Tag Archives: Bible

Chastity – what’s your definition?

So what is your definition of chastity? For me the clue lies in these two short passages of Matthew’s Gospel chapter 6:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…..but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven….For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (verses 19 – 21)
“No one can serve two masters…..You cannot serve God and wealth.” (verse 24)

“But,” I hear you say, “they are not talking about sex!” That is because I get my definition of chastity from the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (executed by the Nazis for his part in the plot to assassinate Hitler). For him chastity is the total orientation of my life towards a goal. And the goal? You might call it the single heart. Stanza 18 of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, puts it with heart wrenching drama. In December 1875, as the Deutschland founders in a storm off the Kent coast and the sea swamps the ship, one of the passengers, a nun, calls out ‘O Christ, Christ come quickly!’ Hopkins writes:
“Sister, a sister calling
A master, her master and mine! –
And the inboard seas run swirling and hawling;
The rash smart sloggering brine
Blinds her; but she that weather sees one thing, one:
Has one fetch in her: she rears herself to divine
Ears…….”
Here is the single heart – “Has one fetch in her: she rears herself to divine ears”
Later, in stanza 29, Hopkins combines the single heart and the single eye
“Ah! There was a heart right!
There was a single eye!”
Perhaps he had in mind the three short sayings I have been focussing on in these last two blog posts.

BUT – aren’t jihadists in Iraq and Syria also single-minded – even to the point of martyrdom?! Weren’t Christians single-minded in the medieval crusades to liberate Jerusalem and the ‘Holy Land’ from ‘infidel’ Muslims? Do we not have to admit that religions of all kinds can get it seriously wrong? How do we distinguish? How do we discern the true from the false? By their fruits, says Jesus. We don’t gather figs from thistles, he adds. Brother Roger of Taize said, “Nothing is more important than the loss of love”. You might say that the whole of these three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel could be summed up in those words from the Prior of the Taize Community.

Not one of us acts alone. We are all part of a wider community. To quote John Donne, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” We can all get swept up by a communal tide of unexamined assumptions, fears, anger and hopes. They can blind the healthy eye, create division in the single heart. To help counteract this blindness (especially in the religious person) there are three checks and balances within the Christian tradition. One of them is just that – tradition; the tradition of thinking and spiritual practice that has mapped out down the centuries the dangerous byways that religious zealotry can tread. The second is scripture: for Christians, the Bible. The third is reason: just plain old rational thought. These three, interacting with each other, no one of them dominating the remaining two, can provide a supporting framework within which my heartfelt desire to live a life of chastity can find proper expression, and that includes my fifty five years of marriage!

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Mark’s Gospel – interlude

I am a broken man who happens to be a bishop.

One of those present at a gathering I attended last weekend uttered those startling words. Somehow I knew that the speaker knew this was not the ultimate truth about himself. I was reminded of the  story of the Pharisee and the tax gatherer who went to the Temple to pray (Luke 18:10). One boasts of his spiritual and moral practices. The other sees himself as a sinner in need of forgiveness. Jesus reminds his hearers that it’s the second person who is closer to  God.

Christianity and especially the institutional expression of it we call the church frequently gets a bad press. I suspect this is usually because too many of us too often forget what the bishop remembered last weekend. We are all broken people, just like the rest of humanity. And yet – and yet – as I hinted, the bishop spoke his words with an authenticity that suggested he understood an even deeper truth about himself. The church can also get a bad press when its members never get beyond the knowledge that they need forgiveness. Wallowing in the ‘miserable sinner’ syndrome is missing or misunderstanding the good news that Jesus proclaimed, almost as much as boasting about our spiritual prowess.

Now here’s the thing: there never was a golden past in the history of Christianity, apart, that is, from the life, teaching and death of Jesus of Nazareth himself. It was always, from the beginning a history of broken people. I am not one of those who believes that the Bible is the inspired ‘Word of God’ – in the sense that inspiration somehow overrode the ‘brokenness’ of its authors.

Jesus never wrote anything down – so far as we know. If he did, it didn’t survive. What happened around him was an outburst of spiritual energy that has transformed world history, in ways both good, not so good, and just plain bad. From his life, teaching and death has flowed a river that millions of people are part of now.

Things happened because of the energy of this river of life.  Some of them altered the course of the river’s flow – Paul’s letters, the Gospels and other bits of the New Testament (all written by broken people); the emergence of an ordained ministry, priests, bishops, Popes (more broken people, as the current Pope would, I am sure, acknowledge). Every now and then there’s a major upheaval as the river gets forced into a canyon, becomes turbulent, even falls over a cliff; the split between eastern and western forms of the church, for example and the Reformation. Most of these crises happened because broken people either forgot their brokenness or forgot the deeper truth about themselves.

The waters have been getting pretty choppy again over the last 150 years or so as the Bible is subjected to scholarly criticism and scientists begin to describe a universe that profoundly challenges the way we think about God, the world we inhabit and the people we share it with. Think of gay people, the ordination of women, abortion, contraception, the misuse of our home planet, poverty and plenty.

So when, in my next blog post, I return to Mark’s Gospel, please remember that I start from the assumption that I’m reading something written by a ‘broken’ human being who nevertheless was profoundly inspired by all that Jesus of Nazareth had said and done, especially his message of forgiveness and love. Like the bishop, Mark and his fellow New Testament authors could write with an authenticity springing from a deeper place within them