A Royal Presence

by Ruth Gee.

It was in February that the royal visit took place. When the first invitation arrived, I knew only that there was to be a special event, no details were given. Much nearer the time, the official invitation arrived; the Prince of Wales was to attend a concert in Durham Cathedral. With the invitation came instructions: the time to arrive, the dress code and the prohibition on taking bags into the Cathedral. Colour coded invitations ensured that we would all be in our proper place and I turned up correctly dressed, without handbag, in good time. We were warmly welcomed into the cathedral and I took my seat and waited expectantly.

The choirs and orchestra were composed of young people and they were rehearsing for the big event. I enjoyed listening to them and looking out for people I recognised while chatting to the new acquaintance sitting next to me.

After a time the special guests arrived and were directed to the front. Expectation grew and at the appointed signal we all stood. Words of welcome were spoken and the concert began.

I assumed the prince of Wales had joined us, though I had not seen him and still could not do so. If he had arrived he had come in at the front and there were a lot of people between him and me, but he had been welcomed and there was some evidence of the royal presence.

The concert was in process, it was beautiful and this time there were no pauses or repeats of particular sections of the music, it was obviously the real performance for the prince.

On my left, I saw two men with radios, they were not looking at, or listening to the performers but they looked at the rest of us and walked up and down the side aisles. One of the men had a camel coloured coat over his arm: I had seen the prince wear one like that.

The concert ended and still there was no sight of the prince but some-one was talking to the young performers and they were responding, there was much laughter, clearly they were enjoying this encounter. They felt valued and affirmed.

Then we stood again and some people walked quickly past me down the central aisle and towards the exit – I thought I glimpsed Prince Charles.

Hints and glimpses, the promise of a royal presence and other people’s reactions, this was my experience that day.

I have since thought that this has also been my experience of the presence of God. There are places and times when I expect to be in the presence of God, but I don’t always see God clearly. I pick up hints that God is among us because of the words and actions of others. The more often I put myself in those places where I can focus on God, the more easily I pick up the signs of divine presence.

I meet God in some of the most unexpected places as others are touched by the warmth of God’s love or encouraged because they have been noticed, appreciated and valued. I am reminded of God’s love and justice by the actions and words of others or by their inaction and omissions.

Just occasionally I glimpse the glory of God more clearly as God passes by, just as Jesus passed by the boat on the Sea of Galilee and as the glory of God passed by Moses on Mount Sinai.

The first time I ever saw Prince Charles many years ago, he was walking with friends in a wood in Wiltshire. We met on a wide path and he disappeared to one side very quickly and his hosts, who knew my parents, spoke with us for a few minutes (it was their wood). I only knew the prince had been there because my parents told me. I was reminded of that glimpse when I was in Durham. I was also reminded that people often only come to recognise the presence of God with them if we first draw their attention to it and we can only do that if we become so familiar with God that we recognise God’s presence even in the most surprising places.

Mary recognised the risen Christ when she heard a familiar voice speak her name, the two disciples recognised him in the breaking of the bread and Thomas was convinced by the sight and feel of his wounds. God is with us and we have seen his glory.

Listening to the Silence

by David Bidnell.

It’s Eastertide and time once again to make space for reflecting on stories depicting Jesus’ encounters with his disciples following his crucifixion, found mostly in chapters 20 and 21 of John’s Gospel. Among the intriguing features of these narratives are the images of silence which precede the significant conversations. The first is the silence of the empty tomb and empty linen wrappings; the second is the silence of the locked doors of the house where the disciples are gathered; the third is the silence of the empty fishing nets on Lake Tiberius. If we look more carefully, however, we begin to notice that there is a journey going on in each of these instances, a journey from “being silenced” to “silence” to the “interruption of the silence”.

The placing of the crucified Jesus in a sealed tomb is the ultimate act of silencing by the authorities. The intention is that Jesus’ voice should no longer be heard, that his attempts to change the lives of those around him for the better should be annihilated, reduced to nothing.

The doors of the house where the disciples are meeting are locked because they are frightened that the authorities might come for them too. With Jesus gone, they are now the ones being silenced.

The empty nets demonstrate the dearth of fish in the renamed Lake Tiberius, the result of overfishing by the Romans and its dire consequences for the local economy. Fish, the livelihood of local Galilean fisherfolk, find themselves silenced by scarcity.

Into these arenas of “silencing” comes the powerful force of silent protest. Mary stands outside the tomb in solidarity with her crucified rabbi. The disciples meet together as an act of courageous defiance in the face of those who would like to see them scattered, isolated and disillusioned. The empty nets of the disciples reveal a determination to get on with the tasks of fishing and living, however hard they may be.

Into these arenas of “silence”, of course, comes Jesus, ready to make his interruption. Yet the encounters are only possible because the disciples have been prepared to counter the act of “silencing” in the first place. What is it that they are saying? “You may try to separate us from our companion and teacher, but we will stand with him at his tomb.” “You may try to separate us from one another, but we will stand tall in mutual commitment and solidarity.” “You may try to separate us from our means of living, but we will do all we can to overcome.”

Perhaps the seeds of resurrection, of irrepressible life in the face of the denial of life, are sometimes to be found in listening to and engaging with the silences of life – the silences of those who do not see the point of speaking because nobody ever listens; of those who deliberately keep silent in order to give others a voice; of those whose images and stories, for one reason or another, stun us into silence and awaken our imagination.

Vocation: An Easter Challenge for the Church

by Catrin Harland Davies.

It’s the beginning of the summer term. As a university chaplain, I can sense the rising stress levels, as students sit their final exams, and prepare for the rest of their lives. Some have their careers all planned out, but many – perhaps most – are still working it out. They may take time out, earn some cash, travel, or frantically apply for any graduate job they can find. They’re looking for some certainty, not about the next 40+ years, but about the immediate future and the next steps.

At this point in the lectionary cycle, we find the early church doing something similar. The disciples are asking themselves, “What next?” Should they return to their previous trades, wait for the next exciting adventure, or just lie low and keep out of trouble? Over the coming weeks, and following Pentecost, they gain understanding and confidence to step out in faith into the unknown.

Perhaps the church is once again – or always – at this stage? Perhaps, once again, we face questions about our vocation as a church, and our individual callings within that, which combine uncertainty with exciting possibilities for the future? I would like to suggest that we need to follow a similar process to the early disciples and almost every new graduate!

Firstly, we need to rediscover our fundamental vocation to be the laos or laity – the people of God. One of the immediate instincts of the disciples, post-resurrection, was to go back to what they knew: specifically, fishing.[1] They decided to get on with their lives, while they worked out what this new reality meant for them. Like them, we live out our faith within our day-to-day lives of work, school, university, local community. We need to ask anew how to be faithful and faith-filled in that setting.

Of course, this process of rediscovery itself is not new. It has been the task of every generation of Christians since the resurrection. Each new context raises new questions, needing new answers. Even within the New Testament, see the different issues encountered in late first century Asia Minor[2] or mid-first century Thessalonica or Corinth, or the diverse challenges facing the various church communities in Revelation 2-3.

The conversation needs to happen individually, locally and nationally. It needs to happen ecumenically, but alert to possibility of a distinctive Methodist vocation. How is God calling us to be godly? How are we to be Easter people in our bit of today’s world?

Secondly, we need to ask what kind of leadership today’s church needs. Maybe we still need presbyters, deacons, missioners, stewards, treasurers, chairs of district, chaplains, evangelists… But perhaps there are also new forms of leadership that we need to create (or recreate), as we have done with the pioneer pathway. Reimagining leadership is not the task of an appointed few – it is our shared responsibility. If I sense God calling my local church in a particular direction, what use is it if I sit in my pew, tutting to myself that those in leadership have not discerned it? We all see only in part – if we pool our insights, our collective vision grows.

Similarly, we all need to take responsibility for recognising the leadership potential in one another. When was the last time you asked someone if they have considered offering as a preacher, a steward, or an ordained minister? And when did you last suggest that a person’s gift for oil painting, poetry or break dancing might be a blessing for the church? Often, it takes someone else to identify gifts in us, or to give us the courage to hear God’s call.

Employers invest a lot of time and money in careers fairs and recruitment events – for young adults, considering how best to apply their education, or older applicants, considering a career change. Do we, as a church, ask our members how God is calling them to live out their Christian vocation right now? Do we invest time and energy – money, even – in helping everyone to use their gifts for God’s mission?

Thirdly, we need to remember always that it’s neither our church, nor our mission. They’re God’s. Our task is no more and no less than to be open to being drawn into God’s mission. That’s not a get-out from all the above, but it is to say that God is bigger than the church, and God may be doing a new thing. Like the companions on the way to Emmaus, our task is to ask what is going on, to listen to Christ, to make use of the means of grace, and to allow our eyes to be opened.

 

[1] John 21:3

[2] As seen, for example, in 1 Peter

We need to talk about blood

by Frances Young.

A few weeks ago I’d been asked to do a Lent address in the context of Evensong on the subject of sacrifice. In the discussion afterwards it was blood that people focussed on, finding it a particuarly difficult thing to get their heads around.

So we need to talk about blood.

When I was a student there was a great debate going on about the meaning of blood in the Bible. Some argued that it meant violent death – witness that cry in the Gospel passion-story, “His blood be upon our heads!” Others pointed to Leviticus 17.11: “ For the life of the flesh is in the blood.” But surely that debate reflected a false dichotomy. The shedding of blood meant death because the blood was the mysterious substance of life, and life was sacred. So blood was a kind of taboo substance with extraordinary powers. Thus it was that God said, “ I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar.” (Lev. 17.11), and Hebrews 9.22 picked that up: “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Blood was used to decontaminate the altar, the Holy of Holies, everything needed to worship God, the Holy One, because it was the sacred stuff of life. And it was released for that purpose by sacrificing an animal. The release of the life-blood meant death – through death comes life.

Now this was the fundamental principle of sacrificial practice. When Deuteronomy insisted that sacrifice could only take place in the Jerusalem Temple, it had to make special provision for secular slaughter – before that every time a herdsman killed a fatted calf it was a sacrifice. Kosher and Halal rules are survivals of that. No animal could be slaughtered for meat without religious acknowledgement of the seriousness of taking life – any life. Sacrifice was fundamentally about food – it was recognition that every time we eat, something dies that we might live.  It was not just about meat, but bread and cakes, oil and wine – offerings to the God who supplied the necessities of life, recognition of dependence on God for life, acknowledgement that life was a gift, and something has to die that we may live, even if we’re vegetarian – for only living, organic matter sustains life. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (Jn. 12.24)

The problem for us is that we don’t any longer experience the realities of food production – it’s all hidden away in mills and abattoirs. So we get hung up about things which once were everyday – yet  never taken for granted. Blood has become yucky where once it was taboo and sacred. And most of us have even given up on saying grace … Visiting a synagogue once I noted in their handout something like this: to pray asking God for bread is to hallow God’s name – for it acknowledges utter dependence on the Creator for our very existence and life. That is the main thing that sacrifice was once all about.

So how on earth did the crucifixion of Jesus come to be seen as a sacrifice? There was no altar, no fire, no priest, no meat to share, etc. etc. Well, clearly, sacrifices came to express everything to do with the relationship between God and the people: in everyday life, gifts and feasts are key to celebrating occasions, saying ‘thankyou’ or ‘sorry’, and in a parallel way, sacrifices reinforced prayer and were freighted with all kinds of meanings. In particular, the powerful substance, sacrificial blood, not only dealt with sin, but had protected the people from the angel of death in Egypt, and had sealed the covenant between God and the people, the Passover being a commemoration of the founding story of the Exodus. The Last Supper narratives, and much else in the New Testament and early Christianity, points to the notion that Jesus re-enacted the Passover and initiated the new covenant through his death, and through ‘eating his flesh and drinking his blood’ believers could receive both forgiveness and eternal life. Thus, through death comes life, both literally and spiritually.

Maybe we need to talk about blood to get it!

Holy Week Again

by Elaine Lindridge.

Talking to a colleague last week I discovered that she’s flying out to see her family in Greece on Easter Monday. She told me that in Greece, Easter is celebrated one week later this year. So that basically means that like us all she has already journey from Palm Sunday and through Holy Week. But unlike us, today she starts all over again.

She’s already journeyed from the celebrations of Palm Sunday, the gravity of Gethsemane, the horror of Good Friday, the lament and doubt of Holy Saturday, through to the joy of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. Now she faces Holy Week afresh!

Let me tell you, my brain struggles to comprehend this. It must feel strange to say the least. But as I pondered this, it occurred to me that so many of the themes of Easter are not merely restricted to Holy Week. We don’t restrict our celebration of Jesus as the Resurrected Christ just to Easter Sunday, so why then should we even consider not acknowledging the other subjects at various points during the year from one Easter to the next?

Through life, through a year, there are aspects of Holy Week that we might feel like we go through again and again – almost like a spiritual groundhog day. In a sense, we experience Easter over and over again.

Doubt and confusion isn’t confined just to Holy Saturday. There are occasions right through the year when we may struggle with feelings of uncertainty. Events that leave us reeling and asking ‘Where are you Jesus?’. There will undoubtedly be times for some when faith just does not make sense.

Death and loss aren’t confined to Good Friday. Whether that be the pain of losing a loved one, or dealing with the bereavement we feel when the events of life let us down.

Betrayal isn’t confined to last Thursday. Whether that be the betrayal we experience from friends or family members, systems or structures, employers or leaders.

Silence isn’t confined to last Wednesday. Whether that be the kind of silence we need before we take a deep breath in order to face something difficult. Or the kind of silence that helps us restore our balance again when every in life is changing.

Acts of extravagant generosity aren’t confined to last Tuesday when we remembered the woman anointing Jesus. We see a world in need and our only response at times is to be excessively and sacrificially generous.

Anger at the state of the world (and maybe the Church) isn’t confined to last Monday when we remembered that Jesus turned the tables over in the temple. Anger at the injustices we see or experience can break in at the most unexpected and inconvenient times. God may ask us to turn over tables at any point during the year!

Acclamations and shouts of hosanna are not confined to Palm Sunday. Every day is a day to proclaim that Jesus is coming.

It’s all part of the tapestry of life. Whether last week for us, or this week for my colleague in Greece, the one constant through each of these days is Jesus who is with us through every step and stumble of life. Our unmovable, faithful companion and friend. The one who reigns as Lord and King…yesterday, today, tomorrow and forever more.

Consenting to make myself yet more vile

by David Easton.

In January the i newspaper ran a column by Simon Kelner in which he wrote of a young colleague of his who went to see Darkest Hour, the latest film about Churchill. She had said that at the end of the film ‘people were standing up in the cinema, applauding and cheering’ and that she joined in. Kelner went on to suggest that this might have been because the audience contrasted Churchill’s inspirational style with the ‘political leadership that is so lacking these days.’

Churchill was not, of course, without his critics, even in his own day. Nor was he without a number of flaws which would be only too readily exposed in today’s age of less deference and the re-tweeted remark. But you don’t have to agree with the man to accept that he could inspire both the public and the House of Commons. Harold Nicholson’s diaries, for example, record that he was able, by sheer force of personality, to win over a doubtful House.

So, who are those who are able to inspire today? Scarily they often seem to be – although not universally – people whose views I for one could never embrace. You won’t be surprised that I am thinking of Donald Trump, and Nigel Farage but also, in the more acceptable spectrum, people like Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and Emmanuel Macron. Whatever you think of what they say, you would surely be hard-pushed to deny that how they say inspires large numbers within various populations.

Where does all this leave the Church? How do we, if you agree that we should, inspire people with ideas today? When Wesley consented to make himself ‘yet more vile’ by preaching in the open air, was that an inspirational act? In some ways it must have been although I surely cannot be the only one who has read Wesley’s forty-four sermons and who has wondered how they managed to inspire the crowds who gathered to hear him – even allowing for the fact that we receive them in written form. Whitfield was, by all accounts, better at ‘working’ a crowd.

Even if we don’t follow Wesley’s example of standing in a public place, how do we speak to the so-called ‘person in the street’? And more significantly, how do we speak in a language that will inspire and be understood? My observation is that a lot of what we would broadly call ‘Christian apologetics’ is written by and addressed to the educated and erudite. There are exceptions, for example Ailster McGrath, who has done a lot of work on how Christianity may be made ‘plain’, although when you first meet him your first thought would not be ‘Here is a man who can get down and wrestle with the masses’.

I am not arguing for ‘dumbing down’ but I am pleading, for example, for sermons that are inspirational and accessible rather than in the form of a lecture. I am pleading for a Church and for individual Christians who can engage easily and readily with those outside the formal parameters of the Church.

I look at the ministry of Jesus and I see someone who spent a lot of his time on the street. So, how do we, how do I, communicate the heart of what we believe with inspirational street talk? And how do I/we do that with integrity and not by playing on people’s baser instincts – which seems to be the way of some of those individuals I have mentioned? We sometimes speak of ‘the theology of the Word’, but we need, just as much, the word that speaks of theology. And, in all of this, how far am I, how far is the Church, prepared to make itself ‘yet more vile’ by stepping outside of the four walls of its familiar comfort zones and  ways of speaking?

A Brief Theology of Thought

by Aaron Edwards.

One of the ever-present dangers of our digital age is not only the extent to which it makes us thoughtless, but also the extent to which it overwhelms us with thoughts, and the potential for more thoughts, ever threatening to destabilise our ability to handle the rapidly underdeveloped thoughts we currently have in our heads. We are more readily aware of what we don’t know than ever before and our digitised selves yearn not only to be known but to be in the know of all that can be known.

Wesley encouraged his ministers to read books for at least five hours a day. In our thoughtlessly bureaucratic age, the average full-time academic – let alone the average minister[!] – is lucky if they get to read a book for 5 hours per week. With our time ever-squashed by the weight of our inboxes, we are painfully aware of all we’d like to know, but never will. There are books that stare down at us from our shelves, judging us for our perpetual neglect of their thoughts. To buy books, said Schopenhauer, would be a wonderful thing, if only we could also buy the time to read them. One of the problems of this is that in our perpetual grasp of more thoughts, we lose sight of the point of thought itself. We pursue a kind of intellectual wholeness, or peace – but we forget that intellectual peace is contingent, and is less about how much we know than about how we know.

The trouble is, there are always more thoughts to think. And because there are always more thoughts to think, we can never be satisfied with our grasp of what we currently pertain to know. Nobody is ultimately satisfied with their thoughts, with their intellectual grasp of reality and ideality. There are gaping voids in our mosaic, most of which we don’t even know about because we can only see one small part of the mosaic and we tend to think of it as ‘complete’. There are always more thoughts to think.

All this might be cause for intellectual despair, as swathes of twentieth century philosophers, in one way or another, led us to believe. And yet intellectual peace is not actually impossible, precisely because it is not located in our comprehensive mastery of all that can be known. Our mistake is to think that if only we grasped the true depths of Dostoevsky, if only we apprehended the historical nuances of the French Revolution, if only we understood the forces behind economics, if only we had a firmer grasp of this or that doctrine, then suddenly all would fall into place and we would reach that zen of intellectual peace. But alas! There are always more thoughts to think.

Indeed, God has precisely designed this problem for us. Of the making of books there is no end, said Solomon. The more we know, the more we need to know. And yet God does not discourage our pursuit of knowing. Rather, he calls us to have ‘a theology of knowing’, to desire Him in the midst of our knowledge of all the reality and ideality that we might find. If we seek knowledge in the hope that it will make us happier or more in control of our grasp of reality we are making a fatal mistake. You rarely meet a satisfied professor. There is always another article to research, another book to write. They never simply “retire” from thought. Even at the apex of their powers, as conference acolytes gather around them wide-eyed in the hopes that some crumbs of their vast expertise or wisdom would drop down from the table, you often sense they themselves are yet troubled by all that they know they don’t know, all they are yet to know, all that they do not know as clearly as they once knew. And so the thinking goes on. And if we’re not careful, we can lose our way along the way.

We need a thoughtfulness to our thinking; we need to know why we ought to think, and what relationship thinking has to discipleship and worship. God is the greatest thinker of all, the most attentive scholar of all of reality and ideality, the One who is truly in the know. We too often begrudge him his supreme professorship and seek to dethrone him by becoming ‘like him’ in our knowing, which is a supremely thoughtless thing to do, as Adam and Eve well knew. But there is something we know, as surely as one can know anything: the One who knows all has made Himself known to us in Jesus Christ, who in turn has sent us his Spirit as our guide and counsellor, as the one who will lead us into all truth. What can this mean? Will we know ‘all truths’ that are knowable? We groan here in our earthly tents, in our earthly heads, knowing in part, waiting for the crumbs of manna to drop from the Professor’s table.

But these crumbs do not drop accidentally. For He not only knows all reality, but orders all reality and calls a people to his purposes. As we give ourselves to His purposes instead of our own, He gives us what we need to know and guides us in our knowing; He calls us after Him in perpetual thoughtful worship of all He is and all He has made. This means we will undoubtedly need to think more thoughts, to pursue more knowledge, to love him with more of our mind. But it means we will think thoughts far less thoughtlessly, far more peacefully, far more theologically. And in doing so we will find our thoughts go farther than they ever could when we were stressfully scrabbling and haggling for yet another shard for our hapless mosaics.