Author Archives: supersutton

Hell Fire and Damnation*

Three Keys to Understand the Old Testament |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless and take care,


*Often muttered under the breath during a church council!

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

Eagle Nebula – Cosmic Creation Calls |

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless and stay safe


Surprising Joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joy can always find you. 

God bless and stay safe,


Holy Disagreement!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless and stay safe.


(W)holy listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless and stay safe, Alan.

Keep on keeping on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless and stay safe,


Go with the flow.

Shimshalabim ~ ocean magic.......i've never seen anything like this. | Sea  and ocean, Ocean, Ocean waves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless and stay safe


Mr Wesley’s Bible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless and happy reading. Alan.

Wrestling with God.

Man meets Milky Way | ESO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God bless and take care,Alan.

Wesleyan Thoughts

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

Dear friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What an adventure to think like a Wesleyan!

God bless and stay safe,