Vulnerability & Grace

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wp_20160902_09_19_32_proLast week I attended a special evening at St Marks Broomhill to hear the internationally renowned Lutheran Pastor, Nadia Bolz-Webber. It was an inspiring evening, made even better by the presence of many friends and ministry colleagues, come on I even got the latest book signed!

Nadia spoke in a witty, challenging and grace filled way – echoing much of that which she covers in her books. The central message she left me with after over an hour of having my heart “strangely warmed” (I am a Methodist after all) was the beautiful simplicity of the Gospel message, that God loves us and there’s nothing we can do about it other than accept it or deny it. That central message of grace is one we sometimes seem to lose, amongst our own internal church arguments and debates that seem to encompass everything from Gay marriage, to the colours of paint and tiles most appropriate in the new toilet block! Somehow we lose the beautiful simplicity of Gods outrageous love and grace.

Bolz-Webber teaches me to try and understand, and accept, my own flaws (oh yes I have them too) in the same way that she most markedly does, and shares openly. So, for the record: I know at times I lurch into “grumpy old man” mode, I can at times be “tetchy”, in fact I can be outright shouting mad. I sometimes allow my shows of confidence to take on an air of certainty and even boarderline judgementalism and defensiveness, I don’t always listen enough, and am sometimes too keen to offer advice. No doubt my friends and family can pick out other flaws too – but you know what, despite all this I’m still beloved by God. These flaws and frailties are what Nadia Bolz-Webber calls our “jagged edges”. and its in “…the odd, jagged parts of ourselves are what connects us to each other and to God…” says Pastor Nadia.

In the other part of my life, I’m a foster carer. If anyone ever tells you that being a foster carer is a great job don’t believe them (at least not entirely) – sure it’s got it rewards, feeling that you can provide some stability and love into the life of a young person that needs that is a more than worthwhile thing to do, but its also tough. By the time you’ve had your fifth conversation with the school, social worker, or police in a week, believe me it gets a little wearing …. and its then that your jagged edges can show, not to the young person necessarily but to others around you, and even to yourself as you begin to doubt what it is you actually might have to offer, and why your best offer just keeps getting rejected and is nowhere near enough. But as we own and even embrace those flaws  the grace gets chance and can shine through, as the rough jagged edges meet we find Gods path of love. So when my autistic ex-foster son (who has significant learning disabilities as well as his autism) went missing again for hours on Monday night – as we and the other professionals searched arrest sheets, hospital admittance lists, RTA casualties descriptions – and and his phone remained un-contactable, the jagged edges grew again. I was scared, I was angry, I was helpless (one state I absolutely hate to be in). Finally at nearly 3am we make contact – he is safe – and the jagged edges retreat, I am overwhelmed with relief and love and grace. “Glad you’re safe – sleep well son” the only words I can muster.

Each of us is vulnerable in our own ways, Pastor Nadia reminded me that sharing that vulnerability as a minister far from being a weakness can be a wonderful means of grace. As she joked last week about the Methodist doctrine of Christian Perfection “…how’s that all working out for you?” (NBW) it’s a long, long road to travel, and pretending we’ve arrived when we haven’t helps no one really. The truth is God loves us, imperfect, jagged edges and all.

A Church that makes you better

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Picture1The Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson was reported to have once said that the Labour Party “…owed more to Methodism than to Marx”. Perhaps it’s worth considering therefore whether the current crisis facing the Labour Party identity has any parallels in the Methodist Church?

At the heart of the appeal from both has been a message that has somehow tried to balance, aspiration, social justice and personal responsibility alongside elements of social conservatism. Wilsons comments may have a sound historical backing to them, after all weren’t the Tolpuddle Martyrs Methodists? But it is not the only political history to have been influenced by it, Margaret Thatcher in particular voicing her early Methodist upbringing as an influence on the importance of hard work and personal responsibility , or as she said in her memoirs: “Life was to work and do things.” The “natural” pre-Labour home of many Methodists was the Liberal Party, perhaps therefore it should not overly shock us that Methodism has also had its place amongst neo-liberalism, an ideology not confined to one political party alone.

Some of these differences are also mirrored in the varying historical strands within Methodism, the official website of the Methodist Church outlines some of the differences between the Primitives and Wesleyans:

“The sorts of issues which divided the Primitives and the Wesleyans were these:

  • The Primitives focused attention on the role of lay people.
    The Wesleyans developed a high doctrine of the Pastoral Office to justify leadership being in the hands of the ministers.
  • The Primitives stressed simplicity in their chapels and their worship.
    The Wesleyans were open to cultural enrichment from the Anglican tradition and more ornate buildings.
  • The Primitives concentrated their mission on the rural poor.
    The Wesleyans on the more affluent and influential urban classes.
  • The Primitives stressed the political implications of their Christian discipleship
    The Wesleyans were nervous of direct political engagement.”

 

According to Martyn Atkins in the publication “Discipleship…and the People called Methodists”, Donald English, Methodist minister and twice president of the Methodist Conference, used to say, “Remember, the Methodist people want to be better than they are.”

So in what ways do we hope to become better, as Methodists, as Christians? Primarily I suppose, and I hope, this is grounded in John Wesley theology of Christian Perfection. The idea that we do not have to wait until death to gain an ever closer union with God, that what we are now can be bettered as we move towards the God intended perfection of our humanity as demonstrated and lived in the “wholly human, wholly divine” life of Jesus.

But also the idea of material aspiration has also played a role within Methodism, indeed it is one of the themes warned against by Wesley in his sermon “On the Use of Money”. Wesley urged people to use money as a means of serving God, his call to Christians to:

“Earn all you can,

Save all you can,

Give all you can”

has been used, and misused, as a mantra for hard work, careful stewardship of personal finances, as well as for charitable giving. It’s worth reminding ourselves however, that Wesley was very clear about the moral and ethical boundaries he set out for maximising the money we make, his call to save was not an exhortation to store up earthly wealth but rather to “live simply”, and therefore the primary aim was to give as much as possible of the money gained towards the building of Gods work.

Maybe the Church and the Labour Party do share a problem – maybe we’ve both become so in love with the neo-liberal world that has brought prosperity to the majority of our people, that we’ve forgotten to call out the failings of hard work, and personal responsibility. Hard work is NOT a guarantee of wealth or even nowadays of a decent income for our families, sometimes for some of us earning all we can still doesn’t put food on the table, or pay the bills. Personal responsibility is fine but that also assumes a moral conviction to do what is right, not squirrel money away to avoid tax and other liabilities (however legal this might be). We also need to regain an understanding that personal responsibility doesn’t always remain individual – sometimes our personal responsibility is served through a collective, shared responsibility. Maybe in the Church we have become overly focused on our personal journey and relationship with God, and lost sight somewhat of our collective place in the Body of Christ?

But back to this idea that the church is somehow about making people better …. it’s a question that still intrigues me. At the heart of the Christian message is one of healing, hope and liberation – we follow Jesus because of the hope of something better, the need to have our hurts healed to find a remedy for our faults, to live in a better place, a better world – the Kingdom of God. Maybe today it is in those issues of healing, hope and liberation that we will truly find our greatest needs, and maybe the Church can find its place in this?