liberation, Black, Feminist, and Womanist theologies all arose in part due to the exclusivity systematic theology can be prone to and, even today, systematic theology is still perceived as a sub-discipline with ‘gendered baggage.’[14]

But theology, when it takes its commitment to Philia seriously, is valuable and powerful. The best theology I have done as a student has not been done from the ivory tower of the university, it has been done literally in the mud and the dirt. In a final year module on food, faith, and farming, we were taken to see farmers struggling against supermarket oligopolies, we had soil thrust under our noses so we could experience what truly healthy topsoil smells like, and we augmented our own community as students by preparing and sharing a meal together. Theological service done well is not about being a voice for the voiceless, but about quieting down the other voices so that the voiceless can use their own voice for perhaps the first time. Theology should grapple with questions of meaning and truth and engage with ideas of beauty, but theology ultimately should be done in the mess and the pain of the lived experiences of the oppressed. When it engages over-againstness and points beyond itself, theology’s most important purpose is revealed.

Éros: on welcoming everyone

Éros is powerful, beautiful, and fragile and might appear an incongruous way of describing theology’s role in higher education. A theology of Éros is a Eucharistic Éros. Jesus’ instruction to “do this in remembrance of me” should not ‘be understood simply to refer to Jesus’ handling of bread and wine on the night before he died, not exclusively in relation to the death that he was about to die. Jesus was, rather, calling the disciples to recognise and to remember the whole pattern of his table-fellowship – his profligate, decorum-snubbing, purity-endangering habit of sharing of bread and wine with sinners.’[17] A Eucharistic Éros thus begins with a welcome of what the wider world might see as the least desirable but which theology has a duty to see the beauty within. Theology is about saying ‘yes’ where the world may say ‘no,’ which is important in a higher education context where boundary markers have so often been placed to keep the unwanted at bay. Welcoming anyone and everyone ensures theology will never stagnate or become static, and it also helps keep universities accountable to being accessible for all.

Agápe: on loving and being loved

Any discussion of theology’s purpose cannot avoid the God question, the God/god/gods/goddess problem. ‘One major challenge of [this] century is to find the institutional creativity that can form environments in which theological wisdom can be pursed with integrity by those with different commitments.[18] But because the God question cannot be ignored, we turn to Agápe, this ‘primal love is Gift-love. In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give. The doctrine that God was under no necessity to create is not a piece of dry scholastic speculation. It is essential.’[19] Agápe finds its zenith in the crucifixion, it is a one word picture of God’s desire for the whole of creation, a passionate commitment to the other which absolutely refuses possessiveness, violence, and oppression and instead doggedly pursues reconciliation, healing, and hope. Through all angles of the theological method, this key act of loving and being loved has been the driving force of theology and remains so today. Through Storge, Philia, and Éros, theology has upheld Agápe without necessarily having to articulate a commitment to the God of the cross event in how it has sought to love people selflessly and also be loved through the enjoyment that can come through doing theology. Agápe is possible through secular and sacred theology because loving altruistically is not the domain solely of confessional theology, even if the cross event does function as the paradigm for that kind of love. This kind of love makes a serious commitment to others where the rest of the world may have maligned them; this kind of love pays close attention to people’s experiences of pain and of hope; this kind of love is empowering, enabling people to find their voices and then facilitating those voices being heard. This is the purpose of theology in higher education, yes to educate and challenge and inspire, but more so to set a precedent on how to live and act for others. Theology in higher education extends far beyond the walls of the university and permeates every facet of society – at least, it should. This is not an idealistic whim, a gushy rhetoric on the discipline that I am passionate about and which, if some people had their way, would be forced to shrivel and die. This is not idealistic because Agápe is not idealistic. Something so rooted in a love which embraced death so that the other might have life can never be idealistic or meaningless, let alone allowed to fade from our universities. The magnitude of that love is too great for such a thing to happen.

So what is theology and what is its purpose in higher education? Is it those noble questions about religion, society, philosophy, life, death and, if you ever take a lecture with Tim Gorringe, why topsoil is like Jesus? Yes, but it is all this and more. Theology’s role in higher education is about pursuing the things which matter to you, championing those who have been brushed aside, and welcoming everyone regardless of what they may or may not bring to the table. Theology in higher education is about learning that justice is important and then living that justice, it is about playing a role across disciplines and then sharing the findings that more people may be inspired, and it is about following the most selfless act of love and embodying it as best as a fallible person can. I would like to go one step further than my erstwhile professor and say this: theology is the proof that love really is the meaning of everything. Long may theology, and all who do her, live this.

[1] Gorringe, T., ‘Introduction to Theology’ lecture given 05/10/10. [2] Barth, K., Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, (Grand Rapids, W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), p.15. [3] Dawkins, R., ‘The Emptiness of Theology,’ Free Inquiry Magazine, 18, 2. [4] Barth, (1996), p.11. [5] I am taking as my dialogue partner here C.S Lewis and his definitions and uses of the four loves. See Lewis, C.S., The Four Loves, (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012). [6] Lewis, C.S., The Four Loves, (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012), p.40. [10] Barth, (1996), p.111. [11] Ibid., p.185. [12] See Gorringe, T., Karl Barth: Against Hegemony, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). [13] Quartermaine, ‘Theology and/or Religious Studies: A Response from Graduate Students,Discourse, 7, 1, (2007), p.51. [14] Guest, M., Sharma, S., and Song, R., Gender and Career Progression in Theology and Religious Studies, (Durham: Durham University, 2013), p.15. [17] Higton, M., ‘The Theology of Tim Gorringe’ in Higton, M., Law, J., and Rowland, C., Theology and Human Flourishing: Essays in Honour of Timothy J. Gorringe, (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011). p.2. [18] Ford, D., Theology: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p.173. [19] Lewis, (2012), p.153.

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With Slightly Fewer Apologies, This Is Me

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What if, along the way, we’ve picked up ideas about what it means to be a Christian woman that just aren’t working? What if we’re tangled up in beliefs about who we should or could be that might be holding us back from finding our feet as the women God has made up to be?’

Rachel Gardner, ‘The Girl De-Construction Project’

Imagine the scene: it’s breakfast time in a farmhouse in middle-of-nowhere Cornwall. It’s the morning after the night before, the Christian version of which is the morning after a night of inadvertently staying up really late up having the deep deep chats where you all bear your soul and the scene becomes a thin place without you all realising it. You’re all around the kitchen table when someone asks ‘so how late did you guys stay up last night?’ One thing leads to another, and you end up put on the spot to re-deliver a monologue you gave in the early hours of the morning in the comfort of newly-deepened friendships. The gist is this: what the Proper Christian Woman is like. Over breakfast, people laugh either again or for the first time, but for you, it’s not quite as funny. Because, as the Cornish sun streams through the window and bounces off your cereal spoon, you realise that you’d really quite like to be the Proper Christian Woman. She’s married, she’s beautiful, she has kids, she has a perfectly turned out house, she can sing and bake and sew and do all three sections of the Bible in One Year in the morning. In short, she’s not just everything you’re not right now, she’s everything you probably never will be.

It’s fair to say that, along the way, I have picked up ideas about what it means to be a Christian woman that really haven’t worked. And I look at the teenagers in my youth group and at my female friends in various stages of life, and as I prepare to be in all sorts of contexts during my ordination training and beyond, I’ve been struck by the importance of modelling what it means to be a Christian woman who’s me, with all my dreams and hopes and fears and flaws.

I’ve been reading with great delight and much punching-the-air Rachel Gardner’s ‘The Girl De-Construction Project.’ If you haven’t read it, you must. It’s the book I wish I’d had at 15. It’s honest, vulnerable, and empowering. She actually uses the word ‘vagina!’ The books for Christian women and girls I grew up with re-enforced the depiction of girls and precious flowers with ears too delicate to dare utter the anatomical names for our body parts. She talks about sexuality in a way which is, sadly, revolutionary for 2018. She talks about arousal and sex dream and sensuality and masturbation. She talks about the clitoris (only slightly less than my MPhil thesis, not that it’s a competition) and it’s sensible rather than gratuitous.

She takes bodies seriously and sex seriously; her book as a whole is a stunning exercise in incarnational theology, it might not use technical theological language, but its theological integrity is both rich and obvious. This is not a haphazard work of empty platitudes and vague statements about God, this is a work of liberationist theology. And as I prepare to begin my DPhil constructing a theology of sexual consent, this book has helped re-ignite my passion for this topic and for the church to actually engage with it.

But she also takes formation seriously. She writes: ‘knowing who you are doesn’t start with you; it starts with the God who created you and is more attentive to you and who you’re becoming than you could possibly imagine.’ In a section called ‘know your body’ she talks about examining your hands and asking what they are telling your about what you might need, and includes in the list of potential answers, holding them out to God, because you need to let go of something that’s been weighing heavily on your heart.’ Formation is essential because it is never ending. Because the 15-year-old me had the same fears as Cornish farmhouse me as right now me, differently expressed but still ultimately the same. Because while God is endlessly creative, the enemy is vomitously repetitive. It is in paying attention to formation that we learn to hear God’s whispers of truth over the shouted lies of the devil. It’s important for all of us, but especially important for women.

I read ‘The Girl De-Construction Project’ alongside watching ‘Nanette,’ the remarkable stand-up special by Australian comedian, Hannah Gadsby. I don’t want to spoil it for you (although it’s been out for quite a while) but I would urge you to watch it.

At one point, Hannah says this:

I have built a career out of self-deprecating humour and I don’t want to do that anymore. Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it come from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility, it’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak, and I simply will not do that anymore, not to myself or anybody who identifies with me.

It is a statement which resonates with me and I see it throughout so many of my female friends. Because us women, particularly those of us in evangelical circles, we were endlessly hounded to be humble, when actually it was humiliation dressed up as a virtue. When Gardner speaks properly about bodies, it’s actually a subversive act which is a healing balm to so much humiliation women and girls face just because they have the bodies they do. What both Gardner and Gadsby have in common is dismantling this socialised notion women have that they have to apologise just for existing, just for being. Both journey the formation path, their creative outputs having different destination points, but both pastoral in their own way.

***

One of the questions that has popped up now and again during the discernment process and now as an imminent ordinand has been ‘so what’s your ministry going to be, do you reckon?’ First off, I don’t even know how you train for ordination, let alone the super hard part that comes after it. (No, but seriously, how do you train for ordination? This was actually never mentioned on any vicar school open days). Second, how should I know? I don’t even know where I am on the church candle anymore, in fact, I think I’ve just misplaced my candle entirely. But it did get me thinking. And as debates waged on Twitter (where else?) about the role of women in the Church of England, and mutual flourishing, disagreeing well, five principles blah blah blah, I found myself saying to God, ‘God, I don’t want to do the whole ‘women in the Church thing,’ that’s not what I want to be known for.’ Quick as flash, God replied, ‘why don’t you want to be known for fighting injustice?’

Ouch. Just because the burn was from God doesn’t make it sting any less. My generation isn’t that good at saying thank you. And for that, we should say sorry. I only get to think the words ‘I don’t want to do the whole ‘women in the Church thing” because generations of women before me did, and at times, to great personal cost. There are women in the Church who stood up and spoke out and now find themselves stuck under a stained glass ceiling. There are women who walk into rooms of clergy and find themselves the only one. There are women who have got on with their calling after having been spat at and shunned. And my generation of women doesn’t recognise that well, and I am sorry. I am sorry to those of you who were the trailblazers, who risked so much in pursuit of God’s call, who others in our church feel you should apologise just for being you. I am truly sorry.

***

In a story which makes it sound like I spend far more time in middle-of-nowhere Cornwall than I actually do, I was in middle-of-nowhere Cornwall. It was January. It was so cold. I was huddled in a former nun’s cell awkwardly holding my phone as though it was an alien object I was encountering for the first time. After six days, silence had been broken and my friend and I sat on her bed, picked up an ear bud each, and for the first time in six days, listened to music…

Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me.

We lip-synced and danced with all the enthusiasm and joy that bursts forth after a week in simultaneously liberating and torturous silence. It was glorious!

***

So what do ‘The Girl De-Construction Project,’ ‘Nanette,’ women in the Church, and an anthem from a Hollywood musical have to do with anything? Well, they each say something profound about how women are made to apologise in a way which is unjust, is demoralising, and belies their being creations of the almighty God. And why have they all collided into the word vomit that is this blog post? Because I have just moved to vicar school. Yesterday, I was introduced to a guy who’s going to be a first year just like me. And after the interaction was over, I came up to my room and said ‘God, I wish I wasn’t shy, I wish I wasn’t anxious, God, I wish I wasn’t me.’ And isn’t that just the most blasphemous thing? I might as well have said, ‘God, you did a bad job making me.’ Except he didn’t. Because he’s God and my goodness, isn’t he pretty excellent at creation! I feel this constant need to apologise for who I am, to say sorry for taking up time and space, for saying my bit. I say sorry for asking questions, sorry whenever I feel inadequate, I apologise just for existing, just for being. But I am, with a life of formation ahead of me, who God made me. He is the source of my formation, he is present in my wounds, he is the cause of my fight for justice, he is the joy in lip-syncing to a musical in a nun’s cell after six days in silence. He is my creator. So, with all the apologies my vagina-possession has socialised me to make, this is me.

Six Years Later

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A special place.

I can tell you exactly where I was when I found out that the Church of England’s General Synod had rejected women bishops legislation. I was on my study abroad year in Ottawa, Canada, walking down Laurier Avenue East. It was the day before my 21st birthday, and although I had an essay to write for the next day, instead I poured my heart out into a blog post. It’s interesting to read it back. It’s raw, it’s heart-felt, it makes me cringe somewhat with six years of spiritual discipline between it and now, but I stand by it.

In part, it says:

Upon going to university, I first encountered Christians who held the opposing view of women in the church, to me. As a theology undergraduate, I encountered male students who scoff at my degree because of my gender, and because it is at a “normal” university as opposed to a theological college. Within the Christian Union, a university society, I witnessed leadership-gifted women sidelined by the belief that they were somehow inferior, and that this was a biblical truth… I realised at the conclusion of my first year at university, that part of the very essence of who I am as a Christian had been effectively suffocated by my church/CU situation at university. Suddenly I had become meek and mild and too afraid to challenge “the big boys” who were “theologically sound.” At a church weekend away, a third year student said to me, ‘I just couldn’t take a woman preacher seriously.’ And I, to my shame, said nothing, I just smiled. In second year, I developed a reputation for being…gobby. I break the mold of that perfect Christian girl and challenged the guys on what I saw as misogyny being passed off as theology. It didn’t get me any friends, it got me a reputation; it got me the butt of jokes about rebuking and what have you.

I can’t tell you where I was or what I was doing when the women bishops legislation was passed through Synod. But I can tell you where I was when it was announced that Sarah Mullally, installed today as Bishop of London, would be the first woman to have that role. I was at work and I cried. I’m not even embarrassed to admit it. Fortunately, my colleagues who find my obsession with Anglicanism adorable, also viewed weeping at my exploding Twitter feed similarly endearing.

Why did that fateful day in 2012, the random day in 2017, and this day in 2018 mean so much? Let me take you back to 20-year-old Hannah:

If you follow me on Twitter then you know that I make jokes all the time about how people assume I’m going to be ordained and that I’m trying to avoid it. The thing is, God has threatened me with ordination. (Potentially wrong word choice there!) God has made it really quite clear that he’s given me a gab for a reason, and it is for his use. But that gifting isn’t acknowledged by the majority of Christians I know. It’s frustrating and it’s humbling and it really really hurts. I thought the vote today would be a yes. Not out of arrogance but because I couldn’t see how anyone could ignore women who have been so obviously called. I love the Church of England, which is why I think it just hurts so much right now that the church I love doesn’t believe in me.

Reader, I have some news: the path to avoiding ordination just got significantly more complicated. I have been recommended to train for ordination. I know! I couldn’t be more humbled and I couldn’t be more delighted. God has called me; the God who made me has called me to thing he made me for. My goodness, my fear is only matched by how much this makes my soul sing!

And, on a day like today, I am so proud of my beloved Church of England. And God bless Bishop Sarah in her ministry in London.

A Bit More Theology

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Thanks, but no thanks Karl.

I was watching an old episode of the TV show ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ recently. In it, the main character, Ray, is talking to his young daughter, Ally. ‘Why are there babies?’ asks Ally. Ray uncomfortably tries to explain. ‘No’ Ally says, ‘I know about how, why are we born? Why does God put us here?’ Ray looks terrified, has no answer to the tough question, and makes an excuse to leave as quickly as he can.

I’m sure we’ve all been asked tough questions when it comes to our faith. Maybe they’ve been the innocent yet piercing ones that children and young people are so good at posing. Maybe they’ve been from hostile people wanting to try and tear Christianity apart. Or maybe they’ve been the questions we ourselves have asked: what do I really think about this doctrine? Why do we do this thing in church? God, what exactly did you mean by that? It can feel daunting and unnerving. Theology, and the questions it raises, can sometimes feel like they are designed to catch you out, to trip you up. Sometimes, it feels easier to keep theology at arm’s length.

I studied theology at university and I had a few fearful what ifs lingering in the back of my mind when I began. What if it found holes in my beliefs and caused my faith to collapse? What if it was just too challenging? What if there was some chasm between academic theology and church life that would mean church would never be the same again? My uni friends shared my fears. In fact, I’ve not met a Christian who hasn’t, even if only for a split second, been a little bit scared of theology.

But the fear doesn’t last long. Theology is a bit like an Advent calendar. You open one window at a time and discover something: an answer to a question you’ve had, a new way of seeing God, and yes, maybe a challenge to a presupposition you’ve held, but through that challenge comes an opportunity to grow and an opportunity to draw nearer to God in discovery of him. And you keep opening windows, but you can’t predict what you will next discover or jump ahead to the end. Theology is, in part, about living with questions which do not permit easy answers. As one priest wrote in the Church Times recently, in studying theology her ‘questions were not “answered” [in the typical sense], but they were reframed, refined, and, at times, corrected. I grew back into faith, which was now more mature, more solid, and very differently shaped.’ Theology will never provide all the answers; the day I think I’ve got all my questions satisfactorily answered is the day I’ve made God infinitesimally small.

Studying theology helps us to live with the tough questions but, more importantly, studying theology helps us live with the people who ask those questions which do not permit easy answers. The theologian, Karl Barth, is reported to have said ‘the answer is Jesus, now what is the question?’ It’s technically true, but it’s pastorally unhelpful. There’s a difference between simple and fluffy, and this falls into the latter category. We don’t study theology to alienate ourselves from the people we encounter; we study theology so that when people present their wounds to us we can provide a healing balm rather than an inadequate sticking plaster. It’s about embodying the Word become flesh.

When a grieving person comes to you, they don’t need a technical overview of the doctrine of the resurrection any more than they need an empty platitude, but a bit more theology means you can meet them where death has really stung them, and open to them a way for God’s hope to shine through. When a young person laments being fatherless, a bit more theology means you don’t brush them off with a blanket statement about God being Father, rather you help them be reconciled to a God whose Fatherhood is very different from their preconceptions. A bit more theology in our pastoral situations really goes a long way.

Tough questions, tough answers; a frustratingly and gloriously, simultaneously knowable and unknowable God who communicates both mystery and certainty. Theology may not be easy but a bit more of it in our everyday encounters might just make the world of difference.

An Expectant Lent: For The Kingdom, The Power, And The Glory Are Yours

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The sixth and final part of my Lent series for Viva.

We might think that the gap between the sacred and the secular in a Western context has increasingly become a chasm. And yet, you don’t have to search too far to discover that the ways the sacred – something of who God is – permeates the world around us.

The writer Leonard Cohen is best known for his song ‘Hallelujah’, a song which has been covered by myriad artists such as Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainright, and popularised through various cultural outlets, from The West Wing to Shrek.

It’s been the soundtrack to coverage of devastating events including the September 11 attacks and the Boston Marathon bombings.

But why has this song become a constant cultural zeitgeist?

In ‘Hallelujah’, Cohen captures a way of expressing an outlook on the world which encompasses and embraces the pain and mess of life, as well as the moments of triumph. He takes the experiences of David and Samson and demonstrates how the stories in the scriptures are not unique for human beings.

Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is both painful and uplifting; the hope that emanates through the hallelujahs is inspiring, while the pain of experiences is affecting.

But ultimately, being able to stand before God is empowering, and it is this chord of rejoicing, despite hurt, which resonates so particularly and why the song has been received so well. Yes, there is an element of redemption, but this redemption is not divorced from the mess of human life.

The final stanza reads: “I did my best, it wasn’t much / I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch / I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you / And even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah”.

It’s a sentiment with which it’s easy to sympathise: “I did my best, it wasn’t much, but blessed be the name of the Lord”. You could read these words as being defeatist in tone, but actually it points to something far greater about who God is and how he desires an intimate relationship with us.

Hallelujah means “God be praised”. The Lord’s Prayer finishes with a doxology, which is a liturgical formula of praise to God. So “for the Kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever” are words in the same vein as “nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.”

These are amazing words with which to finish the Lord’s Prayer: standing in the blood-soaked shadow of the cross, we know that we are redeemed.

As Lent draws to a close, we are confident that our sin is not the final word on who or what we are; the empty cross shouts a cosmos-shattering “I love you”. With God, our death is now just a comma; it’s not a full-stop. We have life, life to the full, because of what Christ did on that cross.

We sometimes reduce God’s love to a cheesy line that can be printed on a pencil. Yet, stationery theology pales in comparison to kingdom theology.

We have a Father in heaven whose holiness is incomparable and whose Kingdom will come; he provides for our needs, he forgives us, he hears our cry in times of despair.

He sees all the children that Viva has ever reached and sees all the children who we will one day encounter and show his love to. The power and glory are his today, tomorrow, for all of eternity.

He knows our past and he holds our future. He sees the wounds we carry and sends his living water coursing through them. He is good. He is faithful. He is God.

And just wait, keep being expectant in these dying days of Lent, because our God will soon be risen.

PRAYER: Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name. Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For the Kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.

WHERE IN THE WORLD: Figures show that one in ten children in the UK aged between 5-16 have been diagnosed with a mental health problem such as depression and anxiety – and that three-quarters of them are not receiving treatment.

Viva’s partner network in Oxford, Doorsteps, is building links with local community groups, churches, and schools to increase the resilience of teenagers facing mental health issues. We want to be there to share something of God’s kingdom, power and glory with children and young people in their hurting situations. Doorsteps and Viva are hosting a conference at the end of May in Oxford to explore the Christian response to child and adolescent mental health. Click here to find out more and to book.

An Expectant Lent: Lead Us Not Into Temptation

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Part Five of my Lent series for Viva.

Augustine of Hippo is widely considered one of the most important theological voices in the Christian tradition. A theologian, a bishop, and eventually a saint, his contributions have not just been ground-breaking and central to the discipline of theology, but also to politics, philosophy, and classics, amongst others.

One of the (many) delights of reading Augustine is his distinctive tone; his combination of profound statements about God, beautiful imagery, and penchant for sass make him a lively and engaging person to read. One his most famous lines, taken from his Confessions, is “grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” It’s a very Augustine think to remark but perpetuates a stereotype around what we mean by temptation.

It’s easy to think of temptation as being a vice we are drawn to, such as drinking, chocolate or social media (you know I said I gave up Facebook for Lent? I caved. Spectacularly.)

In its original context, however, ‘lead us not into temptation’ has a far deeper meaning.

As Rowan Williams comments: “[Jesus’] teaching often turns back to this idea that a great time of trial is coming. A time when we shall find out what we’re really capable of, just as we often say you don’t know what someone’s made of until they’re under pressure.

We’re coming towards a time when you really have to decide how much God matters to you; you really have to put your life on the line… the word [temptation] means so much more in its context; it means this huge trial that’s coming, this huge crisis that’s coming.

“Lead us not into crisis, don’t, please God don’t push us into the time of crisis before you’ve made us ready for it. Don’t push us until you’ve given us what we need to face it.”

When we face trials or temptations, often we can feel the need to try and sort it all out on our own, to charge in and try to fix the problem. More often than not, our intentions are good. Here’s a problem, let me try and help.

The temptation can be to say, “God, I’m doing something good, it’s for you, so please will you bless it.” But what God desires of us is: ‘My children, I’m doing something good, come and be a part of it and bless it.”

At Viva, we are called to all sorts of work with children and young people. We see and hear stories of remarkable hope and joy but we also encounter distress and pain. And we want to help. But we know that we can’t do anything in our own strength. We have to decide how much God really matters to us: does he matter insofar as he’s a good motivation for our work, or does he matter so much that we respond to the call of his work?

The writer of Philippians says this: ‘Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me… One thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 3: 12-14)

A good test when it comes to doing work in the name of Jesus is this: run as fast as you can towards Christ and then look beside you to see who’s keeping up. At Viva, our eyes are fixed on Christ; we are not superheroes, but are servants of our Lord.

PRAYER: Please, God, don’t push us into the time of crisis before you’ve made us ready for it, until you’ve given us what we need to face it. Thank you that you go before us, are behind us, and are also beside us. Help up to trust you with our whole lives and to respond to where you call us to go. Amen.

WHERE IN THE WORLD: It was the disaster that Nepal was anticipating but dreading. Almost three years ago now, two devastating earthquakes killed 9,000 people and around half-a-million families in the central region lost their homes. In this time of crisis, our partner network CarNet Nepal provided an emergency response in the weeks and months after the earthquakes because of the presence they already had in many local communities. And, the network has continued to meet ongoing needs in the years that have followed, helping children and families with projects such as psychological first aid camps, training in hygiene care and the re-construction of school buildings.

An Expectant Lent: Forgive Us Our Sins

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Part 4 of my Lent series for Viva: An Expectant Lent.

Do you ever read something and think ‘can I really say that?’ That’s how I often feel when I come to the line ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’ It’s a two-fold challenge: to accept that I am forgiven and to forgive others.

When we don’t forgive each other, relationships break down. The television series, Parks and Recreation, was about a group of local government workers who, despite wildly divergent personalities and worldviews, were close and loving friends. A time jump in the final series revealed that two of the characters, Leslie and Ron, were no longer speaking to each other and refusing to even entertain the idea of working together again, and no-one knew just what exactly had happened to break their relationship down. So, the other characters took matters into their own hands and locked the two of them in a room so they could work out differences. And, in the way only slightly surreal sitcoms can, the two reconciled after much shouting and an explosion of confetti.

This is a slightly trivial example to illustrate something bigger and more serious: to not forgive is both easy and a devastating act of self-sabotage which utterly undermines what God did for us on the cross.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor who was part of the resistance to the Nazi regime and was executed at Flossenbürg concentration camp.

In one of his letters from prison, he wrote, “Live together in the forgiveness of your sins, for without it no human fellowship, least of all a marriage, can survive. Don’t insist on your rights, don’t blame each other, don’t judge or condemn each other, don’t find fault with each other, but accept each other as you are, and forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts.”

Repentance leads to forgiveness, forgiveness leads to reconciliation, reconciliation leads to freedom, and freedom leads to a life lived in the power and light of the resurrection and ascension of Christ.

From this place, we can respond faithfully to what God has called us to do.

At Viva, we work in contexts where we see the consequences of sin, where we encounter those who have been sinned against. How we live forgiveness and reconciliation in these places around the world is a reflection of how much we ourselves have been forgiven and reconciled with the living God. It’s not easy. It’s not black and white.

But God is not and has never been, afraid of plunging into our mess. But in being forgiven, we can love and in love, we can forgive others.

Forgiveness changes us and forgiveness changes the world. And God shows us how to do it, gently, lovingly, and faithfully.

PRAYER:
Loving God, as you have forgiven us, help us to forgive others. Help us to ask for forgiveness where we have wronged or hurt other people. Thank you that you are merciful and that through the salvific act of Jesus dying and rising, we will one day be completely free from sin and reunited with you forever.

WHERE IN THE WORLD:
Through its girls’ mentoring initiative in India, Viva is freeing girls from the trappings of their lives; the majority face oppression and discrimination simply for not being a boy. Last year, almost 400 Indian girls took part in the Dare to be Different programme, teaching them about how to make the right choices in life and giving them dreams and aspirations for the future. The training often leads to a change their attitude by the family towards the girl. Read more by clicking here.

An Expectant Lent: Give Us Today Our Daily Bread

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Part Three in my Lent series for Viva.

“Rivers of ink have been spilt over the exact meaning of ‘give us this day our daily bread’, because the word that’s used in the Greek is a very, very strange one that you find hardly anywhere else… The simple meaning keep us going, give us what we need is all we really need to go on.” (Rowan Williams)

At this stage in Lent, keeping going might feel a real challenge.

I’ve given up Facebook and I occasionally find my fingers itching to check in and see what’s happening. Although, so many of my friends have also given up Facebook, that I imagine the answer is probably, not a lot!

In that moment of wanting to see the familiar sight of red notification against a blue background, I have to remember that Christ died for me and that he would love to spend the time with me that I would otherwise waste on social media.

To pray ‘give us today our daily bread’ is to surrender our future plans to God. And that can be hard and it requires a lot of faith.

The French Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, wrote a short poem called ‘Trust in the Slow Work of God.’

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through some stages of instability
and that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually – let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

God knows about time; he knows about all time. In a way, to pray ‘keep going for tomorrow’ is a gift. God holds the future in his hands and gifts us the present each day.

It seems to be that the hardest day in Lent is Holy Saturday. It must have been a bewildering day for the disciples and all those who believed Jesus to be Lord. The darkness descended, he let out his final cry, and he was laid in the tomb. And then… there was nothing. There was just waiting and grieving and wondering. And then there was a stone out of place and grave clothes neatly folded. They got through that Saturday – and Sunday came.

We don’t pray ‘give us today our daily bread’ in desperation but in confidence of God’s faithfulness. But it’s a challenge and discipline to replace fear with faith.

At Viva we rely on the exceedingly generous support of many people to raise the money required to help vulnerable children around the world. For those of us on the global staff team with projects to manage, we can look at spreadsheets or blank pieces of paper with furrowed brows and, in those moments of worry, we whisper ‘give us today our daily bread.’ It is the gift God generously gives us to keep on going.

PRAYER:
Holy God, you are faithful and steadfast. You have provided for your people in many wildernesses in many times. Help us to fix our eyes on you. Ground us in the present so that we may experience your love and grace for us this day. We surrender to you our worries for the future and thank you that you are with us, that you graciously hear us, and that you unfailingly provide for us. Amen.

WHERE IN THE WORLD:
In 2008, Viva’s partner networks in Bolivia kick-started an advocacy initiative called the Good Treatment Campaign. With support from adults, a few hundred children took to the streets that first year to ask adults to pledge to commit to treating children better through their words and actions. The campaign wasn’t only a one-off; the problems of children being neglected and abused didn’t of course just go away overnight. The organising committee for the Good Treatment Campaign kept going, and it continues to run year-on-year, increasing in number and impact. Last September, more than 72,000 ‘Good Treatment Licenses’ were handed out by children in six cities in Bolivia, and the campaign has also spread to six other countries around the world. Click here to read more about the initiative.

An Expectant Lent: Your Kingdom Come, Your Will Be Done

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Part 2 of my Lent series for Viva. You can read Part 1 here.

‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done’ is a radical line in the Lord’s Prayer. To choose God’s will over our own, to ask for that foretaste of heaven – you can’t pray these words without boldness and expectation of the living God!

In the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, the character of Judas doesn’t like the direction Jesus is taking his ministry. As the character of Mary Magdalene pours ointment over Jesus’ feet, Judas interjects saying, “Woman, your fine ointment, brand new and expensive, should have been saved for the poor. Why has it been wasted? We could have raised maybe 300 silver pieces or more. People who are hungry, people who are starving matter more than [Jesus’] feet and hair!”

The musical portrays Judas as a hero of the poor and downtrodden, that it was he who kept the focus while Jesus entertained ideas of being the Messiah, riling the Roman authorities and placing a lot of people in danger in the process. In the climactic final song, ‘Superstar,’ the resurrected Judas says to the tortured Jesus just before he is about to be crucified, “Did you mean to die like that? Was that a mistake or did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?”

Of course, Jesus did mean to die like that.

Without that death, we could never be reconciled to the Father. In Jesus we have “one mediator between God and men” (1 Timothy 2: 5). And that’s part of the good news of the gospel which we anticipate celebrating after Lent. What it requires of us is to trust God, to trust he knows what he’s doing and, he seems to have a pretty good track record! (I’ve given up hyperbole for Lent…)

From the outside, Jesus’ ministry doesn’t always make sense. Why was his first miracle turning water into wine? Why did he tell the man healed of leprosy not to tell anyone what had happened? Why did he talk in parables rather than speak plainly?

But then, why did he die?

We pray ‘your Kingdom come, your will be done’ because God’s eternal perspective is far greater than our finite one.

We pray it because God can and does do far more than we can ever imagine in ways in which would never cross our minds.

God is a God of surprises, of unexpected encounters, of miracles worked in both the spectacular and the everyday.

At Viva, we pray ‘your Kingdom come, your will be done’ because it is God’s children we serve and we want to actualise and realise God’s heart for them. Our heart for them is great, it’s good, it’s well-intentioned and genuine and ardent, but God’s is always better.

It takes faith, it takes sacrifice, it takes obedience – but so did dying on a cross.

PRAYER:
Come, Holy Spirit. Come into our lives, come into our world, guide us in the direction you want us. Give us the grace to see your Kingdom come; give us the grace to be obedient to where you call us to be and what you call us to do. Thank you that we join in the celebration of Heaven when we experience foretastes of your Kingdom. Amen.

WHERE IN THE WORLD?
A refocus of the vision and purpose for work with children can re-inspire people who have been doing it for a while, to improve motivation to keep working, and to work better. Viva’s three-day training course, ‘Understanding God’s Heart for Children’ helps pastors and children’s workers to reflect on the experience and exploration of Scripture, and to enable them to hear and understand God’s desire and purpose for children. The course is currently equipping dozens of churches in India and Zimbabwe to meet the needs of children in their care with excellence.

An Expectant Lent: Our Father In Heaven

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The first in my Lenten reflection series for Viva.

We begin Lent with Ash Wednesday, the day we remember that from dust we came ‘and to dust we shall return.’ It’s a time to remember that the world is in a broken state; that its citizens are daily subjected to appalling horrors and terrors.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, says of Ash Wednesday and Lent:

“This time of year is a moment in which we are called afresh to look at the reality… of human sinfulness and evil – and to reflect that that lies deeply within ourselves, all of us without exception…

“A good Lent takes hold of that and, in an extraordinary way, makes space for the hope of Christ… not only in our individual lives but also in the life of the household and family, in the life of the Church and of local communities and, I would suggest in the life of society generally.”

Lent gives us reason to be expectant of the living God. One of the ways we encounter God and demonstrate our expectance is through prayer. Psalm 5:3 says, ‘In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.’

In the Lord’s Prayer, the reality of life, the hope of Christ, and the expectation of the living God which Lent encompasses, are beautifully realised and offer to us both challenge and encouragement.

During this six-part blog series, we’ll be reflecting on each line of the Lord’s Prayer, its impact on us personally, and how it relates to Viva’s global work in changing children’s lives.

Today: ‘Our Father in Heaven.’

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It can be challenging to call God ‘Father’, and yet, it is one of the most profound names we have for God. That we begin the Lord’s Prayer this way demonstrates that we are God’s children and he wants us to enter into his presence.

God loves his children and the Bible is full of examples of how we should treat children as a result. The most famous is in the gospels where Jesus says, Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of God belong to such as these.”

At Viva, the importance and value of children to God is the catalyst for our work. We work to release children from poverty and abuse worldwide and we’re not content with the status quo but rather we’re expectant for God’s working in the world and to follow where he leads us to work.

There’s a stunning picture of the prodigal son and his father by artist Charlie Mackesy. In it, the father embraces his son and holds him tight. Sometimes, Lent might feel like it’s you against the world: as you give up something, you reflect on your life. 

But it’s our Father we pray to; not only do we have God in all this, but we have each other as the body of Christ. We are dependent on each other. And children around the world are dependent on us.

We cannot pray the Lord’s Prayer in a vacuum, we have to pray it and bring before God all the children around the world whose lives we want to see transformed.

PRAYER
God, thank you that you are our Father and that we can enter into your presence.

Help us to live this Lent expectant that when we call on you, you hear us and that you are a living God who is active in this world.

Thank you that you love all of your children and help us to show this love to all we meet, especially the youngest and most vulnerable in our world.

Amen.

WHERE IN THE WORLD?
In Uganda, our partner network CRANE has helped over 1,700 children out of institutional care and back into the care of a safe, loving family – sometimes extended family of that child or otherwise foster families.

With support from local churches, CRANE listens to and mentors these families, and trains them in income generation. It also works with 35 orphanages to help them make a shift to places of short-term care, rather than being permanent homes for abandoned children. Read more about this work by clicking here.