Mary's blog 2017

Speaking in platitudes and other hazards (28/6/2017)

A MINISTER, like a politician, is expected to have an opinion or an answer or a reflection for everything. Keeping it handy for any eventuality. It may just be me but this feels especially so in the last few days and weeks when events have swirled around us and battered our senses.

NewspapersPart of a minister’s role is to sum up in words the unsayable; to acknowledge out loud the deepest human emotions – be they breath-robbed grief, tearing anger or numb terror.  Or to reflect accurately on the ‘signs of the times’ and help us in our grasping after wisdom as we vote and view the results or wait for a public enquiry.  I am genuinely grateful for those who write and speak offering opinions, faith and information from all sides, even though opening the newspaper each day after terror attacks, a devastating fire or just a wayward election, is to be lost in forests of numbing words and images. But I feel the pressure to speak - And the danger of speaking.

Not surprisingly, after long years in Christian discipleship, ministry and church my mind – and heart – are trained to respond with Scripture. So I turn to Isaiah 40: God is in control – he strengthens the powerless - the nations are just a drop in a bucket. But my inner bull monitor warns me against sounding so heavenly minded that I am no earthly use. Against falling back on spiritual platitudes with a background of cute kitten. Yet I do truly trust in the power of these words in my human heart.

For a start, in the Bible, all the raw human emotions are there. They are undisguised and part of an honesty before God it is easy to be embarrassed by. So in Psalm 58 I read the expectation that the righteous will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. There is no getting around this longing for vengeance and judgement. But the same Bible is the source of Jesus’ redefinition of righteousness – the deeper goodness in Matthew 5, where I hear Jesus teaching ‘love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you’. The same Jesus, God with us, declares that the Spirit of God upon him brings freedom, healing, sight and good news to the poor. She is not a Spirit of pious withdrawal or platitude but of engagement and compassion and incarnation. As active and brave as our rescue services and members of the public who have been rightly recognized over recent weeks. So my strong emotions are captured for transformation into action and goodness by the words of Scripture and the saving action of Jesus.

These Bible words are also a well-tested bulwark against despair. When grief or darkness seems endless they are my light in darkness. Verses that become a prayer word are a rope thrown to the drowning – The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? Psalm 27

The Bible, remembered and wrestled with, gives me the long-term view. It tells me there is more to life and there is an eternal perspective that I may not always see through tears or laughter. When I read it through the matrix of Jesus I can discern the true north I need to return to from all turmoil and from active engagement in life. It tells me again there is a reason to live differently, to live in forgiveness and non-violence, and in generosity. The Gospel story is that life is not made meaningless through violence, disruption and suffering but made meaningful through the suffering and resurrection of Jesus.

So the Bible brings to my politics the Kairos challenge* to every power and every desire that raises its head against the justice of God by declaring from Scripture, ‘The grass withers and the flower falls but the word of our God stands forever’. I know from Micah 6 what is required of me – that I act justly, love mercy and walk humbly before God. The Bible’s story from Genesis to Revelation, leads me to affirm, echoing Martin Luther King, Jr, that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice’.

Through that same Scripture I am able to trust in the essential goodness of God – we don’t live in a neutral impersonal universe but a created cosmos with someone at the back of it all. This is our loving God who will bring all things to completion – in whom, in the wisdom of Julian of Norwich, ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’.

Ok quoting Scripture can sound like platitude – but in the face of everything I still find that its words are guiding light and foundation stone and rock and calling.

*The Kairos  Document was a theological statement against apartheid issued in 1985

Just saying! (19/4/2017)

MY head has been full of justice recently. Not the Old Bailey, scales of justice, type but the compassionate justice deeply-rooted in our Biblical texts and in the way we understand God. The word translated as justice and the word translated as righteousness are one and the same tzedek in the original Hebrew of the Old Testament.

Devon DickJust before Easter I had the privilege of spending time with Revd Dr Devon Dick (right), President of the Baptist Union of Jamaica. He was here to mark the 10th anniversary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain offering an apology for the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Together we visited one of the most diverse churches in Yorkshire, Cemetery Road Baptist Church, Sheffield; then a forum at Cottingham Road Baptist Church, Hull to consider the legacy of Martin Luther, William Wilberforce and Martin Luther-King, as well as the work of modern day slavery campaigner, Ruth Dearnley, of Stop the Traffik.

Devon also contributed to a symposium at Spurgeon’s College to mark the Apology and consider the link we need to make between justification and justice in our Christian discipleship. The question the apology raises is how far have we moved in these last 10 years towards repentance and change? Equally, we will soon reach the 100th anniversary of the ordination of Baptist women (1922) but women make up just 13% of fully-accredited Baptist ministers. How well are we really doing?

Justice is not a modern invention appropriated for the rights of different interest groups; it is the way scripture describes God’s action in the world, coming out of God’s faithful, loving kindness. The first chapter of Genesis tells us that all human beings are created in God’s image. My deeply held starting point is that every action towards others that does not take this image into account is a desecration and a denial of the work of God. And yet I know my own actions, whether deliberate or lightly careless, can so easily disregard the precious other. Also the truth is that as an individual Christian, my actions are a microcosm of what happens in our churches.

To hold ourselves to account as churches, Baptists Together have agreed to launch regional justice hubs, so that at a grassroots level we pay attention to justice in our gathered life and in our structures. Drawing on the resources of the national racial, gender and disability justice groups, Yorkshire is setting up the first of these hubs – because we know that there is work to be done in taking down barriers to all people being fully part of our churches.

The first step will be to ask people how it is for them, and to ask churches where they think they might need help. Stories help us here – they give us a glimpse of how it feels to walk in someone else’s shoes.
Like the black woman who never really feels at ease because she must be on her best behavior in the white church. Like the blind person who is always being asked to open their eyes to see Jesus.
Like the gifted leaders passed over because they don’t fit an identikit Baptist minister or deacon shape.
We cause serious hurt and miss out so much richness and blessing in our shared lives unless we pay attention to these matters. Maybe before the stories though, we should ask God for a deep longing for compassionate justice, the same burning passion that is right at the heart of God and at the heart of the cross. That’s my prayer for our Yorkshire justice hub and for our churches. Please pray with me.

Utopia and all that (6/2/2017)

UndergroundTHE London Underground in the rush hour is a study in human traffic flow and human behavior. Depending on your cup – the ‘half-empty’ version is a frightening nightmare of robots or lemmings carried along in a mindless, crushing stream, controlled by forces outside themselves. On the other hand, ‘half–full’ shows myriads of individuals pursuing their own particular purposes yet co-operating together to achieve the mass movement of thousands in a short space of time.  From it we can paint two very different pictures of the city and society and of human well-being.

We’re going through strange times in which politicians and leaders have also been painting some very divergent pictures of what is and what might be. All sorts of assumptions about the values we hold, democratic freedoms and principles are now up for debate. Concepts such as freedom of religion, equality before the law and free speech, which were previously just wallpaper, are suddenly hot topics alongside the usual celebrity news and grumpy cats.

It is fascinating how some long-held Baptist principles are also being taken down off the back shelf and dusted off for a new generation. In Baptists Together there has been a renewed attention to our Declaration of Principle and how it shapes our life in covenant. At the moment this is caught up with the debate about human sexuality and same-sex marriage but the bigger question is, how will we interpret, in our corporate life as Baptists Together the first part of the basis of our union: That our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, is the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and that each Church has liberty, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret and administer His laws. Especially when we may be deeply divided on certain matters. The 1990s' document Something to declare and the recent call The courage to be Baptist are good places to start our discussions.

But is it an accident that both world and Church are currently working on the similar topics?  We talk about discerning the mind of Christ together. This is not democracy yet Baptist or congregational government was very influential within the 17th century, an important part of the family tree of ideas about how power is exercised in a body of people. We rightly say our discernment rests on the foundation of Scripture interpreted through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It also owes much and contributed to the belief in the dignity of the individual and the value of their voice. Democracy in its ideal has also been about casting our vote for the common good and not just for what is most beneficial for me. By contrast pork barrel politics shows the worst possibilities of the form.

We’ve also just celebrated 400 years since the death of Thomas Helwys, that Baptist hero for freedom of religious conscience, who wrote an appeal to King James 1 for this liberty. He wrote possibly the first English book defending the principle of religious liberty. For Helwys religious liberty was a right for everyone, even those he disagreed with.

What does this mean? I think we have much of value to say to our 21st century world and its politics. We have important insights to bring back to the forefront in our divided and hostile world. In our Baptist commitment to walking together and watching over one another in love, we have been led to a continual dialogue between the individual and the covenanted community. That’s exactly where our society finds itself right now. In our communities, its not all about me but I have something unique to say and bring. It’s not all about the group but in its co-operation and covenant it models the unity and diversity of God who creates us. Sometimes it goes wrong and in our attempt to be the pure church we become harsh and excluding. But at our best I believe we have something essential of God’s ways to offer to the world around us.

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