WMC: July 2019
So what's the story?
Miss Clark was about four foot high, I think she would have been taller except she was completely doubled over with arthritis. Miss Clark taught us the memory passage for the Scripture exams; she taught us that 'neither things present nor things to come could separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus'. When Miss Clark opened the door to us Sunday School kids she peered upwards through her spectacles because she couldn't straighten up. Every year at Harvest time we took Miss Clark the biggest marrow, the size of a barrage balloon, and every year Miss Clark peered upwards and smiled thankfully.
Fifty years later, I am in awe of that diminutive old lady and the grace with which she received that obese courgette. After all, a marrow is a serious commitment for a family of twelve with some imaginative ideas on soup: on its own it is almost nutrition- and flavour- free; and for an eighty year old spinster .... our act of loving kindness might not have been as generous and kind as all that!
Our theme for this year is a question, 'So what's the story...?'
Behind our question are a lot more questions: who is in the story, who have we left out, where is God in the story, what does the Bible have to say ...? These questions are of course the bread and butter of what it means to be Christian, how the story of God and the stories about God, the stories of life and the stories about life, make sense of who we are as humans, created and loved in a world full of perplexity and delight. It is also profoundly our calling as the Church to give account of what we perceive God is doing with us, around us and sometimes despite us. We are called to tell stories, to listen to stories and to wrestle with stories, to search for truth not fake news, to challenge the malicious stories we tell about each other and to go on believing that as people of creation, exodus, crucifixion, wilderness wandering and even in exile we can still claim the hope of resurrection and the gracious promise of life in all its fullness.
In 1887, Samuel Pollard, a Cornish Bible Christian gave up his proposed career in the civil service and boarded a square-rigged sailing vessel heading for China. He was 22 years old. Changing ship in Colombo, he arrived in Shanghai three months later. Later he travelled a further 1500 miles up the Yangstse River to arrive at the mission station in Zaotong, a house so small that his horse was stabled in the kitchen.
Together with his wife Eama they founded a school and a missionary college in the mountain region of Shimenkhan and raised their family. Samuel grew a pigtail and learned the local languages and then, working from first principles, he set about developing a script to translate the Bible into the language of the local Miao people.
In 1915 he died and was buried in the mountains of Shimenkhan. Eama returned to England with their sons. In 1950, all remaining English missionaries were ordered to leave and the country remained closed to foreigners until 1995. The Miao people buried their Bible in the ground, prayed in secret and learned how to hunker down through China's Cultural Revolution.
At many levels this is a familiar story for Methodists. There are so many stories of mission across the world. It inspired a sense of noble endeavour, and righteous sacrifice. We see the history literally engraved on the doors of Methodist Church House, formerly Mission House. World Church partners around the world — including Bishop Leo who is here from Pakistan — show us the plaques to the missionaries that brought the gospel to their place ....
..... and yet, our colonial history is not something of which we can be unreservedly proud. We exported an English version of faith, British norms and cultural expectations. We took disease, we took judgment, and we made promises that we are reluctant to keep when our colonial heritage came to visit our shore. Even in the telling of this story I am giving a white Western perspective: it would be interesting to hear the story told by our Chinese guests or by the descendants of Samuel or more particularly by the Miao people themselves.
In 2017 a group of people visited China as part of a Churches Together in Britain and Ireland delegation, to forge links with the church that is currently the fastest growing in the world. It was wonderful to be invited to be part of this journey. It is impossible to gain accurate statistics as the church is both official and unofficial in Chinese culture; however you estimate the growth of the church in China, within a decade or two it will clearly have more members than the church in the USA and in any other country in the world. Whatever the accurate statistics and reasons are, there is certainly a phenomenal rise in adherence to faith in China that the CTBI group wanted to see. Unlike Samuel Pollard, this group travelled by plane, train and minibus and arrived in Shanghai within three days. They were greeted by English-speaking leaders, by skyscrapers and neon signs advertising Armani. It is not only Christianity that is growing in China, but also the economy, the migration to the urban environment, and such global initiatives as the Belt and Road. (The Belt and Road initiative is a development strategy of the Chinese government, involving massive infrastructure development across Europe, Asia and Africa. The 'Belt' refers to overland routes whilst the 'road' refers to sea routes) The small group of representatives from England, Ireland and Scotland arrived in Shimenkhan with their translators, guides, umbrellas and luggage on a rainy day in August. The hills were green and the roads were tarmac and ate a welcome meal of noodles in a local hotel. As far as I am aware, there were no horses in the kitchen.
After lunch, we made our way towards the Church, from which there was a clearly audible sound of singing. This small building was packed with people in traditional costume, bright with embroidery, hair plaited, babies in their arms. These were the Miao people, singing a welcome. The song was 'Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine ...', the hymn that they had learned from Samuel Pollard, before he died, before Eama left, before they had buried their Bibles, before the graves had fallen into disrepair, before the Cultural Revolution, before the foreigners had to leave, before they had to pray in secret, before the road had come, before WiFi, TV and Levi jeans, 'this is our story, this is our song ...' The song Miss Clark had taught me when I still believed in missionaries and bravado and the English right to take our version of the gospel to the 'heathen' world. And the visitors remembered it too, and everyone cried when the old, old lady with no teeth hugged us tightly and said, 'Thank you for coming back!'
And that, in a way, would be a great end to the story, because we want to hear the news that the Christian Amity Foundation in China has not only published more than 180 million Bibles which are exported all over the world but also that we can lay flowers on the grave of Samuel Pollard and feel that we are not so guilty of colonial violations that exterminated communities. We want to know that somehow there is redemption and salvation in this temporal story, that life and love is triumphing over death and destruction and we are redeemed by history.
But we cannot continue to tell stories like this from a triumphalist point of view. Britain was never the centre of the known world and it certainly isn't now, as Asia moves forward to lead economic development from a different fulcrum. If we in Brexit Britain are to find our place in the story of God we need to listen more deeply and more carefully. We need to strain our ears and our hearts because love demands that we listen differently and are prepared to dig deeper.
We spend so much time, staring at the sky, hoping God will notice us through some heavenly binoculars. But, like Hagar, we need to believe in the living water, deep down in the cracked, parched earth under our feet. When we are most vulnerable and lost, God hands us a spade. We are called to dig deep, to shovel, to hunker down, to sift and claw the soiled, scarred earth, until even in the spoil heap of our own bewildering pain we uncover some small surprising thing, some essential, precious, lovely pearl that bears our true name, our glorious fragile strength.
I think the first twenty five years of my life were spent happily giving old ladies marrows and singing songs about far and distant lands, and from then on in I was asked to dig deep: not only in what happened to me, but what I discovered was going on for others. God and the then Liverpool District Chair, John Taylor alone know why I was lobbed into the centre of Liverpool to make bread, but in this unlikely venture I began to see the fractured and broken world that lay below the surface of people's lives. I began to hear stories that did not yet have a polished narrative or a triumphant conclusion. I met troubling and confusing people, I met Col and Steve and Kieran and there we sifted through the spoil heaps of bewildering pain. I heard coming out stories of transformation, where the 'Conversation on marriage and relationships' turned into people with faces and 'issues' were enfleshed. I heard from people who had attempted suicide because the church told them they could not be who God had made them. I heard the unbearable stories of abuse and degradation and loss and brokenness. I heard what it was like to live in a wheelie bin because that was safer than the streets. I heard of abuse in churches, by churches, in families and by families.
And I met Donald Eadie, and through him the PH7 group grappling not only with disability but with being an uncomfortable presence in the church.
I heard survivor voices, vulnerable stories, coming out narratives, from people who had never been listened to by anyone much, least of all the church. As we kneaded and shaped and baked and ate bread, the stories cracked open on the flour-covered communion table of our community, messy, incomplete and fragmented, from the silent, the silenced and the unheard. In the untold, untellable truth of our inhumanity and our carelessness with each other, and in all this confusion and mess, we uncovered small surprising things, some essential, precious, lovely pearls that bore our true name, our glorious fragile strength.
And these people taught me in my heart what Miss Clark had taught my head, that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus — even though our inhumanity to each other can certainly get close to doing so. These people are gifted with a deeper knowledge; their bodies, their unhealed wounds, their multiplicity of grief, are the calligraphy of a counter-narrative, the discourse of vulnerability. They live litanies of disappointment and embody unsettling stories of brokenness. Yet, mysteriously from this contradictory space also emerges the holy belly-laugh of liberation.
So I want to thank you for your vulnerability and wisdom, all you incomplete, grieving, troubling friends, Donald, Kerstin, PH7 group, Meg and Vernon, Steve, Chris, Roger and Marion, John and Margaret, Jill, Alison and Graham, Col, Alana and Penny. Kieran and Warren, the Open Table Church and the Bread Church, Touchstone, the survivor advisory group .... Miss Clark .... too many of you to name and some of you with unknown names, some of you here and others in heaven.... for showing me who you are through your broken vulnerability, your glorious, fragile strength that shattering glimpse of holiness. And to thank all of you who held me close through all of this, David, Robin, Emma and Alistair and now Lauren, Tom and Charlie too.
But of course, this is still not the end of the story, because God continues to tap us on the shoulder and call us to give account of what is going on in the world. Our question, 'So what's the story ...?' can have a hand-on-hip accusatory air to it. It is not sufficient for the church to go about telling good news stories, nor even good enough that we are contrite and apologetic for the things we did badly wrong, either to nations or individuals. We are called to give account for what is happening around us in the world. We cannot be present to the struggles of the world around us and just offer tasteless, pappy marrows: we need to offer proper food. Something that's going to make a difference, something that offers nutrition and flavour, energy and life. We need to give account of what good can come from following Jesus.
Last month I visited the Rohynga camps in Myanmar and Bangladesh. I travelled with partners from Christian Aid, All We Can and World Church relationships. In particular I visited the largest refugee camp in the world in Cox's Bazaar — where more than a million people live in dwellings that are not allowed to have foundations, in a flood plain, in the cyclone belt associated with the Bay of Bengal. During the genocide, the Rohynga people walked up a river, holding their children above their heads. Some died from river snake bites, others were shot or disappeared in the night. They have no citizenship, no status, no papers and no identity. Apart from the aid agencies such as Christian Aid and All We Can and from the excellent work done by the World Relationships team — they are stranded.
At the heart of the camps is a small project supported by All We Can — Shanti Kana, it means 'safe place'. These simple bamboo houses are for women only, so that they can feel safe and cool and rest, away from the cramped, claustrophobic and often violent shacks in which they live with the remaining members of their families. And in one of these Shanti Kana was a Christian woman, who every day travels into the camp and offers what she can to make life a little easier in humid temperatures or monsoon rain.
We may think that this humanitarian and environmental disaster is a million miles away, but what this and many other humanitarian crises show us is what happens when we other the other, when we divide along lines of faith, gender or ethnicity or for any other reason; when we forget that the human being in front of us is as much loved by God as we are.We can no longer say 'It's another world' — it is the same world.
And othering the other, wherever it occurs — in Myanmar, Serbia, South America, Pakistan .... Brexit Britain, Bradford, our church or our living room, Methodist Conference — then we are not true to the faith that has the unique call to love our enemies and pray for those that persecute us. Make no mistake, there is an imperative to our calling to 'live with contradictory convictions' that is not simply about inclusion but about an urgent need for reconciliation and peace, not just for Methodists but for the world. People of faith are not the only people called to respond to this imperative or love: many can and do, but we must.
When I moved on from Miss Clark and her Bible exams, I knew that I was called to be a minister, but that wasn't allowed for women then. But I saw what sort of story I wanted my life to be when Jill Bowden landed in our comfortable suburban church on her moped, wearing a bright yellow crash helmet. Jill was and remains all things strange, a northerner, a socialist and a rebel — she was as great then as she is now! Jill probably doesn't remember preaching this sermon, but it soaked into my adolescent brain with sharp illumination, she said 'Christianity is not difficult, but it is costly'. She was right, at one level there is nothing simpler than saying yes to faith and standing up and following a path of peace and love, especially if you are an adolescent hippy, but it will cost a great deal, not just individually but as a church. If we are really going to love our enemies and pray for those that persecute us, then we will need to remain present in difficult places, in places like Bradford and Myanmar, where we are a minority alongside a minority, working out how to build communities of faith across different cultures and religions. We will need to challenge food poverty, not just offer our surplus. We will need to support those who work alongside abuse survivors on our behalf. We will need to continue supporting All We Can and Christian Aid and World Church partners in their work amongst vulnerable and traumatised people across the world, And we will need to find ways to stay in communities that can't afford us, but we cannot afford to abandon. We will need to be people of reconciliation and peace in an increasingly angry and divided Britain. We will need to commit ourselves to not only making the church inclusive, but allowing those who we might think 'on the edge' to challenge and transform us. We need to listen in three dimensions to what is told and what lies in the dark spaces between the words.
And if all this last paragraph feels to full of 'oughts' and 'shoulds' then let me remind us of what we already have. We are an organisation with a unique mandate for unconditional love and this means we are one of the few organisations in our society that doesn't work with 'clients' but with anyone, with people in all their magnificent complexity. We don't have to prove learning outcomes, or increasing profits, or value for money. We are simply offering grace and love — simple and costly. We know that if we mess up, we can start over, and gives us a glorious assurance of freedom. With proper attention to safeguarding, we can offer intergenerational conversation, a place for children to be heard and accepted, a place where the story of the elderly can be honoured and held. We can celebrate new birth and accompany people in their last hours. We can — when we stop being so anxious about our buildings, statistics and rotas — be places of peace and restoration. We are people of a multitude of wise, troubling, hilarious, faithful human stories — so let's tell them, and surprise ourselves once again with the way of Jesus. And let's find new confidence in the story of God, not as a mallet to knock in stakes of certainty, but with hearts strangely warmed with the assurance that the world can be changed through unconditional love.
I have half-remembered a story I heard in Ireland about a little church whose membership had got down to single figures. This church had an emergency meeting and began to talk about closure. They decided that they would have one last push at keeping going. They didn't feel that in the circumstances there was much point writing a huge mission plan, but they made a resolution that they would be 'welcoming and kind'. The next Sunday, when they arrived for church they found a tent in the graveyard. It was clear that a homeless person had decided to pitch up there and spend the night. Hmmph, thought the Church Steward, this had to be stopped: but before he asked the man to up sticks and move on, he remembered that he was supposed to be welcoming and kind .... so he invited him into the church for a cup of tea.
The very next Sunday was communion, and the small congregation was in the middle of the service, when a strange woman arrived accompanied by her dog. When bread and wine were shared, she came forward for the elements, and so did the dog. This was clearly rather odd and unconventional, but before they took offense they remembered they were supposed to be 'welcoming and kind'. Over the next few weeks the homeless man and the woman and the dog all attended worship, to be honest they were a bit of a nuisance and a bit smelly and disruptive. But in time, the church people got to know them and to find out about the hostel that was just across the way ...... and last I heard, some of those church people were popping across the road and getting to know some of the other residents and things were beginning to change. I'm not sure whether that little church kept going, it's not really the point of the story. The point is that the world changes, lives change when we get back to the simple, costly mandate of faith to love our neighbours and our enemies with the open arms of unconditional love.
This little church and Samuel Pollard, Miss Clark, the leaders in the Shanti Kana live the Jesus story and so can we, we who are Methodist and Methodish, we who are marinaded in faith or just dipping a tentative toe, Conference buffs and Conference rookies, big wigs and small fry, gay or straight or trans or undefined, broken, diffident or downright scared, all of us, each of us is called to this simple, costly way, living out our stories within the eternal, challenging, costly, glorious stories of God — because nothing in all creation can separate us from it — not even marrows!
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