I’m only human

by Elaine & Stephen Lindridge.

The haunting (and frustratingly memorable) song “Human” by Rag’n’Bone Man has been spinning around my head for weeks now. Take a moment to watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3wKzyIN1yk

The song’s statements and questions seem to echo a sentiment that is very much prevalent in today’s world. Rory Graham (AKA Rag’n’Bone Man) laments the human condition and his inability as a flawed person to satisfy everyone’s needs.

Some people think I can solve them
Lord heavens above
I’m only human after all, I’m only human after all
Don’t put the blame on me

 The song talks of being asked questions that no one is qualified to answer, hence the line:

I’m no prophet or messiah
Should go looking somewhere higher

Running through the song is the regularly repeated answer:

I’m only human after all
I’m only human after all
Don’t put the blame on me

Without doubt we are flawed, we have our failings and limitations. This blog in no way disputes that. But how often have we heard the reply “I’m only human” in response to a mistake or failure? Using our humanity as an excuse for our inadequacies, limitations, and sometimes our downright rebellion to The Way. I wonder if the explanation that our humanity is that which restricts us from reaching our full potential is simply an excuse? A self-justifying apology?

The greatest ever example of a human life lived well and to potential is obviously the life of Jesus Christ. So what did Jesus do with his humanity? As Philippians 2:1-11 reminds us, Jesus was fully human, yet still able to be “obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”

When faced with the opportunity to feed more than 5000, his response was not, “I’m only human.”  Nor was “I’m only human” his response to Jairus’ Daughter, the man with the withered hand, the blind, the deaf or the ten lepers. When Jesus saw the needs of those treated unjustly, the poor and marginalised, not once did he turn his head and mutter the excuse “I’m only human.”

As we look at the life of Jesus Christ it begs the question, “If Jesus was fully human, should he not then be the divine example of all that we as human beings aspire to be and do?” Not in some abstract way, nor in a word for word, act for act mimicry. But rather in the wholeness of a life well lived, without excuse, pushing limitations and barriers that would restrict.

It is easy to see the flaws in humanity whilst forgetting that God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them…and it was very good. (Genesis 1:27-32)

As beings made in the image of God, sharing our humanity with Jesus, we have the potential therefore to follow the profound example of what humanity can and should be in the life of Jesus.

Therefore as followers of Jesus, could the refrain “I’m only human” become an aspirational statement rather than an excuse? Or perhaps even more so, can we look at great human acts and relish the acknowledgement of what humanity can achieve? Remembering always that the achievements are only because of the gift of Godself in the creation of humanity.

Thus turning the catchphrase from negative to positive. From “only” human to “being” human. To the woman who campaigns against unjust benefit sanctions we say “she’s being human.” To the artist who paints a picture that stirs the deepest of unknown emotions we say “he’s being human.” To the busy pastor whose very being creates the safe environment to bare ones soul we say “he’s being human.” To the friend who continues to put one foot after another when the journey of life is splattered with crisis after crisis we say, “look at her, she’s being human.” Seeing the God-given gift of humanity within the positive spotlight of  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Never boasting in our humanity with a pride in our own abilities or accomplishments, but with an acknowledgement of the gift we have been given. Offering our deepest gratitude to the one who became fully human and was tested in every way (Hebrews 4:15) yet lived an exemplary life.

The irony of the name of the artist should not escape us. In days gone by the rag’n’bone man would collect that which was discarded and deemed of no value and take it to be recycled. The redemptive act of God takes us, even if the world, or ourselves would view us as worthless, and makes all things new.  Perhaps the Rag’n’Bone Man should have the final words….but let’s read them with hope…

Take a look in the mirror
And what do you see
Do you see it clearer?
In what you believe
‘Cause I’m only human after all
You’re only human after all

Keeping the Feast

by Sandra Brower.

My most memorable Easter was when I was a postgrad student in London. A group of us raised as Evangelicals but keen to mine the richness of other traditions – as only postmoderns can do – joined the throngs of the faithful who gathered for the Easter vigil at The Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Ennismore Gardens, central London. Enduring lengthy Protestant sermons is a cakewalk compared to hours of standing, listening to unending readings in characteristic Orthodox monotone. As the hours passed, so did the light, until we were in darkness; even the priests – dressed in black – were difficult to see. At this point, weary and weak-kneed, those of us who arrived early enough for a place inside were led outside. There, we each lit our white candles; the hundreds of individual small flames made a collective blaze of light. The priests, who had done a quick back-room change, joined us and – in dazzling robes of white and gold – led the procession back into the church. As we entered, the darkness was, literally, turned into light.

The Orthodox know how to worship in a way that involves the whole body and its senses. Amy Frykholm, in her essay ‘Fasting Toward Home’, speaks about her experience visiting Orthodox churches as an exchange student in Russia: ‘I observed a sensuality of worship: smells, sights, sounds, beautiful colors and sensations, as if the whole self were being invited into delight. I had always thought that the truest worship happened deep inside the self, a place best reached, perhaps, by shutting down the senses. This other, fully participatory worship was strange to me, and my body did not know how to respond.’[1] Our Protestant bodies were not accustomed to feasting at 3:00am, but – eager to engage to the end – we returned, like the faithful, to our small flat to break bread and eat many other sumptuous delights together.

I’m a confessed foodie, and over the past few years I’ve been mulling over the difference between the rhythms of the sacred and secular year. Food magazines have a rhythm to their contents; January editions predictably give us recipes to accompany the gym memberships that escalate after the gluttony of Christmastide. The rhythm is to feast and then fast, essentially to binge and then diet. The sacred rhythm, in contrast, is to fast and then feast.

Feasting is a good thing. As is the act of breaking the fast. Far from a sin (as opposed to Slimming World’s ‘syns’ – short for ‘synergy’ – naughty foods you can only have in strict limitation), breaking fast is intrinsic to celebration. Feasting together in the wee hours of Easter morning, my friends and I were recognising in a bodily way that, without God, we have nothing. One of my theological conversation partners captured it insightfully when he said that ‘the [secular] approach to life is a recipe for disappointment and regret, whereas the [sacred] engenders anticipation and thanks.’

Since I first discovered there was something called the season of Lent, I’ve attempted to keep some sort of fast throughout it. Sometimes I’m more stringent than others, yet I’m conscious that my ‘fasts’ are no real hardship. Truth be told, I approach them as my annual chance to watch what I eat, more for the sake of my figure than my soul. Perhaps that’s my Protestant baggage – an insidious (and subtly Gnostic) tendency to separate things that were always meant to be together. The creature at the outset of the Genesis story is a hungry being, and one who understands that food – along with the whole of creation – is given by God. Alexander Schmemann, in his delightful book, For the Life of the World, represents the Orthodox sacramental view of the world in his argument that food – like all creation – is given as communion with God.[2]

This year, my family is celebrating Easter in the sun-baked hills north of Malaga. As I write, I am surrounded by God’s beautiful creation. The vista is stunning, the flowers exquisite, the smell of the citrus blossoms intoxicating, the sound of the bees sucking nectar and the sheep bells in the distance enchanting. And then, of course, there is the food. I want to learn this sacramental view of the world. This Easter, I will be more attentive to my platter of tapas: ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good.’

 

[1] Amy Frykholm, ‘Fasting Toward Home,’ in The Spirit of Food, ed. Leslie Leyland Fields (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2010), 161.

[2] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973), 11-14.

 

Powerful Love

by Steve Wild.

For the last two weeks in the Central Methodist Church in Helston the members have been engaged in a mission outreach. By using the flexible space in the sanctuary they have worked together to hold ‘Prophet’s Progress’ a journey through Bible scenes starting with creation and ending with the Lamb on the throne in heaven. Over 700 children came the first week and cleverly actors from the local churches told the story of each scene. The prophet Isaiah began and explained what was to follow. An actual Cornish fisherman sat by a boat – which had been a prop on the TV programme ‘Poldark,’ and told how his life had changed… ‘because of love.’

This is Holy Week and we commemorate and remember the last week of Jesus’ life on this earth. These are the days leading up to the great Celebration of Easter Day, when love conquered death.

When the New Testament attempts to express God’s love, it points us to the cross of Jesus Christ. Because the cross is all about love. When you think of the immensity of God’s love, the first thing the Bible often asks us to do is to consider the price that was paid.

This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John ch. 4 : 9)

The Cornish fisherman pretending to be one of the twelve disciples was portraying a fallible human who had given up all to follow Jesus. As Simon Peter he had betrayed Christ and on realising his folly… ‘went out and wept bitterly’…no wonder. As I reflect further on the story he must have seen the crucifixion with horror, yet he discovers forgiveness when later with the risen Jesus he answers the question ‘do you love me?’ The forgiving love has a healing quality so that Simon becomes a great Christian leader.

We have all let Jesus down and being forgiven we can help others know that forgiveness and the powerful love that holds us. My involvement over the years with members of Alcoholics Anonymous[i] has meant that AA members have come to me to help them to be free from the guilt of past misdeeds and to experience the cleansing of forgiveness; for them the cross has a new meaning. One man I helped last November held the simple wooden cross I gave him and said, ‘If Jesus Christ could forgive the soldiers who nailed him to this he can forgive me.’ The Passiontide hymn of Charles Wesley poetically puts this experience powerfully into words.

O Love divine, what hast thou done!
The immortal God hath died for me!
The Father’s co-eternal Son
Bore all my sins upon the tree.
Th’immortal God for me hath died:
My Lord, my love, is crucified!

Great minds have written long and deep about the meaning of ‘atoning sacrifice’ and ‘Bore all my sins upon the tree.’ We see in the Bible how under Mosaic Law the Jews offered ongoing sacrifices to cover the cost of their sins. But Jesus provided the only sufficient sacrifice once for all to cover the sins of the world because he was without sin.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. (Hebrews ch 4 v 15)

This powerful love at the heart of the Easter experience is to share rather than keep to ourselves. Reflecting on the ‘Prophet‘s Progress’ in Helston they were sharing love in the stories of the Biblical scenes as well as in the tea, juice, refreshments and kindness which ran through the whole event.

There are so many different ways for a group of Christians to show Christ’s love to the community. It takes prayer, time and enthusiasm to work together to make the love of Jesus evident in the communities we serve; I see it in many churches I visit – but not enough alas. Together with the power of love we can work side by side and share this love with all we meet.

 

[i] Alcoholics Anonymous is a twelve-step recovery programme – step three is the one I am involved in: ‘3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.’ For this step, the alcoholic consciously decides to turn themselves over to whatever or whomever they believe their higher power to be. With this release often comes recovery. I personally am a lifelong teetotaler.

Wilderness Experiences

by Will Fletcher.

Our church is using the film Casablanca as the basis for our Lent group study. In some ways it is a timely film of refugees fleeing persecution and war. The story revolves around a café owner, Rick (played by Humphrey Bogart) who is confronted by an old flame seeking safe passage from Casablanca to the United States via Lisbon during the Second World War. Early in the film, Rick is sitting outside the café with Captain Renault the Captain of the Police. In response to the Captain’s enquiry as to what brought him to Casablanca, Rick states that he came for the waters. Given Casablanca’s desert location, Renault expresses his surprise, Rick’s droll response: “I’ve been misinformed”.

Desert and wilderness experiences are common themes for reflection through Lent. We begin the season remembering Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness;[1] we may also reflect on the Israelites wandering in the wilderness after being delivered from slavery in Egypt. One of the thoughts coming out of our Lent study is that it is quite possible to be in the wilderness even in the middle of a bustling city. When we feel isolated and cut off from other people, when we live with loneliness, or when we are unable to see signs of life around us we can feel as though we are living in a wilderness, regardless of what else is around us.

In these unlooked for wilderness experiences it can be tempting to think we must face them all with a smile, to believe that they must all be part of God’s plan for our own good and happiness. Yet in those moments when we feel like we are in the wilderness and times are tough it is okay to long for escape and freedom. We can join with the psalmists in lamenting our current circumstance and crying out to God for deliverance.[2] In these times it is quite acceptable to dream of a different vision for how your life and world should be, and to share such a vision with God.

Just because it is right and appropriate to seek escape from unlooked for wilderness experiences, does not mean all wilderness experiences are bad. From the early days of the Church women and men have travelled into the wilderness seeking to escape the trappings of the world and forge a closer connection with God. People in our Lent group who have had experiences of travelling into a desert or other wilderness environment were amazed by the signs of life that were still about. In the harshest of places, life can still flourish. In intentionally leaving the world behind to journey into the wilderness we too can discover those surprising signs of life that weren’t there or we hadn’t noticed in the midst of our day to day living.

We have previously reflected that one doesn’t need to travel to an actual desert in order to feel as though one is in a wilderness. We can make that journey into the wilderness by switching our phones and computers off for a day; by finding somewhere to go for a walk away from our usual pattern of life; by being silent or by fasting; and there are countless other examples. They all point to leaving behind our world and its comforts and distractions, in order to forge a closer connection with God and notice those unexpected signs of life.

It is common when talking of those moments of spiritual experience that might be called mountain-top experiences to say that, amazing though they are, we are not made to live on the mountain-top. Well, I believe, we are not made to live in the wilderness either. These times of surrendering from the world and journeying into the wilderness can bring real spiritual growth, but we are then meant to allow that growth to shape us as we return to the world and our usual patterns.

So in these last few days of Lent, it is worth considering whether you already feel in the wilderness and desire to escape, or whether you are in the hustle and bustle of life and need to take time to journey into the wilderness, even if you do so from the comfort of your own home…

 

[1] Matthew 4:1-11

[2] E.g. Psalm 43 or Psalm 137

Budgets and the kingdom

by Stephen Wigley.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for this year is unusual for 2 reasons. The first is that it’s written by the Archbishop himself; the second is that it’s about money.

Justin Welby’s little book ‘Dethroning Mammon; making money serve grace’ (Bloomsbury, 2016) is a timely reminder of the importance which Jesus attaches to the use of money, especially in his parables of the kingdom. It’s also a reflection of the Archbishop’s own previous experience of working in the city before offering for ordination and, arising from that, his analysis of what can and has gone wrong in the operation of financial markets in our current economic system.

In one sense, we hardly need reminding of the role which finance plays in our public life. Several years into a squeeze on public spending, after a bruising budget process, and with the Government preparing to trigger article 50 and so begin the formal negotiations about the deal for Britain’s leaving the European Union, we’re all too aware of the importance attached to the public finances.

But such things are not just matters for the public and political arena; they’re also the stuff of church and charity life. I think of the various educational and charitable institutions on which I serve and how much time, especially in the spring, that we spend looking at accounts, budgets and forecasts.

Archbishop Justin’s book reminds us that these matters are just as much to do with faith and seeking God’s kingdom as any of those other things, such as prayer and spirituality, on which we usually focus in Lent. In a series of chapters, each of which provides a theme for the Sunday Worship services broadcast on Radio 4, he challenges us as to how those same financial disciplines which are so much a part of our public life can be put to use in the service of the kingdom.

As it happens, I shall be leading one of those services from Neath Methodist Church in South Wales next Sunday, on the theme of ‘we gain what we give’. Now is not the time for a sneak preview of that broadcast service; but I do want to share just one reflection which arises from his book.

For in it, the Archbishop reflects on the role of budgets and forecasts. He doesn’t dismiss the use of numbers, though he is well aware of the danger of thinking that the only things that matter are the things which we can count. But the process of deciding about priorities and the resources needed to sustain them, he suggests, is crucial to the life of the kingdom. ‘The way the Church sets budgets is as important as the way it writes its theology, as a budget is applied theology expressed in numbers.’ (p.126)

The idea of a budget being an exercise in applied theology using numbers is quite a challenging one. It means that our decisions about spending matter, because in them we reveal our understanding of the priorities of God’s kingdom and our willingness to engage with them. It means that our decisions about investment matter too, for where our treasure, there will our hearts be also. It means that we can’t simply leave the decisions to the financial ‘experts’, for if this is the arena in which decisions are made, it is where we are all called to exercise responsible discipleship as followers of Jesus.

It brings us back to where the Archbishop begins his book, with a reflection on Jesus’ parable of ‘the pearl of great price’ in Matthew 13.  This is a story which runs counter to normal business practice. It’s not about getting a bargain or diversifying your assets. It’s about recognising what really matters and being willing to pay the price to acquire or achieve it. And it’s where we see the values of the kingdom overcome the claims of Mammon.

Flowers of love

by Sue Culver.

Having just moved to a new appointment, I have spent much of my time since September trying to get to know my local community a little better.  I have walked and talked and walked a bit more, dropped in at all the local shops and made myself known, blessing the staff along the way with jelly babies; sampled the cakes on offer in the village cafes, (much to the disappointment of my slimming class leader) and had a pint in all the pubs.  I’ve visited all the local schools (ello miss…you’re the new vicar aren’t ya…a’seen ya on Sunday!) and generally pottered about on the canal towpath with a devastatingly handsome Golden Retriever pup tagging along behind me.  It’s a wonderful life trying to get to know people and to make yourself known.

It struck me, as I tried to suss out all the relationships and not put my foot in it by treading across the invisible boundaries of unspoken rules – which apparently can only be realised by imbibing village culture over a number of years, at least 60 apparently  – that the fount of all knowledge and wisdom about the people in my new community was the village florist.  I discovered that the florist knows who has had a baby, who has had a birthday, who has had something to celebrate, who is having a wedding, a funeral,  or who needs cheering up; who is in the dog house, who is apologising and who is being apologised too.  The florist knows exactly what is going on in the village simply by virtue of the fact that her skills are much in demand. Further,  she is aware of the response to receiving those flowers when she delivers them so she is an a unique position to witness both sides of these particular transactions.  I myself was known to the florist even before I stepped foot into the village because she had been asked to prepare and deliver flowers to welcome me and they were there waiting for me on the windowsill of my new manse on the  day I moved in.

Knowing God, or to speak of the nature of God is central to Christian theology no matter what our passionately held theological position might be.  It shapes our response to the gospel and how we might enact the imperatives we find within it.  The other side of the coin as it were, is to be known by God.  We desire to know God more deeply and intimately as we mature in our Christian discipleship.   At the same time, we know that we are intimately known by God.  The omniscience of God, that is to say God’s knowledge of all things, is most profoundly expressed in that deep knowledge of our ways, our thoughts, the secrets of our hearts, our intentions.  The Psalmist tells us in Psalm 139 that we are known even before we know ourselves; we are searched and known so completely that nothing can be hidden, nor can we hide, and such is the depth of this knowledge, we were known even before we were formed.  We are known by God, even before we were formed and to be known is to be loved because God is love.  Therefore it follows that as we try to know others and let ourselves be known to others, we are expressing something of God in that endeavour, in that exchange, in that encounter.

‘This is Love’ wrote John, ‘Not that we loved God, but that he loved us…since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another’ (1 John 4:10-11)  and, herein, lies a key gospel imperative, of loving the other, of being God in that place of encounter and striving to develop knowledge (knowing) that is as deep as it is wide; of knowing, even before it is most obvious, the potential in the communities we serve. It has been said that trying to define community is like trying to build a brick wall around fog, but what is being reached for is a knowing or knowledge that can inform the building of the ‘new community’, which bears witness to the coming of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of love characterized by justice, mercy and peace and where all may know as they are known, where all may love and be loved.

The florist knows her trade and the community well and they get to know her very quickly when they come to buy flowers.  Working amongst those flowers in such a pastorally sensitive role seems to give her an aura of calm and gentleness, and it seems to me that the ‘garden’ in which she works has just as much to do with love and calling as with commercial enterprise; and so I pay tribute to Saint Dorethea, the patron saint of florists and thank God for the celestial flowers she was said to grow.

Humble Believer – being a disciple in an increasingly diverse world

by Bruce Thompson.

I want to draw some threads from the encounter Jesus had with the Woman at the Well (John 4.5-42):

Firstly the fact that Jesus is well outside what would be considered the norm by his own community.

Jesus is a Jew; for those Christians who think otherwise get over it, he was a Jew.  She, the woman, is a Samaritan.

We need to appreciate the significance of these facts.  The Samaritan community claimed to have been the descendants of the tribe of Ephraim but had evolved during the Assyrian occupation while Israel was in exile in Babylon.  On return from exile a dispute arose regarding the rebuilding of the Temple.

Samaritans and Jews thereafter remained at loggerheads with two competing sites for the worship of God.  The Samaritans had built a Temple on Mt Gerizim while Mount Moriah in Jerusalem remained the Temple site for the returning Jews.

When the disciples returned to Jesus at the well they are said to be astonished that he had been talking to this woman.

But the message Jesus seeks to convey is that no one should be seen to be beyond our attention and care.

As Christian disciples we should not limit our sphere of activity to ‘our own’, in ministry we should not exclude those outside that tradition.

The second thread I wish to draw from this passage is that the encounter includes a dialogue not a monologue.

The woman gives as good as she gets.

According to the one who recorded the conversation the woman might later acknowledge that Jesus could be the Messiah, but I can’t overlook the fact that the woman is ministering to Jesus every bit as much as he is to her.

Jesus, you see, is thirsty.  But he cannot quench his thirst for he has no bucket.

Along comes the woman; a woman who apparently no self-respecting man from his tradition should be conversing with.  But she has a bucket and she is prepared to draw water.

The only chance Jesus has of his physical need being met is by asking her to give him a drink.  She, like the disciples later, is astonished that he should ask her.

I cannot count the number of times over the course of my ministry that I have gone to visit someone and instead of me ministering to them have found them to be ministering to me.

The terminally-ill woman who, on my very first visit to a hospice as a 27-year old, fresh out of college, wet-behind-the-ears minister, seemed more concerned about how my wife Karen and I were settling in to our first manse than she was about her impending death; the rabbi who opened up scripture to me like no Christian teacher ever has; the compassion, the care and concern shown toward me by those whom I had been called and appointed by the Church to serve.

It is clear from this mid-day encounter at the well that the one whose spiritual needs were about to be met had first met the physical needs of Jesus.

Therefore as disciples we should not assume that the meeting of need is in one direction only.

The third thread that I wish to tease out of this incident is the view that there is a mutual reward when giver and receiver are open to each other.

We have already mentioned that because Jesus is prepared to engage with a woman from outside his own religious community his physical need is met; but this goes deeper still in my view.

Simply by being prepared to engage with this woman, and to receive from her, Jesus acts as the humble party.

Whatever our 21st century liberal sensibilities may say, this was at the time an extraordinary act of deference.  Jesus displayed great respect for this woman, a woman whom many would not pass time of day with.  And yet Jesus submitted himself to her.

It is an encounter between two very different people, yet it is one that is packed with profound possibilities.

The encounter broadens the horizons of the woman and establishes her as someone worth listening to.  She returns to her city and has news to share.  She is clearly heard because many Samaritans come out to see Jesus for themselves.  Apparently no one would have listened to her before but now they do and even act upon her words.

The conversation also provides the opportunity for a vision where place is less important for the Presence of God than had thus far been the case.

No longer would there be a need for debate as to where the Temple should be located, Gerizim or Moriah, it no longer matters, because true worshippers will worship in spirit and in truth.  In other words God, now, may be found anywhere on this earth, in the city where we live, at the well where we are refreshed, in the conversations we hold, wherever needs are met.

This incident at the well should shatter once and for all the illusion that God only speaks through those who worship on a certain metaphorical mountain, in other words those that uphold only a particular sacred text or follow a certain path to the exclusion of all others.

When the time comes for me to let go of this ministry to which I have been called I would like to think

  • that I have engaged in dialogue,
  • that I have held conversations profitable to all those who were party to them,
  • that I have learnt from, and shared with, those whose faith perspectives have been held as sincerely as I have held mine,
  • and that I have been present with, and stood alongside, my neighbour in their hour of need.

If this turns out to be so then I believe that it would constitute having been a humble believer in a world of increasing diversity.