To all MPs in Lincolnshire, North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire
I am writing to you as a matter of urgency and out of deep concern for our county and indeed nation. You may not be aware of the fact that my role is to represent the 145 Methodist churches of Lincolnshire, North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire. So whilst I may not reside in your constituency I do act on behalf of many Methodist congregations in the area you represent in Parliament.

A while ago we, the Lincolnshire Methodist District, became increasingly aware of our responsibility to challenge and change attitudes and language in all our forms of communication. We entered into a partnership with Lincolnshire Police and Lincolnshire County Council and have embarked on what we have termed Positive Prevention. This scheme has ensured that the consequences of even unintentionally offensive language have become more known to us. As a result, we have seen a tempering of language in social media posts. We cannot eradicate it completely, I would be naïve to think otherwise, but positive steps have been taken and we are now keen to listen to one another with greater respect than may have once been the case.

As a senior Church Leader I would urge you and your colleagues to find ways of tempering the vocabulary and behaviour in both parliamentary debate and public arenas including media interviews and social media.

We live in difficult and challenging times, indeed they are unprecedented for our island nations. Your role is far from easy, there are many pressures upon you and it is an unenvious position in which you put yourself forward to serve your constituency and our nation. I want you to know that you are constantly in my thoughts and prayers. However, I am deeply dismayed at certain events of recent days.

I sat through the Prime Minister’s statement on Wednesday 25th September, and on numerous occasions was appalled at both what was said and indeed at the behaviour of many members. Earlier in the day I had turned on my radio for the 1 o’clock news and caught highlights of the exchange between the Attorney General and Labour MP Barry Sherman; at first I honestly thought it was an overreaction in some poorly scripted and performed afternoon play. I was almost incredulous when I discovered that it was an actual clip from proceedings in the House.
To dismiss threats on the lives of MPs as ‘humbug’ was a new low. I won’t even begin to express my feelings about what some have said about the Supreme Court’s judgment.

With authority comes responsibility. I fear that some of us in our nation today who carry some form of authority are overlooking this fact for their personal self-interest and gratification. We should expect better of ourselves and indeed those whom we serve are right to expect better of us.

History teaches us that divisive discourse in the political arena and appeals to populism never end well; they lead to an erosion of moral boundaries and conventions across the nation. Let me quote the European Commissioner for Security, Sir Julian King, ‘Crass and dangerous. If you think extreme language doesn’t fuel political violence across Europe, including the UK, then you’re not paying attention.’

Should you wish to meet with me to discuss my concerns then I am happy to do so.

For the sake of transparency and accountability this letter will be circulated to my colleagues across the region I serve and published on our social media outlets.

I remain respectfully yours,

What is it that makes me the minister I am?

  • Is it John Wesley’s theology? Less likely I think than the hymns of his brother Charles.
  • Is it the model presented by 17th century puritan pastor Richard Baxter?
  • Or the example set down for us in Paul’s letter to Timothy?

What is it that makes me the minister I am?

  • Is it the sense of God’s presence that took me by surprise on a familiar walk across Cannock Chase 40 years ago this coming spring?
  • Is it the Gospel of John Lennon for music has played a great part in in my reflections over the years?
  • Or is it my daily devotions I try to faithful maintain each morning, and fail more often than I would like to admit?

All of these may be contributory factors but what is it that most makes me the minister I am? Is it I wonder, the people I have encountered and continue to encounter each and every day of my life? Yes, above all others it is the lives, stories, characters, idiosyncrasies of those I meet when walking my dog, when sifting through racks of bargains at TKMaxx, when packing my shopping into reusable bags at the supermarket checkout, or promising the attendant at the petrol station that I will get a new and undamaged Nectar card for my next visit? Yes all of these and so many more that make me the minister I am.

This should come as little or no surprise to those who recognize God in every individual. The core message of the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam is the belief that we are all, every single one of us, made in the image of God. As a consequence the writer of I John 4 is able to conclude that in loving one another we know something of God and conversely in knowing something of God we feel compelled to love one another. It’s a chicken and egg. Which comes first?

  • Loving one another followed by knowing God because there is something of God in the person we love?
  • Or knowing that God is manifested in one another and therefore we are compelled to love them?

Let’s think about this for a moment as ministers, chaplains and disciples of God’s grace: in loving we shall know God; in knowing God we shall love one another even more fully than before.

There is something very powerful about knowing. When we know one another well, we can have a good stab at guessing how they might react to something, how they might behave in certain circumstances, but we can also love them more deeply when mistakes occur – for we know what makes them tick.

Equally so there is something very powerful about loving. When we love we create an environment in which mutual respect and eventually reciprocal love can take root. Therefore not only is the one whom we love being impacted upon, so are we. Those we encounter and engage with are shaping us by their response to our attention, our care and concerns. We begin to realise that we are not all that we may have thought of ourselves, there is still much within us to complete.

  • The conversation with a stranger on the seat next to me on a long train journey.
  • The brief encounter with someone who washes my car.
  • Seeing the busker at the end of the day knowing he has made too little to buy the ready-cooked meal he wanted.

All of these and so much more make me what I am and hone my ministerial insights and intentions.

And I turn to another question of interest to me: what was it that made J what he was? Where is the teaching in the early years of his adulthood? Was there any I wonder? Or was there an informative silence?

  • A time to contemplate?
  • A soaking in of all that he was seeing and hearing on the shoreline of the Galilee or the streets of the surrounding villages?
  • Witnessing the hurts and fears?
  • Listening in on the debates?
  • Mulling over what God had in store for his life?
  • Formulating stories that would resonate with the people?

All of these and so much more for sure. As I read scripture and in particular the accounts of the life of Jesus we call the Gospels, I can detect a growing Jesus rather than a static Jesus.

  • We see this in the wilderness as Jesus wrestles with his destiny.
  • We see it in the debates he has with those who came to him for help or healing – there is sometimes a negotiation involved.
  • We even witness it in Gethsemane in the shadow of the Temple on Mt Moriah, the site of Ab’s would-be sac of his son Isaac.

Jesus was not complete from day one. But like us Jesus was a growing human being, becoming more aware of the world about him, gathering more understanding of the needs of those with whom he shared the living space, responding in ever increasing commitment and deepening love. This is the eg I take with me in my encounters with those ab me. And it helps me when I realize that I am not yet complete:

  • Misunderstandings occur.
  • Mistakes happen.
  • Meaningfulness often eludes me.

But the encounter, the engagement, is the opportunity to love and to know, to know and to love.

It is indeed a reciprocal transformational process.

  • The chaplain and client.
  • The minister and congregant.
  • The neighbour with neighbour.

So the people are in the wilderness. They have arrived at Sinai and Moses has ascended the mountain. But he is a long time coming down again. The people grow impatient and thy look elsewhere for help. Aaron directs the men to get their wives and children to hand over their gold (note not the men!) and he creates for them a golden calf. He then declares that these are the gods that brought them out of slavery in Egypt. The people then lose all moral compass because the writer tells us that they sat down, ate and drank, and rose up to revel. The commentators tell us that the original term indicates that it was somewhat bacchanalian – a wild, wine-soaked rowdy affair often becoming something of an orgy.

These first six verses of the chapter have much to teach us!

It was Voltaire who said that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. This is what the people are doing at Sinai. In the perceived absence of the LORD they make their own gods. And in the absence of their trusted leader they seek the guidance of another – it is a misplaced trust. For the leader then offers the people fake news. He rewrites history. According to Aaron it wasn’t the LORD who had led the people out of slavery but the gods symbolised by the golden calf.

Interesting that he pluralises the term – gods – not God. In other words the people have abandoned their monotheism and re-embraced polytheism. Despite all the examples of the LORD’s supreme power they had not let go of their past superstitions. How quickly they reverted when the going got tough and the opportunities arose.

And it all ends in a bit of a mess.

It doesn’t take a great exegete to ask who our golden calves are today.

From the humorous poster I once saw in Manchester Piccadilly Railway Station:

Welcome to Manchester. While here visit the temples of worship: Pictures of a church, Old Trafford football ground and a Boddington’s pub.

To more serious examples:

  • the trust placed in social media, where opinions are valued more than the facts presented by experts,
  • or the admiration some have for ‘here- today- gone-tomorrow’ celebrities,
  • or indeed simplistic political ideologies.

We have created golden calves.

In addition, like the people at Sinai in difficult circumstances, many are prone to forget the lessons of the past and how it was that those before us extricated themselves out of previous crises.

I am currently reviewing Tony Bayfield’s latest book and am finding it fascinating. It is clearly his legacy, his definitive account of his accumulated insight and understanding of his faith after more than half a century as a rabbi and teacher. Every now and then there is a sentence or two, often in the form of a question, printed in bold. At first I thought it was the editor’s comments as I had only a pre-publication copy. But it wasn’t the editor’s comments. It was the voice of God: Questioning. Probing. Cajoling. Admonishing. Quirky but fascinating.

We are often unable to detect the voice of God in the clamour about us. We often miss God’s presence in the narrowing down of focus during difficult times. But I suggest that it is precisely then that God can be detected most clearly for the open and receptive, the willing and faithful.

  • The pricking of conscience
  • The gentle and sometimes not so gentle nudging
  • The awareness of consequences
  • These and other occasions re-alert us to G in our lives and W.

Tony Bayfield’s book doesn’t have a very good title in my opinion, Being Jewish Today, will limit the readership. Had I been asked I might have suggested another, or at least a sub-title – The God who won’t leave us alone.

You see the people may have been in the wilderness and bereft at the foot of the mountain, they may have sought help from those who would do much harm, they may have even had a good time in wine, dance and sex, but it was all short-lived.

Moses descends the mountain and the people are ashamed. So much so that Aaron displays his inadequacies as a leader: he firstly blames the people for his own initiative, ‘they told me to do it, I was only doing what they asked me to do it’ and then goes on to make one of the weakest excuses in the whole of scripture: he claims that he merely took the gold, threw it into the fire and out came the calf, hey presto! Not exactly what was recorded earlier?

Let’s go back to Voltaire. He said that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. All too many think negatively of this quote. They see within it an Enlightenment philosopher who might be disposing of God. But nothing could be further from the truth – it was act not meant to be anything other than a retort to atheists.

The full quote goes:

If the heavens, stripped of his noble imprint,
Could ever cease to attest to his being,
If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.
Let the wise man announce him and kings fear him.
Kings, if you oppress me, if your eminencies disdain
The tears of the innocent that you cause to flow,
My avenger is in the heavens: learn to tremble.
Such, at least, is the fruit of a useful creed.

Luke 14.1-6

10 September 2019

These six verses from Luke’s account of the Gospel tell us a lot about issues in the early church community, perhaps 40 years after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact I would go so far as to say that these verses tell us more about that early church community than they do the context and contemporaries of Jesus.

I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that Jesus ate with Pharisees, after all the Pharisees and Jesus had more in common than our prejudice against the Pharisees allow us to believe. Nor do I doubt that discussions would have often taken place between Jesus and the Pharisees on the Law and interpretations of it. But by the time the compiler came to present the account of the Gospel we know as Luke, relationships between the early Church and Pharisaic communities had broken down.  Sometime before the Gospel account was written down the Temple had fallen, in 70 CE, and only these two Jewish groups thereafter remained viable; as a consequence the early church and the Pharisaic communities became rivals and competed for the hearts and minds of the people. Hence the somewhat accentuated hostility recorded in these later Gospel accounts.

Therefore this hostility we read of, in both Luke and Matthew especially, are more a reflection of that post-Temple period than those few years of Jesus’ ministry decades before.  For example, the debate over healing on the Sabbath, in this and other passages, was less of an issue at the time of Jesus than the Gospel accounts would have us believe. The sanctity of life and care for the sick have always been central to Jewish law and practise. And from the 2nd century before Christ it became pragmatic for Jews to heal on the Sabbath even though it was prohibited by Torah Law.  This was because 1000 Jews had been massacred having refused to take up arms to defend themselves when they came under attack from Macedonians on the Sabbath. Keeping the Sabbath Law was more important than defending the city. Thereafter it was agreed that there should be greater flexibility in the interpretation and observance.

Now I know this is a challenge to the preconceptions of many Christians, likewise the fact that much of the teaching on the Sabbath that has been attributed to Jesus is actually part of the debate between Rabbis Eleazar and Akiva, however what is important is not who said what, when and where, but the fact that healing is an integral part of our being: the desire to make whole, to restore and to save.  This is our Judeo-Christian heritage and it is our calling today: to make whole, to restore and save souls, heal hearts, bodies and minds.

The Psalmists and Prophets believed that God healed the broken hearted and bound their wounds. The followers of Jesus came to believe that Jesus was anointed to do the same and that his Spirit enabled them to continue such a ministry. That which had been the work of God is now the ministry of believers.

A stupefying fear is gripping our nation. So stunned are we that many of us are unable to express our concerns let alone formulate some kind of action. We know that things are not okay and yet we are so overwhelmed by the relentless rhetoric of our politicians that it is as if we have become perturbed and paralyzed in equal measure.

The seemingly unstoppable downward spiral of dishonesty in British politics is becoming so normalized that those who dare question a blatant lie with an appeal to the facts are somehow seen to be missing the point. There is little care about consequences anymore, this is now an age of impunity. Even the Prime Minister is threatening to ignore an Act of Parliament and by doing so a substantial section of the electorate, maybe even the majority, applaud him; this could be seen to be the promotion of anarchy, it is certainly an unhelpful and unhealthy precedent for our nation. It seems that the old rules that held us together for so long are now falling apart. Our constitution may not be without fault but thus far has been sufficient to restrain the demagogue and promote the nation’s interests. Let us be clear: a demagogue is one who seeks to appeal to the prejudices of the people rather than draw on rational argument. Tyranny has so often followed a time when little regard is shown for authority.

And where is the Church in all of this? I can’t help but consider the possibility that future historians will conclude that we were so focussed on making disciples that we overlooked our neighbours’ needs; we were so keen to increase membership and secure a future that too great an emphasis was placed on evangelism than on addressing the societal changes of the last decade. We sought greater attendance and failed to hear the cries of the neglected and hungry. Our voice of righteous protest is muffled because we have been blind to the signs of the times: we overlooked the fact that inequality causes anger and anger mistrust and mistrust populism. If we shout now then the response of our critics may be that it is a case of too little too late. But we know that throughout history the Church has always been at its best when its back was against the wall. So now is the time for us to come out of the corner and fight for the truths that show the lies up for what they are, to express the love that dispels all fears and to bring a halt to the rush to the cliff edge.

Much of the German Church in the 1930s left the politics to the politicians, the same mistake cannot be made again. Learning from this error the Latin American Church resisted the dictatorships, the South African Church stood against the apartheid regime and similarly the British Church must rise to the challenge of today. It is incumbent upon us to not reflect the tolerance so many have to the utterance of lies; it is necessary for us to not be swept along with the tide of intolerance that marks so much of social discourse. There is no shame in listening to those whose views differ markedly to our own. There is nothing wrong in learning something from someone we thought we had no common ground with. There is everything to gain from open hearts and minds. We are far more complete when we come to lay down having done what is right in the sight of God.