O Worship the King, all glorious above

by Sheryl Anderson.

I recently travelled to Ghana. I went to represent the Methodist Church in Britain at the Conference of the Methodist Church in Ghana. The opening of the Conference was an unforgettable experience; an event both entirely Methodist and thoroughly Ghanaian, which lasted nearly five hours. One of the most moving parts of the service occurred when the various groups and organisations within the life of the Church processed into Sekondi Methodist Cathedral, singing Wesley hymns, and offering gifts to give thanks to God. The familiarity of the worship demonstrated the Ghanaian Church’s roots as an ‘Overseas District’ of British Methodism. In contrast, the procession of the traditional chiefs exhibited a character and decorum most emphatically Ghanaian. Wearing magnificent robes and much gold, accompanied by a retinue of courtiers, the chiefs brought a quality of dignity and nobility to the proceedings. Speaking through an advocate – no chief acting in an official capacity talks directly to the assembled company, but always through a spokesperson – each one brought greetings and gifts. They were treated with deep respect and honour, as befits kings. The Conference was truly graced by their presence.

As I watched and listened I realised I was in the presence of customs, conduct and attitudes that are as ancient as human society. I was reminded of the behaviour of the Old Testament kings, whose royal courts comprised family members, officers, advisors, soldiers, servants and hangers on. Clearly, the writers of the Old Testament observed the way important men exercised power and authority, and decided that God, who is even more important and has the most power and authority, must behave like this too.

Consequently, we find descriptions of God’s court, and of God scheming and plotting to affect the affairs of humans.[i]

At the beginning of the Book of Job (one of the lectionary readings set for this time of the year) we see a similar scene portrayed. The heavenly court gathers; present are all sorts of beings and functionaries who come together to wait on the pleasure of God, the heavenly king. These courtiers include a specific individual, a character named in many translations as Satan.

I am not a Hebrew scholar, but the inference in the way the Hebrew is translated seems misleading.  The actual word is ha-satan, and it means, the satan.  In most English translations of the Bible it is written with a capital letter, so it appears that this is a being whose name is Satan.  However, this an interpretation of the text.  It is possible to understand the term as a role, an occupation.  Just as in the court of an ancient Middle Eastern king there were various roles that must be fulfilled, so the writer imagines it is the same in the heavenly court. The Hebrew word satan means something like, accuser, or prosecutor.  Therefore, another way of understanding the text is that there is a Public Prosecutor in God’s heavenly court, whose task is to present the evidence against those who break God’s Law. This interpretation helps to make sense of what happens next, for it seems that God and the Public Prosecutor have a contest, the object of which is Job’s faithfulness. The challenge is to discover whether Job is faithful because he has led a fortunate life and never endured any suffering, or because he truly loves and respects God. As the Prosecutor says in Job 1:9, ‘Does Job fear God for nothing?’

The Book of Job identifies a common misunderstanding about God. Human flourishing is often profoundly thwarted by circumstances.  We can explain this by imagining that the universe is engaging in a cruel game with us. For believers, it is easy to assume that the opponent is God – a capricious player, seeking to manipulate us by trickery and cunning. This misconception of God leads to the following logic: if I can guess the correct moves I can win the game and get what I want. Conversely, if I do not get what I want, or it is taken away, I must have somehow failed to play correctly.

Christianity offers a counter to this false construction. Surely, the mark of a loving God is that God would be born among us, live among us, suffer death as we do, and, by so doing, enable us to encounter the beauty of love, in that love can continue to grow, withstand and overcome even the most evil acts. In other words, God became what we are so that we might become what God is.

 

[i] See for example 1Kings 22:19-23. It is important to notice that this passage tells us more about the behaviour of kings in the ancient Middle East than it does about God.

Speaking freely about Free Speech

by Ermal Kirby.

I have a confession to make: I’ve struggled for a long time with the notion of free speech. There; I have said it! And now I will duck down behind my defensive wall, while the missiles are fired, and seek to explain this unorthodox view.

My unease is due partly to an awareness that speech is never truly unfettered. (For example, the law forbids utterances that incite racial hatred or violence.) More fundamentally, I see ‘free speech’ being widely presented as one of the foundational values of civilised, democratic societies – some people would want to regard it as an ‘absolute’ value – and I find myself wondering why this particular freedom should have been accorded this status, privileging it above other values.

While I believe that there are ‘absolutes’ in our world, I find that in practice we run the risk of leading distorted and unreal lives if we begin to treat any value or principle, apart from one, as absolute. We acknowledge the fundamental role of gravity in our universe, but we do not treat it as ‘absolute’, as we have discovered that it can be countered by other forces and principles that are equally valid. We take to the air and fly, seemingly unconstrained by gravity, while never forgetting its power, or the devastating consequences if countervailing forces fail.

So ‘free speech’ has to be qualified; and the necessary countervailing force (which I would argue is universally applicable) is found in the formula, “Speaking the truth in love.” It is a formula that is found in the Christian Scriptures (Ephesians 4:15), but there is no proprietorial right to be asserted, and the formula should not be dismissed solely on the grounds of its source.

According to this formula, speech that is truly free has the effect of liberating the speaker and the hearers, setting them free from constraints that make them less able to experience the wholeness and well-being that is their rightful inheritance as human beings. Christians believe that ‘Love’ (unconquerable benevolence) is the foundational principle of life; it is absolute. Love should be, therefore, both the motivation and the goal of ‘free speech’.

Comedians and politicians, columnists and poets, with all the rest of humanity, have the responsibility of ensuring that their speech is freeing as well as free. One quick way of testing whether speech meets these criteria would be to ask, If my audience was made up primarily of the people about whom I am speaking, would it be for them a liberating, life-giving experience, and would I be at ease sharing a meal with them after making these comments?

Boris Johnson, the former Foreign Secretary, is an educated man, and an astute politician. We can believe, therefore, that he was fully aware of the effect that his writing about the burqa in his column in the Daily Telegraph in August would have on his readers, and that he could anticipate the intense debate that would follow.

The arguments became so widespread, and so heated, that an investigation had to be launched, to determine whether or not Mr Johnson breached the Code of Conduct of the Conservative Party. I want to suggest that the test that needs to be applied is not the Code of a political party, but rather, the test of common humanity. What might be the adjudication if the charge were seen to be, in essence, one of bullying – using one’s power, influence or authority to intimidate, humiliate, denigrate, or deny rights to someone who does not have the same influence or power?

‘Confession’, admitting and turning away from fault in the context of worship, is practised less and less in our world. How refreshing, how liberating, it would be to hear an admission from Mr Johnson that on this occasion he had ‘missed the mark’ – or perhaps, given that Classics was his field of study, he might prefer to render it in Latin: ‘Mea culpa; mea maxima culpa.’ And then he would find that he is in the company of many others who recognise that they too keep failing as they try to learn what it means to ‘speak the truth in love’ – but we don’t give up, because we believe that love is the road that leads to Truth, absolute and whole.

How do you get through the day?

by Stephen Lindridge.

There’s a great poem called the ‘To Do List’ by Simon Armitage which combines an anxiety about the pace of contemporary life, with Simon’s obsession with the late Donald Campbell and his attempt to break speed records. The line ‘Polyfilla all surface cracking to Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah’ particularly makes me grin from ear to ear.

At times I wonder if many of us with significant levels of responsibility all think we’re indestructible in the face of mountains of things ‘to do’. So we offer a grit and determination of mind and find ourselves uttering lines like, “Well it’s just got to get done!” But then we read something like the above line of the poem, it reminds us how utterly ridiculous our false expectation of ourselves is.

The rhythm of discipleship Jesus invites us into, does hold demanding challenge but it also holds life in all its fullness. Does it seem that we in the Western world particularly, have a difficulty in accepting and practicing the latter?

The recent conversations held by the TUC advocated a four-day week that speculated a better productive workforce. I found myself grumbling at the TV and stating an eight-day week would be better. I might stand a chance to reduce the ‘to-do’ list in a more sensible manner than working all the hours available.

So I find myself asking: does my theology of work too often supersede my theology of true discipleship. Am I deluded to think if I work as hard as possible, the Kingdom will grow? If all the challenging problems are faced, delegated, mapped and managed, the world will be a better place…won’t it?

One senior figure in a learning institution, shared their revelation that this intensity of work was just ‘how it is’ for anyone in a responsible role. We need to accept that this is the nature of such work; long hours (70-100hpw) ever-increasing problems, with less and less resources. We should just suck it up and get on with it. After all what else can we do? Moaning about it won’t change things, it only makes one more embittered about it.

Any institution in the face of great change is bound to require high occupancy of concentration and attention while it transforms; is that acceptable? How many more people are shamed with labels such as ‘well they just couldn’t cut it’, rather than realising the job was more than three people’s work once-upon-a-time?

These may be generalised thoughts around the world of work, whether paid or voluntary, but at the heart of our discipleship in following Jesus, I know I am invited to depend upon God. No matter what the challenge, big or small, realistic or seemingly impossible, I find myself seeking God’s help in prayer.

This may not alleviate the problem or the impossibility of which of the priorities must be decided upon first but it does bring me a greater sense of peace in the challenges before me. This may not change the questions we ought to put to the economical facets of greed, oppression or inequality but into today’s to-do list, Christ walks with me. My delusions are exposed; my realistic goals find clarity and life gains perspective, thankfulness and even joy!

Welcoming together

by Jonathan Pye.

Because September marks the beginning of the Connexional Year, it is often a month of welcome services for those starting new appointments in the life of the Church. Such ‘welcomes’ are times of both anticipation and greeting. Our modern English word ‘welcome’ derives from a combination of two Old English words – “wil-”, indicating desire or pleasure, and “cuman”, meaning come. So, “wilcuman’’ originally meant “it is good you have come,” and ‘welcome’ still retains this same basic meaning.

‘Welcome’ is, however, much more than simply a ‘social’ greeting. It is something deeply theological, rooted in the traditions of both Old and New Testaments, and often linked to ‘hospitality’ – open-ness to the stranger, the new-comer, those who come among us. In the Old Testament, we read of Abraham greeting three strangers as he sits under the oak trees at Mamre, setting before them a veritable feast, not just water and bread, but a calf and curds and milk. As Megan Warner in the recent book, Who is my Neighbour?, reminds us:  ‘Abraham…plays his role according to the hospitality code of his day, but he plays it lavishly.’[1] In response, Abraham’s guests also play their role lavishly, and in the exchange of gifts comes a response so extravagant that Sarah laughs at the audacity of it. That is the quality of welcome we are invited to make to others – one that is lavish in its generosity, that goes beyond formality to become open-handed and open-hearted, and invites open-handedness and open-heartedness in response.

In the New Testament, Abraham’s story is echoed in the Letter to the Hebrews, where the list of hospitable virtues in Chapter 13 begins with the words, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it…[2] Those virtues, with the ministry of hospitable welcome prominent among them, echo through the history of the Church. They over-rode, for example, the rigours that those early pioneers of monastic life, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, imposed on their own bodies, so that however frugal their own diet, there was always food to set before guests; however committed to silence and solitude, they remained open and welcoming to strangers and to engagement with them. This, in turn, influenced Western monasticism, and in St Benedict’s 6th century ‘rule’ for monastic life, hospitality, founded on the belief that in welcoming others we are welcoming Christ, lay at its heart. In his book, Colonies of Heaven[3] Ian Bradley helps us to listen to the distinct message of the early Celtic and Anglo-Saxon communities and to apply their ethos to contemporary Church life. In contrast to today’s individualism, Bradley points us to their communal life and how it produced a model of ministry that was collegiate and communitarian rather than individualistic, in which a radical hospitality and ministry of welcome became the under-pinning, distinctive feature of their life together.

In an age when we are often tempted to forget that, ‘the Church is an essentially provisional community[4] we too frequently turn our gaze inward to maintaining the institution rather than outward to welcoming the angels whom God sends among us, in whom we encounter the Christ who walks with us on our shared pilgrimage. The revival of pilgrimage, as Bradley notes, has been one of the striking movements of recent years. Whether physically journeying to places like Iona or Lindisfarne or, further afield, to the old pilgrim routes of medieval Europe, or much more locally where ‘pilgrimage’ may be expressed though ‘prayer walks’ around a local community or Circuit, or even walking quietly and devotionally around a labyrinth, however expressed pilgrimage is always essentially a communal venture carrying the connotation of walking with others. It is this commitment to ‘walk with others’ that lies at the heart of welcome, for genuine welcome consists not of words alone but in the commitment to companionship and to working out a more communal form of ministry.

At a time when the demands on the currently diminishing number of ordained ministers are all too clear and the risk of isolation, burnout, stress and sickness are ever present, and when many in secular employment are facing similar stresses, that sense of mutuality of ministry in which we walk alongside and minister to each other in the Body of Christ is perhaps more important than it has ever been. This time of year is therefore both an opportunity to say to others, ‘We are glad that you are here’ and to show the generous hospitality that expresses welcome as the sign of our commitment to journey together.

 

[1] Carter R, Wells, S (eds.) (2018) Who is my Neighbour? The Global and Personal Challenge. London: SPCK, p. 125.

[2] Hebrews 13:2

[3] Bradley, I. (2000) Colonies of Heaven: Celtic Models for Today’s Church. London: DLT.

[4] Ibid., p. 235

The Grace of God in the Community of the Church

by Tom Greggs.

I find myself this month at the very end of the first part of a fifteen year project; it has in fact taken me seven years to get this far. More accurately, I’ve been working actively on this part of the project for seven years, but thinking, preaching and writing about related issues for much longer. Seven years ago, I decided to embark on a three volume Ecclesiology (a theological account of the church). I am just putting the final editorial touches on the first of these three volumes which should be finally published in about a year’s time. Somewhat to my surprise (shock perhaps!), the volume is very long—280,000 words just for volume one!

But after all that repetitive strain injury from typing, I find that there is one thing above all else that time and time again I want still to say and it is this: the grace of God’s work of salvation involves not only putting humanity right with Godself but also (and equally through the grace of God) God’s work of salvation seeks to put us right with one another.

The origins of sin arise from the human breaking a relationship with God through disobedience: in the fall story, Adam and Eve disobey the one command God gives to them in the context of God’s superabundant grace in creation; they eat the forbidden fruit. But the immediate consequence and effect of this act, even before the description of the rupture in the relationship with God that follows, is a pronounced awareness of individualism as a primary identity. This individualism is accompanied by a sense of the strangeness of the other, a relationship of fear towards the other and actions of blame of the other in comparison to the self: sin causes the heart to turn in on itself, and this turning in on itself alters not only the relationship with God but also other humans.

Sin is the prioritisation of the self, one might say, over the divine and created others. Having eaten the fruit, the man and woman understand themselves to be naked in front of each other, and cover themselves, aware and ashamed of their alterity and difference (Gen. 3:7).  Furthermore, having hidden himself from God because of his nakedness when God walks in the garden, Adam immediately seeks to divert blame away from himself and toward Eve, and indeed through this to God: the fault (according to him) cannot be his, and self-preservation of his individual self over and against the other (even the most intimate other) transcends unity and co-humanity and relationship to God who gives all things. The woman then also redirects blame away from herself toward the serpent (Gen. 3:13). Sin alters the relationship that exists not only between the human and God, but also between human beings themselves. Because the human no longer seeks to be orientated on God and to share in the good gifts of God’s grace, the human shifts the focus of her orientation onto herself.

To overcome this situation of sin and its effects requires divine salvific grace. So often, we think God sets us right with Godself, and we are the ones in creation who work on the human level to sort things in our own human strength. But that is a form of ecclesial Pelagianism. Humans in our lapsed condition always tend, not towards the overflowing love of God towards all that which is not God, but towards the self-preservation of the individual in the heart turned in on itself. It is an act of the grace of God, indeed a participating in that grace for the human to be able to be orientated towards another—both God and other human beings.

Even in the church’s simul iustus et peccator (and often frustrating!) state, we need to remember that through God’s grace, we are given community in the church and given the other in creation. And we should seek to form community not based on utility or on attraction, but on the very givenness of the other person as a fellow member of the body of Christ. We should seek to form community because in that we share and move in the movements of God’s grace, being orientated towards the other in creation. In community, our hearts are turned outwards to the other who is also beloved of God, and we learn what the movements of grace that God has shown us are. And for this to take place, for us to become the church as an anticipation of the Kingdom, we must pray ever and again for the grace of God to set right our relations with one another.

Let us give thanks for God’s grace in giving us communion and ask and rely ever more on God to help us to move within the movements of God’s own grace in the life of the community of the church. Even after 280,000 words, this is still a wonderful thing to meditate upon: the other through grace becomes for me a locus of God’s salvation as God puts right my relationship with them alongside my relationship with God through the Holy Spirit’s work of incorporating me actively into Christ’s body.

Hope in God’s Future

by Michaela Youngson.

It’s overwhelming – the constant account of gloom and despair that is coming at us daily from the news, whether from traditional sources or social media. Famine, war, Brexit, Trump, earthquakes and the displacement of 68 million people worldwide. We find ourselves caught up in a litany of lament which leads easily to despair. This can induce a number of reactions – apathy, ‘What’s the point, it’s all too big and I can’t solve it all, so I won’t try.’ Anger, ‘Why should I bother, I didn’t make the mess, leave it to those who did!’ Despair can lead to depression and a burden of guilt at our own part in systems that oppress the vulnerable and continue to harm children, women and men.

Lament, as Jill Baker helped us to see last year, is an appropriate response to the complexity and grief within us and around us. It is a ‘from my lips to God’s ears’ response – a recognition of our own part in the chaos and a plea to God to hear our cry and to notice the cries of those who are suffering.

The Prophet Jeremiah had every right to lament, we read in Chapter 32 that he was hemmed in on all sides. He had made it clear to Zedekiah, the King of Judah, that his and his people’s days in the promised land of milk and honey were numbered. The Babylonian King was poised to invade, to trash the temple and all the wealth of Judah and would take the leaders and educated of the land into exile. This infuriated Zedekiah and the Prophet was thrown in prison in the palace guardroom. Jeremiah did not despair however, he demonstrated hope in a future for his people, even if it was not a future he would share in. He bought a piece of land and had the deeds placed in an earthenware jar, so that they would be safe for generations to come. This was an act of confidence to offer hope to the King and to the people, that in the end, they (or their descendants) would return to the land they had been granted by God.

In the midst of the inevitability of climate change and our increasing understanding of the effects that human beings are having on God’s creation, it is easy to remain in a posture of lament. True lament allows us time to grieve and to acknowledge just how grim things are but it is also a space to listen to God’s words – sometimes given clearly, as they were to Jeremiah, often whispered amidst the cacophony of a chaotic world. God continues to offer us hope and to counsel us against our own worst habits. If we see our world, or even the part of the world that we live in, as a land of milk and honey, then we need to look carefully. We have milked the cow dry and even the bees that make the honey are in trouble. We have filled the seas with plastics, mountains with nuclear waste, the air with pollutants and the fields with pesticides and landfill sites.

As we begin a new Methodist Year, it’s natural to wonder what lies in store for our Church and our world. Like Jeremiah, we might find ourselves on the wrong side of those in power for asking difficult questions and pointing out unpalatable truths. Methodists have an honourable tradition of raising our voices against injustice and in calling for good stewardship of God’s earth. The alternative is to stay silent in the face of the oppression of children, women and men in all sorts of desperate situations. The alternative is to turn our backs when the politics of hate is preached instead of the ethics of love. The alternative is to ignore the consequences of our own use of the world’s resources. We are called to respond to God’s message of hope and the demands of the Gospel, the challenge is to choose where to focus our prayers and our actions in a way that honours God and demonstrates love to our neighbours.

What would be an equivalent act to that of Jeremiah’s purchase of the land? What might we do to demonstrate our hope in God’s future? 1,000 churches have now signed up to be Eco-Churches, taking practical steps to reduce the harmful impact that our activities can have on creation. To choose to be good stewards is an act of hope – and we can do that in our personal lives as well. Despair says, “I’m too small to make a difference.” Hope says, “How can I play my part, along with others, to make a change?” I wonder too if there might be ways of ‘reclaiming the land’ – by working with agencies such as Christian Aid, working to lobby governments and to work with the United nations to prevent the forced removal of indigenous people from land that is stripped for palm oil, or is flooded because of dam construction. We might ‘reclaim the land’ by supporting All We Can in their work with refugees – those, like the people of Judah, no longer able to live in the land that was their home. What act of hope in God’s future might any of us take, moving us from lament, through confession, to an active confidence that God is with us in our efforts for a more just and sustainable world?

Resources:

‘Hope in God’s Future’ can be downloaded here:

https://www.methodist.org.uk/media/3201/higf-report-and-study-guide-0514.pdf

 

For details of how to sign up as an Eco Church:

https://ecochurch.arocha.org.uk

 

Christian Aid’s Campaign on Climate Change – The Big Shift Global:

https://www.christianaid.org.uk/campaigns/climate-change/the-big-shift-global

 

Christian Aid’s Work with Displaced People: – Uprooted – Overlooked

https://www.christianaid.org.uk/campaigns/uprooted-overlooked

 

All We Can’s Resources supporting their work with refugees:

https://allwecan.org.uk/resources/fundraising-packs/refugees-to-all-the-people-we-can/

 

The silk road to reconciliation

by Christopher Collins.

Take a fine Indian silk scarf in your hand. Feel its smooth texture and marvel at the skill of the weaver. Hold it and let me take you on a deepening journey of reconciliation through the Punjab. Travel with me and my fellow pilgrims on our peace pilgrimage.[i]

And let me tell you about our time in the Jallianwala Bagh memorial garden for the massacre of Sikh pro-independence protesters at the hands of the British Army in 1919. Imagine how awkward we felt when a Sikh man drew alongside and asked us where we were from. His response was only words of welcome.

Let me tell about a chance meeting with a Sikh couple in a hotel lift. We talked about being Christians on a pilgrimage and as they got out of the lift they cheerfully said, “well there’s one God after all”.

Let me tell about the meeting at the Golden Temple with Akal Takht Jathedar Giani Gurbachan Singh (the leader of the Sikhs at the Golden Temple). We asked him “what is one thing we should do to bring about peace”. After a moment of consideration, he replied, “in my view, we should recognise there is only one God”

These conversations were especially poignant in the year of the 70th anniversary of the partition of India when a relatively arbitrary line was drawn on a map to divide a people who didn’t realise they needed to be separated. Villages that once lived harmoniously, took against each other in acts of sectarianism.

This arbitrary line made me think about the borders we might draw in all sorts of contexts. The carefully guarded borders between religions where our different texts and experiences of the divine become our guarded borders. The lines between us and all who we dare call “other”.

What unites all such borders is our desire to dominate and to be better which is a trait we perpetuate with alarming frequency.

But, the three conversations pointed me beyond the signs of division to a deeper understanding by giving me a glimpse into what we can do to overcome division.

Firstly, there was forgiveness. In its truest sense, forgiveness is an act of our will that determines that a past wrong will not define and confine our future. It would have been easy for the gentleman in Jallianwala Bagh to see us as a threat – but instead there was a welcome. The past was not going to define our present or future relationship and a border was overcome.

Secondly, the call to see God as one across different faiths unites us beyond borders. It comes down to letting down our ego to honour divine truth in others and learning to live together without trying to outdo each other.

So back to the scarf. It’s made up of thousands of individual strands woven together. Each is unique and exists in its own right, but it only becomes a scarf when it is woven together with other individual strands. And then they become something much more useful. And each strand ceases to be one on its own. As we wrap the scarf around our neck, we can bend and mould the blanket and each fibre moves with the others to maintain the form of the scarf. No strand takes precedence. The boundary between each strand is blurred and it’s not important what each strand is on its own but what it becomes together.

The silk scarf is a metaphor for reconciliation. We find deep reconciliation when we blur our boundaries and discover that we are all made in the image of God and we can be a better people when we see God in the other: the familiar, the stranger, and the refugee.

The way to blur our boundaries is by following the way of Jesus – the sacrificial love that led him to the cross as the expression of God’s for the world. The love that people of faith are called to follow. For the gospel according to John tells us that Jesus is the way.

As Anna Briggs puts it in her hymn “You call us out to praise you”:

For changing hues and textures
new patterns, still you search
to weave your seamless garment
the fabric of your church
our tattered faith you cherish
reclaim from wear and moth
we praise your name who twine us
the weaver and the cloth.

Reconciliation is like being woven together to find new patterns hues and textures that allow life to come in all it’s glory and fullness.

 

[i] Christopher was travelling in an ecumenical group of sixteen pilgrims on a “Pilgrimage to India: Christian Witness as a Minority Witness” led by Rev’d Dr Inderjit Bhogal.