Living good news v fake news

IMG_2327‘Fake news’ and ‘false news’ has itself been a news item recently. Donald Trump hit on this as a way of arguing that photographs that clearly showed a sparse crowd at his inauguration back in January had been doctored and anything which casts him in a poor light he has dismissed as being fake. It is the tool of someone in denial and wanting to either live a fantasy or mislead. Behind his claims there is just enough reality of there being news stories that are plain wrong and some of the national newspapers specialize in this. I frequently find that when I know something about a story the news reports often have key elements missing or the slant given creates a false or misleading impression. So he is tapping into a sense that we have, even if he is distorting it. There is a sliding scale from absolute lies to the spin that so many PR gurus put on stories to give an emphasis they want to dominate, not necessarily false but one that creates a different impression. And all of us do it to some extent. Memory is after all recreated each time we recall it and it is not just the replay of a cerebral recording.

Facebook have been so worried by the prevalence of ‘false news’, and how it is leading people astray, that they issued 10 things to look out for. When I looked through this list I thought, surely this is just critical evaluation: assessing the evidence, checking the trustworthiness of the source, looking for other reports that back it up. None of this is particularly dramatic, but when you remember the utter nonsense that was spouted around the EU vote last summer and believed, then may be it is. Lots of students have been taken in by false news and one of the jobs of education is to give critical tools to evaluate, check and back up. I remember having “source” written on my essays, drumming into me the importance of citing my references. That said some things are really hard to check when we just don’t have access to the primary sources. Why would this person lie, and then you find out they have. What does this person gain from this story, and then you find a link you hadn’t known about. And what is very interesting is that people who are sceptical about one area swallow without blinking another. Emotional trust can out weight intellectual evidence.

Which brings us to Easter Day. That Jesus lived and died is not really disputed by serious study. There is more evidence for Jesus than Julius Caesar. The harder question is whether Jesus really died and lived, and that is of course what this principle feast day of the Christian year is all about. Jesus, who had really died on a cross, been buried in a tomb with a large rock placed in front of it to prevent grave robbers, was reported to have risen, to be alive in a completely different way. This is not the resuscitation of a corpse. The life of the risen Jesus is a very different form. It is next to impossible for us to know and assess the truth of these claims for certain. So is this false news or real news? We can apply my summary of the Facebook tests: assessing the evidence, looking for the trustworthiness of the reports and asking if it is backed up by others.

The primary evidence comes from the gospels and the other writings in the New Testament, all of which assume the resurrection was a real event. There is more than one of these writings, so we have multiple sources, which is a good start. The difficulty with the gospels, though, is that they are not news reports. They are an ancient form of writing, put together some 20 or 30 years later, and they include story and symbolic elements to make their deeper points. So they are second level accounts, where interpretation is mixed in with reporting and that skews how we see them. Some of the detail is fanciful. Our gospel reading today gave us angels appearing, moving stones and then sitting on them before giving direct instructions (Matthew 28:1-10). I’ve never seen an angel. I don’t know anyone who has. That is a difficult element to back up. What is more, angels are often a literary device in the Bible to give stage directions and narrator’s comments about what an event means. They are shorthand for ‘this is about God so pay attention’. So we have a complex narrative with an event being portrayed symbolically and figuratively. That makes the history of it difficult to assess.

The key piece of evidence for me, which we can assess, is what happened as a result of these events. The result was that shattered, broken, despondent men and women changed. They were not like the soldiers in our gospel reading (v4), who froze and became like dead men, rather they became animated and fired up by the deep conviction that Jesus who had been dead was now raised. It is an astounding claim and one that makes them either utterly deluded or something really happened which had a profound affect on them. And I can’t prove to you which that is, except to ask what these men and women did. Does their behaviour sound like that of the deluded and the deceitful? I don’t think it does. In fact, I think the change in them was so significant that we have to take what they say very seriously and cut through the fanciful, symbolic detail to the reality that lies behind it and within it. The man who was dead was experienced as being alive and this new life changed them.

The behaviour that followed was not what we associate with fake news. It was gracious, hospitable, sharing goods in common so that there was a spirit of cooperation, not selfish gain. They were so convinced that they were prepared to die for their new faith. They talked of love and hope, of thanksgiving, of forgiveness and reconciliation, of equality and openness beyond boundaries. The risen Jesus tells them that he will meet them in Galilee, where it all began, and if you recall Galilee is the gateway to the rest of the world and also Herod’s back door. This gospel, this good news, brings transformation of lives, of how to live, and how to treat our neighbours whoever they are. It brings life in abundance, not necessarily material riches, but deep spiritual riches that mean people are blessed – given life. The qualities that the disciples displayed are that they lived Jesus’ teaching and embodied it. And they did these with a conviction that went beyond a vague notion of his teaching was a bit wise, so it’s worth following all the same. Rather it was a conviction that living this, doing this, was the way, the truth and the life because it sprang from the life and love of God, supremely revealed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

So when we want to look at the evidence for the resurrection we look not just to what the accounts say, but to what the impact of those events was, the impact of the life of the risen Christ on his disciples. That impact continues in the church today. as the risen Christ continues to enliven and inspire. Whenever Christians live in the Spirit and the hope of Jesus – gracious, hospitable, sharing, loving, thankful, forgiving and reconciling, with openness and equality, moving beyond boundaries – whenever we live like that, we affirm the resurrection life, we live the resurrection life. We are not to live like dead men, weighed down by false or fake news, but as those animated with good news and hope, the good news and hope of Jesus Christ risen from the dead. Alleluia!

 

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Easter Day, Sunday 16th April 2017

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Journeying at a different pace

IMG_4354I don’t know if I am just being particularly aware of it this year, but a lot of people have wanted to hold meetings this week. And it is not just the secular world, which doesn’t hold much store by what week this is, church groups have also seemed not to be restrained by this being Holy Week. I may be suffering from a bit of ‘stop the world I want to get off’ syndrome, but actually I think Holy Week should be different, when we journey at a different pace. This is an aspect of what Justin Welby refers to in his Lent book, Dethroning Mammon (Bloomsbury 2016 p 156), as the Christian Church ‘dancing to a different tune and seeing a different vision’. Now he is actually referring there to why we get involved in society and the public square debates, but to dance to that tune we have to hear it and to see differently we have to stand still in a place that enables us to take in the view.

There is so much angst about and we are constantly encouraged, urged to frenetic activity.  So many events to plan and yet another initiative comes at us expecting us to spring on board, it can leave us feeling just a little breathless. When those with the activist personalities are in the driving seat, as is their way, everyone gets a push and wound up. That, of course, is their gift – to stir us up. But there are times when we need to be stilled and so do they. And today is one of those days – in fact this week is one of those weeks. Today we are asked if we can watch with Christ just one short hour? The truth is many can’t. It’s not always won’t, but many struggle with stillness; it is not easy to get into it, especially if you are wound up, stressed or conscious you have so many other things to do – and clergy are no different not least at this time of year when we just put on so many more services which have to be serviced. The very thing we are trying to achieve becomes harder to find.

Last summer I spent a day a Ferrar House at Little Gidding leading a Deanery Clergy Quiet Day. While I was in the church there, I found a copy of T S Eliot’s poem Little Gidding and so it seemed the perfect place to sit for a while and read it in the quiet and midsummer sunlight. Here’s the famous section:

If you came this way,

Taking any route, starting from anywhere,

At any time or at any season,

It would always be the same: you would have to put off

Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more

Than an order of words, the conscious occupation

Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

And what the dead had no speech for, when living,

They can tell you, being dead: the communication

Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment

Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

As I read that, in a place ‘where prayer has been valid’, I was reminded that poetry requires a different pace. It is not instant, but reflective; it will not be hurried, but requires a slower lane – it takes us down the back roads of life and faith where the scenery passes and we are aware of every corner and gradient.

Activity can become a displacement activity, where we avoid the reflective and the stillness. And there is a kind of praying that just fills the air with words. But watching with Christ just one hour does not require words. It requires ‘the communication’ with a ‘fire beyond the language of the living’, the ‘intersection of the timeless moment’. And in that communing we become aware of the different tune which calls us to dance and start to see from a perspective in which we can take in the view and so be inspired to love and live and long with the Passion of Christ.

So, the question of Christ to his slumbering disciples in the garden comes to us. Can we, will we watch with him one short hour? Will we journey at a different pace over these next few days, dancing to a different tune and so come out of it renewed by the view? This service is followed by the Watch until 10.00pm – silent prayer for an hour and a bit, for that different pace. Tomorrow, Good Friday, after the walk of witness and hot cross buns have been shared and we have enjoyed the company of friends and strangers the church will remain open for quiet prayer until 3.00pm. Drop in, spend a moment before the cross – not to instruct, inform curiosity or carry report, but just to be where prayer has been and is valid.

 

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Maundy Thursday 13th April 2017

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The Pillowman and the Passion

IMG_5547Just over a week ago I went to the Key Theatre to see Mask Theatre’s production of ‘The Pillowman’. The play is set in a totalitarian regime. The central characters are two brothers, under arrest in a police station, and their two interrogators. It mixes menacing aggression with fear and vulnerability, and there is dark humour. Katurian writes short stories with dark twists reminiscent of Roald Dahl or Grimm’s Fairy Tales. A number of them involve the murder of children. It looks as though someone has been acting out these stories and he is brought to the station because the police have decided he is guilty. In another cell his brother, Michal, is also being held. Michal suffered incredible abuse from their parents and this seems to have led to him being stuck with the emotional development of a small child. The shock dawns that Michal is the one who might have been carrying out the murders, living out his brother’s stories. It is a dark twist.

One of the stories is of The Pillowman who appears to children while they are still very young and offers them the chance to end it all before the pain and suffering of later years occurs. They can be saved from it and protected in their innocence and the untroubled peace of early years. And so he makes their deaths look like accidents and softens the blow, easing their freedom from a life of pain and suffering. Hence he is a Pillowman, made of pillows and smothering, suffocating in a soft downy dispatching. Katurian gives the same release to his brother in the cell so that he doesn’t have to face what is to come. Though after he has done this the full horror dawns that the little girl who is missing has not died but has been found playing with some green pigs, echoing another of his stories. There is no evidence against Michal after all, at least not for this one.

Katurian is shot dead by the police. But that is not the end. The final scene is a post-death conversation between the two brothers. And it is Michal, for all his simple, child-like perceptions, who delivers the killer line in the play. He tells Katurian that the Pillowman is wrong. Without the suffering he endured, his brother would not have written the stories, and he liked the stories, the wonderful stories. He would choose the pain for the stories rather than lose them. The wisest perception comes the one the world would regard as the simple, the foolish one.

This is the question of suffering and evil, which in theology goes by the name of theodicy. How and why does a loving God allow pain and suffering. Surely the loving, kind, compassionate way would be that of the Pillowman? End it all before it begins. But then there would not be the stories, there would not be the love that we have and the two go together; that is how it is.

We enter the week when the way of the Pillowman is shown not to be the way of God, of the cross. The pain and suffering, which we call his Passion, is fully embraced, and shown to be an indispensible constituent of the story. It may baffle us, and there may be times when we might prefer the pillows, but like Michal, Passion is made of both the joy and the pain, the creative bite which comes through the grit and the struggle. This is not a futile by-product or mistake. There is a deep and loving purpose at work here and we find it not in the pillows but in the Passion of Christ. And it is in the hope and love of God that the pain and suffering is given deeper purpose and meaning, and not abandoned to futility.

So journey with Christ this week and find as you go that the meaning and purpose of life is deepened in the story of his Passion. Do not jump straight to Easter next week, because that is the despair of the Pillowman. Enter deeply into this paschal mystery and be renewed in faith, in hope and the love of God in Jesus Christ.

 

Sermon in Peterborough Parish Church, Palm Sunday 9th April 2017

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Alphabetic Prayer

IMG_2324I recently looked at Psalm 145 and discovered that it is an alphabetic Psalm. I hadn’t realised this before, but each verse begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  So there are 22 verses – well there are in Common Worship, the Book of Common Prayer and King James version of the Bible only have 21 because of the source they used missed one out.  The missing verse is:

The Lord is Faithful in all his words,

and gracious in all his deeds. (Psalm 145: 13 – NRSV; v14 Common Worship)

As a spiritual challenge, I decided to see if I could write an alphabetic prayer and this was the result. (There are one or two displays of poetic licence and I’ve used the Greek letter χ, the first letter of Christ, in place of ‘X’.)

 

Alphabetic Prayer

All-loving God,

Bringer of hope to all in darkness,

Confirm our trust in your providence.

Drive out our fears

Even when all seems lost.

Forgive us when we falter.

Give strength as we face this hour.

Heal the sick,

Inspire your people to live

Justly, that your

Kingdom may be proclaimed.

Liberate all held in oppressions of mind or violence.

Move between us in love, that

No one may be excluded

Or shut out of this embrace.

Preserve us in peace,

Quench our thirsting from the spring of life,

Restore us in the image of your purpose and

Sanctify us by your Holy Spirit,

That we may rejoice with thankful hearts.

Unite us in common cause, for the true

Victory is yours alone.

Welcome us to your eternal home through

χhrist our Lord; for to 

You alone is praise and glory due in the new

Zion and through all eternity.  Amen.

© Ian Black 2017

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If only

IMG_2378Well, what a feast that gospel reading provides! It is a wonderful story full of intimate love and grief, of anguish and questioning. Rather than split up the flow, the lectionary this morning gave us the entire story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45) from him being taken seriously ill, his dying, being buried, and then astoundingly being brought back to life. It gives us the shortest sentence in the Bible too, “Jesus wept” (v35), and with it the outpouring of grief for his friend.

The questioning comes because Jesus delays in travelling to be with them. If only he had been there Martha’s and Mary’s brother would not have died in the first place because surely Jesus would have been able to fix it. Despair, anger, and frustration mix as so often they do when tragedy strikes. How often would we like to turn the clock back if we could? Accidents happen in a split second and a moment’s lapsed concentration can have catastrophic consequences. That’s why the penalties have been increased for using mobile phones while driving. Sometimes we don’t realize just what the significance of events is, or what is at stake and if we could with the full knowledge of hindsight go back and take it all more seriously, we would. But we can’t and hindsight is a cruel tormentor. So many doors that we could have taken in life but didn’t walk through, the possible lives we could have led but we chose another course. The wrong decisions we’ve made.

Is everything now lost? Lazarus is dead and Jesus has to say this very plainly to his disciples. They latch on to the easy comfort of euphemisms. Lazarus is just sleeping! Clergy are often the only ones around funerals to use the ‘d’ word. When I ask funeral directors when someone died, I am told when they passed away. They refuse to use the ‘d’ word. Jesus is not so squeamish. He gives his disciples the reality check they need to face up to what has happened. When we are tempted to use Henry Scott Holland’s much abused poem ‘Death is nothing at all’ we need to know that the sermon it comes from goes on to say the long silence tells us that this is not true. The day after the Westminster attack I was leading prayers and prayed out loud for the homes where someone who was present is now absence; where the long silence would now be keenly felt. They have died and it is irrevocable.

If we are still tempted to soften the reality of this, Martha shows that she knows Lazarus is dead because when Jesus tells them to remove the stone from the tomb she objects: there will be an odour! In a hot climate the dead are smelly and that is why they anoint them with strong fragrances.

Lazarus walking out is like something from a horror film. When the dead walk it means that the zombies have risen. The undead dead are not good news. But this is different. New life has been brought into what was otherwise a hopeless situation, full of ‘if onlys’, and weeping. Here our first reading (Ezekiel 37:1-14) echoes. Ezekiel’s dry bones are as dead as you can get. There isn’t even an odour with these they are so beyond repair. And yet the hope that Ezekiel proclaims is that just like the beyond hope bones can be brought back, so can a situation, an exile and destruction of the nation, be brought back and given a new start.

So we are back to the ‘if onlys’. What would new life look like for all of those? We can’t undo what has been done. There is no time machine to change the unchangeable. This is one of Dr Who’s fixed points in time: it was, it is and it has to stay that way. But there are always signs of new life in the grace of God.

Offenders can find repentance and change how they live going forward, even if they will have to bear the consequences of a record that might show up on DBS checks. Sometimes people have to come to terms with terrible mistakes and deliberate actions, or weaknesses that got the better of them. Even if the scale of our ‘if onlys’ is not at the extreme end, there is always a new hope and new life in the hope that comes from God. Through living the abundance of God’s gift in his grace we can always make each new day a chance for that light to shine in and through us, ahead and around us.

In God’s grace hope is never lost, even and especially when it looks like it is. Each new day is an opportunity to be renewed in that light of love and shine with it wherever we are. And that transforms the world. In Christ even death, the final unchangeable, is not beyond reach. For to the decaying corpse of Lazarus new life is brought. As we journey to the cross, this is the hope in which we mark this holy Passiontide season.

 

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 2nd April 2017

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Prayer for the Commonwealth

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This prayer is adapted from one used in Westminster Abbey at ‘The Commonwealth Service: A Celebration of the Commonwealth‘ on 14th March 2016. I wrote it to accompany the raising of the Commonwealth Flag on Peterborough Town Hall on 13th March 2017.

We gather in the spirit of unity and diversity of our commonwealth.

We give you thanks, O Lord, for the faithful stewardship of Her Majesty the Queen,

and pray that you continue to grant her, 

and all who lead with her,

your blessing, wisdom and support.

We thank you, Father, for your image and likeness

that is equally bestowed upon all humanity.

As this flag flies above this city

so may the value, sacredness of every life

and the dignity of all humanity

fill every part of our communities.

Build bridges of hope and common cause in all our people;

to the benefit of all and the honour of your name.  Amen.

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Nicodemus – knowledge not enough

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From the West Window, Peterborough Parish Church

I have had a number of conversations this week about what it means to be genuine and the importance of being genuine. One of them was talking with Chad, the Archdeaconry Youth Advisor. He was talking at a meeting of Deanery clergy about how young people can spot a fake at a 100 paces. They know when someone is being ‘real’ and they know when there is a genuine faith and integrity behind what is being said. Youth work is not about being a party entertainer, though their energy and exuberance keeps you on your toes, and I had to have my wits about me leading a service for 200 children on Thursday. For all the buzz of large scale events it is deep and close conversations, where there is a genuine interest in them as people, that seem to matter more and probably do more than large scale events to shape them as people. But it is the large-scale events that catch the attention and give the adrenaline rush. Beware the lure of kingdoms and the cult of celebrity – last week’s Gospel and Jesus’ temptations.

Another set of conversations was around the concept of mutual flourishing which came out of the General Synod decision to ordain women as bishops in 2014. This was one of the five pillars to hold the differing views, and it said there would be an honoured place for those who dissented, that there would be provision to enable mutual flourishing. A wheel came off this during the week when Philip North, the Bishop of Burnley, turned down his nomination to be the next Bishop of Sheffield after a backlash from the diocese and elsewhere over his stance on women priests and bishops. He is from the traditionalist wing and belongs to a society that promotes the dissenting view from the high Anglo-Catholic end. Passions are running high on this and it is looking like there is a limit to how much flourishing of that view is wanted. Those who want to provide an honoured place for those who differ significantly from them are nervous when it is the role of the diocesan bishop that is being proposed and I can understand that. What is looking like an uneasy truce has been unpicked.

When we want someone to flourish there is always a balance to be struck between what we think flourishing looks like and what they see it as. But we know it when we see it, we can see them light up and shine as they do. Something deep inside them is ignited.   And this has a depth to it that goes far beyond superficial enjoyment or easy comfort. Things seem to click into place and we watch them grow. And in Christian terms, we flourish when we grow more in Christlikeness. This does not just anoint what is already – our views, our prejudices, our hopes and dreams even. All of these can be wrong and unhealthy – square pegs and round holes. It might be that flourishing means that we need to be broken, for our pride and self-seeking to be punctured so that we can orientate ourselves anew in a different direction. It might be that someone else’s view of what flourishing looks like needs to be jettisoned so that we can be free to be. It’s a life-time’s work, and as we grow in our understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and can be shaped more in that mould, so this becomes life-giving for us and we are blessed in it.   Genuineness here becomes living in a way that is real and not one that imposes false images.

So with that in mind we heard in the Gospel reading of Nicodemus, the Pharisee who came to Jesus by night (John 3:1-17). There are all sorts of allusions here. He is a Pharisee, full of knowledge of religious learning and practice, and yet seems to be in spiritual darkness. He is not flourishing as he is and sees in Jesus something genuine and real, and he knows it is a gift and blessing worth pursuing. He goes to Jesus literally at night, perhaps when it is quieter and others are not getting in the way. He can talk to Jesus privately, one to one, and in the intimacy of the conversation, open up to explore what he has to say. He can have the space that he needs for his questions to be heard and to reflect on the answers without others and pressures, expectations and pre-set answers getting in the way. He comes at night so that no one else sees and so his vulnerability in taking Jesus seriously is not threatened. Quiet conversations round the kitchen table, in churches when everyone else has gone, in side streets and walks by the river, can be some of the most profound. I seem to be having lots of conversations at the moment round kitchen tables and through Facebook messaging – the internet’s kitchen table.

Nicodemus has to learn what everyone has to learn. Knowledge alone is not enough. In fact it operates at a level that has a glass ceiling to it, or is it more encased in a glass box through which we can’t pass. What is needed is the spirit of faith and hope and love to fill us, make its home in us, and in so doing animate us with the spirit of Christlikeness. When we want to know what that looks like we need to take Jesus’ teaching seriously – all of it, grow in it and let it enter deeply into the core of who we are. That changes us, it doesn’t leave us as we are, and in it we flourish. It is the bringer of life.

That Nicodemus is a Pharisee is a wake up call for those of us well schooled in Christian learning, who have been seasoned through many years of devotion and practice. If a Pharisee has to learn that the spirit of faith is something much deeper than he has previously lived, then we are not in the clear. And my friends angry at a bishop’s appointment and despairing at his withdrawal also need to know that flourishing comes through humble and penitent hearts, through repentance and openness in love. Yes, there are injustices which need to be challenged. Yes, there are false truces which don’t really address the central issues. And yes, there are ways of holding deeply divided views but still recognize that we belong together and so have to work this out with all of us staying in the same room. I’m not sure many people really understand that when they comment on the current divisions in the church. We are used to imposing monochrome views and modes of being on the world and so can’t cope when a different way comes along. We don’t have the monopoly on being right.

Nicodemus has to learn that there is a profound spirit of Christlikeness that goes beyond just knowing certain key concepts. Knowing alone is a form of Gnosticism, an ancient heresy. In today’s language we have to live it, let it live in us, not just know it. Nicodemus has to learn what it means for this spirit to infuse his being, shape his attitudes and approach to others, bring a deep hope that makes life itself an act of praise and thanksgiving.

Nicodemus is the representative of all who have accepted the Christian Way at an intellectual or even cultural level but have yet to invite it deeply into their hearts, their inner being. It is the state of having a spiritual glass ceiling or box that only lets it go so deep. Being born of water and the Spirit is as difficult to pin down as the wind, but we know when it blows, just like young people know a genuine and real person when they see one. In this we flourish in ways we may not have previously known were possible.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Lent 2, Sunday 12th March 2017

 

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