Author Archives: supersutton

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.

Wednesday is the new Sunday … or is it Thursday?

Star spotted with spirograph orbit around supermassive black hole

I suspect many of you like me often stop in the middle of what you are doing and think, ‘What day is it today?’ Lockdown has changed our concepts of time and we are no longer governed by watch or calendar but by mealtimes and bedtimes.

Most of us have been living a different normal for several weeks and time now has become a construct with fuzzy boundaries.

One of the books I am reading in lock down, apart from those weighty theological tomes that ministers read everyday (!) is a book by popular TV science presenter Brian Cox and his colleague Jeff Forshaw. The book is entitled ‘Why does E=mc2? (and why should we care?)’ In the book they aim to explain how Albert Einstein developed the Theory of General Relativity and his famous equation in terms that non Research Physicist can understand.

In April scientists from NASA and The Max Plank Institute discovered more evidence to support Einstein’s theory. A star called S2 orbits a black hole (Sagittarius A*) at the centre of our galaxy, The Milky Way, at speeds of 11,000,000mph making it the fastest known ballistic object in the universe. But it was the motion of the star in orbit that intrigued them. It orbits in a classic Keplerian elliptical and forward motion, but rotates over time to form a rosette shape. (If you are of a certain generation you may have had a Spirograph as a birthday or Christmas present so you know the type of pattern I am talking about.)

Einstein introduced the concept of the space-time continuum in his theory, linking the three dimensions of space with time which had been thought to be independent of each other. For Einstein, the larger the mass of the object, the more it bends the fabric of the space-time continuum and the stronger its effects on nearby objects. So the slower you move through space the faster you move through time. (Trust me on this one, the maths is fiendishly difficult. Well not that difficult but it is still maths and so is still fiendish!)

Interesting you may say, or perhaps not, but what has this got to do with our faith today? S2 orbits around the black hole much like our faith orbits around God. The closer we are to God the greater effect He has on our faith, sending us off in a forward motion until we are drawn back to him again and like S2 our path to and from God is never the same. For our experience of God and our experience of life will change us.

Today’s lockdown serves to remind us that the God we worship not only created time but created ‘our’ time. The writer of Ecclesiastes sums up the concept of time with God beautifuly in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up; 
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

Time is not a device we measure the length of our lives by but is a gift from God to use in His service. We should not ask how long did somebody live but how well did they live.

In these days of ‘fuzzy’ time where March lasted an eternity and April zipped by, rather than try and count the days until things get back to normal, ask God to guide you in using this time wisely.

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

There is a Balm.

The death toll in the UK from the COVID-19 virus has topped 32,000. Worldwide the number is approaching 300,000. A tsunami of suffering, grief, and anxiety is crashing over us.

Thousands have been furloughed from their jobs. Businesses have closed down. Families face shortages of life’s essentials. Those with the fewest resources at the beginning of the pandemic have been hardest hit.

We are all feeling the strain, especially since none of us can see clearly when this will end and what the new normal will be like. And yet some refuse to take even simple measures to protect their vulnerable neighbours from infection.

My heart is troubled. But I am not disheartened.

White vigilantes shot Ahmaud Arbery to death. He was a 25-year-old unarmed black man jogging through their neighbourhood in Georgia, USA. Viewing Arbery through the lens of their own prejudice, they presumed that a running black man must be a criminal.

My heart is troubled. But I am not disheartened.

When I dwell on what is happening in the world and in our society I become sad, appaled, anxious and angry. I know there will be some of you who will want to share a Jesus-y bit of wisdom with me. John 14:1 springs to mind “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” So, let me just be straight up here: If you’re telling me that Jesus is telling me that having faith means that the world won’t break my heart, give me a migraine, and sometimes send me running for the hills, then I’ll never be faithful. Count me out. Because I don’t see how you can love in the midst of this beautiful, horrifying, electrifying, messy place called Earth without being shattered.

Now I don’t mean that life on this planet is crushingly depressing. My spirit soars at the everyday heroism of NHS staff and care workers. Sunrises and starry nights leave me amazed. Our dog Rolo… well, don’t get me started.

And yet, greed, selfishness, violence, prejudice, oppression, and poverty stir something deep within me. These ways of being—and the carnage they leave in their wake—cannot stand. We must resist them. We must persevere in our pursuit of a world in which every human being is treated with the dignity they deserve as the beloved children of God, a world where no one is expendable, no one is replaceable. Where the elderly in care homes are as valued as a few billionaire businessman desperate to boost their profits. In other words, we cannot allow ourselves to be disheartened even if our hearts are troubled.

I think that’s what Jesus was telling his friends on the night before he died. Here’s my version of the passage I mentioned above:

‘Things are going to get worse before they get better, life will be messy, and loving others will leave its mark- scar tissue on your soul. But, but always remember I’m with you in all of this. Sometimes it won’t seem like we are getting any where, trust me love wins out and in a few days I will prove it to you!’ (John14:1 Totally Unauthorised Version)

Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the USA who famously preached at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markel and left most of the Royal Family looking like they had been hit in the face with a wet Haddock, frequently draws on the text of Spirituals to make a Jesus’ point. One he often quotes is -“Sometimes I feel discouraged/ And think my life in vain/ But then the Holy Spirit/ Revives my soul again./ There is a balm in Gilead.

I admit. At the moment, my heart is troubled. Maybe yours is, too. But I am not disheartened. For there is a balm if you seek it.

God bless and stay safe

Alan.

Who do you think you are?

Personality indicator types has been used by many organisations over the years when appointing new personnel. The Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator is perhaps the best known. When thinking about Christian Discipleship Michelle Morris of the UMC uses the four gospels to speak of four different ‘disciple types’ we find in church. (Michelle J. Morris – ‘Gospel Discipleship’, Abingdon Press, 2020.) 

These types may also help us to understand how many of our church members are coping, or not in the current lockdown. 

1. Mattheans. Mattheans are characterised by Matthew 28:19a – “Go therefor…” Mattheans love a tick list, concrete action. They want to know where they are going and how they are going to get there. Mattheans are the ones who will rip a hole in the roof and lower their friend to see Jesus. Methodist Committees are full of Mattheans. 

But now they are told stop! Mattheans have become anxious for they have nothing to do. This is a time for them to take a sabbath from work and focus on God. 

2. Markeans. Markeans are characterised 2Corinthians 3:17 – “The Lord is Spirit, and where the Spirit is there is freedom.” Mark’s gospel is characterised by the word immediately. Mark has Jesus and his disciple rushing from place to place, village to village. Markeans are often on project or evangelism committees, they are great starters but they are not always finishers.  

But now they have to slow down. Markeans are feeling exhausted even though they have nothing to do. Now is the time to breath, take stock and tie up some loose ends. 

3. Lukeans. Lukeans are characterised by Luke 10:25-29 – “Love your neighbour…” Lukeans should wear a badge that says ‘Happy to Help’. They are the huggers in the church, they pull people together. They are great in organising the lunch club or drop in time. 

But now they are told keep your distance. Social distancing, and worse, self isolation are an anathema for the Lukean, they are feeling helpless at this time. they have to discover the worth of the internet , Skype and Zoom. 

4. Johanians. Johanians are characterised by John13:15 -“I have set you and example..” These are often the thinkers and ponderers of the church. Great at leading study groups, but they look to others for authority before giving leadership. 

But now leadership looks different, there is no example to follow. Johanians are feeling lost. Now is the time to observe and pay attention, where does love break out and where does it fail? Then plan for the ‘new’ church in the post lockdown world. 

Now before you start looking at others in the congregation and say “I know what type you are!” take a look in the mirror and ask who am I and what you can do to help the church in the new post lockdown world. 

Banishing the shadows

As Christians we believe that out of death has come new life. This is what we are celebrating during these easter weeks. However due to Coronavirus our celebrations have been very different, we have not been ‘in Church’. However I would comment that you have been ‘in church’ it’s just that you have not been in a church building.

At the beginning of the current lockdown we would have been hard-pressed to believe that out of this terrible pandemic new life could arise for churches. Yet that’s exactly what’s happened. Take church buildings, for example. Their size, shape and cost have shaped worship, ministry and mindsets for millennia. They have been both a blessing and a burden.

But once church buildings had to shut down, congregations found something quite surprising. People were suddenly freed of the constraints of their buildings, and the nature and scope of worship changed.

Throughout my ministry I have found that the most powerful group in any church has been the Property Committee and with its close friend, the Finance Committee, the maintenance of a building has become the de facto ministry the church, a concept Bishop Robert Schnase of the UMC calls a shadow mission. (‘Just Say Yes’ – Robert Schnase, Cokebury Press, 2016). When our buildings control our ministry, it can be difficult to break free of historical precedents. The ghosts of worshippers past (and present!), as much as the structure of the building, play a part in reinforcing the ‘we always do it this way’ attitude of many congregations.

But the coronavirus has done for many churches what they could not do for themselves. Not only have congregations been forced out of their buildings, the size and scope of worship has changed. Congregations are now moving from building-based worship to relationship-based worship.

Worship has become a distributed experience, and is no longer centralised in one building, worship is being reinvented. Whether we are worshipping with, emailed orders of worship, pre-recorded videos, Facebook Live, or in some other fashion, worship takes on a new feel. Instead of being solely building-based, worship can become both more intimate, more immediate and more geographically dispersed.

All of a sudden, it’s no longer the building that gives shape to worship, but the relationships. Those relationships include both person-to-person and person-to-divine relationships. 

Worship has become more interactive. Often there will be a comments screen alongside the live link where people share greetings, comment on the message, offer prayers as the service progresses and they share them with all attending not just mutter to those next to them.

Worship is more authentic. When you livestream worship, gone is the distance between the pulpit and the pew. The immediacy of a camera means the message must be more authentic, and more relevant, to connect with people. Especially people whose experience of accessing and processing information is based around technology.

The shutdown of churches has forced rapid changes on congregational life. There is no guarantee that these changes will automatically translate into permanat culture changes in the life of the church. In fact when the lockdown is lifted there will be a major pushback from those who feel they have lost control of ‘their’ church during this period. How do we intentionally transform these quick shifts into positive, sustainable culture changes? 

First, we must speak of the online experience in positive terms. Yes, there have been issues and glitches along the way. Yes, we may be missing each other greatly. Yes, we may miss our building. Yes, we may miss the freedoms the pandemic has momentarily taken from us. However, framing the online experience with gratitude will help us keep this option alive once social distancing has been safely eased.

Second, we must expand our options. Once people have online options, they treasure them. Online worship means that people can participate in worship while traveling, indisposed, sick or even feeling lazy. Even when face-to-face worship is once again available we must consider live-streaming worship or prerecording a simpler act of worship for those unable to attend.

Thirdly, we must extend our options. Unlike starting an additional worship service in church, which depends on a certain number of people to attend to be considered viable, recorded online worship has a completely different shelf life. It can be experienced hours or months later and still be fresh.

For many of us who are leading worship most Sundays the expansion of online worship has been amazing. I now ‘go to church’ every day as I access worship from many different sources and am greatly blessed.

May you find blessings wherever they are to be found at this time

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

Let’s plant Sequoias!

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it…

Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed…

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest. 

These are just a few lines taken from a much longer poem Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” from The Country of Marriage, © 1973 by Wendell Berry.  It made me think of the upside down world we are living in at the moment. The whole poem is a political critique of the world we normally live in, with the demand for an ever expanding standard of living no matter what the cost or who ultimately bears that cost. As followers of Jesus Christ we are challenged not to live by worldly standards.

We follow a leader who was not powerful or wealthy and has been reflected in the lives of Christian saints throughout the ages. From John Wesley’s comments about not owning “silver spoons whist there are those in want of bread”* to Pope Francis who wears a simple Soutane rather than the rich silk robes of his office. 

I particularly like the phrases about planting sequoias (the oldest sequoia is around 3,200 years old). It brings to mind the words of St. Paul, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered, but God made it grow.” (1Cor. 3:6, NIV). In the quiet moments of this lock down think about those aspects of church life you enjoy and have benefited from but were not of your making or control and give thanks. But also think about what you are planting, what kind of church will you leave to future generations? Do we need to give thanks or seek God’s forgiveness!?

God bless and stay safe,

Alan. 

*(In 1776  the Tax Commissioners  investigated him insisting that for a man of his income he must have silver dishes that he was not paying excise tax on. He wrote them,

“I have two silver spoons at London and two at Bristol. This is all the plate I have at present, and I shall not buy any more while so many round me want bread.”)