Monday, 25 January 2010

Holy Vessels and Broken Pots

A guest post from Annie Heppenstall

This Sunday I heard a sermon which suggested to me that there is a meeting point between Christianity and Islam, in a place where we might least expect. There are conservative evangelical elements within the Church who would I believe like to keep a significant distance between themselves and the teachings of Islam, yet ironically, the focus on personal righteousness or holiness before the Lord in this wing of Christianity bears striking similarities with the practice of personal righteousness which I notice among many Muslims, to the point where it seems difficult to differentiate one from the other. Without wishing to criticise Islam, I feel as a Christian that I want to affirm that there is a difference in emphasis, and it lies as we might expect, in the Gospel message. The difference is important to me, because it defines a reason why I personally choose to be a Christian rather than a Muslim – although the Islamic faith is attractive to me in many other respects.

The visiting preacher at the church I attended took a passage from 2 Timothy 2 as his text – ‘in a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. All who cleanse themselves of the things I have mentioned (arguing needlessly and ‘profane chatter’), will become special utensils (his translation was ‘holy vessels’), dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work. Shun youthful passions and pursue righteousness …’(2 Tim 2:20-26) He poured over the list of things we should do in order to be righteous: avoid senseless arguments, be kindly to everyone … and focussed as his theme on being ‘holy vessels,’ through our efforts to be righteous. This list, he augmented with reference to another list in Ephesians 4: Thieves must give up stealing …put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice…’ Unless we are holy vessels and righteous, so he said, we cannot serve God, we are no use. Towards the end of his sermon he consoled us by saying that should we fail, we can always bring this failure to God and confessing, be forgiven – quite an Islamic way of putting it, he might have quoted the well-known Hadith that God’s mercy outweighs God’s wrath - but nevertheless, the emphasis was very much on striving towards moral spotlessness.

Several things struck me. The first was how similar a message this was to that which I might hear at Friday prayers in a Mosque, or talking to friends from the Islamic faith. There is a passion which I have often witnessed and respect in Islam, to please God and find every opportunity to be righteous in just the ways our preacher described, and similarly, should a Muslim slip up, they are reassured to some extent by that same Hadith that God’s mercy outweighs God’s wrath: Allah is after all the Compassionate and the Merciful One. I see this as something noble about Islam, and frequently feel Muslim friends outdo me on how far their righteousness takes them. I do not feel however that it is a competition, and I have had more than one conversation with distraught Muslim women who are afraid that their goodness is just not good enough in the face of God’s expectations, particularly when faced with a personal dilemma such as whether to divorce an abusive husband or not, or respect a parent’s wishes against their better judgement. In the grey areas between the rules lie fears of hellfire. My response in such situations has been to think through the verses of the Qur’an for words of comfort, seeking the message of mercy and forgiveness which I hear from Christ, and give it not by quoting the Bible, as though superior, but in the language of the other’s faith. I want to do this because I see before me, beautiful, gentle, loving, good sisters, troubled to the depths of their being when to me, they are safe and beloved of God, a ‘truth’ which I feel will bring them healing and strength if only they can believe it. The fact that finding this message in Islam has challenged me so greatly is in part because I do not know the Qur’an well enough, but it is also because the Qur’an, I believe, but am willing to be corrected, does not contain a key concept which keeps me clinging to Christianity – grace. Grace, I feel, is a difference between the Islamic message and the Gospel, and where grace is missing, then to all intents and purposes, we often have something that matches Islamic strains of thought. I understand that there is a strong feeling of God's mercy however, which can to a degree offer a similar hope, when explored.

To return to Sunday’s sermon, I felt that we had entered that very interfaith melting pot which would be, were they to realise, such an anathema to the people who were enjoying it so much: conservative evangelical Christianity speaking the message of Islam. The difference that would have distinguished the two faiths in this instance would have been the inclusion of the gospel message, such as Mark 2:17 etc, 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came to call not the righteous but sinners;' that is, the message of God’s grace. Yet to do so, would have completely changed the flavour of the preacher’s message, possibly even his attitude to life, his practice of faith. Was I looking at and listening to a devout Muslim in all but name? To suggest such a thing I think would have provoked outrage, yet what is the difference? An intellectual ‘owning’ of particular creedal statements? I think he would have gone down a storm at the Mosque, with his message on Sunday.

I am not averse to trying to live a good life, but to me, the essential point about Christian faith is that it allows for the fact that we will always fall short, God knows this, accepts us and makes use of us anyway, inadequate and broken vessels that we are. We might like the look of shiny pots and pans, but in reality most of us have got chips and scratches, as Leonard Cohen says, ‘there is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.’ Surrender to God's grace in prayer, letting God work in us as God sees fit I would suggest, rather than our own efforts to tick righteousness boxes are more the way in which we might hope to become holy vessels and channels of God's love. It is my sense of brokenness, my failings and indebtedness to God’s love, that make me turn to Christ; in turning to Christ I am a new creation, but always one ready to fall over again.
Moving on, and accepting that I am not qualified to criticise Islamic preaching, not being a member of that faith, thinking in terms of Christian preaching, I do have concerns about emphasising personal moral righteousness as a vital badge of belonging to Christianity. As members of this Western society, living as we do on a platform elevated above the rest of the world, built on the exploitation and oppression of the earth and its people and living things according - to a great degree - to the teachings of the false prophet Adam Smith and his devotees, preaching that self is god, not one of us can claim to be righteous, because our whole lifestyle is built on an immoral system which we condone unless we opt out - which few would even contemplate, despite Jesus's example of poverty and simplicity. Try as we might to keep our temper, (just like Jesus?), not eye up attractive people, avoid pilfering pens from the post office counter and never tell naughty jokes, we still add to the world’s carbon footprint, condone wars our government wages in our name, hold poor countries to ransom with unpayable debts and mock the hungry with our over-consumption, buy clothes made in sweat shops, meat from factory farms, garden furniture from rain forests and oil from countries we have bombed; we are smeared with unrighteousness just by co-operating with the status-quo. We cannot therefore be in a position to pretend holiness or righteousness, we cannot preach righteousness, ask others often in more difficult positions than our own to adjust their behaviour, until we take steps to undo this system in which we are all complicit. Yet the beauty is, despite our guilt, which we can and should explore and confess, repent of and try to make amends, despite the ugly truth of our shame, God continues to love us, come to look for us, shower us with good gifts and most importantly in the context of the sermon in question, works through us nevertheless. If God could not work through cracked and unholy vessels, nothing would get done, not a glimmer of God’s kingdom would break through, not here in the West, at least.

In terms of personal righteousness and the constant struggle to be good, I would also suggest, and this might be more controversial but true to my own faith path, that experiencing brokenness and the realisation of our own fallenness is not just an embarrassing blip that we should just try to get over as quickly as possible then hush-up, but something to reflect on, a path to deeper faith and realisation of God's boundless love - the one to whom little is forgiven loves little. Lk 7:47 etc. Failing, becoming lost, is part of a great journey which can ultimately lead to the joy of being found, and discovering the truth that God is a shepherd who comes to look for us, and restores us. It is the narrative of human history as presented in the Bible – we begin as loved creatures full of God’s goodness and love, fall, suffer, but find that God is still with us, bringing us to a point where we can re-enter the Divine embrace. This is reflected very strongly in the Gospels but also in the Old Testament - Psalm 119: final verse, etc. ‘I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek out your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.’

Given my own response to the sermon, I was surprised at the positive reaction of many people around me; their remarks led me to conclude that perhaps many Christians are much closer in their thinking to many Muslims than they would like to admit, and that in fact the hunger is not for Jesus's radical call to non-violent subversion of worldly empire but a set of rules by which to please God - something surely contrary to both Jesus and Paul's monumental work. I wonder if this is true, and whether there were other members of the congregation who had reservations about what they were listening to. It leaves me wondering how widespread is the unacknowledged practice and devotion to forms of Islam within the church, disguised by vehement protestations of faith, and whether this close similarity is somehow a reason for hostility: people just do not see and hear the difference, do not see how the message of Christ undermines this fixation with personal righteousness as a path to God.

I am not suggesting Jesus does not call for righteousness – he is making a greater demand with his law of love than any other law – but his message goes in two directions, and the message we hear depends who we are. First, to the broken, he teaches God’s love, and the fact that failing, there is still hope in God who accepts us unconditionally. To those who consider themselves to be making a good job of being righteous, he warns against pretending to be better than we are: ‘woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside are full of greed and self-indulgence …For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.’ Matt 23:25-28 Personally, I would prefer to be counted among the former group, of the broken, the sinners and the outcasts, because those are the ones Jesus comes to, full of love and compassion. The minute I parade my righteousness, I declare that I do not need him, and I know in my heart that this is not true.

Annie is married to this blogger and lives with him and her son in an Islamically rich area in Birmingham where 'love your neighbour' comes alive for her through interfaith trust and friendship building. She is author of two books, Wild Goose Chase and Reclaiming the Sealskin