Sunday, February 11, 2018

Punishing the Body . . . No, thanks!

I chose the lectionary passages for Epiphany 6 today. They seemed fitting as the beginning of Lent approaches this week.

It was the New Testament reading that caused me to stop and ponder. I didn’t like the words I read. Dare I say it, I didn’t agree with the words I read. The lectionary passage is 1 Corinthians 9. The text talks about running a race with a determination to win at any cost (24). The phrase used to describe the method to try and obtain this prize is “I punish my body and enslave it” (28).

“I punish my body” those words arrested me. What a distasteful phrase! It is a concept which has had far-reaching effects on contemporary society. It creates the dichotomy that bodies are bad/spirit is good.

This week the organization Weight Watchers have been in the news. Apparently, they are offering six-week free membership to teenagers (thirteen to seventeen). There has been a huge outcry about the harm that could be done to these young people.

The Washington Post featured an article about it. The author of the article writes, “As a health professional and mother, I am appalled.”

Later in the article she explains, “Kids will undoubtedly pay a heavy price for this ‘free’ membership, in the form of body shame. It will not only affect those who participate, but also every other teen who is exposed to the message that some bodies are problems”

Other critics have also expressed concern (google it). In fairness, some have applauded the decision, but most of the articles I read express dismay about possible harm.  Today, the question I am pondering is, “Is this a form of punishing the body?”

Please don’t read this that I am in anyway against healthy eating to maintain the weight healthy for that individual.  However, these are children, possibily entering puberty. The underlying message they may receive is exactly the message of the text today, “I punish my body and enslave it” (28).

Many people choose to fast from some food item as the Lenten season approaches. This is part of their Spiritual journey. So, also, please don’t read this as saying the spiritual practice of fasting is wrong. It is possible to engage in a spiritual practice while being sensible and kind to one’s body.

Another concern is the easily made leap from punishing one’s own body to punishing another’s body. Specifically, punishing the bodies of children and teens (or spouses) to try and enslave them, to bend their will to another’s.

The data show that in the US 67% of adults think it is okay to punish physically children. Worldwide almost a billion children are regularly subject to physical punishment by their caregivers. These figures are shocking.

I have often heard it said that it does no harm to punish a child physically. Evidence does not support that. I have done extensive work looking at the harm caused by punishing bodies. In this blog, I will content myself with just one statistic, that of harming or considering harming (or should I say punishing) one’s own body.

Four percent of adults who had suicidal thoughts had received no physical punishment as teens. This rises to a massive twenty-four percent when physical punishment had been administered a couple of times a month.

Here is yet another concern. Half of girls aged 15-19, worldwide, think that a husband would be justified in beating their wife. The word that gives me most concern is justified. What gives a human being the right to punish another’s body?

Often, it is passages in religious writings that give credibility to the idea that it is okay to punish bodies to get the desired result. 

I thought it was a little ironic that both the gospel and Old Testament readings talked about healing bodies. This text felt a little out of sync. Healing is preferable to punishing.

Therefore, taking the imagery of the author of Corinthians’ passage, as the race is run instead of punishing the body in attempt to be first, why not run the race together supporting and caring for each other (including the body)?

I like that image much better.

UNICEF, “Hidden in Plain Sight” A Statistical Analysis of Violence Against Children.”

Murray Straus, Beating the Devil Out of Them. London (Transaction 2009) 73.

(Photo: Beijing, December 2017)

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Recognise, Rebuke and Reject

I have always loved reading. I was an early reader and as a child it was said that I “always had my head in a book.” I have memories of lying under my bedcovers with a torch (American flashlight) reading until late. The habit continued into adulthood (although minus the torch). After everything else is done I pull out my kindle and read a few pages before I drop off to sleep. Unfortunately, it hurts more when a kindle drops on your head than a book!

One of the genres I like to read is biographies. Last week the Kindle “daily deal” was a book advertised as about a man surviving in World War II. (Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption. NY, Random House, 2014.)

The title didn’t really grip me but for $1.99 worth it was worth a try. It turns out the man, Louie Zamperini, was a famous runner. Although he is now the subject of two films, I must confess I had never heard of him before.

Last night, I read about his attempt in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. After he had run — he didn’t win a medal but created a new record for the fastest last lap— he met Hitler who shook his hand and commented on his last lap.

It was strange reading this knowing that I was doing so on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The official commemorations take place after sundown when the Jewish Sabbath ends. January 27 was the day the Russian army liberated prisoners from Auschwitz. In 2005, United Nations designated “27 January as an annual International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.”

 Here are a couple of further quotes from the document. I would encourage everyone to read it in full.

“Reaffirming that the Holocaust, which resulted in the murder of one third of the Jewish people, along with countless members of other minorities, will forever be a warning to all people of the dangers of hatred, bigotry, racism and prejudice”

Condemns without reserve all manifestations of religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief, wherever they occur;”

Last night, as I read Louie Zamperini’s story one line caused me to pause and ponder. After his meeting with Hitler he went out on the town. Later that night he decided to steal a Nazi flag which was over a building where he had just watched Hitler enter.

The author wrote, “The banner didn’t yet carry much symbolic meaning for him, or many other Americans, in the summer of ‘36.”

Yet, in the very next paragraph he describes how guards caught him in the action of taking the flag which, ultimately, he was allowed to keep. The comment this time was, “The one thing Louie knew about Nazis was that they were anti-Semitic, so when he gave his name, he delivered it in an exaggerated Italian fashion, rolling the r, . . . for about two minutes.”

So, I paused and reflected. How did these two statements match? How could he say the flag had not got much symbolic meaning and yet know about the anti-Semitism? This was only three years before war broke out.

The book continued with a brief mention of another Olympic athlete, basketball player Frank Lubin. He remained in Berlin for a few days at the invitation of his hosts. He noted many Juden Verboten signs reappearing in restaurants and public places. They hadn’t been present during the games.

With all this buzzing around my head I read the lectionary passage. It is the story of Jesus casting out a demon. It is in the first chapter of the book of Mark (21-28). It is the start of the story, so in some ways sets the scene.

I noted three things that happened that I want to keep hold of. Firstly, a menace, an evil was recognised (23). Secondly, it was rebuked, “Be Silent” (25) and finally, it was rejected, “Come out of him” (25).

In society, in contemporary times, there seems to be a rise in hate. The media is full of stories of hate crimes against those perceived to be different. It is a scourge on present society. According to The Independent:

In the first three months of 2017, the number of antisemitic incidents in the US was 86 per cent higher than the previous year. In the UK, antisemitic incidents last year hit record levels.”

See also

It is important that these things are recognized (seen for the evil they are), that they are rebuked (spoken against) and that they are rejected (refusal to have any part in them).

This weekend, as the holocaust and all those who were murdered, are remembered. It is important that the words “never again” are at the forefront of both contemporary society and individual people’s minds.

I’ll close with more words from the United Nations:

“We must also go beyond remembrance, and make sure that new generations know this history. We must apply the lessons of the Holocaust to today’s world. And we must do our utmost so that all peoples must enjoy the protections and rights for which the United Nations stands."[1]

(Photo: Seahouses UK, August 2017)

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Look and Listen — A New Year is Waiting.

Everything is white!

When I look out of my windows it is all I see, a huge expanse of white interspersed with white trees. Most of it is still untrodden (and at -17C who would want to venture out!). It is a clean sheet of white awaiting someone to make an impression in it.

In some ways, newly fallen snow is a bit like January. A whole year stretches in front of one. Untrodden and unmarked. What will be imprinted on it? What direction will steps be taken into it? What choices will be made?

When I open the door, the pugs rush out into the clean, white snow. Full of joy, bounding through snow, spinning in circles, making tunnels with their bodies until cold drives them back into the house. In some ways that is a great way to appreciate January, full of joy, carefree, leaping into a new experience until something calls a halt to it. What a great way to be. Certainly, in part, I want that to be the way I approach life.

Yet, I also want to be a bit more mindful of how I journey through the rest of the year stretching before me. There are a couple of hints in the lectionary readings that stood out to me as I read the texts for this week.

The first one I noted is found in the story of Jesus calling the disciples. It is just three small words in Philip’s conversation with Nathanael (John 1:43-51). Philip approached Nathanael to tell him about Jesus. Nathanael made a remark that was a little distaining. Rather than engage in a dispute or try to justify his position, Philip simply issued an invitation, “Come and see.”

How wise of Philip to respond that way and how wise of Nathanael to take up the invitation.

The second lectionary passage that stood out to me was the story of the boy Samuel (1 Samuel 3:1-10). As the boy lay sleeping he thought he heard the priest calling for him and went to offer his assistance. This happened three times. In the tale, finally, the priest wisely realized it may be God talking and instructed Samuel in how to reply. Samuel took the advice and the next time the voice called, he replied, “Speak for your servant is listening.”

So, as I put these two passages together, I thought they made a great picture of a way to live. A way to proceed into the untrodden part of 2018. A way to make footprints in the snow of this year.

The phrase “come and see” speaks of having eyes wide open to what is before me. Not to be just content to follow someone else, but to want the experience. To take time to look, to look deeply, into what is around. I don’t want to miss the beauty and wonder of nature and creation. I don’t want to fail to notice acts of kindness and generosity in people I meet. In addition, the phrase “speak, your servant is listening” is equally important. I want to take time to hear. I want to listen. I don’t want to miss the subtlety of the sounds and voices around me.

A year is stretching before me. I want to tread it wisely. So, with all the joy I saw in the pugs, I want to take time to look and listen as I journey through the ensuing months.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Pure Joy: The Dance of the Turkey Vultures.

Today, the third Sunday of Advent, the pink candle in the Advent wreath is lit. It represents joy. It stands amongst the purple candles as a reminder that even in a season of expectation and preparation joy can burst forth.

A few weeks ago, as the early morning darkness turned to light, Andy and I were treated to the dance of the turkey vultures. It happens only once or twice a year. Our garden must be on their flight path and they roost for the night in our tall pine trees. We are unaware of their presence until dawn breaks then suddenly two or three appear, followed by another small group, then another and another, perhaps thirty in all. Then they dance, they loop, they twist, they glide and soar on the thermals. It is a display of pure joy. An early morning dance that we count a privilege to watch. It lasts, perhaps, fifteen minutes followed by an odd few stragglers. Then they are gone.

As I ponder the lectionary readings and reflect on this day where joy is the focus I am reminded of the dance of the turkey vultures. For me, it captured joy. Joy often breaks in unexpectedly as darkness turns to light. It is a moment, an instance in time, captured by an intensity of well-being and happiness that can only be described of as joy.

The readings today encapsulate that feeling of joy. The texts include the reading of the Magnificat which is an account of the wonderful meeting of Elisabeth and Mary (Luke 1: 39-56).

As Elisabeth hears Mary greet her on arrival, she feels the quickening of her baby. She acknowledges it with those well-known words, “the child in my womb leaped for joy.” This is followed by Mary’s rejoinder, “My spirit rejoices in God my saviour.” It is a moment of joy for both women. Although, the breaking in of joy was a moment in time as the baby danced in the womb, the impact was huge in the lives of both women. It brought forth an outpouring of praise. I’m sure the experience remained with both women for a lifetime.

Joy always seems to elicit a response in others. As we watched the dance of the turkey vultures we, in turn, shared their joy. As Mary arrived it evoked a joyous response from Elisabeth, which in turn, brought forth a further response from Mary. Joy seems to bring forth more joy.

During this third Sunday in Advent, and in the approaching Christmas season, I hope many will be amazed by joy. I hope there will be moments to treasure. I hope the privilege of those experiences will bring deep and lasting enjoyment. It may only be a moment in time, a fleeting happening, yet the memory is precious. Joy came, and because of it, life is a little richer.

(Photo: North-East Ithaca, JPF)

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Expectation, Preparation and Hope

I can feel expectation! It is in the air. It manifests as a sort of excitement, preparation and hope.

The squirrels feel it. From our daily practice of starting the day in the hot tub Andy and I watch them scurrying up and down trees carrying pine cones. We watched one little one yesterday with a pine cone in its mouth racing at the picket fence. We expected it to crash as there was no way it would get through, yet without hesitation the little creature turned its head sideways, went through the fence and continued, hopefully, to build a good supply of food to get through the cold weeks.

Then as we walk the pugs in the evening the darkness is broken by the full moon, the twinkling stars and myriads of coloured lights adorning houses and gardens. Light is shining through the darkness. We talk about how lovely they look. Somehow it seems that this year there has been more lights, even earlier than usual, it feels part of the expectation that is in the air.

It is not surprising then that today, the first Sunday of Advent is celebrated. The season of Advent, is full of expectation, preparation and hope. The first candle in the Advent wreath is lit, a purple one that represents hope.

It is with hope in our hearts that the four-week journey to Christmas is begun. It is a time for preparation. It is a time to be full of expectation. The lectionary today is apocalyptic writing (Mark 13: 24-37). I think it is a mistake to take this sort of writing and look for detail, or try and impose a timeline on it or, even, look for disasters that point to the end of the world.

I would add as an aside here that I have read interpretations that say that apocalyptic texts in this gospel point to the crucifixion and passion week. There is an interesting play on words here with cockcrow, dawn, sun going dark, etc. (see Mark 15:33 for example). Certainly, would be worth pursuing but not for today.

Today, I want to remain with the air of expectation, preparation and hope. I want to savour the season. I want to enjoy the moment.

Yet, it must be tinged with a little realism. Christmas time has over the last few centuries been hyped up into an art. Paintings, Christmas cards, tableaus and TV commercials often portray the ideal Christmas. Families together, overflowing tables and an abundance of gifts around a brightly lit tree.  This depiction falls far short of the realistic situation for many people.

There is an increase in reported domestic violence (, children go even hungrier ( and think of the turkeys, 300 million are killed most of them after living short lives in unspeakable conditions (

In our home, as foster parents, we have had many children who have only dreaded Christmas. There have been no presents, not much food and a lot of fear. Therefore, in my excitement, my expectation, my hope, I cannot ignore the plight of others. I need to hold these things in tension.

The message of the lectionary text is to be aware, as it is phrased to “keep awake” (37). It is the message of advent, part of the expectation, part of the preparation and part of the hope. This advent I want to live in the moment, I want to be filled with great expectation and hope yet I want to be awake to those around me. To notice their lives, maybe in some small way to bring a glimmer of light into their darkness.

“May God’s goodness be ours this day.
And well and seven times well
May we spend our lives.”
(Way of Living, 55)

Photo: The little red squirrel in our garden earlier in the year.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Money, Gains & Rejection

The lectionary gospel today is part of a series of parables in Matthew seeking to illustrate what the realm of heaven is like. I understand the realm of heaven not as some future event but as a way of life for now. These stories in the gospel often expose selfish and uncaring ways. They become pointers towards a better way of living; directions for a good life. Realistically, the goal, the desired outcome, will never be reached, humanness is far from perfect. It is something to be strived towards.

Today’s story is about a rich man (Matthew 25:14-30). He was going to undertake a journey so entrusted his money to his slaves. He gave them five, two and one talent respectively. When he returned, the two slaves with the larger amounts had both doubled their money and received praise. The third had kept the money safe but received scorn.

I have often heard it interpreted that God gives talents and it is the responsibility of the recipient to increase those talents. However, today I am rejecting that interpretation and subverting the parable. I read it as a critique of practices of the day, with lessons to be learned for contemporary society.

I want to start by saying, and I have said it many times before, that it is a mistake to assign roles for the characters in a parable. In this parable to read God as the rich landowner leads to problems. The character of the landowner is not how one would want to envisage in a divine being.

Firstly, the landowner was absent —he was going away and leaving his people. Secondly, the landowner is described as a harsh man. Thirdly, the man gets rich through the work of others, “I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter” (26). Therefore, if it is assumed that the landowner equates to God, it can also be assumed that these attributes belong to God. I find it much better to see the parable simply as a story told to illustrate a point.

In the time this story was written a talent was a unit of money. It is not about whether one can sing or is a good artist. That is a contemporary usage of the word talent. This is not a parable about using one’s gifts but about money-making.

The value of money was equivalent to its weight. One talent was worth 3,000 shekels. It is estimated that it was equivalent to about twenty-years wages for an ordinary worker. Therefore, it was an enormous amount of money the landowner entrusted to the slaves. Together the eight talents would equate to approximately one hundred and sixty years of wages.

Money-makers were not held in high esteem. It was often the case that the rich, the person who owned property, got richer through the work of the poor. Often the workers toiled long hours to enable them to eat and feed their families.

The third slave in this story kept the money safe. He wasn’t dishonest with it. He or she followed the common practice of the time, to bury one’s money to keep it safe. When the landowner discovered what had been done he was angry. He told the slave that he should at least have taken it to the bankers to invest it, thus making some extra money on it as it was lent out. Interestingly, this was a practice that was considered dishonest. It was discouraged and held in disdain particularly as the money was often lent to the poor (Ex. 22:25, Lev. 25:37, Neh. 5:10-11).

In this parable, I am not seeing God reflected in the harsh landowner who sought to get richer. I am not seeing God in the two slaves who made more money to receive praise from the landowner. I find God in the slave who kept safe that entrusted to them. I find God in the one who refused to allow the money to be used to exhort from others. I find God in the one who was rejected and thrown out.

This parable was told by Matthew as a prelude to the crucifixion story. A reflection of a God who, in human form, spoke against those who harmed others and was ultimately abandoned and rejected.

(Photo: Casowaco Retreat Centre, June 2017)

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Fragility of Life

On Friday I was once again brought face-to-face with the fragility of life. 

Two separate incidents, a continent apart, devastating for the families and friends. It was a sad day, a sad weekend. Sickness often takes a grip when least expected and suddenly everything changes. The trivia that a few days before seemed important no longer are. Life is precious and fragile. 

I turned to the lectionary passages to see if they would bring comfort and hope. As is my wont I turned first to the gospel (Matthew 23:1-12). 

It talks about people spending their lives being hypocritical or trying to be important in the eyes of others. What a waste of time! The writer of the gospel clearly thought so too. The punch line is “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (12).

Of course, it is not talking about a false humility as demonstrated by Dickens’ famous character, Uriah Heep, in David Copperfield. As one of the antagonist, Heep was completely insincere demonstrating false humility yet continually talking about being ‘umble. 

In the text the people who are exalting themselves are not demonstrating the claims they are making for themselves. Their concern is only to make themselves look good regardless of how it affects others. What a waste of life! 

The gospel passage certainly shows how a life shouldn’t be lived. This week the epistle is more hopeful. The passage (1 Thessalonians 2: 5-20) gives a clue as to how to live. The author of the letter talks about thankfulness and living a worthy life.  Yet I think the key verse is where the writer talks about the attitudes of himself and his companions, “we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” (7). What a contrast between this and the lives depicted in the gospel passage. What a better way to live — gently caring for others. 

This week, as I was once again brought face-to-face with the fragility of life, it caused me to ponder. What do I want my life to look like? One of self-importance or one of caring. The contrast in these two lectionary passages is stark. Life is precious and fragile, no-one knows how long their life will be. I want to make a good and worthwhile choice about how to spend it.