community · faith · Poetry · Worship

What’s The Opposite Of Spiritual

This is quite a bit longer than I would usually post … a sermon preached a few weeks ago in Easter week, focussing on the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the importance of an embodied faith, lived out by our spiritual practices.

Thursday Communion 13.4.23 St Catharine’s, Gloucester

Jesus Appears to the Disciples

On the day of resurrection, Jesus had appeared to two disciples on their way home to  Emmaus … after Jesus has left them, they hurry back to Jerusalem to share the news … Luke 24:35

35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.

44 Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’


Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”   … touch me and see …

The risen Lord is present with us now as we meet to share in this meal of Holy Communion – bread and wine … now able to be here present in our bodies – a privilege that we appreciate so much more in recent years.   Pause

It’s that aspect of our lives that I’ve been thinking about – we might call it the embodied life.  We had some family time over Easter, and spent hours playing board games … physically present with one another, engaged in an activity that was communal and devoid of screens. Contrast that with what we often see and experience ourselves as we spend time relating to our phones , social media etc.

I remember an occasion when I was a theological student and we were visiting the local church for a seminar.  The vicar led a discussion with us, and at one point (I can’t remember how it came up) he asked us “what is the opposite of Spiritual ?”  We kind of knew that he was laying a trap for us, and I can’t remember if anyone did fall into the trap, but he was expecting someone to say ‘physical.’  The point being – the opposite of spiritual is unspiritual.

And the reason he asked the question is because one of the heresies that have always been around for the church (Gnosticism) is one that sees the physical, material world as bad, creation is fundamentally flawed, even evil, and to be truly spiritual we need to rise above the material world, to escape from the body and become pure spirit.

This heresy was around in the early years of the church, and is still around today. although we may not recognise it easily.

I have a Christian friend who to all appearances is an orthodox Christian – but his view of the climate crisis is that we shouldn’t worry too much about it or put our energies into tackling it because Jesus will return and renew the earth anyway.  And yes, that is a part of our faith, but it’s getting dangerously near to saying that the material world doesn’t matter.

But Christian faith is founded on the material world. Everything about our faith is solid … material .. physical.

God is revealed in creation – The heavens declare the glory of God – psalm 19

God is supremely revealed in the  incarnation – Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh.

And in our Gospel reading we see that even the resurrected body of Jesus is solid, substantial, not an apparition, not a free floating spirit somewhere in the ether.

Just note some of the words in the Gospel reading – hands, feet, touch, flesh, bones, hands, feet (again) eat, fish, eat (again).  This is bodily stuff.  Now I know that there’s much that we simply don’t know about what happens when we die, and what resurrection means for us, but there are some clues here – aren’t there ?

I’ve heard people talk about the spirit leaving the body when we die and having some kind of independent existence as if the body is merely a shell, and not really important for our existence.  But the resurrection of Jesus is not like that – the resurrected Jesus is body mind and spirit … new body for sure, but a resurrection of the body, and not some free floating spirit.

Each of us is made up of body mind and spirit, working together, and the gnostic heresy that tries to elevate the spiritual as something disembodied must be resisted.

There’s a real danger at this moment in time that our spiritual life becomes less embodied, with fewer physical expressions of faith in favour of something interior, private, individualistic.

I enjoy thinking, and reading … stuff that goes on in my head, but I’m more interested in living !  I’m more interested in a faith that is embodied, lived out in material ways.  One of my retired clergy colleagues years ago talked about the way that the life of the spirit, spiritual things are experienced through the material stuff of life.

This includes acts of service to others; being present with others to share our lives; taking creation seriously – enjoying the diversity of all that God has given us, and playing our part in caring for the world.

And it includes our practices in worship – that wonderfully work to keep us true to this embodied faith.  Just think of these actions that embody our faith …

The waters of Baptism; The bread and wine of communion. The posture of our bodies … in our Christian tradition we stand when the Gospel is read, or when we say the creed. We greet one another in the peace – and I have noticed the way the peace is shared in this service – with handshakes and hugs.  

In Lent we have the service of ashing on Ash Wednesday, and the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday. Our Good Friday services are focussed on the bodily crucifixion of the Lord, with crown of thorns, and torture and vinegar.

But there are other practices that might not be so familiar to us – making the sign of the cross, bowing down or kneeling as part of our worship, or raising our hands in praise. Having hands laid on us in a service of healing.  All of these are ways to embody worship, and all touch on something profound that cannot be replicated by the inner workings of the mind.

In the eucharistic prayer there will be pouring of wine, breaking bread and lifting the cup and the bread … bodily actions that reveal something of the heart of our worship.  Do you know ? I think there’s more – you may think of more … but let’s just stop there … 

I’ll finish with a sonnet .. . inspired by this a book of sonnets by poet Malcolm Guite that go through the church year 

Disciples gathered in Jerusalem
When suddenly two friends arrived and said
The Lord had risen and appeared to them
They’d recognised him when he broke the bread
While they were puzzling on the situation
Jesus himself came with his word of Peace
“You look as if you’ve seen an apparition
Do you have anything that I may eat ?
He took the food and ate it while they watched him
“You see a Ghost does not have flesh and bones,
I’ll tell you ev’rything that has been written –
I had to die and rise to take my throne.
Now soon it will be time to say goodbye
Then you’ll be clothed with power from on high”

Later in the service we shared the peace in silence …to focus on the bodily action.
I suggested that for any who are keeping their distance (as we have had to do in the pandemic) that they find a way to make the sharing of the peace a bodily thing, maybe by using the Makaton sign for peace.


N.B. Whilst writing this I came across this article on ‘excarnation,’  Embodied Living in the Age of Excarnation” By Joel Oesch .

The article helped to inform and clarify what I was trying to say and draws on the work of Charles Taylor, who defines excarnation as “the steady disembodying of spiritual life, so that it is less and less carried in deeply meaningful bodily forms, and lies more and more in the head.”

Grace and Peace.

community · Creativity, · faith · Following Jesus · music · Poetry · Political · Truth · World Affairs

Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, Teachers,

So – we’ve had a series on church on the different aspects of service that people might be called to. See above.

I was with a group yesterday and we were talking about what an evangelist is. Essentially someone who shares their faith with others. But what struck me as we were talking was the importance of listening to each of these ways of serving.

Apostles are the people who are out in front of a new venture. I was talking to Emma and her husband Andy on Sunday – Emma runs something called the Long Table in Matson (Gloucester), and they were telling me that they spent a long time listening to the community in Matson before setting up the Long Table project.

Prophets are the ones who speak truth to power. Often but not exclusively people involved in the arts – musicians, poets, artists and so on. They are listening carefully to be attuned to what’s going on around them in the world. Movements in the political and cultural sphere; aspects of church that are in danger of, or already have gone off track.

Evangelists sometimes get it wrong by just speaking louder ! To share faith with another human being requires respect and careful listening. Talking with, not talking at.

Pastors are those who have a deep concern for the well being of others. What they offer needs to be connected to the need of the other, not the need of the one offering support. Listening is crucial.

Teachers also sometimes get it wrong – maybe they pitch what they’re trying to communicate at the wrong level, or are just out of sync with those who are learning. Perhaps we should think of this as creating a space for learning. Again, listening to the ones who are learning will help to get this right.

This all might seem glaringly obvious, but it struck me how central listening is to any kind of activity within a community, be that a family, a business, a church, or whatever …

The other thing that I’ve noticed as we’ve been working through this at church is that although some people have a particular ‘gift’ for working in a specific area, all of these ways of serving are open to any of us. So ….

Get your creative juices going and try something new
Try to be informed about what’s going on in the world – but it can be tricky to know who’s truth telling …
Think about your passions and who might be interested in sharing that passion
Think about the people in your networks, and how you can be a caring presence
We all have wisdom, knowledge and experience to share with others … how’s that going ?

But don’t burn out ! Maybe at some point you’ll notice an area where you shine, and you can give the major part of your energy to that.

Grace and peace.

community · faith · Prayer

In Ordinary And Hidden Moments

We’ve been watching the series ‘Pilgrimage’ on BBC TV this week.
In previous years, the programme has followed a group of celebrities on a pilgrim route – one year it was Rome, another was Compostela, another was Istanbul.

This year, they are following the journey of the 6th century saint Columba as he set up Christian communities across Ireland and Scotland.

The group this comprises 7 people, with different stories, and differing degrees of faith from Agnostic to Committed. We hear about upbringing in Christianity, Sikhism, Judaism, Islam and how that has shaped their lives.

The moment I want to reflect on comes at the end of their third day of pilgrimage. It’s been a tough day, with challenging walking, and they have arrived at the hostel where they will stay the night.

It’s Friday, the days when Jews will mark the beginning of the Sabbath with an evening meal. Over the last three days, actress Louisa Clein has talked about her Jewish heritage, and her increasing confidence with talking about her faith. She is keen to share the experience of Shabbat and hosts the meal.

There’s a point where she takes the Sabbath bread and breaks off pieces and shares it around the table. A simple ritual that speaks of the importance of faith and community. It’s one of those moments where you sense that something important is happening. There’s a closeness in the group that is cemented in a way that goes beyond words.

We have really warmed to this group of pilgrims as they have laughed and cried together. Laurence Llewelyn Bowen is an unlikely leader of the group. We noticed the times when he opens up conversations about faith, and when something he does or says holds the group – like when he addresses them as family. Each person contributes in their own way, from encourager to questioner to faith defender. We love it. I would love to gather a similar group from my locality to do a pilgrim walk together and share our stories …. I wonder …

Going back to the Sabbath meal in Pilgrimage – it reminded me of one of the stories of Jesus. It takes place after the resurrection, when two people are walking home from Jerusalem and Jesus joins them as they are walking. They talk as they walk – much as the seven pilgrims have done in the BBC programme. They share the things that are deep in their hearts.

In the Bible account, the two reach their home and invite Jesus to stay with them. As they sit down to their meal, Jesus takes the bread and breaks it, and in this moment they realise that it is Jesus. A moment of profound realisation that happens in the everyday action of breaking bread.

Today I read this:
”The big thing is not to treat today as a step towards what you are hoping for some day in the future, but to accept that this day contains the seeds of all that you hope for. This is it ! Now this particular day might not feel special, in fact it might be important that it does not feel special. We need to allow ourselves to be drawn under the skin of the day and into its earthy mystery.”
(Running over rocks, by Ian Adams p. 106.)

I confess to finding this a challenge. I have a tendency to be always looking forward to the next thing. My mind is in the future. Future projects and possibilities. So I need something to earth me in the present moment. For me it’s a daily time of reading and prayer. But there are many other ways to include this ‘welcoming the day’ into our lives. It might be to create a simple ritual that we can repeat each morning to remind ourselves of the importance of living in the present.

It could be a song, or a prayer, or an action …

One of the prayers I have used and found helpful is the Morning Prayer by Padraig O Tuama.
You can find it in his book “Daily Prayer”

Morning Prayer

We begin our day alone,
Honouring this life, with all its potentials and possibilities.

We begin our day with trust,
Knowing we are created for loving encounter.

We begin our day with hope,
Knowing the day can hold love, kindness, forgiveness and justice.

A reading followed by a time of silence

We recall our day yesterday,
May we learn, may we love, may we live on.

We make room for the unexpected,
May we find wisdom and life in the unexpected.

Help us to embrace possibility, respond graciously to disappointment and hold tenderly those we encounter.
Help us to be fully present to the day.

A short silence

We pray for all those whose day will be difficult.
We name them in our hearts or out loud
May we support, may we listen, may we change.

We resolve to live life in its fullness:
We will welcome the people who’ll be a part of this day.
We will greet God in ordinary and hidden moments.

We will live the life we are living.

A short silence

May we find the wisdom we need,
God be with us.

May we hear the needs of those we meet,
God be with us.

May we love the life that we are given,
God be with us

Activism · Bible · Church · community · faith · Political · Theology

Stories Of Pain And Possibility

This post is about two ways that the Christian Church typically responds to situations of pain, and how our default settings miss something vital.

Part 1: Mercy more than Justice.

In the fortnightly online discussion group that I’m a part of we’ve been thinking about ‘The Powers’ that are in play around us, and what a Christian response looks like.

In the New Testament, the powers that are at the forefront are:
1) The Jewish religious leaders and
2) Rome.
The way that Jesus responds to the power of religious leaders is something that you might be familiar with. The conflict is right there on the surface in the Gospels.
Iff we were to look a little deeper, we would see also how he challenges Roman imperialism.
(I’m just starting to read Ched Myers’ book – ‘Binding the Strong Man,‘ a political reading of Mark’s Gospel – more on that another time maybe.

It shouldn’t surprise us then that as Christians we are called to be aware of the powers around us – economic, social, political, organisational etc which are often working for the common good, but are just as, or more likely to be pursuing their own agendas.

Being aware of how the powers are at work is the first step, but if and when we judge that the powers are not aligned towards justice and peace there comes a point where some response is called for. This response could be expressed in protest, or resistance of some kind, but as I argue below, it’s more likely to be a response driven by compassion.

Just the other day, I came across this quote from Hannah Arendt, German thinker –
The antidote to evil is not goodness but reflection and responsibility. Evil grows when people “cease to think, reflect, and choose between good and evil, between taking part or resisting.”

The first part of that quote reminds us that when we see that the powers are not aligned with the Common Good, we have a choice how to respond – with goodness or responsibility.

For example, in line with the often repeated instruction in the Old Testament, we are called to look out for ‘The widow, the orphan and the stranger,’ but over the course of history I would guess that the most typical Christian response has been through acts of goodness, service and compassion – binding up the broken hearted, healing the sick and so on, rather than through a commitment to justice.

We see the compassion response in the foundation of hospitals, hospices and a host of other projects that are driven by a Christian impulse to serve – especially those who are suffering. I would argue that the mandate to justice as well as mercy has often been forgotten, because it’s easier to help people than to buck the system. It’s easier to patch things up than getting to the root of the problem.

Part 2: Individual more than Collective.

There’s a second emphasis in the usual Christian response that I want to point out, and that’s our fixation with the individual. Not only do we find it easier to be compassionate than to confront, we tend to focus on our individual responsibility to change and be a part of bringing about change rather than seek a collective way.

I refer here to an earlier post when I quoted Walter Brueggemann’s assertion that the foundational work of transformation is not to be found in individual action as much as in Liturgy and Organising.
That is the work that we do when we are bound together in action to resist the powers, together with the organising that makes that happen.

In the context of Christian worship, I’m trying to pay attention to the different ways that we use liturgy, and how we read the scriptures, and how that might speak into a discussion on ‘The Powers.’

So, for example, in the Anglican tradition, there is a prayer of confession, usually at the beginning of a service. Here’s an example that is used most often.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father,
we have sinned against youand against our neighbour
in thought and word and deed,
through negligence, through weakness,through our own deliberate fault.
We are truly sorryand repent of all our sins.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,who died for us,
forgive us all that is past and grant that we may serve you in newness of life
to the glory of your name. Amen.

We are often encouraged to reflect on the past week, to call to mind the things we have done, thought or said that we regret, and those good things that we didn’t do. The prayer is all about getting ourselves ‘right with God’ before we continue in worship.

It’s all very individualistic. It tends to lead to a spirituality that is focussed too much on ‘sin’ and ‘me’ and the things in my life that need putting right. In the Bible, sin is a problem, but it’s not the only problem.
Two of the central stories in the Old Testament for example are:
The story of liberation from slavery in Egypt – that speaks to our bondage to the powers around us.
The story of exile and return – that speaks to our longing for home.

A suggestion put by Marcus Borg, in his book ‘Speaking Christian,’ is that we give less airtime to the prayer of confession, by using it maybe once every five weeks, and for the other weeks, replacing the confession of sin with images of our predicament as slavery, exile, blindness, sickness etc. “Imagine the absolution replaced by the proclamation that God wills our liberation from slavery, our return from exile, our seeing again, our healing and wholeness. Sin matters, but when it and the need for forgiveness become the dominant issue of our life with God, it reduces and impoverishes the wisdom and passion of the Bible and the Christian tradition.”
Speaking Christain p.152

In addition, when thinking about how we read scripture, I would suggest that in many (most ?) Christian worship services, the sermon will read the Bible through a very personal and also individual lens. Even the teaching about how we serve God will be likely focussed on what we as individuals can/should do.
This is of course tied to the point about confession made just now. If our obsession is with sin, and putting our personal relationship with God right, then it follows that the teaching in our churches will be aimed at keeping us on the right track with God, and serving God by ‘loving our neighbour.’

(This was brought home to me as I was listening yesterday to the Archbishop of Canterbury interviewing writer Stephen King. Stephen King talked freely about his faith in God, portraying it as a personal matter, that seemed to have little to do with what goes on in the world. He quoted Jesus saying ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and the things that are God’s to God,’ as a way of justifying keeping religion separate from politics. Keep God out of politics).

In the time of the gospel writers, the power that was calling for total allegiance was Rome and the Emperor. When Jesus contrasts Caesar and God, he is setting before us two complete opposites. Are we to say ‘Caesar is Lord ?’ or ‘Jesus is Lord.’ To put God first will mean that Christians are called to engage the powers of the day.

Perhaps the way we go about ‘confession’ in our worship and the treatment of scripture can help redress imbalance, moving the focus from the individual to point us towards the more collective pains, ills and injustices in the world.

If you are a church goer, you might want to pay particular attention to the way that the prayer of confession and the use of scripture are experienced in your worship services.
To what extent, if any, do they address the questions of the powers, and issues beyond our individual response ?
How as communities can we resist and challenge those powers that call for our allegiance, rather than God’s ?

Activism · community

‘Narratives of Pain and Possibility.’

I got this from a podcast – Common Good.
An episode with Walter Brueggemann. A conversation based on an article that he wrote called ‘Not Numbed Inside’

I’ll just pick out a couple of things from the conversation.

The conversation started with thoughts on the power of compassion as seen most clearly in mother love, and how that compassion can make a difference – beyond the personal transformation of our lives to working with others to bring about change.
In Walter’s words: “How to go beyond energising our own individual innards, to activate the innards of a society based on individualism and greed ?”

Walter sees two components – one is Liturgy – “action that binds us into a common imagination.”
And the other component is Organise. “Organise, organise, organise.”

“The symbiotic relationship between liturgy and organising is the work that has to be done if we are to mobilise social power and not just well meaning individuals. The movements of Black Lives Matter and the Me Too movement are examples of exactly that kind of excercise, that are capable of getting people’s attention, helping people to rethink, and maybe eventually it leads to policy.”

The podcast host returns to the opening theme of compassion and the way that patriarchy sees feminine traits as being opposed to the work that we are supposed to be doing ….

Walter’s answer I found really interesting – I’m still trying to get my head round it!
He went on to talk about Ideology and Narrative, and offered an image of Ideology floating above narrative, patriarchy as an example of ideology, and the importance of knowing our story.

“What ideology does is to cause us to deny our own narrative in order to accommodate somebody else’s narrative. The work is to help people get below whatever ideology they are hooked in, including Liberalism, to hear specific ‘Narratives of Pain and Possibility.’ When we are held by an ideology, we become alienated from our own narrative of pain and possibility, and cannot make contact with anybody else’s narrative. The work is to expose the way that ideology, (including patriarchy), leads to despair and denial and the cover up of our own primary narrative.”

(In ‘my speak’ – when we are locked into a particular way of looking at the world, we are unable to own our own story, or to hear the story of others who have a different experience. My question here would be … what way of looking at the world am I locked into … and is that necessarily unhelpful )?

Walter Brueggemann: “People who support Donald Trump are signing on to an ideology, even though it contradicts their own personal story of what they want and what they need and what they hope for. Consequently they have very little contact with themselves because they have signed on to this ideology. The more we are trapped into an ideology, the less we understand the wonder and the problematic of our own narrative – because everybody’s story is wondrous and problematic – but we don’t have to commuicate about that if we have a cover-all ideology that displaces that.”

I’m still trying to process all of that, but what I take away from it is two things:

The change that is required to move from energising our own lives to being a part of work that can energise a community.

The importance of our story and being able to tell it and own it.

Grace and Peace.

Bible · Church · community · Creativity, · faith · Storytelling

I Have A Better Idea

First, a disclaimer – the ‘I’ in the title of this post is not me, in case you were thinking – what an arrogant … !

I love the way that things sometimes come together. This week a whole load of stuff has been converging for me.
Let me start with a list:
Pioneer Practice – a series of webinars hosted by the Church Mission Society and HeartEdge
Article from around 1995 in SEEN newspaper. (Newspaper of the Anglican Diocese of York)
Ched Myers on Mark chapter 6 – The feeding of the 5,000
John chapter 2 – Water into Wine
An article in the Church Times by Canon David Power
‘Total Ministry’ in the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan

Pioneer Practice
The series of webinars mentioned is about gathering the experience of ‘Pioneers’ across various Christian denominations in the UK. Jonny Baker, who works for the Church Mission Society training pioneers is the host of the webinar, which is paired with the book Pioneer Practice. Yesterday’s session was all about seeing differently.
Attendees were asked to think about these three aspects of working – Imagination, Knowledge and Skills.
What would be the order of importance of these for you ?
Most of those present had Imagination as the first. That’s why they are on a pioneer webinar, because pioneers tend to have the imagination to see things differently.

When we are confronted with a situation that we can’t understand or see a way to make progress, we often have to employ our imagination to get started. Try to see in a different way.

One of the ways that we might be challenged to see things differently is in situations where we see a need and want to do something about it. Often we might only see what is lacking, and look for ways to help by problem solving or acts of compassion.
But what if, instead of seeing what is lacking, we were to look for what is already there, and celebrate it.
This is the heart of the work of Chris and Anna Hembury who are Pioneers with the Church Mission Society in Hull.

Look for the Light that is here
Back in the 90’s, we were living and working in East Hull. At the time, as I remember it, one of the churches in another part of Hull was starting a new congregation on the Longhill Estate in East Hull. Their expressed aim was to ‘Bring the Christian Gospel to Longhill.’ An article in SEEN newspaper, written by a Christian who lived in Longhill, said something like this: ‘Don’t come to bring The Light to Longhill, come and see what is already here.’
(A well known way of working that uses this principle is ABCD – Asset Based Community Development.’)

Ched Myers
I’ve been listening to Ched Myers talking about Mark’s Gospel. Today was the story of the feeding of the 5,000.
If you know that story, I wonder how you have understood it ?
I see three ways to read this –
1. Jesus miraculously multiplies 5 loaves and two fish.
2. The disciples use their common purse to rush off to a local village and buy enough food for the crowd.
3. The crowd share the food that they have with them.

And for each of these three ways of seeing the miracle, I see a way of understanding our life together as Christian communities.
1. The charismatic church leader who seems to be able to do everything really well, and is a total inspiration
2. The leadership team that work together to serve a largely passive congregation.
3. The congregation that is active in loving and serving one another, and are a sign of God’s kingdom.

In Ched Myers’ reading of Mark chapter 6, it goes something like this:
Disciples: Why not send the people away to buy food. (But actually it’s late in the day … and this is a crowd with likely many poor people who might not have the resources to buy food).
Jesus: Why don’t you give them something to eat.
Disciples. Where would we get enough food to feed this crowd ? It would take half a year’s wages !( The disciples see the lack, not what is already there).
Jesus: I have a better idea ….

What follows is a superb example of community organising, where Jesus uses the lunch that the young boy has to teach the crowd to see what they already have, and use their resources for the benefit of everyone.

This way of seeing the Gospel will not go down well with everyone ! In our churches, we have usually understood this story as an example of miraculous multiplication. Maybe like me, you have often wondered about that intepretation, been aware of the other possibility of the crowd sharing what they had, but reluctant to abandon the ‘miraculous’ way of reading it. But perhaps Ched Myers’ way of reading it is more consonant with a Gospel that liberates people to a life of mutual care. Ched Myers would also go further and say that this interpretation subverts a whole economy that is based on self interest, and moves towards a community of solidarity.

Water into Wine
Just a brief thought about this passage. (In which wine runs out at a wedding and Jesus performs a miracle turning water into wine … a lot of wine !)
There are a range of characters here: Jesus; his mother; the disciples; the servants; the guests; the master of ceremonies. Jesus directs the action, telling the servants to fill 6 large jars with water, which, when it is tasted by the master of ceremonies, has become wine.
Notice that it is the servants who fill the water jars. The word in Greek that is used here – diakonoi – is the word that means ‘one who serves’, and is used in a variety of ways in the New Testament, but often to do with those who are committed to following Jesus, part of the Christian community and and serving God with their gifts and their time.
The servants who fill the water jars are towards the bottom of the social ladder, but are remembered here for being intrumental in the miracle that saves the day. Note again, that although the story starts with an apparent lack of resources, as it turns out, the resources are there.

Church Times article
This appeared just last week, and comes at a time when the church seems to be defined in our minds by what is lacking. Lack of money, lack of clergy, lack of people, lack of everything. And, however much we try to tell ourselves that we have the gift of the Holy Spirit, which should trump all that we’re lacking, that doesn’t seem to help.
The article, which you can read here (hopefully, as long as the link works) is suggesting that it’s high time the Church of England ditched the centrality of stipendiary (paid) ministry and moved to a different way of seeing.
(A radical move of this kind will look for imagination from our bishops, and by the way, the word for bishop in Greek is episkope – which essentially means someone with imagination, someone who is able to see the big picture, and able to see things in a different way).

The force of the article by David Power is that market forces are driving the church to ever increasing desperate measures. Lack of money forces parishes to combine, giving clergy multiple churches to lead, while congregations diminish year on year. This vicious spiral demands a new way of seeing, which probably should have been the norm all along.

The Episcopal Diocese of Michigan
A church that is going down this new route is the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan in the USA. It’s an evolving pattern that allows churches, when they are ready, to call leaders from among their own congregations. Each congregation will prayerfully choose those from among them to serve in a number of ways – as Preachers; Those who will preside at Holy Communion; Teaching the faith; Giving pastoral care; Engaging in mission to their local community … and so on. Each congregation would have a degree of autonomy (as they do now), but still be part of the wider network of a diocese, and financial resources would be directed to giving support and training to congregations. I found it inspiring to read the srticle by David Power and the way this is being lived out in the diocese of Michigan

To conclude, what I have seen here in this variety of ways is all about seeing in a different way. And particularly looking – not at what is lacking, but at the treasure that is already there.
It’s about the potential of every situation to be a place of growth and learning if we can look beyond the obvious to see what is right in front of us.

And almost certainly, this will come to pass as we tell stories of what we see happening around us when we have encountered a situation that we can’t understand, but begun to trust that there is the possibility of transformation. And in the telling of those stories, we will see signs of healing and grace, and be encouraged to continue looking for the treasure that is among us.

Grace and peace.

Bible · Church · community · Worship

Taken, Blessed, Broken And Given

I haven’t done this before – put an extended quote in a post. But on Monday I was in a conversation about the place of food in thinking about the life of faith. After the conversation, I remembered that I had just binned some issues of a periodical, * one of which was all about food and faith.

I retrieved it from the recycling and started to read one of the articles. Here’s a taster of the article by Angel Mendez-Montoya:

Food Matters

Every act of eating implies transformation of some sort. The food that we eat is transformed into energy, vitamins, proteins, minerals and nutrients that our body and mind require for proper functioning.

Our bodies can be strengthened or weakened by eating or abstaining from certain substances. Eating food not only transforms our concrete physicality and experience of embodiment, it can also transform our state of mind and heart and even awaken our spiritual sensibility.

As so beautifully portrayed in the film, Babette’s Feast, food can be transformed into a lavish meal that not only awakens aesthetic sensibility, but also transfigures time and space into a heavenly banquet that heals all wounds and brokenness.

Eating certain dishes can trigger memories from the past, of beloved people, or cherished experiences around the table. Sometimes the actual food that we eat is not that important, for what really matters is that which transforms our hearts and spirits, the experience of gathering around the table and rejoicing with people that we love and that love us, immersing ourselves into the transformation of measurable time (kronos) into an immensurable experience of eternity (kairos).

Dr Angel Mendez-Montoya currently teaches theology, philosophy and cultural studies at several universities in Mexico City, and gives lectures primarily in Mexico, USA and Europe. He is the author of The Theology of Food: Eating and the Eucharist (Oxford:Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

Two Gospel Stories

I love the fact that the above description focusses on transformation. I love the idea that the encounters we have with one another as we share food and conversation have the power to be transformational. The central act of worship for Christians recalls a meal, the Last Supper, and our prayer is that this also is an encounter – with the risen Jesus – and is also transformational.
Christian worship has kept that Last Supper meal as the touchstone for worship, but I’m wondering if we might have missed something here ?

I’m sure it’s significant that the Gospels contain many accounts of meals. Eating is fundamental to life, and something that is, at its best, a shared experience.
Take the feeding of the 5,000 in Mark’s Gospel.
Jesus took the offering of bread and fish, prayed a prayer of blessing, broke the bread – and gave it to the disciples to share among the people.

I have put four words above in bold, because they appear again at the Last Supper – Jesus took bread, and when he had blessed the bread, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”

The appearance of those same four words have linked these two passages from the Gospel, but the Last Supper passage has taken on a particular significance in being at the centre of every celebration of the Eucharist ( Holy Communion), when we remember Christ’s death for us on the cross. The words of Jesus that are used in the communion service are “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

The way that the Eucharist has come down to us means that what Christians remember above all is the death of Jesus on the cross, and not his life. A quick look at the prayers authorised for communion in my denomination, The Church of England, reveals that there is nothing in them that relates to the life of Jesus. The same is actually true of the historic creeds, there is nothing that speaks of the 33 years between the birth and the death of Jesus.

When Christians read the account of the feeding of the 5,000 we may see it as secondary to the Last Supper, but perhaps we should take more seriously the fact that those two passages are linked by those four words – taken, blessed, broken and given – and focus our remembering not only on the death of Jesus, but also the act of sharing food with a hungry crowd of people.

This gives rise to two thoughts for me:
1. Maybe the words that we use in our services could be more holistic and include aspects of the life and work of Jesus as well as his death and resurrection. There are creeds that I have come across that do this (creeds that I have used, even though they are not authorised !), but I can’t remember a communion prayer that does. Maybe you know different ?

2. Maybe our communion services could take more account of the place of food and eating a meal rather than the symbolic wafer and glug of wine ? Would a gathering around an actual kitchen or dining table, sharing a meal count I wonder ?

* The Bible In Transmission: Food Matters. Summer 2013

Church · community · Creativity, · faith · Worship

Set Piece And Open Play

We’ve been watching some of the Football World Cup qualifiers in the last few days, as well as the Autumn Nations series of Rugby Union. On Sunday we were with friends at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff watching an unconvincing Wales team beat Fiji, largely because Fiji were reduced to 14 for much of the game as a result of a red card, and down to 13 for 20 minutes because of two yellow cards.

Having said that, it’s always great fun watching them play, the crowd are amazing, and there were some standout moments. We felt drawn in to the occasion, cheering, singing and shouting until we were hoarse; smiling at the Fijian family behind us as they cheered for a Fiji try; standing up to see the action at the far end of the pitch, just out of our eyeline.

It got me thinking about Rugby, Football (Soccer) and Church, and a possible analogy between what kind of play is going on in sport (Set piece / Open play) and what kind of expression of worship is going on in a church service.

For example – a set piece could be a free kick, or a corner in soccer (or a minor set piece would be a goal kick or throw in). A set piece in Rugby is a scrum or a line out or a penalty. How you work with the set piece depends on where it is on the pitch, what stage of the game you’re at etc. Goals and Tries often come from set pieces. You admire the skill of the free kick taker as they propel the ball so that it loops into the penalty area, just out of reach of the goalie, for an attacker to launch themselves into the air and head the ball into the top corner of the goal.

But then there’s open play – the moment in a game of rugby when your heart is in your mouth as the ball spins from the scrum halve’s hands along the line to the centres, one of whom places a kick that will fly with pin point accuracy and be caught by the winger who dodges the defending players and touches down another try. There will be mistakes and loose balls; crunching tackles and sidesteps; rucks and mauls; (don’t ask me to explain) …. It can be exciting or it can be tedious, but always with the possibility of something surprising that will turn a game around.

In Church, a set piece could be a sermon or the communion prayer, with shorter set pieces being a reading or someone leading some prayers. You admire the way that the preacher takes a passage from scripture and draws from the text something beautiful, something that sums up in a few words what you recognise as exactly what you would say if you could. You watch the person presiding at the Holy Table, and see the way their words and actions go through the drama of salvation and include us in the story.

But I sense in the worship the possibility also of open play. Contributions that come from the interaction in the moment and from the participation and involvement of the congregation. The smile between two friends who haven’t seen one another for a few weeks; the exuberance of the child running around the outer ring of chairs, as if it’s a racetrack; The voice behind me as we sing the opening hymn, lifting the praise to a new level; the moment at the end of the service when someone tells us about their life between Sundays – we’ll be praying for them this week especially; the invitation from the preacher to respond to the reading from the Gospel with our own experiences, that earth everything into daily life. The tears of someone recently bereaved who in their vulnerability allow us also to open our lives to one another.

On a bad day, we leave disconnected, uninvolved, feeling that we were just spectators when we wanted to be more a part of things. But on a good day, the interplay between set piece and open play can seem almost magical and we leave inspired, uplifted, amazed; buzzing with the mysterious feeling that we have somehow been involved in the action ourselves, and been touched by a presence that defies logic and planning, and brings us back next week for more.

Activism · Bible · Climate Change · community · Ecology · Political · World Affairs

Ben Sira and the Psalms

For the past few days, my reading has taken me to the book of Ecclesiasticus, in the Apocrypha. This book, also known as the Wisdom of Sirach , was written by the Jewish Scribe, Ben Sira, in the period between the Old and New Testaments.

I must admit to not being familiar with the book, which is full of great advice to live a godly life.

Today’s reading in chapter 31 had these words:

Are you seated at the table of the great?
Do not be greedy at it,
and do not say, ‘How much food there is here!’

Do not reach out your hand for everything you see,
and do not crowd your neighbour at the dish.
Judge your neighbour’s feelings by your own,
and in every matter be thoughtful.

Eat what is set before you like a well-bred person,
and do not chew greedily, or you will give offence.
Be the first to stop, as befits good manners,
and do not be insatiable, or you will give offence.

If you are seated among many others,
do not help yourself before they do.
How ample a little is for a well-disciplined person!

He does not breathe heavily when in bed.
Healthy sleep depends on moderate eating;
he rises early, and feels fit.

Eating with others is, or at least should be, a great leveller. When we sit around a table, especially perhaps with strangers, there’s an opportunity to learn more about the conditions under which they live.

On the face of it, Ben Sira’s words are good advice as we sit around the meal table – not to be greedy, but think of others. Essential ways to promote healthy living in community. As I thought about these words, it seemed to me that they can also help us think about greed on a larger scale.

In the context of the current COP 26 talks, imagine that the world is one great meal table. We were watching the BBC programme ‘Panorama’ last night and it brought home the crisis that we are living through – or dying through for many.

As we observe the inequalities in the world – the poor suffering most from the effects of the climate change that the rich nations have caused, we are looking at a level of ‘greed that serves the indiscipline of the entitled.’ (Walter Brueggemann).

Another of my readings today struck me forcibly. it’s from Psalm 50. In the psalm, God is the one speaking, but as I read it today, I imagined that this was the earth speaking: (The Bible quotes below are in italics, the other words are mine). Just change the word God and replace it with ‘The Earth’

The earth has been silent, but now it speaks.

The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons … our God comes and does not keep silence, (verse 1)

These things you have done and I have been silent; you thought that I was one just like yourself. But now I rebuke you, and lay the charge before you. (Verse 21)

In just this last year, we have seen unprecedented fires out of control, and floods devastating whole communities.

before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him. (Verse 3)

Unless the human race changes, the consequences – that are already evident – will only get worse

Mark this, then, you who forget God, or I will tear you apart, and there will be no one to deliver. (Verse 22)

Am I stretching the words of scripture ? I don’t think so.

I am praying this prayer from CAFOD, the Catholic development agency.

Loving God,
We praise your name with all you have created.

You are present in the whole universe,
and in the smallest of creatures.

We acknowledge the responsibilities you have placed upon us
as stewards of your creation.

May the Holy Spirit inspire all political leaders at COP26 as they
seek to embrace the changes needed to foster a more sustainable society.

Instil in them the courage and gentleness to implement fairer solutions
for the poorest and most vulnerable,
and commit their nations to the care of Our Common Home.

We ask this through Our Lord Jesus Christ your Son. Amen

Activism · Climate Change · community · Ecology

A Movement On The March

I’ve been trying to set aside time to write about this for a week now. Finally had to get on and do it.
Last Tuesday we walked with a group of about 15 others the 12 or so miles from Gloucester to Tewkesbury – as part of a pilgrimage from Bristol to Glasgow, timed to arrive in Glasgow for COP26.

We joined just for a day, whereas most of the group were walking for the whole two weeks. In fact there were a handful of people who were aiming to make it all the way to Glasgow!

The passion and commitment of all those making this pilgrimage is amazing to see, and we felt humbled and privileged to be a part of it.

A couple of conversations with other pilgrims have stayed with me. One conversation early on in the day was to do with wondering how effective this type of action is ? Can a relatively small group of activists really bring about change ? I imagine that those who are doing the whole walk will ask themselves this question at some point.

We had two periods of about an hour’s silence either side of our lunch stop, and I used the time to think about that conversation. One thought that came to me was to do with the teaching of Jesus about what the New Testament calls ‘The Kingdom of Heaven.’ Jesus uses images of tiny things – like a very small seed, or a small amount of yeast – and teaches that this is how God typically works. Through small things. That’s actually just as well, because most of us can only do the small things.

But it’s more than that. It’s more than knowing that God works through the small things that we offer. It’s also about how those small things can have an effect far greater than you might imagine. Those small things can be agents of change to bring about transformations that are way, way bigger than the small thing that we did.

There’s also something about the power of doing the small thing with others. The power of community to bring about change.

The other conversation that I had, later on in the day, was with H, who shared with me her passion for the good of the earth, that has resulted in her getting involved in addressing the Climate Emergency. I mostly listened. I think we have to talk now about the Climate Emergency, rather than Climate Change. While we try in small ways to make a difference in our own lives, we are in awe of those who are making big sacrifices to get this message out there.

In the week since we joined the pilgrimage, they have travelled from Tewkesbury to Malvern, Worcester, Stourport, Coventry and into Birmingham.

In the last week, I cam across this article in the Guardian, where an analysis has been done of the number of terms a variety of terms appeared on UK Television in 2020.

For example, Dog has 286,626 mentions, 22 times more than Climate Change at 12,715, and ‘Banana Bread’ is heard more times than Wind Power and Solar Power combined. See the article here.

There’s something wrong there, isn’t there.

Grace and Peace.