You are very welcome to join us for live worship at 10.30 am. David Hewitt is leading worship.
“A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet”. So wrote William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. For Juliet it means that Romeo’s family name ‘Montague’ didn’t matter to her.
However I think names are very important. As a ‘Smithson’ I get quit narked when people call me Mr Smith. The name Smith is very common across the UK but the name Smithson, according to genealogists, is very specific to the North of England and particular Yorkshire. My given name was chosen for me by my mother. Initially I was to be called John after my father but my older cousin beat me to that one so as she liked the Holywood actor Alan Ladd I was called Alan. (Any other resemblance to Hollywood stars is purely accidental!). At school I picked up the nick-name ‘Smithy’, another popular character this time in the Beano. (No further comment!!)
Since entering the ranks of the clergy many years ago, some folks have preferred to call me “Rev,” a title turned into a name which I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable with since most of the time I feel irreverent. I hardly ever use it to describe myself except on the rare occasion when it gives me an easy access parking spot at the hospital when visiting folks.
In some cultures names are very important and have great meaning. In African tradition names are chosen with great care and have a profound meaning even to the role they play in guiding the future direction of a childs life.
Some times you can loose your name. At school we joked that our headmaster (The Boss) knew us all by name – we were all called ‘You Boy!’ However when some people have their name taken from them it can be intensely painful. All those who entered in the Nazi concentration camps lost there name and became a number, people of colour who were referred to by just the N-word at work. Women in abusive relationships and children in loveless families all lose their name when called stupid, lazy, ugly, useless. If you can remove someones name they become a non-person and therefore can be denied basic human dignity.
“I will call you by name,” Jesus says to those who have been known by many shame names. And in some place deep within our created-in-the-image-of-God identity, in the space where a light exists that no darkness or shame or defamation can extinguish, there in that space, he says, the voice of the one calling our name is familiar.
I suppose the name he calls us is the one we recognize as holding the essence of who we are and tells the story about how God sees us — the goodness and divine dignity so easy to forget, the gift of what it means to know that God is very thoughtful to consider it a good idea for you, me, and all of us to be in the world together, and the story about there never being a time when God has not held us in love and accessed our lives with an unreasonable compassion.
Perhaps the most transformative thing we can do for each other is to give each other space to tell our dehumanizing stories of naming and then to hold those stories with compassion and gentleness. And then at some point along the way share an alternative narrative that goes something like this: No matter what name you’ve been given, no matter the shame name you’ve carried, God is very thoughtful to have given what may feel to you like a new name, but, I suspect, is the name by which God has always known you.
No longer do you have to carry the weight of a shame name like Stupid, A Mistake, A Disappointment, Not Good Enough, or Unwanted. No! You are invited to live a story shaped by the name embedded in your identity by Compassionate Love, the name given to you by the main character who is always here. The name God gave you when first laying eyes on you. You are … My Delight. (Isaiah 62:4, Jeremiah 31:20)
God bless, Alan.
As a young christian I decided I had better join the church prayer meeting, so I found myself one Friday evening sat with a dozen or so fellow members in a small room at church that smelt of damp. We began by going around the group to ask what things we wanted to pray for and then the organiser of the prayer meeting proceeded to pray for an hour, seemingly without taking a breath, about all the topics we had mentioned. Most of his prayer seemed to be telling God what God should be doing in each and every circumstance. After a couple more weeks (yes, prayer meetings were weekly in those days!) I decided that this prayer life was not for me.
We know that prayer is essential for the spiritual life. How often do we hear people say “I need to pray about that” or “take it to God in prayer” but what are we doing?
There are many answers to this question. One common understanding is we are asking God to do something for us. We ask God to heal someone, or that some one will be successful in their job application, even that they will have nice weather on their holiday – the list is endless.
I think this is a great place to start but it is terrible place to stop. This type of prayer, traditionally called petition, is shallow. It’s primarily concerned about what you want and how you can get God to give it to you. Often it is nothing more that bargaining with the Creator.
Any one who has children will be familiar with this, “Mum can I go and play, I promise I will do my homework” or “Dad, make my sister share nicely with me.
As a parent you know there is nothing wrong with these kind of requests, but you long for the day when your child asks “I am having trouble with my sister what do you think I should do so we can share the toys?”
The transition from asking God to do something for you to asking God for wisdom and guidance is a sign of maturity in our prayer life as they are a sign of maturity in our children.
If we always view God as a cosmic vending machine, do the right things, push the right buttons and out pops what we want, we will always be praying at an immature level. And when God does not give us what we want, then our faith evaporates and we walk away from God.
If we move in a deeper maturity of prayer we discover yet another, deeper level. It is a simple love for God and a gratitude for all his works. There is no sweeter moment for a parent than when a child says “Thank you for all you do for me, I love you”. Words like these from a child means that you have helped them grow into a person with humility and understanding.
Yet there is more to prayer even belong gratitude, a hidden mystery that runs deeper than any parent/child illustration. It is a mystical union between what is mortal and eternal.
This prayer moves you beyond what God has done or can do for you, it moves you beyond what you need or want and are grateful for. It moves you beyond ideas and words altogether.
This is the mystery of contemplative prayer, it exists beyond ideas and formulas of prayer and it is possible for someone to live this kind of prayer without realising it.
This prayer is not about what you say or what you do it is about what you become. I believe this is what St. Paul meant when he told us to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1Thesselonians 5:16-18). It is a prayer which envelopes our whole being.
This prayer becomes the most important in our lives. This doesn’t mean that the other prayers are bad. It is good to pray for healing, for wisdom or to give thanks, these are a genuine expression of our humanity, and being real and genuine with God is vitally important. So it is good to carry on praying these prayers, but find the prayer which is not an idea, which is not a conversation with God. Find the prayer which is a union with the divine.
It is the goal of every Christian to become like Christ. To have our being in Christ. To live in him as he lives in us. With patience and a genuine desire we can not only learn how to pray but our live will be come the deep mystery of true contemplative prayer.
God bless, Alan.
One of the ways I relax is to read. I enjoy spy novels and in particular ones that will have a plot twist somewhere along the way. Whilst the Bible is a world away from a spy novel it is full of plot twists.
In the New Testament, God is constantly pulling surprises: God loves the most unlikely people, and shows up in the most unexpected places.
In the second chapter of Acts, we are confronted with the story of the birth of the church. We call it the Pentecost story. On the day of the Jewish festival of Pentecost something happened that no one expected. The Holy Spirit blew through the gathered community and caused quite a stir as people found themselves speaking in various languages and yet were able to understand what everyone was saying. It is a marvelous moment. Diverse groups of people are brought together through an unexpected visitation of the Holy Spirit and community is created.
However, this experience is a limited one. The gathered community is a community of Jews, the chosen people of God. It is Pentecost and the church has been fashioned by God’s spirit. We celebrate this day every year in the liturgical cycle of the church.
A lot happens after this dramatic visitation of God’s spirit. The story is thrilling and I encourage you to read it for yourself in this early history of the church that we call the Acts of the Apostles.
In the tenth chapter of this book a different kind of Pentecost occurs. It has been called the “Gentile Pentecost” because here we have a record of the Holy Spirit visiting Gentiles, the non-Jews of that world.
Now this is a surprise! No one expects God to act in this way. God is the God of the Jews. God’s love is reserved for them. They are the people with the great faith tradition that begins with Abraham and continues through the exodus and the kings and prophets of the Old Testament. It would be only fitting that on the day of Pentecost God would do a special work like bringing the Spirit on the believers gathered at the sacred site of Jerusalem.
But God’s spirit is always larger than our expectations. In Acts 10, that spirit confirms that God loves Gentiles too. The community of the excluded is included. The ones regarded as a “nonpeople” are elevated to the status of God’s children. It is a surprise of monumental proportions! The early church is confronted with God’s view and has to open its life and doors to all the people of the world. No longer can the church live in the comfort of fellowship with it’s own. Now it must make room for all. It is a challenge and a blessing all at the same time, but this is the story of the New Testament
Reading the Gospels and the Letters of this sacred text one becomes aware of one fact above all others: Jesus Christ is the friend of sinners, sufferers, and Samaritans! Just think about who gets noticed, who gets included in the story: Bartimaeus, the ten lepers, a man born blind, Zacchaeus, a hemorrhaging woman, an insane man living in a graveyard. No “brightest and best” in this group. No power brokers, no names that would appear in the social pages, none of the king’s palace advisors. These are the marginalized, the forgotten, and the overlooked. And God loves them all!
It is a reminder to us that Jesus is constantly moving toward those from whom others are moving away. And, believe it or not, it is the good news that you, too, are included in this fellowship of the redeemed!
One of the criticisms of John Wesley and the early Methodist movement was that they were more willing to spend their time with farm labourers, factory hands and colliers. Wesley himself, said that he doubted that the rich and aristocratic people of his day could ever be converted. Methodism was always the church of the mill worker not the mill owner. I always think it is appropriate we celebrate Wesley’s conversion around the time of Pentecost.
So here we are at church. We are an interesting group. We are the well behaved and the rebels. We are the righteous and the lost. We are the consistent and the inconsistent, the saints and the sinners. And, we all belong! Such is the grace of God that God’s spirit of love reaches all: sinners, sufferers, samaritans and you and me.
God bless, Alan.
Tomorrow Erdington are celebrating Pentecost with Kirsten Newman leading worship. You are very welcome to join us by clicking on the link below. Service is at 10.30 am.
Towards the end of her life whenever we asked my grandmother how she was she would often reply “Well I’m still here.” I was never sure whether she was pleased or disappointed to be ‘still here’!
The hiatus of the last eighteen months has made me reflect upon life and what is important about it. What is the difference between being here and being alive?
Think about your breathing. Just take a moment and place your hand on your chest and feel each breath you take. At one level it is an electromechanical action over which you have no control. At you birth you did not make a decision to start breathing and at the end of life you do not decided to stop breathing. It is merely a function of your body.
Place you hand on your chest again and when you take your next breath remember that each breath is a gift of love. Each breath we draw reveals the power of love. For the most part, we don’t realize this. We just go about our busy lives. But for those who know how to listen, the existence of every single thing in this cosmos sings, “Love is at work here.”
That we came into this world and that we depart this life teaches us this crucial lesson. No person or animal or plant or inanimate thing brings itself into existence. Everything owes its existence to something else.
Okay, you might say, “Well, I’m here because my parents wanted a baby.” And that’s may well be true for you. But stretch the point a bit. Ask what one philosopher asked as the most basic question. Why is there something rather than nothing? (Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz). As Christians we would say that we are something because of the love of God.
To exist is to be held, to be tenderly sustained, by God’s love. And to do more than merely exist—to really live—means to give that love away.
Jesus told his friends something like that on the night before his crucifixion. He said to them that he is the True Vine, and they are the branches.
“Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
We are here, on this planet, because we are loved. We are to take hold of the life we have been given and to bear much fruit. The creative love of God gives us existence, the redeeming love of Jesus gives us life and we have to give that love away just as it has been given us. As a gift.
Grace and peace to you, Alan.
It has been commented upon that in September 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, church attendance rose . Sadly after this rise attendance began to decline again and accelerated post 1945. Move forward 70 years and to the current pandemic, although physical attendance has not increased – we have been closed for much of the last year – there are signs of an interesting trend.
Most churches who have moved their worship online have seen a much larger number of people viewing the service than they would expect to attend on any normal Sunday. Even more surprising has been the fact that Google has reported the use of the word ‘prayer’ in online searches increased by over 50% in the first months of the pandemic. (Almost the same figure as the decline in people searching for flights!) Also a recent poll of American Christians found that many of them said their faith had been strengthened during the pandemic.
People who experience traumas tend to question some of the assumptions they might have had about their faith – what pastoral theology calls ’embedded beliefs.’ These beliefs may include ideas about who God is, the purpose of life or why evil events happen to good people.
These embedded beliefs are the ones we accept either from our parents or from the church family we choose to join, often we do so without thought or question at the time. Many Christians have a deep rooted belief from the tradition that God is all good and that evil emerges when God ‘rightly’ punishes people for their sins. In other words, an all-good God would not punish someone without a reason.
Christians raised with that assumption might ask what made them incur God’s wrath if they contracted COVID-19. In such an event, the embedded belief in a punishing God may become something called a negative coping strategy – a coping strategy that has negative effects on a person’s life.
If they feel God is punishing them for no reason, they may feel confusion or try to identify something that is problematic or sinful about their identity. As a result, their faith becomes something that is a source of stress or cognitive dissonance rather than a source of comfort.
Traumatic events are often confusing for people because they don’t make much sense. In other words, traumas differ from the expectations of everyday life, and as a result, they seem to defy meaning or purpose.
However a positive spiritual approach is when individuals begin to recognise that some of their beliefs have been challenged by the trauma. People start to discern which embedded beliefs still make sense and which need to be revised. Faced with trauma many Christians will begin to draw on prayers, personal reflections, rituals and conversations. These have been shown to function as positive coping mechanisms that help individuals feel more grounded in the aftermath of a trauma.
Over time, these resources help individuals develop more intentional beliefs, meaning consciously chosen beliefs that take their suffering into account. These might include reasons why the suffering occurred and what its significance is for the overall meaning of the person’s life. Over time the individual replaces embedded beliefs with ‘deliberative’ beliefs, or beliefs that are chosen. Individuals will then have a sense of commitment to these beliefs because they make sense in light of the trauma.
Some people may argue that the suffering of the pandemic logically ought to turn people into atheists. the philosopher Bertrand, Lord Russell, argued that Christians should accompany him to a children’s hospital unit because they would inevitably stop believing in God once they saw such profound suffering. The way humans experience suffering spiritually, however, may not necessarily lead to atheism or agnosticism. Indeed, research from experts who study the intersection of psychology and religion has found that events that could be labeled as traumatic do not necessarily destroy faith. (Kenneth I. Pargament – The Psychology of Religion and Coping.)
Trauma often challenges so many assumptions about who we are, what our purpose is and how to make sense of a traumatic event. Faith-based beliefs and practices offer meaningful resources to help navigate those questions.
This is why spiritual beliefs and practices across various religions can often lead to faith strengthening rather than weakening, following a trauma.
With the closure of churches during the pandemic many Christians have had to look elsewhere to find answers to the questions they face. I would argue that rather than ‘escaping’ the challenge of pandemic by coming to church Christians have had to dig deep into their own spiritual resources to face the challenge of the pandemic.
This not something new. The exile to Babylon forced the people of Israel to question their embedded beliefs and came back with a deeper understanding of God and a faith which was stronger because of the trauma of exile, not weaker.
We have dug a deep well to find the spiritual refreshment we needed over the past eighteen months, let’s not abandon our endeavours to return to the stagnant waters of assumed beliefs.
“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jeremiah 2:13).
God bless and take care, Alan.
One phrase that has been used about the current pandemic is that it is of “biblical proportions.” Those commentators and journalists who use this phrase sadly have no concept of what a ‘biblical’ plague is really about. Just because it is large and widespread does not make it ‘biblical’.
The choice of words conveys more than just scale. Biblical stories of devastating famines are familiar to many, but we must understand that famines in biblical times were interpreted as more than mere natural occurrences. The authors of the Hebrew Bible not only used famine as a mechanism of divine wrath and destruction – but also as a storytelling device, a way to move the narrative forward.
Underlying the texts about famine in the Hebrew Bible was the constant threat and recurring reality of famine.
Israel occupied the rocky highlands of Canaan – the area of present-day Jerusalem and the hills to the north of it – rather than fertile coastal plains. Even in the best of years, it took hard work to produce a harvest each year. The rainy seasons were brief; any precipitation less than normal could be devastating.
Across the ancient Near East, drought and famine were feared. In the 13th century B.C., nearly all of the Eastern Mediterranean civilisations collapsed because of a prolonged drought.
For the biblical authors, rain was a blessing and drought a curse – quite literally. In the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of Moses, God says that if Israel obeys His laws, “the Lord will open for you his bounteous store, the heavens, to provide rain for your land in season.” (Deuteronomy 11:13-14). The opposite was destruction, “The skies above your head shall be copper and the earth under you iron. The Lord will make the rain of your land dust, and sand shall drop on you from the sky, until you are wiped out.” (Deuteronomy 28:23-24)
The Bible’s association of famine and other natural disasters with divine anger and punishment paved the way for faith leaders throughout the ages to use their pulpits to cast blame on those they found morally wanting. Alcohol, abortion, homosexuality – all have been blamed for natural disasters seen as God’s divine wrath.
For the biblical writers interested in legislating and prophesying about Israel’s behavior, famine was both an ending – the result of disobedience and sin – and also a beginning, a potential turning point toward a better, more faithful future.
Other biblical authors, however, focused less on how or why famines happened and more on the opportunities that famine provided for telling new stories.
Famine as a narrative device – rather than as a theological tool – is found regularly throughout the Bible. The writers of the Hebrew Bible used famine as the motivating factor for major changes in the lives of its characters – undoubtedly reflecting the reality of famine’s impact in the ancient world.
We see this numerous times in the book of Genesis. For example, famine drives Abraham and later Isaac into Egypt
Similarly, the book of Ruth opens with a famine that forces Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth, and her family to move first to, and then away from, Moab.
The story of Ruth depends on the initial famine; it ends with Ruth being the ancestor of King David. Neither the Exodus nor King David – the central story and the main character of the Hebrew Bible – would exist without famine.
All of these stories share a common feature: famine as an impetus for the movement of people. In ancient times this was a physical movement into a strange land, residing where you had to abandon land, kin even religion. You no longer had power and became vulnerable.
What does the ‘biblical’ pandemic have to say to us today?
Is it God’s wrath for our sinfulness? Well I don’t believe in a wrathful God so no!
I believe that if we think theological about the pandemic then there are two lessons we can take from this year of hiatus. First we can look with greater compassion on the refugee and the migrant and recognise something of their powerlessness in the powerlessness we have experienced. Secondly it gives us the opportunity to move our ‘narrative’ forward if we are courageous.
God bless and take care, Alan.
Erdington are continuing to produce a members led service on the fourth Sunday of each month. Premiering at 10.30 on Erdington’s Youtube Channel – You are all very welcome to join us by following the link below.
“When we return, we will all be newcomers.”
It was just a throw away comment, but the more I thought about what was said the more profound I believe the comment was.
Of course! We will all be newcomers, again.
As our churches begin to reopen in larger numbers after a year of on-again, off-again COVID-19 closures, our habits in these once-familiar physical spaces have been broken.
What was instinctive and comfortable in March 2020 is now, for many of us, just outside the realm of memory. How did we share life in these spaces? How did we get work done here?
Even with a widespread yearning for a return to normalcy, we may find that our familiar places now feel somewhat foreign. Ongoing and necessary health and safety precautions will change the ways we interact in these spaces.
There will no longer be impromptu meetings around the coffee table. Many meetings will still be via Zoom, or if in person they will have to be carefully planned, the meeting room laid out very differently. Fellowship will have to be much more intentional, less small talk and more meaningful conversation – ‘Time to talk of God’.
On Sunday mornings, social distancing may mean that our usual pew can no longer be “our pew” because it’s now reserved to be the buffered distance between us. Some of us may find ourselves distributing individually wrapped, carefully sealed communion wafers and wine glasses to the faithful as they enter – no gathering around the table for weeks to come.
It’s not only that our past habits have been broken; in some cases, our very ways of being in spaces together may no longer be advisable or possible. We will have to create new ways of being community together. What was that comment?
“We will all be newcomers.”
There’s also a deeper distancing that has occurred over the last year in our churches. We may now be strangers not just to physical spaces but also to those with whom we previously shared those spaces. So much life happens in a year, even in a year of pandemic lockdown.
While congregations and organizations have tried to sustain community in difficult circumstances, there are still so many stories, so many experiences that we did not share with each other in real time. There’s been grief and joy that simply went unspoken.
The poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes,
“When someone you haven’t seen in ten years / appears at the door, / don’t start singing him all your new songs. / You will never catch up.”
If she were to write it today, we can imagine her saying, “When someone you haven’t seen except by Zoom / appears at the door …”
While it is tempting to agree that catching up will be virtually impossible (pun intended), one of the particular gifts of religious communities is that most of us do some of our most intentional ministry with newcomers.
In this moment after we have missed so many other moments, we will need the best of what we know from that to help us find a way of being back together.
For example, we have cultivated practices for welcoming one another and inviting one another to share in something larger than ourselves — the mission of the church in the world.
At our best, we know how to listen for, celebrate and receive the gifts of each new person.
We know how to help each other share our stories of heartbreak and hope and, in each telling, find new layers of meaning.
We know how to invite people into service in the world that is good for the world and deeply fulfilling for them personally.
We will need all those capacities and all that experience to help us be, and become more than, newcomers together.
Said it so casually, so clearly: “When we return, we will all be newcomers.”
In eight words, we hear the truth that reopening our buildings was never going to be as simple as unlocking the doors, turning on the lights, roping off a few pews or putting out hand sanitiser — not that those things are all that simple.
Reopening our buildings, resuming life together, is an emotional and spiritual challenge. It is good news for us that congregations know how to be in those spaces with faith, hope and love. Now as ever, the world needs all three.
God bless, Alan.