Friday was the feast of St Peter and St Paul. I would have thought they were uneasy feast day sharers, Paul’s strident certainty must grate on Peter’s impetuosity of faith and visa versa. It is too simplistic to see Peter as all emotion and Paul as all intellect. A careful reading of Paul will show plenty of emotion hidden behind rational words. Equally, Peter is quite capable of intellectual religious insight. However, that is not the coupling I want to draw attention to. What I want to draw attention to is the way St Matthew has coupled together two episodes the first of which is often read on this Saints’ day. Continue reading “Twin star Biblical Interpretation”
First, let me clear the ground. I do not like the right wing attitudes that are suddenly (or suddenly to me) acceptable to spout in polite society. I do not wonder that people hold them, but I do wonder that these opinions are lauded and not seen as embarrassing. The policies that this climate is allowing to get through are detrimental to society and to the well being of the world in my opinion. Yes, a struggle is on and we need to succeed in at least damage limitation. Every battle needs more people than there seems to be available.
However, I want to get across something that is being lost in the midst of the battle. We need to keep the big struggle in view. The big struggle is not for better rights for women enshrined in law, not for the better treatment of migrant and not for better welfare. I want all those but I worry that we are too often if focussing on them gaining pyrrhic victories. We are at the same time as technically gaining a legal or democratic victory losing those who would be our allies in other battles.
The big struggle is for the hearts and minds of the people. When we have that then we have the others will come. However, if we succeed in alienating most people then we will lose all we have struggled to gain eventually. That means we need to watch the method and tone of our argument. So much of today that passes for debate is actually two sides becoming more and more entrenched. We think about the fight as if it is a duel between two already formed teams
The fact is that it is a lot more fluid than that. Individuals are always making decisions on whether to participate, which side to participate on and how much energy to give. There is thus the immediate opponent or opponents but also the onlookers. Now some of the onlookers are moved by the strength in battle but others are moved by other things. These include
- how much space you give those who join in to hold their own views
- if you care about the issues that face them as well as your central cause, however worthy your cause.
- are they able to influence the strategy or are they just battle fodder
- is the underlying morality a matter of deep faith or just surface politics
- how you deal with the ambiguity that occurs in most people’s lives
- can they actually talk about something that is not directly relevant or is their only the campaign
- is it ok to take time out to care for family or will that be seen as not caring
- is there a greater narrative here or is this seen as a one off issue
Those may sound as general questions but I think we need to be very careful that we never, ever think that the effort for any particular cause is worth sacrificing other people. Ourselves we can sacrifice and to be among the highly committed can produce great comradeship. However, if comes to something else when we think we have the right to ignore the humanity of those who are working with us. We can and will only grow if we can engage with the humanity of other people.
I mean how many sermons have you heard on Justification by Faith? I am not really seeking an answer; after all on 500th anniversary of the Reformation this is what the communique released by the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics talked about. It is not just them but Methodist, Reformed and Anglicans. However I want to go back to the Shorter Westminster Catechism. In that I read:
Q. 30. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased
A. The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.
Q. 31. What is effectual calling?
A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.
Q. 32. What benefits do they that are effectually called partake of in this life?
A. They that are effectually called do in this life partake of justification, adoption, and sanctification, and the several benefits which in this life do either accompany or flow from them.
Q. 33. What is justification?
A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone,
Q. 34. What is adoption?
A. Adoption is an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number and have a right to all the privileges of the sons of God.
Q. 35. What is sanctification?
A.Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace,whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God,and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.
Q. 36. What are the benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification?
A. The benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification, are, assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase of grace, and perseverance therein to the end.
Note that there are three different elements to the process of effectual calling of which justification is just one. When last did you here much talk on Sanctification or Adoption? Yet together they make up together the Reformed understanding of our Redemption by God. God did not just justify us, nor are we simply justified by faith even if that faith is the faith of God. Let me leave however Justification too one side and look at the other two.
If justification is the formal declaration of freedom from sin, then adoption is giving us a place within the community of God. If you have ever been told that the fourth side of the Rublev’s icon is open as we are invited to participate in the community of the God head, then here is the statement of that same idea within Reformed Doctrine. The call to be sons and daughters of God is not a call simply to acknowledge God as our parent but to understand ourselves as members of the household of God and part of that community. Alright we can only fully realise at the parousia but at least in expectation it is partly that there will be a foretaste in our current lives. In this sense adoption is a state we exist is not an event.
So onto sanctification which is perhaps the most forgotten part of the whole process. I can remember a Reformed theologian going on about how many day to day Reformed Christians had fallen for works and I asked him whether what he saw as works were in fact ‘signs of sanctification’ . Firstly sanctification is God working in to “fit us for Heaven”. It is thus not something we do to earn redemption but something we receive because we are redeemed. What is more is it is not something that happens instantly but something that goes on working through out our lives. Traditionally Reformed Christians wishing to discover whether they have been saved or not have looked into their lives to see if they could discern the process of sanctification. The shunning of evil, production of good works and acts of piety are symptoms of the sanctification. Therefore reason for thanksgiving. Thus Sanctification is a process not unlike what the Orthodox call theosis. It is therefore a process.
Thus in the doctrine of redemption we have three important parts
- Justification – event
- Adoption -state
- Sanctification – process.
The focus on Justification makes people think that this is a simple act of stepping through a door but it is a door to another country and we have a journey to make there.
I compiled the prayer during my morning devotions as I felt the need to focus my mind on the Trinity and the interaction within it. It is closer to poetry than prose, this is deliberate it wants to have a sense of dance behind it. It references various Bible references, theological ideas and other Christian texts. You cannot read straight off my theology from these, they are pebbles that grind against each other in by mind creating different patterns and shapes and I frequently adapt them when using. I am taking out a license not because I think my name is important, if I could assure it would stay anonymous then I would be happy with that, but because it should not have anyone else’s name attached.
Praise to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Glorious Trinity, one God, perfect in unity
Praise be to the Father
the source and ground of all creation
Praise be to the Son
through him all things came into being ,
and without him, not one thing came into being
Praise be to the Spirit
who in the beginning hovered over the waters
and brings all creation to completeness
Lord God Creator of All
have mercy on me.
Praise to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Glorious Trinity, one God, perfect in unity
Praise be to the Father
who in the fullness of time
lifted the horn of Salvation
Praise be to the son
who was born, lived, taught, crucified among us
and yet on the third day rose again
Praise be to the Spirit
who testifies to salvation in our lives
and leads us into all truth
Lord God Saviour of All
have mercy on me.
Praise to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Glorious Trinity, one God, perfect in unity
Praise be to the Father
who knows the deeds, hearts and minds of all
thus judges all with true righteousness and justice
Praise be to the son
ascended to heave and sits at the right hand of the father
who shall come again to judge the living and the dead
Praise to the Spirit
who will convict the world concerning sin
and righteousness and judgment
Lord God Judge of all
have mercy on me.
Trinity Meditation by Jean M Russell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://www.jengiejon.info/?p=1030.
So now my bretheren, let us sing, not to delight our leisure, but to ease our toil. In the way that travellers are in the habit of singing, sing but keep on walking. What does it mean “keep on walking”? Go onward always – but go onward in goodness, for there are, according to the Apostle, some people who go ever onward from bad to worse. If you are going onward, you are walking; but always go onward in goodness, onward in the right faith, onward in good habits and behaviour. Sing and walk onwards.
Sometimes something makes me reflect on the impact of past events. One such is that Facebook brought to my notice that Journeying is thirty years old next year. That struck a note with me because the first holiday I went on with what was then Pilgrim Adventure was on their tend anniversary. That means that next year is twenty years since I first holidayed with them. Not that I have holidayed with them ever since.I haven’t but we are not getting ahead with the story let me go back to the beginning.
I booked the first holiday less than a week before leaving. This is not my normal style, I do slow planning. However, that year I desperately needed a holiday and had not got one organised. I suppose I should say something of why but forgive me my brevity there are long stories and confidences involved. About three years earlier my boyfriend had turned out not to exist. If that does not make sense to you, that is fine; it does not really make sense to me after living with it for over twenty years. I also was supporting a friend who was being stalked and there was a break down in relationships around us. I was also working full time and doing church-related study. The church-related study might sound silly but it was also the main way I got support from outside of the tight-knit group around my friend.
At my friend’s suggestion, I got hold of the Retreats Association publication that listed many retreats. I am a Reformed Christian. The Reformed tradition does not really get ‘retreats’ as a whole. It does, however, get walking particularly walking within the natural environment as there is a strong environmental streak within the Reformed psyche. On the back page, I saw a small advert for Pilgrim Adventure and it clicked with me. So I think I must have emailed them and then received an email back saying there was a space on a holiday less than a week later. The next week was frantic with negotiations going on as to where exactly to meet up with them and trying to locate the necessary accommodation. My boss made an emergency trip home to pick up a sleeping mat for me the day before I left. But a week late I was staying in the tent below in the Lake District
In those days camping was fairly normal, indeed they owned the tent. The holiday worked for me in a number of ways. I found I enjoyed camping though I was cold, my sleeping bag really was not up to camping in a typical English Summer i.e. cool and damp and the sleeping mat was minimal although if I recall correctly one camper did not even have that. The camping enjoyment was two-fold; I found being forced to be away from tech good, my day job means I am always using tech, and I had my own space in the tent. I enjoyed the walks although my fitness level was relatively poor. The group was unusual; fortunately, nobody who wanted any more than light friendliness with me. I was not ready for close friendship, there were Pilgrim Adventure stalwarts and a number of maturer Anglican women who seemed new to the organisation. The reasons that I remember it is twenty years is that I can remember the conversations about this being ten years. For a variety of reasons, we must have been an odd group but a lot of the time I was floating and not being drawn into subgroups. I was sorry to go home at the end. I can remember sitting on a style and just not wanting it to finish but knowing it would. I am not going to pretend it was perfect but if it had been perfect it would not have suited me as well.
Not surprising the next year I was back. Firstly there was a camp at the end of June and then I think a holiday in Ireland or was it the other way around?
The following a trip walking St Cuthbert’s Way. I can only date that because it was the year Mary Low published her guide with Wild Goose. There was something really special about walking that route. I am struggling to explain the holiday. It is probably the most influential of the holidays I took with Pilgrim Adventure. The crossing over to Lindisfarne by the Pilgrim Path is something special, in part captured by the piece I wrote last year after walking St Cuthbert’s Way by myself. Yet at the same time, it was a difficult time for me and cracks started to show. I had not yet learnt that I need to regulate myself similar to Lindisfarne. There are times when I enjoy being with people but there are also times when I need to be by myself. Maybe just maybe, there was something more complex yet going on. Whatever it was I ended up ill and needing some time out.
I think the year that followed, for the only time in Pilgrim’s Adventure/Journeying history there was a Northern Group, that complemented the core group around Bristol and did weekend walks and such. The North is a big place and getting together for a day walk can be difficult. The next summer ended up travelling to Shetland. The time was fantastic for wildlife including being called over by one of the leaders to stand inches from a sleeping otter. One thing these holidays taught me is that if you want to see wildlife you need to be out for long periods of time. The year after I went to Ireland again but things did not work well. I ended up struggling with lactose intolerance (I think the Irish put milk into a lot of their bread) and being peopled out. Pilgrim Adventure was now usually staying in hostels or B&B and that meant sharing a room. It was not that I needed my own room, it is that I need alone time and travelling with people, sharing meals with people and sleeping without the freedom to head out in free time just exhausts me.
Did I go on one last camping trip or was that the end. My memory serves both stories. Whatever it was life, was moving along. I was now doing a masters degree in Sociology at the OU and then start my PhD (finished two years ago). I would go through burn out with my involvement in my local congregation and then spend a summer volunteering on Iona (shared accommodation, shared meals but in time off I could disappear whether to St Columba’s bay or just to my bed to sleep). Finally, my Goddaughters, who I would have been guardian too if anything happened to their parents, moved to Scotland and I need to use my holiday to keep in contact with them.
Time moves on again, the PhD is finished and my Goddaughters are growing into young women and no longer need me as a guardian. This could be just an exercise in nostalgia only it isn’t. The last three years I have been getting myself fit enough to solitary walk and last year I walked the Northumberland Coastal Path and St Cuthbert’s Way. This year I walked the Cleveland Way from Helmsley to Whitby. The experience of walking a route with my pack is something I relish. There is something very deep about the moving a walking pace from one place to another with all you need in your pack and meeting fellow travellers on the way. There is something special about receiving what the path brings you as gift. As you have to be out regardless, I carry full waterproofs, you are out in the most spectacular of weathers. Yes, I am already beginning to plan me walk for next year, the next challenge. I am not yet up to carrying camping gear as well. I know there is something in me that really want to. I ask questions about how I would cope as just over fifty is different to just over thirty. So I book myself beds for the nights but I am happy as long as it is somewhere to sleep. So even if I am not going on one of Journeying’s holidays next year, the holidays I am doing are still shaped by them
This is a late addition to a series of posts I made and it is in response to Bishop Philip North’s Hope for the Poor which he gave at New Wine in August. It is a good piece of writing and thought-provoking. I am for urban ministry and if you got this far in this series you will not be in any doubt about that. I am for those articles that encourages us to look at what people bring to the Church in more than monetary ways. The problem I want to address is one that is brought by a hidden change of topics in the article. He starts by arguing for an acknowledgement of what the poor bring to the church and ends up with arguing for the greater development of churches ministry to the poor. Without a doubt, the poor need help if their ministry to the church is to be received. It is not easy to draw the poor into the institutions of power and the Church is often too similar to other institutions. It would do the Church no harm to focus. However, I actually want to address here what the poor bring to the Church that is distinctive and why the Church should welcome it.
Let me be clear the Church has a long tradition of holding the poor in high esteem. In the letter from James (James 2:1-6), the Christians are chastised for not welcoming a poor man as they welcome rich. In verse 5 we read “has God not chosen the poor to be rich in faith”. Charity towards them is important enough for it to be a sign of unity to for the Church (Galatians 2:10). The opening of Jesus’ ministry includes ‘proclaiming good news to the poor’ (Luke 4:18). Jesus asks us that when we have a feast we should invite the poor (Luke 14:13) and in the Lukan version of the Beatitudes it is simply “Blessed are you poor” (Luke 6:20-21). Matthew 25:40 has the rebuke for not doing it for the “least of these”. Indeed we are told if we are to be perfect we must “sell all we have and give to the poor” Matthew 19:21.
Now not many of us take that seriously but there has been a long tradition in the Church of doing so. Most notably with the Franciscans. St Francis is revered even today for the extent which he sought to be poor and one of the early classics of Franciscan spirituality is an allegorical exchange between St Francis and Lady Poverty. What is more, most monastic orders keep the vow of poverty or the practice of not having personal possessions.
More modern communities where the radical adoption of poverty has featured include Sojourners and Bob Holman. There are others particularly among evangelicals but you almost have to specifically know who they are to be able to identify them. The radical choice of evangelical poverty is not just a call to minimalism and an absence of stuff but to something deeper. A joining with the poor so as to be one alongside them. The Church is not called to help the poor but to join with the poor. It is different. There is much written about the advantages of poverty as a spiritual discipline but there is a world of difference between poverty chosen and embraced and poverty thrust upon you. The poor in the Biblical sense are those who have it thrust upon them.
So far I have argued that Christian relationship with the poor is not just about serving the poor. and also that voluntary poverty is different from being poor and, while a valid and useful religious discipline, is not the same as being actually poor. Equally, we are not called to idealise the poor as if they are automatically saints by virtue of not having enough to eat. We need to take off rose glinted glasses.
There is one thing that all people who are poor experience; that is that they are subject to institutions, forces and beings that they cannot control. Those forces may be represented by the debt collector, the people who give them substandard shelter at inflated prices, government agencies, charitable agencies, the local drug dealer. Basically, they experience daily lack of agency in their lives and have no illusion that they are masters of their fate. They know they are dependent on events and people they cannot subjugate to their will. They will still try and manipulate those events and people to their advantage but this feels more like playing Russian Roulette than solving the Cryptic Crossword. Get it wrong and you will end up in real trouble with only a limited knowledge of the outcome.
This is very different to anyone even slightly higher up the social scale. We are very much Cryptic Crossword solvers. We tend to believe that if we try hard enough, work long enough, or ask enough people we will eventually find the solution to life’s many riddles and be able to run our lives successfully on our own. We may acknowledge the Divine God who judges all but we tend to imagine him rewarding those who play well and punishing those who cheat at solving life’s riddles. We think what is more that the more money we have the less we are subject to vagaries that life brings.
The poor bear witness to the fact that we ultimately are not in control.
Faith actually begins when we realise this and put our trust in another. While we are trying
to micromanage our ways out of possible disaster or trying to put money aside for every eventuality we are in fact also creating an illusion for ourselves that we are in control. If this is the case then it is not surprising Jesus says that it is harder for rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle (Mark 10:25). Usually the illusions stay until something pretty traumatic happens and then we work hard to regain the illussion. They are our safety net from an anxiety attack that would leave us unable to operate or so we believe. The poor know how to operate while permanently without the safety illusion and they know they often have to risk putting their trust in something they cannot control.
That is the poor know what it is to have faith. They rely on faith, perhaps not in God, though many do believe in God in some form but faith in institutions, the social worker or their mate to see them right. If they did not they would end up overwhelmed with anxiety. The rest of us therefore have some catching up to do when it comes to the technology of faith. While we may be experts at doctrine, have a thorough understanding of the Bible and regular in devotional practice we have little experience of trusting anyone with our existence.
It is the middle class and the rich who need to take the risk for faith, whether that is to embrace voluntary poverty or step out of comfort zone in some other way. Without it we are too shielded from our ephemerality, believing that what we purpose will happen and become self-orientated. Until we open ourselves to risk for faith we cannot know what faith is.
Let me start by saying what this is not about. It is not another debugging of the idea that there existed theocracies anywhere in the world, be it Geneva under Calvin, Scotland under Knox or the Pilgrim Father’s in America. I do not believe they thought that they had a theocracy; it is what others have put onto them. Few in the Reformed tradition including conservative Calvinists want to actually establish a theocracy today.
I believe the commonly cited examples of theocracy never really were experiments in being one in a meaningful way. I have read enough about the real power politics of Geneva during Calvin’s time to know firstly that the appearance of absolute power to God or to Calvin is a later projection. Take the simple fact that Calvin was never a citizen of Geneva. Imagine an absolute ruler who was not even a citizen. Nor was Calvin above the normal pettiness of human beings. I am not talking Servetus here, his enemies have made too big a play of that from the facts. Indeed it could be argued that Servetus’ mistake was to think Calvin was more in control of Geneva than he was. Calvin’s failure to save Servetus was a case of political necessity; for Calvin to save Servetus would have given his enemies, even more, grounds to attempt to destabilise Geneva than if Servetus was tried by the magistrates. If Geneva was destabilised then Calvin would not be able to save Servetus anyway. Rather there is evidence of small minded pettiness in his judgements at the Consistory (Church) courts such as not giving a pay rise to those who had argued with him previously. Geneva under Calvin from Calvin himself down remained a city with toxic power politics. Calvin’s big achievement was remaining alive in such a brew. If that is true of Geneva, then I suspect it is true of Scotland (the evidence I have read supports this) and the Pilgrim Fathers (I have little acquaintance with the evidence there).
Rather I want to look at the change in the conceptualisation of government made to the approach to social justice. Before Calvin, there was Aquinas with a model of government where the chance of something being good was matched with the chance of something being bad. So you reformed government according to tradeoffs. Under Aquinas Democracy is both least potential good and least potential bad while a monarchy had the most potential good and potential bad. Calvin seems to sweep that aside and proposes a way of organising the Church and state that is acceptable. My recall of reading it is that even he thought of it as one of the acceptable solutions to the problem, not the only solution and as such one of the ways churches could be acceptable to God. Notice Calvin’s focus is very much of the church, the state is a side issue. It does, however, suggest that the way a state is governed can be more or less acceptable to God. Thus the questions come can you reform institutions Church or State so that they are more or less in accordance with the will of God. It starts an idea, that is that you can make the worldly structures such that they reflect the will of Heaven. This is not the same as they are ordained from Heaven and the result is almost the opposite.
This has a profound effect on the way the Reformed behave. Let’s get this clear. All churches engage in both charitable works and issues around social justice. There is nothing special here about the fact that the Reformed are engaged in both. What does strike one when dealing with the Reformed is the amount of effort and energy that goes into considering the ways structures reflect issues of social justice. The dominance within Reformed circles of the idea that society needs to be reformed this is regardless of whether these structures are faith based, community-based, or state based. There is a political activists agenda running under the surface that says society could and should reflect the agenda we see as God’s. To put it bluntly, our tedious worrying over structures and forms is in large due to seeing these as a way to get things right for God.
It can be a blessing. The ideas of checks and balances, the keeping of detailed records for trials and such have strong connections with the Reformed tradition. The New England Puritans for the first and none other than John Calvin for the second. On the other hand, it can lead to exceeding officiousness. We tend to forget that people exist as individuals in their own right and while we can shape the structures of society to promote general well being, we need to be careful that we do not overreach. That is, in the end, we cannot force people to be good and respect their integrity. Goodness, if it is worth anything, has to come from the desire within a person rather than enforced from the outside.
I see the enthusiasm of young people for hot topics: Climate Change, Politics, Immigration etc. I admire it, wish I was not so tired myself but…
Over twenty years ago, pre-new Labour, I sat in the Chapter House in Iona late September. The week was the first ever JPIC week. If you are wondering what the letters stand for that is: Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation. It was the first time that the Iona Community added Integrity of Creation to their Justice and Peace commitment.
I remember it as a wet day, the room was cold and like all Justice and Peace events the people there were two groups. There were the seasoned battle weary campaigners, there were the new enthusiastic recruits and there was me. Age wise I should have been in the new recruit group, but I was somewhere between struggling out of quite a severe bout of depression and I started young, really young. I was battle injured from the bouts when I had come to Iona ten years earlier. We were asked to list the story of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation in the last fifty years. The process was dismal, as defeat after defeat was listed. So much so that I, of all people in that room, started to demand that we somehow hold a candle of light. I was close of suicidal but I knew we had to keep a light or there was no hope.
A decade later I watched many of the new recruits burn out. I was also in the long, still ongoing road, to trying to find a balance. I have never been a vocal campaigner but have spent much of my time engaged in the backroom. Trying to make things happen and improve the lot. I am still here, trying to light those candles. Sometimes I am more active than others but I never totally give up. Often it has involved trying to help people as they approach burn out. I have no illusion on the cost of engagement.
Maybe it is returning to Iona that set this off. Maybe it is that I am making contact with new recruits. If I was in that room I would say to the new recruits today:
- we have been here before this is cyclic,
- there will be times when we make progress (and yes forward is the direction overall
- long term engagement with any of these issues is costly
- short of the parousia there is not going to be a quick fix, you need to be in for the long haul
- choose your battles, you can’t do everything and trying to just hastens burnout
- weary campaigners often have wisdom, often hard won, so listen
- but be ready to do things differently – you will at least fail for different reasons.
As the swallows gather on telephone wires
I wake out of my summer slumber
and start to trace the lines of the breeze
while I drift among the trees
cupping the leaves within my hands
I breathing on them
turning this one red and that one yellow
they remain a while glowing in autumn sun .
When they start to fall
my shadow stalks
in twilight airs
careful not to step too heavily
on rain-sodden ground
I linger amongst the bare trees
wary I listen
caressing the grass
til each blade is outlined in white
waiting until the ground is quiet
and then on a clear night
White traceries mark
my touch down
the resting place
of the dew waters
I dive deeper,
until I have
in my grip.
This poem I published in “Scissors, Paper, Shadow, Stone” a collection of prose and poetry from Broomspring Writers in 2012