Blessing Churchwardens and other bears

“No, dear, the cuddly, cross-eyed one
with the well-worn look and wobbly head
is the churchwarden”
Cartoon: Noel Ford reprinted from the The Church Times


A Bear Prayer

God of holiness and love, of imagination and play;
We give thanks for Teddy Bears
And the wonderful ways love enters our lives.
May we value all that brings life and hope,
And be bearers of the same.


For Lovers of Bears

If you go down in the woods today you’re in for a big surprise. You’ll find the bears are being blessed. On Sunday 28th May, 10.30, St James Anglican Church, Ramsden, Oxfordshire, once in the ancient Wychwood forest, is inviting people to bring out their bears.

This is a wonderful opportunity for children and adults of the village to celebrate their cuddly friends. The service is a way to celebrate the gift of imagination and affirm that part of us that delights in giving and receiving love.

The idea arose on Easter morning over breakfast when a group of us thought it would be fun.

Bears are an important part of many people’s childhood. They come to us furry and clean and after seemingly only a little time start to lose both. As they’re cuddled, carried, sucked, and cherished they lose their pristine appearance and gain love instead. Then, smothered in love, toast crumbs and honey, they become real.

I heard last week of a bear being given to an elderly woman nearing the end of her life who had always enjoyed pets in the house. In her final months she directed her love towards that bear, and received comfort in return. The bear became real.

‘How can you bless Teddy Bears?’ asked one reporter over the phone, ‘They’re not real.’

Words like ‘real’ are given substance by our experience rather than by rational scientific method. We decide what is real. I base my decision to bless on what brings forth life and love.

And every bear that ever was will gather there for certain because…..

Blessed are the Teddy Bears and all who cuddle them.

Dear Friends

Dear friends,

A week ago Lucky fell down the stairs and broke two bones in his hand – as well as some bruises elsewhere. Silly ol’ bear!

One effect of this not being able to type at the usual speed. Another effect is Lucky having to be careful – since he’s taking all the little bears to Europe in a fortnight.

Which reminds me: from June 6th to mid-July postings are going to be pretty much non-existent as the bear family go visiting museums, art galleries, etc.



Act 1, Scene 2, the biggest box for God

God is often shut up in containers of our making. We create a judging God, a merciful God, or an avenging God. We create a European God, a male God, or a kingly God. We make these containers in order to help us understand our world and God’s role in it. Yet these containers and the thoughts with which we construct them need to be changed and refreshed generation after generation in order that God doesn’t get boxed in.

In pre-democracy times, for example, to acknowledge God as king was to relativize the monarch’s power. The monarch was not absolute and therefore, in theory anyway, was answerable to God.

Similarly Athanasius’ insistence that the man Jesus was, as the Nicene Creed puts it, ‘Very God of very God’ effectively elevated a humble Palestinian carpenter to a position superior to the Emperor’s.

Yet ultimately if these containers aren’t understood as time-dependent metaphors, potentially helpful and harmful, but are expounded as eternal truths, then God is boxed. God is reduced, squeezed into, our understandings of yesteryear. God becomes our possession.

One of the containers we continually dump God into is ‘a being’. We make God into a being, a super-version of us. God ‘smiles’, ‘chuckles’, ‘loves’, etcetera. Many Christians call God ‘Father’, and some ‘Mother’. Some have replaced God with Jesus, and address their prayers to him. Indeed ‘him’ is consistently and uncritically applied to God.

On the one hand making God a being is a convenient and helpful way to talk about the nearness and empathy of God. On the other hand the inability of Christians to talk about God without using anthropomorphic language should alert us to how close we’ve come to making God a product of our projections. God has been dumped in one huge linguistic container and we’ve come close to sealing the lid.


God - Act 1, Scene 1

God. That little three-letter word has caused unbelievable acts of selfless courage and kindness, and unbelievable acts of violence and destruction. In its name both the heights and depths of love and depravity have been achieved.

If we permanently deleted the God word, expunged it to eradicate the worst, we would soon need to find a replacement. For the word is a pointer to something mysterious, powerful, and ultimately unnameable in and beyond human experience.

That is the first thing to note: God can’t be contained. When a religious system creates boundaries around God, invariably God jumps the fence side. When a fundamentalist preacher proclaims, ‘Come tonight and God will heal you’, that impish God who refuses to be in anyone’s pocket smiles and says, ‘Maybe, maybe not.’ When a Pope, Archbishop, Synod, or academic says that God is on our side blessing the way we play and condemning our opponents, then God chuckles and says, ‘I’m not on anyone’s team.’

God however is not an open slate upon which any group or individual can write their own meaning. Each culture, time, and tradition has its controls on the story of God. Each say, ‘God is mostly like this.’ When the faithful adherents however leave out the ‘mostly’, they begin that slide into certainty and the condemnation of those who think differently. They begin to think they have a monopoly on God.

The Second Commandment in the Judeao-Christian heritage admonishes believers not to make any graven image of God. The Commandment is saying that God can’t be contained by our art or by our words. God can only be pointed to. Theology, doctrine, et al are at best pointers. When we enshrine them as absolutes we commit idolatry.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth similarly needs to understood not as a reduction of God – a compressing of the infinite into the finite – but rather a manifestation of God’s nature and power. There is universe of difference between saying ‘God is Jesus’ and saying ‘Jesus is God’. The former is an idolatrous reduction. This is why the Church avoids such a statement. The latter, at its best, is a pointer to the radical love, compassion, and justice that shapes the Christian understanding of God.

Despite the wisdom of the past, the revelations, the deliberations, the texts, and the people, God remains to a significant extent outside of our containers and our knowledge. God is not humanity’s servant or puppet. This is why we must always remain both open and sceptical to the faith and insights of others, particularly to those who don’t believe like we do.


Words didn't get in the way

I wandered into Dorchester Abbey the other night to a service unlike any other. It was called Contemplative Fire [www.contemplativefire.org] and was a blend of instrumental music, meditation, prayer and communion.

I wasn’t given a Prayerbook, hymnal, or notice sheet when I arrived. Instead a blank piece of paper and pen. This, we were told, was for doodling and writing anything we wished.

The 60 or so chairs were arranged in a semi-circle in one of the transepts facing the piano. It was here the service began with music, an introduction, and prayer. Importantly there was another similar semi-circle in the entrance area at the rear of the nave. After some 15 minutes we were invited to get up and walk to this area for readings and reflection. Later we would return.

The importance was in the movement. Unlike your standard Anglican fare we were being invited to move around. We would quietly chat as we moved; commenting to those we came with about this or that. We could look at the beautiful building on the way, or stop and sit in the main pews facing the High Altar. Like with the pen and paper inviting freedom of thought, the movement invited freedom to whisper, ponder, and pause in an un-orchestrated fashion. It respected our individuality and different spiritualities. We weren’t being squeezed through a sausage machine.

Later we had communion. It was both simple and profound. An unrobed priest simply took a large loaf of bread and offered a prayer of thanks – linking the bread with life, with the earth, with us, and with God. He then broke it into chunks as another priest recited Paul’s words, ‘On the night Jesus died he gathered with his friends. And after supper he took bread…’ We then filed past in silence, taking a chunk, dipping it in the wine, and walking to some place in the vast abbey to sit quietly and think.

There was no mention of blood sacrifice, there was no invoking of the Holy Spirit, there was no lambs taking away sin, there wasn’t even a Lord’s Prayer. Rather there was silence, and soft instrumental music.

Words didn’t get in the way of worship.


Did Jesus commit suicide?

The four gospel accounts of Jesus death can give the reader the impression that Jesus committed suicide. Rather than his accusers and murderers being in control, it seems he was. Rather than the Romans nailing him to a cross it seems he ‘laid down his life for his friends’. How are we to understand this? Can the victim of a felony have any control over the crime?

Jesus did not commit suicide in the sense of saying to Pilate, ‘Here I am, people need redemption from sin and I’m going to do this cosmic thing… so kill me.’ Yet Jesus did give his life in the sense that he stayed true to his vocation.

When Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem he determined to travel to his culture’s centre of political and religious power to proclaim his message. Confrontational love could not stay hidden under a Galilean bushel, safe in the rural backwoods.

Jesus was not naïve. He knew in all probability that he would be killed. Yet he also knew that he must go and confront the destructive forces with his vision and theology of radical love. This was a decision that his followers found difficult to accept, both before and after his death. It seemed to be that he was just throwing his life away.

I think many of the great leaders of social change reach a point in their lives when it seems that injury or death is almost an inevitable outcome. I think of Mahatma Gandhi confronting the policies and practices of the British Raj. I think of Martin Luther King confronting the segregationist laws on the Southern United States. These people did not wish to die. Indeed they were lovers of life. Yet they were determined to pursue the vocation that they had both adopted and had been thrust upon them. Similarly Jesus remained true to his vocation despite the cost.

It is due to the cost of staying true that Christians honour Jesus on Good Friday. Despite the threat and actuality of physical torture, despite being misunderstood by both friends and foes, despite being betrayed by people he loved, and despite the despair of feeling abandoned by God, Jesus remained true to himself.


What Happened On Easter Morning

What exactly happened on the first Easter morning will probably never be known. The canonical gospels give us a series of life-changing episodes for various disciples – Mary in the garden, Thomas in the room, Peter out fishing... It is clear that these episodes are not consistent with each other and weren’t meant to be. It is clear that the Jesus they met on those occasions was not in a body like any other – it could pass through walls, or be initially unrecognisable. It is clear that Jesus was not resuscitated nor continued to live to a ripe old age. It is likely that these episodes did not all take place within a 40-day period but were spread out over many years and shaped by Early Church understandings. Was the resurrection phenomena experienced therefore a series of post-traumatic dreams, or imaginative theology consistent with the authors’ worldview, or a ‘real’ death-defying event?

There are a number of Christian responses to this question. The ‘how’ of the resurrection experiences do not overly concern me. While I remain sceptical of answers that defy the normal laws of nature and physics, I also recognize that human knowledge is still in its infancy. There are many things we do not know. I remain, in the best sense of these words, humbly agnostic.

We need to prize the virtue of humility in the encounter with the mystery and magnificence of God. Without switching off our brains we need to acknowledge that the paranormal is not necessarily explainable. We need to remain open to the unknown and unexpected, and being willing to suspend belief and disbelief. It is an attitude of engaging with a story, whether it really happened or not, in order to meet with the truth within it.

I do however believe in the resurrection if one means the spirit of radical love, writ large in Jesus, being discovered by his disciples to have escaped the tomb. I think that slowly and tentatively the disciples came to believe in themselves again and in doing so discovered that the spirit of Jesus was still with them. The feelings they had felt in his presence and the power of his radical love lived on. Indeed as they lived that Love called God they began to impact upon their world in way in which Jesus had only dreamed. I believe too that the resurrection of Jesus continues today as that spirit of Love called God transforms us and transforms our world, bringing forth justice, reconciliation, and hope.


Jesus didn't die for our sins

Jesus did not die for our sins. The murder of Jesus was not the result of the combined wrongdoings of humanity, past, present and future. It was not a cosmological killing. Jesus’ murder was the result of oppressive Roman practices in the colony of Palestine.

Similarly the resurrection of Jesus does not absolve the combined wrongdoings of humanity. The theory that our wrongdoings are deserving of death, and that Jesus suffered that death in place of us, requires a belief in an ancient judgemental universe where the blood of an innocent has atoning value.

One can however understand the hatred and violence directed at Jesus to be reflective of the opposition radical love encounters. Love grounded in justice seems to elicit loathing. Think of the opposition to and the deaths of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. A truly good person can be a victim of others’ hate.

Opposition to radical love can manifest itself as envy, malice, greed, bitterness, self-loathing, and/or violence. It is destructive upon individuals and communities. It divides people into winners and losers. It is fearful of change and those advocating it. It can destroy the beautiful and the good.

Jesus death then in this sense can be understood as the death of radical love and the triumph of hate. Violence thought it had won. It thought it had destroyed the love power of Jesus.

The resurrection said otherwise. The grave did not overcome the love of God. Rather the weakness of that radical love conquered the mighty powers of destruction and death as it took hold in the lives and communities of Jesus’ followers.

That justice-infused-love seeped out of the ground of Palestine and into the lives of his intrepid followers. Similarly it seeped out of them and into the countless men, women, and children over the centuries that have endeavoured to live the confrontational compassion of Jesus.

The whole of Jesus’ life therefore was in a sense ‘saving’. The whole of his life provides us with the inspiration to live self-giving love and the insight that this is what it means to live in God.