Sorry for the delay. As you scroll down you’ll see this is a bumper edition! I have been on holiday and have tried to resist writing too much. But what a week!
After our time in Isle of Wight, my wife and I travelled to my home town of Tunbridge Wells, nestled in the Kent countryside. This time was to catch up with friends and family because, being all the way up in Durham, we don’t get any time to visit and be present with them and for them.
On Thursday night I went to the National Theatre. I travelled up to London on my own due to the fact that the play I was going to see, ‘Love the Sinner’, was definitely not my wife’s cup of tea. It also gave me loads of time to be by myself for the first time and to catch up on some reading.
The play promised much! It was about church politics and debates. A group of church ministers gather to discuss policies of the church. With this backdrop we a faced with the life of Michael, a church volunteer, who has joined the council as a scribe and who gets sexually involved with an African boy who is a porter at the hotel. Back home, with his wife, Michael faces questions within himself of ethics and how he lives his life as a ‘Christian’. The African boy then turns up at his home and throws his world into chaos.
The play was great, well executed and full of subtlety. There’s always a certain standard you can expect from the National Theatre and if it meets it there’s nothing of note to say (if that makes sense). The set was clever and simple. An office-like blind replaced curtains at the front of stage meaning you’d get glimpses of the set changing when a breeze caught them. The lighting was nothing amazing but nor was it distracting and the music that accompanied scene changes was a shrill African voice that worked well at keeping you on edge and uncomfortable.
And that’s what I felt through the whole play… uncomfortable. The topic being discussed was well researched. The play opened with a debate by Bishops on homosexuality and there were the liberal Bishops (mainly from the States) and the conservative Bishops (mainly from Africa) and the discussions were funny in their truthfulness. During the debate, however, I felt myself growing tense inside. I suddenly realised that the debate going on onstage was the debate I have with myself on every issue.
I grew up with a liberal mum (see Wrestling with Truth (part VII) post) and I can see how this approach and mindset is helpful in discussions and how it can be embracing of many people. My desire is always to bring people into a relationship with Christ because I believe it makes a person understand themselves and the world around them. The liberal approach to major ethical issues allows as many people come to that relationship and breaks down barriers. There is, however, a strong problem I have. I don’t believe Christ made it easy for people to follow him. He always challenges and always asks for more. For me, the heart of Christianity is the cross; to die in order to live, to allow all that you want and think is best to die and free yourself from self sufficiency. This call is not easy, it’s the hardest thing you can do.
There was a scene in the play where Michael, the volunteer, returns home and gets into an argument about squirrels with his wife. She asks why he’s reading his Bible more at home, he says he wants to take his faith more seriously. She doesn’t understand. It then turns out the wife wants to try IVF treatment and Michael is unsure and says that He doesn’t think it’s right and that they should ask God if its right. The wife gets angry and says that God wants her to have a baby and asks why God would want to stop her from being happy.
This standpoint made me really upset. I know several couples who have used IVF and are now expecting children. I am overjoyed with this and am praying for them continually. Do I, therefore, believe that IVF is always right and is blessed by God? No. For the couples I know and for countless others I know IVF is an answer to prayer. God gives us what we want. So why did I get upset with the character’s understanding of God? God gives some couples babies through IVF not because it’s their right to have children but because they understand the wonderful gift they are from God. My friends didn’t demand babies from God and expect them. They didn’t say “If God doesn’t make this work then I refuse to follow Him.” They prayed that God would bless them and if it be His will then babies would be given to them. The character in the play demanded God give her what she wants; she was putting God to the test saying her belief in Him is dependent on Him giving her what she wants to make her happy.
Too often I see the world demand they get what they want. God gives good gifts. Yes. But God isn’t our slave or our genie in a bottle. “If God is good, then he’ll want me to be happy and what will make me happy is…”
I find myself quoting that well known philosopher, Mick Jagger,
‘You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need.’
Too often I find people listen and can’t believe God wouldn’t want to give them what they want. I believe God gives us first and foremost what we need and we discover that actually that’s what we want. Only sometimes does he give us what we want because, we discover, it’s what we need.
Love the Sinner demanded much of me as a Christian audience member. Having seen Peter Brooks’ play ’11 and 12’ about tolerance and being challenged to see my faith differently this play asked the opposite. The Bishops at the beginning talked about the battlelines. Are we, as a faith, willing to sacrifice the things that define us to slip away in order to allow people to get on board with us? Are we sacrificing the cross in order that people don’t have to make too much of a life changing decision to become a Christian? At times I feel the liberal side of the church demands too little of people. Then again, the conservative side of the church demands too much and continually trip up over hypocritical statements. The liberals get grace but the conservatives get sacrifice.
Usually this is something that people can wrestle with for ever and never come down on one side or the other but the issue for me is I’m becoming a leader and it’ll be demanded of me. “Where do you stand?” What are my battle lines? Where are my boundaries? For many of us struggling with ethical issues in relationships we must ask what does God want? Some many people say they pray and feel God wants them to be happy. That may be what God wants but how do we know? Are we just hearing what we want to hear? Where is the prophetic voice of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah saying “This is not what God wants” It’s a tough message to hear and it sometimes sounds like a roar (see Reading And Telling Stories post) but it needs to be said. God demands alot from us and His way is not always our way. Where has the prophetic voice gone?
The play was deeply upsetting because it hit me right in the heart. It made me sit up and listen to God. Too often I jump from liberalism to conservativism and I do it so that God thinks what I want Him to think. Underlying my viewing and my thoughts was a Bonhoeffer quote;
‘We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptized, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation unmasked and without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving. We poured forth unending streams of grace. But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard’
As I left the theatre i walked through the streets of London and saw poverty, anger, misery and was deeply troubled; so many people needing to hear that god has a way of life that brings peace but it’s a narrow path. In the play the African boy who lives a life of real poverty and violence and he turns up at Michael’s house demanding help. Michael was frozen in fear. “It doesn’t work like that!” I saw a guy begging under a bridge near Waterloo. I thought to myself, “There are a hundred and one reasons why I don’t invite that man to come and sit with me and have dinner. There are countless reasons why I can’t help that man but Jesus did and demanded I did.” We sit around and argue our standpoint on issues of sexuality and politics but every day we do people die and starve and miss an opportunity to know peace.
But there are a hundred and one reasons why we can’t make a difference…
This is a big topic and one which continues to divide the Church but it’s important that we all know the strengths of both sides and also question and allow God to challenge all of us in our views.
My mind is in turmoil about all of this (as you can probably gather) all I know for sure is I want to follow Christ and to have boldness not to sacrifice his powerful life changing word for cheap grace!