On a schoolday my alarm is set for 7 am. Working from home and getting the children out of the door for 8:45, that’s fine.
This morning, though, I woke at 4:45. The reason? A fierce and vicious headache. I am occasionally prone to these, although less than I used to be. Sometimes, they are connected to the neck problem I have had since I was eighteen. However, osteopathy is progressively improving that these last few years.
Other times, they are connected to my slightly-higher-than-it-should-be blood pressure. Treatment for that is also reducing the frequency of those headaches, too.
Debbie says I always get these heads after time out with her and the children, but that can’t be the explanation this time, as the school Easter break finished last weekend. How happy we were to get the monkeys back to school. They can squabble there!
I can joke about that, but so many people I encounter live as if every adversity is a punishment. How easily we say, “What have I done to deserve this?” Here are some preliminary sketches of a response.
Biblically, this is more complex thatn simple blame for our actions. There are strands in Scripture connecting moral misdemeanours with consequences. The Deuteronomic literature in the Old Testament is particularly strong on this. God is just: righteousness will be rewarded, sin will be punished. There are lists of blessings for the upright and curses for the unjust.
Yet that is only the beginning of the matter in the Old Testament. As one of my Old Testament tutors, John Bimson, memorably put it in a lecture in 1987, the forty-two chapters of Job are designed to answer one question: is there such a thing as innocent suffering? Their answer is ‘yes’. The book does not explain innocent suffering, it affirms that it exists and is mysterious.
Jesus picks up this thread in John 9, where he encounters a man born blind. His disciples ask who sinned in order that he was born blind, him or his parents. It’s a ridiculous question, as if the man himself could have sinned before birth. Jesus detonates this nonsense and makes the innocent man’s suffering the arena where God will display his glory. There is innocent suffering, yes, says Jesus, but he develops the teaching in Job by saying that God can use it redemptively.
At the same time, what happens about the cry for justice? I have always found Psalm 73 an eloquent expression of this. The author spends the first half of the psalm lamenting the luxury and ease of the wicked, while the righteous suffer. It all changes for the author when he (?) enters the sanctuary and sees things from God’s perspective. There is a long-term picture, where evil people are placed on slippery slopes by God. This is given full eschatological rein in the New Testament, not with the judgment that all seems to be telescoped into ‘this life’ in much of the Old Testament (Daniel 12 excepted?), but with a picture of final and ultimate judgment.
We also need to qualify the idea of innocent suffering. It is true in the sense that much suffering in the world is not a direct consequence of our sin. I don’t think something as mundane as my lousy headache was, nor are earthquakes and famines, despite the tendency of some parts of the Christian world to attribute blame rather quickly. We get caught in the crossfire of a broken world.
Yet in another sense none of us is innocent. All of us face God as sinners in need of grace. We simply need to resist the temptation to make easy linkage between particular suffering and certain sins. For although God will judge sin, and although sometimes, as C S Lewis said, pain is God’s megaphone to a deaf world, the basic truth is that the God of holy love is calling us to find his mercy and grace in Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile, I need to take some personal responsibility in order to avoid feeling rough tomorrow: I’m off to get some supper now before bed!
I’m going to be nice about Iona today. Specifically about one of their confession prayers.
Yes, you read both of those sentences correctly. The confession in chapel this morning was more refreshing – and challenging – to my mind. It was modelled on the verse in Isaiah 55 where God says ‘My ways are not your ways’. It thus consisted of a series of stark contrasts between the ways of God and of humans. So we got a clearer focus on God in the confession as a result, in my opinion.
Wednesday is not a normal lecture day here. After morning chapel, students keep silence until 10 am when they meet in their pastoral groups, then at 11 they all meet together with the Principal for Community Coffee. I’m not sure what happens in the afternoons – I think it must be free for study. I decided I would observe silence with the students before taking another walk into town to buy presents for Debbie and the children.
Trinity was the first place I ever observed any extended silence, on college Quiet Days. At first it frightened me. There is something terrifyingly loud about the way one’s own thoughts invade and clamour for attention. Yet silence, with the accompanying discipline of solitude, is a sign of health and vitality in the life of the Spirit. On one of those Quiet Days, I remember deciding I would read Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s ‘Life Together‘. Figuring it was only ninety or a hundred pages, I was sure I could get through it easily in one day. I couldn’t. Bonhoeffer packed such a punch with every sentence, the book kept stopping me like brakes on a car. What I most remember is him saying that no-one is fit for community life who cannot also embrace solitude. This morning, the silence was not a ringing in my ears but a recharging of my batteries.
Then I went off present-hunting. I found an art shop and bought some little models for the children to paint. I won’t say what I bought Debbie, because she occasionally reads this blog. I just hope she likes my purchase.
Lunch was suitably spartan for Ash Wednesday: soup and bread. But it wasn’t gruel. There was a choice between carrot and coriander soup (which I normally consume by the gallon) and a fish and cream soup. Both were accompanied by two types of bread: one was a tomato bread, the other I’m not sure, but it was good. I got through two bowlfuls of the fish and cream soup. Debbie dislikes both fish and mushrooms, and they are two things I love, so if I’m not at home to eat and I get the chance, I take advantage. This one had vague similiarities with the most wonderful soup I have ever tasted: cullen skink at Sheena’s Backpackers’ Lodge cafe in Mallaig, the fishing port at the northern end of the Road to the Isles in Scotland.
At the end of lunchtime, I had the joy of spending twenty minutes or so catching up with my old tutor John Bimson.
What to do this afternoon? Still feeling very disciplined after the morning silence, I read more of Goldsmith and Wharton’s book ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You‘, especially the chapters on personality type in the church. I concentrated on those sections specific to my own personality type of INTP. Time and again, I read paragraphs and thought the authors had met me. Yes, I am someone who likes to bring new vision to a church, because I’m more about the future than the present, more big picture than fine detail.
And – apparently, my personality type often gets frustrated with regular local church ministry and ends up in sector ministry. In particular, my type often likes to engage in research. I felt another underlining of the sense I’d had at Cliff College a fortnight ago about doing a PhD. Well, no, more than that: I felt like the research idea came up and mugged me again.
So to the weekly college communion service at 5 pm. Trinity is an evangelical college, but very much what is called an ‘open evangelical‘ college. It is not hardline Calvinist/fundamentalist. Secure in a commitment to biblical authority, it believes there is value to be found in other Christian traditions, too. Today that meant the Lord’s Supper conducted in a more Anglo-Catholic style, complete with incense, processing and the like, and of course an ashing ceremony. I don’t think a real Anglo-Catholic would have recognised it as a complete facsimile, not least because the music was mainly from evangelical and charismatic sources. But it was a genuine attempt to be sympathetic. And I find the imposition of ashes to be a powerful symbolic act. It sends a tremor through me every time. I’m glad we have it in the Methodist Worship Book, too. I haven’t washed mine off yet. The only pity was that just the first half of the words were used with the imposition of the ashes: ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return’, but they forgot to say, ‘Turn from your sin and follow Christ.’
On to dinner and another great conversation with the other former lecturer of mine who is still on the staff here, John Nolland, along with his wife Lisa. John has ‘a brain the size of a planet’ and authored the three volumes on Luke’s Gospel in the Word Biblical Commentary. More recently, he has written a highly acclaimed commentary on Matthew for the New International Greek Text Commentary on the New Testament. We learned from some top-class scholars here, and so do the current students, with staff such as Gordon and David Wenham here, to name but two of many.
During the Peace in the communion service, the Principal, George Kovoor, shared the Peace with me and then continued the conversation. He invited me to book an appointment with him to chat over coffee for half an hour. The only problem is, I shall only be able to offer tomorrow afternoon, and I’ll be pleasantly surprised if he has space in his diary for then at such short notice. I’ll let you know tomorrow whether it comes off. I hope it will. He is a genial man, and if you click the link I gave to him above you’ll be exhausted just reading about him. I spoke to him on Monday, explained who I was and he told me he was a Methodist minister, too. It’s true. He is Indian, and was ordained in the Church of North India, which is a united denomination. Yesterday, he gave a notice to the community, saying that he was going to play a student at table tennis. He wouldn’t ask for prayer, because last time he played someone and asked for prayer he won, and he didn’t want an unfair advantage this time. Turns out he won anyway.
See you tomorrow.
I left home after the school run and by limiting my one stop on the 180+ mile trip, I got here at 12:45 pm, fifteen minutes before lunch. And on that subject, the food has certainly improved from my time here. (Pause to affect voice of elderly person:) In my day, we used to say that Trinity was the only place where you poured the meat and sliced the custard. We also lived a diet comprised fifty percent of apples, there being a surfeit of apple trees in the grounds. On the evidence of the shepherd’s pie and cherry cheesecake today, those times are gone.
A first year student called Andy has helped me find my way around, some things not being quite where or how they were back in the eighties – no surprise, of course. Given that I get edgy about getting into a new routine in an unfamiliar place, he has been a blessing. Not only that, his ‘college job’ is IT, and he got me logged onto one of the networks here with the appropriate password. He also showed me where to sit in the lecture room to be near a mains socket for the laptop. At Cliff College two weeks ago, there were extension leads trailing everywhere – a health and safety risk but it meant everybody could plug in. The same isn’t true here.
My room is better than at Cliff, though. Again, it’s a twin room, but it’s more spacious. Not only is there room for two single beds without a crush, there is also a travel cot for a baby and a z-bed.
I’ve also briefly met my old tutor, John Bimson, and we hope to catch up with each other more later in the week. John is a fantastic Old Testament scholar with a wicked sense of humour and a passion for social justice.
As for the course, I’ve had a double lecture this afternoon and I have to say I’m a bit disappointed on a couple of fronts. First of all, the element on ministry and personality type is just barely half the course, spanning Thursday and Friday.
Secondly, today’s material has largely been a baptism of management theory. It was justified on the grounds that all truth is God’s truth, and of course I believe that. However, I think we’ve had one reference in the PowerPoint slides to Scripture, and that was the obligatory Proverbs 29:18, a text surely much misused, and for some reason in this context limited to leaders, not ‘the people’, as the verse says. The lecturers also made clear that there are vast differences between a line management situation and a voluntary organisation. Yet the primary assumptions have been about large churches. Hence the person quoted more than anybody has been Bill Hybels, and I shall be watching to see whether what we are really getting is teaching on how to run a megachurch, something that will not be terribly applicable to many of us.
It isn’t surprising when the main lecturer is a former President of Hasbro’s European Division, and worships at a large church in Surrey. The other guy is part-time on the college staff along with being vicar of what was certainly a big church when I was here in the Eighties. I could be doing the lecturers a disservice, and hopefully tomorrow I’ll have more positive reflections to report.
On Friday, by the wonders of the Internet, I listened to a podcast of my old college tutor giving a Bible Study on Isaiah 43. In it, he made a provocative statement. He said that many modern worship songs were like adverts for toilet paper. What he meant was this: the typical advert for toilet paper will tell you how soft it is and how strong it is, but it will never tell you what it is for. No advert for toilet paper tells you its purpose is for wiping your bottom. Similarly, some of our worship songs say how loving, kind and gentle Jesus is, but they never say what he came to do.
And I suggest – if it’s not too provocative for you – that we have treated our passage from Mark like an advert for toilet paper in a similar way. We have thought about the coming of Jesus, the call to discipleship and the invitation to make ‘fishers of men’ [sic] in a soft and strong, comforting way. But when we do, we miss dangerously what Jesus came to do here. I want to set that within these headings: coming, calling and commissioning.
Quick Bible trivia quiz – no one who has studied Theology is allowed to answer: which one of the four Gospels has none of the Christmas stories? Answer: Mark, the Gospel from which we have heard this morning. Mark is more concerned with the coming of Jesus in terms of his arrival on the scene as an adult, and that’s what happens here:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Verses 14-15)
At Christmas that in Christ God had come near to us. He is Immanuel, God with us. Mark shows us Jesus putting that into practice. In not just the birth of Jesus but his ministry too, God comes near. He comes near in space and near in time. In space he comes close – ‘Jesus came to Galilee’. And he comes close in time – ‘The time is fulfilled’.
Now here I want to suggest the ‘advert for toilet paper’ principle comes in again. Because that’s the way we sometimes talk about the coming of Jesus at Christmas. All the nice warm and fuzzy bits, but forgetting what Jesus came to do and why. Well, here is his coming portrayed by Mark not through the lens of Dickensian Christmas cards but through the closeness of his coming. And the closeness of Jesus’ coming in space and time makes things urgent.
Put it this way. If Jesus turned up physically in our midst today, how would we react? My guess is it wouldn’t be anything like the way we talk at Christmas. We might be nervous. We might think of our sins and failures. We might get down on our knees. We might not even dare to look at him. Because if the living God comes close, I think that’s a more likely reaction.
When Jesus comes to Galilee and announces that God’s time is fulfilled, then anyone who catches half a glimpse of who he is and a little bit of what this might mean is not going to sing Jingle Bells. No, there is something urgent about the coming of Jesus. In his coming, the kingdom of God is coming near. He is here on God’s business. Like a space mission perfectly timing the launch of a rocket to leave Earth’s orbit and land its lunar module at the right part of the Moon, so Jesus has come on God’s mission with precision timing. So we’d better believe this isn’t just the spiritual equivalent of ET showing up, or reruns of Robin Williams goofing around as an alien visitor in Mork and Mindy. The coming of Jesus is serious. It’s about the salvation of the world and all creation. Mark is telling us we’d better listen up. So what should we do? That follows in the second and third elements of the passage.
Well, if Jesus’ coming displays a sense of urgency and seriousness, it will be little surprise if the call he issues to people is of the same tone:
‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Verse 15)
Repent and believe the good news. There is good news to believe about a God characterised by love, grace and mercy. But the route to receiving that good news is via repentance. That’s urgent. That’s serious.
Before very long we will hit Lent, and with my sabbatical I shall have no opportunity to share anything on that theme with you this year. However, the Lent themes are highlighted here: repent. We have to get beyond the giving up of chocolate, because this is about serious lifestyle changes (much as not eating chocs will be lifestyle alterations for some of us). Repentance is more than being sorry. It is about being sorry enough to commit to change. It is about taking a u-turn in our lives.
The Greek word for repentance, metanoia, means to change one’s mind. In repentance, we change our minds about God, our lives and the world. We turn around a go a different way.
Now something as major as that is urgent and life-changing. To speak of ‘repenting at leisure’ is an outright contradiction. To wait for a death-bed conversion is playing fast and loose with God, even a merciful God.
You might think this just has to do with conversion and the initial discovery of faith in Jesus. It does have to do with that, but it is something that needs to become a habit. It’s no good thinking, ‘Phew, I got all that challenging repentance stuff done and dusted when I found Christ’ and then sit back for the ride with our ticket to heaven, because God will not be mocked. Repentance is the Christian’s regular habit. Not because we are people with a permanent downer about ourselves – ‘I’m just a worm’ and all that. No: it’s because God has set about a lifelong project of transforming us.
Jesus calls us to keep short accounts with God. Repentance is like a commitment to pay our bills on time, not to let our debts build up. I’m not saying, of course, that we would still pay for our sins: when we ‘repent and believe the Good News’ that is completely taken care of through the Cross of Christ. But I am using this as a metaphor: if God calls us to account about something, then are we in the habit of responding to him quickly?
And by the way, let us note also that when God calls us to repentance it is for something specific. It is never a general condemnation, as if he says, ‘You are worthless, hopeless and useless’ – that is the work of the enemy. He puts his finger on something in particular. And for that, he calls us to urgent action in changing our minds and making a u-turn.
Might he specifically call us to repent of those sins which undermine our life together as Christian community? Isn’t that why he has so much to say about the spiritual sickness of unforgiveness? Is it not the bitterness and petty quarrels that sometimes stain our churches that are worse denials of the Gospel than any arguments by atheists? Repentance becomes an urgent task for the sake of having a credible witness.
We move from the general message Jesus gave when he began his ministry, to the specific one he issued to Simon and Andrew (and presumably to James and John, too):
‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ (Verse 17)
Whenever I’ve quoted that saying of Jesus in a sermon, I’ve usually given a little reminder of the old chorus ‘I will make you fishers of men if you follow me’ and talked about how the disciples’ working life as fishermen was not wasted, but was a preparation for their ministry with Jesus. I’ve done that in this pulpit.
I still believe that. But this week as I prepared, I discovered something else about the call to be ‘fishers’ in a spiritual sense. It’s another ‘advert for toilet paper’ moment, where we may have missed the force of the meaning.
For once again, there is something urgent about this summons from Jesus, this commission to ‘fish for people’. There is an Old Testament background to this expression. It’s more than Jesus just making a clever play on words, based on their profession. No, the prophets see God as the great ‘fisher for people’, and whenever they speak that way, there is an ominous tone of judgment. Jeremiah 16:16, Ezekiel 29:4-5 and 38:4, Amos 4:2 and Habakkuk 1:14-17 all speak this way.
Combine that Old Testament context with the unusual sign of Jesus calling people to follow him, in contrast to the way the rabbis of his day waited for potential disciples to come to them, and you can’t miss the urgency of his words here. ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people’ is a way of saying that if the kingdom of God is near, then not only is it time for us to get our lives in order, we need to find ways of calling other people to do the same. It’s the call to be evangelistic and prophetic in the world.
That kind of call is never popular or easy. Jesus came with his message ‘after John was arrested’ (verse 14) – arrested for condemning adultery in high places.
It is no easier today. People say, ‘Who are you to say that to us?’ Sadly, they are sometimes right to do so, given the track record of Christian hypocrisy. They call us ‘self-appointed moral guardians.’ Others say that we each have our own truth and we mustn’t impose whatever works for us on others.
So we’re tempted to backtrack, be very British and keep our religion to ourselves – just as our critics want. Yet isn’t there an alternative that falls in between strident judgmentalism on one hand and being ashamed of the Gospel on the other?
I think there is. It involves actively living out our faith in the world in such a way as to earn our right to be heard. Tony Campolo used to tell a story about a poverty-stricken nation close to his heart, the Dominican Republic. In one village where the communists were highly influential, a Christian doctor would spend his days treating the sick, especially from the poorest groups who could not afford to pay for medical care. By night he would go around the village, preaching the Gospel. The local communist leader grudgingly admitted that the doctor had earned his right to be heard.
I believe we are called to something similar. It involves us living out a full-blooded compassionate lifestylee in the world, so much so that people want to know what makes us do it. Then we tell them about Jesus, no holds barred.
I can’t guarantee such an approach will protect us from criticism – Jesus warned us that goodness will always face opposition. But I can suggest that this is a Christlike response to our commissioning that can get under the radar in a society that is decreasingly sympathetic to the Good News.
In a recession, we might just have what they need. After all, the ‘atheist bus campaign’ with its advertising slogan ‘There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life’ looks a bit sick in these economically straitened times, doesn’t it?
So isn’t it time that we responded again to the urgency at the heart of Jesus’ coming, the urgency in his call to repent and believe, and the urgency of taking up his commission to be and to share Good News in our communities?