Searching for the other – seeking God

A few years ago the then youngest member of our family was taken to Tate Modern. She reported back on the experience, ‘It was weird!’ So called modern art isn’t always easy ‘to get’. People tend to look at a canvas or a sculpture and then ask what is it? They are trying to work out what it represents. What does it picture or model? Often I think it is the question that is wrong. The piece of art simply ‘is’. It is itself and to ask what it represents isn’t helpful. It isn’t like anything, it is itself. That’s the point!

When people look at the plain canvases of colour that Mark Rothko painted they speak of experiencing something that we might well describe as nothing less than religious. Somehow these large works become a medium mediating something gracious. We might even judge them to be sacramental. I remember visiting such an exhibition and wondering how I might experience these paintings. I had an open mind. Adjacent to the Rothko exhibition was a display of surrealist art. I had been fascinated by surrealism for thirty or forty years. My real intention was to view the Rothkos and then move onto the things I really wanted to see. In the event I was held by these vast monochrome panels, taken into them, absorbed. The other exhibition was an anti-climax. It almost seemed fraudulent. There was nothing wrong with the choice of paintings or their execution but they felt ephemeral. If I was to use a scriptural parallel, it was as though the surrealists enabled me to ‘see through a glass darkly’. With Rothko it was face to face. It was like a window into ‘the other’.

As my own pilgrimage in faith progressed over the years I have been less, rather than more, sure of God. In case you misunderstand me let me explain. When I began to go to church of my own volition in my early twenties I was a bit unsure of faith and of God. People were quick to point me to who and what I should believe in, toward what God is like. Here was a clear picture of the triune God, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I learnt how, though this was not explicit in the Bible, it was a true representation of God. This, it was asserted, must be patently clear to any intelligent person.

A whole raft of theology followed on from this, built like a tower block on the firm foundation of scripture. The trouble with tall buildings is that they can be toppled. This happened to me first between Christmas and New Year one year when I was meant to be taking a Watchnight service covering for a minister who was taking a Christmas to new Year break. My faith, better my belief, was broken but then rebuilt, but the edifice was very different. I thought that was it. Over time there has been much building, demolition and re-building. Over years the background blue-print has been that scriptural one, backed up by reason and tradition. What was lacking was science, art, music and imagination. I’ll come back to that.

Theological training was once dominated by systems in which concepts and doctrines were organised. But you can only organise things you understand and understanding suggests power, control and knowledge. By definition a total understanding and knowledge of God is a contradiction in terms. The moment we begin to believe that we have full knowledge of God we are fooling ourselves. Scripture enables us to explore, alongside other things, the nature, actions and being of God and is complete within its own terms. But other faiths are just as certain of the truth of their scriptures. Gather all those scriptures together and we are presented with a mass of contradictions out of which we might draw some common threads.

That last word might just be the key to a way of opening faith to those who are sceptical about scripture and doubtful, or totally dismissive, of doctrine. Threads – imagine beginning to weave a piece of cloth. You have no control over the yarn you will use, no pattern to follow. You are going to weave for an infinite time. Already I feel overwhelmed by the prospect of the process. It is at once impossible, futile and incomprehensible. And might this just be a metaphor for how we understand God? From our perspective we pick up a single thread of a limited length. From that we try to imagine the whole. We cannot.

Or again, we are composing a symphony for a thousand, no ten thousand, perhaps an infinite number of instruments to last for a millennium. How will it harmonise? Where will the melody go?

These imaginary processes, if we immerse ourselves in them, might begin to get us closer to the essence of the divine. To borrow a phrase from Sidney Carter we are entering an exploration which will never be either fixed or final. Just when we reach the conclusion new possibilities open up and these are endless.

Perhaps the way into this exploration could be through science, imagination, music or art. Richard Feynman pointed out that science is always provisional. However important an academic, whatever her or his name, if their work does not stand up to scrutiny it could be wrong. How much more difficult is it to pin down God?

This is where for me art comes in. I have never been trained as an artist. I have no taught understanding of how paint and paper behave. Like life it has just been a matter of trial and error, experience and learning. My mother began to paint using painting by numbers, filling up spaces with predetermined colours to produce an expected picture. I tried but I soon got bored with this. I use water colours painting wet on wet. One colour flows into another. No lines are drawn. I have no idea, no expectation as to how a painting will turn out. Many are thrown away as rubbish. Some are recognisable as sea scenes. Plenty are sunsets. Occasionally they are random, but to my eyes unexpectedly beautiful. I can take no credit for this, but I enjoy the process and it takes me out of myself in a way that I can only describe as in some way mystical, nearer to God, perhaps sacramental.

The other medium in which I work is words. More often than not these are used in rhymed verse. At their best I hope these approximate to poetry. I began writing to understand systematic theology, to make sense of a language which, as a scientist, was foreign to me. I experimented. As I became more adept with the medium I used different rhythmical structures, varied poetic patterns. I had one advantage in this process. Being new to hymns I could write in contemporary language. I felt a freedom to use non-religious language. I wasn’t familiar with John Bell, Fred Kaan, Brian Wren, or Thomas Troeger, nor even Fred Pratt Green at that time. I began to plough my own furrow. I found my own voice and my own subject matter.

One consequence of this exploration has been the danger, or opportunity, of flirting with heresy, of pushing the boundaries of theology beyond the classic forms. I have found myself challenging and disturbing things I had been taught to regard as ‘gospel’. The motivation, when it has been conscious, has been to re-think theology when it has not matched what I have read in scripture, or experienced in life. I have not always set out to consciously explore different perspectives. This is nothing new. Walter Brueggemann has pointed out the way in which in the Old Testament imagination drove Psalmists and Prophets. It seems to me that Ezekiel 37 is one such example. The imaginative vision of a valley of bones being enfleshed and coming to life is vivid. That imagination challenged the accepted theology of a God lodging in a sacked Jerusalem. The ‘divine’, Ezekiel imagines, is in the dust and ashes of a broken people in a desert place. Not only this, but those bones might live, rise up, walk, dance and re-inhabit the home from which they have been exiled. The key here is a God who is omnipresent, not limited by time or space, quite a leap! It is this sort of stimulus that encouraged the likes of Marcus Borg to re-think theology with that label, anathema to many, of ‘progressive’.

There is some evidence that the whole of the Hebrew scriptures were pointed for singing  so that the poetry we read in pretty remote translation was once sung with vigour. Think of the way in which you can be lifted as you sing, how you are bonded to your neighbour and, if you are able, how you can improvise and add layers to a melody, a descant to your song. Take this a stage further. Dave Brubeck, the jazz pianist, composed music for his wife’s hymns. But for hymns there is that rigidity of structure, metre, verse. Think of a purer form of jazz that cannot be held in a recording because it is inherently spontaneous, of the moment, unrepeatable. I hear a musical metaphor of creation, a melodic mirror of the wet on wet watercolour.

Then coming away from clamour, the movement, the energy I am taken to a lakeside. There is a low morning mist draped across the water. I lean on the railing of a wooden bridge looking away over water. Beyond the trees coloured for fall are the Great Smoky Mountains beginning to show their form as the day lightens. And I know I can never in a photograph or a painting capture this moment. But I also know that I have been changed by being here. I have been re-orientated, glimpsed something of the divine. I will never be the same again. But this is not the end. And I walk on.

There is no final resting in the pilgrimage. The road leads me. There is more, infinitely more. And I cannot freeze this in time or hold it in a creed. At the next glimpse of the God-head my view will be different, my perspective changed, my creed challenged.

For now I must continue through science, art, words and music to touch the divine, to come close to God, to know God better, yet never completely. This is the dance which we are all called to join, the mystic choreography in which we circle and move, gliding, glancing through light and shade.

It is not God changing, but I must. For now I see through a glass darkly. Just now and again, the view clears. I must be attuned for the next time. I hope I’m ready, prayerfully ready. May love deepen with me. May I care more deeply for those I meet. And just perhaps I can prompt others to imagine, to probe, to explore, to listen, perhaps to see, and above all to love.

© Andrew Pratt 26/9/2017

Thoughts as we continue with COVID-19

22 The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. […] 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another. (Galatians 5: 22 – 23; 25 – 26; NRSV)

These past years have changed us. Yes, we long for a return to normal. But whatever normal we inhabit will be different, if only because we are different.

Life is inestimably more valuable now. We have come closer to death. Touched it perhaps – in family, friends or neighbours. Life has become fragmented. You in your small corner and I in mine.

I’m reminded of my mother picking up a remnant, a scrap bit of cloth, piecing it with another, sewing and making something good out of leftover material.

Biblically the remnant was that group of people who survived when times were rough, through famine or illness. Perhaps we are not unlike that remnant.

Our purpose now. To take broken lives, a broken world, and in our particular part of the world, at least, to begin the patchwork quilt of reparation, using what we have however little, who we are however frail, to work as stewards with God. Seeking the Kingdom is not something material. It is to do with living together as though every neighbour of every race, colour, creed, gender, orientation was as Jesus to us and among us.

The new hymn ‘Such a fragment, just a remnant’ reflects on this.

I have a friend who likes jigsaws. A thousand pieces make a picture. Just one missing and it is incomplete. Every person on this planet is as valuable. Each important. All of us have a place. That ought to affirm us. It also ought to open our eyes to affirm one another. All God’s children, ‘brother, sister, parent, child’ as the hymn ‘For the beauty of the earth’ has it.

Psalm 8 says, God has given humanity
 …dominion over the works of our hands;
    you have put all things under our feet,
all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

This earth, this planet…our home has been lent to us. Others lived here before us, gathered a harvest, fed on the fruits of creation. Yet over the years we humans have become arrogant, kings of some evolutionary castle, top of the pile. Humanity, we, have seen everything as ours to use, from which to benefit, or to plunder.

Yet the Bible saying that we have dominion over creation is not suggesting we dominate and ruin, but nurture and conserve what has been handed to us. Others will follow us. What will be left for them, our children and our children’s children will depend on us. Whether there will be a harvest next year, in ten years, a hundred years at the moment is down to us, our generation of humanity.

But to care for the planet is just too big a task, and we are numbed by all the calls for climate change, for recycling and all the rest of it. You or I alone can’t achieve what is needed. But bit by bit together we can make a difference – separating out litter, walking when we might have driven, re-using what we might have thrown away, travelling less or in different ways, using different sources of energy.

God in his love for us lent us this planet. Let us love it as if it was our own, of infinite value. Because it is. But it is never ours to possess, but simply to share and value and hand on to those who come after.

May our faithfulness mirror that of God’s faithfulness toward us and may we be faithful one to another and to our neighbours and descendants on this earth.

(Based on a Harvest Festival Service at St Andrew’s Methodist Church, Winsford, Cheshire, UK; October 2021)

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

Just passing through…
Bristol evening © Andrew Pratt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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