Easter in Order and Chaos

by Karen Turner.

In the last couple of months I’ve been facilitating a Zoom book group for some students who wanted to explore what the New Testament says about women.  They are from diverse backgrounds and often don’t agree with one another and so the conversation has been rich.  The students from more conservative churches speak about their belief that God created a universe of order, and this applies, for them, to pattern of male headship that was pre-ordained for human flourishing.

We’ve learned to listen well to one another and so I’ve tried to sit with their conviction that, not only does God create order, but God rejoices in a particular kind of order. Even without knowing anything about Bach’s musical rules of composition, or without deep knowledge of maths or science,  I can see that creation is delicately balanced, creatively woven with relationships, and that it miraculously is, when it might not be, held in God’s hand.

But I find myself resisting the idea that God is quite so orderly.   And, although I want God to bring peace to places of conflict, reconciliation to broken relationships and forgiveness to the chaos of my own sin, it’s hard to see ‘order’ as God’s motivation.

Perhaps another student story expresses something of God in this.  I attended a student-organised vigil about sexual violence this week where there were hundreds of students and strong language and emotions as people went up to the open mic to share their pain and their anger.  I’d spotted a quiet Christian student I knew in the crowd and asked him later about his experience.  I was astonished by what he said. ‘After you left, I decided to go up to the mic and to pray for everyone.  There was so much hurt; I wanted them to know that God cared.’

I’ve been remembering another vigil this week – the first Easter vigil I attended, in my early 20s, living in a Christian community.  So many things were new to me: the Easter fire, the paschal candle, the epic readings, the alleluias, the incense.  But I think it was the jarring congregational bells that made the biggest impression – the jangling signalling a new reality that felt slightly terrifying. 

We generally keep the startling part of Easter out of greeting cards and songs, preferring instead a picture of calm after disruption, life beginning again.  We are quick to put the chaos of Holy Week behind us and move on, everything back in order, even if that order is actually a totally new reality.

I wonder if Judas’ betrayal was an attempt to bring on the new world order he’d heard Jesus talking about?  Perhaps following Jesus was more chaotic than he could cope with; crowds, healings, confrontations, moving from place to place, impossible to predict or budget.

Little did Judas know that further disruption was coming: earthquakes, angels, bribes, heavy objects moved, ‘unreliable’ witnesses, lack of recognition, apparent ghosts, walking through walls, fear, and of course, lots of doubt. Doubt, everywhere you turn.  But also belief. 

Our lives together can be messy, but maybe there is a way of seeing this as a sign of life.  Ian Mobsby recently summed up for me the whole purpose of rules for community life by saying ‘we create structures to stop people from hurting one another’. [i]

Christian community isn’t about controlling people nor is it about creating order for the sake of it.  It’s certainly not about establishing power roles. We can’t guarantee that people won’t be hurt, but order might help us to be kind, and to protect the weak, and that’s the only reason for rules; choosing to live in a way that isn’t blinkered by our self obsessions.

The household codes in the New Testament, and the references to the ways that worship should be conducted show that order was a concern of the early church. However, I wonder if these statements say more about the enthusiasm and life of those communities, rather than, as we might see it later, a need to exercise control. If there is an emphasis on order, it’s only because there is so much apparent life in the chaos. There would be no need to talk about order if what they were experiencing was a traditional hymn sandwich.

We have plenty of order. I wonder if what our churches might need most, post-pandemic, is less fear of chaos?  As Mike Pilavachi says, ‘It’s messy in the nursery but it’s neat and tidy in the graveyard’. [ii]  Jesus greets his friends with peace after the resurrection, precisely because this is what they don’t have, and this is where we can meet him, too. 

[i] www.ianmobsby.net/category/new-monasticism


Hymns beyond COVID

by Andrew Pratt.

On July 31st 2020 Prof Whitty (Chief Medical Officer for England) said ‘The idea that we can open up everything and keep the virus under control is clearly wrong’. It made sense. We had reduced the constraints with which we had learnt to live but, at this point the virus was still reaching a growing number of people. This suggested that the release of lockdown was enabling the spread. It indicated a need for further limitations. The Government’s response was to put a break on some proposed further easing of restraints.

In the Church many were still trying to return to ‘normal’ – to things as they were. But life was already changing. Love of our neighbour as well as preservation of ourselves, demanded that we act quickly.  Churches are not very good at swift change. Sociologically they are predicated on maintaining and promulgating the institution, rather than on loving the individual.

As far as worship was concerned, singing was off the agenda. What does this say to those of us who see hymns as integral to our spirituality?

In 2014 I wrote that, hymns had given voice to our fears and been a vehicle for our hopes. Echoing Don Saliers, I affirmed that they have enabled the exploration of humanity’s ‘Amen!’ to God’s initiative in the world, in a way that music or words alone could not encompass. They have been dependent on politics, culture and experience, as well as scripture and the traditions of the church. Sometimes they have expressed ‘wonder, love and praise’, at others they have cried to God ‘out of the depths’.

I believe that hymns are still a useful – a lively and relevant component of Christian liturgy. They can form theology as well as being a vehicle for its expression. If we lose them what can replace them? Or how could they evolve to at least fulfil something of their original function?

Over time I have written hymns to both reinterpret scripture, and as a lens through which to focus on the breadth of our growing human understanding of the world. I have been seeking to make sense of God for myself. This is even more necessary as the church seeks to enable worship which does not require us to suspend any connection with the twenty-first century world in which we ‘live and move and have our being’. Yet so much religious song labelled ‘modern’ uses archaic language and shows little evidence of having been edited with any degree of aptitude or skill.

For hymn writers to work in a contemporary manner it is helpful is to know how others work  in similar genres. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wilfred Owen, G.A. Studdert-Kennedy, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Philip Larkin, Simon Armitage, Dylan Thomas, Carol Ann Duffy and Leonard Cohen are all worthy of our attention.

If we are to begin with words which will offer something of the inspiration that others have found in hymns in the past, and if we are not simply going to rely on what has already been written, how should we write and what should we sing? I want to set out some guidelines for our further exploration of the medium:

Hymns should be beautiful. That does not mean they should describe things that are beautiful, but they should be aesthetically pleasing, elegant. This should apply even in a hymn of lament, or one that identifies with pain in the reader/singer.

Rhyme, rhythm and pattern are still helpful tools which enable memory.

Honest. The words we sing should be true to our own experience. Life is rarely ‘all sunshine’ even for Christians.

Theologically honest. For instance, as we approach Easter it is unhelpful, on the one hand to think of ourselves as ‘children of God’ while singing of the greatness of a God who ‘His son not sparing / sent him to die’. The language of Trinity often pushes us towards uncomfortable compromise in terms of incarnation and, in this instance, is resonant of ‘cosmic child abuse’. We need to be theologically literate.

Understandable. Theological language, or outdated metaphors, may confuse more than clarify the Biblical material which we are seeking to communicate.

Contemporary words and concepts make texts accessible and this should be of greater concern than hoping for perpetuity. Let this be our pattern for the future, in and beyond COVID-19, that we may serve the age in which we live and, when we can, in which we sing. We are writing for today, not tomorrow, nor yesterday, not seeking for posterity, as more than ever we have been reminded that we do not know what tomorrow might bring, what testing of faith it may assert, what new expressions of fear and wonder initiate, what images of God will be drawn from human minds to meet our needs and those of our contemporaries.

(a longer version of this article can be found in the Bulletin of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Winter  2021, 306, Vol. 23, No. 1, p 9-24 – a draft of the article can be viewed on my blog)

‘I could drink a case of you’: Joni Mitchell, Charles Wesley and the Renewal of Sacramentalism

by Richard Clutterbuck.

In recent months I’ve been chairing a Faith and Order working party on the question of online communion. I won’t say more on that topic, as the work is ongoing, but working with the group has made me reflect again on the centrality of the Eucharist for my own Christian experience, my journey in ordained ministry and my theological thinking.

 Of course, as a theologian, I turned first to Joni Mitchell!

Oh, you’re in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet
Oh, I could drink a case of you, darling
And I would still be on my feet
Oh, I would still be on my feet

Fellow baby-boomers will recognize these lines as coming from Blue, arguably the greatest singer-songwriter album of all time. Joni Mitchell’s genius shines through them, intensifying the pleasure and suffering of a love affair by linking it with sacramental wine. Charles Wesley, in what is (unarguably) the greatest-ever collection of eucharistic hymns[i], works the imagery in the other direction, from the experience of drinking wine in Holy Communion to a sense of joyful, passionate union with the crucified and risen Christ. To take one of many examples:

With mystical wine, He comforts us here,
And gladly we join, Till Jesus appear,
With hearty thanksgiving His death to record;
The living, the living, Should sing of their Lord.

The fruit of the wine (The joy it implies)
Again we shall join To drink in the skies,
Exult in His favour, Our triumph renew;
And I, saith the Saviour, Will drink it with you.

My first experience of receiving communion was in a marquee at Cliff College, during a teenage visit to Derwent Week; an intense (and, in retrospect, rather adolescent) emotional high. It set my Christian journey on a course that would be resolutely sacramental and shaped my future ministry as an enthusiastic leader and advocate of sacramental worship. To share bread and wine, confident in the mysterious presence of Jesus Christ, has been my greatest privilege. So, it’s not difficult for me to identify with the strongly affective communion hymns of Charles Wesley – or, for that matter, with the sacramental metaphors in Joni Mitchell’s love songs. But while the Wesleyan tradition gives ample scope to the experiential, affective, dimension of communion, it has, in the generations since Wesley, been less successful in linking this to the divine presence at the heart of the sacrament. When Christian experience loses its anchorage in ontology it easily becomes merely subjective, detached from the reality it represents. We need a sacramental theology that can affirm presence without dissolving mystery and that can reflect passionate joy without becoming self-indulgent.

The best recent example that I know of a Protestant sacramental theology comes from Hans Boersma, J I Packer professor of theology at Regent College, Vancouver, and very much in the tradition of evangelical Reformed theology. Through his study of the French Catholic ressourcement theologians who prepared the way for Vatican II, he has come to the conclusion that Western Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, needs to recover a lost sense of what he calls the ‘sacramental tapestry’ that was present from the patristic period till the late Middle Ages. Heavenly Participation[1] traces this ‘great tradition’ (as Boersma calls it) from the New Testament, through the writings of Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa and Thomas Aquinas. From the Platonic tradition Christianity inherited a sense that God was the supreme reality and that all created beings derived their existence from God and, to a degree,  participated in God’s being.  The supernatural was not alien to nature, but infused it. Symbols, such as the bread and wine of the Eucharist and the water of baptism, were not to be contrasted with the reality to which they pointed; on the contrary, they both participated in that reality and conveyed it to Christian worshippers. The church, as it celebrated the Eucharist, participated in the reality that was the body of Christ. Towards the end of the Middle Ages (to cut a long and contentious story short) this tradition was undermined by the nominalist insistence on the separation of nature and the supernatural, by a creeping separation of scripture and tradition, and by a new emphasis on the univocity of language and being rather than on the analogy between them. The result, says Boersma, is a cutting of the sacramental tapestry and the impoverishment of Christianity.

I guess this debate can seem an esoteric irrelevance compared with the many crises and injustices facing humanity. But actually, it gets to the heart of some of our most important questions. How does our creaturely existence relate to the reality of God – and how can we live in a way that honours God’s love for and presence within creation? How can God’s transforming presence be mediated through the stuff of creation: bread, wine, community? And if our deepest, most intimate, human relationships are channels for divine encounter, what does that tell us about our call to love and respect the other? Living more sacramentally would make a big difference.

What is the solution? Not, of course, to return to the early Middle-Ages. That would be impossible. But if Boersma is right, we can recover something of the great sacramental tradition by drawing water from the deep well of Christian reflection. If we do, we shall find that Charles Wesley’s wonderful eucharistic hymns convey more of their true depth. We might even arrive at a greater appreciation of Joni Mitchell.

[1] Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).

[i] Hymns on the Lord’s Supper. I am using the text as printed in J. Ernest Rattenbury, The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley, (London: Epworth Press, 1948).

A Methodist, but not the praying type

by Philip Turner.

As a chaplain in an acute hospital, I encounter a wide variety of people who are facing trauma. I never cease to be amazed by the resilience, honesty and complexity of each patient I meet.  One recent encounter with a patient has stayed with me.  She had not asked to see a chaplain but, on arriving on the ward, I noticed her smile and introduced myself.  During our conversation she revealed that she was a Methodist.  My heart cheered and I admitted that, I too, was a Methodist.  She then quickly but resolutely added, ‘yes, but not the praying type.’  I took this as a hint that she was curtailing that part of the conversation, but wondered later how the conversation might have gone further.

20 years ago I know what I might have said.  Straight from theological college, I would have been frustrated by, what I would have seen as the bizarre juxtaposition of the words ‘Methodist’ ‘but not the praying type’.  I suspect I would have offered an apologetic for prayer, perhaps even highlighting how John Wesley saw prayer as Jesus’ ‘express direction’ and the first ‘Means of Grace’.[i]  And there is much to be done – and much benefit to be gained – by Methodists digging deeper into their doctrinal standards.  However, I suspect that this would have neither changed her conviction nor enabled the pastoral relationship to develop.  I say this because of my journey over these last 10 years exploring holiness.

Particular among Christian denominations, British Methodism thinks it has a vocation ‘to spread scriptural holiness through the land’.[ii]  Yet in my research I discovered that, while many Methodists knew about holiness, very few wanted to be associated with holiness, let alone to share it with others.  The reasons included a generalised sense of not wanting to be seen as ‘holier than thou’ or in having a particular stance on human sexuality but, more poignantly, there were many who had direct experiences of hurt that the word ‘holiness’ triggered.  One woman spoke of an exclusive sect that she grew up in and then left, leading her to associate holiness with fanaticism.  Another spoke of her daughters who lost their Christian faith after encountering their university Christian Union. Others spoke of the complexity of their relationships, whether with the church, or with specific people.[iii]  It did not matter that their response to ‘holiness’ seemed to be, on the surface at least, in opposition to the vocation of their Methodist Church, or even that it was contrary to the Biblical theme, ‘be holy’.[iv]  This is because, I learnt, the theology a person holds – however informal or an at an angle to authorised church teaching – is likely to be influenced far more by their life experience. ‘Spiritual formation does not take place primarily in small groups’, James Wilhoit argues, ‘instead it mostly takes place in… everyday events of life.’[v]  This does not diminish the importance of theological colleges, preaching and Connexional initiatives.  Yet any programme which seeks to align people with formal doctrine, without acknowledging that people already have a powerfully embodied theology, and without drawing alongside people in their ongoing theological journey, is unlikely to bear much fruit.

So, could I have taken the conversation further with the patient who was ‘Methodist’, but ‘not the praying type’?  And if so, how?  Assuming that she was physically able to continue to the conversation, and that our relationship was developing so that she might risk trusting me, I might have asked her to tell me what it was like for her to be a Methodist.  I would have listened to her story, attending particularly to her experience of prayer.  In my listening I would want to embody God’s unconditional love for person she is today.  I might use the metaphor of family, that Wesley used, to portray prayer as a daughter listening and speaking to a parent who loves her completely.  At the outset, I could not assume that we would arrive at this point.  However, as we go on caring and growing in God’s grace, and journeying with people who, like us, carry their own experiences and pain, we might embody more fully Christ’s presence in the world.

[i] ‘The Means of Grace’ in The Works of John Wesley, volume 1, ed. by Albert C. Outler (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984), p.384.

[ii] ‘Deed of Union, Section 2 Purposes and Doctrine’ in Trustees for Methodist Church Purposes, The Constitutional Practice and Discipline of the Methodist Church, p.213.

[iii] For greater details of the conversations I had, see forthcoming issue of Holiness: An International Journal of Wesleyan Theology.

[iv] See Leviticus 19.2; 20.26; 21.8 and 1 Peter 1.15.  See also Matthew 5.48.

[v] James C. Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: Growing in Christ through Community (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), p.38.

Who is the Good Samaritan?

by George Bailey.

How does the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) help us work out our relationships with God and with each other at this fraught time in the life of the church? Most of us see this as a straightforward parable for our current context. People are in need and we are called to set to work, bringing our resources to bear. COVID-19 is the robber and those suffering the effects, eg illness, bereavement, isolation, unemployment etc, are the injured man by the roadside; we are called to be the good Samaritans. However, are there other perspectives?

The Crown has been one of my lockdown cultural experiences. Series 4, episode 8 reminds us of Margaret Thatcher’s famous take on the parable, originally from a television interview in 1980: ‘No one would have remembered the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions. He had money as well’. I am not sure it would be a helpful to ignite a debate on Thatcherite economic policy! However, consideration of the balance between the resources of the helpers and the relationship with the person in need is important. The government is trying to deal with the national economic crisis and faces that tension – helping those in need directly, versus building the economy to maintain resources for those who are then in a position to help others. This is not just a tension for the government though – many churches face similar questions over how to cope with diminished income and depleted reserves; will we do less mission?

A broader concern raised by this is that maybe if we only see this parable as a simple moral story, then it leads us to divide the world into those who have enough and those who do not. One more complex response is to focus on the cultural differences between Israelites and Samaritans, and to see the parable as about broadening the concept of who our neighbour is, and making a point about inclusivity and reconciliation… but this runs into difficulties when the text is read carefully. The lawyer and Jesus agree that for the lawyer to ‘inherit eternal life’ he needs to love his neighbour as himself, and the lawyer asks who counts as this neighbour (vv.27-29). However, after the story, Jesus asks a subtly different question, not about the one who needs help, but about the one doing the helping: ‘Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ (v.36). Is the lawyer being asked to seek situations in which he is the hated outsider, able to bravely take risks for others? Or is he being asked to receive help instead of to offer it?

There is a radically different way of reading the parable in the Christian tradition which sees us as the victim by the roadside, and the Good Samaritan as Christ. This was first fully explored in a Homily by Origen, but was also known of even earlier.[i] This is also the way that Charles Wesley used this text in some of his hymns and in a series of poems unpublished in his lifetime. In this interpretation we all are helpless to save ourselves and Christ is the unlikely source of help – a rejected outsider who against expectation rescues and resources recovery. This is a verse from a hymn addressed to Christ:

Thine Eye observ’d my Pain
Thou Good Samaritan!
Spoil’d I lay and bruis’d by Sin,
Gasp’d my faint, expiring Soul,
Wine and Oil thy Love pour’d in,
Clos’d my Wounds, and made me whole.[ii]

In his very helpful book A Nazareth Manifesto, Samuel Wells uses this allegorical interpretation of the parable to illustrate the difference between his concepts of ‘working for’ those in need and ‘being with’ them. He argues that the power dynamics of ‘working for’ can prevent wealthy Christians from accepting that they require rescuing themselves, and that God may enact that rescue through relationship with people who are more usually understood as being in need. Just as Jesus’ parables challenged the self-understanding of Israel’s leaders, so they also overturn our comfortable privilege. Truly ‘being with’ people in need means accepting them as they are, and affirming that Christ is in them… and that you need Christ. Could this be what Jesus means by ‘Go and do likewise’ (v.37)? As Wells paraphrases it:

‘Go, and continue to see the face of Jesus in the despised and rejected of the world. You are not their benefactor. You are not the answer to their prayer. They are the answer to yours.’[iii]

Origen goes further than Wesley and Wells with the allegory and posits a separate role for the church in the parable as the ‘inn’ – in Greek, pandocheion; literally ‘place that receives all’:

‘This Samaritan ‘bears our sins’ and grieves for us. He carries the half-dead man and brings him to the pandochium – that is the Church, which accepts everyone and denies its help to no-one.’[iv]

With these interpretative resources the parable is closer to providing the help we need. Faced with the dilemma of diminished resources and increasing numbers of people in need, the church should not limit its vision to one-directional charity. The parable calls us to re-imagine our relationships as a community, away from divisive dynamics of ‘in and out’ or ‘have and have-not’, and towards a vision of being a people who are all are in need and all support each other. The only one who can fulfil those needs, often working through those whom the world sees only as worthy of receiving help and not giving it, is the Good Samaritan, Jesus Christ.

[i] Patricia A. Duncan, ‘Reading the Parable of the Good Samaritan with Origen’ in Encounter 79.3 (2019), pp23-31

[ii] Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739). p164 – available here. There is also a whole hymn, ‘Woe is me! What tongue can tell’ on this theme from Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739) and also published as no.108 in A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1780)

[iii] Samuel Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto: Being with God, (2015: Wiley Blackwell, Oxford), p96

[iv] Joseph T. Lienhard, Origen. Homilies on Luke: Fragments on Luke (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1996), p.140

Using the waiting

This is the fifth of our series of articles through the year from Spectrum, each taking a theme from the book of Acts…

by Carrie Seaton.

Paul was a strategist and had decided the best way of spreading the gospel was to campaign in the Roman world’s greatest cities. On arriving in Athens, where he was waiting for Timothy and Silas to join him, he saw how the city already had a thousand years of civilisation and was basking in its former glory and greatness. Becoming a democracy in the 5th Century B.C. it was the home of Plato, Sophocles, Euripides and Socrates, to name but a few. It was the main centre for philosophy, science, literature and art. Although waiting, he was using the time to have a good look around: doing a ‘reccy’ in the market place.

In his book, The Stature of Waiting (D.L.T. 1982), W.H. Vanstone states that the majesty of Jesus was seen most impressively as he waits for three lots of people: his accusers, his taunters, and finally those who crucify him. The ‘glory of God’ is disclosed in this passive waiting and His willingness to be handed over.

As we begin to look ahead towards the easing of the third lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic, we wait for confirmation of tentative unlocking measures. For many it’s still a time of passivity – when others control our lives, when we have things done for us, as we wait for restrictions to be lifted. If we agree with Vanstone, these waiting times are as important as times of action and taking charge.

Yet in contemporary understanding, activity is often valued for its own sake. Those older people who for so long in the last year were told to remain indoors are the very same as those who are normally applauded for ‘keeping active’. There’s an attitude in today’s market place that to be fully human is to be active, even if the activity has no goal.

However, the lockdown has perhaps made us more patient – a virtue! We have learned to wait for Supermarket delivery slots, online purchases to arrive outside our doors, we wait on the phone. Waiting gives us space. According to Luke in Acts 17, it gave Paul time to understand the cultural, religious and philosophical divergence of Athens. Waiting also gives us the space to try and discern where God may be leading us – as individuals and as a church. Many of the live streamed, Zoomed, and printed services of worship have stressed this point.

Jim Wallis, the American liberal theologian writing in the e-magazine Sojourners, said, in December 2019, that Advent was his favourite liturgical season as it comprises of waiting, longing and yearning for Christ incarnate. He asked the reader: how do we wait for Christ, in not just the spiritual sense, but in a globally political sense too?

Waiting is a key experience repeated through the cycle of the church’s liturgical year. At the moment we wait for Easter with the period of Lenten preparation. After Easter we will wait for Pentecost, and this is the period in which the church focuses on reading through the book of Acts. We may remember that the first Jesus Followers felt uncertainty as they waited for God’s plan to unfold. After the Crucifixion they’d been waiting fearfully behind locked doors until they discovered Jesus was alive to them, albeit in a different way. They were to wait for God’s power, in the knowledge that Jesus had promised to be with them in the future that would be different.

Returning to Paul, he didn’t just speak to the Jews in their synagogues or to the religious Gentiles; he came out of the churches into the most public of places to challenge the Athenians with the good news of Jesus and the Resurrection. In verse 19, they ask ‘may we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?’ He makes the ‘unknown God’ ‘known’ by describing the nature of God and declaring God is not confined to human temples.

So as our human temples remain closed, we continue to make God and Jesus known, through growing different guises and grasping newfound opportunities.

For discussion: 

1. How has the waiting in lockdown been a positive experience?

2. How has it enabled you to positively ‘do things differently’?

3. How have you had the opportunity to make God or Jesus ‘known’ through new channels?

A theology of success for faith-based projects

by Paul Bridges.

The consultant at the faith-based project strategic away day wrote on a flipchart the words…. “Why are we here?” Just four simple words but we discovered that there was more than enough to unpack in this phrase to keep us occupied for the whole day. It asked us about our personal interests, about the objectives of the project, and about our relationship to God, all in four simple words.

I have found myself remembering these words recently, both in relation to my work as manager of a Methodist Charity – Huddersfield Mission, and to the churches and projects that I am connected to. We are all tentatively beginning to think about life post-Covid. To express the idea that things will be different we jokingly refer to this process at Huddersfield Mission, as Mission 2.0, like an upgrade to your phone or a computer program.

In developing community projects, or in our case redesigning them, it is vital we ask ourselves, why are we here? Or to put it another way – what are we trying to achieve? It seems obvious that to be clear about what we are trying to do is a good thing, but community projects and especially faith projects often, in my experience, find this to be very difficult.

Having clear objectives is good project management. It helps us to plan and to access funding, and whilst these are worthwhile in themselves, when it comes to faith-based work I want to suggest that there is a more fundamental purpose too.

Having clear objectives for our faith-based projects says something about what we believe God is about, and about how God works in the world. I want to look at the first of these questions a little more – perhaps leaving the second question for the future.

Whether we realise it or not our faith-based projects say something to the world about God, and much of that message will reflect what we think our relationship to God is.

Are we agents of change for God? Are we stewards of the kingdom? Are we pilgrims trying to find a way? Are we faithful followers of Jesus? These are not I suggest, simply synonyms for each other but speak of how we understand what God’s fundamental purpose is. And our own answer to this question will, I suggest, dictate what we see as success in any faith-based project.

To put it deliberately simplistically…

If we see the key purpose of our faith is to share it with others, to bring people to Christ, then we are likely to measure the success of a project by whether it does this. Alternatively, if we see loving one another as the primary purpose, we will see success as the number of people we have been able to help. Or indeed if we see the gospel as offering a radical social and economic alternative, we might measure success in terms of changing social policy for the many.

I once had a conversation with a senior church official, where I explained about all the good things we did at Huddersfield Mission: our community café, our advice and support work, our campaigning and advocacy. After about 20 minutes he asked ‘But what mission work do you do?” We had differing ideas of what God was about, and I suspect we both went away disappointed.

Even if we are clear about what we personally see as success for a project, the reality is that this may not be shared by everyone that is involved, and therein lies the challenge. If we have not agreed on the purpose at the beginning, then we will find it impossible to agree on whether something is successful later on. Sadly, in my experience, this all too often leads to conflict. How many meetings have we been in where a project is discussed and there is confusion about what the project is achieving? Has Messy Church brought new people to church on Sunday? Has the pioneering minister visited Church Members? Did the Summer Mission make a difference?

The truth is, of course, that we have different understandings of our relationship to God, and no single project can fully express the nature of God. However, if we are to be a community of God’s people perhaps we owe it to each other to be clear from the outset what any faith-based project is trying to achieve. Perhaps loving one another, even when we have different theologies, means not setting each other up for disappointment.

Seasonal Stocktaking

by Josie Smith.

Another Monday, sandwiched between St. Valentine and the beginning of Lent.   I still have the first Valentine card I ever received in my early teens.  There was a boy of my own age in our little group, with whom I played cricket, picked blackberries in season, and once or twice went to ‘the pictures’ as we called it in those far-off days – but he was a boy and he was a friend, not a boy-friend.  The card was actually the beginning of the end.  We had never even held hands, let alone kissed, and we soon went our separate ways.  Happily he went on to academic, professional and sporting success, is now a grandfather, and remains for me a warm memory.

St. Valentine is not only the patron saint of lovers, but it is on his day that birds are reputed to begin nest-building in preparation for finding a mate.  Disney has a delightful scene in the film ‘Bambi’ where the little faun observes the birds going a bit mad, ‘twitterpated’ he calls it, and then the other small animals likewise, as he looks around him bemused, watching their antics.    He is determined that it won’t every happen to HIM, and then, inevitably, along comes a little female faun and he goes all ‘twitterpated’ too.  In the Spring a young deer’s fancy, etcetera!

So now let’s feel the Spring in our own step, and look ahead.  

Daylight is appreciably longer, the Spring bulbs are – well – springing, as they always do at this season, and nature is encouraging us to hope again.   Whatever is happening outside your windows at this moment, the earth does go on turning, and it won’t be long before all living things in creation are visibly responding to the strengthening sun.   Last year I came across a lovely poem in Italian by Irene Vella, translated widely on social media, called La primavera non lo sapeva, which said that Spring didn’t know about the pandemic, so just got on and sprung.    This year is going to be the same.    The earth is the Lord’s, eternally, and no virus is going to change that. 

Tomorrow, traditionally, is the day for eating pancakes (I like mine with a little sugar and lemon juice) before the start of the Lenten Fast beginning on Ash Wednesday.   My father once unknowingly hurt one of his staff by pointing out gently that she had a smudge on her face.    She was a devout Roman Catholic and had come to work straight from the ashing ceremony, and she burst into tears.   My father didn’t know what he had done.   The church we attended as a family – a Methodist mission church in a big city – did not use many of the practices of other denominations.   Indeed, my grandmother used to tell the story of a Spring wedding where the organ was not available for use, and it was explained that it was ‘because it’s LENT’.    Someone among the guests asked in all seriousness ‘Who’s borrowed it?’  

We have been living with the pandemic for over a year now, and with the Christian faith for a couple of millennia, and perhaps it’s time for a review of the former in the light of the latter.   

We have ‘given up’ a great deal in the last year since Covid-19 reached this country, notably the freedom to leave our homes, mix with our friends, hug those we love, attend our church, follow our pursuits, eat together, go on holiday.  Lent is a penitential season.   Not many people fast in these days  (we have much to learn from Islam about that particular discipline) but there is still a residual practice of ‘giving something up for Lent’. 

Many people believe now that rather than giving up things for Lent we might take on things, give more to charity, do more for our neighbours, be more loving.   

There have been all sorts of positives around the pandemic.    We have seen self-denial among people who put their own safety, even lives, at risk to help others.   We have seen people wrestling with unfamiliar technology to keep in touch on line with those they can’t physically meet.   We have seen people raising money in imaginative ways for good causes.   Even simple things like shopping for infirm neighbours, making regular ‘phone calls to housebound people, and supporting local food banks, have all brought out the sheer goodness of people in the face of adversity.    

And after Lent will come the glorious eternal truth that is Easter!

How can we keep from singing?

by Roger Walton.

Congregational singing has been one of the casualties of the pandemic. I am not much of singer myself, but I have, throughout my life, found moments of deep worship when caught up in a song of praise with others.  Like many, for the months of lockdown, I have been unable to experience this musical gateway to the divine.  It is fine to sing along with a group or choir in a YouTube hymn, or to encounter the extraordinary quality of people combining their musical talents from their own homes and making powerful creative art with music and visual images.  I am thankful for both, but I miss the immediacy of other voices in the room.  This absence was especially painful when we met in Church for a time but were not allowed to sing.  We listened to the organ or piano and ‘sang in our heads’ but it was not the same, and, if anything, intensified the sense of loss.

On the upside, my daily attempts to sing the set hymn for the day in my morning devotions allow me to dwell with the words, for I regularly find myself reading the lyrics through slowly, prayerfully before and after my lone singing.  John Wesley would have approved, I think, for his last instruction in his Directions for Singing 1761 (yes, he told us how to do it) is:

Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually;

When I first ventured into a service in a Methodist Church as a teenager, I saw people quietly reading their hymnbooks before the worship.  These books, I later discovered, were, for these devout souls, their prayer manuals, which they used at home and brought to worship, and through which they learned their theology and deepened their communion with God.

Of course, there must be a relationship between singing and pondering the words. For those Methodists of my teenage years, singing and praying their hymnbooks fed each other. 

Perhaps for many Christians, the truth of being part of the body of Christ is first felt when the odd collection of voices in a Christian gathering join in singing. There is a momentary unity that is not only enjoyable but a means of grace and a foretaste of heavenly worship as envisaged in the Book of Revelation, where diversity is both celebrated and transcended at the same time. The eyes, ears, hands and feet of I Corinthians 12 can no longer see themselves as separate or vying for importance but find their place and purpose in Christ, galvanised towards a life of love, as they are bonded together in singing. However fleeting, this is a profound experience.

Music of many kinds can lift the heart but singing the truth about God, harmonising melody and metanarrative, contains a special nurturing power.  Colossians 3.16 urges Christians to enter a spiritual rhythm.  It involves dwelling with the word of Christ, teaching and admonishing one another, and expressing our gratitude through psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.  Growing in the body of Christ, it suggests, requires mind, heart and voice.

Many are thinking about what Church will look like after Covid.  Like the Exile, it has been a deeply creative period where we have discovered new ways of worship, new (ecologically friendly) patterns of doing business, and new communities that want to dip their toes into the spiritual waters of church worship from the safe distance of the internet.  At the same time, we are rediscovering Christian practices, like daily prayer, that for some had been lost in recent years.   We will need to respond to all these various prompting and not simply fall back into what was familiar before.  Within this, we might consider the place and role of congregational singing.  I hope it may have also a renewed place, not simply to fill in gaps between other parts of the liturgy, nor to do it because we always have. Wesley’s Directions for singing recognised that it has significant dangers, if not pursued with the right intent and object.  Rather through careful, prayerful and creative exploration, we may rediscover the deep joy of being connected and nurtured in the body of Christ through corporate singing. 

What is your legacy?

by Carolyn Lawrence.

Anyone who has spent any time with me will have heard me regaling you with stories of my three grandchildren! Becoming a grandparent has been a wonderful and profound experience and has made me reflect on the kind of world in which they will be growing up and the legacy they will inherit.

I wonder what kind of legacy you want to leave for the children amongst your own family and friends and the young people connected with our churches?  Does it involve just leaving them some money in your will or a functioning (and warm!) church building or does it go deeper than that?   Whether we intend to or not, we will still leave a legacy of some kind to the next generation. 

I believe that the most valuable legacy we can pass to our children, is that of faith in Christ.  Even though each of us must make their own decision to follow Jesus, there are some things we can do to help create an atmosphere where faith can grow and thrive. 

In Psalm 78 we read the following:

‘My people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth with a parable; I will utter hidden things, things from of old— things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their descendants; we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done.
He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel,
which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children,  so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children.  Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.’ 

What can we do to leave a spiritual legacy and encourage a relationship with God in the lives of the children and young people that we know, as well as those young in the faith in our churches?  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Look at your own life – the best way to prove to our children the value and relevance of faith in Christ is to be a living demonstration of that truth. Children learn more from watching us than they do from what we say.  If our children see that our walk doesn’t match our talk, behaving and speaking in one way at church but living and speaking differently at home or work, they will see through our lack of integrity and perceive that Jesus doesn’t make a real difference in our lives.  Try to live out your faith in an authentic and relevant way. Let them see that even though you make mistakes and life gets messy that you can overcome these difficulties with God’s help.
  2. Share God’s Word – from a young age we can teach our children to know and love God’s Word in an intentional way.  The first place a child learns about God’s word is in the home with their families. Let them see you reading and studying God’s word regularly, have family devotions, read Bible stories at bedtime, play worship music, let them see the relevance of God’s word in your everyday lives and they will grow to love God’s word and value its importance.
  3. Pray with them – don’t just turn prayer into a shopping list at bedtime but ask them what they would like God’s help with and pray together about those things.  Then talk together about the answers to prayer as they come.
  4. Value the church – I know of parents whose children have heard them speaking critically about people at the church and their church leadership and then been surprised when they have grown up not wanting anything to do with the church.   I have also known parents who have allowed other priorities to take the place of worship such as sports and other leisure activities and then wondered why worship is not a priority to them as they grow older and been disappointed that their grown up children don’t remain in the church. Make sure your children understand that the church, though far from perfect and made of all kinds of people, are the family of God and that they appreciate the importance of meeting together in worship and fellowship – even if it is on Zoom!  
  5. Be outward looking – allow your children to see you being generous with your time, money, home and resources.  Encourage them to value all people and to treat people with compassion, kindness and mercy just as Jesus did.  Find ways of helping others and try to engage with your community as well as teaching them to have a global view of the world.
  6. Look to the future – teach the children that God has a good plan for their lives and encourage them to seek God’s will for their future. Help them so see that the goal of life for a Christian is to walk in obedience to the Lord rather than be dragged along by the goals that the world says is important. 

Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers and friends: you will impact the next generation. What kind of legacy will you leave?