Sunday, July 30, 2017

A Place for All?

There has been a lot of talk about exclusion in the media this week. Specifically, about whether people who are transgender are welcome in the military. Opinions, from both those for and against, have flown, fast and furiously, over the internet.

I can find no text in the scriptures where transgender is mentioned. However, interestingly, today’s readings were about the realm of heaven and belonging. I read these parables as a place, or perhaps a state, where no one is excluded. A state where all can find rest and peace and comfort. A place where all are welcome.

The realm of heaven is addressed in five parables in the lectionary passage for today (Matthew 13:31-52).

The first is the parable of the mustard seed. The story tells us the tiny seed produces a tree where the birds can nest and find protection. When I lived in the UK I sometimes went camping in France. One of the delights of the journey was seeing the mustard fields. They stretch, bright yellow, for what seemed like miles to the horizon. From them comes the mustard that one likes to eat as a garnish.

 I suspect the mind often goes to that sort of mustard when hearing the words of this parable. Yet, I don’t think that was what was in the author’s mind when the gospel was penned.

I believe the story is talking about it the mustard tree that is native to Israel and several other countries in the Middle East and Africa. It thrives in hot, dry conditions. Salvadora Persica is a shrub which grows up to thirty feet tall. It is known as the mustard tree or toothbrush tree. It has many uses. It fibrous branches are used for teeth cleaning. The leaves are eaten as a salad. They are used for healing. Coughs, asthma and rheumatism are a few of the many diseases the leaves are said to help cure. The small berries are also eaten, both fresh and dried.

This mustard tree is depicted in the parable as an image of the realm of heaven. It is a place of refuge, a place of healing and a place of nourishment.

The next parable which is given to illustrate the realm of heaven is the story of a woman who has some yeast which she mixes with three measures of flour until all is leavened. Yeast is fungi which has many uses, most popularly used in bread making and the production of alcohol (wine, beer). The image this parable gives me is one of growth and expansion. It also involves effort and determination. Yeast and flour need to be kneaded to cause the expansion.

The next two parables are similar, one talks of a treasure hidden in a field, the other of a pearl of great price. In each case the person desiring them was willing to sell all their possession to obtain the treasure. I think each person must think about what is, metaphorically, the treasure which is worth selling all for. For me, this week, it is inclusivity and non-judgmentalism. That is worth it. That is something to be desired, something to work towards.

Finally, in the text, the realm of heaven is likened to a net thrown into the sea. Every kind of fish is caught.I love this picture of inclusivity. All together in one net. However, worth noting, again effort is required. The net needs to be thrown out and then hauled in.

My re-reading of these five parables gives me an image of the realm of heaven which I find hopeful. It is one which needs effort and determination to bring into being. The picture I have is that the realm of heaven is welcoming, inclusive, non-judgmental, protecting, nourishing, healing and expansive.

(Turtle Photo: Sapsucker Woods, Ithaca NY, July 2017)

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Reflections on a Retreat

One week ago, we said our good-byes to each other as those on the Lindisfarne Community retreat prepared to drive home — to Maryland, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey and, of course, various areas of New York.

This World is Not My Home? was this year’s theme. The question mark is important as we looked at the various aspects of home and what it meant to us. Is home a physical location? Is home a spiritual place? Do we yearn for a home? How do we share our home? Is home our final resting place?  Too many questions for a short weekend retreat but, hopefully, our sessions were discussion starters, ideas to take home and peruse over the next few months.

Friday night was a time of sharing the highlights of our previous year and an introduction to the theme. The whole retreat was themed as “a conversation” with lots of planned discussion and informal talking to each other.

On Saturday, we began with a look at empathy and sharing our home. As an introduction, we watch a short clip from YouTube, The Empathic Civilization by social theorist, Jeremy Rifkin ( This traced how humanity developed as empathic beings, wanting to help and care for others — human, non-human beings and the world. We are sharing our home with others and have a responsibility to care for them and to take care of our world.
Rifkin showed how part of our empathic drive is to find connection with those who share the same nationality or religious identity. So how do we embrace those who are different? A very poignant question when all around us is talk of closing borders, refusing refugees, stereo typing and maligning those with a different religious identity.

Interesting, the first of our lectionary passages for this week starts with someone opening their home and embracing strangers. It is the story of Abraham and Sarah. They were at home when three men arrived at their tent door. Much discussion has been had about whether these men were angels or a pre-incarnation of God. I want only to note Abraham and Sarah’s first inclination when strangers visited them. They washed their dusty feet, they offered them a shady place to rest and they fed them. Not a quick visit as they had to bake bread, kill a calf (not a good story for one who abhors animal killing for food!), prepare curds and bring milk. Their home was a place of hospitality and refreshment.

The next session was about being responsible at home. Here we had lots of discussion about justice and injustice. How do we react to the injustices around us? What is our responsibility?
Here, too, this week’s lectionary affirms the idea of social responsibility. The text says, “When he [Jesus] saw the crowds he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless” (Matt 9:36).

We then moved on at looking at being at home in our body. An introduction to the subject then a time of solitude to ponder our own relationship with our body. The ensuing discussion was lively, focusing much on how many of us are dissatisfied with our own body size or shape, our frustration when illness or infirmity prevents us from achieving all we would like to do and how worth is often linked to body size/shape. It was certainly a discussion which could have continued far beyond the limits of time. It was particularly noticeable that this was a feminist issue, with women being judged much more on physical appearance than men. Again, the lectionary informs us, “It is God that made us, and we are God’s” (Psalm 100:3)

The next session was a led meditation with the motif from the Wizard of Oz; “there is no place like home.” This meditation looked at home as one’s spiritual essence. Our final Saturday session was going home with a look at death. We started by watching an episode of a series called “The Moaning of Life” (Season one, episode 5, available on Netflix). If you like a laugh, worth watching. The presenter travelled around exploring different cultures approaches to death and he designed his own coffin. This led into another lively discussion, where we talked about what we would like to happen to our bodies after death. In addition, there was focus on how do we respect those who are dying and care for their families. Of course, the Celtic idea about where ever bones are laid to rest is the place of resurrection is always worth considering. The lectionary text again, “precious in the sight of God is the death of his faithful ones” (Alternate Psalm, 116: 15).

On Sunday, we were delighted to profess three new members — Jeremy, Scotty and Leah— and welcome a new novice —Yossi. Leah was also recognized as a contemplative and The Waystead as a new hermitage of the community. The marriage of Sue and Ken was blessed. Finally, we celebrated Eucharist with all the themes of home being brought together.

We left to return home rejoicing. I will end with final words from the week’s lectionary readings.  “Give thanks to God, bless God’s Name” (Psalm 100:4)

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Heaven: Spacial or Spiritual?

In the church’s calendar this is generally known as Ascension Sunday. The reading (Acts 1:6-14) is the dramatic story of Jesus being taken upward to heaven. It raises a few questions in my mind. None of which it is possible to answer, either fully or partially. However, it is always worth asking questions and always worth thinking them through. They aid us in our quest of discerning and considering what is central to our belief and what is peripheral.

Today, I’m going to focus on just one of the questions which came to mind.  What do I understand by heaven? The text says that those accompanying Jesus were gazing up into heaven. Were those friends of Jesus believing in heaven as a spacial realm? Almost like a parallel universe to go to and continue to live there.

There is no clear answer given in the scriptures. The ancient texts use heaven or heavens in various ways.  Psalm 78 reads that God stirred up the east wind in the heavens (26) while the book of Isaiah comments that rain and snow pour down from heaven (55:10). Deuteronomy talks about the heavens as the sun, moon and stars (4:19) which reflects the first verse in Scripture, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). These are all elusions to a spacial realm. A realm that in contemporary culture would be termed either the earth’s atmosphere or the whole universe.

Yet, there are other understandings of the word heaven. A spiritual realm where God and angels dwell. How much is this to be understood as metaphorical? How much of this belief is influenced by literature, especially by Dante’s epic poem? As a matter of interest, I googled “heaven”. I got 614,000,000 hits! Even a cursory glance at some of these shows the many and varied understandings of heaven.

I suspect if I polled a sample of the population about what they understand by heaven I would get a variety of opinions. And I am okay with that.

What I believe is important to me. Often, I have thought about issues and come to conclusions that make sense to me. Yet, that doesn’t mean they are rigid, never to be changed. As I read or talk with people something is said that challenges my belief. This is the point where I need to accept the challenge, take a fearless look at my life and belief and be willing to change if necessary. That is how growth occurs.

As I look at the things I believe I also need to let go of the idea that my understandings are right. That is just simplistic. It is also dangerous because it can affect how others are viewed. Formulating a belief from scriptures is not in the realm of right or wrong, correct or incorrect. It is me, or you, or others, dealing honestly with what we read, our life experiences, our personal spirituality and finding the position that makes the most sense and is most helpful at that time in our lives. Then believing that others have done the same even if their conclusion is different. That way I accord them all the respect their position deserves.

So, ponder heaven this week. Consider what do I believe? Why do I believe it? Be comfortable with being challenged. Be comfortable with concluding I don’t really know. I suspect, whatever we believe about details, whether it is a spacial, spiritual or metaphorical place, heaven is our highest aspiration of hope for a good future.

Photo: Sunset Over Knott End (August 2015)

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.” (

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.” (

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: 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,

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)