Sunday, March 12, 2017

Born Again, Them and Us!

The lectionary passage today is, perhaps, one of the most well-known, oft-quoted texts. Yet, it has also proved to be one of the most divisive passages in Scripture. Perhaps, more than any other text it has certainly inspired a “them” and “us” mentality. I’m sure that was not the intended outcome, but it is what has happened over time. I find it sad.

The passage is in John 3. It is the story of Nicodemus visiting Jesus with the ensuing conversation about new birth. This story only appears in John’s gospel and is not referenced in the writings of the Apostle Paul. I have often commented that when a story is repeated in all the gospels then it is perhaps wise to give it special note. This is not the case with this text.

Yet, the phrase, “to be born again” has taken on a meaning of its own. In my work on child abuse and punishment I was quoting from a survey done about religious attitudes to spanking. The categories people had to self-identify as were either “born-again” or “non-born again.” It was quite sad to see that this phrase was used in this way. Even sadder, to see that those self-identifying as “born again” were much more strongly in favour of spanking.

So, I wondered when did the phrase come into popular usage and understanding. It is relatively new. Apparently the first written reference was in October 1914 in the Reno Evening Gazette. It was talking about Christian Science, “It gives man the opportunity of being born again.”

The more specific term, born again Christians, was first in print in the Decautur Evening Herald in December 1928.  The newspaper quoted, “I knew I had the new desires that a born-again Christian acquires.” (http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/71600.html)

From the late 1960s onwards the phrase was increasingly in popular usage. So much so that by 1979 when tennis star Bjorn Borg won his fourth Wimbledon title Sports head lined their front cover “Bjorn Again.” (See: https://www.amazon.com/SPORTS-ILLUSTRATED-TENNIS-FOURTH-WIMBLEDON/dp/B00VU16QCE) There was no thought that the public would not understand the play on words.

Many years ago, I had the experience of visiting a few different churches and, at some point, during that first visit, being asked, “Are you born again?” It seems to have become the crucial question for many. A person’s spirituality is often judged on the answer to that question.

Obviously, in contemporary usage, the phrase describes a particular spiritual experience. Spiritual experiences are good. They are helpful, they energize, they give purpose, they renew, they give growth and develop meaning for individuals or, even, communities. Life would be poorer without spiritual experiences. Yet, they can take many different guises and happen on more than one occasion.

So, I am challenged,
Is it possible to read this passage without the mental baggage of how it has been used over the last half-century of popular usage?
How do I read it without giving it a significance that was probably never intended?
How do I read it without pre-conceived ideas?

I want to read it in the same way I would read any gospel story. I want to recognize that there are many nuances in the tale. And, as with all gospel passages, I want to acknowledge that there are many differing and valid interpretations. Problems only arise when one thinks their interpretation is the only right one. I think the gospels are much more fluid than that. Perhaps, I should say, God is much bigger than that.

So, this week I’m not looking at the word-play between Jesus and Nicodemus. I’m pondering on a couple of thoughts.

This story is all about birth, a wonderful feminine image. An analogy of the Divine being, the spirit, giving birth. What a great picture of a mother God introduced right at the beginning of this gospel.

The text also reflects something of life, death and re-birth. A Celtic image, that which is reflected in nature. There is something of eternity in this picture. The cycle of life which goes on and on.

“Life is an endless series of rebirths. Semper reformanda. Always forming and reforming. Always opening to greater embodiments of love. Always reaching out in a wider embrace. Always ready to receive a new heart. Always willing to be changed into fire. Born again…and again…and again” (Dr. Rob Hardies, https://www.questformeaning.org/spiritual-themes/born-again-and-again-and-again/).

Given the current political and religious climate and the way this phrase is being used to create disharmony and divisions I think it is an important subject. It is not one to ignore but one to consider and question. I hope these brief thoughts will be a catalyst to think about this passage.

(Photo: Baby Phoebes, Jun 4 2016)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Worry — Can We Help It?

Today’s lectionary gospel passage touches on several themes (Matt. 6: 24-34). Perhaps the most dominant theme is worry. It contains phrases like “do not worry about your life, what you will eat and what you will drink” (25).

It continues with the advice that God can provide all these things if one seeks after God, with lovely images of birds and flowers. Yet, I find it a profoundly disturbing passage.

As I am writing this I am sat in a comfortable chair, I have just eaten my breakfast, I will shortly shower and then have the luxury of the choice of what clothes to wear. So, I can read this passage about not worrying about these things lightly.

But that is not the case for many, many people. I work with a population who often struggle with hunger and barely adequate clothing.

Here are some figures from 2015 from the Talk Poverty organisation. These figures are for the USA:

Overall Poverty Rate 13.5% (43.1 million people)

This is further broken down,

Children 19.7% (14.5 million children)
African American 24.1% (10 million people)
Hispanic 21.4% (12.1 million people)
Native American 26.6% (700,000 people)
White 9.1% (17.8 million people)
People with disabilities 28.5% (4.4 million people)


The figures present a dismal picture. Not only about the number of people living in poverty but about the racial biases seen therein. If poverty figures are viewed on a global level they are even higher.

A 2014 Pew Research Centre survey showed that 70.6% of the population of the U.S. identified themselves as Christian. I am sure that some of that percentage are also living in poverty.

How must it feel to read, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat and what you will drink” (25) if one does not have enough food to give children their breakfast, knowing they are already hungry. How easy would it be to not worry? I can’t imagine.

Of course, there are many commendable organisations, often faith-based, which try to alleviate poverty, feed and clothe hungry and cold people. Many individuals support these out of their own income. Together, all do a marvelous job ensuring basic needs are met. But it does not change the stark facts of how many people are in this position. I’m sure many of them constantly worry about it. I have added all these figures to raise the awareness of this huge problem in society. I don’t want to simply resort to trust God and all will be solved. I don’t think that is either realistic or helpful.

So, what is worry? I read an article in Pyschology Today to see the good and bad side of worry,

Worrying is obviously not a pleasant emotion, but it is actually an essential, normal, and instinctive emotion that has been hard-wired into humans to help us survive since we rose out of the primordial muck. We worry about something because we perceive it as a threat to our existence and worry causes us to focus on it and protect ourselves from that threat. 
The article goes on to say that unhealthy worry is harmful. One can become obsessed with worry and become absorbed by it rather than it being an emotion that helps one survive.

I think examples of healthy worry are all around us. I see it in a colleague whose baby is sick so she takes it to the hospital, a trip which possibly saves the baby’s life. I see it when people are worried about the ice on the road so drive cautiously to arrive home safely.

So back to the gospel passage. It leaves me with a number of uncomfortable questions.

Is it healthy to worry about what one eats and drinks?
Is that a normal part of living, loving and caring?
Is it really showing a lack of faith and trust if one doesn’t have enough to eat or no coat or shoes?
Is the gospel only for the middle classes?

I leave the questions as some food for thought for this week.

(Photo: Ithaca Falls, February 2016)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Right or Wrong?

What a difficult gospel passage to read today! (Matthew 5:21-37)

It is a small part of the teaching of Jesus commonly known as the sermon on the mount. It is another of those passages where the standard being taught is humanly impossible to achieve.

In the text the audience are being told that the old testament commands are superseded. There is a new standard. This is an impossibly high standard where anyone who feels anger or lust is judged to be guilty.

With passages like these, my concern is always that they will cause guilt. Reactions like “I can’t do it” or “I’m not good enough” or even “I need to punish myself”.  I don’t think those kinds of guilt responses are helpful. Often they just leave the reader in despair and unable to do anything.

So, the best thing I can do with the passage is follow Phyllis Trible’s advice and shake it until it yields a blessing.

I’m going to look, not at the story nor at the details of the standards, but at the punchline in each section. I hope, in doing that, I will find the heart of the story. Ao positive that will have some relevance for me today.

But before I do that I can’t resist commenting on the section about divorce. In contemporary times the Bible is used a lot to try and cause harm; to women, to those of other religions, to gay and transgender friends. Here is a perfect example of how this sort of selective reading is unhelpful, or should I say, simply wrong. In this passage, it states quite clearly that divorce is unacceptable. It is very plain, “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (32)

At this point I could say a lot about the inherent sexism in the passage. It is clearly only written addressing men and how their property, women, are to be dealt with. However, I’ll leave that for another time and continue to ponder the instruction on divorce.

In contemporary times, we do not, as a society, abide by this biblical statement. Clearly we do not accept it (after all many Bible-believing Christians voted for a twice-divorced president). The history of divorce is long and complex. However, in the UK it was only in 1969 that there was a big change in the law allowing people to divorce more easily. It happened at the same time in USA with California leading the way with “no-fault” divorces.

I know lots of divorced people and have some divorced friends. The divorce may have caused unrest and sadness or, in some cases, relief, but no-one ever talks about being a “sinner” or going against biblical teaching and rightly so. In the case of divorce the Bible is no longer used to cause harm. I am glad it is so.

I can’t imagine society any other way and it is only 48 years since the inception of those laws making divorce more available and acceptable.
I hope that in fifty years as a society we will look back in the same way on the issues today and wonder what all the fuss was about.

I make this point only to show that it is unhelpful to use the Bible in a way designed to cause harm. Times change and our understanding of society broadens. It is important to focus not on odd phrases or on little details but to look for the core; the thread of love and justice running through the scriptures.

So, for me the core in these verses are the two positive statements:

Be reconciled with each other (24)
Let you word be truthful (37)

These are words I can live by. They are commands that will keep harmony and trust amongst people. I don’t think that they are easy commands, I don’t know that they can ever be fully achieved but they are worth aspiring to. These are practices to build into my daily living as I try to live the best life I can.

(Photo: Broadkill Beach, November 2017)

Sunday, January 29, 2017

All Welcome?

It is fortnight since my last blog. And what a two-weeks it has been! Almost hourly I’m getting news flash alerts with yet another event or another order signed or another protest in defense of human rights happening.

I think the availability of news has changed the world. Andy and I were talking this morning about how everything is public knowledge almost as soon as it happens. What a contrast with a few years ago, before social media and the internet.

Recently, Andy and I went to see “Allegiance.” It is a Broadway musical which was screened as a one-time event at our local cinema. It was excellent. It was about the Japanese internment in the second World War. It showed all the prejudice experienced by people of Japanese descent regardless of citizenship. As we talked this morning we wondered if it could have happened in the same way in an age of social media. Would there have been a big outcry from the general public?

Of course, with all media and news feeds it is necessary to take care to try to sieve the facts, to discern what is fake news, what is opinion and what is an actual fact. Nevertheless, the amount of information available is enormous. This has caused huge changes in society. With an increase in knowledge comes a need for an increase in response. Or perhaps, I should say I need for an increase in responsibility by the general populous.

I think the question for all of us, whatever side of the political fence we fall on, needs to be; How am I going to respond? What am I going to do?

Today’s Gospel text is those verses commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12). In the story Jesus goes to a mountain for some peace. In the Gospel of Matthew’s version of this story only the disciples come to find him and he teaches them. The teaching is about those who will be blessed. In Matthew’s version of the story the author has additional clauses that spiritualize it somewhat. My preference is the shorter version found in Luke (6: 20-26).

Regardless of which version, as is often the case with the gospel writings it would have been a little disturbing, or maybe even shocking, to those who were listening. Look at the list of those who will be blessed — the poor, the hungry, those who weep, those who are hated, excluded, insulted and rejected.

As I read this list I could not help but think about the photographs I saw in the news yesterday. Those of the refugees, and others, who were being detained at airports and refused entry into the country. It seemed that today’s gospel reading was so pertinent. Those people are the poor, the hungry, the sad, the hated, the excluded, the insulted and the rejected.

So, what is our response going to be? What is our responsibility? With access to the media today we cannot say that we did not know, we were unaware of what was happening.

Last week, I took part in a Women’s march in our local city. It was estimated between 8,000 to 10,000 walked. It was a humbling experience to be among so many people who supported human rights for all people. I have friends and colleagues who went to Washington, a big commitment in terms of time and money.

Yesterday, the photos of those protesting at airports were heartening, many thousands of people saying they wanted all to be welcome. It is a scary thing to be detained at a border. Our family has experienced it on more than one occasion. I remember all the times with amazing clarity. The first time was crossing in from Canada after a visit to Niagara Falls. It was pre-Green card days but we were already living in the USA on a correct visa. Still we were detained. We were put in a small room and kept there for a couple of hours while being bombarded with questions. The questions come thick and fast, some of them repeated multiple times. After two hours our heads were spinning. Ultimately, we were given a smiling handshake and sent on our way. However, it was a scary experience, our daughter, then 13 years old, was terrified. Even now, I get “butterflies” every time I cross the border back into the US.

Yet, we are British, white, spoke the language, had correct paperwork and employment. We knew that if the worse came to the worse we had loving family to return home too. I can’t imagine how it must feel if one is escaping war-torn areas; if one is a minority who would not be so welcome; if this was one’s hope for a future (not even a better future).

So, my questions again.  How can I respond? What is my responsibility?

A favorite place to walk our three pugs is at Cornell Plantations. There are some benches there with a Biblical verse on. It is one of my favorite Old Testament quotes and, coincidently, is the lectionary Old Testament reading for today.

“To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly” (Micah 6:8).

(Photo: Grasmere, 2009)

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Supporting a Cause or Following a Dream!


Tomorrow I have a day off school! It is Martin Luther King Jr. day which is an American federal holiday to celebrate King’s birthdate (15 January 1929). It always falls on the third Monday of January.

One of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speeches is “I have a dream” which he gave on 28th August 1963. It is a moving speech where he shares his dream of freedom and equality for all. Yet, it wasn’t just a dream, a hope for the future, something that he would like to see come to pass someday. His dream became a cause, something that he worked for every day of his life. It was a cause he died for.

The lectionary passage today speaks of a similar theme. It is the story of John the baptizer. John, who wanted to see a better future, calling others to change their ways. On this day he was hanging around with two of his disciples. John sees his cousin, Jesus, walking past and pointed him out to his disciples. It is an incredible moment in John’s life, an unselfish moment, when he tells his followers to move on, to follow someone else. Maybe there was a real cost to John in doing that, it is worth thinking about.

The two disciples looked as John directed, and followed.

In that moment, they found a cause, a purpose for their lives, something to follow, something to give their lives too.

It seems to be part of what it is to be human; to have dreams of a better future, to find a purpose in life, to pursue a cause which will ultimately help towards the fulfillment of the dream.

It is a theme often repeated in fiction. I have encountered it twice just this weekend.

My habit is to read a few pages on my kindle before I drop off to sleep at night. I am currently reading a book about women in the French resistance in World War 2. The facts and events are well-researched and the story mirrors what was happening at the time. The two heroines of the book both found their own, very different ways to support their cause of a free France.

Then this weekend Andy and I have watched again Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the two-part conclusion to J.K. Rowling’s epic series. It is another story of those dedicated to a cause, pursuing it whatever the cost.  (Yesterday was the first anniversary of Alan Rickman’s death, the wonderful Professor Snape in the films).

Next weekend many thousands of people will travel to Washington DC to be part of the Million Women March. This is to support their cause, bringing attention to “women’s rights are human rights.” I have friends and colleagues who will be travelling to Washington, others will be supporting the cause in parallel marches in their own localities. Their hope is that supporting their cause will be a small step towards the dream of freedom and equality for all.

Dreams are important. They give aim and direction. They give purpose and hope to the life of the dreamer. Causes help fulfill those dreams, or at least take a step in that direction.

Not everyone is going to be a Martin Luther King Jnr, a disciple of John the Baptizer who forsakes family and career to follow a cause or a Harry Potter. However, everyone can have a voice, everyone can make a difference in a small way, everyone can live their lives in a way that seeks to make life better for others.

So today I would urge each of you to dream. However, hard the circumstances might be dream of a better future, dream of freedom, dream of equality. Then take a small step towards that dream.

“Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.
And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream . . .
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal." (I Have a Dream, MLK)

(Photo: Birds at Broadkill Beach, Delaware, November 2016)



Sunday, January 1, 2017

Happy New Year


Today, I have the privilege of writing this on the first day of the new year. The lectionary gives a choice of several texts to consider but after much deliberation I chose to reflect on Galatians 3:23-29.

Last night the world said good-bye to 2016. I have found it mildly disturbing to read many comments and memes on Facebook which have spoken of what an awful year 2016 was. Like everything else on social media if it is written often enough and shared multiple times it becomes a new sort of truth. Such is the power of social media.

Perhaps, it is because I am getting older but I haven’t enough years to dismiss one as “rubbish”. Therefore, I am refusing to believe that 2016 was an awful year. Of course, as with any year there were some hard things happen. That is part of living the human life. Yet, as I think back over 2016 I can also see so many good things. As the old hymn urged people to do I want to “count my blessings, name them one by one.” I encourage everyone reading this to do the same.

My personal good-bye to 2016 was one of thankfulness. It was a time to name and appreciate all the good things that have happened throughout the months. It was another year which I am grateful that I had the privilege of living.

So, today I welcome 2017. Our back garden it is white with snow, largely untrodden. A new year stretches before me in the same way. What footprints will I leave in 2017?  How will I make my mark?

Perhaps, one of the saddest things that happened in 2016 was that there was a rise in racism, patriarchy, xenophobia, homophobia and fear of religions other than one’s own. It was these words in Galatians that caught my attention. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one . . . (28)”

I think these words are a timely reminder at the beginning of a new year that all divisions made between human beings are wrong. All people should be valued, loved and accepted.

As a rule, I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. If I do they are usually trivial little things, rarely fulfilled, quickly forgotten. But 2017 may have to be different. This year more serious resolutions may be needed.

2017 may see a rise in persecution for those who are perceived to be different. I would like to invite all to join me in a resolution that this year we will stand against racism, patriarchy, xenophobia, homophobia and religious persecution wherever and whenever we see it.

May 2017 be a wonderful year for each of you. May it be a year where your footprints make a difference.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

It's a Man's World . . .Still!

It is the fourth Sunday of advent. The last week of preparation as the journey towards the revelation of the Christ-child nears its conclusion. This week the fourth purple candle which represents love is lit, joining the candles of hope, peace and joy. On the fourth Sunday of Advent the lectionary focuses on preparation for the birth of the Christ-child.

The gospels each begin in a different way. The gospels of John and Mark do not have birth stories. The Gospel of Luke tells the story of Mary and her experiences. I like this telling. It is so good to have a story about a woman’s experience told in a woman’s voice. Birth and child-bearing are women’s experiences and it is right that the Gospel of Luke acknowledges this. The time is measured in the weeks and months of pregnancy. Commenting on the Lukan account of the meeting between Mary and Elisabeth, Anne Thurston notes, “It should not surprise us then that the time-scale is shifted from the chronology of rulers and priests to that of this pregnant and prophetic woman.” (Knowing Her Place, 4).

Sadly, it is a brief moment. It does not last. Thurston again, “In the end the doors close over once more and the patriarchal framing and naming once again eclipse the stories of the women . . . The women have been silenced.” (ibid 9)

Today’s lectionary passage is taken from the Gospel of Matthew (1:18-25). Sadly, the woman’s voice is not heard here. The author of the gospel simply states that Mary was “found to be with a child of the Holy Spirit” (18). Mary is not given a voice in this gospel.

The chapter starts with a genealogy, at our Christmas Eve service for many years we have used a different genealogy which acknowledges the place and importance of the women. I will include it here. I would like to credit it but I do not know the source. I found it online many years ago.
It gives a little different perspective. It allows the women to be seen, or in some cases, notes their anonymity, their absence.

The story begins long ago . . .
A genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of Mary, the daughter of Anna:Sarah was the mother of Isaac,And Rebekah was the mother of Jacob,Leah was the mother of Judah,Tamar was the mother of Perez.The names of the mothers of Hezron, Ram, Amminadab, Nahshon and Salmon have been lost. Rahab was the mother of Boaz,
and Ruth was the mother of Obed.Obed's wife, whose name is unknown, bore Jesse. The wife of Jesse was the mother of David. Bathsheba was the mother of Solomon,Na'amah, the Ammonitess, was the mother of Rehoboam.Ma'acha was the mother of Abijah and Asa. Azubah was the mother of Jehosephat.The name of Jehoram's mother is unknown. Athalia was the mother of Ahaziah,Zibia of Beersheba, the mother of Jehoash. Jecoliah of Jerusalem bore Uzziah,Jerushah bore Jotha; Ahaz's mother is unknown. Abijah was the mother of Hezekiah,
Hepzibah was the mother of Manassah, Meshullemeth was the mother of Amon,Jedidah was the mother of Jehoiakim, Nehushta was the mother of Jehoiakin,Hamutal was the mother of Zedekiah.Then the deportation to Babylon took place.After the deportation to Babylonthe name of the mothers go unrecorded.These are their sons:Jechoniah, Shealtiel, Zerubbabel,Abiud, Eliakim, Azor and Zadok,Achim, Eliud, Eleazar,Matthan, Jacob, and Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus, who is called the Christ.The sum of generations is therefore: fourteen from Sarah to David's mother; fourteen from Bathsheba to the Babylonian deportation; and fourteen from the Babylonian deportation to Mary, the mother of Christ.
However, the author of the gospel of Matthew focuses on Joseph’s story. I suspect the few short verses don’t reflect the turmoil and agony Joseph would have felt. Even in contemporary times if a couple were engaged and the woman announced she was pregnant with another man’s child it would cause a lot of trouble. Even typing that sentence made me aware of how quickly a woman would be blamed regardless of circumstances and her story.

Joseph first inclination was to “dismiss her quietly.” Of, course, the word “quietly” was to try and shield her from public disgrace, which redeems the text somewhat.

I find it sad that Joseph obviously did not accept Mary’s explanation of events. It took a divine intervention in the form of a dream to change his mind. Dreams were highly valued in first century Jewish tradition and the content was significant. For Joseph the words of the dream were more important than the words of his betrothed.

Yet, in spite of the patriarchal nature of the text, I want to follow Phyllis Trible’s advice and shake it until it yields a blessing.

I think that can be found in Joseph’s reaction after the dream. He remained faithful to Mary and the promises he had made to her, even though the text adds that he “did as the angel commanded (24)”. He married her and cared for her. This is a model of Joseph that can be emulated. This is where a blessing can be found in the text. Joseph can teach us about caring with faithfulness, kindness and acceptance.

Nel Noddings describes caring, “Caring involves stepping out of one’s own personal frame of reference into the other’s . . . To act as one caring, then, is to act with special regard for the particular person in a concrete situation.” (Caring, 24).

Caring for others encompasses much of the message of the Gospels. Here it is found, in Joseph, on the first page of the New Testament. The motif of the Gospels is set. Caring is the way forward.

Of course, in the last verse of the text a baby is born. A baby is always a blessing. This baby, this special child, especially so. But it was Joseph who named the baby. It’s was still a man’s world! Yet, it can be balanced by the Lukan account as Thurston says, “Each time we re-visit the text the silence is broken and the voices of Mary and Elisabeth are heard again as women singing out hope” (Knowing Her Place, 9).