Keeping the Feast

by Sandra Brower.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Powerful Love

by Steve Wild.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilderness Experiences

by Will Fletcher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Matthew 4:1-11

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

Budgets and the kingdom

by Stephen Wigley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flowers of love

by Sue Culver.

Having just moved to a new appointment, I have spent much of my time since September trying to get to know my local community a little better.  I have walked and talked and walked a bit more, dropped in at all the local shops and made myself known, blessing the staff along the way with jelly babies; sampled the cakes on offer in the village cafes, (much to the disappointment of my slimming class leader) and had a pint in all the pubs.  I’ve visited all the local schools (ello miss…you’re the new vicar aren’t ya…a’seen ya on Sunday!) and generally pottered about on the canal towpath with a devastatingly handsome Golden Retriever pup tagging along behind me.  It’s a wonderful life trying to get to know people and to make yourself known.

It struck me, as I tried to suss out all the relationships and not put my foot in it by treading across the invisible boundaries of unspoken rules – which apparently can only be realised by imbibing village culture over a number of years, at least 60 apparently  – that the fount of all knowledge and wisdom about the people in my new community was the village florist.  I discovered that the florist knows who has had a baby, who has had a birthday, who has had something to celebrate, who is having a wedding, a funeral,  or who needs cheering up; who is in the dog house, who is apologising and who is being apologised too.  The florist knows exactly what is going on in the village simply by virtue of the fact that her skills are much in demand. Further,  she is aware of the response to receiving those flowers when she delivers them so she is an a unique position to witness both sides of these particular transactions.  I myself was known to the florist even before I stepped foot into the village because she had been asked to prepare and deliver flowers to welcome me and they were there waiting for me on the windowsill of my new manse on the  day I moved in.

Knowing God, or to speak of the nature of God is central to Christian theology no matter what our passionately held theological position might be.  It shapes our response to the gospel and how we might enact the imperatives we find within it.  The other side of the coin as it were, is to be known by God.  We desire to know God more deeply and intimately as we mature in our Christian discipleship.   At the same time, we know that we are intimately known by God.  The omniscience of God, that is to say God’s knowledge of all things, is most profoundly expressed in that deep knowledge of our ways, our thoughts, the secrets of our hearts, our intentions.  The Psalmist tells us in Psalm 139 that we are known even before we know ourselves; we are searched and known so completely that nothing can be hidden, nor can we hide, and such is the depth of this knowledge, we were known even before we were formed.  We are known by God, even before we were formed and to be known is to be loved because God is love.  Therefore it follows that as we try to know others and let ourselves be known to others, we are expressing something of God in that endeavour, in that exchange, in that encounter.

‘This is Love’ wrote John, ‘Not that we loved God, but that he loved us…since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another’ (1 John 4:10-11)  and, herein, lies a key gospel imperative, of loving the other, of being God in that place of encounter and striving to develop knowledge (knowing) that is as deep as it is wide; of knowing, even before it is most obvious, the potential in the communities we serve. It has been said that trying to define community is like trying to build a brick wall around fog, but what is being reached for is a knowing or knowledge that can inform the building of the ‘new community’, which bears witness to the coming of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of love characterized by justice, mercy and peace and where all may know as they are known, where all may love and be loved.

The florist knows her trade and the community well and they get to know her very quickly when they come to buy flowers.  Working amongst those flowers in such a pastorally sensitive role seems to give her an aura of calm and gentleness, and it seems to me that the ‘garden’ in which she works has just as much to do with love and calling as with commercial enterprise; and so I pay tribute to Saint Dorethea, the patron saint of florists and thank God for the celestial flowers she was said to grow.

Humble Believer – being a disciple in an increasingly diverse world

by Bruce Thompson.

I want to draw some threads from the encounter Jesus had with the Woman at the Well (John 4.5-42):

Firstly the fact that Jesus is well outside what would be considered the norm by his own community.

Jesus is a Jew; for those Christians who think otherwise get over it, he was a Jew.  She, the woman, is a Samaritan.

We need to appreciate the significance of these facts.  The Samaritan community claimed to have been the descendants of the tribe of Ephraim but had evolved during the Assyrian occupation while Israel was in exile in Babylon.  On return from exile a dispute arose regarding the rebuilding of the Temple.

Samaritans and Jews thereafter remained at loggerheads with two competing sites for the worship of God.  The Samaritans had built a Temple on Mt Gerizim while Mount Moriah in Jerusalem remained the Temple site for the returning Jews.

When the disciples returned to Jesus at the well they are said to be astonished that he had been talking to this woman.

But the message Jesus seeks to convey is that no one should be seen to be beyond our attention and care.

As Christian disciples we should not limit our sphere of activity to ‘our own’, in ministry we should not exclude those outside that tradition.

The second thread I wish to draw from this passage is that the encounter includes a dialogue not a monologue.

The woman gives as good as she gets.

According to the one who recorded the conversation the woman might later acknowledge that Jesus could be the Messiah, but I can’t overlook the fact that the woman is ministering to Jesus every bit as much as he is to her.

Jesus, you see, is thirsty.  But he cannot quench his thirst for he has no bucket.

Along comes the woman; a woman who apparently no self-respecting man from his tradition should be conversing with.  But she has a bucket and she is prepared to draw water.

The only chance Jesus has of his physical need being met is by asking her to give him a drink.  She, like the disciples later, is astonished that he should ask her.

I cannot count the number of times over the course of my ministry that I have gone to visit someone and instead of me ministering to them have found them to be ministering to me.

The terminally-ill woman who, on my very first visit to a hospice as a 27-year old, fresh out of college, wet-behind-the-ears minister, seemed more concerned about how my wife Karen and I were settling in to our first manse than she was about her impending death; the rabbi who opened up scripture to me like no Christian teacher ever has; the compassion, the care and concern shown toward me by those whom I had been called and appointed by the Church to serve.

It is clear from this mid-day encounter at the well that the one whose spiritual needs were about to be met had first met the physical needs of Jesus.

Therefore as disciples we should not assume that the meeting of need is in one direction only.

The third thread that I wish to tease out of this incident is the view that there is a mutual reward when giver and receiver are open to each other.

We have already mentioned that because Jesus is prepared to engage with a woman from outside his own religious community his physical need is met; but this goes deeper still in my view.

Simply by being prepared to engage with this woman, and to receive from her, Jesus acts as the humble party.

Whatever our 21st century liberal sensibilities may say, this was at the time an extraordinary act of deference.  Jesus displayed great respect for this woman, a woman whom many would not pass time of day with.  And yet Jesus submitted himself to her.

It is an encounter between two very different people, yet it is one that is packed with profound possibilities.

The encounter broadens the horizons of the woman and establishes her as someone worth listening to.  She returns to her city and has news to share.  She is clearly heard because many Samaritans come out to see Jesus for themselves.  Apparently no one would have listened to her before but now they do and even act upon her words.

The conversation also provides the opportunity for a vision where place is less important for the Presence of God than had thus far been the case.

No longer would there be a need for debate as to where the Temple should be located, Gerizim or Moriah, it no longer matters, because true worshippers will worship in spirit and in truth.  In other words God, now, may be found anywhere on this earth, in the city where we live, at the well where we are refreshed, in the conversations we hold, wherever needs are met.

This incident at the well should shatter once and for all the illusion that God only speaks through those who worship on a certain metaphorical mountain, in other words those that uphold only a particular sacred text or follow a certain path to the exclusion of all others.

When the time comes for me to let go of this ministry to which I have been called I would like to think

  • that I have engaged in dialogue,
  • that I have held conversations profitable to all those who were party to them,
  • that I have learnt from, and shared with, those whose faith perspectives have been held as sincerely as I have held mine,
  • and that I have been present with, and stood alongside, my neighbour in their hour of need.

If this turns out to be so then I believe that it would constitute having been a humble believer in a world of increasing diversity.

The temptation of success

by James D.G. Dunn.

Lent is a good time to pause, do a bit of personal stock-taking, and even some moral spring-cleaning.   The account of Jesus’ temptations at the beginning of his ministry sum up the challenge – and the opportunity.  For the temptations of Jesus remind us of the temptations we also face.   Here particularly, the temptation of success.   What counts as success?

The first temptation reflects success as measured by money made, prosperity.   The tempter says, ‘Command these stones to become loaves of bread’ (Matt. 4.3).   In a world often afflicted with famine, what could be a greater key to success – to be able to provide bread on demand.   In a time of famine, prices shoot up – what better way to become rich?   Jesus could have become the greatest producer of bread – able to name his price – a successful business man.

But Jesus responds by noting that there is more to life than bread – ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (4.4).   Material provision can never sufficiently feed the inner person, the real me, the real you.   It is possible to be a huge success, to own more than one house, to earn fat bonuses – success as the world counts success, as the devil counts success.   And yet to be inwardly poor, starving.   Those who reduce everything to materialist terms are most to be pitied.   ‘What will it profit anyone to gain the whole world and yet lose himself?’ (Mark 8.36).

The second temptation measures success in terms of fame.   The devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and urges him to throw himself down, since angels are commissioned to prevent him injuring himself (Matt. 4.5-6).   To jump off the top of the temple, and to land without injury, that would make Jesus famous, bring him the adulation of a super-hero.   Everyone would want to see him;  he would be most popular, lauded by the rich and powerful, in big demand in public gatherings – a famous success.

Jesus responds by noting that so to act would be to test God:  ‘It is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”’ (4.7).   Fame arising out of foolhardiness, fame gained by taking unnecessary risk is hardly worthwhile success.   Fame gained by making display of yourself, how shallow is that!   If we count fame as the chief goal in life, so that passers-by point to us (‘That’s so-and-so’) and ask for an autograph, then we are probably missing the character of life that God wants for us, the quality of life for which he has gifted us.   People famous for being famous, who will (want to) remember them?  Will God be impressed?

The third temptation measures success as power.   The devil says, ‘All these (kingdoms of the world) I will give you, if you fall down and worship me’ (4.8-9).   What an offer!   To control the kingdoms of the world and their resources.   To be able to order armies to march, to give royal commands that all would obey, to shape society and multiple relations in the ways you wanted.   What a temptation for Jesus!   And at such a modest cost – just worshipping someone other than God;  or, as in the garden of Eden (Gen. 3.1-7), ignoring God.

Jesus responds by denouncing the offer:  ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’ (4.10).   Thus Jesus alerts us to the danger.  Power can be so attractive – power to determine the lives of others, their careers, their prospects, power to decide the future of a city or a country – all so appealing.   As Henry Kissinger warned:  ‘Power is the great aphrodisiac’.   But to gain power almost always involves some degree of compromise – to fall down and worship other than God is such a little thing!   Our bright principles, our clear values with which our pursuit of power began, are so easily compromised, so quickly tarnished.   We begin to find that we are serving another master.   As Lord Acton soberly noted in the 19th century, ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men’.   Do I need to cite a roll-call of names which demonstrate that depressing truth?

So what counts as success?  Not material prosperity;  not fame;  not power.  But being the person God made us to be, that God gifted us to be;  taking our values and principles from God’s word;  worshipping God and depending on him to keep us right.

Goodness – a lost fruit?

by Andrew Roberts.

I was having one of my occasional tidy ups in the study when I came across William Barclay’s Prayers For Young People.[1] In an instant I was transported back to the 1970s: to teenage years, flared trousers, Brut 33, a crush on Agnetha from Abba and the days when books cost 40p. I was also transported back to a time when prayer and the pursuit of holiness felt different somehow.

As I wandered through the prayers that I first read in my youth I was struck by two recurrent emphases of Barclay’s. An emphasis on goodness and an emphasis on self-control. Here is one example.

“O Lord Jesus, help me to be a good follower of yours.
Always to follow your example;
Always to ask what you want me to do before I decide to do anything,
Always to ask for your help and your guidance;
Always to remember that you are always with me to hear what I say, to see what I do, to keep me from doing wrong, and to give me the help I need to do right;
Never to be afraid to show my loyalty to you, and never to be ashamed to show that I belong to you.
Never to forget all that you have done for me, and so to try to love you as you first loved me.
This I ask for your love’s sake. Amen.”[2]

At first sight there is what seems to be a charming naivety about some of the prayers in the collection. Hard hearted critique might see them as just the next step on from the ‘God bless Mummy’ prayers of infancy. It is possible of course to get transported on a wave of romantic nostalgia back to a time when life and faith seemed more simple and straight forward. But on closer inspection the apparently naïve becomes more challenging. There are echoes in the prayer quoted above of Wesley’s Covenant Prayer – a prayer which is far from naïve. Echoes too, in the way Barclay writes, of Jesus’s seriously challenging word to sophisticated adults, ‘unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’.[3] And then there is the recurrent emphasis on goodness and self-control.

In the very welcome renewed conversation about holiness both within and beyond Methodism, I wonder if the part played by these two fruit of the Spirit – and goodness in particular – has been overlooked or at least undervalued. As we become ever more sophisticated have we lost something articulated by Barclay in his prayers that could be reduced to simply ‘Lord help me to be good’?

Now this begs a big question, what do we mean by good or goodness? They are words and concepts that are easy to disparage with a quick ‘goody two shoes’ put down. But biblically they are words of honour. I don’t have the space or knowledge to do a full review of all the biblical passages that speak of goodness but a quick look at two might start some conversation.

In the first creation story in Genesis 1 the word good appears on its own six times (Gen 1.4,10,12,18,21 and 25) and once with the prefix very (Gen 1.31). In an age when adjectives like amazing and awesome abound, not least on social media, I find it fascinating that the Genesis narrative goes with good. Elsewhere in the Old Testament hyperbole abound not least in the Psalms (e.g. Psalm 99.3 ‘How great and awesome is your name’). But in the story of origins good is enough. Again compare this with say contemporary education where good is no longer enough with a relentless and often damaging drive to be outstanding.

The creation in Genesis 1 is good because it reflects the character of God. I find this use of good helpful and encouraging when it comes to the pursuit of holiness. In Hebrew writing goodness like holiness is fundamentally a reflection of the nature or character of God. Character we are called to reflect in the great cry for holiness quoted by Peter, ‘Be holy for I am holy’[4]. If greatness and awesomeness are the markers of holiness then I am inclined to give up and despair for others. If good is good enough then that gives me hope, and gives me hope for others too.

Interestingly creation is deemed to be very good in Genesis 1 when it all comes together. Might our goodness become very good when it is expressed through relationships, in community, in harmony with all creation?

In the New Testament the word goodness (ἀγαθωσύνη) occurs only four times, all in the Pauline corpus.[5] Most famously it occurs as one of the fruit of the Spirit described by Paul in Galatians 5. Commentators suggest Paul uses the word ἀγαθωσύνη to convey a sense of kindness and generosity.

Goodness expressed in kindness and generosity. Is this suggestive of a naïve, infantile worldview? Is it a lost fruit? It might appear so in the light of events in the world at the moment. By way of contrast note how popular the BBC programme Call the Midwife Is – a programme full to overflowing with kindness, generosity and downright goodness (and with the Church flavoured by these things at its heart).

I dare to suggest that goodness is a Godly quality, intrinsic to holiness that the Church and the world urgently need to rediscover, celebrate and live.

[1] William Barclay Prayers for Young People (London: Collins, 1963). My edition was printed in 1975 (its fourteenth impression). Barclay first published the book in 1963 which just happens to be the year I was born in.

[2] William Barclay Prayers for Young People (London: Collins, 1963), p46

[3] Matthew 18.3 NRSV

[4] Leviticus 20.26 and 1 Peter 1.16. Note how by the time of Peter’s letter the notion of holiness as separateness found in Leviticus has been transformed by Peter’s Cornelius moment.

[5] Rom 15.14, Eph 5.9, Gal 5.22, 2 Thes 1.11.

Theology… where?

by George Bailey.

I have been the moderator of this blog since July 2016 – I am immensely grateful to all who have contributed, to those who have let me know that this is a helpful activity, and to those who have offered ideas for improving the way things work. I want to invite some methodological conversation about the way ahead.

We have claimed to be engaging in “theology everywhere,” under the tag line, “discussing theology today to transform tomorrow.” I drafted this line, but have grown increasingly unsure about one aspect of it. I think we should hold onto the assertion that theology is transformative. However, the first clause is more ambiguous – to what extent is “discussing” a helpful way of characterising what we do here?

What are we doing when we discuss theology? Here are three possible ways of answering this (there are others!)[i]. Perhaps each of the three ways is primary for different contributors to this blog, though for many of us several methodologies overlap. I am concerned that the word “discussing” too strongly invites only the first interpretation.

Theology Constructed…

Is theology a body of knowledge that is constructed by Christians, to which we contribute through our discussions? This is the model which I think is most clearly hinted at by the current description of the site, and one which it is easy to assume if we look at what actually happens – one person does some thinking and publishes it; others read and discuss it, online or in their daily encounters. Within this understanding, “discussing theology everywhere” is a helpful impetus for encouraging many people to join in with the construction of theological understanding and progress. The key problem with this understanding of what is happening is that it is very human-centred. At the heart of most Christian theology has not actually been the combined effort of the followers of Christ to describe who Christ is and what following Christ means, but rather the heart has been, and I argue continues to be, Christ himself, and our relationship with Christ. The logic of 1 John 4:19 can be appropriated here; we can talk about God, because God first talked to us.

Theology Revealed…

Is theology, then, knowledge which is revealed to us? In this way of thinking, the primary aim of “discussing theology” is to encourage one another to receive it more fully rather than to add to it by construction. Theology is the result of experience of God, revealed in Christ, enabled by the Spirit. We can learn from one another of the diverse ways that people receive and interpret the experience of God in our lives, but the primary locus of theology is revelation rather than construction. This implies a dynamic relationship with Scripture and with the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. Theology is the continuing revelation of Jesus Christ through the life of the Spirit in the followers of Christ, as described in John 16:12-13a: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” However, this begs the question of how truth is known and expressed. Is the truth we receive a written description or is it more of a lived reality?

Theology Performed…

Is theology, primarily, neither the result of a constructive process nor reflection on an experience, but rather an activity in itself – a performative art which one practices in order to develop ability and potential, and which one then exercises in order to communicate with and to serve others? On this view the most important locus for theology is the practice of church life, and the interface between church and the surrounding communities and cultures. To “discuss” theology is to inhabit a role similar to the critic or commentator – it is unhelpful to muddle the critic or commentator with the people taking an active part in things. Great footballers do not necessarily make great commentators, or journalists great politicians, nor vice versa. Is this blog for active performing theologians or for critical commentators on the theological action of the Church? I think both are welcome, and through reflective practice we often inhabit both roles, though they do have the potential to get confused. Does the concept of “discussing theology” too readily encourage commentary and remove us from the real action? The real theology of this blog does not happen in the published articles or discussions, but in the changes they provoke in the practice of those who read them. I can testify personally to this process for many weeks’ articles; notable in my recent memory are my practice of the Covenant service, my desire to seek Christology for a new technological age and my attitude to meat at the dinner table.

I suggest we drop “discussing” from the description, leaving it as “theology today to transform tomorrow,” not to discourage discussion, but in order to encourage each other both to experience revelation and to practice theology in our daily lives.

Please comment – do you agree with this subtle change? Can you explain how the blog relates practically to your own theology?

[i] I have not included references to the many texts which have in some way informed this particular categorisation of theological method. Two which organise their analysis in different ways to this, but which I have found especially helpful recently have been Graham, E., Walton, H., Ward, F. (2005), Theological Reflection: Methods, London: SCM; and Allen, P. (2012) Theological Method: A Guide for the Perplexed, London and New York: T&T Clark.

Finding rest in the wrestling

by Gill Newton.

One afternoon recently, as I was ironing, I watched a couple of quiz shows; it somehow helps the task along and makes the time pass more quickly! I was both surprised and intrigued to hear two very different contestants on the consecutive shows declare their love of wrestling when asked about their hobbies and interests!  Both wanted to use any money won to fund a trip to the United States to watch professional wrestling.  Personally I couldn’t think of anything I’d like to do less!  But then I guess wrestling these days has moved on a little from my memories of the Saturday afternoon sport my Dad occasionally watched which involved the likes of Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy!

But whilst I may not be a big fan of wrestling as a sport, it did set me thinking about how much “wrestling” I do every day.  Wrestling with an e-mail inbox that never seems to be empty and an ironing basket that provides the same dilemma.  Wrestling with how to respond to the political developments both in our own land and across the pond.  Wrestling with getting the right balance between work and family life.  Wrestling with difficult decisions that need to be made within the District I serve or in our own family setting.

Inevitably, perhaps, my mind went to Jacob’s encounter with God (1).  He was making a journey home to meet his brother Esau; a meeting that was undoubtedly going to be challenging given the manner in which they had parted some time before.  He’d also just left behind him a recent falling-out with his father-in-law Laban (2) so, here he is, sandwiched between these two difficulties, and Jacob finds himself wrestling.  With himself?  With a man?  With God?  And why?

Well, there are no easy answers to those questions, but through the wrestling, Jacob somehow gained a deeper understanding of himself, and of God, and of course ultimately knew God’s blessing.  But, the blessing wasn’t achieved at his first request.  According to Gerhard von Rad, “this clutching at God and his power of blessing is perhaps the most elemental reaction of humanity to the divine.” (3)  We long for the blessing and to find the place of rest, but we don’t necessarily want the struggle that often needs to come first.

The question that I am left with though is, how much of my/our wrestling is really with God? In this story of Jacob we can readily recognise our own struggles with fear, self-worth, loneliness and so on.  Just as the apostle Paul before us, we are “harassed at every turn; conflicts on the outside, fears within.” (4)  But, when I look at that list above, much of the wrestling is with the church, with my own conscience, thoughts and feelings, with my sense of priority, with those in authority or even with members of my family.  So many of us wrestle with these things in the hope of arriving at a place of peace and rest when actually all we achieve is a brief respite before the bell rings for another round of the wrestling match!

However, wrestling with God may be a much more fruitful experience in terms of arriving at a deeper understanding of who we are in God, but it necessitates us facing up to and naming who and what we are.   Jacob was invited to declare his name and of course, in his culture, the name was thought to bear something of the character of the person behind the name.  So, for Jacob, it is in facing up to who he is that the wrestling comes to an end, and transformation takes place as he’s given a new name and the blessing is given.

Maybe individually we need to stop taking matters into our own hands as we wrestle with our feelings, our family or the church and maybe as a church we need to stop wrestling amongst ourselves and instead wrestle with God as we face up to who and what we are.  That way we might just discover new things being revealed about who we truly are, find the “rest” that is at the heart of “wrestling” and know God’s blessing in the days ahead.

(1)        Genesis 32

(2)        Genesis 31

(3)        von Rad, Gerhard (1972).  Genesis.  London: SCM Press Ltd

(4)        2 Corinthians 7 v 5

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