A plea for withering leaves

I must confess that I sometimes find more inspiration from the lines of a hymn than from familiar passages of Scripture.   At a recent service we sang W. Chalmers Smith’s great classic “Immortal, invisible…” with the lines “we blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree, and wither and perish…”   As one well into the withering stage of life’s journey these lines grabbed me with their particularly personal relevance.   I will return to the “perishing” in a moment but first let’s consider the image of a tree as a metaphor for the history of the human race.

Trees have a prominent role in Scripture.   Our earliest forebears saw the source of all our misery and wretchedness in the fruit of a tree;  and John exiled on the Island of Patmos dreamed of a tree whose leaves would be for the healing of the nations.   In between, the Book of Psalms opens with an image of the righteous person as a tree planted by streams of water;  Daniel saw Nebuchadnezzar’s nightmare of the destruction of a great tree as presaging the  downfall of his kingdom;  while. Jesus likened the growth of God’s kingdom to that of a great tree growing from a tiny seed.

The lines from our hymn conjure up a beautiful image of human history as a tree made up of billions of individuals each a leaf, playing its part.   I like to trace my family tree but it is  salutary to remember that it is indeed no more than a tiny twig on a branch of that great tree.   Each of the members of my family are leaves from that twig.   Many have flourished and fallen some are flourishing today and others will burst out tomorrow.     All my friends and neighbours,  all the people I meet or pass by on my daily round,  all the people living in the world today are leaves of different branches and different boughs,  but we are all of that one great tree: all will wither and fall as surely as spring gives way to summer, summer to autumn and autumn to winter:  and new generations will follow as surely as winter gives way to spring.

But what of the “perishing”?  There’s the rub.   But leaves don’t perish do they?   They decay and become part of the soil and their nutrients feed the tree and the leaves yet to come.   In the Bible, as in contemporary thought “perishing” has negative connotations.   There is a finality about it, a sense of nothingness beyond,  and it smacks of judgement and judgement implies division,  and division implies inclusion and exclusion.   In the New Testament perishing  is ultimate exclusion from the blessings of God’s kingdom   But that cannot be the sense which the hymn-writer has in mind here.     The “we” is inclusive and includes the “perishing”.   But if they are perishing in the Biblical sense there could not possibly be a place for such a hymn in a Christian act of worship.   Perhaps Walter Chalmers Smith was just desperate for a word to rhyme with “flourish” but I prefer to think that he has in mind the process by which the decaying leaf feeds its nutrients back into its parent tree.

What becomes of the real “me” when autumn gives way to winter and flesh and bone are turned to ashes is a mystery.   But if this withering leaf can give back to the tree of history for its next spring something of the nourishment with which it has fed the blossoming and flourishing of my spring and summer I shall be content.

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Beware the power of the pen!

My January edition of “Ninety Nine”, the magazine of “Global Justice Now” contained a heart-warming account of the victory of the Standing Rock Sioux people of North Dakota in securing the denial of a permit for the construction of an oil-pipe line through their territory, threatening water supply and desecrating ancestral lands, and opening the way for tons of carbon to pollute our fragile environment

At the time of publication neither the writer of the item nor the editor of Ninety Nine could have known what I, along with millions of others, was to witness a few days ago as a brief item flashed across our television screens showing in less than a second an inch of scribble scrawled across a piece of paper undoing what months of courageous and sacrificial protest of thousands had achieved.

At this point last night I came to an impasse with the question “Is such an act forgivable?” hanging in my brain.   Theologically it must be although I could not bring myself to come to terms with it.     The breakthrough came in church this morning when we sang “Make me a channel of your peace” and particularly the line “Where there’s despair in life let me bring hope”.    For history what has been done cannot be undone.   “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on:  nor all thy piety nor wit can lure it back to cancel half a line,  nor all thy tears wash out a word of it”.       In that sense it might be considered unforgivable although for Trump it is a matter between Him and God.  (But would Trump take a lesson from a Muslim poet?).    Since then the pen has done even more outrageous damage causing havoc in airports across the world.    Yet, leaving aside its insult to millions whose only offence is to have been born into a particular race and culture this event will no doubt soon be swallowed up in history whereas the Dakota Access Pipeline could conceivably contribute to the end of history.

By the same token a stroke of  Trump’s may undo the achievement of the Sioux people but it cannot wipe out the courage and sacrifice that wrought that achievement.    These are enduring facts that not even Trump’s arrogant impetuosity can cancel.

If the capricious behaviour of Trump’s pen tempts us to despair let us thank God for the channels of peace in which hope lies.   In the struggle for God’s kingdom on earth each such channel,  meeting hate with love, injury with forgiveness, ignorance with truth, despair with hope,  is stronger than a thousand Trumps.

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A different populism

Worship this morning began with the words “All people that on earth do dwell…”    As a Christian I must have sung that hundredth psalm hundreds of times yet it suddenly hit me that there is no mention of Christ or Jesus.   It could be sung with equal sincerity and enthusiasm by any Jew or Muslim yet no-one would ever think it an inappropriate way to begin an act of Christian worship.   Of course, the same could be said of any of the Hebrew psalms but that “all people...” brought it home to me in a particularly striking way.

Later we jumped two and a half millennia to sing the words of Fred Kaan “Let us rise and join the forces that combine to do God’s will.    Granted that hymn is anchored firmly in Christian tradition with an opening challenge to “live for Christ alone”  but I cannot believe that Fred Kaan means us to limit the forces that combine to do God’s will to card-carrying Christians.

Our service ended with John Oxenham’s great hymn “In Christ there is no East or West”  with it’s call to “Join hands then, all the human race” and a claim of kinship to all who my Father’s image bear“.

The title of J.B. Phillip’s book “Your God is too small” has been much quoted but these verses seem to be going further, to be telling us our Christ is too small.   Christ is bigger than the Church, Christ is bigger than Christianity, his purpose of making God’s kingdom a reality on earth as in heaven embraces all humanity and all creation.   Jesus told his disciples “he who is not against us is on our side” (Mark 9:40) and whoever is working to realize the values of that kingdom, whether they acknowledge Christ as its source or not, share in that purpose.

The values of God’s kingdom – peace, justice, forgiveness, love – are under threat today as much as ever, if not more than ever, and we urgently need Christ’s timely reminder that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.   Sometimes it would seem as if the kingdom of Satan – of violence, greed, revenge, injustice xenophobia – is more united than God’s but we dare not let it be so.     Populism seems to be the order of the day and it is usually the populism of selfishness and greed.   There is an urgent need for a populism of good,  of reconciliation, of peace.   A coalition of all who acknowledge and struggle for the values of the kingdom regardless of theology or philosophy, whether they be Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Humanist or of any other creed or none.

One last word, for any who may find Jesus’ words “No-one comes to the Father except by me” a stumbling block.   I suggest that an answer lies in three words from John Oxenham’s hymn: “all Christlike souls are one in him”.   Many who do not profess to being Christian may be Christlike – I believe Nelson Mandella had Christlike qualities.   Sadly not all who do profess to being Christian are Christlike..   Donald Trump professes to being a Christian!    And if that seems too judgemental I would add that most of us, I suspect, see Christlikeness as a goal rather than an achievement.


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Confessions of a Liberal Christian – 4. Jesus, the Message

Nowhere is the humanity of Jesus more evident than at his trial before Pilate
Yet paradoxically this is just where his divinity is most evident.   Earlier that week Jesus had told two of his disciples that the hour had come “for the Son of Man to be glorified”.   It is precisely here, betrayed, deserted, despised and unjustly condemned to a cruel death that God’s glory, God’s true nature, the divine truth is revealed in all its fullness, and the pomp and power of Caesar’s representative is shown for the empty charade that it really is. When Pilate proudly boasts of his authority to release Jesus or have him crucified Jesus shatters his pride with the simple reminder that such authority as he has comes from God whereas his own authority, his kingship, lies in his witness to the truth.

Theologically Christians tend to fall into one of two camps.   There are those who see Jesus’ mission primarily as a personal relationship between Christ and the believer and those who see it more in terms of the establishment of a kingdom, a society of justice and peace.    Both are true, both are essential elements of the Gospel, both claim the authority of the gospel texts.    One camp would point to John 3:16 as “the Gospel in a nutshell” while others see Luke 4:18-19 as Jesus’s “manifesto”;  and there  are many more passages in the gospels to support either view.   It is a matter of balance:  those who treasure John 3:16 must not forget that God’s love is for “the world” and for “whosoever”;   while those who see Luke 4 as Jesus’ manifesto must remember that it is a time when the Lord will save his people and the Kingdom is nothing except as a society of saved individuals.   Blessed indeed are those who can walk this tightrope in equilibrium  but most of us in our humanity tend to lean to one side or the other.    For myself I must confess that I tend to see myself as a citizen of the kingdom more than as a sheep of the flock.

I believe the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to establish is the tangible reflection in human society of God’s purpose of justice and peace, present whenever, wherever and by whomsoever its values as portrayed by Jesus in his life, teaching and supremely in his sacrificial death on a cross are realized.     Those values are in marked contrast to those of the world with their concern for the poor, weak and marginalized rather than the powerful and privileged; with relationships built on grace rather than rights, forgiving and forgiven; and supremely with self-sacrificial love

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Confessions of a Liberal Christian – 3. What is Truth?

…..what about the rest…..Why so many?   Who is right?   Does it matter?

Ask the Archbishop of Canterbury, or Donald Trump, or any member of your congregation what the lordship of Jesus means in a particular situation and you will get very different answers.    So how can I know who is right?

A quick answer could be that we have been promised the Holy Spirit to “guide (us) into all the truth”.    But that just pushes the problem back further because the Spirit blows where it will and we are each deeply and sincerely convinced – and should be – that our interpretation of God’s purpose is the correct one.   But it does not follow that someone else’s is wrong.   My college principal wisely remarked that when we are divided we usually tend to be right in what we affirm and wrong in what we deny.

“What is truth” asked Pilate of Jesus.   Pilate asked out of cynicism but it is a fair question that may be asked with reverence.     We may know that this or that is true but ultimate truth, the source of all truths is beyond human understanding.   As Paul reminds the Christians at Corinth we can only see dim reflections as in a mirror – and we need to remember that the distorted images that would be reflected from Paul’s mirror cannot compare with the clear images of our mirrors today.

Because absolute truth, divine Truth, is beyond human knowledge we are dependent on metaphors and many different metaphors may describe the same truth.     Because a particular metaphor is helpful to me does not mean that someone else may not find their help in a different one.

To put it another way, is it too irreverent to compare the Truth to which the Holy Spirit would lead us to the elephant of the fable that was understood differently by blind men depending upon which part of its anatomy they were feeling; or perhaps more elegantly to a multi-faceted diamond of which we each see a different facet?    I am reminded of the line of a hymn – happily long since expunged form our hymn books – “The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone”.    Have I the humility to recognise that even the heathen may see some aspect of the Truth to which I, in my arrogance, am blind.

I believe that fundamentalism – the assertion that I have the monopoly of absolute truth and therefore everyone else is wrong – whether it be Christian fundamentalism, or Islamic fundamentalism, or atheistic fundamentalism, or any other creed that insists that I am right therefore all who do not share my creed are wrong -is the curse of our age and the biggest obstacle to the coming of God’s kingdom of justice and peace, of shalom, where, in the words of the prophet Micah,  swords are beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks and everyone may sit under their own vine or their own fig tree, treasuring with conviction the truth as the Holy Spirit makes it known to them and respecting those who find it under different vines or different fig trees, and no-one will make them afraid.
…but more of than next time..

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Moment of grace

4.50 and I have just come back from a glorious walk across Highworth golf course. As I crossed the recreation ground the sun was directly in front of me so that I could only look at my feet and go by auto-pilot. But turning into the golf course and turning 45 degrees to the right I was treated to a wonderful sight – not a cloud in the sky, just 360 degrees of pure blue occasionally interrupted by the sharp vapour trail of a passing plane. The sun was now a huge golden ball just a few inches above the horizon and looking up, behold, directly ahead and high in the sky the finest sliver of a new moon. It was probably imagination but it seemed that I could just make out the unlit moon against the blue foreground and beyond nothing but outer space.
Returning my gaze to earth the sun was throwing soft shadows of the trees on to a velvety carpet of green. Thank you God for such a wonderful moment of grace.

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Confessions of a Liberal Christian – 2. Jesus, the man

If I were to attempt a Christology built on proof texts my understanding of Jesus would hang on two brief fragments of scripture.   One would be the words of Peter in his first proclamation of the Gospel, in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost – “Jesus of Nazareth a man  approved by God…” – or in the words of a man healed of blindness – the man called Jesus…”
For me the humanity of Jesus is paramount and absolute.   In Jesus we see eternal truth manifest, but inasmuch as he was born and lived in Palestine and died on a  cross in Jerusalem he was truly human, “tempted in every way as we are” as the writer to the Hebrews puts it.   If Jesus had supernatural advantages that I do not share he could be of no use to me;  his incarnation would be no more than a trick, a fraud.  This is beautifully and succinctly described in relation to his passion in a song by Sydney Carter.
“If you are a son of man then you can be mistaken, you hang upon a cross of doubt and feel you are mistaken,  and whether you will rise again is more than you can tell,   but if you were the Son of Man you’ve tasted this as well.”
His divinity lies in his perfect witness to the truth as it was recognized in those who knew him in the flesh, notably again by Peter in his declaration “Lord, to whom shall we go?   You have the words of eternal life.”
The other fragment would be the three words “Jesus is Lord”   which appear in Paul’s letters to the Romans and to the church at Corinth and as “Jesus Christ is Lord” in his letter to the church at Philippi.     This is probably the earliest and simplest form of the Christian creed and for me it is essential and enough.   The rest is dogma.   Or in the final words of Herbert Butterfield’s “Christianity and History”   “Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted”.     I first came across those words in my teens – or at the latest in my early twenties, and at 86 they have stuck with me ever since as the essence of Christian discipleship.   Sovereignty is a jealously guarded word today but humanly speaking it is a myth.    True sovereignty lies with God alone as perfectly revealed in the man Jesus.    The lordship of Christ means that every aspect of life, every action, word, or thought is under the judgement – good or bad, right or wrong – of the truth as revealed in Jesus.    This is true for the Church, for every nation and for every individual whether acknowledged or not.     Something which, by the way, is particularly apposite to the current talk of a post-truth world.
Having said this what about the rest, the dogma, the interpretation of his purpose and his will?   Why so many?   Who is right?   Does it matter?
To be continued….

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