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.

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 ?

Bible · Church · faith · Grace · Theology

Which Side Are You On ?

Or – alternative readings of Numbers Chapter 16.

I’m reading the Old Testament book of Numbers at the moment.

It’s a book worth spending time on, because of parallels with the situation of the Christian church. The narrative of the book of Numbers is set in the time after Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt, but before they enter the land of promise. The Christian story is also set between a time of deliverance through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and the future time when God will fulfil the promise of a ‘New Heaven and a New Earth.’

It’s a story of a community that at times is divided because of the challenges that they face in their wilderness wanderings. it’s a time of formation, with Israel trying to work out what is their identity and mission, as competing voices clamour to be heard.

In Numbers chapter 16, we read of a rebellion headed by Korah, one of the Levite tribe.
The Levites as a tribe were given the responsibility and privilege of serving in the Tabernacle, the ‘Tent of Meeting,’ which was the focus of Israel’s worship. However, their duties were limited, and overseen by Aaron and the other priests. Korah’s issue is that some Levites were seen to be better than others. His point is that the whole of Israel have been called and have an equal status – all are holy.

16  1 Now Korah, along with Dathan and Abiram took two hundred and fifty Israelite men, leaders of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men, and they confronted Moses. They assembled against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?’

When Moses heard it, he fell on his face. Then he said to Korah and all his company, ‘In the morning the Lord will make known who is his, and who is holy, and who will be allowed to approach him; the one whom he will choose he will allow to approach him. Do this: take censers, Korah and all your company, and tomorrow put fire in them, and lay incense on them before the Lord; and the man whom the Lord chooses shall be the holy one. You Levites have gone too far!’

Then Moses said to Korah, ‘Hear now, you Levites! Is it too little for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to allow you to approach him in order to perform the duties of the Lord’s tabernacle, and to stand before the congregation and serve them? 10 He has allowed you to approach him, and all your brother Levites with you; yet you seek the priesthood as well! 11 Therefore you and all your company have gathered together against the Lord. What is Aaron that you rail against him?’

As the story progresses, Korah and his large number of followers are portrayed as faithless, wishing they were back in what they see as the relative comfort of Egypt, and angry that Moses’ leadership style is too authoritarian.
Moses and Aaron are portrayed as men full of integrity, not making any profit out of their leadership position.
Then God comes into the story, and is clearly on the side of Moses and Aaron, the result being that Korah and all his followers die.

As I reflect on this passage, I’m asking two question:
1: Who wrote the account ? Usually it’s the winners who write history. In this case it was likely the priestly class who are the authors.
2: Is it possible to read it from different standpoints ?

So, reading it from the point of view of the leaders, we’ve got a revolt that threatens what God is doing and the leaders of the uprising must be punished. Leaders are ordained by God and should be obeyed, or else !

Or, could you read this from ‘below,’ from the point of view of the rebels, and say to the priestly class / leaders about their reading of events – well that’s what you would say! The truth of it is that when people without power and influence try to have their say to bring about change, they usually end up worse off, as on this occasion. The leaders use their position, and invoke God or some other power as being on their side.

The way the priests wrote it, they come down on the side of Moses, but my sympathies are with Korah. More importantly, we need to read this through a New Testament lens. For St Paul, there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, Slave and Free, Male and Female – the biggest distinctions in the world of 1st century Judaism. All are equal in Christ.

The impulse to make distinctions between people is a powerful one. It’s embedded in our culture of achievement. Some are seen to be intrinsically worth more than others. To varying degrees, this separation can still occur on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, wealth, education, class, etc, and in the church, ordination. In opposition to this divisive approach, the Gospel declares that in Christ we are of equal value, with no distinction and no requirement to meet a certain standard.

There are applications for leadership here. A reading of the incident that is sympathetic to Moses, but also trying to be a ‘critical friend,’ might say that Moses has become too remote from the people with the result that they complain without understanding what Moses is doing. We see that all the time in the church and in secular environments. Leaders need to keep in close touch with those in their care.
A more critical judgment of Moses (and Aaron) might say that they have become proud of their status, and see themselves as beyond reproach. If leaders in a church become too separate, the danger is that they see themsleves, or are seen by others as more holy than the rest. This quickly leads to a culture either of dependence or rebellion, rather than a healthy interdependence that recognises the holiness of all.

Grace and Peace, especially to all in leadership.

Activism · Jesus · Political · Theology

Breaking Down Walls Of Hostility

On May 14th 1948 at midnight the British mandate of Palestine ended, and the State of Israel was proclaimed.
During this period, over 700,000 Arabs either fled or were expelled from their homes.

To mark this period of time in the history of the Palestinian people, May 15th became a annual reminder of this forced expulsion, and was named Nakba Day. (Nakba means catastrophe)

My Bible readings today included a passage from Paul’s letter to the first century Christian community in Ephesus where he wrote:
11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth … were excluded from citizenship in Israel … But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near … 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility …

The context is this – the early church was made up of Jewish and Gentile groups who had accepted Jesus as the Messiah.
The Jewish followers of Jesus initially could not agree that the Gentile believers should be accepted on the same basis as the Jewish believers. Hence the phrase above … were excluded from citizenship in Israel. Paul was talking about both groups being fully a part of the emerging first century church, and idea which met with strong resistance from Jewish believers. I’m taking the Christian principle of inclusion described by St Paul, and applying it to the situation in Israel/Palestine by calling for Palestinians to have the same rights of citizenship as Israelis.

But what we actually have is a situation of apartheid, where one ethnic group – the Palestinian people – is treated differently.
Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (2002) defines the Crime of apartheid as: “inhumane acts…committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”

This week we have seen the conflict flare up again with violence on both sides. Violence is never justified as a way of solving problems, but when injustice goes on and on and on, it’s understandable why people resort to violence.
This conflict will continue as long as Israel refuses to give justice to the Palestinian people.

Walter Brueggemann writes:
“Dominant culture is always tempted to exclude … naming those who have privilege and entitlement, and those who do not qualify for inclusion.”
The whole ideology of exclusiveness is countered by both St Paul and Jesus. Paul describes how Jesus has ‘broken down the dividing wall of hostility’ by giving equal access to both the ‘insider’ (Jew) and the ‘outsider’ (Gentile). In the same way, Jesus’ actions in the Gospel reading below violates all the norms of the day, cleansing the leper and making him acceptable. The outsider is welcomed. The heart of the passage is the moment when Jesus reaches out his hand and touches the man – an outrageous, shocking thing to do.

Matthew chapter 8:
1 When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

Today, we mourn with the Palestinian people on Nakba Day.
We pray for the Palestinian people, and for peace in the Land of the Holy One.
We pray for those on both sides who work to break down barriers of hostility.
We pray for those who will engage in peaceful but outrageous acts of protest.

Read more about Nakba day 2021 in the joint statement issued by this group of charities
ABCD Bethlehem
Amnesty International UK
Amos Trust
Christian Aid
Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU)
Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel – UK and Ireland (EAPPI)
Embrace the Middle East
Friends of Birzeit University (FOBZU)
Friends of Nablus and the Surrounding Areas FONSA)
Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights (LPHR)
Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP)
Quakers in Britain
Sabeel-Kairos UK
War On Want
Welfare Association

I tried to write a song about this a few months ago. It’s here – Catastrophe

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.

Church · community · faith · Following Jesus · Theology · Worship

Re-Imagining Eucharist

OK, so this is two words. Having five word titles is a challenge I set myself, as well as being a web address ( that was available! I think it’s time to allow myself to break the rule if I need to. Plus, as this is a post about rule-breaking, it seems appropriate.

So to Eucharist. The central act of weekly worship in many Christian churches. Eucharist was not a word I was familiar with when I was growing up. For the Christian community of my childhood it was known as The Lord’s Supper. Also known as Breaking of Bread. In other traditions it’s known as Communion, Mass and Eucharist. I’m using Eucharist here because it seems to be the word that is most used these days in a lot of Church of England circles. It’s the act of worship where we remember Jesus’ Last Supper, and his command to remember him by eating bread and drinking wine, just as they would have done at that meal.

In another post, I have written about the ‘High Hedge’ that separates those who are ‘in’, with those who are ‘out,’ in some churches. The highest hedge would mean someone had to be baptised, and confirmed in order to receive the bread and the wine.

None of the words that are used to describe this central act of worship suggest this high hedge. The Lord’s Supper suggests a meal, as does The Breaking of Bread. Communion suggests fellowship and intimacy. The word Mass (from the Latin Mittere, to send) is to do with being sent to be the God’s People For God’s World. Eucharist is from the Greek word meaning thanksgiving.

Maybe if we were being honest we should rename this family meal as Phractis – Greek for hedge. The word phractis itself sounds like fraction, which is when something is split into parts – in the case of Eucharist, those who receive and those who don’t.

A few years ago I heard Sarah Miles tell her story of coming to faith in Jesus. She had never been to church. She had never been taken by her parents. She was from a non-religious background. But one day she was passing a church and felt compelled to go in. When it came to the time for communion, she knew instinctively that this was something she wanted, and needed. As she held her hands out in expectation, someone put the bread into her hands. This was the start of her journey of faith.

As I read the Gospels, I see Jesus sharing meals with people without any restrictions. He eats with ‘tax collectors and sinners,’ people who were on the outside of the religious community. He knew that when you eat with people, connections are made. People share, not only their food, but themselves. The best meals are where we get beyond polite conversation to reflect on the big questions that our lives are asking us. Not every time we share a meal, for sure, do we ask these questions, but if we never ask them, then we’re not really sharing our lives.
What makes your heart sing ? What’s the best thing in your life at the moment ? Did you see the sunset yesterday ? How do I bring up my kids in this crazy world ? How do I put bread on the table when I’m out of work ? How can I look after my elderly parent as well as everything else I’m supposed to do ? How do I live with myself, when I know all the bad stuff that others don’t see ? ….. (you add your own question)

There is a ‘high hedge’ in the Gospels, but it seems to be all about following Jesus. That in the end is what divided people – into those who were willing to take a risk and see where it led, and those who decided to stick with what they knew. If there is a holy act that expresses this desire to be a follower, then it’s baptism. That’s the hedge.

But certainly in the established church in this country we got it the wrong way round. We made baptism available to everyone and anyone without fully explaining that this was a serious life choice.
And at the same time we said that you weren’t supposed to share in the family meal. There was a limit to the hospitality that we could offer.

It’s like if you invited some friends round for the evening. Come at 7, you said. So they arrive at 7 just as you are sitting down to your evening meal. And you ‘welcome’ them into the same room where you are eating, but you went on and ate your meal while they waited for you to finish.

What am I saying ? Throw out hundreds of years of church practice ? Pretend I know better ?

Just think how it would be if there was another way to share bread and wine. A meal that would be just as holy, just as mystical, just as life changing. A meal that just as clearly had Jesus at the centre, but which didn’t bar anyone from joining in. A meal that could happen anywhere, anytime, for anyone.

I wonder how many preachers, church leaders, priests and pastors would say Yes to this ? It might be threatening. It might be risky. It might be difficult to square with your theology.

And then again, it might be wonderful.

Grace and peace.

Bible · Church · faith · Following Jesus · Jesus · Theology

New Light On St Paul

OK. It’s been a while. I’ve had so many ideas but never got round to getting it down. Here’s a few thoughts from Tom Wright, otherwise known as N.T. Wright. He was Bishop of Durham for a while, but is best known as an academic whose whole adult life has been spent studying the life and writings of St Paul.

He wrote a book about the life of St Paul that came out three years ago. I haven’t read it, but heard him talk about it on the Nomad Podacst.

To start with, his name is originally Saul. He comes from a conservative tradition in Judaism, and as the book of Acts describes, will do anything to protect Judaism from what he sees as unhealthy, misguided influences. One of those ‘way out’ movements is of course, what he would see as the cult of Jesus. Saul is basically a fundamentalist, and will track down followers of Jesus, and condone killing them for the cause of religious purity. Hence the stoning of Stephen, one of the prominent members of what we would call the early church. Saul is at this point a violent man, determined to put a stop to this abberation of the faith that he treasures.

But to call it the early church is slightly misleading – at this early point in the evolution of the Jesus movement, we’re talking about a community that is mostly made up of Jews before the word Christian has even been uttered. When we read the word ‘church’ in our English translations, the original Greek word is better translated by ‘gathering,’ ‘assembly, ‘ or ‘company.’

Tom Wright reminds us how important it is to understand the first century context of the words that we read. Another example of where we might have been reading this wrongly is to do with what we might have called the ‘conversion’ of Saul. Growing up, I had the impression that on the road to Damascus, when Saul has his experience of Jesus, it is at that point that he ‘becomes a Christian.’
(You can read the account in Acts chapter 9)

But at that point in time, there was no such thing as a Christian. There was no separate religion called Christianity. Saul was a Jew who had such a profound and mystical experience of the risen Christ, that he suddenly sees that he has been mistaken, and that Jesus is in fact, the Messiah of God. He doesn’t stop being a faithful Jew, and would in all likelihood continue in exactly the same way as he had done before regarding his religious observance, but now seeing that the promised Messiah has in fact come – in the person of Jesus Christ.

After this life changing encounter, at some point early on, Saul disappears off to Arabia for three years. It’s not clear exactly where he went or what he did during these three years, but Tom Wright has a theory … first a bit of background:

Back in the First Testament, * the prophet Elijah is at a turning point in his life. He had just defeated the 400 prophets of Baal, and was on the run from king Ahab and his wife Jezebel. At this time of great stress in his life, where does he go ? To mount Horeb. Mount Horeb is essentially the same as Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments. So Elijah is going back to the place where it all started. The place where God made it clear that the children of Israel were a ‘set apart people.’ They had a call to be God’s people for the nations. At Mount Horeb, God meets with Elijah and he gets the commissioning and strength that he needs for the next phase in his ministry. God tells Elijah that he is to ‘Go back the way you came, to Damascus.’ Once there, he was to anoint Jehu as the new king of Israel.

Tom Wright’s theory is that Arabia was the region that included Mount Sinai. Where would Saul go to think through the experience that he had on the road to Damascus ? Maybe back to where it all started – to Mount Sinai. Saul’s roots are in the ancient story of Israel’s deliverance from slavery; the journeying through the wilderness; the call to live as the people of God. So Saul goes to Sinai, to learn what this new call to follow Jesus will mean. And at the end of those three years, where does he go ? Back the way he came, to Damascus. And once there he will share the news that a new king has been anointed – Jesus. And that this good news of Jesus is for all people, both Jew and Greek, men and women, slave and free. And that this new community will be different from any community previously known, because it will not be according to your ethnic group, or whether you were a man or a woman, or a slave or a free person. This new community will break all the rules and be for all.

I feel like I should read the book !

And, as I was pondering on this alternative, radical new community that we see in the book of Acts, it made me think about my own experience of the church, and to what extent the churches I have been a part of have been ethnically diverse, with men and women both accepted fully, with class, background, education and social status not being an issue. Sadly, it seems that churches by default become fairly monocultural, not at all the vision that Paul had … 2000 years later it’s still a work in progress. Additionally, there are movements within the church that see the growth of the church being most effective when this mono approach is used – because like attracts like. This is in sharp contrast to the kingdom vision of a diverse community, which although it is often a more challenging environment, has within it the possibility of fully enacting the principles of love. Such a Christian community is truly a thing of great beauty.

* Christians have generally called the first part of the Bible ‘The Old Testament.’ But there are dangers in that. It might lead us to think that we can leave all of that behind. Now we have the New, we don’t need the Old. The New Testament gives us everything we need. In a sense that is true, but we are greatly impoverished in our undertanding of Jesus if we do not understand his roots, which lie in the work of God through Israel. If we only know the New Testament, we don’t know the New Testament! There is so much richness in the books of Moses, the history books, the wisdom and the prophets that we need to attend to. There has been a move to call these writings ‘The Hebrew Bible,’ but others are more inclined to use the phrase ‘First Testament,’ which gives those writings a more exalted place than ‘Old Testament,’ and unlike the phrase Hebrew Bible gives them their righful place within the whole revelation of God’s love and purposes.

Grace and Peace

Art and Design · Bible · Church · Creativity, · Theology

Business As Usual ? Or Not ?

This morning, my daily prayer included these readings:
Genesis 13:2-18; Galatains 2:1-10 31 and Mark 7:31-37

The Genesis reading was about Abram and Lot (Genesis 13). At this point in the story, they both have considerable wealth – camels, sheep, goats etc. They realise that they it’s no longer sustainable for them to stay together. Their herders are beginning to fall out over where to graze their flocks, and they need more land.

So Abram decides that to avoid trouble, they must separate. By rights, Abram should have had the choice of where to go, and you might expect him to choose the best land. But he doesn’t. He gives Lot the choice, and Lot chooses the well watered plain of the river Jordan.

Abram’s generosity is rewarded as in the following verses we hear God reaffirming his promise to Abram, that his descendents will be numerous: “Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”

What you might expect to happen (Abram having the choice, and getting the best land) doesn’t.

Skip to my next reading today, from the New Testament book of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul is sharing his story with church leaders in Jerusalem – how he has been working with the non Jewish believers. The idea that Gentiles could become a full part of the early (Mainly Jewish) church without being circumcised was a new thing. Yet the leaders in Jerusalem have eventually reached a point of accepting Gentiles without requiring circumcision.

What you might expect to happen (circumcision) doesn’t.

And finally, in Mark’s Gospel chapter 7, we read of the healing of a deaf and dumb man. Ordinarily, the man would have been deaf for the rest of his life.

What you might expect to happen doesn’t.

God’s way of working is often to challenge what we would normally expect, and do something different.

Link to …. Creativity

For the last three Thursdays, I have been attending a webinar – Just Imagine. Four sessions on creativity. Last night’s session was about the role of play in creativity. Questioning what things are usually designed to do, and playfully imagining something different.

All too often we live according to norms and recipes with known outcomes. Playfulness challenges this with no fixed outcomes in mind. This approach to creativity often starts with a question … ‘What if …’

Maybe God was playful in creation … ‘What if we had cows as well as galaxies ?’

One of the ideas I was especially fascinated by was from architect Steve Collins, who wondered …What if churches were like dark kitchens, which are based on a delivery only model. So unlike a take away, there’s no contact directly with the customer. Getting food out to the customer has never been easier.

The ‘What if ?’ question may not lead immediately to a workable solution, but it’s likely that many of the great ideas have sprung from such questioning.

And going back to play being part of God’s nature, we wondered how good our churches are at play ?

Part of the play process might be to start with two apparently disconnected ideas, and then play around with them and see where that leads. Candlesticks and Electric Scooters – I wonder where that would go ? Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything ??!!

So, I’m thinking now about the first part of this post – about God doing things that are unexpected, and the idea of asking ‘What if … ‘ Mmhhhh …. think on.

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.

Bible · community · faith · Following Jesus · Theology

Steadfast Love aka Transformative Solidarity

Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.
Psalm 25 verse 6, New Revised Standard version

I’m using a little book by Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann during Advent – Celebrating Abundance. In today’s reading Walter Brueggemann talks about ‘Solidarity in need, acted with transformative strength.’ It’s his way of understanding the phrase so often repeated in the Old Testament – steadfast love.

He writes – ‘What human persons and human community most need is abiding, committed, passionate transformative solidarity.’

I see this as being very much in harmony with another theologian – Sam Wells – who talks about the greatest challenge facing us today being that of isolation.

Walter again – ‘The path is to love neighbour, to love neighbour face-to-face, to love neighbour in community action, to love neighbour in systemic arrangement, in imaginative policies.’

Let’s do it!

Grace and peace.