Staying in the city

by Claire Potter.

In the 1960s Marvin Gaye sang: “Wherever I lay my hat – that’s my home?”. There is something rather impressive about people who sit that lightly to places. In Jeremiah 29 there is an account of Jeremiah’s remarkable letter to all the people who were in exile in Babylon. Jerusalem was, for them, the only place where you could truly worship God. Since all of life’s activities were associated with religion – work, family life, existing in society – then it is hardly surprising that they were so frustrated in exile. All they could do, like refugees across the world today, was to long for it all to be over.

But Jeremiah told them that God was not only to be found in Jerusalem – but was in fact with them even in exile. So he said: get on and live out your lives, build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat the produce, form relationships, marry, have families – for generations. It was clearly no short term solution. And Jeremiah went even further telling them to ‘seek the welfare of the city … and pray to God on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare’. They might have lost their homes, their holy places, their familiar places, but they had not been abandoned by God and they would not be abandoned by God.

There is a similar feeling right at the end of Luke’s gospel. The two disciples who had had their eyes dramatically opened at Emmaus had run all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples that they had seen the risen Jesus. As they are all discussing this incredible news, Jesus himself appeared amongst them. He demonstrates how physical he is by showing them his hands and feet, using the words that would have been familiar to them ‘peace be with you’ and then eating a piece of fish in front of them. He then helped them to understand how his death and resurrection had been foretold and what it meant for them. Then he gives his final instruction. As they wait for the power of God to come upon them – they are to ‘stay there in the city’.

Surely Jerusalem was the last place on earth where they wanted to stay. This was the place where everything had fallen apart for them. This was a place of betrayal, of the ending of their hopes, a place of loss and brutality and fear. It would have been so much better if Jesus had told them to wait in the more friendly environment of Galilee where they could go back into normal life. In Matthew’s gospel, the risen Jesus did in fact appear to the disciples in Galilee. The point Luke is making is significant. Before the disciples are empowered by the Holy Spirit, they have to muster all their courage to stay there and to believe that God’s power was coming.

Stay in the city” said Jesus according to Luke. “Seek the welfare of the city” said Jeremiah. What makes us feel that we are in exile? It could be a very real sense of isolation caused by illness, fear or addiction. It might be the speed of development of the virtual world and the possibilities of social media. It might be the political world or injustice. The natural human response is to look for security.

In churches though, there is a danger that we will locate our need for settledness and security in our church buildings, our hymn books, our familiar seat, or our favoured traditions. Then it becomes so difficult for us when any of those things change, and we can be a block in the development of a church. Surely it is much better to locate that need that we all have in God. God’s love for us will not change. He made us, he called us, he planted potential within us. When we are at sea in this bewildering world, let us allow God to be our anchor. Then everything becomes possible. We can then seek the welfare of the people we do not understand, We can seek the welfare of corners of our world that others think are hopeless, we can seek the welfare of whole communities who will never think like us or share our priorities or opinions. And miracle of miracles – when we do that – we will also discover our own welfare – our own hope, strength, courage and calling. So rather than retreating into our settled traditions and hoping that the threats will go away, perhaps we can all take the courage given to us through God’s Spirit to fling wide the doors and offer vulnerable hospitality as part of our living communities.

May God help all people in their own context to stay in the city and to seek the welfare of the city – wherever we lay our hat.

‘My God I am thine’

by David P. Easton

This article has been triggered by the case of baby Charlie Gard, a patient in Great Ormond Street Hospital with mitochondrial depletion syndrome. The hospital felt that it was right to withdraw life-support treatment from him. His parents appealed the decision in the high court. They had wanted to take him to America in the hope that an untried treatment could help his condition. Mr Justice Francis ruled that the hospital could halt Charlie’s life support.

I need to state first of all that what follows is not about this particular case. I also fully recognise that it is all too easy for those not immediately involved in situations such as this to make pious or platitudinous comments. For those intimately involved – family, friends, medical staff and, indeed, high court judges, the issues are immense, personal and deeply challenging. This may sound obvious, but I feel very strongly that it is important, before exploring ethical or theological issues arising from such cases, to acknowledge that discussion must not take place with abstract, theoretical detachment but in the context of the real lives of real people.

I want to explore two questions:
Whose are we?
How does the Church engage theologically with complex issues such as this?

Listening to a report on the radio, I heard it said that the parents believed that, as the child was theirs, they had the right to decide his treatment. Parents often speak of ‘their children’. Does this mean that they ‘own’ them or that they have a more intangible attachment of love and care? In this country we clearly do not believe that even parents have the final say on their children, as this case and instances where children are taken into care illustrate. So does the state, acting on behalf of all of us through the courts or social services, etc, ‘own’ its children? Most of us would probably be uneasy with such a notion, even if we couldn’t quite say why.

But there is a sense in which children belong to all of us. I don’t have children but I have obligations towards them that I am happy to fulfil. I am happy to pay taxes for their education. I would stop a child from running out in front of a bus. In paying taxes or stopping a child I am acting in the belief that their welfare is not just the responsibility of her/his parents; there is a sense in which they are my children too. So, I am expressing a degree of ‘ownership’ of the child, but, by the same token, the child’s parents are willing to share some of that ‘ownership’ with me – presuming that they are glad that I am paying taxes and stopping their child from being run over.

So, if children are, in the sense that I have been suggesting, ‘owned’ by all of us, when does that ‘ownership’ cease? Do I refuse to pay taxes for things that adults require, such as roads or further education? Would I ‘own’ an adult enough to stop him/her being killed? If I would, does that mean that there is a sense in which we own one another? And what does that mean in a western society which increasingly puts a premium on individualism and self-determinism? And what is the difference between the sort of ownership I have been positing and that which becomes controlling and sees the other as one to be possessed for our own ends rather than theirs or the society of which we are a part?

And where is the theology in all this? Where do we fit with one another? Where do we fit with God?

‘My God I am thine, what a comfort divine’.

When we sing this hymn with more or less gusto, are we saying that we are ‘owned’ by God because we have chosen to be? Or were we God’s possessed by his love – as infant baptism liturgies claim – even before we knew of him? And if we are owned by God, whether through design or desire, what does that have to say about our liberty and free will? Is the notion of being possessed by God make it more or less likely that someone would want to explore what it means to be a Christian disciple?

Finally, in a world that is constantly throwing up examples of the complexity and challenge of the one that we began with, how do we engage those in the wider world with what it means to be fully human and yet touched by the divine? How do we not appear to be ever-ready with the glib answer or ill-thought-through response? How do we avoid the twin dangers of appearing to know everything or knowing nothing? How do we wrestle beyond the ropes of over-simple certainties?

 

I’m only human

by Elaine & Stephen Lindridge.

The haunting (and frustratingly memorable) song “Human” by Rag’n’Bone Man has been spinning around my head for weeks now. Take a moment to watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3wKzyIN1yk

The song’s statements and questions seem to echo a sentiment that is very much prevalent in today’s world. Rory Graham (AKA Rag’n’Bone Man) laments the human condition and his inability as a flawed person to satisfy everyone’s needs.

Some people think I can solve them
Lord heavens above
I’m only human after all, I’m only human after all
Don’t put the blame on me

 The song talks of being asked questions that no one is qualified to answer, hence the line:

I’m no prophet or messiah
Should go looking somewhere higher

Running through the song is the regularly repeated answer:

I’m only human after all
I’m only human after all
Don’t put the blame on me

Without doubt we are flawed, we have our failings and limitations. This blog in no way disputes that. But how often have we heard the reply “I’m only human” in response to a mistake or failure? Using our humanity as an excuse for our inadequacies, limitations, and sometimes our downright rebellion to The Way. I wonder if the explanation that our humanity is that which restricts us from reaching our full potential is simply an excuse? A self-justifying apology?

The greatest ever example of a human life lived well and to potential is obviously the life of Jesus Christ. So what did Jesus do with his humanity? As Philippians 2:1-11 reminds us, Jesus was fully human, yet still able to be “obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”

When faced with the opportunity to feed more than 5000, his response was not, “I’m only human.”  Nor was “I’m only human” his response to Jairus’ Daughter, the man with the withered hand, the blind, the deaf or the ten lepers. When Jesus saw the needs of those treated unjustly, the poor and marginalised, not once did he turn his head and mutter the excuse “I’m only human.”

As we look at the life of Jesus Christ it begs the question, “If Jesus was fully human, should he not then be the divine example of all that we as human beings aspire to be and do?” Not in some abstract way, nor in a word for word, act for act mimicry. But rather in the wholeness of a life well lived, without excuse, pushing limitations and barriers that would restrict.

It is easy to see the flaws in humanity whilst forgetting that God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them…and it was very good. (Genesis 1:27-32)

As beings made in the image of God, sharing our humanity with Jesus, we have the potential therefore to follow the profound example of what humanity can and should be in the life of Jesus.

Therefore as followers of Jesus, could the refrain “I’m only human” become an aspirational statement rather than an excuse? Or perhaps even more so, can we look at great human acts and relish the acknowledgement of what humanity can achieve? Remembering always that the achievements are only because of the gift of Godself in the creation of humanity.

Thus turning the catchphrase from negative to positive. From “only” human to “being” human. To the woman who campaigns against unjust benefit sanctions we say “she’s being human.” To the artist who paints a picture that stirs the deepest of unknown emotions we say “he’s being human.” To the busy pastor whose very being creates the safe environment to bare ones soul we say “he’s being human.” To the friend who continues to put one foot after another when the journey of life is splattered with crisis after crisis we say, “look at her, she’s being human.” Seeing the God-given gift of humanity within the positive spotlight of  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Never boasting in our humanity with a pride in our own abilities or accomplishments, but with an acknowledgement of the gift we have been given. Offering our deepest gratitude to the one who became fully human and was tested in every way (Hebrews 4:15) yet lived an exemplary life.

The irony of the name of the artist should not escape us. In days gone by the rag’n’bone man would collect that which was discarded and deemed of no value and take it to be recycled. The redemptive act of God takes us, even if the world, or ourselves would view us as worthless, and makes all things new.  Perhaps the Rag’n’Bone Man should have the final words….but let’s read them with hope…

Take a look in the mirror
And what do you see
Do you see it clearer?
In what you believe
‘Cause I’m only human after all
You’re only human after all

Keeping the Feast

by Sandra Brower.

My most memorable Easter was when I was a postgrad student in London. A group of us raised as Evangelicals but keen to mine the richness of other traditions – as only postmoderns can do – joined the throngs of the faithful who gathered for the Easter vigil at The Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Ennismore Gardens, central London. Enduring lengthy Protestant sermons is a cakewalk compared to hours of standing, listening to unending readings in characteristic Orthodox monotone. As the hours passed, so did the light, until we were in darkness; even the priests – dressed in black – were difficult to see. At this point, weary and weak-kneed, those of us who arrived early enough for a place inside were led outside. There, we each lit our white candles; the hundreds of individual small flames made a collective blaze of light. The priests, who had done a quick back-room change, joined us and – in dazzling robes of white and gold – led the procession back into the church. As we entered, the darkness was, literally, turned into light.

The Orthodox know how to worship in a way that involves the whole body and its senses. Amy Frykholm, in her essay ‘Fasting Toward Home’, speaks about her experience visiting Orthodox churches as an exchange student in Russia: ‘I observed a sensuality of worship: smells, sights, sounds, beautiful colors and sensations, as if the whole self were being invited into delight. I had always thought that the truest worship happened deep inside the self, a place best reached, perhaps, by shutting down the senses. This other, fully participatory worship was strange to me, and my body did not know how to respond.’[1] Our Protestant bodies were not accustomed to feasting at 3:00am, but – eager to engage to the end – we returned, like the faithful, to our small flat to break bread and eat many other sumptuous delights together.

I’m a confessed foodie, and over the past few years I’ve been mulling over the difference between the rhythms of the sacred and secular year. Food magazines have a rhythm to their contents; January editions predictably give us recipes to accompany the gym memberships that escalate after the gluttony of Christmastide. The rhythm is to feast and then fast, essentially to binge and then diet. The sacred rhythm, in contrast, is to fast and then feast.

Feasting is a good thing. As is the act of breaking the fast. Far from a sin (as opposed to Slimming World’s ‘syns’ – short for ‘synergy’ – naughty foods you can only have in strict limitation), breaking fast is intrinsic to celebration. Feasting together in the wee hours of Easter morning, my friends and I were recognising in a bodily way that, without God, we have nothing. One of my theological conversation partners captured it insightfully when he said that ‘the [secular] approach to life is a recipe for disappointment and regret, whereas the [sacred] engenders anticipation and thanks.’

Since I first discovered there was something called the season of Lent, I’ve attempted to keep some sort of fast throughout it. Sometimes I’m more stringent than others, yet I’m conscious that my ‘fasts’ are no real hardship. Truth be told, I approach them as my annual chance to watch what I eat, more for the sake of my figure than my soul. Perhaps that’s my Protestant baggage – an insidious (and subtly Gnostic) tendency to separate things that were always meant to be together. The creature at the outset of the Genesis story is a hungry being, and one who understands that food – along with the whole of creation – is given by God. Alexander Schmemann, in his delightful book, For the Life of the World, represents the Orthodox sacramental view of the world in his argument that food – like all creation – is given as communion with God.[2]

This year, my family is celebrating Easter in the sun-baked hills north of Malaga. As I write, I am surrounded by God’s beautiful creation. The vista is stunning, the flowers exquisite, the smell of the citrus blossoms intoxicating, the sound of the bees sucking nectar and the sheep bells in the distance enchanting. And then, of course, there is the food. I want to learn this sacramental view of the world. This Easter, I will be more attentive to my platter of tapas: ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good.’

 

[1] Amy Frykholm, ‘Fasting Toward Home,’ in The Spirit of Food, ed. Leslie Leyland Fields (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2010), 161.

[2] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973), 11-14.

 

Powerful Love

by Steve Wild.

For the last two weeks in the Central Methodist Church in Helston the members have been engaged in a mission outreach. By using the flexible space in the sanctuary they have worked together to hold ‘Prophet’s Progress’ a journey through Bible scenes starting with creation and ending with the Lamb on the throne in heaven. Over 700 children came the first week and cleverly actors from the local churches told the story of each scene. The prophet Isaiah began and explained what was to follow. An actual Cornish fisherman sat by a boat – which had been a prop on the TV programme ‘Poldark,’ and told how his life had changed… ‘because of love.’

This is Holy Week and we commemorate and remember the last week of Jesus’ life on this earth. These are the days leading up to the great Celebration of Easter Day, when love conquered death.

When the New Testament attempts to express God’s love, it points us to the cross of Jesus Christ. Because the cross is all about love. When you think of the immensity of God’s love, the first thing the Bible often asks us to do is to consider the price that was paid.

This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John ch. 4 : 9)

The Cornish fisherman pretending to be one of the twelve disciples was portraying a fallible human who had given up all to follow Jesus. As Simon Peter he had betrayed Christ and on realising his folly… ‘went out and wept bitterly’…no wonder. As I reflect further on the story he must have seen the crucifixion with horror, yet he discovers forgiveness when later with the risen Jesus he answers the question ‘do you love me?’ The forgiving love has a healing quality so that Simon becomes a great Christian leader.

We have all let Jesus down and being forgiven we can help others know that forgiveness and the powerful love that holds us. My involvement over the years with members of Alcoholics Anonymous[i] has meant that AA members have come to me to help them to be free from the guilt of past misdeeds and to experience the cleansing of forgiveness; for them the cross has a new meaning. One man I helped last November held the simple wooden cross I gave him and said, ‘If Jesus Christ could forgive the soldiers who nailed him to this he can forgive me.’ The Passiontide hymn of Charles Wesley poetically puts this experience powerfully into words.

O Love divine, what hast thou done!
The immortal God hath died for me!
The Father’s co-eternal Son
Bore all my sins upon the tree.
Th’immortal God for me hath died:
My Lord, my love, is crucified!

Great minds have written long and deep about the meaning of ‘atoning sacrifice’ and ‘Bore all my sins upon the tree.’ We see in the Bible how under Mosaic Law the Jews offered ongoing sacrifices to cover the cost of their sins. But Jesus provided the only sufficient sacrifice once for all to cover the sins of the world because he was without sin.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. (Hebrews ch 4 v 15)

This powerful love at the heart of the Easter experience is to share rather than keep to ourselves. Reflecting on the ‘Prophet‘s Progress’ in Helston they were sharing love in the stories of the Biblical scenes as well as in the tea, juice, refreshments and kindness which ran through the whole event.

There are so many different ways for a group of Christians to show Christ’s love to the community. It takes prayer, time and enthusiasm to work together to make the love of Jesus evident in the communities we serve; I see it in many churches I visit – but not enough alas. Together with the power of love we can work side by side and share this love with all we meet.

 

[i] Alcoholics Anonymous is a twelve-step recovery programme – step three is the one I am involved in: ‘3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.’ For this step, the alcoholic consciously decides to turn themselves over to whatever or whomever they believe their higher power to be. With this release often comes recovery. I personally am a lifelong teetotaler.

Wilderness Experiences

by Will Fletcher.

Our church is using the film Casablanca as the basis for our Lent group study. In some ways it is a timely film of refugees fleeing persecution and war. The story revolves around a café owner, Rick (played by Humphrey Bogart) who is confronted by an old flame seeking safe passage from Casablanca to the United States via Lisbon during the Second World War. Early in the film, Rick is sitting outside the café with Captain Renault the Captain of the Police. In response to the Captain’s enquiry as to what brought him to Casablanca, Rick states that he came for the waters. Given Casablanca’s desert location, Renault expresses his surprise, Rick’s droll response: “I’ve been misinformed”.

Desert and wilderness experiences are common themes for reflection through Lent. We begin the season remembering Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness;[1] we may also reflect on the Israelites wandering in the wilderness after being delivered from slavery in Egypt. One of the thoughts coming out of our Lent study is that it is quite possible to be in the wilderness even in the middle of a bustling city. When we feel isolated and cut off from other people, when we live with loneliness, or when we are unable to see signs of life around us we can feel as though we are living in a wilderness, regardless of what else is around us.

In these unlooked for wilderness experiences it can be tempting to think we must face them all with a smile, to believe that they must all be part of God’s plan for our own good and happiness. Yet in those moments when we feel like we are in the wilderness and times are tough it is okay to long for escape and freedom. We can join with the psalmists in lamenting our current circumstance and crying out to God for deliverance.[2] In these times it is quite acceptable to dream of a different vision for how your life and world should be, and to share such a vision with God.

Just because it is right and appropriate to seek escape from unlooked for wilderness experiences, does not mean all wilderness experiences are bad. From the early days of the Church women and men have travelled into the wilderness seeking to escape the trappings of the world and forge a closer connection with God. People in our Lent group who have had experiences of travelling into a desert or other wilderness environment were amazed by the signs of life that were still about. In the harshest of places, life can still flourish. In intentionally leaving the world behind to journey into the wilderness we too can discover those surprising signs of life that weren’t there or we hadn’t noticed in the midst of our day to day living.

We have previously reflected that one doesn’t need to travel to an actual desert in order to feel as though one is in a wilderness. We can make that journey into the wilderness by switching our phones and computers off for a day; by finding somewhere to go for a walk away from our usual pattern of life; by being silent or by fasting; and there are countless other examples. They all point to leaving behind our world and its comforts and distractions, in order to forge a closer connection with God and notice those unexpected signs of life.

It is common when talking of those moments of spiritual experience that might be called mountain-top experiences to say that, amazing though they are, we are not made to live on the mountain-top. Well, I believe, we are not made to live in the wilderness either. These times of surrendering from the world and journeying into the wilderness can bring real spiritual growth, but we are then meant to allow that growth to shape us as we return to the world and our usual patterns.

So in these last few days of Lent, it is worth considering whether you already feel in the wilderness and desire to escape, or whether you are in the hustle and bustle of life and need to take time to journey into the wilderness, even if you do so from the comfort of your own home…

 

[1] Matthew 4:1-11

[2] E.g. Psalm 43 or Psalm 137

Budgets and the kingdom

by Stephen Wigley.

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for this year is unusual for 2 reasons. The first is that it’s written by the Archbishop himself; the second is that it’s about money.

Justin Welby’s little book ‘Dethroning Mammon; making money serve grace’ (Bloomsbury, 2016) is a timely reminder of the importance which Jesus attaches to the use of money, especially in his parables of the kingdom. It’s also a reflection of the Archbishop’s own previous experience of working in the city before offering for ordination and, arising from that, his analysis of what can and has gone wrong in the operation of financial markets in our current economic system.

In one sense, we hardly need reminding of the role which finance plays in our public life. Several years into a squeeze on public spending, after a bruising budget process, and with the Government preparing to trigger article 50 and so begin the formal negotiations about the deal for Britain’s leaving the European Union, we’re all too aware of the importance attached to the public finances.

But such things are not just matters for the public and political arena; they’re also the stuff of church and charity life. I think of the various educational and charitable institutions on which I serve and how much time, especially in the spring, that we spend looking at accounts, budgets and forecasts.

Archbishop Justin’s book reminds us that these matters are just as much to do with faith and seeking God’s kingdom as any of those other things, such as prayer and spirituality, on which we usually focus in Lent. In a series of chapters, each of which provides a theme for the Sunday Worship services broadcast on Radio 4, he challenges us as to how those same financial disciplines which are so much a part of our public life can be put to use in the service of the kingdom.

As it happens, I shall be leading one of those services from Neath Methodist Church in South Wales next Sunday, on the theme of ‘we gain what we give’. Now is not the time for a sneak preview of that broadcast service; but I do want to share just one reflection which arises from his book.

For in it, the Archbishop reflects on the role of budgets and forecasts. He doesn’t dismiss the use of numbers, though he is well aware of the danger of thinking that the only things that matter are the things which we can count. But the process of deciding about priorities and the resources needed to sustain them, he suggests, is crucial to the life of the kingdom. ‘The way the Church sets budgets is as important as the way it writes its theology, as a budget is applied theology expressed in numbers.’ (p.126)

The idea of a budget being an exercise in applied theology using numbers is quite a challenging one. It means that our decisions about spending matter, because in them we reveal our understanding of the priorities of God’s kingdom and our willingness to engage with them. It means that our decisions about investment matter too, for where our treasure, there will our hearts be also. It means that we can’t simply leave the decisions to the financial ‘experts’, for if this is the arena in which decisions are made, it is where we are all called to exercise responsible discipleship as followers of Jesus.

It brings us back to where the Archbishop begins his book, with a reflection on Jesus’ parable of ‘the pearl of great price’ in Matthew 13.  This is a story which runs counter to normal business practice. It’s not about getting a bargain or diversifying your assets. It’s about recognising what really matters and being willing to pay the price to acquire or achieve it. And it’s where we see the values of the kingdom overcome the claims of Mammon.