In the wilderness, but it’s not so bad:7

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I have seen others taking this route (Chaplaincy) losing their respect for/belief in scripture. I understand that; being able to step back from being a community’s spokesperson/shaman/preacher allows a bit of honesty; you don’t ‘need’ to believe on behalf of others any more.

I think I was just lucky; I always found scripture fascinating; even the bits that seemed to make no sense, obviously contradicted or seemed extraneous and best left on the cutting room floor. In that respect, its messy unpredictability seemed more true to life than anything else. Calls to ‘systematic’ theology, the ‘plain truth’ of scripture or readings that disregarded the untidy story in favour of hermetically sealed truth never did it for me, so I hadn’t got that to lose or be ‘converted’ from. The Bible seemed full colour even if evangelical theology at its worst excesses made it seem like an angry, pale man in a 3 piece suit.

The Psalms do it all the time for me and increasingly so. The mix of joy, lament, vengeance, praise, belief, disbelief, humble acceptance, anger and so many many more themes often fill me with a sense of everlasting life. Mornings when I pause, as my NHS computer tries to load up, and I try to keep stillness and prayer and a Psalm can be times when the veil between heaven and earth seem very thin. There is no silence of an empty church, but rather the whirring of a fan over an ageing hard drive and the chatter of people passing wherever I’ve managed to hot desk that day.

Sometimes the stories of an ancient people and an inspired, sometimes dissonant library seem more real in the ‘real world’ that I inhabit.

We had hoped

I was at a Ministerial Synod a few days ago. As a Methodist Minister, you have to go; and sometimes that is as bad as it sounds…

During this gathering, we shared communion and heard the story in Luke chapter 24 of Jesus meeting his followers on the road to Emmaus. This is a story so familiar that you can stop listening. One phrase really hit me this time:-

‘But we had hoped’

It is uttered by dejected people, trudging away from Jerusalem, sure that their whole world has collapsed. The phrase is pregnant with lament.

In the past, I had preached the story following the traditional line- Jesus appears to us unknown & often we don’t realise it. I still would do (although not as cliched as the last sentence), but I think I would make more now of staying in the story & living with that phrase.

I have encountered so many people who live with that phrase. Whilst they would love a happy ending, there often isn’t going to be one- if they/we/I want anything, it is just to be heard, acknowledged and honoured. After a while ‘forget about your problems and focus on Him’ doesn’t cut it.

I liked the picture (above) that came with the sermon. Caravaggio painted 2 versions of Emmaus: an earlier one when life was going well and then the above one when his life began to reverse. ‘But we had hoped’ comes out strongly: the bold colours, smiles and full plate have gone- life is bleaker now.

If you follow Caravaggio’s story, his ending is ultimately tragic. However, I like the above picture: the clinging on to the possibility of redemption – even if, for now, the tenor of his experience is the same of ‘but we had hoped’.

The one who waits…

If I had a favourite Bible passage this would be it.

As a story it works well: torn relationships, loss, pain, redemption and puzzlement- we don’t know the eventual ending as the story unfolds. Even at the eventual resolution, there are untidy loose ends: all the best sagas are not purely happy ever after.

There is a temptation to over interpret the story, to turn it into a morality tale for children, to tidy up the open ended nature of the story or simply to prose the poetry. All of those approaches stop it reaching deep inside your gut and then growing and monkeying around with your perceptions.

When you go ‘aah bless: what a lovely story’ you miss the controversy. I once told this story to a school; many of the kids had no background in the Christian story. I set up the younger son; explained culturally his background and most said ‘he doesn’t deserve to be welcomed’. And he doesn’t; this is not the way things ‘should’ work.

The thing that always gets me, however, is the father- culturally disgracing and shaming himself (and taking the son’s shame on himself) and going over the top in welcoming him home. Mostly I just stop there- I can’t take that in (just as I can’t take in those who reduce faith to true/not true and who fashion angry laws out of stories like this)… the more I ‘understand’ it, I can’t: the world doesn’t work like that.

But it could do….

The Joy of it

As part of my way of tentatively feeling my way back into Methodism (I think I will remain paddling in the shallow end for now. Or maybe a long time), I was asked- with many others- to write a short piece for a reading guide from Easter to Pentecost.

There were restrictions (less than 250 words, prescribed format and  a set passage) and it was not something that I was totally happy with, but here is the final version (someone very good edited it). The editor gave it the above title and I was given 1 Corinthians 15:50-58: not a passage I have ever preached on.

I like visiting the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) but often I have to ask the attendants to begin to ‘open up’ a particular artwork for me. However, I’ve never left without being moved and feeling somehow different; even if I never fully ‘understood’ what I was seeing.

 It is how I felt as I read this passage: Given enough work it is possible to ‘understand’ it, yet somehow miss the joy of it.

Paul  struggles to grasp what he has seen and experienced: Jesus has risen, his own life has changed and Christianity is expanding into new cultures; meeting new challenges, opportunities and difficulties (Often one of the biggest difficulties they faced was how to be church together). He tries to grapple with what ‘resurrection’ looks like for people many years after the event and so reverts to poetry:

 ‘Where O death is your victory?

Where O death is your sting’

 I find this very moving: it doesn’t ‘answer’ suffering, pain or death (if anything ever can) but yet speaks to a community of people whose life experience was far worse than ours ever could be in the 21st Century developed West.

 Having given us that, I like how he earths it again in real life. If Jesus has risen, then somehow we are held by him whatever happens. That means we are free to live openly and without fear.

 PRAYER/THOUGHT: This creed- attributed to David Jenkins always helps me to hold on to the kind of Hope that Paul talks about:. ‘God is; God is as he is in Jesus; therefore, we have hope.”

Rev. Graham Peacock

Stokesley Circuit

Mental Health chaplain (Tees, Esk & Wear valleys NHS Trust)

Genesis 12

(Because all Bible characters worse pristine white nighties…)

12 The Lord said to Abram:

Leave your country, your family, and your relatives and go to the land that I will show you. I will bless you and make your descendants into a great nation. You will become famous and be a blessing to others. I will bless anyone who blesses you, but I will put a curse on anyone who puts a curse on you. Everyone on earth will be blessed because of you.

This is one of my favourite Bible passages (although it is not the best translation: ‘famous’ jars a little) I used it when I left the churches I was minister of in North Wales. I used it again when I started in this area back in 2004 and I used it again in one church when I finished in 2015.In the Bible I used until a couple of years ago, the page for Genesis 12 has fallen out; it was so well used.

I could spend ages outlining the passage and what it means (I won’t go into whether it is ‘literally true or not…because that just seems irrelevant) but that doesn’t seem like a good use of time right now.

It always speaks to me and speaks more now as I am on the cusp of 50. Lots of things:

-the future is provisional- much as we would like to ‘fix’ it, we can’t. I am so much more aware of this right now.

-If you have a Faith: it never gives easy answers or something ‘fixed’- ‘Go and I will show you’. The idea that what is around the corner is not known…you find it by stepping out in faith. I used to think that stepping out in faith was heroic: maybe it is. Often now, it feels like blundering, fright, questioning and really not being sure: it is easier to stay in the known warm.

-The stuff about ‘cursing’ would take a great deal of time to go into: I read it that whatever confusion/questions/threat I find myself in- somehow God is there.

-sometimes facebook etc memes about having an adventure are purely self focussed. I like this passage as it talks about blessing others: you trust your God, you step out….and it’s not all about you.

All of this set in a context where the ‘you’ is not meant to be read purely individualistically ( as many Western Christians do)- I need others, I am not an island.

 

God loves those like us.

I was preaching last weekend for the first time in a year. It was a parade service and the lectionary (the set/advised readings) threw up a passage that I was tempted to throw out as it didn’t seem very ‘parade servicey type’. I am normally looking for a parable- something easy to get across.

Instead we got part of Jesus’ sermon to his home crowd: Luke 4:21-30. It starts off with good things- the promise of Hope to oppressed people, then things turn nasty and his village try and throw him off a cliff.

To be honest that has never happened to me- although I have upset people (often with nothing to do with the Gospel- just my own crassness).

They got upset as they were hoping for the ‘You’ve been hard done to, but you are special and God likes you and hates the people you do’, which i guess is the kind of thing most of us want. He dares to suggest that those outside and far off- the kind you wouldn’t want to a party or even your country might be just as blessed.

I hadn’t preached for ages, so I sketched a poem as I was looking at it- it really grabbed me. It is unfinished, a bit twee and maybe preaches too much, but here it is. If you get this far, it might be best to look at the passage first (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%204:21-30)

We were all in need,                                                      We were all in need,

But you came to her,                                                      But you came to him,

 

Why?                                                                                    I don’t know why;

She is not like us,                                                             For God’s sake,

And not faithful like we are,                                        He was even in their army.

We,                                                                                        An oppressor,

Have needs,                                                                       Not one of us,

So,                                                                                          It makes,

Look after us                                                                      No sense.

 

We heard that,

In church and

It gave us a warm feeling;

God’s love is not like ours.

 

But,

For God’s sake,

Let’s not let anymore of

Them in,

We have plenty of

Our own who need help.

 

Thank you Lord,

Amen.

 

15

Sometimes you just need something that wakes you up and centres you on what is important. This can be read against those who hold power badly or against us- most of us have ‘power’ in some way or another.

It can also be read by atheist or believer equally.

Lord, who can be trusted with power,
and who may act in your place?
Those with a passion for justice,
who speak the truth from their hearts;
who have let go of selfish interests
and grown beyond their own lives;
who see the wretched as their family
and the poor as their flesh and blood.
They alone are impartial
and worthy of the people’s trust.
Their compassion lights up the whole earth,
and their kindness endures forever.

Stephen Mitchell: A book of Psalms

Psalm

There is a lot going on at the moment: 2015 has been a year of change; new things and loss.

Each day I try and read a Psalm or part of one: I find their combination of celebration, lament, grey Thursday afternoons, calm assurance, love for God & others & unprocessed anger against God & others reassuring. I am like that- a strange quixotic mix.

In some way this book ‘saved’ my faith: you can be normal, mixed up even and have faith. That is pretty obvious: I had to learn that.

This Psalm struck home last week. I had been used to it in ‘normal’ English, but I have been carrying a 1662 Book of Common Prayer around with me for a while. Its old English made me read it in a fresh way and put a different perspective on bewildering change:-

Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me. Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child. Let Israel hope in the Lord from henceforth and for ever.

Self made

 

I was sat there in a hospital canteen; plans for the day and reports to read scattered around me. Then I remembered: I am a chaplain; at the centre of what I do is supposed to be prayer and stillness. I grabbed my ‘Book of Common Prayer’ (which I only started looking at as I thought it would reach some people. At first I was driven away by its old English; now I am attracted to it) and there it was in the middle of the Psalm I was reading that day:-

‘Know ye that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture’.

I know I am not self-made, but it is tempting to live as I am: the carefully curated social media image, the red Converse boots (really...), using purchased music as a way to define myself etc etc. Perhaps the one thing I value most about being a Christian is this constant reminder that you are not your own: you are dependent.

On good days, I find that incredibly humbling as well as well as anxiety reducing…I am freer to be open to and connect to others.

And on bad days…maybe I don’t have to try so hard…

 

When my heart is vexed, I will complain.

That is a direct quote from The King James Bible. It is in old language, but I like the poetry.

It is part of a Psalm- Psalm 77- that I was reading this week. I like the raw honesty: it was never a memory verse when I was a young Christian- most of those were reassuring, sometimes ecstatic.

Reassurance, ecstasy even is good in faith. The problem is when it is considered to be the sole measure of a ‘good’ faith: when bad stuff happens and things don’t feel that they are connecting you quickly find you have no language to articulate it. ‘I feel like this; I can’t be a good Christian.’ There are churches/Revs/Christians and songs that would also struggle with this Psalm writer: he/she ‘needs’ healing- there is something wrong with them.

That’s why I like the Psalms so much- they are more honest than many Christians. Whilst this Psalm has words of reassurance, they are there against a background of feeling nothing: ‘Will the Lord absent himself forever.’

‘My heart is vexed, I will complain.’ I like that.