Author Archives: supersutton

Keep on keeping on.

Whilst doing the washing up one evening I mused on the fact that although our frying pan was getting quite old the non-stick surface was still in very good condition, (pity I can’t say the same about the person doing the washing up!).

The story behind the coating on our everyday saucepans is quite remarkable as it was a pure accident that it was discovered.

In 1938 Roy J. Plunkett was working in New Jersey for the DuPont chemical company. As Plunkett attempted to make a new refrigerant, the gas he was using stopped flowing before the bottle’s weight had dropped to the point signalling “empty.” Rather than becoming angry or frustrated he became curious as to the source of the weight, and finally resorted to sawing the bottle apart. He found the bottle’s interior coated with a waxy white material that was oddly slippery, He could have simply thrown the bottle away and dismissed the incident as a freak incident and obtained a new gas bottle but he was intrigued. Analysis showed that the waxy substance was polymerised perfluoroethylene, with the iron from the inside of the container having acted as a catalyst at high pressure. DuPont patented the new fluorinated plastic, PTFE (Polytetrafluroethene), in 1941 and registered the Teflon trademark in 1945. Since then the product of this happy accident has got on to be used in everything from the humble saucepan to the NASA space shuttle.

When faced with a problem or a challenge Plunkett did not become angry or frustrated and give up he persevered in his investigations and so a whole new area of polymer chemistry and engineering was born.

The Bible tells us that we have a God who never gives up and always perseveres. In the Old Testament Moses tells the people not to give up.

“Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: ‘Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their ancestors to give them; and you will put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:6-8)

Later the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews challenged the early church who were drifting back into old ways of thinking and living

“Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence,
‘The Lord is my helper;
   I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:5-6)

How do you cope when beset with problems? Is it “If at first you don’t succeed – give up!”? Or do you persevere to find a solution, a way through your difficulties?

I admit at times it is not easy. During the lockdown having to use a computer for delivering worship still leaves me feeling frustrated and worn-out but also determined to try and find a way of doing things better next time.

So take a deep breath, keep trying and remember God has not given up you and is with you in all your struggles and problems.

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

Go with the flow.

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As a child I remember being in the sea off the Cornish coast with my father when I was caught by an undertow. For a few moments it was very frightening fortunately dad was a good swimmer and we got back to land unscathed.

An undertow is not the same thing as a rip tide. The latter can drag you out to sea and drown you. An undertow sweeps you along for a short distance and spits you out. Unless you’re a small child or a poor swimmer, an undertow won’t kill you. But when you’re surprised by a powerful one, it sure feels like it will.

The first impulse many people feel in those moments is to fight the current. That can make things worse. As counterintuitive as the advice may seem, experts recommend that you swim with the undertow until you feel it release you.

I believe that in our lives we can be caught out by an ‘undertow’. Suddenly life takes a different and unexpected turn and we are swept along to a place we don’t want to be. Our reaction is fight against it, to try and get back to the comfortable life we had. We can spend loads of energy fighting the undertow, when what we need to do is to swim with it.

Instead of denying or trying to work our way out of the circumstances we find ourselves in we need to admit candidly that these are real forces pulling us from the shore. At times like these we need to recognise the undertow will keep us in its grip as long as we fight against it. Our release, and our ability to land on a peaceful shore, can only come after we learn to swimming with it.

This may sound like popular psychology to you. And that’s fine. But strictly speaking I’m talking about one of the enduring lessons of the Bible. Christians traditionally talk about spiritual practices like self-examination and forgiveness as paths to spiritual liberation and restored wholeness.

Take for instance an episode from the Joseph story in Genesis (chapters 37-50).

Years after his brothers had sold him into Egyptian slavery, Joseph had risen to the rank of second in command under Pharaoh. A famine swept the land, and those same brothers turned up begging for food.

Joseph managed to hold it together for a while. These men had degraded him, betrayed him, and tossed aside in an unimaginably cruel way. The ‘undertow’ would have been strong for Joseph, and he initially fought against it. 

Had his spiritual ‘undertow’ merely swept him away, he would have killed or imprisoned his tormentors. Instead, he decided to swim with it.

He acknowledged his pain as his own. The text puts it this way: “Joseph could no longer control himself.” He sent his deputies and guards out of the room. “He wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it.” (Genesis 45:1, 2)

His liberation and healing came with a dual recognition. He put it this way to his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” (Genesis 50:20)

The wounds wrought by their hate still ached within him. And yet God’s love was healing those very wounds. He faced a choice: exact revenge and tumble out of control in reaction to their hate or do the hard, honest work of reconciliation and claim the freedom of God’s healing love.

Joseph chose love. He chose freedom. In other words, he swam with the undertow.

Our present circumstances mean that the undertow of Covid19 has swept us off our feet. Do we swim against it, fighting to get back to the way things were? Or do we swim with it for a season and allow it to bring us safely to a different shore?

God bless and stay safe

Alan.

Mr Wesley’s Bible

The Museum of Methodism – The Museum of Methodism & John Wesley's House

In a previous post I spoke about how as Methodists we have a particular ‘Wesleyan’ way of thinking about faith and theology. Much of that thinking stems out of the way as Methodists approach our bible, not surprisingly we do it methodicaly! 

Before I became a minister when I had a ‘proper job'(!) I would often travel with work which would mean an overnight stay in an hotel. If I ever forget to take my bible with me I wasn’t too worried as there would be a Gideons bible in the hotel room I could use. One of the good things in the Gideons version of the bible is an index which suggests bible passages that will help you in times of need, whether you are anxious, depressed, facing challenges etc. It means you don’t have to rifle through the pages trying to find a particular passage to offer help or comfort. 

The phrase “searching the scriptures” is old-fashioned, as if we are looking for buried treasure. Yet this is an accurate description for a truly Wesleyan way to read the Bible. In his preface to The Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, one of his most important texts, John Wesley describes his purpose in having done the background research and then having written the commentary notes. The Explanatory Notes are not written for intellectuals or professional scholars. Rather, they are written “for plain, unlettered men, who understand only their mother tongue, and yet reverence and love the word of God, and have a desire to save their souls.” This comment, along with many other statements Wesley makes about the Bible, demonstrate that for Wesley, reading the Bible is for the explicit purpose of Christian transformation. We “search” the scriptures, leaving no stone unturned, expecting to encounter the living God and discover life-changing guidance in its pages.

John Wesley was sometimes mocked for his deep love of scripture. Some of his detractors called him a “Bible moth.” He called himself a “man of one book,” an interesting designation considering he read widely from many disciplines, including science and medicine. In fact the most popular book in his lifetime that he wrote was Primitive Physic, a guide to holistic medicine. When he referenced himself as a man of one book, then, what he meant was the central role the Bible played in his thought and life. In reading through his journals, sermons, and other writings, it is obvious that his life and thoughts  have been shaped by the Bible.

Even so, Wesley didn’t understand the Bible to be infallible in the way some interpreters prefer today. As a life long high, tory Anglican priest Wesley’s doctrine of scripture was guided by the Anglican Articles of Faith and the Confession and they never refer to the text of scripture as “inspired,” nor do they call the Bible “the Word of God.” It’s clear that Wesley believed the Bible was inspired by God, but it is doubtful that he should be characterised as an inerrantist in the contemporary sense of the term. The Anglican Confession states that the Bible “reveals the word of God.” Despite his deep love of scripture, Wesley never preached a sermon focusing exclusively on the Bible, nor did he write a treatise about it. For Wesley scripture was the ocean on which he sailed his boat of faith allowing the bible to permeating his thought, words, and actions.

In his preface to the Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament, Wesley advises the following. First, the reader should set aside time morning and evening, habitually, to read a full chapter each from both the Old and New Testaments. If there is not time for two chapters, the reader should select one chapter or a portion of one chapter. The goal in this reading is for one purpose: to know and do the will of God. Because the goal is Christian formation, Wesley urges readers to keep in mind at all times the basic themes and doctrines of the Christian faith as interpretive lenses. The reader must pray for the Holy Spirit to illumine his or her mind to receive the spiritual understanding of the text, something that doesn’t happen automatically and without which the reading will be useless. While reading one should move slowly through the passage, pausing to reflect often so that the text can aid the reader in self-examination, with the scripture sometimes comforting, sometimes challenging, and sometimes convicting the reader of the need for change. Finally, one should immediately put into practice any guidance or instructions that come through this twice-daily practice of searching the scriptures.

The goal in searching the scriptures is that we increasingly bear the love and grace of God to our neighbours because God’s word has become alive in us. Sometimes when searching the scriptures we don’t seem to notice anything that speaks to us. We may not always feel anything, or find ourselves drawn to an image or idea in the text. There are times when we read the Bible and, despite our best intentions, it seems dry to us. At such times, we may rest in the love of God and simply let the experience be what it is. The important thing is to regularly pray with scripture in this way. Over time, as we habitually search the scriptures with our hearts open to God, we will be shaped by the word.

God bless and happy reading. Alan.

Wrestling with God.

Man meets Milky Way | ESO

When I was a child my Grandfather lived with us for a number of weeks and I really enjoyed spending time with him, having breakfast together where he would eat most of a white loaf of bread covered with what in Yorkshire was called ‘mucky fat’ (I never took to that delicacy!), listening to the stories of his childhood (the more gruesome the better!) and Saturday afternoon meant watching World of Sport especially the wrestling, as he sat on the edge of the sofa sucking furiously on his pipe and stamping is foot at every move. This was the early 1960s, decades before the high-end productions of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment). Live wrestling was filmed in front of a small audience at some town hall or other.

The wrestlers were more big than physically fit (think Big Daddy) and I’ve come to believe that professional wrestling is choreographed without being completely fake. It’s entertainment and yet it’s also a sport requiring strength, agility, and toughness.

By contrast, on a dark night along the banks of the Jabbok, Jacob laid it all on the line. He wrestled with God. And he wrestled with himself. (Genesis 32;22-32)

This was not a fight for biological survival. Jacob was wrestling with life’s fundamental question. What am I really living for? Who or what will be the god of my life?
 As a young man Jacob had swindled his older and perhaps dimmer, brother Esau out of his birthright. Twice.

Jacob fled his brother’s murderous rage and was working for his uncle, Laban, in another town. While he was tending Laban’s flocks, he married both the older man’s daughters and managed to swindle his uncle out of a good portion of his wealth.

Once again Jacob had to flee. This time he headed back in the direction of his old home and the brother he had cheated. The Jabbok River marked the beginning of Esau’s territory.

An advance team of Jacob’s hired hands had come back with the news that Esau was on his way to greet his brother. With 400 men in tow, it didn’t look good for Jacob!

In the person of what he assumed would be a vengeful and heavily armed brother, Jacob was coming face-to-face with himself. The mess he had made by being himself was about to serve as a mirror for his spiritual condition.

Jacob always pursued what Jacob wanted by depending upon Jacob’s wits. He was a self-centered, manipulative striver. To get what he desired, he had no qualms about lying and stealing.

Jacob did religious things. He prayed and erected altars and offered sacrifices. But God did not seem to be the god of his life. Jacob was the god of his own life.

And now, in the dark, at water’s edge, it all came crashing down. His way of living had led him to catastrophic disaster.

So Jacob wrestled. All night he grappled with a powerful stranger, refusing to submit to his more powerful opponent. As the hours wore on, he started to think that maybe he was getting the upper hand. The stranger, despite his superior strength, would have to submit to him. 

With the sun’s first rays on the horizon, the stranger said, “Let me go.” And Jacob’s heart froze. He heard in those words this truth:

You’ve lived your whole life trying to make everything bend to your will and fulfill your desires. You’ve wanted to make all things and all people submit to you. You see now where this path leads. Catastrophe. Choose another way. A better way. Let go.

In response, Jacob asked for and received a blessing. Jacob became Israel. God became the God of his life.

If you read the rest of Jacob’s story, you’ll see that this transformation was not, in fact, instantaneous. Nor was it finally completed in Jacob’s lifetime. He still manipulated others, and played favourites among his own children.

It seems likely that Jacob wrestled with God, and with himself, repeatedly in the succeeding years. And in that thought I find some comfort.

God knows that I still wrestle with myself from time to time. And God will keep wrestling with me, as long as it takes.

What are you wrestling with at the moment in your life? What is God asking you to ‘let go’? I believe this passage has profound important for the Methodist Church at this moment, it did inspire Charles Wesley to write one of his shorter hymns (only 12 verses), “Come, O thou Traveller unknown,” – Singing the Faith 461. As a church we are the River Jabbok. The Covid-19 crisis has opened up  the mistakes of the past and we are challenged into having to let go to cherished but now impractical models of church, but we seemingly can’t. We rush to reopen churches waving our risk assessment documents which tell us how, but not why. Do we need to do some more wrestling with God? 

God bless and take care,Alan.

Wesleyan Thoughts

File:John Wesley. Reproduction of mezzotint by J. Faber, junior ...

Dear friends,

One of the pleasant surprises of our current situation has been the number of people engaged in theological debate. It may be a surprise to some as they would not have thought that they were doing theology but every question, comment and thought over the past weeks is doing theology.

Sadly in our western culture we have confined Theology to an academic discipline, but at its basic it is words/thoughts (logos) about God (theos). Rev Dr John Taylor once said you can have a theology about anything because it is simply asking two questions, ‘What has this got to do with God?’ and ‘What has God got to do with this?’ whatever the ‘this’ is.

This doesn’t mean that everyone does good theology. Good, faithful, specifically Christian theology doesn’t come naturally. Orthodox theology is imaginative thinking that is formed by and responsive to Scripture, the faith of the church, and the promptings of the Holy Spirit right now in our lives. There is well formed, informed theology, and then there is theology that is merely “what seems right to me” or “here is the latest idea on the internet.”

Do not attempt theology at home! Faithful Christian theology is a group activity. Our God is so wonderfully complex, dynamic, mysterious, and counter to who we expect God to be that you need help from your friends—saints, past and present—to think about the Trinity. As Wesley said, Christianity is a “social religion”—you can’t do it alone.

The good news is that you don’t have to come up with words about or words from God—theology—on your own. Wesleyan Christians are those who think about God along with the Wesleys and the church to which they gave birth. The theological revolution begun in eighteenth-century England has now spread to every corner of the globe. “Warm hearts and active hands” is a good summary of theology in the Wesleyan tradition.

You don’t have to be a Wesleyan to do faithful Christian theology, but forgive me for thinking that it really helps. John and Charles Wesley’s discoveries about God still astound and challenge us today. The worldwide renewal of the church launched by the Wesleys has exceeded their wildest dreams. Wesleyan “practical divinity” (John Wesley’s favourite description for his sort of theology) is as revolutionary and as badly needed today as ever.

Mark 10:17 says that a rich man stopped Jesus and asked a deep theological question: “What must I do to obtain eternal life?” Jesus, who appears to have had a low tolerance for prosperous types, brushed him off with, “Obey the Ten Commandments.”

“I’ve obeyed all the commandments since I was a child,” replied the man.

Then Mark says, “Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him”—the only time that Jesus is said to have loved a specific individual. Then, in one of the wildest demands Jesus ever made of anybody (because “he loved him”?) Jesus told the man, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, then come, follow me.”

With that Mark says that the man got depressed and departed, leaving Jesus to lament, “It is very difficult to save those who have lots of stuff.”

The Wesleyan in me loves Jesus’s response to the man’s big theological question. Refusing to be drawn into an intellectual discussion about “eternal life” (which Jesus discusses only rarely), Jesus hits the man with ethics here on earth—the Ten Commandments, redistribution of wealth, moral transformation, discipleship. Here this rather smug, successful person attempts to lure Jesus into abstract, speculative theology; but Jesus, after citing scripture, forces the man to talk about obedience and action. Jesus doesn’t say to him, “think,” “ponder,” or “reflect.” Rather he speaks to him only in active verbs: “Go . . . sell . . . give . . . follow me.”

It was a wonderfully Wesleyan theological moment. The man wants a relaxed discussion; Jesus gives him practical and demanding action. Never did Jesus say, “Think about me!” He said, “Follow me!” All the man may have wanted was an open-minded exchange of vague, spiritual ideas about “eternal life.” What he got was a call to go, sell, give, and be a disciple.

When Wesley discusses this passage in his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, he focuses on both Jesus’s love for this person and the need for loving personal response: “The love of God, without which all religion is a dead carcass.” Then Wesley exhorts, “In order to obtain this, throw away what is to you the grand hindrance of it. Give up your great idol, riches.”

I think Mark 10:21 is the only place in the Gospels where someone is called by Jesus to be a disciple and refuses. Yet for all that, it’s an explicitly Wesleyan discipleship moment. God’s love is gracious but also demanding. Wesley was suspicious of any theology that couldn’t be put into practice; warmed hearts and good intentions were no substitute for active hands. And the point of having deep conversations with Jesus about what to believe is to be better equipped to obey Jesus. Theological reflection on Jesus is in service of better following Jesus. And even Jesus’s demands upon us, his call for relinquishment and giving, are gracious testimony to his love for us. To think in this fashion is theology in the Wesleyan spirit. In his tract “The Character of a Methodist,” Wesley noted that Methodism is distinguished not by unique doctrines but by a shared commitment to theological renewal and active obedience to a living Lord. “Plain truth for plain people” Wesley called his theology—theological thinking for practical, Christian living.

What an adventure to think like a Wesleyan!

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

Pivot Points.

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I have spent my entire ministry believing that disruption can be a good thing. Maybe that’s hard to accept in the midst of a pandemic. But when things are disrupted, something new can break in. I recently read an article about how the bush in Australia is springing back to life after the devastating fires last year. In fact there are some seeds which will not germinate until they have been through the fire.

My ministry was born out of a frustration that too often we perpetuate models of church that no longer apply to the world in which we live, excluding and leaving people behind. To me, that is the antithesis of the hope of the gospel. While we may can discuss and plan for change sadly it isn’t until a crisis that change really happens.

Often in business and in life these are called pivot points, where there is a sudden change in direction. For the ‘pivot’ to be successful there needs to be five stages.

1. Recognition
Recognition is often the hardest stage in the process. You have to see that something isn’t working.

Human nature predisposes us to retell a narrative suggesting that something is working when really it isn’t. We are afraid of admitting when things start to go wrong. To recognise that something isn’t working does not mean that nothing good has come of it — rather, that the good is fading and we are putting more and more resources into something that is declining.

I believe the pandemic and the lock down has held a mirror up to us and we have to look hard at what we see. Is our church really as wonderful and successful as we like to tell ourselves? Are we now at a ‘come-to-Jesus moment’? Does the church have to change?

We can extend this to the COVID-19 world around us as well. Can’t we recognise that there is something broken in our ecclesiology and in our economics? Can’t we see that our churches’ economic models are failing when the church looks as busy and stressed out as the business world?

It is time to recognize that we’ve been totally out of control and the way we’ve been living hasn’t been good for people or the planet.

2. Grief
 Once you recognize that things have to change, you feel loss — and with it, a deep fear because of the uncertainty of what will replace it.

Christians are a people that believe in a gospel of death and resurrection. But too often, we rush from death to resurrection and don’t acknowledge the pain and the loss. The challenge here is not to rush or move on too quickly. We need to acknowledge the loss and make space for our feelings.

With the current pandemic crisis, we’ve lost some of our sense of security. We are separated from others. Our economy is crumbling around us. And one of the hardest things is that we aren’t comfortable with grief. If we cannot acknowledge what is being lost, it is impossible to move forward in a healthy way. Grief needs a way to commemorate and memorialise.

3. Learning
 You don’t want to sit in grief forever. In this step, we start to see the things we want to take with us and the things we need to leave behind. We need to find a way to sift through the rubble and pull out the essential and meaningful parts from the past, but we also need to identify the assumptions that were problematic.

In our new COVID-19 world, we are still learning, but some lessons are becoming clear: how fragile our economic and civil systems are, as well as our models of church.

If we really have the courage to be honest, people on the margins have been telling us this all along. The church has been measuring success by the number of people in the pews and the amount of money in the offering plate — as if that reflected authentic discipleship or the existence of beloved community.

Surely, we are realizing that individualism only gets us so far. We are interconnected. The opportunity here is to ask, What, then, is our path toward mutuality and interdependence, toward mercy and justice?

4. Renewed vision
 There has been a lot of talk in recent years about “knowing your why.” Why are you here? Not just why is this building here in this place, but why are you in this community? Why are you running these groups? Why are you involved in this mission? If you cannot come up with some serious answers then you have lost your ‘why’ To what end are we working? What is our desired impact? What transformation do we want see in people, places, policies or systems? When you think through the lens of impact and purpose — the why — then you can more easily redesign the how and the what.

This is the step where hope can break back in. It’s where we can be more aware of both the opportunities and the challenges. We understand the reason we exist, and we can acknowledge our false assumptions.

I don’t know the why for the UK or the world in this time of crisis. But for Christians, surely our why takes us back to the fact that we are not meant to serve ourselves but the Lord. We are called to love God and love our neighbour as we love ourselves. Maybe that seems simplistic. But it is the answer Jesus gave when asked what is the heart of the gospel.

5. Re-imagined practice
 Once you get clearer on your why and the impact you want to have, then you can re-imagine the how. This is where new practice can be developed.

In stage five, we hit the place where it is time to be brave again. But as we start, we do it with our eyes wide open. Rather than holding on to the complexity we once cherished, this restructuring allows each church to focus on its mission and landscape and live out its prophetic imagination. It should be a new peared down more responsive church not always wondering how can we keep this group or that particular piece of work going a bit longer but where does God want us to be now, where does he want us to be in 5, 10 even 20 years time.
The world needs us to show up as a hopeful people and to be good news people. And this current crisis gives us the perfect opportunity to turn the world upside down with the gospel. 

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

The Cheerful Unrepentant Weeds*

Weed Soil Types - What Weeds Say About The Landscape

Dear Friends one of the businesses that has bucked the trend of lockdown have been garden centres and nurseries, perhaps the thought of spending your summer holiday in the back garden has prompted many people to make the most of it.

 However there is a down side to having the perfect border or a well manicured lawn. The Department of Agriculture once produced a report that said that over 50% of our native wildflowers were seen as weeds by the public. Weeds –  undesirable, without purpose, unwanted by some. Weeds that have to be uprooted or poisoned with weedkiller.

Yet Jesus seemed very fond of weeds, “Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these.” (Luke 12:27) 

Jesus always sought out the company of the undesirable and the unwanted – lepers, Samaritans, women, children, the blind, the deaf, the lame – his severest criticism was for the religious snobs of his day with their watering cans of theological weedkiller. 

Sadly in the life of our church we too have been too eager to uproot what we perceive to be ‘weeds’. It is sometimes argued that Christianity with its emphasis on the gospel and conversion is guilty of ‘othering’ – defining different expressions of Christian faith incorrect or not really for us. 

As a teenager my youth group took part in a Sunday service where the youth group leader accompanied the singing on his guitar. Before final Amen had stopped reverberating in the rafters, a steward stormed to the front of church and very loudly told us it was the most disgraceful act of worship he had ever seen. The fact that it was his son who was the youth club leader made no difference.

Sadly the youth club ceased to meet a little later and a few years after that the church closed. But the one thing that still annoys me is that  out of our small youth group I am the only one left who is active in the life of the church. 

We need to let some ‘weeds’ flourish in our little patch, allow others to bring their vibrancy and uniqueness to the life of the Church and give our churches a future to grow into. 

God bless,

Alan. 

*The title of a poem by Jan Sutch Pickard in ‘Dandelions and Thistles’ – Wild Goose Publications, 1999.

Interrupted by Angels.

One of the great ‘lost’ poems of English literature is Kubla Khan by Samuel Coleridge Taylor. Coleridge claimed to have perceived the entire course of the poem in a dream (probably aided by opium!) but was interrupted by an un-named visitor from Porlock while in the process of writing it. Only the first 54 lines were written down and the poem was never completed. Now it may not be a work of romantic poetry but we have all had the experience of being interrupted in the middle of a task and then struggled to remember what we were doing.

In Genesis we read of Jacob having a similar experience, (Genesis 28:1-22). Jacob’s father, Isaac, sent him to Paddan Aram to find a wife. This may seem extraordinary in our culture where marriage is often entered into without direction from anyone but Jacob obeys his father and sets out on a journey not realising that his journey will be interrupted by angels.

Jacob camps for the night and in this ordinary setting he dreams of a stairway going from earth to heaven.  Angels are on the staircase and if that were not enough, the God of Abraham is just above the stairway with a message for our traveler. After identifying himself, the Lord promises Jacob that his family will multiply and they in turn will bless many other people. 

As if the promise is not enough, God reassured Jacob that he would be with him and never leave him. One would think Jacob’s worries were behind him. Yet when he awakens he is afraid. His fear may have been based on a sense of God’s Holiness or perhaps he was insecure and wondered what to do next.

Our lives have been interrupted not by a visitor, nor by angels but by a virus. Our plans have been turned upside-down, tasks remain unfinished and like Samuel Coleridge Taylor we are angry and upset. Like Jacob we are fearful.

Throughout this time I keep coming back to the words of Julian of Norwich ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ Wonderful reassuring words, but at times I am not reassured. Like Jacob I wake in a morning and am fearful and concerned.

Jacob erects a crude structure dedicated to the God he has encountered and he promises that this is the beginning of a house for God. Then he makes a vow to God promising to follow him. God has already promised care, but Jacob needs reassurance. He can’t be satisfied with the free gift of God’s grace. He must add to it.

Like Jacob we have difficulty taking God at his word, or even the words of Julian of Norwich.  We insist on adding to the gift of grace when God has already assured us he loves us. Much of our religious work may be more for our benefit rather than the Creators. God had already promised to be with Jacob. His faith story included a gift of grace as does ours. God has unconditionally promised us that he will be with us no matter what, yet we want to prove we are worthy of God. We no longer see grace as a gift but as a reward for good behaviour or faithful service. Yet grace, God’s wonderful grace, will always remain a gift. And no matter how hard we try to please God our efforts are no more than a crude pile of rocks like Jacob’s altar.

So take a deep breath, stop what you are doing, forget what you want to achieve today and allow you life to be interrupted by angels.

God bless,

Alan.

“Lowly and humble, a learner of thee”*

We continue to remain in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the challenge of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, the threads of virus and violence — medicine and morality, disease and dis-ease, weave together to challenge our everyday lives.  As this combination intensifies the complexity of our situation and increases our anxiety in the midst of it we find ourselves drawn back into the question, “How then shall we live?”

I find instruction and inspiration from remembering that we are disciples of Jesus Christ. The two salient features of the word disciple are learner and follower. These two qualities of spiritual life help us to live in the midst of the pandemic.

First, I am a learner.

This is true in terms of both the virus and the violence. I am not a doctor, and I am not among those who are being oppressed. Whatever else being a disciple means, right now it means committing to the spiritual discipline of deep listening. And for me, having lived every day of my life in the bubble of white privilege and functioning for decades in the preaching/teaching mode, the necessity for deep listening is a spiritual discipline. That is, it is going against the grain of my entitled status and my preaching role, both of which dispose me to speak (and write) more than listen.

Maria Shriver recently wrote on her blog “There is an awakening, but it is partial — not just some people and not others, but some parts of ourselves and not other parts. We’re at war within and without — between the new and the old.” I believe we are on a path of awakening. Sadly, it is a path strewn with harm brought about by individual and collective inhumanity

The words from Maria  are a call to people like me (and many of you reading this) to adopt a learning disposition even as we do our best to work for the common good. If we can have eyes to see this new day (Mark 8:18), we will recognise it is a moment pregnant with potential for disciples, for those willing to be learners. This is a particular kind of learning. It is the kind of learning Jesus invited his first followers to engage in, the learning which comes when we are willing to see old things in new ways. Six times in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard … but I say.” 

This kind of learning occurs when we refuse to make the status quo a sacred cow. We may be called to be peace makers but we are not called to simply keep the peace. Remember Jesus himself said “I bring not peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). It is the learning that happens when we listen to the voices of those previously ignored or silenced by prejudice and subjugation. It is the learning that takes place as we pay attention to the mystic/prophets, who in their own ways are telling us that God is doing a new thing. It is the learning which happens only when we are willing to take risks, form new relationships, and be labeled “defectors” by those who place a greater value on preserving the past than seeing how the past is evolving into the future as it passes through the refining fire of the present

And second, I am a follower.

The mindset of a learner must become the movement of a follower. Christ is always on the move, and we are to follow him. This too can be described in more than one way. I use the model given to us in the second trinity – faith, hope and love

Faith. Spiritual life in a pandemic means trusting God in two ways simultaneously: for eternity (the long haul) and in time (the short run). In Western Christianity we are pretty good at the first but we would rather trust in our own strength and wisdom for the second.

With respect to faith in eternity it means we trust that the plan of God is moving forward despite the pandemic. That plan is described by Paul, “This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). 

Faith in time means believing that God works in history for our good, through the wisdom and guidance of those who know the most about the viral pandemic, the medical community. Spiritual life in the viral pandemic means listening to the doctors and following their advice, not following the politicians and some ministers who would have us disregard the wisdom of science. “Have faith” is not a substitute for having common sense. Spiritual life in time of disease means being smart and constantly remembering that ‘God is with us, and nothing can separate us from God’s love’ (Romans 8:38). “Have faith” is no excuse for ignoring the call for justice neither is telling those who suffer injustice that they will ‘get their reward in heaven’.

Hope. Spiritual life in the pandemic means remaining confident that “this too shall pass.” Confidence enables us to endure. It is what Jesus called “the good foundation”, the strength to weather the storm. Confidence says, “Nevertheless,” and says it over and over. Spiritual life as hope is the inhaling of the Spirit, as the Strengthener, who makes real Jesus’ promise, “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:20)

From that sacred center, hope gives rise to our willingness to do what we can to respect others (e.g. wearing masks and resisting brutality) and to be helpful. Hope is offering ourselves to God as instruments of God’s peace in the process of moving into the new normal.

Love. Spiritual life in a pandemic means being rooted and grounded in love, which can be summarised in the two great commandments, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and your neighbour as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:37,38), and the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-26). Living within these things, we apply them in two directions.

First we love ourselves. This is not selfishness, it’s survival. It means exercising self-care with respect to such things as reasonable precautions, conscientious hygiene, a good diet, and ample sleep. As Friedrich Buechner says “Pay mind to your own life, your own health, and wholeness. A bleeding heart is of no help to anyone if it bleeds to death.” (Telling Secrets, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991)

From the strength of that inner love, we love others. Love is the motive which ignites the driving force to reach out to others. Spiritual life in a pandemic is the life of love, turned inward and thrust outward. It is the life created by the union of contemplation and action.

Jesus said he came to give us abundant life (John 10:10). In a time of pandemic, we must “ask, seek, and knock” for it with determination, and we must recognize that it will fluctuate as we face new challenges and experience fatigue as we do so. 

Taken together, learning and following provide a means to gain the perspective and to enact the words of the prophet, “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). Spiritual life in a pandemic means being a true disciple of Jesus.

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

* ‘Come let us sing of wonderful love’ – Robert Walmsley (Singing the faith 443)

Divine Silence

When I was a minister in Darlington, Co. Durham, the local Roman Catholic parish church was the chapel of a Carmelite Convent and when we had ecumenical services at the church we were joined by the nuns of the order. I say joined as we never saw them, being an enclosed order they were in a transept separated from the rest of the church by an ornate screen. Only the Abbess came to say goodbye with the parish priest at the end of the service. I suspect for those nuns the lockdown we are living through will have had little impact on their daily routine. In Christian monasteries, silent mindfulness became part of the everyday routine in the sixth century after the appearance of a book of monastic principles and guidelines called The Rule of Saint Benedict.

The author of The Rule, Benedict of Nursia, lived during the chaotic last years of ancient Rome, a period of plagues, intolerance, and, for some early Christians, self-isolation. (Sounds familiar!)

Rather than retreat to the desert attempting to imitate Christ in acts of extreme asceticism, Benedict wanted a monastic life that combined ora et labora — work and prayer. It should impose, he thought, “nothing harsh or rigorous.”

The monastic lifestyle may seem stark for modern times, but Benedict’s take on religious contemplation was moderate compared to the experiments of his era. His guidance for monks — which begins with an invitation to listen with “the ear of the heart”, quickly became central to monastic life.

Some 1,400 years after Benedict’s Rules, Thomas Merton’s writings about his experience as an American Trappist monk influenced generations of Christians seeking spiritual healing.

For Merton, like Benedict, being alone in silence was not about withdrawal from the world . Rather, solitude, as the foundation for heightened self-awareness, led to greater compassion for others. Merton expressed this realization, which sustained his lifelong activism in peace and social justice causes, in No Man Is an Island, published in 1955 and now a classic in Christian spirituality.

“We cannot find ourselves within ourselves, but only in others,” he wrote, “yet at the same time before we can go out to others we must first find ourselves.”

Solitude is not an easy practice, but following the way of solitude is not about being perfect. A modern practitioner of monastic solitude Fr. Antony de Mello says “keep it simple and keep it moving”. De Mello focused on reflective silence as a way of detaching from the words, concepts and emotions that can cause trouble. His 1978 bestseller, Sadhana — A Way to God: Christian Exercises in Eastern Form, offers practical advice with an encouraging “Well, that’s a good start” message.

When every day conspires against inner peace, moments of solitude are all the more worthwhile. So don’t see the current enforced solitude as a problem but seek it’s blessings.

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.