Interrupted by Angels.

One of the great ‘lost’ poems of English literature is Kubla Khan by Samuel Coleridge Taylor. Coleridge claimed to have perceived the entire course of the poem in a dream (probably aided by opium!) but was interrupted by an un-named visitor from Porlock while in the process of writing it. Only the first 54 lines were written down and the poem was never completed. Now it may not be a work of romantic poetry but we have all had the experience of being interrupted in the middle of a task and then struggled to remember what we were doing.

In Genesis we read of Jacob having a similar experience, (Genesis 28:1-22). Jacob’s father, Isaac, sent him to Paddan Aram to find a wife. This may seem extraordinary in our culture where marriage is often entered into without direction from anyone but Jacob obeys his father and sets out on a journey not realising that his journey will be interrupted by angels.

Jacob camps for the night and in this ordinary setting he dreams of a stairway going from earth to heaven.  Angels are on the staircase and if that were not enough, the God of Abraham is just above the stairway with a message for our traveler. After identifying himself, the Lord promises Jacob that his family will multiply and they in turn will bless many other people. 

As if the promise is not enough, God reassured Jacob that he would be with him and never leave him. One would think Jacob’s worries were behind him. Yet when he awakens he is afraid. His fear may have been based on a sense of God’s Holiness or perhaps he was insecure and wondered what to do next.

Our lives have been interrupted not by a visitor, nor by angels but by a virus. Our plans have been turned upside-down, tasks remain unfinished and like Samuel Coleridge Taylor we are angry and upset. Like Jacob we are fearful.

Throughout this time I keep coming back to the words of Julian of Norwich ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ Wonderful reassuring words, but at times I am not reassured. Like Jacob I wake in a morning and am fearful and concerned.

Jacob erects a crude structure dedicated to the God he has encountered and he promises that this is the beginning of a house for God. Then he makes a vow to God promising to follow him. God has already promised care, but Jacob needs reassurance. He can’t be satisfied with the free gift of God’s grace. He must add to it.

Like Jacob we have difficulty taking God at his word, or even the words of Julian of Norwich.  We insist on adding to the gift of grace when God has already assured us he loves us. Much of our religious work may be more for our benefit rather than the Creators. God had already promised to be with Jacob. His faith story included a gift of grace as does ours. God has unconditionally promised us that he will be with us no matter what, yet we want to prove we are worthy of God. We no longer see grace as a gift but as a reward for good behaviour or faithful service. Yet grace, God’s wonderful grace, will always remain a gift. And no matter how hard we try to please God our efforts are no more than a crude pile of rocks like Jacob’s altar.

So take a deep breath, stop what you are doing, forget what you want to achieve today and allow you life to be interrupted by angels.

God bless,

Alan.

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We have recently moved to a more professional platform for our Circuit Emails, as you may have noticed from the Bulletin on 19th July.

We are aware, however, that many members in local churches only get this news ‘second hand’ by having it forwarded from another church member.

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Peggy Hunt

On Friday, July 17th, Peggy Hunt, a dearly loved and cherished member of Kingstanding Methodist Church and of the Sutton Park Circuit, died at Good Hope Hospital, after a brief period of illness. Our prayers surround her brother Bob and the wider family, and all her friends and colleagues at this sad time of loss.

Peggy was held in deep love and respect by all who had the privilege to know her. Her faithfulness to God, her great generosity, her wisdom and patience, and most especially her love, inspired us all. Her family have been close at her side.

I will count it as one of the most wonderful privileges of my life to have been with Peggy as she travelled to be with her Lord, taking the hand of Jesus and stepping on into glory. We praise God for Peggy and all of the gifts and graces that she shared with us, as we entrust her to God’s everlasting love and goodness.

Rev Kathryn Darby.

NOTE

On 19th July a recording of Peggy, made a couple of weeks before she died, features in the evening Circuit Service.

GDPR for Church Stewards 24th July 9:30am

A reminder to all Church Stewards that we shall be meeting via Zoom at 09:30 on Friday 24th July to talk about GDPR in the Local Church. The aims of the meeting will be to help each church complete two documents:

  1. The Processor Record for that Church
  2. The Data Audit for that Church

It is hoped that at least one representative from each church will attend, although there is no upper limit. I will use screen sharing to show you where to find the template documents you need on the TMCP website and how to fill them both in. Remember that the deadline for completing these is 1st September 2020 in time for the Circuit Meeting.

Thank you to all the churches who have already submitted their Data Audit documents to me for comment. Your annotated documents will greatly help the other churches who are still working on theirs.

The Zoom Meeting ID is 899 6072 1913

Please get in touch with me if you don’t have the password.

I look forward to seeing you there.
Stephen

Something for Sunday

What is it about parables? Why did Jesus teach in this way? Why chose such an oblique and indirect method- a method which seems to invite questions and discussion. Why not just lay it on the line? Avoid all subtleties. Give it to them straight. After all what is the point of a teaching method which seems to use as many words in the gospel to interpret the parable as to set it out in the first place. Sometimes the scholars suggest to us that the interpretation isn’t fair to the parable, the emphasis has shifted and the real message has been obscured. This is the case with the parable in today’s gospel-the parable of the wheat and the tares.

Now here’s another parable.

Once upon a time a fire broke out back stage in a theatre. A clown rushed front of stage to warn the audience. The audience thought this was a tremendous joke and applauded wildly. He repeated his warning, they laughed all the more. More they cried, more! Eventually the theatre burned to the ground with most of the people still trapped inside. According to Pope Benedict and he should know that is the situation of theology in our time.

It’s a famous parable from the greatest writer of modern parables. Pope Benedict begins his best book “An Introduction to Christianity” by quoting it. It’s a much better way of making the point than by simply saying: nobody listens to religious teachers these days. Powerful, vivid, graphic. You may not be able to grasp the point at first but you’ll remember the story. It’ll stay with you and you’ll reflect on it and eventually you’ll take the message to your heart. That I think is the point of parables. Powerful, vivid but because it’s not absolutely in your face, gracious as well.

What of today’s parable of the wheat and the tares. It seems an odd one. Not only do we have the parable we also have an interpretation of the parable. There’s also a suggestion – a pretty strong one that something very important is being said here.

“I will open my mouth in parables, says Jesus.  I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” From the foundation of the world! Gosh! Are they still hidden? I’m sure that in some ways they still are.

How to interpret it? A clue might be in a comparison between the parable itself and the interpretation of the parable. In the parable the emphasis is on the wisdom of the householder, the farmer shall, we say. Let things alone, forebear. In the explanation the emphasis has shifted to the judgement at the close of the age-to the furnace of fire, to wailing and gnashing of teeth and the righteous shining like the sun. Picturesque details. It’s almost as if Jesus is playing to the gallery. People love a bit of that stuff if they think that hell is someone else’s destination.

The servants of the householder and the householder himself are quick to realise that an enemy has sabotaged his field. What is to be done? Surely aggressive weeding is the answer. Perhaps a counter-strike against the enemy as well is in order too. But no this is not what the householder commands. He says let it all alone. Wait take no action now. Let the good and the bad grow together until the work of discrimination can take care of itself. Some people reading this have suggested that Jesus didn’t know much about arable farming. Others have said that on the contrary the wheat and the weeds within the wheat may look very similar in the early stages of their growth cycles. Best not to do anything now. Harvest everything and then discriminate between wheat and weeds. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

But we all know that this is not a passage about agriculture. This is about human lives and the coming of the Kingdom. It’s also about judgement, God’s judgment and the need for us to forebear from judgment. We have always been tempted to think and have been from the foundation of the world that we can discriminate between good and evil. Having succumbed to that temptation we are then tempted to pick out the evil culprits and eliminate them. These easy solutions lead us towards ever more aggressive and violent solutions to our problems. Often the violent solutions produce results that are worse than the original problem. There is a school of thought that’s sees Jesus himself as a victim of violent attempts to weed out troublemakers and disturbers of our peace- a peace which is no true peace. It was Jesus’ acceptance of the worst we can do that confronted and took away the sin of the world.

So what we have here is a message about forbearance. We should refrain from easy judgments and allow God to be God. We should wait until the harvest. The temptation to rush in and intervene with plans and strategies is easy to succumb to. It’s based on an exaggerated idea of human wisdom and insight and an inadequate faith in the God who makes all things well and all things new.

In response to the request to go into the field and root out the weeds the farmer says no. No, not now. This is not what people want to hear. What people want as the second part of the passage reveals is an easy bit of judgment directed at them-at the bad guys. So that we might feel good about ourselves because we are the good guys.

Now over the years but especially when I used to sit in the pews myself I’ve been irritated and annoyed by preachers who ignored the message of this parable and misused the pulpit to indulge in cheap political points. I could entertain you for some time with the silly judgments I’ve heard expressed. The indulgence of the Soviet Union, the touching faith that the economic policy of the then government was an expression of the Sermon on the Mount and so on. I used to want to interrupt and say. Yes I’ve read the Observer this morning now you tell me about God. Tell us how he loves us and has sent his son to show us how much he loves us.

Political and economic questions are complex and difficult and all the actors including and perhaps especially those with whom we are most inclined to agree are flawed and corrupt. The nature of women and men is fallen. However most people do not feel this way at all. They want God to endorse their own humanistic values and high sense of self worth. When God in Christ calls them to repent they pay no attention and the very idea of faith in a God who takes a lower view of humanity than humanity does of itself seems incredible and absurd.

God did not will a religion of benign flattery of human values. And yet the beauty, wonder and hope that are in the faith are that God loves us in spite of what we are and not because of what we are. That God sent his son not as an agent who would promote our own progressive programmes but rather as a sacrifice in which our values might be transcended in the name of a greater love. So that we might know peace and reconciliation not only with him but also with each other and enjoy a new life that death cannot spoil or foreshorten.

One of the most urgent questions facing our world at this time or indeed any other time is simply this. How can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves? Many of us are utterly confident that we can manage this. In this respect we are just like Adam and Eve who listened to the tempter when it said. Your eyes will be opened. You will be like God knowing good and evil. And all this at the very foundation of the world. You don’t have to wait upon God’s judgment, you can be god’s yourselves, you can distinguish between the wheat and the tares. Off you go into the field, declare it a free fire zone, and destroy it in order to save it but at all costs weed out the bad guys. I’m thinking of the Vietnam War here but one also remembers the famous remark of the papal legate at the siege of Beziers during the crusade against the Cathars in the thirteenth century. Asked how the soldiers were to distinguish between the Catholics and the heretics when the city fell he replied “Kill them all, God will know His own”. Clearly he realised that the wheat and the tares couldn’t be easily distinguished. He was right about that! But forbearance, the grace to let God be God, alas no!

Good and evil inhabits the same field –that is to say each and every person. There are no unqualified bad guys or unqualified good guys-the only result of a truly vigourous campaign against evil will be a heap of corpses-good and bad alike.

All this Jesus lived out for us. Those who betrayed Jesus, arrested him, condemned him and crucified him weren’t all bad people. On the contrary they were good people with a sophisticated sense of right and wrong-priests, civil servants and lawyers. As one of them is reported to have said: It is better for one person to die for the nation than for the whole nation to die. This troublesome person is a weed. Pull him out. Well the high priest got it wrong and we continue to get it wrong because we think we can be like God knowing good and evil. No says Jesus, forebear. Don’t cause wailing and gnashing of teeth now. Wait upon God and upon his judgement at the end of time. Above all don’t try to play God but let God be God and as for our self righteous violence we should pray for forgiveness.

On being deprived

As measures of relaxation of lockdown are put in place and we start to resume some although not all of our normal activities it seems right to ask some questions of our Christian experience at this time. At first the experience of lockdown seemed like an enhanced Lent and in addition the lack of any Holy Communion made the time seem like a prolonged Holy Saturday. By tradition there is no sacramental life in the Church between the Thursday evening of Holy week and the joyful celebration of Easter day. And now here we are in July and still this strange time of deprivation continues.

At the heart of these considerations must be an examination of our motives for attending public worship at all. Why do we come together on Sunday? To meet our friends and share in cheerful sociability. Well that’s a good reason for coming.

To have a good sing! Again that’s not a bad reason for coming. Did not St Augustine himself say that she who sings prays twice?

To pray as well for others as for ourselves as the Book of Common Prayer expresses it. Again that’s a good reason for coming although of course even in isolation the voice of prayer need never be silent.

But to my way of thinking the crucial reason for wanting to be together is the question of presence. The presence of the risen Christ with us. Of course even in solitude I can feel that Christ is with me, behind me and before me but when we Christians meet together that sense of presence is greatly enhanced. We realise ourselves to be in a quite tangible way the body of the Lord. Did not Jesus say that when two or three are gathered in my name there am I in the midst of them. If we are to be the Church we must come together. As John Wesley said there are no solitary Christians.

Some of us have been worshipping together by means of Zoom and other video conferencing applications. This has been a good experience and it has enabled some of us to share in prayer and worship in a participatory way. I hope it continues after this time has come to an end. But what has been missing is the Lord’s Supper and this raises in quite an acute form the question of the Lord’s presence in our worship and our sense of deprivation at being unable to share with each other in the signs of that presence which Christ gave to His church.

In the Lords supper we come together, we hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church, we confess our sins and our fellowship with each other is restored. We recall the story of the passion of Jesus, bread and wine are taken, prayer is offered over them and the bread is broken and the wine poured out as a sign of what Christ has done and in his risen life is still doing. Finally the bread and wine are shared amongst us to signify that Christ’s sacrifice for us continues and that we are called to be participants in that ongoing sacrifice. As St Augustine says we become what we eat-the body of Christ. Thereafter as the Body of Christ we disperse in order to continue Christ’s saving work in the world.

This is what we are deprived of at present and its restoration is an urgent matter. Of course we should not endanger the health of ourselves or anyone else and we owe it to our neighbours to take all necessary precautions. But for Christian like ourselves it is an urgent necessity for us to be the Church and that means coming together around the table of the Lord.

Be present at our table Lord
Be here and ev’ry where adored
These mercies bless, and grant that we
May feast in paradise with thee.


“Lowly and humble, a learner of thee”*

We continue to remain in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the challenge of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, the threads of virus and violence — medicine and morality, disease and dis-ease, weave together to challenge our everyday lives.  As this combination intensifies the complexity of our situation and increases our anxiety in the midst of it we find ourselves drawn back into the question, “How then shall we live?”

I find instruction and inspiration from remembering that we are disciples of Jesus Christ. The two salient features of the word disciple are learner and follower. These two qualities of spiritual life help us to live in the midst of the pandemic.

First, I am a learner.

This is true in terms of both the virus and the violence. I am not a doctor, and I am not among those who are being oppressed. Whatever else being a disciple means, right now it means committing to the spiritual discipline of deep listening. And for me, having lived every day of my life in the bubble of white privilege and functioning for decades in the preaching/teaching mode, the necessity for deep listening is a spiritual discipline. That is, it is going against the grain of my entitled status and my preaching role, both of which dispose me to speak (and write) more than listen.

Maria Shriver recently wrote on her blog “There is an awakening, but it is partial — not just some people and not others, but some parts of ourselves and not other parts. We’re at war within and without — between the new and the old.” I believe we are on a path of awakening. Sadly, it is a path strewn with harm brought about by individual and collective inhumanity

The words from Maria  are a call to people like me (and many of you reading this) to adopt a learning disposition even as we do our best to work for the common good. If we can have eyes to see this new day (Mark 8:18), we will recognise it is a moment pregnant with potential for disciples, for those willing to be learners. This is a particular kind of learning. It is the kind of learning Jesus invited his first followers to engage in, the learning which comes when we are willing to see old things in new ways. Six times in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard … but I say.” 

This kind of learning occurs when we refuse to make the status quo a sacred cow. We may be called to be peace makers but we are not called to simply keep the peace. Remember Jesus himself said “I bring not peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). It is the learning that happens when we listen to the voices of those previously ignored or silenced by prejudice and subjugation. It is the learning that takes place as we pay attention to the mystic/prophets, who in their own ways are telling us that God is doing a new thing. It is the learning which happens only when we are willing to take risks, form new relationships, and be labeled “defectors” by those who place a greater value on preserving the past than seeing how the past is evolving into the future as it passes through the refining fire of the present

And second, I am a follower.

The mindset of a learner must become the movement of a follower. Christ is always on the move, and we are to follow him. This too can be described in more than one way. I use the model given to us in the second trinity – faith, hope and love

Faith. Spiritual life in a pandemic means trusting God in two ways simultaneously: for eternity (the long haul) and in time (the short run). In Western Christianity we are pretty good at the first but we would rather trust in our own strength and wisdom for the second.

With respect to faith in eternity it means we trust that the plan of God is moving forward despite the pandemic. That plan is described by Paul, “This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). 

Faith in time means believing that God works in history for our good, through the wisdom and guidance of those who know the most about the viral pandemic, the medical community. Spiritual life in the viral pandemic means listening to the doctors and following their advice, not following the politicians and some ministers who would have us disregard the wisdom of science. “Have faith” is not a substitute for having common sense. Spiritual life in time of disease means being smart and constantly remembering that ‘God is with us, and nothing can separate us from God’s love’ (Romans 8:38). “Have faith” is no excuse for ignoring the call for justice neither is telling those who suffer injustice that they will ‘get their reward in heaven’.

Hope. Spiritual life in the pandemic means remaining confident that “this too shall pass.” Confidence enables us to endure. It is what Jesus called “the good foundation”, the strength to weather the storm. Confidence says, “Nevertheless,” and says it over and over. Spiritual life as hope is the inhaling of the Spirit, as the Strengthener, who makes real Jesus’ promise, “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:20)

From that sacred center, hope gives rise to our willingness to do what we can to respect others (e.g. wearing masks and resisting brutality) and to be helpful. Hope is offering ourselves to God as instruments of God’s peace in the process of moving into the new normal.

Love. Spiritual life in a pandemic means being rooted and grounded in love, which can be summarised in the two great commandments, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and your neighbour as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:37,38), and the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-26). Living within these things, we apply them in two directions.

First we love ourselves. This is not selfishness, it’s survival. It means exercising self-care with respect to such things as reasonable precautions, conscientious hygiene, a good diet, and ample sleep. As Friedrich Buechner says “Pay mind to your own life, your own health, and wholeness. A bleeding heart is of no help to anyone if it bleeds to death.” (Telling Secrets, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991)

From the strength of that inner love, we love others. Love is the motive which ignites the driving force to reach out to others. Spiritual life in a pandemic is the life of love, turned inward and thrust outward. It is the life created by the union of contemplation and action.

Jesus said he came to give us abundant life (John 10:10). In a time of pandemic, we must “ask, seek, and knock” for it with determination, and we must recognize that it will fluctuate as we face new challenges and experience fatigue as we do so. 

Taken together, learning and following provide a means to gain the perspective and to enact the words of the prophet, “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). Spiritual life in a pandemic means being a true disciple of Jesus.

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

* ‘Come let us sing of wonderful love’ – Robert Walmsley (Singing the faith 443)