How do we feel about Ukraine?

by Gary Hall.

‘I don’t know how to feel,’ she said on her way out of chapel. ‘How do I sing praises when I have a headful of horrors from Ukraine?’

This story and these images have invaded imaginations and pounded emotional landscapes. For most of us, these are other people’s horrors, not our own. We are safe, but we still have nightmares. Our children are not being bombed or terrified, but our feelings of relief and gratitude can seem distasteful – unless expressed as responsive action. Affirming and celebrating the love of God can feel crass until we have worked out how to act in relation to other people’s devastation. I think this is what she was saying. Knowing how to feel is tied up with knowing how to act; meaning not just the relatively straightforward business of ordinary human kindness (donations, statements of solidarity, lobbying, prayer and tears, movement of resources from here to there), but the bigger question of how much needs to change. For those of us with choices, is this the moment which demands a greater willingness to be disrupted? Should everyday routine and everyday emotions be suspended, when other people’s everyday living has been so violently ruptured? Are everyday playfulness and joviality just indecent when faced with what we are currently seeing and hearing? Is this sickening episode different from all the previous ones, or the more distant ones?

We didn’t have long to talk, so I am guessing that these are the kinds of things she might have meant when she didn’t know how to feel. She left me wondering about how and when the trauma visited upon other people rightly disrupts our own lives. We have a room, food and friendship if any refugees get this far, and that would be a little disruptive, but also a gift. More poignantly, a young adult asked, ‘Will we be conscripted?’ No, you won’t, I replied. ‘Should we volunteer?’ I didn’t answer that one. Who can say what this moment means for this person?

We might resist any disruption, arguing that disproportionate attention to the actions of a deranged despot only multiplies the loss and amplifies the impact of this invasive violence. Why should even more lives be impacted by this gang of kleptocrats? Besides, in this world there is always horror, somewhere, tearing lives apart – and there is always beauty. There is violence and there is love; cruelty and tenderness and everything in between. Perhaps there will be occasion when you and I also have to make immediate, life-changing decisions about protecting family and friends. Meanwhile, we are working out how to live in ordinary human solidarity, with compassion, without colonising someone else’s misery. It doesn’t help that we are wary of the manipulative power of images, and have already accumulated so many images of other horrors, along with too many questions about what kind of intervention actually makes the right kind of difference for the victims, rather than for ourselves.

How to feel? How to act? Most of the time, those of us blessed with predictability and security don’t experience the questions so intensely. Then the horrors come near, and we are jolted to a new level of attention, revulsion, compassion, rage. We feel with fresh force the weight of Jesus’ question, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ or the implicit question addressed to us by a terrified child huddled in an underground station: ‘And who is my neighbour?’

Blessed are they who can translate feelings into actions with relative spontaneity. Meanwhile, the friend who didn’t know how to feel was struggling to work out the extent to which massive, unspeakable disruptions to other people’s lives might – should? – disrupt her own. When to consider the lilies and birds, and when to stay close to Christ in Gethsemane?

On the road to Holy Week, Christians once again anticipate a re-telling of the violent disruption at the heart of the passion story. At the same time, we are familiar with the idea that God breaks in, irrupts into history, into our lives, as incarnate infant or risen Christ or Pentecostal spirit. Some disruptions are divine and transformative; some can only be described as horrific, demonic. What we may be working out, in those moments when we don’t know how to feel, is the relationship between good and bad disruptions – so our living might express a little of the hope that this earth will be a homeland in which all can dwell in peace, including our enemies.

Black and White in the Bible: a Biblical Reflection

by Inderjit Bhogal.

This is the fourth of our series of articles through the year from Spectrum, on the theme ‘Darkness and Light are both alike to Thee’. 

I want to question and reject the idea that white is the colour of purity, and black is the colour of profanity; that white is good, and black is bad.

Let me illustrate by considering words that should be familiar to readers of the Bible.

Isaiah 1:18 where we read, “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (KJV).

These words are traditionally taken to mean, though your sins are dirty they will be made clean, as white as snow.

It is illuminating always to consider the context in which scriptural words are said or written.

Biblical scholarship is broadly agreed that the Book of Isaiah can be divided into three sections.

In section one (Chapters 1-39), there is a warning and prophecy about exile; section two (Chapters 40-54) reflects the time in exile and promises a return from exile; section three (55-66) follows exile.

In section one then there is a focus on things getting worse because people have again turned away from God. They will be taken into exile.

In this context the words of Isaiah 1:18, though your sins are as scarlet, they will become white as snow may be taken to mean, you are going to go from scarlet to white. Things are going to get worse.

Let us look at the use of the term “white as snow” in the Bible, by examining the first appearance of this phrase in some English translations of Numbers 12 where  we read in verse 10 that “Miriam had become leprous, as white as snow”. What led to this?

What does the phrase “white as snow” mean here? Does the original Hebrew text even use the term “as snow”?

Whatever the gloss, clearly it is pointing to something bad rather than something good, it is referring to impurity rather than purity.

The context is criticism of the leadership of the great Moses. To criticise him Aaron and Miriam pick on the choice of his wife. All we know about her is that she is a Cushite. We know nothing else about her.

Cush is the ancient designation of territory on the Upper Nile, south of Egypt. It can be reasonably assumed that the Cushite woman is of black African appearance.

Did Aaron and Miriam object to Moses being married to a black woman, and see this as the greatest weakness of Moses’ leadership to exploit? What results from this prejudice in the community?

God “heard” the criticism (verse 2), and challenges it, saying to Aaron and Miriam, and Moses, there is something we need to talk about (verse 4). The discriminatory reasoning of Aaron and Miriam is challenged in the meeting with God. Then we read, “and the anger of the Lord was kindled against” Aaron and Miriam (verse 9), and there are consequences. God departs.

Miriam becomes “white as snow”. The progress of the community is halted (verse 15). Moses prays for the healing in the situation (verse 13).

From here on, where ever the term “white as snow” appears in the Hebrew Scriptures, we have to read it in the light of the Numbers 12 story.

White as snow is a reference to impurity.

When Black theologians point this out, they are challenging bible-based communities to examine how we use colours in our language and liturgy and hymnody. It is important to note also that people of the “ancient world regard black people favourably” on account of their high esteem and status (see for example Randall Bailey in Felder, 1991, Stony the Road We Trod. Fortress Press, Minneapolis. Pages 135, 179-180). Moses’ black wife may have faced prejudice for her class as much as her colour.

There is evidence that black Africans, of Cushite or Ethiopian backgrounds, were held in high esteem. For example, we read in Amos (9:7, the words where Israel is contrasted with Cushites/Ethiopians, “are you not like the Ethiopians/the Cushites to me, O people of Israel, says the Lord.”

What intrigues me is that in the Biblical texts like the ones I have referred to, white is a negative colour.

The association of white only, with holiness, has to be questioned in Bible based practice. What are the implications of this for example in our language, liturgy, theology, ethics, pastoral care and dress codes?

Questions:

  1. How careful should we be in our use of language? What do you think about ‘political correctness’?
  2. Should there be a ‘black theology’? Has theology been too ‘White’ and European in its orientation?
  3. Is the Bible truly inclusive in its record of events?

“You have nothing to do but save souls”: John Wesley on Evangelism and the Pursuit of Justice

by David N. Field.

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 www.methodist.org.uk/walking-with-micah/

John Wesley’s instruction to his preachers that they had “nothing to do but save souls”i is an odd place to begin a discussion on Wesley’s understanding of the pursuit of justice.

It seems to support the view that the mission of the Church is primarily to proclaim the gospel of personal salvation. Methodists who emphasise social engagement and the pursuit of justice tend to start with Wesley’s commitment to the wellbeing of the poor, his opposition to the slave tradeii, and his advocacy of economic justice. However, the genius of John Wesley’s theology is that it offers an alternative in which the proclamation of personal salvation and the pursuit of justice are dynamically and inseparably related to each other. It is Wesley’s concept of “saving souls” rightly understood that provides the context in which they are related to each other.

Salvation in Wesleyan Perspective

The starting point for understanding a Wesleyan perspective on salvation is that God, who is love, created human beings in God’s own moral image of love. When Wesley wished to describe love for our fellow human beings, he referred to the Golden Rule of “doing unto others as you would have them do to yourself”, which is expressed in the triad of “justice, mercy and truth”.

God’s intention for humanity, he said, was devastated by sin; instead of loving God and their fellow human beings, human beings turned away from God and centred their lives on themselves, resulting in the abuse, misuse, exploitation, and even destruction, of other human beings. Salvation is the process by which God restores the image of God in human beings by drawing them into a relationship with God by the Spirit, enabling and empowering them to live lives characterised by justice, mercy and truth. It begins before we are even conscious of it through what Wesley referred to as “preventing grace”.

Wesley was using the word “preventing” in the eighteenth-century sense of “that which goes before”. His phrase is now more commonly referred to as “prevenient grace”. For Wesley, prevenient grace is active in all people so that we find in all people a moral mixture of that which reflects God’s intention and that which is contrary to it. Prevenient grace is the beginning of the process of salvation and is directed toward drawing people to repentance and new birth. Yet this is only one stage in the process of salvation. Salvation is the restoration of the image of God in the human person. Souls that are saved are ones that are transformed into the moral image of God – that is, they are permeated by divine love.

A Life Permeated by Divine Love

Divine love ought to shape all dimensions of Christian lives so that they are centred on God and passionately directed toward the comprehensive wellbeing of others – concretely through a lifestyle characterised by justice, mercy and truth.

Justice is treating people as creatures with dignity and value because they are “made in the image of God, bought by his Son, and designed for his kingdom”.iii Mercy goes beyond justice and responds to human beings in their need and misery out of a deep empathy, and seeks to relieve their needs and transform their situation. Truth rejects all forms of deception and is expressed in honesty, reliability and faithfulness.

Justice, mercy and truth should characterise our personal relationships, our business practices and our social engagement. The pursuit of justice, mercy and truth for the poor, the suffering, the sick and the imprisoned was a characteristic of early Methodism. An

important example is Wesley’s involvement in the struggle against the slave trade.iv

Evangelism and the Pursuit of Justice – Putting it Together

We can summarise the dynamic relationship between evangelism and social justice in relation to two interrelated themes.

Firstly, a person who has experienced a new birth and is being transformed by the Holy Spirit will live a life characterised by justice, mercy and truth. However, active engagement in the pursuit of justice, mercy and truth is a means of grace, a way through which God transforms us into the divine image.

Second, evangelism leads to the pursuit of justice, mercy and truth – for this is the fruit of conversion. Evangelism that does not lead to this is defective for it is not nurturing people in transformation. The greatest hinderance to evangelism is that the personal and communal life of Christians is not characterised by justice, mercy and truth; this undermines the truth claims of the gospel. Where the lives of Christians demonstrate justice, mercy and truth they verify the truth claims of the gospel and this becomes a means of evangelism.

Evangelism and the pursuit justice, mercy and truth are integrally related to each other. It is this integral relationship that is the genius of a Methodist approach to evangelism and social transformation.

David N. Field is the Ecumenical staff officer for Faith and Order and Theological Dialogue for the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church, and an Academic Associate of the Research Institute for Theology and Religion, University of South Africa. A fuller exploration of the themes above can be read in David’s article ‘Holiness, social justice and the mission of the Church: John Wesley’s insights in contemporary context’, published in Holiness: The Journal of Wesley House Cambridge, Volume I (2015) Issue 2 (Holiness & Mission): pp. 177– 198. It is reproduced here with permission of the author and of the Singing the Faith Plus website on which it originally appeared.

i “Minutes of Several Conversations between the Reverend Mr. John and Charles Wesley and Others.” In Works of Wesley vol.10:854

ii James Montgomery, a younger contemporary of Wesley, was another campaigner against slavery. His views are reflected in the hymn Hail to the Lord’s anointed (StF 228).

iii Explanatory Notes on the New Testament 1 Peter 2:17

iv John Wesley’s Thoughts Upon Slavery is available in various printed forms and online e.g. https://docsouth.unc.edu/church/wesley/wesley.html. Also see David N. Field ‘John Wesley as a public theologian: the case of Thoughts Upon Slavery, Scriptura vol.114; and David N. Field ‘Imaging the God of Justice and Mercy: theological allusions in John Wesley’s Thoughts upon Slavery’, Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae vol.47 no 1 (2021)

Anger

by Carolyn Lawrence.

I wonder if you ever get angry.   And if you do, how do you deal with it?

A husband said to his wife, “When I get mad at you, you never fight back. How do you control your anger?”
The wife replied, “I clean the toilet.”
“How does that help?” asked the husband.
The wife responded, “I use your toothbrush!”

There seems to be a lot of anger and frustration in our nation right now – much of it has arisen during the past two years as people have been forced to deal with circumstances and changes they could never have envisaged.  I have seen this expressed in many different ways.  Some people aim their anger at someone unknown personally to them, often using social media – people having a rant, writing unkind, sarcastic or abusive words; people being critical, nit picking and judgemental of others.

Others are expressing their anger at people known to them – perhaps being irritable with family and friends or having more arguments.  At the other extreme we have seen an increase in domestic violence and abuse in the home, particularly during the lockdowns of the past two years.

Some express their anger in the way they drive, by slamming doors or in activities that harm themselves.  Others express their anger at God by turning away from their faith or the church.  Still others are not expressing their anger outwardly but are keeping it inside leading to growing resentment, bitterness and depression. 

So is it right to be angry?  Ephesians 4:26 says ‘In your anger do not sin.’  We all get angry and anger itself is not a sin but it is what we DO with the anger that can lead us into sinful words and actions. 

There is a difference between righteous anger and unhealthy anger.  The anger we experience when see injustice or people being treated badly is a righteous anger and we know that Jesus expressed anger when he saw the money changers in the temple.  Righteous anger can lead people to take action to right wrongs.  

We should feel angry when we hear about people being trafficked, people starving in a world where there is plenty of food, Christians persecuted for their beliefs, people who are bullied, downtrodden and abused.  If those things don’t make us angry then we perhaps need to ask God for a heart of compassion for those who suffer and a desire to do something about it.

But what about the more unhealthy anger?  How do we deal with our feelings of anger when perhaps things haven’t gone our way, we have had our pride hurt, when we feel frustrated, helpless or stressed?

Here are a few suggestions with some Bible verses.

  1. Recognise your feelings and express them. 

Psalm 62:8 Pour out your hearts to God for he is our refuge.

As we read the Psalms we see the writers expressing all manner of emotions to God and reading these Psalms can be a real help to us in times of difficulty.   I believe we have to be real with God and he is big enough to take our rants and our distress as we pour out our hearts to him. 

We can also express our feelings to a trusted friend, loved one or counsellor.  Often just expressing how we feel and being listened to is enough to calm us and get things in perspective.

  • Once we’ve expressed it, let it go.

Ephesians 4:26  Do not let the sun go down on your anger.

If we allow our anger to fester it can begin to manifest itself in the ways I have mentioned.  That is why we need to deal with it as quickly as we can. 

  • We need to exercise self-control

Galatians 5:22  The fruit of the Spirit is…self control.

James 1: 19  Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.

We don’t have to say everything that is on our mind!  Whether it is using our tongue or our keyboards we need to stop and think before we express our words.  And stop before we act or react.  Wait before replying to that email that annoyed you.  Walk away from the person who is winding you up.  Whatever you need to do to give yourself time to think, pray and reflect before acting or speaking. 

  • Take care of our own well-being

1 Corinthians 6:20   Honour God with your body.

Find ways to relieve our stress in a healthy way by living a healthy lifestyle with exercise, good food and times to rest and unwind. 

  • Deal with unresolved relationship issues

Romans 12:18  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

1 Corinthians 13: 5 Love…is not easily angered.

Deal with any grudges, unforgiveness, bitterness that may be adding to your stress. Express your feelings to each other in a safe way while you are calm.

  • Walk closely with God.

Romans 12: 1-2  Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. As we remain close to Jesus and develop our relationship with him we trust that God will day by day be transforming our minds, our hearts and our wills to make us more like Jesus.  And as our lives become more hidden in the love of God, the things that irritate us, annoy us and upset us will become less important to us compared to knowing Jesus and being obedient to his will for our lives.  As a result, our lives will become more and more a reflection of his love and as our hearts are changed and transformed, that which overflows from our hearts through our words and actions will become sweeter and more Christ-like.

Seeking Justice

by Roger Walton.

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 www.methodist.org.uk/walking-with-micah/

Justice is talked about everywhere, and not least in Christian communities.  Embracing Justice, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book for 2022,is the latest in a string of books on the subject,[i]  whilst The Methodist Church is undertaking a two year project, Walking with Micah, to discern how best to be a justice-seeking church. This is the tip of the iceberg.  Many write from places of injustice or campaign about specific issues that demand resolution or restitution, and academic departments from politics and philosophy to science, law and theology engage with how to enact justice.

That Christians should be part of this endeavour needs no argument or justification here, I hope.  We stand in the Judeo-Christian tradition, where the call for justice is deeply embedded and an essential part of being a disciple. Our task is rather to wrestle with how to pursue justice in our own day and age.

This is not a straightforward exercise on several fronts.  First, justice is a contested notion in theory and practice.  Some seek justice for the unborn child in the name of right to life whilst some fight for the justice of women to decide what to do with their own bodies. Some see free speech as the key to both truth and a fair society but others point to the damage done by hate speech.

This raises the second problem.  We approach justice from where we find ourselves.  For some that will be from the experience of marginalisation, discrimination and the denial of rights; for others it will be places of power and privilege, the latter often benefitting, consciously or unconsciously, from the systems that perpetuate the former.  Becoming aware of where we start our engagement and what are our interests, is crucial but may not be easy.

Equally problematic is that the Bible, whilst having much to say about justice, does not set out a full picture or theory of justice.  Indeed, there are hints that God’s justice may be different from human notions of justice and only partially glimpsed.[ii]  Further, we need to acknowledge that what some biblical texts claim in the name of justice is merely a cover for revenge and even genocide.

Having said that, we have much to aid us in our wrestling.  

First, the scriptures carry persistent themes, which inform our practice of seeking justice. God is concerned about injustice particularly as experienced by the oppressed, the marginalised and the poor.  The Exodus begins with God hearing the cry of an oppressed people. The prophets consistently take up this theme, which is echoed in the Psalms and in the life and teaching of Jesus. All people are made in the image of God and to be honoured and treatment fairly, but the weak and vulnerable are to be accorded special attention. In the contemporary world, this will include hearing the cries of an oppressed and exploited creation.

In the Wisdom literature, upholding justice is a prime responsibility of those in power. Here wisdom is wisdom for justice.[iii]  Thus hearing the cries of the oppressed, attempting to understand the experience (if it is not our own), being alongside those seeking justice and reminding those in power of their responsibilities is the Christian calling. For this, we can learn from and be challenged by the lived experience of personal testimony and the reflections of Christians who stand in and with oppressed communities (e.g. Black, Feminist, Womanist, Queer and Eco-theologians).

Second, we are part of an ongoing active and interpretative community. The fact that the Bible does not give an exhaustive or all-encompassing view of justice acts as an invitation to participate in the ongoing search for justice, which requires the engagement of our minds, as well as our action.  We cannot stand outside the concrete issues of our world theorising.  We find justice in the struggle and all must be activists in some form. This requires courage, humility and a willingness to make the, sometimes costly, journey of discovery.

Finally, participation in the mission of God requires we keep in tune with God, for our transformation is part of this too. Fortunately, we have the gift of the Spirit but this requires our disciplined engagement with the means of grace. Kathy Galloway outlines a set of disciplines that the Iona’s community use in its work on justice and reconciliation.[iv]  These include prayer, listening to those with first-hand experience, solidarity and acting together a community.  There is much here to help us to pray and work for justice.


[i] Isabelle Hamley, Embracing Justice, 2021 SPCK. Others include James Jones, Justice for Christ’s Sake, SPCK 2021; Tom Stuckey Covid-19 God’s Wake-up Call, 2021; and Vic McCracken Christian Faith and Social Justice Bloomsbury 2014.

[ii] See e.g. Isaiah 55.9; Job; and Matthew 20.1-16. 

[iii] Prov 8.15

[iv] Kathy Galloway, Living by the Rule,  Wild Goose Publications, 2010

The Art of Taking Away

by Kerry Tankard.

Rob Ryan is best known as an artist who uses paper cuts to transform his pencil drawings into pieces of art, holding word and image together in beauty and fragility.[i] Unlike working with paint, it is not about applying subsequent layers, but about subtraction. It is a meticulous process in which pieces of paper are taken away to reveal a piece of work that is wholly connected. As Rob Ryan has reflected himself:

Compared to painting, where you need tubes of paint, water, oil, brushes, palettes, palette knives, and a canvas, all I needed now to start making pictures was a single sheet of paper, a pencil, an eraser, a scalpel, and a cutting board. Not only that, but so many of the decisions of the past: tone, shade, perspective, colour, chiaroscuro – everything was gone but the shape of the silhouette, in black or white. I immediately felt freer than ever before.[ii]

The work proceeds from an idea that takes a simple form through a pencil on paper. That paper is then cut to reveal the depth of the idea and bring it to vibrant life. A further feature of his work is in observing that “when a paper cut is produced, you end up with less. You start with a blank sheet and by cutting bits away, by making it less, you make it more.”[iii] By making it less, you make it more! The statement may appear counter-intuitive, but I believe it is a crucial re-imagining that needs to be part of our understanding of Church. I would also suggest that it is theologically pertinent to our identity as human beings, where our pursuit of more increasingly diminishes our sense of created self, but I simply want to address the idea in relation to the Church here.

Our understanding of being Church has become increasingly burdened with the things we think are essential to our identity, rather than being the simple and beautiful community we are called to be. Our predisposition is to add more, to justify ourselves to ourselves, to increase our mass because somehow that suggests we are more substantial and meaningful. We layer on paint, rather than submit to the art of taking away. We have buildings we have to run and then we need things in them to make them viable. As Methodists, we act like a church of millions in the UK, rather than the small, dispersed connexional communities we are. We desire to say something about everything, rather than using what words we have in the right place, at the right time, and trusting the voices of others to share in other spaces. In truth, these are just some of the things we convince ourselves we need to do, or be, to justify ourselves to ourselves.

What if we remember we, the Church, begin not in our own intention but by the will of God? What If we imagine we are the pencil drawing on paper, slowly being revealed as more, in each deliberate and careful cut and act of taking away? When we forget where we come from, and God’s vision of who we are to be, we risk disconnecting our identity through either obliterating God’s intention with paint or trying to seize the scalpel and cutting away carelessly. All this causes me to wonder what we need to wilfully, but carefully, cut away to be the less that emerges as more, or rather what we are willing to let God take away to allow the beauty of who we are to emerge.

As Martha was encouraged to forgo the many things and instead consider the few or the one thing that was needed (Luke 10.41-42); as disciples were sent out with the instruction to take nothing for the journey (Luke 9.3); as the vine was pruned for its own fruitfulness (John 15.2); or as the Son emptied himself and assumed our life (Philippians 2.6-8), what are we to do?

What is the less God is seeking to make us, that we might be more like Christ? How might we enjoy God’s art of taking away and will we feel freer than every before?


[i] You can find an introduction to his work here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvUfafedKqo&t=117s.

[ii] Rob Ryan, Op Cit., p.39

[iii] Nichols, Ibid, p.7

What kind of truth?

by Philip Sudworth.

“You don’t have to switch off your brain to be a Christian.”  I’ve heard this defensive comment many times in recent years.  It’s quite right.  However, we do have to use our brains appropriately. When we total a bill or solve a crossword, we think differently from when we appreciate music or respond to feelings of love.  Although we use both analytical and expressive thinking all the time, the balance varies according to the situation. It’s important to use the correct brain process for the task.  In a school, I asked a girl how she’d arrived at 11+7=27.  She cheerfully replied, “Because I like 27, it’s a nice number.”  It would be equally inappropriate for a man to confess his love to his girlfriend in scientific terms.

Each form of thinking has its own type of knowledge and truth.  One relies on verifiable facts, logical proofs and rational argument, while the other deals with experiences, intuitive insights and inner knowledge. “You shall know the truth,” promised Jesus, “And the truth shall set you free.”  What kind of truth is this? – Factual statements about God that can be set down in a logical scheme, or the knowledge of God’s love and  creative power that you feel from the very centre of your being? Within Christianity, there’s a wide range in the balance between these two types of thinking.

When Jesus told his disciples to think of God as Father, he wasn’t teaching them data about the essential being of God.  He was encouraging them to develop a relationship with God based on filial trust rather than on servant-like compliance with rules in expectation of reward or slave-like fear of punishment for disobedience. The early Christians saw themselves as “Followers of the Way”, as exponents of “the truthas it is in Jesus.”  Such a faith is experienced and its truth lived out.  How we explain it is the outer layer, which we should expect to refine, renew and expand over time to allow the core faith to grow. If we become preoccupied with defending and preserving the explanations, the outer layer, we can constrict the development of the core. It can also be difficult for new generations to penetrate through to the essential nature of faith. Once Christianity became a state religion, those in power sought to codify it in order to control it. Orthodox beliefs and loyalty to them became central.  Faith came to be seen as accepting the truth about Jesus, as taught by the church.

Our modern culture values reasoning more highly than intuitive thought.  This results in church leaders wanting to treat religious experiences objectively and to justify Christianity intellectually.  It leads to some confusing of the different kinds of truth.  One can’t prove what are matters of faith and personal experience. Some very intelligent people over recent centuries have tried unsuccessfully to prove the existence of God. Yet billions of people have ‘known’ God from personal experience.  Currently, there are popular, but sometimes disingenuous, attempts in some outreach courses to demonstrate the divinity of Jesus, attempts which come close to a docetic diminishment of his humanity. The bible’s power to change people’s lives is an experiential truth.  Its power is felt in the words themselves.  Arguing that the bible says, “All scripture is God-breathed,” so the bible must all be true is circular logic. It can lead to literalism and a focus on the wording of individual texts rather than on the spirit of the message as a whole.

We can never grasp the essence of a religion through intellectual investigation alone.  We need to understand it also as a way of life, a vision, a relationship and a commitment through intuitive brain processes. That is why depictions of other religions in terms of beliefs, rituals and festivals and metanarratives often feel so hollow. They describe the outer framework and miss out the essence of the faith which motivates and inspires the adherents. It leads to a misunderstanding of other faiths that mirrors Richard Dawkins’ mischaracterisation of Christianity.

Awareness of the need to distinguish between rational and experiential thinking has grown within the church over recent decades.  However, outsiders are still too often presented with traditional Christian doctrines as statements of fact to be believed literally or rejected. We have to be more open about different types of thinking, and to acknowledge our frequent use of poetic language and images. We can leave factual details about the physical universe and its development to science.  Religious truth is about relationships, meaning, hope, and fullness of life. It demands a response in the way we live.

Lament

by Tom Stuckey.

My latest book Covid-19: God’s Wake-Up Call was published in June 20211. In eighteen short chapters the book takes us from what has been called ‘the old normal’ through ‘abnormality’ into ‘the new normal’.  At the centre of the book is a chapter on ‘lament’. It focuses on the liminal period between the old and the new.

I have written many times about an imminent ‘paradigm shift’2 and of the necessity of ‘repentance’ – metanoia. In my last article for Theology Everywhere I acknowledged that this particular word has struck the wrong chord for many Methodists.3

There have been over 150,000 deaths in Britain attributed to Covid-19. Such a statistic takes little account of the anguish of bereavement or the frustration of people. Political attempts to distract us from this harsh reality by trumpeting Britain’s success with the vaccine have now been derailed by news of ‘Party Times’ at No.10.

The lament of David over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan in 2 Samuel 1 gives voice to the pain of personal bereavement. In poetry intense and intimate David bares his soul. His grief is expressed publicly as the daughters of Israel are invited to ‘weep over Saul who clothed you with crimson’ (v.24). David’s lament is also ecological because he invites the mountains of Gilboa to share in his pain. ‘Let there be no dew or rain upon you’ (v.21). My new book shows that there is a dynamic relationship between our lament and the groans of the earth.

When Jesus rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday he weeps over the city and speaks of its destruction (Lk.19.41-44). Lament is not only corporate, public and ecological, but also political.  To politically ignore lament has devastating consequences for the health of a nation. In our contemporary culture where memory has little significance there must be lament ‘lest we forget’. In an act of remembrance by the new President of the US in 2021 on the eve of his inauguration, he acknowledged the thousands who had died from Covid-19. In doing this he was symbolically taking the American people back to their roots for, ‘only memory allows possibility’.4 As justice and righteousness give an ethical grounding for the stability of a nation, so lament and thanksgiving provide the emotional foundation for a healthy community. 

The book of Lamentations contemplates the destruction of Jerusalem (BC 587). It gives voice to the magnitude of a nation’s pain. Part of the horror of human suffering is that it is unheard, forgotten or airbrushed out. Lamentations is a summons to ‘listen to the voices of the sufferers in the profusion and confusion of their pain, the bitterness of their protest, their shafts of self condemnation, their brief flashes of hope in the long night of despair, and their plaintive pleading with God just to look and see’.5

The author of Lamentations adds an additional ingredient to lament; namely, personal accountability. He is brutally honest in acknowledging that the people of Jerusalem have contributed to their own destruction. He even includes himself in this indictment, ‘I have rebelled against his word’. Human accountability and the necessity of repentance must not be swept under the carpet.

Anger is a further ingredient of lament. It is present beneath the surface of Lamentations (1.21, 1.7, 1.21, 2.14, 2.16) but finally erupts in chapter 3. ‘Pay them back for their deeds…Give them anguish of heart; your curse be on them! Pursue them in anger and destroy them’ (v.64f).  An increasing number of people in Britain are now finding their anger: anger over the death of loved ones; anger at being prevented from being with them at the end; anger at lockdown; anger at those in Government who set the rules but fail to keep them.

There is also anger directed at God. ‘He has driven me and brought me into darkness without light: against me alone he turns his hand, again and again, all day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones’ (Lam.3.2-4).

In the New Testament there are 29 references to anger. The anger of Jesus (Mk.3.5), Stephen (Acts 7.51) and Paul (Gal.1.6) is fuelled by their concern for truth and justice. Most Christians today think anger to be a sin. The writer of Ephesians however tells us to ‘be angry but sin not’ (Eph.4.26). In today’s Church we do not ‘do anger’ but we do not ‘do justice’ either! A.V Campell tells us that in banishing anger we have produced a ‘gospel of niceness which often leads to pettiness’.6

Lament in the Bible is not a tombstone but a launch pad. It opens a door to the future. It is God’s motivating vehicle of transformation. Unless fully expressed theologically, practically and emotionally our anticipated new normal will become even more problematic than the old.

1. Tom Stuckey, Covid-19 God’s Wake-Up Call: Angry Bible Reflections in a Pandemic, 2021, Amazon.

2. Tom Stuckey, Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land: The Future of the Church in Britain, A Methodist Perspective, 2017, Church in the Market Place, (obtainable from Amazon).

3. Theology Everywhere, 15th June 2020.

4.  Walter Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination, Fortress, 1986, p.114.

5. Christopher Wright, The Message of Lamentations, 1VP, 2015, p.35.   

6. A.V Campell, Gospel of Anger, SPCK, 1986, p.61.

‘Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?’ – Thoughts upon Unity

by Richard Saunders-Hindley

The church in the West is in crisis as it declines in both numbers and influence at an ever‑increasing rate. The reasons for this are complex and deep-rooted, but in answer to the question of what the main problem is in the Western church, N.T. Wright’s response is startlingly simple: disunity.[i] Disunity is as old as the church itself, but Wright has in mind particularly Protestant disunity, and it is this that I want to focus on here.[ii]

If Wright’s assessment is accurate, it challenges many Protestant assumptions not only about questions of church structure and doctrine, but about the nature of the church itself. Put simply, what is the church? This, I suggest, is the foundational question that lies at the root of Protestant disunity. The tendency for Protestants to act apart from the wider church, manifested in such issues as doctrinal unilateralism and sectarian church planting, stems from a lack of a shared Protestant understanding of the church around which churches and individuals can coalesce.[iii] Addressing this issue is much more than can be done here, but I would like simply to offer two well-known motifs as a basis for further thought and discussion: the church as a people, and John Wesley’s description of ‘catholic spirit’.[iv]

The church as a people

The New Testament uses a variety of descriptions for the church. Arguably the most profound is found in the claim that, in Christ, God has now formed his eschatological people, that somehow ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no ‘male and female’; you are all one in the Messiah, Jesus.’ (Galatians 3.28, New Testament for Everyone). Elsewhere Paul even seems to say that the church is a new kind of nationality, distinct form Jews or Greeks (1 Corinthians 10.32).

But it is in 1 Peter 2.9-10 where we find perhaps the most explicit expression of the peoplehood of the church, drawn from the deep well of Hebrew Scripture:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (NIV)

The eschatological nature of the people of God in Christ is apposite for Protestants. Just as we eschatologically already transcend old identities, so those old identities are not yet ended. Even as existing ethnicities, social statuses and genders all remain, so we have to live out what it means to be a single people. Conceptually, the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ of new creation provides a framework within which it should be possible for different groupings to identify and act with a single purpose.

John Wesley’s ‘catholic spirit’

As the leader of a potentially schismatic movement, Wesley was clear in both his teaching and practice that disunity and separation were to be met head on and resisted. His famous sermon Catholic Spirit almost catechetically builds up his proposal for Christian unity point by point:

  1. Is thy heart right with God?
  2. Dost thou believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, ‘God over all, blessed for ever’?
  3. Is thy faith filled with the energy of love?
  4. Art thou employed in doing ‘not thy own will, but the will of him that sent thee’?
  5. Does the love of God constrain thee to ‘serve’ him ‘with fear’?
  6. Is thy heart right toward thy neighbour?
  7. Do you show your love by your works?[v]

Wesley’s concept of ‘catholic spirit’ is not indifferent to doctrine, denominations or opinions, but neither is it about these things. It is, rather, about the identification of the universal church in terms of faith and, above all, love: ‘love alone gives the title to this character: catholic love is catholic spirit.’[vi] This catholic love is itself fourfold:

  1. It demands Christians love one another ‘with a very tender affection… as a brother in Christ, a fellow citizen of the New Jerusalem, a fellow soldier engaged in the same warfare, under the same Captain of our salvation.’[vii]
  2. It demands constant mutual intercession for ‘a fuller conviction of things not seen and a stronger view of the love of God in Christ Jesus.’[viii]
  3. It fosters mutual missional zeal, wrought in community and fellowship: ‘provoke me to love and good works … Quicken me in the work which God has given me to do, and instruct me how to do it more perfectly.’[ix]
  4. It results in action: ‘So far as in conscience thou canst (retaining still thy own opinions and thy own manner of worshipping God), join with me in the work of God; and let us go on hand in hand.’[x]

‘Catholic spirit’ is therefore not a manifesto for abstract structural unity, or for vague sentiments of inclusivity. Rather it provides a paradigm in which embodied faith works by love: God’s grace is made known through the outward expression of love and unity of those who have experienced it inwardly in justification and new birth. Conceptually it provides a framework in which doctrine and ecclesial identities can find a coherent concrete expression that can transcend differences without denying them.

Conclusion

We know that the problem of Protestant disunity will not be solved quickly. But if it is possible for some to start to consider themselves within the broader conceptual frameworks set out here, then perhaps it may be possible to avoid some of the mistakes that have contributed to the decline of the church. This will not be easy and the results are likely to be patchy. But even faltering steps forward are better than collapse.


[i]   For example see What is The Main Problem In The Western Church? | N.T. Wright (accessed 17/12/21). Wright has consistently made the same point elsewhere.

[ii]   Throughout this piece I am using the term ‘Protestant’ in its broad sense to denote all ecclesial, doctrinal and theological commitments that trace their origins back to the Reformation.

[iii] For a helpful summary of approaches to and impacts of church planting, see Stefan Paas, 2016, Church Planting in the Secular West: Learning from the European Experience (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co).

[iv] For a treatment of Protestant ecclesiology in relation to Wesley’s concept of catholic spirit, see Tom Greggs, “The Catholic Spirit of Protestantism: A Very Methodist take on the Third Article, Visible Unity and Ecumenism”, Pro Ecclesia Vol. XXVI No. 4, 353-372.

[v]   John Wesley, Sermon 34 Catholic Spirit I.12-18, The Works of John Wesley Bicentennial Edition (BCE) 2:87-9.

[vi]  Catholic Spirit III. 4, BCE 2:94.

[vii] Catholic Spirit II.3, BCE 2:90.

[viii] Catholic Spirit II.5, BCE 2:91.

[ix]  Catholic Spirit II.6, BCE 2:91.

[x] Catholic Spirit II.7, BCE 2:92.

Darkness in the Judeo-Christian Tradition and beyond

by Catherine Bird.

This is the fourth of our series of articles through the year from Spectrum, on the theme ‘Darkness and Light are both alike to Thee’. This month the article is by Catherine Bird.

Darkness has had a rather incredible journey throughout time, shifting like the sands in terms of how it is perceived and understood.

But as humanity developed and evolved, a deep seated and intuitive understanding of the balance of nature also emerged and there wasn’t from the beginning of humankind and civilisation this understanding of light as good and dark as bad, things were much more interconnected – in a way that really goes against our modern dualistic association of light with goodness and dark with evil – that’s an association that is not really very widely reflected in what is known of many ancient cultures.  But at various points in the history of Christianity, Darkness has been variously upheld as either a genuine pathway to divine encounter or as a symbol of heresy and evil.

In the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Genesis, darkness is the fundamental state – God draws light from darkness. We might ask, if darkness was so terrible, why didn’t God at that point decide to get rid of darkness? But God keeps the darkness, as much of it as the light, 50-50 wherever we are in the world, and God saw that it was good. And many Creation myths share this as a common narrative, darkness as a pure state from within which beautiful things emerge.

The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament is actually replete with poetic and positive, dark related images which offer a vision of God residing in the darkness.  Stories which have God using the cover of darkness as a means of liberation and enlightenment, loads of events which take place in the darkness and offer hopeful and positive narratives of transformation and Divine encounter.

One of the best known and most frequently quoted dark related images in the Old Testament is that to be found in Psalm 139.

In the context of a treatise about God’s omnipresence and omniscience, we read in verses 11 and 12, ‘if I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.’

The writer here is describing the impossibility of hiding from God’s presence, and I do not read this Psalm as saying that darkness does not exist for God, or that light is supreme. Rather that darkness is not a place in which God is, or can ever be, absent. It is a place of growth, spiritual formation and sanctuary, a place in which God meets us at our most vulnerable.

Similarly in the New Testament, nany wonderful things happen under the cover of darkness.  Even in John’s gospel, which loves the light good/dark bed metaphor, even there, we meet Nicodemus, the learned teacher and scholar who comes to Jesus after sundown to seek answers and to expand his mind. The night apparently serves Nicodemus well, setting him off on a journey in which we see him let go of a purely rational way of thinking and embrace the more mystical path of Jesus. 

The inconsistency between metaphor and reality in John’s and to a lesser extent the other gospels, seems to pass the writers by actually! In the darkness of night an epiphany and a conversation of potential life changing significance take place; resurrection breaks through and the Glory of God is revealed. Yet still, in the midst of these things, darkness continues to be used as a term to describe malevolence and the absence of God.

For Reflection

  • Think about Scripture – where in the Bible is darkness used positively, either as a metaphor or as a device?
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