Friday, 8 June 2012

Trewly Original

Well, maybe…

The name, “Trewly Original” was taken from a range of jams, chutneys, etc that Alison and I have made together over the years. Like the blog their production has been erratic and the quality variable. Best eaten with cheese and a strong drink. and that's just the blog.

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Do not go gentle

"Do not go gentle into that dark night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the night.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightening they
Do not go gentle into that dark night

Dylan Thomas 1951

Watching one you love move slowly and inexorably towards death, powerless to stop their progress, with sufficient power only to suffer as their companion on the journey, wanting to step into their suffering and live it a different way yet having to respect their own dignity and understanding of courage, Dylan struggled to let his father die. His response, after his father's death, was to write this famous poem about the struggle for all who face death to fight on that their life may ultimately have meaning.

There are several interpretations of this poem: Both Dylan and his father struggled with their understanding of god, though from different angles. I suspect that Dylan had a very real and vibrant faith, but also had a deep internal struggle, both with his understanding of self and with traditional Christianity which too often seemed to lack a prophetic depth. Some people are not built for a comfortable journey through this world. We should not be too quick to condemn them for the, sometimes, awkward way they react to that discomfort.

I started these thoughts as I wandered around the boat house at Laugharne where Thomas lived and wrote towards the end of his life (He wrote "Under Milk Wood" here, perhaps his most famous work, based on people he knew locally and set in the village, renamed Llareggub (read it backwards)). The poem itself I found printed on a tea towel, and the temptation to dry myself off with it nearly overcame the desire to read it. It was wet; very wet; very, very wet,.....

The whole poem is a good deal longer and well worth a read, in my opinion, and it reminded me of the strap-line used by Christian Aid; "We believe in life before death". I think that's a fantastic phrase. To use a desperately cheesy quote (for which I offer profuse apologies in advance) Christianity isn't just "pie in the sky when you die, but meat on the plate while you wait" (even more apologies in case the first lot wasn't enough). It's an important thought though as Christianity often portrays its key value as the security offered after death. This is reinforced through much of what is taught in our churches and included in our creeds. Just think for a moment: if you are familiar with any of the classical creeds of the Church, they (sometimes) talk of the birth of Jesus, and then move straight to his death and resurrection. They say nothing about his life, as if it was of marginal importance. But, as Christian Aid point out, the Gospels believe this life is as precious and important as anything that may be yet to come. So, what is the message of the Gospels, aside from the message of salvation? What does Christianity have to offer this life, never mind the next? Well, I'm just starting a new book by N T Wright, "How God became King"' and when I've finished, I'll let you know.

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Thursday, 31 May 2012

You can't get away from it

The person in this photograph was called John Brown. That's his real name, it's not made up - a slightly less obvious invention than "John Smith". He was a shepherd who lived near Stamford in Lincolnshire in the nineteenth century. Every market day he would ride his pony and trap into town and, in the course of the day meet friends and share a drink with them. He had lots of friends. Come the evening he would climb up onto his trap. The horse would feel the thud as he collapsed onto the seat and take that as its cue to carry John home. Clever horse. One evening the horse felt the usual thud and set off as usual. Sadly, this time John Brown had missed his footing and fell from the trap. The thud the horse felt was John hitting the ground. What injuries he sustained from the fall we do not know. The pony and trap running him over proved fatal. I know the details, as they were recorded in the Stamford Mercury, the local paper (and Britain's oldest newspaper).

The person in this picture was called John Brown. That's his real name, it's not made up - a slightly less obvious invention than "John Smith". He was a shepherd who lived in Perthshire, in Scotland in the eighteenth century. Orphaned by the age of twelve, he had had only one months schooling, and had to take work with an elderly friend of his parents. The local Minister had spotted John's aptitude to learn though. He taught John to read and write Latin. Hearing that the University bookshop at St Andrews had Greek New Testaments, and desiring one, John persuaded a friend to keep an eye on the sheep whilst he walked the twenty-six miles there, bare foot. By all accounts the bookseller did not take kindly to this urchin reading his precious books that were meant for better hands, but was stopped from telling John to leave by the Professor of Greek who came into the shop in the nick of time. The Professor told John that if he could read a page from the Greek New Testament he was holding then he would carry it home with him at the academics expense. Several hours later John was back on duty with his sheep and a new book to read, in Greek. Several years later he could read twelve languages and was himself a Professor of Divinity. He wrote books which remained best sellers right through into the Twentieth century. I know the details, as they were recorded in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (No longer to be available in paper format, by the way. I wonder in sales people will now come to the door touting CD's for your computer instead. It won't look so impressive on the shelf. When a vicar friend was doing his PhD he had a complete set of "The Early Church Fathers" on his study shelves, a lengthy and imposing collection. I pointed out that he could get the whole lot on a CD for a fraction of the price. His response was, "Oh yes, but that wouldn't intimidate the parishioners nearly so much!").

Okay, so two people, sharing the same name and an occupation, but not much else. What do they have in common. Well, the first is my great-great-grandfather, and the second is his great-great-grandfather. Apparently there were a lot of "John Brown"'s in the family, some highly successful in life, others not.

We don't choose who our parents are, but we live with who they are throughout our lives. Not only is our inheritance genetic, it is also social: If they were socially advantaged we benefit from that advantage; if not, likewise. There's been a lot in the news recently about the rapid decline in social mobility; young people growing up today are more likely to remain in the same socio-economic group as their parents than in previous generations. Inheritance seemed to matter a great deal to the Gospel writers too. Both Matthew and Luke recorded (differing) genealogies for Jesus (breaking a few genealogical traditions along the way, but that's for another time), so it clearly mattered who he was descended from.

It all raises the question of how much we are free to be ourselves. If we are constrained by genetics and social inheritance, how much space is left for free will? Certainly, personal freedom is a big issue for many today. But, in what way are we free? Certainly Jesus did not seem to feel constrained by family ties and responsibilities. My apologies the the Mothers Union and others who, rightly, support the existence of the family unit, but this didn't seem a big issue to Jesus. Instead, he spoke of a new family, united by the bond of faith and trust in him. When a bystander declared that his mother was "blessed", his response was, "blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it." (Luke 11:28).

At its best the Christian Church is a place that includes all comers, the great and the ruddy awful, and that liberates them to be all that they can be, not through personal independence but through mutual dependence. Maybe that is why the Church has often been at the forefront of education and political liberation as it seeks to follow its brother Jesus wherever he may call it. Sadly, that same church has too often been the agent of inertia and entrenchment. So how do we know when to move and when to make a stand? Well, may I suggest we look at the kinds of people advocating each option: Those whose faith leads them to community, inclusion and mutual growth, there, I think, Christ's way may be found.

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Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Just when you thought it was safe to stop reading...

Well, I've had a week to clean off the dust, look at the photos (an unnerving number -that's one of the problems with digital photography) and let the temperature rise to what it was on a cold night in Israel, so its time to start blogging again.
Last Sunday I had the privilege of going along to Seaton Baptist Church. The speaker was David Coffey, a Minister from Torbay with a great deal of experience. He spoke on Acts 11:19-30. It's one of my favourite passages in my favourite book of the Bible. In fact, the Acts of the Apostles was the first book of the Bible I read when I started exploring Christianity for myself. I found it full of action and humanity, alongside an honest journey of faith, warts 'n all. I was hooked.
This part of the story of Acts actually starts a few chapters earlier, in Acts chapter 8. The Church has been going for a few years. It's survived a few challenges along the way and grown in number and maturity. But it's still fundamentally a Jewish sect, following Jewish traditions and customs, focused within a Jewish province of the Roman Empire. Then persecution breaks out, and we are told that all except the Apostles were scattered.
What happens to this Church, deprived of its leadership? Well, the same as what happens to any church in a vacancy when it's without it's minister; it's true character comes out. In this case those scattered believers found themselves in new and often challenging situations. They were not only refugees, but were exposed to cultures and value systems quite foreign to what they were used to. The temptation may have been to form an expatriate community in exile; close the shutters and pull up the drawbridge. That would have been quite understandable, but it's not what they did. I guess they had learnt better than that.
What's maybe most striking about this story though is that they found a new language with which to talk of their faith. They realised that their context had changed and they recognised that simply speaking slower or louder wasn't going to help them be understood. They needed to reimagine their message so that others, who saw the world and believed in a very different way, might know God for themselves. This had what may have been an unforeseen result; those Christians (and this is the first time that name - a derogatory diminutive - is used) learnt new things about God for themselves. They had the maturity to react to this newness, not with rejection, but by embracing it. And the Church grew.
It may be naive (but not unknown) for Christians today to believe that we have got God satisfactorily defined and nailed down with doctrine, like a rat in a dissection dish, but it is still possible for us to learn a great deal new about God and to allow God to transform us through the experience. We don't even have to face persecution to achieve this - though I should point out that God is not above shouting violently if God's people refuse to listen - you can simply try what I tried last Sunday and meet God somewhere different.
On the very first Sunday of the very first term at Theological College we traipsed off to church. It wasn't an Anglican church. Nor was it the second or third or even tenth Sunday. We went to Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Quaker, Pentecostal, Puritan and many other places of worship. Quite a bit was familiar. Some was uncomfortable. Bits seemed simply wrong and not the right way to do it at all. We were welcomed, fed, had things explained to us, prayed for, ignored and given weird looks. And in all of these places we met fellow Christians who challenged our faith and, with God's help, encouraged it to grow. Our God had been too small, but by the end was a little bigger (and still too small).
So try it. Go somewhere new. Consider what you experience; what priorities are apparent; where is grace, forgiveness, Scripture, holiness, and so on; what draws you to God in the experience and what turns you away? And when you've done all the Christian churches you can find, try elsewhere, or ask me to run a "retreat on the street". And then come back, bringing your bigger vision with you, and share it with others who need to know. Just as they did in Acts.
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Location:Colyford Rd,Seaton,United Kingdom

Friday, 11 May 2012

A Holy Land, full of holes

Tiberias. It's a Jewish city on the west bank of Galilee. A tour of the highlights takes upwards of thirty minutes, but can be done in less if you don't stop for a coffee. Although Tiberias has an ancient and sacred history, being associated with the writing of Talmud and the revival of Judaism in the period following the destruction of the Second Temple, most ancient sites from these times have been carefully concreted over. Before 1967, when Israel captured the Golan Heights, Syrian artillery would frequently shell Israeli communities in Galilee. I don't know if Tiberias was within range, but it's looks as if it was, as it's building appear to have been thrown up quickly by people who wanted nothing more than shelter and had no regard for where it stood or how it looked..

I've gradually realised something as I've travelled around Israel, visiting small communities and large cities: There's a distinctive lack of good architecture and environmental aesthetic. Whereas most societies tried out the brutalistic and high rise architecture of the 50's and 60's and realised it didn't work at producing happy integrated communities, israel thought; "This is great. Where can we get more concrete?" I am growing to suspect there is a committee which travels Israel's remaining wilderness areas, stops and says, "That's a remarkable view, uninterrupted by anything made by the hand of man. How about a few power pylons, just to tidy it up?". There's also a profusion of walls, wires and other things to keep people out. This isn't just with the infamous "peace wall", but seemingly everywhere.

I think Israel still has a strong frontier mentality. It's the kind of mentality that existed in the United States as it expanded westwards. Everything was perceived as a threat or challenge to be conquered and that perception allowed for a lot of abuse, of the environment and, more importantly, of people. In the USA this has evolved, though traces of it remain in a natural aversion to centralised control and the notion of a welfare state.

Israel became independent in 1948 at the expiration of the British Mandate. This was a control Britain had taken at the end of the first war in the name of the League of Nations. Even at that time there was a strong movement in Britain to loosen the ties of Empire. By the end of the second war this movement was gathering momentum, and the Indian subcontinent would soon go its own way. Britain no longer had the resources, and increasingly lacked the will, to enforce its dominance abroad.

British control of Palestine was now under the authority of the newly formed United Nations, and a plan was devised for the end of British rule and the formation of separate Jewish and Palestinian States. This proposed a division of the Mandate to allow for distinct and manageable areas for each new nation. It was never a realistic proposal. If there was no historical enmity between the two ethnic groups; if the division of lands allowed for allocations which were defensible; or if Britain had available huge military resources to police the partition; and, maybe most importantly, if foreign powers nearby and further away would keep their distance; then peace may have been possible.

War came, initially favouring the Arab majority, but then Israel as Jewish forces grew. The Gaza Strip and West Bank were merely ceasefire lines from 1948. For the Arabs too much land has been lost and too many families displaced. Left with the poorest land and a vast number of refugees, their remnants became mere extensions of Egypt and Jordan, never knowing self government. For Israel, the elusive prize of Jerusalem was not secured and the West Bank placed Arab armies less than twenty miles from the coast, threatening to cut Israel in two. In 1967 Israel took matters into its own hands and captured the West Bank and Gaza and also secured the Golan and Sinai as buffers against their most potent aggressors.

Spending time in Israel I have seen many things I don't like, including a political situation that is clearly unjust. But it is also understandable from an Israeli perspective, a perspective that justifiably wants to secure its long term independence and less justifiably perceives all who are not "of the family" as a threat.

How Israel sees itself colours all that it does. Everything is seen through that frontiersman lens, and understood in that context. Whether the context is still relevant or not becomes irrelevant. It's the lens that's looked through that counts.

What can be applied to Israel can be applied to any nation, even our own, to communities and individuals. I see the world through lenses I cannot simply remove, partly because I am unaware they are there. Paul reminds us that Christians are citizens of more than one country (Philippians 3). As such it is a duty to do what we can to recognise the lenses we wear and to understand how they shade our perception of the world. We may not be able to remove them. But recognising them allows us to be more honest in our dealings with others, to appreciate them and to build bridges. I find Israel irritating, but at least part of the problem is with me.

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Thursday, 10 May 2012

The Imam and the Jew

It's getting near to the end of my time in Israel. I'm moving about a fair bit and access to the Internet is getting patchy. So these last few posts could arrive at any time. I will keep up the blog once I'm back though it may be more spasmodic.

Yesterday I left Nazareth, a delightful town in many ways, with many inspiring people. Being up in the hills and catching the breeze the temperatures were in the low twenties. Getting off the bus in Tiberias, on the shores of Galilee, was like walking into a wall of heat, as the temperature was a good ten degrees higher. I'm sitting on the shore after sunset to write this and I guess the temperature has fallen to about what it was in Nazareth at noon. More about Tiberias in the next post, possibly...

For now I'd like to mention the most inspiring, faith-lifting thing I have seen so far on my trip. The hostel where I was staying in Nazareth was a wonderful, groundbreaking place, seeking to encourage a handful of the thousands of tourists who breeze into Nazareth each day in their air-conditioned coaches to stay a bit longer and see a lot more. To this end the hostel runs a free tour of a few behind-the-scenes bits of the town for anyone who is interested. It's won international awards and it's easy to see why. So I tagged along with Linda, our guide; as we visited a Roman era house filled with refugee families, presenting unique conservation problems; a coffee mill, producing the most amazing coffee I have ever tasted; a spice merchants, still using the same alarmingly loud and unsafe equipment installed by the British in the 1920's; and the imam of the local Mosque. We only had a few moments with him. Why? Well, because he was busy going up and down the stalls in the souk, run by Christian and Moslem Arabs, collecting free parcels of food and household items that were needed by a Jewish woman whose husband had been imprisoned and was left with children and no income. Just think about that for a moment. There have been several wars fought between the factions I mentioned in that earlier sentence, and the conflict still goes on.

Let's recap: A Moslem leader encourages Moslems and Christians, of one tribe, to help a Jew, whose own people have developed a form of apartheid that guarantees a worse deal for Arabs. There is hope, there is faith, there is love. And because of that, all things become possible..... Wonderful.

As the imam couldn't take us around his mosque, Linda gave the tour. She showed us the space where they are setting up a primary school, for children of all faiths, with teachers of all faiths. Next door is a new Christian initiative, extolling the virtues of Mary (well, this is Nazareth) and presenting her role, not just in Christianity, but in Islam too, as well as reminding us of her Jewish faith. None of this is done with a bland "all faiths are the same" attitude. People here are painfully aware of differences in faith, race and culture. But, it is all done to demonstrate a respect, and a love for those neighbours who were once regarded as strangers. This holy land needs people such as this to make it whole and heal the wounds of bigotry and pride. The First Testament extols us to "pray for the peace of Jerusalem". Those words were written many centuries ago. They are still needed today.

The Exodus of the Jewish people from a state of slavery to a place they could call home happened with small steps. Human nature being what it is it turned out far more small steps were needed than should have been, but they got there in the end. The Fauzi Azar Hostel, the Imam, Linda, and many others are all taking small steps. Maybe in time they will lead both Jew and Arab to a land that holds promise for everyone.

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Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Bible believing doubter

It had to happen after a couple of weeks drinking strange water, eating unpeeled fruit and local salad: I've got verbal diarrhoea. The other entries to date were written more or less straight off. Today's has been edited and rearranged and is still the size of a small novel. It never ends. So I've scraped the lot and will try again. Here goes...
If I don't believe in the virgin birth does that mean I can't claim to believe in the Bible?

As I'm in Nazareth lets take as an example the virgin birth. This doctrine has its roots in First Testament prophecy (Isaiah 7:14) where the Hebrew word for "young woman" has traditionally been translated as "virgin". It had been translated this way since the very first Greek translation was made several hundred years before Jesus was born, and the idea stuck. Well, does it matter? Does Jesus have to be born in this special way for him to be God incarnate? I can't think of a single reason why.
But there used to be a good reason. Have you ever wondered why it is traditional in most cultures to give a child their fathers name? It's generally because their mothers identity is obvious, but their fathers less so. That's reflected in Judaism where a persons qualification to be a Jew by birth depends on their maternal line and not the paternal. But, and it's a big "but", Adams sin is passed on through the father, not the mother. Until not that long ago it was thought that the father gave life in the form of a seed and that the mother was merely the seedbed. Hence a woman who could not have children was called infertile, like poor soil. Whereas if the man couldn't have children, well it was his wife's fault for being infertile, not his. So, if sin comes from the father and not the mother, and heritage comes from the mother and not the father, then for Jesus to be God incarnate and the fulfilment of prophecy he needs a good Jewish mother and no earthly father at all. Hence, virgin birth. Ta ra!
So, if you believe in a desperately outdated understanding of childbirth then the doctrine of the virgin birth will be essential. Otherwise not. Dropping belief in this doctrine does not then change who Jesus was and is. It does however make belief in him that bit more plausible for those who would like to believe but find too many stumbling blocks in the way. Of course, you can't do that with all doctrines, but is worth considering what actually counts, what makes a difference; not to how comfortable I feel in my faith, but to the truth of the identity of Jesus, because surely that's what really matters.
The purpose of scripture is not to introduce us to doctrine but to introduce us to God, to show us something of the nature of God and to help us understand how God might be known. It's God's story, and also our story. So, there's also a lot in there about how people have misunderstood God and how God has tried to work with that.

As an aside, I love the bit in 1 Samuel 8 when the fledgling nation of israel looks at all the strong nations around them and decides that what they need to be strong is a king, just like all the others. So they ask Samuel to ask God if they can have a king. God repeatedly tells them what a bad idea kings are; how they impose heavy taxes, take the young men away to war, enslave the people, etc, but the Israelites will have none of it, they want a king. So God reluctantly gives in and provides a king who turns out to be just as God warned. However, over time, God works with this foolish desire to be ruled by kings, and even blesses a few of the subsequent ones. But God never renagues on his initial statement that kings are basically a bad idea. Go on, preach on that on Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee...
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