Thursday, 31 May 2012

You can't get away from it

The person in this photograph was called John Brown. That's his real name, it's not made up - a slightly less obvious invention than "John Smith". He was a shepherd who lived near Stamford in Lincolnshire in the nineteenth century. Every market day he would ride his pony and trap into town and, in the course of the day meet friends and share a drink with them. He had lots of friends. Come the evening he would climb up onto his trap. The horse would feel the thud as he collapsed onto the seat and take that as its cue to carry John home. Clever horse. One evening the horse felt the usual thud and set off as usual. Sadly, this time John Brown had missed his footing and fell from the trap. The thud the horse felt was John hitting the ground. What injuries he sustained from the fall we do not know. The pony and trap running him over proved fatal. I know the details, as they were recorded in the Stamford Mercury, the local paper (and Britain's oldest newspaper).

The person in this picture was called John Brown. That's his real name, it's not made up - a slightly less obvious invention than "John Smith". He was a shepherd who lived in Perthshire, in Scotland in the eighteenth century. Orphaned by the age of twelve, he had had only one months schooling, and had to take work with an elderly friend of his parents. The local Minister had spotted John's aptitude to learn though. He taught John to read and write Latin. Hearing that the University bookshop at St Andrews had Greek New Testaments, and desiring one, John persuaded a friend to keep an eye on the sheep whilst he walked the twenty-six miles there, bare foot. By all accounts the bookseller did not take kindly to this urchin reading his precious books that were meant for better hands, but was stopped from telling John to leave by the Professor of Greek who came into the shop in the nick of time. The Professor told John that if he could read a page from the Greek New Testament he was holding then he would carry it home with him at the academics expense. Several hours later John was back on duty with his sheep and a new book to read, in Greek. Several years later he could read twelve languages and was himself a Professor of Divinity. He wrote books which remained best sellers right through into the Twentieth century. I know the details, as they were recorded in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (No longer to be available in paper format, by the way. I wonder in sales people will now come to the door touting CD's for your computer instead. It won't look so impressive on the shelf. When a vicar friend was doing his PhD he had a complete set of "The Early Church Fathers" on his study shelves, a lengthy and imposing collection. I pointed out that he could get the whole lot on a CD for a fraction of the price. His response was, "Oh yes, but that wouldn't intimidate the parishioners nearly so much!").

Okay, so two people, sharing the same name and an occupation, but not much else. What do they have in common. Well, the first is my great-great-grandfather, and the second is his great-great-grandfather. Apparently there were a lot of "John Brown"'s in the family, some highly successful in life, others not.

We don't choose who our parents are, but we live with who they are throughout our lives. Not only is our inheritance genetic, it is also social: If they were socially advantaged we benefit from that advantage; if not, likewise. There's been a lot in the news recently about the rapid decline in social mobility; young people growing up today are more likely to remain in the same socio-economic group as their parents than in previous generations. Inheritance seemed to matter a great deal to the Gospel writers too. Both Matthew and Luke recorded (differing) genealogies for Jesus (breaking a few genealogical traditions along the way, but that's for another time), so it clearly mattered who he was descended from.

It all raises the question of how much we are free to be ourselves. If we are constrained by genetics and social inheritance, how much space is left for free will? Certainly, personal freedom is a big issue for many today. But, in what way are we free? Certainly Jesus did not seem to feel constrained by family ties and responsibilities. My apologies the the Mothers Union and others who, rightly, support the existence of the family unit, but this didn't seem a big issue to Jesus. Instead, he spoke of a new family, united by the bond of faith and trust in him. When a bystander declared that his mother was "blessed", his response was, "blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it." (Luke 11:28).

At its best the Christian Church is a place that includes all comers, the great and the ruddy awful, and that liberates them to be all that they can be, not through personal independence but through mutual dependence. Maybe that is why the Church has often been at the forefront of education and political liberation as it seeks to follow its brother Jesus wherever he may call it. Sadly, that same church has too often been the agent of inertia and entrenchment. So how do we know when to move and when to make a stand? Well, may I suggest we look at the kinds of people advocating each option: Those whose faith leads them to community, inclusion and mutual growth, there, I think, Christ's way may be found.

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