Monthly Archives: June 2020

Seeking Beauty

The Russian novelist Dostoevsky wrote, “Only Beauty will save the world.” With so much ugliness in the world, we can often wonder if the world can be saved.

Yet God has strewn beauty all over the place, but we neglect it: we hurry right by and don’t notice, or we have forgotten to name it when we see it. A dandelion, a carefully arranged place setting, an old photograph, the tree in your garden, a wrinkled face, clouds, a tune, the face in the mirror: beauty is all around, waiting to be noticed, cherished, pointed to, shared. And all of it reveals God’s heart to us. Want to see God? “Every experience of beauty points to infinity” (Hans Urs von Balthasar).

How good of God to stir so much beauty into the mix when He created everything! It could have been all dirt and rock, efficiency and productivity. God, like the artist, created what was unnecessary, inefficient. But God not only left space for beauty, He elevated it to its status as the one thing that thrills the heart and leaves us feeling noble, giving immense dignity to the smallest of his creation.

St. Thomas Aquinas gave us one answer: “God created the universe to make it beautiful for himself by reflecting his own beauty.” God is a great many things – but at the centre of it all, God is beauty. We are created to notice, to be awed, and to be delighted.

We’ve all heard that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” but that’s a lie. It’s not a matter of taste, or private preference. When we shrink things down to a private list of what I like or don’t like, we’re the losers. As we explore Beauty, we’ll learn to see better, to see what God sees: every person, every thing, pretty or not, partakes in the goodness and beauty of God. We’re surrounded by it.

There are times when beauty also gets twisted and perverted, and there’s so much desecration. Aren’t we adept at pinpointing what’s ugly when there’s actually beauty there? For instance, there is a beauty in suffering. You may know this from experience. Or the stunning array of colorful leaves in Autumn: what you’re looking at is death.

Faith isn’t merely a belief God exists, or access to help when you’re in trouble, or a free pass to get into heaven. Faith is seeing as God sees. It’s a readiness to be astonished. It’s inefficient and unproductive, this pondering of beauty – and so it’s like prayer, a wasting of time, and yet what we crave deep in our souls. Nothing else really will satisfy.

Paul, from a dark, dank stone prison, wrote, “Whatever is noble, whatever is beautiful, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). God has strewn beauty all over the place. The least we can do is notice. Maybe we will become what we see.

God bless and stay safe,

Alan

Something for Sunday

This piece about Sunday’s epistle from Romans 7 reflects my thinking and reading from a few years back. But I thought it was worth another outing. Some of the references seem a bit dated. I haven’t heard much from Woody Allen recently and as for Alain de Botton he was something of a celebrity a few years back but seems to have dropped below the radar. When he was in the media spotlight I thought he was good value. Anyway with a few amendments here it is.

This is a passage, which has attracted a great deal of comment. Here is St Paul engaged in what seems to be a kind of internal struggle-I do not do what I want but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right but I cannot do it. Here Paul sounds like Woody Allen. Not so far fetched really. They’re both Jewish, both interested in religion, both of them seem to have problems with sex and both of them seem to be tortured souls in the modern manner.

Most modern theologians who have studied Woody Allen are agreed that his films are spiritual autobiographies-the film journals of a tortured soul. But was Paul a tortured soul? Modern people are inclined to think so because it makes him seem modern. But is it true?

Some have thought so. They have seen his conversion, so called, as the resolution of his tortured condition-like Wesley having his heart strangely warmed. This is to read Paul through modern blinkers, which is to some degree inevitable. If however we stop thinking of Paul in this way and attend to what he actually wrote it opens up to us a new perspective on Paul in which he seems a lot less like Woody Allen than we’ve been used to thinking. It also makes him stranger.

The key to this perspective is to reject the idea that Paul was converted. Rather Christ called him and in becoming a follower of Christ he had taken the faith of Israel into new uncharted territory. Nothing in his past was entirely rejected. So far as his commitment to the law is concerned he describes himself quite cheerfully as utterly blameless. The Jewish law and more specifically the Ten Commandments prohibit various kinds of behaviour-all, with one exception, avoidable. Murder for instance is avoidable-Paul never murdered anyone –you have probably never murdered anyone. So why this gloomy neurotic tone of voice in which he describes sin as a kind of addiction.

Hardly anyone today thinks that in this passage Paul is talking about his own guilty psychology. He did not experience the law as an intolerable burden and find its demands impossible to live up to. We know this because he says so elsewhere.

So what is Paul on about when he says: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. What exactly is he thankful for? He is a good person, indeed a righteous person. He kept the law. Others can keep it as well. It is holy, just and good. It certainly isn’t redundant. By no means says Paul in another point in the epistle.

Paul’s point isn’t psychological or moral, it’s religious. He doesn’t seek to be a good person, he was that already, nor was he seeking to be a well-adjusted person in the modern manner. What he had discovered through faith in Christ was deliverance from sin-life in the spirit-the X factor-the big plus over what his ancestral faith had offered him and he’d achieved. The whole of the following chapter, Romans 8, is a hymn to joy – a celebration of what life in Christ brings.

But as I’ve already hinted there is one commandment which does not deal with outward actions-that is the commandment against covetousness. This is an inclination of the mind and in the world as we know it it’s impossible to avoid. Truly sins does dwell within us and just as Paul knew it so we too feel its power. This must be what Paul has in mind in this passage.

At its root is the desire we have to possess what our role models desire or to be the person our role model is. This is not because we actually want any of the things they have but because we do not want to think meanly of ourselves alongside others. These feelings lead to resentment, fear and anger. Ultimately it can lead to violence as it led Cain to murder Abel because his sacrifice was not accepted whereas Abel’s was.

Another way of saying this is to say we suffer from status anxiety. Some years ago the philosopher Alain de Botton wrote quite an amusing and insightful book entitled Status Anxiety. There was also a TV documentary, which you may remember. In this the Belgian Socrates takes us to various sites of status anxiety-offices where you status is measured by the size and thickness of your carpet and the position of your parking place. People can be profoundly upset by any challenge to these things.

What is the cure for this? Alain de Botton takes us to view a social gathering of a strange counter-cultural tribe. He turns to the camera and whispers. “These people are Christians”. Its as if we’ve just been brought face to face with a tribe recently discovered living a pre-modern existence in the heart of the Amazonian rain forest.

It’s a garden party and the Christians are obviously having a jolly time. Some seem rather posh others look as if they sell the Big Issue or live out of plastic bags. But they all share a deep unity because they are brothers and sister in Christ. All social distinctions have been relativised because they are part of the body of the Lord.

What this illustration says to me and what Paul is preaching to us is this.

The whole satanic system of rivalry, covetousness, envy, jealousy and resentment can be broken. It’s not so much about faulty psychology as about captivity to an alien power. Jesus by his death on the cross, a death he freely accepted, has broken the power of sin once and for all. We are free. That is why the people at the garden party are having a wonderful time. They may be living in the world but they are no longer enslaved by the world’s values. That is why they are happy and joyful and they’re hearts are at peace. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Status anxiety-social insecurity-the various forms of snobbery, which oppress us in the name of sin all, purged away.

Well isn’t that wonderful. So why are we looking so solemn?

Something for Sunday

Genesis 22:1-14

This is a terrifying story. And whoever wrote it meant it to be terrifying. As the climax approaches no detail is missed.

Abraham builds the altar, carefully laying out the kindling wood. He binds Isaac-once more we are reminded that this is his son. He lays his son on the altar over the wood. He stretches forth his hand. He takes the knife and is poised to strike.

We are spared nothing.

We must remember who Isaac is. Isaac is not simply Abraham’s beloved son. He is Abraham’s entire future. He is God’s promise. In this boy’s life is focussed every saving thing that God has promised to do. In radical obedience to God Abraham tore up his past-now he’s being asked to tear up his future as well.

Stories like this can give the Old Testament a bad name.

God has become a monster. The lunatics have taken over the asylum. For Abraham this is a terrible test. What is to be done? He is committed to radical obedience to God’s commands. But this?

Somewhere in the background to this story is the notion of child sacrifice, a not uncommon practice in the ancient world. This story seems to suggest that God does not really desire this-that he wills life not death-that such practices as human sacrifice can be relegated to the lumber room of the collective mind and that the life of humankind can now move forward onto broad sunlit upland-to coin a famous phrase.

That is a comforting thought. Too comforting!

In truth human sacrifice flourishes in our world. Human life is plentiful and cheap today. In our times millions of people have been judged unworthy of life by the ideologies that have sacrificed them in favour of racial purity, historical necessity, economic efficiency, Liberal Democracy and the honour of God. Christians are not innocent of involvement in these affairs. The dismal roll call continues.

Remember a sunny September morning-various passenger aircraft taking all manner of people to early meetings. The passengers sit back in their seats blissfully confident in the technology that is whisking them across the sky. Suddenly there’s a commotion on the flight deck and ferocious figures burst into the passenger cabin. All are to be sacrificed to appease the honour of God, which is said to be affronted by the culture of the west.

Here’s a similar interpretation. This time one of the victims to be sacrificed to the old gods of violence and national pride had time to write down his reflections in the form of a famous poem. You may know it.

So Abram rose and clave the wood and went

And took the fire with him and a knife,

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first born spake and said, My father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

And builded parapets and trenches there

And stretched forth the knife to slay his son

When lo an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad

Neither do anything to him thy son.

Behold! Caught in the thicket by its horns

A ram. Offer the ram of pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe one by one.

Many people have difficulty reading the Old Testament as Christians-this passage perhaps particularly. But we should always remember that as Christians we receive the Old Testament from the hands of Jesus himself. So when the risen Jesus meets the travelers on the Emmaus road we are told that he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. What then did Jesus have to say about this passage? We’d love to know just as we’d love to eavesdrop on the conversation between Abraham and Isaac on their trip to the mountaintop.

Where then is Jesus to be found in this passage? Is he the ram, caught in thicket-the sacrificial animal provided by God so that no other human sacrifices need be offered? That’s what I thought at first but the tradition is not encouraging. It sees Isaac as Jesus bearing on his shoulders the wood for his own sacrifice.

Listen to the Epistle to the Hebrews:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac: and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son. Of whom it was said, Through Isaac shall thy seed be called. Accounting that God was able to raise him even from the dead, and from the dead he did, in a sense, receive him back.

Isaac is offered up, as is Jesus. But Isaac is offered up to satisfy the savage destructive impulses of God whereas Jesus offers himself to satisfy and purify the savage and destructive impulses of humanity. Isaac is spared whereas Jesus is not spared but Jesus receives vindication and inaugurates in his own person a new humanity and a new mode of being. Some have said of the passion and resurrection stories that they are in a way a kind of reflection on the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22.

An important aspect of the story emphasised by some but not all of the commentators and brought out by some but not all of the translations is that there are two gods involved here. There is the savage tribal god who demands human sacrifices and there is the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ and friend of Abraham who demands mercy not sacrifice. They can be distinguished by the names used.

What Abraham is about is sorting out which of these Gods is to claim his allegiance. This is almost as terrifying a matter as the story itself because one God seems to hide behind the other. The journey to the truth lies along the road of radical faith and obedience and through the experience of God as foresakenness. In a sense Abraham’s journey is one that has to be made by all people in all times. Always we are tempted to worship the tribal God who is just a projection of own selfishness, greed and competitive violence. True faith in the true God lies beyond that-beyond greed and violence to an embrace of justice and peace.

Are we doing what is needful to walk with the true God in faith and obedience? Are we making the trip to the mountaintop of the wild and windy mountain in order to encounter the angel of the Lord? I’d like to think we were but the evidence around us is not encouraging.





The Sacred Relationship

During the continued lock down I am forced to spend time tidying up the study. (Yes times are becoming desperate!). Whilst doing this I came across some old yellowing paper and realised that they were not the Dead Sea Scrolls but my old lecture notes and so looking for any excuse to stop cleaning I sat down and began to read them. One of the course I took was called ‘Philosophy and Religion’ where I read once again the words of the 19th Century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who statement “God is dead” is much quoted, however that is not the full quote. Nietzsche puts the words into the mouth of a madman who is searching for God and when ridiculed by his fellow citizens says “God is dead and we have killed him!”

The sound bite that gets most people’s attention is “God is dead.” But Nietzsche’s riveting and strikingly relevant claim is this: “We have killed him!”

Nietzsche is not suggesting that human beings have somehow murdered the Supreme Being. And yet neither is he merely making a pitch for atheism in contrast to belief in God.

Instead, he is challenging those who profess the Christian faith but in practice live out a form of atheism that diminishes the God they claim to believe in. In the everyday lives of some people who insist on the authority of scripture, the eternal truth of traditional dogmas, or the universality of the unchanging moral law, God does not actually matter. Their lives are grounded on what they take to be a religious principle—or at least a principle to which they are passionately committed—rather than the felt presence of God.

True Christian faith begins and ever returns to a growing, frequently surprising, and continually soul-stretching sacred relationship with the risen Christ. However, it is all too common to meet Christians for whom a theological principle or a moral commitment has become their non-negotiable.

Recent studies suggest that a distressingly large number of self-identified Christians—white Protestants in particular—equate Christianity with a social order that grants them a privileged position. Christianity functions in their lives like an ideology in competition with other ideologies. Their fundamental commitment is to power and status, not to the person of Jesus as life-transforming friend.

Jesus taught us a different way. On the night before Roman authorities murdered him on the cross, Jesus explicitly told his friends that he would not abandon them.

His teachings about the Holy Spirit say that God is perpetually in, around, and between us. God is here. Right here. Right now. Always. Reaching out to be the centre of our lives. (John 14:18, 15:5-7)

The spiritual challenge is to become aware of God’s presence with such vulnerability and humility and yearning that God’s love for us transforms who we are. That love shapes our way of being in this world into the way of love. Love of God.  Love of self. Love of neighbour.The christian commentator Wiman says that God is like music. For many people however he has become ‘muzac’, that background music played in shops and hotel lifts that you can’t quite hear properly. It is annoying and at times becomes extremely unpleasant. Why? Because the music that is God is a magnificent symphony that demands we listen and it is only when we stop and listen that we appreciate it’s true beauty.

God created us with the gift of reason. It is both good and natural that we develop concepts to articulate our faith and and that we devise moral principles to illuminate faithful living.

But our doctrines and our moral codes do not save us. They do not restore the shattered creation. The risen Christ does that. And that is why genuine faith begins and ends in that sacred relationship with God.

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

Worship in Lockdown -Some thoughts

As we begin to plan a return to church buildings it seems right to give some thought to worship in lockdown-what was good-what was not so good-what lessons might we draw for the future.

My own weekly routine before lockdown included Morning Prayer every day at my local parish church. The normal attendance numbered three. With lockdown we switched to Zoom without any interruption utilising screen sharing for the text. The numbers involved doubled to six and have remained at that level ever since. I miss my early morning walk to the church but one advantage of the new arrangement is that we are now joined by those who live some distance away and would find the daily journey difficult. The worship is very engaging with everyone playing a different part each day. Two Bible readings are included daily, one from the Old Testament so over the course of a year we get to know the Old Testament narratives very well. Two Psalms are included most days and as Psalmody is a feature of Christian worship which Methodists often neglect this is much appreciated (not least by me). Freely led intercessions are also part of the daily programme. Will we continue with Zoom worship after lockdown or will we go back to meeting in the building or will it be possible to have both at once?

In the evening there is Compline at 8.30pm in a similar style by Zoom from Monday to Friday. This is shorter than Morning Prayer with only one short reading. In the circumstances of lockdown it provides a quiet and reflective end to the day. Normal attendance is nine. 

Then on Sundays there are live streamed services provided by the District or by Churches within the District. To my way of thinking this seems similar to broadcasting so the sense of engagement and community is rather weak. Being with others matters to me so as a worship occasion this seems to be rather an impaired experienced. Some Catholics I know are using these strange times to virtually travel the world eavesdropping on the Pope one day or visiting Westminster Cathedral on other days. I think Catholics are happier to do this than Protestants because for Catholics the Mass is not only something shared it is also something seen. As for the concept of spiritual communion facilitated by Zoom I acknowledge that this is controversial and a full celebration of the Lord’s Supper requires a real presence in some sense. Without wishing in any way to contradict Connexional guidance I would favour a prayerful conversation about the character of presence around the Lord’s Table with or without Zoom.

Mindful of the Connexional guidance I did preside at an Agape/Love feast for my house group with an order I devised myself.To be honest I was disappointed because the essence of such worship is sharing and fellowship in a kind of buffet style context. It can be a great experience for Christians who are barred from each other’s Communion services but can come together to be refreshed and invigorated by breaking bread and sharing food and drink together in a prayerful but relatively informal context. Agape/Love feast by Zoom seemed to me to be neither one thing nor the other.

One thing that has worked well on Zoom is Bible study provided that the input from the leader is not too long, screen sharing is used and the opportunity is taken to go into break out groups. Break out groups are surprisingly easy on Zoom. Another useful facility on Zoom is the provision for “chat” whereby references or notes can be effortlessly passed to some or all of the group without interrupting the meeting. You can’t easily do that in a normal Bible study. Well worth trying!

I’d be fascinated to hear of other people’s worship experiences. In these matters we are all learners!