Free grace with ongoing cost

by Will Fletcher.

My first encounter with St Francis of Assisi came from reading this Ladybird book of Saints. The image I had was of someone who preached to animals and released captive birds – a real-life Dr Doolittle.

stfrancis

As an animal lover he became something of a hero for me. Then, as with many other people, my next encounter came with singing the hymn supposedly based upon his words – Make me a channel of your peace. Whether or not these words are the authentic words of Francis, it furthered my image of St Francis as someone who sought peace and harmony between humanity and the natural world.

Over the years, I have obviously come to realise that Francis’ character is far more complex, and that nearly all the information we have of him comes from others many years after the events of his life. My wife and I are currently in the middle of reading a daily devotional A Month with St Francis and the image presented is very different from this meek and mild saint that I grew up reading about.

In the early days of this devotional it includes words about poverty and austerity, about what it means to be crucified to the world, and about Francis considering himself the vilest of all humans. Is this really an example we should continue to follow today? Is it really going to attract people to the Christian faith? Would it be better only to focus on his words about nature and quietly let slip all these harsh words?

This may well seem a tempting approach. The Church is constantly trying to find ways of engaging with a society largely alienated from it, we attempt to find easy ways of relating to people where they are and to not place large expectations on people early on. In addition, we recognise the importance of celebrating who we are in God, and wish to build people up, rather than bring them down. Indeed, these difficult words of St Francis seem to come far more from a time when the physical and the body were looked down upon by many in Western society, and denial of the flesh was the appropriate course of action.

But maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss them. I wonder whether, in an attempt to encourage people to engage with Church and Christianity, we have made it too easy with too few expectations? If we fail to speak of the cost of discipleship, are we in danger of making Christianity appear to be just another commodity that people can choose or ignore? As soon as the commodity stops providing our needs, or we recognise that this commodity is now costing us, we may make the decision to stop making use of it, secure in the knowledge that God loves us anyway and it doesn’t really matter.

If we make Christianity only about building people up and ensuring them of God’s love for them as they are, what do we say when people don’t feel that love? Is it all nonsense? Has it all been imagined or made up? Having an expectation of cost and difficulty, alongside the message of God’s grace and love, suggests times when the predominant experience is love, but also times when it feels harder.

Finally to resist calling all people to have a humble view of themselves (even if we may not want to go to the extremes of Francis’ vileness), is to fail to address those who need to hear that they are not perfect now, but change is possible; as well as allowing others to think about themselves far more highly than they ought. That we have all fallen short of the glory of God is one of the great equalising factors in life. Is not the heart of the good news that God’s love for us came ‘while we still were sinners.’[1] And there are people who really need the opportunity to acknowledge that they have sinned, and then to hear those words of forgiveness.

This is not to say that we should return fully to the days of condemnation and seeking everyone to see themselves as miserable sinners. However, let’s not throw it out completely. Let’s not offer cheap grace, but rather free grace that comes with an ongoing cost. I wonder how Church would be different if we placed expectations on people and openly talked about the cost of discipleship?

 

[1] Romans 5.8

Making sense of our past

by Stephen Wigley.

As we come to the end of this first month of 2019, it seems that we’re left facing many of the same old and apparently irresolvable problems carried over from 2018.  But amidst all the crises, there has at least been one bright spot in the news. That’s come with the success of the British film and entertainment industry in recent awards, with January’s Golden Globes, the strong showing in this month’s Bafta’s and the prospects of Oscar nominations to come.

I appreciate that this good news is not just about honours and accolades, and that behind the glamour lies a significant industry making a major contribution to the UK economy. However, for all the contributions British artists bring to the technological aspects of film-making, it seems to me that such awards also reveal a fascination with revisiting stories from our past. Last year it was Gary Oldman’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Winston Churchill. This year, Olivia Colman has already won a Golden Globe for her role as Queen Anne in ‘The Favourite’, and there are a range of other nominations coming the way of the latest historical drama to be released a fortnight ago in ‘Mary Queen of Scots’.

Now I confess to being a history graduate with a soft spot for such historical re-constructions. I’ve seen and enjoyed all three films and I can recognise some of the questions which have been raised by practising historians about them. Does the depiction of court life surrounding Queen Anne fit in with what we know from historical sources? What is the point of creating an imaginary collection of 17 rabbits (one for each child that she lost)? And what are we to make of the momentous (but fictitious) scene in which Elizabeth and Mary confront each other and their respective fates?

But then I reflect on how historical dramas work and why they retain a fascination for us. How they offer not just an opportunity to see how in earlier times people faced similar crises to those which we face today (for example the pressure to make momentous decisions at a time of national and international crisis when no outcome seems clear-cut); and also how the retelling of stories allows us to explore questions that were not able to be asked then – but are clearly important now (for example how it is that women were able to survive, thrive and negotiate positions of power and influence in a patriarchally dominated world).

To explore such questions requires a degree of creative imagination as well as a knowledge of the historic texts, in order that the stories we know can be explored beyond the boundaries of the sources available to us. That’s what’s happening in these films; and reflecting on them, it seems to me to be not unlike what happens in the pages of the Bible.

Over recent weeks our lectionary readings have been taken from the Second Book of Samuel, dealing with the complex business of succession planning in the house of David. The Old Testament is full of stories about kings and queens and their complex relationships with the prophets who advised and challenged them. Such stories take place over centuries, and yet are constantly being reinterpreted by later chroniclers and prophets seeking to find a new meaning for subsequent generations.

So it is, for example, in the book of the prophet Isaiah that we find messages warning of imminent disaster addressed to King Ahaz son of Uzziah, which are then interpreted afresh as a message of hope for a later generation preparing to return from exile in Babylon at the command of a new emperor Cyrus, and then in turn as an encouragement to persevere for yet another subsequent generation, as following that return they struggle to rebuild the city walls and restore the temple.

Nor does it end there; for in time some of those same passages will be read again to discover a fresh message of hope, pointing to a new promise of God’s dwelling with his people but in a way which perhaps the original eight century prophet could never have imagined. As the letter to the Hebrews puts it; ‘Long ago God spoke in many and various ways to our ancestors by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a son.’ For this is where God’s presence and our history meet and come alive – and who knows where that future may lead.

Body Memories

by Charity K.M. Hamilton.

In a couple of weeks time I will be marking the one year anniversary of my most recent and life-changing surgery. It is a strange memorial, a marking of what was and what is, and what is yet to come; it is also a marking of gratitude to those whose actions stood in the way of death. It has taken a great deal of time for my body to become well again and yet it remembers its illness and trauma, not just in a brain-thinking way but in a very visceral and physical way. Whether through new limitations, scars or changes in my body, my body remembers. My body is the primary witness to my experience and as such it tells a narrative which is given voice by memory. Arthur Frank when writing about illness and embodiment suggests that, ‘observing what stories say about the body is a familiar sort of listening; describing stories as told through the body requires another level of attention.[i] It is that level of attention, of hearing the stories told through the body that is a significant task for the Church as we enable others to re-member the body, to bring their bodies and the communal body back together into wholeness.

I have come to recognise how important our bodies are in our knowing of God and our mediating of God in the world. The Christian story is located in bodies, it starts in the beginning when God creates the earth and situates in it animal and human bodies with which God interacts. The Christian story is situated in our understandings of Christology in which we know God through the embodied life of Christ. We recently celebrated Christmas in which God takes on human form – God both gets a body, is literally ‘in-carnated’ as the Word ‘becomes flesh’, and affects the bodies of others; Mary’s body expands and she takes up more room in the world as she is pregnant with Christ, both she and Joseph have bodies which travel first to Bethlehem and then to Egypt, they share the birth of their child with the physical bodies of others, shepherds, travellers and animals. Mario Aguilar writes that, ‘…till very recently the body has been repressed. After all, the body constitutes an expression of God, it acts as a mediator of God’s life and it constitutes a visible sign of those who are members of a particular community.’[ii]

So, what does it matter that our bodies tell stories? Why do I bother with bodies in my working out of theology?

27th January 2019 marked Holocaust Memorial Day, a remembering of the violation of human bodies by other human bodies in the genocide of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust as well as those killed in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.  When I contemplate the Holocaust, and the liberation of the concentration camps, I bring to mind images of incredibly thin, starving people; bodies which showed the story of abuse and death.  Bodies with a story of survival despite the abuse of corrupted medical skill, unlike my own body story of survival because of the care of medical skill. Likewise, when I think of the Rwandan genocide, images of masses of bones surfaces, the very physical representation of death. It matters that our bodies tell stories because these are the stories that tell of a God who dwells in suffering flesh and who is wholly invested in living despite being curated by death. The stories of people’s bodies are powerful things which point the world towards active change, the body of a holocaust survivor bears testament to the suffering perpetrated because of an ideology which runs so contrary to a God of love and light. It teaches us through its story of what we, as people of faith, will always speak and act against; using our bodies to tell a story and incarnating protest and justice. This is why I bother with bodies in my working out of theology – bodies matter to God, they tell the story of a God of light, love and justice, they effect change in the world.

We are ‘always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.’[iii]

 

 

[i] Frank, Arthur, W. (1995), The Wounded Story Teller: Body, Illness and Ethics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p.2

[ii] Aguilar, Mario (2012), Theology, Liberation and Genocide, London: SCM, p.89

[iii] 2 Corinthians 4:10 NRSV

When is a river not a river?

by Barbara Glasson.

The river Todd runs through Alice Springs. Well not exactly ‘runs’ because there is rarely any water in it. There is however a pedestrian bridge over the River Todd and every year there is the Henley on Todd Regatta. The regatta is a completely dry event, people run around in boats, pretend to jet ski and be pirates, and there is not a single drop of water in sight (lots of beer, but not water!) Outside the infrequent filling of the river the only way you know the River Todd is a river is because the Ghost Gums mark the edge with their roots buried deep for the faintest hint of soaking up something wet. This only happens every few years.

So, is the Todd a river? Or is it a virtual river? When is virtual not virtual?

The word virtual comes from the Latin ‘virtus, translated as ‘force’. ‘ability’ or ‘fact’. In this case, the River Todd is definitely not virtual, because mostly it isn’t there at all! But then the word virtual has just changed it’s definition entirely. Because what we call ‘virtual reality’ is not in fact a fact, in fact it is anything but a fact, it is an illusion.

Of course, the word ‘virtual’ can also mean ‘almost’, as in ‘we made the journey in virtual silence’. In which case, it could possibly apply to the River Todd although on second thoughts, it is never really ‘almost’ a river. A river is either a river or it isn’t a river, isn’t it?

But there again, virtual reality is not reality but it becomes a reality when you are tripping over the teenager in your sitting room who is playing a computer game. So virtual reality and reality are not completely separate, the virtual world and the physical world impact on each other through us humans. Like the argument when the sat nav says ‘Go left at the next junction’ and your husband says ‘Turn right’ . Or when Alexa declares that it is Joan of Arc’s birthday and the whole of the subsequent breakfast conversation is about French politics.

We are surrounded by the virtual, the fact virtual, the illusion virtual and the virtual virtual. I trust this is getting clearer?

So, can something be virtually true?

Whilst you ponder this, let me return to Alexa. She is the latest member of our family, except she isn’t because she is a lump of plastic sitting on a table, full of wires and lights, she is an Echo Dot. Except, as a member of the family, she is much more useful than the dog, she speaks English, she tells us the date, she confirms the weather forecast, gives the news headlines and is generally very polite and to the point. Alexa tells pretty awful jokes, but they are clean and usually moderately funny and she will also link up to the wifi speaker to jolly along the day with a bit of Country and Western. The dog can’t do any of this and is much more demanding.

So the virtual world creeps on in, my phone is prone to ringing people up all on its own, and I hear a voice from my pocket going, ‘Hey Barbara, it’s Ben, did you want something’ and I have a whole conversation with Ben whilst I’m out with the dog, because somehow I pressed the phone button whilst going over a stile. Ben is a real person, and so am I but we virtually never see each other.

There is no escaping the reality of the virtual world. And what does that mean for those of us who believe in a God of truth? I think Alexa is probably agnostic, at least the only one controlling her is a wizard in electronics. And Alexa is great on facts, that have been digitally configured by the great Google god in the sky. But she can’t imagine anything or cry or operate a reverse logic, such as the first being last. Well, not yet anyway.

So, what do you reckon, can God be virtually true, or is truth truth, the River Todd a river (even when it’s not there) and Alexa just another Christmas present whose novelty will soon wear off?

I will leave you with all this virtual theology and, e-mail this article to Theology Everywhere, via the internet, in invisible code that will bounce of an invisible satellite and be distributed by invisible means to your laptop, as long as you’ve charged it. Off I go to take the dog for a walk – oops, better take my phone, just in case.

The gift of community

by Karen Turner.

For the last two years I’ve been involved in setting up an intentional Christian community for university students in Bath, as part of my work as a chaplain.  The first cohort is now 4 months into this adventure of sharing their lives together. Considering the high expectations of this community – to pray together daily, to share a meal together once a week, to serve in the community and to join with an ‘extended’ non-student community once a month – I wasn’t sure that we would find 8 full-time students on demanding courses who would want this to be part of their lives.  I was delighted and amazed to discover that there were.

bath community

The student community had to work out a pattern of prayer that would fit 8 diverse timetables and sleeping patterns. Likewise, they needed to make rotas for cooking and eating and cleaning and to work on ways to enable honest conversation with each another.  Being community requires real effort.

A question that I was asked several times when I spoke to people about the vision was, ‘Yes, but who will lead the community?  Will that be you?’ I wasn’t sure what was behind the question, but at times it made me doubt whether the community would be able to stay on track.

In the early days I wondered if we should appoint one of the students as a leader but the experience of the last few months suggests that might have inhibited the emergence of gifts in the community.   And although I try to pray with the community once a week, and regularly meet individuals for coffee, I am only an ‘extended’ member of this community.

In my early 20’s I was part of an intentional community myself and while there took part in a vocational discernment process.  Although no ‘lightening bolt’ moment occurred, one sentence stayed with me when someone said, ‘I wonder if you might have the gift of community’.

It was a mystifying suggestion as it isn’t a job or a gift that is listed or named in the New Testament and neither does it feel at first like a specific role.  If there is such a thing as the spiritual gift of community, I don’t think it looks anything like what we might conventionally understand as leadership.   It seems to me that it might be primarily about attentiveness.  How is the Spirit moving among us?  What gifts, words, dreams are emerging in our midst that we must not ignore?  Though we may feel despondent or without hope, what new thing is God already providing in our community if we would only see it?

At its heart, enabling the gift of community isn’t about ‘getting young people’s voices heard’ or giving everyone a turn at leadership roles (though it could be).  It is a belief that God’s Spirit is at work in all of us – and believing it enough to become aware of our own biases and prejudices as we commit to journey together.

And God is at work in this community.  As I meet up with them, one by one, I hear amazing stories of grace.  I’ve picked up that one of them serves the others by doing more than his fair share of the washing up.  Another has offered wisdom in enabling people to get on.  Several are excellent cooks and there are those who lighten the mood, who ask good questions, who are faithful friends and those who pray with others when times are hard.  The Spirit moves among them all, offering the gifts that are needed, including the gift of community.

In this season of Epiphany, I’ve been wondering what Mary might teach us about the attentiveness that is a gift in community. Jesus gives us the shape of ministry – self-emptying love – and what Mary does as she listens, believes, dares, ponders, and endures is ministry in that pattern.  We see at the wedding in Cana that she is attuned to those around her (John 2). Of course we don’t really know the part she played in the fledgling Christian community but she is certainly there with the others in Acts 1, constantly devoted to prayer, and so we can only imagine that she is touched by the tongues of fire and practices the holy habits with the others in Acts 2.

We see that Mary’s near-impossible challenge was also the way God chose to love the world in all it’s messiness, and that, understanding this she would have witnessed to the emergence of the life of the Spirit in their midst.  I wonder if there are ways we could make space for this challenge and this gift in 2019?

What now? What is God’s will for my life?

by Josie Smith.

I once spent seventeen years praying for guidance about the way ahead as I tried to follow The Way.

I had been a ‘cradle Methodist’, the latest generation of a family of lay leaders in the church – Sunday School Superintendents, Circuit Stewards, church organists – we even knew, at a suitably respectful distance, an ex-Vice President of Conference!    At sixteen I had ‘felt my heart strangely warmed’ in true Methodist fashion and had realised that Jesus was alive FOR ME.

But then I realised that ‘Conversion’, even a Methodist one, was only the first step.   I began to ask ‘What now?   What is God’s will for my life?’

The following year my mother died of an inoperable brain cancer, after months of increasing pain which nothing could alleviate.    We had been a family of six – my parents, a younger brother, a baby sister whose arrival had surprised everybody, and a grandmother whose sight had almost gone and who had come to live with us to be looked after – by my mother.

For the next seven years, then, the question ‘What now?’ was deferred.    My stumbling first steps in my mother’s much larger shoes turned me from a sixth former into some semblance of a middle-aged matron very quickly, as I learned to cope with the needs of four other people while getting to grips with household management, appeasing my grandmother’s anger and everybody’s need for regular meals and clean clothes – bringing up the baby, and helping Dad with a big garden.    There was always an urgent NOW, and it seemed a bit irrelevant to be looking for a career in God’s service.

One day, travelling to Sunday School on the bus with my Junior Teacher’s Handbook, I met a young man carrying a Senior Teacher’s Handbook.    He turned out to be a son and grandson of the Manse, and he put up heroically with my rather unusual lifestyle for the next few years (we saw each other perhaps twice a week, and that would be a good week!) until our marriage, when he and I moved into a small house nearby so that I could look after both households.

Fast forward several months.    My brother had by now left home, my grandmother had died, my sister was growing up, and my father had met someone who was to become his second wife.   The following year, a month before our first child was due, he and she were married. To my great joy!

Another fast forward.   The youngest of our three children was starting school, we were living in another part of the country because of my husband’s work, I was going to be free during the school day, and the question which had always been there resurfaced.   What now?

As it happened there was a teacher training college in the nearby town, in the same direction as my children’s school run.   There was a nationwide shortage of teachers at the time, and there was a drive to persuade suitably qualified mature students into the profession.   Friends urged me to apply for a place, my husband added his encouragement, and I was accepted to start immediately.

Then it dawned on me, for the first time, that the prayers I had been praying for the previous seventeen years had actually had their answer in what I had been doing all the time.   Having brought up four children I already had a head start.

From then on, I relaxed.    God, I decided, had a sense of humour, and I never would catch up.    So ever since then I have gone with the flow – nudged by other people who saw needs I could fill and jobs I could do.    My prayers are no longer anxious – often I don’t even use words – and in old age I can look back on those early years as a tough but completely appropriate apprenticeship into a life of trying to take seriously the Methodist Covenant Service.

Pondering Death at Christmas

by George Bailey.

“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Luke 2:19

In the first week of Christmas it is good to ponder upon the birth of Jesus; not in an idle philosophical way, but in a deliberate effort to see how this good news transforms life now. The word translated here as “ponder” (sumballō; literally “throw together”) is used elsewhere in Luke/Acts to mean “discuss [leading to a significant collective decision]” (Acts 4:15), “help [to defend an understanding of the scriptures]” (Acts 18:27), and even “make war” (Luke 14: 31) – this is an active, productive kind of pondering.

The questions turning in my heart have been triggered by the challenge of recent experiences of death for people amongst whom I minister, and informed by the Orthodox icon of the Nativity of Christ.[i]

Nativity_Icon

There is much symbolism to explore, but focus for now on the baby – see that it is not in a manger but a stone coffin, and the wrappings are as much reminiscent of ancient burial clothes as swaddling cloths. To become human flesh means that God enters the tragic suffering of human misery and mortality as a vulnerable baby in impoverished surroundings. The creator of all things cannot speak or look after himself, and is dependent on unprepared youngsters isolated from their support networks. Within a short time his life is at risk as other babies around him are massacred by military forces of the local political dictator, and his unmarried teenage parents are forced to flee as refugees.

“Cave, manger, swaddling clothes – are indications of the kenosis of the Godhead, His abasement, the utter humility of Him, who invisible in His nature, becomes visible in the flesh for humanity’s sake, is born in a cave, is wrapped in swaddling clothes, thus foreshadowing His death and burial, the sepulchre and the burial clothes.”[ii]

By incarnation the Son of God becomes vulnerable to the risk of human death – indeed, it is his actual death by crucifixion that sets humanity free from sin and death.

This leads to a question that I have pondered for many years since first being alerted to it by the Homilies of St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359): if Jesus had not died upon the Cross, would he have grown old and died like all other human beings? At first glance this may seem to be the sort of speculative and ponderous (now using the verb pejoratively) investigation which gives theologians a bad reputation. However, closer scrutiny reveals that this question gets to the heart of the matter. The emphatic answer from St Gregory is “no” – Jesus’ human body is completely united with his divine nature such that it is free both from sin and mortality, and so “He is able to completely dispel the process of growing old.”[iii] There are a series of questions which flow from this surprising proposal (of course, you may want to challenge it, which would be a valuable act of Christmas pondering in itself…)

First, the proposal questions the way that we see the suffering of Jesus in the gospels – what is Jesus Christ’s relationship to his personal experience human suffering – e.g. the privations of his birth and childhood, his hunger in the wilderness, his physical torture leading to death? The Greek Orthodox Patristic tradition sees all these as real bodily sufferings, but also that Jesus is not a helpless victim of human mortality in the way we are – instead he obediently chooses these sufferings for our sake, to reveal God’s love and justice.

The second associated question is over the way that the work of Christ on the Cross functions for our salvation. Jesus is both, a sinless human being free from the threat of death, and also able to choose to hand himself over to death. It is this unique reality of the incarnation which means that on the Cross a sinless sacrifice can be offered by a sinless priest and the sin of all is atoned for once for all. This is using the language of Hebrews – a further question would be about how this idea works out in the other sets of terms and images used to refer to atonement in the New Testament.

Finally, the un-aging non-deteriorating body of Christ leads to questions about the quality and nature of the life of those who are “in Christ” now. The gospel is about eternal life – the restoration of a human-divine relationship that is free from human sin and mortality. Humans who trust in Christ still die, but they are invited to have their attitude to human suffering and death transformed by the promise of Christ. Christmas is not just about birth, but also about death; not just about the incarnation but also about life for followers of Jesus now being changed. As Gregory of Nazianzus puts it, the Nativity of Christ is “not as of creation, but of re-creation.”[iv]

Methodists may not have icons to provoke this pondering, but find similar theological moves in the Christmas hymns of Charles Wesley. The incarnation changes all humanity’s relationship to God: “of our flesh and of our bone, Jesus is our brother now, and God is all our own.”[v] This promises new freedom beyond the pains of death: “Made perfect first in love, and sanctified by grace, we shall from earth remove and see his glorious face.”[vi]

I pray your Christmas pondering may bear fruit… can we, even us, lead grace-filled lives and help those who are today suffering the tragedy of pain and death?

 

[i] picture in the public domain; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nativity_Icon.jpg

[ii] Vladimir Lossky and Leonid Ouspensky, The Meaning of Icons (New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982), translated G. E. H. Palmer and E. Kadloubovsky, p.157 [altered]

[iii] Homily 16 §5, in Veniamin, Christopher (ed.), Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009), p.117.

[iv] Gregory Nazianzen, Theological Oration 38, §4; http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310238.htm

[v] Singing the Faith, (TMCP, 2011), no.199.

[vi] Singing the Faith, (TMCP, 2011), no. 208.