Should Lent be interesting?

by Stephen Wigley.

‘Do you know of any churches doing anything interesting for Lent?’ It’s not an everyday question, but it’s one I was asked recently by a colleague who works in local radio. I think I know what she meant and was looking for; something different to the usual round of events to be found in church notices at this time of year, something which might contribute to an interesting radio programme.

My first thought was to rack my brain for churches which might indeed be doing something a little different, something beyond the usual round of lent lunches, midweek services and ecumenical bibles studies. And I confess that my initial investigation couldn’t come up with anything much beyond the normal pattern of events, however valuable and well-intentioned.

Nevertheless, the question set me thinking. What do I make of Lent and who is it for? Is it just for Christians inside the church or should it be something of interest, able to speak to the wider world? Is it primarily a time for refocusing on our spiritual discipline, either giving things up or taking new commitments on ‘for Lent’? Or does this give the wrong idea about Christian faith and church, that it’s all about saying ‘no’ to things rather than saying ‘yes’ to life?

These questions stayed with me as I set off to take my normal round of Sunday services. But as I drove in my car, I was struck by the number of other people out in the wind and rain on a fairly miserable Sunday morning in February. There were runners in fluorescent vests, cycling groups in lycra struggling up and whizzing down hills, and even some early morning rowers out on the river Taff, all puffing and panting away.

None of them were in Church; but all were undertaking some significant physical exercise, doing something which required a regular commitment week-in week-out, and which for many of them involved doing it in company, alongside others. This outdoor exercise seemed to be  something they considered it valuable enough for their well-being to be out doing in all sorts of weathers. That kind of discipline, that level of commitment didn’t put them off – rather it was part of the appeal, part of what made the exercise, whether running, riding or rowing, so valuable and worthwhile.

It made me think about our understanding, indeed my own discipline and practice of Lent, beyond that commitment over the years to simple lunches and times of prayer and study; that it may not be a time which appears particularly interesting or entertaining to others, but is one which reminds us of the need to commit and be serious about our faith; and that the God who comes to share with us in Jesus Christ is a God who makes some pretty demanding calls upon us – and asks us to ‘shape up’.

It suggested to me that this may be something which folk in the wider world already know, indeed are willing to recognise and understand; namely that the things which matter most are the things which are worth committing to – and that if we were a little more serious about our commitment to the faith we profess, then others might be a little more willing to take it seriously. And maybe that’s the message of Lent; that it’s a time for being serious rather than interesting – but who knows – taking things seriously may just make us and our faith a matter of more than local interest.

Towards a new manifesto

by Trevor Bates.

Given that the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries saw the European ‘empire style’ outreach in trading patterns enabled the Christian Churches of European lands to establish themselves among people of different ethnic and cultural lifestyles in far-flung lands, some of whom responded to the Gospel of Christ:

And given that the 21st century of economic globalisation and instability has brought about a movement of peoples to live in communities of diversity searching for safety and security, which are quite unique for Britain:

And given that people of different faiths and varying religious traditions are manifesting diverse patterns of human living – in terms of empathy, caring, endeavour, and celebration, in their new settings, sufficient to hint at an emerging cosmopolitan world:

What is God doing with us?

Where is Christ in the midst of this vortex of change?

What is the living God saying to us as Christians?

 

WHAT IS GOD DOING WITH US?

Wilfred Cantwell Smith argues that: ‘All human history is Heilsgeschichte (salvation history). Not Israel’s only, either the old or the new, but the history of every religious community. [And] This has always been true: although we are the first generation of Christians to see this seriously and corporately, and to be able to respond to the vision.’[i] This insight should give Christians renewed confidence to proclaim that history should be seen as ‘the arena of divine actions,’ and realise that the Christian communities in Britain and Europe are being prompted to respond in new ways to our present unique time.

In the overall scheme of things have we come to a ‘wind of change’ period in the history of humanity? As we search to blend together as an extended family of peoples, all the faith communities of our time are surely challenged to manifest their spiritual resources by nurturing the basic values and inner resources of resilience, strength and gratitude, and to spell out in everyday living God’s new purpose for our world. Indeed are not all people of faith being invited together to rejoice in God’s passionate and compassionate dynamic initiatives to fashion a new kind of cosmopolitan world?

 

WHERE IS CHRIST IN THIS VORTEX OF CHANGE?

If, as Clive Marsh suggests,[ii] the incarnate action of God is recognisable in the ‘Jesus patterns’ of compassionate human interaction, forgiveness, reconciliation and mutual respect as the Christian tradition proclaims, should we then be surprised to find these Christlike patterns in ‘communities of practice’ are being lived out elsewhere outside the paradigm of the Christian Church and community? Are they not to be discovered in the ‘everyday world’ and in the communities of other faiths, and therefore acknowledged and applauded as heraldic signs of the Spirit at work in our time?

 

WHAT IS GOD SAYING TO US AS CHRISTIANS?

However, as long as our diverse and cosmopolitan world cries out for God’s social justice to be given the highest of priorities to counter the evils of prejudice, suspicion, mistrust and greed then the Kingdom harmony of relationships will never be fully realised. Therefore, as family members of the community of Christ is God challenging us to make bold and adventurous moves to invite across the thresholds of our places of identity and belonging the people of other faiths, in gestures of hospitality and welcome? And in turn are we willing to cross their thresholds of belonging and identity, to ‘take off our shoes’ in humility and respect with gestures of namaste (meaning: ‘I bow to the God within you, and the Spirit within me salutes the Spirit in you’) in ventures of loving and lasting friendship?

Can Christians come alert to their contemporary commission from God? Is it possible for the dignity and spiritual worth of the human person to find centre stage both in the world of employment and in the spheres of local and world cosmopolitan community such as Christ longs for and as Jesus proclaimed in his own manifesto, that is Luke 4: 16-19?

 

[i]Wilfred Cantwell Smith – A Reader – ed. by Kenneth Cracknell (2001), p.200

[ii] : Christ in Practice by Clive Marsh (2006), p22-23

Simple acts of inclusion

by Andrew Roberts.

Christmas Eve seemed unusually busy last year. Being on a Sunday many Churches had a packed programme of services and community events. Our local Church was one of those making the most of the day. We had morning worship, an afternoon outdoor Carol event in the centre of the community and an evening Carol Service at the Church replete with refreshments beforehand. Then we had Midnight Communion.

Having had so many services that day and finding it harder with the passing of years to be bright and enthusiastic late at night I set off to lead the service fuelled by some strong coffee and a sense of duty. To paraphrase Mr Wesley I must admit to going rather unwillingly. A small number gathered, we began to journey through the liturgy together and a sense of the sacredness of the evening began to grow in the candle lit space.  Then part way through he service two ladies arrived. One had clearly being enjoying the evening already and warmed by an evening of festivities enthusiastically kissed friends and strangers alike during the sharing of the peace. Meanwhile the other lady, who had crept in, sat quietly, head bowed at the back.

When it came to the sharing of the bread and wine both ladies came to the rail. As the Steward offered the wine the quieter lady looked perturbed before Jane kindly put her at her ease by saying the wine was non-alcoholic. The lady received the proffered wine with gratitude and drank her cup slowly and tenderly. At the end of the service she returned to the rail and asked if she could light two candles explaining that she had come to Church that night because she wanted to make a new start. We shared conversation and prayer until it was time to go home.

As I drove home I continued to pray for the lady and reflect on how important simple acts of inclusion are. That evening we had used gluten free bread so that all could share of the one loaf. Someone very close to me has coeliac disease.  She has stoically gone without bread if only bread made with wheat was offered at Communion services or gratefully received the gluten free bread offered as an alternative on other occasions. At one Christian Festival she was moved to tears when gluten free bead was offered to all in the celebration of Holy Communion. The experience of being fully included was overwhelming and we long for the day when gluten free bread will be the norm on the Communion table. To not be so seems to make a nonsense of the liturgical pronouncement that we are all one because we share in the one loaf/bread.

Simple acts of inclusion can be so transformative, pastorally, missionally and evangelistically. In the famous encounter between Jesus and the plucky insightful woman at the well (John 4.4-42) a simple sharing of human need – the need for a drink of water – opened up conversation, revelation and resulted in someone, who in the culture of the time could so easily have been ostracised, being included and blessed. With her worth and dignity affirmed she returned home to be an exemplary evangelist (bearer of good news) to her own community.

Sharing non alcoholic wine, gluten free bread or a drink of water are simple acts of inclusion that make a world of difference. Being evangelistic doesn’t have to be difficult.

Candlemas

by James Dunn.

The beginning of the Christian year is always a bit confusing.   Straightforward is remembering the circumcision of Jesus, following naturally a week after the commemoration of his birth (January 1).   And Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi (Matthew 2:1–12), comes naturally six days later.   But we also have to fit in the baptism of Jesus (January 7) and the conversion of Paul (January 25), which can make us feel the year is rushing ahead far too quickly – or at least, the religious commemorative year.

So it is good that we slow back down to celebrate Candlemas (February 2), the purification of Jesus’ mother Mary, but remembered by Christians more for the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 2:22-38).   Very moving are the encounters with the two elderly individuals, Simeon and Anna.   Anna speaks encouraging words about the child ‘to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’ (2:38), tapping into the political as well as the religious longings of many.   And Simeon gives the first utterance of what became known as the Nunc Dimittis (2:29-32), anticipating Luke’s own concern to narrate how the ‘light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’ steadily spread.

But the concluding words of Simeon to Mary should not be passed over lightly.   ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too’ (2:34-35).   In the midst of the celebrating and rejoicing comes the sobering reminder of what the readers of Luke’s Gospel would already know was a much richer and more austere story.

Which should further remind us of a commemoration which is also part of the season of Christmas celebration, but all too often overlooked – the massacre of the (holy) innocents (Matthew 2:16-18) – as Matthew tells it, king Herod’s attempt to eliminate any possible threat to his reign by slaughtering all infants in and around Bethlehem.   And now, a further doleful memory, we also have the commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day, just passed (January 27) – so much like the massacre of the innocents, but so much more horrific.

It is good and right that we remember all these together.   For at Epiphany and Candlemas we celebrate not just the dedication of the child Jesus by his mother Mary, and the early recognition that God would do something wonderful through this child.   But we also remember how the story unfolds and how it climaxes – in the betrayal, suffering and death of Jesus.   We remember how resurrection and new life is not achieved except through suffering – the suffering which says No to self and expresses readiness even for death in dedication to a higher goal.

How can we celebrate Epiphany and Candlemas without remembering too what we call so lightly ‘man’s inhumanity to man’?   We don’t celebrate Jesus’ resurrection without remembering his intense suffering and crucifixion.   So, can we celebrate the presentation of Jesus in the temple without recalling also the massacres of the Holocaust?    And not just the Holocaust of the 1940s, but the Pol Pot massacres in Cambodia in the 1970s, the massacres of mainly Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, the murders of Bosnian men and boys from the town of Srebrenica in 1995, the Darfur genocide which began in 2003, and the Rohingya refugee crisis of recent days.

The intervention of Simeon and Anna is a stark reminder that the good news of Jesus includes uncomfortable self-revelation, not to mention the prospect of suffering and death.   A stark reminder that the good news of the gospel is not really good news if it does not include the recognition of how to deal with the bad news.   The gospel gives much cause for hope and rejoicing, but it does not promise freedom from anguish and pain.   The individual suffering and loss may at times be unbearable.   The shock of hearing about the persecution and massacres of whole peoples and villages cannot be softened by easy words.   But the good news is that the sword piercing the soul is by no means the whole story, and is not the end of the story.   The suffering and death of Jesus by itself would be an unspeakable tragedy, not unlike the many tragedies, individual and corporate, which have besmirched human history.   But the gospel absorbs the tragedy and turns it into good news.

Getting back to basics!

by Gill Newton.

“I willingly offer all I have and am to serve you, as and where you choose.” 

Covenant Prayer, Methodist Worship Book

Although some Methodist congregations celebrate their Covenant service at the beginning of the Connexional year in September, for many, this month of January, provides the opportunity for a renewal of our commitment.  Having served in churches where both options have been explored, it has always struck me that, whilst any opportunity to renew our commitment is wonderful, there is something timely about holding this service at the beginning of the calendar year.

The commercial Christmas season with all its glitzy advertisements and tempting offers encourages us to focus on what we want and to spend more than we have in order to obtain it.  So, it’s perhaps no bad thing, early in the New Year to have this opportunity to place things back in perspective and for us to be reminded of the sacrificial nature of our commitment as followers of Jesus.  After all, it is the time of resolutions, so here’s the chance to include some spiritual resolution at the beginning of the New Year.

This Covenant Service is treasured and valued by many Methodists, coveted by many of our ecumenical colleagues.  However, like me, you may have observed that many seem to consciously avoid this annual opportunity to renew commitment.  Why?  And what does this say to us about the nature, language, context and value of this service each year?

It was back in 1755 that John Wesley originally created a service which has evolved into the Covenant Service as we know it today.  He based the words of the Covenant prayer, which is at the heart of the service, on words from the Puritan tradition which had been so important in the lives of his parents Samuel and Susanna.  He included in his original covenant prayer phrases that we would recognise from our marriage service, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, for all times and conditions ….” suggesting that Wesley saw this covenant relationship between God and his people as being like a marriage, an image reflected in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. (1)

Wesley seems to be suggesting that through this covenant relationship, we are, both individually and corporately, partners together with God in his mission in the world.  The words of this prayer, in both its traditional and modern forms, offer us a clear description of what it might really mean for us to be disciples of Jesus.  We could suggest that it offers a practical description of what Jesus was suggesting when he said, ““Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (2)  So, sharing in this prayer helps us to remember what living as Jesus calls us to live really looks like!

There is no doubt that this is demanding stuff, so perhaps people avoid the Covenant service for fear of failure?  However, as I reflect upon the words of the covenant prayer in preparation for a Covenant service that I will lead this week I am reminded of the context in which Wesley developed this service.  When he and the other early Methodists prayed this prayer, there would have been an expectation that they were all part of a class meeting or band.  In that way they were supporting one another and holding one another to account for this challenging way of living and loving – a way of life that is surely only possible in a community where you know you are loved, supported and being upheld in prayer.

Research also suggests that the Covenant service was not some stand-alone event that came around once a year.  A whole series of gatherings were held in the run up to the Covenant service so that through study, prayer and sermons, everyone could understand more fully what the Covenant was all about.  Then after a day of prayer and fasting, those who chose to, would participate in the Covenant Service, but that certainly wasn’t the end of the matter for another year!  From then on, everyone was encouraged to think about what the implications of having prayed that prayer might be in their own situation, and through their class meetings were given all the help and encouragement that they needed to sustain this way of life.

How much of that kind of nurture and support is really being offered in our churches today I wonder?  Is the lack of gathering together regularly for support and accountability one of the reasons why so many people find this prayer so difficult to say?  What difference might it make to our individual and corporate sense of identity and vocation if we really helped each other to live out this prayer?

The Covenant prayer is an extremely important part of our Methodist tradition.  It helps us to know who we are and to whom we belong.  It reminds us that being a Christian is a way of life which demands much of us, but only in response to the self-giving love of God in Christ.  As we share in this prayer again this year, perhaps we could reflect not only on what living out the prayer might demand of us individually, but what it might demand of us as a church, if we are to really help one another to truly share in this covenant.

 

  1. Ephesians 5 v 21-33
  2. Luke 9 v 23

Ambivalent about Hospitality

by Andrew Lunn.

There is an etymological link between ‘hospitality’ and ‘hostility’, linking back to common roots in a variety of Indo-European languages.[1]  Jacques Derrida reflects philosophically on a contradiction he identifies embedded in the idea of hospitality in his lecture titled Hostipitality.[2]

That contradiction, he says, is faced in every situation of hospitality.  It takes shape practically in a conditionality in all hospitality which lies in the host’s power–in the unspoken rules of the household—but also in the guest’s or stranger’s unknown difference—the unexpected values or ways of behaving which they bring with them.  We never know what we are going to get when we invite someone in, or when we turn up as a guest at someone’s door.  The guest, or the host, may be generous and open; but there is always the potential for something other, which could lead to hostility.

Derrida is not arguing against the practice of hospitality.  He sees it as a significant human practice, but one in which we always confront the possibility of its opposite which can paralyse us.[3]  So there is always a need for a ‘going beyond’.  ‘We cannot know’ he says ‘what hospitality is.’ (6)  ‘Hospitality … gives itself to thought beyond knowledge.’ (8) It ‘holds itself out to its chance beyond what it is.’ (14)

That contradiction, or we might say ambivalence, which we face when we consider the possibility of hospitality, requires a leap of faith—a readiness to make ourselves vulnerable, whether as host or as guest.  Often we might find a cheap hospitality, when we limit it to close friends and to those who are like us; in such circumstances we do not allow ourselves to become aware of the ambivalence.  Costly hospitality is different, because it involves that going ‘beyond’ what it is.  (Is there something eschatological about it?)

God-in-Christ’s presence as both host and guest[4] reflects that ‘going beyond’ inherent in hospitality.  As host Christ teaches of God’s banquet.  We are guests in God’s created world, vulnerable before the One we fear, subject to God’s grace, even while we celebrate God’s inclusion of us—and of many who are not like us.

Yet also Christ comes through incarnation to take the role of guest, becoming vulnerable to those who ‘did not accept him’ (John 1:11), even to the point of the hostility of the cross.  His practice was to repeatedly take the role of guest, with Matthew, Simon the Pharisee, Martha and Mary.  Openness to hospitality here becomes a trope through which we can understand the self-giving of Christ.  In this divine interchange[5] God allows hospitality to ‘go beyond what it is’.

This should help us to consider the way we should relate to hospitality as a missiological church.  This understanding of hospitality as costly, and always involving vulnerability—hospitality which ‘goes beyond what it is’—always risks hostility.  It requires of the church two things:

First, a truly radical hospitality, which doesn’t invite people into church just to accept our rules and to become what we are.  The guest to whom we are open in a costly way will change us, and change our practices.  Hospitality of this kind involves inviting people to come, but at the same time this must not be a hospitality ‘paralysed on the threshold’ (as Derrida puts it) which delimits and restricts what the guest can be and bring to us.

Second, that missional reversal in which the church itself comes to be guest.  Emulating Christ in this way means we should recognise that the most potent possibilities for mission lie where we are able to step into the spaces which others own and define.

Both of these take courage, and the second perhaps more than the first.  Would it be true to say that the contemporary church will only grow, spiritually and numerically, when it is able to accept the costliness of hospitality as a nexus of costly grace?

 

[1] If you’re interested in the etymology there’s a good OUP article by Anatoly Liberman here: https://blog.oup.com/2013/02/guest-host-word-origin-etymology/

[2] Jacques Derrida (2000) ‘Hostipitality’, Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, vol. 5, no. 3, 3-18 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09697250020034706.

[3] Derrida’s hostipitality neologism has been picked up by a number of people writing about Britain’s asylum and immigration practice.

[4] Luke Bretherton has set out the way in which the roles of ‘host’ and ‘guest’ are simultaneously part of Christ’s presence to the world.  Luke Bretherton, Hospitality as Holiness, (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 135.

[5] ‘Christ is identified with the human condition in order that we might be identified with his.’ Morna Hooker, From Adam to Christ: Essays on Paul, (Cambridge: CUP, 1990), 26.

“He’s not naughty, he’s autistic!”

by Ian Howarth.

This Christmas we made the usual adjustments to our lifestyle to welcome Mark, our barely verbal adult autistic son to stay with us over the Christmas period. We have to have a clear, written timetable that accounts for every hour of every day to reduce his anxiety, and a written order of service that he can see the day before means that he just about copes with worship on Christmas Day. Predictability, doing things the same every time, no surprises, are all essential to his wellbeing.

Given what I know about Mark’s pathological resistance to change, and the growing realization that autistic traits exist in a greater proportion of the population at large than used to be thought, I wonder if I need to temper my frustration at the unwillingness of so many churches to embrace change.

At a deeper level, we have had to confront the question of what personal responsibility a person like Mark has for their challenging behavior, and to what extent it is the ‘fault’ of his condition.

When he was younger and we took him to the shops, he would frequently lie on the floor screaming when things were not going his own way, and people would look at us, and occasionally call us to task for having such a naughty child, to which our response was: ‘He’s not naughty, he’s autistic.’ [1]

On bad days, even as an adult, the challenging behaviour can return, when expectations are not met, and we recognise again that this is behaviour to be managed and understood, and Mark is not to blame for it.

While the issues are clear for us in regard to our son, they lead to interesting questions about where personal responsibility begins and ends. To what extent is Mark personally responsible for his behaviour, leads to the question, to what extent is anyone personally responsible for their behaviour?

Current thinking on autism is that it is a ‘spectrum condition’, and that people exist on that spectrum from those like Mark, who are non, or barely verbal, with learning difficulties, to people who can be highly-intelligent, very verbal individuals, who display their autism through social awkwardness, but still with the same need for order and pattern in their lives. Some autistic people develop the self-awareness to manage their condition, but others, even some highly able ones, really struggle. Writers who are themselves autistic, talk of the need for the community at large to adapt to those who have autism, not the other way around, and it is important that we hear that, although it is not without its challenges, and the question of personal responsibility for one’s behaviour is never far away.

And where is God in this? In our Protestant/Wesleyan tradition we have emphasised personal responsibility before God, making the personal choice of a commitment to Christ. This month many of us will be remaking that commitment in our Covenant services. ‘I am no longer my own but yours,’ we say, and that personal promise of commitment remains immensely important in my own Christian journey.

But such a commitment would be meaningless to Mark and people like him. I know that the God I try to commit to, the God revealed in Jesus, is also committed to Mark. Any understanding of salvation being conditional on a personal relationship with Jesus as defined by a usual understanding of relationship would exclude Mark, and so is inadequate.

There are no easy answers here. I would like to be able say that it is in and through an accepting, inclusive community that we find a way forward, and I think that is an important starting point. However, many of those with autism struggle with community. In Mark’s supported living six individuals live individual lives, hardly relating to each other, except through their wonderful carers.

However, the questions raised by autism that relate to personality, personal responsibility and relationships can be seen as a gift to challenge us to reflect more widely and deeply on what it truly means to understand and express God’s all-embracing love.

 

 

[1] I know that in some circles, it is frowned on to say someone is autistic, and felt better to say that they have autism, or an autistic spectrum condition. However, the fact that Mark’s autism so defines who he is, and is not something he has in addition to his personality, and that those who are verbal are happy to describe themselves as autistic, means that I feel it appropriate to say, he is autistic. The phrase: ‘I’m not naughty, I’m autistic,’ comes from a badge issued by the National Autistic Society.