Monday, August 6, 2018

Bread

Bread —a simple word that often conjures up a wealth of pictures and memories especially if one is hungry. Often the most enticing thing in a supermarket or bakery is the smell of baking bread. There is nothing quite like it.

I think I have mentioned before that Andy and I like to listen to audio books on long journeys. Our current choice, which we anticipated as a light-hearted fictional tale, is a story which contains harrowing accounts of the holocaust, well-worth reading (The Storyteller, Jodi Picoult). A motif of bread runs throughout the book as the author uses the lens of bread-makers to weave the tale, it is this I am focusing on today. Descriptions of the bread frequently enliven the text — brioches, challah, various fancy buns. Just listening to it makes our mouths water. We frequently turn to each other and exclaim, “I could just eat that!” 

After a longer journey last week, we arrived home and needed to prepare dinner.  Thoughts of hot bread were still swimming around our heads, we opened the freezer and pulled out a prepared baguette and popped it in the oven to bake. We wanted to eat nothing but fresh bread. Such is the power of words.

Bread has sustained humanity for centuries. It is not surprising then that it is mentioned often in religious texts. The focus of the Gospel lectionary for the last two weeks has been bread — the feeding of the five thousand, recalling the story of manna in the wilderness and the declaration by Jesus that he is the bread of life. Stories that are well-known, capturing the imagination of generations of readers. Stories that have both physical and spiritual implications.

I am writing this sat outside with the feel of sun beating down on my back. I am not thinking about the details of each story but pondering the metaphor of bread. The need for sustenance, and how that relates to life and caring for others. 

The first thing I considered was the huge compassion for those who were physically hungry. The pre-eminent concern in both the story of the feeding of the five thousand and the gift of manna was ensuring everyone got enough to eat. In our work with foster children taking care of physical needs is the priority. Hungry, hurting children and teenagers can’t think about anything else. It is no use trying to talk to them until they have been fed. 

And it is not just the children, I know when I come home from school the first thing I do is put the kettle on. I take care of the physical then I can focus on the myriad of tasks I need to do. So, in the stories the physical needs are taken care of before the spiritual. I find much to ponder in this idea. In many ways, it is a reversal of what is often taught about spirituality. 

Then after the people have been fed the texts turn to a spiritual application. As I continue to muse on the metaphor of bread and life, more questions to ponder arise. Questions that may be relevant to me individually, or for us together as a community, or even nationally and internationally.

Am I (we) hungry? If so, why? 
What sustains me? What sustains us as a community?
How am I (we) feeding others?

Questions that will keep me thinking about “bread” during the coming week.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

To Serve or To Be Seen.


During our recent travels, we saw a brief sample of a “Christian” television programme. We happened on it by chance, and, for five minutes, were mesmerised by the two speakers and the huge bank of phone operators. 

The format was that one of the presenters was promising that God would send many blessings to viewers if they pledged a not insignificant amount of money. The second presenter kept chipping in with stories of others who had done so in the past detailing the tangible blessings they had received—money, goods, jobs. healing miracles. The phones rang constantly. When the presenter said, “If you pledge $43 per month for the next year you will be freed from credit card debt,” we pressed the off button. We had seen enough! 

I do not know any of the people involved. I would not want to judge their motivation. Maybe, they truly believe they are serving people in this way. Yet, I admit to having a hard time reconciling it with genuine service.  

One of the lectionary passages today is 2 Corinthians 12:2-10. The passage is talking about a spiritual experience the author had which may have made him feel superior to others. Yet, things had happened in his life to prevent that superior feeling happening. The author talks a lot about not boasting, even stating “I refrain from it [boasting], so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me.” (6) 

I’m not sure why, as I read through all the lectionary readings, this one stood out to me. Or why on reading it I recalled that brief segment we had watched in an airport hotel room. Maybe because they were such opposites in ideas expressed. 

I think what the author of second Corinthians talks about here can be applied to service. It is not about being seen by thousands. It is not about boasting in all of one’s successes, recounting those stories. 

The passage ends talking about all the hardships that the author had endured —weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities (10). 

I think many would identify with this pattern in service. And I include all forms of service to other human and non-human being. I think about those who are called to serving professions and those who work tirelessly for a cause. I’m sure each person could add other words to that list. Service is often not pretty, it is often hard and lonely, it often leaves one feeling too weak for the task. 

But the passage does not end on hardships. It contains some good news. The author claims that as one serves, it is these adversities that make one strong. A strength of character is developed together with contentment. That is what enables people to continue to serve without wanting to be seen. To be as Christ to those they meet and to find Christ in them.



Sunday, May 27, 2018

Adoption: Then and Now


For my lectionary musings today I am choosing to focus on the gospel passage (Romans 8:12-25). It is all about relationship, what better thoughts for the day designated as Trinity Sunday. 

The text talks about adoption. Although Andy and I have never legally adopted a child we have lived with that word being prominent in our lives for over three decades. In our career as foster carers we have helped prepare many children for adoption. 

I remember one of the first of our foster babies to go for adoption. He came to us at a few weeks old and lived with us for about eighteen months. After a lengthy process, he had finally been freed for adoption and the search for his new family began. I knew the caseworker was going to talk to a couple and ask them if they were interested in the child we were caring for. The next day we were awoken by the phone ringing early. I stumbled downstairs to answer it — this was pre mobile phones! The very excited voice told me that the caseworker had said it was alright for them to phone to ask for additional information about the boy. We talked for nearly an hour, their final words were “we have waited ten years for this, it is our dream come true.”

Since then we have been invited to attend court to watch the judge pronounce the adoption legal many times. We have attended the ensuing parties to celebrate the new family. They are always full of joy and hopes for a good future.

In addition, I co-teach classes for prospective foster and adoptive parents. It has been a joy to do so. Then to see the children placed with them blossom in their new families is always enriching. 

With this background when I read the passage, the word “adoption” jumped out at me. It is all about relationship and the formation of families. However, I am very aware that the concept of family was different in the times the book of Romans was written. Indeed, even in contemporary culture there are many expressions of family, not just our Western concept of parents and children. Yet, even in the West there are many variations. In my limited experience, I have seen children placed with straight couples and gay couples, with single parents, with older people and younger people, with those who are extending their families, those who have chosen not to have birth children and those who have struggled with infertility. 

At the time, Romans was written there were several variations on adoption also. It is a very complex subject with many varying ideas and reasons for adoption in that time period.

Briefly and not so far removed from contemporary times, adoption was used to provide a childless couple with a child. Especially as in those days childlessness was perceived as a shame on a marriage. Yet, adopting infants does appear to have been quite rare. Abandoned infants and children often went into slavery. Therefore, this was not the main understanding of adoption.

In the Roman Empire boys were often adopted by the upper classes to ensure a male heir. Adoption was used to strengthen political, economic and social ties. These males adopted would generally not children but adult males. 

Another reason for the adoption was to help a couple in their old age, including participating in and arranging their funeral rites. The adoptee was often an adult and would receive an inheritance as part of the agreement. In some cases, the adoptee would be a slave and their reward may be freedom.

This makes it difficult for us to understand the passage. The concept that adoption is about love and nurture of a child would not have been at the fore-front of the minds of those early readers of the book of Romans. It is more about a legal agreement, which would usually involve inheritance. The passage hints at this different understanding as it equates becoming children with becoming heirs. 

The passage then makes an interesting turn, and one which I cannot help but draw attention to, it talks about labour pains. While waiting for adoption, both creation and, in writer of the book of Romans words, “we ourselves” are groaning with labour pains. It is interesting in a time when the readers would be mainly males, when adoption was mainly a male experience that a very feminine metaphor of labour pain is used. This was purely a women’s experience and one from which men were completely excluded. Additionally, the woman in childbirth was ritually unclean. Then, after the baby was born, the male then decided whether to keep the child or to abandon it. 

So, an interesting passage, a doorway into another understanding of relationship. For me, one to ponder over the next few days.


(Photographs: Lindisfarne, Ithaca NY. May 2018)

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Where are the Women?


Reading the Bible, or indeed the Holy Writings from any religious tradition, usually invokes a response. Wisdom can be imparted, comfort is sought and found, joy may be unleashed, challenges are presented, sometimes confusion or shock are experienced.

Today, as I read the first lectionary passage (Acts 1:15-26) I was frustrated. Not just a little bit frustrated, not just a little niggle inside with the thought this is a bit annoying, but really, really frustrated. I felt let down by the passage. As I read the text I could feel the irritation rising in me.

Why? 

Because, once again, women were ignored. They were invisible. They were under-valued. They were irrelevant. All their loyalty and courage had passed unnoticed.

Let me explain the scenario as I read it . . .

The disciple, Peter, announced that another should be selected to take the place of Judas and be numbered as one of the twelve apostles (a discussion of twelve apostles will be for another day). He spoke to a small crowd of one hundred and twenty persons. The previous verses had confirmed that women were present. Peter announced that they should choose “one of the men who have accompanied us”. Peter continued that this male person would primarily attest to the resurrection.

As I read the words the frustration rose in me. What about the women? Why not select one of them? Surely, a woman should have at least been selected as one of the potential candidates. 

The names of two men were suggested —Joseph called Barsabbas (Justus) and Matthias—neither of them were previously mentioned in Scripture. I am not, in any way, suggesting that these men were bad people or unfit to be counted amongst the apostles. But I can’t overlook that they hadn’t been mentioned before. Matthias was duly selected as Judas’ replacement. I should note that there is no further mention of him in the Scriptures either. He is purported to have penned a gospel which is lost, but was briefly alluded to in some other writings. (See: http://www.free-online-bible-study.org/gospel-of-matthias.html)

So why choose two men as candidates when there were several women who would have fit the requirement perfectly? Amongst these well qualified candidates were the women who had followed and cared for Jesus. We read of Mary, Susannah, Joanna and “many others” (Luke 8:3) and Martha (John 11).

Certainly, women were integral to the crucifixion and resurrection stories, one of the requirements. There were women who had remained at the cross. Noted amongst them are Jesus’ mother (John), his mother’s sister (John), Mary Magdalene (John, Matthew, Mark), Mary the wife of Clopas (John), Mary the mother of James (Mark, Matthew), mother of the sons of Zebedee, Salome (Mark), the women who had come with him from Galilee (Luke) and many women (Matthew) 

 All the gospels name women were first witnesses to the resurrection. They were named as Mary Magdalene (Matt, Mark, Luke and John), Mary the mother of James (Mark, Luke), Salome (Mark), the other Mary (Matthew), Joanna (Luke), and other women (Luke).

So where were these women when consideration was being given to the person to be named as one of the twelve? Ignored, forgotten, invisible!

In truth, the culture in consideration of women has changed much, especially over the last fifty years. But I still see too many photographs in the newspapers and on other media sources and ask myself, “Where are the women?”






Sunday, April 1, 2018

And Peter.

Happy Easter to all who celebrate the season.

It is a high holiday in the church’s calendar. The time when the death of Jesus and resurrection of the Christ is remembered.

Life is bursting out. In upstate New York, we have been snow covered for many weeks. This week the temperatures have gone slightly above freezing and it has started to melt. Yesterday Andy and I enjoyed clear blue skies and bright sunshine. It was a day to watch new life bursting out around us.

Our morning time in the hot tub was punctuated by bird song —cardinals, blue jays, tufted titmice, chickadees, doves, robins and a red-bellied woodpecker. Red and grey squirrels, chipmunks and even rabbits scurried around our lawn. It felt like our whole back garden was alive.

Later Andy and I walked with the pugs. We spotted more birds, a pair of kestrels, an indigo bunting, geese preparing to nest on the lake. A fox ran across our path. Daffodils were pushing through the hardened ground. Trees were starting to bud. All around was the promise of new life.

I know—if the forecast is correct— that there are going to be more below freezing temperatures and snowy days. But for today, the hope and promise of new life are worth celebrating.

I think that is the Easter message. The hope and promise of life bursting through. 

Last weekend Andy and I, along with thousands more around the world, attended the “March for Our lives” rally. It was organized and attended by many young people. Like the daffodils pushing through the hardened ground this was a symbol of the promise of hope and new life for the next generation. 

With this cycle of lectionary readings, I am pausing with the text and seeing which words remain with me. I ponder them, let them ferment for a few hours, and consider what they mean to me and if they speak in contemporary society. As I read the gospel passage this week two words jumped out “And Peter” (Mark 16:1-8).

I found these two words a very powerful message of inclusion. I’m sure we have all said or done things that we later regret, I know I have. It leaves a very uncomfortable feeling in one’s body and mind. A deep wish that one could go back and change things. I think Peter must have felt awful: ashamed, embarrassed and desolate. In the story, he had denied knowing Jesus, he had declared that he was not one of the followers. I’m sure he relived that moment many times and wished he had done things differently.
Then came the message to the disciples that Christ would see them in Galilee. Yet, the deliverer of the message specifically including Peter — “Go tell his disciples and Peter” (7). The promise, the hope of new life was for everyone. No one was excluded, not Peter, not the women who remained at the tomb and received the message. 

I think these words —and Peter— can be read in two different ways. Both are important for us today. The first way is that it was a message to Peter. That no matter how awful he felt, no matter what he had done. He was included. I’m sure his heart leapt for joy when he heard that, hope would be rekindled and new life promised. The second way of reading it was that it was a message for everyone else. It affirmed to the disciples and other friends that no-one was excluded from this promise of new life.

It is a powerful Easter message of inclusion for contemporary society. 

Happy Easter.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Light is Good, Darkness is Bad . . . Time to Change the Metaphors.


I have only ever experienced total darkness once in my life. It is a strange sensation. Usually when one talks about being in complete darkness it really isn’t. Imperceivably, a bit of light enters the darkness allowing one’s eyes to adjust. 

The occasion I experienced total darkness was on a tour of the Blue John Mines in Derbyshire, UK. It was over thirty years ago so memories of the trip are sketchy, but I do remember the guide telling the group about total darkness. As we were underground with no natural light source it would be experienced when the guide turned the electric lights off. It was a little unnerving. In total darkness eyes do not adjust, so shapes do not start to loom. It was an interesting experience.

The lectionary reading today is in the Gospel of John. The text talks about light and darkness (John 12:20-36). In the passage, Jesus is urging the disciples to become children of light. It is a theme that runs throughout the Gospel of John.

It set me thinking about the dichotomy of dark and light where dark is perceived as bad and light as good. Culturally it is a small step to move from dark and light to black and white where black is perceived as bad and white as good. Words and phrases like black sheep, blackmail, the dark side, under a dark cloud or a black mood convey this sentiment.  In contrast white is used to signify goodness or purity with phrases like as pure as the driven snow. White wedding dresses signify purity.

I wondered if it was time to change the metaphor. Perhaps, in some way, this is a continuation of my thinking during the week. Andy and I are engaged in writing the manuscript for our next book on nonviolent childcare. This week one of the areas we have been focusing on is racism. 

Language is important. It conveys thought and meaning. Often language changes gradually over time, but sometimes it must be worked at. Our community over the years has worked very hard to try and rid the idea that God is male. Of course, everyone knew God is spirit, neither male or female, but language with the use of masculine pronouns paints a picture of a male God. The challenge was thrown out to try referring to God with feminine pronouns for at least three months to become as comfortable with a feminine metaphor for God as a male one. Andy and I read books on feminist theology, highlighted Biblical texts which used female images for God and stop using male pronouns for God in writing and speaking. It was a slow process, but the language and image of God is changing. 

Maybe it is time to work hard at changing the images of darkness and light, black and white. In the same way that contemporary language was used to reinforce the idea of a male God so too language can reinforce the idea that blackness is bad and whiteness is good. 

Of course, I am not saying that we get rid of the words light and darkness, black and white but that we are careful in their use. I believe it is time to stop using black as referring to bad and white denoting good especially when this may be related to persons, even subconsciously, thus giving rise to a form of racism. Images can be redefined, darkness and black can be acknowledged as good. We will always have light and dark. I love the contrast between night and day. 

Many times, children have come to live with us who have expressed fear of the dark. I tell them to make friends with the dark. The darkness is as precious as the light. It is a time when refreshment and renewal of our bodies takes place. The text for today also talks about a seed falling into the ground (24). Most seeds need to germinate in the dark. That is where life begins. 

Darkness is good and welcomed. Care needs to be taken that language does not reflect otherwise.


Photo: Derwent Water, UK. August 2017.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Loving, Giving and Dividing

I always find it more difficult to blog about familiar verses as there are so many pre-conceived ideas about them. The lectionary gospel today contains one such verse.

For anyone schooled in Evangelical Christianity this verse will probably be one of the first ever memorized. It appears on car bumper stickers and on billboards outside churches. It has become something of a hallmark of faith for Evangelicals.

The verse is John 3:16. “For God so loved the world (Cosmos) that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

The trouble with overused verses is that they are often just taken as stand-alone texts without much thought to context. This verse is part of a private conversation with Nicodemus, not a public declaration for all. Nicodemus, a Rabbi, who came to talk with Jesus under the cover of darkness. The lectionary passage (and conversation with Nicodemus) end with talking about bringing deeds into the light rather than the darkness. It really changes the whole focus of the verses to read them in the context of being addressed to one person. The author of John clearly used this to show that Nicodemus should be talking openly not hiding in the night.

As I read the passage, perhaps the theme I noted the most was the connection between loving and giving. The outworking of love is giving. Giving is the response to loving.

 In the Anglican church’s calendar, the fourth Sunday of Lent is mothering Sunday. It is a time when traditionally people return to their “mother church” and to their families. Perhaps, it is not merely coincidental that this reading which talks about parental love and giving is the reading choice for the fourth Sunday of Lent. Already, I have seen many posts on social media where love for mothers is being declared as this day is celebrated in the UK (and I’m sure even more are given privately). The declarations are accompanied by cards, flowers, chocolates and other small gifts. Loving results in giving.

My family is scattered, my grandchildren live in Asia. Obviously, I love them very much. I like to give to them. I love to plan little treats to send overseas. Of course, I don’t want to give the impression giving is all about material things—it is not. It is also giving of ourselves, it is also hours spent talking to someone, it is kind actions and thoughts—generosity.

So back to the lectionary passage. This passage which is about loving and giving has been used to cause division. This grieves me. In fact, I would go as far as to say it has become one of the most divisive passages in the New Testament. It has questioned one’s personal beliefs. The standard of John 3:16 has been applied and many fall short. Division results. People are either accepted into the fold or dismissed perhaps to be seen as targets to be persuaded to understand these few verses in a particular way. Phrases like “real Christians” or “nominal Christians” or “unbelievers” have sprung up. Today, I want to refuse that kind of thinking. Divisions are horrible and need to be rejected.

Loving and giving are the way forward.