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Monday, 13 July 2020

The only hope for humanity

Here's the reflection I shared during today's lunchtime Eucharist for St Martin-in-the-Fields:

Desmond Tutu is someone whose life has been shaped by Jesus’ teaching to love your enemies as yourself. For Tutu, Christianity is the religion of the downtrodden and dispossessed in which everyone is equal in the eyes of God and those who follow Jesus are exhorted to love our enemies. He has said that, “It wasn’t easy to love your enemy when they were throwing us in prison or murdering us.” It is the most difficult of all doctrines, he says, but it offers the only hope for humanity.

I mention this because our Gospel reading (Matthew 10.34-11.1) seems to show a very different side to Jesus than that highlighted by Desmond Tutu. Here Jesus doesn’t appear to be saying, “love your enemies,” instead he says that he has not come to bring peace but a sword and that he came to make enemies of the members of families. What is going on here? Are we talking about the same person? Is there a contradiction in what Jesus was teaching? Do we have to make some kind of choice between the two? It all seems very confusing.

The important thing to be aware of in understanding these words of Jesus is that he was talking to his disciples about a mission that was specifically to the people of Israel. Jesus began his instructions to his disciples, as recorded in Matthew 10, by saying: “Do not go to any Gentile territory or any Samaritan towns. Instead, you are to go to the lost sheep of the people of Israel.” Everything that Jesus says in this chapter is in the context of that mission and when we understand that it makes a big difference to the way we understand what Jesus was saying here.

Jesus thought of his own people, the Jews, as being lost. They had moved away from God’s plans and purposes because they had not been bringing the light of God to the Gentiles. Instead, they had turned in on themselves and acted as though God was just a national God for themselves. What Jesus was about to do through his death and resurrection would blow that kind of thinking out of the water. As he said to the disciples in verse 18, they would, in future, be telling the Good News to both Jews and Gentiles. But, for now, before his death and resurrection Jesus sent his disciples only to their own people with the message that the kingdom of God – the day when Jews and Gentiles would come together to worship the one true God – was coming near. Jesus’ mission and ministry in Israel before his death was an opportunity for the people of Israel to come on board and be part of the new thing that God was doing in the world. But Jesus was realistic about the way many would react to this opportunity.

He knew that some would respond positively and embrace his message but that others would be violently opposed. His message would, therefore, bring division among the people of Israel. Some would accept and follow and others would be violently opposed. This is what he meant when he spoke about not bringing peace and the members of the family being divided. He was speaking specifically about the effect that his message, life, death and resurrection would have on the people of Israel.

We know from subsequent events that Jesus was right in his assessment of the situation. Jesus himself was violently opposed and killed by those who did not accept his message despite large numbers of Jews hearing and following him. The early Church was persecuted at the same time that it grew rapidly in numbers with both Jews and Gentiles becoming followers of Christ. Finally, Jerusalem itself was overrun by the Romans and the Temple, the focus of the Jewish faith at that time, was destroyed. That act meant that there could no longer be a solely national focus to the Jewish faith and the early Christians spread out from Israel even more widely as a result.

So Jesus, here, is speaking specifically about what would happen within the people of Israel as a result of his message and mission but he was not talking about the content of that message and mission. His message and mission was to bring the light and forgiveness of God to the whole world, both Jews and Gentiles; a message and mission of peace and reconciliation, not of violence and division. The Gentiles were viewed, at that time, as enemies of God’s people but Jesus was saying that God’s people should love their enemies and that God would bring all peoples into his kingdom. 

The good news of Jesus is peace, reconciliation and love for enemies, just as Desmond Tutu claimed and has practised. It is the reverse of violence and division but its effect in the Judaism of Jesus’ time and immediately after was division. Just as Jesus, the early Church and those like Desmond Tutu gave themselves wholeheartedly and peaceably to this mission despite the opposition and violence that they have encountered, so we must do the same as followers of Christ. That is what it means to take up our cross and follow in Jesus’ footsteps by living all out for the peaceful reconciliation of all peoples. As Desmond Tutu has said, to do so offers the only hope for humanity.


James Whitbourne - A Prayer Of Desmond Tutu.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Living God's Future Now - w/c 12 July

Living God's Future Now events this week - Church Leaders, Laypeople & Enquires welcome
'Living God’s Future Now’ is our mini online festival of theology, ideas and practice.

HeartEdge developing this in response to the pandemic and our changing world. The church is changing too, and - as we improvise and experiment - we can learn and support each other.

This is 'Living God’s Future Now’ - talks, workshops and discussion - hosted by HeartEdge. Created to equip, encourage and energise churches - from leaders to volunteers and enquirers - at the heart and on the edge.

Sunday 12 Jul
  • ‘Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story’: Sunday 12 July, 2.00 pm (BST), Zoom meeting. Topic: Mark 11: 4-12 & 15-19 / Christ washing the Feet of the Disciples, Jacopo Tintoretto, about.1575-80, NG1130. Email Jonathan for an invitation.Monday 13 Jul
  • Musicking the Cosmos: Monday 13 July, 2-3.30 pm, zoom meeting. Learn about Space for Peace in this HeartEdge workshop with June Boyce-Tillman, Neil Valentine and Vicky Feldwick and then take part in Space for Peace later that same evening. To receive a zoom invitation register here.
  • Biblical Studies class: Monday 13 July, 7.30-9.00 pm (BST), Zoom meeting. Register in advance here. Wednesday 15 Jul
  • Community of Practitioners workshop: Wednesday 15 July, 4.30pm (BST), Zoom meeting. Email Jonathan for an invitation.Thursday 16 Jul
  • Wellbeing Group: Thursday 16 July, 2.00 – 3.00 pm (BST), zoom meeting. Join the group at Friday 17 July
  • Seeing Salvation: Friday 17 July, 2.30pm (BST), zoom meeting. Jonathan Evens shares practical approaches to using art in church settings. Session 7: Art projects. Register here for an invitation.
  • Difference, Diversity, Deviance: Friday 17 July, 4.00 pm (BST), zoom meeting. Join Rev Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes and guests for talks, interview and discussion. Each Friday in July. Register here.
See to join HeartEdge and for more information.

Please note Zoom details will only be emailed 2 days before the event, 1 day before the event and again 10 mins before; thanks.

Over the next few months we are looking at everything from growing online congregations, rethinking enterprise and community action to doing diversity, deepening spirituality and responding to social need. 


Leonard Cohen - If It Be Your Will.

Saturday, 11 July 2020

ArtWay: The Light Without and Within

My latest visual meditation for ArtWay explores confession via images from S. Billie Mandle's monograph, Reconciliation:

'The confessionals that Mandle photographed over a ten-year period were pragmatic structures, often constructed with acoustic tiles, and more neglected than the churches themselves. Her images spoke to the beliefs that have defined these dark rooms and shaped this intimate yet institutional ritual. In the rooms themselves she found visible and invisible traces of people, communities, prayers and dogmas.

In the neglect of places and practices abandoned because of abuse, these seedy scruffy spaces that seem to share with us the shabby shame of sin, Mandle identifies the primary source of light and makes that the focus of her images. Light illumines and illuminates. In some images the light reveals the extent to which these spaces are rundown and gone to seed neglected. In others, the light irradiates the entire space transforming, changing, beautifying.'

My visual meditations for ArtWay include work by María Inés Aguirre, Giampaolo Babetto, Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, Alexander de Cadenet, Christopher Clack, Marlene Dumas, Terry Ffyffe, Antoni Gaudi, Nicola Green, Maciej Hoffman, Giacomo Manzù, Michael Pendry, Maurice Novarina, Regan O'Callaghan, Ana Maria Pacheco, John Piper, Albert Servaes, Henry Shelton and Anna Sikorska.

My Church of the Month reports include: Aylesford Priory, Canterbury Cathedral, Chapel of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, Hem, Chelmsford Cathedral, Churches in Little Walsingham, Coventry Cathedral, Église de Saint-Paul à Grange-Canal, Eton College Chapel, Lumen, Metz Cathedral, Notre Dame du Léman, Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce, Plateau d’Assy,Romont, Sint Martinuskerk Latem, St Aidan of Lindisfarne, St Alban Romford, St. Andrew Bobola Polish RC Church, St. Margaret’s Church, Ditchling, and Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, St Mary the Virgin, Downe, and St Paul Goodmayes, as well as earlier reports of visits to sites associated with Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, Marc Chagall, Jean Cocteau, Antoni Gaudi and Henri Matisse.

Other of writings for ArtWay can be found here. My pieces for Church Times can be found here. Those for Artlyst are here and those for Art+Christianity are here.


Windows on the world (286)

London, 2019


Friday, 10 July 2020

Improvising in the Spirit in unprecedented times

Here is my reflection from today's lunchtime Eucharist for St Martin-in-the-Fields:

These words from Jesus, as recorded in our Gospel passage (Matthew 10:16-23), are most probably about events that were in the near future for the disciples. Jesus was talking about a very specific future conflict that would affect his disciples and which occurred in AD70 when the Roman army attacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple there. When this happened, as Jesus prophesied elsewhere, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

The destruction of the Temple by the Romans was a time of sudden exile and separation, persecution and loss. There was a sudden attack that resulted in some who were in Jerusalem at the time dying and others separating and fleeing the city; leading on to the kind of events which are described in today’s Gospel reading. The result of this conflict was twofold; the Jewish faith refocused its community life, teaching and worship around the synagogue (a pattern of faithful living which continues to this day); and Christianity, forced to abandon its early focus on the authority of the church in Jerusalem, stepped up its missionary encounter with the wider world to become a world religion. However, in doing so, the Early Church experienced the kind of persecution that Jesus describes here.

He was telling the disciples that they were going to be living in unprecedented times and was seeking to prepare them for what they would face. We are not living through the same situation as the disciples faced, but we are facing a global situation which is unprecedented in our times, so Jesus’ words here have particular relevance for us. Because we are living in unprecedented times there is no script for what we should do or say. Instead, we need to find ways to be wise and innocent at one and the same time. Combining wisdom and innocence is paradoxical. There are no manuals for doing that and Jesus then goes on to say: “When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” We are to trust that Jesus, through his Spirit, will inspire and enable what we are to do and say in this changed and changing world.

What Jesus was commending to his disciples in unprecedented times where there is no script or instruction manual that can be followed is improvisation. He knows that he is going to leave them (as happened at the Ascension) and that he will then send the Holy Spirit to them (as happened on the Day of Pentecost). The Spirit will teach them everything and remind them of all that Jesus had said to them and the result will be that they will do greater things than him.

Jesus said many amazing things that people still repeat regardless of whether they follow him or not. But his farewell discourse to his disciples must be among the most amazing because in it Jesus says that those who follow him will do greater things than him and will be led into all truth. When you think how amazing Jesus’ own actions were, it is hard to imagine how people like us could do greater things than that, and, when you think how profound his teaching was, how could we be led into deeper or greater truth than that? But Jesus was articulating something that all good teachers think and feel; the sense that all the time he had spent with them and invested in them was not so they would be clones of him, simply repeating the things he did and said, but instead that he had equipped, empowered and enabled his followers to follow him by using their own gifts and abilities and initiative. That would inevitably mean that they would do and say different things from him but it would still be with his Spirit and based on all they had learnt from him. He was saying that each one of us is a unique combination of personality, abilities and potential and, therefore, each of us can make a unique mark on the world. His followers can do greater things than Jesus because they will do different things from him in his name and Spirit – things that only they can do for him because they are that unique package of personality, ability and potential.

Sam Wells has described this in terms of improvisation. He says that we constantly “face new circumstances in each generation that the Bible doesn’t give us a script for.” Instead, the Christian story is like “a five-act play -- creation, Israel, Jesus, church and [consummation]. We find ourselves in Act 4, and the most important events have already happened. Our role is to be faithful in Act 4, because God will do the rest in Act 5.” “The most dynamic gift to the church is the Holy Spirit working amongst people who learn to trust one another and see the abundant things that God can do with limited materials. That’s analogous to what happens in theatrical improvisation.” “Improvisation isn’t about being original, clever, witty or spontaneous. Improvisation is about allowing yourself to be obvious.” People who train in improvisation train in a tradition. The Spirit comes to remind Christians of the Christian tradition by reminding us of all that Jesus did and said, so we embody it in our lives. Faithful improvisation in the present time requires patient and careful puzzling over what has gone before. It’s about being so soaked in a tradition that you learn to take the right things for granted or, as Jesus put it, the Spirit will teach us everything and remind us of all that Jesus said so that we intuitively do those things on an improvisational basis. In this way we can do greater things than Jesus because we will do different things from him, but in his name and Spirit.

The situation in which we find ourselves now is unprecedented in the same way as that of the Jews and Jewish Christians after the destruction of the Temple in AD70. Then there was no going back and Jesus sought to prepare his disciples for that reality. Instead of calling for rear guard actions to preserve as much of what had been as possible, Jesus sought to prepare and enable his disciples to go out into their changed and changing world and tell the Good News by standing firm in their faith. This remains the call of God on our lives and it is a task which requires the same bravery and courage as was shown by the Early Church in its missionary activity. The Early Church saw the spirit of the world transformed by God as they stood firm in their faith and told the Good News. That is how we are called live in this time of pandemic; to stand firm in our faith and tell the good news. The challenge of this passage is whether we have the improvisation skills to do and see that within our changed and changing world.


Sixpence None The Richer - I've Been Waiting.

Thursday, 9 July 2020

Artlyst: Has The Word 'Master' Reached Its Sell-By Date?

My latest piece for Artlyst is a thoughtpiece on the subject of our continued use of the word 'master' in relation to artists:

'Barbara Kruger said, ‘I work with pictures and words because they have the power to determine who we are and who we aren’t.’ Museums are increasingly and rightly reviewing their collections; the invisible collections of uncollected works as well as the visible collections of works previous generations deemed collectable. We are all the richer for the untold stories and little-seen works that have emerged from such reviews. We will benefit similarly by reviewing and subverting the assumptions that exist within the words and phrases used to describe the value of art if that process also enables those untold stories and little-seen works to be seen and heard.'

My other Artlyst pieces are:


Arcade Fire (featuring Mavis Staples) - I Give You Power.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Jesus chose ordinary people

Here's the reflection I shared during today's lunchtime Eucharist for St Martin-in-the-Fields:

Contrary to popular belief, we do not have to be perfect to do God's work. We need look no further than the twelve disciples whose many weaknesses are forever preserved throughout the pages of the New Testament. Jesus chose ordinary people - fisherman, tax collectors, political zealots - and turned their weaknesses into strengths.

While Jesus had a large number of followers including women as well as men and those who remained at home to support those who were on the road with Jesus, this passage focuses our attention on the 12 who were amongst the first that were called to follow him, were amongst those closest to him and who became apostles following his Ascension.

Their names, as given here, are: The first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; and James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew (Nathanael); Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus (James the Less), and Thaddaeus (Judas, son of James); Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Him. (Matthew 10:2-4, emphasis added)

What do we know about them? Peter and Andrew were fishermen in the town of Capernaum working alongside James and John. Peter and Andrew were early followers of John the Baptist. Andrew was the first to follow Jesus and his enthusiasm was evident as his desire to introduce his older brother to Jesus revealed what was already in his heart—a deep love for God. Once Peter was introduced to Jesus they left John and became followers of Jesus. Peter is portrayed as impetuous, always speaking his mind and acting on impulse. He is well known for denying Christ three times after Christ was arrested but became one of the key leaders of the early church after Jesus’ ascension.

James and John were both known for being men of intense passion and fervour. Because of this Jesus nicknamed them the Sons of Thunder. They asked Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven to destroy a village which failed to show them hospitality and also asked if they could sit on either side of Jesus’ throne in heaven. Philip was the one who suggested that Nathanael come and see Jesus and who brought a group of Greek people from Bethsaida to Jesus. Nathanael, also known as Bartholomew, expressed some local prejudice about Nazareth but was recognised by Jesus for the sincerity of his love for God from the beginning of their relationship. Jesus said, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Matthew was a tax collector; tax collectors being the most despised people in all of Israel. They were known for taking extra money from the people of Israel to pay off the Romans and to pad their own pockets. Thomas is best known for his moment of skepticism after the Resurrection which earned him the nickname “Doubting Thomas,” a term for anyone who needs proof before they believe something.

James the Less is the son of Alphaeus. His mother’s name is Mary and he has a brother named Joseph. Except for a few details about his family, there is nothing more mentioned about him in Scripture. Maybe that is why he is referred to as James the Less in Mark 15:40. Simon the Zealot was probably a political activist in his younger years. Some have suggested that the fiery enthusiasm he once had for Israel as a Zealot was now expressed in his devotion to Christ. Judas, son of James, is the eleventh name on the list of disciples. Also known as Jude, Thaddeus, and Lebbaeus, he lived in obscurity as one of the Twelve. He is recorded as asking Jesus the question (in John 14:22), “Lord, why are you going to reveal yourself only to us and not to the world at large?” Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver but, by doing so, enabled the events of Christ’s Passion to occur as Jesus knew they would.

So, amongst those that Jesus chose are one who denied him, another who betrayed him; while all of them abandoned him at the last. Some were ambitious and some revengeful. Some had complicated and morally dubious backgrounds. They were primarily ordinary working people; none of whom held influence or power. Some were so obscure, even among the disciples, that we know virtually nothing about them.

They are, therefore, great encouragements to us ‘because they exemplify how common people with typical failings can be used by God in uncommon, remarkable ways.’ John McArthur writes, ‘What we know to be true about Jesus is that He chose [those who were] ordinary and unrefined … They were the commonest of the common. They were from rural areas, farmers, and fisherman. Christ purposely passed over the elite, aristocratic, and influential … and chose mostly … from the dregs of society. That’s how it has always been in God’s economy. He exalts the humble and lays low those who are proud.’

All of them were chosen, trained and used by Jesus. Even those who were in the background as disciples were valuable team members. This was so despite their personal failings and failures. None of those things were barriers to being called by Jesus, trained and used by him. That remains true for each of us.

This week some of us have taken part in formation sessions for the new ‘Being With’ course that is being developed here. The wonderings we used took me back to my teenage experiences and the shyness that impacted my personal development. An experience summed well in The Smiths song ‘Ask’, which begins ‘Shyness is nice / and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life that you’d like to.’

Realising that God loved me unconditionally and as I was, with my shyness and reserve, was key to finding my way through life and using the mix of gifts, skills and interests I developed. Like Jesus’ disciples I wasn’t an obvious candidate to be called to ministry. But none of us are; that’s the beauty of the way God values each person as a unique creation, calling us to be with him so that, over time, our gifts, skills and interests are all utilised in his company.


The Smiths - Ask.