Woman sitting on a rock, wearing jeans, facing away, watching the sea. Text: Initiative is not a sin. Even when you're waiting on God. workthegreymatter.com

Initiative is not a sin. Even when you’re waiting on God.

When I was growing up, there was a lot of talk in church about discerning God’s will and waiting for God’s timing. Your career, your finances, your health issues, your love life — nothing was exempt from the Good Christian’s responsibility to talk to God and hear what he had to say.

And if he didn’t answer, we had to examine ourselves — because maybe he had answered and we weren’t listening? Maybe we just didn’t like what God was saying?

Maybe we were the problem.

As I sit down and reflect back over the last 20 or so years of my life, I’m beginning to see how this has been problematic for me. On several levels.

Continue reading Initiative is not a sin. Even when you’re waiting on God.
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I wrote a one act stage-play based on the biblical book of Esther – wanna read it?

I’m not sure who exactly out there might be looking for a theatre play about the book of Esther, but if you are and you’re reading this, please do get in touch in with me. Because I’ve written one and I’d love for it to be performed. It’s titled: I Will Hide My Name.

Short synopsis:

For people who don’t know the book of Esther: Haman, the highest official in Ancient Persia, interviews a Jewish prisoner, who appeals to him to spare her life and that of her people. But why is this prisoner wearing the robes of royalty? And does Haman even realise?

For people who already know the book of Esther: Before approaching the king, Esther appeals Haman to revoke his decree to annihilate her people. He scorns her petitions for peace and only too late does he realise she’s the queen. Continue reading I wrote a one act stage-play based on the biblical book of Esther – wanna read it?

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“Why are you still a Christian? What keeps you in faith?” My answer when a friend asked me these questions

A friend recently asked me why I’m still a Christian. She asked because she was having trouble holding onto her faith, especially with Christian politics in the USA being what they currently are.

This is my answer to her. I don’t know if it will help other people, but it’s my story. Grab a cuppa, or bookmark this page, this post is about 3,000 words long. Continue reading “Why are you still a Christian? What keeps you in faith?” My answer when a friend asked me these questions

Woman bearing a rucksack standing on crest of a hill overlooking a misty sea with hills in the distance, over the top are the words: Wait, what if Rizpah's one-woman protest against King David shaped the laws of Deuteronomy?

Wait, what if Rizpah’s protest against King David shaped the laws of Deuteronomy?

I was recently listening to a compelling sermon by Austin Channing Brown, that was all about Rizpah. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, she’s a woman in the Old Testament who undertook a months-long one-woman silent protest. Her actions eventually persuaded King David to bring an end to something which he had commanded. (If you want to hear the sermon, it’s on episode 2 of the Evolving Faith Podcast.)

Brown’s sermon focussed on speaking truth to power and she applied Rizpah’s story to racial justice today. But as I sat and thought through Rizpah’s actions, I realised they may have been much more far-reaching, even in her own time, than just changing David’s actions.

And while I’m yet to visit the library and validate my suspicions here, I’m now willing to bet that Rizpah’s protest changed the law.

Twice.

Allow me to explain.

And CONTENT WARNING this gets a bit gory. Continue reading Wait, what if Rizpah’s protest against King David shaped the laws of Deuteronomy?

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Actually, sometimes it’s right to say ‘love your neighbour’ more often than ‘love God’

OK, so I know that deconstructing bad tweets on Christian Twitter is often a soul-destroying sport, but hey – this one overlapped with the subject matter of a book I’ve just started reading, so…

The tweet was this:

“The most pervasive — and pernicious — false teaching of our day is that “love your neighbor” is the greatest commandment in the law.”

It was written by a Southern Baptist pastor in the US who later doubled-down with a looooonnnng thread about the law and what Jesus meant when he talked about the two greatest commandments. (For those less familiar: these two commandments are (1) to love God and (2) to love your neighbour.)

If you’re wondering why I’ve given no direct links, that’s because a couple of weeks later he followed up with another tweet (which I didn’t see but was screencapped) about the Old Testament law and slavery. When that thread blew up he deleted his entire timeline. He then said people should be able to ask questions and acknowledged that his thread had caused hurt, but did little more.

Sigh.

I’m not interested trolling a particular person, but I do care deeply about how Christians understand the Old Testament and apply it in their everyday lives. Because that application – for good or for bad – can have far-reaching consequences.

OK, let’s talk about this. Continue reading Actually, sometimes it’s right to say ‘love your neighbour’ more often than ‘love God’

Vertical extract of the Hebrew text of the book of Ezekiel chapter 18, in a wider dark red background. Over the background are the words: White Christians: don't quote Ezekiel to duck out of past and present racism. workthegreymatter.com

White Christians: don’t quote Ezekiel to duck responsibility for past and present racism

So, I saw someone asking why white Christians were repenting of the sins their ancestors committed against people of colour.

And I want to write about this.

Caveats: I’m mainly going to talk to how I understand the Old Testament, because the Old Testament was being quoted and it’s something I’m familiar with as a Christian. But just because I’m taking this angle, that doesn’t mean it’s the most relevant or comprehensive angle; I just want to demonstrate how this particular argument doesn’t stack up.

In short, the argument was this: if we’re all responsible for what we do ourselves, not what other people do, then white people shouldn’t have to apologise for the racism of other white people. See, for example, the principle of individual responsibility promoted in Ezekiel 18:19-20.

However, I think this fails to appreciate the context of Ezekiel and the attitudes the book was responding to.

So let’s dive in.

Content warning, this gets political and I mention an Old Testament clobber passage. Also, I don’t have space here to get into why bad things happen and people suffer; Ezekiel clearly had a concept of divine retribution and I’m going to roll with that worldview for now, because it was also implicit in the Tweet I read. Continue reading White Christians: don’t quote Ezekiel to duck responsibility for past and present racism

Picture of a woman with long hair from behind as she stands in a street of an old city. Text over the top: Five things worth knowing about the woman in the city who 'did not cry out'. On Deuteronomy 22:23-24 (& 25-27) workthegreymatter.com

Five things worth knowing about the woman in the city who ‘did not cry out’. On Deuteronomy 22:23-24 (and 25-27)

CONTENT WARNING for rape myths.

Deuteronomy 22:23-24 has too often been used as a biblical precedent for one of the worst rape myths.

When read a certain way, it suggests that when a man succeeds in raping a woman, she shares equally in his culpability because she didn’t scream sufficiently. Even less extreme interpretations hold that women should scream if they’re raped, and if they don’t, they bear at least some guilt.

Both ideas are monumentally false — as anyone who knows anything about consent and freeze responses will tell you.

But if that’s the case, what does a Bible-positive Christian make of these verses? Is it possible to interpret them as anything other than a toxic product of ancient patriarchal misogyny? Well, I believe it is.

I’m going to be very good and limit myself to 200 words in each of the seven sections of this post (the intro, five things, plus interlude) so forgive me if I don’t deep dive the detail. I’m leveraging the scholarship of Carolyn Pressler, Cynthia Edenberg, Alexander Rofé and, by no means least, Sara Milstein. Details at the bottom of the post.

Right, let’s do this.

Continue reading Five things worth knowing about the woman in the city who ‘did not cry out’. On Deuteronomy 22:23-24 (and 25-27)
Picture of a Bible open at 1 Corinthians 15 with hand highlighted sections, with the words on top: 1 Corinthians 15 for beginners: Part 4: Transforming the perishable so as to inherit the imperishable(1 Cor 15:44-58) workthegreymatter.com

1 Corinthians 15 for beginners: Part 4: transforming the perishable so as to inherit the imperishable (1 Cor 15:44-58)

Welcome to the final part of my four-part series sweeping through 1 Corinthians 15 on the subject of resurrection. You can read part one here, part two here and part three here.

In verses 1-11 Paul established that Jesus rose from the dead — an event in the historical past. In verses 12-23 Paul explained that Jesus resurrected before everyone else because he was a ‘first-fruit’ and that everyone else will follow, collectively, in the future. In verses 30-34 Paul acknowledged that his ministry looked like a failure if you just considered success in present terms, but still he works to anticipate future resurrection in the here and now. Then, in verses 35-43 Paul turned his attention to how the glory of the future resurrection body is better than the glory of our current bodies.

My last post ended with a series of contrasts that Paul drew between our current and future bodies, likening the former to a seed in the ground and the latter to a plant. We’ll pick up things up there. Continue reading 1 Corinthians 15 for beginners: Part 4: transforming the perishable so as to inherit the imperishable (1 Cor 15:44-58)

Picture of a Bible open at 1 Corinthians 15 with hand highlighted sections, with the words on top: 1 Corinthians 15 for beginners: Part 3: Resurrection is about the body - but what does that mean? (1 Cor 15:35-43) workthegreymatter.com

1 Corinthians 15 for beginners: Part 3: resurrection is about the body – but what does that actually mean? (1 Cor 15:35-43)

Welcome to part three of my four-part series sweeping through 1 Corinthians 15 on the subject of resurrection. You can read part one here and part two here.

In verses 1-11 Paul established that Jesus rose from the dead — an event in the historical past. In verses 12-23 Paul explained that Jesus resurrected before everyone else because he was a ‘first-fruit’ and that everyone else will follow, collectively, in the future. Then in verses 30-34 Paul acknowledged that his ministry looked like a failure if you just considered success in present terms, but still he works to anticipate future resurrection in the here and now.

Now Paul turns his attention to the nature of the future resurrection body. Continue reading 1 Corinthians 15 for beginners: Part 3: resurrection is about the body – but what does that actually mean? (1 Cor 15:35-43)

Picture of a Bible open at 1 Corinthians 15 with hand highlighted sections, with the words on top: 1 Corinthians 15 for beginners: Part 2: resurrection as both a present and future event (1 Cor 15:12-34) workthegreymatter.com

1 Corinthians 15 for beginners: Part 2: resurrection as both a present and future event (1 Cor 15:12-34)

Welcome to part two of my four-part series sweeping through 1 Corinthians 15 on the subject of resurrection. You can read part one here.

In verses 1-11 Paul established that Jesus rose from the dead — an event in the historical past. In the next few verses he shifts his focus to consider the future.

Someone in Corinth had been saying that there is no ‘resurrection of the dead.’

We have to appreciate that resurrection is not a Christian idea, but was already established in Jewish thought before the time of Jesus and roundly dismissed and mocked by ancient Greek culture. ‘The resurrection of the dead’ was understood to be a collective future event when everyone will be raised up. First century Jews weren’t expecting any one person to be raised in advance of the rest so, perhaps unsurprisingly, the idea that Jesus rose from the dead threw a bit of a spanner in the works: it was a past event concerning one person. Maybe that was why some people at the church in Corinth were beginning to pour cold water on the idea of future resurrection.

In any case, Paul wanted to explain how everything fitted together. Continue reading 1 Corinthians 15 for beginners: Part 2: resurrection as both a present and future event (1 Cor 15:12-34)

Picture of a Bible open at 1 Corinthians 15 with hand highlighted sections, with the words on top: 1 Corinthians 15 for beginners: Part 1: the legal case for Jesus's resurrection from the dead (1 Cor 15:1-11) workthegreymatter.com

1 Corinthians 15 for beginners: Part 1: the legal case for Jesus’s resurrection from the dead (1 Cor 15:1-11)

1 Corinthians 15 is one of those chapters you literally have to read verse by verse. Then you read each verse again about 4 times to get it.
– Sierra White

Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, chapter 15, is one of the greatest chapters of the New Testament and it’s all about resurrection. At 58 verses, it is, in itself, a modestly sized sermon when you hear it preached on today, it is often tackled in very small chunks. And you can see why — there’s a lot to unpack.

But what I’m going to do in this post and the next three, is sweep through the entire chapter. Albeit, without reading every verse four times! The aim here isn’t to say everything that’s worth saying or to deconstruct every warped interpretation you might have heard. Rather, it’s to give a light touch explanation of how this how symphony fits together.

Much of what I’ll be sharing comes from three particular books that I’ve read over the last few years:

  • Living Hope, by Russell Hebert, published by Epworth and then by Kevin Mayhew. The book discusses the theology of Jürgen Moltmann in the context of palliative care.
  • The second book is Surprised by Hope, by Tom Wright, published by SPCK.
  • The third book is Body: Biblical Spirituality for the Whole Person, by Paula Gooder, published by SPCK.

So there is going to be a lot in this series on hope, resurrection and the body. That said, I’m not doing this because I want to give you an academic lecture. I’m doing this because I believe hope is for everyone, resurrection is for everyone and, having a body and being part of the body of Christ is for everyone. I learnt about those three things, from these books. It is my hope and prayer that the understanding I received will dwell richly within you and work transformation in your lives, as much as it has done in mine over the last few years – if not more so.

So, let’s start by looking at verses 1-8. Continue reading 1 Corinthians 15 for beginners: Part 1: the legal case for Jesus’s resurrection from the dead (1 Cor 15:1-11)

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Resurrection is the vindication of the body – and the only complete answer to rape culture

Content note: I debated whether I should categorise this post as ‘sunlight’ or ‘moonlight’. On the one hand, its message is unashamedly positive and it speaks about the core of Christian hope — resurrection. On the other hand, it also talks about an extremely violent event that resulted in a woman’s death. I’ve decided to go with ‘sunlight’ on the grounds because this is ‘hope worth sharing’ and, to the extent that I talk about suffering, I do in the same way as I would talk about Jesus’s passion on the cross.

However, please be advised that I describe in broad terms what happened, and I allude to some of the horrific details, though more specific discussion has warnings telling the reader when they may want to skip ahead.

***

A few years ago I watched a documentary called India’s Daughter (now available to rent or buy on YouTube). It was about Jyoti Singh, a 23 year-old Indian medical student who said that to be a doctor was the highest calling you could have in life.

If you’ve heard of her, you may know her as ‘Nirbhaya’, which means ‘fearless’. Or you may only know of her as the victim of the 2012 Delhi bus rape and murder.

The documentary I saw was powerful and hard-hitting, laying out the horror of both the assault and the ideologies that made it possible.

But when I came away there was one thing I was convinced of more than anything else: hers is a story that will end in resurrection.

Today I want to explain a little about why I believe that, and why the vindication of the body is such an important message for rape survivors everywhere. Continue reading Resurrection is the vindication of the body – and the only complete answer to rape culture

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Five things I’d explain to a teenage girl if she asked about Deuteronomy 22:13-21 (assuming she has the courage to)

This would be that law about the young bride who’s already lost her virginity.

Actually it’s not, but I’ll get to that later.

I promised myself I’d keep this post under 1,200 words: 200 for each thing to say, plus intro. So if you want detailed backup for what I’m saying here, check out the links and references for further reading. I’m drawing mainly on the work of Aaron Koller, Carolyn Pressler, Joseph Fleishman and, not least, Emily Nagoski.

I’m writing this post because in the Western evangelical church, Christians of all ages are encouraged to read the Bible, although there are some pretty puzzling things in it. And whilst it’s pretty standard to say “Jesus won’t mind if you ignore that bit,” if you’re talking to a teenage girl who’s anything like me, those arguments won’t wash. (Admittedly though, I’m pretty weird.)

I grant you, even if she’s grown up with purity culture, Deuteronomy 22 probably didn’t feature much in conversation. But it’s still likely she’ll completely misread the passage (as I did) if she reads it from a purity culture mindset.

So, here are five things to explain. Take it slowly and gently.

13 “If any man takes a wife, and goes in to her, and detests her, 14 and charges her with shameful conduct, and brings a bad name on her, and says, ‘I took this woman, and when I came to her I found she was not a virgin,’ 15 then the father and mother of the young woman shall take and bring out the evidence of the young woman’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate. 16 And the young woman’s father shall say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter to this man as wife, and he detests her. 17 Now he has charged her with shameful conduct, saying, “I found your daughter was not a virgin,” and yet these are the evidences of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city. 18 Then the elders of that city shall take that man and punish him; 19 and they shall fine him one hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name on a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife; he cannot divorce her all his days.

20 “But if the thing is true, and evidences of virginity are not found for the young woman, 21 then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done a disgraceful thing in Israel, to play the harlot in her father’s house. So you shall put away the evil from among you. (NKJV)

Continue reading Five things I’d explain to a teenage girl if she asked about Deuteronomy 22:13-21 (assuming she has the courage to)
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Potatoes and scandalzzz: what to make of Rachel Jankovic’s relentless book promotion?

Making a financial success of a new book is not an easy business in the age of the internet, especially if you’re writing for a niche market through a small publisher. So I can understand the desire to market your work wherever and whenever you can, milking the social media machine for all its promotional worth.

That being the case, I’m not really against Canon Press making short videos of Rachel Jankovic espousing her gospel of obedience whilst she peels potatoes and answers her scandalizzzed critics. Hey, if I had a new book to promote, I’d love that kind of support from my publisher.

But what should we be making of these videos? How should we react when she derides Beth Moore and the “encroaching feminism” that dares to suggest women can and should preach in the pulpit? Should we be angry, frustrated? Should we watch or boycott? Should we analyse or parody?

Ultimately it’s for each of us to answer those questions for ourselves. In this post though, I’ll tell you what my answers are, and why in the hope that they’ll help stimulate you in your analytical thinking. Continue reading Potatoes and scandalzzz: what to make of Rachel Jankovic’s relentless book promotion?

Isaiah 58:1-9a (remix) – a call to Christians who campaign

Like many of the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah spoke about injustice, calling the people of Israel and Judah to account for their actions and appealing to them to change their ways. And I know it’s a cliché but: many of his words, written hundreds of years ago, are deeply resonant today. Things like ending oppression and showing hospitality to the poor.

The thing is though, many Christians reading this passage would frame themselves as being in Isaiah’s shoes; they would use his words to call non-Christians and other parts of the church to account. Yet there comes a point when you can’t escape the fact that at least some Christians are wrong to claim the moral high ground. At least some Christians must be campaigning for causes which aren’t actually just.

So as I thought about this passage over the last couple of weeks, I began to move away from framing it in terms of “Don’t oppress the poor” (which is good advice any day of the week). Instead, I thought of it in terms of “Don’t engage in wasteful campaigns.” 

And this is a message that speaks to all sides of the political divide. Because the problem is not just campaigns with an unjust purpose; it’s also campaigns that have good intentions but which (a) are ineffectual, (b) use dubious methods, and/or (c) are unnecessarily divisive.

So, with that in mind, I wrote an alternative ‘remix’ version of these verses to raise a contemporary challenge to the church. I want to get us thinking about the methods we use in our activism, and what it is that produces lasting and fruitful results.

I hope the words speak to you. Maybe they’ll encourage you or challenge you in your own practices; maybe they’ll help you understand and articulate something (whether good or bad) about someone else’s practices.

Something I’ve come to understand, is that the Holy Spirit never inflicts shame. These words aren’t here to pressurise you or make you compromise necessary boundaries; so if they jar, maybe they were written more for someone else. But if they nudge your awareness and challenge you to think differently, maybe it’s worth letting the words sink in.

Oh, and one last thing: Isaiah is one of the ‘major’ Old Testament prophets, because the book written in his name is one of the longest books of prophecy. In chapter 6, there’s an account of Isaiah’s calling; he saw heaven open and God asking who he would send to give a message to Judah. Isaiah’s response was “Here I am! Send me!”

Yeah, so, keep that in mind.


Isaiah 58:1-9a (remix)

Speak up, and don’t sanitise what you have to say
Tell my church where they’re going wrong,
Tell those who call themselves Christ-followers,
where they’re going their own way.

They come into churches and small groups each week
Like a congregation that searches
For my kingdom and its righteousness.
They ask me to intervene in response to their prayers,
Claiming their faith is truly spiritual.

“Why have we donated to good causes,” they say
“And you haven’t noticed it?”
“Why have we protested and stood out from the crowd,
Yet you don’t seem to care?”

OK, listen: on the day you preach and campaign,
You do it just so you can say you did something.
You don’t even stop to consider
Whether your methods are even ethical.

The truth is, your activism is an excuse
To express disgust and be argumentative,
To wash your conscience on the moral high ground.
You cannot act like this if you want
My Spirit to breathe through you.

Is this the righteousness that I want?
To pick out ideal victims and idealised causes
And put your words on repeat inside an echo chamber?
Is it to protest that you’re being persecuted
When people challenge the accuracy of what you say
And the helpfulness of how you say it?

I delight in activism that lifts the voices of those
Who have been falsely discredited or sidelined;
I desire activism that makes it easier, not harder,
For professionals to improve the structures
Of the organisations they are already working in;
I take pleasure in careful sifting through the evidence,
To provide an approachable answer for misunderstandings
and to silence the myths and the lies.

Share your energy with those
who are hungry for encouragement;
Include lesser known causes within your sphere —
Yes, those that lack political glamour;
And muster the courage
for tempered and slow conversations —
Even with your family members who don’t feel like family.

Then Christ’s light will shine on you
And through you,
And your divisions will heal.
Your reputation for compassion and justice
Will precede you,
And the LORD’s revealing wisdom will watch your back.

Then, when you pray, I will answer.
When you call to me, I will be the one who says,
“Here I am.”


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