I have recently written to all the Lincolnshire MPs asking them if it is acceptable for Her Majesty’s Government to break international law.  To date, I have received two replies, both of which seek to justify the breaking of international agreements. I therefore, offer the following reflection.

It is incumbent upon the Christian Church to examine the socio-political world in order to fulfil the dictum to love one’s neighbour. Scrutinising Government policy to ensure that harm is not done to individuals, communities or even nations is integral to that process. When the Church has failed to do this, injustices have often followed. Consequently, faced with a Church that has been reluctant to act, individual Church leaders and faithful Christians have occasionally taken it upon themselves to challenge the zeitgeist that would inflict damage upon their community or world. In such circumstances, almost without exception, they have often been too few to make a real difference. After their protest, their names may have been written in the heavens, but, at the time of their dissent, they were often unpopular, even amongst their co-religionists. It is tempting for today’s Church to make the mistake its predecessors made of assuming that the earthly realm should be left to the politicians and that the Church should only concern itself with the spiritual realm. This is heresy in that it is to imply that God has no interest in the affairs of humankind. As Christians, we believe in incarnation, that God has come in human flesh and that all of human life, and interactions with the planet and its creatures, is precious to God.  

The law in this country has evolved over centuries.  It has always taken into account common sense and the need to do what is right for the common good.  It has been a long, and at times an arduous, process. People have fought and died to ensure justice wins out in the end. There is still much to do. However, the nations of the world have looked on the UK as an exemplar of Parliamentary democracy, whose word is as good as its bond. Our laws have helped form the rule of law in countless states.

For Her Majesty’s Government to threaten the intentional breaking of international law is a very serious matter indeed.  Such an act would have grave consequences for decades to come, not only for this country in her relationship with others but also for the oppressed in every state around the globe.  It will also impact on the regard individuals here will have for the law.

Let us consider our relationship with other nations first. Why should any country ever trust us again if we rescind on our treaties? You can dare to imagine the nightmare scenarios that could arise not least for example seeking to make trade deals with potential partners.

Secondly, some MPs on the Government benches are claiming that it is sometimes necessary for a democratically elected Parliament to break international law for the country’s interests. Throughout the twentieth century there were a number of occasions when democratically elected leaders chose to ignore treaties in order to ‘protect the people’. Such actions never ended well. The minorities and those who opposed such a government often ended up marginalised, persecuted, incarcerated and even killed.  It is no use suggesting that this could not happen in a civilised country such as ours; that is what others said at the outset of their nation’s demise. Tyranny is always closer than we imagine. There are good reasons for nations to hold other nations to account. If today’s Government were to break international law for its own interests, no future British administration could ever again challenge with integrity a rogue state.

It is interesting that many MPs wanting to take this step are arguing that it is to protect the Union. Looking at their voting records it appears that those very same MPs voted for the Withdrawal Agreement last December. Did they read the bill? Were they duped? Could they, at that stage, not understand the implications for Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement? An agreement that has kept the peace there for more than twenty years is now in jeopardy. As significantly, why should anyone in the future, who finds aspects of the law to be uncomfortable or incompatible with their belief-system and ethical framework, accept rules set down for the sake of the greater good? Why stop at a red light when being late for work might mean the loss of a job? Why implement health and safety measures for employees when it adds to the cost of the work? It would not take long for someone to justify harsh treatment of others because it releases pent up stress; or to withdraw protection for a minority for the sake of the majority.

For Her Majesty’s Government to even contemplate the breaking of international law is a very slippery slope indeed.  To do so would not protect the British people but would jeopardise the very fabric of society and lead to greater authoritarian rule.

As those who are eligible to vote, I urge you to write to your local MP and express your concerns about the transfer of power from Parliament to Government and the threat to break international law.

I feel better when…….

14 September 2020

A friend of mine recently posted this on Facebook:

I stepped into a Jerusalem cafe and waited in line while placing an order through their app, when the Muslim barista told me “excuse me, please step aside for a moment.” I walked over to him and explained I was using the app, but then he quickly said in the kindest voice “listen… this cafe isn’t kosher…”.

I mistakenly thought it was.

My order would have meant a profit for the business, but for this worker – my faith meant more than money.

I thanked him and walked out, and I thanked G-d that his creations respect each other for their differences.

It makes feel better when I hear a story like this.

It makes me feel better when an incident challenges those who would only see the world in monochrome when actually it is multi coloured.

It makes me feel better when there is hope and love and renewal rather than division, blame and hostility.

For too long places and people have been judged from a distance without knowing the true context.

For too long their histories have not been studied sufficiently to form a proper understanding of why they are as they are.

For too long we have got it wrong.

Now is the time to put it right.

That is so not only for long-standing and ongoing campaigns but also for how we respond here and now.

We have our backs against the wall.

Like those who retreated from a beach in Northern France 80 years ago this summer we have found our mission damaged.

We are having to re-group, review the situation and replenish our resources to return to the action.

The Church is in a state of flux, both nationally as an organisation and locally as a mission and ministry unit.

One might even consider that we are in disarray.

We are certainly anxious and unsure of what he coming months may hold.

It is now clear that we cannot continue as we have done.

For too long we have known that change would come but we have turned our face from its implementation.

For too long we have believed that others will have to sort it out after our term has been completed.

For too long we have buried our heads in the sand.

We feel better when we lift our heads up, look about us and realise that the change is actually upon us – we cannot hide from it any longer and it is our duty to take up the challenge.

We feel better when we have purpose in life, when we are not absent from the action but are fully engaged in making a difference.

We feel better when we can see what the next step is even if we cannot see what is beyond it.

For decades, I have marvelled at those who went before us and made a difference.

For decades, I have read the stories of the saints, those who stood up to be counted in an age of indifference to extremism and prejudice.

For decades, I have lamented the tendency to accept without question the demise of church influence in civic society and the corridors of power.

Who else will hold to account the powers that would destroy, unless it is us?

Who else will feed the hungry, offer a shelter for the night, sit with those who grieve?

Who else will shine a light in the darkness of winter as its shadows lengthen in the coming weeks.

I have no idea how our world will all turn out, or our nation as we continue to cut our trade links with country after country, or indeed how each church will act as a presence across our nations, but of this I am sure:

We feel better when we do something about it. 

Psalm 114

1When Israel went out from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language,

2Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel his dominion.

3The sea looked and fled; Jordan turned back.

4The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs.

5Why is it, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back?

6O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs?

7Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob,

8who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.

The briefest of Psalms is able to convey some of the key moments in the history of Israel: flight from Egypt, crossing both the Sea of Reeds and the Jordan as well as celebrating the miracle of turning a barren land into one of plenty. Just eight verses, but packed with history and insight, much to rejoice in.

Sometimes brevity captivates an audience.

Many years ago when I was serving as a minister in Manchester, the local clergy exchanged pulpits, so to speak, on the Sunday of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Father Denis was the Roman Catholic Priest. He arrived at Heyes Lane Congregational Church to lead the morning worship. No one had made him aware of the fact that he was expected to do a children’s address. When asked what he should do the Steward said just give them a word from God. After the opening hymn and prayers Fr Denis solemnly left the lectern and made his way to the wide-eyed children in the front pew.  They stared at this grey-haired priest wearing what they must have thought to be a multi-coloured frock.  After a pause, Fr Denis declared:

‘Children I have a message for you.  It is a message from God’ (with a drawn out emphasis on the word God.)  ‘He wants you to know….’ (A further pause before then next four hastily spoken words) ‘That he loves you.’

I don’t know how many children still remember that children’s address, I suspect they remembered it longer than most of the children’s addresses they heard, I certainly do.

There is the old illustration of correspondence in The Times on what is wrong with the world.  To which GK Chesterton wrote, ‘Dear Sir, I am.’

Psalm 114 is brief, very brief, just 8 verses, each worthy of a sermon in their own right, or even a single term within a verse.

Take for example:

1When Israel went out from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language,

2Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel his dominion.

Especially the term a people of strange language. The renowned Hebrew scholar, Robert Alter, translated it ‘a barbarous-tongued folk.’[i] So much is within that phrase.

Not only did the Egyptian captors, authorities and oppressors speak a different language, they spoke one that the Hebrews could not understand. As Alter describes it, ‘the utterance of unintelligible sounds instead of the articulate speech of a civilised people.’

This is fascinating isn’t it, because it’s not just implying that something is lost in translation; it is stating that the language used by the oppressor is unintelligible.  This inference occurs on a number of occasions in the Hebrew Bible.

It reminds us that we, who find our leaders unintelligible, not just in their words but actions too, are not alone.  The nonsense, dangerous though it is, coming out of the mouths of Trump and some of our own politicians is beyond comprehension. The USA is on the verge of unrest the like of which has perhaps not been seen for a very long time. Her Majesty’s Government cannot admit that to break international law not only weakens trust in the UK around the world, it also invites law breaking on our own streets and in our own homes.

When Germany invaded Belgium in 1914, Sir Edward Grey invoked a 70-year-old agreement that Belgium was a neutral country. His critics suggested that the agreement was too old to bother with.  Grey responded that if Britain were to dismiss so lightly that which we had signed up to, our reputation abroad would forever be in tatters.  We stood by our commitments.

In my early years in the ministry I recall Mimi Barber who was a little girl at the turn of the 20th century.  Her Father worked on the floor at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. One day he took her to work. She recalled men in dark suits and top hats.  Mimi’s father asked what they were doing she said talking and shaking hands.  He then said look up at the dome and read what the words are.  She read ‘a man’s word is as good as his bond.’

As a Church, we have spoken about change for a number of years now. Today change has come. We are staring an existential challenge in the face.  It is not a challenge we can put off any longer. We need to cut the words, it is time for action.  Brevity and integrity are important.  There is no time to waste.  To procrastinate or hide behind policy statements will not save us. The time has come to act.

The psalmist knew that his recollection of God’s great acts of salvation would encourage and inspire those who would sing his words. May they do so again today as we journey from the oppression of lockdown, travel through a wilderness filled with anxiety, until we reach the destination prepared for us by God.


[i] Alter, Robert, The Hebrew Bible, A Translation with Commentary, Volume 3, The Writings, WW Norton 2019.

For some years now the Methodist Church has used the term living with contradictory convictions.  This was coined to recognise that we are able to remain united in mission and ministry, despite having views that appear to not only be different but opposite.

Over our history, Methodists have debated issues that could have divided them, and on occasion, they did; which is why we splintered into Wesleyan, Primitive, Independent, Wesleyan Reform and ended up with two or three chapels in the same village.

Even in the last century, as a desire for closer unity took hold, issues within each of our traditions led to damaging debates; for example, conscientious objection in the First World War, appeasement in the ‘30s, the nuclear arms issue in the ‘50s, divorce and baptism in my own time.

Whilst some fell out with the church and left over each of these issues, the Methodist Church in Britain continues as a single unity despite differences of opinion, and even belief, within its membership.  Hence the term living with contradictory convictions.

The Early Church is sometimes held up as something toward which today’s church should aspire.

Frankly, it was anything but a wonderfully united body gloriously marching across the Empire eloquently spreading the Jesus story without error or dissent.

Reading the authentic letters of Paul, with an open mind and some understanding of the context, should disabuse us of thinking that all was going swimmingly in the early years after the events leading up to Passover in what much later would become known as the year 30.  To Paul and his fellow Jews it was known as 3790, or 783 for those following the calendar of the Empire.

When Paul was writing what we know of as his letter to the Romans he was appealing to not a well-defined Church, one that had resolved all its doctrinal issues, far from it.  It would take decades, centuries even, up to the present day no less, to work through what the implications of the incarnation were.

Moreover, the issues to which Paul addresses himself are divisive to say the least.

These included whether to observe Sabbath, i.e. the weekly festival that began at sunset on Friday and ended at the appearance of three stars in the sky on the Saturday.

In addition, whether to keep the food laws that had defined the People of Israel for centuries.

All too easily, after the thought processes and preaching of millennia, we overlook the fact that those who first believed in Jesus were keen to keep the laws and rituals of their faith, namely Judaism. Paul was straddling a divide, between them and those non-Jews who were finding out that they too could become part of God’s purpose.  However, the latter did not cancel out the former.

As I have said on many an occasion, it is not only history that is written by the winner, so too is theology. We have a very myopic view of the Christian Church thanks to the fact that Christianity was embraced by the Emperor in the 4th century and incorporated Paul’s and his successors’ take on the faith, rather than the then ongoing branch of Judaism that still held on to their roots whilst believing that Jesus was the Messiah.

Paul was keen to ensure that none was excluded from God’s purposes despite what appears to be contradictory convictions.

He writes in Romans 14,

5Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6Those who observe the day, observe it in honour of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honour of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honour of the Lord and give thanks to God.

Earlier he warns against passing judgment on those who hold differing views within the body:

 4Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.

If these past few months have taught us anything then we need to be united to face the challenges of our day.

That is to put aside the opinions that divide us and concentrate on the bigger picture.

Namely challenging the shadow of extremism that is again creeping across our world, to be faithfully vigilant in meeting the needs of our neighbours, feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, giving purpose to the lost and forlorn, and standing tall as Paul, founder of the Roman Church, once did alongside Peter, leader of the Jerusalem Church.

1 Kings 5-13 (NRSV)

26 July 2020

5 At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” 6 And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. 7 And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. 8 And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. 9 Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”
10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11 God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12 I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.
We are getting close to another US Presidential election. This year’s campaign will have to be different of course. In previous elections, huge rallies were held in sports arenas, aircraft hangars, convention centres and city squares across states. Not so this time round. I shall miss the razzamatazz. I love the rhetoric of a good American politician. Barack Obama was of course a brilliant orator. His timing and eloquence were second-to-none.

Political commentators will say that a politician campaigns in poetry and governs in prose. What that means is that during an election a politician has to appeal to the heart. There is no better way of doing so than speaking in such a way that is catchy, memorable and inspiring. Once elected it is necessary for the politician to change tack. The methods of communication employed during the election are not necessarily as effective when it comes to governing. The complexity of governing requires a far more nuanced approach to the role than when on the campaign trail. This is something that Trump was incapable of realising. We will leave it at that.

Solomon appreciated that a different approach was now required as he took over the mantle from his father David. His father had been a warrior at a time when a warrior-king was needed to establish the rule and ward off the enemies who threatened the land.
Other great leaders of the Hebrews had been men of their time; for example, Moses required a staff to lead his people from captivity towards the Promised Land and possessed a great ability to set up a framework of rules by which the people would live.
Solomon recognised that a warrior-king was probably not so necessary at this stage, but a king who could govern wisely and hold the people, the northern and southern tribes, together.

There is a cultural shift at play here. Solomon builds his own house separate to his father’s old house, before he embarks on a new house for God, the Holy Temple. The nation was settling in, making a statement that they were here to stay. They did not intend to move again.

Today, we are experiencing a seismic shift in the way we do things. Not just at the shops now that we have to wear masks. Not just how we relate to one another, socially distant. Not just in our travel or holiday arrangements. Even the way we worship has changed. This is disconcerting to say the least. Those of us who have physically left home to attend a church building each Sunday are finding it strange not to be able to do so. Those of us who love congregational singing are finding it hard to be without it. We quickly have to learn new skills. We have to adapt at a rate we didn’t think was possible. We may feel as if the ground beneath our feet has shifted. It is hard enough to face a pandemic, without having to change the way we have always done things. However, we have no choice. We either adapt or die as a Church.

This has come upon us all of a sudden. However, for some years now, we have spoken about doing things differently. Therefore, the possibility of change has been germinating in our minds. Like the mustard seed in the parable growing in secret suddenly bursting through the ground and slowly maturing in a huge bush. I think we as a Church are currently at the bursting through the ground stage. At this point, we are vulnerable. The new sapling is prone to destruction. From the heat of the day. From a predator. From accidental damage. Similarly, we are a sapling church, yet to grow into the tree that God hopes for us. These early days of doing things differently are filled with danger. Can we adapt quickly enough? Can our worship on line be as effective as it is when we are physically together? Can we find new ways of expressing our discipleship? If we can then we will be the new church of the 21st century reaching out to the new post Covid-19 world.

To use the words of Barack Obama during his election campaign of 2008 ‘Yes we can’.
Yes, we can be the Church of our times.
Yes, we can be the disciples of today.
Yes, we can proclaim the Good News loud and clear even with restrictions in place.
How do I know this?
Because God’s people have a record of adapting to their situation.
As did Solomon.
As did the Early Church.
As did the reformers and early Methodists.
So too will we, for God empowers those who respond to the call, of that I am certain.

The Silent Cry

3 July 2020

There is a book on my shelf that is in perfect condition. That is because I have not read it despite it being there some years now. I cannot recall how long but it says that the English translation date was 2001. My guess is that I bought it about seven or eight years ago. In some ways, it is surprising that I haven’t read it because it is by Dorothee Sölle. In my final year at theological college, I devoured every book I could by Sölle; my college principal thought it would be good for me. One of a crop of theologians Hamburg-born Sölle sought to challenge the economic and political structure of the day with a radical re-visioning of theology. For a twenty-something ministerial student bent on changing the world through the Church it was music to ears.

So why hasn’t the book to which I have alluded been read? Have the years softened my edge? Do I no longer believe that the Church can change the world? Was Sölle of her time and the terminology, as well as the issues, no longer relevant? There is still a resounding ‘no’ emanating from my heart to each of those questions. Indeed, I will still flick through the pages of this book and find a quote that is worth holding on to. No, the real reason behind not reading the book from beginning to end is the title. It is in itself too close to home, too appropriate for me and would therefore be too painful for me to grapple with. ‘The Silent Cry’ is the title and it is a term that echoes in the deepest recesses of my soul.

A silent cry is not inaudible, it’s just not heard. Rising from a place of hurt and pain, the silent cry is loud and clear, it’s just not heard. It is as if the scream has been muffled by a padded room; no one hears, no one cares, because they have heard it before and it either failed to resonate with them or, for whatever reason, it was just too painful for it to be allowed in to their own lives.

Having never read it properly, I cannot tell if this is the thrust of the book – I suspect so, but I am not willing to risk finding out. My own silent cry is too painful, it is loud and it is excruciatingly solitudinal. I know it must go back a very long way. To being a child and a toddler in a household of teenage stepsiblings who had their own grief to deal with at a stage of life that is always difficult, even without the death of their mother so recently and at such a young age. My own loss went unnoticed by anyone around me. It was for the paternal grandmother, who had been grieving for her only child, my Father who died at 23, and it was she who had raised me those first four years prior to my mother re-marrying. Additionally, being unable to communicate my growing knowledge deepened a sense of isolation. By the time I was at Grammar School, no one in the family seemed to understand me. I have revisited these experiences frequently over the course of my 60 years. This is not because I cannot move on, not because I somehow wallow in them, but because they have made me what I am. They are simply too deeply embedded into my psyche and they are prone to colour my view of the world, especially when my hurt goes unnoticed, or my concerns unheard.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this, as may be the case with many experiences. I tend to hear the silent cry of others, including Kosova Albanian refugees, with whom I worked during and after the war of 1999, and Holocaust survivors, who often bore their angst in silence for many decades before finding the strength to tell their stories lest the lessons of the past be not learnt. The disadvantage of course is when my own silent cry goes unheard; it creates a frustration like no other and it probably transports me back to a childhood where my voice didn’t really count, or at least struggled to be heard above the clamour of others.

Over the past decade, I have sought to challenge the narrative of some within the Church regarding Israel Palestine and the occasional error of straying into naïve politicking and poor theology, not least the occasional hint of supersessionism. I have done so for the sake of the Church itself. At times my cry has seemed more silent than ever. The frustration of not being heard has been immense. I have dedicated so much of my life to trying to understand the contempt with which so many have towards those from within Jewish communities. I have studied in depth the path that led to the Holocaust, including the complicity of the Christian Church in Germany. I addition, I have watched in horror at today’s drive in many parts of the Middle East to rid the region of any strand of faith other than the one held by the majority in any particular country. Despite all of this, I do not feel that my voice is welcome. Not being able to contribute to a discussion because one’s views are out of line with others or are dismissed, for whatever reason, is tough, very tough.

This is my own silent cry. And it makes me wonder how it will be heard, if at all.  However, this is not new, even if utterly painful at present. I recall being ridiculed when in 2008, as the economy collapsed, I dared to suggest that inequality would increase and democracy itself could fail. I recall being scoffed at when I dared suggest that one day English nationalists would rule from Westminster and cause a fracture with the other home nations. That particular sermon was in the late ‘90s as I examined what had happened in the Former Yugoslav Republic; my view was if there why not here in another federation of countries. I still have the sermon somewhere and when I came across it a year or so ago I couldn’t help but feel some sense of vindication, too little too late, and with no pleasure in my heart at all.

When the silent cry is at its loudest and most ignored, questions are raised as to how it will ever be heard. I can understand the radical and ultimate path some take at such a point. When no one hears, what other option is there? It is at that point we must seek again and not give in to the temptation of nihilism. As I write these words I turn to Dorothee Sölle and do what I have only been able to do so far, open The Silent Cry at a random page and find out what it says.

Page 97 firstly quotes William Blake; amazingly, because it was the first poem I learnt as a child:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower.
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

Then Sölle goes on to pose some questions:

Where do people experience mystical oneness, breakthrough, or wholeness? Where and when and under what circumstances does it happen that they move from feeling banished into a different state of consciousness – and in that different oneness they can let go of their atomistic separateness? Are there particular situations or events that bring about the experience of ecstasy and oneness? Is the desert such a place? Is the premonition of one’s death such an event? Or is it the gathering of people who in silence do no more than wait upon the Lord? Is there really something called a place of mystical experience? Where are we to look for it? Or is this a false question?

The question is far from false for me. Having experienced and let out many a silent cry and having crept back to the lonely room of my soul, I have somehow found, on occasion, not always but on occasion, a sense of mysterious conviction and justification. They crucified my Lord. The families of friends of mine processed into gas chambers. Even those once feted for their views fell afoul of the State and either ended up against a wall in the Lubyanka or in a Siberian Gulag. What cost is my silent cry?

One day, maybe I will find the strength to read the book from beginning to end.

 

Silent Cry

 

English published by Augsburg Fortress in 2001 

Cover ‘Jacob Wrestling with the Angel’ (1936) by Hananiah Harari, Smithsonian American Art Museum , the gift of Patricia and Philip Frost

Genesis 32.22-32 (NRSV)
22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

“For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
Or, as some translations have it:
“I have come face to face with God and lived.”

It is certain that the tale of a mere mortal encountering and wrestling with a supernatural being, demon or otherwise, predates the Jacob account that we have here. For as long as humans have been able to reflect on their place in the world, and through their imagination create myths that tell of some perceived truth, there have been accounts of chance meetings between a heroic human figure and a mysterious interlocutor or combatant. In addition, this encounter often occurs when the hero is either crossing from one place to another or progressing from one stage of awareness to a higher level, in other words the incident often occurs at a moment of transition.

Consider the troll on a bridge or at a ford as later examples. Thankfully, there is always a strong goat amongst the three billy goats gruff to deal with the threat. Interestingly, in ancient folk lore, the incident is often recorded as being at night; and as day breaks the threat loses its power and disappears from view, leaving our hero to contemplate what has taken place.

For Jacob this is a defining moment in his story. Wrestling has been in his very nature, in the womb with his twin, clinging to his heel at birth. Jacob has striven with Esau over his birthright and their father’s blessing. He has exerted great effort to roll away the stone from the well for Rachel and he has metaphorically wrestled with Laban over his daughter’s hand in marriage. Now he engages in this epic battle at night with what he can’t quite be sure, and neither can we. The Midrash tells us it is Esau’s guardian angel, which enables Jacob’s descendants, Israel, to warn their enemies that they shall not prevail over them, no matter how great or long the struggle. Jacob survives to tell the tale. For the writer he has come face to face with God and lived. Moreover, his journey continues.

Lesser referred to texts, elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, include the moment God sought to kill Moses just as the wannabe liberator was about to descend back into Egypt: ‘The Lord met him and sought to kill him’ we are informed (Exodus 4.24). Later of course, on the journey into the Promised Land, there is the more familiar incident where, Moses, having met with the Lord, is informed that lesser mortals, and from then on Moses too, would not see the Lord face-to-face and live. Thereafter Moses would only see the back of the Lord. For Jacob, at an earlier time, even then, to claim that he, a mere mortal, believed he had come face-to-face with God and lived was extraordinary.

Today of course, in a time of pandemic, coming face-to-face with anyone may bring about sickness or even death. Hence the need to hold Conference on line and not as we would normally do. It has been the face-to-face encounters at our annual Conferences, the social interaction, that many have found to be amongst the most enjoyable and life-affirming experiences. However, the dangers of doing so this year are, as we know, for too great. Wrestling with the new challenges have been, and for many continue to be, utterly exhausting. It is as if we are still experiencing a long night as we journey from one place to another. The destination could still be far off, many will reach it, some may not, such is the seriousness of our encounter with this mysterious demon we call Covid-19. Naming an enemy of course enables us to fight it more effectively; Jacob knew that, better to have something to hit out at than just allow it to drag us to the ground.

History books of the future will consider the years before 2020 as pre-Covid-19, and every year from now on, we will be in the post Covid-19 era. Such is the gravity of the times in which we live, the predicament with which we wrestle. For how long this dark night will persist, we cannot say, but at least we can draw strength from our knowledge of the past.

My good friend Eva Schloss, Auschwitz survivor and posthumous step-sister to Anne Frank, said to me in the first week of lock down, just as she and her travelling companion were self-isolating after a speaking tour of the West Coast of the United States, ‘It reminds me of the war,’ she said. ‘We have to always keep in mind that this will pass’. This will pass. Who am I to doubt the wisdom and insight of a remarkable woman who as a young teenager spent time in hiding, experienced the unimaginable journey to Auschwitz in a crowded cattle truck and then survived eight months in the camp itself? ‘This will pass’. There speaks a true survivor. The demon when we come face-to-face with it, be it at a crossing point on the journey or in the darkest of nights, cannot win.

For now, we wrestle, we struggle and we strive. However, the night eventually gives way to dawn, the beast with which we have been battling loses its power and we are able to rise again with fresh insight, from what we have learnt, for what may lie ahead.
Like Jacob, we too cannot come out of this epic battle unscathed; he forever limped thereafter. Nevertheless, we should have every confidence that, as a Church, we will come through. However long it takes, whatever energies it consumes, no matter how many fall at our side, to draw on Psalm 91, the People of God come through. Like Jacob, who becomes Israel, we will give birth to new generations of disciples who may see the world differently and express their faith in ever evolving ways, but they will be as effective in conveying grace as any generation before them.

God’s people never succumb; such is the message we draw from the one who would have to rise that morning following his epic night time struggle at Peniel and face yet another challenge: an encounter with his brother Esau. Moreover, if we are honest, it is sometimes harder to wrestle with one another than with God.

So, may the dawn always rise upon us, bruised by the battle we have waged throughout the night, but remain, having vanquished the demon that would drag us to the ground, true to our calling and then may we declare loud and clear ‘we have come face to face with God and now we live, we truly, truly live.’

Acts 9.1-19 Paul on the Damascus Road

Karen and I moved from Somerset to Lincolnshire nine years ago next month. The two counties have some things in common, they are both very beautiful, and some things that are very different. Somerset is a place many pass through en-route to Devon and Cornwall, Lincolnshire of course is not en-route to anywhere, it is a destination in its own right! And quite right too!

Shortly after we arrived I was thrilled to discover Swanholme, a SSSI (site of special scientific interest) with wonderful trees and lakes. Actually it is a series of former quarries that supplied gravel for the airbases in the 2nd World War. On one occasion when I was looking through the photographs I had taken earlier in the day I spotted something in the water at a distance. So I zoomed in and there was no doubt about it – an otter. When I told Alison, whose great misfortune in life is to be my PA, she seemed a little sceptical. ‘I don’t think we have had otters in Lincoln for a very long time.’ she responded. Which was Alison’s nice way of saying, I think you’re mistaken. I could detect in her voice that she really did not believe me. I was a little incredulous I can tell you. I have seen otters; they were in the river on the walk I would often take outside of Taunton. So I put the image up on the computer screen and zoomed in – there it was as plain as could be, sure it was blurred because it was in the distance but it’s head was raised in the water. Alison looked, moved her head from side to side and gently asked ‘Are you sure it’s not a duck’s bottom and its head is in the water?’ I looked again, and sure enough, my otter was in fact a mallard duck looking for fish.

Living in Somerset I had been used to looking out for otters. So my mind said it was an otter. Alison knew that an otter in Swanholme would be a phenomenon; she had seen a duck where I had wanted to see an otter.

What we believe we have seen is often coloured by our experience and expectation.

On the road to Damascus we are informed that Saul, shortly to be renamed Paul, had a vision. He met with Jesus. So blinding was the light that when he opened his eyes again he could not see. When he arrived in Damascus, he met with those Jews whom he had intended to persecute because of their belief in Jesus. However, we are told that something like scales fell from his eyes and he could see clearly again.

The incident has given rise to a familiar expression – scales falling from eyes means to be able to see a situation clearly and accurately in a sudden and perhaps surprising way. A similar phrase but with a subtly different meaning would be ‘when the penny drops’. This alludes to a penny in a slot machine taking its time to drop and start the mechanism. This phrase then means a belated realization of something after a period of ignorance and confusion.

What happened to Paul on the road to Damascus has been a source of fascination ever since the writer of Acts first recorded it. Like my otter that was really a mallard duck, it is important to consider why this happened to Paul when it did.

As I said, up until my arrival in Lincoln I had been used to looking out for otters along the river in Taunton. Alison, having grown up in Lincolnshire, had never heard of an otter in Lincoln.

We know that Saul had witnessed the martyrdom of Stephen in Jerusalem some time before his journey to Damascus. Indeed, Acts informs us that he had approved of Stephen’s execution for blasphemy, which was to believe that Jesus was now at the right hand of God. Saul went on to take part in the attacks on the homes of believers, dragging both men and women off to prison.

When Saul set off from Jerusalem for Damascus as part of his campaign of terror, he left the city via the Damascus Gate. Just outside this gate is where the stoning of Stephen had taken place. Did Saul, as he rode by, recall and contemplate the courage and faith of Stephen in his dying moments? Did he reflect on what had been taking place since that day? Did he feel a sense of shame and guilt at persecuting people, who were sincere and resolute in their convictions? Did he, as the journey progressed, come to a mind that actually there was something in this Jesus guy after all? I think that a yes to all these questions is a distinct possibility. The penny dropped for Paul, the scales did fall from his eyes, or as my theological college principal would say ‘the doing experience, right between the eyes’. It hit him because his context had changed. He had passed the killing ground of Stephen; he had time to reflect on his journey and it all fell into place. He could not ignore the truth any longer.

When we come to scripture, or indeed many situations, our minds are coloured by our experience and expectation.

For me, an otter, for Alison a duck. For Saul blasphemous Jews who believed a crucified man was now at the right hand of God. But, the context shifted. In Lincolnshire, I came to realise that there are no otters in Swanholme. For Saul, now Paul, that the faith of those about him, which he once considered wrong, was the way forward for him.
This is what experience and a change in circumstances can do. They can inform us more, alter our preconceived notions, remove prejudice from our hearts and open us up to all sorts of new possibilities.

This is Good News – especially if we relate it to our own experience, expectations, perceptions and prejudice, for we then become alert to the truths of God.

Exodus 19
2 They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. 3 Then Moses went up to God; the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: 4 You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”
7 So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the LORD had commanded him. 8 The people all answered as one: “Everything that the LORD has spoken we will do.” Moses reported the words of the people to the LORD.

When the famine swept across Ethiopia in 1984, it is said that God looked down from heaven and concluded that something must be done. Therefore, like the gods of old, this God came down to earth and searched for the right person to lead the response. He knocked at a door. It was opened by a scruffy guy with long hair and looking the worse for wear.
‘Who the hell are you?’ asked God.
The bemused man replied ‘Bob Geldof.’
‘Oh never mind,’ said God, ‘you’ll have to do.’ [i]

We may sometimes wonder why someone is chosen to fulfil a task, perhaps for a particular post at work, or the winner of Britain’s Got Talent. Why them and not someone else or even me? Additionally, when it is someone like Bob Geldof who is called to mobilise the nation, and eventually world, to do something about a famine of biblical proportions we might question the judgment and the ability of both the chooser and the chosen.

There have been many occasions over history when some will have wondered whether the people of Israel were worthy of the title ‘Chosen’. From the prophets themselves as they sought to work out the covenant in the light of the people’s failure to adhere to it, to those in the Church who blamed the Jews for the rejection of Jesus as Messiah, completely forgetting, of course, that those who believed in Jesus were themselves Jews. A group of human beings is an interesting bunch and for every good apple, there may be a bad apple. In fact, one bad apple in a bag of ten at the supermarket might affect our judgement on whether to buy them at all. I have yet to discover a body of people where every single one is without blemish. Moreover, no one is more critical of Jews than Jews themselves are, and they have a right to be so, those who are not don’t.
Being chosen usually brings with it not only a blessing but also a burden. Not only privilege but also a degree of responsibility.

Geldof had to get out of his house and do something about the famine. He couldn’t just stay put. Fans of Pink Floyd might recall the film The Wall, in cinemas a few years before the famine. In it, Geldof sat still in front of his TV completely impassive to the injustices broadcast on it, until eventually something triggered and he got out of his seat and smashed the TV. In 1984, he metaphorically got out of his seat and vocally and physically sought to address the images of emaciated children on the TV news bulletins. He had to do something.

When someone is chosen to play for the school team, it is no use sitting in the changing room at the time of kick off, you have to put on the boots, tie the laces and get out there onto the pitch ready for action.

When the Israelites, the descendants of Jacob, reached the foot of Mount Sinai they had been gone from Egypt two whole months. It was then and only then, that they were told that they were a Chosen People, chosen amongst the nations.
One of the most fascinating verses in this whole passage is verse 2: ‘They had journeyed from Rephidim’.

Now this reference is key to understanding what is going on here; of how the people came to understand what was in the mind of God why God should declare their chosenness at this particular point. ‘They had journeyed from Rephidim’.

It had been at Rephidim, just a month into the journey, when the people began to complain about their predicament. They weren’t happy about the water situation, they weren’t happy about the food, they felt like going back to Egypt. Better to be slaves, they argued, than starve. It was at Rephidim that they had questioned Moses anfd his ability to lead them. It was at Rephidim that they had begun to wonder whether it had been right to trust in God at all. It was at Rephidim that their doubts had spilt over into accusations. However, in their doubts and anger came a response. Commanded by God Moses struck the rock and water came out of it. Then whilst the people were still at Rephidim, they came under attack from the Amalekites. They had to fight for their survival. Thankfully, they prevailed but scripture records that the two tribes would forever be at war thereafter.

Now, and this is most important, at Sinai we are informed that the people had journeyed from Rephidim. Yes, physically, it has taken them a whole month to do so. But more than physically, they have moved on spiritually, they have grown in confidence and faith, they are now no longer where and what they had been.

I believe that, 3 months on from the beginning of the lockdown, we too have moved on; we are no longer where or even what we once were. When the PM announced that our church buildings should be closed for anything other than essential work, foodbanks and pre-school groups for the children of key workers, many within the churches were horrified, some couldn’t quite believe it. Many will have wondered how we would cope without being physically present together. However, we have coped. More than that, in some ways the Church has thrived. Yes, it is very sad that some of our sisters and brothers are unable to join in online worship and we have sought to include them through the use of telephone and printed material, yes we may miss the handshake at the door, but we have learnt new skills and drawn on the deeper resources of the divine within us. We are not where we were.

We have moved on as a church, a body of believers and as individual disciples of Jesus. In addition, as some of our buildings are now being prepared to re-open for private prayer we have had to ask all sorts of questions that needed to be asked. Why are we doing this? Do we have the human resources to do it? How might we sustain this? Can we do things differently? They are questions we have been avoiding for some time. The pandemic has now forced us to address them at last and reflect on our place and role in the world. We may end up leaner, but I think we will end up fitter, more effective and more meaningful in our mission and ministry.

We have also moved on as individual citizens and as a society. We are not where we were. Individuals in many cases for the better, but in society the jury is still out.
I recall sitting on the sofa one evening during the first week of the lockdown, and though the consequences of a global pandemic had been on my mind for some weeks by then, I looked at Karen and the reality sank in. Our nation was about to lose tens, if not hundreds of thousands of lives, globally perhaps a million or more. And before we get complacent with the easing of restrictions, let’s remember that we are still not through it, nor will our world be for some time to come.

As a nation, I think we have reflected that sense of growing reality. Not for a very long time have we had to face such collective trauma, bereavement of such magnitude. The Victorians were familiar with death, so too were wartime Britons, but not so much this past 75 years. It has come as a shock to millions to discover that they too are mortal, that their loved ones could be taken from them so suddenly, earlier than they had ever imagined. In church, due to our age profile and the fact that our friends and mentors have often been of an age that time with them is often brief we are always aware of the brevity of life. However, across the nation millions have not been so aware. Which is why I think that there is a sudden rush to change things.

When life is long and death seems far off, we can wait, but when death is near, things have to change now. The murder of George Floyd, in such a vile manner, filmed for the world to witness, has stirred up emotions on an almost unprecedented scale. I believe that many people now realising that time is short, due to the possibility of contracting coronavirus, have lost patience. They cannot wait any longer for natural justice to run its often-long course. They want justice now. There is a collective bucket list needing to be completed. It is now or never in the minds of many. Therefore, we are no longer where we once were.

Change has come, and even more change has to come, whether we like it or not. How we respond at this time will determine not only the future of our own place in this world, but the world itself. In history, pandemics of this size never left society untouched. Change was ushered in, sometimes for the best; sometimes the changes were far from good.

God is again knocking at our door. We may wonder why. If we are honest, we may be thinking that God is asking the same. After all, who are we? What can we possibly do to change the current direction of this world, a path that is leading to polarisation, deepening division and the rush to the extremities of political views? We can do, I believe more than we imagine.

At the foot of Sinai, a covenant was forged. As Methodists, each year we renew our covenant with God.We commit ourselves to being one with God and wholly obedient to God’s claim upon our lives.

• We must not fall for the narrow mindedness that thinks being chosen excludes all others – it does not. Being chosen means we have the responsibility of passing on to others what we have come to know for ourselves.
• We must not fall for the argument that there is no such thing as racism in our church our community. There is, simple as that.
• We must not fall for those who suggest easy answers to complex questions. Life is far more complicated than some are prepared to admit.
• We must not fall for the argument that we have nothing to learn from history, nothing to repent of and nothing to be ashamed of. We still have much to learn, much to resolve and much to accomplish.

I may be alarmed about the world in its present precarious state, I may be deeply concerned about what the future may hold, but I am absolutely resolute, perhaps as never before to do all I can to promote what I have learnt and come to know as the truth thanks to my discipleship in Christ.

In the words of John Wesley then I urge you sisters and brothers, to do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.

 

[i] I think this was first reported in the NY Times and subsequently quoted by Bob Geldof in his memoir ‘Is That It?’

Moon 4

Photograph 5th June 2020

Psalm 8
1O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.
2Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;
4what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
5Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour.
6You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,
7all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
8the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Psalm 8 is a song of praise. It reflects a moment when the individual stands before God. It is the moment when the human recognises their limitations in the presence of the greatness and power of the Divine. The structure of the Psalm is fascinating. It begins and ends with the very same verse:

O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

It is not unusual in ancient literature, or even for a modern sermon, to begin and end with the same headline. However, it is not necessarily common to use exactly the same phrase to top and tail the communication. Here God is at the beginning and the end. Christians would say later, the Alpha and the Omega. The very structure of the Psalm, therefore, carries with it a theological message, for bang right in the centre of the Psalm is the term ‘mere mortal’. God is the source and the goal of the one in between, the individual human being. And more than that, the one at the heart of the story is actually in the mind of God, God, we are informed, is mindful of him, God’s heart is tuned to him, God’s concern is great for him. How can this be? That is the question the Psalmist ponders. Why should God bother? Yet bother God does. In the midst of all creation, beneath the panoply of stars, the very universe itself, this tiny individual, who only occupies a brief period in time, is of interest to God, the Creator of all that has been, of all that is and of all that will be.

The question begins, of course, when the individual looks up to heaven:

• When there is a need to lift their face above that which is pressing them down,
• when the dilemma is too much to resolve,
• when the pain seems endless
• and the grief too great to bear.

It is then, having realised that more is needed than this individual, or even community, can provide, that the interaction is efficacious. At a moment such as this, when we feel as if we are all alone with whatever it is that is troubling us, we too can look to heaven and marvel that we are still of interest to God.

Covid-19 has shaken our world to the core. Just five months ago, as 2020 got underway, we could have never imagined how nations would be brought to their knees, financially and in terms of health provision. We as a Church have also been brought to our knees not just in organisational terms but, and more importantly, in isolated prayer, distant from our usual places of worship. I believe that, as a Church and as individual disciples of Christ, our collective and personal spirituality has grown. In our sorrow at those who have been taken far too soon, in our regret that we may not have done some of the things we would have done before had we have known this would become so restrictive, in our anxieties about our futures and the future of the Church and world, we have had cause to look up to heaven; and we have not gazed into nothingness, but we have found the very presence of an all loving, all caring, eternal God, a God who is interested in us, even interested in what we thought to be the mundanity of our personal lives.

We may have realised perhaps that we were not as resilient as we thought, not as well prepared as we might have been, not as certain of our plans being implemented, as we believed. In addition, we may have been brought up sharp for what we thought was guaranteed is not necessarily so. Therefore, we have had cause to look up to heaven and we have not gazed into nothingness, but we have found the very presence of an all loving, all caring, eternal God.
It would be trite to suggest that everyone in our neighbourhoods have suddenly seen what we have seen.

• Some may have reflected on their mortality for the first time. Some have not.
• Some may have become more caring towards those next to whom they live. Some have not.
• Some have made great sacrifices to keep to the guidance and prevent the virus from spreading. Some have not.
• It might be wishful thinking to consider that the world will be much better after all this has blown over than was the case before. It may not be.

Without doubt, I believe that the world is on a knife-edge. We may fall on one side or the other. The world may become so much better, more caring toward one another, more respectful of creation, humbler in its awareness of our limitations. But equally so the world may become even worse.

It has been a long-held view of many that today we eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. Such a philosophy has no thought of the consequences for the victims of such behaviour. When the 1918 pandemic ended some communities engaged in wild revelry. Morality took a nose-dive and illegitimacy rose.

But I remain firmly convinced that for those who do look up to heaven and become more aware of their mortality and limitations in the face of the One who stands outside time and space, the outcome is overwhelmingly positive. I am equally convinced that there are more good people in this world than bad. And one of the few things of which I am certain is this: that there is everything to play for.

• The world is not condemned to destruction and disaster.
• In a democracy our elected governments will be accountable at the polls.
• In the end truth and facts win out over lies and spin.
• Love of God and of neighbour, irrespective of ethnicity, faith or belief, far outweighs the prejudice and hostility that afflicts our communities.

There is indeed everything to play for. Never before perhaps in our lifetimes have we had such a weighty responsibility as disciples of Jesus: to engage in acts that will beat the evils of this world. To create a legacy from which future generations will draw and gain confidence. For as they face some presently unforeseen darkness they may look back on our response to this crisis and come to know that they will triumph just as we too triumphed in our time.