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  • PPE for Christians?

    If you have read my recent ramblings, you will know I have been mulling over what I should do with the Ephesians 6 'gospel armour' passage.  After a re-write, I think I now have an acceptable sermon - though I can see all the holes in it and the vast omissions/assumptions that are needed if anyone is going to deal with it in 20 mins.

    As I pondered the images of the Roman soldier and the Aaronic priest I found myself wondering what might be contemporary parallels and realised that what is being described (in Ephesians anyway) is tantamount to what is nowadays called 'Personal Protective Equipment' or PPE.  In my industry days it was hard hats & toe-tectors (shoes with steel toe caps), for police officers it is stab vests and perhaps riot shields, for medics its gloves, gowns and masks - the list was endless. 

    I suppose I was struck by how much is, in principle the same as for the Roman soldier - no loose, flapping clothes, vital organs covered, sensible shoes and head covering.  In many roles there are equivalents to the shield - even if it is as much about distance as a physcial barrier and all have something akin to a sword if you define this as the item needed to take action to complete the task - a surgeon's scalpel, a tree surgeon's chain saw, a mechanic's spanner (engineers do NOT mend cars or washing machines!), even a cook's rolling pin?!

    OK so none of these civilian roles quite fits the idea of the spiritual battle in Ephesians 6 (except perhaps a police officer in riot gear) but it was fun looking for parallels and wondering just what might be an appropriate, 21st century image.  'Put on the toque of salvation' or 'the clogs of the gospel of peace' doesn't quite have the same ring as the original (to say nothing of the 'foundation garments of truth'!!!) but I can't help wondering if by relating the 'armour' to the PPE of real life occupations, there is potential to make the whole thing more relevant to people who seek to address the issues and evils they perceive in their very much contemporary, earthly, lives. 

  • Encounter with Ezekiel?

    Today I am feeling disproportionately pleased that the SU Encounter with God notes finally reach the end of Ezekiel!  yet at the same time, I feel they are to be congratulated for having the stickability to slog all the way through this large and often, well let's face it, demoralising book.

    It is many years since I last read through Ezekiel (probably during that foolish exploit of late teens/early twenties who read the Bible front to back as fast as possible and get little from it on the way!) and it has been useful to spend time working through it more methodically (even if sometimes I found a whole chapter of measurements in standard or long cubits a trifle dull).

    Having now reached the end, I feel I have barely scratched the surface of the book but at least have a better understanding of the context for the overworked valley of dry bones vision.  I have also discovered one or two hidden gems - such as clear reference to the inclusion of non-Jews in the new kingdom - on the way.

    I don't think I'll be treating my congregation to an equivalent slog through the book, and I'm not really sure I actually know that much more about the message of Ezekiel, but, on balance it has been worth the slog. 

  • 'Gospel Armour' in the 21st century?

    The preaching plan at my church is probably a classic example of what my boss in industry called the difference between ‘plan’ and ‘planning.’  Whilst I was never entirely convinced, there was certainly something in what he said. Plans, he argued, were rigid, difficult to alter, inflexible – and often doomed to failure.  Planning on the other hand embraced the strengths of organisation and systematic forethought but was flexible enough to cope with the unexpected.


    The original plan would have seen the Ephesians series finish before Remembrance Sunday, leaving us space for two ‘specials’ before advent.  After the congregation elected to cancel one service (then most failing to attend the one they’d opted for instead, which is another story!) I decided to reshuffle the series so that it would go right up to the end of the liturgical year (not that anyone but me would notice).


    This is all by way of introducing the fact that I ended up with Remembrance Sunday to be followed by an exploration of Ephesians 6:10-20 – the so-called gospel armour with all its language of battle.  It has been interesting – and challenging – trying to prepare something ‘different’ for Remembrance (our service at 3p.m. means more freedom over if/when we do the silence) and wondering how on earth (or in the spiritual realms!) to deal with the Ephesians passage next week.


    My remembrance service is aimed simply at prompting thought: it uses lots of counterpoint (I think!) to try to highlight some of the tensions the issues of war and conflict, to ponder why we recall military war-dead and not either civilians or those who simply die of old age (civilian or military).  As a result it probably has so many ideas my college tutors would go spare.  It includes the ‘act of remembrance’ and then a reading of ‘In Flanders’ Fields’ followed by singing ‘where have all the flowers gone?’  Some war photographs precede a summary of the ‘just war’ criteria’ and questions to ponder – Christ or country? Arms or aid? Etc. etc, - nothing new but, I suspect, unfamiliar territory for my congregation.  We end up with an opportunity to remember those who are important to us – relatives, friends, non-military heroes and so on.  It is slightly risky with my folk, some may detest what I am doing but it feels right, especially in the light of recent events, to challenge the unthinking practice of romanticised remembrance.


    So what, then do I do with the Ephesians passage next week?  This is the real challenge!  So far I have found one commentator who compares the ‘armour’ with the robes of the Levitical priesthood, suggesting that the author might have seen the similarities and another who suggests that in Roman occupied lands it was simply a familiar sight, so easy to understand.  I have also found some very scary websites on spiritual warfare: woe betide anyone who uses the NIV (rather than KJV) and as for anything later or a paraphrase, well, I suspect hell awaits.


    At the moment I am working with the broad title of ‘ready, willing and able’ since these seem to be the attributes of priest, soldier, athlete, farmer or any other image used in the Epistles to describe disciples.  Somewhere I need to try to get across the idea that the ‘evil’ is not ‘people’ and try to get people to think about just what it is they are opposed to.  But I still come back to the same question – how does the military and battle imagery, which clearly has its place, square with the realities of contemporary warfare and fear of terrorism?  When modern warfare kills three civilians for every military person, the image of Christian as soldier is less tenable than a century ago when almost all war deaths were soldiers.  Answers on a post card before next weekend would be appreciated!

  • Laughter and Lemons

    This week our study of Ephesians reached the infamous 'household codes' in chapters 5 and 6.  I had had a great time working with these and thought I had something worthwhile to say about the implied tension between the 'egalitarian unity' experienced 'in Christ' and the everyday relationships within the 'household'.  How did the 'father of the house' (I can't remember how to spell the Latin name) balance the equality he had in Christ with his roles and repsonsibilties in everyday life?  And how are these issues mirrored today when my 'sister in Christ' is actually my mother or my 'brother' my boss?  I looked forward to sharing my thoughts with the congregation...

    My readers' rota had blessed me with one of my best readers - reliable, prepared and expressive.  She began to read "wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord."

    No sooner had she finished the sentence than a loud 'oh dear' arose from the back row and the entire congregation fell about laughing.  All credit to my reader, she gathered her composure and read on to the end of the allotted chunk.

    As it happened, the outburst was helpful - my opening thread on this verse was how it has been abused to advocate doormatism (new word for today) among women whose partners are abusive and how that is not, I believe, an authentic reading.  It also struck me how fortunate I am to have a congregation who will accept, even enjoy, such an 'irreverent' response to 'holy scripture.'  I stuck with my prepared material and I hope that the congregation got something from it, even though the utterer of the outburst assured me firmly that the author of Ephesians (my phrase) was wrong!

    It seemed significant in some small way that this happened a couple of days after I read a little book called 'Spiritual Lemons: Biblical Women, Irreverent Laughter & Righteous Rage' by Rev Lyn Brakeman (who obviously is as good at snappy titles as I am).  In this book of what she terms 'midrash' she endeavours to explore how the 'lemons' of human emotion, anger, powerlessness, shame and so on, can lead to a fresh encounter with, and understanding of, God.  It is easy to criticise the book - the writing is very American and very rooted in a 20th century culture which somehow grates when placed in the mouth of Sarah or Jephthah's daughter - but behind it is some careful study and thought.  I am not too sure of her intended audience, since the easy style sits almost at odds with her references to the Jesus Seminar, but it is a refreshing little book of meditations which seeks to give permission to exactly the type of outburst and laughter we experienced on Sunday.  I wouldn't rate the book as an all time great, but it did stimulate some thought even if not quite as piquant (for me) as the writer intended.

  • Big Event, Small God?

    As a member of a small church, I quite enjoy attending 'big' Christian events.  It is helpful to be reminded that the church is much larger, and more diverse, than my week-to-week experience of it.  However, I do sometimes wonder quite what is going on in them and where the line between 'large scale worship' and 'Christian entertainment' should be drawn.

    Last night I went with a few of my folk to the second night of a local, annual two-nighter.  It was an interesting experience but left me wondering just how 'awesome' is the God some of those 'up front' believe in.  What follows is based on what I understood to have been said - apologies to the speakers if I misheard/misquoted them.

    Right at the start there were some technical difficulties with the PA system.  The worship leader, strutting around the platform announced something to the effect that 'we're not going to let the devil stop us worshipping God.'  Is our worship really dependent on functional PA?  Is it really a satanic attack if, as I suspect, there is is a bad connection somewhere or a flat battery in a radio mike?  Is God really so weak that, depsite the prayers of the organisers, and their best efforts on the day, satan can sneak in and plant gremlins in the PA?  Actually, as the evening wore on, I began to wonder if it could insetad be divine intervention, but that's another story! 

    Later there was an appeal for people to seek prayer for healing.  Individuals were asked, as I heard it, to lift their hands 'nice and high so God can see.'  Poor God, so myopic that it is impossible to see quite who the hand belongs to unless it is held high and probably waved too.  Heaven forbid that the wrong person be healed!  Don't get me wrong, I have no issue with prayer for healing but I would like to think I pray to a God whose is quite capable of seeing who it is who requires this.  What a tiny God it seems we were calling upon.

    I am sure that both speakers would be horrified by my understandings of what they'd said, I am sure they do believe in the omni-everything God but I was left wondering about the relationship of the size of the event/church and the perception of God we express.  Maybe it is just that in my little congregation we don't need to worry about God's eyesight or the potential for satan to sabotage the hi-tech equipment we don't have?  I like to think not.