Sunday, 19 June 2011

Why suffering?

Preacher: Sue

In preparing this, I have been very influenced by a paper, “When darkness covers the earth”, given by one of my teachers when I studied at King’s College London, Murray Rae.
Today I’m going to focus on human suffering. And I’m going to assume that for us as Christians, one of the key difficulties of suffering - apart from just the sheer business of getting through it ourselves or with others - is the questions it raises. I’m going to crystallise the problem as follows: if God is good, loving and all powerful, why do so many people suffer so much? What I found helpful in my teacher’s paper was that he pinpointed three beliefs underlying this question and examined ways in which people have tried to explain away the problem by denying one of these beliefs. Those three beliefs are: suffering is bad, God is good and loving and God is all-powerful.
I’ve found it helpful to visualise this as a stool: take away any one of the legs and you no longer have a useable stool. Take away any one of these beliefs and, although you still have to live with suffering, you no longer have the agonising questions about where God is in it all.
So let’s look at these three legs in turn, starting with the belief that God is good and loving. I understand from my Advanced Workshop students ( that there are Christians who question this - though I’m afraid that in a very unscholarly way I have forgotten all the details! Of course in the midst of suffering we may wonder just how loving God really is - and perhaps we wonder this also when we read parts of the Old Testament. But I think to remove this leg would be the least satisfying way of destabilising the stool because the faith it would leave us with would be so impoverished. I want to insist that God loves us and is on our side. So I’m not going to explore that “leg” further.
What about the next leg, the belief that suffering is evil?
Although this may not instantly appeal, when we stop to think we can probably come up with a number of ways in which people downplay the evil-ness of suffering.
One way might be a strong belief in providence, where God is in full control, so anything that happens is God’s will and even things that seem awful must have some good about them. For instance, Joni Eareckson came to terms with her paralysis after an accident by seeing it as part of God’s plan for her life and being grateful for the way it forced her to seek God in a way that she would not have done otherwise.
However, I think this view misses the fact that we are in a fallen world. For instance, we see violence all around us but do not as Anabaptists believe that just because it exists it must be God-ordained. So our theology of providence has, I think, to make room for the fact that not everything that happens is proved, just by the fact of happening, to be God’s will. And we need this belief that the world is not as God wants to give us a foothold from which to protest against injustice and the suffering which it causes, a point which has been made effectively by a number of liberation theologians. If things are as they are because God has willed it that way, then the rich can relax and enjoy their wealth and the poor had better learn to rejoice in the circumstances which God has chosen for them.
Another problem with insisting on God’s providential control of everything is that it can force us into all sorts of contortions. The philosopher and Christian Nicholas Wolterstorff lost his son in a climbing accident. Reading a book by someone who’d had a similar experience, he found this other father reflecting on Psalm 18:36 - “You gave me a wide place for my steps under me, and my feet did not slip” - and concluding that his son had indeed not slipped but that God had shaken the mountain because the son’s allotted days were completed. This may have been a comfort to that man but it came at the price of having to believe in a God who is happy to reach down to topple us to our deaths when “the time is right”. This is not the loving God I believe in.
However, I think we can say that whatever happens, God can bring some good out of and into the situation - and will lovingly do so. So while we don’t have to say that suffering is good we can, even in the darkest times, look with hope and trembling trust to the One who will never be at his wits’ end.
Others may see suffering as beneficial when it is punishment calling us to repentance - Calvin views disease and war in this way. Or perhaps suffering and struggle will be character-building. On a global scale, John Hick talks about the “soul-making” possible in our world that would not be possible for human pets living in a risk-free world of pleasure, and I do think there is something in this.
But if suffering is to be welcomed as punishment and correction or as a path to realising our full humanity, let’s think about how suffering is shared out. If we look at countries plagued by war and poverty, at women and children regularly beaten and abused by partners or fathers, or at workers exploited by ruthless factory owners, should we conclude that they are more in need of correction or character-formation than those of us whose lives are going well?
There’s another way of embracing suffering, a tradition which I believe is particularly Catholic and which teaches that our human suffering can be a way of sharing in the cross of Christ. I instinctively recoil from this, because I want to insist that suffering is bad and should be protested against and, where possible, alleviated. But I’ve been struck by a story told by Stanley Hauerwas of a friend from a Catholic background who had grown up with this tradition of redemptive suffering and later rejected it as abusive, only to feel cheated when she had to suffer prolonged sickness without it. At this point she returned to her earlier understanding and chose to see the way she dealt with suffering as her Christian calling, especially when she was unable to do other things which she might formerly have associated with that Christian calling.
So maybe we could choose to accept our own suffering and seek to learn with God how it could be in some way redemptive or life-giving for us. I’d want to insist that people be allowed to make this choice for themselves, without pressure from others, and that it would probably not be appropriate in situations of degrading suffering, such as systematic oppression or abuse. But maybe there could be a place for a community to support someone in that choice if they chose to take that path.
So what about the last leg of our stool? Could we dispense with the belief that God is all-powerful and solve the problem that way?
Process theology particularly challenges the idea of God’s omnipotence - the title of Charles Hartshorne’s book says it all: Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. In process theology, God does not have unlimited power or knowledge. Instead God and the world are in a mutual relationship where God empowers other beings but does not take power over them. This tips over the stool at one easy stroke - God is not omnipotent so God cannot be held responsible for suffering and evil in the world. The simplicity of this may be attractive, but again it’s a high price to pay because it seems that the overall witness of the bible does justify a belief in some degree of power for God.
I found this downplaying of God’s power particularly attractive when, at a time of great loss and distress, I prayed for months for God to change someone else’s mind - and that person’s mind remained firmly unchanged. And I think this “God can’t help it” approach had some truth in that particular situation, because God had chosen to leave that person free to decide what to do. However, the “free will defence” as it’s called, is a much weaker claim than that of process theology - and takes us back to John Hicks’ “soul-making”. If you had to design a world where people can have free relationships with each other and with God and can grow into “children of God”, then probably, after poring over thousands of blueprints, Hicks suggests, you would end up with a world much like this where there is freedom of choice, risk and, as a result, suffering. And if you accept this argument, you can at least explain that part of human suffering which is caused by other human beings.
Some versions of the free will defence are quite close to open theism, put forward by, for instance, Clark Pinnock and others in the book The Openness of God. Unlike the process theologians, they think that God could have been omnipotent but chose to accept some voluntary limitations on power and knowledge. So God has taken a risk, leaving some freedom to us the rest of creation. So there will be suffering which results from the freedom and openness of the universe in general, not from a particular decision on God’s part to permit - or even cause - it for any of the reasons we considered earlier.
Now, there is another way to come at this question of God’s power. It’s an approach that we find in open theism, in feminist theology and in Jürgen Moltmann to name just a few. That is to question what we mean by God’s power and in particular to question whether “omnipotence” is a helpful description. After all, though the bible is happy to talk about God’s power (and to use the title “Almighty”), it doesn’t use the concept of omnipotence as such which many, including the writers of the Openness of God, view as an import into Judaeo-Christian thought from Greek philosophy.
Writing on the Holocaust, Melissa Raphael, a Jewish feminist theologian, concludes that it was not “God-in-God’s-self, that failed Israel during the Holocaust” but rather “a patriarchal model of God”. For her, to think of God as controlling history in the same way as a patriarch might control his domain is misleading. I think there is some truth here. Though I want to hang on to some sense that God’s love will ultimately be strong enough to bring history to a good conclusion, I wonder if we sometimes confuse control and power. God can have power, I think, without having full control of every detail.
Think of the cross which Jürgen Moltmann and Eberhard Jüngel encourage us to see as the paradigm for the exercise of God’s power. When God wants to intervene powerfully in human history what we get is the frailty of a human Jesus who dies on the cross.
I wonder what you make of these attempts to remove the “stool” of our difficult question. Personally I guess I’m drawn to slightly weaken one leg by talking carefully about God’s power in a way that doesn’t make God responsible for every tiny detail of life or for every instance of suffering.
But there’s another question about these arguments. Would we be happy to rehearse them, as Irving Greenberg puts it, in “the presence of the burning children” of Auschwitz or within hearing, to draw on Moltmann and Jüngel, of the one crying out as he dies the cross ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Maybe, if we cannot kick away any of the legs of our stool or are too uncomfortable in the presence of real suffering to produce a neat and tidy answer, we will be left to live with the stool. Perhaps we will have to say with Michael Goldberg “there is only one fully truthful answer we can give as to why during the Holocaust such bad things happened to such good, God-revering people: We do not know.”
Wolterstorff, lamenting his dead son, puts it this way:
I cannot fit it all together by saying, ‘[God] did it,’ but neither can I do so by saying, ‘There was nothing [God] could do about it.’ I cannot fit it together at all. … I do not know why God did not prevent Eric's death. To live without the answer is precarious. It's hard to keep one's footing… I can do nothing else than endure in the face of this deepest and most painful of mysteries. I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and resurrecter of Jesus Christ. I also believe that my son's life was cut off in its prime. I cannot fit these pieces together. I am at a loss. I have read the theodicies produced to justify the ways of God to man. I find them unconvincing. … My wound is an unanswered question. The wounds of all humanity are an unanswered question.
If we can’t find a neat explanation of suffering, how can we live with the unanswered question and the stool still so solidly visible among us?
We can lament and protest as Job and many Psalms do and as we are doing today in our service.
We can try to prevent suffering by working for change and to alleviate suffering when it happens. Rowan Williams said after the tsunami “…the reaction of faith is or should be always one of passionate engagement with the lives that are left, a response that asks not for understanding but for ways of changing the situation in whatever – perhaps very small – ways that are open to us.” And perhaps part of our response to the “problem of evil” is to seek to be the kind of community which can campaign against injustice and support and advocate for those who are suffering.
And we can trust to the God who walks alongside us in our pain. Living with our questions is uncomfortable - but it’s what Job chooses despite his friends’ attempts to answer the questions neatly. Writing on Job, liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez says “God is a presence that leads amid darkness and pain, a hand that inspires confidence”. David Adams quotes a similar image: “as the rain hides the stars, as the autumn mists hide the hills, as the clouds veil the blue of the sky, so the dark happenings of my lot hide the shining of Thy face from me. Yet, if I may hold Thy hand in the darkness, it is enough.”
So I think we can find comfort in holding the hand of our loving God as we travel through the darkness of suffering. We may not know where the path is leading or understand why we have to walk this way, but we know that God goes with us and holds our hand.
And I suggest that we can also find comfort in trusting that God suffers along with those who suffer. In the Old Testament God is moved by the plight of individuals or people because he loves them and cares about them. Then in the life and death of Jesus God experiences human suffering close up. Faced with the problems of the world, seeing war and injustice and poverty and pain and illness, in the incarnation God gets stuck in, joins human beings in the mess of the world, lives and dies as a human. Theologian Colin Gunton preached at his little grandson’s funeral. He expressed grief but also certainty that this death was in some way ‘encompassed in, bracketed by the love’ of Jesus in whose death human agonies are ‘taken into the heart of God’.
In Jesus God joined us in the midst of the suffering and shared in it. God has experienced what it is to be human when everything is going wrong. In Wolterstorff’s words, “God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart.” Because of the cross, Moltmann says, ‘[t]here is no suffering which… is not God’s suffering’.
I’ve already said that the way God shows power is in the frailty of Jesus who dies on the cross. And this is also the way God shows his love, and does offer some kind of an answer to human suffering, though not in the sense of a tidy explanation. Not only have our pain and suffering entered God’s heart, but God has also entered our pain and suffering.
This is the reason I remain a Christian despite the big question of suffering. This is why for me the incarnation is so important. God has been powerless, at the mercy of events and of other people, has felt lonely and isolated as his friends were too scared to accompany him, has experienced pain and death. So those who suffer are in the company of God who has suffered too.
We may not be able to say why there is so much suffering in the world. But we can know that God is in it with us, holding our hand and understanding what it is like. In the cross Jesus not only demonstrated this supremely but also in some mysterious way began the process of redeeming our pain, overcoming suffering and preparing the way to a time and place where there will be no more pain and no more tears and where there will be healing for the nations - and for each of us.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Facing change: Lot and Hagar

Preacher: Veronica

God called Abram from his home to a new land; Abram was old and he faced many difficulties but he was given a promise and a new name, and he eventually made it to the new land.

That’s actually got nothing to do with what I’m going to speak about today - it’s just by way of explaining why I’m not going to preach on Abraham. We all know the story too well, we’ve been reading it since Sunday school and whenever we want to think about going forward in faith, we turn to Abraham and come up with something everyone’s heard before. So I’m not preaching on Abraham, or even on Sarah, which would at least have the virtue of being less hackneyed.

Instead I want to look at two characters in the circle around Abraham; people who were caught up in his call and who had to uproot with him even though they themselves hadn’t had a special call from God. They were, if you like, the unwilling travellers in faith, who found circumstances overtaking them and responded to them as best they could.

The first of these characters is Lot. The earliest mention we have of Lot is in Genesis 11 where the Bible has him travelling to Haran with his grandfather Terah and his uncle Abram. There is no mention yet of a particular call to Abram and at this stage we might think of them as economic migrants, or indeed nomadic herders. However it’s also possible that Ur, where they originated, was a wealthy city and so they were in fact already well settled and lived an urban life. We know from Genesis 13, just before the passage we heard, that ‘Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver and in gold’ but we don’t know whether he already had all this wealth when he left Ur, or whether he acquired it during his stay in Haran. Lot may have followed him because his economic security was tied up with Abram’s. Ultimately we can’t tell whether Lot went with Abram willingly or unwillingly but every reference to the story elsewhere in the Bible refers to the faith of Abraham, not the faith of Lot. So we could see Lot as no more than a fellow traveller, in both the literal and political senses of that phrase.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. After a brief and not very happy diversion to Egypt, Abram and all those with him have arrived for a second time at the borders of the promised land. But Abram (who has not acquired his new name yet), and Lot seem to be in competition for the same grazing land. Fights are breaking out between Abram’s herders and Lot’s herders; you can just imagine what chaos must have ensued when they both tried to drive their animals onto the same land. A conservative government might have called it healthy competition, but it’s more like dog eat dog, or maybe sheep eat sheep.

Abram doesn’t want to be in conflict with his own nephew, so he suggests a solution. There is plenty of land open to them, so he suggests that they split up; and very generously, Abram gives Lot first choice of land. Now Lot, who is not renowned for his faith, probably has an eye to the main chance. So he takes a good look around and sees that the river plain is fertile and well irrigated. It’s a natural choice. But what the narrator knows, and we know, but Lot doesn’t yet know, is that Sodom, where he settles, is a place with a corrupt and callous culture.

A side note: before we get caught up in the usual stereotype of what Sodom’s wickedness consisted of, we should listen to a verse from Ezekiel:

Ezekiel 16:49

There’s absolutely no mention of homosexuality here, just a city that prides itself on its luxuries and comforts, and doesn’t give a fig about the plight of those of its citizens who are in need.

Back to Lot. We know very little about him, or how historically accurate the Bible stories of him are, but he strikes me as an example of one way to respond to change in our lives. He is the person who takes things into his own hands, who does everything he can to make the new situation as close to the old situation as possible. In Haran, or perhaps even back in Ur, he had fertile land and a good living. He is going to make absolutely sure that he gets the same in or near Canaan. In effect he’s saying, as I once posted in my Facebook status, ‘I like change, so long as it’s the kind of change I like’.

It’s a very understandable response; one which I am often guilty of myself. In my father’s speech at Ed’s and my wedding (which incidentally was written by my mother!) my dad said it was nice to be a complete family again. He was referring to the death of my brother in 1975, and saying that welcoming Ed into the family was like bringing things closer to what they used to be. Most of us, except those who have had bad old days, secretly would like to restore things to the way they were in the good old days.
As for myself, I had ten years in which I would go to the LMC for tea every Friday on my way to my therapist in Tufnell Park. This was my Friday routine, set in stone. When that therapist died and I went to a new therapist, the timing didn’t work out the same, because I saw her in the morning and it was just too late to get to the LMC for coffee. So I’m very pleased that I now see a therapist in Archway, at a time when it just works out for me to go to tea at the LMC after I’ve seen her. Things are almost back to the way they used to be. But I’m also aware that soon there won’t be any tea at the LMC to go to and I shall have to go to a café and be tempted by the cup cakes.

For many of us, when things change, our first response is to see how we can arrange it so that they end up not too different from the way they were before. But we need to bear in mind that for Lot, that meant he ended up in a place which was far more dangerous for him and his spiritual welfare, than if he’d just embraced change fully and gone into Canaan with Abram. And his subsequent history is no more edifying, involving drunkenness and incest with his daughters.

Now I want to look at our second character, Hagar. Can we have the first reading from Genesis 21 please?

Genesis 21:8-16

This is much later, when not only the promise of a land, but the promise of a son, have been given to Abram who is now called Abraham. Actually, prior to this, Abram has taken quite a Lot-like decision, in sleeping with Sarah’s servant Hagar and having a son with her, Ishmael. Because the promised offspring with Sarah had not turned up yet, he decided to take matters into his own hands. In fact this was Sarah’s own suggestion, but he didn’t have to listen to her.

So when we speak of the faith of Abraham, we need to remember that his faith was actually quite flawed. And indeed we see this earlier in Genesis 12, when he goes walkabout to Egypt instead of staying in Canaan, and pretends Sarah is his sister, to avoid the Egyptians killing him and taking her.

But now the promise has finally come true, Abraham has a son by Sarah. And according to which translation you follow, Hagar’s son Ishmael either ‘plays with’ that son Isaac, or ‘mocks’ him. If he is indeed teasing Isaac, then Sarah is understandably upset. But we know that Sarah has already resented Hagar for a long time; and to be fair, Hagar did invite some of this feeling by ‘looking with contempt’ on Sarah when she had a son and Sarah didn’t. So now Sarah prevails on Abraham yet again, forcing him to drive Hagar away into the desert.

Although Hagar has run away from Abraham and Sarah before, God met her in the wilderness, and she obeyed God’s call to her to return to them. It must therefore seem very cruel to her that God has now allowed her to be cast out of the very place she returned to in obedience to God. And whereas on her first time in the desert she found a water source, now she has only the limited supply of water she has brought, and a bit of bread. Also, when she ran away before, she didn’t even know yet that she was pregnant with Ishmael. But now Ishmael is a young boy, and she has no means of feeding him or giving him drink. All she can do is to watch him die - and since she can’t bear to do that, she hides him under a bush and walks away from him. Actually the timing’s a bit confused here, because Genesis 17 tells us that Ishmael is already thirteen when Abraham receives the promise of Isaac. Yet this later story suggests he is still a young child. But either way, there is no sustenance for him or his mother, and so she despairs.

Hagar’s response to unwanted change is to believe that nothing good can ever happen to her again. It’s a very understandable response: she has obeyed God in the past, even being willing to go back to an abusive situation, but now it looks as though God has abandoned her completely.

I can identify with Hagar’s response. In my teens and early 20s I visited regularly, and later worked in, a Lutheran conference centre where the staff lived and worked in community. It was there that I first got bitten by the community bug, and also learned about peace and justice issues. In the mid 80s, the Lutherans couldn’t afford to keep the place on any more, and they sold it to a consortium of Christian families who were going to run it as a commercial conference centre. This was a big bereavement for me, as it was a place that had been deeply significant for me and formed my faith in many ways. It also happened close to the time when the minister who had baptized me, who was also a big formative influence, died very suddenly on the street at the age of 57.

Several years later, after I had got married and moved to Muswell Hill, Ed and I discovered the Mennonites, and it was as if God had given me back the relationship to an intentional community, and the style of Christian faith, that I had encountered years before among the Lutherans. But now God seems to be taking away a huge element of that situation again. I could be pardoned, like Hagar, for wondering what on earth God is up to.

Change can be highly traumatic, especially when several changes come at once. Hagar had lost her job, her home and it seemed she was about to lose her precious child.

But now we’re going to hear what happened next.

Genesis 21:17-19

So God meets Hagar, for the second time. This time God provides for both her and her son, not only for their immediate needs but for their future. It may not be the future she has envisaged for him, but the earlier promises to her still stand; Ishmael is still a son of Abraham, and he has a place in God’s purposes.

We could see Hagar, then, as an example of despairing when unwanted change happens. Yet she finds that despite her lack of trust, God does actually provide for her both physically and spiritually. Change comes, but God remains faithful.

A side note here. I’m always a little suspicious when people or hymns declare that God never changes. It’s often an excuse for blocking any change in the way we worship or serve God. Actually the Old Testament is full of examples of God changing his mind, not least in the story of Abraham, where God agrees to spare Sodom if there are ten righteous people there. But one thing we can say is that God never changes in his or her loving attitude towards us. Sometimes God’s love may be expressed in events which seem negative to us - but it doesn’t mean God has stopped loving us. It may just mean God is giving us freedom to choose, or allowing us to have experiences that train us in Christlikeness.

Back to Lot and Hagar. What can we draw out of these two characters’ stories for ourselves? I think we can say that when change comes, whether we have chosen it or not, we need to accept it as change. We should neither try to minimise its impact as Lot does, or treat it as a catastrophe as Hagar does. The old hymn says ‘Change and decay in all around I see’, but I don’t see why we should have such a negative view of change. Why not ‘change and growth in all I see’? Maybe I’ll write a new version of that hymn with those words in it.

Genesis 13:5-13

Now Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, 6so that the land could not support both of them living together; for their possessions were so great that they could not live together, 7and there was strife between the herders of Abram’s livestock and the herders of Lot’s livestock...Then Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders; for we are kindred. 9Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” 10Lot looked about him, and saw that the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar; this was before the Lord had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. 11So Lot chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward; thus they separated from each other. 12Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the Plain and moved his tent as far as Sodom. 13Now the people of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord.

Ezekiel 16:49

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.

Genesis 21:8-16

Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 14So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
15When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.

Genesis 21:17-19

And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Goodbye to the London Mennonite Centre

Liturgy by Wayne

L: As we gather at the London Mennonite Centre for the last time as a congregation, our minds and senses are tuned to the many memories and senses which this place holds for us. We feel the ambience, we smell the fragrance, we see the beauty, we hear the sounds; people from the past materialize for us; we are fully present in this place.

1. Indeed, this is a special place for us. We have spent many hours in this space. Some of us have lived here. Many of us have worked here: in the garden we have mowed the grass, raked the leaves, tended the plants, trimmed the hedge, formed the stone walls, and done other tasks, both small and large. We have washed the floors and windows, we have cooked meals and we have repaired the complex.

2. Ah, the meals. House meals, church meals, communion meals and services, receptions, community events, seminars with food. We remember gathering in the kitchen with the smells and tastes and sounds of a community gathered around the table. Singing the grace, sharing the food, and sharing fellowship. Tea on the patio. Memories ...

3. And the garden. We treasure this peaceful and beautiful place. We have eaten, sat, walked, read, and prayed in it. We have struggled with others and God in it. Some of us came to peace with God and ourselves in it; the prayer hut was our companion.

ALL: For the life, beauty, peace, wonder, and memories of this space, we give you thanks.

1. Life transforming things happened here. That’s why we cannot easily leave this place. Late night discussions, parties, jam sessions, singing, all influenced us. Relationships were formed and deepened. Some of us were married here. Jocelyn Murray’s ashes are buried here. For others, there are rose bushes and trees in their memory.

2. A rowan tree for John Coffman, a may tree for Eileen Coffman, lime trees, an ash tree, rhododendron and azalea bushes, plus the abominable chestnut tree which makes such a mess on the patio. The smells of the fragrant lavender, roses, and rosemary linger with us, as do the chives and other tasty produce from the vegetable garden.

3. And don’t forget the birds and the foxes which freely roam these haunts. The tits, robins, woodpeckers, and wrens who nest here and raise their young. Their songs and sounds still inhabit this space and our memories.

L. “What is this place where we are meeting?” As the hymn suggests, this is more than simply a house. Indeed, for many of us, it is the community which we encountered here which made this a holy space, where we have encountered God in life-changing ways. God has spoken to us in this place through the people, the space, the teachings, and the numerous seminars.

ALL: God, for your grace and persistence in meeting and transforming us in this place, we give you thanks.

1. We remember the many people who have come through this place and whose memories and teachings continue to inform us. Quintus and Miriam Leatherman, John and Eileen Coffman, Alan and Eleanor Kreider, the Nelson and Ellen Kraybill, Mark and Mary Thiessen Nation, Vic and Kathy Thiessen; leaders of the Anabaptist Network, trustees, Colloque, the various hosts and hostesses, and numerous others. These people have enlarged our world view, and impacted us in ways we cannot fathom.

2. Through the presence of these many people and their teaching, we have learned how hospitality, theology, and discipleship are all woven together in your grace and love. God, you changed us through this, and blessed our lives abundantly. Ultimately, this is what is holy to us.

3. In this place the London Mennonite Fellowship had its roots and eventually became the Wood Green Mennonite Church. From this beginning grew a larger vision for an Anabaptist influence and presence in the U.K.; The Anabaptist Network was inaugurated as an expression of this vision.

ALL: God, in your grace you have led us through our birth, growth, and learning. We are humbled and awed by the many ways in which you have walked with us to this point. We give you thanks, and we praise you for your faithfulness.

L: Each painting or work of art in this building has special meaning for some of us. Fred Yokum’s art, the 50th anniversary quilt, “The Fruit of the Earth” dedicated to JD Graber, The piano dedicated by Minnie Graber, the wall hangings, Ian Pentney’s artistic impressions, and much more.

ALL: For every memory, we give you thanks.

L: These memories and relationships have influenced and shaped us. As we carry them forward, now an integral part of our personhood, they will also shape our future. But now we grieve the necessity of leaving this place. Yet leave it we must. We grieve this loss. (Silence)

ALL: God, we ask you to accompany us in our grief. Guide us as we integrate this loss into our lives. May we be faithful in this part of life also.

L: As the People of God undertook many journeys throughout history, we also undertake this next journey of our lives. We remember God’s faithfulness to us in the past, and believe that God will also be faithful to us in this coming chapter of our congregational life.

ALL: God, as you lead us, we will follow you faithfully. Help us to remember your mercies past and present, and to hope for your Kingdom coming to us in fresh breaths of your Spirit. We believe that Your will for us will be accomplished in our life together. Lead on, O King Eternal.

ALL: May all this, past, present, and future, bring honour to you, our God and Lord!
Amen and Amen.