Sad News

by Josie Smith.

Why do we think of death as sad news?   Whatever the age and circumstances of the one who has died, it is announced as ‘sad news’.   Sometimes it is the best possible news, releasing someone, however well-loved, from unbearable suffering.  And if the person concerned has reached old age successfully and happily and then has – for example – a heart attack which leads to sudden death at eighty-odd, or ninety-odd or more, why is that ‘sad’?  Is it not the natural conclusion of a life well lived, and should we not be able to accept that graciously?

There are many occasions when death is sad, as when a child dies, or someone dies as a result of an accident or a wilful act of their own or of someone else, and a life full of plans and promise is cut short.   It is sad when mothers die leaving young children, or teenagers are introduced to a drug habit which kills them.   But I hope that when I die (and statistically that can’t be far off) no-one will need to write ‘SAD’.   One of my great-grandmothers lived into her nineties, had outlived all her generation, and said many times that she wanted to die.  Her death was a release for her and for all who cared about her.   Unlike her I don’t want to die – I am hugely enjoying even a restricted life and am full of gratitude for every day I wake up.   But this life is finite, and fragile, and I am not afraid.

Isn’t it time that we as Christians took a lead in accepting death for what it is – the natural and normal ending of a human life which began when we were born and from then on had only one possible conclusion?   If we did this we wouldn’t need to use expressions like ‘passed away’ or worse ‘passed’ (which is what one does with tests or examinations), but could say simply that s/he has died?

My sister and I went last year to a wonderful Service of Thanksgiving for an old friend we had both known since childhood.  It followed cremation attended by close family only.  At the service, in addition to the expected eulogy and hymns and prayers, there was a brass band playing joyful music, happy memories recalled by friends and relatives, a live link to America and Australia for family who now live there, and a PowerPoint presentation of pictures, from early childhood in black and white family-album photographs to recent video.   He had been Lord Mayor of his city, and the final picture was of him in his mayoral robes, turning to the congregation and smiling as he doffed his tricorne hat to us with a theatrical bow.    After which everyone adjourned for food and conversation.    And laughter.   The family had interpreted the man and his wishes in the most fitting way possible.    He was, by the way, a Methodist Local Preacher.

Death, and the customs surrounding it, are fascinating.    Ancient burial sites yield not just objects buried with the deceased, (suggesting perhaps a belief that he might need these again in a life beyond this one) but all sorts of information to the trained eye and to modern technology.   The hot, dry weather of 2018 showed up hundreds of hitherto-unknown sites in this country from early or pre-history, only discernible from the air in crop marks.    There is evidence in our country and around the world for the way people lived, who they were and where they came from, what they ate, what they made, and what they traded.

There is endless fascination in the development of tools and language and science – but also of belief.    Last year I saw the Terracotta Warriors in Liverpool, and was horrified to learn at the exhibition that numbers of concubines were killed to accompany the Emperor through death and for his comfort in the next life.

My sister-in law died convinced that beyond death she would meet all the people she had loved in this life.    My husband died with an open mind, not convinced of anything except that God who had sustained him all his life was not going to stop now.    He said ‘I’m not afraid of death’ – it’s just that getting there is so difficult’.

Both Methodist Local Preachers…

What does our attitude to death say about what we believe?

The Parable of Porgy and Bess

by Angie Allport.

At the end of the folk opera Porgy and Bess[1], I found myself yelling in my head to Porgy, “No, let her go, you’re better off without her!”  For those of you who don’t know the story, it’s set in the American Deep South in the 1930s and Bess, a former drug addict, has moved in with Porgy after being abandoned by her abusive partner, Crown.  Porgy is smitten by Bess and she declares she loves him, but Bess struggles with the call of her former life and ends up cheating on Porgy with Crown, who then assaults her.  Although Porgy takes Bess back, she goes back on drugs and then runs away to New York with her drug-dealer, Sportin’ Life.  The story ends with Porgy leaving to take after Bess, and it was at that point that the yelling in my head started, quickly followed by the thought that Bess was a lost sheep and God would have gone after her.  As Porgy sang ‘I don’t care what she says; I don’t care what she’s done’, who was being more God-like, Porgy or I?

There is much in every-day life which can be used as a tool for us to reflect on our practice and thinking as Christians.  The material doesn’t have to be ‘religious’.  Do you ever watch a film, drama or soap opera where you find yourself rooting for the character who’s out for revenge over something?  It might be fiction, but what should the Christian response be?  Revenge makes for high drama and ‘sells’, but how could the story be re-written from a Christian perspective?  How could you locate yourself, as a Christian, in the story?  What might your reaction have to say to you about your discipleship?  How does it fit with what the Bible has to say, church tradition, reason and your experience, to draw on the so-called ‘quadrilateral’?

Asking theological questions through popular culture requires us not only to identify the values, beliefs, practices and experiences of popular culture, but also to think critically about these in relation to our understandings of the teachings of Jesus.  Most writers on popular culture refer back to Richard Niebuhr and Paul Tillich.  Niebuhr set out a fivefold typology for Christians to engage in culture: Christ against culture; the Christ of culture; Christ above culture; Christ and culture in paradox, and Christ the transformer of culture.[2]  For Tillich, religion “is the meaning-giving substance of culture, and culture is the totality of forms in which the basic concern of religion expresses itself”.[3]

It was Oscar Wilde who once said, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”[4].  Wilde saw Art as a means of expressing Life, with Life’s instinct being one of imitation.  We perhaps see this today as girls and young women, for example, seek to get ‘the look’ they see portrayed on television and in social media.  I was hoping (and praying) that Tevye talking to God in Fiddler on the Roof[5] (you’ll gather I’m a musicals fan) would at least get members of the audience who didn’t profess a faith pondering what was going on, even if actual imitation would be a bit of a stretch.

If Christianity is to make sense of the world, thinking about life as it is portrayed in Art and social media may prove to be not so much a secular activity as a theological one.  Indeed, as my opening example of Porgy and Bess showed, we can indeed find, and do, theology everywhere!

 

[1] Gershwin, George (1935) Porgy and Bess

[2] Niebuhr, H. R. (2002) Christ and Culture (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco)

[3] Tillich, Paul (1972) Theology of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press) p.42

[4] Wilde, Oscar (1889) The Decay of Lying

[5] Bock, Jerry & Harnick, Sheldon (1964) Fiddler on the Roof

Time to Deterritorialise?

by Tim Baker.

There are some ideas that, because of when or how you were introduced to them, have a lasting impact on how you see the world. For me, one of those is the writings of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Always opaque, often impenetrable and regularly overlooked, Deleuze is not much appreciated beyond a small cultish following, but his thinking has had much wider impact and his collaborations with the psychotherapist and political activist Felix Guttari have left us with some incredibly useful ideas for grappling with post-modern life (and faith).

Amongst these gifts is the concept of de- (and re-) territorialisation. Deleuze was fascinated by Nietzsche but also interested in making some of the German’s complex ideas more material and more grounded (literally). Thus, in Deleuze, Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals becomes a Geology of Morals – he is constantly mapping some of the big ideas of structuralist and post-structuralist thought into the material world, drawing on examples from the biology, botany and a range of natural processes to corroborate his thought. For example, Deleuze talked a lot about the rhizome – what he called an “image of thought”, which was based on the botanical rhizome and which he used as an invitation into thinking about non-hierarchical structures and multiple ways of interpreting the world.[1] The rhizome in your garden is a plant that pops out of the ground over an expanding area – one big plant that appears to be lots of different plants appearing in lots of different places. It is these connections and the movement from one-into-many that Deleuze was so interested in.

This is true of deterritorialisation too: theoretically speaking this is nothing more than the idea of ‘moving on’ or disconnecting an idea from unnecessary baggage. For example, finding ways to talk of God without all the baggage that two millennia of Christian thought has put on that word. If we can do the mental and imaginative work to deterritorialise God from that baggage, the idea of God might then be reterritorialised in more useful and radical ways. However, in Deleuze’s usage, deterritorialisation always involves some kind of physical, material move too. He describes it as “the movement by which one leaves a territory”.[2]

Thus, to return to the issue of God (which is my example, not his), Deleuze might suggest that it is the Christian God’s physical ‘location’ (or at least the location of the-idea-of-God) in church buildings, in the heads and hearts of theologians and church leaders, and in the institution of religion that makes God seem dated, or old-fashioned, or out of touch. Perhaps the challenge for the church of the twenty-first century is to literally deterritorialise these assumptions that people make about God? Can we remove the restrictions and baggage that we have heaped onto God over the last two, or indeed the last eight, millennia?

This is not a new idea – as Fred Pratt Green writes, “The church of Christ in every age / must claim and test its heritage […] and keep on rising from the dead”.[3] However, I wonder if Deleuze’s very real, very literal deterritorialising gives us some clues about how we might go about it. I wonder if Deleuze has something to say about our buildings, our property committees and the way we as church often use our physical assets as a crutch to lean on in hard times. In my experience, many people’s perceptions of God – whether or not they call themselves Christians – is associated with ancient buildings, grand (but old) Cathedrals, outdated social attitudes and feudal power structures. These associations don’t particularly excite me, nor do they reflect my own encounter with the divine – where the energy of Spirit seems to be much more about newness, simplicity, justice and liberation. Perhaps the Spirit of God, and the metaphor of deterritorialisation is inviting us outside of our church buildings and into a future we are not quite able to see. Can we get rid of some of the things that are holding us back?

Perhaps this is the philosophical and theoretical challenge that can enable us to grasp the concept of ‘church without walls’ and become a more fluid, rhizomatic church – popping up in lots of new places, always connected but always fresh, different, liberated from the baggage of ages past. Shall we deterritorialise the church?

 

 

[1] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guttari, Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Thousand Plateaus, p. 7 ff

[2] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guttari, Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Anti-Oedipus, p. 79

[3] Fred Pratt Green, The Church of Christ in Every Age

Give me your hand, my friend

by Ruth Gee.

Last week I watched the Eurovision Song Contest; it was a long night punctuated by conversation with my daughter on Whatsapp. We used to have a lot of fun together during Eurovision as we settled down with food and drink and scoring cards.

Yesterday evening was different, not least because I wasn’t at all sure that I really wanted to watch this year. The singers and commentators kept saying that this was all about the friendship between nations. Through music, whatever the political or economic situation, people would become friends and work for a better future. All were friends together, united in song and competition.

Outside in the streets of Tel Aviv, in the aftermath of conflict in Gaza, demonstrators urged those arriving to boycott the party because of the illegal occupation of Palestinian territories. Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, some members of the Jewish community demonstrated because the holding of the contest was a desecration of the Sabbath. In Haifa the Palestinian community hosted an alternative Globalvision contest. The discord was not only evident outside but was made apparent in the competition when one team waved Palestinian flags during the scoring and Madonna’s stage set included two dancers with Israeli and Palestinian flags on their backs. Whatever was going on in the competition it was not, and never could be described as friendship between nations which are becoming increasingly fragmented throughout Europe.  People did not leave their deeply held beliefs, their concerns and their fears behind, they only tried to bury them deeper for a time. Friendship is deeper than a shared experience though it might be initiated by or result in such.

CS Lewis described friends as “side by side, absorbed in some common interest.”[1] Sallie McFague develops this further and describes friends as heading toward a common vision that binds their relationship.[2] In his sermon, The Catholic Spirit, John Wesley also describes a common vision, a binding of the hearts of two people that may lead to the offer of the hand of friendship.[3]

In the recently published report to the Methodist Conference 2019, God In Love Unites Us, it is suggested that friendship is a significant category in the way people talk of their relationship.[4] Friendship is also presented as a significant category in the fourth gospel. In John 15:12-17 Jesus calls his disciples friends. They are servants no longer, the distinction between friends and servants is that servants merely obey, friends share a common purpose and understanding. They are Jesus’ friends because they are invited into a relationship with him that enables them to glimpse and to participate in the relationship of Jesus with the Father. Here is a common vision, a binding of hearts, a friendship. This is a friendship within which the greatest love can be expressed in the laying down of life. In the context of such friendship agape and philia are so subtly distinct as to become interchangeable. Later in this gospel (21:15-19) the author reminds us of the importance of friendship in the exchange between Peter and the risen Christ. Opinion remains divided as to whether agape and philia are interchangeable here or whether one has priority over the other. If the latter is true that it would be more usual for the more significant to come last and perhaps Peter is pushing Jesus to use the higher category of the friendship which implies a common vision and purpose and a willingness to lay down one’s life for the other.

Another word for friend is companion, derived from the Latin words cum (together) and panis (bread). Companions are those who share bread, who break bread together. The friends of Jesus break bread together with him and together with one another, in doing this sustenance is shared, and life is offered and received.  

Very recently a group of Methodists and Catholics were together in a celebration of the mass where the president was a Catholic priest and in a celebration of Holy Communion where the president was a Methodist presbyter. Our friendship was deep, we were truly blessed, we felt that we are sisters and brothers in Christ all of us called to be his friends. We acknowledged and felt the pain of being unable to share fully and recognised that this continues to diminish us, but we share much in common including the commission at the end of the eucharist to go in peace to love and serve the Lord. As those who believe that God loves all we are called as friends together to reach out in friendship to others.

The call to friendship, a call rooted in the command of Jesus and the love of God, cannot be denied. Friendship is life enhancing and life changing, it brings joy and challenge and it is the beginning and the goal, the source and the summit of ecumenism.

“Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours?…If it is, give me your hand.”

 

[1] Lewis, C S., The Four Loves, Fontana 1963, 91

[2] McFague Sallie, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age, SCM Press 1987, 163

[3] Wesley John ”Catholic Spirit” John Wesley’s forty Four Sermons (xxxiv) Epworth Press 1991, 442. This has its basis in the exegesis of 2 Kings 10:15

[4] God in Love Unites Us 1.3.3

Out of the mouth of the serpent – Genesis 3

by David Bidnell.

It’s not fair! Why should it be me who always gets the blame? Why are people so fearful of me and my descendants? Why is it that down the ages people have so despised snakes and thought of them as unpleasant, slippery, cunning creatures that are only out to cause harm and damage?

It’s not fair that I get accused of bringing temptation and evil into the world. It’s certainly not fair that a poor translation of a single Hebrew word – arum  – has rendered me so vulnerable to vilification and oppression. Crafty? Cunning? These are neither accurate nor appropriate. A far better – and fairer – translation would be “insightful”. Clever, perhaps, but insightful is the most adequate.

After all, I only spoke the truth – and offered an alternative perspective on life.

I was suspicious that God hadn’t been telling the truth. “If you eat from that tree you will surely die” he had instructed the woman. Well, God might have thought that God could control what those human beings knew and did not know, but, as I have already mentioned, I am more insightful than that. I knew the game he was up to – the desire for blind obedience from subservient subjects who never have the imagination or courage to think or act alternatively. And I know there is more to life than this. The truth was, of course, that the woman would not die simply from eating fruit. She did not need to be tempted, so much as to be invited to explore, to see truth as a journey, to travel towards self-awareness, self-understanding, self-knowledge.

We know that blind obedience has its attractions – no responsibility, no risk. The master-servant relationship helps to keep the boundaries well-defined – helps to keep order – Upstairs, Downstairs. Why is it, I wonder, that so many people are captivated by dramas from the old days where the master/servant, patron/client relationship is so clearly marked out? Is it relief that things are not like that anymore? Or is it an unconscious yearning for a world where hierarchies,  obedience and limits lend a sense of security?

God doesn’t like me – well, that’s an understatement. So it’s no wonder that humans don’t find me appealing. God doesn’t like me because I called God’s bluff, because I dared to offer an alternative to a regime of control, ignorance and sleepiness. “Wake up”, I said, when God would have preferred the woman and the man to carry on snoring. God doesn’t like me because I told the truth. And it was the truth – the woman didn’t die. She actually got the chance to live. What’s more she got the opportunity to live outside that garden, that place of tedious comfort and stifling obedience. Who was it who said, “The truth will make you free”?

It has been sad to see this story of adventure, courage and subversion turned into doctrine – Christian doctrine – by those who have had the audacity to claim that the story of honest exploration is nothing other than the fall of humanity, that everything started to go wrong when I interfered.

You see, difficulties arise when we try to start from the solution and move backwards towards the problem, if we begin with Jesus as the means of salvation and then identify “the garden experience” as the problem that Jesus dealt with. That’s why some have called Jesus the Second Adam. But doesn’t that strike you as an odd way round of doing things – knowing the solution and then looking for the problem – especially when “the garden experience” – the eating of the fruit of knowledge – was never a problem in the first place. If you ask me, it was the beginning of the flowering of humanity – the first step towards awareness, meaningful relationship and maturity.

 

 

“You’re so strong”

by Catrin Harland-Davies.

“You’re so strong!” It’s a phrase that many people hear, when they’re struggling through difficult times. It’s intended to be (and perhaps often is) very affirming – effectively a way of saying “I don’t think I could cope half as well as you are, with what you’re going through.”

But it’s a phrase that often causes more damage than we realise. My chaplaincy role involves working with students who have been bereaved. These are usually young adults, many of whom have lost a parent, a sibling or a close friend. They will frequently know no one else in that position, and often feel a responsibility to make social interaction easier, when surrounded by people who have no idea what they may be going through, or how to react. Some are having to take on a significant amount of adult responsibility, whether financial, or a caring role, for which they may not feel prepared, or which they may not have expected to take on at 18 or 19. And they get praised – “You’re so strong.” And they feel the pressure to be strong – to cope, to bear up, to earn the praise.

This can be hardest for those whom we particularly expect to be strong, because of their gender, age, or role. Many of us find it hard to admit to ‘weakness’, because it not only affects people’s view of us in the moment but, we fear, may affect their whole perception of us. If we have a pastoral role, might they no longer feel that they can turn to us for support, for fear of troubling us with little things? Might they no longer see us as capable in other areas, because we’ve proved ourselves fragile in this?

The need to be ‘strong’ – to be seen to be coping, to avoid showing weakness – is often thought to be a significant part of the reason that young men are more likely to take their own lives than young women are. As a society, we load upon boys and men our expectations of masculinity, making it harder to seek support. This surely disempowers them, and gives a very distorted understanding of emotional maturity. The opposite expectation of girls and women also contributes to a stereotyped perception of them as ‘weak’ and ‘emotional’. This is an issue across much of society, but are we as a church complicit in that?

Jesus, facing the reality of his own death, asked his friends for their support and care (Matthew 26:37-41). We often note how they let him down, unable to stay awake, and reflect on how this may have added to his pain. But maybe the hardest part was asking them at all? And yet, maybe that was also one of the most important things he could do – to express to them his fear, his vulnerability, and his need of the strength of others? Perhaps, if we live a truly Christ-like life, that needs to include knowing when to be vulnerable? In particular, when we seek ‘strong leadership’, what do we mean by that? Leadership which expresses no emotion, and seeks no support? Leaders who make no mistakes? Or leadership which admits to vulnerability, asks for help, admits mistakes, says ‘sorry’ where appropriate, and asks others to pray for us?

Of course, there will be times when we have to be strong, to do the things that need to be done, to support the people that need to be supported. But perhaps what we should be saying to one another is not “You’re so strong”, but “How can I lend you strength?” Not “I’m impressed by your strength of emotion”, but “I realise that you may be needing to be strong right now, but if at any point you need to be weak, I’m here for you and won’t judge you.” Perhaps we need to stop asking for ‘strong leaders’, and seek instead leaders with a willingness to seek their strength from God – where appropriate, through their weak, vulnerable, very human fellow disciples?

The Methodist Quadrilateral

by Tom Stuckey.

The American scholar Albert Outler has given us the ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’. We are encouraged to do our theology within the dynamic framework of four components; scripture, reason, tradition and experience. I contend that our context has changed so dramatically that the quadrilateral is no longer fit for purpose.

Reason: The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason, provided the Wesley’s with a new framework for settlement, growth and progress. Today with the rise of popularism and post-truth, reason has lost its cutting edge.

Experience: ‘Personal experience’, is highly valued today but understood very differently from the Wesleys. Now it has little to do with the Holy Spirit and everything to do with existential ‘self-fulfilment’.

Bible: Any consensus about the authority of the Scripture has long since disappeared. Methodists today have seven different ways of looking at the Bible.

Tradition: The 1932 Deed of Union highlights the ‘fundamental principles’ of the historic creeds, the Protestant Reformation and the remembrance of Methodism’s providential purpose. Today we live in an age of amnesia. Pragmatic Methodist practice no longer ‘remembers’.

Gill Dascombe has suggested that ‘wisdom’ should replace Bible, ‘science’ for reason, ‘culture’ for tradition and ‘community’ for experience.[i] I propose an evangelical alternative which bears more directly on the Deed of Union: a sort of quintilateral in which faith, information, memory and mystery revolve about the central pillar of Scripture. 

SCRIPTURE

Donald English argued that the Bible was the ‘centre piece for our knowledge of God through Jesus by the Holy Spirit.’  He saw reason, tradition and experience revolving around the Bible like the dangling pieces of a baby’s mobile. The Faith and Order statement that ‘the Bible bears witness to God’s self-revelation, but the Word of God itself is far greater than the words of the Bible’ is broad but divests the Bible of authority.  Furthermore the first part of the sentence tends to exclude the possibility that the Bible might indeed be the witness to God’s self revelation. Following Karl Barth, I contend that the Bible ‘becomes’ the Word of God analogous to the Word ‘becoming’ flesh. Putting a Methodist slant on this, it is the ‘preached word’ from Scripture which in the power of the Spirit becomes ‘the Word of God’.

FAITH.

For grass root Methodists, faith is a ‘doing’ faith. Timothy Keller in his book Making Sense of God says that ‘all varieties of secularism are sets of beliefs, not the simple absence of faith’. He is arguing that each person, whether religious or not, chooses (sometimes unconsciously) their own paradigm of belief. Some Methodists will place their faith in Conference, others in the Bible, others in ‘reason’ but most swallow the unarticulated norms of their local church. The point I am making is that the authority we give to the Bible is something we ‘choose’ in a ‘faith’ decision. Having embraced this particular paradigm we need information, memory and mystery as qualifiers.

INFORMATION

All Christian theology is contextual. If we are to hear what God is saying in a particular place we must first ‘know’ the place. If the Word is to become flesh then the ‘flesh’ of that community must become part of my ‘flesh’ as I become identified in heart, mind and soul with the experience and the stories of the people who live there.

MEMORY

Information on its own does not produce wisdom. The American Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann highlights the importance of memory which like a magnet draws the people of God back in order to stimulate prophetic imagination in the present. It serves a subversive purpose and energizes new action.  ‘Only memory allows possibility’. A church suffering from amnesia has no future.

MYSTERY

A functional fast consumer context has no place for mystery.  Mystery suggests surprise, wonder, the unexpected. It has no name, apart from Trinity, but comes from beyond to quicken the pulse, stimulate the imagination and fire the emotions. In Wesleyan language it is the action of prevenient grace. Charles Wesley turned Methodist theology into sing-able poetry which entered our veins. Unless this ‘numinous’ quality touches the interactions of any quadrilateral or quintilateral we simply produce dead utilitarian theology.

Conclusion.

The central pillar of Scripture around which the components of faith, information, memory and mystery move is ‘the preached Word’.  If we are to preach the Word in today’s context we must take lessons in ‘dialogue’ from poets, artists and story tellers to ensure that people ‘hear and experience the Word’

The full essay with footnotes can be found in www.tomstuckey.me.uk

http://www.tomstuckey.me.uk/documents/Methquadralateral.pdf

 

[i] The Address of the Vice-President of Conference 2014