Praying for our planet – faith and climate change – Bramhall Methodist Church

Seven scientists through seven seminars offer perspectives on a faithful response to climate change.

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Just passing through – Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch – conversion? membership of the church? accepting others

Just passing through…
Bristol evening © Andrew Pratt

Although the title of the latest Methodist hymn book, Singing the Faith, suggests that there is just one faith the more people I meet the more I feel that there are almost as many expressions of faith as there are people. As you read this, reflect back on how you came to faith. Who influenced you? How did you learn? In what ways is your life different because of your faith. 

The poet Dylan Thomas once said that he loved hearing about people’s stories, but they had better be quick or else he’d be talking about his. So excuse me if I indulge myself a bit. Though I didn’t go to Sunday School as a child I did go to church with my parents until I was eleven. I didn’t really go again with any regularity until I was in my twenties. In spite of this I remember two influences, impressions if you like, which have remained with me. Our head teacher was our RE teacher. I found him boring and not very sympathetic. On the other hand my botany teacher enthralled me. I still have little memory or knowledge of botany, but I do remember him saying, ‘I can see some good in any body’. We pushed him on that. He insisted that he could. Not only that, but he lived it out as an example to us. 

Why do I bore you with this? Simply because that impressed me and made me have a different outlook on others. Though I came to faith through something of a mystical experience (more of that another time perhaps) my ‘conversion’ was as much ethical as religious. I changed paths, pulled out of biological research. Attending a new church as I began to re-train as a teacher, after one visit, I asked the minister how I might join that church. I was just passing through – a one year teaching certificate, living partly in a bed-sit, partly commuting 20 miles home each evening depending on my parents’ health. 

Only later did I come across the story of Philip and an Ethiopian (Acts 8: 26-40). The Ethiopian was a government treasury official. He was also a eunuch. He would have assumed that, in a religious sense, he had no ultimate hope. But he was curious. As he travelled he had been reading Hebrew scripture, as we now know it. Philip explained something of what he was reading. It was a passage from Isaiah. It spoke of someone led to the slaughter, who would not open his mouth, to whom justice would be denied, whose life had been taken away from the earth. Hopeless. 

Philip explained that this spoke of Jesus and that Jesus, in some way offered hope. If you read this passage in some translations verse 37 is missing. Let me explain. The Ethiopian, we do not know his name, asked what could prevent him from being baptised. The missing verse says this: Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may. And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’” The reason that this verse is missing from, the New Revised Standard Version and other translations, is that it is not in all the original manuscripts from which our New Testament has been translated. Some scholars, and I would agree with them, feel that the original is just too scandalous to be accepted. How can anyone be baptised without a confession of faith? and, no certainty of the belief of the person? See how it reads without the missing verse:

v. 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.
v. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

It has often passed through my mind that if Philip had been a Methodist he would surely have offered a course of study, have asked the Church Council whether they were accepting of this person. Of course, he’s black, that might have been a problem. I hear you saying ‘of course not’. Listen to black people sharing their experience of the ‘welcome’ they have so often experienced in our churches, not to mention the recent disclosures about racism in the church of England (a similar story might be told in many other churches). Don’t dismiss what has been said and what people say they have felt. But this story speaks of someone of a different language, colour, ethnicity, faith.

And so I return to a bedsit in Exeter and a minister sharing coffee with me, this student ‘just passing through’. We spoke for an hour, I suppose. Apart from attending one service we’d never met before. There was no confession of faith, not that you’d recognise as such. And what did the minister say, ‘Ok I’ll make you a member’. I asked what people of the church might think? He answered that what they thought didn’t matter, it was between me and God. I never did find out what they thought, or said to the Minister.

I wasn’t going to be involved in that church, not for long anyway. But I’ve been in the church ever since, moving from place to place, some more welcoming than others, some where I’ve felt at home. Some not. Strange though, those that have mirrored best that open, trusting attitude of Philip, not counting numbers or treasuring buildings, just accepting anyone even if they are just passing through, seeing something good in everyone; those places felt most loving, most Christian. And the others, so often, sadly, seemed to want people like themselves and to control who could belong, and who they’d prefer not to. I think it was Jesus, of all people, who said, ‘My father is the gardener’ the one who chooses, who prunes, who casts dead wood on the fire. Not you or me. 

I thank God for the minister who welcomed me and who I learned much later, behaved like Philip with the Ethiopian. He didn’t know me or where I had come from, nor where I would go, but accepted me as I was. Without him I would not be writing this fifty years later. As the author of Acts records it, as the Ethiopian ‘came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing’. 

I’m still here in the Methodist Church. And I pray that we might continue to welcome strangers, no questions asked, no hurdles of belief or creed to jump over – something good in all of them, sending them on their way rejoicing…

And may the community where you meet be one of unconditional love…

A temple where all people will be welcome, 
a city where all poverty will end, 
a promise of an unexpected future, 
a depth of love we cannot comprehend.

For love is all we ever need to offer, 
no vast cathedral, pinnacles of light; 
but shining love illumines every morning 
while scattering the shards of dying night.

New every morning is this love's creation;
new every day, our hope will be reborn, 
until Your people stumble from the darkness 
and recognise that this is love's new dawn.

And seeing how such love infects our being, 
transforming fear, eradicating hate, 
we praise You for your loving understanding, 
and pray our loving may not come too late.

A Prayer: May we see good in everyone, meet Christ in all and offer love without question to every person so that when we sing ‘All are welcome’ it will genuinely reflect what we live in our lives. Amen.


Poem/Hymn Andrew Pratt © 2016 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England, copyright@stainer.co.uk 
Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd.


Good Friday to Easter

(commissioned for the Mid-Cheshire Circuit of the Methodist Church in the UK, for March 31st 2021 - Humanity into eternity or Death into Life - this is a personal reflection of the author)

Read by Andrew Pratt - click here

This week leads us up to the excitement of Easter Sunday, but to get there we need to get through Good Friday. Far from the hymn language of ‘glorious scars’ and a ‘wondrous cross’ this day is almost impossible for me. You see, I do not believe in a vindictive God who sacrifices his Son. I do trust, through faith, in the incarnation – God being human. The language we use to explain this enigma is taut, strained – a baby in a manger, ‘the Word made flesh’. But if this is our starting point then it is God who hung on a cross on that first ‘good Friday’. I cannot cope with some vast plan of salvation that requires the sacrifice of a child, even an adult child. What I can understand is a God of love, from whom we can never be separated (Romans 8, 38).

So where does that leave us? For me Jesus embodies God’s love completely. 

Such love has to be totally selfless and this is what I see in Jesus. It is the sort of love that challenges all hypocrisy, injustice and indignity to which we are exposed, and which we still experience. But there is a problem here. The moment we start to love those whom others do not, or cannot, love we become a threat to them. We either have to acknowledge that love and ally ourselves with it, or ignore it, oppose it. We are inherently selfish. Humanly we seek our own preservation. That is a biological imperative. So when Jesus challenged the powers, those around him by challenging their economy, their culture it was threatening. You remember the story of Jesus turning over the tables of the money-changers? But they were only going about their normal business. Or his emphasis on the importance of the widow’s tiny gift; surely the gifts of the rich were more important? Or again, when he paused to heal a woman, whom religion said was unclean, who had touched him in the crowd. And he had been called to heal the daughter of a leader of the synagogue! His priorities seemed all wrong. In all these ways it felt as if he was a threat to the culture and religion, the very economy of the people. He was a threat to their way of life. How they behaved was no different from how we, in similar situations, behave today. They and we behave, literally, naturally. 

And Jesus response was the only possible response of complete and utter, unconditional, all-inclusive love: that is forgiveness – ‘forgive them for they literally don’t know what they’re doing’! And we, for all our protestations, are so often no different.

And the cross becomes wondrous, not as some great theological bargain, or the culmination of a cosmic plan of sacrifice, but in the revelation of the nature of total love that we are called to follow. And the human response to this call to love, because of all the sacrifice it requires us to make, is at best half-hearted, at worst vicious, for here, in our neighbour ‘spurned, derided God is dying…

Tortured, beaten, scarred and tainted,            
not a picture deftly painted,
more a tattered, battered being,
torn, disfigured, stark, unseeing.

Muscles twisted, strained, contorted,
body dangling, bruised, distorted.
Life blood drying, sun-baked, stinging,
hatred, bitter hatred, flinging.

Crowds insensate, tempers vented,
full of anger, discontented.
Curses scattered, insults flying,
spurned, derided, God is dying.



And the world is shrouded in darkness, inevitably for in darkness we cannot see. If God is dead this really is the end. And this is why theologians, then and now, you and I, seek to explain away this horror. Yet Jurgen Moltmann, some years ago in a book which still deserves to be read, The Crucified God, sees the cross as the test of all that deserves to be called Christian, rather than the resurrection. Here we see God’s utter love and willingness to be vulnerable, even unto death in order to be one with us, in order not to deny love even for those who killed him. And the scandal and uniqueness is that gods are not meant to die! Wondrous love! Wondrous God, indeed! Love divine, all loves excelling!

*********************

So where does that leave us on that wonderful dawn of Easter Sunday, when round the world people will greet the sunrise with hallelujahs? Firstly, that death is not the end! NOT THE END OF LOVE! An empty tomb was not, in the first instance, assuring. Read what Mark says: ‘Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid’ (Mark 16, 8). In another gospel Jesus, mistaken for a gardener speaks:
He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.” (John 20: 15-16)

Jesus continues …’Do not hold on to me...’ (John 20: 17). The language is that of leaving and, for the moment we put aside the stories of Jesus appearing to other disciples, women and men, the ongoing message is one of ‘what next’? And the answer of the gospels and Acts is not the recollection of a dead God but the continuing active living out in humanity of the sort of life that Jesus showed was possible for every human being, that risky life of utter love of neighbour of every race or creed, of those like us and unlike us so that as Brian Wren wrote, ‘there’s a Spirit in the air…when a hungry child is fed’. And yet in this past year it has taken those outside of government and the church to prompt those of power to remember that simple message. Resurrection was not a one off theological ‘thing’ but comes about every time someone Christian, or other, offers a simple gift of love. For me this reality came about after an operation when, in its aftermath, a nurse, whose name I do not know, put her hand on my shoulder saying, ‘it will pass’…and the sun streamed in the window:

Each hour marks a mighty resurrection, 
a time of overcoming fate and fear, 
the dawning of a common understanding 
in which the grace of God is drawing near.
	
Each morning brings a sense of new creation.
New life, new love, encompasses the earth.
New time, new light illuminates the distance,
as though the world is coming, fresh, to birth. 
	
Each evening brings a stunning revelation, 
as stars and planets hove into our view, 
beyond imagination and reflection, 
these scattered bangles flung against the blue.
	
Each season brings a sense of co-existence, 
relatedness of heartbeat, rhythm, rhyme;
and every year the cycle goes on spinning, 
affirming faith and love through endless time.
Reflection, text and audio: Andrew Pratt; Poems: Andrew E Pratt © Stainer & Bell Ltd; Paintings: © Andrew Pratt from Words, Images and Imagination.

An extraordinary new hymn for the Passion/Easter season by Graham Adams – The people wanted soldiers

This hymn, by Graham Adams, arose from an ‘Empire’ module at Luther King House in Manchester last week. Graham says, “feel free to use as you wish!’ It connects with the Passion/Easter season. It was particularly stimulated by a discussion around whether ‘the alternative realm’ (God’s basileia/kingdom/empire) is ‘a quaint dream’ or something more ‘threatening’ – and the destabilising language of poetry spoke to this”.

The people wanted soldiers
so hope might come as curse,
to smash the occupation – 
but change turned up as Verse:
the poetry of yeasting,
the parabolic sword,
no match for Pax Romana* 
and yet this Lamb still roared.
 
Although it claims possession
of mind and heart and soul,
the Empire’s grip has limits – 
it can’t control the whole:
the surplus lives as Poem
for those with ears to hear,
resisting final closure,
declaring what is near:
 
This dream of re-creation,
this threat of life set free,
disturbing tame religion,
confounding how we see:
it won’t succumb to cliché
where purities abound,
but glimpsed in seeds’ potential,
it ruptures solid ground.
 
Where empires grow by violence,
where systems blame the last
and close down other futures
by editing the past,
the Poem can’t be silenced,
though quietly it dies,
and dances through the fissures
to teach us how to rise!
 
Graham Adams (2021) … prompted by the conversations during the Empire module   
Potential tunes: THORNBURY, CRUGER…
*Pax Romana is ‘the peace of Rome’ secured through military violence; if it’s easier to replace this with ‘crucifixion’, the meaning still works.

Rebuilding starts with weeping – Amanda Udis – Kessler sung by Reba Sigler

Amanda Udis-Kessler (Colorado Springs) words, on the prompting of John Churcher (United Kingdom), have now been recorded by Canadian, Reba Sigler, who is also an opera singer. The wonders of internet communication! The recording can be found here - Reba Sigler sings Amanda Udis-Kessler's Rebuilding starts with weeping.

US hymnwriter and sacred music composer Amanda Udis-Kessler wrote the text just after the 2020 US Presidential Election and has re-shared it following the violence at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. I have asked and been granted permission to reproduce it here. It is pertinent in the US context but also in the UK and Europe through pandemic and Brexit. Do visit her site - link below.
Rebuilding starts with weeping, with tears that fall like rain,  
With full and honest grieving for years of loss and pain,  
For suffering and sorrow that never had to be.  
Rebuilding starts with weeping for all who are not free.  
  
Rebuilding starts with praying, with hopes allowed a voice,   
With visions for our country, with reason to rejoice.  
We offer up our spirits, our hearts and minds and hands.  
Rebuilding starts with praying for strength to heal our land.  
  
Rebuilding starts with loving, with care for every soul,   
With yearning in compassion that all may yet be whole,  
That enemy and neighbor may know a better day. 
Rebuilding starts with loving, for love will show the way 


It is most often sung to the Bach Passion Chorale.

Amanda’s many other inclusive hymns, worship songs, and rounds are freely available for listening and download at https://queersacredmusic.com