Frogs and toads

Illustration by my son.

I don’t think there is much that we are taught in churches which doesn’t involve a leap or two. As well as learning to be  snakes at least as well as doves ( cf Matthew 10:16)  I’m feeling a need to encourage congregations to be leaping frogs, rather than crawling toads. In life, in prayer, in work, in worship. One step at a time may not do justice to the urgency of our day. 

  Some of these leaps  are very basic to everyday faith, such as the confident  insistence that the words of Jesus in the Gospels personally or corporately actually address us, at least insofar as we identify as disciples. On one level, it’s absurd, and yet on another, it’s essential. It’s true.

The inspiration I have found in Pope Francis’ encyclical ‘Laudato Si’. namely the fully conscious leap from ‘object’ to ‘subject’ (from ‘what’ to ‘who) is far more poetic than scholarly, though gaining authority from the precedent of a much-loved and fully official saint ( Francis of Assisi). And yet personification (which should not be dismissed as crass anthropomorphising) is widespread in the poetry of Scripture. 

Without it, we will refuse to hear the prophetic and suffering voice of the Earth, or permit Creation to join us in our interpretation of  scripture. 

But of course, such things are naive absurdities? Without them, find we have neither baby nor bathwater.

A similar matter is the phenomenon that we do receive the Bible in our own tongue. And the confidence ( though even this is relative) we ought to  be able to claim, that ‘losses in translation’ both are  and are not necessary.  To the Spirit is allocated  the task of making up any deficit, and the community of faith, rather than an individual, carries responsibility for their reliance on such help. 

I have frequently wondered how people who use “such a dire translation”, sing “such awful hymns”, or labour under an abusive theology,  have come to know Jesus, and even developed a strong motivation for environmental action.  At such times, it’s a liberating privilege to be wrong. 

Reason and Spirit are also not necessarily in tension, nor are systematic theologies necessarily the natural enemies of the pastoral and poetic. Like the Magi, they can reach the same destination by another way.  Though there are times when it’s difficult not to get sucked into that sort of conflict, or be the one who, in pursuit of the final word, fails to realise it’s been said some while ago. 

Things better unsaid, in a digital age, can at least be deleted. 

Where starting-points differ,  arguments will most likely either result in people coming to blows, resorting to  the transparent irony of the phrase “with respect”,  pulling rank, or at best (and I do mean best) agreeing , graciously, themselves, to differ.

 Here, in the matter of  the validity of differing languages; I choose to give authority – again in an absurd and not particularly rational way or coherent way (-but get used to it)  – to the experience of Pentecost. Another leap. Moving on, by the intervention of the Holy Spirit, from the idea of the ‘original’, which is, for instance, extremely dear to the spiritual traditions of Islam and Sikhism. A translation of ancient texts to modern IS the Bible, and in prayerful  use by a faithful community , becomes Scripture. Churches will vary as to how and where this process is recognised, with a greater or lesser degree of ‘official’ interpretation. 

This is always surreptitiously subversive: our encounter with ‘the Word of God’  has to involve some  margin of experience which cannot be pinned down. Or we would be forced, maliciously, to disregard every Bible -based insight from those of a different mother-tongue. 

It was probably during prohibitions on their language that Welsh became for Welsh-speakers ‘the language of heaven’. 

But if you speak it, the angels sing it. (Pole-vaulting).

(There is a high proportion of ‘get-used-to-it’ involved in these thoughts. A bit like the get-used-to-it that I have not achieved the lowest carbon footprint in ministry in Scotland nor am I likely to,  (I can admire and be encouraged by those who have done better) or  the get-used-to-it that we do not have time to reinvent the Church in response to climate emergency, only to asses our readiness, responsiveness, and spiritual resilience, relying on the mercy of God when these are found as wanting as the beautiful luxury of being seamlessly right in one’s arguments about the promise made to Noah whilst the sea-level nonetheless rises.

It’s liberating to get used to it, that every translation of the Bible, and every sermon, however hard we strive to be fair, has a slant, which will be judged, one way or another (another leap) by what God turns out to have said and done with, for, to and through us. 

The highest regard is unwaveringly due those who have devoted their lives to such work, and precisely therefore the recognition and acknowledgment of a slant should be cause neither for shame nor offence.  Agenda and methodology will legitimately vary; Bible versions will come and go, some leaving remarkable legacies in the consciousness of nation and church, in which I can’t imagine the King James Bible, first on the block in this sense, will ever be outdone. Scholarship provides the foundation, though not the building, nor the boundaries, of a community’s  active faith. 

From what I’ve seen so far of the training of the leaders of churches,  by and large, many really useful skills are widely  inculcated, especially in terms of reflective practice and spiritual responsiveness. 

 Since even the IPCC cannot do more than provide likely, and terrifying  trends for the fate of the life of the world,  our leaders’ being able to reflect creatively on what does turn out to happen, using Scripture as an authoritative tool and resource, in context, will be highly valuable to congregations  of Christians (and the communities in which they are embedded).  There is cause for confidence, here at least. 

I wonder sometimes though – and part of this is personal experience – what can be done to help people through their first few years in whatever sort of ministry: from the college, to the church. Like learning again to write poetry and paint pictures  after school. 

And the acuteness  of this journeyman  phase in a day of Creation Crisis…..

As  this year I approach my ‘silver jubilee’ of ordination, I am still struck, and surprised, by how useful a particular lecture or course  turned out to be;  though also how differently things might have turned out for me if I had then had the confidence to question more rigorously some of the culture of ( Oxford) university theology. 

I made and continue to make  many mistakes, but some of those, right now, are as valuable as the teaching.

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