Virtual immanence

Understanding the presence of God in virtual worship

When I first started studying theology, I was very confused by the word ‘immanent’.  Whenever it was spoken in a lecture, I heard it as ‘imminent’ and could not understand the description of God as someone who was about to show up any minute.  Surely, he was already here?  Of course it was not the word imminent but immanent which was being used – and its point was precisely that God is already here. It is a truth which we shall affirm again and again over Christmas, however we might celebrate it.

That said, it is not a Christmas truth, but a permanent one. Part of the hidden framework upon which Christian worship is built is the affirmation that God is present.  In some traditions that presence is symbolised in sign or sacrament, whilst in others it is somehow sensed in the act of collective worship.

Right now, the sense of anything which we do collectively is changing. Meetings online are so commonplace that we highlight them only if they are a rare ‘in person‘ encounter. Informal chats and formal business meetings now take place online as a matter of course.  Within the past few weeks, the Charity Commission has said that not only can annual general meetings take place by video conference, but that votes registered at such a meeting are valid. The line between online and off is gossamer-thin.

What does this imply for acts of online worship, though? We may be learning to sing and pray together online. We may have found ways to share communion online. We may have settled into the habit of preaching and listening online.  In what sense, though, do we say that ‘God was there’?  What makes us come away from an online act of worship as we may have occasionally done from a service of worship in church and say ‘God was here today’?  I would love to hear from you in the comments box as to how you are answering that particular question just now.

Somebody wrote to me recently that the phrase ‘you’re on mute‘ was the catchphrase of 2020. I hope it doesn’t apply to the one who really has to show up when we worship!

Mute2

 

 

A perfect book for Jolabokaflod

A review of Nancy Campbell’s Fifty Words for snow

In case you don’t know what Jolabokaflod is, let me tell you.  It is a tradition which started in Iceland during the Second World War. At the time, paper was one of the few things which was not rationed – and so people would buy each other books. Jolabokaflod , which means ‘Christmas book flood’  referred to the tradition of curling up under a blanket with your new book and a hot drink on Christmas Eve.  I cannot imagine a better book with which to do it than Nancy Campbell’s Fifty Words For Snow.

Anyone who is imagining a dry lexicographical treatise will be wonderfully surprised. The introduction of each chapter with a different snowflake set on a midnight blue background is a foretaste of the intricate beauty of Campbell’s writing. Whilst the fifty words, or phrases for snow are fascinating (who knew, for instance, that there was a Swahili word for snow?) their true beauty is their function as trap doors. Through each door Nancy takes us into another place and culture for the duration of a short and very readable chapter. With Nancy’s help, you will travel from Finland to Hawaii and Thailand to New Zealand without ever leaving the comfort of your duvet.  I mention the duvet because I found this book, with its accessible chapters, to be the perfect bedside companion. It is hard to imagine a better book for Winter.

It is clear to see that the book is meticulously researched and written as a labour of love. That said, there is nothing dry about it. It has the sparkle of new snow and the stimulating zing of a frosty morning about it. There is no doubting Nancy’s scholarship, but no doubting her poetic skills either.

Out of all the descriptions of snow, my favourite might just be the sun-cups, which can be ‘as tiny as a watch face or larger than the dial of a Grandfather clock’.  What they are, and where to find them, is something you will have to discover in the pages of this wonderful book.

Snow-cover-final

Introducing …The Negativity

A nativity scene for our times?

It will be no secret to many that I am a fan of nativity scenes. Earlier this year my book, ’37 kings and a budgerigar’ was published, featuring 25 of the sets in my collection. I have enough for at least another two books – so be warned!

cover

I am always on the lookout for something new to add to the collection, the more quirky or thought-provoking the better. This year, my son may have just found it for me.

The Negativity was the brainchild of artist and musician David Nedrow. Talking with his sister and niece back in 2012, the subject came up of a family friend’s negative attitude to Christmas, and they joked that he should display a ‘negativity scene’ at home. That year, a hand-made version was given as a gift to the artist’s niece and a tradition was born. The set is now available to buy, with each figure hand-painted.  As you can see,they are a glum lot. [Click on each image for full-size picture]

Negativity 1

Mary is very unimpressed with things:

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And even Jesus seems less than happy:

negativity 4

However, I have to confess that it was the cross sheep who won my heart:

negativity 2

I have no doubt that some will love this and others will hate it.  Some will see it as disrespectful and others will enjoy it. My question here is whether it is more or less appropriate as we approach Advent in this troubled year? I tend to agree with the artist himself who says:

When things look the darkest…it’s time to lighten up.

Do you agree?

Images of church (II)

More than meets the eye

Last week I posted some initial thoughts on here regarding different historic images of church, and how they relate to the way we see it now.  Since then, my conversations have led me to believe that it might be helpful to develop each of them a little further.

ecclesia

Ekkelsia/ synagogue

Like the logo itself, the strength of this image lies in its sense of gathering. Here are people called out of their immediate community and into a gathering for the worship of God. With it, the calling brings a sense of security and aspiration: ‘God wants us here’. Gathered under such a banner, the church has withstood much violence and oppression down through the centuries. The sense of belonging has also been a motivator for what we might crudely term ‘recruitment’.  Since belonging is a good thing, and brings benefits both temporal and eternal, we want others to share it. It was the gathered church in Antioch, for instance, which felt overwhelmingly convicted to send out its brightest and best that others might be called. (Acts 13 v.2)  The negative side of this image is that it reinforces a divide between ‘us’ (those safely on the inside) and ‘them” (those exposed on the outside). It is a short step from the thoughts of such division to the language of exclusivity, which compounds the problem.

 

fortress

Tabernacle/ fortress

There is no doubting that the tabernacle was a powerful physical statement. These people travelled with God, and neither they nor he were to be messed with. You have only to stand beneath the shadow of a soaring cathedral spire, or even a fairly modest church building, to see a similar statement. The people who erected this building were prepared to put money, time , labour, and not a small amount of love into this physical demonstration of their loyalty to God. Standing, as they still do in many a town, city, and village – their witness lingers on. However, like anything with walls they can keep people out as well as holding them in. The reassurance we derive from the fact that our church stands, may detract from the obligation which we have to stand as well. In these Covid-times, when we can enter buildings only under strict limitations, and use them only in limited ways this particular image sits awkwardly with our current experience..

 

viewpoint

Monastery

For many of us, this is the least familiar image. The monastery, high up the mountain with its view of God above and the world below is alien to us.  That said, many have found that their home has become their ‘cell’ in the most positive sense.  From it, they have looked out on a world wracked by impotency in the face of the pandemic, and prayed for it as never before. The world has listened, for instance, to the UK Blessing in unbelievable numbers, as they might once have done to the voice of the monks who pray for them whatever their own personal beliefs. Maybe we have learnt to take on some sort of responsibility for a world in need during this season, as we have not done before?

skete

Skete

In my discussions of the initial post, it is this image which has brought about the most conversations.  This is partly because the term, and the concept are unfamiliar. To many, it feels like a description of the way things are. Here we are, all pursuing our Christian calling in our own way, and yet belonging to something greater. We log into video calls or prayer meetings or even communion on an occasional basis.  In the meantime, we all try to live by the calling and covenant which binds us.  However, to say that this is a description of how things are is not to say that it is a description of how people would like them to be. Not only that, but if this were to work, then our sense of ourselves as a covenanted community would have to be a lot stronger than it is now.

The church is, in Calvin’s words semper reformanda, or forever changing.  How do these images cause you to reflect on current changes within it, I wonder?

 

 

 

In pursuit of church

Four images of church

Church is not what it was. Then again, life is not what it was either.  There are flickering glimpses of church right now which flash past like the images on a zoetrope, but somehow the movement fails to animate them.

Here is a steward welcoming you at the door, welcome restricted to the eyes since a smile cannot be seen beneath the mask and a handshake cannot be given.

Here is a moving tapestry of faces on a Zoom screen, each one a window into another’s home and life. If we try to sing together, the inevitable lag means that we cannot hold a shared tune in time.

Here is a home communion : bread and juice, set out within reach of my hand and just out of camera shot.

Here is a pulpit with wires and leads and a camera and audio recorder, but a congregation nowhere to be seen.

Here is somebody sitting before that pulpit on a kitchen stool, and another in a hotel room far from home.

Reflecting on all these, different historic images of church have come to mind:

Here is the church as ‘Ekklesia’ – people in small numbers (at least to start with) called out from the world to gather together, Here they pledge their loyalty to Jesus and seek to understand what it means. Like the Jewish synagogues of the first Century and beyond, even a small gathering was enough to constitute a congregation. This is the original understanding of the ‘gathered’ church.

ecclesia

Here is the church as ‘Tabernacle’ or even ‘fortress’.  This is a physical statement of the presence of God, serving as a witness to those without and a fortress to those within. Some, far more permanent than the travelling tabernacle, mark the skyline of towns and cities still. The church seen this way is a solid and tangible statement of faith and belief.

fortress

Here is the church as ‘monastery’ – eschewing the physical presence of the former in the thick of things, and going further up the mountain for a better view. This is a calling to be apart from the world…for the sake of the world.

viewpoint

Here is the church as ‘skete’ – a concept begun in the Coptic church and later adopted by Celtic and even new monastic communities. Here the participants farm or fish or pursue their daily calling, but abide by a rule of life, sharing the same values, worshipping as a rhythm of daily life and only occasionally coming together. They are still participants in a community of faith and witness, bound to its rhythm and values, but they pursue it in their individual callings.

skete

All have strengths, and all have different appeals, but I cannot help wondering whether the ‘skete’ has unexplored potential for our current circumstances. We live, work and play behind our own front doors, yet nurse a yearning for connection. We want to be identified with this great cause, part of this great kingdom – but cannot stream through the doors of a physical church to declare it as we once did.

Just how tied are we to the need for a physical building, I wonder? Would our discipline hold firm enough to adhere to a rule of life where only God and we were watching?

These are only initial thoughts, and this is an invitation to conversation, but I would love to know what others think.

churchasfour

 

 

A book of delights

Thea Muir’s journalling Bible

I have been reading the Bible regularly since I first received a Gideon New Testament at the age of 12 in Secondary school.  That little book started a revolution in my life which would lead eventually to finding a Christian faith for myself. One thing led to another, I was ordained as a Baptist Minister in 1992, and I am never without a Bible. In fact, a Bible is so much part of my working toolkit, that I have to replace them every few years when they fall apart from use. I read it, meditate on it, preach from it, and write books inspired by it.

All this being so, you might think that the addition of another Bible would leave me cold.  After all, what can possibly be new?  However, in Thea Muir’s case, that is not true.  Her warm and charming illustrations, drawn out of a place of real hurt and self-understanding, are a precious addition to this version.  Who could fail to love  a phrase such as ‘I am outrageously loved’ for instance? As a person who both writes and reads a lot of books, I am ashamed to admit that I usually skip over the front matter.  However, the very first phrase inside the front cover of this remarkable Bible really gave me pause:

The things that we believe are like seeds that we plant in our hearts. Our hearts are like fertile soil that grow whatever is planted in them.

The words, like the illustrations which accompany them, are simple, profound and simply profound. I have a feeling I shall look at them again and again.  Not only that, but there are also suggestions on activities which might help any reader to feel more certain of the love of God which Thea feels so deeply.

In addition to these activities, there are also wide margins which encourage the reader to add their own illustrations or jottings. In this way, the Bible becomes entirely personal. For those who feel that the Bible needs no enhancement, either from an illustrator or a reader, I would point out the falling levels of Biblical literacy in the UK. We urgently need to fall in love with the Bible again, and Thea might just help us to do it.

THEA

 

There is no ‘just’ to just looking

A review of ‘Into the tangled bank’ by Lev Parikian

As a writer, I am never overly comfortable with people ‘summing up’ the books I have written.  After all that thinking, writing, editing and re-writing, it seems a little unfair. Even so, I am hoping that Lev Parikian will forgive me for summarising his book in two words:

Just Look

I do so because that is the essential message of this book. With gentle humour and self-deprecating wit the author urges us to do that.  He encourages us to look at the birds, or the flowers, or even the spider – and see what is really there.  He also uncovers the peculiar anthropomorphism of our relationship with nature, whereby we invest some species with positive characteristics -such as a ‘cheery’ robin, or others with more negative associations, such as a moth.  It takes a writer of outstanding skill and patience to make me think that a spider might be anything even close to worthy of a second look – but he has done it!

The book is somewhere between travelogue and a nature journal, with a bit of Bryson-esque humour thrown in. Its sparkling quality is its tone.  This book is not ‘preachy’ or ‘worthy’ or intense as nature writing can sometimes be.  Plunge in and let this skillful writer take you on a walk or three with him.  You won’t regret it, and you’ll probably want to go out yourself for further exploration too.

As an inveterate early-morning walker, I leave you with Lev’s description of that time of day. If poetry is the art of bending words into shapes which make us see the world differently, then he should add ‘poet’ to the list of his many skills.

‘There’s that heady feeling of being a conspirator in the hatching of a new day, the knowledge that whatever the ensuing hours may hold, I’m giving it my best shot’.

LEV

Less than blissful ignorance

Dying Awareness Week 2020

Why ever do we need a dying awareness week?  We are all aware of that other great certainty, taxation – but we don’t have to chat about it!

The thing is, when it comes to dying, we probably do.  Research last year commissioned by Sue Ryder revealed that 7 out of 10 adults have never talked to their loved one about what might happen when they die.  The result is either a hurried conversation when brain or body are beyond it, or no conversation at all, followed by silence and regret.  This particular conversation is one which my late wife and I had many times.  Sometimes we talked about the last days and how they would be.  Sometimes we talked about her legacy amongst family and friends.  Sometimes we talked about her funeral. The main thing is that we talked. The spectre of death is robbed of some of its power as we talk about it.

I have been talking a lot about it since.  It has been my privilege to assist with the launch of two national campaigns for Sue Ryder: a better grief and a better death. Working in partnership with Authentic Media, I wrote Postcards From the Land of Grief, and have seen many touched by its honesty.  The book charts my journey through the first year of bereavement – with all the strangeness, challenge and reassurance which it brought. I have also spoken about the subject numerous times on air, to the extent that a friend in the radio business described me as ‘the death guy‘.

That is most definitely not a moniker I would have chosen. However, to act as some small kind of catalyst in these conversations has been a real privilege. To take a little bit of the terror out of having ‘the conversation’ has felt like a good thing. One of the advantages of the ‘postcard’ format has been that it encourages a ‘dipping in’ approach. Like flicking through a collection of postcards in a shop,  you can pick something up when it seems to speak to you.

I close with a quote from the book, and an invitation to read it this week. After all, dying matters.

It continues to surprise, this land of grief. Its topography is so hard to read – like the shifting sands of the desert. To climb a tiny hill can feel like scaling a mountain – leaving the lungs gasping for air at the top. Once scaled, the view behind may be spectacular, but the view ahead is hidden, at least for now. Some of the valleys which look like no more than a ditch prove to have sides so steep that they all but blot out the light.

Postcards front cover

 

A small thing of beauty

A review of ‘All things bright and beautiful’ by Jean Claude

Just before I picked this book up to review it, I read a message from somebody in lock-down urging people to share some small thing which lifted their spirits in this grey and heavy time.  I believe that this book will do just that.

I have now been a Christian minister for over 30 years, and yet I learnt Cecil Alexander’s hymn before I even had a faith to call my own. Sitting cross-legged on the hard wooden floor of our primary school assembly – someone would hammer out the tune on the tired old piano whilst the redoubtable Mrs Preston would urge us to enunciate each word to perfection!

In this gorgeous book, Jean Claude has taken a hymn which is over 150 years old and made it accessible and attractive to those of yet another generation. Each page is filled with rich colour – and enough detail to keep you coming back for a second, third or umpteenth time.  There is a special surprise with the ‘trees in the Greenwood’ too – although I shall leave you to find it for yourselves!

The book will be treasured my many, and will add to the enduring quality of this wonderful hymn.

ALLTHINGS

 

Marvin the Maple

When only a story will do

In the past few days, I have been in conversation with one of those people whose blend of compassion and skill makes the NHS the wonder that it is. Kath is the Director of Children’s nursing at St Barts hospital, and acutely aware of the impact that Covid-19 is having on those of all generations. In particular, she made me aware of the impact on children from the loss of a significant adult in their lives. This little film will help you to understand a little more about it: As the numbers in this pandemic mount, so the needs increase, and capacity to meet them diminishes.  Who will sit and talk to the children, and how will they go about it?

Sometimes, a story can be the greatest tool to enable the hardest conversation.  Some of you may remember The Tale of the Little Owl , and the remarkable collaboration which brought it about.  The story was written to help children deal with the loss of a sibling, so something new was required for the new challenge.

In consultation with Kath, I have written a new story today -all about a little tree called Marvin, who loses one of the big trees who always looks out for him. You can read a tiny excerpt below. I am appealing for help in getting this story illustrated as quickly as possible. We shall then try to make it available as an ebook as soon as we can. The ebook route avoids the complexities and timescales of print publishing. It also means we can get the story into the hands of those who need it with no worries about infection control.

Could you help me to find an illustrator?  Could you offer any other skill to get this off the ground?

If so, please contact me via the comments box here, or on Twitter @richardlittleda

Thank you

April put her head on one side, the way blackbirds love to do – and she could see the problem.  In the night, the old oak tree had fallen – and it would not stand tall again.  There would be no more snow building up on its branches, and there would be no golden leaves when Autumn came.  Landing gently on Marvin’s lowest branch, which bent beneath her weight – she tried to explain.

‘I think he was tired’, she said.  ‘Maybe it was time for him to lie down now, instead of standing up’.  The little tree shivered at the thought.  ‘Even the biggest trees fall sometimes Marvin’, she chirped gently. 

UPDATE – an illustrator has now been found, and is working on the project, although help with creating the ebook would still be appreciated.

TREEE