Reconciliation – Widest Extremes to Join

by Inderjit Bhogal.

When Nelson Mandela became the first black President of South Africa 25 years ago he made his former enemy F. W. De Klerk of the national Party his Deputy.

The handshake between two extreme enemies, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness at the beginning of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in Northern Ireland is miraculous.

People who are poles apart can be friends, reconciled, and work together.

I love Charles Wesley’s lines:

“He deigns in flesh to appear,
Widest extremes to join.”

Focus on the words “widest extremes to join”.

It is possible.

We, as a church, are a rich mixture of people.

We have all the range of diversity, not least the widest extremes in terms of theology.

We want to enable each other to grow and flourish in our relationships.

In any context we do make mistakes.

We hurt each other.

We can be become poles apart.

But we are called and committed to a ministry of constructive dialogue and reconciliation.

We can go down two tracks as we do this.

We can see conflict as a place of different opinions, good or bad, depending on your place in the conflict.

In this scenario, one side tries to overcome the other.

Conflict can get ramped up and up and up, and can build resentment, hatred and mistrust.

It is then about conflict management, or conflict transformation – neither of which tackles the root causes.

Alternatively, we can see conflict in terms of mistakes that have been made, come to admit the mistake made, confess, repent and respond with grace and respect, and learn from our mistakes.

In either case, the important factor is to cross the river of turmoil upstream, before it becomes a torrent, or so wide that people are on two sides wondering how to bring the parties on different sides together.

The Bible gives us two important pillars, two legs, on which we build our theology of community and church.

Image of God, and the Body of Christ.

All are made in the Image of God. This mean we are all created, not the same, but equal.

The theology of the Body of Christ brings in the idea of difference.

These two themes of Image of God and the Body of Christ allow no room for any practice of exclusion or discrimination.

The Body of Christ model is used in the early church to address diversity and integration, and holding people together, preventing disintegration.

In Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12, this model is used to address hierarchy, factions, divisions and disrespect within congregations, especially if not only at Holy Communion.

1 Corinthians 12 particularly refers to “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free” (verse 13). In using these categories, the writer is referring to people who were the furthest apart from each other in terms of ethnicity and rank, and is insisting that with all the differences in a congregation, all are one.

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (verse 12).

And all of us are called to exercise the ministry of reconciliation.

The Bible records and reflects Gods continuing reconciling work in the history of a people on a journey who are in regular conflict, constantly desiring nothing less than a restoration and renewal of their relationship with God, and their relationships among themselves, and ultimately the renewal of all creation.

There is a claim in the New Testament that this journey reaches a climax in the decisive revelation of God in Jesus Christ, following which God’s work of reconciliation moves to a new level towards renewing and building a “new heaven and a new earth”, realising the fullest potential of all creation.

The crucifixion of Christ at the centre of God’s work of reconciliation insists that reconciliation comes at a cost, even to God.

Reconciliation requires holding and healing each other through remembering, sharing stories of hurt, arriving at repentance, forgiveness, and a commitment to living with more grace and generosity.

We dare to hope for and dream of a different society, a decent society where “widest extremes” can be joined, all people can be safe, flourish and have equal opportunity, and enjoy the fullness of life; where different parties agree to be in an open and honest relationship in which they can share openly and honestly in what are  undoubtedly difficult conversations.

A reconciled society, or congregation or church will not be one without differences and disagreements but it will be one where division is not destructive because there is a shared commitment to the enhancement of life for all.

Wrestling for what is of Value

by Anne Ostrowicz

Another school year is over and as I reflect upon it as an RE teacher, I return to the idea of ‘wrestling’, inspired by some lines in Jonathan Safran-Foer’s latest novel:

“Israel literally means ‘wrestles God’. Jacob wrestled with God… with Esau… with Isaac… with Laban… He wrestled because he recognized that the blessings were worth the struggle… [For Jews] wrestling is not only our condition, it is our identity, our name…. Arm wrestling, sumo wrestling, wrestling with ideas, wrestling with faith… They all have one thing in common: closeness…. You only get to keep what you refuse to let go of…. It’s easy to be close, but almost impossible to stay close. Think about friends. Think about hobbies. Even ideas… Only one thing can keep something close over time: holding it there. Grappling with it. Wrestling it to the ground, as Jacob did with the angel, and refusing to let go. What we don’t wrestle we let go of. Love isn’t the absence of struggle. Love is the struggle.”[i]

Gerard Hughes, in God of Surprises, includes a discussion of Von Hugel’s analysis of three stages in religious and spiritual development: from an institutional element in childhood, to a questioning element during adolescence, to an element of mystical experience in adulthood, with essential continuous overlap. [ii]

At the start of secondary school, pupils are for the most part fundamentally comfortable in the beliefs they have received from their family, though interested in systems of thought other than their own. But inevitably the questioning begins and with it, ‘wrestling’, with questions around God, value and meaning. This year I have watched younger pupils wrestle with both delight and confusion. Delighted wrestling in terms of personal ethical response filled the room as year sevens encountered Satish Kumar’s description of his mother’s Jain lifestyle which expressed utterly beautifully and inspirationally her passionate belief that “God permeates all”.[iii] In contrast, marked confusion arose as year eight Muslim pupils read about the Berlin mosque with a female imam: “That is not Islam!” Yet by the end of a term’s study of Islam, the concept of ‘liberal’ had been happily and helpfully absorbed into their understanding. A letter from a year nine pupil thanked me for getting him to wrestle this term with ethical challenges arising from researching and writing an essay on the effects of meat-eating on our bodies, animals and the environment.

Sometimes such wrestling can seem particularly tough. A pupil from Afghanistan told me that this year almost every assumption he has ever held has been challenged: from the existence of free will, to the existence of God, to the motivation to do good being flight from hell. Nevertheless he was insistent that he was glad his assumptions were being challenged, glad he had realised the arguments of fellow pupils ‘on the other side’ had weight, glad to have to consider what foundations lay beneath his own beliefs.

A very few pupils venture into Von Hugel’s  third stage: mystical experience. A pupil who left last Summer has just emailed me for my thoughts on how to begin a journey into spirituality, in need of an inner anchor in the whirl of London life. In the Autumn our RE department launches an on-line forum for former pupils to share thoughts on their journeys in theology and philosophy, and they will be invited to our very first ‘discussion over a meal’! And so the wrestling goes on!

As an RE teacher I wrestle constantly with questions around what is most needful to teach? How can I aid theological, moral and spiritual understanding in the deepest sense? How can I help pupils progress in their own journeys in seeking metaphysical truths? As  I read some of the wonderful insights of writers like Gerard Hughes, I wonder in what form I might offer these to my pupils for their consideration: the need for inner integration; finding God in the world around us; finding God’s will in who God has made me in my deepest being.[iv] At the moment I am working on bringing some of the insights of psychologist Jordan Peterson to discussion;  many older teenagers are avidly listening to him on You Tube. I regularly find myself bursting with emotions as I wrestle with the joyful weight of how to birth into a classroom potentially life-transforming ideas.

Viktor Frankl writes that we are made for tension, when that tension is linked to something of real value.[v] I like that Jonathan Safran-Foer links wrestling with loving. May we have the courage and dedication to wrestle lovingly for what we believe to be of real value.

 

[i] Jonathan Safran Foer, Here I Am (Penguin 2017), pp.511-512

[ii] Gerard W. Hughes, God of Surprises (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985), p. 11

[iii] Satish Kumar, You are Therefore I am (Green Books, 2002 ), pp. 37-38

[iv] Hughes, God of Surprises, pp. 9, 56, 62

[v] Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, (Rider, 2004)

 

For the healing of the nations

by Richard Saunders-Hindley.

A recently published report has claimed that there is enough space around the world to enable the planting of trees equal to the area of the United States. On that kind of scale, the trees would help to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere by up to 25%. It is, say the researchers, the most effective weapon against climate change currently available.

On the flip side of this coin is another recent news story, which reported that trees covering an area the size of a football pitch are lost from the Amazon rain forest every minute. The impact on the local environment is devastating, and effect on the global climate is reckoned to be considerable and negative.

These recent stories on the important therapeutic properties of trees have put me in mind of part of John’s vision of the New Jerusalem as his angel guide shows him inside the city that has come down from heaven:

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 22.1-2, NIV)

Here, John seems to be bringing the narrative of Genesis 2 and 3 full circle. In the original creation, the tree of life was denied to the disobedient man and woman, with the terrible curse of expulsion and death. Now in the new creation there is a new tree of life that is for healing, specifically “the healing of the nations.”

“The nations” in the Jewish sense of the term refers, of course, to the Gentile nations, the goyim, or ethnoi. These nations often represent rebellious and disobedient humanity, seeking to follow their own way, in contradiction to God’s rightful place as the world’s true sovereign:

“Why do the nations conspire
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
and the rulers band together
against the Lord and against his anointed…”(Psalm 2.1-2, NIV)

It is from this rebellion, which started in Eden and has continued throughout human history that the nations need the healing given through the leaves of the tree.

Perhaps the most pressing theological question here is whether Christians should look beyond the whole concept of ‘nations’ altogether. The nations frequently pit themselves against one another, with the strong oppressing the weak, the rich exploiting the poor, the powerful subjugating the powerless. These unbalanced dynamics lead to conflict and violence, either as the oppressed rise up, or as the powerful vie among one another for domination, or indeed a combination of both. To compound it all, the international institutions that are designed to deal with all this, such as the United Nations and the European Union, have failed to end the that blight so much of the human race. Is it time simply to withdraw and become a separate, transnational people of God, letting the rebellious and godless ‘nations’ go their own way?

But what about the promised healing? At least part of the answer to this comes in the next three verses of Revelation 22:

“No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 22.3-5, NIV)

The human vocation described here is twofold: to serve God in his presence, and to “reign” over the renewed creation. As Tom Wright puts it,

‘The royal and priestly vocation of all human beings, it seems, consists in this: to stand at the interface between God and his creation, bringing God’s wise and generous order to the world and giving articulate voice to creation’s glad and grateful praise to its maker … in the book of Revelation, as elsewhere in the New Testament, this ultimate destiny is anticipated in the present time.’[i]

It therefore simply won’t do to abscond, and leave the wicked world to go its own way. If the vocation of humans is to bring God’s saving and, yes, healing rule to earth now, then our default theological position must be that we affirm “the nations” as being under that rule, whether or not they and their leaders acknowledge it. But it cannot stop there. It must be the place of the church to anticipate “the healing of the nations”, calling them back from their conspiracies, their plots, their risings and their banding together in the face of God’s good purposes.

“The world is a mess. The world is as angry as it gets.” Donald Trump’s words, spoken in an interview with NBC in 2017, provide an accurate enough diagnosis of our age, but they offer no treatment, let alone a cure. Thinking of our own nation’s little local difficulty, as a new Prime Minister will soon assume office and attempt to mend divisions over Brexit that seem beyond repair, we must assume our divinely appointed role as priests and rulers: we must intercede for healing, but we ourselves must also bring that healing into the nation. In the end, until we see the tree of life in the New Jerusalem, it is in fact we who are the leaves “for the healing of the nations.”

 

[i] Tom Wright, Virtue Reborn, London: SPCK, 2010, 70-72

Is ‘good enough’ good enough?

by George Bailey.

I have sort-of tidied the kitchen, we have done half the homework before getting upset, and one of the children has fed the dog (I think). It’s not perfect, but is it good enough? ‘Good enough’ is a popular concept in the world of parenting theory. The idea was pioneered by paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott,[i] and is now popularised in parenting books, including Christian ones such as Good Enough Mother by Naomi Starkey; she writes,

“We may feel that we will always truly doubt whether we are truly good enough mothers – but we should never forget that in God’s eyes we are, fundamentally, good enough […] Knowing this should fill us with confidence – the sense that we can, with our heavenly Father’s help, continue the work of looking after the sons and daughters with whom he has blessed us.”[ii]

This reflects a common feature of popular theology in the last fifty years or so whereby striving to achieve an ideal lifestyle is seen as the mistaken path to an over-anxious, guilt-ridden spirituality. The ideal of perfection is unhelpful: nobody’s perfect, and that’s how God intends it to be.

I do think that there is much spiritual wisdom in Starkey’s book – when we bear weighty responsibilities which it really is not possible to fulfil in all their potential fullness, and parenting, in my experience, is certainly an example of this, it is very wise to trust in God’s mercy and redeeming love. However, I am always wary of this ‘good enough’ way of talking about God and our response to God. It is not an attitude that is easy to locate in scripture, which describes God’s promise for those who are in Christ, and the complementary call to follow. When Paul prays for the Colossians, “…that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God,”[iii] does he imagine that the prayer could become reality? Or would he settle for ‘good enough’?

In one of the most significant recent books on the Christian theology of perfection, titled Diagonal Advance, Anthony Baker analyses the ‘good enough parent’ concept as proposed by the US psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim.[iv] Baker acknowledges that Bettelheim’s psychoanalytic point is sound – “the honest and painful acknowledgement of the boundedness of life in time and space, and of the inconsistencies of human desires, is central to any possible happiness”[v] – but he is wary because, “Having rejected perfection as pathology, ‘good enough’ can become the new perfection.”[vi] There is a hint of this in the quote above from Starkey with the use of the word ‘should’. The rejection of the ideal can simply make way for a new lesser measure, possibly even more problematic as hidden behind softer language; to go forward on the basis of ‘good enough’ entails an often unspoken acknowledgement that there is also ‘not good enough’. Furthermore, once we are adrift from scriptural moorings, all manner of ideologies may rush in to fill the vacuum left by a truncated vision of Christlike living.

Baker’s great insight is that both sides of this common debate in the theology of recent centuries are working with an unhelpful theological frame. He terms them ‘Promethean’ and ‘anti-Promethean’. Prometheus is the Titan of Greek mythology who stole the divine fire and so became like a god, and by giving it to humans sparked the beginnings of civilisation; he then suffered eternal punishment for his transgression of the right order of things. Baker identifies some Christian theologians who champion the ideal of perfection and so are accused of desiring to become like gods (and so cease to be human?), and others who resist this ideal and so limit human achievement to isolated human endeavour detached from divine intervention. Both are unsatisfactory – can we recognise instead that we may fully desire union with God without ceasing to be human, and also that no merely human-bound ideal for life can allow us to fully realise our God-given potential? The incarnation is central to uniting these two notions, one spiritually ‘vertical’ and one ‘horizontal’, making a ‘diagonal’ resolution whereby we advance into the perichoretic love of the Trinity. I commend Baker’s voluminous study of numerous authors on this, not least John Wesley. Overall, Baker favours the work of Maximus the Confessor, as the pinnacle of centuries of patristic developments.

“Creatures do not want to be homousian to patria [the same substance as the Father]; they want to be in love with the Father’s ousia [being/substance]. The perfecting that emerges in the Church Fathers originates in this desire, and develops in stages, as the fathers generate a vocabulary capable of defining creation as that dependent being which receives God without destroying itself. This is the end of all things, ‘the rest of the loving heart in eternal motion around the beloved’ (Maximus; Quaest. ad Thal. 59)”[vii]

How does this help me go an extra mile with the daily challenges of parenting, rather than too quickly saying ‘never mind, that’s good enough’? Baker’s diagonal resolution is about incorporation of the human into the Trinity by the bestowal of a divine gift, received by human loving desire for God. Maybe seeing the tasks to which we are called as gifts through which we can know God’s love could transform our attitude and help us avoid getting caught on either side of a Promethean dichotomy?

 

 

[i] See for example D. W. Winnicott, The Child, the Family, and the Outside World (Penguin, 1973), and his earlier term of the ‘Ordinary Devoted Mother’ in Babies and Their Mothers (Free Association Books, 1988), pp. 1-14.

[ii] Naomi Starkey, Good Enough Mother: God at Work in the Challenge of Parenting (BRF, 2009), p.102.

[iii] Colossians 1: 10, my italics added

[iv] Baker cites Bruno Bettelheim, A Good Enough Parent: A Book on Child Rearing (Random House, 1987), in Anthony D. Baker, Diagonal Advance: Perfection in Christian Theology (Wipf and Stock 2011), pp.14-18. Bettelheim draws on Winnicott’s earlier work.

[v] ibid., p.14.

[vi] ibid., pp.14-15.

[vii] ibid., p.194

Theology in a Postcolonial Key

We are pleased to welcome Barbara Glasson and Clive Marsh as President and Vice President of the Methodist Conference this year. Between them, with a new post the first Monday of each month, they will be contributing to our collective Theology Everywhere thinking by sharing theological reflections on their experiences across the connexion and the world. 

Theology in a Postcolonial Key

by Clive Marsh.

The challenge to ensure that we are all doing theology in a postcolonial way has been around for many years now. From Catherine Keller, Michael Nausner and Mayra Rivera’s co-edited Postcolonial Theologies: Divinity and Empire back in 2004, through Michael Jagessar and Anthony Reddie’s Postcolonial Black British Theology: New Textures and Themes (2007) to Reddie’s latest –Theologising Brexit: A Liberationist and Postcolonial Critique (Routledge 2019), and with a whole host of other texts from inside and outside theology in between, it’s been a hot topic. At the Oxford Institute for Methodist Theological Studies meeting in 2018 it was often on the lips of theological educators. But what does it mean? And what can it mean for White, male, Western, middle-aged, middle-class, heterosexual academics and churchgoers such as myself?

The first thing to say is that postcolonial approaches must be for everyone, though it’s probably precisely the likes of me that need to listen up first. The layers of privilege that have accompanied me through life mean that unless I do some hard work, I am less likely to deconstruct my colonialism in order to work out how to be postcolonial. But as a manifesto, postcolonialism has to be a serious call to overthrow any kind of domination in theology.

The second thing to note is that there’s a narrow and a broad definition of postcolonial. The more precise definition focusses upon imperialism, conquest, and its impact. The focus is on where land has been claimed and people have been colonized (and sometimes enslaved). Postcolonialism therefore refers to how generations of colonial behaviour have to be examined, critiqued and re-thought and what a future might look like in a way which does justice to those who have been colonized, once the powerful have been brought down from their thrones (Luke 1.52). A broader definition may refer to any form of domination so that theology has to be done ‘from the underside’. From this perspective, postcolonialism and liberation theologies converge in their interests. There could, though, be the danger of diluting, or spiritualizing, the edge which postcolonialism brings to theological debate. So care is needed, if a broader view of postcolonialism is adopted, that tough challenges are not dodged. Wherever power has been misused, then a re-think and a re-structure are needed. But re-thinking and re-structuring can sound tame where actual enslavement, violence and the crushing of people have been involved.

Third, postcolonialism has become a theory. This may be good in so far as it has taken on a life of its own, as a package of ideas and a set of commitments which need to be taken up and not simply ‘applied’ but used as a thoroughgoing method of thinking and political strategy to change society and behaviour. Yet as a theory, it always runs the risk of being an academic fad. Speaking to Zimbabwean educators recently I discovered some reluctance to accept the way in which postcolonialism has taken shape in the West. Though accurate in its critique of imperialism, it was difficult to applaud all of the ways in which postcolonialism was being used in the comfortable, wealthy universities of the West. One might have expected it to be welcomed in all respects in former colonies. But it is not so simple when sometimes the colonized have become a new type of colonizer. Postcolonialism needed, and needs, more nuancing.

The call for more nuancing raises a fourth point of particular consequence for theology. Postcolonialism can too easily overlook any positive dimension to missionary activity. Because of alliances of varying kinds between imperial domination and missionary activity it is understandable why the notion that nothing good could come from missionaries might be part of postcolonial thinking. Yet the missionary legacy is ambiguous and complex. The same education which transported too much of Western thinking disrespectfully into new places also provided the seeds of thinking which could overthrow the colonizers. Postcolonial theology, then, will need to absorb pre-colonial insights – God was already there before any colonizers came – and to examine carefully and critically how theology takes shape in colonial times, in order to see what postcolonial views of God should look like. But it is clear that postcolonial theologies will need to be quite assertive to ensure that God is still spoken of, and believed in, at all when much secular Western postcolonial thought may prefer to assume that God has, and should be, left behind.

Theology in a postcolonial key is, then, itself to speak against the grain. But such speaking must be undertaken with great care.

Vulnerability as Creativity: A Spiritual Discipline

by James Morley.

Two themes have been constant in what I’ve been reading, watching and listening to recently: creativity and vulnerability.

I don’t think this has been an echo chamber of my own construction as the books and videos have been recommendations from others and those to whom I’ve been listening were keynote speakers at conferences I attended as part of the ‘day job’.

At one of these conferences I had an opportunity to share the creativity of original paintings (not mine), music, video and spoken word in a collaboration with a colleague and visual artist to a conference full of Methodist Superintendents. The gift of this opportunity for creativity also gave with it the opportunity for me to experience vulnerability: who was I to be doing this; what if people didn’t come; what if they came but turned around and walked straight back out again?

Yet out of the vulnerability of offering this creativity came creative conversations with delegates about the creativity within us all and what happens when we don’t have, or don’t give ourselves as a gift from God, a place and a space to express this creativity.

Why is creativity so important to us, be it: painting; composing; connecting with nature; constructing; designing; engineering; singing; or theorising?  Could it be because it is the work of the Spirit within all creation?  The deep calling to deep?[1]  One of my favourite pieces of art is a sketch by William Blake of the Trinity.[2]  It shows a kneeling human figure holding a reclining (dead?) human figure. Hovering (brooding?) above them is another figure, long arms (wings?) outstretched – are they holding, embracing, encircling the other two figures like the hands of a potter around clay on the wheel?  Does this sketch say that only the Spirit can create hope and new life from within the devastation and death of the cross?

As someone who has spent twenty years trying and failing to write a happy song or poem I can relate to the idea that creativity comes from a place of utter vulnerability and is a way in which we process and express the dirt, devastation and dilemmas of our human experience within creation and, through the work of the Sprit, give song to our hopes.[3]  From the poetry of the psalms to the polemic of the protest song we lament what is and dream about what may be. In so doing we are invited to join in with the missio dei as the kin-dom continues to become reality in this world.

There is plenty of vulnerability and yearning for hope to be found today: within ourselves; within (certainly the numerical decline in the Methodist) church; and within the world.  As part of our theology, our talk about God, it is vitally important and important for our vitality, that we engage creatively with the creativity within ourselves – it’s not surprising that writing and drawing are tools often used within counselling (and even Methodist supervision).  It is also vitally important and important for our vitality as disciples and church that we engage creatively with the creativity within our cultural context(s):[4] not just Bach but the boy bands too; not just the Gainsborough but the graffiti; not just the Mozart but the Mastadon.  Why?  To be, like St Paul at the Areopagus, culturally relevant in what we say as good news and how we say it?[5]  Yes, but primarily because this theology, this talk of God really is (already) everywhere: in the car on the radio (or via Bluetooth from our preferred Alexa, Android or iDevice); on the railway bridge in spray paint; on the television as well as in the theatre.

As we notice this creativity, created from within vulnerability: what good news does it speak to us in our vulnerability;  what good news can we creatively name within it and speak into it, and into our cultural context, as we join in with the work of the Spirit creating God’s kin-dom on this earth[6].

So, I invite you to try something. I invite you to prayerfully, meditatively listen to this piece of music as you prayerfully, meditatively look at these pictures of paintings by Sally Coleman.[7]

19.06.24 James Morley, painting by Sally Coleman 2

19.06.24 James Morley, painting by Sally Coleman

[1] Psalm 42:7

[2] http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/ttp/blake/accessible/folion105andn104.html

[3] Joanne Cox-Darling (2019).  Finding God in a Culture of Fear: Discovering Hope in God’s Kingdom.  Abingdon: BRF, pp. 102; 104; 121).

[4] David Wilkinson speaking at the Methodist Church Superintendent’s Conference, Blackpool, 3rd June 2019.

[5] Acts 17

[6] Mark R. Teasdale (2016).  Evangelism for Non-Evangelists: Sharing the Gospel Authentically.  Illinois: IVP Academic.    

[7] https://eternalfootsteps.wordpress.com/

Sad News

by Josie Smith.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both Methodist Local Preachers…

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