Remembrance, Truth and Community

by Jonathan Pye.

A few days ago, I stood on the banks of the Imjin River where, in 1951, 750 men of the Glosters faced 10,000 Chinese Communist Soldiers at the height of the Korean War. Of the regulars, reservists and National Servicemen who held the hill to allow others safe withdrawal, only 63 escaped Hill 235 after the battle. The bones of those who died now lie entombed in a natural cave beside the river, standing as silent witness to the deaths of so many young men from the peaceful, wooded hills and valleys of Gloucestershire amidst the Autumnal colours of the thickly wooded hillsides close to Pajun city, their own ‘corner of a foreign field…’. Then, in a moment of great solemnity, South Korean politicians and British Methodist Ministers laid a wreath and stood in remembrance and prayer.

This week, November 11th marks our own day of national Remembrance and on Sunday, churches and communities across the country will hold services to remember those who died in the conflicts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The persistence of such services argues powerfully for the importance of acts of community remembrance even, perhaps particularly, at a time when the numbers of those who served in many of the great conflicts of the twentieth century are dwindling.

In his reflection on the nature of community, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that, ‘God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth.’ [i] Acts of remembrance, though often emotionally charged, are not simply emotional events but are moments of confronting truth in which the reality of the ‘other’ as person truly lays claim on us in our commitment to them – a claim which, for Bonhoeffer, mirrors God’s decisive act of commitment to humanity in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Writing in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, Mario Aguilar, Professor of Religion and Politics at the University of St. Andrews, reflects on what he calls the ‘hermeneutic of bones’ and on the experience of relatives sitting with the bones of victims and he concludes that, ‘…bones have a materiality that makes them texts of social reality but also theological texts in which the (same) image of the crucified can be found.[ii]

From this belief, Aguilar argues in words redolent of Bonhoeffer that,

‘The centrality of God’s love denied by human beings… becomes the only possible theology and the texts of this theology are not pages of a book but the history of humanity and of God written in each one of those precious bones. Bones are not only texts to be interpreted, but represent the presence of God among his people. In the context of genocide, that presence is silent and in the context of a post-genocidal society spaces of genocidal memories remain places of silence and encounter with God. They become places where not unlike cemeteries a physical mediation between the physical and the meta-physical world can be observed and indeed experienced.[iii]

Standing that day on the bank of the Imjin River keeping silence before the tomb containing the bones of the men of the Glosters, such a physical mediation was indeed experienced, even as it will be experienced this week by so many others in silence and in memory, and it was a moment suffused with the power of the holy.

Bonhoeffer believed that blessing means laying one’s hand on something and saying: ‘despite everything, you belong to God’ and he concludes, ‘This is what we do with the world that inflicts such suffering on us. We do not abandon it; we do not repudiate, despise or condemn it. Instead we call it back to God, we give it hope, we lay our hand on it and say: May God’s blessing come upon you, may God renew you; be blessed, world created by God, you who belong to your Creator and Redeemer’.[iv]

For the men of the Glosters, whose remains lie in their far-off tomb, and for all those who, then and now, are the victims of war and violence, as for those who this week will mourn them, such acts of truth in remembrance, enfolds them in community, holds them in peace, helps make sense of sacrifice and offers hope for the future.

 

[i] Bonhoeffer, D. (1954) Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community. Translated and with an Introduction by John W. Doberstein. Harper & Row Publishers, p.86.

[ii] Aguilar, M. (2009) Theology, Liberation and Genocide. London: SCM, p. 12

[iii] Ibid. p. 35.

[iv] Conspiracy and Imprisonment 1940-1945: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16, Fortress Press 2006, p.674.

 

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Dear All,

Sorry to those on the email list for the mix up with today’s posts! You will have to wait until next week to read Brain Beck on ‘beauty’ – this week’s post by Jonathan Pye is specially designed for the week of remembrance.

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Remembrance, Truth and Community

by Jonathan Pye.

A few days ago, I stood on the banks of the Imjin River where, in 1951, 750 men of the Glosters faced 10,000 Chinese Communist Soldiers at the height of the Korean War. Of the regulars, reservists and National Servicemen who held the hill to allow others safe withdrawal, only 63 escaped Hill 235 after the battle. The bones of those who died now lie entombed in a natural cave beside the river, standing as silent witness to the deaths of so many young men from the peaceful, wooded hills and valleys of Gloucestershire amidst the Autumnal colours of the thickly wooded hillsides close to Pajun city, their own ‘corner of a foreign field…’. Then, in a moment of great solemnity, South Korean politicians and British Methodist Ministers laid a wreath and stood in remembrance and prayer.

 

This week, November 11th marks our own day of national Remembrance and on Sunday, churches and communities across the country will hold services to remember those who died in the conflicts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

 

The persistence of such services argues powerfully for the importance of acts of community remembrance even, perhaps particularly, at a time when the numbers of those who served in many of the great conflicts of the twentieth century are dwindling.

In his reflection on the nature of community, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that, ‘God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth.’ [i] Acts of remembrance, though often emotionally charged, are not simply emotional events but are moments of confronting truth in which the reality of the ‘other’ as person truly lays claim on us in our commitment to them – a claim which, for Bonhoeffer, mirrors God’s decisive act of commitment to humanity in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Writing in the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, Mario Aguilar, Professor of Religion and Politics at the University of St. Andrews, reflects on what he calls the ‘hermeneutic of bones’ and on the experience of relatives sitting with the bones of victims and he concludes that, ‘…bones have a materiality that makes them texts of social reality but also theological texts in which the (same) image of the crucified can be found.[ii]

From this belief, Aguilar argues in words redolent of Bonhoeffer that,

‘The centrality of God’s love denied by human beings… becomes the only possible theology and the texts of this theology are not pages of a book but the history of humanity and of God written in each one of those precious bones. Bones are not only texts to be interpreted, but represent the presence of God among his people. In the context of genocide, that presence is silent and in the context of a post-genocidal society spaces of genocidal memories remain places of silence and encounter with God. They become places where not unlike cemeteries a physical mediation between the physical and the meta-physical world can be observed and indeed experienced.[iii]

Standing that day on the bank of the Imjin River keeping silence before the tomb containing the bones of the men of the Glosters, such a physical mediation was indeed experienced, even as it will be experienced this week by so many others in silence and in memory, and it was a moment suffused with the power of the holy.

Bonhoeffer believed that blessing means laying one’s hand on something and saying: ‘despite everything, you belong to God’ and he concludes, ‘This is what we do with the world that inflicts such suffering on us. We do not abandon it; we do not repudiate, despise or condemn it. Instead we call it back to God, we give it hope, we lay our hand on it and say: May God’s blessing come upon you, may God renew you; be blessed, world created by God, you who belong to your Creator and Redeemer’.[iv]

For the men of the Glosters, whose remains lie in their far-off tomb, and for all those who, then and now, are the victims of war and violence, as for those who this week will mourn them, such acts of truth in remembrance, enfolds them in community, holds them in peace, helps make sense of sacrifice and offers hope for the future.

 

[i] Bonhoeffer, D. (1954) Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community. Translated and with an Introduction by John W. Doberstein. Harper & Row Publishers, p.86.

[ii] Aguilar, M. (2009) Theology, Liberation and Genocide. London: SCM, p. 12

[iii] Ibid. p. 35.

[iv] Conspiracy and Imprisonment 1940-1945: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16, Fortress Press 2006, p.674.

 

Lighten our darkness

by Tom Greggs

As the seasons turn and the clocks go back, I want to meditate for a moment on a theme which has occupied my prayers spiritually: ‘Lighten our darkness, we beseech Thee, O Lord’, as the Book of Common Prayer aides us to pray each evening.

Martin Luther famously decried theologies of glory, reminding us at the Reformation (something we celebrate today, 31st October) of the centrality of the cross. But do we necessarily need to contrast theologies of glory and theologies of the cross so sharply (indeed, Luther himself did not do so in an un-nuanced way)? After all, Paul teaches us: ‘For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:6).

In times of darkness, we do well to remember that, come what may, the God who calls us His children is perfectly glorious. God is the glorious God whose radiance cannot but reach out towards creation. When creatures give glory to God, we do not add anything to the divine life which God lacked before: we do not make God more glorious. How could we? God is the King of Glory (Ps. 24:7-8). He is the source of all light in whom there is no darkness (1 Jn. 1:5). God’s glory does not enhance itself through the glorification offered by the creature: God’s is a glory already perfect in itself in the eternal Trinitarian relations of the divine life in which glory is given and received (Jn. 17). The plenitude of God’s glorious life is infinite, and its constancy can be a source of comfort even when the world seems dark: whatever the world presents us with, God remains glorious – sovereign over all creation. And, what is more, this glory shines.

Glory shines because the God who is complete in God’s own glory is glorious with an end point in that which is not God. God’s glory has, for the creature, the logic of grace (cf. Eph. 1:6). Glory is the perfection of the divine life in which the outwards movement of the perfectly complete eternal triune life is known. That life which is complete and perfect shines forth: it has no need of another to shine forth, but simply does shine because that is its nature. Complete in itself, divine glory is known because it is glorious – because it radiates the plenitude pf its infinite excess beyond itself, and thereby glory’s radiance is known in creation.[1]

Glory at once implies the free sovereign and perfect completeness of the divine life in which we have a firm foundation, and the loving and gracious movement of the divine life to that which is not Godself – the rays of the glory of God known in the terminus of the theatre of creation as the radiance of divine glory’s efflugence;[2] the light which shines from the Light of God and enlightens our darkness; the movement of the divine life towards all that is not God in the economy of creation, reconciliation and redemption.

Glory is that perfection of God which speaks of God’s self-determining love to be the God who is eternally for the other as much as it bespeaks the God who is perfectly complete in Godself – to be for that which is not God, for the creation. That is why the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God is seen in the face of Jesus Christ: that we know who God is because God’s glory comes, shines forth, and because in this coming, this shining forth, God has made Godself known. God’s glory is known in the locus in which the foundation for the eternal covenant of God with creation is to be seen – in Jesus Christ and in Him crucified. The glory of God is a cruciform glory – a glory which enlightens even the darkest human moments.

This glory enlightens our darkness because God is the illuminating light which enables us to see the glory which exists in creation – the creation God has made, is reconciling, and will redeem. God’s glory is one which shines in the darkness and enlightens the world, and as people of the light we are called to see the world anew as the theatre of God’s illuminating glory. Habakkuk puts it thus: ‘[God’s] radiance is like the sunlight’ (Hab. 3:4a). In the light of God’s glory, we do not simply see a kind of glory comparable to anything in creation; but we see the glory of the Creator which illuminates the creation with its radiance.

 

[1] The relation of glory to light in Scripture can be found in Ex. 34 (in the Septuagint’s rendering doxa); Jer. 13:16 in the contrast of light to darkness; Lk. 2:9 (in the shining of glory); and 2 Cor. 4:6; as well as the relation of glory and fire in the Old Testament.

[2] Speaking of the radiance of the effulgence of glory is an attempt at preserving the perfection of glory as that which belongs perfectly to God apart from the economy. It is a way of attempting to preserve something of the distance of the glory of God from the creaturely sphere, as is seen in Ez. 1 (especially v. 28). The term is borrowed from Origen, De Princ. 1.1.1-3 & 1.2.9; and Comm.Jn. 32.353.

Uncomfortable Grace

by Michaela Youngson

A few days ago I was privileged to interview some Methodist presbyters for a role within the life of the Church. They were asked to describe some of the things that were distinctive about Methodism and, without exception, each had something to say about the all-inclusive nature of God’s love. I was reminded again of the breadth, depth and height of embracing grace that is at the heart of God’s relationship with human beings and indeed all of creation.

This concept of grace runs like blood in the veins of Methodists – the idea that God loves all, however wretched we might be; that God longs for our flourishing, however unwilling we might be; that God is at work within us and is transforming us, however unworthy we might understand ourselves to be. If, however, we only understand grace in this way, we can become comfortable, grateful and self-referencing – relieved that we can be saved and, indeed, saved to the uttermost. Our attention can remain focussed on a false duality of how very ‘bad’ we were and how very ‘good’ we are now that God’s work has been fulfilled in us. Left in this mind-set we might build the walls of the Church a little higher, make the doors a little stronger and remain content; demonstrating an unattractively sanctimonious attitude that turns God’s true economy of grace upside down.

If we were to consider the less comfortable and comforting aspects to grace, we might be prompted to a more outward looking and inclusive understanding of our relationship with God and with the world. Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20.1-16) might help to illustrate the uncomfortable nature of God’s grace.

When I read this parable the first question I ask myself is, ‘who were the workers chosen first?’ In the context of the business world that we see around us it is not difficult to imagine the landowner choosing the fittest, the most attractive, the one’s who come with good references and the right experience. As the day of this bumper harvest continues at it becomes clear that the work cannot be finished without more help, the landowner returns again and again for more labour. Now the question becomes, ‘who were the workers chosen last?’ Again, in our world of payment by results, of the survival of the fittest, we can imagine that those in the market place close to the end of the day would be the weakest, the widow, the orphan, the alien – in today’s terms, the asylum seeker, the disabled person, the ‘strange’ person who, for whatever reason, does not fit in.

When it comes time for payment each is given a day’s wage, however many or few hours they have laboured. Those who worked for longer are furious – crying out ‘it’s not fair!’ and, to be honest, if you measure things by our contemporary, capitalist way of understanding business – it is not. ‘Fairness’ is not the point of this parable. To have paid anyone less than a day’s wage was to condemn them to death! The day’s wage would just about stretch to cover the basic needs of a labourer and their family. In God’s upside-down economy of grace, a ‘living wage’ is the least anyone might expect – God longs for us to have life and life in all its fullness.

So what of grace? The parable of the generous landowner points us to just how uncomfortable grace really is. We are delighted and relieved that God loves us just as much as God loves those we hold in high regard – just as much as Martin Luther King, Mary Seacole, Nelson Mandela, Dietrich Boenhoeffer and anyone else we honour as examples of astonishing saints. What we find much more difficult to accept or celebrate is that God loves those we despise just as much as God loves us. God’s longing for all creation to be one does not exclude those who voted differently to us in the EU referendum, it does not exclude those who flew planes into the twin towers in New York, it does not even exclude those standing for President in the USA! That is the deep challenge of accepting God’s grace and in recognising that, we move beyond a safe, comfortable, self-righteous piety to a risky place where mission is prompted by the question, ‘If God’s longs for all to have life and life in all its fullness, what part do we have to play in making that a reality?”

Roy of the Rovers vs. Mammon United

by Peter Hancock

Some years ago I had occasion to meet a top professional footballer. I was fascinated to hear his story including the account of when he was to be transferred to one of the most prestigious clubs in the country. I thought: this is real “Roy of the Rovers” stuff, a personal living-out of the sort of storyline featured in the comic strip of that name, the fulfilment of a childhood dream.

I had managed to live until then with the innocent assumption that what motivated all footballers was the joy of playing but my childhood reveries were suddenly jolted as it became apparent that what most pleased this real footballer about this real transfer was that he was about to become the highest-paid player among his peers. The goal was money.

Since then we have seen how the market has changed the face of football in this country. Clubs are owned by billionaires from various parts of the globe, television deals produce eye-wateringly high pay-outs for the top clubs and the price of one visit to a match for a family could equal their monthly shopping bill. In to the bargain, an event such as the FA Cup Final, formerly the pinnacle of the season and a prominent feature in many a Roy of the Rovers storyline, has been reduced to a side-show, dwarfed by the marketing power of the Premiership and European Champions’ League.

When Jesus uses the name Mammon to refer to money he gives to it a personal and spiritual character, that of a rival god.  Richard Foster in his book  “Money Sex and Power” [1] which gives an alternative take on the three monastic disciplines of Poverty Chastity and Obedience, offers a cautionary analysis – “Money is not something that is morally neutral, a resource to be used in good or bad ways depending solely upon our attitude toward it. Mammon is a power that seeks to dominate us”.

We have seen recently that it is possible for a person in one of the most elevated positions in English football to lose that position as a result of the desire to add yet more money to an already sizeable pot of it. Such is the power, the attraction and the ultimately ruinous potential of Mammon. Doping scandals, bribery and cheating for financial gain in a variety of sports add further illustration to the truth spoken by St. Paul that “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction” (1 Timothy 6v9). And, of course, such considerations are not limited to the arena of sport.

John Wesley was not as extreme in his view of the inherent power of money as Foster but he did feel it necessary to offer guidance on its use. In his sermon no. 44 “On the use of money”, [2] he emphasised that we should see ourselves as stewards rather than proprietors, thereby debunking the illusion of ownership which motivates much of our economy. The sermon contains the threefold exhortation to “Gain all you can, Save all you can and Give all you can”. It is the third of these which points to the distinctiveness of a Christian attitude to money. There is nothing that puts money in its proper place like giving it away and thereby demonstrating that we are not possessed by it.

Foster speaks of the need to dethrone Mammon, to desecrate its altar and to engage in acts of disrespect towards it to demonstrate that it does not have ultimate power : “engage in the most profane act of all – give it away. The powers that energize money cannot bear that most unnatural of acts, giving.” [3] This is a healthy exercise not only for individuals but also for the Church. There can be a concerning level of veneration for money among us, a disturbing application of the values of the world in our decisions on how to use (or, more often, to hoard and not to use) our assets. We can be a little too grateful to benefactors and, overall, leave Mammon undisturbed on his throne.

Giving not only benefits the needy recipient, it also frees the giver from an unhealthy attachment to money and dethrones the god Mammon – real “Roy of the Rovers” stuff.

 

[1]  Money, Sex and Power,  Richard Foster 1985, Hodder and Stoughton, p 26

[2] John Wesley’s Forty-Four Sermons, Epworth Press, 1980.

[3] Money, Sex and Power p. 61

Must Christianity Change?

by Neil Richardson

(Some reflections on the contemporary ‘heresy’ of relevance)

For years now we have been trying to make everything – the Church, worship, the Bible, the gospel……relevant. But what does that mean? What, if any, are the theological foundations for such an approach? Bonhoeffer wrote somewhere that the relevance of the Bible is axiomatic it’s a given. The problem, I suggest, lies elsewhere. So, first, a provocative quotation – and its biblical basis!

  1. ‘Christianity is always changing itself into something which can be believed’ (T.S. Eliot). Is this true? Is it Scriptural? And if it is both true and biblical, how do we engage with it?

Change is built into both Scripture and Christian tradition. In the Bible, stories and teaching are ‘re-cycled’; both OT and NT embody an extraordinary amount of change and diversity, with ‘borrowings’,  additions, and losses or omissions.  The process has continued in Christian history and tradition. That is the nature of an incarnational (contextual) faith, (‘the Word became flesh’).

The ongoing task is the re-discovery of orthodoxy – i.e. the Gospel – in each generation: fundamentally, the ‘doctrines’ of the Incarnation and Trinity, including the cross and resurrection of Jesus which are their heart, however variously and differently expressed. (‘To say the same thing in a different context means saying it differently’).

And so to two more quotations…..

  1. ‘We cannot know the ‘full number of the Gentiles’ (Romans 11.25-6), but ‘it seems clear that it will take thousands of years before the Gospel is preached in a clear and compelling way to all nations’ (K. Ward, The Word of God. The Bible after Modern Scholarship (SPCK 2010), p.143).
  2. ‘Can the many faces of Christianity find a message which will remake religion for a society which has decided to do without it?….It would be very surprising if this religion, so youthful  yet so varied in its historical experience, had now revealed all its secrets’,     (Diarmaid MacCulloch,  A History of Christianity, London Allen Lane 2009, p.1016).

So who knows what mutations of the Christian faith the future might hold? Two questions have impressed themselves upon me throughout my ministry:

  1. How far must Christianity change in order to remain Christianity?
  2. How far can Christianity change without ceasing to be Christianity?
  3. So who – or what –should be the drivers of change?

Making things ‘relevant’,  I’ve suggested, is the wrong place to start. Its suspect nature becomes apparent as soon as we start to think about making God relevant. We are not engaged in  a P.R. exercise, as if it were just a matter of ‘trying to get our(?) message’ across. There is a crucial difference between faithfulness to the Gospel and chameleon-like salesmanship.

The Gentile mission in the New Testament can guide us in discovering how change happens. (Instead of thinking   of ‘getting back to the Bible’, we should think about going forward with the Bible).

The Acts of the Apostles suggests i) prayer – i.e. sustained attention to God, ii) love, (the opposite of fear), and iii) the Holy Spirit, are fundamental in the process of change. All imply, or require listening. (Note the place of dialogue in the ministry of Paul, Acts 17.2,17f, and 18.4).So one vital task will be our prayerful engagement with the Bible and with Christian tradition alongside our loving attention to the Church and to the world.

  1. Last, but not least, my final quotation here has haunted me ever since I read it (in, I think, Evangelism in the Wesleyan Spirit):

‘The Gospel hasn’t really been preached until it has been heard’ (Albert  Outler).

So how  far must  Christian preaching and worship change in order to remain Christian?

How far can Christian preaching and worship change without ceasing to be Christian?

That will require ( at least)

– attending to our congregations and their contexts

– reading the Bible  searchingly, persistently, prayerfully

– offering a message which evokes and nurtures faith.

      The heart of the matter: the story of Jesus, and all that flows from that – including the preacher as an ‘icon’ of the Gospel (e.g. 1 Cor. 2.1-5, 2 Cor. 4.5).

A final thought: preaching, like the Faith, mutates – always has, and always will – or should – in faithfulness to the Gospel  and in the service of those who hear.