Category Archives: Bulletin

Something for Sunday

To-day is Advent Sunday. Advent means coming and the season of Advent is about the coming of Christ. The coming of the Lord Jesus Christ mark you – not just the coming of Christmas. Our faith in Christ is faith in the Christ who comes – comes to you and me- comes to our Church and community and comes us saviour and judge. So Advent is a season of expectation as we Christians look forward in hope. We know there’s a lot wrong with the world and with ourselves. But Christ comes to put things to rights. That’s what salvation means.

But at the same time as there is hope there is apprehension. If a judge is coming what will his verdict be. Will we be found wanting? Will we finally be found out? So although we long for the coming of the Lord and pray daily and urgently that his coming may be soon there is also a sense in which we hope that the day of the coming of the Lord might take place after next Wednesday or after the next visit by the grandchildren.

Today’s passage from Mark’s gospel speaks of the signs attending the final days-fear and foreboding at what is coming on the world. The particular circumstances and the numerous fears that may have first inspired these words need not bother us. What I think we can respond to are the feelings that are represented here. We too have fears and foreboding. Our world might be falling apart. Hard times are here for many: loss of a job, family break up, a sickness, a death or a failure. Then we are troubled by what is coming on the world. Wars and rumours of wars, economic disaster and climate chaos. We are worried, distressed and perplexed just like those who heard these words for the first time.  We too are worried about the future and if we are not then we ought to be.

In the midst of all this chaos there are signs of hope. As things seem to get worse the day when the son of man comes with all his angels gets closer. We do have confidence in God’s love and in his plan for the world. Despite all appearances to the contrary we believe that history is going our way and that Christ will lead us to victory over the powers of death and destruction.

In the meantime what is our response to be? The passage from Mark and the passage from 1 Corinthians offers some clear guidelines.

Be watchful, be encouraged and be hopeful.

Being watchful is particularly important. This is the point of the parable of the fig tree. Read the signs of the times. Be alert and aware. Understand what is going on and try to make a response to what is going on. Work for peace and justice, join a Christian environmental group like Arocha or Green Christian. Don’t bury your head in the sand taking comfort from an endless repetition of the old songs.

The watchfulness theme in scripture is found in both the Old and the New Testaments. The watchman guards the city, he warns of approaching danger, he reminds the people of their responsibilities. We then are called to be alert and on the watch for those things that might challenge the Kingly rule of God. This is also a big theme of the Advent season.

The temptation not to be watchful and not to testify to what we see is always strong. I don’t want to get involved. I wouldn’t make any difference. Nobody would listen to me any way. It’s not worth it. We need to resist these voices. Remember all that is needed for the triumph of evil is that good people-people like us-and yes no kidding-we are good people-do nothing.

Christ is coming! He comes every day often in the form of the neighbour who needs our help. There are signs of the kingdom here and there. We must be alert and ready for Him when he comes with his angels. We might even be found amongst the angels.

In the next chapter of Mark as the great crisis draws near Jesus specifically asks his disciples to watch with him in the garden of gethsemane and of course they fail. They fall asleep. Could you not watch one hour? Evidently not! We need to do better. WE must keep watch for the Lord. No more amusing ourselves to death in front of the tele.

Secondly be encouraged. . Encouragement is one of the great themes of Advent. Things may not look too good. The questions you asked in the past may not seem any nearer resolution now than they did then. You may well feel discontented that so many easy cheap, hopes were disappointed. You might feel depressed at the thought that the promise of your youth has not been fulfilled or that the expectations you had then have not come to pass. To speak personally for a moment I certainly do feel that way. Why are the urgent prophetic messages that I heard in 1968 say, still not heeded, still not acted upon? It’s easy to become cynical and depressed. Easy but wrong.

Wrong because that very sense of depression and discontent is God created. God will come for us and redeem our times and us. He’s made us this way because he wants to fill us with himself. God longs for us as much as we long for him and our hearts will be restless until they find their rest in him.

Take particular encouragement from St Paul’s message to the Corinthian Church. He gives thanks for them. He acknowledges the grace of God given to them in Christ Jesus. He takes note of their enrichment in all speech and knowledge. He says to them that they are not lacking in any spiritual gift. He notes that they are waiting for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ who will keep them guiltless to the end.

Powerful stuff and he meant every word of it but don’t draw the wrong conclusions. These Corinthian brothers and sisters weren’t exceptional people and they certainly weren’t above criticism. Paul spends most of the next fourteen chapters criticizing them and trying to put them right on a lot of points. But when it came to the really big picture they were in the right place. We need to hear this message ourselves because it isn’t easy being a Christian these days and we need all the encouragement we can get.

Be encouraged.

Thirdly be hopeful

In the end the great theme of today is hope. What we hope for is that our saviour and judge will come set the world to rights and vindicate our lives and our efforts. That he will say to each one of us: Well done thou good and faithful servant. Of course as good Protestants we know that our lives and our efforts are never sufficient to earn heaven’s rewards-only our faith can do that. But is our faith strong enough and is it in the end misplaced? We feel troubled and somewhat out of our depth. Who is Jesus? Who is God? We go on asking these questions.

In the end no final answer can be given to these questions as yet. But God has placed within each one of us a seed of hope-that our lives do make sense-that loving is worthwhile and that Jesus by his coming and by his death and his victory on the cross has conquered death and has begun the new age. In faith and hope we live, always hopeful, never discouraged always scanning the horizon for signs of the coming of the lord. The coming of the one who will answer all our questions himself.

Simple lessons

Toasting Fork - Moycullen Heritage

As we move into the cold autumn evenings for some reason my paternal grandmother comes to mind. Perhaps it is the fact that my grandparents  still had a coal fire and together we would toast slices of her home made bread with an old brass toasting-fork. Never flashy or overtly expressive, her love for me was still warm and unwavering. It may seem cold to you, but it never bothered me that she didn’t say, “I love you,” or give me hugs.

Instead, she always kept fairy cakes in the pantry, they were my favourite. When Grandad cut the ham for supper, she would remind him to trim the fat off my piece. For no particular reason, she frequently smiled at me with her eyes and told me I was a good boy.

On reflection I’ve come to see that in her way my grandmother was teaching me a radical life-lesson. A lesson about who we are and what we are doing here. A lesson that has taken me decades to begin to understand and to make my own. It goes like this:

Love is not a reward for what we do with our lives. It’s a gift, the gift that makes this life possible in the first place. Being the beloved is the starting point — and the finish line — for every single human being. And if we lean into that truth, we will change this world. As it turns out, my grandmother seems to have been living out the Beatitudes. (Matthew 5:1-12)

More specifically, I have in mind the first of the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Alongside the many sound interpretations of what Jesus meant by “poor in spirit,” I offer this.

All of us need a “why” to exist. We can endure and even overcome just about anything if we know who we are and what we’re doing here. In his life, death and resurrection Jesus teaches that giving away the love that we receive freely from God is our why.

For whatever reason, we’ve gotten things turned upside down. We’ve fallen for the idea that life is about earning love. And plenty of us at one point or another assumed that we would get that love by achieving and accomplishing and accumulating.

Some of us spend our lives pursuing possessions or power or status figuring these things would make us lovable. The problem is that we can become so obsessed with ourselves that we actually build walls between ourselves and other people.

And this same, love-pursuing dynamic can take place in our spiritual lives. Plenty of us act as if the depth of our piety, the rigor of our moral conduct, or the orthodoxy of our theology will convince God to reward us. Paradoxically, this kind of religiosity can be a form of self-absorption that isolates us from God and others.

Spiritual poverty starts with giving up the self-defeating idea that any of us can get God to reward us. That’s just not how God operates. God gives gifts.

As my grandmother showed me again and again, this does not mean that I’m no good and God loves me anyway. Neither does it mean that I’m so good that God can’t resist me. It just means that God makes me the beloved at each instant because, well, God is God. We exist at all because God loves us. And that goes for everybody.

When our starting point is accepting that we are loved, we get over ourselves. We’re free to consider the needs of others. To give love instead of pursue love for ourselves. This is where the kingdom of heaven begins to be ours.

God bless and stay safe,
Alan.  

Something for Sunday (delivered at Streetly this morning)

Do you long for the coming of God? You may wonder what the question means or whether such a question could have any meaning at all for you. Perhaps you have searched for a long time or waited for a long time and things don’t seem to make any more sense to you now than they did in the past. On the other hand you may be so busy and so caught up with the struggle of living that you have no time to long for anything except a covid-19 vaccine and a family Christmas. Nevertheless if you feel dissatisfied with this state of affairs, if you have an intuition that your life could be better nobler and more fulfilled then for you I have good news. Christ will come for you. Advent which begins next week is a season just for you. God has created in you a sense of discontent. He’s made you this way because he wants to fill you with himself. God longs for you just as much as you long for him and your heart will be restless till it finds its rest in him.

Well that’s the good news. But what about the downside. What about the nagging suspicion that none of this is for real. That since Christ did not come last year or last week he’s not very likely to come today or tomorrow. All this stuff about Christ coming again which we piously repeat at Communion services is just words-just a manner of speaking-not to be taken seriously.

Well if you do think that way at times and who doesn’t you would not be the first Christians to do so. Among the very first Christians there were many who wondered whether Christ had come once and for all in his earthly ministry. They looked to the future in the light of the Christ who had come and they wondered what more might be expected before the end. Others full of eager anticipation expected the end- if not this year-well then next year without doubt. But then year succeeded year and the final moment of glory seemed to be indefinitely postponed. There were persecutions and some died, there were rows in the church-schisms and splits-disagreements-questions. In these circumstances hope can die –apathy and inertia replaces eager anticipation. Spiritual death can seep in to the souls of the faithful like damp creeping up a wall. Has our hope died?

Our gospel passage from St Matthew has always lifted Christians out of this mood. It reminds them Christ has come, is coming, indeed that he comes every day. What is more it insists that judgment is not something that can be dismissed from our minds because it will take place sometime in the distant future. Judgment is now-it is a present experience because Christ is always present in the one who needs our help. This is good news-although at the same time a fearful thing. Every action is judged-every encounter is an encounter with the divine because God is always present in every encounter. We think our lives so unimportant and our actions and words so trivial, absurd and meaningless. This parable refutes that. No, no it says. If you think that you are dead wrong. Your life can make a difference. Your big moment is now.

Mother Theresa was one Christian who was inspired by this parable. She wrote: “In Holy Communion we have Christ under the appearance of bread. In our work we have him under the appearance of flesh and blood. It is the same Christ. “I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was sick, I was naked, I was homeless.” It isn’t always easy to see Christ in people we don’t like even when they are in need as Mother Theresa herself confesses. “Dearest Lord, she prays, though you hide yourself behind the unattractive disguise of the irritable, the exacting and the unreasonable may I still recognize you and say: “Jesus my patient. How sweet it is to serve you.”

In 1527 when Breslau in Germany was hard hit by the plague many Christians wondered whether they ought to stay or to flee. Martin Luther wrote an open letter to the local pastor in which he said: “I know very well that if Christ himself or his mother were now ill everybody would be so devoted as to wish to help and to serve. Everybody would come running. Yet they do not want to hear when He himself says; inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren you have done it unto me. If then you would minister and wait upon Christ, behold you have a sick neighbour you. Go to him and minister to him and you will assuredly find Christ in him”.

Unto one of the least of these my brethren? Who then are these least for us today? Who are the ones we consider scarcely worthy of life itself? The ones who are not regarded. Where might we find them? The homeless on the streets-the others we don’t value. Who are these people? The long term mentally ill, the redundant, the unemployed, the unproductive and demented elderly, the sufferers from unfashionable diseases, some of the disabled and perhaps above all the unborn. These things should be thought about.

The gospel says that we will assuredly find Christ in these people. How can we be so sure? Why will an act of sacrificial love assuredly bring us into the presence of Christ?

Because sacrificial love is at the heart of Jesus’ life and message.

You and I are looking for God-succeeding to be found by him-hoping for holiness-wanting to be entirely given. We desire this but we dread it as well-fear the pain –the surrender-the loss of self-the letting go. When Jesus calls us to take up the cross and follow him it is this that he seeks for us-a self surrender-a death that will lead to a rebirth in the spirit. To do some act of sacrificial love is to walk the Christian way, it is to know Christ. This is a world away from self righteous do gooding. Such acts affirm the self-they speak to our desire to be somebody to make something of ourselves. The Christian way is not about making something of ourselves it is about transcending ourselves. It is about dying to the old in order that we might be born anew. In that God given sense of loss Christ can come for those who truly seek him. Making himself present if we will make him room’ knocking at our door and seeking entry.

Yes Christ will come again. Indeed he comes every day in the form of the sister or brother who needs our help. Can we respond to him when he comes close to us? Could you not see him in the neighbour who stands in need of you? And surely in these daily encounters with Christ come again do we not see a sign of his final coming-when the kingdom of love, justice and peace will be all in all.

And when we pray. Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven we are not beating the air with vain words.

Not at all. We are living the Christian hope.

Something for Sunday

They say confession is good for the soul so I want to own up to an occasion when I got myself into trouble in the pulpit. There have probably been others and perhaps there should have been others. As I get older I’m getting more cautious and perhaps people are kinder than they should be.

It concerned our parable for today-the parable of the three servants or the talents. I read the passage and thought about it. I also thought about the circumstances in which I might have heard it before –the school assembly for instance. The stern faced Headmaster addresses the school:

“We are each given some talents. They might not necessarily be in school classroom subjects; they might be in sports or in the pursuit of a hobby to a very high standard, it might be in the ability to help other people or in something else like picking up litter, but whatever it is we have at least one talent. We must use our talent well. Hiding it is no us because with talents what you don’t use you lose. So even if you’ve only got one talent use it wisely. And if you don’t watch out.”

I expect you’ve been there. You may even have given a morally uplifting talk along these lines. I have tried it but I’m not very good at it-being earnest is not my natural game. I tend to get the giggles half way through. More seriously I simply cannot identify the master in the parable with God or with Christ. The God I believe in is a gracious God, eternally happy and joyful always there to welcome home his wayward children. That’s the God I read about in the New Testament. I just can’t read the parable in a way that portrays God as hard hearted, demanding and always ready to hand out punishment. To be honest I still think I’m right about this.

However I now have a problem. How am I going to explain the harsh judgement handed down and the condemnation visited upon the third servant? My solution was to present the parable as a kind of commentary on the economics of 1st century Palestine- a time of oppression and exploitation. The parables of Jesus very often form a kind of commentary on the world of landlords and labourers, tenants, taxpayers and share croppers. The third servant is a kind of whistle blower- a conscientious non-participant in a rotten system – a hero of the fair trade movement. He suffers in a good cause. Those who follow the way of the way Kingdom should be prepared to suffer.

Nobody bought this. Some were quite offended. It shows the perils of being carried away by one exciting chapter in a book on the parables (reference supplied). What I had done was turn the liberating word of God into a topic of academic interest. That’s a mistake.  More thought needed and some more study too.

I think the key to this parable lies in the relationship of each of the servants to his master. How much faith did each servant actually have in the master? The first two servants were prepared to take a chance, to be risk takers-real venture capitalists. None of them lost any money but the one servant who exercised total and absolute prudence and acted so as to achieve complete security for the property entrusted to him stands condemned. He was fearful and faithless and paralysed by that fear and faithlessness. “I knew you to be a hard man. I was afraid. I hid your money in the ground.” The condemnation he incurred he brought on himself. The first two servants by contrast were emboldened to risk everything for one they trusted and knew to be gracious. So this is a call to be faithful, fearless and to enter into the joy of the master.

Christianity is a call to have faith in a gracious and loving God. It’s not an invitation to exercise prudence within the world as we know it but instead to step outside that world and into the Kingdom of God. It’s an entirely new way of being human-accessed by faith and marked by hope and love.

Another key to the parable could lie in the absence of the master. He’s going away and for a long time. How bold will the servants be when the master is not looking over their shoulders? Do they still have sufficient trust and faith to live boldly when the master is absent and may not return for many years, if ever?

You and I are living in a time when the Christian religion has lost its social power? Once it was different and some of us can remember when it was different. The master seems to have gone away on a long journey and we are not sure when he will return if ever. How bold are we able to be? How uncompromising are we prepared to be or do we think that the body of Christ ought to enter into an accommodation with its enemies. Don’t be misled; we do have enemies!

The author of a book I was reading about this described how he teaches short courses at the Lutheran seminary in Riga-once part of the Soviet Union. He observed the interviews for new students seeking admission. For the interviewing panel the most important question is “When were you baptized?” He wondered why. They told him. If they were baptized during the Soviet period they risked heir lives and compromised their futures by being baptized. But if they were baptized after the period of Soviet rule we have many more questions to ask as to why they want to become pastors. As Christians we must learn to live boldly using the resources he gives us confident that the future will be his future. Confident that the master will return.

And the master will return and in judgement! He will call his servants to account. We received gifts-faith, hope and love. What did we make of those gifts? Did we hide them away or use them as occasions to offer ourselves a spiritual comfort blanket. Some received a little others received a lot-we all know that from experience. But were we prepared to take a risk make a venture in the life of faith. I know from experience that the best things in my life arose from occasions when I took a risk-I became a preacher, I married this woman. I befriended this stranger and allowed myself to befriended in turn. We must learn to embrace risk for that is at the heart of the life of faith. Prudence may well be a virtue in ordinary circumstances but an encounter with the gospel of Jesus represents for us an extraordinary circumstance. You will not be surprised to learn from the above that having such an approach I am not often put on Methodist Committees or any other committee.

The well-known Catholic scholar and critic Terry Eagleton once wrote if you follow Jesus and don’t end up dead you’ve got some explaining to do. That’s a great line and a rebuke to those who think that a soft liberal humanism with a few rousing hymns will keep the church afloat. We must not hide our gifts away we must not be afraid of taking risks in the life of faith. Jesus said follow me. That’s very risky! Look what happened to him but surely much better than allowing ourselves to be cast into the outer darkness.

Hell Fire and Damnation*

Three Keys to Understand the Old Testament | CBN.com

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,

Alan.

*Often muttered under the breath during a church council!

Something for Sunday

Today is All Saints Sunday and many churches will be looking into the rear view mirror today. Big mistake for as I see it this is a day for celebrating and affirming our call to be saints-the holy ones of God. That’s how Paul begins his letters to the churches of Rome and Corinth and it’s how we ought to think of our own calling and identity. We are or at least seek to be the holy ones of God. We are called to be saints. We are looking forward not backward. There are numerous hymns in the non-conformist tradition that take up this theme.

So this is who we are in the understanding of God but who do we appear to be in the understanding of our neighbours. They sometimes imagine us to be a bunch of boring people obsessed with social conformity holding to a rigid and backward morality expressed in a conservative form of piety. Of course we are not really like that at all. We have high ideals, of course, but we are honest enough to admit that we do not always live up to them. That is why confession is always a key part of our worship and a moment of joyful release. Instead as Franciscans like to say our lives should be characterised by humility, love and joy- and sometimes we just about manage it.

We Christians are those who have embraced a new nature – have entered into a new creation after the image of our creator. We have put on Christ-to use another of Paul’s expressions. Christ-who calls us to love one another and to humility-to live as a servant as Jesus did-forsaking pride and status as he did even unto the cross. Here is Isaac Watts:

When I survey the wondrous cross

On which the prince of glory died

My richest gain I count but loss

And pour contempt on all my pride.

This is very challenging stuff!

This is what all Christians share. Now I want to introduce a new theme for your reflections. I have spoken firstly of ourselves as those who are called to be saints now I want to introduce the notion of citizenship.

My passport says I’m a British citizen. Is that important to me. Frankly no! One day I might be an English citizen or a Mercian citizen or an Australian or New Zealand citizen like other members of my family. But I trust I will always be a citizen, albeit a candidate citizen of God’s holy city-that which comes down from above as the Book of Revelation describes it. The heavenly Jerusalem. You know we Christians sit at something of an angle to the world. As the epistle to the Hebrews puts it: – here we have no abiding city but we seek the city which is to come.

A more modern writer describes us as “Resident Aliens” the title of his best known little book. I find that very helpful-in the world but not of it.

Here’s another famous hymn:

Saviour if of Zion’s city

I through grace a member am

Let the world deride or pity

I will glory in thy name.

Or this

Blessed city heavenly Salem

Vision dear of peace and love

You probably know the great patriotic anthem; I vow to thee my country. But it’s the last verse that makes it a Christian hymn. It begins: but there’s another country. Indeed there is!

Christ calls us to make that vision of peace and love the defining quality of our lives. Love especially. That sounds fine but there’s some work to be done with faith hope and love and it bears on the conversation about cities.

St Augustine wrote: Two loves have made two cities. Love of God even to the point of contempt for God made the earthly city and love of God even to the point of contempt for self-made the heavenly city. Rome is in his mind but we might add London Paris, New York and Tokyo. We know how all pervasive self-love can be-the entire economy is based on it and it leads to all sorts of bad things-environmental degradation, racism and selfishness. We must try to escape from the mad individualism that’s so destructive – the idea that nothing matters except me. There’s a shop in Worcester I frequently walk past called: It’s all about me!

Augustine made his comments in the aftermath of a great disaster that seemed to have overtaken the Roman world. Rome had been sacked by the Goths. The city that had given law and civilisation to the world had been trashed. So people said if only we had remained faithful to the old gods-the gods of victory, prosperity and power none of this would have happened. Christianity what has it ever done for us etc. etc.

Augustine wrote his book-a very big book- as a reply to these people. What he does is to take the conversation to a different level-away from the catastrophes of the present moment and away from our self-centred concerns towards a renewed focus on the love of God whose transcends time and chance-away from the politics and economics of the earthly city to the nature of the heavenly city.

We are having a difficult year –the catastrophes of this year were not expected and are becoming increasingly burdensome. Have courage-love will win through in the end-the virus may well fade away or become benign or we will learn how to live with it. In like manner the Goths became increasingly civilised and turned into upholders of Roman ways themselves. 

 
 

					

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

Eagle Nebula – Cosmic Creation Calls | LifeHarmonized.com

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

Alan.

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,

Alan.

Congratulations Sister Phyllis!

It has come to our attention that 19th October marks a very significant milestone. It was on that date, back in 1949, that a young Phyllis Thorne was accredited as a Local Preacher in the Methodist Church. This year, 2020, she celebrates 71 years as a Local Preacher!

Our huge congratulations go to Sister Phyllis on this remarkable anniversary, and we thank God for her long years of ministry.

Although she is not currently preaching, Phyllis continues to write and have ‘deep conversations’. You can find some of her recent writing here on this Blog.

Reading in Lockdown

Here are three recent reads which my be of interest to you and can be recommended as lockdown continues.

An Introduction to the Bible by Christine Hayes

This is an introduction, not so much to the bible as to the Old Testament. Professor Hayes has a confident command of all the commentary and scholarship on this extraordinary Library both Christian and Jewish from the earliest times to the present day. She has sections or chapters on every book in our Old Testament but the apocrypha is not discussed. Skilfully and fluently she weaves her way through the questions of authorship, theology, dating and historical background for every book. This is not simply a commentary but it could be used alongside commentaries on particular books to supplement them. It is an attractively written and accessible text and held my attention from the first page to the last (402).

I wish I had read this book forty years ago at the time of my local preacher training but it was only published in 2012. It’s one of a series promoted and published by Yale University as part of a programme to bring the best academic study to the attention of the general reader and first year students.

Another book in the same series is Epidemics and Society from the Black Death to the Present by Frank Snowden. Professor Snowden is a social historian rather than an epidemiologist and his story actually begins well before the Black Death of 1348. The account offered as to how medicine, politics and the church have addressed the challenges posed by infectious diseases is absolutely fascinating albeit grim reading. It is a big book (502 pages) and Covid -19 only receives attention in the introduction but it does help to put our present problems into their proper context. The truth is that our present problems have been heading our way for some time and we’ve had some lucky escapes in recent years. The final chapter on Ebola makes that very clear.

There have been a number of publications about the pandemic published this year but this one is undoubtedly the best. To read it is a real education. My book of the year!

My third recommendation is “Defining Jesus-the earthly the biblical the historical and the real Jesus and how not to confuse them” by Richard Soulen. Richard Soulen is a Methodist Minister in the United States, a theologian and the father of another Methodist Scholar and theologian; R Kendall Soulen.

This is quite a short book described by the author as an essay which was written to address the questions that arise in people’s minds when they are addressed by popular authors and TV documentaries that purport to confidently explain what Jesus was “really like” and who he might be for us today. As Soulen’s title shows this is quite a complicated matter and it’s easy to be misled and to mislead others. The literature is vast and many of you will be aware of the distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. But even that distinction is a bit simplistic as Soulen explains in this short but quite dense little book.

If you read this you will find your faith in the ever present and living Lord Jesus strengthened and you will be further empowered to bring others to faith in him. Do not imagine that scholarly books about the quest for the historical Jesus whether from Albert Schweitzer or Marcus Borg are necessarily unsettling or the final word on the matter. They can be challenging but what Richard Soulen’s book does is to sort out all the difficulties and the different scholarly approaches so that the reader can respect the scholars and at the same time find their faith renewed and confirmed.

This book published in 2015 can be recommended to all local preachers and indeed Presbyters and Deacons