Small Talk and the Anarchy of Infinite Love

by Philip Turner.

The Samaritans, the listening service set up by a London vicar in 1953, launched in 2017 the campaign ‘Small Talk Changes Lives’.[i]  It is based on the premise that, when we initiate a conversation we create the potential for transforming a life.  Yet what I find especially striking is the idea that the conversation that transforms a life doesn’t need to feel extraordinary, at least not to the the person initiating the conversation.  The Samaritans suggest the relative banal question, ‘Hi, where can I get a coffee?’, might be all it takes to interrupt suicidal thoughts, and be the intervention that helps set someone on the road to recovery.

Too often we overlook and undervalue the common, the ordinary and the banal.  It seems too obvious, unoriginal and not nearly complex enough.  Yet I have come to see the value of what I might have once considered to be insignificant and unproductive.  Today, in my role as a chaplain in an acute healthcare setting, I see so-called ‘small talk’ as a key pastoral care practice.  Where ‘small talk’ starts is inspired by visual cues offered by the patient.  So, I ask people about the books they like to read, the puzzles they find easiest, what’s noteworthy in their newspaper and what mini-series they find most absorbing.  There is nothing enlightened about the questions I ask.  It is all rather ordinary, except that the ordinary is often a window into something extraordinary.  Like a sacrament, skilful ‘small talk’ provides the opportunity to reveal the sacred, because a kindly put carefully-phrased everyday question often enables extraordinary conversations.

There are many angles on the Lenten story of the woman at the well.[ii]  Scholars wonder about whether there is an ancient betrothal motif present[iii] and the gnostic Heracleon sees five husbands plus the current partner as equalling six, the number of imperfection[iv].  There is potency in these and other angles, yet let us not overlook the obvious and common place.  The story of the woman at the well is also an everyday story of someone who has been let down by relationships that too often go wrong.  It is an ordinary story of how someone felt ostracised, ashamed or alone in the heat of it all.  It might even be a story of a woman gazing into a well searching for relief, wondering whether to draw water out, or throw herself in.  We will never know, for one singular reason: Jesus interrupted her thoughts with a banal question.  It wasn’t, ‘where can I get a coffee’, but it feels similar.  The question ‘give me a drink’ was the ‘small talk’ that created the opportunity where Jesus revealed his genuine agape love.  His intention was not to ‘save’ her, though the story points to that outcome.  Love, as I am coming to understand it, does not seek to achieve anything.  Divine love does not have an answer to the question ‘why’, but reflects what James Finley articulates as the ‘anarchy of infinite love’,[v] which is the love that has no purpose other than to be given away.

There are few times in ministry, let alone in life, where it can feel safe enough to talk about about how we feel let down – by others as well as ourselves.  There are few times where we might risk mentioning the regrets and the shame we feel.  ‘Small talk’ is not that conversation, but it might be, like the moment at the well, or today at a water-cooler, an opportunity for you and I to demonstrate Christ’s genuine agenda-less care.  ‘Small talk’ might be the moment when someone has the chance to discover that the person listening is really listening, not because they need to be ‘fixed’, but because they are loved. Good chaplaincy, as an expression of divine love, is meant to be experienced rather than described.  It is in the experience of someone without an aim to ‘do’ anything, but of someone who has something to be given away.  It is the gift of being present to the mystery of each human being that God has created.  It usually starts with ‘small talk’, not because of an anxious need to eliminate awkward silences, but as a gesture of genuine interest.  The outcome may, or may not, correlate to our effort, but we will be sharing in Christ’s life-saving ministry.


[ii] John 4.1-42.

[iii] See, for example, Andrew T Lincoln, The Gospel According to St John, London: Continuum, p.170.

[iv] See C K Barrett, The Gospel According to S John 2nd Edition, London: SPCK, p.235.


Spring Cleaning

by Carolyn Lawrence.

This time of year is traditionally a season for Spring cleaning.  I am not sure how many people do have a good old clean of the curtains, skirting boards and cupboard tops around now, but I find that is hard to find time for the basics of housework let alone more in depth cleaning!  Along with the cleaning, often comes a bit of decluttering and that is something I am always trying to do!  Moving every five years helps me not to hoard too much but it’s amazing how quickly clutter builds up!   

When we have a tidy up or a good old sort out, we get rid of things that we don’t want or need any more; things that just clutter up the place and make it look untidy.  The same is true when we declutter our personal lives and Lent is traditionally a time when we are encouraged to take stock of our spiritual lives in the run up to the events of Easter.  As we go about our day to day living we seem to gather things that can clutter up our relationship with God and prevent us living in close relationship with him and other people.

In chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews the writer lists a ‘faith hall of fame’…people who have gone before us who have demonstrated great trust in God despite some pretty difficult circumstances.  He follows this, at the beginning of chapter 12 with the encouragement to us all, in the light of all these inspiring fore runners to

‘…throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.’

I wonder what it is that is cluttering up your relationship with God and others as you read this?  Are there things that have made your life complicated and stressful that you need to lay down before God? 

These could be any number of things – unforgiveness, anger, bitterness, over work, over spending, addictions, people pleasing, lack of boundaries, bad habits or attitudes, wrong priorities, fears and anxieties…the list is endless.  Jesus tells us that when we follow him, his yoke is easy and his burden is light and yet sometimes we are our own worst enemies and try to carry loads we were never intended to bear. 

It can be a great exercise to reflect on the things that might be cluttering up our lives and relationships with God and others and my encouragement to you is to take some time in the coming weeks to rest in God’s presence, fix your eyes on Jesus and invite the Holy Spirit to shine his light on any areas of your life that are entangling you and cluttering up your soul.  It may be that there is something for which you need to say sorry to God or someone else, a relationship that needs restoration, a habit that you need God’s power to break or an attitude that you need God’s help to change.  I pray that as you reflect on the clutter in your lives, you may find the freedom, lightness and joy that comes from living in peace, simplicity and harmony with God and others. And if anyone feels the urge to come and help me clean the house, do let me know! 

Who Knows Where the Time Goes?[i]

by Richard Clutterbuck.

I sometimes – tongue in cheek – describe myself as a ‘recovering existentialist’. Let me explain. Back in the 1970s, when I first fell in love with the study of  theology, existentialism, and the theology that leaned on it,  was still in vogue. I revelled in John Macquarrie’s Principles of Christian Theology[i], drank deeply from Rudolf Bultmann’s Theology of the New Testament[ii] and made copious notes on Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology[iii]. I devoured the novels of Dostoyevsky and I even bought a shelf-full of books by Soren Kierkegaard – though I can’t claim to have read them all. What was the appeal? Well, there was the emphasis on personal experience, belief and decision. Bultmann, for example, made a powerful case for the heart of the New Testament to be the call for a decision to follow Jesus and his kingdom here and now. And existentialist theology also seemed to offer a way out of some of the thorny problems of modern thought. Did the language of the traditional Christian creeds still make sense in the modern world? Was it still possible to read the biblical stories as historically accurate? Existentialist theologians like Paul Tillich offered a reinterpretation of traditional belief that seemed more in tune with contemporary culture.

So far, so good. You may, however, sense an impending ‘but’ – and you’d be right. As the zeitgeist moved from the modern to the postmodern, existentialism turned out to be just one worldview among many, so hitching the theological wagon to this engine did not necessarily mean we were going to reach our destination. Furthermore, existentialism was revealed to have its own blind spots. In concentrating on subjective experience, it was inadequate to deal with global issues such as conflict and injustice. In its focus on the present experience of existence, it failed to do justice to the role of time and history in Christian theology. It had a tendency to collapse narrative and history (including the biblical narratives) into existential experience and universal truths. Then, from the late 60s, a new generation of theologians, Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann among them, argued that God is revealed through history and that the eschatological future is an indispensable part of Christian faith.

So, I’m no longer an existentialist, though I do have a lingering nostalgia for what it once meant for me. I’ve recently been working on the theology of one of my teachers, the Methodist theologian and ecumenist, Geoffrey Wainwright, and I think he could help us to bring together some of the positive elements in existentialist theology (the focus on the personal and the present) with the more realistic (and, to my mind, more faithfully Christian) movements that have followed. Wainwright was almost unique among twentieth century theologians in the way he combined liturgical studies with doctrinal theology and with the search for Christian unity. His most substantial work was Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine and Life[iv], but there were several volumes of essays that emerged from his engagement with the international ecumenical movement. I’ve been especially drawn to a paper he presented to a conference in 1979. Its title is “Sacramental Time”[v] and it argues that the sacramental life of the Church gives us clues about how God relates with us through the medium of time. He develops this under the three headings of ‘Ecclesial Time’, ‘Existential Time’ and ‘Cosmic Time’.

Ecclesial time involves the affirmation that Christ’s presence in the sacraments is objectively real, and not merely subjective and psychological. In the eucharist we, as the Church,  re-present the past and anticipate the future of God’s salvation. In this present moment, where past and future meet, we are given time to proclaim and act out God’s love.

Existential time takes us to the more personal dimension. Baptism involves a participation in Christ’s death and resurrection as well as God’s gift of time for newness of life. Similarly, in the eucharist we are caught up in the tension between the ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ of the kingdom.

Finally, cosmic time. Sacraments point to the way God’s redemption embraces the whole created order of space and time, including the rhythms of daily, monthly and yearly time. As we speak of sacred space, so we can speak of sacred time; time set apart for our relationship with God.

I’m still working on the implications of Wainwright’s teaching on sacramental time. I suspect it has implications for our discussions on ‘online’ communion, where sharing the time set aside for worship may be more important than sharing exactly the same space. But I can answer the question, ‘who knows where the time goes’ with the simple answer, ‘God knows’.

[i] John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology (London: SCM, 1966).

[ii] Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1955).

[iii] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Combined Volume) (Welwyn, Herts: Nisbet, 1968).

[iv] Geoffrey Wainwright, Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine and Life (new york: Oxford, 1980).

[v] The Ecumenical Moment: Crisis and Opportunity for the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983). Chapter VII,

[i] The allusion, for the benefit of non-baby-boomers, is to a song on Fairport Convention’s 1969 album, Unhalfbricking.


by Josie Smith.

Some of my favourite television programmes are the archaeology ones, where people dig trenches in ordinary-looking places and find evidence of a whole community, a whole way of life, maybe a whole lost civilisation in which people (who were just as real then as we are now) lived lives a lot shorter and harder than ours, and unwittingly left bits of themselves behind as evidence.

People like Professor Alice Roberts, or earlier the equally entertaining characters on The Time Team, get all excited about tiny shards of crockery, wisps of fabric, twisted bits of metal or the remains of a child’s shoe, and point to the ghosts of post holes where buildings once stood.     Sometimes they literally strike gold.

One of my cousins, a farmer,  moved into a new (to him) farm many years ago as a newlywed.     He was intrigued by a raised bank at the bottom of the garden, obviously neglected for years, and wanted to level the ground so began to clear it.    He found among the weeds and rubble a sizeable collection of unbroken, ancient glass bottles, some with those built-in glass stoppers, many of which were now ‘collectors’ pieces’ and actually worth money – and could be dated to a time long before the local council started collecting such things in a refuse wagon.     Generations of previous occupants had simply put them out of their way.

We are learning the art of recycling now.     (Some of us who can remember W.W.2 never lost the habit.     There were constant reminders to Make Do and Mend.)  There are recycling sites at which lines of cars queue to deposit unwanted ‘stuff’, and television programmes dedicated to ‘up-cycling’ in which something old is cleaned up, given a coat of paint or new fabric or whatever, and put to use again sometimes in an unexpected form.    We are advised about going through the wardrobe and selling e.g. unwanted party gear worn once, and charity shops proliferate on every high street where you can find a ‘pre-loved’ bargain.

Not just inanimate objects, either – I had a rescue cat once, the runt of a litter, unwanted by anyone even its mother, which became the subject of a story and was published in a book about cats.     He continues to inspire long after his final visit to the vet.    And there are many children, the despair of teachers because they seem incapable of learning to read or do sums in the conventional way, who become beautiful, kind, gentle, thoughtful grown-ups.

What has all this to do with Theology?

I was once asked to lead morning worship at a residential weekend where almost all the other participants were entitled to wear clerical collars.    What on earth could I possibly bring to a gathering so versed in Scripture and so practised in prayer?     I went to bed hoping for the answer to be revealed to me as I slept.    It often is when there’s a problem.    But no, nothing spoke to me.     No revelation from on high.     And then as I drew back the curtains in my room in the morning, I saw, two floors down, the edge of the garden.     It had a number of bays separated by wire fences, each one containing garden rubbish at varying stages of becoming compost, good garden earth in which food would grow rich and tasty and nourishing.   That’s it, I thought.     That’s my thought for this morning.     Whatever we threw on yesterday’s rubbish heap is silently, unnoticed, becoming nourishment for another day and other people.     The sun shines on it and the rain falls on it, and time makes it new again.    We behave as though we think it’s our idea, but it was God who invented recycling.

Think now of people who were once the rubbish of society.     Hardened criminals, drug users and pushers, thieves, caring nothing for the welfare of others.    Some of them, against all odds, are now new people.    From prison cell to pulpit is not an unknown progression!

This Monday morning spot on the web (or wherever it is) is called Theology Everywhere, and I find God in rubbish because I know what can happen to it with time, rain, sunshine and a skilled gardener.    I think that is Theology, and it is certainly to be found Everywhere if one has eyes to see.

One of my favourite mental pictures is of a little broken and apparently dead twig, found on the pavement, broken off a flowering tree in my garden by a passing youth with nothing better to do.     I was sorry for it, brought it into the house, put it in a specimen vase in water, and left it to see what would happen.    Some time later it put forth tiny leaves, then later still burst into the most beautiful vivid flower.     I almost expected it to sing!     I was intrigued some year later to see in somebody’s downstairs loo a print of a very similar ‘rescue twig’ painted by David Hockney, but there had been no collusion!

Creation is happening eternally, and God who invented recycling is at the heart of it.

Thanks be to God. 

Who is Christ for?

by Philip Sudworth.

In Jesus’ time there were lots of social and religious boundaries, which excluded people. If you associated with people who were unclean, you became unclean yourself.  It mattered a great deal who you ate with, because eating with people was to accept them as equals.  Yet Jesus went for a meal to the home of Zacchaeus, who was a collaborator with the Romans, not only collecting taxes for them but cheating his own people as he did so; and who had, in both the general view and in his own eyes, sunk as low as it was possible to sink. Jesus didn’t go in order to tell these people how sinful they were; they knew that. Instead, he enjoyed their company, and they enjoyed his. Indeed, he was accused by the Pharisees of partying too heartily – not an image we tend to associate with Jesus! But his was a personality that attracted children as well as men and women.  I suspect that he told some of his stories with a twinkle in his eyes and had a chuckle at some of the responses.

He breached other conventions. He spent time at the well with a Samaritan woman, who was spurned by her village because of her immorality.  He touched lepers and handicapped people, and healed a woman with a haemorrhage.  All these people were desperate, and Jesus reached out to them.  His love and compassion were not constrained by social and religious rules. These outsiders were healed spiritually as well as physically.  He accepted them but offered them the chance to live fulfilled lives and to realise their potential.

In an old Jewish story about the End of Time, all people are gathered when God announces, “Gabriel will read out the commandments one by one.  If you’ve broken that commandment, you must depart into Outer Darkness.” The first commandment is read and half a million troop off with downcast faces.  Thousands more depart after the second commandment; and so it continues. When Gabriel reaches the tenth commandment, God looks round at the smug, self-righteous faces of those few who are left and imagines eternity surrounded by these.  “Whoa!” he shouts, “Everybody come back. I’ve changed my mind.”

Paul in the letter to the Galatians is anxious to point out that Christ has brought us freedom from legalism. We are saved by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone. He is also insisting that no one group is better than another group.  Their differences as Jews or Gentiles, slave or free, male or female are subsumed in their identity as Christians. We all acquire our value in and through our relationship to Christ. Perhaps in our day, instead of “neither Jew nor Gentile” we should substitute, “In Christ there is neither Catholic nor Protestant; neither Evangelical nor Progressive; neither black nor white; neither straight nor gay; neither resident nor refugee.” Anyone who feels morally or spiritually superior to another group has rather missed the point.

There have been times when the church has been too focused on who is and who isn’t acceptable. – you are only acceptable to God, if you belong to their denomination, believe what they believe, follow their rituals, and conform to their moral standards. In contrast, rather than try to convert Muslims and Hindus on their deathbeds, Mother Teresa encouraged them to grow closer to God within their own religious tradition. How willing are we to encourage people whose journey of faith differs markedly from our own to continue on the route that suits them? There are Christians living alongside and working with the poorest people in shanty towns across the world.  They’ve taken the view that the church doesn’t just exist for those who are in it, but also for those outside.  They obey the instruction, “Go out into the world and take the Good News of hope and love. And be good news to those who need you.” 

We’re called to support one another, practically and spiritually, to encourage one another on the journey of faith, to recognize that we’re all at different points on our journey, and that, while some are enjoying high points, others are going through dark valleys of suffering or distress, or of doubt, or are struggling with the mists of confusion.  We’re also called to reach out beyond the church walls. John Wesley said, “Go not only to those who need you, but to those who need you most.” 

Reflection points:

  1. Who is Christ for? Are there groups that are outside God’s love?
  2. Which groups feel excluded by the Christian church? What can we do about that?
  3. How do we overcome, or learn to live with, differences within the Christian church?
  4. Who are the people who need us most? 
  5. How helpful is it to imagine the tone in which Jesus said things? Did he have a sense of humour?

I looked out on the sunset

by Andrew Pratt.

I looked out on the sunset. The sky, deep red, but fading, could not be captured by a camera’s lens, held for eternity. I mused. Different wavelengths of light refracted by the atmosphere, received by a retina, passing through a tangle of neurones, conducted by chemical and physiological interactions, perceived by something we might label consciousness. And is this all? Later I played with water colours, fluid, wet on wet, running into one another out of control, unpredictable. This was nearer to what I believed I saw. But this did not explain or make sense of it. And a realisation rose rather than forced itself on me of something ‘other’. Call that conversion if you will. It was a glimpse of the ‘other’, I will go on calling it that for want of anything better, that changed the direction of my life. Marcus Borg spoke of the light that glances into our lives rendering significance which, he felt, was something of the shared experience of the mystics. And it began an exploration that could never be complete, a pilgrimage that could never achieve its destination. I was seeking understanding of experience, trying to make sense of all that life opened up to me of joy and elation, of pain and sorrow, of love and anger, of all that is. This would encompass all of existence, birth and death and all that lay between, but also beyond, before and after. This was immanence and yet transcendence. If anything this was love.

The problem, the danger of such exploration, is that we categorise and constrain. We seek to fit into boxes an understanding greater than our human capacity can grasp. We organise it, then call it faith. And when it breaks the bounds we have set for it we say that we have lost it. Really all that has happened is that we have discovered the truth that you cannot hold or constrain that which is boundless. Neither do we have language to express the inexpressible. Yet that is what theology is often reduced to.

My early theological training was dominated by systems in which concepts and doctrines were organised. Any challenge to that organisation was viewed as dangerous, even heresy. But you can only organise things you understand and understanding suggests power, control and knowledge. By definition a total understanding and knowledge of God is a contradiction in terms. In the book Thirteen Moons, the author, a native American, ponders:

Writing a thing down fixes it in place as surely as a rattlesnake skin stripped from the meat and stretched and tacked to a barn wall. Every bit as stationary, and every bit as false to the original thing. Flat and still and harmless. Bear recognized that all writing memorializes a momentary line of thought as if it were final.[1]

I have pondered on this. So often this is what our systems of theology have done. Poetic imagination fired the prophets to enable change, to allow the understanding of God to develop, evolve. Poetry has more freedom than prose. Hymns have so often reversed that process, pinned down our theology, closed it to speculation or changing context. Sydney Carter saw folk music as owned by the singers, generation to generation – a sort of sung liberation theology, always changing.

But I return to art. A few years ago the, then, youngest member of our family was taken to Tate Modern. She reported back on the experience, ‘It was weird!’ So called modern art isn’t always easy ‘to get’. And that’s it, I think. Theology is trying ‘to get’ what is beyond our human capacity to understand, or express. Mark Rothko painted massive, single colour panels. To many they mean nothing. Others report a profound sense of the other when they view them. If ‘the other’ is such as I have suggested, perhaps these are honest admissions and, as such offer that glimpse that mystics seek, and a representation beyond words or understanding of that which we seek.

This is not to deny the validity of theology, but to recognise that theologians need to draw on the  widest possible range of disciplines. These should include, but not be limited to, scriptures, languages, art, science, poetry, philosophy, music. Even then we need the honesty to admit that any theology that we elaborate can never, ever be more than a very crude approximation of the subject we are seeking to address. The quest must be open ended, never closed down, never dogmatic.

[1] Frazier, C., Thirteen Moons, Hodder & Stoughton, 2006, p 21

Job: Theologian and Intercessor

by Tom Stuckey.

The happy life Job had once enjoyed was gone. His business empire had been shattered. His resources of capital and wealth destroyed. His sons and daughters killed in a natural disaster. Although bereaved and in shock more trouble was to come. A loathsome disease began to eat into his flesh so that we find him, in chapter 2, scraping his soars. The scene is set for an exploration of disaster, prayer and the nature of theology.

Job’s friends – Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu – provide explanations. Theirs is a cold theology of the head and God is angry with them (42.7).  According to Karl Barth, ‘Truth comes from an incarnate God who reveals himself in the tensions and struggles of individuals in specific times and places’.[1] Job’s troubles are contextual and specific. They are also so traumatic that theological explanations fail to satisfy. After 25 chapters Job is exhausted. The theological debate has crumbled. A radical shift is necessary. An interval of waiting and meditation is required.

Job’s comforters offer answers instead of remaining silent. When God finally speaks no answers are given; instead Job is bombarded with questions – over forty of them. The first group are cosmological as God tests out his knowledge of the heavens, the stars and the earth (38.4-38). In the second group God examines him on what he knows about animals, birds and reptiles (38.39 – 40.24). Linked with these questions is the implicit instruction to observe, look and investigate. This avalanche of relentless interrogation sweeps away Job’s agenda. Indeed, halfway through, God wants Job to say something but he cannot find the words (40.3). Yahweh, who is clearly exasperated by Job’s refusal to engage, shouts out of the whirlwind, ‘Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you’. Job must speak.

The ordering of God’s questions take us back to the opening chapters of Genesis: the darkness and light (v.9 & 12), the sea and the firmament (v.8-1), the earth and the stars (v.26 & 31) and finally the animals (v.39f). We are reminded that creation and planetary life must be the context out of which we do our theology (particularly so today). Job has become another Adam tempted by Satan.  Adam disobeyed and paradise was lost. Job, tested to the point of destruction, regains what was lost. God’s cross-examination centres on two fundamental questions: ‘Who are you?’ and ‘Where are you?’(Gen.3.9). Job’s response to the identity question is, ‘I am of small account’ (40.3). But is he? The Psalmist tells us that although humans are ‘a little lower than the divine beings’, we are above creation. We are not of small account!’ Job has lost this realization and moans, ‘what are human beings that you make so much of them?’ (7.17-21). God confronts this grovelling attitude to give us – according to Jonathan Sacks – the key message of the Old Testament that whether or not we have faith in God, God has faith in us.[2]

When Job, in chapter 42, eventually speaks his words take the form of a confession. Yahweh has accused him of darkening counsel by words ‘without knowledge’ (38.2). Job takes this and plays it back thus transcending human language. The insertion of the Yahweh words ‘I will question you, and you declare to me’, previously addressed to a tongue-tied Job in 40.7 again tells us that divine speech must be truly absorbed so as to inhabit human language if revelation is to be apprehended. When this happens, language creates a new ‘seeing’.

Job confesses ‘I despise (loathe) myself’. The word ‘myself’ is not in the Hebrew text. It is suggested that the interpretation could be ‘I loathe my words’. This affects the final sentence about ‘in dust and ashes’. The word ‘ashes’ is present in the book’s opening demonstration of mourning (2.8, 12). The only other Biblical reference to ‘dust and ashes’ is in the story of Abraham beseeching God to save the city of Sodom (Gen 18.27). Job is not engaging here in an act of self-abasement by repenting ‘in’ dust and ashes but of being a man a faith like Abraham.[3]

The usual interpretation of this confession is that God’s dramatic appearance is so awesome and majestic that Job is squashed. In fact the opposite is true. Job is rather repenting of a grovelling ‘dust and ashes’ mentality. This is Job’s righteousness. He stands before God not as a victim but as a victor. His friends, mouthing traditional theology, may be giving satisfying answers to the ‘why’ question but they are wrong because they do not confront God! Job is the new Abraham whose relentless bargaining prayers over Sodom made God ‘change his mind’. This is why Job, in the Epilogue, can intercede for his friends and save them from being punished for their folly (v.8-9). Yahweh’s rebuke of Eliphaz in chapter 22 verses 26-30 is a wonderful piece of irony. He told Job that if he sought to be reconciled to God, he would become an ‘intercessor’. Job did the opposite. He refused to submit and instead challenges the very nature of God’s providence. The message of Job is that we are made in the image of God and set within his creation as stewards to observe, understand and act responsibly.[4] This is our vocation. It is an outworking of God’s faith in us. In the presence of injustice, catastrophe and destruction we must never be passive or remain silent. As divine intercessors we are to argue with God and with anyone who adopts a victim mentality or fatefully accepts that disaster, injustice and ruin are ‘the normal’. Above all our prayers must hold God to account!

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. IV3a,  T&T Clark. 1961, p.453.

[2] J.Sacks, Judaism’s Life-Changing Ideas, Maggid Books,2020,  p.7.

[3] J.G.Janzen, Interpretation:Job, WJK 1985, p252.

[4] Six Bible Studies found in Tom Stuckey, In and Out of Lockdown, Amazon 2022, p43-85.

Making a Difference: Action

by Anthony Reddie.

This Spectrum paper is a reflection, written by Professor Anthony Reddie, on a lecture he gave at the Spectrum conference in May 2022. You can also read reflections one and two on Theology Everywhere.

In Anthony’s third session, participants engaged in a Bible study entitled ‘Faith Inspired Action’. In this he invited participants to think about what radical Christian inspired action looks like?

He asked participants to go into groups to look at Luke 8: vv.40-48.

In the text we see how Jesus makes a clear ‘political’ decision in the choices he makes in terms of where he places his priorities. Jesus is on his way to attend to a very important man, the leader of the synagogue — a man who would no doubt have been very grateful to Jesus and his movement if he healed his daughter. I am sure that all the disciples wanted Jesus to attend to Jairus’ daughter. No doubt the crowd wanted to see what Jesus would do when confronted with this kind of expectation.

Yet, in the midst of the business, Jesus stops and deals with this anonymous woman — a woman who is ritually unclean, therefore an outsider — someone who is beyond the traditional cultural and religious niceties of the wider community and society.

For those who think that some belong, and deserve to be noticed, i.e. the Jairus’ of this world, but others can and should be ignored because they are unclean or seemingly not worthy i.e the woman who was bleeding, this text can and should be an immense challenge. In terms of the woman, we may read her plight in hermeneutical terms as a black, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and trans-gendered person who is seen as ‘beyond the pale’ due to her social condition. 

In fact all peoples who have been told that they are beyond the pale can see themselves reflected in her position within the text and many wider societies.

For Methodists, this text is a reminder of the key radical practice of John Wesley who told the early Methodists ‘Don’t just go to those who need you, but go to those who need you the most’. In times when austerity has been shown to have been a political choice and when churches like Methodism have provided much needed services such as food banks, the critical question the church has to make is the extent to which it is impassioned to stand on the side of those who are marginalised and told that they do not belong.


1.  Why do we need food banks when tax cuts are also being given the richest in society?

2. Does the Church cosy up too much to those in power?

3. Identify the marginalised people in your areas.

We are pleased to continue our partnership with Spectruma community of Christians of all denominations which encourages groups and individuals to explore the Christian faith in depth. This year the study papers are from talks by Prof Anthony Reddie and Rev’d Simon Sutcliffe on the theme ‘Being the Salt of the Earth (A look at some peace and justice issues)’. This is the third of six coming through the year.

Full and Fulfilled

by Josie Smith.

I have just celebrated – or endured – my ninety-third birthday, in faith and in constant pain.   I am in the mood to share a few thoughts, both frivolous and serious, before the surgeon’s scalpel or the Grim Reaper’s scythe get me.   I await events with interest.   
As my late husband said as he (a mere 85 at the time) endured the final stages of colorectal cancer ‘Dying doesn’t worry me – it’s just that getting there is so difficult.’

The first Thought is frivolous.   I realised when I became ninety-two that had I been the Biblical Sarah I would now have been living with a small boy in the Terrible Twos, without my mother to guide me in coping with his ever-changing needs, moods and demands.  That thought alone would be enough to cure biblical literalism.    

But as a cradle Methodist I never had much time for frivolity.   We were brought up in a sound Wesleyan tradition of church twice every Sunday, plus Sunday School in the afternoon.   There followed the then traditional pattern – Youth Club, teenage conversion, Church Membership with the very grown-up permission to receive Holy Communion, Sunday School teaching.  By the age of thirty I was Superintendent of a Sunday School with twenty-five teachers and a hundred and twenty-five children.   My family included a Circuit Steward (one of whose friends was an ex-Vice-President of Conference, no less) a Mission Secretary in one of the big city missions, a couple of church organists, a Women’s Meeting president – though I was the first in my family to be a regular member of Methodist Conference.    It would have taken courage to opt out of all that.    But I never wanted to…….

In the fifth church I attended, counting the one in which I was baptised, I became aware of the ecumenical element, when we lived in a small rural village and attended the too-large and crumbling Methodist church and the venerable village C.of E. alternately, and the vicar drafted us in (I married a local preacher, naturally, and son of the manse, inevitably!!) to run the combined Sunday School in our house.

And now, in the tenth church (you can get through a lot of churches in ninety-odd years and in a few house moves around the country) I am a member of both the Methodist Church and the Anglican Church in an ecumenical partnership.    And where I live now we work together with other local faith communities.   Leading prayers recently (I no longer take services but this is something I can still do) I said something like this:

‘Enable us to respect the faith of others and to be strong in our own.    We try to put our faith into words, creeds, expressions of belief – and we fail, because language is not rich enough, words are not big enough, to say what we mean.   But we can speak our faith by what we do and how much we love.   Help us.’

I have had a full and fulfilled life, one way and another.   I ought to have reached the years of wisdom, and be uttering profound theological statements wrought during years of wrestling (with angels, Superintendent Ministers and others) but all I want to do today is to send you Love and Peace (I sign off my emails that way now) and my prayer that you find the love of God and your faith in God to be your motivation, and become the saint you were designed to be.

Meanwhile I await the surgeon, or the chap with the scythe, and of course death, which is the culmination of earthly life for all of us.    My final experience.    Bring it on!

King Gizzard, AstroTurf, and John Wesley!

by Kerry Tankard.

Let me invite you to peer, quickly, into the Gizzverse. This is the realm, theoretical and experiential, inhabited by invested fans of the Australian band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. In 2022 they celebrated 10 years together and released 5 records in one year, for the second time! Their last offering of 2022 was the album Change, featuring 7 tracks which were initially birthed 5 years before. The band realised they did not have the musical capacity to complete the album then, but 5 years of growth finally enabled them to do it. The whole album is an experiment in music, each song structured around two chords and scales, D and F#. I am not sure if by now you are bemused, disengaged, or intrigued, but please hang in there.

AstroTurf[i] is the third track on Change and is about, well, AstroTurf! It is an environmental lament. The band have taken increasingly seriously the environmental crisis we find ourselves in. Individual tracks on albums, multiple tracks on their 2019 album, Infest the Rats Nest, explore environmental change and crisis, and it does not end there. They regularly press records on recycled material; have dispensed with shrink wrap covers for their albums, in favour of carboard envelopes and in one case reclaimed denim. They were awarded a £20,000 prize (which they donated to the environmental charity The Wilderness Society) for the song and video of If Not Now, Then When?[ii], (from the album L.W.). A persistent refrain in that song wonders what it will take to change our behaviour. The song AstroTurf is another of their environmental protests. It portrays the mentality where control and the pursuit of an artificial (im)perfection overwhelms natural beauty, and to counter this it offers the lament of butterflies.

AstroTurf, the product, appears to solve the intrusions of the natural world for the human speaking in the song:

Everything’s dead here
Covered with plastic
Everything’s fluoro
Evergreen matter. . .

When it don’t matter
Everything’s better
Throw-away plates are
Better for business
Everything’s easy
Better for the earth is AstroTurf. . .

Suitable texture, suitable colour
Miniature forest, better than nature
Make me feel better knowing I won’t go
Out on my lawn and see an animal
Everything’s sterile, even infertile
Proud of my monster, never been straighter. . .

But at the same time creation is given a voice, a lamenting voice in the butterflies:

Six butterflies fluttered by
Looked horrified
“I just hatched from chrysalis
I’ve only hours, . . .
And this is where I will die
Heart-breaking way to end
I will cry on AstroTurf”

This is not a direct dialogue between the parties, but two monologues. The voice of power mistaking domination for dominion, and control for beauty; the voice of vulnerability seeing beauty in the created cycle of life and in the natural order of being.

The persistence of some human beings to dominate creation, to eradicate natural beauty in favour of artificial (im)perfection, is wanton and devastating. Our arrogance is such that we can presume the only voice we will listen to is our own, but King Gizzard pose an alternative voice and invite us, through song, to listen in. Convenience and control define some of our ways of relating to the world and the response is the sigh of creation (Romans 8.22). This is what Pope Francis highlighted at the beginning of Laudato Si’: ‘This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. . .This is why the earth herself . . . “groans in travail”’.[iii]

What I think the song does is elevate the voice we don’t hear, the groan of creation. I am not saying I believe human beings and butterflies are equal, or the same. Human beings are uniquely “capable of God”.[iv]  They are, for me, created in the image of God. In the Wesleyan tradition, they have been given the natural, moral, and political image of God to serve God’s purpose for all creation.[v] All life participates in God, but human beings have a greater ability to enjoy or frustrate the relationship than any other form of life. That distinct place we have is not one that should cause us to ignore God’s voice, grace, and presence, as it is mediated in other parts of creation.

For John Wesley, the political image of God in us is significant for the whole of creation, because it relates to our call to be for God, in our being for the world. In his sermon The Great Deliverance he writes of how humanity ‘was God’s vicegerent upon earth . . . all the blessings of God flowed through [them] to the inferior creatures. [Humanity] was the channel of conveyance between [their] Creator and the whole brute creation’.[vi] There is an intention for humanity to act for creation. It is a purpose and call to live for creation in such a way that we tend it with the Divine intent, that we act for it in a way consistent with God’s love. It is a call to listen to the lament of creation in the songs of butterflies and abandon AstroTurf and all it symbolises.

[i] Michael Cavanagh & Stuart Mackenzie, AstroTurf, from the album Change. The whole song can be found here:


[iii] Laudato Si’: 2

[iv] Sermon 60: “The General Deliverance”, Works: 2:441.

[v] The natural and political image are inferred by John Wesley’s opening comments in “Salvation by Faith”, Works, 1:117-118 and this threefold image is outlined more completely in Sermon 45: “The New Birth” Works 2:188ff.

[vi] Sermon 60: “The General Deliverance”, Works 2:440

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