Being Grounded

by Barbara Glasson.

It is very irksome to have been grounded. I am deeply indignant; I do not feel that I have done anything so outrageous as to warrant being put on the naughty step for an indeterminate length of time. I reflect, that ‘being grounded’ was not a strategy that my parents had in their punitive kitbag. The biggest sanction I recall them having was ‘being ashamed’ as in ‘you really should be ashamed of yourself for crayoning on the piano’. But, as a punishment, ‘being grounded’ has become more prevalent, it seems to involve all kinds of levels of solitary confinement and restrictions to movement depending on the level of the offense. To be isolated from others and from our freedom to move about is indeed a miserable thing.

This phrase ‘being grounded’ has taken this recent trajectory of punishment by confinement but it also has a quite different and parallel connotation. ‘Being grounded’ is a phrase used by therapists to help people through panic attacks. It is used by clergy to centre us in prayer. It is used by mental health services to keep patients in touch with reality. It is not about punishment at all but about a feet on the turf existential reality check. Literally, putting us back in touch with the ground. If I think about this use of the phrase then I think of physical reality, of my feet on the solid surface of the earth, I can feel it through the soles of my feet, this firm and steady place, this present moment.

Currently, in the face of Covid-19 we live these two meanings at the same time,  We are both confined in our movements but also back in touch with the place on which we stand; we can do no other!

For the theologian Paul Tillich there was a tension between God as ‘presence’ and God as ‘ground’. And maybe this tension is useful to revisit right now. The thing about ‘ground’ is that is a place of assurance, it is a place to stand still, to be ‘rooted and grounded’. It is an anchor point, something that underlies everything else, it is firm. Which is curious because to ‘be ground’ is to be mashed into a lot of little bits, such are the mysteries of the English language! I digress.

To think of God as ‘ground’ as opposed to ‘presence’ is to move God away from analogies with human foibles and uncertainties. God becomes part of existence, the reliable substrate of life. God underpins everything and centres us differently in relation to the earth. And, whilst I personally don’t want to relinquish the sense of God as ‘presence’ I am also reassured and fortified by a sense of God being the ‘ground’.

I have recently discovered a book by Edmund Newell, The Sacramental Sea in which he explores the relationship between humanity and ‘The Deep’.[i] He draws initially on the book of Genesis, in which he reminds us that when God made the world the Deep was already there as dark, primal chaos. In Genesis 1:9 we read, ‘Then God said, let the water under the sky come together in one area, and let dry ground appear’. So the dry ground is the antithesis of the chaos, the ground is the place on which God will position the whole of creation, it is declared good,

So, to be ‘grounded’ is not simply a good psychological tool or centring device in a metaphorical sense, it is to be centred firmly on the holiness of God’s loving purposes for the world. When we are grounded in the presence of the Divine (however we want to describe this) God’s presence is not arbitrary, it is the core of who we are, it is our very being.

‘Being rooted and grounded in love’ as the writer of the letter to the Ephesians reminds us, (Ephesians 4: 17) is to be given the gift of comprehending the width and depth of God’s love for us. To be grounded, is to be held in the sure and certain foundations of God’s grace.

This is not to dismiss the punitive nature of being grounded, because surely the reason for our present predicament is within our shared humanity’s neglect of the natural balance and order of the Earth. But it is to say, that if we can find our relationship with the Creator to be the place where we stand, then maybe a new perspective and a new sense of grace might come as gift?

 

 

[i] Edmund Newell, The Sacramental Sea: A Spiritual Voyage through Christian History, (2019, London: DLT)

 

Going Viral

by Catrin Harland-Davies.

As I write this, the country is closing down. Those who may be vulnerable to infection have been advised to stay at home, pubs and restaurants have been told to close, and we cannot gather for worship.

The response of many churches, circuits and districts has been to find ways of connecting us remotely, to care for one another and to worship together. But many of us are feeling a strong sense of dislocation and despair. And, for some of us, our natural reaction in such times is to turn to our Bibles for encouragement.

The Bible is certainly not silent on such experiences. But I’d like to home in on two fairly significant themes that have been resonating with me over the last week or so. The first is exodus and the second is exile.

Exodus

A band of slaves, pursued and afraid, lands on the far side of the Red Sea to see their enemies swept away and freedom suddenly theirs. The story of Moses and the people of Israel in the wilderness begins with exhilaration, jubilation, adrenaline pumping and a new adventure dawning. I doubt there are many who feel like that about the Covid-19 crisis, but there do seem to be many who are rising to the challenge with maybe just a slight sense of challenge and adventure. But in the 40 years that would follow, the Israelites began to wonder whether what they had lost was so bad after all.

Yet what lay ahead was the promise of something amazing! I find myself looking back longingly at a time when we only had Brexit, austerity, rising crime and floods to deal with! And perhaps we hope for a future which may, despite all the pain, feel better and more hopeful. Will this force us to rethink our investment in the NHS, our treatment of those in poverty, or the blind eye we turn to parts of the world with far greater mortality than the virus will bring? Will our worship be renewed and reenergised? And will we have discovered a new and deeper community spirit, through being denied each other’s companionship for so long?

The reality is probably that the promised land will not be flowing with all the milk and honey that we optimistically hope for, but maybe, as we land on the far side of the Jordan, we might find reason to rejoice – which will not, as is so often the case, and was so for Israel, later look back to the time of wilderness or suffering as somehow a golden era to be mourned in turn.

Exile

A large proportion of the Hebrew Bible was probably written during the Babylonian exile – a time of grief, frustration, anger. You just have to read Psalm 137 to see how deep the emotions could run. Without their Temple, their sacrifices, their usual patterns of worship, how could they even be God’s people? But even amongst the grief, that question of despair became a question of practicality – how, in practice, could they be God’s people? So we see the codifying of laws, a tightening of purity regulations and questions of Jewish identity. Some of the more legalistic parts of the Torah (Genesis to Deuteronomy) were probably written during this period. And in the midst of this, there comes also the call to buckle down and make a go of it: “Build houses and live in them,” Jeremiah tells the exiles[1]. This is for the long haul, so there is a need to make the best of it.

But this is not just about strategies for survival in the present reality of exile; what will happen at the end? The concern with purity of life and worship is about a desire to keep faith away from the normality of life at home, but also about a concern that life could pick up where it had left off, once exile was over. The grief was for a way of life and worship lost, that might never be recovered. The Jeremiah approach recognised that there might not be an end close enough to be in sight.

Throughout, there is the question that remains for us now, in our much shorter, but still real, exile: what about the return? The canon is not neutral; the order of the books in the Bible is not accidental, but reflects something of the theology of those who put it together. The Jewish Scriptures end not with Malachi, as the Christian Old Testament does, but with Chronicles, and the promise of return to Jerusalem. But would the exiles actually return, and would life return to normal? The question for us as a church must be, not only how do we cope with the exile, but how do we welcome one another back at the end, and to what? What will our church look like, and will we want to return?

Like the Israelites in the wilderness, and the exiles in Babylon, our task – our challenge – is to keep faith. God has not left us, even when the doors are shut.

 

[1] Jeremiah 29:5

The Serpent-Christ

by Frances Young.

The Serpent-Christ [1]

Deep, deep in the veins is the poison lodged.

The mind is crippled: no antidote

For wisdom’s sting, while the serpent sleeps

In the noon-day sun, warm on the tarmac,

beautiful.

 

Weak, weak is the heart by venom infected –

Yet seemingly strong: for the serpent-coils,

Tensed like a spring, speak power to leap

To the heavens, up the heated stones of Babel,

masterful.

 

Beaten, beaten down like wheat in a storm

Are dreams of good: no peace but a sword

While the wound festers. The serpent sleeps

In the noon-day sun, warm on the tarmac,

beautiful.

 

High, lifted on high, is the antidote:

For life is hid with the serpent-Christ

Who bears the serpent’s curse, and refines

Knowledge of good and evil – now

inseparable.

That poem emerged years ago from  pondering a striking modern crucifix I’d seen in an old tumble-down church in a French village – an outline figure remarkable in its curvacious, almost coil-like shape – the serpent-Christ. On the bike a few days later I’d almost ridden over a snake basking in the sun on the heated tarmac.  Insight into a whole series of biblical associations was triggered, which came to me afresh this year in response to the lectionary for the first two Sundays in Lent.

The train of thought began with John 3.14-15: ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up..’; and turning to Numbers 21.4-9, that strange story  took on new meaning.

The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”

This ‘miserable food’ was nothing other than God’s gift of manna. Then we’re told, ‘the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.’ The people came to their senses, confessed their sin and asked Moses to plead with the Lord to rid them of the snakes. Moses interceded and was told to make a serpent and set it up on a pole so that anyone who’d been bitten could look on it and be healed. The bronze serpent is the antidote to the snakebites.

In the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, snakes appear as hostile beings to be repulsed with spells, but also with magical powers for renewal of life.[2] Generally in antiquity, the serpent was a symbol of wisdom.[3] Jesus is reported to have said, ‘Be wise as serpents.’ The name, Naasenes (Naas = snake in Hebrew) or Ophites (ophis = snake in Greek), was given to certain gnostic heretics; clearly they were snake-worshippers, the snake symbolising the knowledge or wisdom which brought salvation. In Genesis the snake tempts Adam and Eve with the promise of knowledge, and some rediscovered gnostic texts depict the serpent as the ‘goody’ in the story, offering the knowledge needed to escape from the clutches of the ‘baddy’ Creator-God.  From the usual point of view they read Genesis upside-down; but what was there to stop them? The serpent was a symbol of wisdom.

The snake-bite in the desert was an attack of ordinary human wisdom. When you’re dying of hunger and thirst, and not getting anywhere, what’s the commonsense thing to do? The antidote was the bronze serpent raised on a pole – the true wisdom that comes from God. So arises the Gospel insight that the wisdom of God was embodied in Jesus, the Son of Man, lifted up on the cross as the antidote to the serpent’s curse.

The challenge: where is divine wisdom in the current wilderness of climate change and coronavirus?

 

[1] Select verses from a poem published in Frances Young, God’s Presence. A Contemporary Recapitulation of Early Christianity (Cambridge: CUP, 2013), pp. 255-6. Biblical References: Genesis 3.1-7; 11.1-9; Numbers 21.4-9; John 3.14-5.

[2] The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, British Museum Exhibition, November-March 2011. See John H. Taylor, Spells for Eternity. The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead (London: British Museum press, 2010), p. 65.

[3] Statuettes of the Cretan goddess of wisdom show her with snakes in her hands. The healing wisdom of the Greek god Asclepius was symbolised by the snake.

Every name tells a story…

by Will Fletcher.

‘Every name tells a story.’ These words are pondered by Jim as he sits in a New Orleans’ bar in Patrick Neate’s novel Twelve Bar Blues (a book to be read with caution if you are sensitive to bad language and topics including prostitution). Jim finds himself surrounded by people with exotic sounding names – the African American bar owner called Molly Malone, as her parents loved the song; Sylvia di Napoli, a lady he met on a plane to New York and then travelled around the USA with as she sought to discover who she was; and Musa, the African witch-doctor who arrived to help Sylvia discover her destiny. Surrounded by such characters, Jim felt as though he was the only one whose name did not tell a story.

What made Sylvia’s story more gripping (though in places more confusing) was that hers was a story told over different centuries and countries as we read her story in parallel with that of her ancestors. Her story was not just about her and her parents, but also grandparents and beyond – people whom she had never met – yet whose stories were intimately tied up with hers.

At the same time as reading this novel, my mum gave me an old Family Bible, given as a wedding present to one set of my great-grandparents. In it is listed all the births, marriages and deaths on my mother’s side of the family ever since. It mentions my great-grandfather, Francis: born 1886, married 1909, died 1972. But it only contains facts. What brings him to life for me, what highlights those points of connection across the generations are the stories I’ve been told about him: Trades Unionist and Labour Party member, passionate about justice, an avid member of his community, clearly enjoyed writing as he wrote a monthly newsletter to all the boys from his village who were away fighting in the Second World War. Knowing where we are from is more than a list of dates or events. Sylvia reveals further wisdom when she says, ‘Truth doesn’t prove anything but itself. Stories are about people.’

We are being encouraged this year by our President and Vice-President to consider the question ‘So what’s the story?’ For each of us, whether we consider ourselves a Sylvia or a Jim, has a complicated story that leads us to this moment, made up of characters we know, those who are only names in a family tree, and even those whose names have been lost to us. Complicated those these stories might be, they are important as they reveal something of who we are, and we may glimpse those familial traits passing down the generations.

It is not just in our biological families that these stories are important, but in our faith family as well. We retell our faith stories as we read Scripture week by week, and as we recall the story of salvation in Communion liturgies. Going further, in the opening verses of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is linked back through David, Ruth, Jacob all the way to Abraham reminding us that we have a common ancestry of faith filled with the good, the bad and the unknown. Retelling these stories (including those with which we may be uncomfortable) is at least as important to us in helping us understand who we are as reciting a list of facts or statements.

I wonder whether we also need a greater focus on retelling those stories of our faith family that lie between us and the events of Scripture. We can all easily speak of our ‘tradition’ either in a positive or a negative sense as though it has always existed, as though we have always thought this way, or done this particular thing. Yet the stories of our ancestors in the faith are far more complex and far richer.

The last wisdom from Twelve Bar Blues for this post is about our reason for such sharing of our stories. When it was suggested Musa had arrived to help Sylvia discover where she was from, he corrected this saying he had come to help Sylvia discover her destiny. We may have a different way of speaking of our future, but the sense is the same. We should seek to discover our stories from our faith family, not only to understand where we have come from, rooting ourselves in our past; but also to discover where our future may be heading.

‘Don’t worry – be happy’

by Stephen Wigley.

A couple of months ago I was attending a funeral for a much loved colleague. Right at the end of the committal service and just as we were preparing to leave, the music came on – and to our surprise it was Bobby McFerrin singing ‘Don’t worry – be happy’, a song guaranteed to bring a smile to anyone’s face.

I was reminded of this when a couple of weeks ago, I attended a service at our local Anglican church. The Gospel reading was Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount recounting Jesus’ invitation to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. We were being encouraged to take seriously concerns about God’s creation and our environment and then, right at the end of the reading, heard Jesus’ surprising summary; ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.’

It certainly made me think – because worrying about the future, especially the future of our planet in the context of carbon emissions and climate change, is precisely what we are being challenged to do. And not just to worry, but to do something about it; whether it’s to re-examine our lifestyles, what we consume and how we travel, or where, as individuals or institutions, we place our money and investments. Worrying about tomorrow so that we can make critical choices today is just what we are being challenged to do.

So what is it that Jesus means when he says, ‘Don’t worry about tomorrow’? He speaks about the pressures people face in terms of what to eat, to drink or to wear. Are these more about wider societal pressures and expectations rather than concerns about the basic matters of subsistence? Yet Jesus also asks whether any of us can by worrying add an hour to our span of life; and we know that very basic decisions about diet and exercise can make a big difference in terms of life quality and expectancy.

The 20th century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was an advocate of ‘Christian realism’, an approach wary of abstract, aspirational claims which sought to emphasise instead what was practical and achievable, as in his famous prayer; ‘God give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and wisdom to distinguish one from the other.’

Is that what is going on here? Is Jesus suggesting simply that we should stop fretting about the things we cannot change and make the most of what we have and can do something about? Or is he reminding us of those things which should have stronger claims on our time and attention, in terms of striving first ‘for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’.

This can give the impression of our wanting both to have our cake and eat it. But in the meantime, climate scientists remind us that we can’t;  that the difficult choices needed are not just ones required of other people, whether governments, multinationals and financial institutions; that they equally involve us in the decisions we make about our lifestyles and consumption, food, clothes, cars – and yes, holidays too.

Not worrying, it seems to me, is not seeking to be let off the hook or absolved from the need to make challenging choices, but it is about being clear-sighted and realistic. It’s not just a matter of symbolic gestures to focus attention, however significant these can appear; it’s also about building a consensus for making those practical decisions which involve the most people and can make the biggest difference.

It’s also about that fundamental optimism which Jesus shares in the Sermon on the Mount and which goes to the heart of our faith; that in the end it’s the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness which counts. That’s why I remain encouraged by the tone and title of the Methodist Conference statement on climate change, ‘Hope in God’s Future’. It’s not that we shouldn’t be actively concerned – but it’s more than our worrying which will make the difference. It’s ‘Don’t worry, be happy – and share in God’s care for creation’.

Canons within the Canon

by Clive Marsh.

I’ve been leading quite a few sessions with church groups recently about what it means to be ‘biblical’. Given that all Christians are biblical in some sense (you cannot not be and still call yourself Christian) the key question then is in what sense we are biblical. I’ve enjoyed introducing some mischievous exercises within large groups which require people to identify honestly what they do and do not know about the Bible, like or do not like about the Bible, and which books (or bits), in practice, they lean on most in their Christian lives. It’s been good fun. It’s also been very serious stuff indeed. What comes to light is which books, or sometimes almost whole sections, of the biblical canon can in practice fall by the wayside. Not surprisingly, the four canonical Gospels always make a final list, but many other books do not. In reality, in the groups I have worked with, about a third (20+ books) of the 66 books of the Protestant Canon are in most active use. Genesis, Psalms and Isaiah usually make the final cut from the Old Testament, and some of the ‘heavy’ (lengthy) Pauline letters – though not always the same ones. Romans, I Corinthians and Galatians are front-runners, though often only two of those three make the final ‘canon within the canon’ (even if this is likely to do more with the structures of my exercise than the relative merits of those books).

All of this is not extensive, carefully mapped, methodologically thought-through scientific research, of course. But the reflections I am offering are not uninformed by evidence. I am feeding back to the church (mostly British Methodist churches, if you are interested) what is actually happening, and what people are presenting about what they actually do, and use, as everyday Christians, as opposed to what they perhaps think they should be saying, or what they think I might like to hear them say. We may all like to suppose, those of us who are proud Protestants, that our faith is based on the whole Bible, in a way which treats all of the 66 books as of equal merit, or, at least, that we might expect God to speak to us in a loud voice from any corner of any text. But things aren’t quite that simple.

Perhaps, indeed, it never was like this even if it remains true that it is best to keep the 66 books intact as the library of which churches are the guardian (or 73, if we are speaking of the Roman Catholic Church). For only in this way do we also keep in place the ‘texts of terror’ – those which we are embarrassed ever to have seen as authoritative yet which remain part of our history. We have to acknowledge before God the humanity of our history, and the people of Israel’s history before and alongside us, as well as the humanity of our present. We therefore carry materials with us in the canon that at times we are really not sure what to do with, as well as having the ‘Greatest Hits’ – texts which can move and shape people profoundly. Luther famously asked awkward questions of the letter of James (‘letter of straw’) and gained his intense shaft of revelatory light through reading Paul. Even the big names of Christian history made value-judgments, then, about the relative merits of texts within the canon.

But this is all dangerous terrain. We are not going to be able to argue that all biblical books should always be seen to carry equal value. Disturbingly, too, the groups I have worked with sometimes dispense too easily with books of the Torah, as if the ‘history books’ of the Old Testament are not really all that significant for Christian faith. We do need to keep on squabbling creatively and constructively within and across churches about which books in our collective library prove useful at different times for different purposes. We also now know full well that it is not simply about what is in a biblical text that matters. What’s behind a text (who wrote it? do we even know?), what’s in front of it (who’s reading it now, and where, how, and why are they reading it?), where God is (behind, in and in front of texts), and what company we keep as we are reading are all vital factors in helping us grasp a meaning to work with.

Classics, as the scholars remind us, are texts which keep on generating new, fresh, insightful meanings. They are never to be exhausted. The Biblical Canon is a compendium of classics. It is also a classic as a library. The library witnesses, as (Roman Catholic theologian) David Tracy reminded us a generation ago, to a person who is the quintessential Classic.[1] The only real reason for our continuing to read the Bible in such an enthusiastic way is so that we can understand God in Christ better. That reminder also helps us remember that biblical study and squabbling are not ends in themselves.

 

[1] David Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (London: SCM Press 1981), esp. chs. 6 and 7.

God in the night time

by Charity Hamilton.

“My whole world and future was swept from under my feet and all the walls that I had taken so long to build around me collapsed” wrote Caroline Flack a few weeks before the 40 year old presenter found herself in a ‘night-time place’ and died by suicide.[i] For any who haven’t found themselves in ‘night-time places’ Flack’s description of her world and future being swept from under her feet is an accurate one. In such places we lack the familiarity and security of our known environment, everything is in flux, outside our control. So destructive is that lack of security and control that the very ground on which we stand is swept away; the instability of our selves becomes evident. Norman Sartorius writes, ‘Suicide is a fundamental breakdown of trust between individual and social environment’[ii]; it is exactly as Flack suggests. With no firm ground on which to plant ourselves, with no light we fail to thrive and the best option soon appears to be death.

Christianity has historically condemned suicide as homicide of the self, a willingness to take a life – even one’s own – has been seen as a significant sin. For centuries Christian burial was denied to those who died by suicide, and many were taught that those who die by suicide will be barred from heaven. Suicide in England and Wales was ‘committed’ as a criminal act, based upon the Church’s moral stance that suicide was ‘self-murder’. This view persisted until the 1961 Suicide Act decriminalised suicide. The idea of suicide as a significant sin comes primarily from Augustine who taught that if we do not love our own lives then we cannot love the lives of others, or God. This Christian theological approach to suicide is further developed in the reformation and by Luther, emphasizing our calling: that we each have a calling from God and so to die by suicide is to refuse God’s call to us.

In 1996 Rowan Williams developed an argument that sees all human life as vocation, writing that ‘it is hard to see how the resignation of life because of its intolerable burden can express the nature and activity of God.’[iii] He explores how our lives are intricately bound up in the lives of others and so the decision to end one’s life is also a decision about the lives of others.

When confronted with difficulties, the question I find myself asking is ‘where is God in this?’ I agree with Williams, that all human life is bound up in God’s calling and that on each of our lives there is a specific vocation. However, I believe that in the resignation of life there is much that can be expressed about the nature and activity of God; a story to be told about suffering, night-time, wrestling and being overwhelmed – in which God is an ever present speck of light within the darkest of nights. Suicide is not failure to live up to God’s calling, it is simply a catastrophic severing or disconnection between an individual and their context in which God’s calling becomes obscured by distress, trauma and a seeming never-ending night-time. God is still there though.

Within suicide it isn’t enough for us to ask the question ‘Where is God in this?’ because for those of us who are not feeling our ‘world and future swept from under our feet’ our calling is to be the community which enacts God. In 2018 Middlesbrough was recorded as having the highest suicide rates out of 152 local authorities with twice the number of people dying to suicide than the national average. In a bid to reduce the number of deaths by suicide a Tees wide taskforce has been established to lower suicide rates. We are trying to create hope-filled communities in which suicide becomes less of an option but in which we recognise that for some, suicide will seem their only option. And that makes them no less called by God.

 

[i] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-51557180

[ii] Sartorius N (2003) Old age and suicide in Eastern Europe International Psychogeriatric Association Biannual Conference: Chicago

[iii]  Rowan Williams, Theological perspectives, British Medical Bulletin, Volume 52, Issue 2, April 1996, Pages 362–368, https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.bmb.a011551