Category Archives: Bulletin

Ashes, Dust and Truth

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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.

Grief, Loss and Bereavement – a free workshop

Workshop Date: Wednesday 31st March 2021 @ 7:30pm

For some Christians, the death of a loved one is inexcusable. Why didn’t God heal him/her? Did God ignore my prayers?

In this workshop we raise some of the big questions around death and dying, and around prayer and faith, as we explore bereavement from a Christian perspective.

We recognise that this is an emotive topic so we have Chaplaincy colleagues (Deacon Marilyn and Deacon Rachel) available for 1-1 discussions and prayer in ‘breakout rooms’ if required.

The workshop is set deliberately in Holy Week so that we can anticipate the joy of celebrating Christ’s resurrection, and thus bring some answers to our questions.
The event is designed for people from churches in the Sutton Park Circuit, and will be led by Revd Stephen Froggatt. Questions raised by this group will inform Stephen’s sabbatical study on the need for lament in public worship.

Revd Emily Young will also be on hand to ‘make the virtual tea’ and assist with the technology. We all hope you can join us online on 31st March.

Book via Eventbrite

Theology – Which way now?

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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.

Something for Sunday

Mark 1 v 29-39

Before I went to India a few years ago I read this in a newspaper travel column: ”In India wherever you go there are people”. I didn’t really understand this until I arrived and then I saw and understood. Indian streets teem with people-crowds swirl about everywhere even in apparently minor villages. For us to walk to down a street in England and not pass anyone is an everyday experience but for an Indian visitor to England it is strange and unnerving. Where are the natives? In India wherever you go there are people but in England wherever you go there are cars.

Galilee as Mark describes it seems much more like India than England. Crowds are everywhere, the whole city gathers at Jesus door, the sick are visible and present and not hidden away in a hospital. Jesus is a sensation and everyone talks about him and gathers around him. You can gain an impression of what it was like by looking at old photos and newsreels of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance campaigns. India again you see. The crowds, the holy figure in the midst and the powerful symbolic actions performed by the leader which show the coming of the new order to the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed.

Gandhi makes salt by the seashore in the midst of the crowds and the cameras to defy the British Government’s salt monopoly. By doing this he signifies the end of one source of authority and the coming of a new democratic postcolonial order. Jesus heals the sick and exorcises the oppressed to show the coming of the Kingdom of God and the overthrow of the Kingdoms of this world.

Gandhi was a spiritual thinker and a politician of genius. Jesus? Well Jesus was something else again. Gandhi was touched by the life of Jesus. It could be said of him that he was almost persuaded to be a Christian. We who are Christians and try to follow Jesus can try comparing him with other historical figures. I don’t think it diminishes Jesus it exalts him!

In this passage Mark offers us a typical day in the ministry of Jesus-actually not a whole day just part of a twenty-four hour period.

I see three elements to this:

Firstly there’s the public ministry as seen by the crowds. There are the acts of healing and exorcism. There is the confrontation with the powers by the use of symbolic actions which show up their world as finished and overthrown. There’s the preaching. We are not told anything about the content of the preaching but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Jesus is himself the content of the preaching. He’s a sensation. Everyone talks about him and goes after him.

To enter into this join the crowd, feel their excitement; crane your neck to see over their heads, smell their sweat. Look out – shield your eyes from the glare of the sun. Jesus is coming. Can you see him yet?

Secondly Jesus is not just a public performer. He shows real love and compassion towards the private and personal suffering of a member of the family of faith. He raises Peter’s mother in law from her sick bed. The fever leaves her. This takes place behind closed doors in the house.

The tension between the public and the private work of Jesus ought to give us pause for thought. The Kingdom that Jesus expresses in his own person is a Kingdom of love. Jesus though is not one of those people who loves humanity in general but finds real human beings difficult to live with. There are many people in history who have sacrificed their nearest and dearest to the cause of humanity in general. We’ve probably met people like that and some of them work in the Church. No, Jesus is not like that. Jesus is not only a liberator he’s also a personal friend. Some of the most beautiful passages in the gospels describe Jesus at home with his friends.

Of course there are questions about this healing which we are bound to think about. What sort of fever was this? Was it psychosomatic in some sense? Notice that when she is healed Peter’s mother in law immediately serves the company. As with most of Jesus healings the sick person is restored to their social role. They come in from the cold-they find their place. Perhaps in this moment there is something of the political alongside the personal, something of the public work alongside the private act of compassion.

Thirdly and perhaps most important of all in this portrait of Jesus’ day we see someone who is in full control. He is master of his agenda, master of the crowds. He is in great demand yet he makes space for quiet times in lonely places so that he can pray to God. Everyone searches for him but he decides whether he will be found or not, whether he will stay or move on to the next place. He is not trapped either by opposition or by a fan club.

This finding of space for prayer is crucial. We pay lip service to it in the Church but we don’t really believe in it judging by what we do and how we behave. I remember a wise old monk telling me that he’d asked a minister how he found time and space for daily prayer.  Oh, came the reply I’m so busy that all I can find time for is listening to Christian music downloads in the car. Busyness is what the world values so that we have to be seen to be busy too.

Jesus is in control. I don’t feel as if I’m in control. I wish I was but I’m not. A pair of lines from an old hymn comes back to me.

Help us oppressed by things undone

O thou whose dreams and deeds were one.

As I read this passage describing a typical day in Jesus’ ministry my overwhelming impression is one of energy and movement. The crowds are in motions Jesus is in motion and the disciples; well they too are in motion although they struggle to keep up. They have to pursue Jesus. You can imagine them running behind him

How did we manage to lose this? OK we got old, we got tired and we got cynical. So what could we do about it? This passage gives us a clue. Following Jesus means moving on: – making space for God in prayer, not letting them whoever they are running your life for you. To be honest that’s the bit I find hardest because I tend to worry more about what they want and what you want than about what God wants. And I guess we’re all mostly the same.

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

Something for Sunday

Just imagine! You are in that special place set apart for prayer, for thought, for the hearing of God’s word and for teaching. A reassuring place? Yes indeed. But perhaps at the same time frustrating. Could anything really new happen here? Couldn’t we hear a new teaching?

So the congregation in the synagogue at Capernaum might have felt. But on this day they are in for a surprise. Without warning a new preacher enters the gathering and begins to teach. And the teaching has a freshness and authority about it instead of the platitudes and rehash of commentaries they have been used to. They may well have been astonished and excited. What will he say next? What will he do next? But others will have been fearful notably the scribes and other established preachers on the plan who find a voice in the demon possessed man.

What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are the holy one of God. 

This is a moment to savour. Yes this is indeed the Holy one of God. He will turn the world upside down.

Jesus of Nazareth is a radical indeed a revolutionary figure. Christianity is a revolution in the world’s affairs and the revolution begins here! Pagan religions had worshipped power –Christians worship love personified, pagan religions had affirmed the self – Christianity points to a love that will transcend the self. To worship the God of love is to go with the grain of the universe as God has made it. This is indeed a new teaching.

A revolution. Is it though? Perhaps not so much as one might imagine. For our engagement with Judaism shows us how much Jesus stands within a tradition passed down to him and to us. Nevertheless to the congregation in Capernaum it felt like a new teaching-a radical new moment. And that’s how it needs to feel to us – new teaching – a new departure. 

What then is all this to us in our time and place? Just recently I have been watching episodes of the Crown on Netflix. The deadweight of tradition and custom seems to crush the characters especially the Queen, her advisors and the Bishops of the Church of England. The personality of the former King Edward VIII is presented to us as everything that should be avoided. One of the worst things that is said of him is that he stopped going to Church. Shock! Horror! As I have said Christianity is a revolutionary factor in the world’s affairs but the revolution is still incomplete. There is always a tendency for the practice of the faith to slide back into a kind of ritual practice of traditional practices and the affirmation of socially conservative habits.

One of the few good things about the pandemic is that it has forced us to confront and change our church going habits. A re-set or a re-boot is often a good thing. Or as St John’s gospel reminds us; we must be born again.

Now on the matter of demons let me tell you a story. When I was a minister in the North east I got to know and befriend my Anglican colleague in the village. Among his various gifts and graces he exercised the role of Diocesan exorcist. He was called in to exorcise both people and dwellings. People were grateful for his ministry and the devils would fear and fly at his approach. Even Methodist demons were overcome so you can see how gifted he was. I liked him and I admired his pastoral ministry. One day in a confessional mode he admitted that he didn’t believe in demons or unclean spirits but he offered his ministry of exorcism because he felt he was good at it and people seemed to like it.

This set me thinking-about the nature of belief and what integrity in ministry amounts to. And of course the question as to how we read passages like to-days gospel.

My friend thought he knew better than Jesus, the possessed man, the congregation in Capernaum and the author of St Mark’s gospel. To him the whole thing was obvious. The man in the synagogue was mentally ill, deluded shall we say and so what was needed was a therapeutic intervention, counselling, medication the ministry of the diocesan exorcist- one of those. (This is to judge the faith by the standards of the world whereas I believe that the world is under the judgement of the faith). The difficulty for me is that my friend’s view doesn’t take faith in Jesus seriously enough nor does it acknowledge the reality of evil in the world nor the existence of powers antagonistic to the gospel. So yes I believe in the demons. And what’s more in the name of Jesus I want to give them names and call them out.

Jesus came full of grace and truth that all who believe in him might have life in all its fullness, follow the way of love and know joy and peace. This is the promise but against this promise there are the powers that set out to kill him and silence him forever. These powers, OK let’s call them demons, are still at work beguiling us with promises of power and affluence and encouraging us to live only for ourselves scorning the environmental degradation of the world and the exploitation of the weak. These demons are all around us. You know their names.

Here are some pictures showing their works and the signs of their power.

In our reading of St Mark this year we will follow Jesus as he passes among the oppressed and exploited people of Palestine exorcizing their demons and scourging their oppressors. Mark’s gospel is a story of conflict and struggle against the powers of darkness, for the powers of light. Those who follow Jesus will have tribulation indeed as the cultural critic Terry Eagleton reminds us: if you claim to follow Jesus and don’t end up dead you’ve got some explaining to do! Great line that!! But be of good cheer the dominant theme of the New Testament is victory. Thanks be to God writes St Paul who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

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.

Epiphany: Love casts out fear!

As a season Epiphany doesn’t get much of a “look in” in Methodist Churches because it tends to be pushed aside to make way for Covenant Services. I have many more sermons in my files for Covenant Sunday than I do for Epiphany. This is a pity so I was pleased in one of my churches to be able to move Covenant Sunday to September to mark the beginning of the Methodist year and what used to be called the “winters work.”

Just this week I read an American article by a University theologian who set out to link Epiphany with the Covid -19 pandemic in a most imaginative way. Allow me to share with you some of his reflections.

The magicians or astrologers in Matthew’s story had a vocation. It was to gain control over the human and celestial worlds in order to assure a blessed destiny for human beings through wrestling control from the hostile evil powers. To control the elemental spirits of the universe and the laws of matter which ultimately they thought governed the world was their craft. They were the scientists of their age and they worked alongside the pagan priests of the time to bend reality to the will of humanity.

In the story the magi or the wise men follow the star that puts an end to astrology and magic. They encounter Jesus and they fall down and worship him. They have discovered that life is not simply a product of impersonal laws and the random movements of matter because at the heart of everything there is a personal will, a good Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as love. Love it is, as the great Italian poet Dante wrote, which moves the sun in heaven and all the stars.

In the loving purposes of God magic, astrology and the techno-scientific apparatus we engage with so as to control the universe are unnecessary. Through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things. In him all things came into being and in him all things hold together and it is in him that we live and move and have our being.  

During the past year we have seen a desperate search for magic bullets: the NHS app: remember that!, the find, test, trace, isolate and support system which never seemed to work, the lockdowns and now the jabs that will set us free!!. Now I will be glad to receive the jab and I have tried to observe the rules as closely as possible. But a route back to the world as it was before may not be open to us and perhaps that is a good thing for we need to build back better.

The Church has a very special vocation here. It is to proclaim that it is love rather than magic or science that is ultimately the key to life and that the universe is the work of a loving God. We should remember that as Isaiah wrote: Truly the Lord has born our infirmities, and he has carried our sorrows.

Covid-19 is a scary thing but we should remember that perfect love casts out fear. God loves us and he is not angry with us nor has he sent the virus to punish us. What he has done is enter our life. He has become as we are that we might become as he is. He is love and he calls us to embrace the love that is at the heart of the universe. That will involve repentance for we have used and abused his love and our actions have wasted much of his creation and now we are facing the price of our prodigality.

And suddenly there was with the angels a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.

And the shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Sisters and brothers that’s our vocation too!

Church and Crown

The Crown: Netflix Confirms Fourth Season For The Fall And Here Is All You  Need To Know

One of the big hits for Netflix, the television streaming service, has been ‘The Crown’. It is beautiful, compelling and emotional programming — drama well crafted, stories well told, and above all, it is a visual feast.

The disorienting quality of the series is that it is no documentary. While creator Peter Morgan says that the show has been thoroughly researched and is true in spirit, each episode so seamlessly intermingles what is known with what is imagined that any viewer may have difficulty deciding what is fact and what is fiction.

Did Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher say that to Her Majesty the queen in their weekly audience? Did Princess Diana really roller-skate around the palace because she was lonely and bored? Is Prince Philip always in such a foul mood?

The vision for ‘The Crown’ is of an institution that leads almost exclusively by looking backward. Royal duty is portrayed as synonymous with preserving inviolate continuity with the past. Decisions in the Buckingham Palace of the series are framed by cautions like, “Remember your great-grandmother Queen Mary” or, “What would your father have done?” In the series we see Prince Philip trying to modernise the way the palace works , constantly battling with courtiers from King George VI’ s day whom he refers to as ‘the moustaches’. Watching this I am reminded of every church committee that has ever protested, “But we have never done it that way before.”

The Christian commentator Gregory L Jones once wrote “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living,”. Not on religious matters alone but in almost everything. Yet, despite the portrayal of the battles within the British court, Queen Elizabeth has done much to advance the monarchy from a medieval institution to a more modern one while simultaneously preserving what is at its heart. History with adaptation. Tradition with responsible innovation. This pattern of change and development should be true for the church. Church leadership inevitably involves the stewardship of tradition as well as enabling the church to change and respond to situations our forbears could have never conceived of.

Our churches are not ahistorical organisations, we must find our place in a polyphonic tradition that reaches back in history before there were royals in England, before England was England, (and Scotland was Scotland, and Wales was Wales, before somebody comments!)

That past informs our future, but what matters is how we allow it to do so. We cannot lament what lies ahead of us in hopes of returning to the past or perpetuating it perfectly; this is the Christian problem with nostalgia. Instead, we must reckon with the past, retrieving from it the best and lamenting in it the worst, all for the sake of God’s future.

2021 has started with as many challenges as 2020 gave us our response is vital for the future life of the church how do we adapt and innovate whilst maintaining the heart of our Methodist tradition? (And there are two more series of ‘The Crown’ still to come!)

God bless and stay safe,

Alan

Insights from my Aunt

During our various lockdowns I have been enjoying Family Zoom sessions with relatives in New Zealand. These meetings require some prior negotiation because of the time difference but we manage it. It has become evident to us that New Zealand has managed things well. They locked down hard at first and they imposed strict quarantine measures. Consequently they have had only 25 deaths and only this week I was able to admire my cousin’s holiday photos following her week long trip to the Mount Cook national park.

There has been a tendency in my own thinking, to offer seasons for New Zealand’s success. Namely that it’s a long way away, that there are only a few ports of entry and that the population is quite low whereas the UK is densely populated. But they did rise to the challenge, they locked down hard and early and imposed strict quarantine controls at the borders. The New Zealand Government inspired confidence led by the beautiful and charismatic Jacinda Ardern and so on and so forth. If only etc., etc. Yes New Zealand has done well. I have even bought masks from a New Zealand supplier.

But there’s another consideration which I hadn’t thought about until my Aunt offered a reflection about recent events and compared this pandemic with that of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918/19. This hit New Zealand hard and according to my Aunt decimated the population. That I think is probably an exaggeration but there’s no doubt that it was a serious crisis for New Zealand. There was a response in the form of a Royal Commission and new public health legislation. What however my Aunt’s comments reveal is that it created a powerful folk memory and a resolve to address such crises more effectively next time. That is to say this time.

In our country there is no similar folk memory of the Spanish flu pandemic. Our folk memories of 1918 are associated with the armistice of November 11th 1918 and victory over Germany. Nevertheless the pandemic cost many more lives than the world war. When we see pictures of rejoicing crowds on November 11th we do not think as perhaps we should that these people are failing to observe a proper social distance.

Among the fatalities of the flu were the following:

Max Weber German sociologist

Frederick Trump (Donald Trump’s grandfather)

Gustav Klimt Austrian painter

Alfred Hindmarsh New Zealand Labour Party leader

Among the sufferers and survivors were the following:

Walt Disney

Mahatma Gandhi

Franklin D Roosevelt

Woodrow Wilson

David Lloyd George

Franz Kafka

Raymond Chandler

I have a book on my personal shelves entitled “1918”. Although this is a military history of the year there is no reference to the flu pandemic in over 500 pages despite the fact that it is believed to have begun in an American Army camp.

These reflections are important for they raise questions about what we chose to remember and what we chose to forget, what occasions are to be remembered with thanksgiving and what other occasions are to be remembered with repentance. There is a great deal in our past as Churches, nations and individuals that we should remember with repentance.

When the pandemic crisis is over we should come together once again with joy and give thanks for our deliverance. At the same time however we need to repent and repair our relationship with God and His creation. This pandemic occurred because of “spillover” by viruses into the human population occasioned by our careless abuse of the environment that God has gifted. We must acknowledge all that has been amiss, resolve to build back better and not simply return to normal.  

Collective guilt is not something we find easy to accept since we regard sin as a personal and individual failure. This is a mistake on our part and is contrary to the witness of scripture. Coming to terms with collective guilt is a valuable therapy for nations and leads to renewed healing and wholeness-just ask the Germans!