Saturday, August 30, 2008

Theological Reflection from Estonia 1

When it came to organising my Parish Placement I knew that it would present certain challenges. My Anglican friends discussed which local parishes were sufficiently dissimilar to their own while remaining open to accepting someone on placement, and all were able to be accommodated reasonably close to home. As a Lutheran, I suppose I could have simply gone to a local Anglican, Methodist, URC or Baptist church and still have met the NOC criteria, but I felt that would not have been acceptable to my Bishop.
Both my predecessors had travelled to the United States for their placements in order to experience a Lutheran setting and I knew that such would be the expectation for me too. However, I was not keen to travel to the USA: I had some contacts in Europe through having toured with the Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and I wanted my placement to have a European Lutheran context. I already knew that many churches in major cities abroad conducted services for English speaking congregations and so through a friend in Estonia I was able to contact Dean Gustav Piir and set the whole process in motion.

In order for this to be a worthwhile experience, of course, it had to be a placement of some weeks duration and so it could only be accommodated in the summer school break, whereas everyone else would already have completed their placements in the spring term.

What I realised some months into the planning was that I could have simply gone to London to have my placement at St. Annes’s, the LCiGB’s flagship congregation.

Every Wednesday evening during the spring term, then, I would turn up at college and hear the others talking about how they were getting on and sharing their experiences and the more I heard, the more I looked forward to my own placement.

For many months, therefore, the placement was simply an event on the horizon: practicalities were sorted out with Dean Gustav by e-mail and other than booking flights, I didn’t pay it too much attention, with far more immediate concerns relating to the ongoing college experience.

As I travelled down to Stansted airport by train, I was surprised by my feelings: the enormity of what I had not thought too much about hit me and I felt very down. I thought at first that it was my innate anxiety about travel: would the Stansted hotel really have my booking? Would I oversleep? Would I make it to check in at 3.30 the following morning? What if I missed the plane? And so on. These were, of course, to some extent valid anxieties, but on reflection I don’t think they were at the heart of my malaise. I was unhappy to be leaving the family for such an extended period of time and I know that the implications of that hit me hard on the journey down, but the reality of the situation was that it was a standard "fight or flight" reaction to an unknown situation. Would I be able to cope? What if Gustav and I didn’t get on? Tallinn is a long way from Leeds to be for such a long time if things are not going well and you know virtually no one in the city.

Three hours disturbed sleep in an airport hotel did nothing to improve my mood.

It was at some point during the flight, as I was mulling over the content of my first sermon in Tallinn that an idea began to dawn on me. The semon would be based on the Gospel story of Jesus and Peter walking on the water from Matthew 14. I would be talking to the congragation about trusting Jesus enough to get out of the safety of the boat and the routines we cling to and stepping into the unknown of the storm. Well, that is exactly what I was in the process of doing: I was stepping into the unknown and it was threatening. How would I know whether I would sink or walk if I didn’t even step out of the boat? Well I was stepping out of the boat, but I didn’t have to be enjoying the experience.

From this epiphany onwards my mood lifted: the travel related anxieties had proved to be without foundation and things had gone without a hitch. Even the presence of a large stag party on the plane seemed a good omen. "You’re English and you’ll be in Tallinn? Give us your mobile number. Come out for a beer with us – well a few. It’d be good to see you."

Dean Gustav was there to greet me and I instantly warmed to him: he seems rather a shy man and it struck me that agreeing to have me must also be rather like stepping out of the boat and into the storm in faith. After all, I could be a nightmare.

This Gospel theme continued to guide my thoughts and actions beyond my arrival. In my journal I describe in detail how the Russian assault on Georgia had serious ramifications for our church community. Two hours before I was due to deliver my sermon I attended a pro-Georgian rally outside Tallinn’s Russian embassy. I did this after much thought as a totally inadequate gesture of support for one of the church staff, herself a Georgian. As I was eating my lunch and going over the sermon I was very struck by the fact that I was going to challenge people to respond to Jesus’s command "Come". I had felt in my own conscience that Jesus was telling me "Come". Could I fail to respond to that call myself and then in all integrity talk to others about hearing Jesus’ voice? Clearly not, but I felt that it had to be more than just attending. Like Peter, I had to move outside my comfort zone: it wouldn’t be enough just to be one of the crowd. I had to express a Christian presence and so I went to the rally in clerical shirt and collar. People smiled at me and one of the speakers thanked me for being there. It would seem that I had made the right decision.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Standing Out

Not all folks out on a night blend into the crowd. There are the hordes of men in light checked shirts and designer jeans. There are the horizontally striped seas of chav. There are the bottle blonde elizabeth duke catalogue wearing tribes and the cotton hot pants/ denim micro skirt armies.
Generally aside from these groups though occasionally in the middle of these are the few who stand out from the crowd. Not in their behaviour but in their appearance. Some folk just couldn't blend in in camouflage, in a jungle at half a mile. They just look odd enough that they catch your eye. I see a lot of faces in a night and most just blend into one unless their behaviour marks them out. Be it facial defects, absurdities of dress or just their ability to look massively awkward in a relaxed environment. These folks get more than their share of my attention and, if some predatory types in the drunken morass spy them, they get more than their fair share of others' attention.
Some revel in it but most find the spotlight a little too bright. I don't stare and point, I just note them and that'll be enough for me. Others do and sometimes if I'm not in the mood find that pointing and staring and deliberately making another punter feel uncomfortable lands them uncomfortably out in the street to early.
I don't know where the socially absurd come from of what they do or don't do during the day but they seem to emerge in the places I work. These fairly low brow provincial clubs where the disillusioned come in the mainly futile hope of finding love. The freaks and misfits follow.
It's easy to fit in and hide or disguise small things but if you don't have advanced social skills if you stand out from the crowd you're likely to be a victim, unless I'm feeling generous, but please don't feel you need to be my friend. I've enough of those without collecting them at work.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Post Out of Sequence

I'm not sure what I have done, or whether the technology has defeated me but Dr. Bob's post has appeared below Sunday Sermon 3. Please visit and comment there.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sunday Sermon from Tallinn 3



Isaiah 51
Psalm 138
Romans 12
Mat 16

August 24th

Many Christians are uncomfortable talking about Jesus in the present tense. In many sermons we hear a lot of the historical present as in “Jesus says,” but we’re really talking about what Jesus said in Scripture some 2,000 years ago. And, if the truth is known, many preachers are often talking about what a contemporary scholar has had to say about what Jesus said. This is the preacher’s nightmare: “Am I giving an accurate, fair and orthodox picture of Jesus the man and am I giving an accurate, fair and orthodox interpretation of what he is saying? Alternatively am I imposing my pet theories; am I following a theological agenda? Am I projecting my own thoughts and feelings? Am I telling you what I think Jesus ought to have said, or what I think he meant to say? Am I concentrating on my own academic and religious credentials so that I am I too busy trying to project myself that Jesus can’t be seen properly at all?” You might feel that sometimes you hear more about Tillich or Bonheoffer, Bultmann, C.S. Lewis or Toomas Paul than you do about Jesus in some sermons.


Today, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus poses a key question. He starts the exchange with his disciples with the opening gambit “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” We can imagine the disciples processing this: “The Son of Man” is a term found a number of times in Hebrew Scripture, so however rough and ready and uneducated his followers might be, they should have known the term. They don’t at this stage seem to have made the connection between the title son of Man and Jesus himself, though, as they come up with a variety of first-thing-that-come-into-their-heads answers. (I get this sort of response a lot in the classroom as youngsters shout out a series of increasingly random answers which they hope with scatter-gun efficiency may turn up the correct answer in there somewhere. Eventually.)


Not satisfied with John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah and various other prophets, Jesus prompts them further: “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” Now Jesus is joining the dots for them and making the connection: Son of Man, Jesus. Jesus, Son of Man, and you can’t help but wonder at this point how foolish the disciple who offered “John the Baptist” as an initial answer is now feeling. Perhaps there is some friendly teasing at this point as they laugh at the daft answers they came up with…… but out of the midst of the laughter and banter Simon-Peter’s voice is heard clear and confident: “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God.” We can imagine at this point the hush descending on the group as the others realise the implication of what Simon-Peter has said and begin to consider it for themselves.


Perhaps there is a similar mental back-tracking taking place here as we also realise the implication of both the question and Simon Peter’s response: after all, every time this passage is read we are forced to consider the question ourselves as if it had just been asked of us. Yes, Jesus is still asking the question of you and me today. This question was not simply posed in the historic past, hence my opening remarks. Jesus asked, certainly and IS STILL asking.


If Peter was indeed the first to have fully understood the nature of the man he had been travelling with and sleeping cheek by jowl with, what had he thought before? How had the others understood this Jesus who had called them from their ordinary routines to this life on the road as religious itinerants? Which of the disciples’ answers best represents ours? Are we at that stage of spiritual awareness where we are still seeing Jesus as a “good man”? A prophet, perhaps? Or a preacher? A religious hothead cut down before his time whose body mouldered away long ago in the heat of Palestine?


Or like Simon Peter, have we recognised something beyond that? Have we had that moment of dawning realisation where we recognise that Jesus is….not was….is indeed the Christ, the son of the Living God? It is a realisation that should cut through some of our strongly held and often articulated positions and prejudices.


Simon Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father, in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”


These verses are among the most studied, debated, and disputed verses in the New Testament. Throughout history this promise has been interpreted in different ways. In Matthew’s Gospel, Peter is the model disciple who must be constantly sustained by Christ. In the early church he is remembered primarily as an Apostle and martyr. Very early came the idea that Peter is the template of every true, spiritual Christian on whom the church is built. The “Eastern” interpretation is that the rock is the faith of Peter, so that the church is built on the faith of believing Christians. (Personally I favour that view); and, of course dating from the fourth century is the Roman Catholic understanding that the promises made to Peter apply also to Peter’s successors in the Papacy. However, fundamental to all interpretations are Jesus’ words that the church is my church and the sheep my sheep. Ultimately faith rests on Christ, who is the good shepherd of the flock. Is. Not was.


Instead, let’s consider what this story says about Peter, and about us. Peter becomes the first person to make the great Christian Confession of faith. He names Jesus as the Messiah, the hope of Israel, the son of the one who created heaven and earth. Now, Jesus is beginning to be recognised by people — and something new is happening, something new is being built — by the will of God, and by the work of the Holy Spirit.


Consider this image: look at all of the last 200 centuries as rings of time, as concentric circles of time, scores and scores of such circles, we are in the very outermost circle, farthest away from the centre — and at the centre is a Cross. We are brought into the circle, into the faith, in large part because somewhere, somehow, someone in the circle just before ours took us by the hand and said, “come,” and so drew us in. That is one very important reason why we are here. That person was able to do this for us because someone had taken their hand and had drawn them in. As we say to Jesus, “you are the Christ,” he says to us —to each of us — “you, too, are Peter, you too, are a rock, and with you, also, I am building my church.” What happened to Peter continues and it includes us.


And so on, through all the centuries, hands are held through all of those circles. Until we reach the place where a very few of those hands were hands that touched by the mark of nails. That continuity is a continuity of Christ’s presence, a continuity of faith, a continuity of tradition and doctrine, and a continuity of persons—each connected to those who went before.


But I am getting ahead of myself here. I am making the assumption that you have said to Jesus “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” I am making the assumption that someone has taken your hand and drawn you into the circle.


Perhaps not: maybe instead you can carefully articulate a history of how Persian dualistic ideas migrated into post-exilic Judaism and how apocalyptic thinking shaped the intertestamental period so that nascent Christianity developed these curious ideas about personified evil and about a place of punishment for the wicked called hell.


And of course, you can give a clear account of why this first century rabbi Yeshua, also known as Jesus of Nazareth, bears little or no relation to the Christian myth that led the world into a terrible dark age until Greco-Roman ideas resurfaced in the Enlightenment to free humankind from the tyranny of Roman Catholicism and its Protestant successors.


And yes, today perhaps you can celebrate the blossoming of the Enlightenment to include freedom from the patriarchalism, classism, sexism, anti-intellectualism, and homophobia of Christianity. For, after all, Jesus, the great poet of love, would certainly turn his back on what the Church has done with his ideas if only he were alive to see it.


But what foolishness to think that Jesus is God in the flesh who could die and rise and still be in charge of the universe!


And Jesus, the Living Lord of the Church, responds, present tense, “But who do you say that I am?” How we answer that question has a lot to do with whether we see a dead Jesus or a live Jesus in worship. How everyone answers that question is indeed a matter of death and life.
The answer goes to the heart of our relationship with God; it goes to the heart of our understanding of ourselves; it goes to the heart of how we lead our lives; to the heart of the relationships we have amongst ourselves and to the heart of the very motives which drive our lives and our decisions.


Do you see Jesus? Not just the broken form of His body on the cross but the Risen Lord with the marks of the nails in His hands and feet and side standing before you alive today as the Lord of your death and life and asking you: “Who do you say that I am?”


So, who do you say Jesus is? Has your sight of Him grown dim? Have your ears been closed to the sound of His voice? Come to the altar today with empty hands. Take hold of the foundation and the Author of Life itself as He comes in bread and wine to take away your sins and mine, to fill us with the power of His endless life!

A Message from Dr. Bob.

So it's my turn to take on the august mantle of resident blogguer (Bloggiste?) for today. I have secretly been dreading this; not so much the fear of saying something stupid - which I am now well practised in doing - but of the whole technology thing. At heart I am a pencil and paper kind of guy. I have also been wondering what to say over the past few weeks and generally have drawn a bit of a blank. However last weekend was a bit of an Epiphany so I thought I would share it with you. Which means that it is a bit about my church but generally about THE church.

Last week end was the flower festival at our church - how Anglican is that! The weather was fine and the church which was first built in 1145 looked absolutely beautiful in that quintessentially English village kind of way. There was even cricket being played in the park across the road. The theme of the festival was Noah's Ark because we had been remembering the fact that a year ago the village had suffered from the severe floods that struck our part of Yorkshire. My major memory of last year was helping to carry five coffins across from the undertakers as their chapel of rest began to flood. For several weeks last year we got used to the presence of the dead lying at peace in our lady chapel - just by the tombs of George Washington's mediaeval ancestors.

The floods caused a lot of disruption and there are still people who have not been able to return to their home one year on. But last week was one of those times when the power of myth showed itself to be incredibly strong. The story of Noah -and the epic of Gilgamesh I suppose- clearly speak of some distant memory of a disaster in the Near East. It reads like a folk-tale but it had a resonance for the people of our village. It made me think about how those other improbable tales speak into people's lives. I often wonder how differently the story of the fiery furnace reads now to those who have survived the holocaust. How powerful poetic truth is in speaking to us in times of crisis.

But, to get back to the flower festival: it was beautiful and gentle and it drew people in to this quiet still place where God has been worshipped for nearly 1000 years. There is that sense that somehow prayer has soaked into the walls and touches those who visit. On the Sunday we celebrated God's creation by inviting people to bring their pets. The lion didn't exactly lie down with the lamb but there was a general sense of peace and well-being in the animal kingdom and even the humans behaved themselves. Although many brought stuffed toys as a safe alternative. But we all gathered around the altar, men and women, cats and dogs, and, because of the soft toys, bears, lions a tiger and many monkeys. And we gathered around the old altar that the parishioners had hidden during the reformation waiting for all the trouble to die down before they dug it up again. I suspect they forgot where it was buried since it took 500 years to find it again; yet there it is a little battered but still containing the relics of our saint. I felt a sense of strength and continuity and the presence of God with His people. Amidst all the disagreements and falling out that we read about in the church, where pressure groups and vociferous individuals try to claim that they are the only true expression of its soul. There I had that reminder of the truth of the Bible speaking into the concerns of today and that strong reminder that through all the centuries of turmoil God has never left his people. But perhaps that is what God told Noah in the first place.
(Editor's note: Doctor Bob is D.P.'s great pal and fellow sufferer-in-training. He no longer has facial hair!)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

What are we to pray for and why?


Hi I’m Boaz and I’ve taken over control of the ship! No one move! Agree with me or we all die! Only joking, but I'd like to thank our pal Doorman-Priest who is wandering around the world somewhere for asking me to do a guest blog. I’m honored.

Now I’ll just settle myself down over here on this couch… It all began for me many years ago, in childhood naturally…

Oh, by the way this post is about prayer.

I'm actually anonymous, hence the name Boaz, and I live in Sydney. I’ve always been an Anglican (except for the time in late adolescence when I was a charismatic for a couple of years- probably some version of the Assemblies of God). I left my Sydney Anglican church about 7 years ago for one of the more traditional Anglican churches. They call them “high” churches here in Sydney.

I started a blog, Not the Southern Cross, last year, partly influenced by Alcibiades of Caliban’s Dream, a fellow traveler here in Sydney. I write about my thoughts using the Sydney Anglican magazine Southern Cross as a my straw man. Its not an easy gig as I never did enjoy reading the Southern Cross. Even though it now provides me with my raison d’être, the last two issues I have barely read!

Anyway back on the couch and as I said my post is about prayer. I’ve never been a great prayer. Not since childhood anyway. I grew up in what you might consider to be emotionally straightened circumstances. I was a sensitive, excessively obedient child. My parents loved me but they were plagued with problems. My father spent a number of years in a home for wayward boys and God only knows what went on there. He was a tattoo covered alcoholic, barely out of his teenage years when I was born. Your typical tragic figure, he was much admired and hysterically funny when sober, but easily slighted and given to fighting at the pub when drunk. His forte was making late night mayhem at home. We lived in a public housing area and the whole neighborhood could hear him ranting and raving each night. Sometimes I felt it was, "Agree with me or we all die." By adolescence it became embarrassing to say the least.

I’d lie awake at night, most nights, listening and praying that there wouldn’t be violence tonight and if it sounded really bad that my mother wouldn’t be dead before the sun came up. This went on year after year. There was no let up, no happy ending and eventually my mother, presumably no longer fearing death, fled! I was trying to do my final year at high school at the time, wanting to be doctor.

Of course there had been some good times along the way. The sun always seemed to shine brightly the next morning. As I caught the bus to school I'd think, “What on earth were you so worried about last night?” I never went hungry and always had clean clothes and a warm bed. I realised at the time that other children were starving in Africa.

Now about prayer. God always seemed to answer my prayers. It was very convincing as a child. Often I would pray that my father would fall asleep. I gave up praying for the impossible. I stopped asking that he would reform, merely that he would, tonight, fall asleep. The skeptic might point out that this can happen with someone who is very drunk but as a child it was very convincing.

I’d become a believer when a lady approached me and some other kids who were playing at the park. She at us down and talked about Jesus using a little book of coloured pages. I was about 6 years old at the time. I ran home so excited I was jumping out of my skin. My father was working on the car and my mother came out to help me tell him the story. They both looked at each other and rolled their eyes, but I was converted and have remained so ever since.

During adolescence I escaped to the local Anglican Church and into a serious fundamentalism. The habits one learns during times of trauma are very difficult if not impossible to unlearn.

When you are a fundamentalist and you asked yourself, “Why is it that God answers my prayers?” the answer is, “Because you are one of his chosen ones”. I’m sorry to say that this answer sufficed for me until I had my own children. You want to be grateful and thankful and so you accept that God has a special purpose for your life.

It’s not the only thing, but having children is one of the things that can bring you to your senses. I don’t know if my children are “Christians” or if they ever will be but lets allow for the moment that they’re not, even so why wouldn’t God answer their prayers? Why wouldn't God love them?

There must have been other children who, like me, prayed that this or that wouldn’t happen as they were growing up and yet it still happened. Do I really believe God loved those kids any less than he loved me?

More recently I've been reflecting more on the traumas and suffering in the world and I have to wonder, "Should we really pray for God to make the weather nice for church Sunday School picnic when he doesn’t stop it flooding in other parts of the world and mothers and babies are drowned?"

Currently I believe that God answers our prayers through the actions (good works) of our fellow creation. Hence when God doesn't seem to answer our prayers, and tragedy is not averted, someone helps that suffering person, in some way, later. That's the best I can come up with.

So there you have it folks a little bit about me (we all like to hear other people’s life stories - I hope I’ve been brief) and the following questions if you care to comment. What are we to pray for and why? and Who does God listen to: anyone, everyone? and Anything else. Over to you.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Morning After

Or as often in my case, the night after.

Sometimes, especially when you work at a few venues, you get that awkward recognition, sometimes weeks or months later that you know someone. Not in a good way. In the sordid drink fuelled world I work I toss people out onto the streets, sometimes literally, mostly metaphorically. When you switch venue you can be expected to let in and be friendly with the same person who you remember being a grade A muppet time and again at a different venue. This is fairly common for me. Most folk don't cotton on, either because they don't imagine doorstaff as individuals separate from the venue or because the drink addle memory just isn't up to focused recollection.

There are those times when they see you and they know they were being a muppet, you know they know they were being a muppet and then it can go one of two ways. They either come up and attempt an apology with differing degrees of success. Or they just kind of slide away, head down averting eye contact. It's like I'm the presence of an embarrassing ex-girlfriend or a spanner mate from primary school. They just can't get out of there quick enough. Unless they've felt the need to make it personal in the past, I'll just carry on being professional and following the venue policy. It is fun to torment them though, I can be like a ghost from a bad night out, come to douse their dreams of another foolish drunken night.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Statements of Belief - A Post About Creeds


Greetings all! I am honored to be among such great and esteemed company as a guest blogger for the very great Doorman-Priest. My name is Fran and my blog is FranIam. A visit to said blog will introduce you to a place that is at once sacred and profane, which is pretty much how you will find me practicing my faith and living my life.

I am what many might call a progressive Roman Catholic, which perhaps sounds like an oxymoron! It is one not at all, I can assure you. Frankly I think that while we are connected with our various denominations, I believe that what the Holy Spirit might have in store for us will not be driven by the minutiae of our denominational boundaries, as we understand them.

I live in the US, in upstate New York. I am originally from and have spent most of my life in the New York City region, but moved last year after I got married. It is also a gift that I have traveled far and wide, which has deepened my faith, increased my hope and showed me things I could have barely imagined. My life feels truly and deeply blessed.

My faith is at the center of my life in every way. As I write this, I am about to begin a Masters program in Theology, a far cry from the corporate life I lived until 2007. Currently highly underemployed -well make that UN-employed and a bit worried about finances, I am trying to discern what my place in this world is.

Also, for the record, I do have a blog for my parish which I will not link to here. Today's piece is inspired by something I put up there the other day.

Peace and blessings in abundance to one and all!
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Statements of Belief



The Masai Creed

We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it. He created man and wanted man to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the earth. We have known this High God in the darkness, and now we know him in the light. God promised in the book of his word, the Bible, that he would save the world and all nations and tribes.

We believe that God made good his promise by sending his son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left his home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing that the meaning of religion is love. He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died. He was buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, he rose from that grave. He ascended to the skies. He is the Lord.

We believe that all our sins are forgiven through him. All who have faith in him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love, and share the bread together in love, to announce the good news to others until Jesus comes again. We are waiting for him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.

When I practice the very non-spiritual (or maybe it is...) act of working out at the gym, I listen to various podcasts. More often than not, I am listening to an episode - possibly for the first time and possibly for the fourth time or tenth time - of the radio program Speaking of Faith.

The other day I listened to a podcast for the first time and it was an interview with the late Jaroslav Pelikan.

Many of you may already be familiar with Pelikan, he was a scholar of Christian history. His writings are vast and prolific and highly recommended. This particular podcast was about the need for creeds.

It got me to thinking about how and why we say what we do. Add to that the night before I had been speaking to my pastor and he commented on a frustration that he often has. We have a very large parish and the church is often, and gratefully so, quite full. However, he said he feels discouraged when he looks out and sees blank faces and people not even moving their mouths when we say the Creed.

That is kind of sad but not very surprising.

Sadly I think that many of us who grew up in denominations practiced by rote and not with any passion. As with all things, what needs to happen is dynamic and communal and somehow we must find common union and engagement.

It got me to thinking about what words move me. I mean, I do say the Creed out loud at church and I don't think I look too bored or disengaged. That said, do those words really resonate for me? I am not sure.

However, when I heard and then read the words of the Masai creed on Speaking of Faith, they blew me away.

But they are not my words.

The pastor at my church, which is a rather large parish says one thing that is very discouraging to him is that when he looks out over the congregation during the Creed, for every pair of lips that are moving, many are not.

So what are my words? Well here it is - my personal creed and statement of belief. I hope that you might consider writing your own creed and sharing it here or with your faith community. It does not replace what is, but it may help when you are mouthing those words in your church.


I believe in God, the Father the Almighty
and the Mother All Loving and Compassionate
Maker of heaven and earth and all that is.
I believe in Jesus Chist who is the Son -
God from God, Light from Light, Forever and Eternal.
One with the Father and Mother
Through such pure love and incarnation all things were made.
For us Jesus was born of the power of the Holy Spirit
and born to Mary, as a human.
For such is the power of incarnation - God comes to us in the form of
a human and in pure love.
For us he gave up his life through suffering
and human death. He was buried after that and the world grew dark.
Three days later, as promised, he rose again as was said in the Scripture
and Light came back to world.
Jesus sits at the right hand of God.
He will come again in glory, he is glory.
When he judges the living and the dead
we will be redeemed by his great mercy and compassion.
That is Life Eternal and how grateful I am for this,
so I live fully now as much as I can, with God's help and with your help.
God's Kingdom has no end.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
who gives life and moves with Father/Mother and Son in harmony as One.
The prophets have spoken to us, moved by the Spirit in the work of God.
I believe I listen, but I know that I often do not.
I do believe in my Catholic church, but I also know its wounds.
I believe that the Holy Spirit will lead us all to new places-
New life. We must be able to let go, holding our arms
open as if on the cross and our mind and our hearts along with that.
I believe in one universal church which unites us all,
invited by and bound by love that is beyond what we know.
That is our faith made manifest. We can only encounter God,
love, redemption and salvation through and with each other.
I believe in baptism and I believe in forgiveness
and reconciliation that goes far beyond what I can
do on my own, but with Christ and with you -
I can understand, we can understand.
I look forward to the resurrection and the life
of the world to come, we will rest in peace and rise in glory!
However, I believe that I must live now as Christ compels me
and that means the Kingdom is now.
That is what I believe.
Amen!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Sunday Sermon from Tallinn 2

If you haven't yet read Mimi's post below, go there first.


Isaiah56
Psalm 138
Romans 12
Matthew 16

August 17th
As Lutherans we know a lot about God’s grace: we know that it is through that grace that we are saved and “not through good works lest any man should boast.” (That is not to dismiss good works, merely to recognise that they are marks of obedient discipleship.) What we may be less clear about is whether there are limits to that grace: a question echoing through time – and even haunting the Scripture itself.



In the Old Testament, with Abraham, the grace of God became identified with a particular people and a defining way of life and worship. Even so there was always an awareness that God’s grace could reach far beyond such narrow confines. The Psalm of the Day is clear that God can be identified by the way he relates to “the nations of the earth.” The Psalmist talks of “your salvation among all nations.” And the prophet speaking in the First Lesson for today insists there will be “foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him………for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” Then in today’s Epistle: Paul is frustrated because the Jews have failed to recognize the Messiah. In today’s reading he changes course. “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles,” says Paul. But, of course, Paul was writing with the benefit of hindsight and we are getting ahead of ourselves. I outline these simply to show that our supporting readings point to what we discover in the Gospel.



In his Gospel Matthew stresses that the primary mission of Jesus was to the “house of Israel,” but in today’s Gospel reading a non-Jewish supplicant, a Canaanite, draws him to a more universalistic vision. This supplicant, as the pronoun makes clear, is a woman – one who is not to speak to a man in public. Not only does she approach Jesus, though, she nags him, she makes a public scene around him.



This woman comes alone to Jesus, begging for healing for her daughter. “Have pity (“mercy”) on me Lord, Son of David.” a term which would hardly have meant much to anyone other than the Jews. Yet she has such an address on her lips from the beginning suggesting a degree of understanding of Jesus that he and the Disciples should have taken more notice of.



Jesus meets her request with stony silence and this peculiar initial unresponsiveness to her appeal is very strange. This is the same man who responded so willingly to another Gentile, a centurion who pleaded for the welfare of a sick servant, only a few chapters earlier. There was no reluctance or hesitancy then. Why should there be so now? Is it because she is a woman? Is it because she is a Canaanite and the centurion was a Roman? He doesn’t explain: there is only this strange, surprising silence. Not so from the disciples who demand, “Get rid of her, for she keeps yelling at us.” Maybe she’d been nagging them before she got to Jesus, and they have had enough. She certainly seems to have got under their skins. Still Jesus remains unmoved and again he rebuffs her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In no other miracle story has a petitioner been treated so harshly. He claims to have a clear goal, a fixation – an all-consuming passion in fact – on where he is to direct his attention and his energies. The woman is not in that vision, because she is a foreigner.



But she seizes on this immediately! His silence had been terrifying, but now he is in conversation with her and she’s not going to let the opportunity pass by so she presses her case with force. The poor woman has been reduced to desperation, to be sure, but she will not give up now. She hangs on for all she is worth and disadvantaged as she is by being an outsider - a Gentile and a woman who is alone in public, she challenges this rebuff by “worshiping” Jesus (something no disciple does prior to the resurrection). She started with the plea, “Have mercy on me,” but now she kneels before him in worship and supplication: “Lord, help me,” she says. “You are my only hope. You can’t turn me down, for you are the only One to whom I can look.” She comes with no appeal for justice, no claim based on her rights or merit: only a plea for mercy, and undeserved help. She has nothing to bring with which to barter for her daughter’s wellbeing other than the faith and confidence that in Jesus alone she finds hope for herself and her daughter.



How does he respond? Not as we would expect. This merciful One, this man filled with grace, this Prince of Peace, speaks in terms that sound harshly rude, and no matter how one wants to put a positive interpretation on it, Jesus is speaking as an Israelite spoke of Gentiles. “It is not right to take the food of children (Jews) and give it to dogs” (Gentiles). They were “dogs,” and there is no way to change that offensive sense. Yet the woman grabs hold of even this rejection and turns it into a response against which Jesus can no longer argue! “Yes, Lord,” she says. “I know! I am not of the house and lineage of those from whom you come. Nor am I worthy to approach you as I have. Even so I still make bold to say that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. You are correct that it would not be right or proper to take the bread of the children and give it to dogs like me. Yet I, as a dog, ask only that you let me have the crumbs that fall from your table.”



It is this statement which finally breaks through the barriers that stood in her way.



You can almost imagine the frisson of shock rippling through the crowd. And after a pause that must have seemed like a lifetime, in a startling turn of events, Jesus replies: “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” Her daughter is healed at that moment. He who has fed five thousand from Israel only a short time before and who will feed another four thousand only a short time later grants to this woman the “crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” He who feeds Israel has given an “appetizer,” as it were, to a Gentile woman in the “crumbs from the master’s table.”



The feeding of the five and the four thousand serve as great bookends to this story. What we need to understand here, too, is that the second multitude Jesus goes on to feed is a Gentile crowd: the feeding takes place in a Gentile area called the Decapolis, not by the sea of Galilee, a Jewish area where the first feeding took place. Between the two feedings, it would seem that Jesus has re-evaluated his mission: a feeding miracle for the Jews and then one for the Gentiles. What led to that rethink? Perhaps in this story today we have the answer: a desperate and persistent Canaanite woman. The woman’s brash courage actually seems to convert Jesus and develop his understanding of the full implications of his mission. In this way she signalled the way to the future as Gentiles flooded into the church, carried on waves of faith that in Jesus salvation had come.



Well, isn’t that a nice story? But unless we take on board the practical and personal implications and challenges, it will remain just that, a nice story: an interesting piece of religious story telling. No. It must have the power to do more than interest us: it must touch us.



This story of courageous faith and boundary-crossing should still challenge the church today. Over and over the people of God have had to recognize anew how old limits are pushed out by the grace of God to include still others. Sometimes the struggle has been subtle and other times it has been obvious: racial divisions, gender differences, issues of sexuality, national and cultural differences have had to be overcome time after time in order to recognize the far-reaching nature of God’s grace. But we keep wanting to establish limits on God’s grace and God keeps pushing on them. We like neat, cosy, clear-cut boundaries, and God’s grace challenges them at every turn. Today the deepest meaning of the Gospel is often disclosed by the courage of the “outsider,” who is driven by loving concern for innocent victims of disease or injustice: Bonheoffer, Luther-King, Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu and others. Often they have been met by stony silence or rude rebuff by Jesus’ followers.



The great faith of this mother who breaks all boundaries out of love is a model and challenge for our time. She wouldn’t accept the idea that Jesus was only sent for certain people. Her faith melted that barrier. It calls all of us to receive what Jesus has to offer and to push the limits and boundaries ourselves as we present that same Jesus and what he offers to others. We need to make the church a place to which a modern Canaanite woman, disadvantaged, despised and marginalised within society can come with her plea, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And we need to make that church a place from which the word goes out, as from the Lord himself, “You have great faith. Your request is granted!”



We can’t afford to be triumphalist in relation to God’s grace. I regularly meet Christians who are so certain that they know the mind of God that they are incredibly confident about the fate of others come the final judgement. People they have never met, including a fair few other Christians, are all consigned to eternal damnation in their view because those people don’t accept to the letter their understanding of Christianity. As I mentioned last week, I am a great fan of the English writer C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books. For those of you who are unfamiliar with them, Lewis writes a series of what appear to be children’s adventure stories, set in the land of Narnia, the most famous of which is “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. However, Lewis wasn’t simply a children’s writer but a perceptive theologian and the Narnia stories are a Christian allegory: in “The Last Battle”, which is an eschatological story dealing with the end times and judgement, there is an exchange between Aslan the Lion, the Christian God figure, and Emeth, a follower of the God Tash, who is surprised to find himself on the right side of Aslan’s judgement. In this allegory of the Christian story Lewis is suggesting that God’s grace is, indeed, extended beyond the limits we might expect. But that is down to God’s grace and not our judgement. God may well choose to act towards others in ways which surprise us and it is not for us to set limits on God’s grace. We do not know the mind of God.



Emeth says to Aslan: “Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine, but a servant of Tash.” Aslan answered “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. If any man swears an oath to Tash and keeps the oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he knew it not and it is I who reward him.” Emeth replied “Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.” “Beloved”, said the Glorious one, “unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”



I think many of us would do well to ponder on that idea as we consider who the outsider, the marginalised and the disenfranchised are in our societies. Who is the “other” today, those that we reject because they don’t fit into our self imposed pigeonholes of who God accepts?

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Rules

What are the boundaries for me when I work. The doorwork industry is regulated, It may be by a bunch of muppets, but it is regulated. This keeps door teams low on convictions and the old guard would say low on experience. The days of high staff to punter ratios where you packed them in, got them pissed and then flew in knocked 'em down and dragged 'em out are gone. I miss some aspects of this but times change. Licensing, extensive CCTV that doesn't vanish and 'no win, no fee' litigation have put an end to that.
I still get to knock them down every now and then but usually when I've missed something earlier on and not diffused a situation properly.
It used to be that if it got heavy a win was a win. Now even going dynamic is a loss before the fist start flying towards me. Now patience and politeness seem to be the order of the day. Unless it's absolutely imperative we like them all to walk out. Not happy about it sometimes but we do, those are the days we're in. None of the highly effective techniques I've gathered over the years leave the box nowadays unless coked up 'roid rage lumpheads are in need of a quick sleep.
I have to rely on patience and politeness.

No-one told the punters. They may be reacting to the change in our manner or they may just be the product of very low moral standards and cheap recreational drugs but they really have gotten a whole load worse.
Getting verbal abuse has always been par for the course. I am a fat Cunt/Wanker/Dickhead and don't really need a punter to tell me that. Whose giving me grief now extends to everyone under the sun. Not just from the '10 yards and walking backwards' brave type but from the small skinny chav whippet and his misses and cousin as you ask them to take their drinks off the dancefloor. Or the pilled up space cadet who's eyes are in different time zones but still thinks it's wise to gob off as he's stumbling out the front door.
In physical matters everyone thinks it's worth having a punch, kick or glass at our backs when we have to restrain someone and one ejection turns into 2 or three as a matter of course. Even with slow and easy to understand explanations before they're shown the door. It's getting more of a challenge. Punters aren't getting harder, we're not getting softer, the bloody rules have changed and we're playing uphill, into a headwind and they've gotten whole load more players on their side since we started. It really takes my patience and my politeness but this is the game and I still like to play.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

John the Baptist Speaks To Me

Dear friends and readers of Doorman-Priest:

My blog name is Grandmère Mimi, and I post at Wounded Bird. How likely is it that I, a layperson in the Episcopal Church in the southern US, would be asked to do a guest post for Doorman-Priest, a religion teacher and seminary student for the Lutheran ministry from Leeds in the UK? Not very likely but for the miracle of the internet. And take a look at my fellow guest posters.

Erika, who is originally from Germany, but is now living in the UK
Wayne, a Baptist from Georgia in the US
Alcibiades, an Anglican from Sydney, Australia
Reverend Boy, an Episcopalian from New York City
Fran, a Roman Catholic from New York State
Bob (RFSJ), an Episcopal priest from New Jersey
Boaz, another Anglican from Sydney, Australia
Dr. Bob

What a motley crew. A rogues gallery? I think not, with the exception of moi. The rest of the folks are lovely people. I don't know Dr. Bob, but I'm sure he's lovely, too. DP asked me to substitute once before, and I was anxious for days before I was due to write. Once again, I am anxious. Each time Doorman-Priest or one of my fellow guest posters write, the task appears ever more daunting, because they all write well, and I fear that I won't measure up. How dare I try to follow in their footsteps? But a promise made is a promise to be kept, right?

What we have in common seems to be that we all profess to be followers of Jesus Christ, seeking to walk in the way that he laid out for us in the Gospels. And we like to talk through the intertubes. We don't always agree on exactly what being a present day disciple of Jesus means, but we look upon one another as brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ.

The painting above is "John the Baptist" by Caravaggio from the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. I'll take any opportunity to post that painting, because I think it's so beautiful, but it leads very nicely into the subject of my post.

In the first chapter of John's Gospel, we find these words:

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. John 1 6-8

If I claim to be a disciple of Christ, then I am called to be a witness, to testify to the light, to reflect the light of Christ to those around me, as John the Baptist did. I tend to think of the great saints as examples in following Jesus, and while they inspire me, they tend to discourage me a little, too, because I know that I'm never going to suffer martyrdom or do mighty works for the faith like the great saints. It's much more likely that Jesus is calling me to obey his commandments to love God and love my neighbor in my daily life, interacting with the folks who are closest to me and others who come my way, to reflect a little of the light of Christ to them. Even that task is daunting, for I'm aware that, much too often, I fall short. Lord, have mercy. Lord, give me the grace to reflect your light to a greater degree.

Then in the third chapter of John we read:

Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” John answered, “No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. John 3:25-30

What wonderful words! As a follower of Jesus, I speak the words after the example of John the Baptist, "He must increase, but I must decrease". The words are a great hook, but I need something to hang on that wonderful hook, and I'm struggling to find my way in what seems like a dark and empty desert. What could those words mean in my everyday life? Could it mean letting the ego die, like the grain of wheat? Could it mean letting go of my wants, my petty frustrations when things don't go my way; my quick, snarky, and not-so-kind responses to those nearest and dearest to me; my judgmental attitude toward folks who don't do what I think they should do or don't go the way I think they should go? Lord, have mercy! All of that must decrease if the light of Jesus is to show forth. All of that is to decrease, else there is no room for Jesus. And that's only the part of it that has to do with those close to me.

What about the wider world out there? I confess to fatigue and a sense of being overwhelmed by the injustice, evil, and cruelty that we humans inflict on one another. What can I DO aside from just FEELING bad about all of that? Surely, that's part of the Jesus to Mimi increase-decrease ratio. I can do the small things that need doing in my family and my community. I can write letters and make phone calls and give money to worthy causes. What else? It's not enough, but what else?

One way I try is on my little blog, my little blog that seems to be taking over my life in a manner that I never dreamed would happen. My voice is small, not heard by many people, but I do what I can with it to shine the light of Christ on a small space in the world, to advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves, to expose the dark deeds of the powerful, to point out injustice and cruelty. Is that enough? Indeed not!

My writing here is a starting point as I await God's direction as to where to go from here. I've found words in John's Gospel that resonate for me. What I've written is more about asking the questions, rather than having the answers for what to do with those words. Perhaps, some of you who read this will comment and enlighten me.

Before I finish, I'd like to express my gratitude to Doorman-Priest for honoring me by his trust in permitting me to post on his wonderful blog. My admiration and respect for DP is enormous. I'll leave it at that and not embarrass him with a paean of praise, listing all that I admire about him, because he would not want me to do that.

May God bless you, DP, in your ministry in Estonia. May God bless you and your family in your travels. May God bless all of you who read these words. Thank you for visiting.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Does God Change His Mind?

Hi Everyone! Thanks to DP for inviting me to guest-blog for him while he’s in Talinn. It’s a privilege to do so and participate in the ongoing discussions on this blog.

As you can see from my pic, I’m a priest, Episcopalian in my case, serving St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church in Vernon New Jersey, part of the Diocese of Newark and the worldwide Anglican Communion. My own blog is here, but I’m sending everyone over here, because I need your help on a particular question.

At my parish, the Gospel for this coming Sunday is Matthew’s account of Jesus’s encounter with the Gentile woman. She begs him to heal her daughter, but first Jesus demurs, but eventually relents and says, “Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish!”

Here’s my question. Does God change his mind? I mean, on its face Jesus appears to have changed his mind. The same thing happens in Mark’s account as well. And there are other examples too: Abraham bargains with God over the number of righteous citizens of Sodom needed to avert destruction of that city. Moses talks God out of destroying the Israelites after they made the golden calf, to name just two. And there are examples too of God’s unchangingness thoroughout history, too. James speaks of God as having “no variation of shadow due to change.” The book of Wisdom speaks of Lady wisdom being with God and participating in Creation from the beginning of time. And the Prologue to John’s Gospel contains the great “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

I think this is important for all sorts of reasons. But I’m curious before I give you my thoughts, what yours are. Let us know in comments!

The appointed Psalm for Sunday is 133, one of my favorites. Here's an Orthodox version of it that I think sounds pretty cool:






RFSJ, for DP

Monday, August 11, 2008

UDI

I find I get some cracking bruises.
In the heat of an incident I'll fly in and get a punter restrained. I'll remove them with differing levels of help and difficulty but they'll get gone. What amazes me is the bruises and injuries that I get. Unless it's something that relates directly to the situation I'll have blocked it out until I find it in the shower or in the gym the next day. Then I'll be there, poking into a bruise in inevitably a silly place for a week without any clue as to who, why or how I got it. The only thing that give me solace is that if I've got these the troublesome punters, even through the alcohol cloak of invincibility, will be waking up with worse.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

How we get here from there


It's once again my pleasure to be guest blogger while DP is away. For those who do not know me, I live in New York City and am a member of The Episcopal Church and am currently in the Discernment Process to be a candidate for the priesthood....

But how did I get here? I shared part of my story on my blog, specifically about "the scales fell from my eyes" with regards to reconciling being a gay man and a Christian, but other than that, I haven't really shared too much of my journey of faith and how I got here from there. So ... here's a condensed version in the hopes that you'll get to know a bit more about me.


Quite a few people are rather surprised that I have many fond memories of growing up in the Baptist church in rural North Carolina that my family attended. It was a small congregation, about 100 people or so, including children. My mother's people came over from Wales during colonial days and my father's folks came from England shortly after the American Civil War. We all grew up knowing each other, what everyone’s parents did and which church everyone went to. As one could imagine, this society, while idyllic in its own way, is also very insular. Nothing comes in, nothing goes out. Except for various media outlets, it is a closed system.


I have always enjoyed being in church. I grew up on the many stories of Jesus and other biblical figures and developed a great love for hearing those stories repeatedly. Around the age of 7 or 8 I remember witnessing my first baptism. I did not understand exactly what it meant, but I knew somehow that it was important. Some years later, I asked questions about what Baptism meant and how it relates to all of the things I have been reading and learning about The reply I received from my parents was something like, “Well, son, it’s a symbol that you’re a part of God’s family. And when you are baptized, you are saying to God, to your family, and to your church that you want to follow Jesus.” An that is what I wanted to do. After a few conversations with our preacher, I was baptized at the age of 11. In the Baptist tradition then, through the stories of Jesus, it could be said that I learned of God the Son and how Jesus is a very real being. I did not know what following Jesus meant, but I knew it was something I wanted to do, whatever it turned out to be.

During high school, I began to feel a desire to go deeper into my spiritual life, and I began attending an Assemblies of God Church in a small city near where I grew up, a place that some described as where "God was hanging out." There I learned that God is found not only in church, but in every day life. One of the profound things that stuck with me was the idea that everything we do can be an act of worship and of prayer. It was there also that I received, rather by accident, what is known as the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. After services one Sunday evening, I went down to the altar for some alone time and prayed, "take my life, my gifts, they are yours. I re-affirm the promises I made to you, and I commit anew the desire to follow in your footsteps.” What happened next is hard to describe. It was as if something inside which had been dormant suddenly "woke up" and filled my entire self. Interestingly enough, ever since that day, I have never felt alone. I have been lonely, sure, but never alone.

In the Pentecostal Church, there is a deep and abiding faith in the activity of the Holy Spirit, a belief that God still works through that same Spirit to continue the work that was done at Pentecost almost 2,000 years ago. This faith in the work of the Spirit through the body of Christ and through the Church laid a foundation for my coming to understand God’s work in my life through my own baptism and then my confirmation in the Episcopal Church some years later. Looking back, I can say that the Pentecostals taught me about the God the Holy Spirit and how we are able to experience God at work in the world.

At the suggestion of my father and grandfather, I applied for admission and was later accepted to the US Merchant Marine Academy in King’s Point, NY, which is something like going to West Point or the Coast Guard Academy. I got involved in the Christian Fellowship Group and helped with Bible Studies, leading in worship and in other activities, an involvement which lasted for the duration of my time at the Academy. When it came time for class officer nominations my freshman year, I was voted in as class chaplain and took it upon myself to write a weekly column posted on our barracks bulletin board.

During my three-year tenure at the Academy, I traveled quite a bit (Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean) in my sophomore and junior years and experienced the wonder of Creation and different cultures and what it means to be the "other." What really struck me about my time at the Academy was how diverse the world really was. It was my first prolonged contact with Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, Atheists and Agnostics. I was fortunate to see the breadth and depth of Creation and how the Church existed in various cultures. At the Academy, I learned about God the Father, creator of a very diverse heaven and earth and what it means to be called part of God's family.

About half-way through my junior year, I realized I was gay, and was granted a leave of absence to "sort things out." On my own blog, I describe in part the process of leaving the academy, making my way in the world and eventually moving to Manhattan. I also talk becoming like two people and its subsequent reunion, so do go read it if you haven't. After a great deal of internal struggle when I started going back to church again, I decided to leave the Baptist tradition, for I wanted to hear the gospel and participate fully in the life of a community than to hear what had become a political agenda cloaked with scripture and other ecclesial trappings. While I was on my search, I noticed that along with the healing and the integration I experienced, I discovered that my outlook on life and my beliefs on what it meant to follow God had changed somewhat, and I began to visit other mainline churches in addition to more moderate leaning evangelical churches. I always remembered fondly a concert where I sang in a choir at St Thomas in NYC and enjoyed going there to pray and to thumb through the hymnal and Book of Common Prayer, and decided I would visit an Episcopal church. After visiting a few, I ultimately decided to make my home at what I affectionately refer to as Immaculate Contraption, having discovered it quite by accident some years ago while wandering around the East Village late at night and lost, and thinking that perhaps it was that church that got converted into a night club! So yes, I found my parish because I had confused it with a night club.

I have to tell you, I felt like I had come home, and it was like a breath of fresh air coming into my soul. I was deeply moved by the liturgy, the music and the appreciation for education. Another thing I found to be a great strength of this church is its desire to be Christ to others in this world, which was reflected in its many outreach and relief programs. Coming from traditions where the normal course of events was to divide and walk apart, I felt I had entered into a place where no part of the body of Christ is easily willing to say to the other, "I need you not." So when things are working and acting at their best, I believe that you can get a very good idea of what God as Trinity is like (yes, we knew this was coming didn't we?) ... a social deity in relationship, communion and conversation with himself.

So there you have it. Small town country baptist boy picks up everything and eventually winds up in New York City as an Episcopalian wishing to enter the priesthood. Only thing I have to say in closing is that by putting your life in God's hands, he takes you on a very interesting ride through life. Life with God is a lot of things, but it certainly is never dull, and as I learned while on vacation, he is most certainly always present.



Saturday, August 9, 2008

Sunday sermon from Tallinn


Just before The Reverend Boy takes up the reins of authorty.......

1 Kings 19
Psalm 85
Romans 10
Matthew 14

August 10th.

I am very happy in a car. I love trains. Despite the contribution it makes to my carbon footprint I enjoy flying. I am not at all comfortable on a boat – however big. When I last came to Tallinn in 2005, I went to Helsinki by ferry. It was a memorable journey. I wanted to kiss the ground when I disembarked.

When we first arrived at the ferry terminal I was immediately reassured by all those wonderful shiny, big, classy ferries. Only we didn’t get one of those. No, we got one of their smaller older, tattier predecessors. In due course the ferry left the safety of the harbour and began its slow ride across the Baltic. This was Easter and the sea was frozen and the ship struggled with the ice for most of the journey so violently that even usually seasoned seafarers were struggling with sea-sickness and hastened to find places to sit and nurse their misery. Several times the front of the vessel seemed to hit a particularly impacted stretch of ice and it felt as if the ferry had come to a juddering and jarring halt. My friends I couldn’t escape to the outer decks because of the intense cold. I know many of you folk are used to it, but that Easter I was convinced I had never before been anywhere as cold in my entire life. We finally found a place in the bar – no we didn’t drink, we didn’t think that would be too clever, but we did note upon arrival back in Tallinn that there were many who had decided on that refuge to the extent that they were so drunk the crew couldn’t tell whether they were Estonians or Finns. So we sat there in the most surreal setting imaginable, pale green with sea-sickness while half a dozen couples spent the evening dancing exhibition Latin-American to a live five piece band. So strong is that image at a time when I firmly believed I was going to die that I fully expect my journey into resurrection to be accompanied by a woman wearing red sequins and dancing a rumba!

In Estonia the fate of the ferry “Estonia” is still fresh in people’s minds as in Britain is the fate of the ferry “Herald of Free Enterprise”. Two terrible tragedies. Fear is the word that comes to mind: fear of circumstances being beyond our control, fear of the ice, of the cold and fear that death could be just a moment away. Such is the fear I felt in that moment. Such is the fear, I’m sure that the disciples in the boat felt when they were “battered by the waves” on Lake Galilee one evening as they waited for Jesus to finish his private prayers.

I can hardly imagine someone walking on a sea when it is calm, much less when the waves are rolling and the wind is whipping the surface of the sea. Yet Jesus comes along, not reassuring the disciples by his arrival but adding to their fear. Their first reaction is that he must be a “Ghost”. In order to calm their fears, Jesus immediately tells them to “take heart,” and he identifies himself. Jesus’ unrecognized presence on the sea was a threat to the disciples, but the real test for that early morning, was whether they could trust his three-fold word to them, “Take heart; have no fear; it is I”?

“Take heart,” of course, recalls Moses’ words to the Israelites on the edge of the Reed Sea with the pursuing Egyptians right behind them. “Take heart; do not be afraid, stand firm and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.” And “do not be afraid” runs through the Gospel narratives spoken by God’s messengers to Joseph and Mary, by Jesus to Peter, John, and James on the mount of the Transfiguration, by God’s messenger to the women at the tomb and by Jesus as he sends the disciples into the mission field. Finally, “it is I,” that takes us back to the burning bush and God’s thundering, “I am who I am,” and all the “I am” statements of Jesus in John’s Gospel. Jesus uses a phrase that means so much more than “Look, it’s only me!” The Greek phrase here is the same identifying phrase that God used when Moses asks for God’s name. “I AM”. The association between Jesus and God is inescapable.

Now, something changes in this exchange, at least for Peter. Everyone but Peter appears struck dumb by the situation. And Peter takes a novel approach: rather than respond, he decides to test Jesus. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water!” Peter seems to see and hear more in Jesus’ action on the water than the other disciples because he challenges Jesus to call him out of the boat, to join Jesus on the water. I can’t help but wonder what possessed Peter to want to leave the boat in the first place? Were things so desperate in that boat so far from shore that he was willing to get out? Was the boat filling with water? Was Peter trying to show off? Was Jesus’ personal presence so calming and so reassuring that Peter needed to be where Jesus was? Why would Peter request such a thing?

We can’t know the answers to most of our questions. We just know that Peter suddenly found himself out of the boat and walking on the water towards Jesus. He had no choice: his challenge to Jesus is met with one in return. Not, however, without the necessary rebuke, “You have so little faith…”

And here is our application: when Jesus says, “Come,” we have to respond. In this respect we have to see Peter here as a template for Christians down the ages.
We also know that when his attention returned to the wind and the water, he began to sink and then, as if it had not already been so, his only hope was Jesus.
As we struggle to understand the meaning of this story for our lives today, my guess is that we really don’t expect to find ourselves in such a situation, although most of us know someone who “thinks they walk on water”. But the question remains: is this a morality tale about our faith and the extremes that we should be willing to go for Jesus? Or is there more to discover in this text.

I think it might be helpful at this stage to put ourselves into the shoes of the original listeners and readers of this event: within a long strand of Old Testament tradition, the sea was especially associated with evil powers. Psalm 89, for instance, refers to God “calming the raging seas”, Isaiah 51 talks of God destroying the great sea-beast. The storm was always a symbol of all the tribulations and disasters that could befall both individual and community and in all such passages it is clear that the theological intention is to show that God alone rules the waves and walks through the waters and God alone can defeat the powers of chaos and evil. For the first listeners and readers, a group of people steeped in the teaching of the Old Testament, this passage would have had striking symbolism. Today, we struggle with many of these nuances having lost the ability to unlock aspects of the meaning of the New Testament with the keys of the Old.

To them, the inescapable conclusion of this story was to show Jesus’ oneness with God.

When Peter steps out of the boat, the reader and Peter are given the startling truth that this indeed is the one who commands the waves. This is the “I AM” who has intervened with saving power so many times in the history of Israel that we should pay attention now.

This changes everything in terms of how we now see ourselves in this story. In Jesus, the great “I AM” has come to dwell with us and for us, whether we are tossed about on the seas or hungry on the hillside, whether we are in the boat or out of the boat. This presence does not show us that God has supernatural powers so much as it give us calm in the midst of our stormy world to imagine that we too might wade out into the storm with God’s help. In fact, like Peter, when we recognize God, present in our world, are commanded to go out into the water, to take the risk that the storms of this life can be challenged and overcome, even when we are outside of the safety and relative comfort of the familiar and the every day, even when the church seems to offer little in the way of guidance.

Today the dreadful situation in Georgia continues to unfold. There is no church script for this situation. What is a Christian to do? One of my guiding texts is St. Paul from Galatians: "Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling." In other words, get out of the boat and DO something with integrity. Today I put on my clericals and joined a crowd of Estonian and Georgian protesters as they made impassioned speeches outside the Russian embassy. It seemed a totally inadequate gesture but it took me outside my comfort zone. My other option was even more inadequate: stay indoors and drink coffee. No contest. I have no idea how the Holy Spirit might act now and whether that simple act will lead on to....who knows? But I got out of the boat and stepped into the storm because I needed to do something. Was I hearing the voice of Jesus in my conscience saying:"Come"?

I don’t know whether you are fans of C.S. Lewis and his wonderful Narnia books: a wonderful Christian allegory disguised as a children’s fantasy. At one point in the most recent film of the book “Prince Caspian” several Characters are about to embark on a dangerous journey. One of them, fearfully asks, “Is it safe?” The leader replies, simply, “No. Lets Go!” This is, I suppose the very situation that we face, really when we wake each day. We rise in the morning and look at the news to discover that our world continues to be rocked by bombs and terror, by kidnapping and murder, by disease and famine. We might not even know that we do it, but each of us prays wordlessly to God, “Is it safe?” And the reply comes back, simply, “No. Lets Go! Let’s step into the storm”.

The final good news in this passage comes as Peter falters and starts to sink. We too will surely falter. We too will feel that we are drowning in the depths of our world’s darkness. We too will surely feel that the chaotic waters of life are too treacherous for our tentative footsteps. We too will sink. That is real. Only fools pretend otherwise.

Then we will see as Peter does that Jesus’ hand reaches out to us. We discover, at times to our relief and at times to our annoyance, that we are not the heroes of this story. We also discover that our doubts and fears, while the cause for a rebuke from Jesus, do not, in fact, take us outside of his care and concern.

Sometimes I feel that the church is very much like a boat as we are tossed about on a sea of controversy as we negotiates our way through the storms of theology, contemporary culture, dogma, modern society and discipleship together with our own personal issues and troubles.

It is my prayer that we will look not to our own feelings for a way out of the problems that we face as individuals and as a church, but rather look to the one who walks calmly in the midst of our storms, our anxieties and our personal and institutional controversies. We will see the “I AM” coming to bring healing life to all. Will our fears be calmed long enough to bid him command us out of our boat, our safe places, and into the storm? When, surrounded by the moving waves, we falter, will we too grasp Jesus steady hand? Or will he huddle in the relative safety and comfort of the status quo and not take God’s challenge? That choice is always before us! The great “I AM” continues to walk out into the chaotic waters of the world. How will we answer when he bids us, “Come!”?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Face to Faith

Tallinn Old Town

So, off on my travels again. On Friday I depart for my parish placement in Tallinn, Estonia.

I leave the World of Doorman-Priest in good hands again and the second tranche of guest bloggers takes over. In the coming days look out for:
Reverend Boy
RSFJ
Grandmere Mimi
FranIam
Boaz and
Dr. Bob

I may also be lucky enough to post while I am away.

I leave you with an article by Rabbi Jonathan Magonet. He wrote the wonderful "A Rabbi Reads the Psalms" which was incredibly helpful to me last term in my Old Testament studies.

Jonathan Magonet

The Guardian, Saturday August 2 2008

I am a moderate and, I like to think, progressive faith leader, but there are times when fundamentalism looks rather attractive, even to me. All that certainty can be very appealing. No need to ask questions. No need to change anything. The word is the word of God and the answers do not brook debate.

Such an approach must look quite appealing to the Archbishop of Canterbury at the moment as he attempts to hold together the Anglican communion. Much of the time, many faith movements - my own included - get by on fudges, making compromises, avoiding looking in each other's eyes for fear that we might have to acknowledge that some of those compromises would not withstand much scrutiny.

But there are times when the fudges have to end, or at least be acknowledged. For Anglicans it is as they seek to come to terms with changing attitudes to women and homosexuality. For the Movement for Reform Judaism it has been the eight-year process of preparing a prayer book for the 21st century - a process I was fortunate enough to manage.

A prayer book is a window into the soul of a faith community. Maybe for the most traditional of communities the task is relatively straightforward: change the binding, add a couple of quid to the price and you're done. But for moderates it is a time when we are forced to confront our fudges and decide what we really think, if only because we have to write it down. We need to show that we have taken on board development in science and understanding, as well as spiritual, ethical and moral advances. And we don't get to pick and choose which new truths we acknowledge: faith doesn't work like that.

For Reform Jews, fortunately, the gender and sexual orientation issues were settled some years ago. Women and gay rabbis are widely accepted throughout the progressive Jewish movements that make up around a third of British Jewry. They serve in the most senior roles, and the sky hasn't fallen in. So the new prayer book, Forms of Prayer, acknowledges this not-so-new equality by using gender-inclusive language throughout, including that used to refer to God. We list the female "matriarchs" Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel alongside the "patriarchs" Abraham, Issac and Jacob.

But there is far more to modernising a prayer book than issues of gender and sexuality. Maybe the most traditional of worshippers would shy away from mentions of such modern-day concerns as climate change and environmental disaster, caring responsibilities and even pets, but for the progressive, the moderate, we can make up what we may lack in certainty by ensuring relevance. So our prayer book addresses these and many other 21st-century issues.

The consumerist iPod generation of believers demand more from worship than the constant repetition of familiar but archaic prayers and services. They expect to take charge by selecting their own liturgy, relevant to them and real-life concerns. Our prayer book seeks to let them do this by being to its predecessors what the iPod is to the album: our users can select their own choices of liturgy to reflect their mood, their degree of radicalism or conservativism, and the issues on which they wish to reflect at any time. Its aim is to pass ownership of daily services from the "authority of the book" to individuals, a principle that the Jewish faith, which does not require a rabbi to lead a service, is comfortable with, and one that may be relevant to other faiths too.

It is not for a Jew to lecture the Church of England on how it tackles its own critical dilemmas. At the same time, however, as one moderate to another, I'd say we have found that pretending to certainties we don't feel condemns us to a losing race with the fundamentalists. Instead, we've learned to celebrate diversity and search for ways to let it flourish. To trump certainty we can - if we dare - offer choice and individual responsibility, and that ensures a unique relevance to the modern world.

Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet is the editor of the Movement for Reform Judaism's new prayer book, Forms of Prayer, and vice-president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism.

Comment: "For Reform Jews, fortunately, the gender and sexual orientation issues were settled some years ago. Women and gay rabbis are widely accepted throughout the progressive Jewish movements that make up around a third of British Jewry. They serve in the most senior roles, and the sky hasn't fallen in."

So, the Jews knew God before the Christians did and they have Deuteronomy and they still have gay Rabbis. Is there a message for the church there, I wonder?

Monday, August 4, 2008

Ways and Means

I have a few ways of telling when someone needs to leave the venue. The obvious ones of fighting and falling over are only part of the picture. I watch people move around the venue. I watch who they talk to and how. I see how and who they dance with on the main dancefloor. I see how they make decisions, how they interact at the bars and with random punters.
I've been doing this a while now and can see what stands out. I watch body language from how a punter places their feet, how they hold their shoulders to how they move their arms and heads. All of us who pay attention can usually make a good assessment of how drunk a punter is in a couple of seconds. We're in the business of getting people merry in a social environment. We have a grey line of inebriation which we apply with a certain amount of judgement.
When I approach a punter to have a word with them it's not likely I've totally made up my mind. Unless they're very visibly battered I'll try and communicate. Sometimes just getting through to folks is impossible, then it's time to point, guide and occasionally give them a gentle push in the right direction. Sometimes they seem coherent and I tell them to take it easy and leave them to it, just keep an eye on them.
I recon I can tell the difference between just drunk, pilled up, coked or speeded up or on poppers. Mostly by body language but when I pull them into the quiet and the light away from the disco lights to have a chat I like to see their faces and especially their eyes. Then I'll know fairly certainly. Whatever I suspect, unless I think there will be value in doing something else, they'll get escorted out for having had one too many, whether that's strictly true or not.
They often don't like it but, when they're too pissed or smashed they're not good punters, the sooner their gone the better. I'm not a popular man with the muppets, I'm not upset with that. I am fairly popular with the good customers, I'm not upset about that either.

Briefly back......



Holy Island

And a big thanks to Erika, WayneDawg and Alcibiades for their wonderful contributions in my absence. If you've not visited for a while, do scroll down and have a read.

Northumberland was, as ever, a wow. I also got to go to church in Newcastle and met Mad Priest for coffee and a chin-wag after the service.

Sunday Sermon

Isaiah 55
Psalm 145
Romans 9
Matthew 14

So, here we are: this is the summer.

Allegedly.

I don’t know whether it is something to do with the street I live in but this time of year seems to me to be characterised by the smell of barbeques.

I must be deeply anti-social or I have some other personality defect but I don’t find chasing paper plates around someone’s garden, while balancing a cup of indifferent wine and avoiding ketchup stains and salmonella, a recipe for unbridled fun.

This time of year always puts me in mind of my Auntie Doreen in Barnsley. Have I mentioned my Auntie Doreen in Barnsley before? No? Well, you know the phrase “glass half full, glass half empty”? It makes no difference to her, she’ll drink it anyway. So, I called round one day and she was in a bad mood having bought two barbeque packs from B & Q.

“There” she said brandishing one in my face. “Look at the picture.” The picture showed a barbeque, all set up, with succulent food cooking nicely.

“What’s the problem?” I enquired tentatively.

“Well, look for yourself.” She said brandishing the open box again. “It’s a bag of charcoal. There’s no food.”

I explained gently, not wishing to make her feel stupid that it was just the cooking element of the barbeque she had bought and that no food was included what with B & Q not generally selling food.

She took it well, I thought, and then turned on her heel and headed for the kitchen. “I’d better get the other one out of the freezer, then.”

The Gospel, though not exactly describing a barbeque on the Galilean hills, tells of Jesus meeting the needs of his hungry followers. After hearing of his preaching in last week’s Gospel, we now begin a series of three Sundays whose Gospel readings tell of his miracles. The first of these is the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, one of the few miracles found in all four Gospels. Though the story is a shortened version of Mark’s account, it has Matthew’s distinctive focus with the Disciples portrayed as wondering how they will feed the people: here is Matthew’s theme of “little faith,” strengthened by Jesus.

When I was thinking about how best to approach this reading I had a look at a book by the Anglican theologian Canon Dr. Jeffrey John called “The Meaning in the Miracles.” He wittily relates how as a schoolboy two of his teachers had approached the miracles in contrasting ways and this really resonated with me because I had a similar experience when I first started teaching. One of my colleagues, Mr. Forest, a Biology teacher embodied the literalist or fundamentalist approach to scripture where everything was to be taken at the plainest level of meaning and must have happened exactly as it said. His response to this miracle would be to say “Well, it just goes to show that Jesus is God, doesn’t it?” Doubting that a miracle story happened exactly as it was recorded was tantamount to doubting the divinity of Christ.

Mrs. King, my first R.E. Head of Department, on the other hand, took the reductionist approach, wanting to “demythologise” the miracle accounts to reveal the morals within the stories. In this case the moral to her was that when Jesus fed the five thousand he and the disciples shared out what they had and their example encouraged others who had been holding back their own food to share theirs too. The “real” miracle was when everyone discovered the joy of caring and sharing with others.

She referred to him as a snake-handling Baptist and he referred to her as a wet, liberal Anglican.

I didn’t sit with them in the staffroom.

Life’s too short.

While their approaches seem diametrically opposed, they were in fact quite similar in the sense that they both treated the miracles as straightforward descriptions of events: they concentrated simply on what did or did not happen. Dr. John concludes that the real nature and purpose of the Gospel miracles is found in the depths and dimensions of meaning which are also conveyed in the account and these passed both the teachers – and consequently their students – by completely.

The problem with Mr. Forrest’s literalist approach where miracles simply exist to prove the divinity of Jesus is that it can say very little else about the event because it either rejects or simply doesn’t understand any symbolism at the heart of the Gospel events. The problem with Mrs. King’s reductionist approach as a call to greater charity is that it hardly sounds like good news and certainly not a tremendous demonstration of God’s free, miraculously overflowing generosity to his people.

What I discovered was there was no middle ground between them although before I gave up on them and went to sit with the English Department, I tried to argue that there was often a middle way where neither really had to give up their position in acknowledging the validity of the other’s point. That advice was clearly unwelcome. For where two or three are gathered together in my name….there will inevitably be an argument. (To paraphrase Matthew 18) And isn’t that a parable for the modern church where there is so much invested in being right at the expense of others?

But I digress.

So what is the language of miracles – specifically today the miracle of the feeding of the multitude? What are the theological nuances that both Mr. Forrest and Mrs. King never saw?

I don’t know whether you had realised that there is a second miracle of feeding the multitudes. This comes a couple chapters later in Matthew’s gospel – and in Mark’s Gospel too. I had always thought that this was another version of the same story that had got mangled in the telling and accidentally ended up as a second event. I don’t think that any more.

Certainly Jesus does the same thing but he does it in a different place, for a different people and with different numbers of loaves, fishes and people: these details are not the sloppy rememberings of another tradition but are themselves significant elements of two different events, and we know this because in Mark’s version Jesus questions the disciples very closely about the two feedings and gives them a hard time because they don’t get it.

“When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him “Twelve.”
“And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of pieces did you collect?” And they said to him “Seven.” Then he said to them “Do you not yet understand?”

Well, if the disciples, sitting not five feet from Jesus, found the meaning obscure, perhaps we may be forgiven for not fully understanding it either.
What many commentators are now saying to us is that the first miracle is a feeding of the Jews and the second miracle is a feeding of the Gentiles.

Really? How?

Well, this interpretation of Jews and Gentiles is evidenced by the fact that the first miracle takes place in a Jewish area near the Sea of Galilee while the second takes place in an area called the Decapolis, a largely Gentile area. Two different words are used for “basket” in the accounts: one a word of Jewish usage and one a word of Gentile usage.

The number five from the first feeding is very much a Jewish number because of its relationship to the Pentateuch, the five books of the Law. The number four in the second feeding is a Gentile number because it refers to the four Gentile empires that had overrun Israel - the number of “beasts” in the book of Daniel. The number twelve in the first feeding refers to the twelve tribes of Israel while the number seven in the second regularly stands for fullness or completion in many scriptural texts: the mission to the Gentiles completes Jesus ministry.

These two stories must have been understood by Matthew and Mark as a prefiguring of the two stage preaching of the Gospel: “to the Jew first and then to the Gentile” as St. Paul later observed. The bread symbolizes the word of God: a standard association in Jewish thinking linked to the warning in Deuteronomy “You shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

Two thousand years down the line and we don’t instantly recognise the subtext as the original listeners and readers would have, and that diminishes our understanding of the Gospel. There are so many layers to the miracle stories, and yet like Mr. Forrest and Mrs. King we persist in seeing the two dimensional – and arguing about it!

But there is more: perhaps the most obvious theological emphasis of this feeding miracle is to tell us that Jesus is the new Moses. Even with a sketchy knowledge of the Old Testament most people are likely to remember that Moses had done something similar with the manna in the desert and closer examination shows other areas of comparison. Like Moses Jesus crosses the water into the desert, sits the people down in companies and feeds them with miraculous bread in such abundance that there are basketfuls left over. Much less obviously, because the relevant Old Testament story is perhaps less well known, Jesus’ actions also recall Elisha. Some of the details of the feeding stories clearly reflect an incident in 2 Kings when Elisha takes an army into the desert and feeds them miraculously with a few loaves.

Taking Moses and Elisha together, the story seems to be telling us in an allusive way that in recapitulating what Moses did, Jesus is fulfilling the Law and in recapitulating what Elisha did, Jesus is fulfilling the Prophets. This feeding miracle is intended to teach us that Jesus is truly the one whom the Law and the Prophets foretold.

Some commentators go further: they see the bread as having a sacramental reference. The words and actions of Jesus over the bread are exactly the same as at the Last Supper. The association with Moses and the Exodus event point to a Passover setting and thus to the new Christian Passover, the Eucharist.

So, this Gospel miracle is also a deeply meaningful theological statement. Its meaning is Christological in that the miracle tells us something about Jesus; it is typological in that it relates to comparable figures of the religious past, Moses and Elisha; it is eschatological in that it relates to the end times, presenting Jesus as the fulfilment of the religious tradition; it is symbolic in its use of numbers and sacramental in its reference to the Eucharist. All these dimensions were important to the Gospel writers and should also be important to us. However, they are regularly missed in the “standard” approach to miracles because we have lost the skill of finding the keys to the N.T. in the O.T.

This miracle has all the flavour and literary style of the Jewish narrative known as haggadah, a genre of Jewish theological writing. We should not be surprised by this as Matthew and Mark were Jewish writers. They were steeped in the traditions of the O.T. and they derived their theological understanding from their Jewish antecedents. They recognised all these extra elements in the feeding miracles and understood their importance: Jesus did THIS and in doing so echoed THAT and each detail had such incredible theological significance that it had to be recorded because of the picture each layer helped to build up. Yes, this is most certainly a story of Jesus’ divinity and the reasons why are found in the detail: so they underlined these threads of prophecy-fulfilment, symbolism, typology, allegory and numerology throughout their Gospel narratives. These are the signposts which point to Jesus’ divinity and to the readers and listeners of the day they must have been akin to flashing neon lights which spelt out the truths, hopes, patterns and meanings and modern relevance of the scriptural past those elements represented.

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy). Only all too often we have lost the key and therefore miss many of the nuances.

What should this mean for us today? When we read the miracle of the feeding of the multitude, how should we react? Well, perhaps the best response is the one provided by scripture itself, the discourse of Jesus on the Bread of Life in John’s Gospel:
“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from Heaven so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from Heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

What would Mr. Forrest and Mrs. King have made of it all, I wonder?