Saturday, 21 May 2016

A sermon at the start of Oxfordshire ArtWeeks

St Matthew's, 8th May 2016

This sermon was initially intended as a contribution to ‘Oxfordshire ArtWeeks’ which began yesterday and lasts until the 30th May. St Matthew’s normally holds an exhibition during ArtWeeks but isn’t doing so this year.   St Luke’s however is putting on an exhibition and so is St Elbe’s School.  And the holding of ArtWeeks events throughout the city over the next three weeks provides a good opportunity to reflect upon art and its meaning for us as Christians.   I should say that I am not really qualified to talk about art at all.   I am not an artist: I am a scientist with a bit of an interest in art, so this sermon is just my personal take on some pictures that I like but more importantly find spiritually nourishing.   I should also say that in this sermon I have drawn heavily on two books: How to Believe by John Cottingham and Painting the Word by John Drury.

I find the four main pictures that I am going to show you spiritually nourishing much in the same way as I find some passages in scripture, some liturgy, some sermons, some books, spiritually nourishing.   We take it for granted that the written and spoken word is helpful in our spiritual life.  Indeed in most services there are a lot of words of different types, readings from the Bible, sermons about those readings, prayers, etc.   And we are also used to music as being an important part of our worship in the form of hymns and songs and sometimes musical items without words.   But art, too, has always played some part in the Christian life if only in the form of stained glass windows, pictures and sculpture that we find when entering our churches

The underlying assumption behind this sermons is that art can both challenge and console us with the good news of God’s involvement in the world in the same way as words.   And in this sermon I want to suggest that some art which is not obviously ‘Christian’ can challenge and console us with the gospel just as much as that art which obviously has a Christian intention behind it.  

Now we feel most comfortable about bringing art into church when it is distinctively Christian.   The most distinctively Christian art is art which in some way or other represents the words to be found in the Bible.   So in this church we have a picture of our patron saint - St Matthew - in our one stained-glass window over there.   And here, behind me, a copy of a picture painted by Rembrandt of an event in Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son [*].   And you’ll probably all know by now that we are planning on hanging a new stained glass cross, from the central beam of the church – a cross made by X who worships here.   It’s a cross rather than a star or a circle, because Jesus was crucified on a cross.  

Today I am only going to be taking about painting rather than some of the other visual arts such as sculpture and architecture, and there is a lot that might be said about this picture, but instead I’d like to talk about this picture: [*] Antonello da Messina’s Christ Crucified as a clear example of Christian art.

I think the impact of this little panel – 17 inches by 10 – comes from the emptiness which surrounds
the pale and exhausted body of Jesus.   It is not a completely realistic paining of course.   Even less realistic than Rembrandt’s picture of the Prodigal Son.   Virtually all artists – when representing scenes from the Bible – present those scenes against a background that they and their audience are familiar with – in this case Southern Italy in around 1500.   And they tend to clothe the people they are representing in contemporary clothes.   Of course this is no mistake.   Antonello would have been aware that people in different countries and at different times in history wear different clothes.

But Antonello’s most obvious distortion of reality is to make the cross much taller than it probably was and of necessity dictated.   This was a way of depicting what Jesus says of his impending death in John’s Gospel: ‘And, when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself’ echoing Isiah’s prophecy: ‘See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high’.

By raising him into the heavens painters gave Jesus’ suffering a certain transcendental monumentality but Antonello refuses the further step, taken by so many more famous painters, of rending Christ’s body as beautiful.  Here Jesus’ arms are emaciated, his head hangs low, and his legs taper down to the nailed feet without any interesting curves. [*]

Antonello also resists the temptation of having Mary and John standing on either side of the cross in attitudes of devout and wondering pathos.  Here are two people for whom it has all been too much and too long, so they sit, slumped on the bare ground.  John has the aspect and posture of someone who has gazed for a long time at his dying master for some sign of grace and meaning.  His raised head and hand pose the question: why?  Mary no longer asks why: she has given up on questions.  She is just consumed by grief without hope.

From beyond the hill three women approach [*].  They are probably the three Marys: Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James and Mary the wife of Cleopas who according to Mark were looking on.   But even further away there is a fortified harbour to a town, part of which can be seen on the left [*].   The people at this port are worth looking at for a moment.  Some are out in little boats, some congregate round the gateway to the harbour as is usual for gateways.   A mounted party is returning to town.   They are quite unconcerned with the tragedy in the foreground.  As WH Auden says in his poem Musée des Beaux Arts:
               About suffering they were never wrong           
               The Old Masters: how well they understood
               Its human position, how it takes place
               While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along

[*] If we look into this painting, rather than just at it, how well we find it illustrates the events of Good Friday with their apparent annihilation of meaning, hopes and coherences

As I said at the beginning of this sermon it is not just art that just depicts the events recorded in the Bible that is spiritually nourishing.   Christian artists, over the years, have explored the connection between Biblical stories and their lives as they experience them in much the same way as preachers of sermons often end by talking about what the passage means for the way we lead our lives today.

This is as if Antonello were to bring his background – of people going about their everyday lives - into the foreground and to move the biblical story into the background.   And here is a painting – by the Spanish artist Velazquez that does just that [*].  Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary painted in 1618.  That long-winded title is needed to cover the two related scenes depicted.   The cooking in the foreground is apparently going on at the same time as what can be seen through the serving hatch: a scene from the story in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus goes to stay with his friends Mary and Martha.
This is entitled

You’ll remember that in that story Martha complains to Jesus that her sister Mary has been sitting at Jesus feet listening to him leaving her, Martha, to do all the household chores by herself.   [*] In Velasquez’ paining we see Jesus rebuking Martha (standing on the right) emphasised by the gesture of his raised left hand.   It fends off Martha and protects Mary.   In Luke’s gospel Jesus is recorded as saying ‘Martha, Martha you are worried and distracted by many things, there is a need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part which will not be taken away from her.’   Velazquez does not need to paint these words.   If we are familiar with the story we can hear Jesus saying them.   Many people down the years have been challenged by what Jesus says here and its emphasis on the importance of the contemplative life as opposed to the active life.

Velazquez treatment of the story is rather sketchy   He hasn’t taken much care over the figures of Jesus, Mary and Martha and you can’t really see what they are thinking.   He is much more concerned about the scene in the foreground, but what is going here is clearly related to the biblical scene in the background [*].
Jesus’s raised hand is echoed by the raised hand of the old woman on the left and the crooked index finger of that hand points to what is being said in the room beyond.   Speech is implied here but what is being said?   Well we can see that the young servant girl – making a meal in just the same way as Martha had been doing earlier – is clearly upset by what has just been said to her.   It seems clear that the old woman has said something similar to what Jesus has just been saying to Martha: that cooking and so forth is the lesser part – the part of life which is least important.

In Velazquez’ time the life of a serving girl was harsh.   The choices for her in 17th Century Spain were few.   She is facing a lifetime of Martha’s hard work in the knowledge that it is not the ‘better part’.   Velazquez is clearly sympathetic to her plight and by taking her side in this picture seems to be on uneasy terms with his text: ‘Mary has chosen the better part.’   Though perhaps this is not the end of the matter.   Velazquez also appears not unsympathetic to the older woman seemingly passing on Jesus’ words to the younger women – as if, in the end she, in her more mature years, has come to terms with them.   Here is, if you like, a visual, rather than spoken sermon, on that text that many still find challenging. 

One further comment on this painting: the compassion in Velazquez’ treatment of the two women in the foreground of this painting is clear.   His sympathy for the younger women in particular is obvious and it’s as if he is saying that what primarily matters is what this women is feeling here and now and that the scriptures, like the Sabbath, were ‘made for man’ and not man for the scriptures.  That the human and material world to which the Bible addresses itself so continuously and urgently is as important as the words of the text.  

And in this connection we might note the sea-bass in the bottom right of the picture [*].   Never before had sea-bass been painted like these.   They are the fishiest of fish.   To take them in with the eye is to know exactly what they would feel and smell like.  To use a theological expression they are almost made incarnate. 

And in doing so they seem, to me, to comment on the great mystery of The Incarnation: how could it be that the man sketchily portrayed in the background of this painting was also God who made these fish.  Art – even when it ‘merely’ depicts the material world can speak of God as we can feel when we look at a sunset or at the stars.   Gerard Manley Hopkins says in his poem As kingfishers catch fire:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Christ — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Now art that is explicitly Christian might seem to be a thing of the past, but there have been painters of Biblical scenes throughout all ages up to the present day and we might look at one of those.   But instead I want to turn to two pictures of what on the face of it might seem to have little to do with Biblical texts.   The first is a picture of a gardener called Vallier sitting in his garden and painted by Cezanne - which might be viewed as merely a picture of an old man unless we look at it more carefully [*].

Gardens, of course, figure quite extensively in the Bible even if somewhat ‘under the radar’.  In the book of Genesis human beings – in the shape of Adam and Eve - are created to live in a garden – the Garden of Eden – and are driven out of that garden when they disobey God by eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.   And in the Gospel of John it is specifically mentioned that the tomb where Jesus is buried is located in a garden and that Mary, when the risen Jesus first appears to her, mistakes him for the gardener.   This is surely not just a co-incidence.

Gardens have always, it seems, had a deeper significance than is perhaps generally recognised.   One reason for this is that they are neither entirely natural nor entirely under human control.   They are neither the untamed wilderness nor the carefully controlled environments of our homes where, by virtue of walls, a roof, doors, windows and modern day devices such as central-heating and refrigerators, we protect ourselves from the wind, rain, cold and heat.   

The garden is not just there to supply our basic needs for food and clothes: those parts of our world are called farms.   Gardens - with their paths, their pools, their trees, flowers and fruit– are also for our delight not just our good.  They are perhaps even for our spiritual nourishment – in a similar fashion to art.   To quote the Victorian poet Dorothy Frances Gurney. ‘One is nearer God's heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.’

The reason for this special feature of gardens is that they are so self-evidently (at least to Christians) a gift which evokes not just feelings of enjoyment but also of gratitude.   We know, that however much we work we have put into our gardens: planting, weeding and in my case strimming, the final result is not, at its heart, down to us.

The British philosopher David Cooper – in his book A Philosophy of Gardens – points out that the whole concept of a garden implies a kind of unity or intimate co-dependence between human beings and the natural world.    For this reason I think many painters have been drawn to the garden as a subject for their art because art, at its best, is also one of co-dependence - in this case co-dependence between the artist and his or her materials and subject matter.  Perhaps the most famous garden paintings are those by Monet of his garden at Giverny.   Here is one example.  [*]

But this paining – fantastically well executed and beautiful as it is – does not particularly illustrate the inter-dependence between the gardener and nature.  There is little suggestion of the relationship between the garden and of the natural world here: you cannot even see the sky.   Cezanne in his paintings of gardens frequently contrasts the garden with the world beyond.   Here is one such example: [*] his painting of the garden of his family home Jas de Bouffan at Aix.  This is the garden in winter with the trees leafless.  Beyond you can see the country side.   In this picture Cézanne seeks to evoke the atmosphere of the garden: it’s not merely (or even particularly) the beauty of the garden that he is seeking to portray.   

In one of Cezanne’s last pictures, that of his garden at Les Lauves [*] – the garden in which his gardener Valiier worked - the garden has been reduced to a strip of green in the foreground, a wall, some countryside in the background and the sky as if to investigate the concept of a garden and not merely to portray a particular one.

But Cezanne’s picture of Vallier best illustrates the deeper significance of gardens and gardening.  Here the gardener sits in the garden by a wall in summer in the shade of a tree.  He is clearly at one with his garden as he seems to merge with it.  Here is the philosopher Martin Heidegger’s poem about this painting:
     The thoughtfully serene, the urgent
     stillness of the form of the old gardener,
     Vallier, who tends the inconspicuous on the Chemin des Lauves,

     In the late work of the painter the twofoldness
     of what is present and is presence has become
     one, ‘realised’ and overcome at the same time,
     transformed into a mystery filled identity

Heidegger’s point is the rather simple one but important nevertheless that there is a fundamental rightness and therefore serenity in the gardener caring for living things in response to their needs and demands.   Putting it this ways already implies a spiritual dimension to gardening if only because virtues such as discipline, humility and hope are needed to bring that co-dependence between the gardener and his or her garden to fruition in flower and harvest.   That makes it appropriate to call gardening a kind of spiritual activity and by extension many another activity which we call work.  
Neither Cooper nor Heidegger and possibly not even Cezanne would see this co-dependence between human life and the natural world – epitomised by the garden - as also necessitating a co-dependence between humans and God but we Christians might.

The final picture I want to look as a painting entitled View of Osterbro from Dosseringen by the nineteenth century Danish artist Christen Kobke.   Its subject matter has seemingly even less relation to Christian symbolism than pictures of gardeners and gardens.  And although lakes and boats do feature quite a lot in the Biblical stories I think it would be stretching it to argue that Kobke has those lakes and boats consciously in mind.

A calm sense of the benignity of the world is captured in this painting.   It depicts a weekend outing of an ordinary family as they relax on their small sailing dingy moored near Copenhagen.  The mood of the painting is finely evoked by the Alain de Boton and John Armstrong in their book Art as Therapy:

The light in the picture is tremendously meaningful, even though it is difficult to say what the meaning is.  One wants to point at the picture and say ‘When the light is like this, I feel like that.’ Kobke has created an image that is in love with nothing happening. The child hangs over the rails, the man in a top hat looks on while his friend makes some adjustment to the bottom of the furled sail.  The women say something to one another. Life is going on, but there is no drama, no expectation of an outcome, no sense of getting anywhere.  Rather than being a condition of boredom or frustration, though, it feels exactly right.   It is tranquil but not tired.  It is immensely peaceful but not inert.   In a strange way, the picture is filled with a sense of delight in existence expressed quietly.

Art is clearly capable of expressing such simple delight in existence – as perhaps we have already seen in the case of Velazquez’ fish.   But, as John Cottingham points out, there is surely something more at issue here, which De Botton and Armstrong’s discussion skirts around but does not quite bring out.   Is what is conveyed by the painting merely a sense of calm repose, or is there (as the phrases ‘tremendously meaningful’ and ‘exactly right’ perhaps hint at) a deeper tranquillity, a sense of being at one with the rest of creation?  If it is the latter, then the feeling evoked is something akin to what has been called ‘ontological rootedness’ a conviction that we are somehow secure ‘at home’ in the world or in other words that God is with us

Of course this feeling that we are ‘at home’ in the world, that God is with us, does not mean that we have some sort of immunity from trouble as any sort of reading the Bible teaches us and as illustrated in the many pictures of suffering, including that by Antonello, we looked at, at the beginning of this sermon.

Nevertheless this painting perhaps provides some sort of antidote to the loss of meaning depicted in Antonello’s picture.  Here I think is a picture of resurrection and of hope without being obviously so.

Monday, 14 March 2016

"Forgive us our sins, as we forgive others"

Readings: Jonah 1 – 2: 10,  Luke 7: 36-50

This is the fourth in a series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer and in preparing for it I have been asking people which verse in the Lord’s Prayer they think is the most important.   And perhaps – at this point we should all pause and reflect for ourselves which we think is the most important verse. 


Well what did you decide?    Perhaps the first verse – ‘Our Father in Heaven’ - because it is the first.   If you haven’t eaten recently perhaps you went for ‘Give us today our daily bread’.   But I hope – some of you at least - came to the conclusion that it is a stupid question because, of course, no verse in the Lord’s Prayer is any more important than any other and that includes the verse we have come to today: ‘Forgive us our sin as we forgive those who sin against us’.   But having coming to this verse in our sermon series, we do, of course, need to concentrate it upon it.

In this sermon I want to discuss three questions in relation to this verse:
Firstly: what do we mean by sin?
Secondly: what do we mean by forgiveness?
Thirdly: what is the connection between the first half of the verse ‘forgive us our sins’ and the second ‘as we forgive those who sin against us’?

So, firstly, what is sin?  Now those of you who heard Steve’s – our vicar’s - excellent sermon on sin at this year’s carol service will need no reminding.  At the end of the carol service someone said to him, ‘Steve, I am so glad that you disobeyed the Church Times’.   Apparently: earlier that week the Church Times had run an article exhorting preachers at carol services to avoid the subject of sin because irregular church goers might be put off by such a subject.  

Of course you won’t have forgotten what Steve said but I’ll remind you anyway.   Basically Steve said that when Christians talk about sin they are expressing three basic convictions, that:
1.      Something is wrong and needs restoring, fixing, sorting, personally, relationally, and globally.  
2.      And that that something is not just in other people but is an issue in all of us.      
3.      Our moral wrongdoing is not only about harming ourselves, or other people, or the planet, but is an offence against the God who made us.  

But I guess that the Church Times article reflects the fact that sin is not as fashionable a subject for sermons as it used to be.  Sin is of course a religious term that you now hardly ever hear out of church.   But is the fact that sin as a subject for sermons is on the wane a good thing?  Actually I do think it is - but not because the use of the word sin might discourage people from coming to church.   Rather because I think forgiveness of sins – whilst being an important part of the good news that is the gospel - is not the whole of that good news.    It’s only one verse in the Lord’s Prayer.  Now this might sound controversial to some but bear with me and, of course, feel free to disagree with me.

In the Book of Common Prayer Communion Service – a service which we hold most Sundays at 8 o’clock at St Matthew’s - the topic of sin comes up in virtually every part of the services: the Collect for Purity, the Prayer of Humble Access, the Prayer of Consecration, the Prayer of Oblation, the Gloria and of course the Confession.   This isn't to discourage you from coming to this 8 o’clock service by the way.

Not all churches have made sin the central focus of their liturgy and their sermons.   And perhaps it’s just me who seems to have been subjected disproportionally, over the course of my life to, what are known in my family, as ‘I in sin’ sermons.   

The basic and take-home message of such a sermon was/is that: We all have sinned.   Sin cuts us off from God.   Jesus cane to save us from this situation.   Through his death on the cross we can, if we have faith, be restored in our relationship with God.   If we truly accept this we will go to Heaven instead of to Hell.   They are called ‘I in sin’ sermons in my family because in such sermons it was common to point out the ‘coincidence’ that the letter I – which is, of course, also the first person personal pronoun - is in the middle of the word S I N – sin.  This was to reinforce the sermon’s message that we are all enmeshed, downing in sin or some such appropriate metaphor.

I should, at this point, say that is of course a caricature of a certain type of sermon which is very rare indeed at St Matthew’s so what I am about to say should not be taken as criticism of sermons here.

These I in sin sermons used to leave me feeling more doubtful and guilty than anything else.   They made the gospel all sound so simple but I could never be sure whether I believed it sufficiently or not: whether I had enough faith.   My problem was that I had come to a growing awareness of the existence of God but I wasn’t utterly certain of what God’s existence meant for me.  I doubted – and I still am not sure - that salvation is just or even mainly about salvation from sin.

I also wasn’t at all sure I was as sinful as all that.  These sermons seemed to be suggesting that I was – in the eyes of God – a wicked, unworthy, miserable offender even if I had been saved (and I wasn’t entirely sure that I was).   I didn’t feel particularly wicked.   OK I knew I wasn’t perfect.   But when I checked out, say, the 10 commandments or the seven deadly sins I seemed to doing OKish even with Jesus’ qualifications about sinning in your thoughts as well as by deed.   I also didn’t really want to feel unworthy.   Depending on my stage in life I thought I was doing reasonably well at school, at my job, at being a parent   OK, again, I hadn’t done as well as perhaps I could have.   And I didn’t feel particularly miserable about my sins either.  I always left the church- after such a sermon - feeling guilty about not feeling more guilty. 

I think if you go back and look at the basic message of such ‘I in sin’ sermons’ you can see there are several things missing.   To remind you: their take-away message was:  ‘We all have sinned.   Sin cuts us off from God.   Jesus cane to save us from this situation.   Through his death on the cross we can, if we have faith, be restored in our relationship with God.   If we truly accept this we will go to Heaven instead of to Hell.’  

Firstly this account misses out both the life and the resurrection of Jesus as if they are of lesser importance than his death.   Of course the cross is central to the good news that is the Gospel but Jesus’ crucifixion needs to be seen in the light of his resurrection otherwise where is the assurance that the cross had or has any meaning at all.  Furthermore the crucifixion and the resurrection make no real sense unless we can see who Jesus was though the accounts of his life.

Secondly there is no mention of love here and in particular God’s love for us.   If we are all wicked, unworthy, miserable offenders why would God – in the shape of Jesus - want to die for us?   The answer is that God loves us and he loves us because we are loveable.  And we are loveable because God made us in his image.  An image that may be marred but not entirely covered up. 
Thirdly this message seems to all about the future: what happens when we die – and tells us nothing about Jesus’ saving work in the here and now.

Fourthly and perhaps most importantly in relation to today’s sermon - this basic story doesn’t really mention forgiveness.   OK forgiveness might be implicit in the message.  The idea that Jesus’ death on the cross restores our relationship with God implies, somehow, that henceforth our sins provide no barrier to that relationship.  But does this mean those sins are forgiven or what?   

Which brings me to my second question: what is forgiveness?  But before seeking to answer this question and perhaps it doesn’t need saying but I’ll say it anyway: ‘God can and does forgive us’.  This ability on God’s part is assumed when we ask him to forgive us when we say ‘Forgive us our sins’ as part of the Lord’s Prayer and indeed similar words in our ‘Confessions’ - which are integral part of all our services.   We are going to say a Confession later.  

But then I think we can distinguish two sorts of forgiveness: one that might be called forensic or technical and one that is felt.   There is a type of forgiveness which seems to be a technicality but not felt on the part of the person who is the forgiven and perhaps even the forgiver.   

Going back to those ‘I in sin’ sermons just for a moment.  And I really do want to leave them behind.  Does the restoration of our relationship with God through the cross mean that our sins have been covered up or washed away or what?  

I prefer the idea that our sins are washed away – as in Psalm 51 verse 2 where the psalmist asks God to ‘Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin’.  But the idea of covering up our sins rather than washing them away is also common.  Psalm 31: 1 says ‘Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven whose sin is covered.’   [And this is verse quoted by Paul in his letter to the Romans [4:7]] 

Now asking God to cover up our sins and him doing so without removing our sins – is a type of technical forgiveness.  But I also think we can experience God’s forgiveness – and indeed need desperately to do so.    If nothing else I would like you to leave this service today with the more certain knowledge and hopefully feeling that you are forgiven.

But how are we to feel/experience God’s forgiveness.   I have been scouring the Bible for stories of forgiveness to see if we can learn more from them.   There are, if you begin to think about it, hundreds of stories about forgiveness – or rather hundreds of stories where forgiveness is an aspect of people’s encounter with God and in particular Jesus.   Jesus also tells stories of forgiveness in his parables.   The picture behind me – of the return of the Prodigal Son – depicts an act of forgiveness. We have, in our readings today two stories of forgiveness.  

First the Old Testament story of Jonah.  Actually the whole of the book of Jonah is about forgiveness but Michael read to us just the first half.   The bit where Jonah deliberately disobeys God’s instructions to go to Nineveh and ‘cry out against the wickedness’ of the people there.   In consequence Jonah gets swallowed by a whale.   Jonah begs God for his forgiveness, God gives him that forgiveness and rescues him from the belly of the whale and Jonah proceeds to obey God’s previous instructions.  Nowhere in Jonah does it say that God forgave Jonah for his disobedience but we can see that God did through his action in rescuing Jonah. 

The second story – from the New Testament – tells the story of a so-called ‘sinful’ women who anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume.   In this story we don’t know what the woman had done to be labelled sinful.  What these sins were isn’t important to the story.   What is important is that Jesus gracefully accepts the woman’s gift and tells the woman that her sins are forgiven and to go in peace.

The two stories about forgiveness are, in some ways, quite different.  In the first we know what the fault was, in the second we don’t.   In the first there is no pronouncement of forgiveness but in the second there is.   In the first the forgiveness comes in the form of an action on God’s part: his rescue of Jonah from the belly of the whale.  In the second we know nothing about what happens to the women after Jesus has forgiven here only that she was to ‘go in peace’. 

But the two stories do also have some fundamental similarities: both are basically about relationships between God and human beings that come to be restored – not primarily though the action of the human participants in the stories but through the action of God.   Even so the actions of the human participants are important.   Jonah has to ask to be rescued.  The woman has to buy the perfume and interrupt a party.  They also show us that God cares for us who we are – warts and all.   He wants us to be and do certain things in a different, better ways but he also rescues from the consequences of sin:  guilt and shame.  

Now these two things: guilt and shame are quite different.   Crudely speaking we can see guilt as a good thing – it’s an emotion that tells the person that he or she has done something wrong, that they need, if possible, to repair the wrong and to do things differently in the future.   Shame on the other hand is generally a bad thing.   It’s not necessarily related to anything immoral that we have done.   For example many people these days feel ashamed of their bodies when they have done nothing wrong to justify feelings of guilt.  Similarly many are ashamed of their gender or sexuality when this is inappropriate.   Shame is related to sin – but this is likely to be the sin of others rather than the person themself.

In our first Bible story we know that Jonah disobeyed God in a specific action – setting off in different direction to Nineveh.  Jonah’s guilt was relieved when he repented and turned to God.  In our second Bible study we do not know what the woman had done.   It is perhaps clear that she was ashamed in that she wept, yet Jesus accepted her for what she was and relieved her of her shame.  I think shame is much more common than might be thought.    Most people don’t talk about what they are ashamed of.  What I think is clear to everyone is that we all need more relief from guilt and shame.   And this relief is a promise of God.  

So finally the relationship between the first half of the verse ‘forgive us our sins’ and the second ‘as we forgive those who sin against us’? Again – as with choosing the most important verse in the Lord’s Prayer -one might be tempted to think that the first half of this verse is more important than the second.  Surely, you might say, it’s more important for God to forgive us than for us to forgive other people.   Actually I don’t think it is.  These are two halves of one verse and one half of the verse is no more or less important than the other.

But the problem I have always had with the second half of this verse is understanding quite what it means.  Does it mean that God forgives us in the same way as we forgive other people, or that if we are to be forgiven by God we must forgive others?   The first reading seems problematic because clearly we are good at forgiveness ourselves and God is surely so much better at it than we are.   The second reading is a problem because it seems to suggest that God’s forgiveness is conditional upon something we do – albeit related to forgiveness.

Matthew clearly recognises that there might be a problem with this verse and after giving us the Lord’s Prayer he adds a couple of verses seemingly to explain it.   He records Jesus as saying: ‘For if you forgive others their sins your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins’.  [Matthew 6: verses 14 and 15.]

This makes the second of the two ways of reading this verse: that God’s forgiveness is conditional upon our forgiveness of others more likely and if so it makes any simple model of forgiveness – such as all we need to obtain God’s forgiveness is to have faith in it - somewhat doubtful.  

But it also means that God’s forgiveness isn’t just a personal thing but something which binds communities together.   We forgive because we have been forgiven and we dare to ask for forgiveness because we forgive.   St Augustine called this verse in the Lord’s Prayer that we are thinking about today a terrible petition because of the burden he thought it put on those who pray it.   He thought it meant that if we asked God for forgiveness with an unforgiving heart we are, in effect, asking him not forgive us.   But if you see the verse as a request to God for help with our forgiveness of others then it becomes less terrible.

So to summarise. In this sermon I have talked about what I think sin and forgiveness are.  Or rather Steve told us what sin is at the carol service and I have tried to say that the concept of sin is not as important to the Gospel as it can be made out to be. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is something we need to experience more of.  I hope that doesn’t sound paradoxical.  I think we even need more forgiveness for imagined sins for which we are ashamed.  We need more forgiveness: both from God and for each other.  Forgiveness from God is a gift – a costly gift – we should accept it with gratitude and it's wroth praying for.  

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Rejoice in hope

Readings: Psalm 105 and Romans 12: 12

This is the first of three sermons on Paul’s letter to the Romans Chapter 12 verse 12:  ‘Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer’.  My sermon today is on the first command in this verse: rejoice in hope.  So I’ll be talking about hope and indirectly why we are to rejoice in it. 

I want firstly to distinguish between hope and optimism, secondly to suggest that hope is a gift and that it doesn’t make much sense to tell people that they must have hope, thirdly to talk about the grounds for hope: why we can have hope,  and fourthly to ask the question: what are we hoping for?

Firstly hope and optimism.

I think it is really important to distinguish between hope and optimism.  In our text for today Paul says , ‘Rejoice in hope’ not optimism. I am not at all optimistic about what is going to happen to me or the planet but I do have hope.
As some of you may know my work involves – to some extent – predicting the future – particularly when it comes to the food we eat.   I am involved with the University of Oxford’s so-called Future of Food programme.

One of my predictions for the future of food is that we are going to need radically to change what we eat if the planet is going to survive in anything like its current state.  We all need to eat less meat and switch to a more plant-based diet to reduce the amount of green-house gases associated with rearing animals for food - and quite frankly I do not see that happening.   Despite the sort of success of the Paris talks in December I think that human-produced climate change will bring increasing suffering not just to people in far-away countries but even to people in this country – the floods in the North of England are just the beginning.  I am pessimistic but I am still hopeful. 

Similarly in my own life.  I am sorry to witter on about this in sermons but I am acutely aware of how old I am getting.  I turned 60 last year and that makes me feel old.  People tell me that 60 is the new 30 times two but quite frankly I personally don’t believe it.   I know I am coming closer to death but that is not what I really worry about.  I worry about getting sick as I get older.   I know, for example, from looking at the statistics, that roughly one in three of us in this congregation will develop dementia sometime in the future.  These don’t sound to me very good odds.   And I am getting closer to that age when dementia if I am going to get it is more likely to begin.   I am pessimistic but I am still hopeful.

Of course I realise that some of you will be of a more optimistic inclination than I am.   Maybe you think the Paris talks will prove to be turning point in our getting a grips with climate change and that in the end we will find ways of changing what we eat.   Maybe you think that given that two in three don’t get dementia you’ll be fortunate and anyway by the time you get to 60 they’ll have found better ways of treating it.  And it does seem to me be the case that how you look at things makes you more or less optimistic.   It isn’t just a matter of the facts but how you view them. 

And we also know that the world we live in presents us with a particular selection of the facts.  Take the so called refugee crisis.   The news this week has been all about the attacks by young male refugees on women in Cologne.   Almost buried by that news were the stories of Syrian refugees helping out with flood victims in Manchester.   How we see refugees – whether we are optimistic or pessimistic about their arrival in this country - isn’t entirely of our choosing, 

Which brings me to my second point: hope as a gift.

I really don’t think you can command people to hope if they don’t feel hopeful.   Hope for me is not a matter of choice but something that is given to people at different points in their lives.  Telling someone to have hope is like telling them to pull themselves together – as I am sure I have said before.

In this context I think it is interesting that Paul says in our text for today, ‘Rejoice in hope’, not, ‘Hope!’ with an exclamation mark after it or even, ‘Have hope’.  In other words he is not telling the Romans to hope for Jesus to return, or whatever they are supposed to be hopeful for, but to rejoice in the hope that they have already been given.   I challenge you to find me a verse where Paul, John, or any of the other New Testament writers - or indeed Jesus, as recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, commands us to hope.    I know I have issued this challenge before, and someone found me a verse which said something like ‘Be hopeful’ – which I can’t now find – but anyway this isn’t quite the same as ‘Hope’ exclamation mark or ‘Have hope’.

Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians talks a lot about spiritual gifts – such as teaching, healing etc. and in the that section of the epistle called the Hymn to Love starts by telling the Corinthians to ‘Strive for the greater gifts’ and goes on to compare the gift of love with the gifts of prophecy, understanding and knowledge.  Chapter 13 verse 13 – summing up this Hymn - says of the three related gifts of faith, hope and love:  ‘And now faith, hope and love abide, these three: and the greatest of these is love.’ 

So here, for example, Paul is talking about faith, hope and love as things we are given and which will last for ever not things we are commanded to have or do.

Now it is fairly undeniable that Jesus commands us to love.  In his summary of the law he tells us to 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself’.  He even tells us to love our enemies.  And Paul in the same chapter as our text for today commands the Romans – in Chapter 12 verse 10 – to ‘Love one another with mutual affection’.  So I’ll concede that love is – at least to some extent - a matter of choice – but still I think it is difficult to love those we are not naturally drawn to and that we need God’s help in loving someone when they don’t love us back.

When it comes to faith I am even less sure that we can choose for ourselves to have it or not.  My father said to me m- when we talked about what we believed that he wish he had the faith I have.   This used to annoy me, probably unreasonably, because now I think he just wasn’t given a belief in God for some reason that I cannot fathom. 

If someone were to command me to believe that 1 + 1 = 3 I just couldn’t do it however much I wanted to obey their command.   I am not sure Jesus ever commands his disciples to believe in him but if he does then it’s not without giving them reason to do so.  He doesn’t anywhere say, ‘Believe me when I say I am going to rise from the dead’ he just goes ahead and does it and they get to see that he has risen.  This is his gift of to them.

And hope I think is the same as faith.  Hope is a gift.  For Paul hope is one of the primary gifts of the Holy Spirit.  For example earlier in Romans – Chapter 5 verse 5 - he has said: ‘Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’.

I said I wasn’t optimistic when it came to the fate of the planet but that I was hopeful.  But I didn’t explain why I am hopeful.   I am hopeful because I believe in miracles and that God intervenes in history and for me this means that I think that the planet will survive although we are going to need a miracle for that to happen.   I said I wasn’t optimistic when about my old age but nevertheless I am hopeful.  I am hopeful because I believe that God will give me what I need to cope with whatever happens to me – even dementia if I get it.   I don’t think God gives us what we think we need but what we truly need.   And indeed we all really need hope as I think you’ll agree.

Which brings me to my third point: the grounds of our hope.

This is perhaps the easiest part of this sermon: to say if not to believe.  We can have hope because Christ has risen from the dead. 

We can, I think, all agree that our Christian faith stands or falls with the reality of the raising of Jesus from the dead by God.  Two things need to be said about the resurrection in relation to hope.  

Firstly the resurrection is an event which constitutes the definitive act of God’s promise of a future - for both the planet and ourselves: a future that is different but better than now.  Here this aspect of the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is made clearer by looking at the history of hope throughout the whole Bible.  The God who raised Jesus from the dead was the God of Israel whose action can only be fully understood against the background of his promises as recounted in the Old Testament.

This is why I chose Psalm 105 as the Old Testament Reading for today.  Psalm 105 is an incredibly up-beat psalm where the psalmist is full of hope for the future.  He/she remembers all that God has done for Israel from the promises made to Abraham about his descendants and the land they were to possess to the liberation of the people of Israel from captivity in Egypt under the leadership of Moses and their taking possession of the land of Canaan.  We heard just the first third of the psalm.   It ends with the words ‘Praise the Lord’.  The psalmist might have equally well have said: ‘Rejoice in hope’.
Now the God of Israel revealed himself to the people of Israel by making promises that opened up the future.  Jesus’ resurrection generated the possibility of a new future for everyone – and that includes us - in which even death is overcome.  In Jesus’ resurrection God guaranteed his promise of a better future, by enacting it in Jesus’ person.  

Secondly an essential feature of the resurrection, as revealed in the resurrection appearances, is Jesus’ identification of himself in those appearance as the same Jesus who died on the cross: even to the point of showing the disciples his wounds.   By raising Jesus from the dead, God promises that the future – including our individual futures and that of the planet - is both a radical discontinuation with the past and a continuation of what has been.
Now the cross represents all that is wrong with this world – its subjection to sin, suffering and death, its godlessness, god forsaken ness and transitory ness - and yet the cross is in the same place as the tomb where Jesus was raised to a new permanent life with God.   Literally so if you believe in the builders of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where the remains of the cross and the tomb are, or at least were, in the same building.
The resurrection was not the survival of some part of Jesus which was not subject to death.   Jesus was wholly dead and wholly raised by God.  Similarly God’s promise to us is - enacted in the Resurrection - is for a radically new future for these bodies of ours and for the world.   Yet this new future, this new life, has a continuity with the past.  Just as it the same Jesus who was crucified and raised so God’s promise is not for another world but for the new creation of this world, and it’s not for other-worldly bodies but for these bodies of ours.

The promise of the resurrection is given to the world in which the cross stands.   And it is given to that world and to ourselves in all our material and worldly reality.  It is not that some aspect of our wold, or our bodies, can survive but that the whole of creation, subject as it is to sin, suffering and death, will be transformed in God’s new creation.  It is this which gives Jesus’ resurrection its universal cosmic significance and its present significance for ourselves.

So fourthly and finally what are we to hope for?   What precisely is this hope that we have been given and, according to Paul, we are to rejoice in? 

You might have thought that, by this point in this sermon, we might be able to answer this question quite easily and yet I find it quite hard to be categorical.   I have talked about my personal hopes (and indeed fears) for my future and for the planet.   And I have talked about God’s promise – through raising Jesus from the dead – of a better future for the world and ourselves, indeed a complete transformation.   But how do our personal hopes and this promise through Jesus’ resurrection connect up?

In our text for today Paul just says: ‘Rejoice in hope’.   He doesn’t go on to elaborate on what this hope is for.   If you scour Paul’s epistles for what he means us to hope for it all seems a bit vague, quite frankly.  For example earlier in Romans - Chapter 8 verse 18 - Paul talks about ‘the glory about to be revealed to us’ but what is this glory.  Here and in other places in his epistles Paul is clearly thinking in terms of the return of the risen Jesus to this world and thereby, as I have been saying, the complete transformation of life on this planet.  

Paul clearly too hope for life after death if not – like me - an illness free future.   He says in Chapter 15 verse 12 of his first letter to the Corinthians: ‘Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead’ and in verse 19 ‘If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied’. 

And yet there is, of course, an intrinsic uncertainty to hope.  In Romans Chapter 8 verses 24 and 25 Paul talks about this aspects of hope:  ‘For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.’  And I think it is this uncertainty that makes the question of what are we to hope for quite difficult to answer.

But this we surely can and need to say, in the words of the hymn we are about to sing: ‘In Christ alone our hope is found’.  And in the end I do not think we can be precisely certain what the future brings: whether for the world or for ourselves beyond the simple fact that through Christ all will be well and all manner of things will be well.  


Sunday, 1 November 2015

Mid-life Opportunity

A sermon given at St Matthew's Church, Oxford, Sunday 1st November 2015

Readings: Matthew 6: 19-34; 
2 Corinthians 11: 21 – 30

This is the fourth in our series of sermons on ‘Growing up in Christ’.  We have been looking at birth, childhood, youth and today we come to middle-age.  In this sermon I want to talk to you about journeys and in particular the journey we are called to called to go on in the second half of life.  I’ll give you an example of such a journey from the Bible, drawn from the story of the life of Abraham.  I’ll also explain why I think this second half of life journey is different from the first half of life journey.  I hope you’ll find this sermon useful even if you don’t think you have reached the second half of life yet

At this point I’d like to try an experiment.  Please could you look at your neighbour on your right and work out for yourself what stage of life you think she or he is at.   Is she or he young, middle-aged or old?   Now I’d like those of you who think of yourselves as young to put up your hands.  Now those of you who see yourselves as middle-aged.  Now those of you who think you are old.

My prediction is that what you thought, whether your neighbour is young, middle-aged or old, doesn’t tally very well with how they view themselves.  I also thought that most of you would think of yourselves as middle-aged rather than young or old.   Was I right? 

Of course age is partly objective, partly subjective.   Clearly at aged 0 you are not old and at aged 100 you are not young.  But in between?  Some say you are as young as you feel and we might equally say that you are as old as you feel or even that you as middle-aged as you feel.

The title of this sermon is ‘Mid-life opportunity’.  This is obviously a pun on ‘Mid-life crisis’.  To claim that you are having a mid-life crisis has come to be regarded as a bit of a joke, somewhat self-indulgent, even selfish.  But the NHS Choices website gives the mid-life crisis a page and even attributes it to physiological changes that take place in middle-age.   They suggest that around 20% of people have a mid-life crisis.

But defining what a mid-life crisis is clearly tricky.  It seems to be connected with reaching a point in life – somewhere between youth and old age - where you re-evaluate your life up to that point and seek to decide what to do next.  It’s often connected both with a dissatisfaction with life as it is or as it seems to be and a growing realisation of mortality.  And perhaps this is something everyone in middle-age experiences – at least at times.

It sounds over-dramatic to call this dissatisfaction with life and realisation of mortality a crisis in most cases – and so when planning this sermon series we decided to entitle this sermon ‘Mid-life opportunity’.  I am now a bit concerned that talking about mid-life opportunity is to deny the suffering that some - perhaps many - people experience as a result of reaching the middle of their life.  And we that know that suffering isn’t necessarily bad or to be denied.   The way of the cross teaches us that.  

And obviously middle-age is generally more of a process than an acute event such as the term crisis implies.  Clearly too middle-age is not all suffering and viewing it as an opportunity is surely more of a hopeful way of looking at it.

Perhaps, rather than viewing middle-age as the occasion for a crisis, or even simply as an opportunity that you can take or leave as you choose, we should see middle-age as a journey. 

The Biblical writers constantly use the journey as a metaphor for life.  The story of the Exodus involves a journey first from their home in Canaan to Egypt, on the part of Joseph and his brothers, and then from Egypt back to Canaan by the Israelites, under the leadership of Moses.  This journey home for the Israelites has lots of formative incidents along the way: the destruction of Pharaoh and the Egyptian Army who are pursuing the Israelites, the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses, etc.  Jesus’ parables often involve journeys.   For instance the parable of the Prodigal Son involves the younger son leaving home on a journey of adventure only to return home to a welcoming father when things get difficult.  

No doubt you can think of many other journeys in the Bible.  Many of these journeys involve a returning home.  And life itself, of course, involves a journey back to where you started if only in that, as you get older, you become more dependent on others for your very existence, just as you were when you were young.  But more importantly, as Richard Rhor, paraphrasing TS Elliott’s poem East Coker in the Four Quartets, says: ‘Somehow the end is in the beginning and the beginning points towards the end’.  This is from his book – Falling up: a spirituality for the two halves of life - from which I have drawn upon heavily when writing this sermon.

Now Biblical journey stories are often illustrative of the first half of our lives.  They are about the creation of identity.  The Israelites – after the Exodus – see their identity as a people chosen by God and rescued from the Egyptians.  They see Moses as the founder of their religion – a religion centred around the law, given to Moses on that journey.   The prodigal son, through his journey, comes to the realisation that home with his father is where he really wants to be.   In the first part of our lives our task is to find our self.  Part of that finding our self is to work out our relationship with God, to recognise and to accept his power to give our lives meaning.

A well-known first half of life journey in the Bible is the journey Abraham takes as the start of his life – or at least his story as recorded in Genesis.  You’ll remember that God tells Abraham to leave Haran - the country in which he is living at the time – for a new land which God will show him - Canaan.  God tells Abraham that this is because, ‘I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing’.  Abraham obeys God’s instructions and, with his family, including his wife Sarah and his nephew Lot, sets for Canaan.  When Abraham gets to Canaan, God says to him, ‘To your descendants I will give this land’ and Abraham and his family settle down in Canaan.  This too is story about how Abraham comes to see himself, how he finds his identity as the founder of a great nation whose home is Canaan.

Now if this were a fairy story the story would perhaps end there with: ‘And they all lived happily ever after’.   But we know that, in this respect at least, fairy stories are not true to life.  So too things don’t go smoothly for Abraham.  He ends up staying in Egypt for a while, where he runs into trouble with Pharaoh because he fails to tell him that Sarah is his wife and is forced to leave.  He falls out with his nephew Lot and then patches up the quarrel.   But also Abraham begins to question his identity when he and Sarah fail to have a son.  How can God of make of him a great nation if he has no son and heir?  But as we know God does give the couple a son – Isaac.

At this point Abraham is required by God to go on a second journey, this time to for the land of Moriah and up one of the mountains there, where he is to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  Abraham obeys God, goes up the mountain, and is just about to sacrifice his son, when God supplies him with a ram to sacrifice instead.   And Abraham returns home to Canaan.

Now this isn't a journey of identity creation.   It’s symbolic of a journey of the second half of life where the name of the game is letting go of the identity you have, often painfully, constructed in the first half of your life.  Abraham has to let go of his identity as the founder of a great nation in order, perhaps paradoxically, to get it back.   In this he has to trust God to do what seems logically impossible.   If he kills his only son how can his descendants become as numerous as the stars of heaven as God has promised him?

This is the nature of identity.  Jesus say in all four gospels as he does, here, in Matthew’s gospel:  ‘Anyone who wants to save his life, must lose it.   Anyone who loses his life will find it.’  

The purpose of the journey of the second half of life is therefore different to the journey of the first half of life.  This is to find a role, develop a career, accumulate some wealth for reasons of financial security, find some friends and a partner, have a family.  Of course not all of these things are given to all of us.  We’ll also, if so inclined, find a religion to believe in, a religious group to belong to and a place to express our religion.  We might even learn to put our trust in God and find salvation in him. 

All of these things are good: the development of a career, the finding of a source of salvation, even the accumulation of wealth – if you don’t take that too seriously – see it as your ultimate treasure.  The first half of life is unlikely to be problem free.  In fact it is highly unlikely to go as you hoped when you were young.   And on the way you are likely to encounter suffering.  Jesus says that whosoever wants to join him on the journey will need to take up his cross. 

In the second half of life things get done to us rather than us doing things.  Our career comes to an end whether you like it or not, our children leave home to create their own identities, you are progressively likely to lose your parents and friends through death.  You may start to lose your own health.  What were religious certainties may come to seem more uncertain.  

However another journey awaits you if you are willing to take it.  Not everybody goes on this journey even though aging itself is inevitable.  As Richard Rhor says, ‘The first half of life task is no more than finding the starting gate.  It is merely the warm-up act, not the full journey’.  However ‘a ‘further journey’ is a well-kept secret, for some reason’.  Many people do not even know there is one ‘and there are too few who know that it different from the journey of the first half of life.’

In fact it is incredibly easy to get stuck on the first half of life journey.  To ignore the fact that you no longer have the same role and purpose that you had.  In fact this denial may lead to the mid-life crisis of the type which leads people to try and start the journey again to seek to create another identity.  The journey in the second half of life has, or rather ought to have, a different purpose.

TS Elliott says, in his poem East Coker:  
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

The good news that there is a guide for this exploratory journey to a deeper communion: the Holy Spirit.   As Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, ‘The love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.‘  The Holy Spirit guiding on this journey from home and toward home is also described by Jesus in John’s gospel as an advocate who will teach us and remind us as if some inner part of us already knows where we are to go but still needs us a prod in the right direction.

This being done to rather than doing in the second half of life means that our task becomes to accept what is given to us.  We no longer have to strive for an identity, to prove who we are.  Life can become purely trust in God for what we need – as Jesus enjoins us to do in our Gospel reading today – saying that if we seek for his kingdom – that deeper communion that TS Elliott talks about – then everything else that we need will be given to us. 

In the second half of life there is no longer any need to protect or project one’s identity as Paul is, in effect, is saying in our Epistle reading today where he reflects back on his life and calls himself a fool.   When you are in the second half of life, finally you are who are and can be who you are without disguise or fear.  

So I hope that I have convinced you that second half of life journey can be even more exciting and in the end more worthwhile than the first.   As some of you know I have just turned 60 and one of my 60th birthday cards said, helpfully I think, 60 is the new 30 x 2.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

God, evolution, global warming and heart disease: a personal reflection on population health

An ‘inaugural’ lecture given in the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford, on 18th May 2015,  for my Professorship in Population Health.  For the slides see: here .

In general I think you should never apologise when giving lectures but I am going to start this lecture with three apologies.

Firstly I know that it is conventional to give lots of acknowledgements in an inaugural lecture but I only have two: firstly to the University of Oxford, and in particular Professor Rory Collins, for awarding me this professorship and secondly to the British Heart Foundation for paying my salary for the last 22 years.   There are too many other people I should thank so to avoid missing people out I will stop there.  Sorry.   I will however in the course of this lecture acknowledge some of the people who have affected my thinking about population health.

Secondly I also know that it is conventional to try to be inspirational in an inaugural lecture.   I would like to be inspirational but my trajectory from DPhil student in the Department of Zoology to Professor of Population Health has hardly been ‘conventional’ and I would not advise anyone else to follow my example.  So I am sorry if you’d come to this lecture hoping to hear some tips on how to become a Professor of Population Health.  I do however hope to inspire you to think differently about population health.

Thirdly this lecture is more valedictory than inaugural.  This seems to inevitable given that I have been working in the field of population health for about 30 years and by my reckoning I have less than ten years left.    I have fought against the consequent temptation to be self-referential and even worse self-indulgent but you’ll see that I haven’t been able to resist these temptations completely.   Sorry.

I have chosen as the title for this lecture God, evolution, global warming and heart disease, not because I am an expert on these four things but because all four topics have figured extensively in my intellectual life: much as particular songs or pieces of music provide the sound track of one’s general life.   Incidentally the actual piece of music which has done this most for me is ‘Without You’ by Nilsson.   Don’t’ worry I won’t be playing you a clip: that would just be too self-indulgent.    I guess we all have many pieces of music that provide the sound track to our lives and there are more topics I could have included in this list: foods and diets being an obvious one. 

These four topics of God, evolution, global warming and heart disease do I think have a relationship with population health and the aim of lecture is merely to persuade you that they do.  It is clearly obvious that heart disease is relevant to population health but, of course, less so when it comes to God, evolution and global warming.

[OHP] Here then are four paintings of God, evolution, global warming and heart disease.  Three of these paintings were painted by my friends for me.  Top left is a painting of Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wide at a wedding at Cana which hangs in my office.  It depicts God in the shape of an actual living person – I don’t know his name - who represents Jesus, second from the left.   God has always been an important topic in my life.  So much so that I became an Anglican priest in 2008 as many of you know.  Theologians have much to say about health.

Top right is a painting by Desmond Morris that illustrates the front cover of the first edition of a book called ‘The Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins.  The Selfish Gene was published in 1976 while I was studying for a degree in Zoology here at Oxford and I had some tutorials with Richard Dawkins.  I think the book has been very important in the way we think about many things including health: perhaps even comparable in its influence to Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of the Species’ published in 1860.   I do not think the influence of either book has been good.

Bottom right is a painting entitled ‘Global Warming’.  Since around the mid 1990’s - through meeting an energy scientist called Alwyn McKay who had worked with Nils Bohr in Copenhagen.  I have increasingly come to see that that global warming is a much bigger problem for the human species than anything else including heart disease.   And this has had an influence on my perspective on population health as I’ll briefly explain later

Finally the last painting, bottom left, is entitled ‘Heart Disease’   Heart disease is a topic that I have been concerned with since 1986 when I joined the staff of a non-governmental organisation called the Coronary Prevention Group.    I guess this picture’s does not make for comfortable viewing but it reminds us that heart disease isn’t in the end a comfortable subject – it affects people we know and love including some of us here.  It is an evil that many in this department of population health are seeking to eradicate or at least to ameliorate.  

This picture obviously has both theological and biological references: the three hooded figures represent – at least to my way of thinking - three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse in the book in the Bible called the Revelation to John – and the yellow gunge the cholesterol laden plaque that clogs up coronary arteries thereby causing heart disease. 

Before moving on the relationship between God, evolution, global warming and heart and population health I fell a need to provide you with a definition of population health. Here is my definition: [OHP] 'The science and art of preventing disease and promoting health through the organized efforts of society, organizations, communities, families and individuals'.

For those of you familiar with definitions of population health and what it used to be called - public health - you’ll note that this definition is basically the same as that of Charles-Edward Winslow dating back to the 1920s[i] and also that of the Faculty of Public Health – the standard setting body for specialists in population health in the United Kingdom - although with some modifications of my own.  

An important thing to note about this definition is that it regards population health as both a science and art which suggests that the arts have just as much to contribute to population health as the sciences.   By arts I do mean art, but also literature, myth and history which I’ll come on to later.  The definition also makes it clear that, when it comes to disease, population health is about prevention rather than cure.   This definition also begs the questions of what we mean by disease and health. Here the World Health Organization’s definition of health is, I think, useful. [OHP]t hat is that: ‘Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.’

The word to note here is social.   From this definition it follows that health is not just something individuals might aspire to but also groups or populations i.e. families, organisations – such as this department, communities and indeed societies and from this it can be argued that: [OHP] The health of a population is not just the sum of the health states of the individuals within that population.

Now I know it will sounds odd to some of you to suggest that groups rather than individuals can be healthy or unhealthy, and even odder to suggest that the health of a population is not just the sum of the states of health of the individuals of which it is composed.  But for me these ideas are at the heart – forgive the pun – of population health and distinguishes it from medicine which might be defined as the ‘science and art of treating and alleviating the disease of individuals’.  

Do we have any evidence to suggest that the health of a group is not just the sum of the health states of the individuals within that group?   Well I think we do in the work of various population health scientists and most strikingly in the analyses of Richard Wilkinson and colleagues.    To take just one example: [OHP] Here is a graph of income inequality against infant mortality in rich countries.   Each point represents a country.  The countries with the greatest income inequality such as the US are to the right.  The countries with the least income inequality such as Sweden and Japan are to the left.  It shows that there is a relationship between income inequality and infant mortality with countries having the greatest income inequality experiencing the greatest infant mortality.

Now it is important to note that the X and Y variables on this graph are not the properties of individuals but of societies.  Income inequality can only be measured when you have two people at least, in relationship with one another.   Income inequality can be experienced by an individual but only when another individual is present.   Similarly, but perhaps less obviously, the infant mortality rate of a county can only be measured when there is a group of individuals in which more than one child dies and the same may be said of any disease rate. 

I think the properties of groups and their relationship to health is an important area for future research.   Of course societies are clearly not merely defined by how unequal they are.   But this area of research has been hampered by the notion that there is no such thing as society – as articulated by Margaret Thatcher in a famous interview given to Women’s Own in 1987. [OHP]

She said in this interview: "They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there's no such thing as society.. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours."

Of course population health does not merely aim to describe the healthiness or otherwise of individuals and populations but to do something about what is observed.   In addition it is worth emphasising [OHP] that population health aims to improve the health of groups: societies, communities, organisations, families and not just individuals.  Public health is therefore concerned with both problems and solutions.   Incidentally some of us think that population health research spends much too much time on the problems and not enough on the solutions but I do not have time to go into that issue today.

Turning again to my definition of population health.  Another important couple of words in this definition are ‘organised efforts’.   What are organised efforts?  At this point I can’t resist the temptation to show you my favourite diagramme of the complexity with which population health must deal.  [OHP]  This is a map of the causes and possible solutions of just one population health problem: obesity.  It was produced by the UK Government’s Foresight Programme for the Government Office for Science in 2007.   I say favourite but actually I think it obfuscates rather than enlightens.  To me the solution to the problem of obesity is simple as many of you will know.   My solution is to tax sugary drinks.   Although I acknowledge that this isn’t going to be the only measure necessary.

There is no mention of sugary drinks in this map let alone sugary drinks taxes.  The closest you get to that is ‘the market price of food offerings’ circled here.   Rather strangely you get a whole section of the map devoted to ‘self-esteem’ and ‘psychological ambivalence’ shown here.  There is even a box for ‘genetic and epigenetic predisposition’ shown here.   But how, I ask, does knowing that there is a genetic predisposition to obesity – which there probably is - help generate a solution?

A better way of explaining the organised efforts necessary to prevent obesity and indeed the organised efforts necessary to prevent disease and promote health as a whole is a poem called ‘The Fence or the Ambulance?’ by Joseph Malins written in 1895.  I’ll read it to you.

Twas a dangerous cliff, as they freely confessed,
Though to walk near its crest was so pleasant;
But over its terrible edge there had slipped
A duke and full many a peasant.
So the people said something would have to be done,
But their projects did not at all tally;
Some said, "Put a fence 'round the edge of the cliff,"
Some, "An ambulance down in the valley."

But the cry for the ambulance carried the day,
For it spread through the neighboring city;
A fence may be useful or not, it is true,
But each heart became full of pity
For those who slipped over the dangerous cliff;
And the dwellers in highway and alley
Gave pounds and gave pence, not to put up a fence,
But an ambulance down in the valley.

"For the cliff is all right, if you're careful," they said,
"And, if folks even slip and are dropping,
It isn't the slipping that hurts them so much
As the shock down below when they're stopping."
So day after day, as these mishaps occurred,
Quick forth would those rescuers sally
To pick up the victims who fell off the cliff,
With their ambulance down in the valley.

Then an old sage remarked: "It's a marvel to me
That people give far more attention
To repairing results than to stopping the cause,
When they'd much better aim at prevention.
Let us stop at its source all this mischief," cried he,
"Come, neighbors and friends, let us rally;
If the cliff we will fence, we might almost dispense
With the ambulance down in the valley."

"Oh he's a fanatic," the others rejoined,
"Dispense with the ambulance? Never!
He'd dispense with all charities, too, if he could;
No! No! We'll support them forever.
Aren't we picking up folks just as fast as they fall?
And shall this man dictate to us? Shall he?
Why should people of sense stop to put up a fence,
While the ambulance works in the valley?"

But the sensible few, who are practical too,
Will not bear with such nonsense much longer;
They believe that prevention is better than cure,
And their party will soon be the stronger.
Encourage them then, with your purse, voice, and pen,
And while other philanthropists dally,
They will scorn all pretense, and put up a stout fence
On the cliff that hangs over the valley.

Better guide well the young than reclaim them when old,
For the voice of true wisdom is calling.
"To rescue the fallen is good, but 'tis best
To prevent other people from falling."
Better close up the source of temptation and crime
Than deliver from dungeon or galley;
Better put a strong fence 'round the top of the cliff
Than an ambulance down in the valley.

But to return to my title: what have God, evolution, global warming and heart disease got to do with population health?  I’ll take each in turn.

The easiest of these topics to deal with is heart disease because it is self-evidently a population health problem.  And I am going to take it as read that it can be prevented by improving our diets, increasing our levels of physical activity, smoking less and reducing our consumption of alcohol.

As I said heart disease is an issue that I have been concerned with since 1986 when I joined the staff of the Coronary Prevention Group.  In that year coronary heart disease was responsible for about 180,000 deaths a year in the UK and we could confidently say that coronary heart disease was the UK’s Number 1 killer.   In 2012 coronary heart disease was responsible for 74,000 deaths and now even the British Heart Foundation concedes that cancer is the UK’s Number 1 killer with nearly 166,000 deaths a year.  

Can we explain this success story?  Here are some slides from a paper I contributed to.   It was published in the British Medical Journal in 2012 and the first author was one of my DPhil students – Kate Smolina.  The first slide [OHP] shows this decline in deaths from heart attack – the most acute form of coronary heart disease - between 1999 and 2007.  The blue line shows the decline in deaths from heart disease overall, the green line shows deaths from heart disease in hospital and the red line deaths out of hospital.  So the decline in overall deaths has had nothing to do with improving hospital care.  Your chance of dying from a heart attack if you reach hospital hardly changed over that time.

So what was happening which led to this rapid decline in people dying from heart disease out of hospital.  This slide [OHP] shows that it was two things: the number of actual heart attacks was falling – the event rate as described in this slide - and people were living longer after their heart attacks: case-fatality, as it’s called here, was improving.   So why was event rate declining and case fatality improving?   I still think this question lacks an entirely satisfactory explanation.   My friend Simon Capewell has tackled it but I don’t think he, or anyone else, as yet has given us the full answer.

What we can say is that it wasn't just down to the increasing use of statins and other drugs that reduce your risk of a heart attack.   Here is a slide I have borrowed from Richard Peto [OHP].  It shows the decline in vascular mortally as a whole: i.e. deaths from both heart attacks and strokes for the past 50 years.   And here is the date of the publication of the first major study showing the effectiveness of statins as a drug that reduces your level of blood cholesterol and thereby your risk of vascular disease [OHP].   You can see that this trial was published long after the decline in vascular mortality began.

Oh here [OHP] is the Daily Mail’s explanation of our results published in the British Medical Journal.  For once I think they got it about right but we didn’t actually say this in our paper.  Their headline was – for those who can’t read it – ‘Heart attack deaths halve in eight years due to fewer smokers, better diet and improvements to care.

We have come a long way – in past 30 years - in our understanding of the causes of and remedies for heart disease as illustrated by this bill-board advert from 1994 [OHP] – when I’d just left the Coronary Prevention Group – to start what has become the British Heart Foundation Centre for Non-Communicable Disease Prevention.   The advertising campaign used statistics from a compendium of statistics on heart disease which the Centre had produced for the BHF.  We have continued to produce such a compendium since 1993, but it is inconceivable that the BHF would use the slogan ‘Cross your heart and hope not to die’ nowadays

How we explain things brings me to the next issue in my title: God or rather theology.   But firstly I want to say something about other ologies besides theology and their contribution to population health. 

I think we often suffer from a limited understanding of what counts as an explanation.   Scientific explanations are not the only sort of explanations we need to help us live our lives. A framework for thinking about different types of explanations is provided by the philosopher Ken Wilber in his book ‘A theory of everything’ [OHP].    Wilber divides theories into four types: individual objective, group/objective, group/subjective and individual/subjective.    An easier way of understanding this classification of theories is to show how different disciplines or ‘ologies’ can be classified by this framework [OHP]. 

So physiological theories are archetypical individual/objective theories – aiming objectively to study individual bodies.  Modern day psychological theories are generally of the individual/objective type though in the past they were more subjective [OHP].   Epidemiology is the discipline that is most associated with population health.   It too seeks objectively to study individuals – in particular their health status – but as I have suggested earlier – sometimes seeks objectively to study the health of groups – and indeed in my opinion it should do more of that.   In this it touches upon group/objective theories such as those generated by sociology [OHP].  Sociology is a discipline that seeks to explain – largely objectively (at least almost everywhere except France) the characteristics of groups and in particular societies.

So In the two right hand quadrants we find disciplines that primarily rely on objective knowledge and on empirical data, preferably quantified and ideally from experiments.  In the two left hand quadrants we have disciplines that rely primarily on subjective understanding and on story rather than numbers.

Theology - top left – within which I would include atheistic theologies (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms) as well as theistic theologies – generates the archetypical individual/subjective type of theory.  But there are also theories which can be described as group/subjective theories: such as historical theories – bottom left.  Theology is generally thought of as seeking to explain the individual’s subjective experience of their place in nature, his/her relationships with others including God, etc. but it, like epidemiology should, in my view, be more concerned with the collective experience.

Of course this classification of ologies is hugely simplistic and many of you will object to where I have put your favourite disciplines.

So how does all this relate to the problem of heart disease?  Well firstly different types of theories to explain the problem, in actual fact, seek to address superficially similar but actually very different questions [OHP].  For example in relationship to heart disease, individual objective theories might address the question: Why does he/she have heart disease?  Group objective theories: Why do they (as a group) have heart disease?  Group subjective theories: Why do we (as a group) have heart disease?  And individual subjective theories: Why do I have heart disease?    

[OHP] Physiology tells us how heart disease is a result of cholesterol laden plaque building up in arteries sometimes breaking away to form a clot that blocks a coronary artery bringing oxygen to the heart.  [OHP] Epidemiology gives us some answers to the question of why heart disease is more prevalent in certain groups rather than others (incidentally these are some results – published only the other day – but similar to those I showed you earlier about income inequality and infant mortality).  OHP] History explains how we as a society – such as that of the UK - have become defined by our patterns of consumption – many of which turn out to be bad for us – for example our tendency to over consume high sugar foods, leading to overweight and obesity and in turn to heart disease.   [OHP] Theology seeks to explain why human beings suffer: suffer from diseases such as heart disease.   In Christian theology the reasons for suffering are addressed in the book of Job and in the sayings and stories of Jesus – both his parables and the narrative of his life.  

Different ologies bring different answers to the problem of heart disease but also propose different solutions.  [OHP] Physiology suggests tackling the build up of cholesterol in arterial plaque through dietary change or pharmacological treatment.  [OHP] Epidemiology suggests that policies which affect income distribution may have the additional benefit of reducing overall rates of heart disease.   This is a picture of students celebrating the fact that the University of Oxford has signed up to being a Living Wage employer.   [OHP] History suggests that we need to tackle the over-consumption of particular consumer goods such as sugary drinks through for example increasing their price.  This is a billboard urging people in Berkeley, California to vote for a sugary drinks tax there, which in fact they did.   [OHP] Theology tells us of the importance of eating together and if we do we will lead happier healthier lives (to cut a rather long story short).  

Now these ologies are complementary not competitive in both their analysis of problems and generation of solutions.  This is one reason why the Nuffield Department of Population Health, at the University of Oxford needs more than just epidemiologists, but also psychologists and sociologists (as being researchers in neighboring ologies in my conceptual framework) and dare I say it theologians.

So that was God – or at least theology – what about evolution and global warming?   I don’t have time to give them much attention but I will briefly say something about them.

Firstly evolution or rather evolutionary biology.  I mentioned earlier that particular theory of evolution that was summarised in Richard Dawkin’s book, ‘The Selfish Gene’, published in 1975.  This theory called Neo-Darwinism and its fore-runner Darwinism has, I think, had a profound effect on our thinking in all disciplines not just biology.   The influence of Darwinism on other disciplines including psychology, sociology, economics and of course theology is brilliantly laid out in this book [OHP] entitled Darwin’s Metaphor, by Robert Young, and published in 1985, from which I have taken just one quote, but I could have taken many. 

A particular effect of Neo Darwinism on our ideas, and relevant to my personal perspective on population health, is its influence upon our ideas about the nature of societies and whether they might be described as healthy, irrespective, at least to some degree, of the health of the individuals of which they are composed. 

You’ll remember that Margaret Thatcher said that: ‘There is no such thing as society’.  In, to my mind, an extraordinary interview with Eddie Mayer on Radio 4’s iPM Programme in April 2013, Ian Swingland, now Emeritus Professor in Conservation Biology at the University of Kent says: “Thatcher eschewed the idea of society because of a high table dinner at Magdalen College at Oxford [in March 1978.  [At this dinner] ‘Richard Dawkins convinced her there was no such thing as society just individual.”  Swingland himself had attended this dinner.  Here is a transcript of that interview which you can read at your leisure.  I am looking forward to the second volume of Richard Dawkin’s autobiography to see whether Dawkin’s confirms Swingland’s view.

And secondly global warming.   Now anthropogenic global warming is a problem which is similar to heart disease.   It, like heart disease, threatens our physical, mental and societal well-being.   To be concerned about human health and not about the health of the planet seems increasingly absurd, given that, if the predictions of those who are tracking climate change are correct, human health will, in the future, be profoundly affected by global warming.   

Anthropogenic global warming, like heart disease, can be explained in various ways and will require different types of solution.   But explanations for and solutions to global warming seem extraordinarily similar to those for heart disease: we would reduce our risk of heart disease and save on fossil fuels if ate more plant based foods and less meat and walked and cycled more rather than travelling by car.   Moreover, like population health problems, global warming will only be solved through the organized efforts of society, organizations, communities, families and individuals.

So finally I would like to close with some words of a hymn which I we sung in my church yesterday.   They seems peculiarly apt to what I have been saying.

Spirit of truth arise
Inspire the prophet’s voice
Expose to scorn the tyrant’s lies
And bid the poor rejoice
O Spirit, clear our sight,
All prejudice remove,
And help us to discern the right,
And covet only love.

Give us the tongues to speak
The words of love and grace
To rich and poor, to strong and weak
In every time and place
Enable us to hear
The words that others bring
Interpreting with open ear
The special song they sing

I know I said I would only give two acknowledgements in this lecture but I have a few more.  Thank you all for coming and thank you for listening.  And thank you too to Charlotte Payne for providing some sushi made with edible insects to eat as snacks after this lecture.  I’ll leave you to work out the connections between insect sushi and God, evolution, global warming, heart disease and indeed population health.

[i] Winslow, Charles-Edward Amory (Jan 9, 1920). "The Untilled Fields of Public Health". Science 51 (1306): 23–3. doi:10.1126/science.51.1306.23. PMID 17838891.