Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mother’s Day, Mould Disruption and Male Dominance?


Where are the women? That was the first thought I had as I read the lectionary passages this morning. The passages include questions by Thomas and Philip (John 14: 1-14), teaching by Stephen (Acts 7:1-60) and an admonition by Peter (1 Peter, 2:2-10). Stephen even began his lengthy discourse with the words, “Brothers and fathers listen to me” (1). Where are the women? Are they silenced? Are they invisible? Are they irrelevant?

It seemed strange that on the day the U.S.A. celebrates Mother’s Day that women are absent in all the readings.

I should note here that the U.K. celebrated Mother’s Day in March. In the U.K. it is always the fourth Sunday of Lent. Briefly it dates from the sixteenth century when people returned to their mother church and families got to be together. In the U.S. in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation designating the second Sunday in May as a national holiday to honour mothers. Regardless of the origins of the two days they share the same emphases.

I want to consider mothering. I have been reading a book by Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace (Beacon Press, 1995). In the book there is an interesting linking of mothering with peace. This is not new. The U.S. mother’s day initiative was started in 1905 by Anna Jarvis to honour her mother who died that year. Anna continue her mother's work. Ann Reeves Jarvis was a peace activist and as early as 1868 organized Mothers’ Working Clubs to gather soldiers on both sides of the civil war to promote peace and reconciliation.

Ruddick does not see “mothering” as exclusively female. Mothering is about caring, nurturing, fostering growth and bringing about reconciliation. Society is at its best when these are valued.

I want to return to the story of Stephen. His story begins when a complaint was made about widows being neglected in the daily distribution of food. The twelve male disciples called the community together and said it was not right for them to neglect the word of God to serve tables (6:2). It is a sad statement, I wonder if at this point the male disciples missed the point of Jesus teaching which was about care, often reflected in feeding people. Certainly, an example of male dominance in the scriptures.

The solution was to select seven men to attend to the task of waiting on tables. I read this and excitedly think, “Great, they are disrupting the mould” (Or mold if US spelling is preferred). Waiting on tables, as with other domestic tasks, have traditionally been considered the work of women. Men are being selected to do it in this story of the early church.  The mould of women’s work is being broken. Mothering was a task for all.

Sadly, my excitement only lasted a moment.

Mould disruption or male dominance?

As I re-read the passage, I must consider the latter as the more likely option. Although the seven men were appointed to mothering, to feed people and to care for widows, there is no mention of them fulfilling that task. Was it done? Or was it not significant enough to be mentioned again? The women’s work is denigrated. 

The passage continues mentioning signs, wonders and enticing words spoken by Stephen. The importance of mothering is ignored. A great opportunity was missed.

Ruddick says, “As men become mothers and mothers invent public resistances to violence, mothering and peacemaking become a single, womanly-manly work —a feminist, maternal politics of peace’ (244).

Happy mother's day to all.


(Photo:  Our back garden, June 15, 2015)

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Fickleness of Humanity


Today is Palm Sunday. The lectionary reading (Matthew 21: 1:11) is the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. The crowds turned out with cheering and waving branches, acknowledging Jesus as a great leader.

As I read the story each year I wonder again at the fickleness of humanity. When we had very small children in the house, if we watched any kinds of competition, sporting or otherwise, they would decide who to support. However, if the other team started to win, they would change their allegiance. Backwards and forwards but always supporting the winner!

Of course, that changed with maturity as they started to understand about loyalty and consistency. Yet everyone loves a winner. Listen to the roars when a team scores a goal! I still remember as a child when in 1966, England won the world cup in football. One of the team members lived in our small village. As he arrived home everyone turned out to welcome him, the streets were lined as he drove past and the cheers rang out. There was an excitement in the air created by the crowd which, in turn, drove the crowd to cheer even more.

In this story, the same thing is happening. Jesus rode from Bethphage to Jerusalem and the crowds turned out. They were cheering, they were laying cloaks and branches on the ground. A winner was coming to town, energy and excitement were in the air. The writer of the gospel says, “the whole city was in turmoil” (10). The people wanted to know what was happening, what had stirred up the crowd.

The same gospel tells a different story a week later. It is one of pain and suffering, not one of excitement and cheering. I often wonder how many of the crowd who shouted, “Hosanna”(9), a week later shouted “Let him be crucified” (27:22).

It would be interesting to read a Gallup poll on the numbers and percentages, but, obviously, such things didn’t exist. So, one can only wonder . . .

I think this story shows how fickle human beings are. Women’s Ways of Knowing (Belenky et al 1986) is a great book. It details the results of some in-depth research with women. The aim was to try and understand how women think, make choices and decisions about their own lives. I found it interesting that the research showed people will often just go with the majority or follow the opinion expressed by a perceived authority.

This seems to be exactly what happened here for the crowds. While all were cheering, that must be the right thing to do, yet when the call changes to “crucify” the crowd follows.

However, there is hope. Not everyone followed the crowd. Friends and relatives remained at the foot of the cross. Their loyalty remained consistent.

 I wonder what I would have done? It is hard to go against a crowd.
I wonder what I would have done? For me that is the challenge of this passage.

(Image: Cayuga Lake, April 2017)




Sunday, March 26, 2017

Blame, Proof and Blind Spots


The lectionary passage for this week is the story of the man who was born blind (John 9:1-41).  His disability prevented him from working, and he needed to beg to survive. In the tale, Jesus was walking along, saw the man, spit in some mud and put it into his eyes and sight was restored.

It is a long passage, I’m not going to try and go through the intricacies of the whole story and the discourse around it. I’m just going to pick out three themes which stood out on reading it.

The first is blame. How quick we, as human beings, are to point a finger. The first question in the story was from the disciples who asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind.?” It is an interesting question as it implies the unborn child could sin. However, I want to remain with the concept of casting blame. The idea that someone, somewhere, at some time had caused something to happen is still quite consuming in our society.

I had an acquaintance many years ago who suffered from a chronic illness which was quite debilitating, even requiring the use of a wheelchair on occasion. While her preference would have been not to be sick she had come to terms with the limitations of her condition. She was part of a church that from time to time held healing crusades. She had come to dread them. She felt there was always an expectation that she would be miraculously cured, and it had never happened. Then were the comments and glances that indicated that somehow it was her fault, she was to blame as she wasn’t healed, perhaps her faith wasn’t strong enough, perhaps she was doing something wrong, etc.

It is a hard concept to think about. Yet blame happens in our society all the time. Something goes wrong and the first response often is, “Who is to blame.”  I have many thoughts swirling around in my head. Too many to put on paper. They all revolve round the idea that in the story blame came first, it came even before compassion for the blind man.

It is still true today. Think about it, whenever anything happens, locally, nationally, internationally. The first question, the first media headline, the first task is often finding who is to blame.

On Wednesday there was an attack in London which I’m sure has been seen worldwide. Five people lost their lives and many more were injured, some are still critical. Our hearts, thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of those who were killed and injured. I was alerted to it late morning while I was at work and immediately went to media sites for details. Those early headlines were all asking the question, who is to blame? Later, of course, there was much compassion for the victims and their families, tangibly shown by the many flowers left at the site of the attack.

In the USA on Friday, the proposed new health care bill was overturned. The immediate response of the government was to comment on who was to blame. The Washington Post headlined, “Who is to blame for the failure of the health-care overhaul? The finger pointing begins.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/powerpost/who-is-to-blame-for-the-failure-of-the-health-care-overhaul-the-finger-pointing-begins/2017/03/25/d799fc94-115d-11e7-9d5a-a83e627dc120_story.html?utm_term=.04a129353dc1)

The second idea I want to pick up from the story is proof. In the story the man’s word was not sufficient. The crowd wanted something more. It is an interesting sequence of events, first they didn’t believe it was the same man, then they didn’t believe the word of the man, then they asked his parents, then they went back to the man (I wish he had a name). Then still they didn’t want to associate with the man.

In the current times research needs to be backed up with proofs. In my current research on child abuse I am reading many studies and meta-analyses on the subject so I can present statistical proof about the harm caused by spanking children.

Yet, it is not really that sort of statistical proof I am meaning. It is simply not taking this man at his word. They didn’t believe him and had to check several times to verify his words. It is a sad reflection that the same thing still happens in contemporary times. Yet it begs the question, which I will leave for pondering. “Can a person’s word be taken as truth, or does it need verifying?”

The third and final concept I took from the story was about blind spots. The story may be read as an allegory, indeed that is hinted at in the text (5, 39-41). The passage talks about the need to gain sight. The trouble with blind spots are that they are not noticed until light shines on them. Over the years, I have had many blind spots revealed in various ways. Often, they are on serious issues and once revealed I cannot walk away from the issue exposed. These are experiences that change lives, attitudes and behaviours.

In my work looking at spanking children I see one such blind spot which I’ll mention. That is the biblical justification for hitting children. According to the UNICEF “Hidden in Plain Sight” report (2014) around 6 in 10 children between the ages of two and fourteen worldwide (almost one billion) are subject to physical punishment by their caregivers on a regular basis. Many children are spanked on the basis of a few verses in the book of Proverbs. That actual phrase, “spare the rod and spoil the child” is not even in Proverbs, but from a very old poem. Nevertheless, it expresses the sentiment and reasoning behind the use of spanking. Yet, when one looks at the language it is impossible to derive that using the rod means spanking. Psalm 23 was the lectionary psalm for today. Exactly, the same word for rod and staff is used as the one in Proverbs. Yet here it is used for guidance, care and comfort. Try inserting those words in the verses in Proverbs where rod is used. It gives a whole different sense to them.

I think it is important that when light shines on a blind spot I have (and I’m sure I’ll encounter many more in the future) that I can approach them with strength and fearlessness and find the ability to change.

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)