Retreat Thoughts - Open Lord my inward ear
It has been a joy to be on the District ministers’ retreat with no responsibility for leading any of the sessions, and to be able to enter in fully as a participant.
It was a very special time. The ministers of the South West Worcestershire circuit led our morning and evening prayer in a variety of styles all on reflecting in different ways on the book of Jonah. The skill and creativity was really good to engage with, which both helped prayer and the developing of new insights.
What I was struck with was the richness of themes that the Book of Jonah opens out. The personal journey of Jonah, from disobedience, exile, restoration and self-pity, set in the context of a God who is more generous and gracious than he can imagine. A God who cares for the whole world, even those who reject him, in a way that Jonah can’t quite grasp.
I was particularly taken when the story was related to the four alls of Methodism, and I was able to recognise what a Methodist book it is! The God of Jonah is clearly a God who believes all people need to be saved, and all people can be saved; an Arminian, and not a Calvinist God.
In my understanding the book of Jonah is a parable, set in the eighth century BC, but probably written two or three hundred years later, when the Israelites had returned to Jerusalem after the exile on Babylon. In the time after the exile, the Israelites felt a natural, but unfortunate need to preserve their own identity at all costs. Relations with non-Jews were heavily proscribed, religious laws became stricter, and for some it was as if God only cared for the Jews. Jonah challenges that in a satirical, witty, yet very powerful way, showing that God has a care for the Ninevites as well as the Jews. A God who crosses barriers.
As I prepare today to be part of the Hope not Hate event at Birmingham Central Mosque, the recognition that God is for all, and the as his people we are called to cross barriers in his name, is very much in my mind.
The main input on the retreat was from Rev Julie Lunn, a former minister in this district who now is on the staff of the College of the Church of the Nazarene in Manchester. She used icons and Charles Wesley’s hymns to help us reflect on the image of God and our response as individuals and as a Christian community.
Of the icons we looked at, the one that spoke most to me was one known as Jesus Christ of Sinai
At first glance the face is wrongly proportioned, but Julie pointed out that it is deliberately not symmetrical. Rather, as we look, the right side is of a strong, powerful Jesus, reflecting Christ in glory, whereas the left side, is a suffering, compassionate Jesus, reflecting perhaps more the reality of Jesus of Nazareth. If you block out one side it becomes clearer. That need to hold together those two aspects of Jesus challenged me. In many ways I am more comfortable with the suffering, compassionate Jesus, who is so clearly an image of God’s love. Thoughts of Jesus as King for me have to be mediated through an understanding of Kingship which is revealed in humble suffering, vulnerability even. How do I understand God’s power? Perhaps that is what this icon is saying, that the suffering, compassionate, at times powerless Jesus, nevertheless is the way that God’s power is revealed. That in Christ, such suffering, compassion and powerlessness are not the end, and are the way that the real power of God’s love is revealed. It also is a warning against a triumphalism that wants to present the strength of Jesus in a way that ignores his humble humanity.
Difficult to put into words, but reflecting prayerfully on the image for me both deepened understanding and challenged faith.
As well as the pictures I really appreciated the way that Julie wove into her reflections some of Charles Wesley’s lesser known hymns, several of which are not in our recent hymnbooks (not even the 1933 Methodist Hymn Book1), and were new to me. I was reminded how much of my spirituality stems from the understanding of God that is expressed in those hymns, even if some of the ideas now feel dated. My response was to use a couple of the hymns that Julie referred to, one known and in Singing the Faith and one not, as starting points for reflection, which I include below, one with a Rembrandt picture that we also looked at.
A Reflection on Charles Wesley’s hymn: ‘Open Lord my inward ear’ StF 450
‘Open Lord, my inward ear and bid my heart rejoice,
Let my quiet spirit hear your comfortable voice.’
Yes, Lord, but what if it is music, conversation, laughter, people
that bring me alive to you?
Why do introverts sometimes make extraverts feel spiritually second class?
and yet I know,
I know that longing to go deeper
that sometimes needs a quietness,
‘still and silent is the sound,
the whisper of your voice.’
And it so often is a whisper,
your voice, your call, so easily drowned out,
e-mails to be answered
meetings to go to,
functioning on duty rather than vocation,
in a role
with a passion to do a job well,
but in your name or mine?
‘Never in the whirlwind found
or where earthquakes rock the place.’
Lord, are you really never to be found there?
when life is a whirlwind, when the foundations are rocked
surely you are not absent.
Rather I absent myself,
doing replaces being,
(but there is so much to be done)
the treadmill replaces the prayer room
and you get squeezed out
in my need to be doing
what I think is your work,
and the whisper grows fainter still.
‘From the world of sin and noise
and hurry I withdraw.’
ebullient noisy worship,
you speak in them both,
to some more in one than the other.
‘the secret of your love’
is revealed in myriad ways,
shining into an infinite variety
of personalities and cultures.
your love transforms, convicts, converts,
and I long for that continual
transformation, conviction and conversion,
‘my soul to you convert’.
Yes, I am indeed ‘slow of heart’
even the longing, let alone the reality,
is too often pushed away,
there is too much that I do not want
to ‘count but loss.’
But just sometimes,
barely enough to keep me on the path,
the words do match the reality
when I sing;
‘Yours, in whom I live and move,
Yours the work, the praise is thine,
You are wisdom, power and love,
And all you are is mine.’
A REFLECTION OF THE IMAGE OF GOD?
‘Renew thy image, Lord, in me,
Lowly and gentle may I be;
No charms but these to thee are dear;
No anger may’st thou ever find
No pride in my unruffled mind,
But faith and heave-born peace be there’
Rembrandt: Simeon with the Christ Child in the temple
The flash of recognition
after all those years,
so many children presented
Yet one, this one…
He just knew.
‘For mine eyes have seen your salvation.’
Where is the recognition now?
How do we know?
Where do we see God’s image,
without creating God in ours?
Christ, ‘image of the invisible God,’
but an image shaped in us
by culture, by personality,
‘What is truth?’
Oh, for eyes to see your salvation,
for Simeon’s insight,
to catch the image of God
in the picture of Christ.
For questions not to be an excuse for inaction.
That I may
‘renew your image, Lord, in me’
and made in God’s image
through who you have made me to be:
‘love your image, love impart,
stamp it on my face and heart’.
‘Love, thy image love impart,
Stamp it on our face and heart,
Only love to us be given,
Lord, we ask no other heaven.’