Waiting expectantly and unseen footprints

by Ruth Gee.

In the Methodist Conference in 2013 I introduced the theme that was the focus for my year of service as President of the Conference, “Waiting expectantly for glimpses of glory.” I believed then and believe now that the expectation that God is with them in every part of life and death is distinctive and foundational for followers of Jesus. Such an expectation can only exist when a person knows God so well that, in the best of times and in the worst of times, the presence of God can be discerned or sometimes is simply believed. This knowledge of God is rooted and grounded in scripture, tradition, reason and experience and is nourished through worship, prayer, bible study and fellowship.

It was my intention to unpack this theme through the year so that, by the opening of the Conference in 2014, we would have explored the deepest dimensions of waiting expectantly and glimpsing glory in the most unexpected places. There was some opportunity to explore this dimension as I reflected on walls in Jerusalem and Belfast, met people in the districts and overseas and challenged injustice. However, the presidential year is not linear and it is difficult to develop a theme when every encounter is new.

I now find myself drawn back to the theme of expectant waiting as we live through pandemic and face the acute question, where now do I glimpse the glory of God?

I am writing this whilst on leave and separated from my library so I am drawing on memory, lived experience and two books published as an immediate response to the pandemic: Virus and Summons to Faith (Walter Brueggemann), God and the Pandemic (Tom Wright).

Brueggemann points to Psalm 77 and identifies the progression of the psalmist from self-concern (vv1-9) through recognition of new questions (v10) to dependence on God (vv11-20). In the final verses of the psalm we are reminded of the ways in which God has been known in the past and of the inscrutability of God. I reflected further on the penultimate verse in which the psalmist declares,

Your way was through the sea,
your path through the mighty waters:
yet your footprint was unseen. (v.19)

The waters and the storm represent the chaos that threatens to overwhelm and annihilate, the void before God’s presence and creative work (Gen 1:1), even here the psalmist affirms that God is present, though unseen.

In Mark’s account of Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6:45-51) Jesus walked through the mighty waters of the storm and curiously “intended to pass them by” (Mk 6:48). They were struggling against an adverse wind, they were in danger from the storm, but the real danger was that they would fail to recognise that God was with them, would fail to glimpse the glory of God as Jesus passed by[1]. The disciples needed to realise that God was with them even in the storm and even when it was difficult to recognise God.

In this time of pandemic, this time of mourning, fear and righteous anger, the glory of God is passing by, God is with us and can be seen in the glimpses of glory. Those glimpses though are not necessarily what we or those in our community can be tempted to expect. Divine intervention to dramatically end the pandemic so that it disappears one day like a miracle (as implied by Donald Trump) is unlikely not only because our reason and experience suggests this but because those who know Christ know that this is not the way in which God works.

God does not intervene from afar, picking times for dramatic effect. God moves among us and in and through us. God weeps with us as Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus and in Gethsemane. Both Brueggemann and Wright remind us of the theme of groaning with particular reference to texts from Romans chapters 6 and 8. To summarise briefly and inadequately and offering my own reflection, groaning and travail is inescapable and cannot be explained away or glossed over with clichés about good that results from disaster. Pain and disaster are painful and disastrous, and this has to be recognised. We who follow Jesus are sent as he was sent (John 20:21). We are sent to suffer alongside, to be with others and in that suffering, sharing and companionship to be living examples of the love of God in Christ so that the world may glimpse the glory of God as it passes by. We are called to be alongside and we are called to challenge the many injustices that have become even more clear at this time. This is how God works, by being among us and with us, and through us working for all things to hold together for good.

I glimpse the glory of God in the midst of the pandemic in the prayers of others for me in my bereavement, in the daily lives of Christians working in their community, in those who weep with others and hold their hands, in those who challenge injustice because in all these things and others God comforts, consoles, weeps and challenges.

Sometimes the footprints are unseen but we can wait expectantly and with confidence for those glimpses of glory.

 

 

[1] One reference to the Glory of God passing by as an indication of the real presence of God is found in Exodus 33:17-23

And are we yet alive?

by Carolyn Lawrence.

The opening hymn at the annual Methodist Conference begins with the words, ‘And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face?’  This hymn held extra poignancy at this year’s conference as most members were meeting via Zoom and we didn’t see each other’s faces very much at all!

The question in this verse is a good one to ask ourselves as individuals and as churches.  ‘And are we yet alive?’  These words got me thinking about what it means to be alive.  The theme for the Presidential year 2020-2021 is about growth, personally and corporately, and in order to grow, something, or someone needs to actually be alive!

According to the BBC Bitesize website there are seven characteristics of living organisms and I think they can help us reflect on whether or not we and our churches are alive.

Living organisms have the following characteristics in common:

Movement

The name, the Methodist Movement suggests something that is not standing still.  John Wesley didn’t intend to leave the Anglican Church but Methodism gradually evolved into a distinct denomination.  This pattern has been repeated throughout the history of the Church as groups beginning as a living, moving entity, soon settle and become as set in their ways as the group from which they tried to escape.  Wesley is quoted as saying:

‘I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.’

Within our churches and as individuals, I wonder if we have the form of religion without the power of the Holy Spirit to help us move and pulse with life?

Reproduction

A few years ago the Methodist Council recognized that the greatest risk to the church was its inability to reproduce by new making disciples and that the church would cease to exist.

My heart is very much that of an evangelist and I love to encourage people to share their own faith with others.  I believe it’s possible for ordinary Christians to share the love of Jesus in ways that are not cringy, embarrassing, weird or dogmatic and that we need to learn to be natural in the way we share our faith.

As churches and individuals, do we feel able to naturally share Jesus with others?  When was the last time someone became a new Christian in our churches?

Sensitivity

Living things have the sensitivity to detect stimuli and respond to them.  Often as Christians and as churches we can lack sensitivity to the needs of others and can become so focussed on our own lives and the practical issues around running churches that we can miss the needs of those around us.

I wonder if as individuals and churches we are inward looking or are we sensitive to those we meet and prepared to listen to their stories and show God’s love to them.

Growth

Before the lockdown I had the great privilege of visiting the Methodist Church in Brazil where the church is growing at an amazing rate – from 167,000 members in 2010 to a current membership of 275,000 and still growing.  The key principles of growth in Brazil are lessons that I believe we need to learn in the church in the UK and I hope to share some of these in the coming months.

Living things naturally grow, so I believe that if our churches are alive and thriving we will see spiritual and numerical growth.

Respiration

As Christians and churches, are we open to the breath of the Holy Spirit to cleanse, energise, empower and enable us to live in a way that brings honour to God and extends his Kingdom on the earth?

Excretion

Often in our churches and our own lives, there are unwanted, waste products that we need to get rid of in order to be healthy.  We need to regularly come before God and allow the light of the Holy Spirit to show us where we need to repent and ask for forgiveness so that we don’t carry these harmful thoughts, words and deeds and through them cause damage to ourselves, others and the cause of the Gospel.

Nutrition

I’m often astounded by the lack of Bible knowledge within our churches and even amongst some of our leaders and amazed at how few people have actually read the whole Bible during their lives.  In Brazil and in churches in other nations I have witnessed a real hunger for the feeding from God’s word and I pray for this appetite within our own nation.  My prayer is that we will hunger and thirst after righteousness and allow Jesus to have the throne within our own lives and within the lives of our churches.

So these are the seven characteristics of living things and I close with the question with which I began, for your reflection and meditation: ‘And are we yet alive?’

Universal Design for Church Life

by George Bailey.

I have been interested in the concept of Universal Design since first encountering it when learning about Higher Education course design. The basic idea is that whereas, previously, design began with some supposed ‘normal’ person in mind and then adjusted things if necessary for other people (or too often, failed to adjust), instead everything should be designed with everyone in mind. Since appreciating this, I have aspired for the background colour of all my slides to be maximally helpful for as wide as possible a range of both visual and cognitive diversity – however, usually I just have to settle for a certain shade of cream. Universal Design is an intuitively sensible idea, but the challenges and complexities both of its development and its application defy simple analysis and undermine merely enthusiastic unsophisticated efforts, as illustrated by my inadequate struggles with cream…. or is it ivory?

These complexities are comprehensively uncovered by Aimi Hamraie in a book which explores the history of the concept from the mid to late twentieth century and then the various ways it has been appropriated into mainstream discourse in the USA.[i] Universal Design was originally intended to bring disabled designers to the fore not just of accessible design adjustments or ‘retro-fits’, but of better design for all from the outset. However, the appropriation of the concept for consumer markets has seen it repositioned to focus on the spectrum of (dis)ability which all people experience, and particularly to assist all with the challenges of aging. This has limited the scope for hearing the voice of people with disabilities and prejudiced design for wealthier and healthier sectors of the population who are more likely to experience longer periods of old age. The widely disseminated Principles of Universal Design (1997)[ii] do not even mention disability and advocates have claimed that ‘through the design of thoughtful environments – ones which anticipate and celebrate the diversity of human ability, age, and culture – we have the capacity to eliminate a person’s disability.’[iii] This attitude does not make it easy for the voice of people with disabilities, who continue to find themselves excluded by design solutions, to be heard and heeded. What might easily be accepted as ‘common sense’ can become oppressive and unjust.

We face similar issues when applying our theologies of disability and inclusion. Amos Yong has argued that not only should the church include people with disabilities, but following the logic of 1 Corinthians 12, they should be at the centre of our ministry: ‘the body of Christ and the fellowship of the Spirit are constituted by many different members, each with his or her own spiritual gifts; none of the members or their gifts are more or less valuable – and, if anything, those deemed less worthy of honour are more indispensable.’[iv] The church can easily accept as ‘common sense’ theology the call to be inclusive, but then fall short of critically exploring what that inclusivity might mean if taken more seriously. It would radically alter our life together and our self-understanding. ‘We’ would become a bigger and more complete concept than in the potentially divisive idea that ‘we are called to include others’. The church’s ministry and witness would look different if those on the edge were brought to the centre. Benjamin Conner poses the question in this way: ‘Do we acknowledge that people with disabilities are members of the body of Christ who enable a more credible witness in a world of people with differing abilities?’[v] Rather than resulting in a transformation of our witness by people with differing abilities, if applied in an incomplete or fractured way, ‘inclusivity’ can itself instead become oppressive and unjust. As a simple example, when the church sings ‘All are welcome’ (Singing the Faith 409), unless the questions of who is in the position of host offering the welcome, who is the stranger being welcomed, and why, are explored honestly, then the power imbalance between those two positions will not easily be addressed and the new community of the body of Christ cannot be realised.

These reflections on Universal Design and the challenges of transforming church community are relevant as churches plan for the easing of the lockdown. If we can resist simply reacting to circumstances and the impulse to try to return to what we knew before, then in many cases we are presented with opportunities to design church life in new shapes. The pandemic has opened new experiences of ability and disability as unexpected people and sectors of our communities have found their lives restricted and struck by tragedy. There is a new sharing of the experience of disconnection, loss and exclusion. At the same time, some people who were previously unable to connect to much of church life have found that through post, phone, email, Zoom, and so on, they are now more at the centre than usual. Some, who had been unlikely to visit a church building, are investigating our ministry online, and some find themselves the wrong side of a digital divide. How do we shape ourselves to witness to God’s kingdom of inclusive healing love? How do we truly listen to the voices we have previously struggled to include – and not just listen to them but bring them to the centre so that the body of Christ can be enabled to become a ‘more credible witness in a world of people with differing abilities’?

 

 

[i] Aimi Hamraie, Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability (University of Minnesota Press, 2017)

[ii] Ibid. p.224-5. As published by the Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University

[iii] Ibid. p.223; citing Josh Safdie, quoted in Susan Szenasy, “Accessibility Watch: Q&A with Josh Safdie,” Metropolis magazine, February 2011.

[iv] Amos Yong, The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), p.116.

[v] Benjamin T. Conner, Disabling Mission: Enabling Witness (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 2018), p.60.

Responding to Need. Acts 6.1-7

We are pleased to begin a new partnership with Spectrum, a community of Christians of all denominations which encourages groups and individuals to explore the Christian faith in depth. Spectrum publishes an annual series of six study papers called Explore designed for their network of study groups, and which Theology Everywhere will be featuring every other month. This year six different authors offer studies in the Acts of the Apostles, all occasions when the Early Church seized opportunities which arose at the time. In the ‘new normal’ age which stretches before us what kind of responses will there be to the challenges which present themselves?

  1. Responding to Need. Acts 6.1-7

by Richard Firth

One of the aspects of the mission of the Church lies in reactions to situations which arise. Opportunity knocks and we have to respond in such a way that there are favourable outcomes whether in active service or growth in discipleship.

In our study passage a few years have elapsed since the Day of Pentecost. Significant growth has occurred in the Jerusalem Church such that internal tensions arose. One in particular was between Aramaic speaking Christian Jews, original citizens of Jerusalem, and Greek speaking Christian Jews, who were incomers. The latter, a composite group, comprising of proselytes converted to the way of Jesus (ref. perhaps the outcome of John 12.20f) and later settlers, possibly from among the 3,000 who responded to Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, which included people from Pontus, Phrygia and Crete. The Hellenist/Hebrew division was one carried over from Judaism into Christianity. Hellenists had their own synagogues where the Greek language was used.

Now, when all should be one in Christ Jesus, the Greek speaking Jewish Christians, particularly their needy widows, complained that they were being discriminated against in the daily provision of meals and cash handouts. It appears that the principle of ‘all things in common’ (Acts 2.44) was under considerable strain.

In order to resolve the dispute the apostles handed over the decision making to the whole congregation, which, after due deliberation, nominated seven men to administer the aforesaid charitable activities. This would leave the apostles free to continue their work of leading prayers and preaching the good news. Naturally they agreed with the suggested names and prayed over each one with the laying on of hands.

The qualifications required for the work are interesting. The men had to be full of the Holy Spirit, presumably manifesting its gifts and fruits, chiefly love; full of wisdom, possessing that kind of common sense which relates to the art of living; and full of faith, the kind of trust in Christ which showed that they were living His Way. If the church asked “Are they any good with money?” it does not say.

The men chosen were, diplomatically, all Greek speakers as their names suggest. We only ever hear of Stephen and Philip again, although it is suggested the Nicholaus may have become leader of a group of ‘heretics’, the Nicolaitans, in Ephesus (Rev.2.6). Stephen’s progress to martyrdom is well told (Acts 6.8 – 7.60) as is Philips work as an evangelist (Acts 8.4-8, 28-40; 21.8).

There is no suggestion here that the ‘ordination’ is anything other than to a local responsibility. The laying on of hands was a symbolic ceremony confirming the gift of the Spirit for a particular task not an induction into an ecclesiastical hierarchy. The outcome of these appointments was to encourage the apostles in their preaching ministry.  Church growth ensued including the conversion of some low level priests.

Historically the development of a Diaconate occurred with the emergence of the Church as an institution, and as a stage on the way to priesthood. In Methodism the Diaconate is an Order open to both women and men the role of a deacon being very much that of community service and pastoral care. David Clark in his book Diaconal Church: Beyond the Mould of Christendom (Epworth 2007) argues that the concept of the Diaconal Church is one that could liberate the laity. The idea of being a Servant Church after the pattern of Christ Himself is Kingdom based and community orientated and the only valid pattern for mission, especially one that is based upon the response to human needs.

The ideal of service to others is, of course, not confined to the Church as is forcibly evidenced by the selfless actions of so many during the coronavirus emergency, professionally, vocationally and voluntarily. The value of their work has been immensely recognised and appreciated as never before.

Several questions arise out of this passage –

  1. Consider experiences of conflict resolution and their outcomes and of responses to situations which have arisen. How should the Church respond post the coronavirus epidemic?
  2. Were the apostles right not to undertake the more ‘menial’ tasks? Is it the Methodist tradition to ‘let ministers be ministers’? How easy does this prove to be?
  3. Is our definition of ordination too strict?
  4. How may the ‘Diaconal Church’ become a reality?
  5. What qualifications do we look for in those who take on responsibility in the local church?

The Black Lives of History Matter Too

by Catrin Harland-Davies.

We’re pleased to welcome Catrin to the Theology Everywhere editorial team. In particular, she will be looking after our new Twitter account, which you can find here.

Yesterday was Racial Justice Sunday, and it has never felt more urgent – at least to those of us with the privilege of whiteness, who have been able not to notice its very real urgency until now.

A significant question over the last few weeks has been the appropriate way to mark and commemorate our history. A lengthy controversy over a statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oriel College, Oxford, and the dramatic toppling of a statue of Edward Colston into the harbour at Bristol, have focused attention on this issue. Despite arguments that to remove such monuments is to erase the troubling parts of our history, surely it is time for us to recognise that memory and celebration are different things. To remember is not necessarily the same as to honour.

But what, then, is the place of corporate memory, and how do we react to our history? Or, to put it another way, what is our responsibility for the sins of our ancestors? There tends to be a strong reaction against the idea of inherited guilt, and for good reason. Part of God’s gracious new covenant, in Jeremiah 31, promises that: “In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.”[1] We are responsible for our own deeds, but not the actions of those who have gone before. So then, the logic goes, apologies or public acts of contrition are out of place. We should not feel guilty about the past, because it was not, by definition, ours to feel guilty about.

And yet, within both the church and wider society, corporate memory of the past, as a lived experience of the present, is deeply ingrained. We gather (in ‘normal’ times!) around bread and wine, and, in remembering, experience the presence of Christ in our midst. We celebrate key events from our Christian or denominational history, with pride, gratitude and joy. In 2007, on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, many of us took the opportunity to congratulate ourselves on Methodism’s place in this. It spoke to us of the best of who we are – our heritage, charisms and honour. And yesterday, many clapped for the birthday of the NHS, and even those of us not born at its foundation felt pride not only in its current workers, but in the vision that created it.

Our history makes us who we are today. But if that is true of the best of our history, why would it be less true of the worst? If we are permitted – positively encouraged, even – to share in the glory of our predecessors’ achievements, why do we feel excused from sharing in the shame of their sins? A reason for the celebration and pride is to inspire us to follow in their footsteps, surely; no less, then, should we draw inspiration (of a different sort) from the pain and inhumanity that is so often a part of the historical mix – in our Church, as much as in our society. If we rejoice in the innovation and technical achievements of the industrial revolution, should we not also take time to remember that the wealth that enabled it was founded on imperial entitlement, enslavement, exploitation. And, for that matter, should we not remember that the structures of labour which fuelled it at home were also often exploitative. History is not just the stories of great men, but also of the nameless people who were trodden underfoot in the cause of such ‘greatness’.

And one more reason why we should, perhaps, feel invested in the less, as well as the more, glorious parts of our history: If our history has made us who we are, it should be no surprise that its effects are with us still. That I can go about my life, knowing that my skin colour will not be noticed and will not disadvantage me is not a coincidence. It is the product of centuries of prejudice lived out in slavery, apartheid, segregation, exclusion, marginalisation, overt and insidious racism. That I can live comfortably, in a nation that can afford health care for all, is not an accident – it is the consequence of imperialistic enrichment at the expense of nations whose resources we felt ourselves entitled to. The consequences of history are real now. We do not live in a fair society. Inherited privilege leads to inherited accountability. It is not enough not to discriminate; we need to work actively to dismantle the structures that privilege us. The guilt of our ancestors should set our teeth on edge, because we benefit from it still. It is therefore our guilt, too.

The consequences of our history are real now. The consequences of our present will be real in the future. So it is our responsibility to build a better present – one in which there is equality, generosity, a celebration of difference, but a celebration also of a shared humanity. We do this by remembering, acknowledging and owning our history, warts and all.


[1] Jeremiah 31:29-30

Colonial Logic and Progressive Christianity

by Aaron Edwards.

The logic of western colonialism in Christianity is often summed up via a pithy quote from Desmond Tutu:

‘When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.’

Whether the missionaries used the colonisers, or the colonisers used the missionaries, is another issue for another time. Whichever way one interprets the motivations of the missionaries, Christian theology rightly winces at the logic of colonialism, particularly under the aegis of Scriptural authority. Those Christians who felt able to justify colonialism theologically were able to do so because they believed they knew things that the colonised did not know, and that the imposition of such things would be ‘good’ for them, in the end. As many have since observed, such condescension was not unlike the way a parent makes decisions on behalf of young children.

Yet this logic is alive and well today, not only in the places you might expect to find it, but especially within the logic of ‘progressive’ Christianity. Any progressive Christian, of course, would recoil at being associated with colonialism. But that’s the thing about logic: wherever you hide from it, in deeds, intentions, statements, or hashtags, it will find you in the end. Indeed, it is quite possible to be so committed to ‘postcolonialism’ as to become guilty of colonialism 2.0.  I speak, of course, of the western reinterpretation (and exportation) of a positive Biblical view of same-sex relations.

I spent a delightful few days in Nigeria last year with twenty bishops and archbishops of the Nigerian Methodist Church talking about preaching. I showed them how many western Christian leaders and theologians now interpret passages of Scripture on sexuality. Most were aghast that it was even possible to believe that such views could be claimed as having come not from western secular culture but rather from textual exegesis. I tried to play Devil’s advocate for a while, describing the arguments about historical context, and the views that speak of the Spirit’s varied illuminations in various moments, etc., but it wouldn’t wash. These bishops were well taught to ‘continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2Tim. 3:14-15).

The Biblical hermeneutic that accompanied the first western missionaries was by no means infallible, but neither was it easily separable from the spiritual fruitfulness wrought in those churches, a fruitfulness which endured and now sends many impassioned African missionaries back to the west today, to reconvert what has long been forgotten. African churches legitimately ask why they should listen to any wholesale western reinterpretation of Scripture which requires new western commentaries which it would never have occurred to a non-western Christian to write.

The progressive view is underpinned by a belief that the colonial imposition upon land/rights also entailed the imposition of particular approaches to Biblical interpretation (and thus, to sexuality). When I have challenged postcolonial missiologists on the fact that the vast majority of African Christians willingly accept such Biblical interpretations, I have actually been told that such beliefs are merely a kind of ‘mimicry’ of what the colonial missionaries once told them. I once observed a conversation where a West African woman was passionately opposing the progressive western view on same sex marriage and was met with barely concealed wry smiles and bitten lips by her western counterpart, as though this person was just waiting for the penny to finally drop. This is not an unfamiliar recurrence. The assumption is that once the African churches have encountered the books that we have read, imbibing the deeper nuances of postcolonial contextual hermeneutics, they will be liberated from their childish reasoning (cf. 1Cor. 13:11). The implicit assumption is that African Christianity is founded upon a form of ideological brainwashing, and generations later has yet to realise this for itself. The logic is precisely this condescending, and precisely this shocking. The end-goal of colonialism has always been to civilise the uncivilised.

The curious notion of ‘living in contradiction’ has been much touted in recent years to suggest that there is, of course, no such imposition implied by the progressive view. Today, the progressive Christian calls for unity and genuinely respects the conservative’s right to disagree. Tomorrow, however, the logic will begin to catch up: perhaps some ‘further education’ would improve the quality of this unity? The day after that, it may be realised that such unity is only truly possible if there is mutual agreement over the Scriptural validity of both views, thus gradually removing the possibility of genuine opposition.

As Tutu demonstrated, the genius of colonialism was managing to achieve large-scale conquest whilst avoiding large-scale conflict. There was no war, but there was a very definite victor. To adapt Tutu slightly, this is what the vast majority of African Christians rightly fear when unity is spoken of in contrast to functional submission to Scriptural authority:

‘When the missionaries came back to Africa they had the hermeneutic and we had the Bible. They said “Let us interpret.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the hermeneutic and they had the Bible.’

Would you trust this man? Genesis 12:10-20

by David Bidnell.

The continuous lectionary cycle currently invites us to explore some episodes from Genesis, taking us through the stories of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. There is much ground to cover here, and so there is a certain inevitability that some narratives are omitted. The frustrating aspect to this, however, is that we are left with what are deemed to be the major stories, while others, which are perhaps equally significant from the point of view of human relationships and human society, are not given quite the same prominence.

This, then, is an opportunity to look at the narrative of Sarah and Abraham in a foreign land. When we meet them at the gates of Egypt it would seem that Abraham’s world is at collapsing point. Having previously been told that he is to be handsomely blessed (Genesis 12:1-9) famine has now struck, and Abraham, Sarah and Lot have travelled to Egypt in search of survival. Anxious about the impact of Sarah’s beauty on his own future, Abraham attempts to disown her as his wife, leaving us to try and work out what exactly his intentions are, for there are at least three possibilities.

One approach is to take Abraham at his word and to acknowledge in part at least what may be a very genuine fear. We might struggle with his attitude to his wife, prepared, as he is, to abandon her to her fate in a land and culture which is not her own. We can almost hear him saying to himself: “It’s your fault for being so beautiful.” But what lies before them is a struggle to survive in a highly precarious situation, and perhaps Abraham believes this is the best way, possibly the only way, to secure a future for them both.

A second approach suggests that Abraham is concocting a cunning plan in order to enrich himself. He is not at all concerned about Sarah and what might lie ahead for her. His priority is to ensure not only his own survival, but his future prosperity. Sarah ends up in Pharaoh’s house and Abraham does very well out of it. Life is looking good for Abraham, even if it is at the expense of his wife’s honour, dignity and well-being, and we are left to wonder how Abraham actually feels about losing Sarah.

A third approach proposes that Abraham sees this as an opportunity to dispense with Sarah. He may even think that this is a necessity. He has been told that he is to be a great nation, that he is to have many descendants, but how is this going to happen if Sarah cannot have children? Perhaps Abraham senses some responsibility for the fulfilment of the promise made to him, and the only way he can see of realising this is by freeing himself to take a new wife, with whom it will be possible to have children.

However we choose to understand Abraham’s motives, the outcome is clear. Sarah now belongs to Pharaoh, and Abraham is a wealthy man. But our uneasiness about this situation stems not only from Abraham’s abuse of Sarah, but from his lack of honesty. After all, as Pharaoh points out, it is Abraham himself who has lied to the Egyptian ruler (Genesis 12:18-19). Can we trust Abraham?

This tale features two techniques of Hebrew story-telling. First, it alludes to a much larger narrative, in this case the overarching chronicle of Israel’s relationship with Egypt and the Exodus. There are frequent reminders of this defining plot of slavery and liberation through multiple connections – Israel ends up in Egypt as a result of famine in Canaan; Egypt is a place of threat; Moses is taken to Pharaoh’s house; there is conflict with Pharaoh; there are plagues, Israel is ordered by Pharaoh to leave. With this in mind, if we then interpret our present story in the light of Moses, we unearth a potential fourth motivation for Abraham’s action. In similarly precarious circumstances the vulnerable Moses is cast adrift on the water, his sister and mother hoping that he may be taken by Pharaoh’s daughter to be brought up in security and privilege, close to the seat of power. Is it not possible that this is reflected in Abraham’s intention? In Pharaoh’s court of power, the vulnerable Sarah has secure and privileged status – and her brother, Abraham, too!

The foiling of this attempt highlights the second technique, the deliberate leaving of gaps in the story, inviting questions. The gaping silence for us to ponder here is this. How does Pharaoh know to blame Abraham for the plagues? Who tells him the truth? There must be every chance that it is Sarah who has disclosed this. Amid Abraham’s deceit, Pharaoh’s power and the narrator’s silencing, still we are able to hear Sarah’s voice, which refuses to conceal her true identity and is persuasive enough to convince Pharaoh of a connection between the plagues and her predicament. It is Sarah who secures freedom.

But why would she ever trust Abraham again?

Repentance

by Tom Stuckey.

When Covid-19 is over will Methodism revert to business as usual?  Over the past ten years I have been arguing that if Methodism in Britain is to thrive, a complete sea change is required. I have used the word ‘repentance’ to describe the radical nature of this shift. I mentioned it first in my Presidential Address of 2005, repeated it in 2006, spoke of it in study days across the connexion, alluded to it in Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land (2017), addressed it directly in Methodism Unfinished (2019) and reflected on it in a series of short articles in the Methodist Recorder throughout the months of March, April and May 2020.

One of the motivations for this decade of repetition has been my growing awareness of a ‘paradigm shift’ taking place. Back in 1962 the American philosopher Thomas Kuhn first propounded this concept. It describes how a dominant framework under which normal science operates is rendered incompatible with new phenomena. This necessitates the adoption of a new interpretive framework to make understanding possible. My former theological teacher, Prof. Thomas Torrance, introduced me to this idea in a theological way by using the word metanoia – ‘repentance’. Since then I have come to believe that a universal kairos event would occur making it clear that our usual ways of thinking and doing have come to an end. Only repentance will enable us to cross over from the old to the new. I suggest that Covid-19 is that liminal event.

I have been taken to task, sometimes quite severely, for saying that Methodism must repent. My suggestion of a paradigm shift has similarly been dismissed. These negative reactions have puzzled me.  I now see that Methodists interpret the word ‘repentance’ in a personal way. As followers of Wesley we readily appreciate his words ‘he has saved my from my sins, even mine’. Is this preventing us from thinking about what repentance might mean for an institution? Ecclesiastical institutions obviously sin. We have examples of this in the recent revelations of clergy abuse, the Church’s anti-Semitism and its discrimination against sections of society: women, black people or those with different sexual orientations. In such cases these ethical sins can be named and addressed but what of the more subtle spiritual and theological sins?

The author of the book of Revelation diagnoses the failure of six of the seven churches. Each must repent of their particular spiritual/theological sin. Paul in Colossians, writing to the churches of the Lycus Valley, does not hesitate in naming their corporate theological sin. These Churches have absorbed into their life features of the prevailing culture which are having a toxic effect upon their witness. Sin in these cases is corporate and institutional. When Churches become national establishments or are linked in some way through an Episcopal or Connexional system does not sin, whether ethical, spiritual or theological, affect the ecclesiastical culture and distort their structural processes?

While governments in a ‘post-truth’ culture often resort to denial or self-justification, the Church does attempt, sometimes reluctantly, to address the sin within. One solution is to list the ‘sins’ (failures?) on the agenda to be dealt with through the usual channels. ‘Lament’, which is a fundamental feature of repentance, is largely avoided. Another approach is to initiate a review, identify mistakes and learn from them. ‘Lament’ may figure in this but still lacks the radical renewing power which Walter Brueggemann alludes to in his expositions of the Psalms. ‘Lament’ as he describes it, drives us to our knees in desperate petitionary prayers which seek to motivate God into action!

Why do institutions find it so hard to repent? According to Michael Polanyi the interpretive framework or paradigm which enables us to hear and understand is buried deep within our minds and subject to our passions. Institutions are reluctant to admit that they may be getting things wrong because this raises questions about trust, integrity and power. In order to comprehend ‘the new’ the current way of thinking and doing may have to be abandoned. Polanyi describes this move into a new understanding as a ‘heuristic’ act of non-rational discovery. In Christian terms he is describing renunciation and faith which takes us back to the Gospel imperative ‘repent and believe’. If we are indeed where I think we are in the history of the Church, we cannot revert to business as usual. The old is passing away and the new is coming.

The full script plus references can be found on www.tomstuckey.me.uk

Honesty

by Chris Roe.

Towards the end of March this year, I was sat in the living room of one of the L’Arche community houses in Preston, next to a person with learning disabilities who I support and live alongside, and another assistant, watching telly. As our programme ended, a newsreader appeared on the screen. He began to inform us of the latest news regarding Coronavirus – the rapidly developing crisis, the Prime Minister’s message, the new restrictions imposed on our lives…

The person with learning disabilities leant forwards, took a breath and shouted “Oh shut up!”

We all laughed, and, on my part at least, felt a little bit of unacknowledged tension lift. For though I would never have verbalised it, there was a part of me that wanted to yell too. The harsh reality the newsreader conveyed was painful. It was good to hear someone say so out loud.

There has been a lot of advice around keeping ourselves mentally well during this time, not to mention a plethora of activities and video meet-ups organised by so many communities and organisations across the world. In my own experience of this crisis, all the best mental health advice I’ve heard (and I’ve heard this said in many different ways by many different people) has essentially involved expressing ourselves honestly, be that through writing things down, talking to someone, or just, well, shouting at the telly.

In this time of crisis, I’m more aware than ever of the power of honesty. There is something very cathartic about saying what we truly feel, when so often we cover those feelings up out of necessity or habit. Being honest involves opening ourselves up, to God and to other people, and therefore being vulnerable in some way.

I have found the Psalms to be a real gift at this time. They express a whole spectrum of emotions towards God- love and fear, longing and pain, peace and anger, and so much more. Their comfort lies in their expressiveness and openness towards God, which somehow permits us, too, to be equally open and expressive in our relationship with God.

It’s worth pointing out that being honest is not the same as being miserable! One of the traditions we hold in L’Arche when celebrating birthdays, whether for people with or without disabilities, is to “pass the candle”. A candle is passed around those who have gathered to celebrate and in a few words each person tries their best to sum up what they value and appreciate about the person whose birthday is marked. It can be a powerful thing to be a part of, a powerful thing to hear about yourself.

Of course, we do not mention the things we do not like about someone, their weaknesses and faults, at their birthday party. That would not be much fun.

Honesty is powerful and it can be painful. Which truths do we share with each other? What does the right time to share a difficult truth look like? Where do we do that? When is it appropriate or inappropriate? Is it easier for some people to be honest than others?

One of the most painful honesties in L’Arche recently has been news about Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche. Vanier created and helped grow a global network of communities of people with and without learning disabilities, sharing life together. But this year, an independent investigation commissioned by L’Arche determined that he had sexually and spiritually abused at least six women.[1] A man who was considered by many to be a saint was anything but.

What do we do with such news? Where do we go from here? How do we even share it? One example of this, from L’Arche London, was widely circulated at the time and has much power in the way it does not shy away from telling difficult truths to vulnerable people, in as safe an environment as possible.[2]

There is a long way for L’Arche to go, but it seems to me that the honesty expressed by the organisation I am part of gives us a chance to grow up, to be honest about the past and not romanticise it.

The power of honesty has become all the clearer through lockdown for me. Honesty, and the vulnerability that comes with it, seems to allow us to enter deeper relationships with one another. This blog will be published the day after Trinity Sunday, a day when we recognise that the very being of God is, in some mysterious unknowable way, relational. Can church communities do anything more than aspire to reflect that?

We read in Acts of the first disciples sharing their lives together following the coming of the Holy Spirit.[3] They shared their possessions, broke bread and praised God together. That commitment to one another must have required a certain bravery, and a certain willingness to relate to each other in loving honesty and vulnerability. It seems to me that, knowing your brothers and sisters in such a way, you may, in a way we too easily take for granted, realise that we are all children of God, fearfully and wonderfully made.

[1] https://www.larche.org/news/-/asset_publisher/mQsRZspJMdBy/content/inquiry-statement-test

[2] http://www.tuffrey-wijne.com/?p=767

[3] Acts 2: 42-47

A good laugh

by Barbara Glasson.

I told my suitcase that we couldn’t go on holiday this year – now I am living with emotional baggage…

One of the more curious features of lockdown is the plethora of jokes about our shared situation. Some of these jokes are simply a chortle and the way we negotiate the current landscape, others are more barbed, like the one of a plane taking off and the caption ‘Dominic Cummings popping out for a newspaper’.

Religion on the other hand, it appears, has taken itself very seriously. Maybe we can trace this back to Puritan roots? To be a believer has been a rigorous thing, requiring discipline, concentration and obedience. The General Rules first laid down by Wesley for the societies, discouraged ‘such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus’. Protestant restrictions go on to name a lot of things one is advised to avoid, like comedic theatres and circuses, but they don’t mention a good belly laugh at the totally absurd nature of human existence itself. After all, what is more ridiculous than finding yourself walking around on the surface of a large lump of rock floating about in a universe that is apparently bouncing off the edge of time?

At face value, we can’t really look to Jesus for help here, we know he wept but at no point do we hear of him sitting down and cracking a good joke (camels and eyes of needles possibly excepted) and yet, if we believe he was truly human, then surely he had a lighter side? Can we not imagine a twinkle in his eye or a twitch at the corner of his mouth? I think so.

Sara of course can give us hope. She was told in her ripe old age that she was going to have a baby and laughed out loud and even named her son Isaac after that outburst of merriment – thank you Sara for seeing the ridiculous side of Divine action. And if we poke around we find all sorts of satire, irony and whimsy embedded in the stories and antics of the Old Testament. There is an earthed and holy narrative to the way the stories are narrated, that maybe is too often mislaid in their reading as texts rather than telling as stories. Poor old Jonah being guzzled by a passing fish, the subversion of the earthquake by a still small voice, Daniel shouting out of the fiery furnace…

We do know that laughter is good for us. Sometimes we ‘have to laugh or else we’ll cry’ and sometimes we have to laugh or else we will sock someone on the nose, and sometimes we simply laugh at the ridiculous nature of things, like being shut at home for ten weeks because of an invisible virus that prowls around pulling the rug from under human certainties and crashing economies in its wake. And uniquely I think we have to laugh because we are passionate, and human, fearfully and wonderfully made, and that is a merry mystery and a liberation in itself.

Laughter isn’t the opposite of seriousness it’s just that sometimes life is too important or tough or annoying to be taken seriously. Laughter is a defiant expression of human spirit  and, as Reinhold Niebuhr expresses, laughter is also the beginning of prayer.[i] Personally I think God knows this and in the unlikely event that one day I should rock up in front of the pearly gates, with or without my emotional baggage, I trust that God will take one look at me and we can both hold our sides and nod our heads at the comedy as well as the tragedy of it all.

[i] Niebuhr, R., ‘Humor and Faith’ in Hyers, C., Holy Laughter (1969) p. 135