A New Year Message

2 January 2022

As 2022 dawns, I am more hopeful and confident than I was a year ago. This is not false optimism, nor is my confidence based on a fabricated certainty.

False optimism has nurtured more disappointment than I care to elaborate on. As a child of the ’60s I can recall the sight of those who dreamt of world peace and harmony across the nations, if only the US would withdraw its troops from Vietnam. I can still recall the lyrics of songs that led us to believe that conflict could be a thing of the past, if only we would join hands with one another. I can even transport myself into that mind-set through a wilful effort to imagine what might yet be; it is comforting to do so, for a while.

Twenty years after Woodstock, and the dawning of the so-called Age of Aquarius, the fall of communism across Central and Eastern Europe reawakened us to the possibility of a new age, or as Francis Fukuyama would have had us believe The End of History. In his thesis, published in 1992, liberal democracy was the last form of government for all nations, all others would ultimately fail. Samuel Huntington countered this in his response four years later. The Clash of Civilisations argued that people’s religious affiliations and cultural identities would be the source of future conflicts. 9/11 proved Huntington to be a more reliable prophet than his former student Fukuyama.

The false optimism of the decade that gave us flower power and the imagined new dawn of the passing of one millennium into another has left many disillusioned. The hope that I have is not based on false optimism but in the beliefs that stand the test of time, that no matter what is thrown at God’s people, we find ways in which we can adapt and remain resilient in our faith. Jesus Christ may be the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and the essential truths of his Gospel remain timeless, but the means of communicating those truths, and even our understanding of those truths, have acclimatised to the changing environments. The Apostle Paul may not recognise everything that is expounded from our pulpits today, and nor should he, we have long dispensed with some of the societal ethics that would be abhorrent to us in our understanding of what love is in practice. However, the essence of the Gospel, love in practice, remains. Where love is replaced by malevolent influence, unjust power, and selfish manipulation, the Gospel no longer exists and those who purport to extol it are far from God’s sovereign rule.

The hope that I have at the beginning of 2022 then is not false optimism but real; for I believe that the Church and its members, and indeed those outside the Church who, often unknowingly, proclaim the Gospel truths through their ethics and behaviour, will not be deterred in the face of challenge. The second area that lifts my spirit is renewed confidence.

All too often, we consider certainty to be confidence. In my view, this is not so. If anything, it is quite the opposite. Those who lack confidence in something tend to cover it up with a fabricated certainty. There is little doubt that in today’s world there is much to challenge confidence. The fact that much of what we once believed to be a mystery can be explained through medical and scientific advancement, and that some in power think that the rules are for others and not them, lead to a growing distrust toward those in religious and political authority.

The linguistic and source analysis of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, together with the accompanying theological developments, finally hit the pew following the publication of accessible paperbacks in the 1960s, not least John Robinson’s Honest to God. We still feel the impact of such advancement in biblical and theological reasoning. We forget that a century is a very brief span of time in the course of human understanding.

The ongoing reaction to the erosion of confidence is to fabricate certainties. We find this to be so in both the political world and the world of religions. Despite the horrors of Fascism and Stalinism in the mid twentieth century, extremist views are again de rigueur. We have not just forgotten the lessons of the past we have rejected them. We are approaching the first anniversary of the Storming of the Capitol on 6th January. Whilst some are only just beginning to appreciate that the United States came to within a whisker of a coup d’état, many quickly dismissed it as just another protest that got slightly out of hand. Should the latter view prevail, the United States and all liberal democracies around the world are in a precarious state. What the riot illustrated was the impact social media is having on the electorate. Despite the hard evidence of the ballot, lies on the internet whipped up a frenzy that almost succeeded in usurping the outcome of an election in the so-called bastion of the free world. The fact that Biden was ratified as the winner later in the evening does not mean the threat has disappeared. I suspect that many who entered the Capitol that day did so without fully understanding the consequences, and, thankfully on this occasion, backed off. Such is the power of the internet to create echo chambers. In his 2021 Reith Lectures, Living with Artificial Intelligence, Stuart Russell noted that the internet is able to manipulate the cognitive intake of people far more effectively than any past human tyrant could have dreamt.

The rocking of our once well-constructed foundations in both faith and democracy is causing us a great deal of anxiety. We seek to counter this with fabricated certainties. These certainties do not stand up to rigorous scrutiny, but the beholder will not hear anything of the sort. Their views are fixed, and nothing can alter them, despite evidence to the contrary. The one who dares to challenge those views in the company of others, has to be dismissed, or worse in many cultures. This was so in the Stalinist purges and it is so today in Belarus. It is so in the religious world also. It was so during the Reformation and Counter Reformation as claimed heretics were burnt at the stake, and it is so today as militant forms of religion, from Islamism to Nationalist Christians, stalk our streets and places of worship. Less noticeable forms exist in political and religious discourse in local contexts, which is where most of us exercise our influence. Frustration emerges, fractious debate ensues, and dialogue, together with the possibility of learning ends.

So, where is the confidence? My confidence is again founded on a longer-term view than this world would often have us take. Too many have become hooked into short termism to recognise the gradual betterment of society. That is not to say that the present dangers should be ignored, or even underestimated, they are real and threaten our generation and generations to come. However, we should believe in the power of goodness, the impact of righteousness, and the prevailing truth that victory is ours, maybe not in our lifetime, but at a time to come. We must restore our willingness to make sacrifice on behalf of the greater good, our readiness to look beyond ourselves, and our inclination to love. My confidence is based on a view of history that indicates the rise and fall, of not only empires, but also movements.

2 Corinthians 4Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6 For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

God dies and rises with us

22 December 2021

If other experiences have not at times caused us to question our faith in an all-loving God, the pandemic may have done so.

As we face another wave from yet another variant, it would be understandable if we were to wonder if we are ever going to be free of Covid.

Some of us have lost loved ones, some remain exhausted because of infection, some have watched their businesses fold, and almost all of us at some point will have found it all too much; the isolation, the uncertainty, not being able to visit family in care homes or hospitals, waiting lists growing, important appointments postponed.

Feelings are often heightened at Christmas, grief and loss seem to be more acute, and distance from those with whom we would normally share in the festivities seems greater.

Somehow, the novels and songs of Christmas past that speak of hardship and toil, resonate more than they may have ever done. I have just returned to a novel I read when it was first published in English three years ago. Originally written in a Soviet Prisoner of War Camp by Heinrich Gerlach, a German military intelligence officer, ‘Breakout at Stalingrad’ was discovered as a long lost confiscated manuscript in a Moscow archive ten years ago and finally published in German. By then, the author had been dead twenty years. The book is based on the real life experiences of German soldiers encircled by Soviet forces after Stalingrad in the depths of winter. There are three episodes when the Padre is featured, the first at Christmas.

Padre Peters makes his way to a field dressing station nightfall on Christmas Eve. The snow is sweeping across the landscape by a bitter easterly wind. The operating theatre is overrun, and the suffering is immense. Amputations, fear, exhaustion, cries of pain, Gerlach paints a bleak picture of war. However, the presence of Padre Peters brings some comfort to the injured and dying. One, an NCO who had had both his feet amputated the day before, explains that he stopped attending church years ago. However, he had come to understand the value of religion and that after the war things would be different between him and religion. Taking the Padre’s hands in his own frost-cramped hands he said, ‘Maybe it’s a lesson we could only learn here. And we’ve come to appreciate the true meaning of home here, as well.’  

Later, in one of the trenches, Padre Peters encounters a sentry. The man explained that he had volunteered to be on watch that night, because, he whispered, he couldn’t celebrate Christmas any more. ‘As far as I’m concerned, God died outside Stalingrad.’  Padre Peters pauses because of Russian machine gun fire and ten responds, ‘You’re right, God did die outside Stalingrad…a thousand times over. He suffered every one of our sufferings and died a death with us – and it’s outside Stalingrad that He will rise again.’

Today God is suffering in ICU, in the care home, in the rest room, when a job is lost, when the bills go unpaid, when the children go hungry, when a family step into a dinghy to seek refuge, and in so many other instances. We may even feel that God dies with the dying. One thing we can be sure of is that Christ in the tomb is potentially the Risen Christ, in our lives, and in our world.

It is no coincidence that we celebrate the birth of Christ at the darkest time of year. No matter how brief and dimmed the light is, it will grow in duration and brightness.

Himself a prisoner of war in 1945, the great theologian Jűrgen Moltmann sensed darkness when he and his comrades were driven in endless and desolate columns from camp to camp, with hungry stomachs, empty hearts, and the sticks of guards at their side. However, he writes that he glimpsed the light that radiates from the divine child. ‘This light did not allow me to perish. This hope kept us alive.’

May the coming of the Christ Child shed light across our darkened world.

Words Matter

12 September 2021

Yesterday morning in New York, the day began with a solemn act of remembrance, a commemoration of the events 20 years ago that took the lives of 3000 and in the year that followed many more from their injuries and trauma. It was a morning to recall the past. By the evening there was another event in New York, one of celebration, two teenagers battling it out in a historic tennis duel on the Arthur Ashe Court to see who would be crowned Women’s US Open Champion; neither player had been born on 9/11 2001. It was an evening to celebrate the present and look to the future.

Linking the two events were speeches. In the morning, survivors, families of the murdered, joined with Presidents to express their sorrow and resolve to defeat the evils of terrorism founded on extremist religious views. In the evening two women, barely out of school, had mics thrust before them within minutes of defeat and victory. Despite the pressure, the runner up and winner alike spoke with grace and magnanimity praising each other and thanking their respective families, coaching staff and supporters.

The sun rose on a subdued New York, it set on a world looking to what may yet be accomplished in the lives of these two extraordinary individuals.

Words matter. They can capture a moment for eternity. Words spoken in haste and anger can lead to division and death. Words that are measured and wise can inspire a generation to great things.

One of my favourite podcasts at present has to be the Poet Laureate Goes to His Shed. Simon Armitage, arguably Britain’s finest living poet, doesn’t sit in a grand house in the capital. He invites people to his writing studio, a glorified shed in his back garden in Marsden near Huddersfield. It is a joy to hear a wordsmith interview people. He has the all the poise and elegance one would expect from the nation’s favourite poet, and it puts his guests at ease. For me, also, is his vocabulary, I can just listen and find such delight in his chosen words and sentence construction that come so naturally to him. In this, the second series, he is writing a haiku for each of his guests.  The haiku is a form of Japanese poetry that uses just 17 syllables.  To do it well is tricky; to do it really well is an art.

My tutor at theological college once advised me that you can’t preach a 20 minute sermon until you have mastered a three-minute one. My concern is that most of us never master the three-minute sermon! Words matter, whether you are a preacher, the Poet Laureate or the President of the United States. Simon Armitage has mastered the 17 syllable haiku, ex-President Trump has never mastered Twitter; his Tweets when in office were crass, crude and corrupted relations as well as inspired extremism. 

It is interesting to note that Twitter began by allowing 140 characters, but the most common tweet was only 34 characters. Even though the limit is now 280 characters, the most common length of a tweet remains at 33 characters. Once, only 9% of tweets hit Twitter’s 140-character limit, now it is just 1%, an astonishing fact about what may well be the dumbing down of oral and written communication. Putting it simply, we have created a means of communication that lacks sensitivity and depth, one that fails to draw upon accumulated wisdom, and fosters conspiracy theories with an absence of evidence.

Words matter. What we say can affect the lives of those who hear us. Words can start a revolution or quell a riot. The tongue is a small member, states James, the brother of Jesus, the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits…..How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!  And the tongue is a fire. (James 3.5)

At junior school in our morning assemblies, the head teacher would on occasion walk over to the record player located in a beech wood box, which smelt of polish and electronics, and place an LP on the turntable. He would carefully ease the arm off it’s rest and place the needle onto the beginning of the track he wanted to play for us.  His face shone whenever the dulcet tones of a wartime Prime Minister spoke of blood, tears and sweat, or of the many depending on the few. I grew up knowing the importance of a carefully crafted speech. I lament the loss of that art, yet marvel at those who can still speak with such grace and dignity, of lofty things, of a world that may yet be, inspiring us to strive toward it.

Some have claimed that the terrorists didn’t win. I guess it all depends on how one gauges victory. The fact is that the battle is not yet over. For twenty years brave service personnel did their duty when they were sent to Afghanistan and elsewhere to dismantle, as far as they were able, the terrorist network that planned 9/11 and other atrocities. We have been reliably informed that many attacks have been foiled in the last two years. The battle continues. It is one that is waged over hearts and minds, conspiracy theories and facts.

What did the terrorists hope to achieve the day they said their morning prayers? Their minds were bent on death and destruction for sure. Believing they were carrying out the will of Allah, they were hoping to dent, what they believed to be, the arrogance of the West, in particular the United States. They certainly succeeded in making millions of people face their vulnerability for the first time; they certainly succeeded in goading the US and her allies, Britain included, into a ground war; they certainly succeeded in extinguishing the trust millions had in their neighbours from overseas, other cultures and different faiths. For those who did not succumb to their intentions, the battle continues, it is far from over.

Our world changed on 9/11. Since then surveillance has increased exponentially, elections have been tainted with claims of interference from outside agencies, a US President has incited an insurrection in his own country, and another has forced us to walk away from our responsibilities toward those in Afghanistan whose hopes of freedom and equality we nurtured. Twenty years ago, the Taliban were pretty well in control of Afghanistan, today even more so.

The battle that began long before those terrorists boarded the planes on the morning of 9/11 continues. It is a battle for hearts and minds, a battle between truth and lies. It is a battle that divides religions, cultures, individual families even. It is a battle that will have to be fought in every generation, until the words of the prophets of long ago are fulfilled. One day everyone will live under their own roof, and no one will need to find shelter. One day everyone will till their own land and no one will go hungry. One day everyone will be respected, cherished, reach their true potential and no one will be cast aside. One day everyone will live in harmony with one another and no one will fear the stranger. One day creation itself will be restored and the rhythm of the seasons will gently remind us of our brief place within it. Then, and only then, will we be able to say that the battle is over, for then, and only then, will we be able to confidently proclaim that the terrorists did not win, truth did.

For now, in this ongoing battle we are all combatants, we all have our role to play; it will demand conviction, it will demand courage, it will demand sacrifice, and above all it will demand faith in the one true God who invites us to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

An In-Between Time

24 June 2021

Twilight at the Lakeside, Bruce Thompson June 2021

Each morning Dylan, my dog, and I go for a 3 or 4-mile walk around a nearby lake surrounded by trees. During the winter months, this can be slightly before dawn breaks. I love that experience of an in-between time: neither night nor day – when the shadows could be people or the people shadows, be it dawn or twilight. There is a real sense of mystery about the landscape, which I really enjoy.

A true story:

The students were accustomed to their rabbi waxing lyrical about Einstein.  He had written a book on him. He had presented many papers on him. Science seemed to hold the key for much of the rabbi’s thinking. One day, expecting him to answer Einstein, a student decided to put a question to him. Rabbi, who do you think was the greatest person of the 20th century? To which the rabbi replied – Freud. But rabbi why not Einstein? Because Freud reminded us that the invisible is often more important than the visible.  Without this belief, Einstein could not have persisted in his quest.

I seem to recall another Jew saying something about focusing on the unseen rather than that which is seen, because what is seen is only temporary and what is unseen is permanent. That same wise teacher also said that at this in-between time, it is as if we can only look upon the world dimly, or a better translation would be as a riddle. Only at some point in the future will we see clearly, as if face to face. That is why we need to remind ourselves constantly that there is more to this life than meets the eye – and an in-between time is no better time to recognise this.  

Over recent years I have grown to realise that many in our world no longer appreciate the value of an in-between time:

  • They prefer to be present in one or the other.
  • They favour certainty to doubt,
  • clarity to confusion,
  • and order to chaos.

This leads us to think that there has to be a solution to every problem. Even when we know the explanations we proffer are not without fault we would rather stick to them come what may.       

This desire to deal with complexity, uncertainty and a surprising interruption to the order of things has perhaps increased this past year as we have looked to science for resolving the virus – and thank God for those who have worked tirelessly to combat both the virus and the pandemic. However, this has been of little comfort to the afflicted and the poor.  Moreover, it is wholly understandable that questions have been raised: Why? Why now? Why at all?

Like so many before him and since, Job asks God where he was in his suffering.  God retorts with a question: where were you Job? Where were you when I created the heavens and the earth? What do you know?  How can you find the answers to life’s most difficult issues? You are not God. As we know, Jesus too responds to quests put to him with a question:

  • The issue has to be worked through.
  • Things are not always clear.
  • It is as if we are in an in-between time.

Indeed, life itself may well be an in-between time, which is why there is much mystery about it, so many shadows. The trouble is, we simply don’t do mystery as well as we once did.

By its definition, mystery cannot always be arranged in the place of our choosing.  Try as we might, we cannot always bring order where there is chaos. We cannot always bring explanation to confusion, we cannot always arrange the rooms of our lives the way we want them.  In these places of chaos, where our heart’s deep yearning shouts down our rational selves, we sometimes cry out to God.  Andrew Foster Connors, Feasting on the Word, Yr B Vol 3, WJK 2009, p 150.

 “Mystery cannot always be arranged in the place of our choosing.” Yet many today remain in denial of this – we still want solutions to problems, answers to questions. We then end up with inadequate judgments and crass statements, lacking in the understanding, the sophistication that is required, with prescriptions that do not stand the test of time.

Currently the political world is a supreme example of this, giving credence to populism and the normalisation of extremism. This leads to the taking of sides, we deepen the distance between us to the point of tribalism.  Discourse becomes devoid of true dialogue – and we end up preferring to burn bridges to building them.

The political world, however, is not alone in being affected in this way. Almost every aspect of society prefers a similarly simplistic worldview. This includes faith communities. We see it in the rise of militancy in some groups. We see it in the rise of campaigns that can only think in dualistic terms, for example pro-life in the United States. In addition, we see it in our own communities with memorials and motions that fail to take into account a fuller understanding of history and present complexity. The church of the 21st century often shies away from admitting that on occasions there are simply no answers.

Sometimes there are intractable issues, moral dilemmas, too great for us mere mortals to get to grips with. Yet still we convince ourselves that statements, insufficient to the task, are sufficient to convince the world.

We have often overlooked the fact that life is a mystery. Only when we recognise that we are in an in-between time can we admit the now and not yet that we were taught about in theological college.  Confident self-belief that can on occasion stray into arrogance leads to unjustifiable certainties that leave no room for doubt.  In such a scenario, when an alternative comes our way, we cannot admit our own inadequacies, so the other possibility has to be wrong and the one bringing it to us is somehow lacking in understanding. This is nothing new of course, in the name of my God many were burnt at the stake because of such certainty. I no longer believe that fundamentalists have a monopoly on certainty.

I once had the honour of serving as minister Elizabeth Packington; Elizabeth was PA to the Royal Navy Chief, the very first woman to hold such a role.  She told me that on D-Day, shortly before the first wave landed on the beaches, the Admiral took her and the rest of his team out of their command bunker and stood overlooking the Channel. At that in-between time, as dawn was breaking and the men were heading towards an uncertain destination, the Admiral and his staff kept silence. At the moment when the men hit the sand, the Admiral led them back down into the bunker.

Perhaps at an in-between time, when the light has not fully broken through, what is demanded of us is not inauthentic compassion, nor false hopes, easy answers, and ill-thought through statements, but silence.  Perhaps stumbling along in the twilight or even holding silence within it is, after all, a far better option than manufactured light. Beware, says Jesus, that the light in you be not darkness.

Creator and Companion,

You brought us to birth and you embrace us in our departing.

At this in between time

grant us such clarity of vision that enables us

              to detect whether the shadow is a friend or danger;

train us through life’s experience

              to discern what we need to put down

                             and what to pick up,

              of what we need to let go

                             or that which we should carry with us.

With humility, we pray that you will nurture within us

such healthy a faith that is honest confidence.

Forgive us if we harbour a sureness

that becomes unyielding conceit,

so that we might be more content

              in the uncertainties and mysteries of life;

for we trust in you, and you alone,

our God, whose incarnated love

embraces us along life’s journey.


A Taunting Twilight

23 June 2021

Splinters of light,



and receding to the shadows within the twilight.

A subduing cloak envelopes a remaining edge,

smothering clarity of conviction and denial.

An inward swelling realisation of a rising tide, the incessant tide,

consuming all we’d known,

cherished routinely and felt we’d owned.

The distance is lost,

as nearness alone

becomes all that can now be known.

We find ourselves grasping at what remains,

hesitant at that which lies beyond.

 Our memory, the amassed memory,

like a mystery,

furtive and flitting,

drifting in and out of cognizance,

a solace for the growing uncertainty

that had threatened our stability and security.

From reality to fantasy, and back again,

as twilight returns again and again,

twisting and turning our taunted imagination.

We have travelled, to this time,

to this time, here and now,

of that we can be sure;

but we’ll travel still, you and I,

to another dawn,

where the mirror complete and true

and the image truly divine,

are both, then, but maybe only then, real

as real as can be.

Romans 8:22-27

22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

The late John Taylor, an ex President of Conference, said when he was senior Methodist tutor at Queens Theological College that the task at the college was to teach ministerial students to ‘wrestle with Romans.’

Such was the level of importance placed on what we call the Letter to the Romans.

Today, I want to wrestle with one brief and important aspect of the passage we have just read.

 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

I invite you to think for a few moments what it is that you want.

Now consider what it is that you need.

Are the answers the same or different?

Is what you want different to what you need? For most people they are different.

We might want many things that we definitely don’t need.

Now consider what it is that you wish for, and compare it to what you hope for.

Are they the same things? For most people they are the same.

So what we want and what we need are often different.

However, what we wish for and what we hope for are often the same.

Yet the outcome of what we wish for and what we hope for can be very different.

Usually what we wish for is out of reach. For example, I might wish for a two-seater hand-built Morgan in British racing green. I might wish for it – but at around £100,000 out of the show room – I know I will never have one.

On the other hand, there are many things that in faith I hope for and those things are generally not out of reach. That is the teaching of Jesus and it is the interpretation of Paul. We are taught that the Kingdom, the sovereign rule of God, is within touching distance, it is there ready to be grasped, for all those who will it.

Therefore, a list of things for which we hope should not be a wish list. Our hope list should be of those things we know from experience, faith and understanding are perfectly possible to attain; even though we may not experience them as fully as we’d like in the here and now, one day they will be realised.

Sadly, our conviction in such hopes being realised is sometimes diminished by the pain and misery of life, the injustices and conflicts within our world.

As Martin Luther King said “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”

That is not just an accurate statement in economic terms; it is also true in terms of faith and discipleship. If we do not live in a context where faith is present in the lives of others, it is that much harder for ourselves to live in faith. Hence the need to be in a community of believers, the Church. As so many Christian leaders have said over e centuries, ‘The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.’ It is that much harder to have hope in our lives and world if we are exercising our faith alone..

Therefore, many of us have good reason not to hope.

  • Life may have dealt cruel blows.
  • Relationships may not have turned as they we had intended.
  • Maybe our ambitions have been thwarted, our dreams not realised.

However, when we enter and dwell within a community of faith, despite all the challenges of doing so, we recognise there is at least one relationship that does work. We come to see there is at least one who remains faithful to us through thick and thin. There is at least one purpose we will always find fulfilling.

According to Jesus, and as interpreted by Paul, our relationship with God in Christ is rock steady. God remains faithful to us, even as we are sometimes unfaithful to God. Our discipleship may sometimes be hard graft, but it is never without reason. Knowing all this is crucial for us in our lives of faith and our reason to hope.

In an age where routine, ritual and discipline is slipping, hope is in short supply. When we recognise the importance of a devotional routine, reading and reflecting on scripture, offering regular and frequent prayer, there is greater hope in our lives. When we mark the passage of time and especially those seasons that call to mind the life, death and resurrection of Christ, there is greater hope in our lives. When we remain steadfast to responding to God’s claims on our lives and world, there is greater hope in our lives.

This is what I believe John Wesley and his brother Charles just a few days before him, experienced at Aldersgate on the evening of the 24th May 1738. The warmed heart, as the Spirit filled his life, was the ultimate recognition, that all is well.

The faithfulness and diligence of discipleship becomes that much easier once a complete awareness of God’s love is present in the life of the believer. Know this, and know it fully without question, doubt or hesitation – that no matter what God is in deepest love with you, and all will be well.

1 Through all the changing scenes of life,
in trouble and in joy,
the praises of my God shall still
my heart and tongue employ.

2 O magnify the Lord with me,
with me exalt his name;
when in distress, to him I called
he to my rescue came.

3 The hosts of God encamp around
the dwellings of the just;
his saving help he gives to all
who in his mercy trust.

4 O taste his goodness, prove his love;
experience will decide
how blessed they are, and only they,
who in his truth confide.

5 Fear him, you saints, and you will then
have nothing else to fear;
his service shall be your delight,
your needs shall be his care.

6 To Father, Son and Spirit, praise!
To God whom we adore
be worship, glory, power and love,
both now and evermore!

Nicholas Brady (1659 – 1726) and Nahum Tate (1652 – 1715) © Jubilate Hymns Ltd

A great teacher was once on a journey.  The teacher came upon a bandit who threatened to kill him.  ‘Before you do so’ responded the teacher, ‘please grant me one last wish’. ‘Your wish is granted’ replied the bandit. ‘Well then’’ said the teacher, ‘firstly, chop that branch from the tree’. With a swift sweep of his sword, the bandit slashed the branch from the tree.  ‘My final wish,’ said the teacher ‘is that you put the branch back.’  The bandit laughed, ‘you’re crazy to think anyone can do that.’ ‘On the contrary,’ countered the great teacher. ‘It is you who are crazy to think that you are mighty because you can wound and destroy. That is the task of children. The mighty know how to create and heal.’

This serves to highlight the disruptive nature of humankind, as opposed to the creative energies of God.

The crucifixion of Jesus highlights the fact that humanity seeks to damage the best of us. You don’t have to believe in the Jesus that I believe him to be, to know this to be true. Even his harshest critics admit that Jesus was a good, honest, wise, and insightful teacher at the very least. However, for those of us who see Jesus as God incarnate, we know that humanity will even seek to destroy the eternal goodness that is God, God alone.

On the other hand, the resurrection of Jesus highlights the fact that God will have the last say. That even in the darkness God will provide for us undimmed light.

Once travel restrictions are lifted again, some will journey many miles to observe beauty yet overlook beauty on their doorstep. They will gaze upon a deeply moving work of art depicting poverty yet step past the beggar on the street outside the gallery. Any fool can build a cross, only God can empty a tomb.

Over the last year, we may feel that we have been at the foot of the cross; for far too long its shadow has been cast across the landscape of our lives and disrupted our plans. However, winter has turned to spring, the days have lengthened, and the colours are returning, and we now stand at the gate of a garden. In the garden, there is a tomb. The light is not penetrating it, but radiating from it. This gives us all hope.

As each day passes, we know that we get nearer to the end of a long journey, this period of pandemic. We will not only give thanks for our survival, we will also rejoice in the resurrection of those whom we have loved and lost along the way.

This is the unshakeable faith that I have in the One who creates and heals, the One who empties a tomb.

Holy Week Reflection

4 April 2021

Isaiah 50:4-9

4The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. 5The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. 6I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. 7The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; 8he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. 9It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.

The Agony of Sacrifice | VCS

One of my favourite paintings in the Methodist Collection of Art is Theyre Lee Elliott’s Tree Form (agony). It was painted in 1959 soon after the artist survived a life-threatening illness.  The Crucified Christ and the Cross-have merged into, or out of the trunk of a tree.  The style reflects the shattered trees in No Man’s Land from the First World War and the barbed war reinforces the possibility.

I recently discovered the preparatory sketches for the work. The tree form is from different angles and at various stages of development. The one most resembling the finished work is on the bottom right, albeit a reverse and the arms are not bent down from the elbow. 

However, it was the sketch on the bottom left of the page that I found most intriguing.

We are accustomed to seeing the Crucified Jesus front on, or occasionally side on and of course Salvador Dali famously painted the scene from above his head as the dying Jesus looked upon the Galilean Lake, boat and fisherman below him.

Nevertheless, to see the back of the crucified Jesus is probably unique in my opinion. Yet why should it be?

I gave my back to those who struck me,
    and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
    from insult and spitting.

The gnarled back, the tense muscles that were whipped and bruised from the blows inflicted upon it; the back that stretched and strained as Jesus struggled and stumbled towards Golgotha. The bared back that few would have seen is now visible for the world to gaze upon.

To turn ones back is often seen as dismissive of something, of an incident, or an issue, or even a person.

In this instance, Isaiah sees it as an example of how to behave well when others assault us – perhaps still dismissive, but from a position of strength in the face of unjust hostility. To develop this in a paraphrase:

Strike me and I will not even defend myself – I will turn my back and you can strike me at will. I won’t even see it coming.

We are familiar with the turning of the cheek, the offering of a shirt when sued for a cloak, the walking of an extra mile.  This passage from Isaiah clearly illustrates that such teaching was not innovative on the part of Jesus, but part of a long and rich tradition.

The whole point is to shame the oppressor, to not strike back when there would be every reason to do so:

  • When slapped, turn the cheek so that the striker can physically punch you.
  • When sued for something, give them even more than they ask.
  • When forced to carry a load to the next milepost, as required by Roman law, go beyond it to the next milepost. 

An oppressor thinks that from a position of strength they can make the oppressed look weak and foolish. However, the tables are turned when we bear this teaching in mind and it is the oppressor who comes to be seen as weak. They thought they were going to punish us, but through our indifference, we make them look foolish.

As Isaiah continued:

The Lord God helps me;
    therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
    and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
    he who vindicates me is near.

The words of Isaiah, like the teaching of Jesus much later, give us an indication of what we must do when attacked and how we might come through it. The Crucified Jesus exemplifies such instruction and, like no other, speaks to us in our pain and suffering.

None of this is possible of course unless we have firm faith, often nurtured through experience, trial and error over the years.  We come to come to trust in a God who will not let us down, but given time provides us with the eventual victory that is ours in Christ. It may not come in the here and now, but one glorious day it will for sure.

It was one of my favourite spiritual writers, Carlo Carretto, who said:

Anyone who dreams of a triumphant Church in this world is mistaken and is ……… reverting to a childish conception of God and humanity. The true Church is the Church of the defeated, of the weak, of the poor, of those on the fringe of society.

Carretto then criticises great gatherings of Christians where ‘there are many lusty people (shouting) hosannas!’ Where realities are forgotten in a wave of escapism, and everything on the surface seems fine.

Carretto goes on to suggest that

rallies of Christians are more suitable in hospitals, in prisons, in shanty towns, in mental homes, where people cry, where people suffer, where the devastation of sin is being physically endured, sin in the form of the arrogance of the rich and powerful.

Isaiah may instruct us to turn our backs to be beaten at will by our oppressors.  Jesus may teach us to go the extra mile. In addition, Lee Elliott may provide for us the image of a tortured back, but in so doing each of theme teach us to face the reality of suffering, our won and that of our neighbours.

It is this to which are called, to pledge solidarity with the afflicted and oppressed. To take on the pain and sorrow that comes with costly grace. To let go of self and embrace the cross of Christ Jesus. 

When my love for man grows weak,

When for stronger faith I seek,

Hill of Calvary, I go

To the scenes of fear and woe.

There behold his agony,

Suffered on the bitter tree;

See his anguish, see his faith,

Love triumphant still in death.

Then to life I turn again,

Learning all the worth of pain,

Learning all the might that lies

In a full self-sacrifice.

John Reynell Wretford (1800-81)

Theyre Lee Elliiott, Crucified Tree Form (The Agony), Trustees Methodist Church Purposes

Come what may, I want to shout hosanna today

I want to shout hosanna today.

I want to stand against the wind,

to feel the passing of the dust on my face

and the debris at my feet.

I want to cloak myself in Sunday best

and join with a singing crowd.

I want to shout hosanna today.

I know we have come a long way

and even been tired by it.

I know there is still a journey ahead

and my mind, when captured by it, is uneasy.

I know some think of it as momentary

But I want to shout hosanna today.

I will not desist from joy that might yet be mine.

I will not shy away from those who look to light in me

and who want a share in such a lightness of being.

I will not feel shame in my pleasure

For I want to shout hosanna today.

The bliss, the delight, this treasure,

call it what you will,

is no transitory glee

but a state that will open me

to an eternal ecstasy

that is definitely heaven.

So, knowing it will echo through the ages,

I will shout hosanna today.