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.
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.
Well it is Monday morning and the whole nation seems a little flat (unless you are Welsh Irish or Scottish). England didn’t quite win the European Championship, but they certainly lifted the nations mood.
One thing I will not miss is the constant, and often out of tune, rendition of ‘Three Lions on a Shirt’ (I much prefer ‘Sweet Caroline’!). A complaint that I have heard from Church members has been – Why can’t we sing at church like they do at the football?
If only! I wish people would sing in church like they do at the football match! So much passion and enthusiasm. Sadly many of the churches divisions have arisen of the style of worship allowed in the church. It is nothing new, Charles Wesley was criticised for using ‘popular’ tunes as settings for his hymns.
We can go back to King David and find the same disapproving of ‘inappropriate worship’. In 2 Samuel 6 we read how the Ark of the Covenant was moved from Baalah into Jerusalem. It must have been quite a spectacle as 30,000 men were involved, with singing and loud musical instruments. At the centre of the spectacle was King David dressed in a linen Ephod (his underwear?!) dancing with all his might.
His wife Michal was horrified by her husbands behaviour (nothing in life changes!). Michal’s complaint to David doesn’t sound too different from those I hear when Sunday’s “passing of the peace” becomes something more than a begrudged murmur of acknowledgment. Should Michal be understood as the first champion of traditional, decent-and-in-good-order worship? If so, she doesn’t come out of this incident as one whom God favours.
However we have to be careful in reading too much into this passage about the kind of worship that pleases God (as opposed to Michal’s dour preference), one only need remember the highly liturgical patterns that evolve in Jerusalem’s temple worship, a worship pattern that arguably bears David’s impress. One great story of exuberance does not a theology of worship make.
So what is there in this unique story? Supremely, just one thing: it’s a pitiful thing when we’ve gotten too prim, too proper, too stuffy to make merry before God when something wonderful occurs. The fact is you don’t bring the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem every other month. (Just as you don’t reach a major football final every week.) This is a momentous occasion and it deserves to be celebrated with silly party hats and horns and yes, even with the king doing a jig in his boxer shorts!
Over the years I’ve attended (and even planned) my fair share of church anniversaries and celebrations. The truth is most were less than “kick up your heels and shout hallelujah” occasions. There we were with a century or so of the faithfulness of God and people to remember, but a visitor might have mistaken it for one of those solemn assemblies Isaiah was underwhelmed by. On many of those occasions I knew enough about my fellow worshipers to know that they’d go bananas over their favourite football team, but put them in a church context and all the whoopee goes out of them. Why is that?
Well, put a positive construction on it first. Maybe we are restrained in church simply because here we see things through a different filter. It’s not so much that we aren’t as joyous as at the football, as that in church we recognise that life and all its blessings are interwoven with holy purpose. A late goal to win the match is one thing; a child’s baptism is another. Joy is appropriate on both occasions, but is it not a different kind of joy when by water and word a child of God is claimed for time and eternity? Maybe it’s not that our whoopee evaporates in worship; it just has a grateful hush of reverence about it. But granted that this is the case, there still remains the awkward possibility that most of us mimic David so seldom because we’ve lost touch with the grandness of what we are doing.
We mouse around because the wonder God’s love escapes us. I know it to be true, that there are Sundays when the Minister sleepwalks through the service—even when they seem most animated. A gauzy film of the theoretical shrouds the action. But there are those moments when the awesome, absurd good news of what we are about comes crashing in like waves on our stony shores. We can no more program those epiphanies than we can count the stars. But we can be careful not to stifle them, and we can be quick to give them glad permission to soften the eye, catch the voice, and lead us to make merry before God.
When I read this story of David’s enthusiasm without contrasting it with Jesus’ story of the elder brother who would not join his father’s party. It was a time to make merry, but the elder brother didn’t live like that, he seemed fixed with life being bound up with duty. How many children have given up on ‘Church’ because they were told they had to go to church and there was nothing attractive or joyful about the experience.
Grace, those lovely moments when the unexpected holy descend upon us, is a gift we are privileged to see every now and then. That’s the time to put aside the balance sheet and even the prayer book and to kick up our heels, and with body and soul make holy fools out of ourselves, dancing an Alleluia to the giver of all good and perfect gifts.
So as they say on the Strictly Come Dancing “Keep on dancing!” but you may want to wear a little more than King David!
In the middle of this years Methodist Conference there was a report presented which I suspect most people missed, given the interest in the vote on same sex marriage which made the national news!
The report I refer to is ‘Holy Communion and Online Worship’ (Report 39). During this period of lockdown we have been effectively deprived of Holy Communion as the present standing orders of the church prevented people joining in a service of Holy Communion at home over the internet. (The get out clause was to call it a Love Feast). Given this deprivation the Faith and Order Committee have begun a period of discernment as to the experience of online communion.
The Conference adopts a period of discernment from 1 September 2021 until 31 August 2024, in which presbyters and other persons authorised to preside at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper be permitted to lead celebrations of Holy Communion in which some or all of the worshippers gather together through electronic means, and directs all who preside at such celebrationsto consider prayerfully the guidance in this report in their preparation and conduct of them and to observe the parameters set out in paragraph 7.4
At the same time this was happening unnoticed in Methodism, Bishops in the Roman Catholic Church were arguing as to whether President Joe Biden (a life long Catholic) should be prevented from receiving the Mass because of his stance on abortion. That did make the national news.
The Methodist understanding of Holy Communion reflects a broad spectrum of opinion so what I share with you are my own personal beliefs about Communion. I know there will be those who disagree with me but I am OK with that.
As a Methodist I believe Communion is God’s gift, not the church’s gift. Methodists should never debate, as the Catholic church currently is, whether some individuals should be permitted access to the Table. Deciding who deserves to receive communion is beyond the job description of the church. The origins of Communion begin with God’s gracious character revealed in Christ. It does not begin or end with the church. This means the church does not get to refuse anyone the privilege of participating in God’s gift. We did not create communion. We, therefore, do not get to limit Communion. We do not even “take” Communion. We receive Communion. And our job is to help others also receive it. The church is a recipient of grace. We do not own grace. We do not restrict grace.
As a Methodist I believe that in Communion God folds the past and future into the present. This belief begins not with the nature of time, but in the nature of God. The past, present, and future all collapse in on each other because we worship a God who transcends time and makes one community out of all of us. God’s presence has been given to the people of God in all times and places. The past, present, and future are God’s eternal now. As God was present in the Exodus, so God is present now. As Jesus is present in the future new creation, so Jesus is present now. This presence, in fact, is not a symbolic presence. It’s a real presence. The God of all time has folded all moments into this moment and given us not symbolic presence but God’s active, passionate, attentive presence. So that also means we all participate in the Exodus story, the liberation of God’s people from the bondage of Egypt, sin, and death. That past event is brought into the present. We participate in the future resurrection and redemption of all things. That is, Communion brings God’s future restoration and new creation into the present. This also means that Communion makes us present to other believers who are also presently alive and receiving Communion. We are participating in divine grace as a Communion with believers in China, Russia, Fiji , Zimbabwe, and Palestine.
As a Methodist I believe the table is open to everyone. Our language is that we have “an Open Table.” No one is restricted from the Table. No one is too unworthy because no one was worthy to begin with. Will unworthy people receive Communion if we leave it open to everyone? Well, yes. But unworthy people receive Communion even when the Table is “closed” because no one is worthy to receive Communion. I remember early in my ministry being criticised for giving communion to children as ‘they don’t understand what they are doing’. I asked the critic to explain to me what was happening when they received communion. I received no further complaints! Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with Judas, who was soon to betray him. Jesus washed Judas’s feet that same night. Jesus knew beforehand that Judas would betray him, yet he was not kept from divine grace. If Jesus can wash Judas’s feet and receive him at the Table, who are we to restrict anyone from the Table?
As a Methodist I believe Communion is a work of grace into the lives of non-Christians. Even non-Christians can participate in the Communion moment. They may not become Christians that exact moment, but they do, nevertheless, participate in grace. And that grace can lead them to conversion. When we say our Table is “open,” we mean that no one — not a Buddhist, not a Muslim, not an Atheist, no one! — is kept from the Table. Communion is the moment when all of us, undeserving as we may be, find God’s grace given to us in tangible ways. The church doesn’t own Communion, so we don’t even get to restrict it to those inside the church. The God of all creation has gifted it, through Jesus, to all of creation.
The fatal stabbing of Dea-John Reid is nothing out of the ordinary. Just one of the 46,000 knife crimes that result in 300 deaths each year. For me whoever this was different, it didn’t take place in London or Glasgow or Manchester. It didn’t even take place in another part of the city of Birmingham. It happened in the middle of our circuit amongst people who are members of our churches.
As I reflected on the violence that surrounds us, some words from Richard Rohr came to mind. “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” To put this another way, violence is a misguided and self-defeating strategy for dealing with our pain. To reduce the violence in our world, we will have to deal with our pain differently.
Now, we might not like to admit it, but each of us has been bruised and battered, chipped and scraped by life. By impersonal circumstances but also by other people, and let’s be honest, by our very own precious little selves. And before any one says anything about loving church fellowships I can assure you a sharp tongue can wound as effectively as any knife!
Our pain gives rise to a hunger for justice. Things should be set right. Things need to be made right. And so, many of us fervently pursue justice. And, without intending to, we make things even worse.
Many of us are convinced that justice requires punishment. You have to balance the scales. Heap a proportionate amount of pain on those who have caused pain. You just have to find the right people to blame for the mess we’re in. That’s called retributive justice. But there’s a problem. Punishment does not heal pain. On the contrary, it creates new pain. And as a result, it perpetuates the very violence we’re trying to solve.
Does that mean as humans we are stuck in a perpetual circle of pain and violence? Well, no. Two thousand years ago God sent his son, Jesus, to break the power of sin and death – and pain and violence once and for all.
On the cross Jesus did not blame or curse any one for the pain he suffered. “Father forgive” were his only words.
Instead of looking for someone to blame in our suffering, we can set our sights on healing. This is restorative justice.
Restorative justice begins when we have compassion for each other. My pain is transformed when I stand in solidarity with the pain of another. So it was good that there were members of our circuit who stood with the community alongside the family of Dea-John Reid at the vigil following his death.
Again, as Richard Rohr says, “Those who agree to carry and love what God loves—which is both the good and the bad—and to pay the price for its reconciliation within themselves, these are the followers of Jesus Christ. They are the leaven, the salt, the remnant, the mustard seed that God uses to transform the world.”
Love is the only power that will transform our pain and deliver us from violence. Love is not easy. It isn’t even safe. But it is good. And in the end, love wins.
“A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet”. So wrote William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. For Juliet it means that Romeo’s family name ‘Montague’ didn’t matter to her.
However I think names are very important. As a ‘Smithson’ I get quit narked when people call me Mr Smith. The name Smith is very common across the UK but the name Smithson, according to genealogists, is very specific to the North of England and particular Yorkshire. My given name was chosen for me by my mother. Initially I was to be called John after my father but my older cousin beat me to that one so as she liked the Holywood actor Alan Ladd I was called Alan. (Any other resemblance to Hollywood stars is purely accidental!). At school I picked up the nick-name ‘Smithy’, another popular character this time in the Beano. (No further comment!!)
Since entering the ranks of the clergy many years ago, some folks have preferred to call me “Rev,” a title turned into a name which I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable with since most of the time I feel irreverent. I hardly ever use it to describe myself except on the rare occasion when it gives me an easy access parking spot at the hospital when visiting folks.
In some cultures names are very important and have great meaning. In African tradition names are chosen with great care and have a profound meaning even to the role they play in guiding the future direction of a childs life.
Some times you can loose your name. At school we joked that our headmaster (The Boss) knew us all by name – we were all called ‘You Boy!’ However when some people have their name taken from them it can be intensely painful. All those who entered in the Nazi concentration camps lost there name and became a number, people of colour who were referred to by just the N-word at work. Women in abusive relationships and children in loveless families all lose their name when called stupid, lazy, ugly, useless. If you can remove someones name they become a non-person and therefore can be denied basic human dignity.
“I will call you by name,” Jesus says to those who have been known by many shame names. And in some place deep within our created-in-the-image-of-God identity, in the space where a light exists that no darkness or shame or defamation can extinguish, there in that space, he says, the voice of the one calling our name is familiar.
I suppose the name he calls us is the one we recognize as holding the essence of who we are and tells the story about how God sees us — the goodness and divine dignity so easy to forget, the gift of what it means to know that God is very thoughtful to consider it a good idea for you, me, and all of us to be in the world together, and the story about there never being a time when God has not held us in love and accessed our lives with an unreasonable compassion.
Perhaps the most transformative thing we can do for each other is to give each other space to tell our dehumanizing stories of naming and then to hold those stories with compassion and gentleness. And then at some point along the way share an alternative narrative that goes something like this: No matter what name you’ve been given, no matter the shame name you’ve carried, God is very thoughtful to have given what may feel to you like a new name, but, I suspect, is the name by which God has always known you.
No longer do you have to carry the weight of a shame name like Stupid, A Mistake, A Disappointment, Not Good Enough, or Unwanted. No! You are invited to live a story shaped by the name embedded in your identity by Compassionate Love, the name given to you by the main character who is always here. The name God gave you when first laying eyes on you. You are … My Delight. (Isaiah 62:4, Jeremiah 31:20)
As a young christian I decided I had better join the church prayer meeting, so I found myself one Friday evening sat with a dozen or so fellow members in a small room at church that smelt of damp. We began by going around the group to ask what things we wanted to pray for and then the organiser of the prayer meeting proceeded to pray for an hour, seemingly without taking a breath, about all the topics we had mentioned. Most of his prayer seemed to be telling God what God should be doing in each and every circumstance. After a couple more weeks (yes, prayer meetings were weekly in those days!) I decided that this prayer life was not for me.
We know that prayer is essential for the spiritual life. How often do we hear people say “I need to pray about that” or “take it to God in prayer” but what are we doing?
There are many answers to this question. One common understanding is we are asking God to do something for us. We ask God to heal someone, or that some one will be successful in their job application, even that they will have nice weather on their holiday – the list is endless.
I think this is a great place to start but it is terrible place to stop. This type of prayer, traditionally called petition, is shallow. It’s primarily concerned about what you want and how you can get God to give it to you. Often it is nothing more that bargaining with the Creator.
Any one who has children will be familiar with this, “Mum can I go and play, I promise I will do my homework” or “Dad, make my sister share nicely with me.
As a parent you know there is nothing wrong with these kind of requests, but you long for the day when your child asks “I am having trouble with my sister what do you think I should do so we can share the toys?”
The transition from asking God to do something for you to asking God for wisdom and guidance is a sign of maturity in our prayer life as they are a sign of maturity in our children.
If we always view God as a cosmic vending machine, do the right things, push the right buttons and out pops what we want, we will always be praying at an immature level. And when God does not give us what we want, then our faith evaporates and we walk away from God.
If we move in a deeper maturity of prayer we discover yet another, deeper level. It is a simple love for God and a gratitude for all his works. There is no sweeter moment for a parent than when a child says “Thank you for all you do for me, I love you”. Words like these from a child means that you have helped them grow into a person with humility and understanding.
Yet there is more to prayer even belong gratitude, a hidden mystery that runs deeper than any parent/child illustration. It is a mystical union between what is mortal and eternal.
This prayer moves you beyond what God has done or can do for you, it moves you beyond what you need or want and are grateful for. It moves you beyond ideas and words altogether.
This is the mystery of contemplative prayer, it exists beyond ideas and formulas of prayer and it is possible for someone to live this kind of prayer without realising it.
This prayer is not about what you say or what you do it is about what you become. I believe this is what St. Paul meant when he told us to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1Thesselonians 5:16-18). It is a prayer which envelopes our whole being.
This prayer becomes the most important in our lives. This doesn’t mean that the other prayers are bad. It is good to pray for healing, for wisdom or to give thanks, these are a genuine expression of our humanity, and being real and genuine with God is vitally important. So it is good to carry on praying these prayers, but find the prayer which is not an idea, which is not a conversation with God. Find the prayer which is a union with the divine.
It is the goal of every Christian to become like Christ. To have our being in Christ. To live in him as he lives in us. With patience and a genuine desire we can not only learn how to pray but our live will be come the deep mystery of true contemplative prayer.
One of the ways I relax is to read. I enjoy spy novels and in particular ones that will have a plot twist somewhere along the way. Whilst the Bible is a world away from a spy novel it is full of plot twists.
In the New Testament, God is constantly pulling surprises: God loves the most unlikely people, and shows up in the most unexpected places.
In the second chapter of Acts, we are confronted with the story of the birth of the church. We call it the Pentecost story. On the day of the Jewish festival of Pentecost something happened that no one expected. The Holy Spirit blew through the gathered community and caused quite a stir as people found themselves speaking in various languages and yet were able to understand what everyone was saying. It is a marvelous moment. Diverse groups of people are brought together through an unexpected visitation of the Holy Spirit and community is created.
However, this experience is a limited one. The gathered community is a community of Jews, the chosen people of God. It is Pentecost and the church has been fashioned by God’s spirit. We celebrate this day every year in the liturgical cycle of the church.
A lot happens after this dramatic visitation of God’s spirit. The story is thrilling and I encourage you to read it for yourself in this early history of the church that we call the Acts of the Apostles.
In the tenth chapter of this book a different kind of Pentecost occurs. It has been called the “Gentile Pentecost” because here we have a record of the Holy Spirit visiting Gentiles, the non-Jews of that world.
Now this is a surprise! No one expects God to act in this way. God is the God of the Jews. God’s love is reserved for them. They are the people with the great faith tradition that begins with Abraham and continues through the exodus and the kings and prophets of the Old Testament. It would be only fitting that on the day of Pentecost God would do a special work like bringing the Spirit on the believers gathered at the sacred site of Jerusalem.
But God’s spirit is always larger than our expectations. In Acts 10, that spirit confirms that God loves Gentiles too. The community of the excluded is included. The ones regarded as a “nonpeople” are elevated to the status of God’s children. It is a surprise of monumental proportions! The early church is confronted with God’s view and has to open its life and doors to all the people of the world. No longer can the church live in the comfort of fellowship with it’s own. Now it must make room for all. It is a challenge and a blessing all at the same time, but this is the story of the New Testament
Reading the Gospels and the Letters of this sacred text one becomes aware of one fact above all others: Jesus Christ is the friend of sinners, sufferers, and Samaritans! Just think about who gets noticed, who gets included in the story: Bartimaeus, the ten lepers, a man born blind, Zacchaeus, a hemorrhaging woman, an insane man living in a graveyard. No “brightest and best” in this group. No power brokers, no names that would appear in the social pages, none of the king’s palace advisors. These are the marginalized, the forgotten, and the overlooked. And God loves them all!
It is a reminder to us that Jesus is constantly moving toward those from whom others are moving away. And, believe it or not, it is the good news that you, too, are included in this fellowship of the redeemed!
One of the criticisms of John Wesley and the early Methodist movement was that they were more willing to spend their time with farm labourers, factory hands and colliers. Wesley himself, said that he doubted that the rich and aristocratic people of his day could ever be converted. Methodism was always the church of the mill worker not the mill owner. I always think it is appropriate we celebrate Wesley’s conversion around the time of Pentecost.
So here we are at church. We are an interesting group. We are the well behaved and the rebels. We are the righteous and the lost. We are the consistent and the inconsistent, the saints and the sinners. And, we all belong! Such is the grace of God that God’s spirit of love reaches all: sinners, sufferers, samaritans and you and me.
Towards the end of her life whenever we asked my grandmother how she was she would often reply “Well I’m still here.” I was never sure whether she was pleased or disappointed to be ‘still here’!
The hiatus of the last eighteen months has made me reflect upon life and what is important about it. What is the difference between being here and being alive?
Think about your breathing. Just take a moment and place your hand on your chest and feel each breath you take. At one level it is an electromechanical action over which you have no control. At you birth you did not make a decision to start breathing and at the end of life you do not decided to stop breathing. It is merely a function of your body.
Place you hand on your chest again and when you take your next breath remember that each breath is a gift of love. Each breath we draw reveals the power of love. For the most part, we don’t realize this. We just go about our busy lives. But for those who know how to listen, the existence of every single thing in this cosmos sings, “Love is at work here.”
That we came into this world and that we depart this life teaches us this crucial lesson. No person or animal or plant or inanimate thing brings itself into existence. Everything owes its existence to something else.
Okay, you might say, “Well, I’m here because my parents wanted a baby.” And that’s may well be true for you. But stretch the point a bit. Ask what one philosopher asked as the most basic question. Why is there something rather than nothing? (Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz). As Christians we would say that we are something because of the love of God.
To exist is to be held, to be tenderly sustained, by God’s love. And to do more than merely exist—to really live—means to give that love away.
Jesus told his friends something like that on the night before his crucifixion. He said to them that he is the True Vine, and they are the branches.
“Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
We are here, on this planet, because we are loved. We are to take hold of the life we have been given and to bear much fruit. The creative love of God gives us existence, the redeeming love of Jesus gives us life and we have to give that love away just as it has been given us. As a gift.
It has been commented upon that in September 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, church attendance rose . Sadly after this rise attendance began to decline again and accelerated post 1945. Move forward 70 years and to the current pandemic, although physical attendance has not increased – we have been closed for much of the last year – there are signs of an interesting trend.
Most churches who have moved their worship online have seen a much larger number of people viewing the service than they would expect to attend on any normal Sunday. Even more surprising has been the fact that Google has reported the use of the word ‘prayer’ in online searches increased by over 50% in the first months of the pandemic. (Almost the same figure as the decline in people searching for flights!) Also a recent poll of American Christians found that many of them said their faith had been strengthened during the pandemic.
People who experience traumas tend to question some of the assumptions they might have had about their faith – what pastoral theology calls ’embedded beliefs.’ These beliefs may include ideas about who God is, the purpose of life or why evil events happen to good people.
These embedded beliefs are the ones we accept either from our parents or from the church family we choose to join, often we do so without thought or question at the time. Many Christians have a deep rooted belief from the tradition that God is all good and that evil emerges when God ‘rightly’ punishes people for their sins. In other words, an all-good God would not punish someone without a reason.
Christians raised with that assumption might ask what made them incur God’s wrath if they contracted COVID-19. In such an event, the embedded belief in a punishing God may become something called a negative coping strategy – a coping strategy that has negative effects on a person’s life.
If they feel God is punishing them for no reason, they may feel confusion or try to identify something that is problematic or sinful about their identity. As a result, their faith becomes something that is a source of stress or cognitive dissonance rather than a source of comfort.
Traumatic events are often confusing for people because they don’t make much sense. In other words, traumas differ from the expectations of everyday life, and as a result, they seem to defy meaning or purpose.
However a positive spiritual approach is when individuals begin to recognise that some of their beliefs have been challenged by the trauma. People start to discern which embedded beliefs still make sense and which need to be revised. Faced with trauma many Christians will begin to draw on prayers, personal reflections, rituals and conversations. These have been shown to function as positive coping mechanisms that help individuals feel more grounded in the aftermath of a trauma.
Over time, these resources help individuals develop more intentional beliefs, meaning consciously chosen beliefs that take their suffering into account. These might include reasons why the suffering occurred and what its significance is for the overall meaning of the person’s life. Over time the individual replaces embedded beliefs with ‘deliberative’ beliefs, or beliefs that are chosen. Individuals will then have a sense of commitment to these beliefs because they make sense in light of the trauma.
Some people may argue that the suffering of the pandemic logically ought to turn people into atheists. the philosopher Bertrand, Lord Russell, argued that Christians should accompany him to a children’s hospital unit because they would inevitably stop believing in God once they saw such profound suffering. The way humans experience suffering spiritually, however, may not necessarily lead to atheism or agnosticism. Indeed, research from experts who study the intersection of psychology and religion has found that events that could be labeled as traumatic do not necessarily destroy faith. (Kenneth I. Pargament – The Psychology of Religion and Coping.)
Trauma often challenges so many assumptions about who we are, what our purpose is and how to make sense of a traumatic event. Faith-based beliefs and practices offer meaningful resources to help navigate those questions.
This is why spiritual beliefs and practices across various religions can often lead to faith strengthening rather than weakening, following a trauma.
With the closure of churches during the pandemic many Christians have had to look elsewhere to find answers to the questions they face. I would argue that rather than ‘escaping’ the challenge of pandemic by coming to church Christians have had to dig deep into their own spiritual resources to face the challenge of the pandemic.
This not something new. The exile to Babylon forced the people of Israel to question their embedded beliefs and came back with a deeper understanding of God and a faith which was stronger because of the trauma of exile, not weaker.
We have dug a deep well to find the spiritual refreshment we needed over the past eighteen months, let’s not abandon our endeavours to return to the stagnant waters of assumed beliefs.
“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jeremiah 2:13).