Who has pottered by this way, then?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Being there

I was a spectator to about two fifths of a Twitter discussion the other day. Most of the participants were people I'd come into contact with via BigBible. The subject was whether sacraments could properly take place online - i.e. is one fully participating in a sacrament if one is not physically there. I felt like chipping in because it was interesting and some of those involved are people whose blogs and writings I like to read, but I held back. Possibly there was a sense of "better keep quiet and be thought a fool than Tweet and remove all doubt" in this, but I also realised I wasn't entirely sure what I thought. My gut feeling was that sacraments - and especially the Eucharist - are things which, by their nature have to happen in the flesh, but I was challenged by alternative views.  The discussion on Twitter fizzled out, but I decided to look a little further into what might and might not be done "remotely" (and by that, I mean, "not physically in the same place").

The Church has always prayed "remotely". Just look at St. Paul's letters for evidence - he never stops telling people that he is praying for them and asks for their prayers back. This seems to be taken as read as Christian practice from the very start of the Church. 

A lot of scripture actually comes to us simply because it is a record of material used for teaching. The new testament letters were written with this assumed - they were not to be read and thrown away but intended to be circulated and passed on. Remote interaction and sharing of teaching through letters, including second hand reading is assumed to be beneficial and quite normal.

Healing would, on the face of it, seem also to be something done in the flesh, but there are scriptural exceptions. For instance, in Luke's gospel we read of Jesus healing remotely. A centurion's slave was at death's door. Not only did the centurion tell Jesus not to bother even coming to his house to physically heal the slave, he didn't even ask Jesus in person. Rather he sent his friends to deliver the message. The centurion recognised Jesus as having authority over sickness, just as the centurion himself exercised authority over his troops. Jesus healed the slave in response to the centurion's faith without even seeing the slave. So we see Jesus operating 'remotely' in his healing ministry and in revealing this sign of his true identity as the Christ.

Anointing with the Holy Spirit
Now this was more of a surprise to me. I'd previously overlooked both these incidents, one from the Old Testament, the other from the New, and was quite surprised to see that anointing with the Spirit - something very sacramental in nature - appears to be not limited by the recipients "being there" when the witnessed anointing happens.

In Numbers, we read that Moses appointed seventy elders and, following God's directions, asked them all to join him around the meeting tent where God came down in a cloud and put his Spirit upon them. The interesting thing was that two of the chosen elders, Eldad and Medad, hadn't got the memo (for some unexplained reason) and were still in the camp when all the really exciting things were happening up by the tent. However, when the other sixty eight started prophesying, so did Eldad and Medad down in the camp. All seventy were anointed and prophesied as a result whether they were physically there or not. 

In St. John's gospel, the account of Thomas makes for interesting reading too. Jesus makes a resurrection appearance to the disciples in a locked room and tells them that he is sending them, just as the Father sent him. He breathes on them and tells them to receive the Holy Spirit. We then find out that Thomas wasn't there on that occasion and he doubts their account of events. Jesus appears a second time and this time Thomas is there to witness the risen Christ. The first appearance to the disciples was when they were anointed as apostles: as those whom Jesus is sending out with the Gospel. There is no question that Thomas is one of these apostles and, as such, was also a recipient of the Holy Spirit, anointed to an apostolic ministry. Thomas is named as one of the apostles earlier in the Gospels and is counted among them in the Acts of the Apostles and is clearly as anointed to this task as the others. Outside scripture, there is a strong tradition that Thomas had an apostolic ministry to northern India where he founded the church. This account of his ministry features in many of the Church Fathers' writings about Thomas as the apostle to India.

Being there
It's clear in all these cases that being physically in the same place was an important part of what was witnessed and what happened for most of those involved: most of the apostles were breathed on by Jesus; sixty eight of the seventy elders received the Holy Spirit around the meeting tent; most of Jesus's reported healings were, if not "hands on" then certainly happening where he was. And there is evidence elsewhere in scripture that being there in person is important. St. Paul makes mention in several letters that he can't wait to come to join his readers and makes it clear that he values being there in the flesh with them, or by sending others such as Timothy to be with them. Indeed, in Galatians he wishes he could be with them in person so he could "change his tone" - recognising that there is a difference in the clarity of communication between exchanging letters and actually hanging out together. That happens all the time online, in my experience: it is very difficult to read "tone" in people's voices and misunderstandings and hurts are often the result of Tweet discussions, just as was the case back in the days of bulletin boards and chat rooms. However, it is equally clear that not being physically in the same place was not a barrier to God getting done what he wants to do in terms of equipping, blessing, anointing and healing. Doing things remotely, even including anointing by the Holy Spirit (which is associated with the sacrament of baptism, but is also relevant to ordination) we can find precedents for, but I'm still not entirely sure where that leaves us in terms of the sacrament of the Eucharist. That probably needs a post all of its own.

My gut feeling remains that the Eucharist is something we are called to do "incarnationally - that is to say, "in the flesh", but the one thing I have had brought home to me in thinking about this is that it is foolish indeed to assume limits to God's grace. In faith, God does not let physical separation stand in the way when He wants to bless, use, equip or answer the prayers of His people.

What can you do for someone today remotely?

Is there something you need to say or do face to face with someone?

What aspects of 'being Church' can we do remotely?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Vision of Church?

Vision of Church

I was on holiday with my family in Scarborough this week. It was a great, relaxing time with unexpectedly lovely weather which we all really needed for one reason or another. We were staying at the Grand Hotel and noticed there seemed to be a lot of conference delegates wearing orange lanyards staying there too. These folk turned out to be on the ECGConference, which (according to a flyer we found in one of the communal areas) is a Christian conference offering a week of all-age worship, Bible study, debates, children's activities, training, seminars and all manner of good stuff for enthusing, equipping and building up people to send back out into their ministry. I then noticed ECG popping up in my Twitter feed because of mutual friends - you know how this works sometimes - but took a policy decision not to get involved as I was on holiday. As a family we need to rest, and that includes unplugging from my own ministry, I was sure. Yes, absolutely, I was sure this was the correct response to being cheek by jowl with ECG. 

And then I had a vision one morning. I compromised...

It's now Thursday evening. I'm back home from my holiday and didn't get distracted by ECG this week. Apart from the vision, that is. But ECG are still there doing their thing, so I am blogging my vision now. I don't know what their seminar contents are or whether this is relevant to them, but I have "one of those feelings" that someone there might need to read this, so here goes...

I awoke early on Tuesday April 10th, and not because of the seagulls. This was in the pre-seagull quiet of dawn. As is my custom I said the Daily Office then finished reading Luke's Gospel as part of my daily reading plan. I waited on God prayerfully. After a few minutes, a very vivid vision unfolded.

The following are my notes made immediately afterwards and edited just now only to make more grammatical and for clarity:

An immense shape appears - so huge you cannot see all of it - rising up from the landscape, looming over the landscape but not coming out of it as such, more a distinct presence among the panorama of the South Bay of Scarborough, including the Spa Conference centre and Grand Hotel. It's shape is indescribable: very beautiful and with many surfaces, colours, textures and materials. Some parts are jewelled, some are rough, some glass and see-through, some shiny, some opaque, and all of this is visible in incredible detail, far beyond what I could have really made out with the naked eye had I been seeing it in the flesh. It is astonishingly beautiful and I cannot for the life of me say why as it is almost formless, shapeless, artless in its construction, impossible to say which way is up, where it begins or ends. It is architecturally incoherent. It is absolutely, indescribably huge.

I say to myself, "Is this a good thing or a distraction? Is it from God or not?"

And I hear the answer as another question, "What would a child think?"

A child would see it is beautiful too. It's attractive, there is lots to get involved with, many ways of seeing it but almost impossible to see all at once. The outside is what we see, in all its weird variety and, as I look closely I see that there are pathways, handrails, tracks leading in from every surface, every part of it, continuing around the structure and leading further into it.

Accept it as a child, then.

All the surfaces have a way into the centre, into the heart of it. All the surfaces are a way in potentially. I muse that you could still admire or decry this thing from the outside without actually exploring it or engaging with it.

I look at it with my youngest daughter. She is drawn to different faces of it to those I noticed most. She sees coloured, see-through, glass-like flowers with layers of other shapes in different colours nestled behind. I had seen grander, more stained-glass-like structures at first. The whole thing is historic and huge, ancient, but very new; very old indeed and changing, moving all the time, never still, always in the "now". On looking again, I see parts which don't attract me at all: dull surfaces, odd angles and shapes which say nothing to me at all. They all lead into the same structure though.

And the image faded and the seagulls began their racket. And I knew I had seen a vision of the Universal Church throughout all ages and was shaking in wonder. I needed to think, reflect and pray on this.

On Wednesday morning, I prayed through this vision. The sheer variety of the appearance of the Church was wonderful. Just imagine the sheer variety of expressions of what it means to be Church in ages past through to the present and in cultures worldwide! Many of these expressions of Church will be unattractive to us. Some will be, frankly, incomprehensible. That's all good. We are whom we are, here and now. That is true for God's people throughout history, and our Church will not look like theirs and will not even look like our contemporaries' either. Whenever we think of equipping ourselves and our churches for ministry and mission, we can lose sight of the fact that the Holy Spirit, on whom we rely for that equipping, is a wild goose that blows where it will and, as this vision reminds us, shapes the Church in more ways than we can possibly imagine. 

You only have to read Paul's epistles to see how varied even the early church was: the sheer variety of the issues Paul deals with pastorally in these letters, and the variety of focus in his teaching in order to equip each Christian community for its life and ministry together tells us that they were not identical in character. God meets people where they are, not where we think they ought to be. The Church has to reflect that reality.

So, as we listen for God's voice, pray for equipping and invite the Holy Spirit to work in us and our churches, we do so in humility, knowing that we are not creating a blueprint for every church. We are called to shape our facet of the Church into something beautiful, but something which is part of a far more awesome whole.

I feel sure that this vision of a beautiful, attractive yet infinitely varied Universal Church is reflected in the variety of people attending ECG this week in Yorkshire, in the varied communities they live in and seek to reach with the Gospel and in the churches and groups which they will return to. May God bless them all and the beautiful facets of His church they seek to create.

Nick Morgan, Ripon. 
April 12th 2012

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Veronica: revealing the true image of Christ. A study in disability?

Stations of the Cross - No. 4: Veronica Wipes Jesus' Face
My video-mediation on this Station of the Cross can be viewed over at the BigBible site as part of their Easter Journeys series.

Just a few thoughts for you, after you have watched it...

Take a moment - it's a very short Bible passage - to read about what some traditions believe to have been Veronica's previous encounter with Jesus in Chapter 9 of St. Matthew's Gospel  when her faith led her to seek healing by touching his cloak. Let's assume for the purposes of marshalling our thoughts, that the woman being written about here was indeed Veronica.

First encounter
Veronica was a chronically ill woman who had been bleeding for twelve years, and would therefore have been ceremonially unclean according to Jewish Law and unable to enter the Temple. She was an outcast as far as the community was concerned. Her condition was shameful - how on earth could she even speak of it to anyone? It would have been unthinkable to ask Jesus for healing, to say what she required healing for out loud. But, Veronica thinks, she could anonymously touch his cloak and who would know? If you read this encounter in the wider context of that chapter of Matthew, you can see that Jesus is in the middle of a whole heap of healings. In fact, this healing is almost mentioned in brackets in the middle of another healing - while he is on the way to raise the synagogue-leader's daughter from the dead. The story itself almost hides away in Matthew's Gospel every bit as much as Veronica herself tries to. Jesus knows what she has done and recognises the faith that lay behind it. Not only is she healed without a word being spoken, her faith is praised.

People's needs are not always visible. They are not always obvious. Sometimes, there is a more pressing need which is obscured by the blindingly obvious. And aren't these healings somewhat awkward to our modern way of thinking: disability somehow being equated with sinfulness? And why does the Saviour, whose primary ministry is to reconcile people to their Creator through the forgiveness of their sins, put healing in such a prominent place in his public ministry?

Meeting needs
Consider the paralysed man who was lowered by his friends through the roof to be healed by Jesus. Jesus doesn't immediately heal him of his paralysis, rather he forgives him his sins. Jesus sees beyond the man's disability, beyond the blindingly obvious fact that the man cannot walk. He sees beyond this to what the man's real need for healing is: he needs to have his sins forgiven. I imagine his friends weren't immediately happy with this response: they'd gone to a lot of trouble to take their friend to the great healer, they'd had to pull back the roofing and find some means of lowering him down on a stretcher, so I imagine that having gone to all that bother to try to get him healed, to have Jesus speaking of forgiveness rather than healing possibly got them at least confused, and - had it been me (if I'm honest) angry. However, Jesus goes on to show his power over sin by doing what the man and his friends had sought: he commands him to pick up his bed and walk. For Jesus, it is as easy to proclaim healing as it is to offer forgiveness, and part of the significance of Jesus's healing ministry is that one of the signs of the promised Messiah was that he would perform healing miracles.

However, the fact that Jesus himself forgives the man's sins tells us who Jesus is: as the Pharisees themselves ask, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?". These stories of healing actually serve to remind us that we are all disabled, all needing to be restored into the image of God - our true image. None of us is fully "fit for purpose" as a human being until we're perfected in Christ, our true image restored. We glimpse this true image in Jesus and the Christian journey is one of transformation as part of the universal Church, the Body of Christ, more fully into Christ's image. Being visibly disabled, or having that label thrust upon oneself through illness, accident or sheer dumb luck does not make that person any more or less deserving of God's forgiveness. We all, equally, need to be restored into God's image. These healings of Jesus are a visible, outward sign of an inner truth: Jesus can restore us into our true image, physical healing in Christ's earthly ministry being an outward sign of the more complete restoration of our selves into a more Christ-like version of us: our true image. In the video 'True Image', some of the people whose photos appear there have a disability or long-term illness or other condition. It didn't matter, did it? All the images spoke as part of the same message.

Second encounter
And so, back to Veronica. Healed, and restored by Jesus's healing of her bleeding, we next see her on the Way of the Cross. The tables are turned: it is Jesus who is in need, struggling under the weight of the cross and Veronica once more finds herself among a crowd. Veronica, who as a ritually unclean woman had previously needed to be as anonymous as possible is now restored to her place in the community. She steps forward to meet Jesus's needs in a simple, practical, loving act of wiping his face. Jesus must, by this time, already have been pretty badly disfigured and disabled by his injuries. In Matthew's account, we read of him having been scourged, having a crown of thorns pressed into his head and having been beaten with reeds. The scourging alone would have left him a pretty bloody mess, in a lot of pain and already weakened. Scourging was such a serious form of punishment that it could kill prisoners even before they got as far as the crucifixion. A medical explanation which, BE WARNED, is not for the faint-hearted and is extremely unpleasant reading can be found by clicking on this. So wiping Jesus' face was in the most obvious sense an inadequate response to a heavily bleeding, already dying man. What good could it do? Well, it was kind. Amid all the horror and butchery of Good Friday, it was a kind act. Simple, loving, human contact in the midst of viciousness and cruelty. The image of Christ was revealed in Veronica herself as much as on her cloth. She saw Jesus as a broken, disabled man, now an outcast from society and she identified herself with him, not merely watching as he walked by but stepping forward to help him, just being a loving human being alongside him which was all she could realistically offer. Our own society's treatment of the disabled is currently shocking, with a national media and political rhetoric which routinely labels them as benefit scrounging scum, and where 32 people who have been pronounced ineligible for incapacity benefit die each week. We should follow Veronica's example and step out of the crowd and identify ourselves with them.

True Image
From Good Friday through to Easter Sunday we see Jesus being more fully revealed: his true image becomes apparent. He is not just another failed Messiah, many of whom were crucified by the Romans. What was special about Jesus was who he was: he was God-with-us who died to take away the sins of the world and who rose from the dead, victorious over sin and even death itself. His true image as Saviour was fully revealed to those who could see it. Veronica had a foretaste of that and, in the light of Christ's death and resurrection, we can take that image out into the world ourselves and similarly transform it through his love.

Bless you all this Easter, whether you are disabled, or not yet disabled.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Easter Journeys

The Way of the Cross. 

Lent is a good time to step outside your comfort zone and challenge yourself. I've never been much drawn towards the challenge of giving up chocolate, alcohol or puddings. I see the point, but it doesn't grab me. I'm more motivated by "time and effort" rather than "stuff", so I tend to have a similar approach to Lenten fasting. This year, I have given up some of the more fun things I generally get up to online - photo challenges over at b3ta, for instance, or gaming at Newgrounds, and instead using the time to put together an online meditation on one of the Stations of the Cross for the BigBible.org.uk's "Easter Journeys" project.

A group of people involved in BigBible put together an online service of 9 Lessons and Carols over Christmas and suggested an Easter project based around the Stations of the Cross and the Stations of the Resurrection. Now my church background does not include either of these sets of Stations as part of its tradition, and that is why this project appealed to me. I was drawn towards the station of the cross which depicts Veronica wiping Jesus' face, as this is a scene not preserved in the Gospel accounts but existed in early apocryphal texts and is preserved through Christian tradition - again, going against my evangelical upbringing of focussing solely on Biblical texts. I decided to limit my research to simply finding out the facts of what was being depicted, pray and meditate upon it for a while, then see what emerged. The end result is based around a theme common to many commentaries on this station of the Cross: responding to suffering in love, and in doing so, revealing the face of Christ.

Tradition has it that the image of Jesus' face miraculously appeared on the cloth which Veronica used to wipe the blood, sweat and tears from his face. I have taken a deeper meaning from this scene: in responding with mother-love to Christ's suffering in such a practical way, the true image of Christ is revealed in Veronica's act of loving-kindness.

The Music
I wrote the music for this presentation first. I need something slow and plodding, reflecting Jesus struggling to lug the Cross and the relentless progress to crucifixion. The structure of the story I was going to tell wasn't clear, but somehow the music wrote itself. Music comes easily to me, but the structure of the imagery was less clear at first.

The Images
Two images stood out to me: Veronica seeing Jesus in need. Veronica reaching out to him with a towel, or veil or whatever was to hand to meet his need. I decided I needed eyes and hands as the basis of the visual narrative, and it seemed to me that using the eyes and hands of women would reflect the practical mother's love aspect of Veronica's encounter with Jesus. So I put out a call via Facebook and Twitter for photographs. This request was met with quite a few questions from female friends on Facebook who wondered what lay behind it. Not everyone who offered to let me use their images is a Christian by any means, and that was important to me too: we can see the image of Jesus reflected in all acts of love because God, in creating humans in His own image, is the source of love itself. We don't have to label love "Christian love" - love is love: Christians merely know the source, we do not own the rights to all that springs from it.

Putting it together

There were times when I seriously doubted this would work. I used freeware for all the visuals on this, and part of the music track. For those who like to know, photographs were treated using Gimp, the video material was composed in Microsoft Movie Maker, the music was written using Sibelius and mastered (and had reverb and other effects added) in Audacity. In the meantime, the co-ordinator of the project requested volunteers to make other design elements, so I put together the avatar which you see towards the top of this blog entry.

So what do we learn from Veronica?
Well, tradition has it that she was the women whom Jesus had, earlier, healed of a haemorrhage. In that account, we see someone who acted in faith and was healed. She touched Jesus's cloak , hoping to go unnoticed, remain anonymous in the crowd, though things turned out rather differently with Jesus seeking her out and praising her faith. Yet here, amid the very public humiliation of the crucifixion, Veronica steps out of the crowd and offers Jesus a little comfort. In touching his cloak, she was healed: her image was restored. In wiping his face with her cloth, Veronica reveals the true image of Jesus: his image will not die with his crucifixion, nor be merely preserved on her cloth. The image of Jesus will continue to be made known through acts of loving kindness, a reflection of the image of God within all of us.

My online meditation upon Veronica Wipes Jesus' Face will be posted here and on BigBible from Good Friday.