Sunday, 27 September 2015

No other gods: resisting false idols

Sermon preached at Abington Avenue United Reformed Church, on 27th September 2015. Texts: Exodus 20:1-6 and Luke 12:32-34.
Who is your god? Who do you worship on a daily basis? Here is what the Nicene Creed, recited weekly in many churches, says:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We don’t use many creeds as such in the United Reformed Church, but the closest thing we have is the Nature, Faith and Order of the URC, which I last heard in this building at Jane’s induction service – it’s kept for special occasions. That says:
With the whole Christian Church
the United Reformed Church believes in one God,
Father Son and Holy Spirit.
The living God, the only God, ever to be praised.
So that’s that. We believe in one God. The writers of Exodus would be pleased. Sermon over, amen. Or perhaps not.

Because do we really believe in one God? Do we really put our total faith in the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Because here’s the thing about faith – it’s not about words. Saying the right prayers doesn’t make you a Christian. Believing the right things doesn’t make you a Christian. What makes you a Christian is the way you live your live, the relationship you have with God and with Jesus, and the effect that has upon you every single day. Of course this is the case in most other faiths as well – being a good Muslim is about the way you pray, the things you do; likewise for being a good Buddhist or Hindu or Sikh. And it’s been the case in the Jewish faith since the words we’ve heard today were given to Moses, and remains the case to the present day. Faith is not about doctrine. It’s about a lived experience of the divine in everyday life.

So the question becomes, who are our gods? Who are the idols that we put before the one true and living God? Not in our beliefs perhaps, not in the prayers we say, but in our everyday lives?

Let me start with a story of a fairly trivial example of idol worship from my own life. Are there any children present? [Nope, good.] Because I need to tell you about my idolatrous worship of Santa Claus. Now, I don’t believe in the fellow and we've struggled with wanting to be honest with our children while also keeping Christmas fun for them. So of course we do the usual things – get the kids to leave out stockings, we fill them in the night. So last Christmas Eve we filled the stockings, and then I ate half a mince pie and half a carrot. And then went to a midnight service. Now who was I worshipping in that moment? Because whatever I might believe about Santa, I was sure acting as though I believed in him.

Trivial example, you might say. The things we do for our children. Nobody really believes in Santa. But there are older gods. In ancient times they had names like Aphrodite, goddess of love and sex; or Mammon, the god of money; or Mars, the god of war and violence. And nobody uses those names any more, but many many people worship those gods through their everyday actions. Many of us here, at some point in our lives, has had one of those trio completing dominating our lives to the exclusion of everything else. Or if you’ve not been tempted by sex, money or war, how about one of the following gods: consumerism, the worship of possessions, the greedy grasping for more stuff; or work, undoubtedly a gift and also necessary to keep food on the table, but almost an addiction for so many people; or power and status and fame - seeking those completely dominate some people’s lives.

Now I’m not saying most of these things are wrong by themselves. Love, money, work, nice objects, recognition for your service to others – these are all important things. In their different ways, they are gifts from our true God. But when they become the centre of our lives by themselves, when we become separated from a relationship with the divine presence that created, redeemed and sustains the universe – then love, money, work and the rest become idols. The theologian Tom Wright has written at length on this subject. Here’s what he says:
Mammon worship, painting
by Evelyn De Morgan (1909)
Worshipping them demands sacrifices, and those sacrifices are often human. How many million children, born or indeed unborn, have been sacrificed on the altar of Aphrodite, denied a secure upbringing because the demands of erotic desire keep one or both parents on the move? How many million lives have been blighted by money, whether by not having it or, worse, by having too much of it? And how many are being torn apart, as we speak, by the incessant demands of power, violence, and war?
And he’s right. Take consumerism, that most modern of God's, the urge to buy more. We live in a throwaway society. We are surrounded by plastic packaging, irrelevant bits of tat that amuse us for seconds and then get thrown away, technology which was the latest thing last year but now is so passé that if it’s lucky it gets sent to some forgotten corner of Asia for recycling, otherwise into the landfill. And at each stage, the planet’s resources are consumed, people’s lives are blighted in seeking out the rare minerals and the oil, pollution and waste are increased. And here of course we go into debt to afford the stuff, we worry and some people are destroyed by it. Everywhere, people are being sacrificed on the altar of the false god called consumerism. And we’re told it makes us good citizens, it contributes to the economic recovery, it satisfies the market. Buy more things, it'll make you happy. And yes it can, briefly. But at such cost.

I’m not saying this with any self-righteous. I’m a slave to the worship of consumerism like so many of us. I like shiny pretty things, new technology and the like. I buy my children rubbish plastic tat which lasts for five minutes, or let them spend their money on it. In our society it’s really difficult not to worship that particular god.

And of course you could say the same thing for all the false gods, all the idols we put in front of the one true God. They all promise excitement, satisfaction, but the things they give us are transitory, fleeting, gone in a moment – and they bring suffering in their wake, across the globe. People follow them because they promise happiness, but all they do is stand between us and our God.

Now this is all sounding a wee bit doom and gloom. Is there no hope? Because it’s pretty hard to resist the pull of money, and consumerism, and power and the rest. But I want to go back to the Exodus reading and see the sign of hope in it right at the start. Verse 1 reads: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”. That’s the thing that comes first, before we get into the teaching on worshipping no other gods, and then on the rest of the Ten Commandments that follow the short passage we heard.

But that coming out of slavery, that’s absolutely crucial to why the Ten Commandments were given to the people of Israel. They’d spent hundreds of years as slaves in Egypt. They weren’t free to live their own lives as they pleased. They were mistreated, humiliated, treated as sub-human. Slavery is an awful institution. And it’s absolutely central to the way the Jewish people saw themselves in the time of Moses, and in the time of Jesus, and to the present day. They were the people who were enslaved, they are now the people who are free. And they were set free by this God of theirs. So the Ten Commandments aren’t about restriction and rule, they’re a bold statement to a people previously crushed down by slavery that this is what freedom looks like, this is what it means to be a free people.

And it begins with a relationship with God. With their God, the one who freed them. The one who had the power and the love to free them from their slavery. The Israelites of that time believed in the existence of other gods, and saw plenty of them in Egypt and later in Canaan. The Old Testament is chock-full of other gods, other powerful figures, as well as Yahweh. To call these people monotheists is misleading. But they only had a relationship with this one god, with the one who had been the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; but now, more importantly, was the one who had freed them from slavery. It’s said that in the Old Testament, God is referred to as the creator 6 times, but as the one who freed them from slavery 36 times.

And by worshipping their god, and setting aside idols, they were able to remain as free people in their hearts as well as in the literal sense. They weren’t going to be drawn into their own slavery. They weren’t very good at it. The Old Testament is the story of how difficult the people of Israel found it to resist worshipping idols. Sometimes they bowed down before graven images, as Moses found when he came down the mountain. Sometimes they became the enslavers themselves, as in the time of Solomon. Often they took power and war as their idols. The prophets came and warned them of this. And progressively, insidiously, the law itself became an idol, the Torah that began as the sign of their freedom.

And of course that was one of the main messages Jesus came to give the people of Israel. Don’t get trapped by your laws. The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. He didn’t come to destroy the Torah but he did come to fulfil it and allow the Israelites not to be trapped by it, to free them from their slavery to law.

And Jesus promises us the same freedom. The whole Torah could be summed up by two commandments, he said. The first was the great prayer of the Jewish people, the Shema, with which we began the service – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”. And the second, he said, is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself”. [Matt 22:37-39, NIV]

That’s it. That’s how we can be freed from the idols, the false Gods which dominate our lives. By loving God with everything we have. By loving our neighbour. By living out our lives in accordance with the lines in the first letter of John:
We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. (1 John 4:19-20, NIV)
The question really is what you put at the centre of your being. Jesus put it so succinctly, in the final verse that we heard: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. By following the way of love, for God and for all people, we cast aside the worship of false gods and idols, and we gain freedom in all our lives. God be thanked. Amen.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

On maintaining relationships and absorbing variety: lessons from systems thinking for change at the Open University

The Open University (OU) is one of the great 20th century British institutions: visionary, democratic, free-thinking, innovative. It was founded in 1969, the year before I was born, and I've been privileged to work there for the past fifteen years. (I write in a personal capacity here, and only draw on publically-available sources.)

Like all public institutions, the OU has been hit recently by a combination of financial cuts and technological advances. Clearly these make change of various sorts both possible and necessary, and very many of these have been happening in recent years.

However, there is a plan to change it really radically, in ways that I fear may stretch it to breaking point. One of the glories of the OU is its regional structure – that we are not just a national institution, but one with a significant local presence. This is under threat with a plan to close seven out of nine regional centres in England, shifting the remaining two to a call centre model (along with a further call centre in Milton Keynes plus three offices in the national capitals of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

Academics should use their expertise on their own institution at times (as my colleagues Ray Corrigan and Andrew Smith have done), and that’s what I’ll do in this blog post. Having taught and researched systems thinking for most of my time at the OU – I have authored on five modules using systems ideas, and written a book on the key thinkers in the field – it seems appropriate to ask: what can systems ideas tell us about the planned regional closures?

Image: National
Portrait Gallery
I’ll draw on the work of two classic systems thinkers, both British but from somewhat different areas of systems – Geoffrey Vickers, who applied general systems theory to management and public policy (following a long and distinguished career in law and human resources); and Ross Ashby, one of the pioneers of cybernetics (who by profession was a psychiatrist with a deep understanding of the working of the human mind).

Vickers stressed the crucial importance of relationships as the most important part of human systems (which would include any group or organisation of people, formal or informal). He wrote (in a 1983 book, Human Systems are Different):
Of what then do systems consist? They consist of relationships. Surely there must be objects, entities which support these relationships? It seems probable to me that the relationships are more basic than the entities related; that we abstract or infer these entities solely from our experience of relationships. (Vickers 1983, p.15)
Organisations, in this view, are not principally about their strategic plans, or their finances, or their tools, or even their management. They are about the relationships between people – between staff members within the organisation, between staff members and their students (or service users, or clients, or customers depending on the organisation), between different service users gathered in a community, and between staff members and the wider world.

The Atomium, Brussels -
relationships in action
(Image: Mike Cattell)
Vickers did not deny the need for organisations to change – he wrote quite explicitly that an open system (one which is open to its external environment) “seldom preserves its form absolutely unchanged even for a brief period” (ibid., p.13). This is very clear at the OU – it has constantly been in flux throughout its history, in almost every possible way. Yet it remains fundamentally the same institution. This is partly because its mission and core values remain intact, but also because when it has changed its organisational structure previously, it has done so while keeping its basic form intact. And, crucially, it has managed to maintain the networks of relationships that maintained the organisation’s form.

Yet Vickers argues that relationships (both internal ones within the organisation and external ones to the outside world) can be fragile, and if pushed too far, irretrievably damaged:
All these relationships, both internal and external, have limits beyond which they cannot be pushed without escalating instability which may result in irreversible change or even dissolution of the system. Within these limits change can be accommodated sometimes almost unnoticed, sometimes welcomed. Unhappily it is often difficult to predict where these limits lie until they have been passed. (ibid., p.16)
And my fear is that in closing seven regional centres, with the staff either having to relocate or be made redundant, these relationships may be severed irreversibly, with the kind of damage which Vickers suggests. This is not just to do with the relationships within the regional centres – it also affects the relationships of those staff to other staff elsewhere in the university, to students and associate lecturers they support, and to wider stakeholders in the communities where the regional centres are based.

Image: Estate of Ross Ashby
Moving on to the work of Ross Ashby, author of the first textbook in cybernetics (Ashby, 1956) at a time when that field was at the cutting edge of technology and human sciences. The central concept in Ashby's book is that of variety: the number of possible states that a system can have. In a system with many different members with many relationships, the variety will be very large.

Ashby examined the question of how to regulate that variety, and formulated what he referred to as the Law of Requisite Variety. This law, which Ashby demonstrated mathematically, and which has been applied subsequently by many scholars, states that the only way to manage the variety of a system is if the regulator (the management part) has the same level of variety as the part of the system being regulated.

The implications for the OU arise from the reduction in the number of regional centres. The existing structure, with its set of relationships linking the university to the outside world, is able to absorb the variety of the world in which it sits. This variety will not be changed. However, shifting to two regional centres (plus the offices in Milton Keynes and the national offices) reduces the variety of the regulating system, the parts of the OU which are able to absorb that variety. It is only possible to continue the system's effective operation if the same variety in the regulating system can be maintained.

In summary: by reducing the regional centres so severely, the university perturbs the relationships which give it shape, possibly irretrievably, and puts itself at considerable risk of being unable to absorb the variety of the system with which it interacts. I have not written here of the effects upon the staff involved, which is considerable; nor of the people proposing the change, who are honourable and well-intentioned. Nevertheless an analysis from systems thinking suggests that these changes are extremely risky and likely to lead to considerable problems for the future of the university.

Ashby, W. R. (1956). An introduction to cybernetics. London: Chapman & Hall.
Vickers, G. (1983), Human Systems are Different, London: Harper & Row.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Taking up your cross and following Jesus

Sermon preached at Duston United Reformed Church on 13 September 2015. Text: Mark 8:27-9:1.
cruz de cada dia 02
Do you know the moment, when someone you really trusted and looked up to, turns out to be not quite what you expected? When your deepest hopes for the future are shaken up and challenged and you’re told that no, that’s not the real story at all? You have the plans sorted out, the dreams in place, all resting on that one person and – bam! – they’re in pieces. Perhaps it’s a relationship that isn’t going where you hoped. Perhaps it’s a colleague who suddenly turns out to be untrustworthy. Or perhaps your political party elects a leader at odds with everything you’ve been working for, all these years – and yet isn’t. There are a good few people in that position in the Labour Party today.

And yet, when you look, perhaps you should have seen the signs. Your partner had been acting a bit strange lately. Your colleague had been keeping odd hours. And Labour – well they kind of knew they needed a big change. But these things are easier to see in hindsight.

And it’s even tougher when the unexpected change is something that starts from the same place as you were expecting, but goes somewhere quite different in the end.

So to the disciples and Jesus. Peter has no problem in giving his answer as to who Jesus is: he’s the Messiah. And it’s then that Jesus does two unexpected things, that shake up the worldview of Peter and the other disciples completely.

First of all, he tells Peter to shut up – this is not the time or the place. He had a point – Caesaera Philippi wasn’t the place for such a conversation, as we’ll see later. But then he goes on to completely contradict everything that the disciples thought the word Messiah meant.

The word simply means ‘anointed one’. It relates to the ancient Jewish practice of anointing kings – this is Samuel anointing David as king, a practice that was still followed in this country when the present queen was crowned. It’s a setting-aside of the king, a marker of their acceptance by God. A Messiah is a king.

But of course Israel had not had a king for generations – it had been under one sort of foreign rule or another for a long time. So the kind of kingship that the word Messiah denoted in Jesus’ day was a liberator, and specifically a liberator through war and violence. Some Jews believed in Jesus’ day that this liberation would come here and now, others that it would come at the end of the world. Jews today still mostly believe the Messiah will come at one or another of those times.

Jesus didn’t deny Peter’s statement that he was the Messiah, but he had a very different story to tell about what it meant to be a Messiah. It involved sacrifice and suffering. It involved being rejected by the religious and political establishment. And it involved his death.

Now it’s important to realise that this is still a vision of Messiahship. Jesus was not saying “I’m not the Messiah, you’re wrong”. He was saying “yes I’m the Messiah, but you’ve misunderstood what it is to be the Messiah”. Jesus did come to be a king, but a different sort of king, of a different sort of kingdom as well – a richer life, full of joy and wisdom and harmony with God and full of justice to others. He called this the kingdom of God, and much of Jesus’ teaching was designed to show people the way to this kingdom, not as something to have after death, but as something to be lived now. He talked about it through stories and metaphors rather than directly, but he showed them the way to find it – to become fully awake, as some have put it. But because that kingdom involved serving others, at the deepest possible level, part of the work Jesus needed to do to help others reach the kingdom of God, was to suffer, to be condemned and ultimately to die. And that was the message Jesus told his disciples. That was what it meant to be the Messiah.

And that’s where Peter snapped. We’re only told in the gospel that Peter “took him aside and began to rebuke him” but you can imagine the conversation. “For pity’s sake, Jesus. We’ve followed you all this way since Galilee. We’ve left behind our jobs and our families and our lives, because we thought you were the real deal. We thought you were the one to save Israel, to ride into Jerusalem in victory. And now what? You’re going to get yourself on trial and killed? Come on, man, snap out of it. You could be a great leader. The people love you. They flock to hear you preach. They’re talking in all the synagogues about your miracles. Give up on this martyrdom stuff. Get out there and lead us to victory!”

It must have been tempting for Jesus. It sounds like a nice life. Uncertain, yes. But exciting too. Who out of all of us hasn’t been tempted when the voice offering us worldly power comes calling, saying we can do this thing if only we give up what we know is right? But of course Jesus had already met this kind of temptation in the desert at the start of his ministry. Yes, Peter spoke out of love and belief in Jesus’ mission. But ultimately his was the voice of temptation, the voice of Satan.

So Jesus called together the crowd to give them the implications of his being the Messiah. And now it’s worth briefly pointing out where all this conversation was taking place. Caesaera Philippi was not a safe place. It was right up in the far north of the traditional land of Israel, near the source of the river Jordan. It’s still a dangerous area, at the border of Israel and Syria in the disputed Golan Heights. It was a place where religion and power came together – there had been an ancient temple to Baal there, then an even bigger one to the Greek god Pan, then a still bigger one to the biggest god of them all in those days – Augustus Caesar. To say there that you’re the Messiah was a really dangerous act. And to do so in a way that challenged everyone’s expectations even more dangerous.

So Jesus understood the danger he was in. And he now started to lay it on thick to those listening – they were in the same danger too. By choosing to be his followers, they literally had to follow the same path as him. The way that would lead to the cross.

Now everyone learning to preach from the scripture is taught that the basic elements of a sermon are to explain the context of the passage, and to help listeners relate it to their own lives. Sometimes that’s quite difficult work, to tease out implications and meanings of some cryptic passage. But here Jesus is so plain, so upfront, that the implications for our own lives are clear. And really really scary. Jesus puts it straight: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”

The natural reaction to these verses is to shy away from them, to look for wiggle room, to try to find a way out. But there’s barely any wiggle room here. The theologian Tom Wright puts it clearly in one of his commentaries, “Jesus is not leading us on a pleasant afternoon hike, but on a walk into danger and risk. Or did we suppose that the kingdom of God would mean merely a few minor adjustments in our ordinary lives?”

I believe that this is something laid upon us whether we are lifelong Christians or new to the faith, whether we are aged 9 or aged 90. To be a follower of Jesus is to set down the things of the world, the things that make us comfortable, the things that makes life easy. To be a follower of Jesus is to be willing to embrace suffering and to embrace sacrifice.

This is not an easy calling. But it’s not one that involves hair-shirts and self-denial in the purely material sense, though it might involve those. It’s not about Puritanism, cancelling Christmas and parties. To quote an American blogger on this passage, David Lose:
We all too often view Jesus’ language of cross-bearing and denial through the lens of Weight Watchers. You know, have a little less of the things you like, don’t over indulge in the things that make you happy, cut enjoyment calories whenever possible because they’re not finally, I don’t know, Christian.
But taking up one’s cross is more radical than that. In the world of 1st century Palestine, the cross was the worst possible death imaginable. It was the death given to traitors and slaves. It was deliberately humiliating, slow and drawn-out. For Jesus to draw any sort of connection with the cross must have been a shocking thing for his to hear. I said earlier that Jesus was denying that he was the kind of Messiah who would be riding into Jerusalem on a war-horse. We know that when he did finally ride into Jerusalem it was on a donkey. But Jesus was very clearly saying that as a follower of his, you’d be going up against the authorities, and you’d be in personal physical danger.

Some followers of Jesus have done just this. I’ve been privileged to hear some of them talk – the liberation theologians of the Philippines who worked out of Christian conscience to undermine the Marcos regime; the anti-apartheid campaigners in South Africa who lost their liberty in the face of that evil system; the protestors against Trident in this country who have sailed boats in the face of submarines armed with weapons of mass destruction or cut the wire of the Faslane base to plant flowers on it. I couldn’t do those things myself, but I’m convinced that they were taking up their cross.

Yesterday afternoon as I was preparing this sermon, I read a message on Twitter, written by an American Christian activist for social justice called Craig Greenfield, who has lived most of the past 15 years in the slums of Cambodian. He writes: “Laying down your life usually doesn't happen in a blaze of glory. But rather in tiny moments of anonymous choice that you face every day.”

We can’t all cut the wire at Faslane or move to the slums of Cambodia. But we can all ask ourselves: what are we willing to risk as a follower of Jesus? What part of our lives are we prepared to lay down as his followers? What does it mean for us to take up our cross and follow him?

And Jesus offers us a mighty promise – that by doing so, we cast aside the rubbish that entangles so many of us. We get rid of the material clutter, of the hurts we cause others, of the lack of care we show to our fellow human beings. We die in Christ, and we are reborn in Christ. We are enabled to wake up to the kingdom of God, to live in the full richness of that life which he came to show us. We are enabled to live out our life abundantly and richly and so much more fully than our old lives. He promises it to us all: take up your cross, follow me, and you will gain life in all its fullness.