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?

 

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In a Strange Land

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bible-art-Theme-verse-exodus.jpgOn the 23rd June the people of this country made a historic decision to leave the European Union, the political, economic, social, and cultural repercussions of this are still being felt.Immediately after the result, I alongside with many others who had hoped for a Remain victory felt myself in a place of lament, here are the words I wrote the day after the referendum:

A Lament on Leaving

“We must leave” he said, “It will be better if we do.”

But I did not want to leave here,

Here I have enjoyed years of peace,

Here I have made friends, loved my neighbour,

Here is my home.

“Here is not a place for decent folk” he said “We must take back control.”

And so I wake to find myself in another place,

No longer knowing anymore where I am,

Or what path lies ahead.

(24th June 2016 – Nick Waterfield)

 

Since then, we have already been given a new Prime Minister, the Conservative, Labour parties and UKIP are all facing, or have faced, not just elections and challenges around the leadership, but ideological struggles for what their party stands for as we move beyond the immediate aftermath, and now there are even calls for a General Election – the outcomes are by no means certain.

Economically the immediate uncertainties have caused short term problems with the longer term consequences still anyones guess.

Socially and culturally it has unearthed and exposed a wave of open hostility and racism, that many of us sensed had been kept “politely” out of sight, but which now seemingly has gained a new found confidence. It has led to increases in overtly racist attacks and abuse, prompting even our own Methodist Conference to take action and issue a statement of opposition last week.

I voted to Remain – I have friends who voted on both sides of the debate – I understand why some of them voted the way they did. I  understand the desire to feel like it was a shot across the bows of the powerful, how it could ultimately be a way of restoring democratic accountability to our own sovereign Parliament, I can even understand (whilst profoundly disagreeing with the sentiment and most certainly the racism that has fed from it) the concerns that immigration has stretched the nations resources rather than assisting them. I understand, but even so I admit that I have spent much of my time since then feeling like “a stranger in a strange land”.

And as I’ve reflected on this feeling I have contemplated two biblical stories:

First, the destruction of the Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile, and in particular the words of lament from Psalm 137 which have gone round my head time and again in the past few months, but especially since 24th June:

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

(NRSV)

Secondly, and the one I want to focus on here is the escape from Egypt, as we read in the book of Exodus.

I guess many of us know the story from Exodus – the people of God are being held as slaves in captivity in Egypt. Pharaoh refuses to listen when Moses and Aaron ask that he set them free, so Egypt is beset by a series of plagues. The Jews flee from Egypt and escape through the Red Sea (Exodus 14). Finally they are free from the shackles of Egyptian enslavement and the domination of Empire.

BUT it’s then that things get interesting, then that things get complicated, and there I want to start.

It all starts with triumphalism, Miriam (Moses sister) leads the songs of victory, yes they are songs that offer thanks to god for their rescue, yes they are songs of liberation, but they are also songs of death and defeat for the enemy Egypt. “The LORD is a warrior…” (15.3) says the song as it tells of how Pharaohs officers, men chariots and horses were hurled into the sea and drowned, sunk to the depths like a stone. The song continues with a tone of expectant and hopeful conquest:

“The nations will hear and tremble” (15.14)

“The chiefs of Edom will be terrified” (15.15)

“Terror and dread will fall on them.” (15.16)

Celebration of victory always takes place, in war, in politics, in sport, anywhere …. But when we are on the winning side, we need to think about the tone of our triumphalism. John Wesley in his advice on voting concluded by saying …. [Our] “spirits [should not] sharpened against those that voted on the other side.” a sentiment that ultimately rings true whichever side we find ourselves on.

But, back to Exodus. Just some six weeks later (on the 15th day of the second month 16.1) they began their complaining; “In Egypt we had food…” now maybe these divisions were already there, some people no doubt did better out of the Egyptians than others, just like some of our fellow citizens were able to gain advantage from the EU that many others couldn’t. The divisions amongst the Israelites, just like our own, didn’t just appear overnight – they’d been brooding for some time. But here in Exodus we hear that just six weeks after leaving those voices were being heard loud and clear. “In Egypt we had food…”

God responds with love and grace …. (16.4) Manna and Quail are somehow miraculously sent so that the complaints over food are silenced (or quietened) at least for a time.

But still the complaints are there, lurking beneath the surface (dissatisfied voices) but also a distrust and misunderstanding of Gods provision. “Why …” repeat the voices (17.3) “…did you bring us out of Egypt?”

God responds with love and grace …. (17.6) Providing water to come from rock

Next the Israelites are attacked by the Amalekites, but Joshua defeats them in battle and makes his mark as a future leader.

Jethro (A Midian priest and Moses father in law) hears of the escape from Egypt and everything that has happened since, and although impressed, offer his son in law advice on how to govern well (Chapter 18)

Then in chapters 19 and 20 we get the familiar story of Moses on Mount Sinai, with another rebuttal of God  by the Israelites when they fashion themselves a new idol (The Golden Calf  ) but once again;

God responds with love and grace ….. ( 20.1-17 ) The Ten Commandments unpinning the basic truths that the best way to live is through a Love for God, and Love for Each Other, all underpinned by a knowledge that God loves the World.

So where does this leave us today?

I guess it depends on who we see ourselves as in the story. Perhaps – over the coming days I might ask that each of us will find time to sit with this story, read it again, try to immerse ourselves in it. And that we think of it in terms of where we are now in the United Kingdom 2016 – and what we as individual Christians, and as the people of God, the body of Christ are challenged to be and to do in the season ahead.

I wonder who you might feel most like?

Maybe you’re feeling in  triumphal mood like Miriam?

Or maybe you’re amongst those who simply want to go back?

I wonder who (like Jethro) might be the providers of wisdom in these times – remembering that Jethro himself was an “outsider”?

and

I wonder where might we look for the signs of Gods love and grace amongst the, perhaps inevitable. mess and chaos we are experiencing right now?