Is God a man? No, of course HE’s not!

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… or, the art of choosing words carefully when we speak of God.

One of the most fascinating conversations I have had in recent years was about what to call God. We were writing our prayer, which is a response to the Lord’s Prayer. Although it is the term Jesus himself used, we really didn’t feel comfortable with using the term translated into English as ‘Our Father.’

I suspect that, when we hear the word ‘God’, each of us conjures up a different image. It might be negative or positive, one that either we have had since childhood or which has developed over the years, and it might be visual or otherwise, depending on how our mind works.

For those familiar with Christian language there is an ocean of imagery to draw on. For a start we describe God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or Trinity).  We hear the prologue of John’s Gospel which tells us that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  Jesus called God “Abba”, meaning Father, and in the letters of John at the end of the Bible we read that “God is love.”

But strip away all that Biblical foreknowledge and what do we have? I would like to suggest that the most famous image of God is Michelangelo’s in the Sistene Chapel at the Vatican.  In his ‘Creation of Adam’ painting, God is a depicted as a white haired, bearded man, loosely robed in a Romanesque toga, frowning as he reaches out from his heavenly cocoon to not-quite-touch Adam. Such an image hardly correlates to a creative, loving God who, through the Word, gives shape and meaning to life.

The members of Hug Cullompton who participated in the six week process of creating the Hug Prayer agonised for many hours, days and weeks over how we would address the divine creative power who is entirely beyond us and yet in our midst.  In the end we settled for ‘Divine Embrace’, because no noun seemed adequate. The only option left was to use a term that summed up our collective experience of him/her/it.

It might seem this post is about language, but actually it is an attempt to raise a far deeper and more profound issue we in the church face: not only how we articulate the shared concepts which have shaped our understanding of the world and the one whom we believe created it, but the very concepts themselves.

I know very few Christians who, when shown the picture of Michelangelo’s picture of God, think it’s an accurate depiction of what God is like.  And yet, the way in which many Christians name, address and speak of God gives the impression to the outsider that the God we believe in is imperialistic, judgemental and very, very male.

So what are we to do? Should we abandon all those terms we have grown up using, and which roll off our tongues comfortably? Should those who pray addressing God as “heavenly Father,” be told they can no longer do so?

Of course not.  I would not dream of robbing anyone of the essential elements of their faith and the way in which they name it.

But we do have to realise that such terminology could be alienating to others who have already considered and rejected the image of God as a white haired, bearded man, loosely robed in a Romanesque toga, frowning as he reaches out from his heavenly cocoon to not-quite-touch humanity.  Using terms such as ‘Lord’, ‘Master’ and ‘heavenly Father’ with them could be positively unhelpful.

Language is a powerful thing. Terminology comes with a lifetime’s back-story, rendering the phrase “sticks and stones might break my bones but names will never hurt me” null and void.  Let us choose it carefully, lest we unwittingly turn away those who most need to experience God’s ‘Divine Embrace’ for themselves.

learning the art of not fitting in

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One year, two perspectives. This image is part of a 365(+1) project, my friend Tilo and I are working on. If you want to see more, check out our website zweisichtig.de.

…or, when being beyond the fringe of the church becomes a bit uncomfortable

Shortly after writing our Hug Prayer in 2015 we decided to renew our window display. The prayer, smartly framed, took pride of place alongside a number of other eye-catching items, including some beautifully coloured and shaped crystals.

A week or two later one of the huggers came into the Hug Hub looking distressed. She had been at a Christian study group the evening before, and someone had drawn attention to the crystals in our window.  Apparently there had been absolutely no conversation about the contents of our new prayer, but everyone had an opinion about the crystals.

Apparently we were “dabbling in the occult.”

Our first instinct was to laugh – partly because the notion that we “dabbled in the occult” as an organisation was completely ridiculous, but also because they hadn’t credited at all the sentiments behind our prayer, the main elements of which were, after all, given to us by Jesus himself.

However, there was a more serious aspect to this.  The conversation demonstrated that the Christians in this particular group (and possibly others in the town) might think that we were somehow trying to corrupt others into following harmful ways.

Hug Cullompton has intentionally chosen to identify itself as a community of welcome for all, including those who have either suffered rejection by the church, or who do not relate to, or have any interest in it.  As a community we accept that people find God in lots of different ways and through a variety of practices.

Because of this we have come into contact with, and ministered to, vulnerable individuals who have been manipulated by people claiming to have particular spiritual gifts. Often their mental wellbeing has been seriously affected. It is a privilege to walk alongside these folk, to advise them, pray with them, help them achieve healing and assist them in finding peace in a God who loves them.

One consequence of the comments from the Bible Study group was that we removed the crystals from the window; not because we didn’t think we had a perfect right to put them there, but because ultimately we are a community which desires peace, reconciliation and empowerment in our town. We didn’t want anything to get in the way of that.

I hope that by now the people present at that group (many of whom I know and work alongside regularly) have realised how unconsidered and hurtful their accusation was – and that they have changed their minds.

I tell this story, not to name and shame the people in the Christian study group, but to illustrate how difficult (and hurtful) it can be to ‘be the Body of Christ’ at or beyond the fringes of the institutional church.  I used to joke that the church people in the town thought we weren’t ‘proper Christians’, while the non-church people we worked with in the community assumed we were a Christian group. In some ways they’re probably both right.

The truth is that we just don’t fit into a box. And intentionally so. My fellow Huggers are much better at feeling comfortable with it than I am, and it has taken a long time for me to realise that fitting into a box isn’t important.  What matters to me is that we are faithful to God and to each other, that we act with integrity, and that we are alive to what God is calling us to be and do… and I’d say we do that in spades!

making our mission and ministry Jesus-shaped

anonymous-blur-boy-572463… or, learning, through reading the Bible, how to serve others as Jesus did.

Since handing in my notice last week (I am about to move to pastures new), I have been reflecting, not only on what has been achieved through my ministry, but why and how.  To do so I have returned to a Bible passage I used for a piece of Ministerial Theological Reflection several years ago. It is the story of an encounter between Jesus and a man called Legion, and can be found at Mark 5.1-20. Below is a summary of four main features  of Jesus-shaped mission and ministry I have drawn from the passage:

Stepping out into the unfamiliar

  • Jesus and his disciples have crossed Lake Galilee to  “the country of the Gerasenes”. Not only is this unfamiliar geographical territory, it is Gentile, so the religious and cultural background of the people is very different to that of the Jesus and his disciples, who are Jewish.
  • Location and cultural identity is important. If we are to be the ‘Body of Christ’ in the world, it is not just for those to whom we comfortably relate to in our familiar day to day lives.  Venturing into the unfamiliar, among those who cultural identity and way of thinking are different to ours, is a necessary part of Christian witness.

Seeing Christ in everyone, and expecting to learn from our encounters with them

  • Legion, whom Jesus encounters when he first arrives, has significant mental health issues, such that he has been forced to live in the graveyard outside the village for the safety of himself and others.  There is not a less likely candidate for the accolade of ‘first person to identify the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth.’ Although there is no reason why he should know who Jesus is, Legion approaches and bows down before him, addressing him both by name and title: “Jesus, Son of the most High God.”
  • Sometimes we need to be challenged to see the world from  a different spiritual perspective. To be open to learning from, and being surprised by, such encounters are evidence of the Holy Spirit at work, and can be symbiotic – a process resulting in positive change on both sides.

Facilitating transformation with a commitment to the long term

  • As Jesus sets about healing Legion’s afflictions, Legion suddenly becomes afraid. He is unsure of his future identity without the accursed mental afflictions which have tortured him for so long.  And yet, when his fellow villagers arrive at the scene, they find him “clothed and in his right mind.”  Jesus entrusts him into the care of those who know him best and can support him longterm.
  • This is a process I have seen many times in my chaplaincy ministry. Change can be a slow business. Presented with the possibility of change, people who are so used to things the way things they are, face an unknown reality stretching into the future. It can be terrifying. Genuine transformative change is a lengthy process, and requires more than a single quick-fix solution. Ongoing support needs to be facilitated, not always under the auspices of the church community.

Trusting that God works beyond the bounds of church congregations

  • The villagers ask Jesus and his disciples to leave. We are not told whether it is because they are afraid of his healing power or annoyed because he has chased a perfectly good heard of pigs to their death in the lake.  One thing we do know is that, when Legion asks Jesus to take him with him, Jesus says, “No,” asking him instead to go and tell the people in his own village what Jesus has done.
  • Our ministry in the world doesn’t always result in new church members.  We cannot see into the future of those we serve, nor can we guarantee that those who cross our paths will continue along them with us.  All we can do is bless them as they go, asking that they tell their story of transformation as they do so.

What I call ‘Jesus-shaped mission and ministry’ is also known as ‘incarnational theology’. To read more about the scriptural background for my incarnational theology click here.

 

Incarnation and divine experience: finding inspiration in the pages of the Bible

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… or, why a load of words written thousands of year ago inspire me today.

One of the currently in-vogue words among mission-type people is ‘incarnational’. Whenever it is used there is always lots of nodding.  For the first several years I heard it bandied around, the term troubled me. I wasn’t sure I truly understood what it meant. I knew God became ‘incarnate’ in Christ – so it obviously had something to do with God taking on bodily form. But what did that have to do with me? And how could my ministry be described as ‘incarnational’?

In the past months I have reflected on the term at length. This is the first in a short series of articles, through which I intend to tease out what I understand by the term ‘incarnational’. I will explain why I consider it so important in the context of twenty-first church mission and ministry, and how it has been outworked in my particular context.  As is my habit (partly because it reflects the theological tradition from which I come) I will begin exploration in the pages of scripture.

Incarnation and Identity in the Hebrew Scriptures / Old Testament

Essentially the Bible is a book about relationship: between human beings and a God who loves them. Described in the first book of the Bible as the pinnacle of God’s creation, human beings, from the earliest times, let God down, both in their obedience to God and love for one another.  The story known as The Fall, in which Adam and Eve are tempted by a serpent to take a bite from the forbidden fruit, is symbolic of the breakdown in relationship between creator and created.  When God searches for them in the garden,  Adam (the name means human being) and Eve (whose name means alive) hide, ashamed and exposed. This is their last physical encounter with God. The result of their disobedience is expulsion from the Garden of Eden and a recalibration of their relationship with a now-distant God.  The journey towards redemption and reconciliation with their creator, who still loves them, will be an timeless one, with many twists and turns along the way.

The Hebrew scriptures – the Jewish Bible and Old Testament of the Christian one – tell the story of that journey. There are swashbuckling heroes and and nasty villains;  paupers, prophets, priests and kings; all searching for the redemption that will bring them back into full relationship with an elusive and at times seemingly fickle God.

These people, whose stories are recorded in scripture, are the Jewish ancestors of Jesus and his first disciples, a people whose self-identity was as a holy nation. Despite their propensity to sin, they understood themselves to be chosen by this God, who communicated with them through a variety of means.  Although generally a distant deity, God could, and did, respond to the people when called upon.  Over the generations a cycle of rites of passage, worship practices and feasts and festivals developed, during which the stories of their ancestors were retold in a way that gave shape to people’s lives and helped build both their corporate and individual identity as people of God.

An important element of that corporate worship life was the burnt offering or sacrifice of animals.  In burning all or part of an animal or plant, the smoke emitted was believed to create an odour ‘pleasing to the Lord’, transforming it into a heavenly substance, and providing a link between heaven and earth (Lev.1.14-17).  When they are burned, God responds.  An example of this is in the incredibly moving interaction between Jacob (also called Israel) and God when he is on his way to Egypt in search of his lost son Joseph (the one with the ‘amazing technicolour dreamcoat’):

When Israel set out on his journey with all that he had and came to Beer-sheba, he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. God spoke to Israel in visions of the night, and said, ‘Jacob, Jacob.’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’
Then he said, ‘I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again; and Joseph’s own hand shall close your eyes.’ (Gen. 44.1-4)

Through Jacob’s sacrificial activity, God breaks ineffably into his human consciousness, assuring both his identity and legacy, in just the same way God did with his Grandfather, Abraham.

Again and again throughout the Hebrew scriptures, at times when all appears lost, God breaks ineffably into the human consciousness of the people of Israel, acting to assure their salvation.  And in first century Palestine, when the punishing rule of Roman occupation seemed an inevitable future, God broke ineffably into human consciousness once again. Only this time the form God took was human.

Incarnated identity in the New Testament

God, taking on bodily form in the person of Jesus, signifies the beginning of the fundamental restoration of the relationship between God and humanity.  The God who walks in the garden of Eden, searching for the shamed Adam and Eve, is the same God who befriends, heals, serves and commands in the everyday ordinariness of first century Palestine.  No longer is there a need for burnt offerings to thin the divide between heaven and earth. It has been permanently breached in the most glorious way; for in Jesus the ability to see God is opened to all.

This concept of bodily redemption is then modelled in the earliest Jesus-believing communities, who describe themselves as the ‘Body of Christ’ (1 Cor. 12).  This corporate embodiment is outworked, both through their tangible attachment to each other, and the way they reach out together to the world around them.  Rather than making sacrifices of animals, the followers of Jesus reaffirm their identity as God’s chosen through the sharing of bread and wine together; and it is not long before this possibility is opened far beyond the reaches of those born into the Jewish bloodline.

The way of life lived by the Jesus-believing communities, recorded in the Book of Acts, demonstrates how this body of otherwise unremarkable fishermen, zealots, wives and mothers become exemplars of what it is to live as people with God ineffably present among them:

 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2.42-47)

Through a combination of Biblical, literary and archeological evidence, it is possible to piece together a picture of how the earliest Christians lived.  The image is of small communities popping up throughout the Near East and Mediterranean Europe. They gathered to share food and friendship, to learn more about Jesus, and to commit themselves to modelling a way of life which was gracious, generous, egalitarian and compelling. For more on communal eating and worship practices in the earliest Christian communities click here.

Relevance for Today

Of course all the events referred to above were said or spoken between two and four thousand years ago, and canonised (selected and ordered) almost 2,000 years ago. There are those who say it is out of date, that it has no relevance to, or bearing on, our lives today.  But regardless of how literally the words in the Bible are taken (and in ancient times many words were meant figuratively rather than literally), there are universal truths to find amongst the pages.

Without doubt, the human race is fatally and fundamentally flawed. What we have done to each other and to our planet in recent history is enough to testify to that. And if, as a species, we were able to obey the Ten Commandments given to Moses in the Pentateuch , strive to learn from the ancient teachings in the wisdom literature (books such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes), and follow Jesus’ example and teachings from the New Testament, the world might look very different.

As it is we can only make a difference where we are, in our own realm.  At the end of the Bible is a future vision of a new heaven and new earth.  In that new world the nations, identifiable in their uniqueness, live in harmony. There is food enough for everyone, and love reigns.  And we do live on a planet where that is humanly possible.  It is also our ‘humanness’, flawed as it is, which prevents that happening.

But…

The Bible teaches me that it is not all hopeless. The picture of goodness, painted in the words and deeds of Jesus and his followers, is inspiration enough to make me want to try and model it, both in my personal life and in my professional dealings. So therein lies the basis for my incarnational theology.  I am called to ’embody’ the person and teachings of Jesus, to see others through the eyes of God incarnated, and to love my planet and its inhabitants, however hard they sometimes make it.

More next time…

The reality of growing up English

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or, reflections on how we construct our understanding of the world (and our churches)

The Secret Scripture, a novel by Sebastian Barry (made into a 2015 film), tells the story of Roseanne McNulty, an old woman who has been in an Irish psychiatric institution for more than sixty years.

Through her diary entries, existent scraps of hospital records, reports from the parish priest and conversations between Roseanne and her psychiatrist, the reader is invited to piece together the story of Roseanne’s life. On several occasions Roseanne and the parish priest give very different accounts of the same event.

One might assume someone is lying; but who? The protagonist – an old woman who has been labelled mentally ill – or a respected man of God? In reality both parties are telling the truth as they remember it. It is simply that their memories – and perspectives – are so different.

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Everyone has their own story and lens through which they view the world. Our personal narrative is constructed from myriad events and experiences, things we have been taught and assumptions we have made; and it is no different when it comes to our sacred beliefs. The way we worship, pray, interpret the Bible and understand our spirituality are all flavoured by who we are, where we come from and the life we’ve lived.

I am a product of a culture still affected by Colonial Imperialism. Although we no longer promulgate the values reflected in the song Rule Britannia, there does still seem to be a subliminal assumption in the English psyche that our way is the ‘right’ way, even if that is not actually the same ‘way’ as our (English) neighbours.

Whether it is an aspect of our particular psyche, or simply human nature, I would like to suggest that this assumption, manifested most obviously in our political system, is just as prevalent in our churches, particularly in attitudes towards other church traditions. Throughout history these attitudes have caused division, even schism. Today we are left with a legacy of dualisms which might seem insurmountable: liberal/evangelical, Catholic/Protestant, Biblical fundamentalism/relativism, ‘high up the candle’/’so low down the candle I’ve fallen off’ (to do with worship traditions). The last one might sound ridiculous to someone not versed in Anglican phraseology – but I have heard it used often.

In whichever unnamed age we currently live (post-postmodernism?) such dualisms seem both dated and increasingly irrelevant. It is no longer necessary to adhere to all the views of one side or the other. We can accept that we construct our own narrative,  and as we do so we can affirm those whose way of worshipping, praying, interpreting the Bible and understanding spirituality don’t relate to our own.

The readers of The Secret Scripture never will find out the whole truth about what happened to Roseanne McNulty, because she is a fictional character. But people in churches of very different traditions (and none) are not. Perhaps there is a need to listen a bit harder to different narratives, trying to understand where they have come from. By doing this, those holding what might appear to be opposing views might find enough common ground to begin to appreciate difference rather than fearing it, and actually live out Paul’s words to the earliest Christians in Rome:

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?…
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

An example of Living creatively with difference can be found in a previous blog.

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…”

…or, the Biblical precedent for breaking bread together round a table

Today, many churches are adopting table fellowship – or the practice of sharing food and drink round a table – as a way of attracting people to explore faith in Jesus.  One example is how this ideas is impacting the church is the Eating Together book in the Holy Habits series by Andrew Roberts.

Far from being a novel idea, this practice models that of the first century Jesus-believers and earliest Christian communities.  I would like to suggest that the close relationship between eating together and the formation of early Christian identity referred to in the Bible, makes a compelling argument for adopting eating together as a way of forging Christian community in the twenty first century.

Banqueting, or more particularly sharing food and drink, is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. According to the writer of John’s Gospel Jesus performs his first miracle at a wedding banquet (John 2.1-10); he is invited to a ‘great banquet’ by Levi , where tax collectors and others are reclining with him (Luke 5.29-32); and John sets the Last Supper within the context of banquet (John 13.1-26). By combining scriptural accounts with archaeological and other written evidence, Biblical scholars have suggested that sharing meals was a key aspect of the worship life of first century Christians.

First century banquets – a model for early Christian gatherings

From Symposion to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World (2003), Dennis Smith’s exhaustive study of Greco-Roman banquet practice in the first century CE, demonstrates that sharing food and drink in a social and religious context played an important role in both Jewish and Gentile communities. Archaeological evidence suggests that synagogue architecture of the first century was based on the Greco Roman dining model, and many Jewish festival practices followed the same pattern.

Banquets held in the first century followed a model detected in Assyria as early as the sixth century BCE and adopted by the Hellenics 300 years later. As great admirers of Hellenistic culture, the Romans could to see for themselves the benefit of encouraging a banqueting model which built a sense of community at a time when traditional tribal and ethnic groupings were being challenged. Through the medium of eating together, individuals were able to reinforce social status whilst enabling social mobility and, in one to of the earliest examples of charitable fundraising, banqueting provided a means for poorer members of the community to organise and pay for their own funeral.

Banquets were held in temples, hired rooms or in individual people’s homes. In the first half of the century they were small in size, with dining rooms holding between seven and 11 people. Archaeological evidence shows that alterations were made to both houses and public buildings in the latter part of the first century CE to facilitate larger numbers of diners.

Only people who could afford to host them held banquets, although there is evidence that the nature of some associations enabled people from lower classes to participate. Hosts tended to invite people of a similar status similar to their own, and there would be a guest of honour, seated to the right of the host, whose role was to direct the proceedings. There is evidence that women attended as guests, but only infrequently and always at a low ranking place. When they arrived guests were placed in rank order on couches around the walls of the dining hall, reclining to reflect their status as being able to afford leisure time.  Slaves served food, washed guests’ hands between courses, and dealt with any drunken behaviour between guests. Dogs and uninvited guests might be tolerated, but arriving late was a taboo. Once the banquet started, no invited guest was permitted to enter.

Whether it was a religious festival, collegial gathering, association of tradespeople or funerary organisation, the format was always the same: a meal (deipnon) followed by entertainment (symposion), which often included a philosophical debate. In addition the Emperor Augustus had instituted an obligatory toast to be made to the Emperor, to reinforce his divine status and to promote cultural self-understanding as a subject of the Roman world.

During the deipnon the host would often provide food and drink, but sometimes guests would bring their own, to be distributed by servants. Portion sizes varied according to status, reinforcing the rank of each individual guest. During the symposion the guests would continue to drink and there was usually some form of musical entertainment. Often a flute girl would play, although in reality she would often double up as a courtesan. Discussions would take place on various themes, the participants would sing, and fellowship would be shared.

Radical practices for a radical new faith

Dennis Smith’s suggestion, that worship within the earliest Jesus believing communities was in the form of a symposion, has merit. At the Last Supper Jesus is the host, while the beloved disciple reclines next to him, and they share food and drink together, followed by a long period of discourse (John 13.1-26). Although this account may be more reflective of the experience of the writer than Jesus himself, that the banqueting model used in the narrative shows a familiarity with, and acceptance of, this form of commensality. Paul’s suggestion to the Corinthians that each person contribute “a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” for the upbuilding of the community, also suggests this might be the case in the earliest churches (I Cor. 14.26).

Although on the face of it the common banquet pattern was followed,  in Paul’s letters we find a model of table fellowship which radically challenged accepted norms.  From fragments of information a picture emerges of myriad groups in a number of different places, each struggling to make sense of their new faith, and work out how to practice it in their own community/ies through their eating policies and practices.

Paul is clear that in the community of Jesus believers there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free, or male and female. All are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3.28). This in itself is a radical statement, for of course the Romans maintained strict control on social stratification, reinforced by banqueting practices.

When Paul challenges the Corinthian Jesus believers to wait until all are present before they begin to eat (I Cor. 11.33-34), it implies that members who are slaves and would finish work much later than the free, would miss out on the start of the meal unless it was delayed. Although Paul’s reference to the women in Corinth talking too much is not nice (and possibly a later addition), it does at least demonstrate that they were included as full members of the eating community (I Cor. 14.34-36).

Generally Jews would not share meals with Gentiles (non-Jews), even if they were liberal enough to attend banquets at which Gentiles were present. In defining themselves as members of the ekklesia (church), the Jewish members were released from strict observance of the Torah regarding food. However, Paul asks them to be courteous to those for whom this is an issue: “if your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died (Rom. 14.2-15).  Similarly he writes to the Corinthians,”All things are lawful,” but not all things beneficial.  “All things are lawful, but not all things build up… Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (I Cor. 10.23,31).

These differences were about more than demonstrating equality among members. For in reality those who arrived as slaves left as slaves, and those who were wealthy and had hosted the meals remained so after their guests had left.  Jews remained Jewish and Gentiles remained Gentile. My suggestion is that these practices reflected an eschatological understanding of what participants were entering into by becoming part of the fellowship of believers. This was no future ideal – it was a reality they saw very much in the present.  Where Greco-Roman society promoted inequality and maintained allegiance to Rome through table fellowship, the churches did the opposite; and by so doing created and performed rituals that reinforced that identity.

Worship round the table: its relevance for today

Fast forward two thousand years, and we find worship among most Christian communities very different. Fifteen hundred years of Christendom Church practice has, in many ways, caused a sanitised version of that radical existence, with services having more in common with assemblies or public meetings than times of deep, identity-forming fellowship. Congregations might share a cuppa before or after their service – and indeed it is an important aspect of relationship formation – but I would argue that the format of traditional Sunday morning worship reflects very little of the reality of worship as described in the Bible.

As Christendom fades and a new era as yet un-named begins, that assembly-style way of receiving and taking in information feels less and less relevant as a way of attracting people and forging community.  In response to this congregations up and down the country are exploring new ways of worship – or perhaps it might be said they are returning to ancient ones.

Today’s missiologists (such as Jim Belcher and Kester Brewin for example) suggest that ‘successful’ churches are ones which offer the opportunity to form a deep relationships with God; modelling lifestyles on the example and teachings of Jesus; and allow the Holy Spirit to fire and inspire every aspect of daily lives.  What’s more, commensality is a particularly effective way to achieve this.

My experience is that table fellowship – gathering together round a table to share food and learn more about Jesus – is an exceptionally good way to do this.  Through eating and spending time together, engaging in deep conversation, and even sharing bread and wine in Remembrance of Jesus, community is formed, identity emerges, and people are literally fed, both physically and spiritually, to lead lives modelled on Jesus himself.

Further reading:

Andrew Roberts, Holy Habits: Eating Together (London, Bible Reading Fellowship)

Dennis Smith, 2003, From Symposion to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World, (Kindle version from Amazon)

Wayne Meeks, 2003, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (Yale University Press)

Hal Taussig, 2009, In the Beginning Was The Meal (Minneapolis, Fortress)

Mary Douglas, “Deciphering a Meal” in Clifford Geertz, 1971, Myth, Symbol and Culture (New York, Norton)

Jim Belcher, 2009, Deep Church (Downers Grove, IVP)

Kester Brewin, Signs of Emergence (London, Baker Books)

 

 

 

When theory becomes experience in the breaking of bread

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… or, the joy of sharing Holy Communion round a table

A Bishop recently asked me if I thought the Church could exist without Sacraments.  The conversation we were having revolved around the Eucharist – also known as the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion. It is the bit of the service, usually at the end, when people share bread and wine together “in Remembrance” of Jesus.

My experience (or rather, absence) of Holy Communion growing up

The United Reformed Church in which I grew up had Holy Communion once a month, tacked on at the end of the morning service . Small cubes of sliced white bread and thimbles of alcohol-free wine were distributed to the seated congregation and consumed with grave seriousness. As teenagers we used to ask each other, “Will you be staying for Communion?” And the answer was almost always, “No.”  Until we had made our ‘confession of faith’ and become church members we weren’t allowed to participate, and church was dull enough as it was without an extra 15 minutes tacked on the end!

I suppose, at that age, I was totally missing the point.  No-one explained to me the point of Holy Communion, and my observation of the practice hardly invoked the feeling of awe and holiness that the liturgy (had I bothered listening to it) implied as we ate and drank together.  By the time I was an adult I had a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to the Sacraments.

Nowadays my approach is entirely different. Practising and participating in Holy Communion as part of a meal has made it more meaningful and moving than I could ever have imagined when I was young.

Sharing Holy Communion at the meal table

My first Holy Communion as a member of Hug Cullompton is an occasion I will never forget.  A number of us gathered at my house and shared a meal. Each person had brought something. As we ate and drank we discussed our lives, our prayer requests and a piece of scripture that one of us had been reflecting on.  Towards the end we moved into a time of worship, still seated round the table.  I took a glass of wine and bread roll, told the story of what happened on the night Jesus was betrayed and said, by heart, the words of the prayer of thanksgiving. As we ate and drank, many of us were moved to tears. It was a truly holy moment, and there was an amazing corporate sense of God’s presence among us at that time in that place.

Looking back, I am sad that the sacramental life of the church used to have so little meaning for me.  Although I hesitate to say I love the thimble-and-cube method, my experience now of sharing bread and wine in the context of a faith community is totally different.  Not only does it fill me with the sense of awe and holiness I missed when I was young, it transports me ineffably to another place.

There is something very special about celebrating Holy Communion round a meal table with friends, something Biblical. It is what the first Christians did, and the way they did it was, in the first century Middle East, truly radical, marking them out both as a community of Jesus-believers and members of God’s eternal Kingdom.

That is what I believe Church should be – an experience which takes us beyond ourselves and into the realms of holiness; binding us together in community, so that we may in turn go out and ‘break bread’ with others.

To read more about the role of table fellowship in the earliest Jesus-believing communities, click here.

‘Mission With’ – more than just a theoretical concept

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…or, ‘coincidence’ as a mark of God’s presence in community

It is nearly six years since a leaflet advertising a United Reformed Church initiative called ‘ArtTalk’ happened to float across my desk at a committee meeting. I shall call it ‘Coincidence’ Number 1.  It was the first of number of ‘coincidences’ which help shaped my ministry.  Looking back on it, I’m convinced it must have been more than that.

‘Coincidence’ Number 1

ArtTalk was an initiative for local URC congregations wishing to host art exhibitions.  Hug Cullompton wasn’t officially a congregation of the URC, we didn’t have a church building and none of us were artists.  But a spark of imagination lit up my mind, and within days I was on the phone to the minister behind the project, making enquiries.

In the days that followed I wrestled with how to make such an event take place. I knew God was calling us to this, but I had no idea how to get started. Eventually I decided to go out and have a look to see what venues might be available.

‘Coincidence’ Number 2

As I walked under some scaffolding in the main street, a workman dropped a tool. I picked it up and handed it back. “Is this your building?” I asked. “No, but the owner is inside,” he said.  “Pop in if you want to see him.”  It had previously been a fabric shop. It was large, light and spacious – perfect for an art gallery.  The owner welcomed me.  I explained my idea to him and, without hesitation, he said he thought an art exhibition would be an excellent way to publicise his renovation. He needed three months to get it finished, so we set a date.

‘Coincidence’ Number 3

The next day I saw an advertisement for a local exhibition about the Turin Shroud.  The woman running it was a local fine art painter. She had recently become a Christian and was hosting the Turin Shroud exhibit alongside her own work.  One painting – not quite finished – was of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.  It was incredible. “We need some advice,” I said, and explained our idea. “I’ll help you,” she said, “I can even use it to launch my new painting.”

And so the ‘Hug Cullompton Community Gallery’ took shape. Alongside our exhibition we ran a number of workshops and seminars on the theme “connecting art and spirituality”. 48 local artists exhibited, and more than 1,000 people visited. Residents were uplifted by the presence of a gallery in town, and through it a vision emerged for a longer term initiative promoting the arts locally. Eventually it became embodied in the charity Cullompton Arts House.

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This type of work is an example of what the missiologist Paul Keeble describes as ‘Mission With‘.  Contrasting with ‘Mission To’ (traditional evangelism) and ‘Mission For’ (Christian service), ‘Mission With’ is a simple act of presence.  It is a way of living intentionally alongside members of a community, listening to their stories, sharing their aspirations, and showing the difference being a Christian can make.  It is a form of mission which demonstrates God’s love and invites conversation without expectation, other than believing God is at work through encounter, and allowing the Holy Spirit to work through it.

Last week this particular piece of mission work came to an end as I finished my term as Chair of Trustees for ‘Cullompton Arts House – but only sort of… because the relationships I have made, the doors that have opened, the conversations I have had and the community transformation which has been inspired through resultant artistic endeavours, still remain.

And much of it will continue to do so long after I have gone…

 

The trouble with Baptism: Part Two

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…or, what to consider when bringing a new church into being through the sacrament of Baptism

Shortly after our little community Hug Cullompton began to meet, I had my first request for Baptism.  The candidate was a woman I met when leading a carol service at the local pub.

I explained that Baptism is a Sacrament – a sacred act – during which a candidate declares their faith and makes promises to play their part in the life of the church

“It will take time to prepare,” I said.

“That’s fine,” she replied. “It’s something I really want to do.”

So began a time of Baptismal preparation. Three of us met regularly, and gradually we made our way through a document called the Statement Concerning the Nature, Faith and Order of United Reformed Church.  It explains how we define God and the church, what is distinctive about our denomination and what it means to be a Christian in our tradition.  “If you’re going to be Baptised into the United Reformed Church,” I told her, “You need to understand what you’re signing up to.”

By June she was ready. We set the date for early September and found a venue – a river bank on the edge of the town.  The two of us who were already members of the United Reformed Church decided we would like to renew our Baptismal vows, and formally commit to this new church community taking shape.

It was then that the question came: “Can you do this?”

In our tradition a candidate for Baptism usually becomes a member of a URC congregation who can support and nurture them in the faith.  We weren’t a constituted congregation of the United Reformed Church, and this was to be our first formal ‘service’.

It turns out that whoever wrote the URC Manual (our rule book) hadn’t considered what would happen when a new church came into being through the sacrament of Baptism.  In fact, the URC doesn’t really have any guidance or procedures suited to church planting.

However, that doesn’t mean new things aren’t possible. In the aforementioned Statement of the Nature, Faith and Order it says:

we affirm our right and readiness, if the need arises, to change the Basis of Union and to make new statements of faith in ever new obedience to the Living Christ.

We weren’t asking to change the Basis of Union, our foundational document, but we were asking the church to review its practices.  Our request was forwarded to the committee which deals with matters of doctrine. A conversation took place between the members, during which agreement emerged that, in the case of a new church community, Baptism was possible.  Biblical precedents were found in the stories of both an Ethiopian Eunuch baptised by a road (Acts 8.28-40), and Lydia, mainland Europe’s first Christian (Acts 16.10-16).

Although it was rather frustrating at the time, I am glad the question was asked.  It ensured we did it ‘properly’, and we also drew attention to the need for appropriate responses to the new things God is doing in our midst.

The Baptism service was fantastic. More than 40 people came, family, friends and local church folk.  Gathering on the banks of the river Culm that day felt like a milestone – and so it was.

To read more about Baptism click here.

 

The trouble with Baptism: Part One

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…or, the dilemma of how to welcome non-practising Christians into church to have their Baby ‘Christened’.

In the year or so after giving birth to my daughter, it felt as though I had cornered the ‘Naming Ceremony’ market in my local area.  I got to know quite a few of the parents of babies born around the same time and, when they discovered my profession, asked if I was ‘licensed to do Christenings.’

The answer is that, as an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the United Reformed Church, I am.  My call by God to preside at both adult and infant Baptisms (the ceremony at the heart of a child’s Christening service) has been recognised, and I have been formally trained.  At my previous church I baptised many babies, with the majority of the parents choosing to maintain or develop their relationship further with the congregation afterwards.

Not all did though, and there was a prevailing attitude that it was the fault of the parents – that they had somehow ‘used’ the church to get their baby ‘done’ under false pretences.

As a new parent myself, and as a minister in a role far away from the institutional norms of the church, I have come to the conclusion that this is not at all the case.  Generally speaking, parents love and want the best for their baby.  By having them ‘Christened’ they see the opportunity to mark an important rite of passage, celebrate the birth with family and friends, and do all they can to ensure their child is protected and cared for in the event that anything should happen to them.

Not all churches have the same tradition when it comes to the Sacraments (sacred ceremonies that mark God’s activity in human lives), but generally speaking, Baptism marks the candidate’s initiation into the Church. If they are adults they declare their faith and make promises to obey God and play their part in the life of the church.  For babies, unable to speak for themselves, the parents make the promises on their behalf, nominating Godparents who will assist them in the task.

I would like to suggest that the gap between the church’s formal understanding of the sacrament of Baptism, and the prevailing cultural understanding of ‘Christening’, is absolutely massive.  Parents who are not practising Christians, but have a sense that bringing their child for God’s blessing and protection, are not at fault.  They simply want to celebrate the new life they are miraculously holding in their arms, and receive God’s blessing on themselves and their child.

I do not blame church congregations for feeling used when their normally quiet Sunday morning services are invaded by a family they have barely even met before, hoards of noisy children, and inappropriately (in their eyes) dressed adults.  But I also do not hold it against those who are delighted to be in church, wearing their best new outfit, and anticipating a moving ceremony followed by a great big party.  Why shouldn’t they go to church? And why shouldn’t they be able to celebrate before God? Aren’t they God’s children just as much as those who have been attending week in, week out, for the best part of eighty years?

Sacraments are not an irrelevance. I should know, I’m in the middle of writing a book about them! But neither are they an excuse for those within the church to assume an air of scathing superiority.  ‘Christenings’ are a genuine opportunity to engage with people who may not have thought about faith before but who, on looking for the first time at that tiny bundle for which they are totally responsible, feel a stirring of something beyond themselves which might be vaguely recognised as ‘spiritual’.

The question is, how do we, within the church, help new parents harness that emotion and start to make the journey from vague spiritual stirrings to full-blown faith in Christ? If it is the first time in years (or ever) that they have thought about God, perhaps it is a bit much to expect them to be ready, within a few weeks and after a few ‘lessons’, to declare their own faith and promise to bring their child up in the life of the church.

I suspect that, in practical terms, Church baptismal traditions which have developed over centuries or, in some cases, millennia, are unlikely to be changed overnight because of one blog piece.

My experience is that, by setting the conversation about the ‘Baptism’ ceremony within the context of the ‘Christening’ event, it is possible to have conversations with new parents about what Baptism actually means and requires. They can then make an informed choice about the most appropriate way to celebrate the birth of, and ask God’s blessing on, their child.

They may well still choose Baptism (because culturally a ‘Christening’ does require ‘water’), but at least they will have a better understanding of what the water and sign of the cross on their child’s head signifies. And who knows, the ceremony which should really be a key marker on a journey of faith, might well, by the grace of God, become the initial signpost.

To read some background about the Sacrament of Baptism click here