We are incredibly grateful to the Very Revd Prof Martyn Percy for this series of reflections, which are now complete.
One: Finding Our Pulse and Heart
Two: Finding Our Substance and Spine
Three: Finding Our Courage and Conviction
Four: Finding Our Wisdom and Discernment
Finale: At the End of the Rainbow – Finding Our Home
Finale: At the End of the Rainbow – Finding Our Home.
As with newspapers, so with scripture. Try not to read a story or leader article through the lens of the title or the subtitle inserted by some editor. Journalists rarely choose their headlines, and are sometimes dismayed at what an editor puts over their texts. The scriptures are no different. There are no headings or sub-headings in the gospels, epistles, psalms … or anywhere else in scripture. The Parable of the Sower is about the seed, not the sower. The Parable or the Wise and Foolish Virgins is about a groom, not bridesmaids.
Likewise, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is also misnamed, because there are no “good” Samaritans. They are, by reputation, a “bad bunch” of folk. Of course, Jesus did not give names or titles to his parables, and he didn’t publish them either. Like a bad publisher, it is the marketing department that misunderstands the thrust of the story, and so gives it a misleading name. A much better title for the Good Samaritan would be The Neighbour from Hell. Why? Because for a Judean audience, there was no such thing as a “good” Samaritan – they were all bad to Jewish minds. So Jesus’ story is deliberately confounding and highly subversive. It is an invitation to see your enemies as potentially kind rescuers.
The fourteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich took the view that God’s essence is kindness. She wrote that God is “kind in its very being, that is to say that goodness that is kind, it is God … God is the same thing as his kindness … the father and mother of all kindness”. Our belief that God is love, or benevolence, or kindness must never be confused with the belief that somehow God is nice or polite. As Martin Luther King remarked the greatness of God is rooted in being both tough minded, and tender-hearted.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son (strictly speaking, the father is the prodigal one; the younger son grateful, and the older son resentful), the father’s gesture towards the younger son is revolutionary in character. Because the father does not deal with guilt by forgiveness. Rather, he deals with the shame of his son, and his own shame, by redemptive, excessive public celebration. This is the only way to really smash shame and restore a person. Jesus does it with the woman caught in adultery. The woman who anoints him at the house of Simon the Pharisee, and the Samaritan woman at the well in the Gospel of John. In each case, shame is smashed – conquered by unqualified love and public vindication. Humiliation is addressed, redeemed and destroyed.
The Bible gives us ample evidence of a God who makes demands on individuals, communities and humanity, and holds them to be accountable. To abandon God is to abandon our neighbour, and ourselves, and our humanity. We are called to be responsible, kind and loving, just as God was. We therefore have responsibility and accountability for the shame of others, and we are invited to participate in challenging this and in seeking its conquest and destruction. Tough-minded love goes hand-in-hand with tender-hearted love. The one does not eliminate the other. Thus, we know from scripture that God must be the highest form of love of which we can conceive.
Traditionally the Church fathers held that God’s love is caritas: one Latin term used to translate the Greek New Testament term agape. This is the same love St Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 13 in such an eloquent and distilled form:
If I speak in the tongues of human beings and of angels but do not have love, I have become a sounding bronze or a cymbal clashing.
If I have the power of prophecy and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I distribute all my possessions, and if I hand over my body to be burnt, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not jealous; love is not boastful, or puffed up or rude.
It does not insist on its rights, it does not take offence, it does not plan evil.
It does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth.
It puts up with everything; it believes everything; it hopes everything; and it endures everything.
Love never falls away.
If there are prophecies, they will become superfluous.
If there are tongues, they will cease.
If there is knowledge, it will become superfluous.
For we know only in part and we prophesy only in part.
But once perfection comes, the partial will be superfluous.
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, I reasoned as a child.
When I became a man, I put aside the things of childhood.
Now we see in a mirror, confusedly, but then we shall see face to face.
Now I know only partially, then I shall know fully, just as I am fully known.
Now faith, hope and love abide, the three of them, but the greatest of them is love.
We often translate caritas as “charity”, but in truth the term is all about love. This is love that rejoices in Truth. So, any Church, community, country or society that evades truth is going to avoid love. The perfect love of God is not just something that is personal. It is overflowing. Shared love, to exist, cannot be about two people only, but must be something that spills over from their lives to affect and bless others.
Many people remember the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie for Judy Garland’s song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (it won an Oscar). There is a dreamy quality to the song combines elements of lullaby and almost heavenly aspiration, a world where troubles “melt away”. The song yearns for homecoming, yet also puts the old world behind; for the singer: a new future opens up, one tinged with regret, but also with promise. In part, the popularity of the song owed much to its adoption by American soldiers during the Second World War as it does to the film; the song became an anthem for those departing overseas. The ballad composed by Harold Arlen with lyrics by Yip Harburg are familiar:
Somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high
And the dreams that you dream of
Once in a lullaby
Somewhere over the rainbow
And the dreams that you dream of
Dreams really do come true
Someday, I wish upon a star
Wake up where the clouds are far behind me
Where trouble melts like lemon drops
High above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me
Somewhere over the rainbow
And the dreams that you dare to
Oh why, oh why can’t I?
Just as the character of Jesus’ parable in Luke 15 takes a decision to venture away from home, so do the characters in The Wizard of Oz, most especially Dorothy. The resolution for restlessness and adventure is homecoming, with elements of repentance and forgiveness. Dorothy’s last words towards the close of the film might easily be spoken by the younger son of Jesus’ parable: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look further than my own back yard, because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it”.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is a ballad written and performed by musician Elton John and the title track on his 1973 album (with lyrics written by Bernie Taupin). Elton John’s song from the album of the same name, picks up where Dorothy left off:
“I should have stayed on the farm, I should have listened to my old man”:
The religious origins in the song are opaque for most listeners, but they are present, and demonstrate the extent to which our own popular culture continues to feed off religious ideas and images.
When are you gonna’ come down
When are you going to land
I should have stayed on the farm
I should have listened to my old man
You know you can’t hold me forever
I didn’t sign up with you
I’m not a present for your friends to open
This boy’s too young to be singing the blues
So goodbye yellow brick road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can’t plant me in your penthouse
I’m going back to my plough
Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad
Oh I’ve finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road
What do you think you’ll do then
I bet that’ll shoot down your plane
It’ll take you a couple of vodka and tonics
To set you on your feet again
Maybe you’ll get a replacement
There’s plenty like me to be found
Mongrels who ain’t got a penny
Sniffing for tidbits like you on the ground
The Yellow Brick Road leads to the Emerald City in the land of Oz, often referred to as a metaphor for “the road that leads to life’s fantasies” or “the road that leads to life’s answers”. The lyrics describe wanting to go back to a simpler existence after living what the narrator thought was a good life but realizing he has simply been treated like a pet by his rich socialite lover. The Wizard of Oz was reportedly the first film that Bernie Taupin had ever seen, and he used the imagery in the lyrics relating to his own life as his desire to “get back to [his] roots”. (By the way, just in case you doubt the sexual connotations of the ballad woven through Elton John’s song, when it was released as a single, there was a B-side as with all vinyl singles. It is a song called ‘Screw You’, although the US release re-titled the song “Young Man’s Blues” so as not to offend American record buyers!).
When we encounter Jesus in the gospels, we often find him him eating or dining with the wrong kind of people. Dining with the right people was normal, and ancient symposiums were often occasions around food, conversations and interactions that required people to pass things to one another, to share and enjoy company in the midst of debate. That is why I think we have something going on with Jesus eating in the homes of other people. It is what one theologian (Johan Baptist Metz) has called “the dangerous memory” of Jesus. When we gather as a body, we break bread, we share wine, we remember conversations, instructions and teaching – and all gathered around food. We are called to share our common life with other people.
Catherine of Siena’s writings often speak to us as though God were speaking. In her work The Dialogues she places these words on God’s lips:
I asked you to love me with the same love with which I loved you, but for me you cannot do this for I loved you without being loved. Whatever love you have for me you owe me, so you love me not gratuitously, but out of duty, while I love you not out of duty, but gratuitously. So you cannot give me the same kind of love that I ask of you . . .
Well, if we cannot love God as God asks of us all, what are we to do? Give up now? But Catherine of Siena then continues to voice God’s heartfelt words:
. . . this is why I have put you among your neighbours, so that you can do for them what you cannot do for me. That is, love them without any concern for thanks and without looking for any profit for yourself, and whatever you do for them, I will consider that done for me. . . .
Love is not just a single-minded concern. It is never (just) about friendship, marriage or filial obligation. It is about bestowing love on others. Somehow in the mystery of all of this we are mandated to love one another, even those who do not love us. For this reason, Paul says, “bear with one another; forgive one another if anyone has a complaint against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also do the same” (Colossians 3:13). (Likewise, Paul’s invocation in Ephesians 4:32 is to be kind and generous to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God and Christ have forgiven you).
Love is a work of patience, and to practise patience is to suffer the flow of time and space, recognising our inability to rush redemption. Church is a work of patience too. The only thing to do is work ceaselessly, putting love into practice and action in the most concrete ways possible, whilst simultaneously leaving the outcome of that entirely in the hands of God. We simply cannot make love do its work. It must be done for its own sake, and maybe then its fruits will flourish. The Gospel of John tells us that God chose to abide with us; to dwell with us and make his home amongst us in the person of Jesus. God chose to be at home with us in Jesus, so that we might be at home with God for eternity. Our hope and prayer for our churches, and our vision for being the Rainbow Church that Desmond Tutu spoke of, is that our places of worship will be a foretaste of the heavenly home to which God invites all. There is no place like God’s home. All are welcome, and our churches must only issue the invitations. So come, let us Tutufy our churches.
If you have found the approach in this short course helpful, you might also enjoy:
Martyn Percy, The Humble Church: Renewing the Body of Christ, Canterbury Press, 2021
Robert Boak Slocum & Martyn Percy (eds.), Fearful Times; Living Faith, Wipf & Stock, 2021
Martyn Percy, Others: A Very Short Book About Beliefs, John Hunt Publishing, 2022
You can also find a collection of Essays, Reviews and Commentaries on faith and belief at: www.meander.network. For example, groups interested in exploring issues such as power, sexuality or religion today are covered in a range of articles that you will find accessible.
The Art of Group Discussion in a Rainbow Church:
One of the inspiring insights we were bequeathed by Desmond Tutu was his coming up with the phrase “Rainbow Nation”. It was his dream – indeed, vision. In a country where it was often not easy, he was always emphatically an optimist, a voice of hope. He may have left us, but that hope lives on. It is quite some legacy.
At the end of the film The Wizard of Oz, the place we call “home” is beyond the rainbow. Whether you pass through, over or under it, this matters not. The lullaby-hymn (Somewhere Over the Rainbow) expresses a deep longing for home, companionship and resolution. The song is as spiritual as it is sentimental.
Most good education, decent theology, quite a lot of spirituality, and certainly nearly all faith development, is conversational in character. We learn as we listen, and we are often changed when we truly hear. We also listen when we speak, as when we come to put words to our experiences, we discover their partiality and paucity – but also authenticity. Things we valued and thought we were absolutely sure of don’t quite attain the currency we supposed they were worth when we speak of them. So we listen in a spirit of humility, even to ourselves. On the other hand, some things that might have seemed worthless to us are, to others, surprising nuggets of gold, and cherished as treasure.
If you are minded to use this short course as a basis for discussion, I recommend that you set some ground rules for listening and speaking with one another. It is far too easy in group dynamics to fall into unhelpful binaries, like listener-speaker and leader-led. I take a different approach, and suggest you try to inhabit the beliefs and worldviews of others from the outset.
For example, you might like to have a discussion about how your beliefs and values on sexuality and religion have changed – or stayed the same – over the course of your life.
Then, rather than tell the group all of this, spend no more than five minutes summarising this to the person sitting nearest you. They may not interrupt you in these five minutes. Your partner may make notes, and they may ask questions for clarification for no more than two minutes at the end. Then reverse roles. Having both made notes, and the rest of the group likewise, your partner then speaks for you for around three minutes, summarising what they (hopefully!) have heard. Their introduction of you should be positive, fair and not subjected to the interspersing of any qualifying comments or criticism, as though reading a text. The presentation of your beliefs and experiences should be undertaken by your partner at least as an advocate or attorney might for a defendant in a legal case. Ideally, however, they would speak not just for you, but as you – in role, occupying and owning your beliefs and values, and done as though this is all that matters. All in the group should do likewise for the other, as an act of generous hospitality.
Having listened to one another, one person can take responsibility for moderating a discussion, and drawing the common threads together. But the group should also carefully note the areas that have seemed peripheral, and which perhaps only one person mentioned or touched on. The group can then reflect, later, on how discussion of these experiences and beliefs might be taken forward.
This can be a difficult process, to be sure. But trust it and stay with it, and each other. It can be hard for someone who has major misgivings about same-sex marriages, to spend some time living in that experience. Equally someone who has no such misgivings but welcomes same-sex marriage, will struggle to embody and represent those very misgivings. But we cannot understand others unless we take these kinds of steps.
Proceeding in this way will enable the group to develop respectful, empathetic and possibly compassionate modes of listening, which can otherwise be lost if we find ourselves pressed in self-defence over our beliefs and values. Listening and speaking like this can help us begin to own what it is like to be the “other person” – someone else – with their life, beliefs and experiences, and the pleasure and rewards that these may bring, or perhaps the pain and stigma that they might suffer. Some beliefs are a liberating gift; others can be an oppressing burden. Remember, most people who hold sincere beliefs don’t think they chose them, as though on a shopping spree. Many people harbour a view that these beliefs chose them. They don’t hold beliefs; they are held by them.