Learning about mystery with The Silver Fox, Wesley and the Digital Nun

‘And can it be that I should gain’ is one of my favorite hymns. Its tune is rousing enough to be hospitable to my lack of musical talent, and in any case the last verse or two refuse to be sung  ‘soto,’

So I was delighted when my friend Matt Barrett, a.k.a. ‘the silver fox,’ told me that he had selected Wesley’s great hymn of gratitude and praise as his choice for the recessional at the end of evensong last week. (By the way the silver fox can sing; he was head chorister at Salisbury Cathedral two years running – still, he has probably never sung on Ilkley Moor from the back seat of a bus accompanied by thirty rugby playing mates – his loss!) The silver fox claims, and why should I doubt him, that his choice was a function of divine intervention. He was out riding his bike with his daughter when the ‘chain fell off,’ in that split second Matt knew that ‘and can it be………..’ was the right hymn. (I think the explanation is simpler – he is …. at bike maintenance – only joking Matt).

Whenever I have sung this great hymn I have always regarded the first four verses to be the warm up act for the last two; the bits where we start praising God because ‘my chains fell off,’ before in the last verse describing how we boldly ‘approach the eternal throne and claim the crown, through Christ my own.’ 

But, last week, I was particularly drawn to the opening words of the second verse:

’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?

I suspect that the words stood out, in part, because I am currently reading ‘Christian Mystics’ by Ursula King. In a spirit of confession I do find mysticism interesting and, I do believe that we are invited as people of faith to inhabit the holy mystery. I worry that Christianity sometimes seeks to present too cognitive / rationale basis for faith (this does not mean that I think that faith is irrational – actually I am not even sure that the opposite of rational is irrational). At theological college the courses that I have found least convincing are those which are informed by Christian apologetics. With Wesley I am far happier taking the view that ’tis mystery all.’ 

You might think that in an Anglican seminary the most contentious debates are around the big issues that seem to face the C of E, those of gender and sexuality. This has not been my experience. The heated arguments tend instead to be reserved for the ‘mystery questions,’ in those areas where various doctrines compete. Atonement and sacramental theology are the most obvious examples. I suspect some of the reasons such disagreement takes place is in part due to the way we have been taught to think and, the extent to which the church has been successfully evangelized by ‘secular’ philosophy.

The reformation, enlightenment and scientific revolution have taught us to become people whose first question is ‘how.’ How do the sacraments work? How are the elements changed? How are people saved? How does God respond to prayer?  Our hope in asking the how question is that if we can understand the mechanics we will be able to replicate the effect. How, in many ways, undermines faith. How craves certainty and is  reductive. I would guess that many of the most strident atheists are ‘how’ people. Their stridency is, perhaps, a function of being driven to a place where they simply can’t accept that which is outside the orbit of their cognition. Why? Because, they are asking the wrong question.

The real question is ‘why?’ 

The Digital Nun (please do have a look at her blog) made this point in a recent article. She argues that in earlier times thinkers where much more concerned with why. It is after all a purposeful question, a more open question, and in many ways a more thoughtful question. It is of course a question with a downside, for it does limit absolute certainty. Theologically all why does is allow us to get to a point, alongside St. Paul, where we can see ‘through a glass darkly.’ To be a Christian means to inhabit a mystery, to throw away the craving for certainty, to accept that the best we can hope for this side of eternity is to be partially sighted. But,why does more than this. Asking ‘why the cross,’ ‘why the resurrection,’ why Pentecost.’ ‘why the sacraments,’ ‘why pray,’ surely opens up opportunities to relate to the Divine, to know more about the qualities of the Divine than seeking mechanistic answers from the Divine.

Can you stand with The Silver Fox, Wesley and the Digital Nun?

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The wisdom of Winnie the Pooh, C.S. Lewis and Proverbs. A reflection on stability.

As I approach ordination (on 29th June) I have been thinking again about stability. Now, as a Benedictine oblate, you might think that I have spent a lot of time reflecting on this subject. Stability is, after all, one of the Benedictine vows. As an oblate I am not ‘avowed’ but, I do live under a rule of life built around the Benedictine vows to stability, conversion of life and obedience.

So what might stability look like as I enter into full time ordained ministry and, perhaps more importantly, how much stability might I need?

I think that stability can be described  by three P’s (marketing must be a really clever discipline because it manages to describe itself using  6 p’s – it used to be 4 but then its leading advocates got bored and created two more. Marketing’s 6 p’s are  product, promotion, price, packaging, people, place).

Stability’s 3 p’s stand for people, practice and place.

For me as a married man the people who contribute most to my stability are my family, my religious community. Practices refer to shared prayer time through morning and evening offices, individual prayer time, spent in meditation, alongside other socio-spiritual activities such as family and communal meals. Place refers to commitment to the place where I am called on to minister, the parish (if I was a clever ecclesial marketing type I would now add another P to my list). I think that there is a reciprocity inherent to stability, as others contribute to my stability, I in turn help foster the conditions for their stability.

Okay, so far, so good, but, how much stability to I need? I think that three thinkers provide me with some form of concrete answer: the writer of Proverbs, Winnie the Pooh and, C.S. Lewis – all heroes of mine.

Proverbs 25, 16  says ‘if you find honey (which I am reading as a metaphor for honey) eat just enough – too much of it will make you vomit’ (Yuk).

Winnie the Pooh who was famous for his overindulgence said, ‘when having a smackerel of something with a friend (thereby sharing a common practice in community) don’t eat so much that you get stuck in the doorway trying to get out.’

C.S. Lewis, reflecting on John 14, wrote ‘the settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun and some ecstasy. It is hard not to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God……..our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.’

Lewis is correct too much stability will keep us from looking to God; why bother if everything seems just fine and dandy as it is? Winnie the Pooh and the writer of Proverbs are also right, too much of anything, especially honey (a frequent biblical metaphor) will cause us to become sick and / or bloated. Too much stability will stifle both us and others. But as every Benedictine, alongside our hero Winnie knows, true conversion of life is impossible without enough stability. We do need mutual support from other people, in a given place, animated by shared practices.

How do you make sure you get just enough, but not too much stability?

The Theology of rotary and other such organisations.

Last week I was talking to a Christian friend who expressed his disappointment with Archbishop Justin’s comment that a Church of England without Jesus at the centre was no different from “Rotary with a pointy roof.”

My friend explained that, as a leading light in a local rotary club, he was in initially attracted to rotary because it provided him with an opportunity  to join a fellowship which promotes charity, hospitality and civic responsibility. He also enjoys the international friendships that rotary seeks to foster. All biblical values? I think so. I also know  several other Christian friends who regard rotary as a natural and complimentary friend to the Church. Rotary for them provides an avenue for enacting two of the Church of England’s five marks of mission:

To respond to human need by loving service. 
To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation.

These marks have a redemptive quality to them, yes, they are not specifically concerned with proclamation, but they are still missional.

Of course, even though, a significant number of rotarians are active members of the faith communities, many are not. But, surely this does not mean that the mission of God, in redeeming the world, is the sole prerogative of those self-identifying as Christians? Or, that as Christians we would want to limit God to working within our own narrowly defined clique? I assume, that most Christians would regard advances in the medical sciences, for instance, as a sign of God’s progressive revelation, and the redemption of humanity. Yes, as Christians we have to be concerned with the eternal, but, not at the expense of the temporal. We do after all pray ‘thy kingdom come on earth as well as in heaven.’

Within the Christian tradition time does not need to be divided into the now and the then. In fact such a perspective could be regarded as the evangelisation of the gospel by platonic philosophy; something, I think, that the protestant churches are prone to. (Now, I need to duck or hide!)

I prefer to think of time as operating along God’s redemptive continuum. As Christians part of our responsibility, is to align ourselves, perhaps even to submit to, God’s desire for the world, (thy will be done),alongside others, some of whom share our faith, others who don’t, and the majority, floating voters. I suspect that rotary clubs alongside other similar organisations provide an avenue for authentic gospel living.

Within the Judea Christian tradition the prophet Jeremiah provides a wonderful insight into the importance of the faith community being fully integrated into ‘secular’ (whatever this means) life. The Israelites are told to seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you (Babylon) into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’  Jeremiah’s people are not, in other words, to identify themselves, solely, as a self-defining religious sub community. They are told to immerse themselves in the civic and social structures. A kind of earthly transcendence.

So, is Justin entirely wrong? (You might suspect that at this point I am going to argue that he is right, after all I do want to get ordained on the 29th June!)

No, he is also, allowing for the hurt caused, to rotarians, entirely right,for the five marks of mission mandate the Church (and ergo it’s members) ‘to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.’  This is important for two reasons. First, because as Christians we are concerned with the eternal.This does not mean that proclamation is rotary’s duty after, all the body has many parts, all with their own distinctive gifts and responsibilities (I am deliberately broadening the definition of t’the body).Secondly, because it would appear to be the case that the vast majority of the institutions that provide the opportunity for redemption of the world (by responding to human need and, the transformation of unjust structures) were either founded by Christians, or, modeled on Christian values: Oxfam, Rotary, Alcoholics Anoymous, Bernardo, the Children’s Society, etc, etc.etc, etc.) I would even argue that the N.H.S. despite all its faults could only have been established in a ‘Christian country.’

If we want to see such organisations thrive into the future we need to be talking about Christ now, after all it is very hard indeed to identify any organisations founded by ‘faithful atheists’ that promote human flourishing (why bother if you believe that life is limited to ‘three score years and ten’ and, that there is no such thing as divine judgement?). Equally we need to let go of any thoughts that the divine purpose, the mission of God in other words, is only located in and channeled through, the ‘institutional church.’ Thanks be to God for rotary and other ‘theologically’ aligned organisations.

How big,  wide and all encompassing is your God and His body?

Maureen Lipman and the theology of the ologies.

Do you remember the B.T. advert staring Maureen Lipman? You know the one where her grandson picks up the phone to tell her how he has got on in his O levels (or do I mean G.C.S.E.s? ).

The much loved grandson has ‘achieved’ a set of results that leave a lot to be desired. Eventually an exasperated Maureen asks her grandson if he has managed to pass anything. He replies that he has been awarded a C grade in Sociology. Cue rapturous response from Maureen: ‘Who would have thought it you’ve got an ology, we always knew your were clever and now you’ve proved it with your ology.’

At theological college you get a lot of ologies (politics and economics by contrast teach the ‘isms,’ and this is far easier because when all is said and done only two isms really exist, socialism and capitalism and, since the ‘fall of the wall,’ this has been reduced to one – capitalism, but let’s get back on track.)

If Maureen Lipman’s grandson ever entered seminary he could have hours of fun keeping his grandmother impressed with his newly acquired collection of ‘ologies.’

He could talk to her about Sotoriology, Ecclesiology, Christology just for starters. As his confidence grew he could introduce her to Epistemology, Axiology and, in the fullness of time Ontology.

Good old Maureen’s ‘pride in her tribe’ would be complete.  

But………….

What would the grandson really have learnt? Would he be a better priest? Well, yes and no.

Yes because it is important to have a sound intellectual grasp of the subject matter (and we are called on to love the Lord with all our mind), but, no because where theology is concerned the real subject matter is love, and, love can never be limited to the cognitive, or for the matter the sentimental.  

Love is not an ‘ology’,  sorry Maureen, (or even an ‘ism.’)

Love is our primary calling and, our first love must be offered to the Lord our God. Without love all our theology is dry, our faith reducible to a set of theoretical propositions, ‘I believe in God……..’ affirmed through the liturgy but, left in the church, as we leave for our Sunday lunch. 

This morning my New Testament reading (Celtic Daily Prayer) was Matthew 22, 37 and 38: ‘‘He (Jesus) said to him,’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and, with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment,” (verse 37).

This commandment is so important for many reasons, to many to go into here, but I would like to offer two thoughts: First, in learning to love God we learn to love that which is far greater,and more gracious, than ourselves, this keeps us grounded, and, (hopefully) grateful. Secondly, loving God also implies learning to love that which is wholly other, the unique and mysterious configuration Christians call the Trinity. Such love transcends our natural capabilities and, defies rational analysis.

Transcendence, and transcendent love, cannot be defined as an ‘ology,’ still less an ‘ism,’ but it is the key to the second half the Divine imperative, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ (verse 38). 

If we really believe that we are made in the image of God, it surely follows that, just like God, we are also unique and mysterious. If this is true for me, it must also be true for you. Loving God, who is both unique and mysterious, is the key to universal neighborly love, and this not the ‘ologies,’ is the most important lesson I have learnt in the last two years!

Sorry Maureen!

To absurdity and beyond

Flipping through this weeks Sunday Times Magazine I came across an article about Dan Brown, he of Da Vinci Code fame. I didn’t read the article in any great depth because my eyes were  drawn to a photograph of a ‘monkish’ figure holding a placard on which was written:

‘If you can’t respect God you can’t respect anybody.’ 

I think that our placard holder was trying to make the point that Brown’s attitude towards God was disrespectful, cynical etc but to be honest I didn’t bother inquire any further as I felt that, at the macro level his slogan is in fact entirely true (even if he doesn’t respect Dan Brown!)

As I reflected further I began to think about love rather than respect, after all we are, as Raymond Tomkinson’s book reminds us, ‘Called to Love.’ The call to love is our primary calling and as such is our biggest challenge. It is a calling enshrined in our Lord’s summing up of the law where we are called to  ‘love the Lord your God with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind and your neighbor as yourself,’ (Luke 10, 27). Our love, mandated by God,has a trinitarian quality it is to be experienced  spiritually (soulfully), practiced physically and, reflected upon cognitively. It is a form of love that is to be directed outwards towards God and neighbor, for as Benedict reminds us, it is in the neighbor that we potentially meet, serve and love Christ.

Modern secular society is strong on diversity and inclusiveness; we even have forms complete with boxes to tick auditing, verifying and proving our not very radical commitment to diversity and inclusion. This approach allows us to integrate only through the process of active differentiation. This is absurd, it is totally nuts!

Following the modern secular approach also limits our response to the ‘other in our midst,’ Love is pushed aside, instead respect and tolerance become our highest (secular) calling. One further thought; respect and tolerance are the preserve of the powerful. The exercise of respect and tolerance imply the ability to exclude, impose sanctions and, withhold benefits. Let me clear, as an individual (your neighbor) I don’t crave tolerance and respect, for my real need, is your love.

The first part of the commandment that ‘you shall love the Lord your God with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind,’ is crucial because it is through love of God that we really learn about diversity for we are called on to love ‘the mystery of the Trinity,’ a diverse, wholly other and yet unified God comprising Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  A God whose entire rationale, both internally within the Godhead and externally towards humanity, is love. Not respect, not tolerance, but Love.

Do you prize love above all else?

Beyond the milk snatcher

Critics of Margaret Thatcher frequently referred to her as ‘Thatcher the Milk Snatcher,’  for, it was under Mrs. T that free school milk for all children was abolished.

Many, of a certain age and beyond, can remember with fondness our ‘daily entitlement’ to a third of a pint of milk distributed in a small glass bottle (what would Health and Safety have to say about this?!) at morning break. At my school, Monkton Combe, we were also given a small plastic packet containing two Lincoln biscuits. Yum!

Milk is used frequently in the Old Testament to depict goodness; the ‘land of milk and honey,’ for example. The Psalms frequently describe the tenderness of the baby suckling at the mother’s breast. In the New Testament milk largely disappears in favor of bread and wine, as our basic spiritual nutrient.

Several weeks ago one of my daily readings (don’t I sound all pious!) was the first few verses of Isaiah 55:  ‘Ho (a lovely old fashioned greeting, let’s reclaim it!)  everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy wine and milk without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and you labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good and delight yourself in rich food,’ ((Isaiah 55, 1&2). 

These verses resonated with me when I read them. They contain all the sacramental language we need, not only in terms of the elements (water, bread, wine, milk) but also the benefits derived from coming to the Lord for feeding: goodness, delight and richness. The prophet majestically combines the sacramental language of both the Old and New Testaments, talking into the entirety of salvation history. It’s fantastic stuff. 

But what really strikes me is this: our milk, and the sacraments which symbolize all that God has done for us, and which continue to feed us, come free. We don’t have to make any sort of payment, we are offered, in economic language, a ‘risk free investment.’ God’s offering to us is entirely and theonomically (a made up word but see the p.s. at the end of this blog) asymmetrical. He pays the price, we accrue the benefits. Of course, we are asked to pass the benefits on, to share the ‘good life,’ with others, but we don’t need to make any form of down-payment, or prove our moral worth. As Isaiah reminds us we simply need to ‘come.’ 

I suspect that in our achievement orientated culture, where worth is always measured on a relative basis this is a mighty hard concept. In Christian circles we frequently talk about God’s grace whilst  (and, I am sorry to be critical) jockeying for position within the church, or, by comparing our church with the other ‘successful’ church round the corner. We feel obliged, worse still compelled by others, to prove our worth. This is not what we are asked to do. Our calling is simply to come and to be fed. 

In Morning Prayer today we sang Charlotte Elliot’s amazing hymn‘Just As I am…..’

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come. (Verse 1)

Just as I am, of that free love
The breadth, length, depth, and height to prove,
Here for a season, then above,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come! (Last verse)

The hymn writer seems to understand the spirit of Isaiah 55. We come just as we are, because He has paid the eternal price! Now that’s what I call grace!

Can you come just as you are? Or, do you, even in Church, feel you need to prove, or justify, your worth? 

p.s. Within the next  few months Theonomics, a book I have co-edited, will ‘hit the streets.’ If you would like a copy please get in touch.

So, what about the other bloke?

So, asked my therapist, who is a Christian, what verses do you look to when you need to feel hopeful (you see I have been seeing a counselor for my depression). I couldn’t answer the question. You see that is not how I think and learn. You see, I am more big picture, or meta, in my thinking.

In fact I am slightly envious of Christians who are able to precisely locate useful passages from Scripture in answer to any given pastoral situation. In a spirit of confession I also find it slightly (alright you win, highly) nauseating.

But, I can tell you the exchange, or conversation, in the Gospel that has had the most impact on me during my training for ordination. (But, I couldn’t give you chapter and verse without going to look it up). It is, wait for it………………………

John 21, 21 and you would have thought that I could remember that of by heart! And, John 21, 22, (far harder to remember when you add in a second verse!)

‘When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘if it is my will that he remain until I come what is that to you.’

Jesus response could colloquially be translated as ‘Peter, mind your own business.’

Why has this exchange become so important for me? Why is it so personal? Why is it one of those Scriptures I can truly, painfully, enter right into? Here are some thoughts:

  • It depicts Jesus as being totally focused on Peter. Glorious, yet painful. To what extent are we happy to let the Divine be totally focused on us? 
  • By contrast Peter is looking for a distraction, he wants to deflect attention away from him, onto someone else. Such is his level of inferiority, or is it superiority?  Ouch!
  • It reveals the massive difference between how Jesus (therefore God) ascribes and, how we measure value as humans. Jesus is only interested in Peter’s ministry, his unique calling, in commissioning Peter to be the person that only Peter can be. Peter’s mindset by contrast is one of relativity. He can, at this stage, only measure his ministry by reference to another human being, in this case another and much loved disciple. To what extent do you ‘measure’ you ministry in relation to another person / church etc, and not solely by reference to your unique and distinctive calling?

During my training I realized, (or was it revealed to me?) that Jesus was calling me to my own unique ministry, yes it is a ministry that exists within the mosaic of the ‘one catholic and apostolic church,’ but all I  need to be concerned with is my own ministry. I need to care about, and pray for, fellow disciples, but what I am not called to do is to compete, or to measure. Still less I am called to judge or criticize. I am called onto get on with that which is mine to do, trusting all others to God, irrespective of whether I like or dislike what they are doing.

God, save me (us / you) from relativity, Amen.