an independent (and beardy) people

So I watched the first episode of  ‘An Independent People‘ , a  3 part BBC Two show telling ‘the dramatic story of Ulster’s Presbyterians’, something I didn’t realise that we Presbyterians had. We’re box office material.

Saying it is such a dramatic story I would have perhaps preferred an art house film starring Daniel Day Lewis. Daniel could have perhaps thrown himself into the part by enrolling at Union Theological College and becoming a real life Presbyterian minister for a number of years complete with superb facial hair just to get a real life feel for things. For the role of Presbyterian arch nemesis I would have gone for someone like Liam Neeson (though I’m not sure about his facial hair capabilities).

My initial reaction was that this dramatic story of Ulster Presbyterians seemed to involve a lot of beards, which reassured me that I actually do stand in the tradition of Presbyterianism (contrary to those who think I might look a bit more like someone out of The Dubliners or even Mohammed)

It actually places me in the line of every illustrated Biblical character I remember including Jesus himself, but the ‘Gerry Adams effect’ is a powerful force to be reckoned with that means fellow beardys may feel excluded in some current Presbyterian circles. (‘Would you wear that beard if you were meeting the Queen young Ronnie Drew?‘)

My other initial reaction was that this show seemed to be a nicely shot celebration of people I know, or people I used to know or people I nearly know.It was like having a tribute to your Presbyterian friends mixed with a Sigur Ros video made in Northern Ireland.  Oh look, there is your man! Oh, I know him! I remember that guy from university! I’ve been to that church! He gave us a lift home from Cookstown! (moody music plays in background)

I have to admit I feel a bit confused by the actual history of our church though.

I still don’t really understand what was going on and even feel a bit disillusioned by what was going on (if it’s possible to feel disillusioned hundreds of years later?)

So much of it seems to have been about power struggles or striving for freedom or their rights. And bloody as well.
Someone in the show pointed out that the first Presbyterian congregation was set up by members of the Scottish army who came with the Bible in one hand. There are so many blurry lines and things that are complicated, things are messy.

Part of me knows that is just the way things are, life is messy and people are broken and have feet of clay.

On the other hand part of me struggled to see how God was working in the Presbyterian Church. Or too put it another way, watching the program last night I didn’t see too much evidence of people acting like Jesus. I know it was a TV show but if a Christian is a follower of Christ and a church is made up of Christian then those early Presbyterians would be Christ like. Did I get some sense of that coming through the nicely shot camera work? I’m not sure. Can you be Christ like holding a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other?

I know that the right answer should be yes otherwise there isn’t hope for someone like me. Sometimes I can act in a Christ like way, but a lot of the time I don’t. So it would be hypocritical or unrealistic to point out the faults in other people even if that was hundreds of years ago. Also perhaps if someone was acting in a Christ like manner around Ahoghill in the 1700s or Ballycarry in 1800s on a Monday morning it mightn’t make sexy TV. Someone sharing a potato with a hungry neighbour mightn’t make the most dramatic viewing on a Sunday night whereas stories of a woman throwing a chair at the minister in the pulpit and rioting does.

Yet there is something about the way that our church was planted (or officially planted) that doesn’t seem particularly Christian.

Another thing which I’ve just realised is that the story is telling the story of Ulster Presbyterians. I wonder if that story is the same story of Irish Presbyterians? We’re officially known as the Presbyterian Church in Ireland but everything about the Presbyterian Church in Ireland seems to centre around Ulster so sometimes the Presbyterian Church in Ulster would be a more accurate description of the way things really are? The Presbyterian Church in Northern Ireland would be even more accurate.
A few months back marked all the current Presbyterian congregations in Ireland on a map and ended up with this. (If a gap is appearing in North Antrim its only because Google can’t load them quick enough. )

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church history (repeating itself), Lent and Occupy London

So I eventually finished the book on church history and my conclusion is pretty much summed up in these words by Robert Farrar Capon.
It’s long but it says it.

‘In spite of the fact that Jesus insisted that the Comforter would not speak of himself but would simply take what was Christ’s and show it to us, Christian’s have all too often decided that there was indeed one thing of Christ’s that the Spirit would not bother to show us – one whole set of things, in fact, that Jesus stressed but that the Comforter would not bring to our remembrance – namely, Christ’s insistence on using left-handed power.
The idea quickly got around in the early church – and has stayed with us to this day – that when the Spirit came to act, he would do so in plausible, right-handed way. Whether those acts were conceived of as involving a program of miraculous, healing interventions in the world, or as displaying various straight-line ‘spiritual’ phenomena such as speaking in tongues or guaranteeing the Papacy’s infallibility in matters of faith and morals, the church all too often gave the impression that the Spirit could be counted on to deliver in a way that Jesus never did. And thus the mischief was done.’

Robert Farrar Capon -Kingdom, Grace, Judgement

It’s those last lines in particular, those about the church trying to deliver in a way that Jesus never did that strikes me.

Much of the church history as told seems to recount the church mixed up with trying to rule in an earthly sort of way.

Maybe it strikes home particularly at Lent and reading how Jesus refuses the ways of the devil while being tempted in the wilderness. The devil tries to tempt Jesus into carrying out his mission in worldly, some would say very sensible ways and Jesus refuses.
Or in passages such as when Jesus washes the disciples feet or mentions that if you want to be great you must be a servant.
And of course the way that Jesus ultimately demonstrated his power and the way to do things was in dying alone on the cross as a criminal.

Christians simply aren’t supposed to demonstrate The Way by worldly shows of power or ruling like the kings of the world would and have. It’s about laying down our lives and turning the other cheek.

Watching the TV pictures of protesters at Occupy London being evicted from St Paul’s cathedral seems like another example of the church going about things in an unchristian manner.

Here you have people being forced of church property by bailiffs and riot police in a display of earthly power and force.
Meanwhile the occupiers are displaying power in a more much more Christlike manner. I was thinking particularly of the way that some people are puzzled by their lack of demands or clear vision about what they are up to, or how people can’t really figure them out easily.
That is a worldly way of power, having a sound-byte or two and a mission statement, clearly defined goals or targets to hit. Or the way people say that they’re just layabouts or hypocrites. In that you almost hear echos of the pharisees calling Jesus a glutton and drunkard.

I’m not sure God being on the side of the Occupy movement, but there are images and hints from it that seem much more in keeping with the spirit of Jesus than much of what goes on in our church life I reckon. Which seems more in keeping with the life of Christ? The description of Christians on their knees in prayer on the steps of St Paul’s being dragged away by police or the Archbishop of Canterbury vs Richard Dawkins in argument at Oxford University?

questioning the Bible and stuff

OK, here is the scenario. We have a bunch of ordinary men following Jesus, men like Peter who doesn’t exactly cover himself in glory in the Gospel accounts but are still men of faith.
Then years down the line they are the leaders of the church, men who write letters that are more than letters but scripture and God’s Word. The memory of Peter the bumbler seems long gone when we read 1 or 2 Peter, almost as if a different man has been writing the book.

There is an authority in his words that is used as the measuring tool against which Christians 2000 years later still measure their lives by.

But there is something in this all that doesn’t measure up.

Yes, Peter was older and wiser and far more importantly he had witnessed the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus and received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. He had changed. Who wouldn’t?

Yes there was something profound that happened but did  Peter the bumbler still exist after all that or did he become (for want of a better description) ‘super-spiritual‘?
I expect that as Peter got older and older he did become more and more like Jesus, but did he become so like Jesus that the impulsive, ‘speak-before-you-think’ type of guy completely disappear?

The impression I’ve gathered over the years are that there are two Peter’s.  The  ‘get behind me Satan’ fisherman Peter of the Gospels and the eloquent church leader Peter.

I guess this is all coming from thinking about the character of any Christian leader I’ve encountered.
They are far from perfect men(like us all!),
they all have deep character flaws even if they’ve been Christian’s for decades. Of course those character flaws might be less pronounced than when they started following but still, they persist (like us all!). There are human and sinful and it’s to be expected. Nobody is perfect.

Yet they are also adopted into the family of God like Peter and Paul, the same Holy Spirit who was in Paul is also in their lives and the life of any Christian you know.

So should we expect the leaders of a church to be any less holy than the Apostles?
Should we expect the Apostles to be any more Holy than our church leaders or Christians we know?

Or as I should have put this at the start and saved out wading through all that, where the Apostles special?

Of course they where in a way because they witnessed Jesus and all that happened back 2000years ago which I certainly didn’t.
In the regard they are special.

And yet they were also men like me.

The reason I’m struggling with this is (once again) reading church history.

There is so much in the way that we do church that isn’t in the Bible but has been the work of early church leaders or from tradition and what has ‘worked’.

To pick one example ‘The Holy Trinity’ isn’t mentioned in the Bible.
To pick another the way that a church might be organised with bishops and archbishops being more powerful(?) than those priests or vicars below them doesn’t really seem to be in the Bible.

Or to pick another the books that made it into the New Testament where not decided by someone in the Bible, but by early church leaders centuries afterwards.

I find this lack of acknowledgement of the early church leaders and their reasons for closing the canon of scripture or for saying ‘Yes, the book is divinely inspired and should be in while this one isn’t‘ a bit disturbing or dishonest, or maybe false?
I’m not trying to go all da Vinci code with conspiracy theories either, just that it doesn’t seem to me to be as simple as some pastor saying that everything you need to know about life is in the Bible as it’s divinely inspired by God. That’s not to say that isn’t true either, just that history is important as well. Especially history that makes a decision as fundamental as the formation of the Bible.

Bruce Shelly writes in his book ‘Church History in Plain Language’
‘To this day we find it almost impossible to think of the Christian faith without the Bible. It is the foundation of Christianity’s evangelism, its teaching, its worship, and its morality. When we look over Christian history, we find few – if any – decisions more basic than those made during the first three centuries surrounding the formation of the Bible….We need to ask, then, how did we get the Bible?’

And that’s the whole problem there. Never once was it deemed important to question the Bible in my evangelical, Christian bubble.
In fact it was the opposite. You should never question the Bible, the Bible and Scripture should question you.
Much of my Christian bubble has been based on this premise that the Bible is God’s Word and that it’s our supreme measuring rod. You don’t question it, you obey it. Often it was a rod to beat down rebellion or to beat down those who might be homosexual or Roman Catholic or a woman in ministry.

Yet here is the thing just to say it again.
There is a history of the Bible that is vitally important yet is never mentioned or deemed important of mention. As Bruce Shelley writes
‘When we look over Christian history, we find few – if any – decisions more basic than those made during the first three centuries surrounding the formation of the Bible

The formation of the Bible isn’t deemed to be important even though few decisions have been as important to our entire faith. The decision of what should go into the canon came from church leaders who I know absolutely nothing about, as if what they did wasn’t really that important.

I’m not sure why this is disturbing me so much. I guess that it might have something to do with having to trust leaders I know nothing about, who if they are anything like the men and women I know will make bad calls even though Godly and expect that they made a decision that had immense importance (When we look over Christian history, we find few – if any – decisions more basic than those made during the first three centuries surrounding the formation of the Bible.) and that it was completely spot on and Holy.