Sympoiēsis: or, finding people of peace

by Simon Sutcliffe.

The story in Luke of Jesus sending out the 70/72 disciples is fascinating. Firstly, it reminds us, as Luke often does, that Jesus had a much greater following than the 12 disciples. What is important for us here though is to answer the question of how we might be salt in the earth. It’s rare for Jesus to offer a mission strategy in the Gospels, but here he offers not only a strategy, but some careful instructions to follow.

Firstly, we learn that the disciples are to go before Jesus to the towns and villages. They are the warm up act. It is Jesus who is the main attraction and they are simply preparing the way for him.  Secondly, he tells the disciples not to take anything with them. This will become very important when they arrive in their destination. It seems a stark contrast to the church today that might want to have a budget to employ people, a raft of resources, pamphlets, and gimmicks to attract and engage with people.

Next, they are told to go to the towns and villages and knock on a door and say ‘peace be with you’ if that peace is returned, they are told to stay in the house and not move on. They are to become guests in another’s space. And this is where their lack of preparedness in bringing things with them becomes important. Jesus tells them twice to eat whatever is given to them. Twice! This is a big deal for a group of Jews who have strict purity laws about what can and cannot be eaten. By not taking anything with them they are utterly dependent on their hosts.

Sympoiēsis is a Greek word which means making or becoming with. Within the natural sciences there is growing appreciation that nothing ‘makes itself’ that all creation is made with other creatures and plants. There is no such thing as an autopoētic (self-making) self, or, I would argue community. We, and  similar communities are all products of the relationships we foster and nurture. When Jesus sends his disciples out into the world he asks them to make with, to become with, those he his sending them to. Church can often see mission as a doing to, rather than doing with and has struggled sometimes to work in partnership with other agencies that might share its aim or values.

Jesus doesn’t simply ask his disciples to ‘go and do good’, but to find people of peace and with them show that the Kingdom of God has come near. So, how do we find people of peace? The only way is to ‘knock on the door’, to intentionally seek out relationships with other people and agencies, and to stay committed to those relationships (don’t move from house to house). People of peace will be those who trust and understand the church’s motivation for being in a relationship with them, they will share some, if not all of the values that we might call kingdom. To put it bluntly, they will get us! But, and this has historically been difficult for the church, the church is not to colonise these relationships, own them, or stay in them for their own purposes. Rather the church is asked to make itself vulnerable to the other, to be in relationship not as host, but as guest.


1.  What makes a good host and what makes a good guest? What does this teach us about how the church might have a ministry of being guest?

2. Which do you think the church prefers to be? Guest or host? Why?

3. Who are your ‘people of peace’? Which agencies and people in your local community do you share ministry with? How might you find others?

We are pleased to continue our partnership with Spectruma community of Christians of all denominations which encourages groups and individuals to explore the Christian faith in depth. This year the study papers are written by Prof Anthony Reddie and Rev’d Simon Sutcliffe on the theme ‘Being the Salt of the Earth (A look at some peace and justice issues)’. This is the sixth and final article this the year.

Christian Power

by Mike Long.

Issues of power are central to the pursuit of justice and a theological appraisal must be cognisant of the ambiguity it provokes in theological reflection, as well as – critically – its impact.

Power takes many forms. It is more than simply the capacity to change things in accordance with one’s will. It is also the capacity to resist change, and the ability to influence people and shape events; it is formal and informal, located in particular positions, roles, and structures; it is the property of individual people due to their own innate skill, personality or position. There is physical and financial, intellectual and informational, cultural and charismatic power. Power enables every form of enterprise and organisation[1] but it can be highly destructive.

There are distinct strands in the biblical approach to power. There is the supremacy of divine power: to create life or destroy enemies, to redeem Israel from Egypt and defend them from adversaries. Here power is used to further God’s purposes, though sometimes this is seen in scalar terms – God is more powerful than other gods (cf Elijah and the prophets of Baal).[2] The ‘right hand of God’ remains an image showing that power should be used in ways that are creative and liberating but its dynamic of domination and force reveal its inherent dangers.

Hence the caution over the potential for abuse of individual power. Israel is destined to exemplify a different type of power from alien nations, and we see divine reluctance to anoint a king over Israel until Saul’s installation. The proper use of power is exemplified in the figure of the shepherd-king, most notably in the prophecies of Jeremiah[3] and Ezekiel.[4] David is a fine example, yet his actions involving Bathsheba reveal power’s corrupting aspects.

In Jesus notions of power are radically redefined. He eschews formal power, though he does have a certain popular authority; he resists the temptations of power over others, trusting instead in the power of divine love;[5] he inverts conventional expressions of power by healing people on the Sabbath;[6] and a man excluded from the community due to demon possession.[7] Jesus enables marginalised voices and experiences to be heard and validated.[8] He melts into the crowd,[9] rejects ways of domination in favour of mutual service[10] and he forbade his followers to have titles.[11] Jesus’ trial contrasts his lack of physical power with that of the Roman and religious authorities, and his passion and death exemplify a model whereby his power in powerlessness becomes liberating rather than oppressive.

Further, there is the Pauline notion of the world held ransom to the ‘principalities and powers’. These can be positive or negative, but all require redemption. Today we might think of structures of injustice, or the damaging asymmetry between those with power and those with less or none. The prevailing spirituality of these powers, their ethos and culture have a character that is quite different from the simple amalgamation of its constituent elements. As such the Christian response needs to be more than individual engagement but a collective one, and which may be at variance with those that individual ethics might advocate. The Christian approach to power is deeply counter-cultural and may appear quite foolish in the eyes of the world.[12]

The Church has, for much of its history, exercised very considerable power in the world. In doing so it has not been immune to abusive practices, even in the present day, and perhaps especially when that power is not recognised or named. Methodists have been particularly wary of power vested in any single individual. One product of this hesitancy has been its dispersion into more collective forms, but it can mean that the locations are power are less easy to identify. The willingness and ability to recognise the dynamic of power is vital.

Power, like wealth, is a commodity with huge potential for good hence the powerful have a greater responsibility for ensuring just outcomes. But precisely because power has such capacity it is prone to becoming idolatrised, fetishized, and distorting the vision of those who possess it. Those with power are particularly vulnerable to its corruptions and weak accountability exacerbates this tendency. Yet power must not be abdicated through a reluctance to accept responsibility. Its avoidance – timidity or sloth – is just as much sin as its improper use. Humility and conscientization are required for the proper dispensation of power. The antidote to the misuse of legitimate power is accountability, its remedy for unjust systems is structural, political and economic change.

The Christian use of power is the same as for the stewardship of all gifts, but the warning signs are written in capital letters. Christian approaches to power need to be cautious in application, mindful that power corrupts, and therefore vigilant to the danger of abuse. Power – as rightful authority coupled with capability – is to be used to embody the gospel of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. Christian power is not coercive; it enables and is motivated by love.

The Methodist Church is currently undertaking a two year exploration of what it means to be a justice-seeking church through the Walking with Micah project.  Theology Everywhere is working in partnership with the project to host a series of articles about justice. For more information visit

[1] Hannah Arendt (Power and Violence, p.45) states that power corresponds to the ability not only to perform individual tasks but to work collectively.

[2] 1 Kings 18: 20-40

[3] eg Jeremiah 23: 1-4

[4] Ezekiel 34

[5] Luke 4: 1-13

[6] Luke 6: 6-11; 13: 10-17; John 5: 1-16

[7] Mark 5: 1-20

[8] John 4: 5-42

[9] Luke 4: 30, John 6: 15, 7: 40-46; 10: 39

[10] Mark 9: 33-35; 10: 35-45, Luke 14: 7-14, 22: 24-27

[11] Luke 23: 8-10

[12] 1 Corinthians 1: 25

God and Consciousness

by Frances Young.

Some readers may have seen the article by David Stevenson in the Methodist Recorder for Friday April 14th reflecting on faith and reason: “Voicing a View – God is consciousness.” As it happens I was then, and still am, in the process of reading the magnum opus of Iain McGilchrist, The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World (London: Perspectiva Press, 2021). As it happens Volume II, chapter 25 is entitled “Matter and Consciousness”. To his take on that subject I will return, but you need to have some idea of where he is coming from first.

My initial acquaintance with McGilchrist’s work came about some time ago when I read The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press, 2009). A neuroscientist and psychiatrist, he is also a philosopher. The breadth of his learning, the depth of his understanding of science – especially physics and biology, and his sensitivity to metaphysics and the ultimate questions addressed by religion, is altogether remarkable, even more so in this more recent massive two-volume work substantiating and developing further the argument offered in his earlier book. I still remember my excitement as his presentation of what is known about the left and right halves of the brain illuminated both the lack of functions and the surprising capacities of my brain-damaged son, Arthur. But more than that, it provided scientific grounding for my long-developing sense that the logocentric rationality of scientific materialism is profoundly limiting as a response to the reality we actually experience and seek to understand.

Prior to reading McGilchrist I had happened to come across the fact that brains have two halves, that language resides in the left-hemisphere, while the right-hemisphere is more intuitive, and I had felt distinctly uncomfortable with the mythologizing that associated the controlling logic of the left-brain with masculinity and the intuitive, empathetic imagination with feminity. What was clear to me was that unless the two halves worked together a person wah deeply handicapped. McGilchrist confirmed the latter.

His focus is on the kind of attention each half of the brain gives to the world. In chickens one eye (the one linked to the left-brain) focusses on individual grains to be pecked, while the other (right brain) keeps a weather-eye open for rivals and predators. This is paralleled in humans: the left-brain analyzes, differentiates, divides into parts, focusses on things, drills down (we might say), defines and literalizes, re-presents by telling (rather than experiencing directly), manipulates and seeks to control; whereas the right brain attends to presence and process, to the whole and to flow, to relationships – facial recognition, social and emotional understanding are right brain functions, which also enables perspective on life, the universe and everything. Summary and generalization along such lines is substantiated by reference to scientific literature, brain scans, case-studies of patients with brains damage by stroke or accident, and the different take on things evident among neurodiverse persons, those with autism or schizophrenia.

Now it is against that background that McGilchrist

  • rejects any idea that the computer analogy tells us much about how the brain works;
  • explores the classic philosophical conundrum of the relationship between brain (matter) and mind (consciousness);
  • treats Western culture, its logocentric rationality and its assumption that life is mechanistic, as a left-brain, limiting response to reality;
  • rejects scientific materialism as an inadequate account of the way things are;
  • and, despite rejecting the “engineer” God, refuses to accept the incompatibility of science and religion.

And there is so much more – on ethics, aesthetics, purpose – just read and see!

Apropos consciousness, then, he suggests that consciousness is not just in us, but in everything that exists; for plants perceive and respond, trees communicate through complex underground networks of fungi, and even single cells behave intelligently – so the consciousness of living beings is an expression of this primordial force, flowing with vital energy. He states that it is more rational and better in keeping with science to suppose that matter arose out of consciousness than consciousness out of matter; and he postulates that “the grounding consciousness is intrinsically creative and that part of its self-realisation is the realisation of the cosmos” – indeed “it will naturally produce conscious beings.” The universe tends towards order, complexity and beauty, and it is implausible that it all evolved at random.

His final chapter is on “The sense of the sacred”:  here he affirms that the ground of Being, or God, is properly understood as transcendent, not just immanent. Maybe that sets a question against the straight identification of God with consciousness? Discuss.


by Karen Turner.

Thanks to the generosity of some friends with a flat, our family has returned to Swanage in Dorset for seaside holidays over many years.  One spot that has strong memories is a stretch of beach that has a small inlet of fresh water leading down to the sea.  When our boys were younger they loved playing there, damming the stream or diverting it into small moats or lakes.  If I’m being completely honest, I loved it too, and still try to convince them to join me there, early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when most people have gone home.

There is something compulsive about digging in the sand.  It has such fleeting affect on the landscape, but somehow it’s so much fun to achieve a change, even for a short time, though all your efforts will be certainly washed away.

The work entitled When Faith Moves Mountains by artist Francis Alÿs involved 500 volunteers digging in a line in order to move a massive Peruvian sand dune by 4 inches. [1]  Though this project was a metaphor about the difficulty of affecting change in Latin American society with the motto “maximum effort, minimum result,” I couldn’t help but feel that it had something to say to me about ministry.

Although it might be quite an extraordinary feat to move a mountain 4 inches, what is the point? No doubt, like me, you have seen brilliant initiatives and projects come and go, and you have probably been a part of them, investing hours of effort in prayer sessions and meetings and washing up. Good things have happened through them;  justice, evangelism, mercy, friendship.  At a time when some congregations are considering releasing their buildings for different uses, I sometimes wonder about all the work and giving and prayer that went into constructing church buildings in the first place, surely offered in love, but for what purpose now?

Different times call for different sorts of building projects, perhaps less likely to be bricks and mortar, but equally susceptible to the ravages of time.  As I ‘dig’,  trying to be faithful in my context of offering ministry to university students, people who come and go from one academic year to the next, the sense of shifting sands is strong.  There is little here of visible permanence. Do I labour in vain?

This week a friend who is an MHA chaplain, shared some words she’d read with me:

Time provides the existential space within which we learn to love and care for one another.  But time needs to be sanctified, redeemed, and drawn into the service of God.  We do this by simply slowing down and reclaiming time for its proper purposes. To learn to be in the present moment is to learn what it means to redeem time. [2]

Most Bible translations interpret Paul’s phrase, ‘redeeming the time’[3] as getting more work done, making the most of the daylight hours.  Perhaps they are right, but I like the sense here of time itself being redeemed, made holy, and that not being achieved through busyness, but attentiveness.

As humans, we long for physical evidence, for a sense that we have made our mark and achieved something, but what if it was faithfulness itself that was part of God’s redemption of time?  And what if time was not so much a ticking clock but the expanse of God’s grace to us, to be treasured as holy company?

As someone on the cusp of undertaking a new project, some friends and acquaintances urge caution, telling tales of similar ventures that ‘didn’t work’. This is salutary and important, but the urge to dig is strong, because, of course, we aren’t building anything ourselves.  We are shoulder to shoulder with the Holy Sprit and in a way it doesn’t matter if it is washed away tomorrow.  We want to step into the reality where time itself can be redeemed, remembering that what God has done in a place simply cannot be measured by anything tangible but by a sense of God’s presence by our side. [4]

[1] You can watch a video about the making of the piece here:  More about the artist here:

[2] Dementia: Living in the Memories of God,  John Swinton, p.252.

[3] in Ephesians 4.16 and Colossians 4.5

[4] This song by The Porter’s Gate has been a refrain in my thoughts this week:

Dying and living with contradictory convictions

by Ken Howcroft.

There is a beautiful prayer at the end of some of the funeral services in The Methodist Worship Book (1999) (eg para 19E on p. 459).

Bring us, Lord our God,
at our last awakening,
into the house and gate of heaven,
to enter into that gate,
and dwell in that house,
where there shall be
no darkness nor dazzling,
but one equal light;
no noise nor silence,
but one equal music;
no fears nor hopes,
but one equal possession;
no ends nor beginnings,
but one equal eternity;
in the habitation of your glory and dominion,
world without end. Amen.

That prayer is based on a section of a sermon preached by John Donne in Whitehall on 29 February 1628. The text reads   

… They shall awake as Jacob did, and say as Jacob said Surely the Lord is in this place and this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven, And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no Cloud nor Sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light, no noise nor silence, but one equal music, no fears nor hopes but one equal possession, no foes nor friends, but one equal communion and identity, no ends nor beginnings but one equal eternity…

So far as I can discover it was edited into a prayer by the Anglican Eric Milner-White, who also developed the service of Nine Lessons and Carols for King’s College, Christmas. It appears in number 59 of the fourth edition of After the Third Collect (Mowbray, 1952) which he edited. The Worship Book seems to take over this version directly.

The opening and closing phrases of the prayer have clearly been introduced to turn Donne’s phrases into a prayer. What interests me though is one phrase of Donne’s that Milner-White and therefore the Worship Book omit, “no friends or foes but one equal communion and identity”. Was that considered wrong or simply unsuitable because it made people feel too uncomfortable?

All of Donne’s images seem to be saying that God’s love or ‘heaven’ holds together what we might call binary opposites or contradictory convictions and experiences in a way that makes them complementary to each other and eventually transcends them. But if that is what God’s love is like, we cannot leave it all to whatever we imagine happens as and after we die. If Jesus embodies or incarnates what this love of God is like in his earthly ministry and in his death and resurrection, so as we are drawn into becoming his body here on earth and start to develop ‘his mind in us’, we ought to be practicing and modelling it so far as we are able in our lives and in the life of the world around us. Doing so is much needed in a time when problems resulting from climate change, war, migration, poverty seem to be symptoms of an increasingly broken and fragmenting world; a time when all conversation about them is politicised and then polarised and reduced to wars of personality cults; and a time when even the life of churches is more absorbed by conflict within each denomination than differences between them.

Do we have to learn again how to stand for truth and at the same time love those who do not see truth as we do? Do we have to relearn how to love both friend and foe alike, recognising that God loves them both, and also recognising that love means being open to perceive God in them all, to celebrate God in them all, and to receive from God through them all? As we hold both friend and foe together, and allow ourselves to be transformed and transcended with them, we shall discover, says Donne, an equal communion and identity. This is the only example he gives which has a double emphasis. It is about how the one and the many belong together. We live in a world where everything, including faith, is increasingly individualised, privatised and interiorised. That potentially skews any thinking about ‘identity’. Amongst the most radical statements in God in Love Unites Us were the opening ones that God has made us (in God’s image) to be in relationships (to relate to God and to relate to others) and to relate as sexual beings (including aspects of sex, gender and sexuality). So we find our identity in and through communion, including the communion of saints.

Naming (in)justice: climate change from Global South perspectives

by Caroline Wickens.

‘When I was growing up, Marsabit was a green oasis with streams of water and many trees’. A Kenyan colleague was describing his childhood in this hilltop town in the deserts of Northern Kenya. Marsabit has been in the news recently. After five years of drought, it’s finally raining there – but the earth is so dry that it cannot absorb the water, and the remaining animals are being swept away in flash floods.

The pattern of climate change is repeated, in different ways, right across the continent, with devastating impact[1]. In a context where churches play a massive role, African theologians are increasingly reflecting on the ways in which God is calling the people to respond. One starting-point is an understanding of human nature as fully embedded in God’s good creation. From Kenya, Jude Ongong’a rejects the ‘anthropocentric outlook advocated by the European Renaissance’[2], alongside several other writers who resist the spirit/matter dualism that flowed from Greek to Christian thinking and has continued to influence aspects of Western Christianity. They understand humanity as essentially relational. Human beings exist in a three-way relationship with the natural environment, with one another and with God[3], in patterns that are co-operative, not autonomous, and certainly not dominating or exploitative[4].

Several scholars explore broader concepts of unity and harmony. Kenyan theologian Eugene Wangiri focuses on urumwe, a Kikuyu concept expressing ‘a harmonious existence of entities whose being is ‘being-together-with-others’[5]. His invitation is to ‘live urumwe’ by recognising the interconnectedness of creation as the place where an incarnate God is revealed to us as Emmanuel, God with us.

Zambian theologians Kuzipe Nalwamba and Teddy Sakupapa use the New Testament language of koinonia to develop this approach[6]. They affirm the whole of creation as ‘God’s beloved’ and locate humanity within that wider community, in fellowship with the earth and with God, creator of all. Koinonia fosters an outlook on life where creation’s common life and good are at the core of all relationships. It challenges the disregard for creation with which Christianity has historically been linked. They identify our celebration of the Lord’s Supper as a key location for shaping our koinonia with one another, with creation and with Christ, focusing the essence of the church’s being and calling as an ecological community. Their reflections include a striking focus on the Holy Spirit, enabling fellowship as the one who gives life to all. Alongside this, Mary Gecaga invites participation in the ‘dance of creation’, where the perichoresis of the Trinity is mirrored as mountains and hills join in God’s dance[7].

Diakonia opens a second space for reflection. Environmental degradation creates hardship for millions, and the church’s call to service echoes Christ’s call to be good neighbours to those who struggle. However, our diakonia needs to go beyond offering practical help to folk in need, or reforming our own practice towards greater ecological responsibility. As God’s people, we are called to sustain and affirm creation as the location of God’s life[8] from a perspective that is hope-filled and kingdom-centred. Paul describes creation as ‘subjected to futility’ (Rom.8:20) but living in hope that it will be set free from its slavery to destruction. Margaret Gecaga illuminates this hope and ties it in with the story of creation by saying that we must be ‘gardeners as well as guardians’[9], an image of collaboration with God’s world in the expectation of new growth, flowers and fruit.

Finally, worship matters. Ghanaian theologian Robert Agyarko[10] writes about kerygma. Within the framework of proclamation, he names the importance of lament as a way of expressing our experience of disruption and longing for transcendence. Lament subverts the damaging status quo, names injustice and violence, protests ecological destruction, joins with the Spirit’s groans (Rom.8:26 – 27). It is an act of divine interruption, naming what is happening and creating the space for imaginative engagement with the question ‘how could this be different?’

What will all this mean for the people of Marsabit? The work of African theologians resources African churches to articulate what is happening to them; it also challenges the churches of the northern hemisphere to transformation, as part of the body of Christ.

This is the third article in a series – also see Naming (in)justice: an exploration of some conversations from the Global South and Naming (in)justice: women’s voices from the global South

The Methodist Church is currently undertaking a two year exploration of what it means to be a justice-seeking church through the Walking with Micah project.  Theology Everywhere is working in partnership with the project to host a series of articles about justice. For more information visit

[1] Wangari Maathai, winner of the Nobel peace prize in 2004, describes this in The Challenge for Africa, Arrow:London 2009

[2] Ongong’a JJ, Towards an African Environmental Theology, pp.50 – 70 in Theology of Reconstruction eds. MN Getui and EA Obeng, Acton:Nairobi 1999:63

[3] Ongong’a 1999:60

[4] Gecaga M, Creative Stewardship for a New Earth, pp.28 – 49 in Theology of Reconstruction 1999:31

[5] Wangiri E, Urumwe Spirituality and the Environment, pp.71 – 89 in Theology of Reconstruction 1999:72.

[6] Nalwamba K and Sakupapa TC, Ecology and Fellowship (Koinonia): a Community of Life, pp.75 – 93 in The Church in God’s Household: Protestant Perspectives on Ecclesiology & Ecology eds.CW Ayre and EM Conradie, Cluster:Pietermaritzburg 2017:75

[7] Gecaga 1999:34

[8] Nalwamba and Sakupapa 2017:83

[9] Gecaga 1999:38

[10] Agyarko RO and J Cilliers, Ecology and Proclamation, pp.31 – 53 in The Church in God’s Household: Protestant Perspectives on Ecclesiology & Ecology eds.CW Ayre and EM Conradie, 2017:45

Revelation and the love of life

by Gary Hall.

John of Patmos is both seer and artist. Artists invite us to linger over things we might not ordinarily see or choose to gaze upon, gradually revealing to us what is not easy to communicate. Learning to trust what art and scripture can reveal is an art in itself, an art which begins with attention without understanding, and a capacity to abide with unresolved tensions. In the strange apocalyptic landscape of Revelation we may just learn to see differently and therefore to inhabit life differently, once we have mustered the kind of courage and curiosity which led Lucy through the wardrobe, or Alice through the looking glass, or which led Neo to take the red pill in order to see The Matrix unveiled.

The Apocalypse is not safe territory. Traces of paranoia and dreams of vengeance cling stubbornly to the contrasting and more appealing images of joyful restoration beyond mourning and crying and pain. In the seer’s imagination, the way of the Lamb and the way of the Predator sometimes mingle uncomfortably – and this very fact, this ambiguity, may be a clue about how the prophetic drama can energize and guide us.

If we set aside our instincts to resolve or avoid every tension, and if we let go the fantasies of final, conclusive battles, then we can discover a text that reflects back a world where beauty and horror, wonder and sorrow always co-exist. This is the world we inhabit, and Revelation can help us abide creatively with the tensions experienced by all who dare to trust in the risen Christ and the restorative work of God, whilst facing the indisputable facts of everyday grief and horror, and the contradictory impulses which lurk within us and our institutions.

When we turn away from the mesmerizing drama of cosmic warfare and the sinister lure of militarized force, we notice the irony of a slain lamb on a throne, revealing the blasphemous heart of death-dealing cultures with their deceptive ideologies of redemptive violence, or wealth as salvation. Alongside the Lamb are his comrades who are neither deceived nor allured, who (despite all they have suffered) know that living is more than self-securing, even in the face of death. Their trusting is their triumph. Their faithful witness to the martyred Lamb is a gateway to eternity. They love life, but they do not love their own lives too much (12.10-11).

In contrast, there are those who entrusted their futures to the idolatrous empire of the Predator and her economy of meaningless luxury (18.11-15), who now mourn the collapse of Babylon/Rome. Amongst the mourners are rulers whose own power depends on alliances with the death-dealing superpower, and merchants who have grown rich through plunder and a corrupt economy built and sustained at devastating cost to human lives (18: 13). Then there are other mourners for whom we may feel a trace of sympathy, for surely these seafarers are just ordinary workers trying to earn their keep (18:13-17)? It is not so simple; for without them the corrupt, dehumanizing system cannot flourish. Their collusion, whatever the reason, sustains injustice and devastation. More to the point, their concern is not for the prophets and saints and every victim whose blood stains the ruined city (18: 24), but with securing their own lives (18: 17-19). They do not love life after all; they love their own little lives too much to take a costly stand alongside the Lamb.

The prophetic art of Revelation can guide us in the ways of peace and justice, mercy and hope when we let go our desire for conclusive victories, final solutions, so that we can focus instead on the art of navigating the tensions and ambiguities of everyday living. Decisive outcomes are not in our own hands. By grace, however, we can discover what it takes to live through transient victories or defeats in hope, faith and love, without being derailed by the persistence of injustice, threat and destruction.

The company of the Lamb is for those who are learning to not love their own little lives too much, so we can go on learning to love life in all its fulness.

A version of this reflection is included in the 2023 Bible Month booklet on Revelation, available at

Do you like walking?

by Will Fletcher.

Do you like walking? Do you like gardening? These seem to be two of the most commonly asked questions that I get as a minister. The truth is that I do enjoy going for a walk, and I do also enjoy spending time in my garden. Yet I’m always a bit cagey about answering these questions positively. For it often seems that if I say that I enjoy walking that therefore must mean that I want to push myself to walk the furthest mileage possible, up steep craggy paths, barely stopping for sustenance let alone to take in the view (this may have something to do with first being minister on the edge of the Peak District, and now on the edge of the South Downs). If I answer that I enjoy gardening the expectation seems to be that I’ll be out spending every available moment tending my immaculate garden, and that I’ll be an expert in growing a variety of plants and vegetables.

Anyone who has been for a walk with me, or seen my garden, will know that neither of these things are true. I get side-tracked in both activities by stopping to look at all manner of bug or flower (that some might call weed). I don’t care how far I walk, or even how challenging the terrain is, being out walking is enough. And the best walks have an extended pub lunch with a pint in the middle of them! My garden isn’t immaculate, because I don’t actually know a lot about what I’m doing, but it is a haven of calm where I try and make room for all wildlife – slugs and snails included.

It did make me wonder whether the assumptions behind the questions point to attitudes in society that we always have to aim at being the best, going the furthest, never being satisfied, always looking to the next thing.

Our Methodist heritage may contribute to that assumption. The Wesleys’ desire for Christian perfection, meant that they could never be satisfied, and always had to be looking to the next step, the next experience, moving that little bit closer to God. This can be a positive intention, but it can also leave us dissatisfied or feeling like we have to keep pushing ourselves, and not rest.

Having that mindset of yearning for perfection can lead us to aiming only at the greatest spiritual experiences or feats. We have to give up everything for Lent, or go on one of the huge pilgrimages, or spend x number of uninterrupted hours in prayer. Anything short of the maximum doesn’t feel worth it; and anything short of some profound new spiritual experience feels a bit of a let-down.

Now Jesus obviously spent his 40 days in the wilderness fasting and praying, so he wasn’t opposed to such endeavours. Yet we see far more often Jesus and his followers walking from village to town around Galilee and Judea. Even when he had turned his face towards Jerusalem, he didn’t seem in a rush to get there. The journey was important, not just the destination. When Jesus was on the way to Jairus’ house when his daughter was taken sick (Mark 5.21-43), he was prepared to stop when the woman who was haemorrhaging touched his cloak, and restore her to wholeness. So many times do we see Jesus walking along but being prepared to stop to offer healing, to notice a fig tree, to visit a tax collector’s house for tea.

I was asked recently when the last time I ‘went paddling with Jesus’ was. It was a question that pulled me up short. In the focus on ministry and striving to be the best disciple I can be, have I failed to make space to be with Jesus – not swimming as many lengths as I can, but just to enjoy being in his presence.

In recent years we have started learning that immaculate gardens aren’t always great for encouraging the beautiful diversity of God’s creation to thrive, that being a slightly lazier gardener might not actually be a bad thing all the time. So I wonder whether we might all be called, at least on occasion, to be less worried about how much, or how far, or how ‘perfect’, and instead make space to notice the little things on the journey, which might be just as important as the destination. Maybe we all need to make time to ‘paddle with Jesus.’

Learning to make a difference

by Simon Sutcliffe.

We are pleased to continue our partnership with Spectruma community of Christians of all denominations which encourages groups and individuals to explore the Christian faith in depth. This year the study papers are written by Prof Anthony Reddie and Rev’d Simon Sutcliffe on the theme ‘Being the Salt of the Earth (A look at some peace and justice issues)’. This is the fifth of six through the year

In a church that loves ‘to do’ we might assume that if we want to learn how to make a difference then we need to develop techniques and resources for the task of doing. Attend courses and workshops on mission and challenging injustice; and whilst these courses are important, there is one other, often overlooked, focus for our learning. I want to suggest that learning theology is another really important tool for us to become salt in the earth, but not of it. In fact, it is the theology that stops the church from being another NGO. We have our own, unique, and different story to tell. In a book called The Pioneer Gift I wrote these words:

‘I understand theology as the language and memory of the church that has developed over thousands of years and in which I now participate. So just as a child learns language through the listening and participating in a particular cultural setting so I, as a theologian and a pioneer, have learnt how to speak of the things of God by being present with the architects and innovators of Christian thought. It is what it means to be a Christian, to be rooted in that memory and narrative to such an extent that it begins to shape my thought and practice’.

As with all memory traditions there are those groundbreaking moments: granny’s 80th birthday party, the time my dad fell off my push bike, my first kiss, the first time I held my child … in the same way theological memory is punctuated with kairos: the exile, the incarnation, the edict of Milan, Luther’s 95 theses … all mould my understanding of what it means to be a Christian — whether I know it or not! Equally language has developed that becomes common place to my community. In West Yorkshire where I grew up, we went chomping for wood near bonfire night and my mother would fettle things; where I now live in North Staffordshire, I am cold because I am nesh. Likewise, theology uses words that are rarely, if ever, used by other communities such as resurrection, sanctification, incarnation, ecclesia. Some of the words we do share with other communities take on new or different meaning such as hope, pray, God etc.

It is this language and memory of the church, theology, that shapes the kind of practice we engage in. Or to put it another way, learning our language and memory helps us to answer the questions ‘why should we be salt? And ‘how should we be salt?’

Another metaphor we might use for theology is that of lenses. Theology, this deep tradition that is held, shaped and passed on by the church, is like a lens that enables us to see more clearly, or differently, from what we might see without wearing it. Cyclists will often have a set of interchangeable lenses for their glasses. The purpose of the glasses is to protect their eyes, but in order that they can see more clearly there is a dark lens for bright days, a yellow lens for less sunny days, and a clear lens for cloudy, dull days. Each different lens helps the cyclist to see better.

A final metaphor that might be helpful is to see memory and language as being fundamental to identity. Our hearing, speaking and thinking are informed by our language (vocabulary) and memory (the tradition we can recall). It is this identity, knowing who we are, that enables us to have confidence in our vulnerability when we are guests.

If we want to be truly salt, light and yeast in the world, then learning our theology, our language and memory is as essential as learning our practice, our techniques. Together they help us to develop phronesispractical wisdom, wisdom of, and for, salt in the world, but not of the world.


1.  How would you define the word ‘theology’? What is your experience of it?

2. Can you think of theological themes which need re-definition for today’s world? (examples might be forgiveness, sanctification etc.)

3. Which theologians have most influenced you? How might you go about discovering more of the language and memory of the church? (for instance, do you know of the circumstances that led to the Nicene Creed been written? Have you read any of the theology that came out of German speaking world such as Bonhoeffer and Barth?).

Small Talk and the Anarchy of Infinite Love

by Philip Turner.

The Samaritans, the listening service set up by a London vicar in 1953, launched in 2017 the campaign ‘Small Talk Changes Lives’.[i]  It is based on the premise that, when we initiate a conversation we create the potential for transforming a life.  Yet what I find especially striking is the idea that the conversation that transforms a life doesn’t need to feel extraordinary, at least not to the the person initiating the conversation.  The Samaritans suggest the relative banal question, ‘Hi, where can I get a coffee?’, might be all it takes to interrupt suicidal thoughts, and be the intervention that helps set someone on the road to recovery.

Too often we overlook and undervalue the common, the ordinary and the banal.  It seems too obvious, unoriginal and not nearly complex enough.  Yet I have come to see the value of what I might have once considered to be insignificant and unproductive.  Today, in my role as a chaplain in an acute healthcare setting, I see so-called ‘small talk’ as a key pastoral care practice.  Where ‘small talk’ starts is inspired by visual cues offered by the patient.  So, I ask people about the books they like to read, the puzzles they find easiest, what’s noteworthy in their newspaper and what mini-series they find most absorbing.  There is nothing enlightened about the questions I ask.  It is all rather ordinary, except that the ordinary is often a window into something extraordinary.  Like a sacrament, skilful ‘small talk’ provides the opportunity to reveal the sacred, because a kindly put carefully-phrased everyday question often enables extraordinary conversations.

There are many angles on the Lenten story of the woman at the well.[ii]  Scholars wonder about whether there is an ancient betrothal motif present[iii] and the gnostic Heracleon sees five husbands plus the current partner as equalling six, the number of imperfection[iv].  There is potency in these and other angles, yet let us not overlook the obvious and common place.  The story of the woman at the well is also an everyday story of someone who has been let down by relationships that too often go wrong.  It is an ordinary story of how someone felt ostracised, ashamed or alone in the heat of it all.  It might even be a story of a woman gazing into a well searching for relief, wondering whether to draw water out, or throw herself in.  We will never know, for one singular reason: Jesus interrupted her thoughts with a banal question.  It wasn’t, ‘where can I get a coffee’, but it feels similar.  The question ‘give me a drink’ was the ‘small talk’ that created the opportunity where Jesus revealed his genuine agape love.  His intention was not to ‘save’ her, though the story points to that outcome.  Love, as I am coming to understand it, does not seek to achieve anything.  Divine love does not have an answer to the question ‘why’, but reflects what James Finley articulates as the ‘anarchy of infinite love’,[v] which is the love that has no purpose other than to be given away.

There are few times in ministry, let alone in life, where it can feel safe enough to talk about about how we feel let down – by others as well as ourselves.  There are few times where we might risk mentioning the regrets and the shame we feel.  ‘Small talk’ is not that conversation, but it might be, like the moment at the well, or today at a water-cooler, an opportunity for you and I to demonstrate Christ’s genuine agenda-less care.  ‘Small talk’ might be the moment when someone has the chance to discover that the person listening is really listening, not because they need to be ‘fixed’, but because they are loved. Good chaplaincy, as an expression of divine love, is meant to be experienced rather than described.  It is in the experience of someone without an aim to ‘do’ anything, but of someone who has something to be given away.  It is the gift of being present to the mystery of each human being that God has created.  It usually starts with ‘small talk’, not because of an anxious need to eliminate awkward silences, but as a gesture of genuine interest.  The outcome may, or may not, correlate to our effort, but we will be sharing in Christ’s life-saving ministry.


[ii] John 4.1-42.

[iii] See, for example, Andrew T Lincoln, The Gospel According to St John, London: Continuum, p.170.

[iv] See C K Barrett, The Gospel According to S John 2nd Edition, London: SPCK, p.235.


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