Sunday, November 11, 2018

Re-Imagining the Widow's Mite

The gospel lectionary today is the story which has often been termed “The Widow’s Mite” (12;38-44). It is the tale of a widow who made a monetary offering at the temple. She put in two coins which, the story comments, was all she had. 

This story is often used to illustrate sacrificial giving and generosity. Indeed, generosity is one of the values of the community. 

Therefore, I don’t want to detract from this old and valid way of interpreting this passage as an example of generosity. Although I deplore the way this text has sometimes been used to make people feel guilty about not giving enough.

So, as I read this passage, I want to ask myself what else is in this text? Is there a way to subvert or re-imagine it? Can it be re-claimed in a different way?

I do think that sacred scriptures can be understood at many levels. Often there is not just one “correct” interpretation. It is far more nuanced than that. I also believe that the gospels are not necessarily chronological —although most start with a birth and end with a death. I think that the stories are carefully placed to make and illustrate points.  

 As I read this story, I also want to keep in mind that in contemporary times the widows would now represent those who are needy, lonely, marginalized and poverty stricken. 

In context this story immediately follows the command to love one’s neighbour, emphasizing that this is more important than offerings. Could it be that the author placed this story to illustrate loving neighbour? 

At the beginning of today’s passage the people listening were instructed not to be like scribes who walk around in long robes. “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers” (40).

I find the link here with widows significant. In the story, Jesus took the disciples and sat and watched people go into the treasury. The treasury is in the court of women. It consists of thirteen brass receptacles shaped like trumpets. People placed their offerings in them. Nine of them were for money tributes, for example sin offerings. Four were to receive freewill offerings used to buy wood, temple adornments and incense.

They watched the widow come in and put in her two coins. It was all she had to live on. The offering had forced her to even deeper poverty. I have a hard time thinking this is something that Jesus would applaud. It does not feel in line with the message of the gospels to care for those in need. Something not quite right here. 

Furthermore, the two alternate Old Testament lectionary readings both, in different ways, established a duty of care not to let widows starve. Therefore, an offering of two coins which would leave the widow without, does not feel in tune with the message of the scriptures. Was this an example of “devouring widows’ houses”?

As I read the passage I wonder if it is passing comment on a religious society that did not care if widows were left to starve. The shame of the system is exposed —a widow harmed by her offering.

Last week at the retreat our conversation was about a new kind of priesthood. One that is present to those around. One that serves and cares. One that, metaphorically speaking, doesn’t leave widows to starve.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Silence isn’t an Option.


Once again as I was writing my blog for today it was interrupted by the reports of another tragedy, another shooting, more lives lost, more people devastated. Our hearts go out to all the families and friends of those involved. 

A targeted attack on Jewish people happening in 2018 is a cause for great concern. Surely society should be beyond that kind of hatred. It is, indeed, a sad day. Yet, there is a glimmer of hope for the future in the response of those leading the spontaneous vigil that ensued.

Speaking at the vigil, Rev. Vincent Kolb from the nearby Presbyterian church declared, “We gather because we are heartbroken but also to show zero tolerance for anti-Semitic speech, anti-Semitic behavior and anti-Semitic violence.”

He was joined by Wasi Mohamed, executive director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, who acknowledged how angry people were feeling. He read a verse from the Koran that says the way to respond to an evil deed is with a better deed. The Muslim community had already raised $15,000 for the Jewish community. (From reports in various newspapers)

They were joined by others who spoke out against the violence. In these days and times, it is important to speak out against violence and injustice, refusing to remain silent.

The lectionary passage for today is the story of Bartimaeus who was blind (Mark 10:46-52). As I read the text the point that stood out to me was that Bartimaeus refused to be silent. Bartimaeus persisted!

In the tale the issue was blindness, Bartimaeus needed sight. Bartimaeus cried out but was told to be quiet. The text even uses the word “sternly”. It wasn’t just a mild reprimand but a serious rebuke. But Bartimaeus refused to be silent and ignored those opposing him. He persisted. The text records that Bartimaeus cried even more loudly. Ultimately that caused him to get what he needed and sight was restored.

As I read the story I felt its relevance for contemporary times serving as a good illustration. Daily I read and see multiple needs and multiple injustices. People hating others because they are different. I am thankful that there are people like Bartimaeus who refuse to be silent. There are currently so many issues that need to be spoken out against. Yesterday, was a sad reminder that anti-semitism is still on that list. 

Maybe a new catchphrase could be the “Bartimaeus generation”! People for whom silence isn’t an option. People who refuse to remain quiet when an injustice is seen. People who will shout even louder when told to be quiet. People who will keep shouting until change happens.

Maybe Lindisfarne community will be part of that Bartimaeus generation.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Change Happens

He [Jesus] said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
 Mark 10:11 NRSV


So reads part of the lectionary gospel for today. I must confess when I read the Bible passages on divorce I usually tend to skip over them. I have many friends and family who are divorced, and, in some cases, re-married. Although their stories are sometimes sad, they are never considered second class citizens or regarded as people who have gone against Biblical teaching. It is simply a fact of contemporary lifestyle —and rightly so. 

Today, I want to consider how society moved from that Biblical stricture. It raises many questions about how the Bible is understood in contemporary society. 

Why is it that some commands in the Bible are ignored whilst others are considered sacred and unbreakable?

Is there a sense that the ones considered good by a particular reader are adhered to and those thought to be unpalatable are discarded without a qualm?

What does this say about how the Bible is interpreted and understood?

Are there parts of the Scriptures that are irrelevant in contemporary society?

Regardless of how one feels about the inerrancy of Scripture there is clearly a conflict between the words in Mark 10 and the practice of divorce. 

William Webb, (Professor of New Testament) tried to lessen this conflict, which occurs in many areas in addition to divorce, with, what he terms, a redemptive-movement hermeneutic. Simplified, a redemptive-movement hermeneutic sees an ongoing outworking of several issues in Scripture. His prime example is slavery. Where the treatment for slaves prescribed in the Old Testament is better than the surrounding tribes. The improvement in the treatment of slaves continues into the New Testament and beyond until abolition is complete. I use a lot of Webb’s work in my book Corporal Punishment, Religion and US Public Schools.

Maybe it can be a little helpful in considering divorce. In the full lectionary text (Mark 10:2-16) there is allusion to Moses commanding that a certificate of divorce can be given if “she does not please him and he finds something objectionable about her” (Deuteronomy 24:1). 

I find the Deuteronomy passage disturbing on a number of levels although presumably it wasn’t to those the law was originally given to. Firstly, the patriarchy is horrendous. The certificate of divorce is only given to the husband. Then, the woman has immediately to leave the home this includes any children she has borne. Next she has to go and be another man’s wife, I imagine this is to ensure her survival and protection. Finally, if something happens to the second man she cannot go back to the first husband. The reason given is that she would have been “defiled” and that would be “abhorrent” to God.  
In the Markan text there has certainly been some redemptive-movement. Noticeably that wives can divorce their husbands. This certainly is huge as the woman is no longer simply property to be put away but can, in some small way, advocate for herself.  However, I must note that in the parallel passage in the gospel of Matthew (19:9) patriarchy still rules with no mention of women being able to divorce husbands!

The movement towards acceptable divorce continued through the centuries. In America the 1848 Married Women’s Property Act went a long way in making life easier for women if they wanted a divorce. They were no longer so dependent on men. Things improved further with the introduction of Family courts in the 1950s and no-fault divorces in the 1970s.

For the men who wanted to hold high office divorce was a stigma. In the UK in 1936 King Edward VIII abdicated after a short reign so he could marry a divorcee.  In the US in 1964, Nelson Rockefeller’s hope of becoming president were thwarted because he was divorced. Yet in 1980 Ronald Reagan was elected.  He became the first divorced person to hold the office of president. The election of the current president confirms that divorce is no longer an issue which prevents office for men. I’m still not sure whether the same standard would apply for women.

Thankfully in many churches it no longer makes a difference whether a woman is divorced or not. Most of the divorced women I know are treated exactly the same as other women in the church. Yet as I write this I started to read the stories of some women’s experiences. I confess I am shocked (Google Women divorcees in the churchand the stories appear).  Women who were questioned about whether the abuse was bad enough to justify them leaving their partner. Others who saw their church try to help the men (even when they had been abusive) but treated the woman like she had done something wrong. Definitely a double standard here and one which shows there is still much improvement and advocacy needed.

So although Webb’s redemptive-movement can be somewhat helpful, especially in that he sees the outworking of various issues continuing into contemporary times and even beyond, it does also raise a lot of questions. Sometimes it feels simply like a way to justify things that are unpalatable in the Scriptures.

Maybe, I don’t need to find a reason to reject verses that are not for the good of humanity. Maybe, I simply have to content myself with saying that as society changed and continues to change the good of all people is starting to be considered. I can read passages like the Markan one and be thankful that things have progressed and changed since it was penned. Maybe, that is enough.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Who is the Most Important?


Who is the most important? Wow, what a question! As I pondered it I realized how much it dominates contemporary society. Clearly, a question that hasn’t just arisen in modern (or post-modern) times. The disciples were asking it in the first century.

In today’s lectionary gospel reading (Mark 9:30-37) the disciples were discussing the exact same thing. When they were asked what they were talking about we read they were silent because their conversation had been about who was the greatest (34).  

Today, that is where I want to remain with my thoughts. I want to ponder that question a while. I’m not even going to focus on Jesus’ response to it.

As I read the first thing I noted was that the discussion became an argument. Discord and disharmony was sown. The “twelve” had walked together, eaten together, worked together and witnessed great things together. Yet, as soon as they try to discern who is the most important it becomes an argument. 

Next I noted that when asked what the argument was about they became silent. They were obviously embarrassed to admit what they had been talking about. Deep down, within themselves they knew it was a wrong question to ask, a divisive topic. They had no words.

So, as I fast forward to thinking about contemporary times and the relevance of the question today, I see many areas where this question has been asked, and needs to continue to be asked.

Who are more important —men or women?
Patriarchy is still alive and well in 2018! Although great strides have been made in moving toward equality there is still much to be done. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the events of the last couple of weeks. Men accused some priests of sexual abuse. Even though it had happened many years previously it was taken seriously —and rightly so. Then a woman accused a Supreme Court nominee of sexual abuse. Sadly, I have read many comments that are dismissive. They consider it was too long ago, there was even a suggestion that a police report should be produced to prove it was true. A very different standard for the men who disclosed abuse. Are men still more important than women even in 2018? Is the word of a man more trustworthy?

Who are more important —those who are white or those who are black?
Racial discrimination is still alive and well in 2018! In a small section of our latest book, Nurturing Strangers (anticipated publication date December 2018) Andy and I address the discrimination of those children we have fostered who have been non-white. We tell stories in the book, including one where a challenge was made in a store over purchased goods. This never happened with our white foster children. When the “Black Lives Matter” movement began it was immediately countered with slogans saying “All Lives Matter” completely missing the point. White lives have always mattered! Pew research shows the extent of the prejudice (http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2016/06/27/on-views-of-race-and-inequality-blacks-and-whites-are-worlds-apart/)

This blog is long enough so I’ll just quickly add a few more instances to ponder . . .

Who are more important Gay, Transgender or Straight people?
Who are more important children or adults? 
Who are more important old or young?
Who are more important able-bodied or disabled?
Who are more important Christians or non-Christians?

And my list could probably go on and on and on. 

I think these couple of verses in today’s lectionary contain one of the greatest challenges in the Gospels. It is essential that if contemporary society is to move to greater harmony these issues need to be faced fearlessly. It starts with a sort of personal inventory on an individual’s inner beliefs with a willingness to change. And, after a willingness to change a determination to be an advocate, to stand up for injustice in whatever form that takes.

(Photo: Atlantic Ocean, Cape Henlopen, Summer 2018)

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)