A PAUSE FOR THOUGHT
Some things in life happen only very occasionally. You can provide your own examples, I am sure. It is certainly a very rare occurrence indeed to reach the end of a four-hour meeting, especially a Church meeting, and to be disappointed that it could not continue for another couple of hours.
This was the experience of over thirty people who came together in mid-November to explore the Old Testament with the Rev. David Wood. Time didn’t stand still: it raced away from us.David and Kathleen, who now live in North Yorkshire, are remembered with great affection for their time in Preston when David was Superintendent of the Preston Circuit and Kathleen was a minister south of the river. David has had a long love for the Old Testament having studied Hebrew at university and has shared his knowledge with thousands of students. How fortunate they have been. On this occasion, his audience even included a Preston-based Rabbi.
David had been asked to help us examine some of the themes of the Old Testament which are relevant to us today. Is it a dead or fading text, eclipsed by the New Testament? Does it still live and, if so, how? It would be an impossible task to share the very many insights which David put before us in response to these questions, so what I record here is very personal. What did I learn? What do I want to know more about and what am I going to do next? I put my feelings in these terms because above all David strengthened my understanding that the Old Testament is best seen as an ‘invitation to debate’. To debate the nature of God, to explore the love affair which exists between God and creation and an invitation, as though in a lifestyle magazine, to examine our own behaviour as sentient human beings.
Some starting points: God is the Creator, the Sustainer. If God ‘goes away’ then the whole cosmos is without form and void. God is Holy - the only entity who is before, beyond and greater than the universe itself. God is mysterious beyond imagination -an elusive presence, there and not there, and yet of whom we are given tantalising glimpses as we read this ancient collection of writings. Of course, through many years, Christians have had different understandings of the nature of those writings, the scriptures, and these differences continue today. But what clearly those writings do, however we regard them. is to offer to us a record of an ongoing theological exploration of history. And by engaging in that exploration we can make it current and not ancient. So for example we are introduced toan active God, best described in verbs and not nouns, who consistently creates covenants with individuals, states, nations and the whole of creation. But the Old Testament too shows how difficult it has been for men and women to understand and to come to terms with their place in the scheme of things, often misunderstanding and rushing to false conclusions. And it is through the stories and writings of these men and women that the conversation develops, a conversation which never ends and which we men and women of today can play a full part.
David invited us to engage with the writings in three ways. Firstly, they offer us an invitation simply to talk, to share our life experiences. We were invited to discuss in small groups some key passages which David had chosen. He asked us to look at Exodus 34: 6-7 - not an easy passage, especially to those who are suffering. How might Job, the writer of Lamentations, of Ecclesiastes and Jonah have responded to that passage? Fundamental questions are raised by them which we continue to debate today in the scriptures and practice of Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
Then the Old Testament offers an invitation to pray. Deuteronomy 6: 4-7 is a good example of this. So we spent time silently in prayer and then together reflecting upon the practice of spirituality both today and over the centuries. David encouraged us to face up to a fundamental question - is spiritual practice a form of escapism or is it a tool by which we can be transformed?
Finally, David suggested the Old Testament was a clear invitation to mission. This time we were invited to think about Micah 6: 8. The Old Testament exhorts us to serve - an instruction which is repeated in the New Testament (for example, Mark 12). That mission, that service, took many forms in Old Testament times and takes many forms today. How do we respond now? A key question which is emerging in our times is the extent to which that invitation is addressed to all faiths to work together for the good of God’s creation and in praise of our Creator.
No article such as this can do justice to such a wonderful day and such a profound contribution. All it can do is to allow someone who was privileged to be there, as I was, to read again the notes which were taken and the insights gained and to hope for more meetings like this one!
So what do I do next? Well, I think it is a bit late to learn Hebrew but not too late to read those scholars writing today, who know these writings so well. David gave us several leads and if anyone wants some of the recommendations he left with us, do ask me.