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My friend Mark has written an excellent blog post on the idea of "taking the bible seriously" versus "taking the bible literally". Maps and Language and Happy New Year.Mark writes:
The over valuing of literal ways of expressing our experience of reality needs challenging. Literal truth doesn't help us talk about the most important things, and when you force yourself to speak literally, you end up saying some very silly things about those important things. The most obvious example of this is God talk where 'taking the bible literally' has become for some the same as, 'taking it seriously', or reading it honestly and not complicating it with 'man made' interpretations.
Probably one of the biggest changes in my worship life since I move to the US has been my "relationship" with the liturgy of Holy Communion.Although congregations in the British Methodist system only celebrate communion once a month, as a minister, I generally presided at a Sunday communion service every week as I served four congregations. In addition to Sunday communion services, I often attended a mid-week communion service at the local Church of England parish and my duties often required me to preside at communion at local nursing homes as well as to celebrate with individuals who were house-bound.So, it has been a big change to go from presiding at or receiving communion once a week or more to receiving communion once a month on Sundays.I don't really consider myself an "expert" on Methodism in the New World, but I'm given to believe that within living memory, there were congregations which didn't celebrate communion in the main Sunday service, but which had a "tack on communion" at the end of the service. I remember briefly attending a Methodist church in Washington DC in about 1979 or 1980, where communion was held in a separate Chapel directly after the main service which was held in the sanctuary. Methodist communion here still feels a bit like a rush-job to me: it feels like it's "tacked on" to the service of the word which feels like it's is "the real deal" with communion as something of an embarrassing activity like getting caught making out in the car as a teenager. At least our pastor uses the entire communion liturgy: Great prayer of thanksgiving and epiclesis as well as the words of institution. In a number of places, I've experienced just the words of institution.Yesterday (Saturday) evening, I attended a local Lutheran congregation which had sent out an invitation to their Christmas service. I didn't want to go to the Christmas service as our congregation had its own, but I learned from the Lutheran congregation's website that they hold a "blended" style of worship on Saturday evenings at 5:30 and the website advertised communion at every service. Yesterday evening was a service of nine lessons and carols (something I think is probably unusual in the US?), with communion at the end. Here again, the "communion liturgy" consisted only of the words of institution, but the rest of the service was somewhat more "liturgical" and everything seemed to flow towards the communion rather than making the communion an embarrassing afterthought. It was a sufficiently positive experience, that I think I will become a regular at this Saturday evening service. It will be good to have communion once a week again.
I'm conscious of the fact that I've not done a lot of blogging since Wonderful Husband and I moved to the United States. I'm not sure of the precise reasons for this. First was the simple disruption and chaos of moving. Moving an entire household overseas is different from moving a household to a different part of the country or even moving overseas with two suitcases and a few posted parcels as I did in my original move from the US to Belgium in 1987. As any middle-aged couple will tell you, house-moving is physically and emotionally demanding but this goes up a notch when the move is international.More recently, I think that I've not been blogging because I still have not managed to get myself fully "settled" in the US. We undoubtedly picked one of the worst times in our lives to quit jobs and move without any employment prospects. And I have been unable to get gainful employment either in "the secular world" or within the church. But even more discouraging is the fact that I seem unable to even volunteer in the church in any capacity beyond answering a call from this or that committee for volunteers. One of the narratives of my journey to the ministry was a testimony about pushing doors to see if they opened. Here in the US, every door I've pushed has stayed resolutely shut. I particularly miss preaching and presiding at communion, but part of me is aware that these activities are part and parcel of being a church leader, which I am currently not. I'm reminded of the part of John Wesley's covenant prayer where we pray "let me be employed for you or laid aside for you" and I always secretly thought "thank you that I am employed for you, and - truth be told - I don't really want to be laid aside for you, thank you very much." And then another part of me wonders what John Wesley himself was thinking when he said these words. His life story is not exactly one of allowing himself to be laid aside! I don't think that this prayer necessarily implies passivity. I don't think it implies giving up on pushing doors. For me, I think it implies the need to find new doors to push and it also implies being patient whilst going through the process of finding new doors and pushing on them. There is also comfort in these difficult words, because other people throughout the centuries have prayed them in far more difficult circumstances than I'm in.Do I now hit the "delete" button because this is too personal and sounds like whining? I don't mean to whine but I sense that I'm not going to be able to blog further until I'm honest about where I am. We'll see if I find further inspiration in the coming weeks. "Let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing".
Today seems like an appropriate day to hearken back to my first ever post on this blog. Merry Christmas.
We're still in the liturgical season of Christmas and I'm just starting to blog, so I offer you my favourite Christmas hymn by Charles Wesley. Many Methodists don't seem to be familiar with this hymn, but I think it's worth 'resurrecting'. Normally sung to Amsterdam
Glory be to God on high,
And peace on earth descend:
God comes down, he bows the sky,
And shows himself our friend:
God the invisible appears:
God, the blest, the great I AM,
Sojourns in this vale of tears,
And Jesus is his name.
Him the angels all adored,
Their Maker and their King;
Tidings of their humbled Lord
They now to mortals bring.
Emptied of his majesty,
Of his dazzling glories shorn,
Beings source begins to be,
And God himself is born!
See the eternal Son of God
A mortal son of man
Dwelling in an earthly clod
Whom heaven cannot contain!
Stand amazed, ye heavens, at this!
See the Lord of earth and skies;
Humbled to the dust he is,
And in a manger lies.
We, earth's children, now rejoice,
The Prince of Peace proclaim;
With heaven's host lift up our voice,
And shout Immanuel's name:
Knees and hearts to him we bow;
Of our flesh and of our bone,
Jesus is our brother now,
And God is all our own.
The third verse is my favourite. I often wish I were more demonstrative than I am, because when I sing 'Stand amazed, ye heavens, at this!' I'd really like to shout it out. (When I read the words, I get the feeling that Charles Wesley would have liked to shout out the words too.)
It's a familar doctrine, that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, but when one stops to think what it means that the uncreated Creator took on human form, one begins to get a small glimpse of God's love and God's mystery.
A rather interesting news item today from Britain that made it to the international talk show World Have Your Say concerns an Anglican vicar in Britain - Father Tim Jones, parish priest at St Lawrence and St Hilda in York - who suggested in a sermon that someone who did not have enough to eat might shoplift from large chain stores.However, the actual sermon is a lot more complex than such a simplistic message: read it here.Father Tim even said near the end of his sermon:
Let my words not be misrepresented as a simplistic call for people to shoplift. The observation that shoplifting is the best option that some people are left with is a grim indictment of who we are. Rather, this is a call for our society no longer to treat its most vulnerable people with indifference and contempt. I came across the actual sermon after reading about it on the internet and after hearing the talk show on the radio. Now, I have a real problem with advocating any kind of theft or justifying it as right. But let's pan out and read the rest of the sermon and it's context which was - in my view - clearly born of personal experience on Father Jones' part. Most of the opinions I've read on the internet say something like "Stealing is wrong, but the church should help people". In another context, I have repeatedly stated that the Church universal simply doesn't have the resources to cope with large structural issues of poverty, unemployment and medical need.So what is the correct response of the Church in the context that Father Jones outlines? And is there REALLY nothing at all wrong with putting someone on the street with £50, no home, no employment and no resources? And before you answer that it's Father Jones who should be responding to this man's needs on behalf of the congregation, consider the fact that this then devolves the responsibility of discipleship onto the vicar, leaving the individuals in the congregation free to not walk alongside this man and to tut-tut about his inability to take responsibility for himself.I don't agree with preaching that its OK to steal. It isn't. But Father Jones is spot-on when he calls society to "no longer to treat its most vulnerable people with indifference and contempt". Like many real-life situations, when you have more of an understanding of the actual context and experiences of individuals, you realize that there are often no easy answers. That should humble us, I think.