CODEC’s MediaLit Conference 2017

Can Artificially Intelligent Machines go to heaven? Can you take Eucharist on the internet? Is Facebook a good thing for our churches? These questions and many other issues and themes which arise from the increasingly digital world which overlaps onto and into our lives have been explored at the CODEC MediaLit conference this June 12-16 2017.

It has been an interesting experience and I’ve entered into the experience by blogging and tweeting throughout. I’ve posted blogs on each session on Medium and I’ve gathered them all together in this post here. The Chronicles of the CODEC Conference.

View story at Medium.com

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The Son of Man will come with Glory

This week I’ve been in a block teaching module called Preaching From the Synoptics. 

It’s been a great, if long and somewhat intense, couple of days looking at some of the background of Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels with a particular eye on how this might influence the decisions which we have to make when we plan a sermon.

At the end of the first afternoon we did a workshop exercise together called ‘Ten to Two’.

The premise was simple.

We would have ten minutes to pick a point from Mark 13 (which we had just been discussing) and plan a two minute reflection on it. However it had to be in keeping with the rest of the chapter. That is, we couldn’t just pick the word ‘temple’ and talk about Churches etc.

This was more than just a creative writing exercise as we then each took it in turns to present our reflections to the group! It was truly fascinating to get a glimpse at the sheer variety of ways that people could engage with the passage and of the wealth of approaches and methods we might take. Some presentations were profound, others inspiring and some were even quite funny. Mine, well I’m not quite sure how I would categorise mine. Perhaps as a mix between the imagery of Mark 13 and the Lord of the Rings?

Let me know what you think in the comments below; either about my reflection or of anything which has stood out for you from mark 13 before.

The Son of Man will come with Glory 

There will be death,
and destruction…

A shadow of despair shall permeate the land.

The temple will fall. Families will breakdown and the sound of singing will become as a forgotten memory – belonging more properly to the legends of old.

“When will this happen?” They asked.

Jesus casts his eyes down at the still standing temple and replies almost wistfully…

Many will come claiming that they are the messiah…

They will walk in the darkness with strips of cloth bound across their eyes.

They will shout loudly, but their voices shall be muffled in the tepid air.

Yet more will come…

Ones with their own vain promises,
others with foolish desires and ambition.

But when the Son of Man comes…

When the Son of Man comes he shall come with great power and glory on the clouds. 

And the dawn shall break forth on a new day; shedding the shadows of Death, dispelling the fears of the hopeless. There will be such a light as has never been seen while the birds start to sing when the Son of Man returns to what is his.


 

Stephen Motyer has written a great book on the return of Christ which actually examines Mark 13 in detail. Read my review if you’re interested to know more. 

David and Psalm 23

This week, amongst a million other things, I’ve done a short exegesis paper on Psalm 23.

It’s always interesting to delve into the commentaries and to see what scholars have written about the scriptures, in particular those passages which we can often become dulled to simply through familiarity.

There’s a lot to talk about in Psalm 23! There’s discussions on the royal connotations that the shepherd metaphor had in the Ancient Near Eastern Cultures. There’s the structure: the two metaphors of God as Shepherd and God as Host, and the changing use of pronouns – it starts off referring to ‘the Lord’, and then addresses God directly as ‘You’ before reverting to ‘the Lord’ at the end. There’s plenty of talk about the significance that the psalmist basically does nothing for himself.

The Lord:

makes him lie down
leads him beside still waters
restores his soul
leads him in right paths
is with him
prepares a table
anoints his head
overfills his cup.

This leads scholars to call the psalm ‘a song of trust’ or ‘a song of confidence’; the psalmist’s hope is in the Lord, not in his own abilities.

This is especially true when looking at the valley of the shadow of death, or the deadly place, or the fatal darkness. Some scholars use this image to contrast the metaphor of the Lord as a shepherd with the “shepherd of death” in Psalm 49.

Fearing no evil can imply fearing the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom.

“You are with me” can hearken back to the promise God first makes to Abraham in Genesis, and which is repeated throughout scripture.

The darkest valley, the guidance of the Lord and the table can all be seen as links to the Exodus story and the Passover meal (and for Christians today, this can rightly take on Eucharistic connotations too).

Goodness and mercy shall follow me apparently translates literally as ‘pursue’, giving this a sense of the relentless intention of God to bless us and be in relation with us.

You get the idea. These are just a handful of examples of the discussions which were common throughout the commentaries I used.

However, there was one particular aspect of the Psalm which I found fascinating. When you open your bibles to Psalm 23  you’ll see that at the top of it it says ‘A Psalm of David’.

This is called a superscription. It’s basically a title but it doesn’t give the psalm a name but rather some information about it (though not all psalms have them). Some will say that they are a Psalm of Korah (a person), or that it’s a psalm of accents (to be sung on the way to the temple)  or that it’s to be played on particular instruments. What’s so interesting about it then? Well, in the commentaries I looked at (and I did not look at them all! Just about thirty or so) the scholars who mentioned it normally said something along the lines of ‘go back to the chapter I wrote about the types of psalms’. So I had a look and they would recap the discussion about the psalms of David. It seems that they may have been written by David, or they may have been collected by David, or they might have nothing to do with David and were called psalms of David in honour of David or even about David. In essence, we don’t have a clue what the connection is to David but they’re called ‘Psalms of David’ anyway.

Because of this ambiguity about their connection to David, the only way to ‘date’ the psalm to the life of David is when the psalms clearly refer to events which are written about in 1 Samuel, the main place where we read about the life of David. Psalms like 59, 56 and 142 are good examples of this. Psalm 23, though, is not considered to have any clear link to any events in his life. Whilst profound and clearly the testimony of an individual, there’s nothing distinctively ‘David’-like in the events in it. As such scholars seem to accept that we don’t know who wrote it, or when, or why.

Yet Psalm 23 is ‘A Psalm of David’.

Now… usually if you have an idea about a passage of scripture which no one else seems to have spotted* then you should reconsider and either realise that you’re stretching things a bit, or write a PhD thesis on it! But this is less of an exegetical point and more of a meditative one – so I feel safe in at the least suggesting it as a helpful way to reflect on Psalm 23.

A Psalm of David.

Well, regardless as to whether David wrote it or someone else wrote it for/about him, I think that it’s an apt description.

Psalm 23 is the Psalm of the God of David as a Shepherd. Which is interesting because David… was a shepherd.

1 Samuel 16, Samuel is looking for the next king of Israel and he meets Jesse, David’s Dad. In obedience to God, Samuel asks Jesse where his youngest son was. “He is keeping the sheep”.

That’s the first we hear of David. He’s a shepherd.

This is important in the following chapter when David kills Goliath the Philistine Giant.

Goliath was huge and had the best armour and weapons. He challenged the Israelite army to a one on one duel, and winner would take all.

“Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.”

When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.

1 Samuel 17:10-11

David visits his brothers in the army and asks:

“Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”

1 Samuel 17:26

His brother rebukes him, but King Saul hears and asks to see David.

Now this is where things get interesting.

David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” 33 Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” 34 But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, 35 I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. 36 Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” 37 David said, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!”

1 Samuel 17:32-37 (emphasis added)

David then took his staff and some pebbles in his shepherd’s bag, went out, challenged Goliath and, after telling him that God will deliver him into his hands, killed him.

Here we find that David has total faith in God, and he expresses his faith using the language of his experience as a shepherd. Just as David protected sheep from lions and bears, God will protect David. The lion would take a lamb from the flock, Goliath would fight one person from the army of Israel. The lion would defy David, Goliath defied the living God; and neither would succeed in their ambitions.

If we consider the themes of David’s trust and reliance upon God in the face of adversity, if we consider his analogy of his actions as a shepherd protecting his flock to describe God and if we even consider that his victory was prepared for him by God in front of the philistine army then it seems that these themes overlap incredibly well with the themes we find in Psalm 23.

Reflecting on Psalm 23 while keeping David as shepherd and his understanding of God as Shepherd in mind doesn’t suddenly change the themes and content of Psalm 23. But I would suggest that it might enable us to delve into those themes and encouragements in a way which can give us a deeper appreciation for the beauty of the profound trust and hope found throughout.

And so I encourage you to read it through now, and I’d love to hear what occurs to you as you read it.

Psalm 23 – A Psalm of David

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
For you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.


*so far as I can tell, but there’s a lot of stuff which has been written on this Psalm – very possible someone else has had this idea first and I’m just unaware of it!

Invaded by Light 

“It may be that Christians, notwithstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their loneliness. The final break-through to fellowship does not occur, because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his son from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not to be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkingly horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners! 

– Bonhoeffer, Life Together. 

This last week has been filled with induction sessions to Cranmer Hall. One of those sessions was to introduce us to the importance of discipleship, and to explain how discipleship groups work at Cranmer. During the session we reflected in small groups on a couple of quotes, including this one from Bonhoeffer. 

It was fascinating to hear the variety and depth of interpretations and meanings that people drew out of this piece. Reflecting on this relationship between “the devout” and “the sinners” my mind wandered through my imagination to describe it metaphorically. 

The picture which came to mind was of campfires. 

Jesus is the light of the world, a light which shines in the darkness. 

In turn we are told to be the lights of the world, shining like stars. 

Often, we gather around one another and look in – content to be warm by the campfire.

There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact if we are finding that our spiritual lives are getting tired, or that our light is growing dim then being refuelled by the fire is a good thing in order that we might shine brighter. 

The problem is not with gathering as a community of light. 

But Jesus is a light who shines in the darkness… 

… and the darkness shall not overcome it. 

Light shines in darkness, as the stars hang on the empty canvass of space. 

The light is not dependent on the darkness to be light, but it finds its truest realisation when it uncovers that which has not been seen; both revealing what is in the darkness, and bringing into the darkness something quite different. 

It can be easy to think of it as “us and them”, devout and sinners, light and dark. The truth is that it’s not as simple as encouraging the righteous to go and evangelise to those in the dark and bring them into the light- though we should do this. 

The more complex, and I would suggest richer, reality is that this contrast of light and darkness can be found within ourselves. “If we say that we have no sin then we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”. 

None of us are pure light, none of us are purely good. Infact all of us have our own hidden sins, our secrets and inner darknesses. Though outwardly we may have fellowship, inwardly we can remain trapped in loneliness, as Bonhoeffer aptly observed. To hide this darkness means to restrict where the light can shine, or else the darkness will be seen. 

Growth, then, means to allow the light of Christ to expose our sins first to ourselves and then to confess them before God and, where appropriate, with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The hoped for transformation and renewal of our hearts, bodies, minds and even our lives is therefore nothing less than an invasion of our darkness by light. A single flame stands in the dark as a trained swordsman in a ramshackle fort of bandits. 

The darkness shall not overcome the light, nor shall ‘the gates of hell’ prevail against the steady march of the kingdom as we find ourselves claimed by the Lord of Life to be his beloved children. 

Let us not live in loneliness, sin and darkness. 

Let us live in fellowship, freedom and light – to the glory of the name of Jesus. 

The Resurrection Foundation of Christian Faith

Twitter’s defining characteristic is that each tweet can only be 140 characters. Often this means that it’s difficult to have deep, meaningful and nuanced conversations. 

Sometimes, however, what it takes academics whole books and many journal articles to discuss and debate can be distilled into a single tweet and response. 

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, in more than 140 characters, the following: 

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the deadthe firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

1 Corinthians 15:12-22 (NIV)

Remembering 9/11

I was at primary school that day. Eight years old in a small rural school in Devon, in the United Kingdom. I remember walking out of class to the corridor where the parents would wait to collect us children. Some of my friend’s joined their parents and left, while others hung around whilst the mums were chatting. I remember my mum walking in the door and walking over to me but something seemed off. My memory of this bit is a bit hazy. I think I wanted to tell her something or other about my day. One of the other mums asked if Mum was alright and she said something about a terror attack. I don’t remember the exact words, but I remember that it seemed weird enough that the other mums didn’t know what to make of it and didn’t believe her.

I was eight and this was just a normal day becoming a bit strange. I think that Mum must have tried to explain what was happening, but I didn’t really know what to make of it. But here’s where my memory becomes clearer. We walked into the house and I dumped my bag at the bottom of the stairs before walking into the living room to see my Dad sitting on the sofa, watching the television with the blue screen in the corner. As I looked at the television I saw for the first time that now iconic image of the twin towers, with smoke billowing from the towers. I don’t have particularly strong memories of watching what happened, but I distinctly remember the atmosphere of a significance which was too real for me to deny but which was also too great for me to really understand. The main moments of memories which I remember are my parents reactions to the hankies which were waved out of the windows, and that moment when the first tower fell.

15 years on and the repercussions of that day echo on throughout the world. The response has shaped international politics, particularly in the middle east, in such a way that it has become commonplace for analysts, writers and pundits to discuss policy and narratives as taking place in a post-9/11 world. Culturally, even internationally, it became one of those rare “Where were you when..” moments.

Each year since, but particularly this year as the 15th anniversary, it’s natural that people will remember and acknowledge the events of that day.

Remembrance is an important thing.

Yet it can also be a complicated one, and the fact is that the remembering of 9/11 today is in that transitioning phase between a shared recollection of the majority of people and the establishing of how the significance and legacy of that moment will be explained and shared with those who have either been born after it, or who were too young to remember it. This year is the first american election where among the people voting, in part, on foreign policy there will be voters who do not personally remember 9/11.

This means that those who were there that day, as a survivor, a firefighter, a medic, a news reporter, a bystander or relatives who lost loved ones should consider starting, if they haven’t already, sharing their stories and writing them down. Records are important so that when the intuitive emotional understanding of an event fades, people can still engage with and learn from it.

One hundred years ago Europe was in the midst of the first world war. The last combat veteran of that war, one Claude Choules who served in the British Royal Navy, died five years ago on the 5th of May 2011. That war is well documented, but is surprisingly poorly understood by the general public – particularly the younger generations. In part this is because the emotional understanding of the subsequent world war of 1939-1945 and the tangible impact of the death toll on the population where seemingly every town, village,and farm lost family members. To an extent, this experience relegated and absorbed the horrors of the first world war into the horrors of the second in the public consciousness. Perhaps not at first, but as the years roll by and the stories are handed down to those who were born 10, 30, 50 years later there has been a peculiar union between the historical realities and the legends which have grown up about them.

Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys encapsulates this beautifully in the line: “This is history. Distance yourselves. Our perspective on the past alters. Looking back, immediately in front of us is dead ground. We don’t see it, and because we don’t see it this means there is no period so remote as the recent past.”

This is not to undermine the historical records we have, in fact precisely the opposite! With the world wars, the legends and the cultural consciousness of the significance of these events has inspired and prompted books, films, plays, lectures and art which have in turn enabled the education and remembrance of those events.

In reflecting on remembering 9/11 and the exploration of the recent past as it consolidates into history, my mind is drawn to Luke’s Gospel.

The purpose of John’s Gospel is so that the reader might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (20:31).

However the intention of Luke’s gospel, whilst chronicling the same events, is subtly different. Luke begins,

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things which have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. 

Luke’s gospel was not written as Jesus was exercising his ministry, and the account of the crucifixion and resurrection are not the equivalent of an ancient diary entry. Instead it was likely written sometime between 80-100AD.* That is, it was written some years later as the church grew and there were more and more believers who had not encountered Jesus during their own lives, and more than this, as there were more and more believers who didn’t know many (or any) of the eyewitnesses personally. This is important, because as Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised [from the dead], our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

Luke’s Gospel, with its focus on eyewitnesses (which are often referred or alluded to within the text) is an attempt to present the reality of who Jesus is, what he did and also of what happened to him. This helps Christians to remember Jesus. To remember the pain of the Cross that resulted in his death. To remember the despair of the disciples as they grieved. To remember the hope of the resurrection and the promise that in darkness and pain and suffering that we are not alone, but are accompanied by Christ; and that as he joins with us in our sufferings and our death, we will share with him in his Life, in his joy and in his relationship with the Father, sustained and nourished by the Holy Spirit.

It seems fitting that this day of remembering 9/11 is a Sunday.

As we remember and wrestle with the terrible events of that day, and as we try to explain it to those who came after that day, we would do well to remember that in the darkness and the horrors of human experience we are not abandoned. We have a Lord who does not shy away from despair or flinch in the face of death, but who squares up to it and takes it upon his shoulders along side us. As well as looking back to what has happened, let’s take stock of where we are and how we let this define us as we move forwards, with a sense of hope.

 


*there are discussions about the extent to which it was continuing to be edited and revised into the second century but 80-100AD is fine for the purposes of this post.

Lent Reflection: Eucharist – the Seventh Feast

It’s Easter!

Christ is Risen! 

Alleluia!

And so, we come to the end of this year’s series of Lent Reflections. However, today as we celebrate Easter is the Seventh Feast. It’s not found directly in the story of the Prodigal Son, but as we have seen feasting is important in the story of the Prodigal Son. Sometimes we can read scripture and wonder about its applicability to our lives. Today’s feast is not just applicable, it’s a vital part of the exercising our Christian faith in the Crucified and Risen Saviour, Jesus Christ.

In Eucharist we remember Christ’s death upon the Cross. We remember his body, broken for us, when we eat the bread. We remember his blood, shed for us for the forgiveness of sins, when we drink the wine.

Now different churches have different traditions and beliefs about the Eucharist. Some hold that it is just a symbol, the bread and wine are strictly bread and wine and the associations are found in the minds of those remembering what Christ has done. Others hold that in the Eucharist the bread and the wine actually and truly become the body and blood of Christ, though they still taste, look and feel like bread and wine.

My perspective is slightly different (I will be brief, as I did my undergrad dissertation on this and could go on quite happily for hours!).

Simply put, I find a lot of value to the way in which a theologian called Thomas F. Torrance views theology, particularly when applying it to the sacraments.

He says that there’s three elements to knowing God. There’s the raw, unfiltered experience of God when we worship (alone or in church), there’s the theological and liturgical experience (our thoughts and understanding of God, particularly in church services), and there’s what is actually happening from God’s perspective (the ontological reality of the event we are experiencing and theologising about)!

When we apply this to the Eucharist we end up with three ‘layers’ of meaning. These three layers cannot be separated from each other but explain and reinforce each other.

  1. We eat and drink bread and wine. That’s it.
  2. We remember that the bread represents Christ’s body, and that the wine represents Christ’s blood; and that these were given for us on the Cross so that by his death and resurrection we could be forgiven of our sins and be declared Children of God.
  3. As we eat and drink the bread and wine, the Holy Spirit is present in such a way that we are actually united with Christ in his death and resurrection, receiving the ongoing forgiveness for our sins, and joining in with Christ’s worship of God the Father as he stands at the right hand of God the Father as our high priest, intercessor and mediator.

What this means for me personally is that I have a very strong respect for what happens in communion, whilst being relatively casual about how we take communion. I feel that it is generally just as valid in a Catholic Mass as it would be in a Baptist context.

I also particularly like the way that the Church of England phrases it in the Eucharistic prayer(s):

Draw near with faith.
Receive the body of our Lord Jesus Christ
which he gave for you,
and his blood which he shed for you,
and feed on him in your hearts
by faith with thanksgiving. 

Church of England Liturgy, emphasis mine.

Bearing all this in mind, I love this painting by Nikolai Kharlamov.

nikolai-kharlamov-the-holy-eucharist
Nikolai Kharlamov – circa 1890s, Church of the Saviour on the Spilt Blood, St. Petersburg

Jesus is on the throne, holding bread in one hand and wine in the other and giving it to nine believers (I imagine the ‘9’ is significant, however I don’t know of what).. In this moment of Eucharist, they are receiving normal bread and normal wine, they are acknowledging Christ as Lord, and they are welcomed into the living presence of heaven – symbolised by all the angels.

This Easter day as we celebrate the Risen Lord by taking the Eucharist, may we reflect on the place that this feast has in our faith and worship.

The Collect for Easter:

Lord of all life and power
who through the might
resurrection of your Son
overcame the old order of sin and death
to make all things new in him:
grant that we, being dead to sin,
and alive to you in Jesus Christ,
may reign with him in glory,
to whom with you, and the Holy Spirit,
be praise and honour, glory and might,
now and in all eternity.
Amen.