Author Archives: supersutton

Pivot Points.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

The Cheerful Unrepentant Weeds*

Weed Soil Types - What Weeds Say About The Landscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless,

Alan. 

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

Interrupted by Angels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless,

Alan.

“Lowly and humble, a learner of thee”*

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

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

First, I am a learner.

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

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

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

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

And second, I am a follower.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

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

Divine Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

Seeking Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless and stay safe,

Alan

The Sacred Relationship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

Black Lives Matter

It is with some trepidation I write this post as I know there will be those in the church better placed to comment on the events of the last few weeks. I refer to the horrendous footage of the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis in America. It is difficult to watch and I know many people have tried and failed to see the footage to the end, as Christians I believe we should watch to the end for so much of scripture tells us to stand along side those who are oppressed. 

As we continue to experience the ramifications of George Floyd’s death across the world it is easy to dismiss this as not our problem – “it took place 4000 miles away”, “We are not racist like America”, “I work with coloured people and we get on fine”. This does not excuse the fact that racism is still happening in our country and society today and dare I say it even in our church. Don’t believe me? Then talk to a BAME teenager, talk to a minister with a Caribbean or African heritage. 

Within the protests of recent weeks there have been a number of phrases used in the discussions which I have found challenging. Firstly there is the phrase ‘white privilege’. Initially I reacted against this, I may be white but I am not privileged. I did not receive a large inheritance from my father, I do not benefit from a trust fund, I was not sent to a prestigious private school, but that is viewing privilege from my white english background. So in true biblical fashion I will tell you a parable.

You may have the same job, earn the same salary, live on the same street, and drive the same model car as your black neighbour, so you may not see yourself as privileged, but when you go out into the street you are not called derogatory names, no one will make monkey noises in your face or throw bananas at you, or tell you to go back to where you came from. As white person the Prime Minister would not make fun of your appearance or compare the way you dress as to looking like a letterbox – that’s white privilege. 

The second issue I have wrestled with is the ‘Black lives matter/All lives matter’ argument. We know that God cares for all his children irrespective of the colour of their skin, their gender, their sexuality. What is being said is that at this moment ‘Black lives Matter’. Look at the teaching of Jesus in Luke 15:3-7:- 

‘So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.’ 

The shepherd did not abandon the 99 but he knew they were safe and so focused on the one that was lost. At these times we need to focus on the black community who need our understanding and support, silence is not an option. 

My third and final issue was watching the toppling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol. As some one who has been influenced by the non-violent campaigners in the world – Bonhoeffer, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Oscar Romero – to see violence, even violence against property, makes me feel sick. Again I go to scripture to be reminded that in some circumstances people need to to take radical action. 

‘Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the benches of those who were selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you have turned it in a den of robbers”.’

With all this taking place against the background of the Coronavirus lockdown we find we are challenged, it would be easy to simply hide away in the hope that this will pass along with the current pandemic, but don’t ignore what is being said or asked of us by our sisters and brothers of the BAME community. Take time to speak and listen to what our sisters and brothers are really saying and when needed stand with them in their hour of need. 

God bless and stay safe,

Alan. 

(Don’t ) Breath on me breath of God.

Pentecost Sunday is one of the high days of the churches calendar. This is the day when the disciples received the Holy Spirit, or was that a few weeks ago? – John 20:22. Some people celebrate Pentecost Sunday as the birthday of the church, or did that happen earlier in Jesus ministry? – Matthew 16:17-19. I appreciate Pentecost because it is the only one of the ‘big three’ church celebrations which has no commercial overtones.

In past years I have celebrated with with churches filled with bright red balloons or decorated with scarlet banners and red flames hung from the ceiling. Or have been in large outdoor circuit services. Non of that this year thanks to Covid-19.

Much of the imagery of the gift of the Holy Spirit seem counter to our present situation – breath, wind, crowds – all would be frowned upon by our current lockdown instructions. But there is another side to the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Writing to the churches of Rome and Galatia Paul spoke of many different gifts from the Holy Spirit that could be used to build and maintain the church. Practical gifts such as preaching and teaching, but also the deeper gifts that bring a church together – love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

If Pentecost is, as we are fond of saying, the birthday of the Church, then what does it mean to be the Church? Paul’s exploration of gifts is worth probing. There are “varieties of gifts,” so there’s no one spirituality or service model for everybody. Many churches do “spiritual gifts” inventories, assessments of “strength finders” etc. so people can see what gifts they may have and thus find their path to service. All good: but I always wonder if we might be getting it backwards. Is it that God has made me a certain way, so that’s how I serve? Or do I stretch and learn to serve God more profoundly if I do what I’m not gifted at?

Does God use my strengths? Or my brokenness? Leonard Cohen’s “Everything has a crack in it, that’s how the light gets in,” and Ernest Hemingway’s “The world breaks everyone, and then some become strong in the broken places” come to mind. How do we unearth people’s gifts – all the people’s? I worry about the way churches and their groups are geared toward “marathoners,” people  who will sign up for 35 week studies or 3 year weekly commitments. What about the “sprinter,” who get nervous over a 3 week commitment. And then what times of day do we have things? A young parent, or a surgeon, or a night nurse: how do we employ their gifts, and time?

Not surprisingly, in our culture, “difference” feels threatening. The Methodists seemingly struggle to get along with people who think or act differently. But difference is God’s good gift; difference is how we know God, not merely through the challenge of reconciliation, but even just hearing God’s voice. I love Hans Urs von Balthasar’s wisdom: “We cannot find the dimensions of Christ’s love other than in the community of the church, where the vocations and charisms* distributed by the Spirit are shared: each person must tell the others what special knowledge of the Lord has been shown to him. For no one can tread simultaneously all the paths of the love given to the saints: while one explores the heights, another experiences the depths and a third the breadth. No one is alone under the banner of the Spirit, the Son and the Father; only the whole Church is the Bride of Christ, and that only as a vessel shaped by him to receive his fullness.” (Hans Urs von Balthasar – ‘Does Jesus Know Us? Do We Know Him?’ – Ignatus Press, 1986)(*Spiritual gifts)

As we begin to contemplate what life will be like as we come out of lockdown perhaps we can reflect on the gifts the Holy Spirit has given us and how we might use them to build our church once again.

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

Love Divine, All Loves Excelling!

Sunday should have been a very special Sunday, for Wesley Day – 24th May, fell on Aldersgate Sunday this year. But as with most things at present our celebrations are somewhat muted. Both days commemorate and celebrate the famous conversion experience of John Wesley, Aldersgate Sunday is the Sunday nearest 24th May. Charles had a similar experience a few days before, but John being the bossy elder brother is the one we always remember.

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Wesley Day is always a time to remember what Methodism has contributed to the ecumenical life of the church in our world today. Fortunately, the Wesleyan tradition is ecumenical, itself the child of other streams of Christianity, and one which invites us to be formed in relation to the depth and breadth of Christian thought. All this to say, the theology of love found in the Wesleyan tradition is the culmination of previous theologies in the Roman, Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican traditions. Wesleyan theology not only draws from the ecumenism of the past, but has also informed the theology of love in the ecumenical movement of today.

In addition to the breadth of its theology of love, we also find a depth such that many rightly describe Wesleyan theology as a theology of love. In demonstrable ways we see this.

First, with respect to theology itself. The fact that neither John nor Charles Wesley spent their lives in the academic circles of Oxford University has caused some to discount them as theologians, but that is a both a bogus claim, and one which reveals a too narrow view of the word theologian. Their media were different (e.g. sermons, hymns, treatises and letters) but their message has theological substance (As an aside I believe they would have relished engaging in the social media of today. Zoom , Skype, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, all would have been grist to the Wesley’s evangelical mill!)  And their message was rooted in the two great commandments — the love of God and the love of your neighbour as your self.

Second, love is seen with respect to the ministries that characterized Methodism. One of the guiding mantras for John and Charles (and other Methodists) was “faith working by love,” a conviction akin to St. James, who wrote that “faith when not accompanied by actions is dead.” (James 2:17). John Wesley called it “practical divinity,” — what we (and the larger Christian tradition) now refer to as social holiness.

The study of Wesleyan spirituality has shown how much John and Charles (and the Methodist movement) connected with, benefitted from and expressed the many theologies of love which preceded them. A number of academic studies have come to believe that they see Methodism as a ‘Third Order’, akin to what we have seen in the Franciscan order — a movement rooted in and expressive of love.

Love as the cornerstone of faith and life has generated this principle throughout the Wesleyan world, J. Kenneth Grider has stated that “Methodists move toward people who need help.”  The help given is not generated solely or primarily by a sense of obligation or duty, but rather from compassion born of love — a sense of love rooted in the person and work of God, who in the Holy Trinity loves the whole world (John 3:16).

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.