Friday, 3 July 2020

Sojourning in silence and systems

100 days into Covid-19 lockdown, and many people’s lives have changed. In lots of cases these are for the worse, but also things have become possible which were not previously seen as possible. Some have tried new patterns (as well as having new patterns forced upon them) – in my case I’ve also been returning to old patterns.

Here are two changed patterns.

I was a Quaker for fifteen years, a time of deep spiritual nurture, strong sense of shared values, and close community. I learnt hugely through my time as a Quaker, made many friends, served the Religious Society of Friends on several committees, and met and married my lovely wife Becky. I owe Friends (Quakers are the Religious Society of Friends) a great deal. Yet in time Becky and I chose to leave Friends, for both personal and theological reasons, and joined the United Reformed Church which is close cousin of the Church of Scotland where I grew up. We’ve been active in the URC for ten years now. 

But in lockdown I’ve returned to Quaker worship, which has entirely shifted online through Zoom. For the first few weeks of lockdown I attended online URC services in a variety of places (our own local church’s leadership refused to organise online worship) but found them slightly dissatisfying and passive. For a change, I attended my first Quaker meeting for worship in years, through a large gathering at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre. It was anonymous enough not to feel visible (though I recognised some names among the 150 people on Zoom), but I had a strong sense of rightness about the experience. Quakers sit together in silence, praying or meditating, until someone feels called to speak. There was a worshipfulness in the silence, strong ministry among those who spoke, and I had a sense of returning to something very familiar and loved – even though it was online and those 150 people were scattered through their own homes around the UK and beyond.

After a few weeks of attending worship at Woodbrooke, I thought it was time to make links with local Quakers. So I asked the clerk of Northampton meeting (where Becky and I were members for a few years) if I could have the link for the local Zoom meeting, and have been worshipping there every Sunday for a bit less than two months. Early days. And given that I didn’t leave Quakers entirely happily before, I’ve got quite a lot to process. But I feel a real rightness about being in the meeting for worship. 

Now these are extraordinary times for us all – times of transition, times between times, times when we’re all forced into new places. Quakers use the word sojourning for those Friends who are living away from their home meeting for a limited period of time, and who join in the active life of the meeting where they’re currently living. Sojourning Friends are full members of their current meeting, but only on a temporary basis. 

This is roughly how it feels for me to be attending Quaker worship at present. I honestly can’t say how things will feel after lockdown and face-to-face worship returns. I may return to the local URC, and to the lay preaching in other churches that has given me a lot of satisfaction over the past eight years. Or I may stay with Quaker worship, and consider rejoining the Religious Society of Friends (if they’ll have me). Of course this affects others in my family, and so it’s not just my decision alone. And of course there’s other context – our minister at my local URC has recently retired so the church is in vacancy, which can be a very fruitful or very challenging time for churches; and it’s still only nine months since my father died, which I’m still coming to terms with (and because he was deeply involved in churches, my feelings are inevitably affected by his death). 

A second story. This autumn I’ll be marking 20 years of employment at The Open University. I joined the Systems Department, and enthusiastically worked on systems courses for years, perhaps most fruitfully writing my book Systems Thinkers (written with Karen Shipp), which we published in 2009. I learnt hugely from people in the department, and learnt how to do good systems work. For various reasons – frustration with some of the department’s ways of working, a faculty and departmental restructuring, and keenness to work with others – I drifted away from the Systems Department. When our temporary department was split in two in 2014, I went with my colleagues in the ICT group and joined a new Computing & Communications department, and left the Systems people completely (who all joined the Engineering & Innovation department). I designed and led a new module with a strong Systems component (and drawing in some of the Systems group) but didn’t consider myself part of the residual Systems group – though I did edit a journal of cybernetics and given the work I was doing on information theory, was never far from the Systems world in research terms. 

Gradually wounds closed and I was persuaded to work on a second edition of Systems Thinkers, to support a rewrite of the successful Masters programme in Systemic Thinking in Practice which made use of the book. I had a really great time doing this last year, and realised in the process how much I missed working directly with the Systems group and on explicitly Systems courses. So I asked whether I could work on Masters programme, and agreed a block in a module on Managing Change which needed attention (with due permission from my head of department to allow for the complexities of OU inter-departmental politics and costings). 

It’s been a pleasing and strange experience to return to the Systems group, to return to the lineage of ideas and techniques which predated my arrival at the OU by more than 25 years, and to resume work with the people who I’ve known throughout my time at the OU. I’ve been a bit slow to get my head around approaches to systems in the material I’ve been given to revise, that are somewhat different to my own, but that’s no bad thing as a challenge. So my head is full of communities of practice and social learning, the theme of the block I’m writing/revising.

And I’ve made new connections. Prior to the lockdown I went to a workshop in Bristol on systemic leadership, run by the National Leadership Centre, along with two people from the Systems group. And since the lockdown began, I’ve spoken to my co-author on the Masters module weekly, Ray Ison, and attended a weekly online meeting with the Systems group. Through that weekly meeting, I agreed to co-facilitate an online workshop with a small charity to help them develop communities of practice, along with a Systems group colleague, Natalie Foster, who has joined the group in recent years and who I’ve only met in person a couple of times. Running that workshop was also a challenge but again really interesting.

So in many ways I’m also sojourning with the Systems group. I’m quite an active participant at present, in terms of teaching and research but also of group affiliation. It’s a bit of a different experience from my Quaker sojourning. The nature of departmental ties means that, because we’re in different departments, it would be a bit of a struggle to carry on like this for a long time – but not impossible. And I have other ties (teaching, research and administrative) that continue with people in Computing & Communications. 

But for now I’m happily sitting with part of my academic life back within the Systems group, just as I’m sitting with part of my spiritual life back within Quakers. Sojourning in each, who knows for how long? For the present, it’s a good place to be.

“For my journey was not solitary, but one undertaken with my friends as we moved towards each other and together travelled inwards.” – George Gorman, 1973 (Quaker Faith & Practice, 2.03)


Sunday, 21 July 2019

Mary and Martha – a dichotomy or an invitation?

Sermon preached at Duston United Reformed Church, 21 July 2019. Text: Luke 10:38-42.

This is a well-known passage that has sometimes been badly used to attack women, to present a never-good-enough situation where every option is wrong. So it’s a passage with danger in it. Yet to me it’s also a passage that’s got plenty of hope and encouragement. And first of all I want to say that I think it’s a mistake to treat this story as simply one about the domestic sphere. We’ll touch on that on and off, but ultimately it’s a story about discipleship and what it means to be a disciple, and it’s a story about hospitality, and what it means to offer hospitality. But ultimately I think it’s really important not to see it as putting two different ways of living in conflict with each other. The answer to Martha and Mary is one of both/and, rather than either/or.
Christ in the house of Martha and Mary, Jan Vermeer
By this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus has quite an entourage. In the previous chapter, which we read in the lectionary two weeks ago, he sent out seventy disciples to do his work, and then they returned to him. This story only mentions him going alone to Martha’s village, but he could well have had others with him. I think this explains some of Martha’s anxiety, that she was going to have to look after a large number of people.

It’s important to notice that this was Martha’s house that Jesus entered. Not Martha’s husband or brother or father’s house. She was the householder. If you know John’s account of the death of Lazarus, Martha and Mary are described there as his sisters, but here in Luke no such link is made, and this story about Martha and Mary is only found in Luke. These events were taking place in a deeply patriarchical society, but there were women who owned property, and it was often those women who provided great amounts of practical support to Jesus in his ministry. So she was the host both in terms of her work around the house and in terms of the invitation.

There's a crucial word in the Greek where Martha complains about Mary not helping her. It's often translated as service or serving, but the Greek word is diakonia, and it's the root of our English word deacon. That's a specific  ministry in many church traditions. In some of the congregational churches which became URC, the people we now call elders, who run the church both spiritually and practically, were called deacons. The church of England ordains its clergy as deacons before they become priests. And in the church where I grew up, we had both deacons to do practical leadership and elders to do spiritual leadership. But in all these traditions, the role of a deacon is a distinct form of ministry which involves practical service.

So when Martha is rushing around doing things, she's deaconing, she’s doing the work of a deacon, an act of ministry. We often think she’s simply doing domestic chores, preparing food or bringing guests drinks or whatever, and that may well have been part of it, but the text doesn’t actually say this. It’s equally possible she’s doing wider work in supporting these travelling preachers, Jesus and his disciples, of finding them accommodation or working out routes or warning of dangerous places along the way or seeking out money for them. Jesus told his followers not to carry a bag or sandals, and that only worked if there were people like Martha to welcome them and care for their needs.

So it’s little wonder that Martha was distracted by all that she has to do. The Greek word that is translated as distracted is really strong. It means she was close to breaking point, and is the root of our word spasm. Martha was not just some flighty woman having a bit of a moan, as she’s all too frequently been described. Martha was a strong woman carrying out an important ministry, and was driven practically to despair by the amount she had to do. Now maybe she’d taken on too much but maybe it was just the nature of the work. It continues today. I’ve been reading a book [Invisible Women] by the feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, and she observes if you look at both paid and unpaid work, including household and caring work as well as formal employment, then women today work longer hours than men in almost every part of the world, and it has significant effect on their physical and mental health.

One more thing to say about Martha’s work. As I’ve said earlier, hospitality really mattered in that society, a message that’s emphasised through the Old Testament, and she was the one that was showing hospitality to others. Indeed, the story of Martha and Mary immediately follows the parable of the Good Samaritan, that tale of a man who helped others, and the closing words from Jesus to that parable are “Go and do likewise”.

This is all really important, because there’s a common reading of the story which is to downplay all this practical work of Martha. The closing phrase that “Mary has chosen the better part” has often been used to suggest that women’s work matters less, and especially that women’s domestic work matters less. I don’t know how many people have read or seen The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Attwood’s dystopia about a fundamentalist totalitarian society that places women into strictly policed roles. The domestic servants in that book are called Marthas, after this story, and in the TV adaptation they’re constantly shown in these very drab olive green dresses, and always working and working. But it’s really unfair to our Martha here, as I’ve shown already, and it’s really unfair to those who do domestic work, and especially women. Because the meals need to be cooked, the disciples need to be fed, the laundry needs to be done.

I’ve spoken quite a lot in support of Martha, so let’s turn to Mary. She’s also a really interesting figure. Because she was acting in a deeply counter-cultural role here, was really challenging her patriarchal society by engaging so actively with Jesus, in a way that was really uncommon for women. This phrase about sitting at his feet, as illustrated by Vermeer, can perhaps be taken literally, but it’s not just about gazing up at him adoringly. To sit at the feet of a teacher was to listen to them actively, to be their direct student, to absorb not just their words and messages but also their lifestyle, their way of talking and thinking. It was learning through observation, very much like being an apprentice. And of course the name for that kind of student was a disciple. Mary was actively being a disciple of Jesus. And it’s clear she was really listening, really absorbed in Jesus’ teaching.

There’s an interesting observation in one of the commentaries [by Richard Swanson] I read this week. The Jewish tradition of studying Torah is that it’s always carried out in dialogue with others. You need a study buddy. It’s not a matter of reading it and finding the right interpretation by yourself. Everything is open to discussion, debate, and there are no final conclusions. Jewish texts such as the Talmud are full of alternative interpretations and debates between scholars. And we can think of Jesus and Mary in this light, discussing the meaning and implications of a particular text or set of ideas. But then Mary is carrying out a vital service to Jesus, in discussing and debating with him, in enabling him to share and develop his ideas. Mary is showing hospitality to Jesus, in a different way from Martha, but a way that is just as important.

Because I think it’s quite wrong to put Mary and Martha in opposition to each other. Neither is better than the other. Both are necessary ways of being. And both are open to all of us. Jesus is clearly in favour of people showing hospitality, and he’s in favour of all people being able to learn and engage with important subjects. We all need to do both of these. “Are you a Martha or a Mary?” goes the question, and it’s the wrong question. The only good answer is “both of these, at different times of life”. The theologian Richard Rohr talks about the way that at one time in our life, we’re active in the world, rushing around, driven by success; and at other times we’re slower, quieter, more contemplative. He links it to different stages of life, younger and older people, but it’s also possible for us to live in these different ways at any time of our live. In other words, sometimes we’re Martha and sometimes we’re Mary.

And so when Jesus says “Martha, Martha”, he’s not criticising her or condemning her lifestyle or way of acting in the world. He’s offering her an invitation, that she too could exhibit the kind of discipleship that Mary was living, in addition to her own form of discipleship and ministry.

And he offers us the same invitation, the same opportunity to live in a different way. Even if we spend our time rushing around madly distracted by our many tasks, we’re invited to sit at Jesus’ feet and absorb his message. And likewise, if our place is to contemplate and read and discuss and think, then that needs to be tempered by action and caring work for the needs of others. Because it’s not about being either Martha or Mary. It’s about being both. And in that way we’re enabled to live in the fullness that Jesus promised to his disciples, and also to enable others to live in that fullness. Amen.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

New commandment, new creation

Sermon preached at The Headlands United Reformed Church, 19 May 2019. Texts: John 13:31-35, Revelation 21:1-6.

Image: Trinity Toledo Episcopal Church
We’ve heard two passages this morning about things that are new. We have a new heaven and a new earth in the book of Revelation, and a new commandment in the gospel of John. For me, spring often feels like a time of new growth, of new life. And we are still in the season of Easter, and the readings are still on the theme of new life after death. In my view these two different things that are new are very closely linked. So we’ll talk first about the new heaven and new earth, and move on to the new commandment.

First thing to be said about the passage from Revelation, as ever with any reading of that strange book, is that nothing in it should be taken as prediction or at face value. It belongs to the category of apocalyptic literature and like all such work, it’s mostly a deep social commentary upon the world of its time, full of symbolism and strange imagery. It’s a book that’s often seen as rather threatening in mainstream churches, but I spent a month a couple of year ago reading my way through the book before the start of Advent and blogging about it, chapter by chapter, and I ended up with a strong respect for Revelation. 

So what’s this about? It’s not so much about the end-times as about the nature of the kingdom of God. It’s about bringing together heaven and earth into one, and building it on earth. Because although most translations talk about a new heaven and earth, there’s apparently a good case in the Greek for the word ‘new’ to be understood not so much as ‘brand new’ but as ‘renewed’, as recreated. Some special places in the world are sometimes described as thin places, a phrase I first heard to describe the island of Iona. In these places the gap between heaven and earth is said to be less than elsewhere. Well in this new Jerusalem, there is no gap at all between heaven and earth. God has come to live with his people here and now. And I do believe that the author of Revelation means this as a model for the present time, not just for the future, just as Jesus said ‘the kingdom of heaven is within you’.

If God is present among us in this new Jerusalem, then all the bad things of the world will be at an end. Because the other thing about Revelation is that it was written at a time of great persecution, and written to people who knew all about death and mourning and pain. This is why the words are of such comfort, and why they’re often read today at funerals and have been set to beautiful music. My favourite setting is by Karl Jenkins, in his mass for peace in times of war, The Armed Man. As an idea it’s also the basis of CS Lewis’ vision of the eternal future in his final book in the Narnia series, where after the end of the world of Narnia he talks of the ‘real Narnia, which has always been here and always will be here’. The new earth is the same as the current earth, only more real and better than the current earth.

But if it’s true that this is an image of the kingdom of God now rather than just in the future, if it fits with the words of the Lord’s Prayer that “your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven”, then how is this to happen? Well, I think for that we need to look to our other text for today. And as a link I want to share with you a hymn from the Iona Community, written by John Bell, which reads:
Behold, behold, I make all things new,
Beginning with you and starting today.
Behold, behold, I make all things new,
My promise is true, for I am Christ the way.
So let’s turn to the new commandment that Jesus gives to his disciples. It’s the same word for new in the Greek as the new heaven & new earth, so there’s a clear link there, along with the same sense of renewal. It’s a strange thing to call new in some ways, the idea of loving one another. If we just see that in terms of love within the group of believers, just as love for fellow Christians, then that’s not new at all. The idea of loving one’s neighbour is in the book of Deuteronomy, and it was described by Jesus as summing up the whole of the law, along with loving God. But when asked who he meant by neighbour, he offered the amazing parable of the Good Samaritan, full of images of outsiders and crossing of boundaries. And throughout his ministry he warns that simply loving those who love us is insufficient, and that we must love our enemies and forgive those who hurt us, even seventy-seven times. So already in the gospels we see Jesus presenting love for others as being something expansive and costly.

Yet in this passage we see a still more costly love being presented as a model. Context is always important in understanding scripture, and although the lectionary presents this as the gospel reading four Sundays after Easter, it occurs in the narrative at the Last Supper. Shortly before this passage, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, giving them his model of leadership and love through sacrifice – what is sometimes called servant leadership; and he explicitly says that the disciples should wash each other’s feet. Then we have Jesus’ prediction that one of the disciples will betray him, and he makes it clear through his actions that he’s talking about Judas Iscariot, who leaves the room. There’s a quality like a film script to all this, and the passage we heard begins with the words “when we had gone out”, meaning Judas on his way to betray Jesus. And immediately after the passage we heard, the camera turns to Peter, who is usual impetuous way says he’ll lay down his life for Jesus, and Jesus says that in fact he’ll deny even knowing Jesus before the next morning.

I say all this because it all goes to show what Jesus means when he says “that you love one another as I have loved you”. This is the love Jesus has shown to his disciples. It’s one of sacrifice, one of putting them first before himself, one of encouragement and care. It’s an self-denying love, not expecting something back and not holding anything back. Now that kind of love is hard. When others hate you, love them. When others call you names, love them. When others deny that you can be a Christian because you don’t conform to their narrow pattern of Christianity, love them. Jesus doesn’t say anything about liking these people, but he does say a lot about loving them. And the context matters because he’s saying it midway between betrayal by one disciple and being cut off by another disciple.

Indeed the context matters so much that we named the entire day after this saying. Because in Latin, ‘new commandment’ is ‘mandatum novum’, and from that word mandatum, we get our name Maundy Thursday for the day before Jesus died, the day that he washed feet, the day that he gave this commandment. The new commandment is the most important thing that happened on that day. In essence, it’s Jesus’ last instructions to his disciples.

Jesus also links this commandment to this rather complex saying about the son of Man (i.e. Jesus himself) being glorified, and God being glorified in him. Now that word glorified, and glory more generally, is not really one that we see used in modern English outside of a church context. It’s around in lots of church language, plenty of times in the Bible and in hymns and prayers, but hardly ever outside of the church. The word in Greek, doxa, also means thought or appearance, but came to be used as a Greek version of a Hebrew word kavod, which refers to the presence of God but also to a sense of honour or respect. So perhaps we might say that God has been given honour by Jesus’ actions, that by the way Jesus behaves and lives, God’s presence has been felt and greater honour has been given to God. Some of this will come in the manner of Jesus’ death, but the sense of glorification must been seen first of all through the life of Jesus, and through the way he has been interacting with others in the self-giving love we have already seen.

This self-giving love from Jesus, in both his life and his death, fit alongside a Jewish idea of commandment always being linked to covenant relationships. The Ten Commandments were given at Sinai after a covenant was reached between Moses and God. And these covenants required a guarantee, often to do with sacrifice and blood – and the twin forms of self-giving love from Jesus form precisely this kind of guarantee. So we see love and sacrifice linked in the backdrop and support for this new commandment.

Now that’s a whole lot of theology. It’s quite dense stuff. But if we want to be part of bringing about a new heaven and a new earth, we have to start by loving one another, in the self-giving way that Jesus demonstrated, the kind of love I described earlier in the lives of Jean Valjean and Rachel Held Evans. And I believe strongly that this kind of love is intended as the precursor of the new Jerusalem, the new heaven and the new earth. There’s no way that it can be confined to love between Christians, or within a particular church or denomination. It must stretch to love for the whole world. Yet love within churches and within the Christian family is surely the start. Jesus says that the world will see that we’re his disciples through our love for each other.

It’s therefore not just a tragedy but a direct disobedience of the one we call Lord and Messiah that the church has proved really really awful at loving each other over the centuries of Christianity. Heresy trials, schisms, excommunication of Christian by Christian, the inquisition, the crusades. The list goes on and on, century after century. It goes on today, to our shame. There are those who profess to follow Christ who refuse to call another their brother or sister because that person is gay, or because they believe something different about the nature of God, or because they have different politics. It’s a disgrace. If Jesus should have taught us anything, it’s to love those around us. The theologian Tom Wright puts it like this:
As we read verse 35 we are bound to cringe with shame at the way in which professing Christians have treated each other down the years. We have turned the gospel into a weapon of our own various cultures. We have hit each other over the head with it, burnt each other at the stake with it. We have defined the ‘one another’ so tightly that it means only ‘love the people who reinforce your own sense of who you are’.” (John for Everyone Part 2, p.56)
But let’s return to the positive. Jesus presents us with a mighty challenge, to love one another according to his self-giving example. But he promises such a rich outcome from this love, that who would not want to follow it? Jesus calls us to love as he has loved, and this new commandment will lead us to the model of the new heaven and the new earth, and love will come over all the earth, and God will come to make his home among mortals, and death and mourning will be no more. Amen.