A dramatic reflection on Romans 5: 1 – 11 – Justified by faith?

A scribe is working on the letter to the Romans. The scribe is sitting at a table, muttering while looking over a scroll, pen in hand:

Riddles, riddles, riddles…

‘Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…’

What on earth did he mean, that fall – oops – Paul guy? Freudian!! Sorry!

I mean, what did he mean? That’s the problem with this Greek, no punctuation. I mean you have commas and full stops and what-not. We haven’t.  So what did he mean? You don’t get it?

Well let me read it to you. ‘Therefore since we are justified by faith (exaggerated pause) we have peace with God’. Did he mean that, or did he mean, ‘‘Therefore since we are justified (exaggerated pause) by faith we have peace with God’. See what I mean?

No? Ok, let me spell it out to you. You all seem to think that Paul meant to say that we are justified, made right with God if you like, by faith. No problem with that. Consequence, ‘we have peace with God’.

But I just got to wondering. What if Paul reckoned that we are justified. Accept it! Just trust it is so and that’s the way to peace with God? See what I mean? No? 

Riddles, riddles, riddles…that old scribe playing with words again? I know what you’re thinking. But words are my stock in trade. I do think about them, not just write parrot fashion – if you’ll pardon me mixing  my metaphors?

But perhaps you’re right. I make too much of these details sometimes. I’m a right pedant!

Ok. I’ll get to the point, whatever Paul thinks.

At the end of the day, We have peace with God – don’t we? No beating about the burning bush then?

Wonder what’s next? Think I’ll just make a cuppa (gets up and strolls off).

© Andrew Pratt 14/2/2011

I looked out on the sunset – personal thoughts on doing theology

This brief essay began its formation when preparing a lecture delivered to Unitarians at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. It has bee recently published on Theology Everywhere blog

I looked out on the sunset. The sky, deep red, but fading, could not be captured by a camera’s lens, held for eternity. I mused. Different wavelengths of light refracted by the atmosphere, received by a retina, passing through a tangle of neurones, conducted by chemical and physiological interactions, perceived by something we might label consciousness. And is this all? Later I played with water colours, fluid, wet on wet, running into one another out of control, unpredictable. This was nearer to what I believed I saw. But this did not explain or make sense of it. And a realisation rose rather than forced itself on me of something ‘other’. Call that conversion if you will. It was a glimpse of the ‘other’, I will go on calling it that for want of anything better, that changed the direction of my life. Marcus Borg spoke of the light that glances into our lives rendering significance which, he felt, was something of the shared experience of the mystics. And it began an exploration that could never be complete, a pilgrimage that could never achieve its destination. I was seeking understanding of experience, trying to make sense of all that life opened up to me of joy and elation, of pain and sorrow, of love and anger, of all that is. This would encompass all of existence, birth and death and all that lay between, but also beyond, before and after. This was immanence and yet transcendence. If anything this was love.

The problem, the danger of such exploration, is that we categorise and constrain. We seek to fit into boxes an understanding greater than our human capacity can grasp. We organise it, then call it faith. And when it breaks the bounds we have set for it we say that we have lost it. Really all that has happened is that we have discovered the truth that you cannot hold or constrain that which is boundless. Neither do we have language to express the inexpressible. Yet that is what theology is often reduced to.

My early theological training was dominated by systems in which concepts and doctrines were organised. Any challenge to that organisation was viewed as dangerous, even heresy. 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. In the book Thirteen Moons, the author, a native American, ponders:

Writing a thing down fixes it in place as surely as a rattlesnake skin stripped from the meat and stretched and tacked to a barn wall. Every bit as stationary, and every bit as false to the original thing. Flat and still and harmless. Bear recognized that all writing memorializes a momentary line of thought as if it were final.[1]

I have pondered on this. So often this is what our systems of theology have done. Poetic imagination fired the prophets to enable change, to allow the understanding of God to develop, evolve. Poetry has more freedom than prose. Hymns have so often reversed that process, pinned down our theology, closed it to speculation or changing context. Sydney Carter saw folk music as owned by the singers, generation to generation – a sort of sung liberation theology, always changing.

But I return to art. 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’. And that’s it, I think. Theology is trying ‘to get’ what is beyond our human capacity to understand, or express. Mark Rothko painted massive, single colour panels. To many they mean nothing. Others report a profound sense of the other when they view them. If ‘the other’ is such as I have suggested, perhaps these are honest admissions and, as such offer that glimpse that mystics seek, and a representation beyond words or understanding of that which we seek.

This is not to deny the validity of theology, but to recognise that theologians need to draw on the  widest possible range of disciplines. These should include, but not be limited to, scriptures, languages, art, science, poetry, philosophy, music. Even then we need the honesty to admit that any theology that we elaborate can never, ever be more than a very crude approximation of the subject we are seeking to address. The quest must be open ended, never closed down, never dogmatic.

[1] Frazier, C., Thirteen Moons, Hodder & Stoughton, 2006, p 21

Andrew Pratt 20/2/2023

Choose life – a reflection on Deuteronomy 30:19 in the light of the Turkish/Syrian earthquakes

Choose life – a reflection on Deuteronomy 30:19 in the light of the Turkish/Syrian earthquakes

After the earthquakes in Turkey, Syria and the surrounding regions – What do we make of this? How do we cope? What, if anything can we do? – a donation, an offering? YES.

But let us begin at the beginning and admit that our understanding of this God and this world of which we are inhabitants, of which we are, stewards is incomplete, a mystery. God moves in a mysterious way as William Cowper wrote.

How can we live in this world.

Some would turn to the The Ten Commandments. The writer of Deuteronomy, literally Second Law, makes some suggestions, attributes them to God:

Deuteronomy 30:19

30:19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,

These are words from the Hebrew scriptures. Could Paul, writing to the church in Corinth be speaking to us? It is for us to decide. He speaks to people who claim allegiance to different leaders

1 Corinthians 3:1-3; 9
1 And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.
2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready,
9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

That last verse dedicates us for we are God’s servants, working together; God’s field, God’s building…

What might a prophet say to us today?

This world looks pretty awful at the moment, a mix of war and natural, disaster and we, as humanity, even if we don’t admit to it, are, in Paul’s terms, infants. We have so much to learn, beliefs to change perhaps, habits to unlearn, changes to be made. A friend of mine (Graham Adams) has written a book, Holy Anarchy. He suggests that if we look at Jesus and listen to what he says then the Kingdom we talk about and the church we have built is unimaginably far from what Jesus envisaged. So far that if we found it it would seem like Holy Anarchy compared with the ordered society and church we know.

But I’m getting ahead of myself . What do we make of earthquakes? When things go wrong we like to blame someone, to ask questions. So we blame God?  Why does God allow this to happen? There is a problem, many, if not all Christians believe God created all things, this earth included. If we were to say to God ‘Why? And I’m not being irreverent. I imagine a conversation. It’s like this if the earth was a really round ball there’d be no puddles, no oceans. Moving tectonic plates make dips in the earth’s surface, raise up the mountains, made the sea in which life began, the lakes that gather water that you drink. No tectonic plates, no earthquakes, NO YOU either! So not so much God’s judgment, more providence

So lets readjust to that. Following an earthquake  a still small voice cries in the darkness and the dust. And we can lay this at God’s door but not as a judgment but a necessity, We can lament at the unfairness, that is doesn’t make sense, that a loving God shouldn’t let this happen. But this is the paradox. If it wasn’t like this we wouldn’t be here. To coin a phrase, the goal-posts have been moved.

So lets begin again. ‘Natural’ things happen. They are well named. We have to live with them. This is how the world is. From here on in Deuteronomy makes sense. The comment is pertinent. ‘Choose life so that you and your descendants may live’. This is infant school to use Paul’s term. Are we ready to move on?

To do so means to start taking responsibility for our own actions and the lives of one another. That works in Turkey and Syria today, in Ukraine and over the whole planet threatened by global warming,

In each and every situation, choose life. This is the essence of being Christian, it is active love of neighbour and, hence, God. It begins in the care of a child whose mother had been killed in an earthquake. And that is not away over there, but for at least one family living in near me, a Muslim whom I addressed as brother, who hugged me on Wednesday. He looked no different from me, like Samaritan to Jew. We shared our humanity, formed a bond that transcends the different faiths to which we give allegiance. We could, of course, argue over the value of different surahs of the Qu’ran, the relative strengths of the different Gospels. As Paul put it ‘For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?, And that is the bottom line. Merely human. And when we treat each other as such we begin to grow up and we realise that we can ‘choose life’, because every other person on this planet, however they present themselves is ‘merely’ human. If we are, again ‘God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building’, then our attitude ought to be that of Christ whose grace was and is accepting of all.

Charles Wesley, asked himself a question, worth us asking ourselves the same question. ‘ What shall I do my God to love’?

We began with a question and we return to it. Remember

At a time of decision for the people of Israel Moses challenged them – ‘I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live’. (Deuternomy30: 19)

This hymn asks what choosing life might mean for us today.

1	What are the gifts we would treasure most highly:
	freedom or justice or money or wealth;
	food for the hungry, or drink for the thirsty,
	love for our children, or power, or health?
2	Once God had given a choice to the people:
	they could decide to choose life or choose death.
	They were encouraged towards life's enhancement,
	shunning the ways that would quench life and breath.
3	What does it mean for ourselves at this moment,
        challenged by God, as to what we should choose?
	What does ‘life’ mean, for each friend, 
                                     for each neighbour, 
        what will encourage and never abuse?
4	Now at each crisis, each time of decision,
	save us from selfishness, things that oppress;
	help us, O God, to be wise, never grasping,
	help us to cherish those things you would bless.

Andrew Pratt (born 1948)
Words © 2011 alt by the author 2022 © Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England copyright@stainer.co.uk . 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.
alt 2022 by the author. 
Metre: 11 10 11 10

What now? For you? For me?

© Andrew Pratt

Thoughts on Grace

Grace is uncondionally and universally extended to all. The human response to this is ‘that cannot be’. How can Grace be given to those who…? In consequence humanity, over generations, has constructed conditions to be met. or ways in which this might be enabled (Atonement theories). This is only necessary because the concept of universal unconditional Grace is beyond human understanding, it is a mystery which we, perhaps, need to face with honest agnosticism. 

Grace ‘never passed by one, or it had passed by me’ (Charles Wesley).

God is crying mid the carnage – a hymn at the time of Ukrainian Christmas

God is crying mid the carnage 
of a thousand broken bones; 
in the dust and fallen rubble 
of our long discarded homes.
Where our children play out stories 
of the visions they have seen, 
God is weeping over losses, 
knowing just what might have been.
What if love instead of horror 
filled the passion of our lives, 
could these stories be re-written 
where humanity survives?
God still with us, God among us, 
sow new seeds of love through grace; 
help us look at one another 
building hope in every place.
Andrew Pratt (8/1/2023)

Words © 2023 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England copyright@stainer.co.uk . 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

Tunes: CROSS OF JESUS (Stainer); LAUS DEO (Redhead)

Written after listening to the BBC Radio 4 Sunday Service on 8/1/2023 ‘The message that Ukraine is trying to convey to the world as it celebrates its own Christmas Day’.

The programme posed the question, 'Where is God' in this war?

See also We hear the news in anguish
- Thoughts on pacifism
- God's on our side