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)