Preaching Resurrection

Resurrection, by Piero della Francesca, c. 1460

I’m currently reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700, in the course of which my attention was grabbed by his almost throwaway remark about preaching, in which he describes sermons as:

that peculiar, intense form of dramatic mass communication that early Christianity seems to have invented: a struggle between the speaker, his God, the text of the Bible and an audience of believers.

That ‘struggle’ is a good word… Preaching is not about a speaker learned in theology who pours his or her knowledge into the empty minds of sheep-like hearers who know so much less. However much some (chiefly Evangelical) preachers seem to think it is, or would like it to be. Those hearers will always have their own ideas about whether, and how much, they will accept the speaker’s words as true, helpful, credible or relevant. They may have been schooled not to voice their dissent, or indeed to offer any comment beyond the conventional “Lovely sermon, vicar”, but whether they will allow what they’ve heard to change their lives or not, is another matter. And then there are the other characters in the conversation: God, and the biblical text, both of whom may have something to say about it, whether the preacher will or not.

For 37 years, and to some extent still, from time to time, I have dared to venture into that struggle. I’m ashamed to say I have sometimes believed that I was the one who knew, delivering the very word of God to those who knew not. After all, it can’t have been for nothing that I had spent all those hours and years studying the Bible and theology – can it? But as the years passed I came to what I thought in the end was not only a more honest, but also a humbler and more effective attitude to what I was doing in the pulpit. No longer the purveyor of all truth, but someone who had been given the privilege of standing among believers (and sometimes unbelievers, too) with the Bible open, and saying to them as it were: “These are the words which many of our forebears have believed to be, or to convey, the Word of God. A message from God! Let us sit here together and see if we can make sense of it: discover if it is indeed such a message to us, and if so, what it is saying to us.” Of course, I may have been in the position to have learned more of the text and its background that some of the listeners; but many of them knew much more of life than I did. My sermons were rarely in the form of a dialogue or discussion; but I hope they came to be speech in which I imagined and offered not only what I (the expert?) had to say, but also what any of the hearers might have had to say in response.

And one of the questions I found myself asking, and asked myself again as I listened to this morning’s preacher, was: Who are we preaching to, when we dare to stand in the pulpit and open our mouths about God? So often (like this morning) I think we preach with the assumption that out hearers are unbelievers whom we are trying to convince. Really? There may be some churches where people with no faith or understanding pitch up on a Sunday morning thinking, “I’ll just go in here and see what these Christians have to say for themselves.” But I’d be astonished if they were ever more than the tiniest minority. Perhaps – in the spirit of the shepherd who expended such effort in searching for the one sheep out of a hundred that was lost – we should preach to that person. But this morning I found myself thinking: Most of the people here believe, in some sense. What is the Gospel message, the good news, for those of us who believe?

I wasn’t sure that there was much that wasn’t thin fare indeed. It seemed to amount to: If you believe this, go out and tell everybody! Which seemed more guilt-news than good news. But I don’t mean this as (much) criticism of this morning’s preacher. I have been there myself, and done just the same. But now that I’m not so preoccupied with what I am trying to feed, and to whom, I find myself thinking more and more about what kind of spiritual nourishment I and others need to receive.

Often the words, and the preacher who delivers them, seem to be more of an obstacle to nourishment than a provider. We love our words so much! But sometimes I feel less nourished by the sermon, than by the words of the liturgy, or the words or melody of the hymn (not so often the ‘worship song’) we are singing, or a picture. It’s hard to depict the Resurrection… so I find myself wondering why one of my favourite representations of it is Piero della Francesca’s, dating from around 1460. It captures a moment before the women arrived at the tomb, when Christ rose triumphant while the guards were sleeping (Matthew 28.13). The risen Christ stands with his (curiously English-looking) victory banner in hand, his foot raised to lift himself out of the tomb (a very Italian, above-ground kind of burial place). But why does he look so spaced-out and joyless, as if he’s just awoken from a bad trip? His gaze is directed straight at us, but I wouldn’t call it warm, or attractive, or inviting. When, or if, he opens his mouth to speak – what will he say to us?

Will thinking and wondering about a question like that, do as much or more good, than all the words of those of us who preach to the unbelievers who aren’t even there?

Do I really need an everything bucket?

During this continuing long convalescence – if you don’t know what that’s all about, you haven’t been paying attention to my earlier posts – I’ve had to resort to all the kinds of amusements and pastimes that the long-term sick commonly resort to. It’s a tedious business, being ill for a long time and unable to engage in all the activities you’re used to. You get bored with inactivity, stir-crazy from being effectively housebound for long days and weeks; it’s alarming, even, to discover how quickly your muscles begin to waste away if you’re not using them. True, I’m now able to get out a bit more and walk half a mile or so; the muscles in my buttocks and thighs don’t complain as much as they did when I first tried getting out again. But there are still long hours of sitting at home without much to do.

So… there are books to read. Though the one attraction you imagine there will be about illness – “Now I’ll be able to read all those books I’ve not been able to get around to!” – doesn’t quite live up to hope and expectation, because most illness takes away the concentration that you need to read as much as you’d like. Still, I’ve read or re-read a number of good things. Currently I’m about halfway through Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700, which I never managed to finish before. It’s a fascinating story, well-told and entertaining, and one of those books that makes you wonder how anyone can possibly know and remember so much and present it in such an engaging way.

There are DVDs and TV and Netflix movies to watch. I finally viewed my way right to the end of The West Wing: it only took me 4 or 5 years because of a long intermission after I first retired. I even watched a few more episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, though on the whole I have much preferred more recent series like Sex Education and Fleabag. And a recent discovery, recommended by one of the reviewers in The Big Issue: Deutschland 83 on All4.

And then, of course, there are my computers and the Internet. One of the constant quests of my computing history has been to find the perfect note-taking, -keeping and -storing programme. Some years ago there was a lot of talk about this being an ‘everything bucket’: a place, program or app where you could simply dump and save everything. Conventional filing systems were places you could typically store stuff, and typically never find it again – or only with great difficulty. The ‘everything bucket’ would have perfect search and retrieval functions, so that you would never be unable to find what you wanted, ever again. As far as I can tell, there is no longer much talk about everything buckets. Perhaps it’s because Evernote has pretty much cornered the market? I did use Evernote for quite a time, but for me the problem was not lack of ability to search and retrieve, but not being able to remember what I’d thrown in there, anyway. Also, I became disenchanted when they changed their terms and wanted to charge a subscription for some of the functions I had been using for nothing.

Since then, of course, much more of everyone’s computing is in the Cloud, and it’s become much more usual to have to pay for the privilege of using some of these functions. I still much prefer the freebies, but… So I’ve been looking at some of the current crop of

Evernote Alternatives

These are the ones I thought looked best (with comments from the site). You’ll note that most of them emphasise the

Coda

Availability: Web-only

Pricing: Free (pricing unreleased)

Coda is a new resource combining document creation with interactive tools like gantt, kanban, tables and more. Coda is a combination of Dropbox Paper and Evernote. With a growing audience and template gallery, Coda is becoming a fluid place to store your notes.

Rating: 7.5/10

Best for: doc lovers, Google users, professionals

Dropbox Paper

Availability: iOS/Android/Web

Pricing: Free w/ Dropbox account

Dropbox Paper is one that many praise for its flexibility and connection with storage tool Dropbox. Paper allows users to create documents, meeting notes and assign and delegate tasks across a team. These collaborative documents are similar to Google Docs and Coda but combine more media and project management tools to the table.

Rating: 8/10

Best for: doc lovers, professionals

Notion

Availability: iOS/Android/Web/Mac/Windows

Pricing: Free, with 1k blocks. $4.99 per month (personal)

Notion is the rising star of the personal productivity space. Notion combines the interactivity of Coda and Dropbox Paper whilst allowing you to add elements anywhere, anytime. Notion doesn’t have a structure, but for those who want the add more than just text and images to their notes.

Rating: 8/10

Best for: project management, visual thinkers


But as for the question of whether or not anyone actually needs this…

Why you should have an ‘everything bucket’

Why you shouldn’t use an everything bucket

Are digital Everything Buckets a good filing system? – Unclutterer


So here I am, still trying one of these after the other, and still little the wiser. On the other hand, I really do need somewhere I can keep all the records of my symptoms, the meds I’m taking, all those Google searches for the terrible possible side-effects, my hospital appointments… and so on. It helps to pass the time.

All-of-us in Blunderland

In 2013 Anthony King and Ivor Crewe published their book The Blunders of Our Governments, a study of the cock-ups of British Governments in recent decades. Here’s their opening paragraph:

“Our subject in this book is the numerous blunders that have been committed by British governments of all parties in recent decades. We believe there have been far too many of them and that most, perhaps all, of them could have been avoided. In previous generations, foreign observers of British politics viewed the British political system with something like awe. Government in Britain was not only highly democratic: it was also astonishingly competent. It combined effectiveness with efficiency. British governments, unlike the governments of so many other countries, knew what they wanted to do and almost invariably succeeded in doing it. Textbooks in other countries were full of praise, and foreign political leaders often expressed regret that their own system of government could not be modelled on Britain’s. Sadly, the British system is no longer held up as a model, and we suspect one reason is that today’s British governments screw up so often.

When I first looked at this book, probably in 2014, I just thought it would be too depressing to read. Who could imagine that, five years later, there would be so much more evidence, and even more incontrovertible evidence, of the authors’ assertions? It has become a truism, repeatedly written about and discussed in the media, that our ‘political class’ have failed us, that our whole politivcal system is no longer fit for purpose, that Britain has become a laughing stock, over which former friends scratch their heads in bewilderment, wondering how we can so far have lost our sanity.

The blunders that have clustered around the whole Brexit debacle are so egregious, that they probably draw attention away from all the other blunders of the same period (failure to deal adequately with the 2008 Crash, austerity policies, out-sourcing to private companies, Universal Credit…) So, just a recap (I’ll probably forget some of these, so do prompt me if memory fails.)

  • David Cameron promising a referendum on EU membership in the first place
  • … without sufficiently defining the terms of whether the result would be advisory or mandatory, or what majority would be required to force so great a constitutional change
  • Parliament leaping to accept the narrow 52-48 result
  • Mrs May’s decision to hold a General Election to help her implement ‘the will of the people’
  • Her precipitate invoking of Article 50 before there was any kind of plan about how to implement it
  • Spectacular failure of a succession of (let’s face it, often ignorant and incompetent) negotiators to negotiate or reach any kind of deal until beyond the eleventh hour
  • Failure of MPs to agree to any proposed Brexit plan
  • All of this to appease the most extreme Eurosceptic members of the Tory party

And all the while, this process is accompanied and orchestrated by the right-wing press whipping up hatred and issuing threats against anyone who dissented from the new orthodoxy. And no one challenges the lies that continue to be told to smear opponents. In the interest of ‘balance’ and the reporting of the most sensational events, the most extreme individuals and groups have constantly been given more airtime than the voices of reason. (Ask yourself how many times Nigel Farage has appeared on the News or in panel discussions, compared with, say, Caroline Lucas?)

It’s not just the Governments that have blundered. Somehow the whole electorate, the whole country, has taken leave of its senses and continues to follow the path of most damage. At least Alice got out of Wonderland, and managed to return from Through the Looking Glass to the world of reality and sanity. I wonder if we will ever be so fortunate?

A long, long Lent

Lone and dreary, faint and weary?

Often sung during Lent (and at weddings?) is the well-loved traditional hymn, Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us. Written by James Edmeston (1791-1867), an architect, surveyor and prolific hymn writer – though this is the only hymn penned by him that appears in any of the hymnals I know – it takes a trinitarian form in which the three verses are addressed in turn to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as we pray for their presence and guidance through life.

The second verse, addressed to Jesus, appeals to his humanity which enables him to understand, because he has shared, all our experiences of weakness and temptation:

Saviour, breathe forgiveness o’er us
all our weakness thou dost know;
thou didst tread this earth before us,
thou didst feel its keenest woe;
lone and dreary, faint and weary,
through the desert thou didst go.

The last time I sang this in our parish church, I found that something strange had happened to the 5th line of this verse. Perhaps some bright spark, or possibly committee, felt it sounded a touch too, well, defeated, for the Superhero Saviour that we want to present Jesus as nowadays? So that the verse we sang went:

Saviour, breathe forgiveness o’er us
all our weakness thou dost know;
thou didst tread this earth before us,
thou didst feel its keenest woe;
tempted, taunted, yet undaunted,
through the desert thou didst go.

Three little adjectives, in place of Edmeston’s four; yet the third somehow undermines the effect of the first two, by making Jesus’ victory sound easier and more heroic. Am I the only person who thinks this might even reflect a kind of Docetic tendency in modern Christology? The heresy which teaches that Jesus only seemed to be human, over against orthodox teaching which has always been that it was only by being really, truly, fully human in every way, sharing every weakness of the human condition, that Jesus was able to be a Saviour at all?

Anyway. All of this (possibly anorakish?) hymnological rant is really only to serve as an introduction to the account of my long, long, not lone, but certainly dreary, faint and weary Lent. Most often the virtue of Lent is that you choose the disciplines of giving something up, or taking something up, in order to try and grow spiritually. Some new discipline or personal prayer or reading. Some self-denial of abstaining from a pleasure like alcohol or chocolate.

But then, sometimes, life whacks you with the kind of Lent you don’t choose for yourself, like the extended Lent I’ve been having. Weeks of pain from the osteomyelitis bone infection, so that I’ve been virtually housebound and unable to do many of the things I would have liked to do – even just going for a walk, walking to church, going out to the pub or for a meal. A whole pharmacy-full of antibiotics and pain medications and accompanying laxatives. And yes: no alcohol. What I’ve rarely been able to achieve for a whole Lent by choice, I’ve had to do because alcohol is strictly forbidden if you’re taking codeine. And I’m not even sure that this imposed Lent will end with the joyful Resurrection of Easter on April 21. The six-week course of antibiotics, which may in any case need to be extended, doesn’t end until Easter Week. I’ve been hoping the pain would have gone before the antibiotics finished, and I’d be able to come off the codeine and start making up for all the glasses of wine I’ve missed. But we’re over halfway there, and who knows?

And what about the spiritual aspect of all this? My spiritual director or soul-friend is going to be asking, “And what do you think God is saying in all of this? What have you been learning?” These are good questions… But the answer is mostly, I simply don’t know. Perhaps it’s a message about mortality. About the inescapable fact that we are not in control of our lives, our destinies, our health or our future. Perhaps it’s some kind of training in trust, patience, courage, simply accepting whatever bad stuff life throws at us, and getting on with it. Perhaps it’s one of those times you’re supposed to count your blessings, like I did when I was in hospital for a couple of nights and all the other guys in the room were much worse off than I am. Perhaps it’s a preparation for relief, joy, or gratitude when (or possibly, if) it’s all over and I’m better. Perhaps it’s all of these.

But in the mean time, it’s still a long, long Lent. That I’d often rather be doing without.