Reflection From Rev Chris Humble Ruth Chapter 1

RUTH Chapter 1 (begin by reading Chapter 1)

The first chapter of Ruth is a story of famine and migration, one of journeying, death loss and inter-marriage. There are powerful examples of people searching for a sense of belonging, experiences of embracing new cultures as well as feelings of bitterness and emptiness. The family unit of the widow Naomi and her two widowed daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth is quite an unusual family unit. Your own experience may reveal that the relationship between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law can often be tense and strained. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs spoke on “Thought for the Day” recently about the story of Ruth and said it was essentially about kindness. It is a demonstration of the Hebrew word “hesed” which we tend to translate as loving kindness in English which is manifested in deeds rather than romantic or sentimental displays.

Ruth travels with Naomi back to Bethlehem and finds kindness. So, in order to get inside the issues of the story of Ruth, I wonder if you have much experience of moving to a new place. Have you ever moved to a new place? How did it feel to move from the familiar to an unfamiliar place? I have often moved during my life and being a Methodist minister has meant I have lived in five different circuits in the last 29 years. But this is nothing compared with some people.! My grandmother (albeit in in a very different time in the 1920’s) moved about nine times in her long life and this included moving three times in three years to different farms as her husband, my grandfather, took tenancies on ever slightly larger farms. It wasn’t just the two of them moving, it was with an increasing large family of children also. They did eventually settle at a farm of 119 acres for about twenty years before my grandad retired from farming at the age of 76. Most of the moving was within two neighbouring parishes of Egton and Glaisdale in the North York Moors, so there were not cultural challenges as far as I know!

Sometimes moves for people involve different countries and cultures. My aunt, who married a Warrant Officer in the RAF in 1940, a few years later sailed by boat to Singapore with two young children which took weeks to get there. She had a house-maid in Singapore. A couple of years later she moved back to the UK with three children and on to numerous RAF Stations until her husband came out of the RAF and they settled in York!

Traditionally the history of the world often involves women and children moving due to the man in their life changing jobs. I have a cousin who as a child moved five times in the first seven years of her life, as my uncle moved from farm to farm finding sometimes annual work. The story of this area involves many migrations of people from Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall and other parts of the UK to work in the coal mines of the Durham Coalfield. Often people were moving as industries declined, in their home areas, in search of better prospects. Contact with family in the old place was often only possible by letter in those days.

Mass emigration from Commonwealth countries to the UK in the 1950’s and 60’s is a story of often not finding a welcome. “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs” was a common sign displayed in boarding houses that did not wish to rent rooms to certain people. The Windrush generation was not welcomed with open arms here in this country. It was all too often a story of discrimination and racism. Kindness has not always been shown to everyone. The events of the last week or so in USA following the death of George Flyd in Minneapolis have sparked much outpouring and tension over racial discrimination in the US. It would seem that the old wounds of the 1960’s and segregation, which many naively belived were overcome, are still endemic within that society. Many of the deep issues of racial justice seem not yet to be resolved. Whilst we do not live in the US, issues of racial justice and the related issues of welcome and belonging may well be concerns that our own society has not fully addressed. And the Covid19 pandemic has revealed we are not all equally susceptible to the virus, but black and Asian citizens are at a higher risk of being infected by the virus.

So, let us think about that sense of belonging that is a powerful force. What makes you feel you belong somewhere? I don’t just mean a geographical place, I also mean to a group or organisation, perhaps the church.

Ruth decides to move with her mother-in-law Naomi back to Bethlehem, “where you go, I will go”. How good are we at welcoming those who come among us from other places? All too often we might give the impression that new people must become like us when they join in our group, and that they must leave behind their roots. A better way would be to see what they bring and allow those qualities to enrich the community they become part of.

In the life of the Church belonging is a very strong emotion. It is often more powerful than believing. People feel a strong sense that they belong to a particular church community and this often comes before they really grasp what it is that that particular denomination’s doctrines are. It may be to do with the relationships with other people, or the style of worship. Sometimes we might give the impression that new people are welcome but there might be a slightly hidden agenda that to fit in the new people must become just like us, think like us, share all our views and even prejudices. For some it might be the only church they have ever known, whilst others choose from a range of options. People sometimes talk of feeling they have come “home” even if they have never been there before! (sometimes our roots might be in a particular place even if we have never lived there ourselves but our forbears may have and we feel attached a place because of family members who we visited there in the past. In an ideal world, church should give us a sense of belonging as well as the community in which we live, whether we were born there or not. It does however take effort to get to that position.

Moving on and making changes is not always easy. Perhaps the Coronavirus has enabled many of us to engage in new hobbies. If you believe all you hear from people like, Kirstie Allsop and Grayson Perry, we are told that many people are crafting, sewing, creating and discovering or re-discovering talents they either never knew they had, or are bringing out what has laid dormant.

It may well be the case that some expressions of kindness have laid dormant within us. We may need to find them and demonstrate them more fully and effectively. We may well be inter-acting with our neighbours in a new and deeper way.

I wonder what issues from Ruth Chapter 1 you have discovered.

“Be kind” is a phrase I have heard often during recent weeks. Be kind when shopping so as not to take more than we need, mindful of those more vulnerable than ourselves. Being kind by being more aware of our neighbours perhaps and their needs, checking they have all they need. Being kind by being more aware of those in our communities who are in need. These are some examples of that outworking of the Hebrew concept of Hesed, loving kindness. We are going to sing a hymn about kindness in terms of Jesus hands and our hands, that some of you will remember from times past

Jesus hands were kind hands.

And another hymn about thanking God for people friends and others who help us, challenge us, shape us and transform us as we journey through life

Thanks for friends….

Reflection on Pentecost from Rev Bruce

“All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’” Acts 2:12 

 
What did it mean? 
 
Well I’m no Biblical scholar, but the moment I saw those tongues like of fire resting on James, and John, and Mary, I couldn’t help but think of Moses. Of the time when he encountered God in a bush which was on fire, but didn’t burn up. Fire that indicated this was holy ground, that he stood in the presence of God. And of the pillar of fire that led him and the people through the wilderness. That this was the sign that God was with them. 
 
And here it was again. Something that looked like fire but didn’t burn us up. What could it mean other than that God was with us? That though Jesus had ascended to heaven, he had not gone forever. God had not forgotten us. God was with us, each one of us, for as I looked around the room these tongues like fire were not just on one or two, but on each one of us. God was here with us. 
 
And as amazing as that was, it meant so much more than just that. It meant that God was faithful. Jesus had said that he would not abandon us or leave us, and here he was with us, just as he had said he would be. He had said that he would give us another friend, another advocate, to lead us into all truth, and here was the fire of God, just as with Moses. The baptising with the fire of the Spirit that John had spoken of at Jesus’ baptism. The cleansing, purifying fire that the prophets had foreseen. The outpouring of God’s Spirit that had been promised for so long, to turn hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, beating and alive, for there was too a sound like the rushing of wind. The very breath of God breathing new life into us. 
 
Breathing new life into me. Here was proof beyond all doubt that though I was faithless, God was faithful. That my denial was not to be a millstone around my neck, but I would be Peter, the rock, on whom Christ would build his Church. For I knew not where those words I spoke came from. I’m a simple, honest, hard-working Galilean, even if others found it hard to believe such a thing existed. I think that’s as much why the crowd were all amazed and perplexed. Not just that we were all 
suddenly speaking these different languages, so that everyone from all over the known world could understand, but that we were Galileans, uneducated folk from a dusty backwater, speaking their language!  
 
What did it mean? That God was keeping his promises. That now was the time when God was inviting all – young, old, male, female, from every land and tribe, in every time and place – to be part of God’s kingdom.  To receive the gift of new life, knowing that God is with us, working in us, and through us. And what better way to begin to demonstrate this, to show the incredible power of God at work within us, then to take a confused, ragtag bunch of ordinary women and men and use them to speak clearly to people from far and wide. To take me, who only a few weeks ago could not even admit to knowing Jesus, and was now preaching in front of a crowd. 
 
What does it mean?  More than anything, it must mean that this is for everyone. All of us felt the wind, all of us had flames of fire resting on us. We all spoke in different languages, because everyone needed to hear. This is for you, wherever you’re reading this today. However near or far, from me, or more importantly from God you are, this is for you. If God can pour out his love, his forgiveness, his power, his life, on me, then he can pour out that same Spirit on you. If he can be faithful to me, in spite of everything, then he will be faithful to you, whatever you have been.  
 
What does it mean?  It’s an invitation. Turn to him, trust him, open yourself to the gift of the Spirit he offers, and experience his presence, his power, his life, in you. 

Reflection from Rev Bruce

“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they might be one, as we are one.”  John 17:11 

 
John’s narrative of the last night that Jesus spent with his disciples pictures them as confused, unable to grasp the significance of what is happening, uncertain of the future. Appropriately once Jesus has finished speaking to them, he looks to heaven and prays for them (v1). I wonder if this is also Jesus’ prayer for us at this time? 
 
I know that many would echo Jesus’ final petition; that his followers may be one (v11). We long for the time when we can gather together again as one; singing with one voice, breaking and sharing one bread, together in one place. But whilst I share that longing, I’m also left wondering what Jesus had in mind as he prays that they would be one. It can’t simply have been about being together – Thursday was Ascension Day, when we remember and celebrate Jesus’ ascension to heaven, when we may of read Jesus’ final words to his disciples about receiving the power of the Holy Spirit and being witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8) – clearly Jesus didn’t think the disciples were always going to be together in one place! 
 
Jesus’ prayer is that they be one as Jesus and the Father are one (v11). This is about relationship. Though in some ways very separated (see Philippians 2:5-8), Jesus and the Father remain intimately related. They share a unity of purpose (v 4, 7 & 8). If this is what Jesus is praying for his disciples, then surely it is a prayer for now. Even whilst we are alone, we can know that the Christian community is with us, and many of you have told me of the encouragement you have experienced by knowing that others are praying with you (e.g. at the same time on a Sunday) and for you. Although it might not feel the same as being gathered together in one place, we remain intimately related; we continue to be one. 
 
If it’s a prayer for now, is it also a prayer for moving forwards? In our reflections, Chris and I have begun to share our sense that the Church, and the churches in the Circuit, are unlikely to be the same as we return to gathering together as lockdown eases. Does Jesus’ prayer help us to begin to discern where God is leading the Church? What might the prayer to be one mean for us? If it’s about being intimately related and sharing unity of purpose, is that an encouragement to work, and remain in fellowship, with those with whom we may disagree? Might it be a prayer for greater ecumenical collaboration? For example when our churches are able to open, either for private prayer or worship, should we join with other denominations rather than have many buildings open in one place? Is it about Christian presence and discipleship rather than particular buildings, fellowships or ways of doing things? 
 
As I begin to reflect in this way on Jesus’ prayer, I also begin to wonder about the phrase that comes before the petition to be one; “protect them in your name”. We’ve heard the word protect, or derivatives or it, much over the last few weeks. The problem of supply and distribution of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), and the shameful lack of planning in this regard, has highlighted one way of understanding ‘protect’. PPE helps to protect our doctors, nurses, careworkers and many more, from catching Covid-19. It seeks to prevent harm. To keep people safe. And of course this is entirely right and proper, and we owe much to those who have been willing to risk or give their lives by working without such protection.  
 
 In complying with lockdown and acting responsibly with the guidelines we have also been encouraged to “protect the NHS”. Here the emphasis has not been on avoiding harm but ensuring that our hospitals are not overwhelmed, that the health service would be able to continue to function, to still be able to provide care to those who need it. Given that Jesus has already suggested harm will come to those who follow him (John 15:20), it seems to me that Jesus’ prayer to protect his disciples is better understood in this second sense. That whatever happens, the community of followers will continue, so that God will be glorified through them (v10). 
 
Many of us know, and have experienced this sense of God’s protection in our own lives. We know that we have not avoided harm. We have experienced illness, disappointment, tragedy. But we have also experienced God’s sustaining presence. To understand Jesus’ prayer for protection in this way means that as churches we should not expect to avoid harm. This pandemic will raise difficult questions about the future of our buildings and fellowships that will need to be faced. If Jesus’ prayer is that the dispersed community of believers is sustained, can we rise to the challenge that this is not about our particular style or place of worship continuing?  
 
Perhaps it will be that as we focus on other aspects of Jesus’ prayer – knowing God (v3) and sharing in Jesus’ purpose by making God’s name known to those we have been given (v6) – that we will discover new ways and places that we continue to be church, and to be one. 

Reflection From Rev Chris Humble John 14 15 - 21

John 14. 15-21

v20 “I am in the Father, you in me and I in you”

Do you remember learning about Venn diagrams at school? I vaguely do. Using my compass and a pencil drawing those concentric circles interlocking with each other. Jesus’ words here sound a little like a Venn diagram, I think. He and the Father are intimately connected he says, as are we disciples and Jesus himself. And St Paul’s words at Athens recorded in Acts 17. 28 (another lectionary reading for today) remind us that “in God we live and love and have our being”. You cannot easily separate the three circles, for we and Jesus our Lord are all held together in the over-arching love of God. This is a representation of inter-connectedness. Perhaps the Coronavirus epidemic has reminded us that we are all in this together.

Methodists should need no reminding that we are all part of a connexion (the word spelled with an x as it was in seventeenth century English and it was used to describe people and preachers who were connected to John Wesley, so we sometimes speak of Methodist ministers as one of John Wesley’s preachers). The origins of the word connexion are about sharing a common purpose, being joined together (as many of Charles Wesley’s hymns emphasize eg “All praise to our redeeming Lord who joins us by his grace” HAP 753/StF 608).  Just as we have been reminded that we are all in this lockdown together in regard to the Coronavirus, so we might need to be remember that we are in this business of living the Christian life together with other disciples of Christ. We are not solitary individuals even if we have been socially isolating!

There is something in the prevailing culture here in the West Durham Circuit which speaks frequently of “chapels”. I know that some (not all) of our buildings have that word carved in stone over the lintel from a date in the nineteenth century. As a Darlington District boy I am familiar from my childhood with the word “chapel”, but something about it troubles me. The over-use of the word “chapel” in our vocabulary could be seen as painting an unhelpful picture. A “chapel” might be construed as less than a “church”, a less significant place of worship. It can often be used to distinguish and divide, so for generations people know whether they are “Church” or “Chapel”.  But chapels are sometimes found as private buildings as in a large country house or a Bishop’s Palace or  in a school or college.

Some of our assumptions however do not bear the weight of the story. In the early days of the Methodist movement,  the Methodists who gathered in Methodist preaching houses for hearing a sermon with two hymns only, were still expected to attend the Parish Church. Indeed furthermore,  John Wesley forbade Methodist meetings at a time which clashed with the Parish Church Service time. For the first Methodists attendance at preaching services was to supplement their faithfulness, in theory at least, as loyal Anglicans, and regular attenders at the Parish Church. They were not seen as separate but integrally connected. So, the first registrations for Methodist preaching houses by magistrates was a mixed picture from county to county as different magistrates ruled variously whether the Methodists were dissenters or part of the CofE, because it appeared to some that the Methodist leaders were so evidently  two Anglican clergymen, John and Charles Wesley!  The only way to register the buildings they used, if registration was deemed necessary, was through the Dissenting Toleration Act of 1689. Charles Wesley wrote on the back of the first registration “I protest” because he refused to see himself as a “Dissenter”!  He regarded himself as a loyal Anglican to his dying day, and sent for his parish priest on his deathbed. Of course, there is a lot of water that has flowed down the river since those days. The use of the words “church” and “chapel” to describe our buildings has been varied according to what period of history we consider and which branches of the Methodist family we are referring to.

Since the Methodist Church Act of 1976 we have been using more regularly that very word “church” to describe our buildings.  I do remember the significance of that Act in our family because my father came home from the last ever Trustees’ Meeting under the old system and declared it was “the end of an era” as a new system and structure was brought into being by an Act of Parliament. Out went the terms Society Stewards, Chapel Stewards (who looked after the property), Poor Stewards who looked after the arrangements for the Lord’s Supper and collection for the Poor Fund, out went the Trustees’ Meeting (who held the custodian trusteeship) and the Society Meeting in favour of new terms- Church Stewards (note the title), Property Stewards and Communion Stewards, and the Church Council (again note the word) as managing (not custodian) trustees. Out went the Quarterly Meeting and in came the Circuit Meeting.

Let’s not forget the Venn diagram! Over the years I have encountered many people who seemed to care passionately about their “chapel” but seemed less interested in what happens in other places of worship, be it other Methodist “chapels” or churches of other denominations. And more than once or twice I have been left wondering whether they ever really believed in “the Church”, by which I mean that which we profess in the words of the Creed, “the holy catholic Church”. People, I often find, might betray their rather small-mindedness (and weak ecclesiology) by spelling the word Church always with a small c! Of course, I recognise that other disciples of Christ can be frustrating, sometimes they seem to think differently to me, but they are probably thinking the same the other way! Our baptism into Christ’s flock and into that “rag bag of saints and fatheads” as one Bishop once famously put it, reminds us that we are a mixed bag of folk, but we are all supposed to be trying to follow Christ. We may well see things differently but there is something that binds us together that is profound. We have to learn to get along with each other. We need to work at realising and manifesting our inter-connection as churches and as individual Christians with other Christians. In a circuit we are connected together whether we like it or not. We are diverse (probably not enough) but we should encourage each other and build each other up (another famous phrase of Charles Wesley).

John 14.18 speaks of the Holy Spirit as an Advocate. Now the Scottish legal system still has this title in common usage. It contains within it that sense that an advocate stands alongside you pleading your cause, making the case, defending you in a court of law. Jesus seems to be saying that this is part of the role of the Spirit, who will be with us , alongside us, on our side, for us, not aloof or distant. Indeed Jesus says the Spirit of Truth will be with you and in you ( v 17). The indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the believer is a powerful force. How do we experience this today, I wonder as we find ourselves awaiting the Feast of Pentecost.

Jesus also promises not to leave us orphaned. I have no experience of being an orphan but my mother died when I was 18 and my father when I was 37. I have to admit that it did feel quite strange at that relatively young age to become the senior member of the family. Jesus goes on to say “in a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me”. The ascension of our Lord was yet to happen but he does seem to indicate that we, who are his followers, will still “see” him. But how? We will see Christ in the signs of his presence at work in the world, in the life of the Church, in our communities and in our own lives and those around us. This surely reminds us that we are to keep our eyes open so we do not fail to spot the action of our Lord. “There’s a spirit in the air, telling Christians everywhere, praise the love that Christ revealed, living, working in our world” (326 HAP/ 398 StF).

As we prepare to celebrate the Ascension of our Lord (21 May), Aldersgate (24 May) and Pentecost (31 May) may we give some attention to the relationships we have, to our inter-dependence as we strive to discern, name and bear witness to the signs of the kingdom of Christ among us.  If it helps try drawing a Venn diagram of those people you most relate to.

And whatever Venn diagrams you come up with, may we always strive to love Christ and keep his commandments (v21); or if you prefer in the words of Charles Wesley “he bids us build each other up and gathered into one, to our high calling’s glorious hope, we hand in hand go on” (HAP 753/StF 608)

Grace, love and peace,

Christopher Humble

 

Reflection from Rev Bruce

I have a great deal of sympathy for Thomas. Almost certainly he, and the other disciples, are beginning to get a sense that something is happening. Something significant that will change things. Something that is unsettling them. Why else would Jesus begin this part of the conversation with “Do not let your hearts be troubled”? Already Jesus has spoken of someone betraying him, and of Peter denying him. Things are not turning out as they had expected. As Thomas is trying to get his head around this, Jesus begins to talk of preparing places for them in his Father’s house, of going and coming. Seemingly this is news for Thomas and he appears to no longer grasp where everything is headed, where Jesus is going. So he says to Jesus, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 

 
This question probably reflects how many of us in the Church, across the nation, and around the world, are feeling at this moment. This year is not turning out how most of us expected! We sense that we are in the midst of something significant, something that will change things, but are not sure what or how. There is much that remains unknown about Covid-19. We long to know more about what the next stages will look like, what the new normal will be, and what will be necessary to enable this to happen. We too want to know where we are headed, how we will get there, and when. But like Thomas, we find that we don’t know where we are going and we don’t know the way. 
 
In his reflection last week, Chris wrote “don’t assume we will go back to how things were, because I don’t think we will”. It’s important to recognise that this is implied by Thomas’ question. If he doesn’t know where Jesus is going, then he’s not expecting to return to something that is familiar. Whilst the destination may be unknown, and this fills him with uncertainty, he has at least grasped that whatever is happening is leading in a new direction. 
 
I suspect Jesus’ answer exasperated Thomas. Jesus gives none of the specific details that Thomas was looking for. There is no route map, no list of directions, no timescale. In some ways the whole exchange reminds me of times when we’ve set out to take the kids on a surprise trip somewhere, and they’re nagging us for details, unable to cope with the suspense. Philip’s question in verse 8 certainly suggests he didn’t think it was satisfactory answer!  
Maybe it’s the walker in me, but I find something hugely appealing in Jesus’ response to Thomas, that he is “the way”. It’s a phrase that for me is suggestive of movement. It conjures up images of paths (e.g. The Pennine Way), stretching from one place to another, enabling us to find a way through various terrain, even though we may not be able to see the final destination.  
It also reminds me that one of the earliest references we have to Jesus’ followers after Pentecost is as those who “belonged to the Way” (Acts 9:2). This, and the stories of the early Church in Acts, seems to me to encapsulate what Jesus is telling Thomas and the others in the passage from John. Jesus is inviting them to a way of living, a way of being, that is distinctive. It is a way that reveals God (truth), a way that is animated by the Spirit (life), a way that leads to the Father. It’s about living life as God desires, therefore it is the way.  
If we identify with Thomas’ sense that things are changing, and we’re not quite sure where we are headed, perhaps we too need to hear Jesus’ answer; to follow him, the way. To be encouraged that the life we are invited to in Jesus is not about remaining static, but one of movement, of journeying on, of heading to a different destination.  
As we contemplate what this might mean, both as individuals and as churches, I wonder if God has already been preparing us for this (even if, like Thomas and the rest of the disciples, we weren’t quite aware of this!)? In recent years there has been work on A Methodist Way of Life (attached) that has sought to remind us that what we are about is living our lives in a distinct way in response to God’s love, made known to us in Jesus. It is both old and new, drawing on the scriptures and the inspiration of the Spirit, and on the example of the early Church and the traditions inherited from Wesley (and others). Let me encourage you to reflect on A Methodist Way of Life that together we might discern the way in which God is leading us.  
Peace and all good, 
Bruce