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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Monday, 7 May 2012

Identikit Jesus

I reached Nazareth today, which took a while. Although Nazareth is an Israeli Arab town bus connections with Israeli Jewish towns are poor. That did give me a couple of hours at a town called Afula though. The best thing about Afula? The bus station, because that's how you leave the town. To be honest, I think many of the locals would agree.

Nazareth, Nazareth, can anything good come out of Nazareth? Well, there's certainly many good things in Nazareth, including some fantastic restaurants and cafes, of which I intend to sample as many as possible. All in the interests of people watching and adsorbing the culture, you understand.

Spending time in Israel changes you. Despite the historically dubious nature of some of the sites and the commercialisation of many, you are aware that you are in a deeply historical place, the context for many great human stories. When I visited Israel the last time it provoked, challenged and changed my faith. As it should do, I guess.

One experience spoke to me more than any other though, and I'd like to write about that today. In Nazareth can be found the Basilica of the Annunciation, the place (sorry, one of the places) where Gabriel announced to Mary that she would give birth to God's child. According to the guide book, "Architect Giovani Muzio was told to create something modern, multinational and mysterious.". Well, two out of three isn't so bad. The remains of ancient churches and buildings from the time of Jesus do their best to promote the mysterious but loose the fight in the face of many tons of prestressed concrete. Sadly, the Basilica did little for my faith.

What did challenge and provoke me however was the courtyard around the Basilica. It too is very modern, but it is decorated with pictures donated by different national Roman Catholic groups from around the world. I've copied in those from Romania, Korea and Thailand but there are many more. Each picture is of exactly the same subject; Mary and the infant Jesus. What was striking, and what stopped me in my tracks, was the styles of the pictures. Mary and Jesus are not depicted as Middle Eastern Jews nor as Anglo Saxons (which we, of course, know that they were), but as people of the culture that provided each picture. So there is a Welsh Mary and Jesus, a Japanese Mary and Jesus, an Egyptian Mary and Jesus, and so on.

God bless Cecil B deMile, but Jesus was not a white Northern European (nor was the Roman Centurion at the cross John Wayne, one of the worst miscasts of all time surely). But in another sense Jesus was not simply a Middle Eastern Jew either. Certainly he was genetically and culturally, but as God incarnate he was for all people in all places at all times. Which means that no culture can own Jesus, including my own. Neither, I would like to add, can any institution.

Some of the worst excesses of the Christian Church have come out of an attitude that we have the exclusive on God. We don't. God may be at work through his Church in an exclusive way, but that's different. Jesus may be God at work in an exclusive way, but that too is different. The Church sometimes behaves as if it is the only mediator between humanity and God when it isn't. That role belongs to another. To use a mathematical analogy: Christians, such as myself, have often behaved as if God is a subset of the Church, when we should behave as if the Church is a subset of all that God is.

So, what did my first visit to the Basilica of the Anunciation do for me? It showed me that my God was too small. My God is still too small I shouldn't doubt. That will probably be the case for the rest of my life. But maybe the task of the pilgrim journey is to allow our understanding of God to grow, to grow and take us where it will. That should be fun!

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Saturday, 5 May 2012

...and a few more

The minefield where Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist - Kasar El-Yahud.

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In reality this is a complex of buildings with various parts owned by different traditions, Latin and Eastern. This bit is Greek Orthodox, which is why it is well maintained. The actual sepulchre where Christ was laced is held up with iron beams, courtesy of the Royal Navy.

In Bethlehem the Church of the Nativity is basically unchanged since Byzantine times. It retains the simple basilica design that all cathedrals were once built to, based on the architecture of a Roman law court.

The Basilica once had a grand main door, built by the Byzantines. By the time the Crusaders turned up life was more dangerous, so they built an arched door, low enough to prevent cavalry riding in. Later, when times were even more dangerous the monks built a low stone door that only one person can enter at a time, stooping. And I thought keeping the church going in the 21st century was difficult!

I have no idea who these people are but they evidently do. One of many processions you see daily in Jerusalem, just a bit posher than most.

It's sometimes tempting to write off the whole religious thing here as one great big tourist con: There are so many people, and so many people asking for money. But I guess that's no different from St Paul's or Westminster Abbey (actually, they charge a lot to get in, and the churches here don't). What I have noticed, having time to loiter and observe a little more closely, is the huge amount of pastoral care going on.

Pilgrim marks left over the years at the Holy Sepulchre. Banksy has also left his mark on the so called "Peace Wall", though I didn't get to see that.

The Garden of Gethsemane. There are some beautiful places around here to sit amongst olive trees and reflect. This isn't one of them. However, the grove here does contain trees over two-thousand years old. I wonder what they were witness to...

Finally, you can't escape them! This is Christchurch, the Anglican Church in the Old City, holding their spring fair. There's fish & chips, a raffle, tea and cakes and pictures of the Queen and bunting. I think the last bit was a bit tongue in cheek. The multi-national congregation holds services in Arabic, Hebrew, English and several other languages, and has early a huge amount of respect across the communities for their local involvement and service.

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Just a few holiday snaps

It's Sunday and I'll be joining the good folk at St George's for their morning serviced shortly. So todays blog is simply a selection of photos, now that I have figured out how to post more than one picture at a time.

The Roman aquaduct at Ceaserea carried water from the mountains to the city for many centuries. The yellow stone glows as the sun sets over the sea. This is where I worked twenty-six years ago.

The detritus of the many conflicts still litters the landscape, much now serving as memorials to those who fell capturing one dusty lump of rock or another. When I worked in Israel last time I fashioned my sampling equipment out of spare bits or rocket launcher left lying around.

Rock cut steps lead up the side of this steep wadi in the desert. Monks used to live in caves at the top.

The harsh salt landscape by the Dead Sea.

Camels! Had to get a shot with camels. These belong to local Bedouin who still roam the wilderness much as they have done for thousands of years. Modern minefields do cause them some difficulties.

Ibex, saved from extinction over recent decades. This is a young male with only short horns.

Rock Hyrax, otherwise known as Rock Badgers, otherwise called Conies. These cat sized creatures cannot regulate their body temperature, unlike most mammals, and so have to lounge in the sun to get going at the start of the day. In this country we call them teenagers.

More Hyrax, cos they're cute. These are two young. They tend to keep together in family groups of up to thirty. I saw nine at one time.
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In the beginnings

What's your creation story? Surely I mean, what is the creation story. But no, I don't. I believe we all have a creation story, Christian or not, people of faith or not. I believe Atheists have creations stories, and I'm not talking about evolution verses creationism here. Just for the record, and allowing for quibbling about a few details, I believe in evolution as the best scientific explanation as to how I happen to be here. But I still have a creation story, and I find it in the pages of the Bible.

The Bible begins with a creation story (Genesis 1:1 - 2:3). This is immediately followed by,.... a creation story (Genesis 2:4 - 3:24). We know these are two stories because the second backtracks on the first, has different elements and places common ones in a different order, and, uses a different Hebrew vocabulary. This in itself poses a problem for anyone who blandly states they believe in the Biblical creation story: they may well do, but which one.

The origins of these stories are lost in the midst of time, but they share much in common with other ancient creation stories in that they use the device of how the world was created to tell the story of why the world is as it is. What's important is that when the leaders of Israel were taken into exile in Babylon and started to formalise the recorded story of their people and their faith they chose to begin their retelling with these two stories. Their Babylonian captors had creation tales of their own, telling of war between gods and the creation of the world from the carcass of a dead god. In their tale humanity is created to be the mere slaves of the gods, and has no value beyond this. That may be a pretty dismal tale but it would have shaped how the everyday Babylonian lived their lives, how they understood themselves, and others, and how they took meaning from their daily grind. It's probably how most of us view things on a bad day.

Now, read the Jewish creation stories in contrast to the story of their hosts. Does it read differently? Here all that there is comes about through creativity and imagination, and not destruction and death. Humanity is the pinnacle of that creation and is invited by the creator to share in a stewardship role alongside the creator. The creator and the creation walk and share together. This world view is presented as how things are meant to be. But as we all know it's not like that, and so we have to encounter a story of a broken relationship and a parting of the ways. The remainder of the Bible simply spells out the implications of this parting and tells of the many attempts at reconciliation; a reconciliation that proves impossible until the creator intervenes personally.

So what is your creation story? We all have one. It's not the one you might feel inclined to lean towards on a particularly bad day, nor on an especially good day for that matter. It's how you would understand the way of the world and your place in it most of the time. Maybe, like the Babylonian story, it is closed. Or maybe, like the Judeo-Christian story it is open; it is aspirational yet recognises the flaws of our world, yet hold on for a better outcome. So what is your story, and to what does it owe it's inspiration, because that may be where you need to explore further.

Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe everything was created in seven actual days, but frankly that seems so small, so unimaginative, so feeble. Personally, I think God is much bigger than that. To take everything in the Bible as literal scientific fact takes no faith, simply a mechanical world view. I think everything in the Bible is true. I just don't know what a lot of it means.

ps. The photo at the top of this page is of the Dome of the Rock, One of Islam's holiest sites. This is where, according to different traditions, Mohammed ascended to heaven, Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac, the Holy of Holies in the old Jewish Temple stood, and, is the centre of the world where Adam and Eve were created. Considering the number of different holy sites in this country that demonstrates an incredible economy of scale to my mind. It is also where is will all end apparently! I think that just about covers it.
I like this image because of all those satellite dishes pointing to the heavens (or at least to a satellite offering a bewildering array of channels in a variety of languages, and comprising (from a short and confusing flick through some of the 1000+ TV stations available at the hostel) 45% religious nutters, 45% porn, and maybe 10% news and drama (in Polish)). Should this change my creation story? No, I think it merely confirms it...

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Growing pain

Luke 2:46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.

What do you imagine Jesus was like as a kid? If you remember back to your class, say towards the end of primary school or maybe the early days at your secondary school, what was that class like? Can you remember many names? Who were the characters, and why? There's the one who always got in trouble, and deserved it, and the one who always got in trouble and didn't. There was the one no-one liked, though for no objective reason. They were like the scape-goat, who carried the blames and anxieties of everyone else. There were the bright ones who wished they were one of the popular ones, and the popular ones who,.. well, who liked being popular, but maybe weren't bright enough to realise how fickle popularity can be. And there was you. Where did you fit? Did you fit?

So, if one of your classmates was going to grow up to be the saviour of the world, which one would it be? Or to put it another way; what was Jesus like as a kid?

Islam also has an important place for Jesus. In their story of his nativity they have him talking words of prophecy and wisdom even whilst in the crib! This echos a Moslem view of the Koran as complete and without variation; the complete package that cannot be changed; God made, not manmade. So their Jesus arrives in this world with all the wisdom and knowledge of the adult prophet. For me, that's probably the greatest difficulty Islam faces as it rubs up against modernity: Its theology of revelation has left it with precious little room for manoeuvre.

I have a sneaking suspicion that more than a handful of Christians have a rather Islamic understanding of Jesus. It's reflected in a lot of religious art and statuary. There's Jesus, physically a child yet displaying adult behaviour and understanding. Now, if the art depicts Jesus this way to suggest the man this child would grow into, his as yet unrealised potential, then I have no problem I guess. But if the art intends to deny to Jesus the ability to be a child and to be childish (nothing wrong with a child being childish, it's with adults that problems arise) then, for me at least, it undermines the validity of the incarnation. What I mean is that God doesn't become human just to twiddle his thumbs for thirty years and then die in a salvic blaze of glory, but becomes human to raise humanity to what it was supposed to be through the simple and ordinary act of being human.

(As a footnote: I have visited many chapels and shrines in my week in Jerusalem, each dedicated to a specific part of Jesus' story, some central, some rather more marginal in significance. I can't find anywhere that commemorates him going to the toilet or picking his nose, but I'm sure there would be a spot in the market for it. I'm just struggling to imagine the religious tat the nearby stalls would sell.)

I began this blog entry with a quotation from the Bible and a photo that provoked today's entry. I was wandering around the Wailing Wall last night just before Shabbat and saw this scene. A Rabbi takes time from his personal devotions to instruct the children in the traditions and meaning of their faith. The children are like children everywhere; one studies studiously, separate from his classmates, one gazes into the distance - distracted or contemplating, I know not which - one appears to be asleep. They could be my classmates from all those years ago. Which one could be Jesus?

When Joseph and Mary found Jesus with the teachers in the Temple it would have been a scene not too far different from this. A little group huddled together to learn. They find that he is impressing the teachers with his questions and understanding. We've often read this in a Koranic sense, that Jesus has adult, or even greater than adult, understanding. But all that the language of that scripture stretches to is that Jesus was impressive for a child his age, and the teachers, like teachers everywhere, we're responding positively to a bright child who wanted to learn. I wonder if Jesus ever sat in Torah class wishing he was less insightful are simply more popular?

As the story continues: Luke 2:52 And as Jesus grew up, he increased in wisdom and in favour with God and people.

Second footnote: Photography is my hobby, but it's also a way of seeing. Sure, most of my photos are no more than holiday snaps, but I do try at times to go a little further than that. A website I have found inspirational is . It contains lots of helpful tips and nerdy stuff, but it's the home page I like best. It holds one picture and a quote. The picture changes every few days but the quote remains the same, and I would like to share it with you because I believe it contains a worthwhile world view: "Stare, it is the way to educate your eyes. Pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long." Walker Evans.

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Thursday, 3 May 2012

Jesus was born again

Jesus was born again. I know that for a fact because yesterday I visited Bethlehem and went to the Church of the Nativity where the place where he was born is clearly marked. I then went to the Church next door and visited the place where Jesus was born. Now, I shall admit my limitations and say that I don't know which one he was born in, if either. What I do know is that he was born, and through faith I believe that his birth changed our world for ever.

This morning I visited a church outside the old city here in Jerusalem where it is said Jesus ascended to heaven. I then visited a mosque where he also ascended (Remember, Jesus is regarded as an important prophet in Islam). There they do actually have some evidence to back up their claim. In the stone bedrock that provides the floor, are two footprints. Except there aren't, as centuries of pilgrims rubbing their hands over the stone (and nicking bits - pilgrims aren't supposed to do this, but have a really bad habit of taking souvenirs) has worn them away to one slight depression. I can only assume Jesus generated the force needed to cause these depressions in the rocks by attempting to ascend from the first spot, failing to achieve escape velocity (the speed a rocket needs to escape earths gravitational field), and landing with the considerable force needed to leave these marks before trying again,.... and landing at the site of the second Church of the Ascension,.... third time lucky! I'm not bothered by not knowing the precise spot of lift-off or even the exact nature of the event described by Luke. The story is significant for my faith in other ways, as it clearly was for Luke who used it to close his Gospel and open his Acts of the Apostles, the story of the beginnings of the Christian Church.

Right now I am sitting in the shade at the Garden Tomb, otherwise known as Gordon's Calvary, where General Gordon discovered a skull shaped hill and authentic tombs that closely matched the description given in the Bible. This isn't where Jesus died, neither is it where he was buried. For once we can be pretty certain that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is in the right spot.

So, does it all matter. Jesus of Nazareth existed as a historical figure. He was a highly popular religious teacher who was described as a miracle worker, and who aroused the emnity of the religious professionals of his day. He was arrested and executed and buried. Soon after, in complete contrast to all of the other religious rabble rousers of his day (and there were a few), his disciples did not dissipate never to be heard of again, but claimed that he had come back to life. Despite persecutions they continued in their claims, and the rest is history. Actually, all that paragraph is history. The rest is actually faith.

There must be many places where Jesus walked, where he taught, where he demonstrated through action this "kingdom" he proclaimed. I might be standing on such a spot right now. Certainly, as a human being, there is a spot where he was born, where he died and where he was buried, and given the profusion of holy sites around here there is a good chance there is a shrine on each one of them. But they can't all be right, certainly not when there's more that one for a certain aspect of his life or ministry.

But none of this matters. Well actually that's not quite true. If being certain we know the precise point where such a thing associated with the life of Jesus actually took place matters to me, then yes it matters. It matters because I am completely missing the point. The point is not the actual place and whether it is in a church or a mosque or on top of a hillside. The point is that these shrines and holy places should be representational; that something like what we understood happened in a place such as this. This is actually the belief of many of the monks and nuns who work here. They're not bothered by historical precision, but rather by how their place plays its part in the pilgrim journey of those who visit. As one site put on a notice by the door; "If you come as a tourist we welcome you and pray you will leave as a pilgrim. If you come as a pilgrim we welcome you and pray for you on your journey to the cross."

Jesus instructed his disciples to travel light (Mark 6:8). So must we who follow him today. So yes, visit the holy sites. Take from them the lessons that can be learnt. And then move on. Believe me, faith weighs a good deal less that the religious tat on offer around here, and it's free.

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Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Be a brick, just not in the wall.

Which photo? So many to choose, but which one to use? Should it be the one of the stacks of riot shields stored ready at the entrance to the El Asqua Mosque in Jerusalem, or how about that close up of the shiny new razor wire protecting a Jewish family recently moved into a house in the Moslem Quarter. I would have used the photo of the bored eighteen year old who got us all off the bus from Bethlehem to check our passports and identity cards, but I didn't take that photo. The idea of being hauled away and searched didn't appeal. So I offer you a rather uncreative but "to the point" picture of the security wall separating Jewish and Palestinian communities in Palestine.

The appearance of this wall, and it's effect on the daily lives of thousands of people has been one of the greatest changes in the time since my last visit to Israel. When I last came here the difference in standard of living between Jewish and Palestinian communities was noticeable, but was not too great. Now the difference is vast and readily apparent. It is like the difference between two adjacent gardens; one with verdant growth and lush lawns, where careful nurture and investment has paid off; the other, over the fence, neglected and weed grown, it's owner no longer having the ability to care for it.

Palestinians will correctly point out the many injustices of its creation: the olive groves that have been destroyed, the workers cut off from their work, the humiliation of their women and their elderly at the hands of adolescent lads with assault rifles. The Jews will, also correctly, point to the significant reduction in violence since its creation.

I don't have an answer to the Israel/Palestine problem, and if I did it would take a book and not a blog to even summarise, but I believe that as with all similar situations, it begins with a story, or possibly stories: Maybe it begins with the story of Ishmael and Isaac (Genesis 17) a story where the ancestral line of Jew and Arab divide and God's blessing goes only with one (which one depends on whose story you read). Maybe in includes the challenge presented to Mohammed by minor local kingdoms converting to Judaism in the faced of his new nascent philosophy, or his later destruction of a Jewish community that had tried to resist him. Maybe we should also recall the artless politicking of the Crusader period, or the only slightly less shoddy diplomacy that established the British Mandate following the Ottoman collapse. And, of course, we can't ignore the holocaust and the rise of Arab nationalism. Added to that are the many terrorist/legitimate-responses of the past few years. There are many stories that go to make up the current situation, and they will not be easily untangled.

I reluctantly conclude that a dividing barrier is maybe the right thing for now. As in Northern Ireland communities in conflict sometimes need to be kept apart so that they can experience the results of a lack of conflict. That is peace keeping. But it is not peace making. Peace making is far harder. That, I suspect, will require the Jews to get over their sense of guilt about their powerlessness around the holocaust and the Palestinians to lower the shield of pride which prevents compromise. Maybe someone should book the entire nation in for a series of meeting with Relate, the marriage guidance people.

We are enjoined to pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122). That will only come through peace for all her people, Jew, Palestinian, and all who come to wonder at her story and who see her in her pain. Remember how Jesus summed up the Law? "Love the Lord your God", and "love your neighbour as yourself", Luke 10:27. An attempted solution that ignores these rules cannot hope to succeed.

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Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Brushing the landmines under the carpet

It happens so easily. We've all been there. You're just trying to get things done; to get on with life. But life's busy, life's demanding, and it can throw up the unexpected that needs to be dealt with. Unfortunately you don't always deal with it well. You didn't mean for it to all go wrong, but it did, and now there's one heck of a mess. So, what are you going to do about it, hmmm? Put you hand up, admit it was you, and try and make amends? Maybe others will offer to help, they'll understand and want to work with you to put things right,... or, maybe they won't... So, how about brushing the broken bits under the carpet and attempting to distract folk with a nice bunch of flowers instead? It's amazing how often that does the trick!
Have you ever been to the Holy Land? Did you visit the baptism site on the River Jordan. No you didn't. Well, not unless you went via the country of Jordan over forty -five years ago, or you happen to be Greek Orthodox and well connected. Now, if that's leaving you a little confused please let me explain. The Bible tells us that John baptised in the Jordan and that all Jerusalem came out to see (Matthew 3). It's reasonable to assume that means he was baptising on that stretch of the river that passes vaguely near to Jerusalem. That means somewhere close to Jericho. The tradition of many centuries certainly agrees with this. Yet, for the past few decades there has been a very attractive and well used baptism site on the Jordan river just south of where it exits the Sea of Galilee. I went there the last time I was in Israel, as did coach loads of devout tourists. They still do.
The problem with the historical site is that it lies in the West Bank. For nearly thirty years it was occupied by Jordan and now it is occupied by Israel. It's the border of a hotly contested territory and, as you may be able to see from the photo above, it is in the middle of a minefield. It was only late last year that Israel first allowed regular access to this spot. You have to drive through armed checkpoints and a rather large minefield to get there, but at least you can get there now. There's an attractive new baptismal centre that's just been built but they really need to do something about the shell holes in the nearby Syrian Orthodox monastery and the other Christian sites too heavily damaged to access at all.
Personally I draw comfort from this. I get things wrong. But, you didn't need me to tell you that, did you? Well guess what? I'm in good company, and I'm not just talking about the State of Israel, am I? (Come on now, we can all be honest with one another). There is an irony in the symbolism of the site so damaged and cut off for so long. Baptism is about two wonderful things; restoration and adoption. Restoration; the renewal of what has been broken - a relationship of love and trust. Adoption; our inclusion in a greater community that is compelled to stand with us in the ongoing work of reconciliation - 'cos we still don't get it all right.
The baptismal site near Jericho is not nearly as attractive a setting as the one at Galilee, it never will be, but it is a wonderful place to be. Set amidst a battlefield it is a contrasting symbol of the hope offered in God; a hope that endures; a hope that we can all draw encouragement from. That will be something for me to remember the next time I stand before a font ready to baptise.
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