Weblog

In this blog, I shall attempt to record my thoughts and feelings as I go through life. Don't expect too much logic, great wisdom, or theological perfection. I am liable to ramble over all sorts of topics, some overtly Christian, others rather less so. See it as a stream of consciousness. I hope and pray that you get something out of it.

Are We Asking the Wrong Questions?

A few days ago, our vicar sent me a link to aYouTube video, which made me laugh. It also made me think - or, at least, to look at my feelings, and dredge up the thoughts which had been lurking in the dark corners of my mind.

I was sent it, as a joke, because he’d asked me to look at ways we might reopen our church building - first for ‘private prayer’ then, later I assume, for ‘worship’ - in these days of Covid-19 and social distancing. I won’t go into detail but, basically, a church building like ours is designed to ‘cram’ lots of people into a relatively small space: the opposite of what’s required to keep people safe from the novel coronavirus. The more I think, and calculate, and draw, the more complicated and the more, ‘de-humanising’ and intractable the problem seems to become...

And ridiculous; especially that.

If we keep strictly to the 2m rule, and also expect that someone, anyone, sitting near the platform might need the toilet at some point, we can fit a grand total of eleven individuals - or somewhat more if we allow ‘lockdown bubbles’ to huddle together - but never more than about 10% of the church’s ‘capacity’. If you decide not to allow people to leave to go to the toilet, and insist that the first arrivals fill the church from the front, then you can fit about sixty people. How do you select which small percentage can come on any given Sunday? I have to say, I find this model of ‘church’ most unattractive and unlikely, therefore, to attract many people to ‘hear the good news’.

Tough Times and the Church

I think I want to start a conversation about grief, trauma and mental ill-health, and the church’s response.

I should say, first of all, that I’m no expert, and this is entirely personal perspective, developed over forty years of being around evangelical churches. I’ve had my share of tough times, and I’ve seen and experienced both the brilliant and the bad in churches’ response to people struggling through hard times. I’ve also been part of conversations around those issues, and churches’ response, for almost as long.

I remember one conversation, it must be almost thirty years ago now, in which a GP acquaintance was openly critical of evangelical churches, describing them as places which fostered a sense of unreality - that sense that you weren’t a ‘proper Christian’ unless you were always ‘up’ - always happy and smiling - and how harmful this was for those who aren’t always ‘up’. He also described the ‘quick fix’ culture (pray for someone’s healing, believe they’d been healed, and move on) as equally harmful - ‘leaving a trail of broken, hopeless, people in its wake, for the NHS to pick up and try to put back together’ was how I think he put it. His words stuck with me - because they illustrated neatly how wrong the attitude was; how wrong-headed the reasoning behind the church’s response can be. It was pretty damning and, sadly, in a lot of cases, all too true.

Humility - an Easter Thought

The church is big on humility, and how we should be humble, and serve others. It even talks about Jesus being humble. But then, in the next breath, it sets him up as a glorious, triumphant, king - the sort of conquering hero who deserves, and gets, a big bronze statue set up in the main square of a capital city, celebrating his strength, his power, his might.

This week, I have read the ‘Easter story’ several times in each of the gospels - soaking in the imagery, letting my imagination (aided by what I know of the times and the places) run riot, and it struck me how ordinary, how humble all of the imagery is.

Reading about the ‘triumphal entry’ (as some bibles title the passage), something struck me...

The next day the great crowd that had come to the feast, hearing that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches from the palm trees and went forth to meet him and cried out, “Hosanna, blessed is the one coming in the name of the Lord, and the king of Israel!” And Jesus, having found a young ass, mounted it, just as it is written: “Fear not, daughter of Zion; see, your king comes seated on the foal of an ass.” John 12:12-15, quoting Zechariah 9:9

A New Spiritual Practice

Hand-washing is all the rage! The novel Coronavirus, which causes Covid-19, seems mostly to be passed on via droplet infection - so by breathing in droplets suspended in the air, or by touching something on which droplets have landed which is contaminated with virus particles, and then transferring them to one’s eyes, nose, or mouth with the hands. So thorough hand-washing is important. But how long should I wash my hands for? The experts say it takes about twenty seconds for soap and water to destroy the virus - so stages 2-7 in the poster below ought to take you at least twenty seconds. I would ignore the ‘visibly soiled’ part of the instructions below - the danger we’re dealing with here, is that your hands can be dangerously contaminated whilst looking perfectly clean!!!

How To HandWash Poster

How long is twenty seconds? If you say the Lord’s Prayer, and you aren’t racing through it, it should take you more than twenty seconds… It usually takes me twenty-five or more. Ample time to kill that virus! And to connect with God!

Be Still - Three - Lectio Divina

So, having established, in my last post, that we need to cultivate quiet in order to hear God as we need to, how might we go about that?

In theory, it’s simple. Find somewhere physically quiet. It might be a quiet, comfortable, space in the house, or a bench in the park, or somewhere else like that - somewhere one isn't likely to be disturbed. Sit down and do nothing.

I wish, oh, how I wish, that it was so simple.

I have, and I’m sure you do too, a mind which is full of thoughts, hopes, fears, ideas, memories, more thoughts, and so on. They race around inside my head, competing for my attention, until I’m quite weary of them, and feel like yelling "Be quiet, will you!!" I can’t just ‘switch them off’ - it doesn’t work that way.

So, what do I do?

Well, I sit. And I stay still. And I resist the urge to check Facebook, empty the washing machine, collect the post from the doormat, or any other of a dozen things which might distract me for the duration of this time. This is time for me and God, and I am determined not to let the world, even the good things of the world, intrude on that. Usually, I need to do ‘something’; some ‘spiritual exercise’, in order to focus, and to ‘drive out’ all those extraneous thoughts, so that I can hear God’s still, small voice.

Be Still - Two

The modern world is noisy. It’s actually very hard to get away from noise. From the distant hum of aircraft passing far overhead; the noise of traffic on nearby roads; all the modern aids to living (washing machines and so on); the sound of conversations; to ‘music’ - every shop you go in has some radio station or other burbling away to itself and you. And most of us have ceased even to notice it with our conscious minds.

We have become accustomed to noise. Indeed many of us feel uncomfortable without it - we try to replace the silences by constantly ‘listening’ to music - i.e. having earphones in, and our devices playing music to us.

Even in church - certainly in our church - a service leader will say ‘now we’re going to have a few minutes of quiet to think about what we’ve been hearing.' And then they proceed to talk via the PA system throughout the ‘silence’ - as if, actually, silence is a bad thing.

That is such a contrast to the rest of human history. Life was, to a large extent, quiet. Yes, there was conversation. And yes, there were some loud sounds - like horses and carts on cobbled streets, or the blacksmith working - and in towns and villages in the daytime that sort of thing could be quite deafening. And there was music - people played instruments, and sang - but it was deliberate, and active, rather than passive. But constant noise wasn’t the norm. Much of the time, the loudest sounds were birdsong, and the drum of rain on the roof.

Be Still...

This is a time when we are supposed to be ‘socially distancing’ - and church, as we usually do it, is about as far from social distancing as it’s possible to get - lots of people, crowded together in a confined space; handshakes, hugs, shared bread and wine - it’s an epidemiologist’s nightmare, and like having died and gone to heaven if you’re a virus.

The church is, I’m glad to say ‘stepping up’ and finding ways to help out the vulnerable and needy in our society. But it strikes me that, as well as reaching out to others, we need to be kind to ourselves too, and to find ways (perhaps new ways - or through the revival of ancient ways) to maintain our own spiritual lives, and to continue to grow in our knowledge and live of God.

The circumstances are difficult, but Christianity is the faith for difficult times - so often, down the centuries, it has been when times were tough that the church has stepped up and been there - both for its members and for those ‘outside’. And we have such a wonderful literature of wisdom for tough times - forged during the hard times its authors went through - and we can draw on that for comfort. At this time of ‘pestilence’, I find myself drawn to Psalm 91...

Where is God?

This follows on from the previous post - in a fairly tenuous way.

So, how do we meet God? Where is God? Conventional Christian doctrine tells us that God is everywhere - so, surely, we should be able to encounter Him anywhere?

But is that the experience of most believers?

I don't think so.

For many (or most?) Christians, God is not present in the here and now. He is someone they hope to meet 'in the sweet by and by'. He dwells in heaven, and they hope, by confessing that Jesus is Lord, saying the right prayers, and living good, Christian, lives - obeying the rules, giving to the poor, etc., to meet Him there when they die. God is out of reach, and the purpose of this life is simply to prepare us for the next life. Eternal life, as promised by the supposedly Good News, is something which begins when we die. This world is a melancholy place which cannot satisfy us - almost all satisfaction is locked away in the future. Any pleasure we get is fleeting, and cannot compare with what we will experience when we die, and so we should not get fixated on it. This is, as I said in an earlier post, mostly thought which can be attributed to Plato rather than the bible.

The Law of Love

I've touched on this subject before, but after several years’ worth of hard reading and thinking, I fancy I have a better developed, more nuanced, view. But there's a lot to it, and it's hard to know where to start. I suppose it sort of follows on from some of the thoughts in myprevious post.

We humans appear to like rules. We know where we are with rules; they establish boundaries which we know we oughtn't to cross. But you know what? Most of us are rubbish at obeying rules - even though we like them. We 'push the boundaries' of whatever it is - at best. At worst, we ride roughshod over the rules and go our own way. That’s free will and our rebellious nature coming to the fore. And, somehow, it’s sort of ‘built in’ (some might call that the ‘sinful nature)… Unless something is forbidden, we aren’t all that bothered, but ban it, and doing that very thing becomes our obsession. Think of the child told not to touch the stove-top because it’s hot!

The church has rules - a mixture of some of the Old Testament laws, with a few other 'cultural' rules thrown in for good measure, all ‘papered over’ with a thin veneer of New Testament love. Really, the message often seems to be 'obey the rules and you'll go to heaven'. It's almost 'justification by works'. And we don't; we can't follow the rules (see above) - in pretty similar fashion to the Israelites who couldn't follow the Law God gave them! Guilt, fear, and shame ensue, all too often.

I am the Resurrection and the Life

This is, probably, the first in a series of about three posts around a developing theme - exploring the ‘implications’ of what was discussed in my previous post.

I have recently ‘discovered’ a different way of thinking about what Jesus did for our relationship with God - or, at least, a form of words which is different, and which sheds new light on it for me. It may, of course, be ‘old hat’ for you.

When Jesus cast the money changers, dove sellers, and other ‘traders’ out of the temple He was questioned as to under whose authority He was operating:

The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”John 2:18

And His somewhat enigmatic response was:

“Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”John 2:19

Of course, the Jews thought he meant the physical, bricks and mortar, temple, whereas it turned out that Jesus was actually referring to Himself as the temple.

Under the old covenant, the temple in Jerusalem was the meeting place between God and His people Israel - the people He intended to be His ambassadors in the world. The temple was the place where heaven and earth touched… It was the place on earth where the glory of God rested. That changed when Jesus died on the cross.

The Day The Revolution Began

When it was first published in 2017, I read Tom Wright’s “The Day the Revolution Began: Rethinking The Meaning Of Jesus' Crucifixion”. It gave me a great deal to think about. It’s not an easy read, on several levels: it’s pretty densely packed with ‘stuff’, and a lot of the ‘stuff’ was either difficult, new to me, or both. Recently I read it again, and I think I may be approaching a point where I am able to talk about it.

One (or three?) of Wright’s main assertions is that we have ‘paganised’ God (by portraying him as an angry tribal deity who needs a human sacrifice in order to be placated); that we have ‘platonised’ our eschatology (i.e. our views of what happens when we die, and the ‘end-times’, owe far more to the views of Plato rather than the bible) and that the result of this is that we end up treating Christianity as little more than a moral code - a set of rules to be followed - rather than a radical new way of living.

What do I mean by the latter point?

If the whole focus of our religion becomes about ‘getting to heaven’ (which we’ll have more to say about in a moment), then what difference does how we act make? If we ‘are saved’ (i.e. we have our ticket to heaven) then how we act isn’t a salvation issue - because salvation is entirely about what happens after we die. To attempt to make how we act relevant we try to impose a code of behaviour (somewhat based on the bible, but often going well beyond anything it may ‘demand’) onto people simply because it is how we should act, but without any logical reason.

God is love - Again!

I went out for a walk and a pray a few days ago; praying gradually seemed to become thinking - or perhaps God speaking to me - that can be a pretty grey area in my head. I’m going to share my thoughts, or at least some of the dry, dusty, bones of them, and hope that it provokes worship rather than questions. It may not be obvious, at least to begin with, where I’m going with my thoughts - but please bear with me - hopefully, eventually, we’ll arrive somewhere edifying.

Some time ago, I wanted a new lens for my camera. I found myself lacking what photographers euphemistically refer to as ‘reach’: it was impossible to photograph small things (like dragonflies) at a distance, and I felt as though I needed to (you can’t get any closer when dragonflies are over water, unless you take lessons in walking on water or buy a boat!). I could get more reach by buying a new lens. Good quality lenses with a lot of reach are expensive; significantly expensive. My system is essentially ‘compact’ and long lenses, whilst very expensive, are not eye-wateringly so (unlike for some other systems). Not that I felt I could justify buying one; I’d have felt guilty from then until the cows come home (I do now own said lens, thanks to a very generous gift).

The True Cross?

A few things have happened over the past few days which have made me stop and think. One, in particular, seems as though it’s worth writing about.

Whilst doing some ‘housekeeping’ on my Mac on Monday, I found an unpublished blog post - telling a story I’d completely forgotten about. And then, on Tuesday evening, at our church’s occasional ‘contemplative’ prayer meeting, something struck me (though perhaps it was just the result of indigestion from eating too many pancakes!). This post is a sort of ‘amalgam' of the two...

Sunday, 13th July, 2015 was an extraordinary day. Why? In a lot of ways it was a fairly ordinary Sunday. No, it was odd because God spoke to me - or at least, at the time I thought He might have.

The idea of hearing voices fills my mind with images of mad men clad in hair shirts, sat on top of rocks in the desert in the blazing sun, eating locusts, smoking strange herbs and babbling nonsense… I hope no-one thinks of me like that - but, you know, if they do - so what?

Minion

It happened during our 7:00pm service. I was minding my own business when a sentence ‘popped', quite unbidden, into my mind. I don’t think the context of the service was important - worship, Holy Communion, and a sermon on the second chapter of James.

Bullying

I didn’t think, yesterday when I ‘restarted’ this blog, that I was going to be plunged into anything ‘heavy’ so soon... But here we are; it is what it is, and maybe I was ‘meant’ to restart it yesterday because of today...

Yesterday a friend innocently posted a ‘viral’ video on her Facebook timeline. I happened to see it - it ‘auto-played’ as I was scrolling. That moment was, possibly, the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced ‘on-line’. I can’t bear to hunt down a link to the video myself - if you want to see it, I suspect it’s not hard to find. Here’s a link to the story (but not the video) on the BBC website.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-australia-51590984

It was so painful to watch because it was like watching myself in the mirror - seeing the anguish of the poor little scrap - induced entirely by the way he has been treated by his peers - and all simply because he is ‘different’ - is not, for me, bearable in any way. I can’t watch it. I recognise all of it: the writhing agony, which is practically physical; the words of utter despair. I haven’t seen the whole thing - I can’t watch - I had to shut it down almost as soon as I saw it.

Another New Beginning?

Some of you will never have seen a blog post from me before; others may have thought I’d given up. To be truthful, I stopped posting because I was afraid. People said things about one of my more recent posts which made me regret writing it - I didn’t regret the content at all, but I regretted sharing it, because some folk didn’t seem ready, willing, or able, to accept what I was saying. I felt as though I didn’t have anything to say which wasn’t in some way connected to the post which had received such opprobrium, and that left me feeling unable to continue. I was, and am, afraid of censure, and disapproval - but most of all, of ostracism.

Why am I afraid of ostracism? Quite simply because when I was young I was bullied, and spent most of my early years living in fear and feeling as though I had no friends. The notion that my writing might bring about what felt as though it might be a similar rejection and isolation by those in my own ‘family' was more than I could bear to contemplate, so I stopped. I didn’t stop writing though - I have screeds of ‘stuff’ on my various hard-drives, on my iPad, and in the cloud. I just haven’t dared to publish it - and I probably won't.

Pearls of Great Price

This week is turning out to be a bit of an ‘emotional rollercoaster’. Since my heart operation, and whilst getting used to my 'new normal’ afterwards, I found myself with time and energy to spare, so I got involved in our church’s ministry to students - basically trying to support them whilst they’re in Lancaster and give them a church ‘family’ and a ‘home-from-home’. It has been great fun - they’re a terrific bunch - full of passion, love, humour, wisdom, enthusiasm... You name it, they’ve got it in spades - but more than anything, love. We’re supposed to be ‘ministering’ to them, but honestly, they’ve given far more to me than I have to them.

Last night was one of our final activities of the year - a meal and some time spent studying the bible and praying together. Appropriately enough, we were studying John’s second and third letters, which are at least partly about hospitality and welcoming visitors. It all got a bit emotional towards the end. Some we won’t see again until October, but some are finishing their time in Lancaster, and are leaving us for the last time. I don’t deal very well with partings, even when they aren’t ‘permanent’, and I was rendered pretty much speechless. We have one final ‘event’ - or series of events - on Sunday - some (I hope most) will join us at the church picnic; we’re all going to a restaurant for a meal; then finishing up at the 7:00pm service at St Tees.

The Cross

This thought is ‘unfinished’ - I’m sure I ought to have more to say, but inspiration seems to be eluding me. And it’s Good Friday, which seems like the most apposite moment on which to post this - so let’s go with what we have!

Seeing a picture from inside the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, after the fire, in which almost the only undamaged thing appeared to be the cross on the altar, I began to think about the cross and what it means.

I have written about crucifixion before, but I make no apology for writing again - it is, after all, central to the Christian faith - without that, none of the rest makes any sense. And yet, the cross itself, and what it symbolises, doesn’t make logical sense. This is what Jesus’ disciples wrestled with before (or immediately after) his death - they couldn’t grasp that being crucified was a ‘win’ - to them, expecting a revolutionary liberator in the Che Guevara mould, Jesus’ execution looked like abject defeat.

We see crosses everywhere. People wear them; they’re on the tops of church spires; in our churches; in market squares; all over the place. And we have become inured to their symbolism. They don’t actually mean very much to us, because they are so familiar.

The True Vine

I couldn’t face ‘Vision Sunday’ at church this morning, so I took myself off for a cold and blustery walk - and a pray.

And while I was walking and praying, a couple of thoughts came into alignment, and they seemed encouraging, so I thought I would share them here.

The first thought... In John’s Gospel, Jesus shares an illustration of what it is to be one of his followers, using a grapevine as the illustration:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. John 15: 1 (it’s probably worth all the way to verse 17 to get the full picture)

In short, it’s all about being firmly connected to God in Christ, and staying that way. It can feel like quite a challenge at times, especially when so much of life’s ‘stuff’ seems to come crowding in like weeds, threatening to choke off the connection and block out the light.

The second thought... Recently I watched a short series of programmes on TV about the history and culture of the island of Sicily in the Mediterranean, written and presented by Michael Scott. They were an enjoyable, colourful, interesting, wander through the island, which gave something of a flavour of the place and people. He started with the earliest times, and meandered through to the present day. Towards the end of the last programme, he visited a vineyard on the slopes of Mount Etna (Europe’s largest active volcano). Twenty-five or thirty years ago, it had been in the path of an eruption, and a huge lava flow had ‘swallowed up’ part of the vineyard. And yes, there at the end of the pathway between the vines was an enormous, rough, black, solidly menacing, wall of rock - which had clearly burnt and squashed everything in its path...

God Doesn't Hate Me!

This is, perhaps, the Part Three referred toearlier. I have been trying to write a post like this, on and off, for months. I’ve had so many goes, but until now none of them have satisfied me to the point where I've thought ‘This is almost publishable - I can work with this.’ They have all been frustratingly incomplete and at the same time ‘unfinishable'.

What I’ve learnt - in my heart rather than (or as well as?) in my head - is both complicated and very, very simple. Theologically, it’s complicated. I’ve read, I don’t know, more than twenty theology books recently. And that has allowed me to reach a fairly nuanced position - I know what I believe…

Umm. No, perhaps that’s not quite right.

Part of this process has been about decoupling my thoughts about God from my faith in God. The two need not be the same. The first is complicated; the second is simple. Looking back over recent months, I’ve been trying, mostly, to write about the first in order to explain the second. But I can’t. Well, to be honest, I probably could, but I’d have to write a book rather than a couple of blog posts. And it wouldn’t be a very good book - there are much better books, written by much wiser heads than mine, on that subject. What I think I can write about, meaningfully and (hopefully) helpfully, is my experience - my faith in God. So that’s what, for this attempt at this post, I am going to do. And I am going to endeavour not to write about the theology - because I’m not very good at it, and it’ll make the whole thing far too lengthy - and probably incomprehensible. I might, at some point, try to explain some of those ideas - but not now. For now, really, I have just one thing to say.

2018

In my last post, I promised a third part. This is not that third part - I’m still working on that. This is ‘merely’ my review of 2018. For some reason I’m writing it on my birthday. I’m not sure why that is - except that it seems apt at this point to take a hard, contemplative, look back at my year. It’s been a year of incredible contrasts - highs and lows, illness and wellness, from times of feeling as if God had abandoned me to times of feeling as though I was dwelling ‘within’ the Holy Trinity and partaking in the ‘Divine Dance’.

In some ways this year has been defined (not to mention limited) by the physical. I began the year suffering from two cardiac arrhythmias - atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter. Nine months were spent struggling against them, desperately trying to ‘keep going’, whilst waiting, impatiently, for a treatment which would ‘work’ and being desperately disappointed by those which didn't. The last three months have been spent recovering from the ‘procedure’ to ‘fix’ them. The procedure - a pair of cardiac ablations performed at the end of September - appear to have worked spectacularly well, given how well I am now. In typical fashion though, I am waiting - again - this time for the results of a 24 hour cardiac monitor which should, I hope, prove that it’s worked. And then, hopefully, I can stop taking the medication and really put it all behind me. In the meantime though, I do feel as though, to use a common euphemism, ‘I have got my life back’.


Copyright Phil Hendry, 2020