Friday, 3 November 2017

Sherlock Holmes And The Institutional Church


Last night I watched the 2015 movie, Mr Holmes. It's a beautiful film which recounts the poignant story of the last years of the life of the world-famous (fictional) detective, Sherlock Holmes. At the age of 93, with his memory failing, he is desperately trying to remember the details of his last case. As the story unfolds, we learn that it was this case which caused him to retire from public life, and withdraw from London to settle in a quiet village on the Sussex coast, where he tends the bees in his apiary.

Eventually, it becomes clear that his handling of that final investigation resulted in the suicide of his client's wife, and he is driven to acknowledge that his intellectual genius is not enough for life. For all his amazing powers of observation and his near miraculous deductive reasoning, he lacks compassion - connection with the humanity of the lives around him.

But it is only when he faces the possible loss of his housekeeper's son - a young boy with whom he has formed a deep bond - that his life finally comes into focus for him and he reaches out to another human soul.

As I reflected on the way the film exposed the incapacity of Holmes' emotional life, I saw a parallel with my experience of the institutional church. Where the detective had his intellect and reasoning, the institution had its cold morality and ceaseless performance. Holmes' raison d'être was solving mysteries in life, but he failed to ever experience the mystery of life. The church's driving passion of compliance and rule-keeping was seen as proof of devotion to God, yet it failed to comprehend the mystical, transformation wrought by the Spirit of God.

Both were concerned with a dispassionate observation of human life - the way things presented to the eye - while maintaining a safe distance from the messy reality of the human heart. Both held at bay any danger of intimate connection or the exposure of their own vulnerability.

And in doing so, both have damaged the lives of those around them - sometimes leading to the death, whether physical or metaphorical, of those lives. For Holmes, the crisis leads to an acknowledgement of his 'sins' and failings. He 'confesses' to his housekeeper:
"There was a woman, once. I knew her less than a day. A quarter of an hour's conversation. She needed my help. She needed so desperately to be understood by someone... Me. So, I laid out the particulars of her case as I saw them... To her satisfaction, I thought. I watched her walk away. And within hours she'd ended her life. By identifying the cause of her despair with such clarity, I'd given her carte blanche to do just as she intended. I should've done whatever it took to save her. Lie to her, make up a story. Take her by the hand and hold her as she wept, and said, "Come live with me. "Let us be alone together." But I was fearful. Selfish. She's the reason I came here to my bees, so that I couldn't harm anyone ever again."
While it was not his intention to harm this woman, his choice to remain detached and dispassionate - to stick to "the facts" - nevertheless contributed to her despair-driven death. Likewise, the church has been culpable in harming countless souls who were offered "the truth" instead of love and connection in the midst of their desperation.

But unlike the church that I have encountered, Holmes does own his failure. He does care that he simply watched this woman walk away to her death. He does acknowledge that his "help" was worthless in the face of her distress. He does, in fact, repent.

The illustrious Sherlock Holmes humbles himself and acknowledges that facts, even when "true", will never meet the very real need for compassion and care in our lives. His eyes are opened to a greater necessity than "the truth" in life, and he allows this understanding to change him. 

In the closing scene, we glimpse his developing relationship with one who he had previously viewed as simply an employee. He has finally started to see the human behind the role; comprehending her capacity to feel and connect, despite the loss and pain she has known. We also witness his homage to the ghosts of his past - people with whom he failed to connect, but whose unacknowledged (and unreciprocated) love and care for him were vital to his well-being. And he finally recognises and honours the worth of their imperfect, irrational love for him.

And as I ponder this transformation in the great detective, I can't help but wonder if the 'church' will ever use a crisis in its own life to such good effect.

Monday, 4 September 2017

What "Intolerance" Can Offer Christians

Here in Australia, as the debate continues to rage over marriage equality, there are many christians loudly and publicly lamenting that they are being subjected to intolerance when they voice their opinions in public arena. It would appear that the tide of public opinion has turned, leaving many christians feeling washed up and alone on the shore.

I understand how painful that can be. Everyone wants to feel free to share sincerely held beliefs without fear of being labelled, shamed or rejected.

Unfortunately, christians are every bit as guilty of this behaviour as anyone else. Affirming christians are being attacked, ridiculed and even having their faith categorically denied by their non-affirming brothers and sisters. LGBTI christians are suffering an even worse offensive, including open and absolute rejection.

Is it unreasonable to expect that those who claim to follow Jesus would have a better way of engaging with opposing views? If we take the name of the one who advocated that we turn the other cheek, and bless our enemies, and even lay down our lives to serve our fellow humans, how can we credibly object and lament simply because our doctrine of sin is no longer accepted or adhered to by the (non-religious) majority?

And how seriously can we expect our complaints to be taken, when we engage in exactly the same behaviour we are so loudly denouncing? How credible do we think we appear, when we "do unto others" the things we are publicly protesting having done to us?

Maybe it's time that christians realised that "the church" no longer holds the position of power in our society it once did. Even more so, that it has squandered any right to expect to be treated as a moral authority by the general population.

It's not comfortable; and it's not pleasant; and it's not what we're used to. But so far, I have not heard of any Aussie christians being beaten senseless, or criminalised, or declared mentally ill, or chemically castrated, or jailed, or murdered for holding an unpopular opinion. And yet for decades, many members of this country's LGBTI community have been subjected to these things simply because they existed.

In light of that, I would suggest that we are facing an important choice. We can continue to complain, and protest, and fight for our rights, and lobby to legislate our morality... or we can choose to see a truly redemptive opportunity for our community in this current climate. Because after living in privilege for so long - experiencing little but power and consensus - we finally have the chance to learn what it means to identify with those who have been marginalised and rejected by society (and the church).

And best of all, despite the well-voiced fears of some, no-one has to "compromise" their convictions, or "water down" their gospel, or "deny" their beliefs. All that is needed is a recognition and acknowledgement of the pain inflicted when people are rejected by their communities and deemed "unacceptable" by their peers; coupled with a willingness to stand with "the least of these" and simply love and serve them.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Truth, Love, And The Australian Plebiscite

Dear Lyle,

As we Australians find ourselves living with the unhappy consequences of the push for a plebiscite, I couldn't help but notice your recent, impassioned plea to "let truth be spoken in love".

It's a really great sentiment, but as I read the letter you addressed to your "friends in the LGBTIQ community" it seemed to me that you might be having some trouble putting that into action.

I'm not sure that anyone has told you this, but creating a long list of the sins of your opponents, and then implying that you are better than they are because you don't act like them, is not really likely to make anyone feel loved.

You see, I know what it's like to have someone tell me about all the wrong, bad, nasty things they think I've done, and then tell me that they love me. It didn't actually make me feel loved. In fact, I didn't believe they loved me at all. (And even if they'd told me that they meant it with all their heart, their protestations of love would have remained meaningless words to me.)

So I thought I might offer you my valuable experience to help you convey your message of love. Please find attached my suggested alternative to your current offering.

Yours sincerely,
An Australian Christian.

To the LGBTIQ community, 
I know I have no right to call you friends, because you have made it clear my sincere attempts to be friendly have completely failed. I am sorry about that, and I want you to know I hope to do better in the future. Would you be willing to forgive me, and help me learn how to really be your friend? 
I know I can't compel you to comply with my way of thinking, but I'm hoping that taking the risk of sharing my heart, and showing my good will by owning my own failings, might help to repair the bridges between us that have been all but destroyed. 
So to begin, there's this ancient collection of books I read quite a lot, called the bible. (I suspect you've heard me mention it once or twice!) I know there's a bunch of other people who read this book too. Like them, I am on a journey of understanding it, but the way I currently understand what this text says is the only way I can at the moment. (Please bear with me, I'm a work in progress, just like you.) 
I know that none of us can claim to have the "correct" interpretation of what it says, but sometimes we forget that. Mostly we do try to hold on to our "truth" with humility and express it with love. (We often fail in that, but we do try.) 
Anyway, my current understanding of this religious text means I am unable to agree that SSM would be good for our society. I know you want me to, but I just can't do it. If I'm being honest, I'd really prefer you saw things the way I do, because I believe that God sees it that way too. But I guess that's not likely to happen, is it? 
So I can only suggest that we try to learn how to disagree without demonising each other. I know I've been guilty of that, but I really do want to change. To prove that to you, I'm going to stop telling everyone that you have a secret agenda to corrupt our children. (I must admit, it's only just occurred to me how much I'd hate it if you went around saying we had a "religious agenda", and acted like we were really trying to pervert your children. Wow! Sorry about that!) 
And I'm sorry that my words and actions have inadvertently sent you the message that you are somehow a lesser human being than me. The bible says that everyone is made in the image of God - so in future, I'll try to do better at seeing the image of my God in you. 
It also seems that I've been so busy talking about protecting children from you and your friends, that I've failed to see how hypocritical I must sound to you. When there is so much awful history in my religion of children suffering unspeakable abuse at the hands of its leaders, my apparent silence on that topic is indefensible. 
I've know I've complained a lot about the really disrespectful behaviour I've been subjected to by people from 'your side' - and implied that you are all the same - but I don't think I've ever acknowledged there has been some incredibly unloving behaviour from our 'side' too. That was wrong of me. I'm sorry. I don't like being judged by the horrible behaviour of some of my supporters, so I promise I'll stop doing that to you, too. 
I can't change what I sincerely believe, and I know you shouldn't have to either. So do you think we can learn how to do this better? I'd really like to try.
Hoping to show more love with my truth in future, Lyle.