Author Archives: supersutton

Church and Crown

The Crown: Netflix Confirms Fourth Season For The Fall And Here Is All You  Need To Know

One of the big hits for Netflix, the television streaming service, has been ‘The Crown’. It is beautiful, compelling and emotional programming — drama well crafted, stories well told, and above all, it is a visual feast.

The disorienting quality of the series is that it is no documentary. While creator Peter Morgan says that the show has been thoroughly researched and is true in spirit, each episode so seamlessly intermingles what is known with what is imagined that any viewer may have difficulty deciding what is fact and what is fiction.

Did Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher say that to Her Majesty the queen in their weekly audience? Did Princess Diana really roller-skate around the palace because she was lonely and bored? Is Prince Philip always in such a foul mood?

The vision for ‘The Crown’ is of an institution that leads almost exclusively by looking backward. Royal duty is portrayed as synonymous with preserving inviolate continuity with the past. Decisions in the Buckingham Palace of the series are framed by cautions like, “Remember your great-grandmother Queen Mary” or, “What would your father have done?” In the series we see Prince Philip trying to modernise the way the palace works , constantly battling with courtiers from King George VI’ s day whom he refers to as ‘the moustaches’. Watching this I am reminded of every church committee that has ever protested, “But we have never done it that way before.”

The Christian commentator Gregory L Jones once wrote “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living,”. Not on religious matters alone but in almost everything. Yet, despite the portrayal of the battles within the British court, Queen Elizabeth has done much to advance the monarchy from a medieval institution to a more modern one while simultaneously preserving what is at its heart. History with adaptation. Tradition with responsible innovation. This pattern of change and development should be true for the church. Church leadership inevitably involves the stewardship of tradition as well as enabling the church to change and respond to situations our forbears could have never conceived of.

Our churches are not ahistorical organisations, we must find our place in a polyphonic tradition that reaches back in history before there were royals in England, before England was England, (and Scotland was Scotland, and Wales was Wales, before somebody comments!)

That past informs our future, but what matters is how we allow it to do so. We cannot lament what lies ahead of us in hopes of returning to the past or perpetuating it perfectly; this is the Christian problem with nostalgia. Instead, we must reckon with the past, retrieving from it the best and lamenting in it the worst, all for the sake of God’s future.

2021 has started with as many challenges as 2020 gave us our response is vital for the future life of the church how do we adapt and innovate whilst maintaining the heart of our Methodist tradition? (And there are two more series of ‘The Crown’ still to come!)

God bless and stay safe,

Alan

A Very Messy Christmas

1,374 Broken Christmas Ornament Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free  Images - iStock

“In those days a decree went out from the Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be registered.” (Luke 2:1)

So begins St. Lukes account of the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so begins a nightmare for Mary and Joseph. In the final weeks of her pregnancy Mary would have her plans for the birth, her mother (traditionally St Anne) would have been awaiting the call, the village ‘sage femme’ (midwives) were prepared – they had done this many hundreds of times. Joseph would have received reassurance from the men of the village and been told to keep well out of the way until it was all over – and then some emperor thousands of miles away scuppers all the plans and preparations! So off Mary and Joseph go to a town they did not know with a non-existent donkey. (At least they could travel)

Now I don’t want to draw too many parallels between the nativity and Christmas 2020, and I definitely don’t want to say that a British Prime Minister is behaving like Caesar Augustus, but there is something about the messy confusion of our Christmas this year and the messiness of the birth of Jesus.

May be that is not a bad thing. We have become too comfortable with our Christmas celebrations, we know what is happening, we do the same things each year call them traditions but really it is so we don’t have to think too much about what we are doing and what the birth of Jesus means and should mean to our lives.

Many of us have had to change our plans at the last minute this year presents will remain unopened, food placed in the freezer (if there is room) and a schedule of telephone and FaceTime calls arranged for Christmas day.

Yet in the middle of all this confusion is the one constant, the helpless babe that is Christ our Saviour. In the Nativity God says he cares naught for our plans and preparations instead we are called, like the shepherds to leave behind what we are doing and come and adore Immanuel, God with us. And then like the Wise Men abandon our future plans and start following a new road.

A happy and peaceful Christmas to you all,

Alan.

Leaving and Going

Ruth💑💍💒#TraditionalCatholic on Instagram: “FIRST WEEK OF ADVENT --HOPE--  🙏 The Hope Candle serves as a reminder of the h… | Advent hope, Advent  candles, Advent

As a child I was always sad when our summer holiday came to an end and we were leaving behind all the fun and excitement of being on the beach or visiting new and different places, but as we were going home there was the rising excitement of meeting up with my friends and making the new Airfix kit I had bought with some of my holiday money. ‘Leaving or Going.’ Both these words can be used about the same event but reflect very different emotions.

If we talk about leaving in terms of departing, we can think about the pain of leaving with the sadness parents might feel as they prepare for a child leaving home to go to university, the anxiety one might experience in leaving one job to take on a new role, or the pain of losing someone dearly loved with the throat tightening words — “they have left us.” Leaving focuses us on the person or the place that will no longer be with us. Leaving evokes a sadness or sense of loss.

However if we replace leaving with going we can elicit a different sense of emotions. Going points to a destination. Going is a word of hope. When a parent’s language changes from “my child is leaving home” to “my son is going to College,” or “my daughter is going to University,” there is a change in the tenor of the voice to one of expectation and promise, even though the pain of leaving is still present. Likewise, the pain and hopelessness of the death of a loved one is softened by the knowledge that, yes, my dearest has left us, but my loved one is going to be with the Lord. The sense of destination elicits hope and comfort.

One of the great themes of Advent is ‘Hope’. During this season Isaiah chapter 40 reminds us that God’s Word offers us hope, even in the midst of difficult situations. The grass withers, and flowers fade, but the hope and strength of God’s Word stands forever. Hope. True biblical, theological hope is more than just wishful thinking. The ‘I hope the weather will be sunny tomorrow’ type of hope. True hope is the cry for a change in circumstances that seem hopeless. It begins with a cry of anger and desperation but hope does not leave us there. True hope gives light to a path out of our desperate situation.

The hope of Isaiah functions similarly. It begins in the midst of Israel’s distress as indicated in verse one. There is no need to cry “comfort, comfort my people!” if Jerusalem was not upset or in distress and in need of comforting. So it is imperative that we remember the context of this word of hope. The people of Jerusalem have been in exile and have experienced Babylonian captivity, economic devastation, and upheaval of life as they knew it. The prophet is challenging them to cease their focus on what they have left and to rejoice about where God has promised to take them. They are to imagine cities rebuilt, restoration of the nation, thriving economic life, and their restored relationship with God. God offers them a word of hope not based on their current condition, but based on their future, directed with promise and abundant life. It is not based on leaving, but rather, based on where they are going.

It is so easy to get stuck in the desperation of life — the pain, the struggles, what we don’t have or can’t afford to do — rather than to focus on the hope provided to us in the birth of Christ Jesus. Our Advent hope is based on the knowledge that our joy comes from God leaving heaven, giving up the crown of glory to come to earth. When God asked, “Who will go for us,” God decided to take on flesh, come in person, and dwell among humanity to light the way for us. God’s destination was not just to come as a babe in a stable. Even in leaving glory, God had a final destination in mind — the cross and Resurrection. So on this side of Calvary, we can celebrate the light of Christ preparing the way for us. We understand that the birth of the Christ Child points to a destination for our salvation.

God does not say that we will not have valleys, mountains, and crooked places in life. Adversity, pain, and trial are a part of life’s journey. Yet even in the midst of traversing life’s difficulties, God cries “comfort, comfort my people!” Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, is the light that makes the crooked paths we create for ourselves, straight. He lifts the valleys of oppression, He destroys the mountains of depression, anxiety, and stress from our lives — in God’s time and in God’s way. Advent is a reminder that Jesus Christ is our hope in the midst of the troubles of life.

God bless and stay safe, Alan.

Veni, veni Immanuel

The (Hidden) Theology and History of O Come O Come Emmanuel - Daniel Im

Dear friends,

during Advent, we sing hymns such as, “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” and “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.” These songs anticipate the hope that God’s people felt as they waited for this Saviour. During the four Sundays of Advent we  light candles of hope, peace, love, and joy, like a clock counting down to God’s intervention. My family has a hand sewn Advent calendar with numbered pockets which are filled with a surprise each day as we count down to Christmas.

Waiting for something that has already happened is a curious practice. Explaining the season of Advent can quite difficult but talk to any couple expecting their first child and you begin to understand the ‘now but not yet’ of Advent. When a child is in the womb, the child is certainly real even though you can’t hold the baby in your arms. A mother’s body changes, subtle flutters soon become kicks, and ultrasounds reveal a profile. The child is certainly real, but not yet born. It’s kind of like recording kick counts as the baby’s due date approaches. Ask any mother — the baby is already here, but not yet born.

The Advent season plays with our notion of time. The church gathers in the present to ponder the past for a future hope. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a beautiful story for the Advent season because it is a tale in which the past, present and future all come together in one transformative night. Certainly this story is about Scrooge’s love of money and his altruistic failures, but it is also a story about how Scrooge cannot let go of his past. Early in the story, after establishing that Marley had been dead for some time, Dickens writes, “Scrooge never painted out Old Marley’s name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door: Scrooge and Marley” (Stave One). Scrooge seems to cling to the past because his (only?) friend Marley represented the only things in which Scrooge trusts: hard work, frugality, unwavering discipline and actions that can be weighed, measured and counted.

Jesus came to save us from counting our past as our only reality. It’s like when Moses led God’s people out of Egyptian slavery into the wilderness. Before they reached the Promised Land, the Book of Exodus says, “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt … for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger’” (Exodus 16:2-3). Because living in the wilderness was difficult and they were caught wandering between where they had been and where they were heading, the people complained and wished they had died as slaves. The people became stubborn and bitter (see Exodus 32:9), almost “Scroogelike” in their relationship with God and one another. Instead of moving forward in faith, trusting that God was with them, the people kept looking over their shoulders, hopelessly lamenting over the way things were.

Advent is like living in the wilderness between what was and what will be. Living into this tension, remembering God’s promises, and depending on faith become spiritual disciplines that keep us from becoming Scrooges ourselves. Even though the Promised Land may seem far off, we hold tightly to the promises of our God, for “he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).

This advent more then any other advent we need to rely on the God of promise.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel

shall come to you, O Israel

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

Simple lessons

Toasting Fork - Moycullen Heritage

As we move into the cold autumn evenings for some reason my paternal grandmother comes to mind. Perhaps it is the fact that my grandparents  still had a coal fire and together we would toast slices of her home made bread with an old brass toasting-fork. Never flashy or overtly expressive, her love for me was still warm and unwavering. It may seem cold to you, but it never bothered me that she didn’t say, “I love you,” or give me hugs.

Instead, she always kept fairy cakes in the pantry, they were my favourite. When Grandad cut the ham for supper, she would remind him to trim the fat off my piece. For no particular reason, she frequently smiled at me with her eyes and told me I was a good boy.

On reflection I’ve come to see that in her way my grandmother was teaching me a radical life-lesson. A lesson about who we are and what we are doing here. A lesson that has taken me decades to begin to understand and to make my own. It goes like this:

Love is not a reward for what we do with our lives. It’s a gift, the gift that makes this life possible in the first place. Being the beloved is the starting point — and the finish line — for every single human being. And if we lean into that truth, we will change this world. As it turns out, my grandmother seems to have been living out the Beatitudes. (Matthew 5:1-12)

More specifically, I have in mind the first of the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Alongside the many sound interpretations of what Jesus meant by “poor in spirit,” I offer this.

All of us need a “why” to exist. We can endure and even overcome just about anything if we know who we are and what we’re doing here. In his life, death and resurrection Jesus teaches that giving away the love that we receive freely from God is our why.

For whatever reason, we’ve gotten things turned upside down. We’ve fallen for the idea that life is about earning love. And plenty of us at one point or another assumed that we would get that love by achieving and accomplishing and accumulating.

Some of us spend our lives pursuing possessions or power or status figuring these things would make us lovable. The problem is that we can become so obsessed with ourselves that we actually build walls between ourselves and other people.

And this same, love-pursuing dynamic can take place in our spiritual lives. Plenty of us act as if the depth of our piety, the rigor of our moral conduct, or the orthodoxy of our theology will convince God to reward us. Paradoxically, this kind of religiosity can be a form of self-absorption that isolates us from God and others.

Spiritual poverty starts with giving up the self-defeating idea that any of us can get God to reward us. That’s just not how God operates. God gives gifts.

As my grandmother showed me again and again, this does not mean that I’m no good and God loves me anyway. Neither does it mean that I’m so good that God can’t resist me. It just means that God makes me the beloved at each instant because, well, God is God. We exist at all because God loves us. And that goes for everybody.

When our starting point is accepting that we are loved, we get over ourselves. We’re free to consider the needs of others. To give love instead of pursue love for ourselves. This is where the kingdom of heaven begins to be ours.

God bless and stay safe,
Alan.  

Hell Fire and Damnation*

Three Keys to Understand the Old Testament | CBN.com

At theological college one of the tutors who was most engaging for me was our tutor in Old Testament. He made these 39 books (46 if you are Roman Catholic) come alive.

As a teenager in church I was taught that the Old Testament was OK but was sub- Christian. Reading the Old Testament was like reading a cheap novel whilst the New Testament was like reading great poetry.

Sadly I feel, that the this is a common misconception about the Old Testament that pervades the church today: that it’s too violent, not relevant to our contemporary lives, and we’re better off focusing on the New Testament. The Old Testament is often left to right-wing fundamentalist churches that cherrypick which passages to use to bolster their arguments.

Abandoning the Old Testament to these misconceptions leaves us without its robust texts and insights with which we can approach some of the most serious problems we face in the world today

Whenever we face crises or issues, they are occasions for us to re-read the Bible with fresh sets of eyes, looking for words of hope, guidance and comfort, and in these days, several key texts are important. For economic and racial justice issues, it’s hard to do better than the Book of Amos, and the articulate statement of God’s judgment that’s found there that’s specifically oriented around social injustice and economic disparity. That could have been written last week. God’s wrath and judgment does not portray an angry or vengeful God but portrays a God who is not indifferent to the injustices of the world. So when you watch the news bulletins with Amos, you too can’t be indifferent. You have to care.

The Psalms have always been important to the life of the church for worship and liturgy, but more than that they are a resource for articulating grief, sorrow, anxiety, and deep anger.

The cursing Psalms may cause us problems but they are a poignant resource when we think about the enemies that we face. Those enemies don’t have to be just human beings, they can be institutions, they can systems like racism, sexism or homophobia. What the cursing Psalms do is take all that wrath and anger that has to be uttered but allows it to be uttered within the confines of prayer. It’s very different than uttering it in the public square which can often lead to confrontation and even violence. It’s a way to let it go and hold it back at the same time, and to bring it in the context of worship with fellow believers who can hear it and then wonder perhaps how they might help.

The Book of Ecclesiastes offers wisdom for contemporary Christians, encouraging them to savour the small gifts they can experience. The Book of Genesis gives Christians a framework for understanding the image of God as a call to emulate God. Genesis calls us to be creative, to make room, to bless, to be generous, particularly toward animals and the land and other created things and to take better care of the world than we’re doing right now.

The Old Testament was the symbolic world within which the New Testament authors lived. If you want to understand anything about the New Testament, you have to understand that symbolic world. But the same is true for us now: if we want to understand God’s ways in the world, we need to understand the symbolic world of the entirety of Scripture, Old and New Testaments.

Not only must we read Scripture we must pay attention to Scripture in the Christian tradition and expect to hear from it a word of God to the reader and to the community of faith. That attention to God’s Word is so crucial. Although it is something that can be taught, it also has to be cultivated; it’s a practice, it’s a discipline, to come to Scripture with a trusting attention and listen for address.

Even when we encounter various problems within Scripture, such as outdated gender roles or the problem of priestly law, this attention and trust toward the text means we may yet still hear a word of address to us that can change us for the better.

The best interpretation of Scripture always results in better love of God and love of neighbour. The early church thought the more difficult a text was, like say, some violent text, some disturbing text, it must mean more than what it seems to mean—something deeper that helps us love God and our neighbors.”

The survival of the Old Testament is critical for Christians to stay honest, in touch with reality to ensure we have a community of Christians who are not interested in denial about their wrongdoing or anybody else’s wrongdoing, and are not tight-lipped about what deserves praise and glory to God, but are candid about both things; who realise that their best speech about God will have to be bound in beautiful imagery and high metaphor because how else are they going to begin to describe the infinite in finite language? A people who are in firm touch with their belongingness to a larger community of faith that is truly vast, highly diverse, global— not just across the globe, but also across time, spanning many generations and millennia.”

God bless and take care,

Alan.

*Often muttered under the breath during a church council!

To intervene or not to intervene, that is the question!

Eagle Nebula – Cosmic Creation Calls | LifeHarmonized.com

Over the last few decades the world has “grown smaller,”and has it has done so it has become increasingly evident that little miracles don’t really happen. By “little miracles,” I mean people levitating, disappearing, parting seas, or making the sun stop in the sky. If they did occur, we’d be watching them on You Tube. But they don’t. That’s a good thing, because it leaves us less distracted from the real miracles the world: that we are here, that we live in a universe governed by natural laws that explain the world around us and that we have been blessed with reason to discover those laws.

In addition to the natural, physical laws that cause the planets to rotate around their stars and the plants to photosynthesize sunlight, there are also natural, moral laws. Like the physical laws, we are able to discover these by reason. First, we gather facts that we can observe directly with our senses. We then use reason to draw conclusions from those facts.

One observation we have made is that all human beings are created equal. No, they aren’t all the same colour, height, shape, or sex. They don’t all run as fast as Usain Bolt or play the piano as well as Angela Hewitt (or Stephen Froggatt!). There is a wonderful diversity to human life in that no two human beings are exactly alike. Yet, there is nothing so different about any one human being that gives them any innate right to exercise authority over another. In that respect, we are all truly equal.

From that observation, we can draw the conclusion that comprises the most basic, fundamental moral law of nature. As John Locke put it,

““The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions…”

Reason also leads us to the conclusions that life is good, that whatever promotes life is good, and that whoever created life, the world around us and the natural laws that govern it must also be good. Some people explain the miracle from a purely scientific point of view. We are here simply because certain materials interacted with others and started a chain reaction. Where those materials came from they do not know and cannot explain, but that does not seem to bother them. As Christians we insist that creation is the work of not only a sentient being, but a loving God.

However, this means we face a philosophical dilemma. How could a loving God allow terrible things to happen to innocent people? How could he allow atrocities committed by humans, such as those by Stalin, Hitler, or Pol Pot? How could he allow natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis or Covid-19 to kill thousands of innocent people, when he has the power to prevent them?

The only answer most of us are ever given is “It’s a mystery.” Indeed it is, but that isn’t very satisfying. We’ve been endowed by God with a natural curiosity about the nature of our existence. This compels us to ask “Why?” While no one can give a definitive answer, I’d like to suggest one that fits the facts. God is a non-interventionist.

What does that mean? It means that God does not override his own natural laws in order to prevent some of their consequences. Imagine if he did? At any given time, a good percentage of the nearly 7 billion people who inhabit this planet are asking him to violate the most fundamental natural law of cause and effect. Were he to grant even a small percentage of those requests, we would live in a chaotic world that would be impossible to understand or predict. One could not even know for sure that the next step we would take will forward instead of backward. No human progress would be possible.

Similarly, God does not override the decisions of men, even if it would save lives or prevent suffering. That was the whole point of the Genesis story, wasn’t it? While Adam and Eve were in the garden, they did not know the difference between good and evil. There was no suffering, but no real joy either. God did not want robots that did his will merely because he programmed them to do it. He wanted sentient beings that would choose to do his will. However in order to choose to do his will, they had to have the ability to choose not to. That has never changed.

So, God has the power to prevent suffering, but chooses not to because to override humanity’s free will or the immutable laws of nature would be worse. He has already provided everything necessary for human beings to live in peace, happiness and prosperity.  We need only use our reason to discover the natural laws, to continue to understand them better, and to follow them.

God bless and stay safe

Alan.

Surprising Joy

What will your 2020 yearbook look like? I suspect it might be a pretty thin volume! There will little to record and precious little to be joyful about. Yet joy is what we need in our lives at the moment. 

I want to be clear, joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness are the pleasurable feeling we get when life is going well. Joy, on the other hand, has a mysterious capacity to be felt alongside sorrow and even ― sometimes, most especially ― in the midst of suffering. This is because joy is what we feel deep in our bones when we realize and feel connected to others ― and to what is genuinely good, beautiful and meaningful ― which is possible even in pain. Whereas happiness is generally the effect of evaluating our circumstances and being satisfied with our lives, joy does not depend on good circumstances.

Joy in times of difficulty can act as illumination in the darkness of our present circumstances.  My father died very suddenly in hospital, sadly we were too late to be with him but after we had been to say our farewells the family left the hospital at around 3:00am. It was a very clear August night and I was struck at the number of stars we could see and despite the grief of loss for a moment I felt my father(‘)s reassuring presence.

Nel Noddings, Stanford Professor of Child Education, describes joy as a feeling that “accompanies a realisation of our relatedness.” What Noddings meant by relatedness was the special feeling we get from caring about other people.

Joy is also the feeling that can arise from sensing kinship with others, experiencing harmony between what we are doing and our values, or seeing the significance in an action, a place, a conversation or even an inanimate object.

We cannot put joy on our to-do lists; it does not work that way. But there are ways we can prepare ourselves for joy. There are “gateways” to joy that help us to become more open to it. One of these gateways is gratitude.

Gratitude involves bringing to mind the good that is in the world, which makes rejoicing possible. The feeling that follows contemplating nature or art that we find inspiring is often joy, as these are experiences that help people feel connected to something beyond themselves, whether to the natural world or to others’ feelings or experiences. Since “hope,” as theologian Jürgen Moltmann has said, is “the anticipation of joy,” writing out our hopes helps us to expect joy.

The commentator Angela Gorell identifies multiple kinds of joy that can be expressed even in today’s troubled times.

Retrospective joy comes in vividly recalling a previous experience of unspeakable joy. For example, we can imagine in our minds an occasion when we helped someone else, or someone unexpectedly helped us, a time we felt deeply loved. We can close our eyes and meditate on the memory, even walk through the details with someone else or in a journal and, often, experience that joy again, sometimes even more acutely.

Resurrection joy is the feeling that follows when things that are broken getting repaired, things that we thought were dead coming back to life. This kind of joy can be found in apologizing to someone we have hurt, or the feeling that follows recommitting ourselves to sobriety, a marriage or a dream we feel called to.

Futuristic joy comes from rejoicing that we will again glimpse meaning, beauty or goodness, and seemingly against all odds feel that they are connected to our very life. This type of joy can be found, for example, through singing in a religious service, gathering at a protest demanding change or imagining a hope we have being realized.

In the midst of a year in which it is not difficult to stumble onto suffering, the good news is that we can also stumble onto joy. There is no imprisoned mind, heartbreaking time or deafening silence that joy cannot break through.

Joy can always find you. 

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

Holy Disagreement!

Familiarity breeds contempt, the old saying goes, but to my mind the greater and more dangerous occasion of familiarity is indifference.  When we come to a text and we have read it so many times or heard so many sermons preached on it, that we lose not only the freshness of the text but its edge, its blessing, as well as its judgment.

Part of the task of preaching or teaching is to shake the dust of familiarity off the text, to open a reader or listener’s ears and let a text speak again. Matthew 16: 21-28 is such a text in point, we know (part) of it well “If any one would come after me, they must deny themselves and take up  the cross and follow me” but do we allow the edginess of Jesus words fill our lives? And how do we react to the angry exchange between Jesus and Peter?

Over the past few years I have led a membership class each year and used the Methodist Church’s membership material. As I have done so I have become more and more disillusioned by the course. Yes it does what its says ‘on the tin’ it makes people members but does it make them disciples? Are we so focused on membership of a nice cosy organisation, so concerned about not putting people off lest our membership numbers drop even further,  that we forget to begin peoples journey of discipleship with its many challenges – deny, take up, follow.

As a young student I attended the Hall of Residence bible study group when we studied this passage from Matthew someone said, “I don’t like the conflict, and I don’t mean between Jesus and the authorities, the rulers and such. I don’t like the conflict between Jesus and Peter, the argument between Jesus and the disciples.” 

Indeed, it is most uncomfortable to read of Peter speaking harshly to Jesus, and of Jesus speaking harshly to Peter, to see them on different sides of an issue. Just moments before all their words were blessing words, each for the other: “Thou art the Christ,” Peter said to Jesus; “Thou art the Rock,” Jesus said in return. Now the blessing has become cursing, a mutual rebuke, Peter barking at Jesus, “You don’t know what you are saying!” and Jesus barking right back, “You don’t know how you are thinking!” 

Jesus is often at odds with his followers, of course. That is another aspect of discipleship we don’t often advertise. Sometimes, because of overfamiliarity with our texts, our traditions and practices, we don’t realize that we, too, have our minds set on earthly things. We don’t always see how we, who are called to help convert worldly culture, are instead converted by that culture and so much so that we do not talk about crosses or suffering or the evil powers of this world. 

In our churches we can be so seduced by the theology of glory (which is a part of the gospel, but only a part, lest it become triumphalism) or, failing that, the theology of success (one writer notes that many churches study and master their ABC’s—attendance, buildings, cash—and nothing else) that we are as reluctant as Peter to embrace the cross. But when we empty discipleship of the cross we empty the cross of its power and thereby exchange discipleship with membership in our church. Jesus speaks sharply to those of us who set our minds not on heavenly things.

I, too, find it very uncomfortable to see Jesus and Peter at odds, and to know that Peter represents me, all of us, in the church, but how wonderful that although Peter misunderstands, Jesus does not abandon him. Yes, they are at odds, but they are still friends. Jesus corrects Peter; he does not excommunicate him. Having loved him, having called him—having loved and called us—Jesus will keep us in the fold, keep correcting and teaching, keep showing us the way till our minds are finally, fully, always set on heavenly things.

God bless and stay safe.

Alan.

(W)holy listening.

The importance of listening to a client in the design process — The  Consultation Institute

He was sitting across from me in our small group gathering, head bowed and hands clasped in his lap. It seemed a bit unusual for him to suddenly move from an intense declaration to an attitude of prayer, but he’s a devout fellow so I was sure he’d rejoin the conversation soon. Then I realised he was doing the infamous “Apple Prayer.” He was checking messages  on his phone!

There are multiple offenses that can frustrate conversation partners. Not paying attention is one, long-windedness another. Argumentative antagonism is a show stopper and meandering digression tends to muddy the waters. We  can experience all of these in church meetings! 

I have found Zoom meetings at home very challenging in the respect of not listening. The number of distractions around me in my study is mind boggling, at least in a cold draughty church apart from your phone or a rogue pew sheet that was missed by the stewards there is little to distract you when Mable has missed the point of the discussion and is going on and on and nobody has the courage to tell her to sit down and shut up.

The American psychologist, Carl Rogers taught about the importance of practicing “mutual curiosity.” Where we may not understand each other or necessarily agree with another’s point of view we still listen to what they have to say. That seems a promising if elusive principle for fostering genuine conversation where two or more are gathered and actually listening to each other.

There are reports about how texting and tweeting and similar digital utterances are affecting the quality of language and the character of dialogue. Think of the governments redaction of Covid response to a three phrase slogan. You may have read about theories that widespread use of these cryptic fragments is training the brains of young people with long-term consequences for their thought processes and human interactions.

Have you noticed in restaurants, in small groups, on TV, and in the blogosphere how often it appears that many are talking but far fewer are actually listening? I worry how many people are  ‘listening’  when I write this updates. Is it something to skip through before getting to the important information at the end of the e-mail? 

I saw a play on TV a number of years ago that dealt with themes of cross-cultural relationships where the youthful “outsider” said plaintively to his girlfriend’s father, “What good is it if I work hard to learn your language, if you still won’t listen?” That phrase stuck with me.  When people start coming to church particularly younger people they have to learn the ‘language’ of Church to become part of it, but do we then listen to them when they have learned our language? Do we listen to their hopes and fears, their dreams and visions?

We might do well to count holy listening as a prerequisite for holy conversation. Listening first for “the still small voice of God,” we could pray for alertness of mind and heart so we experience the in-breaking of the Spirit and ask for the combined eagerness and patience that allow us to delight in the wisdom, naïveté, and probing questions of others.

Perhaps what helps make conversations holy is less about the talking and more about the listening. 

God bless and stay safe, Alan.