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.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Identity and Destiny

The gospel of Mark is an interesting book. The author wrote it in two distinct halves. Doublets seem to be a theme of Mark, and that plays into the gospel as a whole, as well as the individual vignettes.

The first half (1:1-8:21) is generally understood as an attempt to show who Jesus was. There are stories and parables showing healings, feedings, walking on water—the miraculous. Then 8:22-26 are thought to be key verses which provide the link between the two halves of the book. These four verses tell the story of a blind person who was healed as a two-part process. When asked if sight had been restored after the first attempt to heal, the response indicated that there was sight.  However, it was blurred, people were described as “trees walking.” Then, after a second touch from Jesus vision was clear. This two part healing is reflected in the style the gospel. For both the disciples and the later readers in the first half of the book vision is dim while in the second part it becomes clearer.

Today’s text (8:27-38) is the beginning of the second half of the gospel. It begins a new season for the disciples. They had begun their journey with Jesus full of great hope and expectation. They had been called to be “fishers of people”, they had been instructed to cast out demons and heal the sick. Then the turning point, vision becomes clearer, the ethos changes. The talk now is largely about suffering, poverty and death. In the tale, the disciple Peter, protested when he heard this and no wonder, what a shock it must have been at that moment.

When I read a story in the gospels I want to look for some relevance for myself and contemporary times — a reader-response hermeneutic. So, as I read today’s passage, I paused, I pondered, I looked for the themes that gripped me as I moved into the second half of Mark. Two words came to mind as I pondered these well-known verses.

The first word was identity. This whole second half of the gospel starts with a question. “Who do you say I am?” It seems to me that is an important question in contemporary culture. There is a general cry for identity. People want to know who they are. One only needs to look at the popularity of organisations like There is a search for identity and belonging. Furthermore, there is the rise of people seeking tests purported to analyse DNA giving an ethnic background. The results of these tests are often blazoned on social media. Not only are people asking who they are but feel a need to be share with others who they are.

That leads to an important question or maybe, two important questions. I’ll continue to ponder them this week. The first is “Who am I?”.  From this flows my second question to think about, “Who do others say I am?”

In the sixth understanding of the community it says, “to be the same on Monday as on Sunday; to be the same at work as at home; to be the same with our family as with our friends and colleagues.” Would the answer to “Who am I?” and “Who do others say I am?” be the same.

The second word that came to mind as I read this passage was destiny. Peter and the other disciples clearly thought the direction of their destiny was determined. They had been called, they had been instructed to heal and cast out demons. Then came the reality of that destiny. It wasn’t going to be all healing people and casting out demons. There was going to be hardships, many hardships.

 In his small way, Peter kicked back against this change. It did not change his destiny, Peter needed to change his thinking, his mind-set. The author of the gospel then depicts Jesus as saying the same thing to the crowds. Clearly, this story was written from the vantage point of knowing the end of the story rather than predicting it. Yet, today I can read it and ponder about my destiny, my journey, my vision. It’s not very grand. I suspect most people don’t have grand visions, but simply want to do the best they can to help others. Then having committed to that task in whatever way is right, do the best to follow it regardless of hardships on the way.

Of course, I don’t want to give the impression that the second half of Mark is all doom and gloom. Right after this discourse is the transfiguration. As Maria Noonan Sabin says, “God’s creative power to transform or transfigure us from suffering humanity into persons of radiant joy is the key to Mark’s theology.” (The Gospel According to Mark, Liturgical Press, 2005, 158)

Enjoy the journey!

(Photo: The Forbidden City, Beijing, December 2017)

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)