Author Archives: supersutton

It’s Biblical!

One phrase that has been used about the current pandemic is that it is of “biblical proportions.” Those commentators and journalists who use this phrase sadly have no concept of what a ‘biblical’ plague is really about. Just because it is large and widespread does not make it ‘biblical’.

The choice of words conveys more than just scale. Biblical stories of devastating famines are familiar to many, but we must understand that famines in biblical times were interpreted as more than mere natural occurrences. The authors of the Hebrew Bible not only used famine as a mechanism of divine wrath and destruction – but also as a storytelling device, a way to move the narrative forward.

Underlying the texts about famine in the Hebrew Bible was the constant threat and recurring reality of famine.

Israel occupied the rocky highlands of Canaan – the area of present-day Jerusalem and the hills to the north of it – rather than fertile coastal plains. Even in the best of years, it took hard work to produce a harvest each year. The rainy seasons were brief; any precipitation less than normal could be devastating.

Across the ancient Near East, drought and famine were feared. In the 13th century B.C., nearly all of the Eastern Mediterranean civilisations collapsed because of a prolonged drought.

For the biblical authors, rain was a blessing and drought a curse – quite literally. In the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of Moses,  God says that if Israel obeys His laws, “the Lord will open for you his bounteous store, the heavens, to provide rain for your land in season.” (Deuteronomy 11:13-14). The opposite was destruction, “The skies above your head shall be copper and the earth under you iron. The Lord will make the rain of your land dust, and sand shall drop on you from the sky, until you are wiped out.” (Deuteronomy 28:23-24)

The Bible’s association of famine and other natural disasters with divine anger and punishment paved the way for faith leaders throughout the ages to use their pulpits to cast blame on those they found morally wanting. Alcohol, abortion, homosexuality – all have been blamed for natural disasters seen as God’s divine wrath.

For the biblical writers interested in legislating and prophesying about Israel’s behavior, famine was both an ending – the result of disobedience and sin – and also a beginning, a potential turning point toward a better, more faithful future.

Other biblical authors, however, focused less on how or why famines happened and more on the opportunities that famine provided for telling new stories.

Famine as a narrative device – rather than as a theological tool – is found regularly throughout the Bible. The writers of the Hebrew Bible used famine as the motivating factor for major changes in the lives of its characters – undoubtedly reflecting the reality of famine’s impact in the ancient world.

We see this numerous times in the book of Genesis. For example, famine drives Abraham and later Isaac into Egypt

Similarly, the book of Ruth opens with a famine that forces Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth, and her family to move first to, and then away from, Moab.

The story of Ruth depends on the initial famine; it ends with Ruth being the ancestor of King David. Neither the Exodus nor King David – the central story and the main character of the Hebrew Bible – would exist without famine.

All of these stories share a common feature: famine as an impetus for the movement of people. In ancient times this was a physical movement into a strange land, residing where you had to abandon land, kin even religion. You no longer had power and became vulnerable.

What does the ‘biblical’ pandemic have to say to us today?

Is it God’s wrath for our sinfulness? Well I don’t believe in a wrathful God so no!

I believe that if we think theological about the pandemic then there are two lessons we can take from this year of hiatus. First we can look with greater compassion on the refugee and the migrant and recognise something of their powerlessness in the powerlessness we have experienced. Secondly it gives us the opportunity to move our ‘narrative’ forward if we are courageous.

God bless and take care, Alan.

Opening the Door

Church Door Red - Free photo on Pixabay

“When we return, we will all be newcomers.”

It was just a throw away comment, but the more I thought about what was said the more profound I believe the comment was.

Of course! We will all be newcomers, again.

As our churches begin to reopen in larger numbers after a year of on-again, off-again COVID-19 closures, our habits in these once-familiar physical spaces have been broken.

What was instinctive and comfortable in March 2020 is now, for many of us, just outside the realm of memory. How did we share life in these spaces? How did we get work done here?

Even with a widespread yearning for a return to normalcy, we may find that our familiar places now feel somewhat foreign. Ongoing and necessary health and safety precautions will change the ways we interact in these spaces.

There will no longer be impromptu meetings around the coffee table. Many meetings will still be via Zoom, or if in person they will have to be carefully planned, the meeting room laid out very differently. Fellowship will have to be much more intentional, less small talk and more meaningful conversation – ‘Time to talk of God’.

On Sunday mornings, social distancing may mean that our usual pew can no longer be “our pew” because it’s now reserved to be the buffered distance between us. Some of us may find ourselves distributing individually wrapped, carefully sealed communion wafers and wine glasses to the faithful as they enter – no gathering around the table for weeks to come.

It’s not only that our past habits have been broken; in some cases, our very ways of being in spaces together may no longer be advisable or possible. We will have to create new ways of being community together. What was that comment?

“We will all be newcomers.”

There’s also a deeper distancing that has occurred over the last year in our churches. We may now be strangers not just to physical spaces but also to those with whom we previously shared those spaces. So much life happens in a year, even in a year of pandemic lockdown.

While congregations and organizations have tried to sustain community in difficult circumstances, there are still so many stories, so many experiences that we did not share with each other in real time. There’s been grief and joy that simply went unspoken.

The poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes,

“When someone you haven’t seen in ten years / appears at the door, / don’t start singing him all your new songs. / You will never catch up.”

If she were to write it today, we can imagine her saying, “When someone you haven’t seen except by Zoom / appears at the door …”

While it is tempting to agree that catching up will be virtually impossible (pun intended), one of the particular gifts of religious communities is that most of us do some of our most intentional ministry with newcomers.

In this moment after we have missed so many other moments, we will need the best of what we know from that to help us find a way of being back together.

For example, we have cultivated practices for welcoming one another and inviting one another to share in something larger than ourselves — the mission of the church in the world.

At our best, we know how to listen for, celebrate and receive the gifts of each new person.

We know how to help each other share our stories of heartbreak and hope and, in each telling, find new layers of meaning.

We know how to invite people into service in the world that is good for the world and deeply fulfilling for them personally.

We will need all those capacities and all that experience to help us be, and become more than, newcomers together.

Said it so casually, so clearly: “When we return, we will all be newcomers.”

In eight words, we hear the truth that reopening our buildings was never going to be as simple as unlocking the doors, turning on the lights, roping off a few pews or putting out hand sanitiser — not that those things are all that simple.

Reopening our buildings, resuming life together, is an emotional and spiritual challenge. It is good news for us that congregations know how to be in those spaces with faith, hope and love. Now as ever, the world needs all three.

God bless, Alan.

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday (Easter Vigil) – Immanuel Lutheran Church

There is a popular saying in western Christianity that I must admit I don’t particularly like – ‘It may be Friday but Sunday’s coming’. I’ve always felt Holy Saturday is an entirely under utilised theological resource. It is part of our Western psyche that wants to jump forward to the resurrection, get to the point, resolve the story, tie it up with a nice neat little bow, and run the ‘happily ever after’ closing screen. 

The COVID-19 pandemic would not play our Western game of shortcuts and quick fixes. 

An often-overlooked component of the incarnation is the three days that Jesus spends in the grave. God doesn’t stop where we live but goes before us into death. Meeting with us in our brokenness, Jesus does not give up when things get uncomfortable; he willingly gives his life. He trusts the Father and moves into the unknown. 

Some of our church members, particularly those hesitant to engage anything “digital,” report that there was no “Easter Sunday” in 2020. The church was “closed.”  In one sense they are right but really they missed the point of resurrection.

The Coronavirus forced us to stay in the tomb. We have been living in the tomb time for over a year. It’s been a long Holy Saturday. This requires us to have faith and obedience in the face of uncertainty. 

Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:12 reveal not only the astonishing depths of God’s love but also indicate our place is with Jesus in the tomb. This descent into the tomb with Christ is part of our journey to spiritual maturity. It is a move toward our own resurrection life. This inverts the modern world’s values of honor, prestige, and power. 

The tomb forces us into an uncomfortable state of liminality and confusion. Like Cleopas and his companion we get on with life but with a slower step, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place” (Lk 24:21). The tomb represents separation, disorientation, and living in the in-between. As we look to engage in new ways of mission, different ways of being church, innovate, and create new things, we hit the wall of disappointment and failure. 

The late theologian and author Alan Lewis wrote, 

‘The second day appears to be a no-man’s-land, an anonymous, counterfeit moment in the gospel story, which can boast no identity for itself, claim no meaning, and reflect only what light it can borrow from its predecessor and its sequel, not its number in the series, but its place, bears its significance, as that day between the days which speaks solely neither of the cross nor of the resurrection, but simultaneously remembers the one and awaits the other, and guarantees that neither will be heard, or thought about, or lived, without the other.’ (Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday)

While we often pass right over Jesus’ time in the grave as a non-event, it is of paramount importance. The Scriptures, church tradition, and the creeds affirm a “descent into hell.” We can safely say that Jesus was busy during the darkness of the tomb, yet the implications are perhaps beyond our finite comprehension. 

We can learn a lot from what the disciples do during this time. A cursory review of the Scriptures may respond with “not much” or at least “nothing to be proud of.” They had a funeral of sorts (Jn 19: 38-41). They rested (Lk 23:56). They waited (Jn 20:2). They hid out (Jn 20:19). Some doubted (Jn 20:25). Some lamented (Jn 20:11). But they also talked, they processed, they prayed—they formed relationships while they waited, and they wrestled with the implications of what had happened (Lk 24:36). In actuality, this is a vast amount of significant activity. In fact, they were becoming reflective practitioners long before theological colleges came up with the idea!

In the ‘tomb time’ the disciples were asking lots of questions. Was Jesus really the one? What does this mean? Should we go home and go fishing? Can a person cursed and executed on the cross really be the messiah? Have we been duped? Are we going to be executed now too? Also, the timing was essential to their activity. In John’s narrative, we often emphasize the disciples’ cowardice, hiding out with the “doors locked for fear of the Jews” (Jn 20:19). Yet in another sense, they were doing the only thing they could do. Had they rushed out headlong into the streets of Jerusalem, considering the powder keg it was already, they likely would have met a quick fate. 

I believe this is what the Holy Spirit is calling the church to as we embrace the new reality of a pandemic with a long tail. The tomb time is a place to wait, reflect, connect in new ways, and learn to ask different questions. 

Tomb-time involves consciously pausing to diagnosis our context through the three lenses of hindsight, insight, and foresight. Furthermore, we are in a place of powerlessness. We are waiting for God to do what only God can do.

One of the greatest threats as we begin to emerge from the tomb time is the rush ‘back to normal.’ While the pandemic has been a time of flourishing creativity and innovation for many churches, if our goal is to get back to business as usual, we are squandering the gift. 

Normal wasn’t working before the pandemic. In fact, normal was dreadful. The traditional church has been in a death spiral of decline for decades. Outsiders look at the church and they don’t see Jesus. They see infighting, judgment, and hypocrisy. They don’t see the church as a place of healing, but a place of harm. We have failed to connect in a significant way with the last three generations in the UK. We have not ‘made disciples’ we have made ‘church members’ many of whom disengaged when we closed our sanctuary doors for the pandemic.

The pandemic gave us the gift of a reset. We’ve had a year in the tomb to wait, pray, strengthen our relationships, and ask different questions. 

Recently, some church leaders have stepped forward to critique digital church. The essence of their lowly view of online church is, “that was a nice temporary solution, but now let’s get back to real church.”  

But what about those of us who found digital church to be just as real, or even more real, than a church centered in a building? What about all the disciples we actually made in digital space? What about the ways we learned to inhabit digitality in such a way that it brought healing to the isolated and the suffering? What about all the people who will never set foot in our sanctuaries who found a home in a digital community?  

As we move toward resurrection Sunday, may we remember that resurrection is about continuity, not replication. Jesus is raised from the dead in his same body, but it is different. New creation describes a radical change of state. The wound-bearing Jesus is the same, but different. May we come out of the lockdown phase of the pandemic, the same, but different.  

God bless,

Alan.

Do the faithful thing.

God's Love - Experiencing The Love of God in Your Life

The last time I wrote on this Bulletin I wrote about loving could be one of the hardest things we can do. But I also want to say that loving is one of the most faithful things we can do.

Faith, at least for me, is not first and foremost about thinking the right ideas about God. Faith is a sincere and intimate connection with and commitment to a person.

Faith comes down to sharing our life with a friend. In my case, that friend is the risen Christ. As the late Marcus Borg once put it, ‘believing is actually be-loving’. And Jesus was pretty clear about how to love him.

Shortly before the Last Supper, some Jews from outside Israel—came to see Jesus. When Andrew and Philip came to check if he wanted to meet with some potential new followers, Jesus reminded them what loving him was going to look like:

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:24-25)

In ‘The Universal Christ’, Richard Rohr says “Christians are meant to be the visible compassion of God on earth…. They agree to embrace the imperfection and even the injustices of our world, allowing these situations to change themselves from the inside out, which is the only way things are changed anyway.”

As is often said, hurt people hurt people. Our common strategy for dealing with our pain is to find somebody to blame for it. We try to fix our pain by causing pain in someone else. Instead of healing our pain, blame multiplies and intensifies it.

Jesus invites us to join him in the only truly effective way to mend our lives. The way of love. When we acknowledge that we are all hurt people then and only then can we begin the healing process.

When we recognize that my pain is our pain, we take the crucial step away from blame to compassion. To use Henri Nouwen’s phrase, we become the wounded healer instead of the wounded victim.

We love Jesus by loving other people. Real people. Without exception. In all the messiness of their lives. And, yes, that means sharing their sorrow and suffering as our own. Elsewhere, Jesus called this loving your neighbour as yourself.

Sometimes, this will just wear us out. At the end of a long day, we may have nothing left to give. Now and then, we will need a mid-afternoon nap, a long weekend, or a walk in the park with our dog.

That’s okay by Jesus. He knows that love is hard work. We need a rest. And as it turns out, that’s an act of love as well. Sometimes the hardest one. The act of loving yourself.

God bless,

Alan.

Do the hard thing.

Lately, life hasn’t been feeling like, well, life. There’s been too much loss and loneliness and fear and anger and exhaustion and boredom. We miss eating out and visiting friends, going to the gym, and traveling. And we miss hugs.

When I was a student in the 1980’s I did a lot of running There was once an advert for running shoe whose strap line was ‘Made to do hard things’. Implying that it was not just the shoe but the runner was made to do hard things. I can assure you running up and down the hills of Sheffield was hard!

But honestly, we’re also meant to do tender things. To be close to one another. To give and to receive understanding and comfort. To share tears and laughter. To be, at least for a moment, just a little less guarded with each other. That’s why we miss hugs. We miss life.

Medical professionals and government leaders assure us that the vaccine will save us from this restricted and frustrating life we live at present, and in important ways, I believe that they are telling us the truth.

Hopefully masks and physical distancing will become an increasingly distant memory. The daily death count will disappear from our newspapers’ front pages and stop scrolling across the bottom of our TV screens. The life we’ve been missing will return—sort of.

It’s more accurate to say that the life we had known will return. What we call ordinary life is a sort of half-life. The pandemic simply highlighted and amplified its pattern. As a result, our yearning to be saved was able to announce itself to us with visceral urgency.

When I talk about salvation here, I don’t mean that we want to be whisked away from planet earth to a faraway heavenly dwelling place. Nope. I mean we are drawn to become who we really are. In her book, ‘Dusk, Night , Dawn’, Anne Lamott says, we are ‘loving awareness with skin on’.

The reason we need saving is that we are not just love in the flesh. We are also, as Anne puts it, ‘walking personality disorders’. We are a mix of things. Anne’s pastor says that we have dual citizenship. “We have the human passport with all our biographical details and neuroses engraved on it, and the heavenly one, as the children of the divine.”

Sadly part of that ‘Human Passport’ can mean that when we are hurt we are tempted to hurt others to try and achieve some kind of solace. For a while, it can feel good to judge others and to nurture resentments. Even when we realise how lonely and grumpy we’re becoming, we can find it pretty hard to live a different way. Sadly many congregations are hamstrung in their mission because of the internal lack of forgiveness that pervades our congregations.

But you know, it might just be that the advertising campaign was right. We were made to do hard things. We were made to love.

On this planet, love looks like admitting that we are fragile and wounded. As hard as that kind of vulnerability is, it’s even tougher to do the only thing that will make us whole: forgive.

While we’re talking about forgiveness, let’s be honest that we need forgiveness for our unforgiveness. If you’re anything like me, that’s going to involve admitting that you’ve done your share of dealing with your own wounds by wounding others.

Yep, in our personal lives, we were meant to do hard things. And my experience is that salvation—feeling connected to others and being at home in my own skin—lies in doing these hard things.

But I’ve also learned that I cannot do them on my own. At least in my life, I do these hard things by cooperating with a love that is always given to me. I do not save myself.

That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

He was willing to do the hard thing. To love us because that’s who he is. And his love is what makes it possible for me to move toward being who I truly am: loving awareness with skin on.

We were made to do hard things. We were made to love.

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

Take Courage!

10 Commandments Of Courage To Lead In Uncomfortable Times

Is courage a virtue, and what does it mean to be properly courageous? In Summa Theologiae  St. Thomas Aquinas begins to answer these questions by distinguishing among three kinds of virtue. First are the intellectual virtues that enable us to reason rightly. Second is the virtue of justice, by which we set things right in human affairs. And third are the virtues of courage and temperance that enable us to work for justice by removing obstacles to it.

While temperance makes it possible for us to pursue justice without being lured by pleasures that would distract us from justice, courage is the virtue by which we overcome difficulties and dangers inherent in the pursuit of justice. Courage renders the will capable of justice.

But there is no courage without fear. Fear, for Aquinas, is the natural and healthy passion that we experience when we perceive the threat of separation from what we most deeply love: “All fear arises from love, since no one fears save what is contrary to something he loves”.(St. Thomas Aquinas – Summa Theologiae). Healthy fear is important, indeed essential, for a rightly formed life. In fact, Aquinas argues that when people do not experience fear, either because of a lack of love for themselves or for others or due to reckless disregard of danger, they cannot be said to be courageous, even if they act in daring and audacious ways. Courage is not the absence of fear but the strength in our fear to confront obstacles to justice and then to endure the pain and hardship that this confrontation brings.

This last year has raised many fears in our society, some are beginning to wane as we get the pandemic under some form of control but I believe the Church will face an even tough test in the years to come. The church we know and love will change, is changing and has already changed and that change brings fear for so many people.

We know well what it means to be, as the hymn goes, “tossed about / with many a conflict, many a doubt; / fightings within, and fears without.” But there is wisdom and grace in the hymn’s next words: “O Lamb of God, I come, I come.” (Charlotte Elliott – ‘Just as I am, without one plea’ – Singing the Faith 556). Aquinas recognised that ordinary courage will always fail, simply because some obstacles—especially death— are so formidable. But in Jesus Christ, we bear witness to life beyond death and to justice beyond our present experience. In the triumph of this, we are granted courage that comes not from our own effort but from the work of the Holy Spirit in us. In Jesus and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we find strength to challenge, to persevere, and to be patient.

Abiding in Jesus in times of fear is neither a quick fix nor a way to avoid engaging pain and injustice. On the contrary, in the hope of Jesus we are able to address pain and injustice directly without being overcome by fear or despair. We say with Peter: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). And we hear him say to us, “Take courage; I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).

What does it mean to be courageous in our time? It means we take full account of our fears without denying them. It means we honestly examine not only our fears
but also the loves that give rise to our fears. It means we work to confront threats to justice and to rightly ordered loves, and we do so with patience and with hope. And it means, above all else, that we renounce any idolatrous presumption that the work is ours alone. We lean into Jesus, in whose life we participate and who alone makes faithful courage possible.

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

Ashes, Dust and Truth

Image result for ash wednesday

One Sunday I was preaching in a small country Chapel in rural Cheshire as the steward gave the notices for the coming week before the service started I reached for the glass of water in the pulpit only to quickly put it down when I noticed the film of dust on the waters surface. I was rather distracted for the rest of the service, for everywhere I looked on every surface there was dust! Not that I have any problem with dust it is very friendly and always comes back. Despite dust being part of all our lives we become embarrassed when people arrive unannounced and there is a layer of dust on our furniture. How much greater our embarrassment if the looked under the bed!

With the imposition of ashes, on Ash Wednesday the secrets of our ‘dust’ are brought into the light. Ash Wednesday is not about the cheerful stories we tell ourselves . It’s an uncomfortable thing for those who are normally neatly groomed, to walk out of the church and into the sunlight with dirt smudged on our brows. For many churchgoers, Ash Wednesday is one of the only things about our faith that makes public demands on us. We can leave our singing, our prayers, our fellowship and our financial giving behind in the house of God, but the ashes that begin the Lenten season are brought outside. Those ashes are given odd looks and, perhaps, hesitating explanations.

The ashes on our foreheads tells the truth about human existence. It’s an allusion to the creation of human beings recounted in Genesis 2 and to the realities of sinful life first described in Genesis 3.

The ashes testify to the fact that we are God’s creation. We are not our own, but are totally dependent on our creator God. The ashes remind of the lies we often tell ourselves: the lie that we aren’t full of need, the lie that we are OK, the lie that we don’t really need God. Ash is a physical reminder that we are clay in God’s hands.

This ash testifies to the fact that human creatures are broken creatures. Our lives, in truth, are not whole. They are scarred and twisted by sin. Our ashed brows forbid more popular lies: the lie that we are righteous, the lie that we’ve got life under control, the lie that repentance is something for other people. Ash is a visceral reminder of our brokenness and need.

The ashes are a telling of the gospel but in dirt. Not only are they mark of the truth about sin and God’s call for repentance, but they are a public witness to the healing and forgiving love that God pours over our repentant lives. 1 Peter quotes from Isaiah that “All flesh, is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” (1 Peter 1:24-25) The epistle links Isaiah’s truth about dust to the good news of Christ; “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” (1 Peter 1:23). Both death and life uses the dust of the earth.

The word of the Lord, that same word that remains forever, was made flesh. The eternal word dwelt with us ‘dusty’ people and never hid the truth about our dependence and brokenness. That living word testifies to the truth we try to hide beneath polished surfaces. As we begin Lent, we move towards the cross where the polish, of self denial is stripped away to reveal the dust beneath. Pain and sin are real and terrible, but God is the creator of and the Lord over the ‘dust’ of our lives and responds to the truth of our brokenness with the greater truth of Christ’s mercy.

The ‘ashing’ is a public testimony to who we really are. It strips away our masks. When we leave the church and run into friends and neighbours, they find it hard to look away from the ash on our faces. The problem, though, is that most friends and neighbours don’t know the biblical references that the ashes and the dust contain and so can’t see the witness to our true human condition that is written on our faces.

So we are called upon to translate the message.

We have to speak about the truth of that dust, not only in the marks on our foreheads, but with our words and our bodies. Perhaps our dirty faces can be a little means of grace. Perhaps they can be a nudge from God, the push we need to live out the truth of repentance in our everyday lives. Perhaps they can prompt in us the courage to go public with the truth that we are dust and to dust we shall all return.

God bless

Alan.

Theology – Which way now?

Image result for biblical sign post

A few days ago someone commented that they liked my contribution to the circuit website and appreciated my ‘amateur theology’. I was pleased that someone thinks of my musings as theology but was unsure what they meant about them being amateur! But as compliments in ministry are few and far between I will take it as a compliment.

However that phrase highlighted a fundamental flaw that we have with theology in the western church, we see theology as a profession usually done by academics in a university setting and for much of my training that was what it was. Our systematic theology course focused on the two towering giants of 20th century theology, Karl Rahner and Rudolf Bultmann and into whose camp you fell.

This is not new of course, in the early days of the Methodist movement there was a fierce argument as to whether we should follow the teachings of John Calvin (Calvinism) or Jacob Arminius (Arminianism) and as good Methodists we know whose theology we follow today!(?)

This discussion about theology reminded me of an interview I read with Prof. Alan Torrance. Alan Torrance is Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Andrews University, he is the son of Professor James Torrance Erstwhile Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Andrews University, grandson of Rev Thomas Torrance a missionary in China and nephew of the great if formidable Rev Prof. Thomas F Torrance  professor of Christian dogmatics at New College, in the University of Edinburgh. He joked in the interview that there must be a rogue gene in the family that makes them all theologians.

During the interview the interviewer commented with so many theologians in the family there must be ‘Torrance Theology’. Alan Torrance pushed back at this idea and stated that the agent of theology and the context of theology is the body of Christ. For Torrance the body of Christ is the people who have been metamorphosed, through God’s self-disclosure as Jesus Christ — not in Jesus Christ, as Jesus Christ — where the divine life is open to us to share.

Theology comes not from academia but from the church, the body of Christ, held together in a covenant with the triune God, the theologian is not the professional academic but are the people acting as Jesus Christin the world today.

The Church should not be defined by whose theology we accept or whose theology is imposed on us but by the theology we create in our, some times, feeble attempts to be the body of Christ. The direction of theological interpretation must always be from God’s self-disclosure to our categories of thought, and not from our prior categories of thought to God’s self-disclosure. 

That sounds very abstract, but to be practical, when we see the word “law” come up in Paul, we interpret it as what we mean by law, civil law, moral law and so on.

When Paul speaks of law He meant Torah, the articulation of our response to God’s covenant faith in us: “I am the Lord thy God, who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. As I am unconditionally faithful to you, so be faithful to me and to each other.” The whole history of Western theology has been to reverse that, to try to interpret God’s self-disclosure as Torah in the light of foreign concepts of law, natural law, civil law, moral law and so on.

Or we talk about the covenant. The covenant has become, in the West, “contract.” We think in terms of not an unconditional promise on the part of God to humanity, proposing an unconditional love like in a marriage covenant, where we promise to love the other for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer.

That’s what God’s covenant means. But we interpret it as a contract between God and humanity.

True theology comes not from our attempts to impose our world view on God’s self-disclosure but allow God’s self-disclosure, which is the body of Christ in all it’s forms, to form our theology.

God bless,

Alan.

The End of Miracles?

There is one topic written about extensively during the pandemic and that is technology, particularly information technology. How as a church we keep in touch, evangelise, worship and mission has become very dependent on the technology we use.

However there is another branch of technology which has come to the fore and that is the technology which allows us to identify the genome of the virus, and produce vaccines in record time and on a vast scale, but the church has often had on uneasy relationship with medical science and technology.

The achievements of technology for the enhancement of human life are rich in promise, pointing to a glorious future of health and happiness.

New gene-editing tools, nanotechnology advances in health care and continuing progress in neuroscience raise hopes of healing hitherto incurable defects or diseases.

To borrow an enthusiastic line from The New Scientist on technological progress in restoring eyesight: “Scientists have accomplished what previously was saved for miracle workers.”

I don’t think that the church would want to demonise the gift of alleviating suffering should science make the blind see and the lame walk through genetic engineering, brain implants or robotic prostheses.

We should not overlook, however, that our increasing focus on technology for alleviating human suffering is sustained by a worldview that alters our self-perception. We should not allow our immersion in technology to go hand in hand with the disappearance of the person.

Of course, to note the disappearance of something is to imply that we know what is missing. What exactly a person is, however, remains difficult to say. The Dictionary of Sociology defines a person as follows:

“A person is a conscious, reflexive, embodied, self-transcending center of subjective experience, durable identity, moral commitment, and social communication who — as the efficient cause of his or her own responsible actions and interactions — exercises complex capacities for agency and intersubjectivity in order to develop and sustain his or her own incommunicable self in loving relationships with other personal selves and with the nonpersonal world.”

Three features of the person in this definition are especially important. First, a person has a body. The spirit or essence of a human person exists only in bodily form.

Second, a person is a moral agent. Unlike other animals, human beings as persons can step outside their immediate environment and evaluate the world, themselves and others according to abstract ideals. This ability is the basis of the particular human quality of reasoning that makes possible art, literature, science and religion.

The third notable feature of the definition is the most crucial, because it takes us beyond the notion that human beings are merely rational animals. The human person is an “incommunicable self.”

That is to say, a person is not something exhausted by its definition — not merely the sum of certain characteristics. Or, said another way, a person is not like an onion, made up simply of layers of qualities, so that when we peel back the last layer, we hold nothing in our hands. A human being is more than just the sum of their characteristics and achievements.

The only word that comes close to describing the presence of the person is “love,” defined as the will to promote another. Perhaps the best image to describe this love is the parent-child relationship. Ideally, from the first moment, a parent wills their child to flourish and ultimately become independent of her as another free, happy individual. Each of us has been deeply shaped in our way of engaging the world by others.

Jean-Pierre Dupuy recounts a story of a man and his wife, Holocaust survivors, who were reunited after their release from separate concentration camps. Six months later, the wife died from an illness contracted while in camp, throwing the husband into the deepest despair, seemingly incapable of continuing with life.

In therapy, the famous psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, himself a Holocaust survivor, asked the man, If God granted me the power to create an exact replica of your wife — including her memories and demeanor, so you could not distinguish her from the wife you lost — would you want me to do it?

After a long silence, the man stood up and said, “No thank you, doctor,” and left to start a new life.

What happened? The man realized that even the most perfect simulation still cannot capture the incommunicable self, the essence of unique love for another that makes us persons.

Yet this understanding of the person has disappeared in our present cultural obsession with technological solutions. Ray Kurzweil, who developed Optical Character Recognition (OCR) allowing computers to ‘read’, has predicted that by 2045 we will be able to upload our minds to computing platforms like the cloud.

Will the day come when we upload our minds? I want to convince you that it will not, because mind uploading is built on a fundamental misunderstanding of the human person.

It is important to note that by “mind” Kurzweil means our personality profile, a replica of our actual selves. His dilemma is touchingly similar to that of the Holocaust survivor, Kurzweil misses his late father and wants to bring him back by creating a computer replica of his personality by feeding into a computer all the data he has collected about his father: voice recordings, pictures, letters, musical compositions — hundreds of boxes of stuff.

Of course, even if this process worked, you would end up, not with a real person, but with a replica. Kurzweil’s answer is that this doesn’t matter, because even in living human beings, personal identity is really nothing but input and output patterns of information. And the brain is essentially a pattern recording and recognition machine, much like a computer.

Once you have reduced cognition to the brain and the brain to a biological machine, it is easy to imagine that you can reverse-engineer the brain and digitally remaster all its functions, that we can upload our unique self-identity to digital memory devices and then either enjoy a disembodied future or download ourselves into any kind of cool synthetic body that technology can provide.

Now, I don’t think we should lose any sleep over the possibility that the futuristic visions of transhumanism will become reality. No, the real issue is a battle for our imagination. The more people like Kurzweil tell us our human identity is like the profile stored on our smartphones, the more we might actually believe this to be true. The problem with Kurzweil’s concept of the person is that the human self, our personal identity, cannot be reduced to patterns of information exchange. We do not view the human person based on a computational, disembodied and individualistic view of consciousness but by our loving relationships with others and most importantly by our relation ship with our Heavenly Father.

Human beings made in God’s image and in a ever growing sacred relationship with Him.

God bless,

Alan

Press the Button

Networks

One of the most valuable resources I have found on my computer has been the reset button! When everything freezes on the screen and nothing appears to work, I hit reset and all is well. If only we could do that with life.

It is possible that the consequences of this global pandemic will have lifelong implications. We are witnessing perhaps the dawning of a new age, in which the psychological, economic and spiritual aftermath has yet to be comprehended. The likelihood is we will continue to live with a Covid season each year, as we have learned to lived with the flu season.

While much of this is speculation, what is certain is that we find ourselves in a digital age. The Digital Age is simply the time period starting in the 1970s when the personal computer became available. In the 1980s, greater computer access combined with the internet in the 1990s facilitated the dramatic proliferation of digital devices. In the 2010s, the smartphone revolution essentially placed a supercomputer into the pockets of billions of human beings, creating a new social web and hyper-connected mobile technology. It’s also called the Information Age because the emerging computer technologies introduced the ability to collect and transfer information freely and rapidly.

I find it ironic that at he beginning of my ministry I was talking at a circuit event about the church needing to move from a community model to a network model, and here we are still having the same conversation. The big difference is that 25 years ago most people could ignore me. Now thanks to a pandemic and an ageing church membership profile, the emergence of a ‘Network Church’ is much harder to ignore. To be honest all that is happening is the move for one model to a new model of Church is just accelerating. In many ways we have been becoming a Network Church for a number of years. How many church members reading this will on a normal Sunday drive past a Methodist Church to attend the church they chose. We have expanded the geographical space of our churches and now in the digital age, we must consider a new kind of space.

This “cyberspace” is an expression of the nodes, hubs and flows of the network. In other words, the digital space of bits and bytes is the result of the machinic infrastructure of servers and routers, boxes and wires, cables and satellites, of the network society. 

So, in the same way that cities provided opportunity for encounter in physical space, the digital ecosystem facilitates distanced contact in the space of flows. A city is a built environment that both facilitates and limits the movement of people through a space. The web is similar to a city — it is a digitally built environment that facilitates and limits the movement of people through a virtual ecosystem. Connections, passions and relationships are formed in the built environment of a city and are equally facilitated with others in cyberscape.

This has given us an appreciation for technological advances and personal connections. For instance, how many grandparents have experienced their grandchildren’s “firsts” through Zoom? How many of us have celebrated a friend’s birthday party via Skype? Even if you claim to have never done this how many people us a bank card rather than cash to pay for your shopping?

“Virtual reality” is not virtual as in not real, it is real virtuality. Just ask any church that had to survive 2020 by going digital if their online worship, sermons, prayers and donations were real or not. In some way we are all citizens of this new age, but COVID-19 made us more aware of this truth. 

In the Fresh Expressions movement, we have prayerfully sought to discover ways to form church with people who don’t go to church in this emerging social milieu. 

Many of us are rushing to put 2020 behind us and venture optimistically into 2021, but what have we learned that might help us thrive? The saddest tragedy of all could be that we waste this moment of reset. 

We had all hoped things would go “back to normal” but find ourselves in a new normal. 

Both digital natives and digital immigrants alike are familiar with video games. Many of us have experienced a time when our system froze up or got stuck in a loop. Whenever that anxiety inducing moment occurred — whether we grew up on Pong, Super Mario Brothers or Fortnite — when all else failed… we hit the reset button! 

This is also an approach we employ frequently with the plethora of our digital tools. When our laptop overheats, our PC crashes, or our phone is glitching… we turn it off and turn it back on. When our devices become bogged down with cookies, are maxed with data, or contract viruses the manual reset is a built-in mechanism to optimize and make the system work again.

The church has become bogged down, loaded with unnecessary clutter and infected with many viruses. The virus of imperialism, racism, classism, consumerism, sexism, homophobia and so on. The British church has been in a state of plummeting decline for over 50 years. We have needed a reset for a long time. 

The future of the church in the West is not analog, nor is it digital, it is hybridity… a blended ecology of analog, digital and hybrid expressions of church for a post-Christendom world. 

A central but radical idea for the future church is that –

Any Christian with internet access and a device can be a missionary in the Digital Age. 

Furthermore, evangelism, discipleship and church planting should not be programs, departments or the expertise of specialists. They are a single move of the Spirit that flows through the life of every Jesus follower. When we do this in community with others, we are the fullness of the “priesthood of all believers” (1 Peter 2:5-9). On the digital frontier, the playing field has been leveled. Every believer can play a part in God’s ever-expanding kingdom.

God bless,

Alan.