Out of the mouth of the serpent – Genesis 3

by David Bidnell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

“You’re so strong”

by Catrin Harland-Davies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Methodist Quadrilateral

by Tom Stuckey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCRIPTURE

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

FAITH.

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

INFORMATION

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

MEMORY

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

MYSTERY

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

Conclusion.

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

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

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

 

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

 

Paying Attention

by Chris Roe.

In the 2017 film Lady Bird, the teenage title character (going by a nickname) must write about where she lives. Her teacher in the convent she studies at remarks on her relationship to Sacramento, a town she spends much of the film decrying as a dump from which she cannot wait to break free.

Nun: You clearly love Sacramento.

Lady Bird: I do?

Nun: You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.

Lady Bird: I was just describing it.

Nun: Well it comes across as love.

Lady Bird: Sure, I guess I pay attention.

Nun: Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?[1]

I’m an assistant in a L’Arche community, where I support and live alongside people with learning disabilities, growing together in mutual relationships in a Christian context. It is an enriching, moving and demanding place to be. Some of my favourite days as an assistant come when I walk into town with one particular person with learning difficulties. Alone it would take fifteen to twenty minutes; with this person, it’s more like an hour.

We walk slowly. We pause and comment on what we’ll do when we get to town. We notice cars as they go by, especially those that bear resemblance to a Beetle. We stop at traffic lights and wait patiently for the green man to light up before crossing, while our fellow pedestrians cut corners. We notice the ground beneath us and the people around us. We’re aware of each other’s presence. We relax into the rhythm of our day.

My experience is reflected in John Swinton’s book on time, disability and discipleship. Swinton argues that there is often a gap between the speed and pace at which many of us attempt to live our lives and the speed at which we can most readily give and receive the love of God.  Being slow, travelling in a gentle manner and taking rest are aspects of God’s time; in order to live well we should start from a slow place too. We must take the time, God’s time, to be attentive to one another.[2]

Paying attention is surely among the most basic ways we express love to one another. We’re often very aware of our loved ones’ presence in a room, and we can identify all the small signs indicating their mood. Being in a community, whether at Church or elsewhere, also involves becoming aware of each other’s wants and needs. Personally, I’ve found great riches in small groups (I’m thinking especially of student faith societies), perhaps because smaller groups can more easily generate intimacy and awareness of each other. We must take the gift of God’s time and inhabit it in a way that reflects God’s love.

As Lady Bird discovers regarding her home town, what we pay attention to reveals a great deal. We cannot attend to all things, and so we have to make choices. What choices do we make- who do we pray for? Which global conflicts do we remember, and why? Do we consider the concerns of the elderly if we are young, and vice versa? Whose gifts in our congregations are noticed? How much time do our meetings spend discussing buildings; is it healthy? How are we aware of God in our activities and liturgies?

Sadly, being a L’Arche assistant isn’t always about gentle walks! Being attentive involves commitment; we cannot only do it when we feel like it. It’s difficult to be lovingly attentive when you’re weary or someone is uncooperative. Living together, especially living with a vast range of intellectual ability, is tough. As assistants we also have to maintain quality care services, which involves paperwork. It’s easy to end up in a whirlwind of administration, doing important work but struggling to be present to those we’re meant to live in community with. It’s a gift of the person I walk into town with that they can drag us out of that and force us to attend the present.

How do we walk more slowly and pay deep attention to that which is present before us?

Of course, we must also be kind towards ourselves and allow ourselves to be forgiven when we get it wrong. The disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognise the resurrected Christ. Yet Jesus walked, talked and broke bread with them. It is at the point they are leaving the city of Jerusalem, departing in despair from fellow followers, that Jesus appears to them![3] Even as we struggle to pay attention to God, God pays attention to us.

 

[1] Lady Bird (2017), written and directed by Greta Gerwig. Quote: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Lady_Bird_(film), accessed 08/04/2019

[2] John Swinton, Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Time and Gentle Discipleship, (SCM Press, 2016), particularly chapter 4.

[3] Luke 24: 13-32

Learning through God’s story

by Sandra Brower.

I’ve just returned from a week teaching at Wesley State University in Ondo, Nigeria – about a five-hour drive northeast of Lagos. It was a fresh reminder that theology is, indeed, everywhere. I always jump at the chance to leave my desk, and its associated duties, in order to visit and engage with sisters and brothers in Christ around the world. It’s so good to hear stories which are so different from mine, yet aligned to the story that we share. As soon as we arrived on campus, we were greeted by many different individuals, who had come from various districts to participate in their first week of a Doctor of Ministry programme. One minister shared his desire that we would take away the good and positive stories about his country, as a foil to the negative press we were likely to get on our newsfeeds.

Storytelling is at the forefront of my mind. Back home now, I’ve been madly trying to meet a deadline for the Postgraduate Certificate of Higher Education programme I’m enrolled on this year. My allocated small group has to submit material this week on the topic of ‘storytelling as a learning tool’. It’s been fascinating to look at storytelling as a learning theory; much research supports the claim that ‘whatever we learn, we’re learning it through someone else’s story and through their eyes’ (Ashton & Stone, 2018, p. 147). My week in Nigeria was no exception.

I was invited to deliver lectures on liturgical worship. The Church has long proclaimed the motto lex orandi, lex credendi: as we pray, so we believe. In other words our liturgy leads to and informs our theology. During our week together, the students and I considered the proposition that in corporate worship, we gather together as a community of faith to be guided by the God who seeks after us.  The scattered community brings its various stories that have developed in the time apart, gathering once again to have these stories shaped by and oriented to God’s story. At the end of my teaching week, I asked each student to answer the question, ‘what was the most significant learning point this week?’ A common response was the concept that Christian worship starts and ends in community. It doesn’t start with each of us, individually, or even corporately; it starts with the Triune God, a community in his very being, who calls us to worship, gathering us to himself. By his Son and his Spirit, the Father draws us in to participate in the life of God.

One of the PowerPoint slides for my PGCHE group’s presentation on storytelling defines storytelling as ‘a learning tool to make sense of experience’ and a ‘way of knowing that is socially constructed.’ I can’t help but think how this relates to theology and corporate worship. Stated as simply as possible, theology is ‘God-talk’ – talking about God. It is the conviction of many that we can’t engage in this task in any meaningful way unless the God of whom we speak reveals himself to us. If he doesn’t, how on earth can we know what to say? But where is God revealed to us?

When I lecture on worship, I often come back to David Peterson’s (1992, p. 20) definition of worship as ‘an engagement with [God], on the terms that he proposes, and in a way that he alone makes possible.’ In worship, we don’t simply gather to talk about God, we meet with him. The Latin motto begins to make sense. Worship is the fount of theology, because it is where we meet with God, and come to know him. And in coming to know God, we come to know and understand ourselves. It is in this engagement, then, that our stories become meaningful and we are, indeed, able to make sense of our experience.

I find it frustrating when worship leaders assume that we call ourselves to corporate worship (the latest fashion being ‘countdowns’ to worship). It turns the framework of Christian worship on its head – we gather ourselves to call on God, often expressed in an initial time of songs of praise and adoration. Certainly corporate worship must incorporate our adoration and praise, but these must always be understood in the context of response. Worship leaders (and planners) are instrumental in determining whether or not our worship, from the outset, expresses a gospel of grace. If whatever we learn is indeed through someone else’s story and through their eyes, let it be God’s story and through God’s eyes. Then, and only then, will we have eyes to see and ears to hear the good and positive stories my Nigerian brother challenged us to bear witness to.

 

Peterson, David (1992), Engaging With God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (Downers Grove:  Inter Varsity Press)

The Grace of Self-Doubt

by Graham Edwards.

When I was a child in a church service, I remember one preacher holding up two pictures for us to look at, a picture of the building we were in and a picture of a group of people. “Now,” he said, “which one of these is the church?” after a bit of back and forth we decided that the picture of the people was the church.  “That’s right,” he exclaimed, “the people are the church,” and then with a remarkably booming voice, “we are the church!”   I encountered that same phrase when I was doing my own research, I asked a group of people “what is the church?”  and after a slight thoughtful pause, one member said, “well … we are the church!”   I don’t disagree with the notion that church is primarily about people and not buildings, but as I reflect, I find the phrase “we are the church” riddled with gaps.

The “gaps” I’m talking about are the kind that Wolfgang Iser (1978) argues exist when we read a piece of literature.  He claims that texts are not all-sufficient, because as we read, there are unwritten implications, blanks or gaps that we have to bridge.  As I read (or hear) the phrase “we are the church” I find that the gaps take the form of questions.  “We”- who do we mean?  Those we are with now?  Those who are like us?  Those who agree with us?  Those of different ethnicity, or sexuality, or gender?  “Are” – do we mean that we are church at this moment?  Are there times when our actions or words mean we are not church?  How do we judge when we are and when we are not church? “The” – do we mean we are part of a larger whole, or is our local church really where it begins and ends? “Church” – what do we think claiming to be church demands of us? Merely turning up on a Sunday? Or something more?  We probably won’t agree on the answers to all these questions, some may be contentious and some potentially divisive.  In the Methodist church there are other issues we are considering – the nature of ministry, supervision, marriage and relationships and so on, these too may be difficult for us to agree upon.

Our disagreements are not simply intellectual opinions but are often deeply rooted in our lived experience which provides us with a different hermeneutic, a different starting point for our reflections on the life of faith.  Yet we know that we are not Christians in isolation, we learn from each other and our different experiences, which help to make “transparent the truth for which we seek” (Farley, 2002, p. 67).   With all that in mind, what, then, do we do?  Perhaps we need the grace of self-doubt.  Margaret Farley (p. 68) calls this “one of the least recognised gifts of the Spirit”. It is not about doubting our value before God and spiralling into hopelessness and despair. She writes:

“This is not a grace for calling into question every fundamental conviction we have achieved … it allows us to listen to the experience of others, take seriously reasons that are alternate to our own [and] rethink our own last word” (p. 69).

This grace calls us to see differently, to understand the position of others, and face the sometimes-uncomfortable truth that our position – on whatever issue we reflect on – may not be the end of the debate.   Fundamentally, I think, the grace of self-doubt bids us to see again that the grace of God is not only ours, it is also spread across the world, indeed as Paul Lakeland (2012, p. 17) notes there is “a worldly grace that the church does not control or even know”.   The grace of self-doubt is for those who struggle to make sense of the world and the challenges of faith in an ever-changing context.  It allows us to begin to work with the complexity of living in a church where people sometimes hold diametrically opposed positions, by asking each of us – in grace – to consider whether our last claim is all there is to say.  In doing this, we may find new ways to value each other and honour the image of God within each of us.   Without this grace, we may miss our part in God’s great work.

“We are the church” – yes, we are, all of us, when we agree and when we do not, so perhaps we need the grace of self-doubt as we live our faith in the church and in the world.

 

Farley, M. A. (2002). Ethics, Ecclesiology, and the Grace of Self Doubt. In J. J. Walter, T. E. O’Connell, & T. A. Shannon (Eds.), A Call to Fidelity (pp. 55 – 76). Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.

Iser, W. (1978). The Act of Reading. Baltimore: John Hopkins.

Lakeland, P. (2012). Reflections on the Grace of Self-Doubt. In D. M. Doyle, T. J. Furry, & P. D. Bazzell (Eds.), Ecclesiology and Exclusion (pp. 13 -17). New York: Orbis.

Spiritual Writing Today

by Julie Lunn.

In my last post for this blog, I talked about spiritual writing and described the project I am engaged in at present – which is to look at how women in the Wesleyan tradition articulate faith; both women who wrote their conversion testimonies to Charles Wesley, and how contemporary Wesleyan women articulate their faith today.  A few women got in touch as a result of that blog and contributed a text to the project – thank you!  Others also contributed from Methodist, Nazarene, and Free Methodist traditions, and I am now in the process of analysing and writing up the data received.  So this article is a first indication of how the project is unfolding.

The ultimate aim is to compare similarities and differences in women’s writing from the two periods and examine how theology, faith and spirituality have changed or remained the same within a Wesleyan expression of faith.  In addition, indications of significant factors which nurture, strengthen, and promote faith development will be noted and offered to encourage those of us on a journey of faith today.

In response to the request for contributions to the project I received thirty-four submissions, which together amounted to eighty-three pages of text.  Being entrusted with this material was a sacred privilege.  One participant spoke of trusting me with the work.  The material is personal, expressive of intimate relationship with God, and in many cases not originally intended for public view.  The submissions which were blogs or written for a magazine had a different voice, deliberately written for an audience, but the majority of texts were not; this was holy ground.

Of the thirty-four participants fifteen submitted extracts from existing spiritual writing – eleven from spiritual journals, two blogs, one letter to a spiritual friend and one from a magazine article.  Fourteen submitted one-off accounts written for the project, eight of which were of a specific spiritual experience.  Three submitted accounts of their conversion experience and two submitted testimonies.  Of the thirty-four participants twenty one keep a spiritual journal as part of their response to faith – ten of whom journal occasionally.  Fourteen participants have a spiritual companion, mentor or spiritual director.  Seven have a prayer partner or partners.  Twenty-six participants have another relationship which assists their spiritual journey – these include friends, a partner, a group e.g. housegroup or Bible Study group, a minister, books or podcasts, and the body of Christ or other Christians.

There were several surprises for me as I read and analysed the texts.  One was that I had not expected such a high number of participants to practice the discipline of journaling or to have a spiritual companion or relationship which assists the spiritual journey; but this is deeply encouraging.

Similarly encouraging were the number of contemporary texts which referenced scripture (twenty-two texts) and prayer – twenty-one texts either talked about prayer or included prayer in the text – these features were very similar to the texts from the 18th century women.

The experience of Jesus or another spiritual experience also featured significantly in both sets of texts.  The experiences of Jesus received by the 18th century women included a sense of the love of God, peace, and sins forgiven.  A number of experiences are visual, with Christ’s sufferings presented, frequently in the context of the service of Holy Communion; or visual experiences of Jesus in glory.  The contemporary experiences of Jesus similarly recorded a sense of love, peace, joy, warmth and a sense of presence, and some verge on the physical- ‘seeing’ Jesus’ eyes of love, ‘feeling’ Jesus’ breath on the neck.

Two texts indicate struggle with experiencing Jesus.  One is challenged by Jesus’ maleness for her as a woman, drawn instead to the presence of the Spirit.  Another speaks being eager to know and please God as a young person, but unable to experience Jesus, ‘I felt like the apostle Peter that I couldn’t go anywhere else-as much as I didn’t get this Christianity life or have any felt experience of Jesus, I felt that He alone held the key…I just didn’t know how to get to Him.’

These texts, in themselves, encourage faith.  Their honesty, openness, wisdom, and depth of faith is moving and humbling.  As the project continues the process of discovery will I am sure, continue to be one of delight, challenge, and insight for the living of faith today.  At this early stage of analysis there are however three key thoughts for reflection:

  • What do we actively do to support our spiritual life and growth? Do we make a note of our experiences of God – so we can see over time how God is working with us and within us?
  • Who are our companions, encouragers, challengers?
  • Do we express ourselves to God in prayer and root our reflections in the text of Scripture?

If we do not do these things yet – why not start?