Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Abraham: Father of Two Sons and Story of Paradox

Paradoxology by Krish Kandiah proclaims to be wrestling with the difficult questions and paradoxes in the bible. It is an exercise in apologetics which acknowledges the more you find out about the bible the less you realise you know and the harder faith can become. That's how the book is sold, (see the You Tube clip below) & I have to say I was interested in learning from it. I didn't expect by the end of Chapter One The Abraham Paradox to be sitting there screaming and swearing about the simplistic way it sought to portray a complex Patriarch and put a whitewashed version of the text forward.

The key paradox it is examining is "The God who needs nothing but asks for everything" and the core of the text focuses on Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22, when God asks Abraham to be ready to sacrifice Isaac. However, more broadly it is a chapter which looks at Abraham in order to examine the character of God . I was hoping somewhere within this mix for Hagar and Ishmael to be mentioned, perhaps just for a paragraph or two and the pain which was involved in Abraham having to send that son away to be mentioned.

Alas no, there was one dismissive mention in a paragraph made up of an overlong sentence on page 15. It says "At the end of their lives, this living-dead couple are offered a new start, after several scrapes - a sexual liaision with a servant girl, surrogate child, Abram pretending his wife is really only his sister, not forgetting the rebrand to the new names 'Abraham' and 'Sarah' - the couple are finally en route to the Promised Land with their new-born son, their miracle baby, Isaac.".

From that moment Krish focuses on the wording of Genesis22 verse 2 where it says, "Take your son, your only son Isaac", and talks of Isaac in that exclusive way.

For me this highlights one of the more difficult paradoxes in the way in which we treat the bible and the patriarchs in particular. In seeking to reinforce the Judaic Christian version of history and the political implications of that we don't wrestle with the more difficult aspects of those characters.

For me this is focus on one part of the story is particularly problematic as I believe it stops us using some of the most contemporarily relevant parts of scripture we have.

I want to bring Hagar and Ishmael back into the story for a moment and see how it reads then.

Abraham, under Sarah's instruction, has sexually used a foreign servant to give him an heir. As a pregnant slave being abused and humiliated by a jealous Sarah, when Abraham has effectively absolved responsibility, Hagar runs away. God meets the runaway Hagar in the desert via an angel and tells her to return to that abusive situation, but at the same time promising that he will greatly multiply her offspring. Before then giving her the news that her son will be a wild ass of a man who is in conflict with everybody including his kin.(Gen 16: 1- 13)

However, this woman gets to see God and live. In the mist of this tragic situation God doesn't hide himself from her rather he reveals himself to her in that moment.

Now to me that raises far more paradoxical and difficult questions about what sort of God sends a woman back into an abusive situation. It is a situation which is awful and of the type we seek to rescue women from today. I cannot see how it was loving or right to send her back and how it can ever be loving or right to send people back into those situations now.

However, it is clear that God recognises what an extraordinary situation this is because he shows his face to her, something which he would not let others see. Those in these situations may see something of God that the rest of us can't.

In Genesis 17 we read how things apparently changed to some extent. Ishmael grew up in a more positive situation, Abraham clearly loves his son. He asks God for Ishmael to be in his sight and for a blessing to be on Ishmael. God on one level rejects Ishmael  making it clear that he has another plan, which will involve Isaac, the son yet to be born. However, he does grant a blessing upon Ishmael. Again another paradox about the nature of God is involved.

This one can be seen to illustrate how God's blessing is not exclusively for those who he regards as his children, who are under his sight. Personally, I find this useful as it illustrates that whilst God may have particular plans and blessings for his people he will also bless others too.

Finally in Genesis 21 Isaac is born and Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac. Isaac is Sarah's only son and she is eager to ensure that he gets the whole inheritance. The fact that Ishmael is the boys half brother is something which causes Sarah pain. She tells Abraham in verse 10 to send Hagar and Ishmael away.

This is the bit in which I believe we find ourselves with a useful and contemporary story. Abraham is the father of two children from different women. When the woman he is married to becomes worried about her economic position she asks him to cut contact with his first son. Abraham finds this very distressing, he doesn't want to become an absent father without contact.

Then in steps God and tells him to what Sarah wants because Isaac is the more important son. I find this really difficult and again it presents a huge paradox about God. What sort of God can say one son has a greater value and worth than another. This is a reflection of my questions about what sort of God can say that Christians are more children of his than non-Christians?

Off Hagar goes and as her resources fail she suffers reactive depression. In the mist of that situation she encounters God again and is shown the resources she can use to help her son. There is the question why does God let her get into this state? Why didn't he show her the water sooner? Again these point us back to the paradox about the nature of God.
However, I do find this bit easier because in showing her the well at that point transformation occurs. She is no longer dependent upon others. Once she is signposted to the right resources her life starts to be transformed and she is able to provide for herself and her son.

We don't know exactly what happens but we do know by the end of the story Hagar is able to go back to her own people in Egypt and find Ishmael a wife. This is significant because to do the latter she would have been able to provide a dowry, (Genesis 21: 1-21).

Whilst there are real difficulties and paradoxes within the story I feel it has hope to give to single parents both with and without care of their children. If we focus on Isaac as the only son, and write Ishmael out, we are writing out the value of children who may not be seen by the absent parent. If we keep Ishmael in we have a message of hope for fathers who perhaps don't have contact with older children. We also have an empowering message of hope for single parents, particularly single mothers on a low income, who may be feeling the pressure of having lost everything apart from their child, through no fault of their own.
I would also argue that it backs up the essential point Kaniah makes in this chapter, rather from detracting from it if we keep both sons in the story. We may not understand aspects of the narrative and why God asks the seemingly impossible but we can see enough through these stories to encourage us to follow.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Chalke and the Oasis Trust.....Daring to be Daniels?

" But......we do still find ourselves in situations where we have to ask ourselves are we ready to be like Daniel and stand alone?  Are we ready to have a purpose and let it be known? Are we ready to take the real costs which might be involved?"
That paragraph from the short sermon I gave last Sunday evening seems very apt in light of the statements from the Evangelical Alliance (EA) and the Oasis Trust yesterday outlining the way in which the Oasis Trust have had their membership cancelled by the EA. The reason for the cancellation of membership as detailed in this statement is the refusal of Oasis Trust to give equal weight to both sides of the same sex debate on their website. The question is though which is the Daniel?

My guess is both would regard themselves as the ones being ready to stand alone, having a purpose and letting it be known as the old Sunday School song which inspired Tony Benn says. In this post I want to unpack this a little further and explain why I think that the Oasis Trust are the Daniels in this situation and what our response needs to be as a result.
Before I get there though I want to outline the case for EA being the Daniels. The argument that would come from them I guess is they are acting with integrity, keeping true to what they believe the correct biblical interpretation to be. Their stance on the issue is briefly outlined in this document.

I now want to examine the Oasis Trust position. As I do so though we need to realise there are actually a range of positions in the Oasis Trust and on their board. The EA statement acknowledges that the Oasis Trust council "have no corporate view on the matter". There is a clear view from the organisations founder Rev Steve Chalke, however. Chalke has talked of how his study of scripture had led him to believe he that faithful, monogamous, loving same sex relationships are ok in this Christianity magazine article published in January 2013. He has also talked of how Oasis, as the managers of a chain of Academies amongst other activities, have a responsibility to ensure that all their young people are supported and that messages aren't transmitted which may lead to the suffering of LGBandT youth in those schools.
In November Chalke was the key note speaker at a Two:23 event and both the Q&A with him and talk itself can be accessed on their website. He spoke of the financial cost which Oasis have suffered and the way in which partner organisations have also suffered as a result of their association with Oasis, as funding has been withdrawn by some supporters. Oasis is not alone in finding that those who disagree with same sex relationships have chosen to stop their charitable giving to organisations if they publicly speak out or indeed adopt inclusive policies. World Vision in the US tragically dropped their bar on hiring people in same sex marriages and then reinstated it two days later as a result of calls from some Evangelical leaders to withdraw funding from the organisation, as this Church Times story reports.

Into this situation come the EA with their request for the Oasis Trust to "adjust the content of their website/resources and social media output to equally profile the traditional Christian view". This is something which the Oasis Trust have said they have sought to do.
I want to pause here and reflect on the Daniel story because I want to make it clear that I don't believe parallels can be drawn to the first part of the story, where a deliberate plan was put in place. I hope and believe that this initial request to alter their website and social media was a genuine request not an attempt to trap the Oasis Trust.

As we have seen the Oasis Trust did seek to comply, (another difference to the Daniel story). I would add, having looked at the site, the unfortunate impact of the changes made is it is slightly harder to find the excellent resources available which are seeking to support churches in moving on with discussion on these issues of inclusion and human sexuality.
However, the EA have indicated that what the Oasis Trust have done is not enough for them. The notes at the bottom of the statement are interesting in this regard because they say:

 "Organisation and Church membership of the Evangelical Alliance involves not only an affirmation of the basis of faith but a willingness to abide by the guidelines of the relational commitments with a specific reference to good fellowship with other evangelicals."
I am not sure whether anything, short of removing the resources or distancing themselves from Chalke would have been satisfactory for some of the "other evangelicals" referred to in terms of enabling Oasis Trust to keep "good fellowship".

This is what brings us to the point where I believe we can find the parallels with the Daniel story. As I indicated in my previous post I really do believe that something significant is happening with regards to the LGBandT evangelical community in this country and a growing focus on discipleship, (and that is something I believe applies to both the affirming and non-affirming groups). What I believe happened yesterday is that the Oasis Trust were sanctioned by the EA for standing up for what they believe faith requires of them; i.e. working towards an inclusive society where everybody is valued. The Faithworks Charter outlines the values by which the Oasis Trust works, as a result of their faith and understanding of scripture.

Steve Chalke and the Oasis Trust have dared to stand alone in many ways. Chalke in particular has dared to stand by the principles of faith in which he believes and not be coerced, threatened or bullied into actions which would have gone against this or into a continued silence on the matter. In particular after careful consideration he did not let the threat of the withdrawal of financial support from the organisation keep him silent.  
Returning to last Sunday evenings sermon I concluded it by saying:

 "There was no sudden miracle which stopped Daniel facing the worst, where the miracle came was in the mist of the situation itself. God protected Daniel in the lions den. He sent an angel to be in there with Daniel at the worst possible time ensuring that no harm came to him.
I think God still can send angels and does but more often he uses other human beings to come alongside people in the really difficult times. He doesn't leave any of us truly alone, even though it can sometimes feel like that.

My final thought is that sometimes I think we are called to be the angels and the stand we are called to take is following Gods call to come alongside others who are going through difficult and lonely times, helping protect them."
I want to reiterate that point in this blog post. I believe those of us who think what the Oasis Trust have done is right need to stand alongside them now. I believe we can support them to ensure that this action, which could result in further withdrawal of donations doesn't negatively impact the organisation financially. I think we need to consider if our way of standing alongside the Oasis Trust and Chalke at this time may involve financial giving or getting involved in some other way. We can be the angels who protect Oasis Trust from the lions.

Final note for those who are wondering if it ethically right to support an organisation which is running academies and engaging with the dismantlement of the welfare state it is worth listening to what Chalke said at Greenbelt last year. He talked about the need to engage with what's happening even if you don't agree with it, (note you do need pay to listen to the whole talk, but it is worth it if you are interested in thinking about the ethics of involvement).