Author Archives: supersutton

Are we nearly there yet?

I am sure we have nearly all experienced a car journey as a small children where the moment you pull off the drive the chorus starts – “Are we nearly there yet?”. The driver will roll their eyes and tell us to be patient. But we can’t, we are just too excited to reach our destination and so ten minutes later the question rises again – “Are we nearly there yet?”

Well the first snows of winter have fallen and in conversation people say they can’t believe that it’s December and Christmas is around the corner. Quick get the tree up and decorate the house with lights, but before we reach Christmas, we must first travel through Advent. Like an exasperated driver I need to say “Be patient.

One of the challenges of Advent is to stop being busy and spend some time in prayer. Prayers for patience. Prayers for tempering our enthusiasm. Prayers for remembering not everybody enjoys this season. Prayers to slow down and think.

Advent is a time for giving praise for what God has done, is doing, and promises to do. We focus first on the One who was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, as we sing in the Gloria Patri. The One who breathes into us the breath of life, who sustains and guides us through our years and receives us when we die. The One who comes again each year at Christmas that we may never lose hope.

Thanksgiving naturally follows. We thank God for being God, for coming into our world to be One with us—Emmanuel. We thank God for God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. God who understands us when we do not understand ourselves. God who is patient with us when we have none. God who receives us back when we wander away, rejoicing in our return, embracing us in arms of grace. 

This, too, is a season for confessing sin. Imagine what breaks God’s heart. Living and dying with Covid. Political divisiveness. Economic injustice. Fear of the stranger. Quickness to judge and slowness to listen. Climate change and mediocre environmental stewardship. Housing and food insecurity. Racial intolerance and misunderstanding. There are so many reasons we need Christ to be born into our world as Saviour. Lots to lift in prayers of petition too. 

Remember also to build in pauses for silent prayer, that you may hear God’s voice speak an Advent message to us. Remember prayer is listening as well as talking.

I believe it essential in our prayers that we honestly name evil alongside goodness, sorrow alongside joy, agony alongside hope. Remember in the joy and sparkle of Christmas there is a story of a heavily pregnant woman have to journey on foot(!) from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Remember, too, of a family with a baby having to flee a tyrant and seek refuge in another country. Give thanks for God’s incarnational, suffering, resilient love, no matter what happens in life.

In all things we believe God is working for good. So, we pray to God honestly, but not always patiently. We won’t stop asking ‘are we nearly there, God’ because we are confident we will reach our destination. No matter how long it takes.

Grace and peace this Advent season,

Alan.

Nec Tamen Consumebatur*

Growing Pyracantha (Firethorn) | ThriftyFun

Have you ever considered what type of burning bush Moses encountered when God showed up?  There is a garden shrub called “burning bush” (euonymus alatus) that takes its colloquial name from the story, but it is doubtful that this is the bush that intrigued Moses.

Exodus 3 tells us the bush was aflame though not consumed when Moses spotted it in the wilderness.  Putting plant taxonomy aside, is there any value in considering the binomial nomenclature of the burning shrub in the wilderness? Ancient rabbinic commentaries on the book of Exodus believed the curious endeavour was worth pursuing. 

I feel that our church has entered a wilderness experience. That experience has been ‘sharpened’ by the effects of the pandemic lockdown. Like Moses, once a prince now a shepherd, our churches find themselves no longer at the heart of a community but viewed as an irrelevance, a paragraph on the pages of history. 

Yet into this wilderness God will direct us to bushes that are alight with the flame of his Spirit. 

Hear this good news: the story of God always begins in the wilderness. The Christian tradition is adamant that when God acts in the world, it is always with the people and the places least expected; the people called no one in the places called nowhere.

A very common cry at present is “The church ain’t what it used to be” and the decline of the Church parallels the changes in society. As we’ve lost the interdependence of communal life, we’ve also lost the ancient identity of the church’s propensity. To confront the catastrophe of church decline, we may also need to reconsider the very essence of the church. We need to reimagine the church, because in reimagining the church, we may reimagine our place in society. 

This is why the ancient rabbis earnestly declared that the bush of Exodus 3 was, of course, a thorn bush. When the Divine presence creatively manifested by name to unleash Israel’s covenant in the world, it came through the same medium that imaginatively related to the esteemed  Garden of Eden of Genesis. As the commentary goes, the garden of creation was surrounded by thorn bushes as a hedge of protection; a source of preservation to foster the vitality of that Garden free from the influence of ‘fallen‘ humanity. The intention of the bush theophany was a reminder that Israel, too, was meant to be a thorn bush for the world; that which protects, preserves, and sees to the life of all creation. Israel was to be a thorn bush for the flourishing of the earth. 

If the church is the continuation of such a covenantal vision, is the church meant to be a thorn bush for the world today? As we scan the dismal landscapes in our desolate wilderness, we ought to take solace in our history. One may wonder, is there an organisation, a group, or a movement dedicated to making the world good and fostering the health of places by taking responsibility for its future through ordering its present life? 

There is. The local congregation has been on this mission since that bush was aflame.

The prophet Jeremiah proclaimed a similar daring vision. In speaking to the covenantal people when they were staring at a future that looked nonexistent, the prophet sent word for how the Jewish people were to embrace their bleak situation and imagine a new future:

“But seek the welfare (shalom) of the city (place) where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord on its behalf for in its welfare (shalom) you will find your welfare (shalom)” (Jeremiah 29:7 NRSV). How will the exiles endure? What is their directive in a world that has been destroyed? See to the welfare – the shalom – of the places where they are. 

The church needs to become thorn bushes in the places where they are. Be a subversive body for the good of the larger body. Be a signpost for God’s reign by offering healing and hope, cultivating transformation, and supporting and guiding our communities toward God’s dream for the world. 

If the local church has the best propensity to form, nurture, support, create belonging, and compel relational and economic life, churches can be the hope of the ‘city’. Churches can be that force to honour a place’s memory, adapt to a place’s context, and through shared history, shared vision, tangibly enact God’s reign.

What would it look like if God is in charge here? As with the wilderness meeting tent in the book of Leviticus, we can embody God’s story in such a way to activate the imagination of the places we serve and give a glimpse of what is possible. 

We need to stop trying to do the normal conception of church better, and start imagining how we can do church differently; which isn’t about being new or cool or exciting. Rather, we embraced the ancient art of being meaningfully adapted to our place as thorn bushes.

What would happen if churches used their buildings as a third space in declining communities who have little access to gather neighbours together? How might local churches use their platform, their message, and their organisational capital to mobilise the meeting of needs and catalyse the gifts of the people who call that place home? How can we foster a way of living that is adapted to our particular context? 

What else could the church be?

Reimagining the church in our community might be the only thing we can do in our present circumstances; but it might also be the only thing we ought to do. 

May we embrace the vulnerability of desperation.
May we take advantage of the wilderness’s bountiful imagination.
May we seize the propensity of the local church.
May we see ourselves as thorn bushes.

And may the world never be the same.

God bless, Alan.

*And yet it was not consumed (Exodus 3:2)

The Communion of saints

The Communion of Saints – Liturgy

In our society we have become so obsessed with Halloween we forget the following day, November 1st, is All Saints Day.

When we confess the Apostles’ Creed*, in particular the phrase ‘the communion of saints’ our words echo with the voices of the saints, believers from throughout history.

All Saints’ Day is a time for us to remember the ordinary people who’ve made possible our faith, to recognise that we speak with their tongues, that we’re indebted to their faithfulness. On All Saints’ Day, we remember that we are not alone, that they accompany us.

In the book of Revelation, we glimpse a heavenly vision of the communion of saints, of believers in solidarity with us — a multitude “from every nation, tribe, people and language” around the throne of God (Revelation 7:9 NIV). When we say, toward the end of the creed, that we believe in “the communion of saints,” we’re calling upon that scene in Revelation 7 — the reassurance of a people on our side, the knowledge that their God is our God.

“The communion of saints” isn’t a select club of very special people. Instead, the phrase is a name for the church through the ages, the many people who’ve made possible our communion with God. They welcome us into a community that reaches out to us from beyond death.

Saints are people who offer their lives as a home for God, to make room in the world for God’s life to grow. They bear witness to what it looks like to let God live in this world through them. In other words, saints show us how to be disciples. They reveal that discipleship is about hospitality to God: welcoming God’s love into our lives so that new life may be born for others.

That’s why Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the first saint, the person who “brought God’s salvation to the world.” She is the first one in the Christian story to show hospitality to Jesus — God with us, God of her flesh.

Other than Jesus, there are two people named in the Apostles’ Creed: Pontius Pilate and Mary, “the one who says ‘no’ to him,” the Anglican theologian Rowan Williams remarks, and “the one who says ‘yes’ to him.” Pilate the sinner, Mary the saint. Their lives outline the possible responses to God.

As sinner and saint — each of us as both at the same time — we wobble from one figure to the other. From day to day, moment to moment, we teeter between resistance and reception of Jesus.

We’re usually like Pilate in our rejection of God’s work in the world and in our lives. But we’re called to be like Mary, to echo her yes, to emulate her posture of welcome to God’s life, the labour of hospitality, to make room for God.

“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord,” Mary responds to God’s plan for her life. “Be it done to me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38).

Saints like Mary, the mother of our faith, guide our discipleship. They testify to the miracle of grace. They bear witness to the movement of God, the labour of the Spirit who transfigures our lives with the Word when we say yes to the gospel. They share the life of God with the world. Their witness beckons us into the gospel, into Christ’s love, for God’s love to become flesh with us.

The lives of ordinary saints not only provide models for discipleship; they proclaim a truth about God, that the Spirit dwells with people, that Christ welcomes us into his body. Like Mary, Christ has said yes to each of us. He has opened his life to receive our lives; he draws us into communion with the saints.

We are here, as members of God’s people, because the Holy Spirit has baptized us with grace, joining our flesh to the faithful who’ve come before us, all of us as members of one another.

All Saints’ Day is an announcement of the hospitality of God — that we are being welcomed into a communion that reaches from Mary to us, through people of every generation, all as a declaration of God’s love for the world. Saints surround us with the Spirit’s embrace.

God bless,

Alan.

*Apostles Creed.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth;
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead;
He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.

Small Church – Big vision

Is this the smallest Church in Wales? - St.Mary's Church (Capel-y-ffin),  Abergavenny Traveller Reviews - Tripadvisor

October used to be the month for counting in church. If it moved we counted it, if it didn’t move we counted that as well just to be sure. The figures were sent off to Church House in London and after a few months with the number crunchers the results were published. Methodism had declined for another year.

Sadly we did not need the statistics to tell us that in the circuits, it was obvious week by week. So in the end, a couple of years ago, the Methodist Church thankfully stopped counting. However we are still obsessed by numbers.

Post lockdown I keep being asked what the congregation was like on Sunday morning. I think the person who asked wanted to know how many people were attending rather than my answer that they were ‘an ugly looking bunch but quite friendly!’.

Why do we equate success with large numbers? Over the years I have been minister to churches of many different sizes and ultimately there is no difference between a 20 member church and a 200 member church.

There are no small churches because people are in them, and the needs of people are as real in little congregations as in bigger ones. In the small churches I served, people were poised to grow. They were ready to move from membership to discipleship. In these churches people got sick, they died, they had discouraging marriages, they had wayward children, they had aging parents to look after, they had stressful work settings, etc. Potential blessings and painful problems were present in small churches just as they were in the bigger ones. Sadly small congregations believe that their problems will be solved if they become ‘bigger’.

I also learned the perception that most churches are larger ones is an illusion. It was true decades ago, and it is still true. The last time I saw a statistic I found that over 50% of Churches in this country have a membership of 75 or less. That may even more post lockdown.

But perhaps most of all, small churches are places to learn what Henri Nouwen once wrote to a friend who was discouraged because of a small response to her ministry, “In the area of spirituality, statistics do not count. Two or three people who hear you well, may be able to do miracles.” Henri J.M. Nouwen, ‘Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life’ (Convergent, 2016).

In the end there are no small churches only small vision. And without vision the church will perish despite the numbers in the pews on a Sunday morning.

God bless, Alan.

A Warm Welcome?

Disney Grumpy Welcome Rock

As we begin to open up our churches and get back to normal (what ever that might mean!), we hope that some of the people who engaged with our churches and circuit over the Internet will want to engage with us in person. But what will that mean for our churches?

Over the years as I have gone through the stationing process and visited prospective new churches the one thing the church stewards are keen to emphasise is that ‘we are a friendly church’. To be honest I would be surprised if a church ever said it was an unfriendly church! However after a few months into an appointment I feel like saying “You know when you said you are a friendly church…”

Is your Church a friendly church or a church of friends. The two are very different and easily confused by those who are on the inside.

Most churches have some form of welcome on the door but when the visitor arrives will you cut short the deep conversation you are having with some one you spoke to just two days ago and focus all your attention on the visitors?

Do the welcomers take the visitor into the church and help them settle WHERE THEY WANT TO SIT(!) or is the welcomers role to steer them away from the ‘reserved pews’ and into the pews where no one else wants to sit. Or are the visitors simply left on their own to play ‘pew roulette’.

Even if the visitor is fortunate to land on an empty pew would members of the congregation move from their ‘spot’ to go and sit with them too make them welcome or to they twist round in their seats, give them a good stare and ask the person next to them in a loud Methodist whisper “Do you know who they are?”

Does your Church give the visitor a plethora of books and leaflets without any explanation of what they are? (Is it obvious that the black hymn numbers are from the old book and the red ones from the new book – which nobody but the minister likes). Or do you fail to tell the visitor looking for a hymn book that the words of the service will appear on the screen apart from those we know by heart so we don’t bother with those, but that’s OK because where they are sitting they can’t see it any way.

After the service are they taken to the coffee room or simply told where it is? Are they sat at the ‘spare table’ while people put table and chairs together so that they and their friends can all sit and chat ? If you do go over to talk with them do you sit or hover over them like an impatient waiter?

What of you conversation? A very Methodist thing to do is to apologies for the preacher “It’s not our own Minister, just a Local Preacher.” And to the outsider what is a Local Preacher? or the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper or the offering?

Do you, in your best jokey voice tell them that we will have to get them on Church Council?

When the visitor leaves do we just ‘hope’ to see them next Sunday or do we ask questions of their experience and what we can do to help them feel more welcome?

Oh yes we’re a welcoming church, it’s just some people don’t want to be welcomed!

God bless, Alan.

I am no longer my own…

Paul's Conversion (Acts 9:1-19) - YouTube

September is, of course, the beginning of a new Methodist year and it has become a tradition in many churches to use the first Sunday in September as their Covenant Sunday rather than the first Sunday of the calendar year. 

On occasions for Covenant Sunday I have used Pauls conversion as the basis for my sermon. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3–6) was dramatic and utterly life-changing. The resulting insights from this initial experience became central to all he taught for the rest of his life. While most of us have a different, less extreme experience, the result should be the same. The insights from our encounter with Jesus should be central to our lives.

Before conversion, we tend to think that God is out there. After transformation, we see that God is not out there but is in here. When we look at life we don’t look at reality, we look from reality. We’re in the middle of it now; we’re a part of it. This whole thing is what the writer Richard Rhor calls the mystery of participation. Paul is obsessed by the idea that even before we recognise Jesus we’re all already participating in something.

I’m not writing the story by myself. I’m a character inside of a story that is being written in co-operation with God and the rest of humanity. This changes everything about how we see our lives. If we’re writing the story on our own, we think we’ve got to write it right. We’ve got to be clever, we’ve got to figure it out. If anything goes wrong, we’ve only got ourselves to blame. That’s a terrible way to live, even though many Christians do. And that’s ‘bad news’.

The good news is a completely different experience of life. A participatory theology says, “I am being used, I am actively being chosen, I am being led.” It is not about joining a new denomination or having an ecstatic moment. After authentic conversion, you know that your life is not about you; you are about life! You’re an instance in this agony and ecstasy of God that is already happening inside you, and all you can do is say yes to it. That’s all. That’s conversion and it changes everything.

This idea of participating in the goodness and continual unfolding of God’s creation reminds me of the prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that begins, “Make me a channel (or instrument) of your peace.”  As a follower of Jesus we recognise that we are called to be his instruments, to be the conduit through which the love of God flows into the world.

Looking back on my life, I can see that God did everything. God even used my mistakes to bring me to God and God’s wisdom to others! I hope this week will inspire you to look at what has happened when you also said yes to participating as God’s instrument in the world.

God bless, Alan.

About Time

What Is Time?

Well the summer seem to be drawing to an end and with it the start of a new Methodist year. For most people this will pass almost unnoticed but for a minister in their last appointment it is important as it means a year closer to retirement. (?!)

Time is one of those aspects of life which we have little control over, we either accept its passing or constantly rage against its unstoppable march.

As a young christian moving from a Sunday School faith to an adult understanding I was constantly told that we were in the last days and that Jesus was surely coming soon. Well 45 years later I am still waiting! Perhaps the time is still not right.

That is another facet of time, not the liner progression of hours, days, weeks, months, years, but a point in the time-space continuum for a specific event to happen. Whether planned or serendipitous.

In God’s realm the time is always right for something, God knows the when and the what. God’s activity is steady and it is also specific. As a church we have to discern and point to what God is up to and when God is working—when the timing is right and what it’s right for. It is true not only in large, cultural ways, but also in specific, personal ways.

Of course, since the first lockdown, churches have faced incessant questions and squabbles and downright fights about the time for gathering in person. Who could gather, and where they could gather, and what could happen in the gathering, what needed to be worn in gathering? If the first-century Christian was concerned about propriety, including what kinds of covering in worship, no less is the twenty-first-century church! For some, the ability to worship without gathering signalled an end of the worship gathering, at least in its current form.

Not only did COVID challenge the ability of the church to gather, but it also challenged our ability to tell time. Sure, we measure time by clocks and calendars; through hours and days, time marches on. But during lockdowns, days of the week lost their uniqueness and days as a whole lost their rhythm. I have heard more than once that the last 18 months have felt like a time warp. 

We didn’t lose the ability to measure time, but perhaps we lost the ability to keep time. At the recent Tokyo Olympics, time-keeping mattered a lot particularly when Canadian Andre De Grasse edged South African sprinter Akani Simbine by four one-hundredths of a second to win the Bronze Medal in the Men’s 100-metre race.

We record how long and how fast and when and so on. But COVID has also adjusted how we keep time by our faith. Worship “gatherings” now happen at personal times and start when a button is clicked. To point out an irony, you might say that when we don’t have religion to help us keep time, rather that we will keep time religiously using other things! If measuring and keeping time is only or even mainly done for cultural accommodation and athletic competition, then we will lose not only our ability to tell the time by our faith, but we will lose the ability to recognise timing. Gathering helps us to keep time and to recognise God’s timing.

Another way we tell time is by ages. The American writer, Joseph Bottum calls the present age ‘an anxious age’, (An Anxious Age  – The post-Protestant Ethic) as the religious heart of the West is replaced by something else. Social foundations that attempted to mirror the foundations of reality are upended when the foundations of reality are being reconsidered. And almost sixty years ago, sociologist Philip Rieff prophesied the therapeutic age, when individual persons would be tasked with finding their own wellbeing—designing, achieving, and living their best life with the help of some friends—and perhaps a professional or two. I think both of them are right: It is an anxious age and it is a therapeutic age. 

This unique age pressures the church. First, the church is pressured to become radically convenient. Consumers don’t have time for church, so the church must be open at all times. The church is encouraged to become the 24 hr convenience store of the religious market in order not to compete with football training, IKEA, family, the park, and all the other things that compete for people’s time. Second, the church is pressured to become a place of religious coaching. There is pressure to apply knowledge of Scripture and the care of souls to give advice on marriage, employment, and so on to help others take their lives to the next level.

Now, church should be convenient inasmuch as convenience means removing unnecessary barriers for those whom Jesus is beckoning, and the church should coach inasmuch as it guides people to and through spiritual disciplines in pursuit of Christ by the power of the Spirit.

But convenience and coaching can also be detrimental to the ministry that is needed in an anxious and therapeutic age. In an anxious age, the church must present hope. And in a therapeutic age, the church must present healing. Hope and healing are about neither convenience nor coaching. Hope and healing are about the presence of Jesus Christ in the body.

As a gathering, the church is about time: First, the gathered church is about time-keeping, a rhythm that orients the rest of time. And the gathered church is about timing, sensing the unique and charged time of Christ’s presence. 

So is it the right time to meet together at church – probably. Is it the right time to do away with masks – probably not. Is it time to walk with Jesus – always!

God bless,

Alan.

How to be a Good Enemy

41,572 Chess Knight Stock Photos and Images - 123RF

In our Old Testament studies course at college one  of the most heated discussions was about how we confront the ethical question of the psalms of vengeance. Some people argued that they were in scripture so we should just accept them others worried over the ill that could come if these words are prayed from our pulpits and in our private prayers. They fear what could happen with the expression of our rage.

 My concern moves in the opposite direction. I fear the cool and collected civility of church life that denies those who have experienced trauma the space for public expression of that anger, which lingers in the air as palpable discomfort for the powerful.

I have herd christians complain about those who have raised issues of racism in the church. I’ve watched as those of LGBTQI community are reprimanded for interrupting business as usual, despite decades of silencing them through  many conference resolutions. People who occupy seats of power control the agenda by censuring the anger of those demanding change. Certain voices, “respectable” voices, are given space while others are shut out.

The psalms that call for God’s intervention are written as a reminder of the enormity of human suffering within systemic and sustained forms of violence that cannot always be rectified by good work, good intentions, or reasonable dialogue. They show us the way that power is structured across and within interpersonal relationships and geopolitical realities. Rather than showing resignation or reasonableness, the psalms keep before us the trauma of inequitable suffering. These psalms hold the space, and they push us all toward response.

In psalms of justice we hear the cry of those whose words mark the places of oppression and degradation in history. These are people who are acted upon, who apprehend their own helplessness before suffocating violence. These are people whose very existence hangs in the balance of political and economic forces beyond their control. There will be no negotiation or discussion, nothing to bargain with, no scheme, no outsmarting, no escape. These are the prayers of dead-ends.

And yet something else happens here. To speak this violence aloud is also to generate a hope which destruction cannot overcome. To make space for the words of those facing catastrophe, who have nowhere left to turn, who have nothing left — this is the memory preserved in the psalms. 

“In the face of monstrous evil, the worst possible response, is to feel nothing. What must be felt is grief, rage, outrage. In their absence, evil becomes an acceptable commonplace.”  (J. Clinton McCann – Introduction to the Psalms) The psalms of rage remind us that somehow, in spite of absolute defeat, someone dared to say aloud that the world is not as it should be.

In my own prayer I sense no conflict between the psalms of justice and the New Testament’s call to love our neighbours as the way to describe prayer for our persecutors. The prayers offered in the Bible include those by Zechariah, asking God to save us from the hands of all who hate us. The prayers of the Gospels encompass Mary’s Song, a call to tear the powerful from their thrones and send the rich away empty. Throughout his ministry Jesus is intolerant of prayers meant to look pious. He lashes out at prayers being used as a public gesture rather than as an offering to God of one’s internal orientation. I would guess that praying as we “ought to pray” falls in line with the false piety of those who pray loudly on the street corners so that “they may be seen and praised by others” (Matthew 6:2).

Prayer may be transformative of our desires, but this can only happen by stopping pretending we are something we are not.

Jesus gives a rough outline of how to pray in light of this remarkable change of perspective. We start by positioning our prayer from the place where God is in control of history, working things out in the world around us, not distant from it. God is charged with the care of creation. We can let go of outcomes, of our attempts to control history. “Our Father in heaven. Your name is holy.” We recognise that God’s kingdom is established, firmed up in our midst. Our desires, our intentions for the righting of wrong, the reign of justice — let it come to pass.

After we have established God’s reign, Jesus tells us to offer our own needs. In this prayer, Matthew slips out of Hebrew, the formal language of the Temple, and into Aramaic, the everyday language of the people. It is in this language in which people argued in the market and whispered to their children as they went to sleep. The purpose of prayer is to move ordinary life and common speech into the communal form of God’s reign.

I suspect Jesus uses this informal language because there is no point in offering up prayers about the things we ought to want. Prayer may be transformative of our desires, but it will not be so by pretending we are something we are not. Rather than putting out pious prayers for public consumption or pretending that God doesn’t already know what we desire, we come to God as we are.

The Dominican monk and writer, Herbert McCabe reminds us that “genuine prayer means honest prayer, laying before your Father in heaven the actual desires of your heart — never mind how childish they may sound. Your Father knows how to cope with that.” We pray for the things we want and the things we need because we can’t fool God. In the end, we only fool ourselves.

“One of the great human values of prayer is that you face the facts about yourself and admit to what you want,” McCabe tells us, “and you know you can talk about this to God because he is totally loving and accepting.” This is why Jesus tells his followers to stop babbling like the pagans. This kind of prayer is an extraction exercise; stone and wood idols are impersonal amulets that intercede to reckless deities. The prayer Jesus offers to us makes space to come face-to-face with who we are and to deal with it plainly, alongside someone who loves us absolutely and unconditionally.

I have offered forthright prayers, prayers asking God to remove, by any means necessary, the government of my country. I have asked God to cause institutions to crumble and people to lose their jobs. I prayed these prayers in honesty, placing my anger before a holy God. And more often than not my prayers were not misplaced in their earnestness and longing for a world set right. At other times, my prayers of wrath, seething with demands for punishment and revenge, revealed that my own incoherent and blistering rage would do nothing to set me and others down in the renewed order of God’s creation. What I really wanted was pain. In these prayers, I reengaged the cyclical violence of perpetual struggle, only now on behalf of victims. But until I said the words aloud, until it was held before me, I could not see another way out.

God bless

Alan.

I am Me

Fingerprint Digital Art by Erzebet S

One of the most difficult aspects of pastoral ministry for me has being alongside those who live with dementia. It is a terrible disease which seems to rob a person of their essence. Not only do they forget who their family and friends are they forget who they are. 

I have sat with a university lecturer who cannot button up a shirt, a brilliant cook who could not remember what a spoon was and most poignantly a minister who had no remembrance of the church, the bible or Jesus.

This loss of self identity puts me in mind of the words of Jesus when he asked his disciple `”Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)

Much of the western worlds thinking about identity has been shaped by existentialists like Soren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, and Jean Paul Sartre. (My sisters and brothers from other parts of the wold will have a different idea of identity.) They believed that a meaningful life involves being true to yourself.

To be true to yourself, you have to know who you are. Each time we confront dilemmas or challenges, struggle with disappointments or navigate heartache, we will either be true to ourselves or betray ourselves in what we do and how we do it.

As Christians, we share a common framework. You may not be a Christian, but I hope you’ll hang in there with what I’m about to say. Not because I’m trying to convince you to take up my faith tradition, but because I think that there’s something in it that stretches across a range of spiritual expressions. 

In one sense, if the dementia sufferer cannot remember who they are we will remember for them. Sure, we may never know them exhaustively. Much of who they are may remain a mystery. But our love for them helps them to continue to be who they have always been, even if they themselves can no longer remember.

When He asked his friends “Who do you say that I am?”, Jesus was not testing whether they could recite some formula of orthodoxy. He was telling them something like this. “If you can see that I am the one who loves you no matter what, you’re going to get a sense of who you truly are: the Beloved.”

When we remember that we are the Beloved, we respond to the world in love. And this is the crucial bit, we all forget. At one time or another we forget that we are the Beloved.

And so we need each other. Our love for each other reminds us who we really are. The Beloved. But more than that. Sometimes we need the love of others to carry us when we forget until somehow, by grace, we come back to being ourselves at last.

God bless,

Alan.

Wonderfully Made

Our Multicultural Missteps | A Catch of Culture

When was the last time you said ‘I love you ‘, other than in the bathroom mirror! Just think about who the person was and what was their relationship to you.

Frequently we say I love you because you agree with me, because you belong to my family/group/church, because you are my ally and support me. Sometimes we say ‘I Love you’ even when your words and actions infuriate me (in those situations maybe we need to say ‘I love you’ more!). Don’t get me wrong, saying I love you to people in your social group is important but our love for others must stretch beyond those we like.

We will overcome prejudice, racism, homophobia and all forms of injustice only when we learn to say, “I love you because you are you.” To everyone.

A commitment to justice requires a devotion to and the pursuit of the common good. And in what may seem a contradiction, the good of the whole is rooted in our recognition of the infinite worth of each individual. Conversely, the worth of each individual is actualised only by the community’s commitment to the individual’s dignity.

As it turns out, this is a basic Christian principle. It is rooted in our doctrine of creation.

Drawing on the wisdom of Scripture, Medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus emphasised that God’s love is the power that brought everything into being. That same love sustains the whole universe at every single instant.

Duns Scotus went on to say that each and every creature has a unique ‘thisness’. He called this its haecceity. (hek-see-aty)

In other words, God doesn’t just create humans in general. Or robins or daffodils or stars in general, for that matter. God creates each person as a singularity. None of us is interchangeable. Each of us is irreplaceable.

You, O best beloved, are you. There is no other. And you were made this way by the infinite love of the author of all things. God loves you because you are you.

Scripture also teaches us that we were created in the image of God. To be fully human is to love in a way that reflects the divine way of being: to love you because you are you.

In other words, I need my neighbour in order for me to be truly me. That’s because I am my true self only by loving my neighbour as myself. Remember, Jesus said, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

It should come naturally to say, “I love you” not only because you are fearfully and wonderfully made by the same God who created the stars of the universe but also because you remind me more of myself than not. Of course, God knows as well as we do that it doesn’t come so naturally.

In other words, we still have work to do. We need to see ourselves in others as well as seeing the face of Christ in all those we meet.

God bless, Alan.