Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Matthew 5:48 (NRSVA)
Confession time; I am a perfectionist. For those that know me and know how hard I drive myself this will come as no surprise. For me, a task is never finished only every abandoned and I have got really good at abandoning tasks when they will do. Few people realise I have to abandon them or I will continue to adapt them in attempts to reach perfection. Actually, I acknowledged it about a year ago when I read Perfectionism is a Spectrum Disorder by the Thesis Whisperer. Like most perfectionists, I have a tendency towards scrupulosity, unlike many Catholics, I seem to get that these sins are not deal breakers with God. That does NOT stop be noticing them.
The problem is that being a perfectionist means that the above Bible verse just plays to all my scrupulous tendencies. Articles such as this one from Ligonier Ministries do nothing to reduce the angst, the stretching, the overdrive. I want to be perfect because God wants me to be perfect and I will bust a gut trying to do so.
Let me take as read God is as in Jesus. We can argue the niceties of that statement elsewhere if we like. Among Catholic devotions are the Stations of the Cross which focuses on Jesus carrying the Cross to his crucifixion. It is a moving practice to carry out particularly in Lent but here I want to focus on one question. Does Jesus do this perfectly? Well, the answer is simply, No. As in the picture above Jesus falls on route. Indeed he does not fall once, he falls three times. This is not the perfection in the normal sense of the word.
I had already done the switch that ‘to be perfect’ is to be like God not some earthly idea of perfectionism but what I am finding is there is more. The first hint I got of this was Paula Gooder’s article What does Jesus mean when he says ‘be perfect‘. In it she argues that ‘perfect’ is not a good translation but is the best translation we have. Elsewhere in the Bible, the word translated ‘perfect’ is translated ‘mature’ but God being mature is not something that makes any sense.
Then I went and looked at translations of the verse on Biblehub and I noticed something interesting. A number of the more literal translations (NKJV, ERV, YLT) tended to translate it with a future conditional. So now I needed to go back to the Interlinear Bible and an analytic Lexicon, my Greek is limited and rusty). The thing is they are right. This is how we shall be. So it is what we are becoming not what we are to be. Not only that it has the sense of arriving at fullness. Not an easy concept to translate into English.
So we have something somewhere like perfection, completeness, accomplished maturity, ripeness, holiness (thank you St Luke) mayby wholiness and this is not something we are but something we will be. Let me therefore tell you about magic.
Alright, I do not mean magic in the usual sense. When I staying with my Goddaughter’s I once said that magic is real it is just not easy to access. You see magic is what gives the competent the WOW factor. You know the factor, the thing that takes a dance routine from being technically good and makes it spectacular, the thing that makes a professors lecture not just the good giving of information but pulls the students in. The difference between being able to work out what is wrong in a spreadsheet and looking at it for six seconds and knowing where the error is. The ability of someone doing parkour not just to clear a fantastic jump but to make it look easy. The thing is that the difference between the competent and these experts is that the experts have practised until it has become part of who they are! In many cases, the difference is the person has failed more often than the merely competent.
So lets go back to the Bible passage and look slightly wider:
43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[a] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.Matthew 5:43-48 (NRSVA)
Now I think Jesus is saying is keep on loving your enemies, pray for those who persecute you and greet strangers for in practicing doing these you shall become perfect as your father is perfect. In other words, the road to perfection are in the paragraph above. It is not about getting everything absolutely right, but about practicing the love of God in practical ways. Of course we will fail even at that. Humans in a world such as this are bound to fail. There will be the times when we get loving our enemies wrong because we do the wrong thing or the times when our greeting is not heard by the stranger because of the noise of traffic. Even Christ fell carrying the cross. As we are sinful then we will fail because of that, but if we keep on practicing then God has promised that we shall be perfect just like him.
There are two tribes within Christianity who are holding a debate about which is the better way to faith, that of simple trusting faith or that of the struggle of doubt. In a sense, this is talking to this debate but is doing so by picking up an aspect that is overlooked. My faith, which is the one God blessed me with falls into neither camp and can appear to fall in both. My faith is both searching and inquiring without going into doubt.
The first thing I want to say, is there is not one sort of faith that is right and another that is wrong. The form your faith takes is part of your spirituality, it is the shape God has given you and thus part of your call. Whether your faith is a contented trust with no desire to explore further, the desire to spend time in quiet contemplation of the divine, the avid study of the Bible, the desire to seek a world that conforms to God’s justice, a servant spirit that is drives you to serve others, the doubter who wrestles with God, a combination of all or some of these or another form entirely, it is both uniquely yours and also one of the myriad forms that God has made. Do not feel that it is wrong because it is not the same others. All in the end bring us to the same place, the compassionate heart of God.
The second thing to say is this is personal. I am talking of one of the strong strands within my own faith calling. It is not the only strand; I can trace at least two others: a contemplative strand and an activist strand. Indeed the contemplative strand is going to lurk in the background as I write this. These two intertwine in complex patterns within my vocation, the contemplative is surprisingly strong but the scholarly is more developed. So I am going to need to be aware of how this piece is shaped by my experience.
I am re-reading Dangerous Wonder by Michael Yaconelli as I thought it might help a friend and then found it was no longer on my bookshelf. I have just finished the chapter on Risky Curiosity which is making me think. My PhD business cards to say “Basically I have been compelled by curiosity” which is a quote by Mary Leakey but sums up my approach to research pretty succinctly sums up my approach to research. It is driven by trying to answer questions that intrigue me. I am not particularly limited by subject or discipline. I find that working with passionate people who are researchers invigorating. This naturally spills over into my faith. So much so that my doctorate is in theology, albeit contextual theology rather than systematic with a focus around ecclesiology and how we do Church. The chapter naturally appeals to me and is confirmatory rather than challenging as other chapters in the book. However, it did not arrive in my reading alone.
Last Thursday I ended up talking with a friend about our pictures of the divine. Neither of us really has much time for the picture of God as the old man up in the sky who is a loving Grandpa, a sagacious arbiter of our fates and ultimately sovereign. We tend to struggle with words such as light, fire, flames, communion, dance, aurora, plasma, vortex, compassionate, beloved, transcendent, imminent, intimate, personal, furnace. We know we are struggling to put into words our vision. I know many people say God is as in Jesus and that is good as far as it goes. Let me take you to a detail of Michelangelo’s painting of Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel
Now if you look carefully the hands are apart. Talking pictorially I would say Christ is the light that emanated from the point at which God’s hand touched Adam. Christ is both the Beloved of God and the Lover of Adam. It is God who reaches out to humanity not humanity that manages to reach God. Let me leave this image here except to point out that even when I am thinking of Jesus I at times am thinking in terms of light and to point out Jesus is reported as saying “I am the light of the World” (John 8:12).
So when on Friday (28th August 20) was St Augustine’s day and the Office of readings contained the passage
Having convinced myself that I had to return to myself, I penetrated my interior being, with You as my guide. And this I was able to do because You, Lord, succoured me. I entered and I saw, with the eyes of my soul, in one way or another, above the capacity of these same eyes, above my mind, the immutable light; not the ordinary and visible light seen by any man, no matter how intense or clear it might be, being nevertheless incapable of filling all with its magnitude. Rather, it was a completely different light. It was not merely above my mind, like oil over water or like the heavens above the earth. Rather, it was light in the Most High, since this Light made me, and I was at the lowest, as I was made by It. This Light is known by the one that knows the truth.
St Augustine Confessions
Now it came as a bit of a surprise to me but then my brain almost at once started to recall the papers found in the coat of Blaise Pascall
The year of grace 1654, Monday, 23 November, the feast of St. Clement, pope and martyr, and others in the martyrology. Vigil of St. Chrysogonus, martyr, and others. From about half-past ten at night until about half past midnight,
FIRE. GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob not of the philosophers and of the learned. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace. GOD of Jesus Christ.My God and your God. Your GOD will be my God. Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except GOD. He is only found by the ways taught in the Gospel. Grandeur of the human soul. Righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you. Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy. I have departed from him: They have forsaken me, the fount of living water. My God, will you leave me? Let me not be separated from him forever. This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and the one that you sent, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. I left him; I fled him, renounced, crucified. Let me never be separated from him. He is only kept securely by the ways taught in the Gospel: Renunciation, total and sweet. Complete submission to Jesus Christ and to my director. Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on the earth. May I not forget your words. Amen.
Blaise Pascall – Memorial
You will see a surprising similarity between the way two great thinkers describe a spiritual experience. I do not think that they are in any way equivalent. Augustine was a 4th Century Christian Bishop in North Africa. He spent quite a bit of time arguing with Manicheas while Pascal was a 16th Century French philosopher was a Jansenist which could be seen as a Catholic form of Calvinism. Though Pascal, no doubt, knew Augustines work as it was required reading for theologians, I doubt they would have been intellectually in agreement with each other. What they do have is strong enquiring minds.
I have heard a rumour of a third great thinker who had such an experience. The story as I recall it is that towards the end of his life Thomas Aquinas had such a spiritual experience while participating in the Eucharist that he felt that all the rest of his life was wasted. Lets for the moment assume it as plausible. Then we have three great intellects all of whom have an experience of the divine that to them overshadows completely their intellectual endeavours. They know that even at the height of their intellectual work they fail to communicate the essence of the divine and fall into silence or poetry. To put it in a way that is indebted to C.S. Lewis, their experience is similar to children playing at being lion hunters when a real lion turns up. I must admit if these are only children then they are some of the most skilful lion-hunters among us intellectually. Their experience does not nullify the immense value of their work one iota. It still stands as a statement to the rest of us about the nature of the divine. However to them, all abstract thought, even by our standard sublime abstract thought, was dirty dishwater when compared with the eternal spring of living water that is the experience of the divine.
I suspect there are others, in some traditions you do not write this down sort of thing, the mystical experience of the divine is not usually open to the sorts of requirements that the tradition demands. It is notable that Pascal did not publish his and as I said earlier I have not managed to check the story I remember about St Thomas Aquinas. Maybe Eastern Orthodoxy would be more receptive but the Western tradition with its strong rational bias finds these experience often though personally powerful, not valid evidence within the debate. Augustine, Aquinas and Pascal are able to acknowledge them because they are such good rational thinkers. A lesser thinker, which is most of us, will shire away because it would undermine our status as rational thinkers.
Let me change tack for a while and look at the story of Job. I am not looking at Job’s friend, nor making a stab at the theology of suffering that the author proposes. I am wanting to look at Job’s interaction with the Divine. The story is well known. Job, a righteous man, is devastated by Satan acting with God’s permission. His three friends come to comfort him but after a week of silence finish up debating theodicy instead. To his friends only some evil done by Job could justify this action by God towards him However, they are defeated in justifying God’s action to Job who insists on his own righteousness and that he wants to hold God to account. A young man, Elihu, feels the friends have given up too easily and doubles down on Job. Then in chapter thirty-eight God appears in a tempest and starts cross-questioning Job. Job gives in so quickly it is embarrassing; with God present, he pleads ignorance. Faced with the presence of the Almighty Job basically opts for silence. There is always that niggle, that if it had been us rather than Job we would probably have asked more. Eventually, God speaks to the friends instead of Job and where he has been giving an extended account of his actions before God is now succinct and imperious:
After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now, therefore, take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and offer up a burnt offering for yourselves. And my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly. For you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”
Job 42:8-7 ESV
What is striking is that last sentence “For you have not spoken of me (God) what is right, as my servant Job has”. Job who has insisted on his righteousness and wanted to call God to account is held by God as speaking righteously whereas the pious words of his friends and Elihu are not right with their seeking to find fault with Job.
Now I am not claiming Job is a scholar, his questioning is driven not by curiousity but by his own suffering. He does, however, have two characteristics that I think mark many scholars: persistence and integrity. His persistence shows in his refusal to accept the friends plausible explanation and his integrity in that he does not allow him self to be classed anything other than righteous regardless of what is convenient for the theodicy of the times.
Now the book of Job is often likened to a play. I am not here to debate it but what we see is someone driven by the need to answer a question to the point where their questing is answered by the Divine. There is a problem if is a play; how do you show the awesome reality of God? That is what I suspect all the chapters of God’s speech is trying to do. It fails to the modern mind. The question is not solved, but Job falls silent before a reality that surpasses the question. This then links back to the earlier experience of Augustine, Pascal and Aquinas. The end of Christian scholarship is not to make God intelligible to humanity but to find oneself caught up in the joyous theophany of the Divine and to know oneself known by that which cannot be known. Those with this vocation seek to know and instead find ourselves known. In other words, the quest inevitably ends in failures but in so doing the scholar is found.
It is worth drawing some codicils and corollaries from this.
First importantly this is not the way to salvation, there is no way to that except through the cross. However, the lived-out nature of the way of the cross is different for different people. Normally it has three steps: obedience, service and devotion. Of these, I would see obedience as the highest. It is in Evangelical speak what is to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour. The latter two just capture what it is to Love your neighbour and to love God. It is in our ability to Love our neighbour that the process of sanctification is most clearly seen. However, without the devotion or the desire to love God and seeking ways to express it, our obedience becomes rule-keeping and our service duty.
The form in which I am talking about scholarly vocation is that of devotion. The thing that drives this is our desire for God. I acknowledge that many with this vocation will find that amongst the service part of the vocation is the call to apologetics and to teaching the faithful. I would suggest that those are never the whole of their call in that area. The simple service of their fellows through acts of benevolence is never removed from a Christian. We can never serve Christ truly if we do not serve Christ in the people we encounter.
Equally the revelation here granted is not superior to that granted to those whose devotion is expressed through:
service of others
faithfulness in public worship
service of the church
or other acts driven by the desire for God
However, it should also be clear, that sometimes it is not the right thing to do to seek to stop someone from exploring their faith further. While it can and often does lead to an individual going through a time where their faith feels broken down, the risk of not allowing them to explore this way is for their faith to become sterile as they lose the devotion that powers their faith. The way through the desert is in the scholarly vocation as much as it is in any other but when water is on the other side of the desert then there is no merit in turning back to the stagnant springs you have left behind.
There is a risk as with all styles of devotion that we will mistake the means for the end and fall into idolatry. For a contemplative, that might be the calm the practice brings, for service to the church that might be the Church itself, for those who seek to bring about the kingdom that might be the changes in the way the world is structured. I can go on. For the scholar, it is the knowledge itself that becomes the idol. When the niceness of your theory becomes more important than speaking the truth of the nature of God, then your theory has replaced God. This is regardless of the academic plaudits you can earn for the attractiveness of your theory. In no other vocation does a commitment to speak honestly about the nature of God matter
I hope that in this piece I have argued that the scholarly vocation is a way of devotion to God that it seeks, in the end, God’s self-revelation and when that is granted the experience is on a par with other vocations of desire but a scholar finds themselves known rather than knowing. Arising from this that to seek to stop someone seeking this way is to put their faith at risk but that the big risk is not having their faith destroyed by the new knowledge but instead making the new knowledge an idol in place of God. There are similar idols for all vocational practices but to have no devotional element to your vocational practice is to find that your faith is running dry.
This is my mum some twenty years ago holding her grandson. This weekend you would have had her mentioned. Not by name but as one of the many who make up the statistics on those who were positive for Covid-19 and who died from it.
This is not a rant about numbers instead of people, it is about understanding what those statistics tell us. What I put above is factually true but it is not the whole truth.
My mum is around 70 in the picture above and she was 91 when she died. She has had a slow form of dementia which has slowly taken her from us for over a decade. She has been in a good nursing home for about two years because we were no longer able to look after her at home.
In the summer she started falling and was eventually fitted with a pacemaker and then in the early autumn she was admitted to hospital with a chest infection and while there fell and broke her hip. When she came out though she had a hip replacement she had forgotten how to walk and was very frail. The family at this point started a fight to stop further admittances to the hospital.
She was eventually put onto end of life care. We knew a chest infection would kill her. It would not have taken Covid-19 to do that, a common cold would probably have been as successful. In other words she was going to die anyway and we knew it.
Now when we compare ‘flu statistics with Covid-19 statistics we are not comparing like with like. The ‘flu statistics have cases like my mothers taken out, the covid-19 statistics do not. This means that the death rate for Covid-19 is inflated.
Do not get me wrong, not all deaths from Covid-19 are like my mums. That would be to jump from the heights of naivety to the depths of delusion. Some would, like my mum, have died anyway and some would not have died. If this pandemic is sorted by this time next year we will know how many extra deaths there were from Covid-19. However, my mum will not be one of them!
Well you will all have seen this scary graph in some form and be told it is exponential
Now the good news is that it is NOT exponential. It is a sigmoid curve,which basically has three stages:
an exponential start
a linear middle
an inverted exponential end (were it flattens to horizontal)
The good news is that I think we have got for the time being into the linear middle bit. This means that we will basically get the same number of new cases and death until something changes.
The graph of daily rates gives the same story:
If you notice while we initially have an almost exponential looking increase over the last five days the increase has been small if not negligible. When that starts dropping we are in the final stages of the pandemic.
The continuous exponential curve is a false model. The population of the UK is large but it is definitely finite. With it being finite the exponential curve cannot continue. The exponential part occurs when the illness is new to a population that has no immunity. So each time a person with the disease comes in contact with someone else with the disease they infect that person who then goes on and infects all the people they meet. After a time, however, they start meeting people who have immunity from having had the disease among the people they meet. These people cannot get the disease again as they have the anti-bodies to fight the disease. This makes the curve change from an exponential to an approximately linear curve. When nearly everyone has had the virus and thus has anti-bodies then you start to get the inverted exponential curve of the end-stage.
Unfortunately, I think in current circumstances I do not think we are going to see the change into the inverted exponential end-stage just yet. I suspect one of three things will happen.
We could see a broadening in the test criteria, this would lead to a jump in the number of positives because we are testing more people than we were before. The curve will become steeper but will remain basically straight
We reduce social distancing too quickly. Basically, we have cut down the population available to the virus by our social distancing measures. As we reduce the social distancing measures we effectively increase the population to include new people who have not had the disease. If we ease restrictions too quickly it will put us straight back into the initial exponential part of the curve. We really do not want to do that until the daily rate of cases identified starts reducing and then we want to do it slowly and stepwise
We remain in the straight piece for a very long time. This is if everything is managed well. We slowly lighten restrictions, allowing some people to go out more but at such a rate that the disease does not really get the chance to go off again.
So one battle won, but this campaign is going to contain many battles and everyone we lose will cost lives.
O for those who want to know what sort of curve it is, there is a variety of possibilities. The most usual one for statisticians is the logistic/logit but you can look at the probit, hyperbolic tangent and the arctangent. You can find a longer list on Wikipedia
I got fed up with raw rates such as those given in the Guardian. For one thing, how can you compare the number of people infected in an area with nearly 1.4M (Hampshire) with the number in an area with less than 100K (Hartlepool). It simply does not make sense.
One way to correct this is to divide by the population size which I got from the government projections for 2020. Unfortunately the data, I found, only contained the figures for England. I took the rate per 10k of the population for diagnosis. The choice of per 10k of the population in a local area was made because of the number of positive tests at present if minuscule compared with the total population. It is a measure of population penetration of Covid 19. What I am going to produce below is a graph of the top quintile of local areas measured by the number of positive tests for Covid-19 per 10K of population
The average for London is 4.4 people diagnosed per 10K in the population, but that is heavily influenced by the high rates in Wandsworth, Westminster, Harrow, Brent, Kensington and Chelsea, Lambeth and Southwark. The median London Borough local area is Islington with 3.9. The rates per 10k for places outside London high : Sheffield (4.1), Wolverhampton (3.9) and Cumbria (3.5).
Now a warning. The positive tests are actually a pretty poor measure of population penetration. We are at present only really testing the very sick who need to come into hospital. This leaves a huge number with symptoms from a mild cough through to severe flu symptoms who are not being tested. If you then add in that Iceland found about 50% of positives had no symptoms then we are not really testing in any pattern that would pick up actual penetration. What is more, the rules for testing, I suspect, differ Health Authority to Health Authority and hospital to hospital, maybe even doctor to doctor.
There is a high rate of Coronavirus infection in seven London Boroughs out of 31 I could identify in the list. However when you compare infection rates over the whole of London you find that there are a few other places apart from London that seem to have a comparable list.
A side note: will all those who went to the Lake District last weekend please note how high it is on the list. You’d have been less likely to get Covid-19 if you had stayed at home.
This came up recently when I was talking with my parish priest. I am of Reformed heritage, he is a Society Anglican. Wanting a term which did not include URC clergy as well as Anglicans and did not carry the baggage of ‘priest’ so opted for ‘Minister’ and then got caught out on his understanding of who is a minister (anyone who minister within the church) and so made a point about acknowledging the ministry of women. Before you ask we were talking about my background. Now, I have spent a few days trying to find a suitable term.
Cleric – dated, closely related to the word ‘clerk’ as it is an abbreviated form on ‘Clerk in holy orders’ but ‘clerk’ has a totally different meaning within the Reformed tradition, basically meaning committee secretary
Presbyter – archaic, so maybe due a revival, but feels as if it requires a theology degree to use
Priest – Strongly associated with the more Catholic traditions and while I understand its derivation from the Greek as is Presbyter but also used in those traditions that emphasis the ‘sacrament of the mass’
Minister – has far wider interpretations, see opening paragraph, and is strongly Free Church language. ‘Free Church’ is correct, Methodists are not Non-Conformists or Dissenters while Roman Catholics are.
Ordained minister – a mouthful and does not work in Reformed settings where they ordain elders. I have refused to tick boxes when they say ‘are you ordained or lay’ within a URC setting. Not just because all the ordained are lay but also because I am ordained (as an elder) but not to the presbyteral ministry.
Pastor – is again too general see the problems with ‘minister‘.
Elder – again widely used to cover different groups. Rather like ‘clerk’ in Reformed instances in that, it is used often as a shortening of ‘Teaching Elder’ as opposed to ‘Serving Elder’ who are not in any sense Priests and would not want to be mistaken for one. Actually, many Teaching Elders would not want to be either but would see themselves as filling a similar role to Anglican vicars. The term ‘Elder’ is predominantly used by independent churches and New churches.
Vicar or Parson – are too technical terms within CofE
I also recall from my lay training that there is a similar linguistic problem about the Lord’s supper/Eucharist/communion/mass. The course, I was on, was of Scottish origin and therefore had chosen ‘Eucharist’ as a denominationally neutral term. What this means is they had chosen to use the language of the smallest group participating and in Scotland that is the Episcopalian church. In England talking about the Lord’s supper as Eucharist indicated quite strongly ‘Anglican’. The most neutral term I think in England is ‘Communion’ but that is obviously CofS in Scotland.
Then there is the oddity that denominations as a term only really works for Methodists in England. For Roman Catholics and the CofE, there is the claim to be a far wider body than a denomination. They are not part of the Church they embody the Church in the fullest sense. For Roman Catholics that is worldwide and for Anglicans that is within England. On the other hand for classical non-conformists and newer churches, they really do not see the structures as so strong. These are amalgams of convenience for the time being. The structure does not imply the character of the local congregations.
The paragraphs above illustrate the ways the language between Christians of different traditions has not matured enough over the past century to really have got beyond the basic need to talk about terms. I think we are short an agreed language to hold discussions between different traditions. This may not matter if you are not interested in Ecumenism but has deep consequences if you are.
One problem with this is that we get misunderstandings that can damage unity for a lot longer than people can think. For instance, when the URC merged Congregationalists and Presbyterians quite a few of these terms were no sorted out. Particularly no-one looked at the problem of how people talked about ‘tradition’. The English Presbyterians always said ‘As Presbyterians we…’ but the Congregationalists never used the name tag, it was always just ‘We..’ The dropping of the tag is perceived by those influenced by the Presbyterian tradition as a dropping of the identity particularly as the Congregationalist ‘We…’ is far more amorphous as the speaking individual is usually primarily meaning the tradition of their local congregation. It also allowed Congregational tradition to dominate in ways that have led to Presbyterians feeling excluded.
Language matters, the ability to have a broadly agreed language help and yet despite over a hundred years of the current Ecumenical Movement we are still lacking a common language to discuss the central concepts of the church. Perhaps it is time we start to look not just to learn the dialects of other traditions but also to develop a Christian dialect which allows us to talk about the differences we experience.
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.
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.