Reflections on Discipleship – Swallowed up

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

 

Two conversations this week got me thinking about death. My Mum, who is 92, was asked by the doctor in her residential home if she wanted to be resuscitated if she was to have a heart attack, and she wanted to talk it over. And another friend, as part of an emergency response team in the diocese, was invited into a local school after the tragic death of a young and well-loved teacher. He found that a dog-collar really did give him a status and a role within the shocked and grieving community.

 Gravestone

This got me thinking about why it is that the church is welcomed (at least most of the time) when death comes close. I can remember Robert Runcie, when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, being interviewed on the telly, and being asked in a somewhat hostile manner why the church would insist on poking its nose into funerals. His answer was that in 95% of cases during his ministry Christian ministers were actively welcomed and invited, and that people genuinely did want to be able to talk about death and dying. Whilst this figure may have decreased over the years, specifically atheist funerals are still almost insignificant in their numbers. So what is it about Christians and death?

 

I think that we are one of the few groups in society comfortable with thinking about it. Clergy encounter it on a weekly, if not daily basis, and we all did those exercises while we were training when we were forced to confront the feelings and fears we had about our own death. But more than that, the gospel and our discipleship refuse to let us collude with the embarrassed silence of much of society, and speak of death comfortably. I can remember my boss, the former Bishop of Monmouth, saying when facing a quadruple heart by-pass that ‘there are a lot worse things can happen to Christians than death’. And wise clergy will, as part of their teaching ministry, have helped their congregation members to look death square in the face so that it loses some of its terror.

 

So with that background I was struck by a verse from my daily Bible reading this week. 2 Corinthians 5 is headed in my Bible ‘Awaiting the new body’, and verse 4 tells us that while mortal life is about groaning and being burdened, all this will one day be ‘swallowed up by life’. This phrase is a fascinating reversal of usual language where it is death, or the grave, which ‘swallow up’ life. But for Paul the opposite is true: the miserable half-life we now exist in will one day be swallowed up by real life, life lived to the full, life free from groaning. Furthermore, says Paul, this new real life is the very purpose of our existence, and the Holy Spirit is the deposit which guarantees the full payment to come.

 

While disciples of Jesus are not those who despise and hate the things of this world in favour of the next, they do have a better sense of perspective than those for whom this life is all there is. Apparently an atheist’s gravestone bore the inscription ‘All dressed up and nowhere to go’. Disciples know exactly where they’re going, and it is a matter of great anticipation and joy.

“Lyne Kirk gravestone” by Jonathan Oldenbuck – Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lyne_Kirk_gravestone.JPG#/media/File:Lyne_Kirk_gravestone.JPG

 

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Ezekiel

Hold on to your hats folks – this is where prophecy gets seriously weird. Although Isaiah of Jerusalem wins the prize for the Bible’s first streaker (a prize later taken from him by St Mark) Ezekiel wins every award for strange behaviour. A rough contemporary of Jeremiah, his ministry also spanned the time running up to the exile and continued with the displaced Israelites. His writings look as though they might come from a priest, with a great concentration on God’s holiness and an emphasis on the Temple and its worship, particularly in his final four chapters which set out a vision for the renewed temple. The first 33 chapters warn the people that exile and punishment are inevitable, but then as Ezekiel joins the exiles in slave labour his message becomes one of comfort, hope, and a new vision for the future.

But while Deutero-Isaiah presents his prophecies in beautiful language, Ezekiel is more often to be found acting them out, using symbolic behaviour to communicate with the Israelites. Even his original call is strange: the vision of what has been described as a flying saucer is one of the most famous, and most weird, sections of the book. He is straight into his symbolic ministry: he has to eat the scroll which he sees in a vision, with words of mourning and lament on it, and then he has to enact the siege of Jerusalem using a lump of clay, and iron pan, and a stove fuelled by human poo, whilst lying still for 430 days. Following that he has to give himself a haircut, weigh out his hair into three parts, and do various things with it all round the city. I’m guessing that his public image might have left a little to be desired.

Raphael. Ezekiel's Vision.

Yet his message, whether or not anyone got it, is the same as that of his contemporaries: by their behaviour the people have offended against the holiness of God, and so are due for the most severe of punishments. God has turned against his own people, and his glory, the symbol of his presence among them, is seen departing from the temple. There is a change of gear as chapter 34 begins, in another purple passage in which God decries the false leaders of the nation and promises instead that he himself will be their shepherd. The vision of the Valley of Dry Bones is yet another promise of restoration, and the book closes as God’s glory returns in chapter 43, the Temple and its altar are restored, the priesthood rededicated, and the Temple symbolically becomes a place of healing and refreshment for all. The city itself will be renewed, and the new name of it, with which the book ends, is THE LORD IS THERE.

Like much prophecy there is a sort of telescope effect which means that it is difficult to see when the fulfilment came or will come, but clearly, as we discovered from Trito-Isaiah, the restored Jerusalem was not quite the place of perfection predicted. This inevitably leads us to look further into the distance, and to see in Ezekiel’s words something of the time when God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth will have been fulfilled. A weird book indeed, but one of great encouragement and hope.

Old Testament Lectionary April 19th Easter 3 Zephaniah 3:14-20

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

This week we have another Easter-tide celebration of the victory of God, this time from around 700 BC, wedged in between the ministries of Isaiah of Jerusalem and Jeremiah. Whilst the book itself tells us that it is set in the reign of king Josiah, and is therefore a dire warning not just of exile but even of the possibility of utter annihilation for Israel, our passage is markedly different in tone, leading scholars to suggest that it might be a later, post-exilic addition to the book, celebrating (as does Deutero-Isaiah) the fact that punishment is over, sentence has been commuted and the people are free.

But there is a subtle change of tone from that of Deutero-Isaiah. Zephaniah does talk about forgiveness and restoration, but he talks much more about the victory of God over oppressive enemies. God, the king of Israel, the mighty warrior, has triumphed, and has rescued his battered and wounded people from all those who would hurt and harm them. The setting of the passage in the Easter season by our lectionaryists (I just made that word up) gives the cross and resurrection a much more Johannine feel. For John the victory comes on the cross, and not on Easter Sunday morning[1]. The cross is not a temporary triumph for human evil, which God has to undo by raising Christ from death (cf the frequent use of the term ‘but God’ by Luke in the Acts speeches). John’s Christ is not a sacrificial victim slain to atone for sins. He is the true king being crowned not after the cross and in spite of it, but on it. His cry ‘It is accomplished!’ says that it is all over, done and finished with.

Basílica María Auxiliadora y San Carlos-Pantocrátor.JPG

Zephaniah’s words of comfort to the exiles have this same kind of ring about them. Their need is less forgiveness and restoration than rescue. God comes not like a shepherd to regather his wandering lambs, but like a warrior to save them from the marauding wolves. The reign of God is less about forgiving sin than about defeating the Enemy behind it.

But Zephaniah takes it even further than this. In the one purple passage from this book, in 3:17, a text well loved by charismatics, God the mighty warrior is seen rejoicing and singing over his people. Considering the number of biblical passages about us singing to God, this comes as a fascinating reversal and a beautiful truth about the feel of our salvation, as opposed to a forensic account of how it works. In a famous passage in his 1990 book The Forgotten Father Tom Smail describes a rather grudging and grumpy acceptance of the returned prodigal son who is allowed back into the family home but only just, and must now carry on all interactions through his brother, as no personal contact is allowed with the father directly. Zephaniah neatly gives the lie to this approach, which I have found is surprisingly common among Christians who kind of know that they are forgiven but somehow can’t seem to manage to believe that God actually likes them in any way. Zephaniah tells us that God delights in us, and some of us need to hear that.

[1] You can hear me teaching on this here

Good Friday Night by Margaret Louisa Woods

I have tried but have found no copyright information for this poem: if I am breach of copyright please let me know as soon as possible and I will of course remove the text. Otherwise: enjoy!

Now lies the Lord in a most quiet bed.
Stillness profound
steeps like a balm the wounded body wholly,
more still than the hushed night brooding around.
The moon is overhead,
sparkling and small, and somewhere a faint sound
of water, dropping, in a cistern, slowly.
Now lies the Lord in a most quiet bed.

Now rests the Lord in perfect loneliness.
One little grated window has his tomb,
a patch of gloom
impenetrable, where the moonbeams whiten
and arabesque its wall
with leafy shadows, light as a caress.
The palms that brood above the garden brighten,
but in that quiet room
darkness prevails; deep darkness fills it all.
Now rests the Lord in perfect loneliness.

Now sleeps the Lord secure from human sorrow.
The sorrowing women sometimes fall asleep
wrapped in their hair,
which, while they slumber, yet warm tears will steep,
because their hearts mourn in them ceaselessly.
Uprising, half-aware,
they myrrh and spices and rich balms, put by
for their own burials, gather hastily,
dreaming it is that morrow
when they the precious body may prepare.
Now sleeps the Lord secure from human sorrow.

Now sleeps the Lord unhurt by love’s betrayal.
Peter sleeps not.
He lies yet on his face and has not stirred
since the iron entered in his soul red-hot.
The disciples, trembling, mourn their disillusion
that he whose word
could raise the dead; on whom God had conferred power,
as they trusted, to redeem Israel,
had been that bitter day put to confusion,
crucified and interred.
Now sleeps the Lord unhurt by love’s betrayal.

Now rests the Lord, crowned with ineffable peace.
Have they not peace tonight who feared him, hated
and hounded to his doom,
the red thirst of their vengeance sated?
No, they still run about and bite the beard,
confer, nor cease
to tease the contemptuous Pilate, are affeared
still of Him tortured, crushed, humiliated
cold in a blood-stained tomb.
Now rests the Lord, crowned with ineffable peace.

Now lies the Lord, serene, august, apart,
that mortal life his mother gave him ended.
No word save one
or Mary more, but gently as a cloud
on her perdurable silence has descended.
Hush! In her heart
which first felt the faint life stir in her Son
perchance is apprehended
even now new mystery; grief less loud clamours,
the Resurrection has begun.
Now lies the Lord, serene, august, apart.

Margaret Louisa Woods (1856-1929)

Reflections on Discipleship – Highs and Lows

Reflections on Discipleship – Highs and Lows

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

I have three traditions about what I do on Good Friday. Under the general heading of trying to feel miserable I have baked beans on toast at some point in the day (a tradition which dates back several centuries to my incumbency in Coventry where a friend always looked after our kids during the three hours meditation service and fed them the aforementioned delicacy), I listen to at least some of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which is a great antidote if I have experienced a service earlier with jaunty songs about lighthouses carrying me home, and I end the day by reading my very fave poem ever, the aptly titled Good Friday Evening by Margaret Louisa Woods. I’m am inevitably in tears at this point, so I go to bed, spend Holy Saturday doing nothing in particular (which is exactly how it should be spent) and then get ready to celebrate on Easter Morning.

File:Sacro Monte di Crea. Figura1.JPG

One of the things I love about being an Anglican is the liturgical calendar, a new discovery for me as one nurtured in the Baptist denomination. I love the highs and lows, the austerity followed by celebration, the way we’re usually so good at rhythm and ‘occasion’; I love it that we feel OK about a stripped back, austere approach in worship without feeling that every week has to be more Spirit-filled and celebratory than the week before, and I love ‘Ordinary Time’, those long swathes of the year when nothing special happens and we just get on with it. It distresses me when I am expected to be jolly on Good Friday, and in particular when the church seems to believe that to engage with children we need to be upbeat and lively.

In other words, churches which take liturgy and the calendar seriously are reflecting real life, with its highs and lows, its moments of grief and wonder, and the endless slog of a spirituality for the long haul. It concerns me that some of those which don’t are subtly giving us messages about our discipleship, our walk with Jesus, which are ultimately destructive. Jesus himself warned those who were thinking about following him that it would not be a picnic. He never promised an easy life, and those of his disciples who ended up as martyrs could certainly not sue him under the Trades Descriptions Act (not least because they were dead, but you know what I mean). If the way we choose to construct our worship as local churches appears to promise that following Jesus is all about walking in faith and victory, we set disciples up for a crash sooner or later. So much better to let our worship contain all the ups and downs of real life and real life discipleship.

Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Lamentations

This week’s book is just what we all need for those post-Easter back-to-work blues. Last week we talked about Jeremiah’s grief at the destruction of his city of Jerusalem and, deeper than that, the dying of a whole culture, and we noted that, unlike many prophetic books, Jeremiah’s contains several passages in which he pours out the grief of his broken heart. If, as is traditionally assumed, Lamentations is from his pen, we get the full horror of his devastation in these five chapters.

Lament is not something the church has always been good at, at least those more hopeful and upbeat sections of it. But like other kinds of literature in the Bible lament has its form, and its rules. This book uses the form of funeral poems, cast in typical lament structure, and it is a book from which we can learn much.

I am indebted to a very helpful Grove Book called Sowing in Tears by Paul Bradbury[1]. Subtitled ‘How to Lament in a Church of Praise’ it makes the point that charismatic churches can be so focussed on future triumph that present suffering can easily be downplayed or excluded altogether from the church’s worship and spirituality. After all, we should all be walking in faith and victory. He examines ‘Lament form’ and uses it as a framework to contain both sorrow and hope, just as the author of our book does.

Lament

So we begin with an extended description of just what it is that has gone wrong. The city is devastated and deserted; worship has ceased, her enemies have triumphed over her and have plundered her; the few people remaining are close to starvation, and nobody cares. Like the prophet the city is without comfort or help. Chapter 1 ends with a plea for God to judge those who have caused all this distress.

In chapter 2 the blame shifts, and there is a recognition that God is actually behind this devastation, which is seen as punishment. The Lord has done exactly what he said he would do. Chapter 3 becomes more personal as the author talks in greater detail about what all this has done to him personally. But then in what is the purple passage of the book hope springs up in 3:21. At least God has not destroyed us altogether: because of his love, mercy and faithfulness hope remains. The appropriate response, therefore is patient submission and waiting. But then the lament theme re-emerges and what looks like Jeremiah’s personal suffering at the hand of those who found his message unacceptable is recounted. Chapter 4 is more of the same, reminding us that even though hope springs up briefly it has not yet fully overcome the need to mourn. The final chapter is a prayer to the endlessly reigning God to restore the people’s fortunes, but the poignant coda adds ‘Unless you have utterly rejected us’.

Lamentations is a powerful book, too little preached on, and too dominated by the church’s love for the short nice bit in chapter 3 with little acknowledgement of the reality of the rest. Paul Bradbury’s advice to us is to use the lament form, which moves from deepest devastation to hope to prayer as a ‘container’ for our griefs and sorrows. Certainly it is appropriate that we resist all attempts to jolly us, or those we stand alongside in their suffering, towards resolution before we have been given the chance fully to lament our woes. Without a full expression of the experience of the pain of suffering and loss, any attempts at rushing people towards hope and joy are very likely to be superficial. Lamentations gives us a good framework: it is a book which needs to be preached and prayed far more than it is.

[1] Grove Worship Series W193 (Cambridge: Grove, 2007)