Can I be buried in one of your churchyards?

Can I be buried in the church graveyard?

Strictly speaking, this isn’t an objection people have to Christian faith so it shouldn’t be part of our Big Question series, but it is a question I’ve been asked an awful lot lately, so please indulge me as we explore the rules the Church of England has about its graveyards!

Planning your funeral ahead of time is a very sensible thing to do. It allows you to say things like “I want a church or crematorium funeral” and it makes life a lot easier for your grieving relatives. But what a lot of people don’t appreciate is that although you can specify all sorts of details about the funeral in your will, it is much harder to ensure you are buried in a particular churchyard.

What criteria govern where you have a right to be buried?

In an attempt to be absolutely fair to everyone, the Church of England has a very simple rule when it comes to deciding whether you can be buried in a particular church’s graveyard:

  • CRITERIA 1: Were you normally resident in the parish at the time of your death?

If this is the case, and there is space in the churchyard at the time of your death, you can be buried there.

This means that when it comes to allocating a grave plot, it doesn’t matter who you are, what you believe about God, who your family is (or was), what you earn, or what your gender, colour or sexuality is. All that matters is where you normally lived.

The Church of England also gives the right to be buried in a churchyard to two other categories of people:

  • CRITERIA 2: Anyone who was worshipping regularly and on the electoral roll of that church at the time of their death.
  • CRITERIA 3: Anyone who dies in the parish.

What if I don’t fit the criteria, but want to be buried in one of your churchyards?

Sadly, because we have a limited supply of churchyard space, it would not be fair to our local residents if we offered you a grave that was really meant for them. To give an example, suppose a person lives in Ledbury (and therefore has a right to be buried in Ledbury) wants to be buried in Hanley Swan churchyard because 50 years ago they lived in the village. Why should they be buried in Hanley Swan if it prevents a person who lives in Hanley Swan from being buried in Hanley Swan?

Notwithstanding this, if you don’t live in the parish, you could gain a right to be buried there by worshipping regularly with us (for at least six months), joining the electoral roll, and then applying to reserve a plot in the graveyard through the Church of England’s official reservation system. Please note there is a cost associated with this which covers legal fees and churchyard maintenance.

Reserving a plot in the graveyard is also an option if you currently live in the parish but know you are likely to move out of it in the foreseeable future, but would still like to establish a right to be buried there.

But someone from the church promised I could be buried there!

Unless it has been formally recorded on our graveyard plans, these promises are not binding.  The only way to properly reserve a plot in a churchyard is through the Church of England’s official system.

Do you have any leeway in this?

Not if we are to be fair, though there are some cases we’d look at sympathetically. For example, if your spouse is buried in the churchyard, or if you had met criteria 1 or 2 for most of your life, but moved out of the parish towards the end of your life.

What if I just want my ashes interred in a churchyard?

Ashes don’t take up as much space in a churchyard so this sort of request is much easier to accommodate.

Finally, which of your churches have open graveyards?

  • St Peter and St Paul’s, Upton, doesn’t have a graveyard though there is a memorial garden, and a civic cemetery elsewhere in the town.
  • The churchyard at St James, Welland, is closed for new burials, though again there is a civic cemetery in the town.
  • Our churches in Hanley Castle, Hanley Swan and Ripple are all open for new burials though the amount of space varies.
  • Earls Croome, Hill Croome and Strensham churchyards are also open for burials, though space is limited and it is possible the graveyards will fill up in the next 10-20 years.

 For all enquiries about churchyard policies, please contact the church office (admin@hopechurchfamily.org) or 01684 591241.

First published in the Bridge Magazine May 2019

Why do they keep moving Easter?

Why do they keep moving Easter?

Every year I always enjoy reading fake April Fools stories in the newspapers. Here’s my favourite from last year, from a Devon newspaper, which claimed the Pope has postponed April Fools Day 2018 because of the clash with Easter Sunday. Quoting Papal spokesperson Pesce Daprile (that’s Italian for April Fool) they explained that instead there will be two April Fools Days in 2019: one on April 1st and the other on March 29th, when apparently the British government will be playing a massive practical joke on the country.

Unlike most April Fools Jokes, that’s not one we can endlessly reuse. In fact, April Fool’s Day and Easter Sunday won’t coincide again until 2029, and then 2040, by which time most of us will have forgotten the punchline, though the government probably still won’t have sorted Brexit out.

So why does Easter keep moving? Well unlike Christmas, which has a fixed date, Easter has always been calculated in relation to the Jewish Passover festival, which occurs on the first full moon following the vernal equinox (typically March 20th or 21st). And this means that the date of Easter comes down to a question of maths and a bit of church politics.

Let’s do the maths first. Easter moves because our calendar is based on the 365¼ days it takes the Earth to orbit the Sun. But the date of Easter is based on the 29½  days it takes for the Moon to cycle from new Moon to new Moon. If you divide 365¼ by 29½ you get 12.37 cycles of the moon a year. Which means that some years we get 12 new moons, but other years we get 13, and every year the date of the full moon shifts by 10-11 days.

Now let’s do the politics. Because they weren’t always sure when the Vernal Equinox was, the early church celebrated Easter on a number of different days. It wasn’t until the Council of Nicaea in 325AD, that a standard definition was agreed: Easter would be the first Sunday after the full moon following March 21st. Then, to avoid a clash with Passover, they also agreed that if the full moon fell on a Sunday, Easter would be delayed by a further week. Which is why Easter can happen any time between March 22nd and April 25th.

And with that settled, everyone was happy until 1582. This time the problem wasn’t politics, but maths, and the difference between the 365 days in the calendar and the 365¼ days it takes the earth to orbit the sun. Over time, those ¼ days add up, throwing the seasons out of alignment.

So Pope Gregory XIII proposed a new calendar containing an innovative idea: the leap year, and over time, virtually the whole world had adopted his “Gregorian Calendar”, except for the Orthodox Church. They still prefer the old Julian Calendar, which means that even to this day, Christians in Western and Eastern churches celebrate Easter on different dates.

At various times efforts have been made to reunite the dates. In 1997 the World Council of Churches proposed a new method of calculating Easter based on direct astronomical observation. The reform should have come in in 2001 but was not adopted.

Another failed reform was the UK Parliament’s Easter Act of 1928, which defined Easter as the first Sunday after the 2nd Saturday in April. The legislation passed through parliament, and remains on the statute book to this day, but has never been implemented because the government has always taken the view that to impose an Easter date on the church would be unreasonable.

Our current Archbishop has however indicated a willingness to allow change – as long as the Catholic and Orthodox churches agree to follow suit. Which could mean that one day soon, we’ll read a story in a newspaper, about a Pope postponing, not April Fools Day, but Easter Sunday!

This year Easter Sunday is 21st April, and there are events at all our churches in the week building up to the big day. You can find out what’s happening in your community by visiting www.hopechurchfamily.org/easter. However you celebrate Easter, I hope you have a very special time.

First published in the Bridge Magazine, April 2019

What is confirmation?

What is confirmation?

So there I was, all set to write a Big Question article about Donald Tusk’s “small corner of Hell set aside for those who backed Brexit” comment when a friend suggested I should spare us all and follow up last month’s Big Question about Baptism with a Big Question about Confirmation instead. So here goes…

What is Confirmation?

The best way to think about Confirmation is as the sequel to Baptism! When a child is baptised promises are made on their behalf by their parents and godparents. They promise to follow Christ as their Lord and master and to set an example of faith to the child by their life and practice, part of which involves raising their child as a practising Christian as part of their local church. But there comes a time when a bouncing baby becomes a big strapping lad or lass, with their own mind, vision and values, and confirmation is the time when that big strapping lad or lass stands up and owns the promises of God for themselves.

Sometimes I’m asked, ‘When is the right age for a child to be confirmed?’ The Church of England’s rules don’t state a number, instead, they wisely speak in terms of a child reaching the “years of discretion”. We know that every child is different and that they mature at different rates, so what matters isn’t how many birthdays a child has seen, but what they understand about the Christian faith, and whether they are ready and willing to take ownership of their own faith journey.

To help them do this, prior to confirmation, candidates are supposed to be able to understand and say the Catechism (an interactive summary of Christian belief) which includes the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. In practice today, confirmation preparation tends not to be quite as rigorous as that. The group of young people I’m preparing for confirmation at the moment are using a video and discussion based resource called Youth Alpha for this, as well as having lots of fun playing games and eating sweets!

So what are the benefits of confirmation? Well, the two most significant ones are about identity and Holy Communion. Making a public declaration of what you believe is a significant step in working out who you are as a person. It’s the time you step out from your parent’s spiritual shadow and go public about your own faith journey. And part of this journey is to regularly receive Holy Communion. In fact, a Confirmation ceremony sometimes includes a Holy Communion service so that the newly confirmed can immediately receive their first communion immediately.

One final thought. We’re having a Confirmation Service with one of our Bishops in June 2019, so now is a great time to inquire about confirmation. If you have a child who you think is ready to be confirmed, or if you’re an adult and haven’t been confirmed but would like to be, then please get in touch with me.

 

First published in the Bridge Magazine, March 2019

 

 

Why do we baptise babies?

Why do we baptise babies?

David Beckham once said,

I definitely want [my son] Brooklyn to be christened, but I don’t know into what religion yet.”[1]

It isn’t just David Beckham who gets confused about baptism. I’ve met atheists who believe having their child baptised will guarantee a place in Heaven. Others think it’s about a guaranteeing a place in a church school. Some parents think it gives their child the right to be married in a particular church building. For others, baptism is an excuse for a big party, a glitzy naming ceremony.

And then there are the churches who won’t baptise babies. For Baptists, baptism is such an important expression of faith in Jesus that it could never be offered to a baby – after all, how can a baby express faith?

So why do we baptise babies?

Let’s start by asking “Why baptise anyone at all?” This one’s easy to answer:  Jesus tells us to! He told his followers to go

and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matthew 28:19-20).

St Paul explains why baptism matters: he tells us it’s the way a Christian is united with Jesus in his death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-4). In other words, it’s the route to eternal life beyond the grave. But its not the water used in baptism that does this, it’s the faith in Jesus that the person being baptised has. Baptism is an expression of that faith. The Book of Common Prayer puts it like this,

They that receive baptism rightly are grafted into the church.”

That word “rightly” tells us that baptism is all about confirming the faith already present in a person.

Does that mean if you don’t have faith in Jesus you shouldn’t be baptised? Yes! Baptism only has integrity if you have faith in Jesus: a faith which should affect how you live, including regular church attendance and a willingness to engage in Christian community. If you don’t want to do that, why bother with baptism?

So what about baptising babies? Clearly, they can’t display faith in the way an adult can, but from the earliest days of the church, believing parents brought their children for baptism because they wanted them to be included in the promises of Jesus. Infant baptism is the Christian fulfilment of the Jewish covenant of circumcision – which was how infant Jews became part of God’s family even before they could express faith themselves.

St Peter brings this mix of family and faith together in Acts 2,

Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children”.

The first infant baptisms followed soon after, as whole families were being baptised into the name of Jesus.

So what does all this mean today?

  1. That for baptism to have integrity, it must arise out of a real desire to journey in faith with Jesus, a journey that involves your lifestyle, and a commitment to being part of a church.
  2. Parents who bring their child for baptism need to be living out these values. To help them with this, we offer baptism preparation for parents seeking baptism.
  3. Children eventually need to take up the promises for themselves. In the Anglican tradition, we call this “confirmation.”
  4. Some parents should not have their child baptised! A better option might be to ask for a ceremony of thanksgiving. This is a way to give thanks to God for the safe arrival of a baby, and to name them publicly, but without all the promises and commitment that come with baptism.

Finally, a word on schools and weddings. All of our local Church of England primary schools base their selection on location, not religion, so being baptised offers no special privileges. Baptism does, however, give you a qualifying connection for marriage to a particular Church of England church.

If you’d like to know more about baptism visit the baptism page on our website.

 

 

[1] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/1479657/Beckhams-sons-christened-in-back-garden-chapel.html

 

First published in the Bridge Magazine, Feb 2019

When was Jesus really born?

When was Jesus really born?

Combine all that fuss about Christmas, with our Anno Domini calendar system, and you might imagine that Jesus was born in 1AD on December 25th. The problem is, there’s nothing in the Bible to point us to December 25th, and lots of evidence in the Bible to suggest Jesus was born several years earlier!

This lack of clarity over when Jesus was born has led some sceptics to be very critical of Christian claims about the birth of Jesus. In his God Delusion, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins dismisses the evidence for Jesus’ birth as a load of historical nonsense[i]. But is he right? What can we know for sure about when Jesus was born?

First, let’s deal with the obvious: in Jesus day there was no system for registering births with the state, so we don’t have the sort of details about Jesus’ birth that would be a matter of public record about any birth today. The exact time and date of his birth, and what he weighed, are a mystery, though it’s reasonable to assume that Mum and baby were in a stable condition.

But this doesn’t mean we can’t make a plausible estimate about when he was born. The gospel writers Luke and Matthew tell us that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod (who most historians reckon died in 4BC[ii]). Luke later tells us that Jesus was “about thirty” years old in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar (28AD). So if Jesus was born no later than 4BC, and was still “about 30” in 28AD, then he had to have been born in 6-4BC.

Which would all be fine if the Gospel of Luke didn’t also tell us that Jesus was born after Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem to register for a census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. This is a problem because Quirinius didn’t become governor of Syria until 6AD, ten years after Herod died. So it looks like Luke made a mistake, and there’s an error in the Bible! Perhaps Dawkins is right after all?

Or perhaps not. As you can imagine, the historians have been poring over this question for many years, and have offered a number of possible explanations.

It could be that Quirinius was governor of Syria more than once: not only in 6-12AD but also during the period 4BC-1BC when we don’t know who was governor[iii]. If he’d begun a census in this earlier period, then there’s no problem with what Luke says. Sadly there’s no conclusive evidence to prove this, though there are some interesting hints it might have been the case. An archaeological find known as the Antioch Stones dated somewhere between 11-1BC, places Quirinius in Syria at this time, and the Roman historian Tacitus also seems to place him in the area in 4-3BC[iv]. Another archaeological find known as the Lapis Tiburtinus, refers to an un-named person going to Asia to take on a senior role for the second time. This could be Quirinius, but without a name, we can never know for certain.[v]

Another possible explanation is that Luke is referring to a census that began before Jesus’ birth, but which wasn’t completed until Quirinius was governor in 6AD (some Roman censuses took as long as 40 years to complete). This is a plausible theory, but until evidence of such a census is found, it is only just a theory.

Perhaps more likely is that many of our modern Bibles mistranslate the rather ambiguous language that Luke uses about the census. The New International Version which we use in many of our services, states:

This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

However Greek word orders are very different to English, and the word translated as “first” can also be translated as “before”. The Greek scholar and historian NT Wright suggests a better translation would be,

This was the first registration, before the one when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”[vi]

This actually makes a lot of sense grammatically and historically, because the census when Quirinius was governor of Syria in 6AD was notorious: it lead to revolution and the imposition of direct Roman rule on Israel.

Sadly, until more historical evidence emerges, we can’t know which explanation is right, but as things stand, no archaeological discovery has proven Luke wrong. In fact, the opposite is true, which does rather undermine Dawkins’ “historical nonsense” argument.

What then can we conclude from all this? That the checkable facts in Luke and Matthew’s accounts, suggest that Jesus was born no later than 4BC and possibly as early as 6BC.

Which is all of course rather embarrassing for the inventor of the Anno Domini system, a 6th century monk called Dionysius Exiguus. Either he hadn’t read his Bible very accurately, or more likely, he made a mistake when translating the Roman calendar system into his new format. And once his flawed Anno Domini system was popularised by a 7th century monk called Bede, based in my home town of Sunderland (and former parish of Jarrow) it was more than anyone’s job was worth to correct the error!

 

[i] Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion, p93-95

[ii] For details of Herod’s death, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herod_the_Great

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Roman_governors_of_Syria

[iv] Tacitus, Annales, iii. 48

[v] For a sceptical view of the evidence about Quirinius see https://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/quirinius.html

[vi] For more information on how Luke 2:2 can be translated, see http://christiancadre.blogspot.com/2004/12/luke-census-and-quirinius-matter-of.html

First published in the Bridge Magazine, December 2018

Is God a woman?

Is God a she?

My daughter started studying at Durham University last week scene of the latest round of our culture’s gender war.

Not content with forcing the sacking of the assistant editor of Critique, the university’s philosophy journal for the transphobic hate crime of sharing an article[i] from the Spectator Magazine that said women don’t have penises,[ii] the Students Union have issued “pronoun badges” to all new students bearing the slogan, “My pronouns are:”[iii]. Then there’s a space for the student to fill in their preferred option: whether something traditional like she/her or he/him; or something more gender fluid like: they/them, e/em, per/per, ve/ver, xe/xem.

Lest you think this just affects a bunch of loony students, the same pressures are coming to our schools, where organisations like Stonewall are using equality legislation and anti-bullying campaigns to shift our understanding of gender away from traditional or “binary” religious or chromosome based definitions of male and female towards something “non-binary”, where gender can be as simple as what you declare yourself to be.

And as you’ve probably noticed, with this new thinking, comes new language. The new pronouns used by non-binary people, words like: zie, sie, ey, ve, tey and e will be brilliant for Scrabble, but we shouldn’t be blind to what these new words mean for us. As Big Brother put it in 1984, once

…you control the language, you control the argument”.

Someone else trying to control the language so that she can control the argument is Rachel Treweek, the Bishop of Gloucester. Back in September, she told the Sunday Telegraph she didn’t

…want young girls or young boys to hear us constantly refer to God as he”[iv].

Previously she has challenged the Church of England to stop referring to God as he, and to also use female pronouns[v]. But is she right to do this?  What does the Bible actually say about God’s gender? Is God a she?

Let’s start with the obvious. The God of the Bible is not a human being, but Spirit (Numbers 23:19, John 4:24). Therefore God doesn’t have chromosomes or any physical body at all. As Article One of the Church of England’s doctrinal basis (as found in the Book of Common Prayer) puts it, God is

without body, parts, passions.”

But despite this, God must have both a “maleness” and a “femaleness” to Him because the Bible speaks of humankind (both male and female) being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

So what is God’s gender? Well, the overwhelming majority of the pronouns and descriptions of God in the Bible are masculine. Paul’s letters refer to God as Father over forty times and use masculine pronouns throughout. Jesus, who knew a thing or two about God, speaks of God as Father sixty-five times in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and over one hundred times in the gospel of John. Most famously, Jesus said this is how you should pray:

Father, hallowed be your name…”

Father, here, doesn’t mean God is our biological father, instead, it’s a relationship term, an invitation into the eternal relationship of God the Father to God the Son; through the Father’s promise of adoption into his family, by trusting in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

But despite all the male pronouns and descriptions, there are also a number of female images of God in the Bible. Whilst at no point is God described as “she” or “her”, He is described as being like a woman in labour (Isaiah 42:14); a considerate, comforting mother (Isaiah 49:15, 66:13); a mother eagle (Deuteronomy 32:11-12), and a mother hen (Matthew 23:37). God’s wisdom is personified as a woman in the book of Proverbs, though we are later told that the male Jesus is the Wisdom of God (1Cor.1:24).

I haven’t added up the numbers but I’d be surprised if these female images of God amounted to more than 0.5% of the total gender-based references to God in the Bible, and so on weight of numbers alone, it’s pretty obvious that God presents himself as male in the Bible, albeit with some significant female characteristics.

However, a critic might reasonably ask to what extent the maleness of God is a consequence of the Bible being written by men in a male-dominated society? Perhaps men have obscured the truth about God by remaking Him in their own image? That question is of course as impossible to answer, as the equal but opposite charge: that when feminist theologians call God she, they are remaking God in their own image and therefore obscuring the truth about Him!

When it comes down to it, we each have to decide whether we’ll trust what the Bible reveals about God, or try to rewrite it to suit our own agenda. The 4th-century theologian Hilary of Poitiers put it like this,

For he is the best student who does not read his thoughts into the [Bible], but lets it reveal its own; who draws from it its sense, and does not import his own into it, nor force upon its words a meaning which he had determined was the right one before he opened its pages. Since then we are to discourse of the things of God, let us assume that God has full knowledge of himself, and bow with humble reverence to his words. For he whom we can only know through his own utterances is the fitting witness concerning himself.”[vi]

Or to put it another way, if God were a student at Durham University, then the Bible is his pronoun badge, and he’s written “He” “His” and “Father” all over it, and who are we to tell Him He’s wrong?

 

First published in the Bridge Magazine November 2018

 

 

[i] https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2018/08/is-it-a-crime-to-say-women-dont-have-penises/

[ii] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6192453/Student-editor-tweeted-women-dont-penises-fired-university.html

[iii] https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/university-hands-out-pronoun-badges-13362943

[iv] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/09/16/church-england-should-avoid-calling-god-bishop-says/

[v] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/24/bishop-rachel-treweek-gods-not-a-he-or-a-she

[vi] De Trinitate (1.18)

What is the purpose of my life?

Is there a purpose to my life?

I was a teenager when I first thought about whether my life had a purpose. I blame the Monty Python film The Meaning of Life for that. It promised so much in its opening song:

Why are we here? What’s life all about? Is God really real, or is there some doubt? Well, tonight, we’re going to sort it all out, For, tonight, it’s ‘The Meaning of Life’.”[i]

Yet an hour and a half of sketches later, all it delivered was,

Well, it’s nothing very special. Uh, try and be nice to people. Avoid eating fat. Read a good book every now and then. Get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

Really? Is that all there is to it?

I had a similar feeling about The Hitchhikers Guide the Galaxy, in which the ultimate super-computer Deep Thought spends 7.5 million years trying to answer the question of life the universe and everything, before concluding that the answer is “42.” The problem it seems is we hadn’t properly understood the question.

So is there a purpose for our lives? Well if there is, it would be enormously helpful to know what it is, because, as the Ancient Roman senator Seneca put it,

When a man does not know what harbour he is making for, no wind is the right wind”.

So let’s think about if there is a purpose to life, and how we might know. Certainly, experience leads many people to think they have a purpose in life. Self-help books are full of techniques to discover your purpose or “true north” as the Americans like to call it. Interestingly some of those techniques tell you that you can choose for yourself what your true purpose is. Author Justin Gesso claims this is “hugely empowering”, an “awesome revelation.”[ii]

Yet it also begs the question: if I can choose my life purpose then I can also change it, and keep changing it: so which life purpose is the right one (if there is indeed a right one)? This is especially frustrating when you then go and talk to someone who claims that rather than choosing their purpose in life, their purpose in life seems to have chosen them!

Then at the same time, the newspapers are full of tragic stories about people who have lost all hope in life, who feel like they have no purpose. So what’s going on? How do we make sense of this? Well, it might seem like I’m arguing semantics here but it seems to me that some people are calling a purpose in life what would be better called a cause or a passion.

  • A PASSION as an intense desire or enthusiasm for something. So for example, (and please forgive the gender stereotyping) Samantha is passionate about netball. John is passionate about hiking. Passions like this are internal; they’re things we can choose because we can choose the causes we invest our time in.
  • A PURPOSE, in contrast, is The Reason for which something exists, and is by definition “external”. So a purpose can never be something we choose, instead, it’s something that some agent outside of us has chosen for us, and shaped us for. So for example, the purpose of Upton Bridge[iii] is to connect two banks of the River Severn. The bridge didn’t choose this purpose, instead, it was chosen for it by the people who created it. In the same way, we would never say that the purpose of Samantha is netball or the purpose of John is hiking. That’s just something they’ve chosen to do; it’s their cause, their passion, their reason to get out of bed in the morning.

What all this means is that once we define purpose as the reason something exists, then any attempt to talk about the purpose of our lives is, whether we realise it or not, a god claim. We’re implicitly stating that something bigger than us (god, fate, the universe, whatever) has a plan for our lives!

This, of course, means an atheist can never really claim their life has a purpose. They may well have passions and causes that motivate them to do extraordinary things, but to claim that an external force they don’t believe in, has a purpose for them, is bad atheism!

So where does this leave us?

First, it means that for all the same reasons you can’t prove the existence or otherwise of god using empirical means, you can’t prove you have a purpose in life.

Second, it means that if we are comfortable with the idea of god, we should also be comfortable with the idea of a purpose for our lives. At which point the question becomes which god, which purpose, and how we can know. More on that another time.

Finally, it leaves us with the problem of experience. Even though many people deny the existence of a god, they still feel a deep sense that they have a purpose in life. It gets labelled in various ways: fate, karma, destiny, providence, kismet, but I’d argue it’s something more. St Paul says,

we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10).

If that’s true, then our yearning for a purpose is really God’s way of getting us to re-examine our presumption that he doesn’t exist! Our longing for meaning implies that there is a giver of meaning, and should cause us to seek him out!

First published in the Bridge Magazine October 2018

 

[i] Cited from http://montypython.50webs.com/scripts/Meaning_of_Life/intro.htm

[ii] Cited from https://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/7-ways-create-your-life-purpose.html

[iii] I’ve intentionally chosen an inanimate object here, as it’s a lot easier to be certain about it’s purpose. Had I chosen a human example, I could not have spoken with any certainty about his/her purpose as I’m not their creator!

Is God the Author of Evil?

Did God Create Evil?

At our newly launched youth group (“The Deep End” – for young people in the yr5 to yr10 age range), one of the young people asked me a great question, “Did God create evil?”

Some people would answer the question “Yes.” After all:

  1. The Bible says God created the whole universe
  2. There is clearly good and evil in the universe
  3. So logically God created both good and evil.

That’s actually a pretty handy thing to be able to claim, because if God is the inventor of evil then he’s responsible for all my failings, and “I was born this way” becomes the perfect excuse for everything from burping in public to mass murder!

The thing is, the Bible says loads more about the problem of evil than just pinning everything on the creator. For starters, it tells us that God is good and that all his works are perfect and just. He is:

“a faithful God who does no wrong” (Deuteronomy 32:4).

So he can’t have created evil.

It also tells us that God’s original creation was completely good (that is, there was no evil in it):

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” – Genesis 1:31

And into that very good creation, God placed the first people, giving them the freedom of a beautiful garden with everything they needed for life, joy and family. But with that freedom came two responsibilities – one was to take care of creation (Genesis 2:15). The other was to obey God’s very simple rule about the garden – they could eat food from all the trees but one. Eat of that one, and they would surely die (Genesis 2:17).

And that second responsibility is the key to understanding the whole question of whether God created evil. By creating a rule that could be disobeyed, God created the possibility of rule-breaking, evil, or sin, as the Bible calls it. Understood this way, evil isn’t a supernatural force like it is in the horror movies and some religious traditions – which tend to portray evil as a ying-yang style balancing force to good. Instead in the Bible, evil is at heart, disobedience to God’s moral law. And tragically the people God placed in that wonderful garden broke his moral law (Genesis 3), and people have carried on in much the same vein ever since.

So God didn’t create evil. But there’s another question we need to ask: Did God do a proper risk assessment on the Garden of Eden? After all, if you create a world in which evil is possible, and put people who are capable of evil into it, don’t you have some responsibility for what happens? Does God have a duty of care?

I’m writing this on the first afternoon of the World Cup, and so I hope you’ll indulge me a footballing analogy…Back in October 1863, the Football Association pulled together the various strands of football to create a unified set of rules for Association Football. I mention this because 47 seconds into the first World Cup game, Russian winger Aleksandr Samedov was hacked to the ground by Saudi defender Omar Hawsawi. So who is responsible for what happened? Was it the Saudi footballer, or the Football Association? Like the referee, I hope you choose to blame the footballer! And it’s just the same with God and creation. Although he created a world where it is possible for us to do evil, God holds us responsible for what we do in that world. One day we can be sure that judgement will come.

But God does still have a duty of care. That’s why the main story arc of the Bible is all about how he responds to the mess we’ve made of his world. He makes a series of promises to put the world to rights and then comes in the person of Jesus to do it, by dying on the Cross to deal with the sins of the world.

But benefitting from God’s duty of care isn’t automatic. As we saw earlier, he created us to be morally responsible choosers, and his rescue plan involves a choice too: a choice to admit our part in the world’s mess and ask for the good gifts of forgiveness and life that Jesus offers through his death and resurrection. And if we’ll do that, something amazing happens: God takes responsibility for the evil we have done, and we’re set free.

So did God create evil? Did he create all the mess in the world? No, we did.

But through the Cross God ends up paying the price to fix it! And as any parent will tell you, that’s what you’ll do for your kids if you really love them!

First published in the Bridge Magazine July 2018

Do all religions lead to God?

Do all religions lead to God?

The belief that all religions are merely different paths up the same mountain is something of a cultural norm today. It’s often taught in schools to undergird the so-called “British” values of tolerance and respect, things which are surely essential in a multicultural society. And yet the moment you pause to think about the statement, it’s utterly absurd.

For a start, how could anyone claim to know that all religions are merely different paths up the same mountain? To know that all the paths up the mountain lead to the top you’d have to have total knowledge of the mountain, which when you remember that the mountain is God, is an enormously arrogant thing to claim!

Next, there’s the problem of what you mean by “all religions”, does “all” really mean all?  For example, does “all religions” include the Mexican cult of Santa Muerte (St Death)? In 2008, drug gangs kidnapped rival cartel members and sacrificed them in a ritual honouring St Death.   Does a human sacrifice religion count as a legitimate route to the top of the mountain? Or what about some of our modern science-fiction religions – for example, Jedi, which only began when Star Wars came out in 1977, or L.Ron Hubbard’s Scientology movement? Hubbard was a science fiction writer in the 1940s and 1950s, and allegedly as a result of a bet with another author, invented a religion as a get rich quick scheme. Hubbard was reputedly worth $600million when he died, so it must have worked for him – but will it work for anyone else? Are these all legitimate routes up the mountain? And if they aren’t, why not, who gets to decide, and how do you apply for the job?

But perhaps the biggest problem with saying that all religions are merely different paths up the same mountain is the huge differences between the religions on important things like god, the nature of the universe, human beings, morality and salvation.

Let’s take three obvious examples:

  1. Christians believe there is one god. Hindus believe there are many gods. In what way is that the same?
  2. Jews believe in a personal, speaking god. Buddhists don’t believe in god at all. In what way is that the same?
  3. Islam, Judaism (in fact most of the big religions) teach that salvation (whatever they mean by that) comes about by human effort. Christianity teaches that no amount of human effort can ever earn salvation, instead, it’s a gracious gift from God offered through Jesus. In what way is that the same?

When you take the time to understand what the different religions believe, they can’t all be true because their beliefs are mutually exclusive. No matter how sincerely people believe they are right, there cannot be both multiple gods, only one god, and no god. In other words, some of the paths going up the mountain are leading nowhere!

The poet Steve Turner sums it up well in his tongue-in-cheek poem, Creed (which is well worth reading in full if you have the time).

We believe that all religions are basically the same,
at least the one that we read was.
They all believe in love and goodness.
They only differ on matters of
creation sin heaven hell God and salvation..

The differences between religions really matter. So much so that saying all religions lead to the same place is a bit like saying all trains lead to the same place.

As a child, I used to catch a train home from school, and one night my train wasn’t on its regular platform. I noticed, but two of my friends didn’t and boarded the express train to Scotland that the Fat Controller had unhelpfully parked on our regular platform.

Looking across at them through a grimy British Rail window, my first thought was, “It’s alright because all trains use platforms, rails, tickets, and seats – so they must lead to the same destination.” But then thankfully I realised that if they ever found out I hadn’t warned them, they’d probably never speak to me again, so I got off my train, got onto their train, and gave them the shocking news that all trains don’t go to the same destination and that if they wanted to get home tonight they really needed to get off!

I’d like to tell you that a surreal debate followed, in which my friends declared that all train destinations are just a matter of opinion and that they liked how their train made them feel, and who was I to declare it wrong for them? But thankfully my friends listened to the good news and followed me onto a train that would take them home!

All trains don’t lead to the same destination, and nor do all religions. Not if you actually bother to take onboard what they teach.

So what does all this mean for life in multicultural Britain?

Well, first it means we need a better basis for tolerating and respecting difference than arrogant and empty statements like “all religions are merely different paths up the mountain.”

Second, it means that when we hear people saying “all religions are merely different paths up the mountain” we should ask them why they believe that and demand to see the evidence.

And thirdly it should challenge us to ask the big question that our multicultural society is trying to tell us doesn’t matter: How can I know what is truly true?

First published in the Bridge Magazine, May 2018

 

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

Someone recently told me he needed scientific proof before he could believe that Jesus rose from the dead. The problem is, it’s impossible to study past events under laboratory conditions!

Thankfully there are ways to probe the past: our legal system depends on it. No one demands scientific proof when it comes to a court case (though of course, we do use science to better understand some of the evidence). Instead, a jury uses the evidence to see which explanation (guilty or innocent) fits.

And we can do something similar with the resurrection. Listed below you’ll find seven common attempts to explain the first Easter. Let’s see which one best fits the evidence.

  1. Jesus rose from death.
  2. Jesus wasn’t dead, just unconscious, and exited the tomb when he recovered.
  3. Jesus’ disciples visited the wrong tomb.
  4. Jesus’ body was stolen by graverobbers.
  5. Jesus’ body was stolen by the Romans
  6. Jesus’ body was stolen by the disciples so they could claim Jesus had risen.
  7. Jesus’ disciples hallucinated the whole thing.

Let’s start by making sure Jesus was dead. In the hours leading up to his death, Jesus suffered an appalling beating leaving him significantly weakened. He was then crucified in classic Roman fashion (if you can stomach it, watch the Passion of the Christ to understand what he went through!) Wanting him dead before the Sabbath began at dusk, the Roman soldiers, who presumably knew a thing or two about killing, thrust a spear through his chest. From the description of the fluids flowing from the wound, it’s likely this perforated his lung, pericardium and heart. No reasonable doctor would suggest he was alive at this point.

But maybe his disciples went to the wrong tomb? The problem here is that the tomb wasn’t in an anonymous mass graveyard but a private burial cave in a garden belonging to a prominent citizen (Joseph of Arimathea). That’s a relatively easy thing to locate, which is why the Bible’s description of the reaction of Jesus’ followers to finding the tomb empty gives no hint that the location was in doubt.

So what about grave robbers? Let’s ignore the Romans guarding the tomb and the heavy stone sealing it and ask why anyone would want to rob the tomb? Jesus was known for his life of poverty, the only valuables in his tomb were the burial clothes – which his followers found left in the empty tomb. Why leave them and steal his body?

Maybe the Romans (or the Jewish authorities) took the body instead? They certainly had the opportunity, and perhaps a motive: to crush the Christian movement. But this begs an even bigger question: how much more damaging would it have been to produce the corpse when the disciples were running around Jerusalem telling people Jesus was alive?

So perhaps the disciples stole the body? For any resurrection conspiracy to work, you’d certainly have to get rid of Jesus’ body. The problem here is threefold.

  1. The gospels are pretty clear that the disciples weren’t expecting Jesus to rise from the dead.
  2. If it was a conspiracy, making a group of women your main eye-witnesses makes no sense at all: women’s testimony had no weight in Jewish law.
  3. If the conspirators spent the rest of their lives lying about Jesus rising from the dead, it’s astonishing that no one ever told the truth. Charles Colson – one of the Watergate conspirators – said:

I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one  was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and  they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re  telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years?  Absolutely impossible.

Having ruled out most of the alternatives, what evidence is there that Jesus rose from death? Two strands of evidence are particularly helpful.

First, we have multiple eye-witness accounts of people seeing the risen Jesus. St Paul tells us Jesus appeared to Peter, “and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living” (1Corinthians 15:5-6). “Still living” is an invitation for doubters to go and meet the 500 eye-witnesses who saw the risen Jesus and ask them about it!

Now you might respond by saying they were hallucinating? But the sightings of Jesus don’t fit any pattern of mass hallucination that modern psychology is aware of. There was no expectation that Jesus would rise, there’s no use of narcotics, and Jesus was seen in different places by different groups of people, who interacted with him, touched him and even ate with him.

My second strand of evidence supporting the resurrection is the remarkable transformation in the disciples. Jesus’ arrest and execution left them distraught, demoralised, and afraid. Yet six weeks later they’re standing on street corners and in the Temple fearlessly proclaiming that they have seen the risen Jesus – a message that shook Jerusalem to its core and which despite huge persecution, spread rapidly outwards through Judea and Samaria to the ends of the Earth: even rural Worcestershire.

Modern science first came up with the Big Bang theory because scientists looked at our rapidly expanding universe and concluded that something pretty remarkable (a big bang) had to have set everything in motion. It’s the same with Christianity. When you look at the rapid expansion of the early church it’s clear something remarkable happened to set everything in motion. Which of the explanations do you think best fits the evidence?

First published in the Bridge Magazine, April 2018

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If you’d like to read more on arguments about the resurrection, Who Moved the Stone? By Frank Morison, a sceptic who set out to disprove the resurrection is a great place to start. Or catch the film Risen, starring Joseph Fiennes.

Got a big question about God?