Vocation: An Easter Challenge for the Church

by Catrin Harland Davies.

It’s the beginning of the summer term. As a university chaplain, I can sense the rising stress levels, as students sit their final exams, and prepare for the rest of their lives. Some have their careers all planned out, but many – perhaps most – are still working it out. They may take time out, earn some cash, travel, or frantically apply for any graduate job they can find. They’re looking for some certainty, not about the next 40+ years, but about the immediate future and the next steps.

At this point in the lectionary cycle, we find the early church doing something similar. The disciples are asking themselves, “What next?” Should they return to their previous trades, wait for the next exciting adventure, or just lie low and keep out of trouble? Over the coming weeks, and following Pentecost, they gain understanding and confidence to step out in faith into the unknown.

Perhaps the church is once again – or always – at this stage? Perhaps, once again, we face questions about our vocation as a church, and our individual callings within that, which combine uncertainty with exciting possibilities for the future? I would like to suggest that we need to follow a similar process to the early disciples and almost every new graduate!

Firstly, we need to rediscover our fundamental vocation to be the laos or laity – the people of God. One of the immediate instincts of the disciples, post-resurrection, was to go back to what they knew: specifically, fishing.[1] They decided to get on with their lives, while they worked out what this new reality meant for them. Like them, we live out our faith within our day-to-day lives of work, school, university, local community. We need to ask anew how to be faithful and faith-filled in that setting.

Of course, this process of rediscovery itself is not new. It has been the task of every generation of Christians since the resurrection. Each new context raises new questions, needing new answers. Even within the New Testament, see the different issues encountered in late first century Asia Minor[2] or mid-first century Thessalonica or Corinth, or the diverse challenges facing the various church communities in Revelation 2-3.

The conversation needs to happen individually, locally and nationally. It needs to happen ecumenically, but alert to possibility of a distinctive Methodist vocation. How is God calling us to be godly? How are we to be Easter people in our bit of today’s world?

Secondly, we need to ask what kind of leadership today’s church needs. Maybe we still need presbyters, deacons, missioners, stewards, treasurers, chairs of district, chaplains, evangelists… But perhaps there are also new forms of leadership that we need to create (or recreate), as we have done with the pioneer pathway. Reimagining leadership is not the task of an appointed few – it is our shared responsibility. If I sense God calling my local church in a particular direction, what use is it if I sit in my pew, tutting to myself that those in leadership have not discerned it? We all see only in part – if we pool our insights, our collective vision grows.

Similarly, we all need to take responsibility for recognising the leadership potential in one another. When was the last time you asked someone if they have considered offering as a preacher, a steward, or an ordained minister? And when did you last suggest that a person’s gift for oil painting, poetry or break dancing might be a blessing for the church? Often, it takes someone else to identify gifts in us, or to give us the courage to hear God’s call.

Employers invest a lot of time and money in careers fairs and recruitment events – for young adults, considering how best to apply their education, or older applicants, considering a career change. Do we, as a church, ask our members how God is calling them to live out their Christian vocation right now? Do we invest time and energy – money, even – in helping everyone to use their gifts for God’s mission?

Thirdly, we need to remember always that it’s neither our church, nor our mission. They’re God’s. Our task is no more and no less than to be open to being drawn into God’s mission. That’s not a get-out from all the above, but it is to say that God is bigger than the church, and God may be doing a new thing. Like the companions on the way to Emmaus, our task is to ask what is going on, to listen to Christ, to make use of the means of grace, and to allow our eyes to be opened.

 

[1] John 21:3

[2] As seen, for example, in 1 Peter

We need to talk about blood

by Frances Young.

A few weeks ago I’d been asked to do a Lent address in the context of Evensong on the subject of sacrifice. In the discussion afterwards it was blood that people focussed on, finding it a particuarly difficult thing to get their heads around.

So we need to talk about blood.

When I was a student there was a great debate going on about the meaning of blood in the Bible. Some argued that it meant violent death – witness that cry in the Gospel passion-story, “His blood be upon our heads!” Others pointed to Leviticus 17.11: “ For the life of the flesh is in the blood.” But surely that debate reflected a false dichotomy. The shedding of blood meant death because the blood was the mysterious substance of life, and life was sacred. So blood was a kind of taboo substance with extraordinary powers. Thus it was that God said, “ I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar.” (Lev. 17.11), and Hebrews 9.22 picked that up: “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Blood was used to decontaminate the altar, the Holy of Holies, everything needed to worship God, the Holy One, because it was the sacred stuff of life. And it was released for that purpose by sacrificing an animal. The release of the life-blood meant death – through death comes life.

Now this was the fundamental principle of sacrificial practice. When Deuteronomy insisted that sacrifice could only take place in the Jerusalem Temple, it had to make special provision for secular slaughter – before that every time a herdsman killed a fatted calf it was a sacrifice. Kosher and Halal rules are survivals of that. No animal could be slaughtered for meat without religious acknowledgement of the seriousness of taking life – any life. Sacrifice was fundamentally about food – it was recognition that every time we eat, something dies that we might live.  It was not just about meat, but bread and cakes, oil and wine – offerings to the God who supplied the necessities of life, recognition of dependence on God for life, acknowledgement that life was a gift, and something has to die that we may live, even if we’re vegetarian – for only living, organic matter sustains life. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (Jn. 12.24)

The problem for us is that we don’t any longer experience the realities of food production – it’s all hidden away in mills and abattoirs. So we get hung up about things which once were everyday – yet  never taken for granted. Blood has become yucky where once it was taboo and sacred. And most of us have even given up on saying grace … Visiting a synagogue once I noted in their handout something like this: to pray asking God for bread is to hallow God’s name – for it acknowledges utter dependence on the Creator for our very existence and life. That is the main thing that sacrifice was once all about.

So how on earth did the crucifixion of Jesus come to be seen as a sacrifice? There was no altar, no fire, no priest, no meat to share, etc. etc. Well, clearly, sacrifices came to express everything to do with the relationship between God and the people: in everyday life, gifts and feasts are key to celebrating occasions, saying ‘thankyou’ or ‘sorry’, and in a parallel way, sacrifices reinforced prayer and were freighted with all kinds of meanings. In particular, the powerful substance, sacrificial blood, not only dealt with sin, but had protected the people from the angel of death in Egypt, and had sealed the covenant between God and the people, the Passover being a commemoration of the founding story of the Exodus. The Last Supper narratives, and much else in the New Testament and early Christianity, points to the notion that Jesus re-enacted the Passover and initiated the new covenant through his death, and through ‘eating his flesh and drinking his blood’ believers could receive both forgiveness and eternal life. Thus, through death comes life, both literally and spiritually.

Maybe we need to talk about blood to get it!

Holy Week Again

by Elaine Lindridge.

Talking to a colleague last week I discovered that she’s flying out to see her family in Greece on Easter Monday. She told me that in Greece, Easter is celebrated one week later this year. So that basically means that like us all she has already journey from Palm Sunday and through Holy Week. But unlike us, today she starts all over again.

She’s already journeyed from the celebrations of Palm Sunday, the gravity of Gethsemane, the horror of Good Friday, the lament and doubt of Holy Saturday, through to the joy of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. Now she faces Holy Week afresh!

Let me tell you, my brain struggles to comprehend this. It must feel strange to say the least. But as I pondered this, it occurred to me that so many of the themes of Easter are not merely restricted to Holy Week. We don’t restrict our celebration of Jesus as the Resurrected Christ just to Easter Sunday, so why then should we even consider not acknowledging the other subjects at various points during the year from one Easter to the next?

Through life, through a year, there are aspects of Holy Week that we might feel like we go through again and again – almost like a spiritual groundhog day. In a sense, we experience Easter over and over again.

Doubt and confusion isn’t confined just to Holy Saturday. There are occasions right through the year when we may struggle with feelings of uncertainty. Events that leave us reeling and asking ‘Where are you Jesus?’. There will undoubtedly be times for some when faith just does not make sense.

Death and loss aren’t confined to Good Friday. Whether that be the pain of losing a loved one, or dealing with the bereavement we feel when the events of life let us down.

Betrayal isn’t confined to last Thursday. Whether that be the betrayal we experience from friends or family members, systems or structures, employers or leaders.

Silence isn’t confined to last Wednesday. Whether that be the kind of silence we need before we take a deep breath in order to face something difficult. Or the kind of silence that helps us restore our balance again when every in life is changing.

Acts of extravagant generosity aren’t confined to last Tuesday when we remembered the woman anointing Jesus. We see a world in need and our only response at times is to be excessively and sacrificially generous.

Anger at the state of the world (and maybe the Church) isn’t confined to last Monday when we remembered that Jesus turned the tables over in the temple. Anger at the injustices we see or experience can break in at the most unexpected and inconvenient times. God may ask us to turn over tables at any point during the year!

Acclamations and shouts of hosanna are not confined to Palm Sunday. Every day is a day to proclaim that Jesus is coming.

It’s all part of the tapestry of life. Whether last week for us, or this week for my colleague in Greece, the one constant through each of these days is Jesus who is with us through every step and stumble of life. Our unmovable, faithful companion and friend. The one who reigns as Lord and King…yesterday, today, tomorrow and forever more.

Consenting to make myself yet more vile

by David Easton.

In January the i newspaper ran a column by Simon Kelner in which he wrote of a young colleague of his who went to see Darkest Hour, the latest film about Churchill. She had said that at the end of the film ‘people were standing up in the cinema, applauding and cheering’ and that she joined in. Kelner went on to suggest that this might have been because the audience contrasted Churchill’s inspirational style with the ‘political leadership that is so lacking these days.’

Churchill was not, of course, without his critics, even in his own day. Nor was he without a number of flaws which would be only too readily exposed in today’s age of less deference and the re-tweeted remark. But you don’t have to agree with the man to accept that he could inspire both the public and the House of Commons. Harold Nicholson’s diaries, for example, record that he was able, by sheer force of personality, to win over a doubtful House.

So, who are those who are able to inspire today? Scarily they often seem to be – although not universally – people whose views I for one could never embrace. You won’t be surprised that I am thinking of Donald Trump, and Nigel Farage but also, in the more acceptable spectrum, people like Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and Emmanuel Macron. Whatever you think of what they say, you would surely be hard-pushed to deny that how they say inspires large numbers within various populations.

Where does all this leave the Church? How do we, if you agree that we should, inspire people with ideas today? When Wesley consented to make himself ‘yet more vile’ by preaching in the open air, was that an inspirational act? In some ways it must have been although I surely cannot be the only one who has read Wesley’s forty-four sermons and who has wondered how they managed to inspire the crowds who gathered to hear him – even allowing for the fact that we receive them in written form. Whitfield was, by all accounts, better at ‘working’ a crowd.

Even if we don’t follow Wesley’s example of standing in a public place, how do we speak to the so-called ‘person in the street’? And more significantly, how do we speak in a language that will inspire and be understood? My observation is that a lot of what we would broadly call ‘Christian apologetics’ is written by and addressed to the educated and erudite. There are exceptions, for example Ailster McGrath, who has done a lot of work on how Christianity may be made ‘plain’, although when you first meet him your first thought would not be ‘Here is a man who can get down and wrestle with the masses’.

I am not arguing for ‘dumbing down’ but I am pleading, for example, for sermons that are inspirational and accessible rather than in the form of a lecture. I am pleading for a Church and for individual Christians who can engage easily and readily with those outside the formal parameters of the Church.

I look at the ministry of Jesus and I see someone who spent a lot of his time on the street. So, how do we, how do I, communicate the heart of what we believe with inspirational street talk? And how do I/we do that with integrity and not by playing on people’s baser instincts – which seems to be the way of some of those individuals I have mentioned? We sometimes speak of ‘the theology of the Word’, but we need, just as much, the word that speaks of theology. And, in all of this, how far am I, how far is the Church, prepared to make itself ‘yet more vile’ by stepping outside of the four walls of its familiar comfort zones and  ways of speaking?

A Brief Theology of Thought

by Aaron Edwards.

One of the ever-present dangers of our digital age is not only the extent to which it makes us thoughtless, but also the extent to which it overwhelms us with thoughts, and the potential for more thoughts, ever threatening to destabilise our ability to handle the rapidly underdeveloped thoughts we currently have in our heads. We are more readily aware of what we don’t know than ever before and our digitised selves yearn not only to be known but to be in the know of all that can be known.

Wesley encouraged his ministers to read books for at least five hours a day. In our thoughtlessly bureaucratic age, the average full-time academic – let alone the average minister[!] – is lucky if they get to read a book for 5 hours per week. With our time ever-squashed by the weight of our inboxes, we are painfully aware of all we’d like to know, but never will. There are books that stare down at us from our shelves, judging us for our perpetual neglect of their thoughts. To buy books, said Schopenhauer, would be a wonderful thing, if only we could also buy the time to read them. One of the problems of this is that in our perpetual grasp of more thoughts, we lose sight of the point of thought itself. We pursue a kind of intellectual wholeness, or peace – but we forget that intellectual peace is contingent, and is less about how much we know than about how we know.

The trouble is, there are always more thoughts to think. And because there are always more thoughts to think, we can never be satisfied with our grasp of what we currently pertain to know. Nobody is ultimately satisfied with their thoughts, with their intellectual grasp of reality and ideality. There are gaping voids in our mosaic, most of which we don’t even know about because we can only see one small part of the mosaic and we tend to think of it as ‘complete’. There are always more thoughts to think.

All this might be cause for intellectual despair, as swathes of twentieth century philosophers, in one way or another, led us to believe. And yet intellectual peace is not actually impossible, precisely because it is not located in our comprehensive mastery of all that can be known. Our mistake is to think that if only we grasped the true depths of Dostoevsky, if only we apprehended the historical nuances of the French Revolution, if only we understood the forces behind economics, if only we had a firmer grasp of this or that doctrine, then suddenly all would fall into place and we would reach that zen of intellectual peace. But alas! There are always more thoughts to think.

Indeed, God has precisely designed this problem for us. Of the making of books there is no end, said Solomon. The more we know, the more we need to know. And yet God does not discourage our pursuit of knowing. Rather, he calls us to have ‘a theology of knowing’, to desire Him in the midst of our knowledge of all the reality and ideality that we might find. If we seek knowledge in the hope that it will make us happier or more in control of our grasp of reality we are making a fatal mistake. You rarely meet a satisfied professor. There is always another article to research, another book to write. They never simply “retire” from thought. Even at the apex of their powers, as conference acolytes gather around them wide-eyed in the hopes that some crumbs of their vast expertise or wisdom would drop down from the table, you often sense they themselves are yet troubled by all that they know they don’t know, all they are yet to know, all that they do not know as clearly as they once knew. And so the thinking goes on. And if we’re not careful, we can lose our way along the way.

We need a thoughtfulness to our thinking; we need to know why we ought to think, and what relationship thinking has to discipleship and worship. God is the greatest thinker of all, the most attentive scholar of all of reality and ideality, the One who is truly in the know. We too often begrudge him his supreme professorship and seek to dethrone him by becoming ‘like him’ in our knowing, which is a supremely thoughtless thing to do, as Adam and Eve well knew. But there is something we know, as surely as one can know anything: the One who knows all has made Himself known to us in Jesus Christ, who in turn has sent us his Spirit as our guide and counsellor, as the one who will lead us into all truth. What can this mean? Will we know ‘all truths’ that are knowable? We groan here in our earthly tents, in our earthly heads, knowing in part, waiting for the crumbs of manna to drop from the Professor’s table.

But these crumbs do not drop accidentally. For He not only knows all reality, but orders all reality and calls a people to his purposes. As we give ourselves to His purposes instead of our own, He gives us what we need to know and guides us in our knowing; He calls us after Him in perpetual thoughtful worship of all He is and all He has made. This means we will undoubtedly need to think more thoughts, to pursue more knowledge, to love him with more of our mind. But it means we will think thoughts far less thoughtlessly, far more peacefully, far more theologically. And in doing so we will find our thoughts go farther than they ever could when we were stressfully scrabbling and haggling for yet another shard for our hapless mosaics.

Creative spirit

by Barbara Glasson.

My spirituality and my creativity are closely linked. I have known this for a long time yet I have always foolishly thought that my spirituality was the serious business of prayer and worship whereas my creativity was a light hearted playfulness for spare moments. I can see that I have got that wrong.

Creativity is a drive, a primal and essential force, something quintessentially human, that means there is a desire and longing and impulse to create a thing, an object , a substance. For me, creativity is not an optional extra, it is of the core of my humanity. Because I am created, because I am a creature, then I also need to create. I am invited into a conversation between my imagination and the Unknown.

Creativity is not about craft, about a skill like knitting or throwing a pot, although it might need a skill to achieve it.  It is more about an impulse, a longing, a deep desire or irresistible curiosity to explore an object or colour or concept. Creativity comes from a force beyond ourselves. It is a primal imperative. And this imperative emerges from the imagination or subconscious or, I would want to say, the Divine Creator. It is not an act of will alone, it is the result of a connection of ideas. Creativity is a spark. The sculptor Anish Kapoor talks of creativity as an invitation, a process in which we are invited to participate. Ultimately it is a question about meaning, meaning being revealed to us through mystery.

So, if this mysterious world of the imagination brings a spark of otherness, of beauty of hints of a world beyond this one, why is it that Church can be such an uncreative place? With the possible exception of a splash of PVA glue and blunt scissors at Messy Church, or our attempts to decorate chapel interiors with flowers or banners, on the whole our experience of church is often more of a spectator sport than an engagement with the Unknown.

At this point I sense a certain toe-curling angst and flashbacks to school art lessons which puts the fear of God into many a good Methodist. We can feel more pragmatists than Pollocks. We can be intoxicated by a sober cocktail of justification by works and the Protestant work ethic. Our churches can be cluttered up with ‘stuff’ rather than places of space, beauty, texture and imagination. Although chapels may be more like store cupboards than treasure troves I’m not advocating we give up sermons in favour of oil paints. What I am suggesting is that we give space to those creatives amongst us and help them to stop sitting on their hands. Release the right brains!

This is not necessarily a call for us to access our inner Rembrandt but rather a prompt to widen our conversation. Whilst creativity can be the prerogative of the lone explorer, like most spiritual exercises it can also be the soil in which communities grow together. Shared creativity gives the possibility of meeting in spaces that don’t rely on a contract of shared belief. It is within this shared process there is the possibility of surprise.

Banksy demostrates that creativity can be subversive. Certainly art is often prophetic, enabling us to see the world differently. Craftivism is a new movement that harnesses creativity in a search for justice.[i] Creativity is a truth-teller.

‘Art is not a private nightmare, not even a private dream, it is a shared human connection that traces the possibilities of past and future in the whorl of now.’[ii]

Creativity opens up dimensions of the spirit that are often submerged by the routines of everyday life. Creativity gives time and attention both to the detail of the material world but also to the mystery beyond it. Creativity is the birthright that Yawheh gives to humankind when breathing life into us. In creating the creator is created, and creation is re-created by the Creator.

‘Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, describe what is going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or , if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.’[iii]

 

[i] Corbett 2, Craftivism Collective 2009.

[ii] Winterston J, Art Objects, (Vintage, 1996), p. 117.

[iii] Dillard A, ‘Heaven and Earth in Jest’ in Creators on Creating, (Penguin, 1997), p.84.

All called to be witnesses

by Steve Wild.

On Sunday 21st September 1760 John Wesley was in Cornwall at the Gwennap Pit. He doesn’t give the number of people attending but says, “it was the largest congregation of all,” and as he had been there probably ten times before there must have been quite a crowd. He goes on, “It rained all the time I was preaching,” so the crowd was made of stronger stuff in those days!

The day concluded with a lovefeast although perhaps there were less people at this, such gatherings usually had “a little plain cake and water” together with singing and testimony. Wesley goes on to say “James Roberts, a tinner of St Ives, related how God had dealt with his soul.” There follows a very full account of this testimony which must have deeply impressed our founder on this Cornish visit.

Last month we saw the death of the exemplar evangelist Dr Billy Graham, he like Wesley had a very rare gift in communicating the heart of the gospel to ordinary people. The Sunday following his death I asked my congregations how many of them had heard Billy Graham live and how had that affected their lives? In the three congregations there were several people who had heard him and committed their lives to Christ as a result. My services seemed to take on a different tone as some of these folk shared their story, the organist at one church waved his copy of the Billy Graham Music Book from the Earls Court Mission in the 1960s – which he still uses!

It was moving to hear folk talk of their encounter with God, some of them at the Harringay Arena in 1954… just before I was born!

There is a power in testimony which my congregations warmed to, there was a vibrancy and energy that came across and I was touched at the simplicity of the stories and the faithful lives that backed them.

In the marvellous story of Jesus healing a man born blind in John’s gospel chapter 9, the Pharisees investigate the healing and the man gives testimony, “One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” In the dilemma in this story he states the fact that he is not an authority, but he is a witness. We are called to be witnesses the first letter of Peter says “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” We are not all called to be evangelists but are all called to be witnesses.

In Luke’s gospel we have another healing story. In chapter 8 a demon possessed man is cured and he wants to stay with Jesus but our Lord says, “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.” So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him. Conversion involves a responsibility to share faith.

I love the connexional “Talking of God” faith sharing course which helps individuals and congregations to talk about their faith journey. We do this best like my congregations on Sunday, by being authentic and unpracticed but stating a genuine life experience.

Personal testimony has to be honest, one lady on Sunday said to me, “It hasn’t all been easy.” Of course it hasn’t for she like all Christians has had her share of tough moments. All our stories are unique and it’s easy to be put off sharing because we feel our story is too “ordinary.” Years ago as a prison chaplain I had many requests to speak at churches and they almost all wanted me to bring a converted prisoner with me “to give testimony” and I would refuse. The new converts needed to make massive adjustments in following Christ so they were not a prize to be shown off; it is true that radical life transformation stories are heartwarming and faith building but they are not entertainment.

In the world church there is an openness to testimony through the Holy Spirit which I have witnessed as it flows naturally and interestingly – this is where the church is strong and growing. Perhaps it is something in our British way which holds us back from testifying what God means to us, but I believe that through testimony we can discover the helpfulness of the work of Christ in our and other people’s lives. This will be to the enrichment of our life and the whole church as we fulfill the call of God to be witnesses.