Holy Ascenders

I’ ve been thinking about Ascent this week – mainly because of some work we’re doing on ministerial development and support, under the brand name Ascend.

We’ve been working of Psalm 24 – who will ascend the hill of the Lord?  A few things that strike you when reading the psalm – authenticity and a certain kind of purity are what get you to the summit (as opposed to brute strength, or hubris – if you are tempted to brag the climb will find you out), that the journey is done with a generation (those that the age has thrown us into company with; and not as a lone spiritual quest) and that a fellow traveller is God.  God himself finds himself locked out his own temple and must knock to enter.

And Psalm 24 is locked into the DNA of Scottish Presbyterianism through the communion hymn “Ye gates lift up your heads on high” – hoping that this reflection on the same psalm might (even if in a smaller way) have a similarly transformative effect.


The Avengers, The Justice League and the desire for a few more gods

During the height of the New Atheism shout contest Richard Dawkins used to quip that Christianity had reduced the number of gods from hundreds down to one, and he all he wanted to do was go one god further.  However, it seems that the current spate of superhero films reveals a hankering to reverse that trend.  The same instincts that gave humanity Zeus, Poseidon, Hermes and Pluto, are the same instincts that give us Hulk, Batman, Superman, Antman, Wonder Woman, Black Widow and Black Panther.

Part of this is the hankering for a decent story.

By this view, the world (or let’s use the word ‘universe’ so beloved of the genre) of monotheism is too sterile, too virtuous, too consistent to permit any good stories.  However with a pantheon of heroes you can have capricious gods, amoral gods, vengeful gods, strong gods; bound by a noble sense of duty and justice, eager to wreck vengeance on behalf of deceased family members (usually a parent). You can get them attacking each other, finding out if there is anyway that Batman would have a chance against Superman, or if Spiderman’s web was stronger than Captain America’s shield.

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The Messianic Secret and Pastoral Aftercare

The next passage in our series on discipleship (more on which here) is on the cross.

As a way into this I began some studying again of the Messianic secret in Mark, one of the themes of which I am frequently asked in our new members group when people read the gospel for the first time.  The silence is so counter-intuitive in a publicity seeking age.  When you are after YouTube views and Facebook likes, why would any Messiah want the leper he has healed not to tell anyone (Mark 1:44).  If you want a religious movement to gain some traction, a healed leper is going to be of some use.  And why repeatedly tell people to be quiet when this seems to have precisely the opposite effect – the more he told them to be quiet the more they spoke (Mark 7:36) – why does Jesus even bother to tell people to be quiet if the effect is to be precisely the opposite.  Nothing makes a secret travel more quickly than telling people it’s a secret.

The Grandaddy of research into the Messianic Secret is the German scholar Wrede. He took Mark 5:43 as his starting point – the seemingly pointless and impossible command of Jesus to Jairus and his family ‘don’t tell anyone your daughter has been raised from the dead.’ Since this was so ridiculously there is clearly something more symbolic and theological, rather than historic (we’ll argue another time with Wrede why symbolic and theological should be in opposition to historical). A key verse was Mark 9:9, Jesus orders the disciples to say nothing about the transfiguration until he has risen from the dead.

For Wrede, and many others, we are in no position to understand Jesus until we have comprehended the cross and resurrection. To proclaim Jesus before this is to perpetuate a distortion – he is the all conquering Messiah without any pain or failure (as the rebuking Peter of Mark 8:32 would have it), or he is another King playing all the games of power (as Pilate wants to hear in Mark 15:3-5). Even more striking is the doctrinally orthodox shrieks of the demons (as a general question, if doctrinal orthodoxy is shrieked, should that always lead one to suspect darker forces at work) – Jesus won’t have truth uttered is the utterer does not comprehend the cross and resurrection. An essential part of truth utterance is the person whose saying it, truth uttered by the demonic is still harmful and must be silenced.

Wrede grouped together a series of features – the command to silence uttered to disciples, demons and those who had been healed; the incomprehensibility of the parables and the disciples failure to understand.  These constituted the Messianic secret, and secret that would only be revealed on a cross.  If the secret got out too early it would be twisted by distortion, the false religion of prosperity, power and magic.  Only when Jesus dies (and it is in his death, possibly even more than his resurrection that he is revealed) and cries his last that the truth is revealed and the centurion concludes this truly was the son of God.

Until we understand the death, failure, vulnerability, rejection, shame and isolation of the cross, we will not understand Jesus, seems to be the message of Mark.  And similarly, it is in silent contemplation of the cross that we learn discipleship with its apparent failure, shame and rejection.

Here’s my issue with Wrede though – the theory doesn’t hold together consistently.  At all.  Jairus and his family have to keep quiet about his daughter, but what about that other daughter, the bleeding woman who is compelled to tell her whole devastating story of loss in front of an agitated and pressing crowd?  And why is the man who was exercised of a legion of demons told to go and tell everyone what God has done for him?  And why no talk of the transfiguration but the 72 are still sent out to proclaims the nearness of the kingdom.  And why is the identity revealed in crucifixion but in the aftermath of resurrection the woman are famously stunned into silence again, famously saying nothing to no-one (Mark 16:8).

Perhaps years of pastoring have alerted me to the second half of Mark 5:43 – “and give her something to eat” (actually Pastoring has little to do with it, it probably owes more to Mark Symmons Roberts’ fabulous meditative poem on this which drew my attention – what food is fit for risen bodies he asks?  Pomegranates and watermelon I seem to recall were two of the options on the menu).  There is something going on here about the spiritual aftercare of Jairus’ daughter.  She is to be embrace the normal rhythms of life again – she will eat.  Somehow her childhood will be diminished, not enhanced, if she is forever cast as the miracle girl.  And Jesus is finely tuned to who people are before attending to miracle aftercare – the woman who bled and was ostracised will be publicly affirmed as much as she was silently excluded, the leper will be restored by the religious system which cast him out, the legion-afflict demoniac will find purpose amongst his family when before they felt only the shame of his derangement.

And why so often silence.  For Jesus something important happens in the dark.  Why so often his pursuit of time alone?  Why the sudden ending, because Mark’s resurrection story has to be completed away from the page.  This is the seed that grows in the soil without anyone knowing about it.  It is by contemplating, not by talking that these healed women and men will come to terms with what is happened to them, and to faith in the God who did it.  We will miss God if we keep wanting to talk about him all the time.  Or rather we will miss the God of all people if we want to continually talk about what he did to to me.  To sense the fullness and bigness, the suffering of God, and yes the resurrection of God, we will have need of a little more silence.


Making peace is more than keeping it

I feel really moved to hear of the passing of Helen Steven, someone who radiated peace.  She wasn’t someone I had seen much since the early 1990s, when she had blown my mind at a week on Iona.  She was like someone I had never met before.  She was telling me how she couldn’t speak at the CU at her local university because she wouldn’t sign the statement of faith.  It wasn’t that she disagreed with any of its contents, as a Quaker she just couldn’t accept any summary of faith which was written down, she believed in something and someone beyond the limits of words.

At that point she had spent a year in Northern Ireland, she said that you couldn’t know anything about a conflict until you had been there with people and heard their stories.  At that time I didn’t know what she meant.  As long as you watched the nine o’clock news (as was), you could have a fairly good idea of what was going on in the world.  It wasn’t until I met my hardline Protestants in Belfast in the late 1990s that I knew what she really meant.

The person who taught me that was Ken Newell, Rev. Ken as the Catholics call him, or Father Ted as he was frequently called on account of his whitened hair (Ken belongs to a trio of folk with heavy mops of whitened hair who have profoundly shaped my life – the other two being Martin Scott and Mark Sundby).  Continue Reading


How many times did David kill Goliath?

There’s a curious double killing in 1 Samuel 17:50-51.
50 So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Philistine and killed him. There was no sword in the hand of David.  51 Then David ran and stood over the Philistine and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath and killed him and cut off his head with it. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled.

1 Samuel 17:50-51

At first this looks like clumsy editing (the ignorant refactor blunders again, in his obsessive need to keep sources he wrecks the narrative flow, once again – fortunately Altar and others have taught us to credit the reactor with a little more sense).

Instead, the careful reader is faced with a question – why did Goliath get killed twice?  Surely once is enough.  

There are a few theories.  The first is that the blow from the stone merely stunned Goliath, the second blow was the one that really killed him.  That seems to be the sense of verse 49.  The the first blow caused him to fall.  But verse 50 seems to stop us going down this route.  It’s there to say “no, that one stone was enough; that was all he needed to prevail, and by the way he didn’t need a sword.”  There is a whole anti-sword thing going on in this chapter – it’s most prominent in verse 38, where David refuses Saul’s sword.  The whole point of the chapter is that the world of armies, and kingly posturing, and armour isn’t going to work for Israel.  She’s already tried this with Saul and it’s not been going well.  If Israel wants to play the human power game, the game of militarism and weapon acquisition then it’s going to fail.  It will fail because it will always meet a Goliath, and it will fail because an over-reliance on technology creates an army of cowards, who don’t know how to trust in God because all they know is the power of technology.  There is a quote from a French General which I can’t source who I am sure said of the Americans during the Bosnian war (when the Americans could kill from a distance through their technology) “what kind of soldiers are these who no longer look upon the eyes of their enemy” (similar points are made here).

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How Does The Church Need to Change?

Today we’re doing our first filming of “Take a Pew”, where we ask people about how the Church should change.

It’s a big question, not one we probably have to ask out of fear, or out of need to protect the institution.  One person has already said that this begins with a sense of God’s love for all, not out of a need to keep the show on the road.  Another person has said that we need to be radical with our solutions, but I have no idea what that actually means, and would throw us into a prolonged discussion about structures.

The statistics are interesting, or downright scary more like.  Peter Brierley’s analysis of UK denominations in 2015, round that the average mainline decline in places like the Church of England was something like 3-4%.  Some larger declines were in places like the URC which I think was -15%.  The largest decline in a decade, by some considerable distance was in the Presbyterian denominations, which was -29%.  And if you consider that this contained the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, whose decline is far slower, then one worries very much about decline in the Church of Scotland.

The latest version of the downward graph I saw predicted that the Church would close in 2030.  The high point of Church membership was 31st December 1956, when membership was about 1.3million; today it is 380,000.

A key emergence is literature which is saying that we should invest in people.  Commonly cited is Mike Breen’s observation that if make disciples you get the Church, but if you try to build the Church you don’t necessarily get disciples.  Jesus told us to make disciples, building the Church is his job.

Then there is our failure to find new forms of Church.  This is something which has happened more in England, and has enabled now over a 1,000 expressions of new Church to be planted, 2/3rds of which are still growing after 5 years.

Then there is idea that where a Church prioritises leadership it tends to experience growth – my own observation that Episcopal Churches are serving in the present age more strongly than Presbyterian ones.  And that if you compare Church of Scotland statistics with Presbyterian Church of USA statistics, they are very strongly correlated.

And investment in people is key.  I am struck by the new rise in “Discipleship” (although latest research tends to show that the words itself doesn’t really connect with people).  The Saltley research says the practice that people find most helpful is actually going to Church, and that least helpful is social media and the Internet.  The other things is they group discipleship activities into group activity, public engagement, individual activity, and Church worship.  The strongest effects are in individual activity – public engagement strengthens discipleship, group work strengthens as sense of vocation; but individual activity strengthens both of these.

Finally there is the Steve Aisthorpe stuff about the Invisible Church – I think that one of his key I findings was the peopel had to be enabled to grow in Church contexts, and not feel like they were aliens when starting to ask questions.  The flip of that is that Church’s which remain strongly rooted in their tradition (even if it’s a tradition that they question and challenge) are the most passionate and flavoursome of Churches to be part of.  Not to be rooted in anything is unfaithful to who we are and the example of Jesus.

I am still looking for some research that suggests that we are becoming more spiritual even if we are less religious.

Teaching a stone to talk

This is rich fare and my first venture into the remarkable worlds of Annie Dillard.

Here’s some quotes that jumped at me:

“It is difficult to undo our own damage, and to recall to our presence that which we have asked to leave.  It is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind.  The very holy mountains are keeping mum.  We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it, we are lighting matching matches in vain under every green tree.” (page 88)

“Caution passes for wisdom around here” (page 99)

A strkingly gracious description of Fundamentalist Christians

“They live and work in the same world as we, and know the derision they face from people whose areas of ignorance are perhaps different, who dismantled their mangers when they moved to town and threw out the baby with the straw.” (page 119)


12 Steps and Getting Unstuck

This is the series on the Christian lessons from the 12 step movement.

It provokes a number of questions for me – a lot of them that this is good, but then we have to look at what we are saying when we say this essentially theistic movement with its roots in Christian tradition (and in particular the Oxford movement, which is much criticised by John Stott among others) has some big lessons for us.  Once again, where is God in the place that is good but doesn’t name itself Christian.  Or does 12 steps also in a way have to admit it’s own faults and need of redemption, or is that a bit too meta.

Anyway, this is really interesting to look at, because the thing that so many of us want above all is change. Continue reading