faith · God · Theology

The Difference A Word Makes

I’m mentioning Rowan Williams a lot recently. That’s because he’s brilliant ! I was listening to him being interviewed recently and at one point, he was talking about Pantheism and Panentheism.

The Pantheist believes that God is the sum total of all that is. Rocks, trees, animals, people, the universe.

As he was talking I had the image of triangles in my mind. One triangle represents everything that is. The other represents God. See my little diagram below, where ‘everything’ and ‘God’ are not only exactly the same shape, but are the same size.

Pantheism = God is everything

Panentheism is a belief that God is in everything. The little word ‘in’ makes a big difference.

Everything we look at, all that exists – the green triangle in my diagram below – has at its core, the presence and activity of God.

I’ve tried to show that by making the green triangle exactly the same shape as the big blue triangle. Being the same shape means that the universe reflects the nature of God, but is not identical with God.

The totality of everything – Rocks, trees, animals, people, the universe … is soaked through with God but it certainly doesn’t exhaust God.

And to quote Roman Williams – ‘That’s pretty much where I’ve got to be’

Me too. I love the idea that you can be immersed in something much bigger than yourself.

Grace and Peace.

faith · God

There Is Nothing In God

Maybe I got you wondering … have I lost it ?

No, actually.
And what I have for you today is surprisingly simple but infinitely profound, and deep mystery – expressed by Rowan Williams in this way.

There is nothing in God that is not God.
There is nothing in God that is the result of something else.
What there is in God is absolute mutuality of gift and love.

And, amazingly, God chooses to share that gift and love with us.
That little word ‘with’ could be the most important word that we will ever know.
It points towards community –
the community that is God;
the community into which we are invited.

Being with one another is the most precious gift of being human.
That’s why, at Christmas, we see people willing to be stranded at railway stations and airports. On their way to spend time with loved ones. Friends and family.

And ‘being with’ is the most precious gift that God has given us – signified by the presence of God in Jesus.

Whatever your community, and however you experience it – in person, on video call, on the phone, through cards and texts and whatsapps, may you know the power of the presence of others in your life, and the promise of the gift of Jesus, the Christ Child, to be with you.

God · Jesus · The Holy Spirit

A Walk In The Park

The walk

Last Saturday, 10th September 2022, I went on my usual morning walk in the park, which is just five minutes from our house. There was to have been an event in the park today supporting the local Pride celebrations. Like many other things this weekend, it’s been postponed because of the death of the Queen.

There would have been a lot going on here today with presumably the weekly Park Run as well as all the other events.

Even so, the park was bustling with activity, and as I took my walk, I began to be aware of diversity. I noticed first of all the variety of the park itself with all the different species of trees. I also noticed the the different people that I encountered. For example I’d never been aware of the Sikh community in the city before, but I saw two Sikh men walking and conversing together. I also saw two people who looked to have come prepared for the Pride events, one with rainbow hat and skirt, and the other with a rainbow scarf.

In amongst all of that, there were people using the outdoor exercise equipment; there were runners, although I guess the Parkrun had also been cancelled; there was a group of young men exercising as part of the Military Academy MPCT, that among other things prepares people for the Armed Forces; there were a few dog walkers, and another group doing some kind of exercise; the children’s play park is well used ; this part of the city is very multi cultural and multi faith, and that diversity was also apparent all around me.

Serendipity ?

Here’s the thing – I had just completed my daily prayer podcast, and had begun to listen to an interview with Rowan Williams, who was Archbishop of Canterbury until 2012.

And as I was seeing all this diversity before me, Roman Williams was talking about exactly the same thing, The diversity of human life, and that whoever you are, you can take pride in who you are and what you are.

He went on to talk about a Russian Orthodox theologian, Vladimir Lossky: “in the church, the action of Jesus Christ is to restore everybody’s possibilities, but it takes the Holy Spirit to make those possibilities actual in countless unrepeatable ways, so that the Holy Spirit’s presence, the Holy Spirit’s person you might say, is going to be the whole total of diverse human responses.”

Lossky again – we know that the face of the Eternal Word of God is Jesus Christ, but the face of the Holy Spirit to us is the infinite variety of human lives that have been turned around and transfigured by the Spirit.

As I sometimes find, it is the surprising conjunction of two seemingly unconnected things that struck me. The postponed Pride event, and Rowan Williams talking about pride – not the pride that is about flourishing at someone else’s expense, but about a loving acceptance of the person you are.

Grace and peace

Activism · Climate Change · Ecology · faith · God · Political

Daring, Imaginative, Faithful And Challenging

Continuing thoughts on the prophet Jeremiah.

In chapter 43, Jeremiah has arrived in Egypt – against his wishes.

He had, over a long period, distanced himself from the ruling elite in Jerusalem and preached a message of God’s judgment against Israel. He had urged the leaders to stay in Jerusalem; God would have a future for them if they listened and stayed.

They had not followed God’s word as proclaimed by Jeremiah, but had insisted on going their own way – to Egypt where they believed they would be safe.

Once in Egypt, Jeremiah engages in a symbolic act that continues the message that God’s future for Israel lies not in Egypt but with Babylon.

Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah in Tahpanhes: 9 Take some large stones in your hands, and bury them in the clay pavement that is at the entrance to Pharaoh’s palace in Tahpanhes. Let the Judeans see you do it, 10 and say to them, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to send and take my servant King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, and he will set his throne above these stones that I have buried, and he will spread his royal canopy over them.

In this act, Jeremiah not only subverts Egyptian power, but affirms the superiority and God appointed influence of Babylon in Egypt. The large stones that he buries are the foundation for Nebuchadrezar’s throne.

This symbolic act is: daring – a public act; imaginative – seeing the power of the symbol; faithful – to what God has been saying; challenging – both to Egypt and to Israel.

What symbolic acts of resistance have we seen, or might we engage in, that would subvert, for example the power of oil and gas companies, or militarism, or the gun lobby in the USA ?

And behind all of the above there is something to do with that part of our human nature that is driven by fear of the other, and an overwhelming sense of entitlement and privilege.

Bible · faith · God · Grace · Jesus · Prayer

So Much To Tell You

I’m told that to increase your readership, you need to blog often. Ah well.

There is so much to say, but sadly I’ve forgotten a lot of it. However, here’s one snippet, and it’s all about water.

But first, the plan. I have a plan for the year. A plan that is slimmed down from last year’s marathon of 4 scripture readings every day. So this year, I’m spending the first six months reading through the prophet Jeremiah at a very leisurely pace, just a few verses each day.

Alongside that, I’m reading just a few verses from Mark’s Gospel each week. The same few verses every day of the week. I’m also trying to build in 20 minutes of silence each day. It’s a simple diet.

I’ve got a couple of other books that I’m reading alongside the scripture readings – Running Over Rocks, by Ian Adams. 52 short chapters – one for each week of the year, each one focussing on a simple spiritual practice.

And finally, Sounding the Seasons, a book of sonnets by the poet Malcolm Guite, one sonnet each week.

It feels good so far.

Oh, and I forgot – of course a psalm each day.

So, last Monday, I had three readings that included these words:
From Psalm 93:
More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters,
more majestic than the waves of the sea,
majestic on high is the Lord!

and from Jeremiah 2:
My people have … forsaken me, the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

and from Mark 1:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee
and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  
And just as he was coming up out of the water,
saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
And a voice came from heaven,
‘You are my Son, the Beloved;
with you I am well pleased.’

It’s interesting that all three readings are in some way about water.
Mighty waters
The fountain of living water
The waters of baptism
And as I thought more about the Gospel reading and the water of baptism, my mind went back to the very first words of the Bible, noticing three parallels between the beginning of Genesis and the beginning of Mark’s Gospel

Parallel 1 – Descending and Hovering

At the baptism of Jesus, is it the dove that is important, or the description of the dove descending ?
Maybe what’s happening here is answering the prayer of the prophet Isaiah – “O that you (God) would tear open the heavens and come down.” (Isaiah 64:1)

This descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove in Mark chapter 1 reminded me of something very similar in Genesis chapter 1:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

Parallel 2 – Good and Pleasing

And, in Genesis chapter 1 we have the repeated refrain – and God saw that it was good, while in Mark chapter 1, we have God saying “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased”

In Genesis 1 God sees what he has made, and it is good.
In Mark 1 God speaks a word of affirmation over the new thing that is coming in Jesus.

Parallel 3 – Thrown out and Tempted

Following the description of God’s work of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, the plot moves to the temptation of Adam and Eve, which results in them being thrown out of the Garden of Eden.

Following Jesus’ baptism, Mark tells us that the Holy Spirit drives (or throws, banishes) Jesus out into the wilderness where he is tempted.

It’s as if the wilderness place is where humanity is, and it’s where Jesus goes to begin his work of winning humanity back. He goes to the place where we have to deal with the compulsions that drive us apart from one another. The hungers that have gone from the natural healthy desires to something twisted and broken.

And it’s here, where we dwell, that Jesus confronts and overcomes those desires – and is able to hold on to the knowledge of being a beloved son of God.

And Finally

I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice these parallels. (Indeed, maybe I read it somewhere and forgot it, but it stayed in my subconscious?) But I do find it amazing, wonderful, inspiring etc that the start of the Hebrew Bible begins with God’s work of creation, and the start of the Christian Gospel begins with God’s work of New Creation, in which, at last, God comes to be present with us to lead us … not back to the garden, but ultimately onwards …

(But that’s another story)

So may you know, deep within you, that (as one wise person has said)
There is nothing you can do to make God love you more,
and there’s nothing you could do that would make God love you less.

And Finally, Finally

Here’s the sonnet by Malcolm Guite on the Baptism of Christ:

Beginning here we glimpse the Three-in-one;
The river runs, the clouds are torn apart,
The Father speaks, the Sprit and the Son
Reveal to us the single loving heart
That beats behind the being of all things
And calls and keeps and kindles us to light.
The dove descends, the spirit soars and sings
‘You are belovèd, you are my delight!’

In that quick light and life, as water spills
And streams around the Man like quickening rain,
The voice that made the universe reveals
The God in Man who makes it new again.
He calls us too, to step into that river
To die and rise and live and love forever.

Grace and Peace.

Bible · God

I Am Who I Am

I can’t stop listening to Walter Brueggemann. What he says is so compelling. Just a brief comment from him got me thinking. I’ll have more in the next post about the Exodus story.

I’m listening to him talk about the Exodus – the emancipation of the Hebrew people from Egypt. A significant part of the story is in Exodus chapter 3, where Moses has a life changing experience, encountering God in the burning bush. He asks God ‘What is your name ?’
God does not answer the question directly, but says, essentially, ‘I am who I am’
Is it a name, or not ? Perhaps not in the regular understanding of a name.
Hebrew names have a meaning that says something about who you are. So my name – Jonathan – means gift of God.

I remember visiting a family who were soon to have a child baptised. One of the first things I asked was the child’s name. This particular family had chosen a name that was a combination of the football team they followed and a sporting hero. I’m guessing that this name is unique – and I won’t include the actual name here, because you could google it and find this person straightaway.

The point is, names say something – maybe about us, or about our parents’ hopes and dreams for us. So when God sidesteps Moses’ question, it may be that God isn’t quite ready to reveal their name.

Another aspect of this encounter, is that once you know someone’s name, you have knowledge about them. They have revealed something very personal, and made themselves vulnerable to a degree. When you know someone’s name you have a degree of power over them. You call their name and they turn round to see who it is that wants them. In not revealing a name, maybe God is exercising freedom. I’m not ready for you to know that about me – yet.

As the Old Testament progresses, we hear numerous names for God – because God cannot be contained by one name. Similar to the 99 names for God in Islam. Sometimes, we might want to claim ownership of God. We want to say that we know all there is to know – at least the most important things. But maybe sometimes the most important thing to say is that we don’t know God.

Grace and Peace

Bible · faith · God · Theology

We Know Only In Part …

… but we’re getting there.

Rob Bell “I’m going to try and create a space where hope is the most rational response to the world …
I love that thought, and basically I’m with it, but it didn’t seem like that on the first Good Friday.

Today is Good Friday – Friday April 2nd 2021

One of my readings for today was from lamentations:
I am one who has seen affliction
    under the rod of God’s wrath;
he has driven and brought me
    into darkness without any light;
against me alone he turns his hand,
    again and again, all day long.

This is the cry of desolation at the laying waste of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. It’s a place of no hope. It is echoed in the cry of Jesus on the cross – ‘My God, why have you forsaken me ?’

No hope.

Also in my readings for today was psalm 95. A strange psalm it seemed to me.
But in the middle of the psalm, these words are addressed to God’s people:

O that today you would listen to his voice!
    Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
    as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your ancestors tested me,
    and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.

In verse 9, I saw something that resonated with me to do with what happened on that first Good Friday.

The Old Testament is full of God’s faithfulness, in the face of Israel’s unfaithfulness.
It’s as though all the way through, Israel are pushing God to see how far God will go. In spite of the work of God in liberating Israel from slavery, they forget, and abandon the love they have had for God. Is there a point at which God will say – ‘That’s it! I’ve had enough of you people.’

In fact, it does appear at times as though God does say exactly that. But then something happens, and God’s faithfulness reappears, just as the sun reappears from behind clouds.

And today, Good Friday, is a day when it seems like the human race is testing God again. ‘They put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.’
In spite of all that Jesus has said and done, he is now rejected. In Jesus, the world has witnessed the works and character of God revealed in Jesus in a new way, and yet still people put God to the test. Jesus is pushed to see how far his love will go. The soldiers around the cross shout – ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ This is a challenge to see how far God’s love will go.

Sam Wells talks about the cross in this way:
The cross is the moment when Jesus had to choose being with the Father, or with us, and he chooses us.  And at the same time, the Father has to choose between letting the Son be with us, or keeping the Son to himself. Such is God’s commitment to us that chooses to let the Son be with us. 

This is the faithfulness of God in the face of human unfaithfulness.

Sam Wells again (paraphrased) talking about Easter day:
This day. this Easter day, this wondrous, glorious, blessed, fabulous day is the greatest day in the history of the universe. It tells us that however deeply we reject God, whatever we throw at God, God will find a way back to us in resurrection.  And – this resurrected, real flesh and blood body of Jesus, tells us that we too can have that life – and that our eternal destiny is to be with God, as God is, and always has been, with us. 

Now that is hope ! Thanks be to God.

Grace and peace.

Bible · faith · God · Political · Theology · World Affairs

The Pernicious Influence of Globalisation

The Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel is pretty well known. It’s a curious tale that appears after the flood story. Here’s the text from Genesis 11.

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.
And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.
And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.
Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’
The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.
And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.
Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’
So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.
Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

The motivation for building the tower seems to be twofold:
a desire to be known as the best, and to do the impossible.
coupled with a fear that without power and fame, the people (whoever they were, we don’t know), would be dispersed, and thus lose their influence.

Walter Brueggemann puts it like this: ‘the story … is an early account of globalisation, a strategy of universal control by powerful people who aim to control all the money and to impose uniformity on all parts of the world population.’

The force behind such attempts for domination is so powerful that it is all consuming, stopping at nothing to be at the top. The consequence of this kind of behaviour, althought not explicitly stated in the Genesis account, is that the poor and the powerless are overlooked.

Walter Brueggemann again … ‘The scattering and confusion wrought by God is to assure that no assertive power can gain ultimate control and emerge as a single superpower.’

Fast forward to the 21st century. Where are the parallels today for empire building to achieve complete control.
The super companies – Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook etc (and probably some others that have the same degree of power but work behind the scenes).
The super powers – at this time notably China, while the USA decreases in its influence.

And where would we look to see God’s hand in all of this ? Is there a move of God today that will assure that no assertive power can gain ultimate control ?

Grace and Peace.

faith · God · Jesus · Song for Today

The Canticle Of The Turning

The message of Advent and Christmas is that God is doing something new.

As this song declares – The world is about to turn.

May you know the new thing that God will bring to birth in you.

Wishing everyone a very Happy Christmas

1 My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great,
and my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that you bring to the ones who wait.
You fixed your sight on your servant’s plight,
and my weakness you did not spurn,
so from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
and the world is about to turn.

2 Though I am small, my God, my all,
you work great things in me,
and your mercy will last from the depths of the past
to the end of the age to be.
Your very name puts the proud to shame,
and to those who would for you yearn,
you will show your might, put the strong to flight,
for the world is about to turn. Refrain

3 From the halls of pow’r to the fortress tow’r,
not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for your justice tears
ev’ry tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more,
for the food they can never earn;
there are tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed,
for the world is about to turn. Refrain

4 Though the nations rage from age to age,
we remember who holds us fast:
God’s mercy must deliver us
from the conqueror’s crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forebears heard
is the promise which holds us bound,
till the spear and rod can be crushed by God,
who is turning the world around. 

Bible · faith · Following Jesus · God · Jesus · Worship

All You Who Are Thirsty

Alongside my daily reading of the psalms and the Gospel of John, I have been reading Isaiah. Today I got to chapter 55. More about that shortly.

But first, I must mention the novel that I’ve just finished. ‘In the Beginning’ by Chaim Potok. The story concerns David, who is only a small boy at the start of the novel. His family, orthodox Jews, have arrived in New York in the 1920’s from Poland. Like other novels by Potok, you get an insight into the daily life and religious observance of orthodox Jews, which I found fascinating. It impressed on me how little I know of Judaism, past and present, and prompted me to read some Jewish commentaries on the Bible (Old Testament).

In Synagogue worship, the reading of Torah – The Law of Moses – (The first five books of the Bible) is central, and in the course of a year, the whole of the Torah will be read in the Sabbath morning worship. (In some traditions there is a three year cycle of Torah readings). The reading of Torah is followed by a Havtarah, a reading from another part of the Old Testament that is thematically linked to the Torah reading for the day. The Havtarah reading completes the Bible readings for that day.

So to Isaiah 55. The following verses are part of the Havtarah reading on the Sabbath called Noach, when the story of Noah is read as the Torah reading.

1 “All you who are thirsty, come to the water!
You without money, come, buy, and eat!
Yes, come! Buy wine and milk
without money — it’s free!
Why spend money for what isn’t food,
your wages for what doesn’t satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and you will eat well,
you will enjoy the fat of the land.
Open your ears, and come to me;
listen well, and you will live —
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
the grace I assured David.

These verses are an invitation to come to God, the source of all that is good, and lifegiving. The significance of water is clearly to do with the necessity of water for life. This is understood also to tell us of the necessity of God’s law for us to live fully. So water is a symbol of Torah, and like water, we need Torah’s influence in our lives continually.

In the account of the Israelites’ journey after the Exodus, it tells us that they travelled for three days in the desert without finding any water. After three days, they found water, but it was bitter. When the people complained and asked, “Moses, what are we going to drink?” Moses asked the Lord for help and the Lord told him to throw a piece of wood into the water. Moses did so, and the water became fit to drink.

So as the people could not go more than three days without water, and water is a symbol of Torah, we must not go more than three days without a public reading of Torah. It became the custom not to let more than three days pass without a public reading of Torah. So readings from the Torah are read on Monday and Thursday, as well as on the Sabbath.

And for me as a believer in Jesus as the Messiah, I see these verses from Isaiah as an invitation to come to Jesus, God’s promised one. In John’s Gospel chapter 4, Jesus has an encounter with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, and in the course of the conversation, Jesus says these words “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

For me, the whole of Torah is fulfilled in Jesus, who came to do God’s perfect will, and to lead us to the Father.

Grace and Peace.