Sunday, 20 July 2014

Never Google Symptoms: A Sermon

One of the Ten Commandments of living happily in this digital age, along with ‘take everything on social media with a pinch of salt’ and ‘live with the fact that there will always, at any given time, be someone on the internet who is just plain wrong’, is surely, ‘never Google symptoms.’ In fact this new golden rule has become so embedded as part of our collective wisdom that if you google ‘never google’, the next word to pop up in your search engine box is, almost certainly, ‘symptoms.’ The neologism ‘cyberchondria’ made its way into the Oxford English Dictionary in the late 1990s as a perfect summary of this very modern malaise of using the internet to confirm the worst fears that lurk in anxious minds. 

It’s easy to see why people Google symptoms, though – The Information Standard, which produces evidence-based health and care information for the British public, released figures last year suggesting that around four in ten of us put off seeing a doctor. But of course there are at least two good reasons why Dr Google is never going to be an adequate substitute for a real GP: firstly, because it has no way of sifting wisely through the morass of possibilities to lead to a reasoned conclusion as to whether that headache is merely the result of sitting too long at a computer screen googling symptoms, or does indicate something more sinister, and secondly, because we, the reader of all this information on a screen, are not suitably qualified to judge which of it is likely or unlikely to have been written by a mischievous fifteen year old after their bedtime. We and the screen are equally handicapped by our limitations. Sorting the wheat from the weeds is well-nigh impossible.  

This evening we’ve heard the parable of the wheat and weeds, or tares, which may seem at first glance to offer some terrible agricultural advice: let the weeds grow up among the wheat, and sort it out when it comes to the harvest. I walk my dog alongside fields which are heavy with wheat at the moment, and can’t imagine the farmer possibly thinking that a few weeds here and there wouldn’t do much harm. It’s useful to know, though, that the type of weed referred to in this parable was well-known across the ancient world, and had slightly different names in different languages; in Aramaic, the language which Jesus spoke, it was called ‘zuna’, and what made zuna even peskier was that it looked very similar to wheat in its early stages of growth. It was genuinely difficult to tell what was wheat and what was zuna, which is why what seems to be appalling agricultural advice may well have been the only way of protecting the crop.  

In any case, it’s a mistake to read the agricultural parables as the biblical equivalent of ‘red sky at night, shepherd’s delight…’ These are not homely scraps of rural folklore handed down in an agrarian community. They are exasperatingly provocative, subversively profound truths about the nature of the kingdom of God.         
So what does this parable of the wheat and the weeds say about the kingdom of God? Well, if we think for a moment about the metaphor of wheat growing in a field, we see that the kingdom of God is about life, and growth, and health. Wheat nourishes; wheat satisfies; wheat sustains. The kingdom of God is not just for decoration. It’s not a pretty flower to be admired. It’s whet for feeding people. We, as part of God’s church, are to show this in the way in which we live. Our church is not here for decoration; it’s here to feed the deep hunger inside human souls. Mother Theresa, a woman who gave her life to feeding both bodies and souls, said ‘the hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.’ 

We live in a spiritually starving world, and we are called, as Jesus called his disciples when he fed the five thousand, to ‘give them something to eat.’ And that has to start with ourselves and our own spiritual hunger, which is why we come this evening to be fed with the bread of life in the Eucharist. We become partakers of Christ, and we take into our week ahead, into our lives that same Christ so that we might be more ready to notice, and respond to, the deep spiritual hunger of those who have not yet tasted and seen that the Lord is good.    
But this parable isn’t just about wheat, it’s also about weeds, weeds that are all the more dangerous and insidious because they so closely resemble the wheat that is life-giving and good, and which therefore must be left in situ because who knows, they might turn out to be wheat, after all. That medical advice read off a computer screen might just turn out to be life-saving.

So this parable is about living with ambiguity in a complex world – Jesus’ time was no less bewilderingly complex than our own. It’s about living with the uncomfortable reality that our own hunger for spiritual bread lays us open to the possibility of weeds, too; our own hunger and thirst for righteousness could so easily tip over into something altogether less life-giving and less Christian – into judgementalism or the championing of causes that have little or nothing to do with the kingdom of heaven. The Norweigan writer Jostein Gaarder put it succinctly: ‘many things have been done in the name of Jesus that heaven is not happy about.’
Yet the resounding conclusion of this parable is that we cannot possibly be the ones to make that final distinction; the harvest has not yet come, and as yet all we have is a field before us, which we are woefully under-qualified to separate out into wheat and weeds.

 St Augustine famously took this parable as the basis for his book ‘City of God’, which if had been written by anyone else would be his magnum opus – in Augustine’s case, City Of God was just one several works which changed the way the world thought; in this case, a way of thinking about the world as two cities, the heavenly and the earthly, which co-exist in this bewilderingly complex world. It wasn’t that Augustine saw the church as the heavenly city, the bread, and the Roman Empire as the earthly city, the weeds – he saw both the church, and the world beyond the church, as being populated by those whose love is for God, and those whose love is for themselves. Only at the final judgement, Augustine believed, will the two cities be separated. For the moment, we just have to live, loving God, witnessing to his presence in the world as Isaiah puts it in the passage we heard, and trusting in him for that ultimate judgement.     

Now trusting in final divine judgement might sound rather perverse – we think of judgement a as scary thing, used as method of control and instilling fear. Yet Augustine, who writes at such great length about final divine judgement, writes at even greater length about grace – God’s utter, unbounded love for all people, God’s ever-present invitation to us all to come and be enfolded in the divine embrace that will satisfy our spiritual hunger for need forever. The God who will judge us is the God who loved us so much that he laid down his life out of love for his friends, who , as the hymn puts it, emptied himself of all but love. No greater love exists; no greater love is possible. It is this ultimate love that will judge us all, which will look upon us all with eyes of love.

In the meantime, living with the ambiguity of the world’s good and bad does not mean not caring. It does not mean not listening, not engaging, not thinking, not praying. It does not mean not speaking out against injustice; it does mean being open to the possibility that we ourselves might get it wrong. Not judging does not mean ‘do nothing’.

It does mean recognising that we are not the farmer; we are the field. Going back to the googling of symptoms, this parable recognises that the only way of getting a proper diagnosis is to do that hard thing that forty percent of put off for as long as we can, and going to the doctor. What this means is facing up bravely to all within us that would rather please itself than please God, and seeking to love God more truly, as we trustingly await his final, loving, verdict on who we are. Am

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Women Bishops: This Time It's Personal

So, as you probably know, The General Synod of the Church of England voted this week on the legislation to enable women to be bishops. So very, very much has been thought, prayed, debated, blogged, published and now voted upon on this subject that it seems  to me almost to be a crime against Anglicanism to add to the welter of words.

I'm going to, anyway!

And what I'm going to offer is not yet more theological background, not yet more feminist critique or sociological perspective; all of these have been offered admirably by many sensitive and thoughtful people.

What I'm going to offer is my own, personal, reflection. Last time General Synod voted on this issue, the vote was not carried (hence it's coming back to the agenda this week), and it felt personal then in a way that I hadn't anticipated before the vote. I can still remember a wet Wednesday morning in November, sitting in my parked car, watching the rain trickle down my windscreen, feeling a deep sense of disappointment. Not for myself; after all, I had only recently begun my ministry as a curate and had no pretensions or aspirations to the purple; not even for the women who had long served as priests and who would feel personally slighted and sidelined by this vote. My sadness was for the church, for all that it would lose, both within and without (not that it's particularly easy to define 'within' and 'without' in an established church to which all have equal access at whatever level they want). I remember the weary sadness of having to explain why the vote hadn't carried, how the numbers had fallen, of feeling morally obliged to defend the church - my family - against all-too-understandable accusations of misogyny and male privilege; I felt the longing sadness of the spiritual impoverishment of a church which could not agree to see  the giftedness of some among its number, the lack that it would bear in its shared self because of this decision. I remember sighing heavily, turning the key in the car and getting on with my work as a deacon and curate.

So you might well be thinking at this point that my sighing has turned to singing, my sadness to joy at this week's events. Well, yes. I was pleased that General Synod voted as it did. Relieved. Consoled. Warmed. Judging by the political mood, things could have become intractably messy if the vote hadn't carried this time. But, in all honesty, there's been a bittersweetness to this week to me; second time around the vote has felt, to me, to carry all the emotional weight of that wet Wednesday. That's not just me being perverse, I've realised; it's to do with having heard the arguments, and borne the burden of the stories of so many of my Christian siblings in this big, chaotic, bellicose family of the Church of England.  My love for each one is genuine and my gratitude for them profound. I have heard stories of women priests who had dog poo posted through their letterboxes; I have heard stories of others, both male and female, whose fine conscience dictates that they cannot  truly accept that priesthood can be expressed by people of either gender. I have heard arguments which  I've found to be persuasive and insightful, and others, much less so. My love for those on either side of the debate has not been affected by the persusasiveness of their viewpoints. My love for them is, quite simply, the love of a sister or brother.    

And that's what makes it complicated. This time, as last time, it's personal. It's not about 'women bishops.' It's about particular women, with names and stories, histories and viewpoints, who may or may not be given the opportunity to serve and inspire as bishops. It's about people in pews, who relate to the pointy hats in ways that are so gutsy and so real, or so shallow and fleeting. It's about people who never come to church yet who nonetheless, look to it to provide some sort of sense of God and stability in a worryingly unstable world.

Personally I have been so utterly impressed and blessed by female bishops in other parts of the Anglican Communion, I cannot begin to tell you. Yet as a feminist, I can't help but feel that the possibility of becoming a female bishop in England is important symbolically, but barely scratches the surface of complex issues of gender identity and power within the church (I could say so much more about this!)

But what makes it complicated is that it's not just about me; it's about all God's children: particular people, who think and pray, who care and love, who react and notice from afar, whose responses to this vote, and all that will follow it, are as complex and as fascinating as they are themselves. And, much as it weakens my cause, if cause I even have, I love each one of them.

Personally, I don't want to lose a single person from my family over this issue. Personally, my love and  respect for my Christian sisters and brothers is not pre-determined by the extent to which their worldview mirrors mine. Personally, my genuine relief at Monday's vote is tempered by the clear-sighted awareness of all the very human complexities which will follow in its wake.

So my prayer is one of gratitude, but also one of deep longing still; a deep longing for the unity of all God's children despite our differences.  Crass though it may be to pray through the lyrics of a pop song, let us all ask our Heavenly Father that 'what we have's enough.'  


Saturday, 5 July 2014

Why I don't de-friend (or is it un-friend?) people on Facebook

I remember watching a TV documentary in about 2006 in which a series of intelligent, successful people were interviewed about a new internet phenomenon of which they were part. The interviews mentioned poking, and updating statuses, and it all sounded somewhat time-consuming and potentially dangerously addictive, as indeed the interviews bore out. Best steer clear, I thought to myself.

A couple of years later, someone from my old school cohort decided to use this new-fangled social media to gather together a reunion, so,despite my earlier reservations, I became a member of Facebook. I never actually made it to the reunion, and not long after the event, the person who had looked us all up de-friended the lot of us. The Facebook habit stuck though, and, in a way that I couldn't have foreseen in May 2008, has evolved into a poignant diary of the last six years for me. From the start (first status update ever: 'is enjoying a nice glass of Syrah'), I made a rule for myself that I've never regretted; I wouldn't write anything on Facebook that I wouldn't mind either my mother, or my bishop reading. Just as well, as my mum became a Facebook member a few years later. As the documentary had warned me, social media can be addictive, , and as time went on, another rule came into play; I'd only post once a day at the most; no getting obsessed or boring everyone with the minutae of my life.

As I started to play with this new mode of communication, I was genuinely puzzled to notice a less agreeable feature of the way in which it was being used; that of 'un-friending' (or is it 'de-friending?) In certain cases, yes, I could see that an ex-boyfriend might not be the best sort of person to have hanging around your Timeline, but besides those sorts of cases, why would anyone do that? In 2009, after a whole year of posting, I was slightly uncomfortable to hear someone talking about their regular 'culls'. It all sounded rather sinister; I found myself wondering if the perceived anonymity of the internet (which, of course, Facebook and other social media sites de-bunk conclusively) gives people the sense of freedom to do and say things to other people that would be completely socially unacceptable in what what fast becoming known as 'real life.' At best, I reasoned, the motivation behind de-friending is illogical; it's not as if Facebook is a child's party and you're only allowed to invite a certain number of friends. De-friending involves deliberate exclusion. For the first time, I realised, it was possible for one healthy adult to say to another 'I don't want to be your friend any more' and not look utterly ridiculous. Unsurprisingly, one major critique of Facebook is that it was started by kids, and reduces us all to the level of the playground spat. So a third rule was instituted: no de-friending of people unless I accept a friend request and then find that I have no idea who the person is, after all. (It's happened once.)  

So why are Facebook, and the ever-growing plethora of social media sites, particularly complex when it comes to enhancing or eroding human relationships? This was the question I was pondering as I saw online nastiness repeatedly. Is social media worth the hassle of having my faith in humanity dashed on a regular basis?  Does the good it might potentially do outweigh the bad it definitely does? I stuck with it, and am glad that I have.

One answer to the 'why is social media particularly prone to be used to hurt people?' question (and we've all read the horrific newspaper stories about cyberbullying), is that our categories have been scrambled. If that sounds a bit obscure, let me put it like this: we assess what we hear or read in the light of the person who is writing or speaking. If it's a tantruminng toddler demanding a snack, we might respond by gently calming her down and using that time-honoured trick of distraction. If it were a starving refugee asking for a snack, although the words spoken might be identical, our response would, and should be, very different. Likewise, if we read a professor of philosophy's latest treatise, we might analyse it as objectively as we can; if we read the same treatise copied and pasted and palmed off as a fifteen year old's homework, our response would be very different. We weigh what is said according to who is saying it, and in that quaint old-fashioned place called 'real life' we know this, and live it out all the time.

Online it's a different kettle of fish. Online forums were - and still are - places of ferociously cut-throat debate, simply because the restraints of social norms don't work there; after all, we have no way of telling whether that person posting about the philosophy of religion is a professor or a twelve-year-old. The de-personalisation of human interactions fast became a feature of online discourse, and I suspect the most of the time, that was okay, because everyone knew that, and played to the new rules. Of course, for many the anonymity promised by a computer screen brought out the worst in human nature, but cyber-bullying by an avatar with a made-up screen name is very different from being bad-mouthed by a neighbour. Back in the real world, we know our neighbours' names (hopefully); we say 'good morning' to them and take in their parcels (hopefully). That is, until they have a Facebook cull.

They might not do it maliciously; one of the complexities of this new mode of communication is that it's so new still that we haven't really yet agreed on a set of rules to play by, or maybe it's more that it encourages no particular rules at all and therefore everyone approaches it differently so that for one person, de-friending might be a pragmatic spur-of-the-moment click of a mouse with no great thought, whereas for another, it might be the sure signal of the end of any association at all. We have no way of telling what our Facebook actions mean to another person, as they have not yet developed a reliable semiotic value; we know not what we do when we de-friend. More generally and ore profoundly, neither can we ever know for sure what we represent to each other; we might call it 'cleaning up our list'; for one of these 'cleaned up', it might be the loss of the only remaining schoolfriend or that of the only person who shares similar political convictions. Because we can never know what we represent to one another, we can never know what we are damaging or destroying by de-friending.

Why Facebook is particularly complex is that it scrambles two worlds, the world of online cut-and-thrust de-personalised debate and the world of the neighbour whose parcel we take in. Because it scrambles the two, it has real potential to undermine and fracture real-life community in a way that anonymous online discourse doesn't, and which it'd be unusual to find in real life (after all, no grown-up has ever said out loud to me, 'I don't want to be your friend any more.' They might have thought it, granted...)

So that's why I don't de-friend people on Facebook. This new technology has run ahead of our ability to work out how it might strengthen and bond real-life community, or maybe it has offered an alternative to that community altogether. In either case, how we use it will shape and define it, for good or ill, and there's much good it can be used to do. And, as I find on an almost daily basis, it's fun. Let's try not to do harm with it, eh?