Friday, 2 December 2011

Noah - hope for a people in exile?

If you were one of God's people in the exile, would the story of Noah have encouraged you? I think it might well have done and that it can encourage many of God's people today in similar ways. God's people are effectively "aliens" or "strangers" (1 Peter) who are living apart from their promised land (Hebrews 11:13-16?) and are surrounded by competing philosophies and alternative faiths (including the "faith" commitment of atheism!?). So, we are often in a position to relate (partially, not completely of course!!) to Jews and Israelites in exile who were away from the promised land , wondering whether it was worth trying to be righteous and if continuing faith in God was worth the trouble.

Noah is pictured as a righteous man living in a world that is otherwise hostile to God. He is told of God's plans and granted a way of "salvation" to keep him safe. By remaining faithful to God, Noah is able to take part in a new or renewed creation. Looking at the story from the end of chapter 8 through the start of Genesis 9, we see clear parallels with the opening creation story in Genesis 1. The waters and land are once again separated as the waters are subdued. Creatures of various kinds are sent out to populate the various parts of the earth. The rhythm of days and seasons is established. Humans are charged with multiplying and filling the earth and given food. There are differences, but the pattern is clearly there that suggests this is a kind of new creation.

So, Noah, the faithful man is preserved and brought into a new creation. It is worth being faithful after all.

Maybe this helped to inspire the new creation language of Isaiah 65? Maybe this story of Noah gave hope that despite being surrounded by ungodly people and wondering if it was worth being faithful, God would look after His own and bring judgement. It surely must have been reassuring to know that God wasn't like the Ancient Near Eastern gods of the Gilgamesh Epic or Atrahasis story - God is not capricious or whimsical and He plans everything carefully, looking after those who are righteous.

As Christians, we look forward to the completion of a new creation that has already begun in Christ (see,e.g., 2 Corinthians 5:17). The new creation has started with Christ and God is reconciling all things to Himself in Him (Colossians 1:20), which will include the release of all creation from its bondage to decay as humanity is redeemed (Romans 8). If we find ourselves wondering if it is worth being faithful, then this story of Noah can encourage us too. A perfect new creation is coming. Head for the ark while there is still time and know that your God will protect you all the way through the chaotic waters of death to new life in a renewed world.

Friday, 25 November 2011

A question of conscience

In preparing for a Christianity Explored session today I re-encountered the idea that our conscience is an innate urge to follow God's moral standards - but is it?

People often speak about "conscience" as our moral centre, the feeling of conviction that we are doing right or wrong. Is this something universal? Can we attribute it to God having somehow programmed in a moral code that then triggers a sense of unease when we break it? I think that this is being somewhat simplistic, unfortunately. For example, what about people who live with a false sense of guilt? Yes, there are many who do feel real guilt, despite not having done anything wrong. It is possible to feel guilty for something that was not our fault - is this a broken-down conscience? What about the fact that certain behaviour patterns in some cultures would cause a great sense of guilt and wrongdoing, yet in other cultures people would fail to register that anything was amiss? Is our conscience actually a culturally-informed mechanism for judging our behaviour?

If our "conscience" is indeed wholly, largely, or even only partially a cultural construct then this might help to explain the instances of false guilt and "false innocence" or "cultural guilt/sin". For it to be said to be a guide to God's moral standards, surely our consciences need to be informed so that His standards become part of the discernment process that provokes feelings of guilt/innocence? If the conscience were automatically showing us right from wrong then it shouldn't "malfunction" in the ways already noted. Saying that it is corrupted by sin and hence a corrupted part of the image of God that we bear may go some way towards explaining things. Yet, once we acknowledge that conscience is "broken" and directed (at least in part) by culture, then it ceases to be a reliable guide to real guilt for real transgression of God's standards. For it to be able to guide us, it needs re-educating and the transforming work of the Spirit.

So, perhaps we should be more careful about claiming that "conscience" is a reliable moral guide. In conjunction with other things - e.g. Scripture, the Christian community, reason, etc. - it can of course be helpful. But, feelings of guilt or innocence don't tell the whole story...

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Jesus calms the storm

I'm currently helping out with a Christianity Explored course at our church. It goes through Mark's Gospel and this week, amongst other things, we looked at Mark 4:35-41 - Jesus calming the storm. I couldn't help but giggle when I read the question suggested in the CE booklet:

"What is so remarkable about the way in which Jesus calms the storm?"

I'm sorry, but that tickled me. It is as if there are perfectly "normal" ways of calming storms that wouldn't have been particularly remarkable at all. Maybe Jesus was just showing off by merely talking to the wind and waves? Such a flashy way of stopping a storm when we all know of much easier means... After all, it isn't that Jesus calmed the storm that matters is it, surely it is how he did it?!

Facetious comments to one side for a moment, though. I love the way that Mark simply says that the wind died down and everything was calm - just like that. As our vicar pointed out, if you slosh water around violently, it doesn't normally just suddenly become still again - it takes a long time to settle. Jesus' commands to be "quiet" and "still" are obeyed instantly. The storm becomes calm without that messy in-between phase of the waves gradually losing momentum. A powerful picture indeed. Metaphorically, I'm sure that many of us can relate to Jesus bringing sudden calm to stormy moments of our lives. I also wonder whether his words "Quiet, be still!" are also meant for his disciples. I know he directs them at the elements, but in doing so the disciples become quiet and still instead of panicking. Jesus knows how our faith and trust can ebb and flow with the circumstances around us and that stilling the chaos can help to still our anxious spirits too.

Perhaps the way in which God brings calm to our lives might be amazing. But in my book, the fact that he does it at all is what matters. Quietening my soul down on some days is nothing short of a miracle...

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Implicit hermeneutics

When studying theology academically, it is commonplace to be made aware of our presuppositions and methods used when reading the Bible. Hermeneutics classes can help us to see what it is we (and others) are doing and consider whether and how we might want to change our approach. However, the techniques, methods and ideas are often something we are either told to keep hidden from our congregations when preaching, or we do so anyhow fearing that non-academics would simply be bored or confused by such things. Whilst it may be right to ensure that sermons and teaching sessions prioritise the point(s) that are being communicated, why is it that outside of hermeneutics classes we so often forget that one of the key things we are communicating is how to read Scripture?

Sermons, teaching sessions, leading Bible studies, etc., all come about through our own hermeneutical processes, engaging with the text. Yet, sometimes our fellow-Christians can seem baffled at how we managed to get so much from reading a passage which seems to them to say so little. Would it not be good for them to learn reading methods (at least basic principles)? Sermons that are not directly expository, majoring perhaps on narrative and rhetorical flow, may indeed be based on something we found from the passage. But can anyone follow our reasoning back to the passage to see where that came from? If not, then there is certainly an argument for "showing the bones" of our methods in our talks as otherwise the role and authority of Scripture becomes all the more confusing for our listeners/readers.

I think we should consider talks/sermons that deliberately help people to read Scripture for themselves, with differing degrees of explicit/implicit methodology. After all, we cannot help but communicate something of our own hermeneutics implicitly. If, for example, a sermon seems to have little obvious direct connection with the text, it could reflect a hermeneutic that treats past and present as separated by a big gulf where some kind of hopeful leap has to take place for an old text to get anywhere near today's world. Maybe this is indicative of a deeper concern about the relevance of Scripture. So, maybe we should think more about what our sermons are communicating methodologically. Are they saying what we want them to say methodologically and is it helpful?

Another interesting point to consider is how consistent our hermeneutic is. Do we espouse one thing in academia and another in church settings? Are we ardent defenders of historical-critical methods and authorial intent on the one hand but preaching sermons that are basically reader-response or using imaginative reflection? Does it matter? I think we should acknowledge that teaching is not just about content, but also about method. Is our method useful to them and us in our Christian lives? If not, then why use it for preaching in the first place? (Think of Karl Barth when he arrived for his pastorate at Safenwil - no idea how to use his academic theology to speak to the lives of his congregation). If it is useful and practical then surely we would want them to be able to use those methods themselves as well - so let's help them.

Maybe people might want to read the Bible more for themselves if we could enthuse them with how it speaks to us.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Theological definitions

Learning theology can be confusing, all the more so with the bizarre terminology often used. So, here is a guide to some of the terms and their possible meanings (tongue firmly in cheek):

Soteriology - learning how to make fried potatoes

Eschatology - 1. the study of automated stairs, 2. learning how to speak posh at the races (Ascott)

Justification - the reason why none of my behaviour really matters...

Atonement - (pronounced a-tone-ment) how to be theologically discordant

Christology - the study of pretty, shiny rocks

Hermeneutics - the art of making the Bible mean whatever you want it to

Ethics - a county in southern England

Canonical criticism - sizing up the opposition's guns

Heresy - 1. A 5-piece pop band, 2. second-hand information

Hypostasis - staying still too long

Immutability - unfortunately, you can't stop them talking

Impeccability - impersonating woodpeckers

Sovereignty - a very posh cup of tea

I hope that helps you on your quest for theological knowledge. If I've missed out any important ones that you're still stuck on, do let me know.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Theological "call my bluff"

For those of you unfamiliar with the game - the idea is to sift through possible definitions to find the true one. This is what might be termed a slightly less serious take on the concept....


1. The study of French car tyres
2. Pronounced "noo-mat-ology" - the study of the development of doormats
3. Prounounced "noo-mate-ology" - the study of widening circles of friendship
4. The study of large drills used for inconveniencing car drivers by digging up as much road as possible
5. The pursuit, largely by slightly odd New Testament scholars, of desperately trying to nail jelly to a wall
6. The study of things that God used to do but couldn't possibly do any more now the apostles are dead
7. The study of how much hot air preachers expel worldwide on Sundays
8. A new investigation into the beneficial effects of clean, fresh breath
9. Something to do with God, innit?
10. The study of the person and work of the Spirit

Sorry, no special prizes for guessing the answer. But hopefully you've had a laugh, or a chuckle, or maybe a vague smile.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Ready to reach out?

I enjoyed a really great conversation the other day, talking about the Spirit, community, relationships and a missional mindset. One thing that surfaced for me at the time was the question of whether as communities of God's people we are sometimes jumping the gun in our outreach. I'll explain what mean -

Being a community of the Spirit is in large part about relationships. It would seem that relationship is about sharing ourselves with one another, bringing about a certain vulnerability, but also intimacy. This, it could be argued, reflects the Trinity - Father, Son and Spirit in mutual self-giving, sharing themselves eternally. As a loving "community", the Trinity then reaches out to incorporate others into that loving inter-relationship. A loving community of deep relationship overflows to others, bringing them into relationship too. 

Now, in some cases, it seems that churches or communities are not yet in deep relationship with one another. Yes, we have our identity together in Christ and we may meet together for worship; but, are we in relationships of self-giving? Do we really even know the people who sit next to us? Are we accountable to one another? If our community has little depth to its relationships, isn't this then a problem for outreach? If we are lacking in love for one another, then where is the overflow to go out to others, drawing them in? Surely outreach is not just about sharing the story of the gospel in words, but also demonstrating it - letting people see the loving community of God's people in relationship. So, if we neglect this then we could impoverish our outreach. This is what I mean by "jumping the gun" - trying to build relationships outwards, when the foundation of our community relationships is not yet in place.

I'm not saying that we therefore don't consciously try to spread the gospel or speak of God's kingdom until all our relationships are sorted out and functioning deeply. However, didn't Christ say that people would recognise his communities of followers by the fact that they love one another? Isn't it also true, as Lesslie Newbigin wrote ("The Gospel in a Pluralist Society"), that the best hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation that lives by it or embodies it? In other words, we reach out better when we are reflecting the God who reaches out, the God who is in loving communal relationship. If love among us is lacking, will our words be less powerful? I think quite possibly so. 

Perhaps, then, when we think about reaching out, we would do well to reach out to one another within the body of Christ as well, building a good foundation of relationships. How do we do this? There is no easy answer, of course. One possible thing to consider is how much space we allow for getting to know one another - this would also illustrate how much we value it as we prioritise what we value most! So many church programmes are full of activities and when we meet together we often think we always need songs, Bible readings, an "epilogue" at the end to remind us why we are here, lots of activities so that we don't have to feel awkward and possibly have to really chat (and not just exchange pleasantries). Maybe "fellowship" meetings (or whatever you want to call them) could be more about getting to know one another. In my experience, many people lighten up and chat over a pint in the pub or a good meal. How about next time we have a "fellowship evening" we do nothing more than eat together and let the conversation flow? Maybe then we'll get to know and love one another, pray more constructively for one another and begin to overflow outwards, showing those around us a community of love that will be attractive and an embodiment of the gospel.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Being there

What do we do when someone is going through a tough time? How about if it is a fellow Christian? Do we have the gift of "being there"?

Allowing yourself simply to be with someone in their hardship, allowing them to feel what they feel and to express it is not easy. True empathy can be costly - we can end up feeling the other person's pain. Perhaps we need to safeguard ourselves sometimes so that we are not brought low by the burden of other people's pain. But if we always do this, can we carry one another's burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ (Gal 6:2)? If we refuse to feel another's pain, are we limited in the amount of healing we can bring to them? Empathy and being there are not the same thing, but they do go well together. If we don't take the time to listen, then it is hard to empathise.

Especially for those who feel that God is not listening or communicating with them in their trials, being there can be a valuable gift to give. We all need to feel listened to and valued. If nobody seems to want to spend time with us and listen to us, we can feel alone and undervalued or misunderstood. Sadly, we can all get into the habit of only partial listening. We are so used to reading snippets of websites, clicking on to a new link before we finish reading an article to the end that we perhaps also fail to listen to people as long as we should. There is a "move on" culture that is so common these days. If there is nothing in it for me or I am getting bored or I've spotted something potentially more interesting over there then I move on. Our consumerist and internet-based culture encourages this. So, is the gift of being there at risk of dying out?

Being there is not the same as solving things either. In an attempt to remedy the situation, Christians can be too keen to slap a Bible verse on someone's circumstances to tell them how they "should" be thinking or to "remind them of the truth". Yes, at times this can be helpful. But, how carefully do we think this through? Do we know much about the person and their troubles? Have we prayed that this is actually a verse that God wishes us to share with them right now? There are risks in the "quoting biblical truth" method. Firstly, it can be patronising - do people really not know these truths at all? Secondly, it can be a smokescreen for us to hide behind so that we don't have to get too involved. It can be a low-cost way of attempting to show we care; it can also be a way of keeping a distance, not wishing to allow ourselves to feel their pain or hear their story or enter into it. Thirdly, do we risk sometimes making out that people's emotions are not valid? Perhaps telling a depressed person that they should "rejoice in the Lord always" could be the last thing that they can cope with emotionally at that time. So, careful discernment is needed if we are to go the Bible-text route. We might even say that we need to "be there" with the person, listen and feel before we dare to quote Scripture at them. Perhaps only then can we begin to appreciate how they might receive it and whether it is truth in season or us inadvertently fobbing them off. This doesn't stop us quoting texts - it may in fact make it more powerful if done with a renewed awareness.

"Being there" is not just for emergencies, it is part of fostering relationships. Relationship involves knowing someone. Knowing someone means being with that person and listening to them. All of this takes time. In a rapidly moving society with a culture that just won't sit still for 5 minutes, can we learn how to be there for one another in good times and bad? If we don't then we might just be kidding ourselves about the quality of our relationships. We would then be missing out on receiving great things in return. By being there with people we are privileged to share in their lives. We get to share the excitement of their good times - something only really possible if we can enter in to their circumstances and see how much it matters. Similarly, there are strange treasures to be had through being with people in their tough times. Our own suffering can perhaps take on new meaning, enabling us to be close to someone when they need it most. We can draw on our experiences to help others.

So, do you have the gift of "being there"? Is it time to pray for a renewal of this "gift"? God is great at being there and as we grow in likeness to Him, we can be there for others too.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Learning by spending time together

Assuming that at least some characters in the Bible are presented to us as role models; how might we discern what we should copy and what we shouldn't?

Perhaps we could see how well they are keeping the Law? If their behaviour is obviously contrary to the covenant they were supposed to be living under then that probably isn't supposed to be emulated. How about the way the authors portray them? Again, this might refer us back to the Law, but it might also come across in little comments of evaluation or the "feel" that they author creates around the character. This perhaps starts to move us more towards intuitive methods of learning. It might not be spelled out which laws they are keeping or breaking (maybe in part because they expect people to know or find out?) but their character is shown to us and we are expected somehow to be able to judge that character.

Following on from my previous post ("Copycat discipleship?"), I'm wondering what role simply "spending time" with people has in moral, spiritual and ethical (are those really all separate?!) formation. People's behaviour is at least in part conditioned by the community they find themselves in. The example and lifestyle of those around us affects us subconsciously as well as consciously. If we grow up in one sort of community we will take on habits that might differ from those of a different community. One obvious example at the most fundamental level is language, but eating habits, what is considered morally acceptable, etc. can also be influenced by our community.

If this is the case, maybe there is something important to be said for learning to spend time with God's people in order to learn "by osmosis". If we keep reading and hearing the stories of the Scripture, immersing ourself in the community of God's people in that way then maybe we will be picking up subconsciously on habits that are worth cultivating. Reading the Bible somehow enables us to spend time with the characters depicted there and learn from them as an influencing community. Similarly, spending time with Christians around us is likely to be a good idea. That is not to say that we only socialise with Christians or spend our lives sitting in churches. Rather, it perhaps suggests that worshipping together is not really enough. It might be that it would be useful to us to be with Christians in everyday situations. Seeing how other Christians conduct themselves in our workplaces, schools, etc could be a useful addition to our own moral formation. Yes, we should meet and pray together, but perhaps limiting ourselves to merely worship/prayer and nattering over coffee is missing out on something that could really help us.

It is not just people that we need to spend time with, of course. If the Spirit is to be (as Paul asserts) the guiding influence in our lives then we need to find ways of "spending time with" God. This might, for example, mean attempting to be more aware of His presence in our lives and in the lives of those around us and the world at large. It might mean various forms of prayer or Bible reading. If we were to consciously think of God as present with us at all times would we still act the way we sometimes do? Perhaps a sensitivity to and cultivating habits of being in God's presence are also important to our ongoing discipleship.

All this is not to say that morals/ethics are purely learnt passively and that we have no need whatsoever of principles or conscious learning. However, perhaps we might usefully become more aware of the influence that relationships and community have on us and harness them for good.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Copycat discipleship?

Some sectors of Christian spirituality have held to the idea of imitation as being key to Christian ethics. For example, in recent times think of the WWJD movement (in case you've been living in a cupboard, that is "What Would Jesus Do?"). For some reason, though, scholars seem to have been rather wary of the idea of imitation. Instead, books of Christian ethics have tended to pinch secular ideas of ethics and "Christianize" them (ok, broad brush, but many seem to). But, are we missing something?

So, some thoughts on "imitation".

Consider the Spirit-empowerment of Jesus at the Jordan in Luke and the disciples at Pentecost in Acts. Now, this connection has long been argued by Pentecostals as an important one regarding the empowering of the Spirit and expectations for our own experiences. Max Turner, amongst others, has to my mind shown that for Luke the Spirit also was responsible for ethical empowering (e.g. note Jesus is subsequently led (as in helped)  in the desert by the Spirit during his temptation, including in his use and interpretation of Scripture to bolster his ethical stance). In that case, there is some kind of "imitation" of the pattern of Jesus in terms of how his disciples are empowered by the Spirit for ethics (and, e.g., Acts 2:38-39 suggests Luke thought this is true for us too).

Perhaps, though, we should take a step further back to the fundamental aspects of the idea of discipleship. As Burridge notes in "Imitating Jesus", imitating one's master was deemed a way of knowing Torah and was indirectly an imitation of God. Wisdom of Sirach 30:4 says of a rabbi and his disciples "When his father [teacher] dies, it is as though he is not dead. For he leaves behind him one like himself." It is quite possible (especially if Burridge's thesis regarding the gospels as bioi ("biographies" with some intention of the life depicted being copied to some extent) is correct) that the gospels show us patterns of behaviour for Jesus' followers to emulate.

Paul also openly calls for people to imitate him - 1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1; Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 1:6. He modelled himself on Christ and to the extent that he did so he thought that he could then act as a model for others (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:1). In imitating Paul, believers could imitate Jesus and ultimately God himself (Ephesians 5:1-2 perhaps evidences part of this thought). 1 Thessalonians 1:7 points to others beyond the apostles in turn becoming models for yet further followers of Christ.

Now, by "imitation" or "copying" or "emulating" we are clearly not talking about having the same hairdo or eating in the same restaurants or even saying the same things. Such a narrow understanding of imitation would result in it rightly being rejected as unhelpful. However, a more nuanced understanding of patterning one's behaviour after role models is surely something that we all can relate to. In fact, it is something that it is hard to avoid doing. Children learn patterns of behaviour from observing those around them. So do adults, although perhaps to a lesser degree. Relationships are places where learning happens, where our behaviour is shaped and our ethical choices influenced. If this is the case, then is it not true that Christian ethics is in fact something passed on (in part at least) through our relationships with one another? Do we not learn how to be God's people by being with God's people?

I would also suggest that our behaviour is often influenced by those we admire. Would it not be a productive thing to present Jesus as our role model, someone to admire so much that we want to be like him? Can we in turn be people that others admire and want to be like? Can we pass on the values of the kingdom through what we do and say, without even having to name the ethical principle behind it?

I don't think imitation is the one magic key to Christian discipleship. Yet, in an age when we are rediscovering the relational and non-rational modes of our lives as well as the rational, propositional sides, surely such an approach to ethics would be useful? The concept of mentoring would fit right in here too, of course.

So, maybe as "churches" and as Christians wherever we find ourselves, perhaps we should be more concerned about what examples we are setting to others and which examples we are following than trying to make people aware of and then memorise the 10 commandments or the like.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

The temple of Eden

No, no that's not right Joe, it should be "Garden of Eden", surely?

Hold your fire one mo, there is a point to this. In preparing a sermon for Sunday week about Genesis 2 I've been revisiting some fascinating material I came across in my MA Old Testament module. There was a really good article by Gordon Wenham called "Sanctuary Symbolism in the Garden of Eden Story". There he spells out some parallels between what we find in Genesis 2-3 and elsewhere in passages about the tabernacle/temple. Here is my own synopsis of those points:

1.   The tree of life and the “menorah”
2.   Both the tabernacle and the temple had entrances on the east side and had cherubim over the ark in the holy of holies – the garden of Eden is guarded by cherubim (after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden) at its entrance, which is on the east side
3.   The gold and stones mentioned in the Eden account remind us of the gold coverings to the temple furnishings and the stones used in the temple and on the priests’ clothing
4.   The tree that they are forbidden to touch has a parallel in the ark of the covenant, which it is forbidden to touch
5.   In Ezekiel 47 a river is pictured as flowing from the renewed temple and this imagery is picked up in Revelation 22 with the water of life flowing from God’s throne. Eden is the focus of the life-giving waters of the ancient world

So, what do you make of that?

I guess that the main point is that it shows some kind of thought association - the key concepts being the presence of God and human access to it. But, which came first - Eden or the temple? Now, I'm not trying to be daft, contrary to appearances; I'm actually just wondering whether bits of the Eden story were modelled on people's experience of the temple or vice versa. Or, perhaps neither? Or, does it matter?

Anyhow, I think it helps us to realise that the thrust of Genesis 2-3 is not being kicked out of a pretty little place, like some kind of ultimate National Trust garden. No, it is about not being in God's presence as we should be. And that really is a bummer.

Friday, 12 August 2011

New look and new stuff

The website has had a facelift. Why not take a look and see if you prefer the new improved version?

There are new seminars on offer there now too, some of which with downloadable (is that really a word?!) pdf files of the outline for the workshop/seminar to give you a better idea of what you would be getting.

6 picture-based meditations are now up with suggestions to aid your reflections/prayers.

I'm hoping to prepare some more material to appear on there soon - probably some new Bible studies. If you have any suggestions for books/topics that you'd think it would be good to have study material on then do let me know.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Norwich beat Parma!

Yes, my wife and I saw an entertaining 3-0 win over Parma on Saturday. Probably the only game I'll get to see at the stadium for a while now, given both the cost of Premier League tickets and the fact that there are more season ticket holders, super-members (presumably with yellow and green capes?) and members than there are seats in the stadium and I'm not even a member. Ho hum. At least I can keep myself (and maybe one or two other odd individuals) entertained (even if only mildly for a few seconds) with my post-match report...

Parma were hung out to dry by Norwich on Saturday. That should cure any pre-season worries of always being thrashed by the big boys. The scoreline clearly reflects Norwich's dominance and no this was not down to a ham-fisted keeper. There were several sliced shots and some interesting play-acting that failed to get the referee's (or the crowd's) sympathy, which probably only rubbed salt into the wound. It might be cheesy to say it, but Norwich's neat passing seemed to grate on the Parma guys after a while. The weather remained dry and offered a clear view of a maturing team that has really learned to pasta one another accurately. The Italians remained firmly caged in whilst the canaries were on song.

To any Italian friends reading this, I wave my hands held together before you in the traditional, non-stereotyped way of begging apology. Seriously though, it was impressive how about 2 dozen Parma fans managed to out-sing around 13,000 Norwich fans. Given the usually noisy and vocal nature of Norfolk people, this was quite amazing.

Oh dear, I seem to have had an attack of Boris Johnson syndrome and risked inadvertently offending everyone I talk about. Well, only if you have no sense of humour that is ... Darn, done it again, time to stop.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

How's our faith?

I've been preparing for a sermon on Mark 5:21-43 this coming weekend and it sparked off quite a few thoughts.

Jairus, the synagogue ruler, was willing to look ridiculous by falling at Jesus' feet and pleading with him because he had the faith that Jesus could help. He exercised his faith on behalf of someone else. Jesus agreed to go with him, despite the fact that the religious authorities were already beginning to oppose him and so it could have been awkward to say the least.

The unnamed woman - perhaps not named to illustrate that in everyone else's eyes she was a nobody - was a social and religious outcast. Her bleeding meant that she was unclean and would make other things and people unclean if she touched them. She had tried all she could to solve the problem but with no success. Yet, she hears about Jesus and believes not only that he can do something but that something will happen if she can only touch him. It would seem from Jesus' reaction as Mark records it (if we can put aside all theological "Jesus surely would have known...." ideas for a moment) that this power went out from Jesus without him deliberately doing anything - it was seemingly automatic depending solely on her faith. Jesus' subsequent praising of her for her faith shows that she is indeed a model of faith to all those who were religiously "ok" despite being an outsider. Yes, the outsider shows the "insiders" how it is done...

But there are also other characters - what about the crowd? Are there people there who just watch and don't approach Jesus? What about the members of Jairus' household who arrive and tell them not to bother coming as the girl is dead? It would seem that their faith has given up - there is nothing that Jesus can do now. There is even a contrast in this passage between these two (Jairus a member of the religious authorities and the unclean woman) and the disciples. In chapter 4 they are berated for their fear and lack of faith. Here, faith is shown in abundance, by the woman especially.

I wonder which character in the story we feel like today? Maybe you wish you could have the faith of the woman. Can you? What stops us - is it fear? Perhaps such faith is in some respects a choice?

Jesus responds to and welcomes all kinds of people - once again the misfits seem to see that most clearly. Those of us who feel a bit on the edge can get real hope from this that we too can have confidence to approach Jesus. Perhaps a greater level of expectation is good for us. There can be an easy tendency to believe that Jesus can do things, but less readiness to believe that he actually will. Maybe this story challenges us to have higher hopes and expectations. No, God doesn't heal everyone or answer all prayers as we would like, but perhaps we should ask at least be expecting some kind of response and have an assurance that he loves us, rather than risk going through the motions of prayer with a mindset that says, "I'll ask... but of course he won't..."

Friday, 15 July 2011

Eternal punishment?

Yes, it is cat amongst the pigeons time...

How are we to understand biblical imagery? What about if that imagery does not always appear consistent? Do we pick one and use it to flatten out the other? Should we be less ready to claim dogmatic certainty?

These questions are particularly relevant to the ongoing rekindled (pun intended) debate about "hell". It might seem easy to affirm the traditional view of eternal punishment of those who reject God when confronted with verses such as:

Matthew 25:46 – “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life”

Revelation 14:9-12 – “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark... he will drink of the wine of God’s fury... He will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast... This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints”

Yet already we are on metaphorical ground with Revelation, a book replete with vivid imagery. Indeed, is the smoke evidence of ongoing torment or of an ongoing reminder pointing back to a torment/destruction now completed? What does being tormented with sulphur look like? Certainly wouldn't smell nice...

Mark 9:42-49 – “where the fire never goes out... thrown into hell... where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” 

This quotation uses Is 66:24. There we see a picture of judgment and the death of Israel's (and God's) enemies. Clearly, bodies do not last for ever and it is in relation to dead bodies that Isaiah says "their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched". So, is this speaking of eternal torment or of something else? The picture becomes muddied all the more when we take into consideration verses that speak of destruction:

2 Peter 3:7 – “the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men”

2 Thessalonians 1:9 – “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power”

Matthew 10:28 – “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell”

Hmmm, now what? Which is it to be - destruction, whose effect lasts forever or an ongoing conscious punishment? In the past I have written against annihilation in favour of eternal punishment, yet I find myself becoming less sure of what I had thought was solid ground. It might seem like a cop out, but at present I find myself wanting to leave the whole matter up to God and not presume to pronounce judgement myself as to people's destinies. The language of judgement in Scripture is often tied to particular historical circumstances and particular enemies of Israel using vivid imagery that sometimes appears to have a reference beyond those historical circumstances. Yet, in those historical settings, the acts of judgement by God on behalf of his people and his own glory resulted in the eradication of the enemies, physically speaking at least. Is all the mention of fire supposed to enhance this idea of destruction? After all it was a powerful destructive force and still is. We don't tend to think of things being exposed to fire for a long time as anything other than destroyed. But, is all this said because in the historical circumstances what seemed to matter was a physical judgement that would destroy the physical enemies and thus free Israel? So, is there a spiritual aspect that remains behind this?

As I continue to ponder such things, perhaps you'd like to ponder them too. Maybe we'll all end up reaffirming the traditional view of eternal punishment. Maybe it will be a more nuanced version of it, or maybe something different. It certainly seems worth some careful thought before we think we have the right to go round telling people they will "burn in hell forever". After all, who is the judge, God or us?

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Going Deeper With God

A new venture! I've just set up the basic outline of a new website designed to provide useful Christian resources. You can find it at
More will gradually be appearing there so do check back later. Let me know if there is anything you'd like to see there, suggest new study/seminar topics that could be offered, etc.
Do let your pastors and others know of its existence (especially once there is actually a bit more content there...) so that they might be able to benefit from it too.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

A Strange Transition

Today I finished and sent my MA dissertation - a very odd feeling of mixed emotions. For one thing, I wonder just how many people will end up actually reading it and of those how many will read the whole thing. It has been a fascinating topic ("The Spirit in the Reader - beyond authorial intent?") and one that I continue to ponder. Thinking about how we read scripture is a topic that should never really be allowed to come to a close with an assumption that we've got our method sorted now. It is always worth re-investing time in considering how we relate to the Bible as this has far-reaching implications. I encourage you to think for a moment about what you consider the Spirit's role to be in your Bible-reading. Do we just pray and ask him to bless what we've already decided it means? Does your experience of God make a difference to how you read? Is what the author intended really the only meaning and the end of meaning? Why/why not? No need to write 20,000 words on that as I just have (well, 19, 978 to be precise) but do at least have a ponder.

I think that this subject of the Spirit's involvement in our reading is only really beginning to be explored properly, largely thanks to the Pentecostal wing of the church. Perhaps others will take things further. Maybe some of the additional material I never used for the dissertation will appear somewhere in some form at some point. But at least I feel that I've opened up the questions on an area that to my mind had been pretty much overlooked. I encourage you to explore too.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

The Good Old Days?

I really do wonder why I've never heard a sermon on Ecclesiastes 7:10. Come to think of it I don't think I've heard many sermons on Ecclesiastes at all, funnily enough. There's a strange part of me (more than simply a part, perhaps you might think) that quite likes the fact that there are some biblical authors who seem quite depressed. Perhaps there is biblical warrant for being a grumpy old man if we consider Ecclesiastes and good old Jeremiah? Then again, maybe not. Jeremiah didn't exactly get praised for his bouts of moaning. I guess resignation to the absurdities of life must be the order of the day instead then...

Anyhow, I digress... that verse, oh such wonderful biblical truth (ahem, he he he - you'll see), so easy to see that the author had to be inspired by God to come up with such great words of wisdom - here it is in full:

"Do not say "Why were the old days better than these?" For it is not wise to ask such questions" (NIV).

Told you - God's a clever chappy; he must have a sense of humour too when you look at the church and penguins and sloths come to think of it. Next time someone harps on about the "good old days" when we had "hymns" (whatever they may be) instead of "songs" or the "proper" KJV instead of the New International Perversion (yes, sadly I have heard it called that), then perhaps you might like to direct them to this verse. Change has biblical warrant - sorry to any readers in or from Norfolk, I know I shouldn't use the "c" word. But then surely c***** is what being a follower of Jesus is all about?

I hope that when I get old(er) I can avoid the temptation to summon everyone back to a supposed golden era from my youth. Hopefully I'm not already inadvertently doing it. As we look back, we must ask ourselves whether the world is really getting worse or whether it is just different to what it used to be. Is there more fighting or are we more aware of it thanks to 24hr news? Is our culture really more anti-faith than before or has it just altered perspective (is that ok, Norfolk? No? Oh well, too late, quod scripsi scripsi) to think about these things in a different way? Have we as God's people failed to change (sorry, done it again) and assumed that old ways, old methods, the "good old days" are actually how things ought to be?

Monday, 13 June 2011

The Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts

Last Saturday I led a seminar on the Spirit in Luke-Acts, comparing Jesus' empowerment with that of the disciples. I thought I'd post a key idea that we looked at (can't post it all, that would be too long!).

The influence of more rational approaches to faith, particularly perhaps stemming from our theological education systems, seemed to run into slight difficulties when we considered the role of experiences in these narratives. Luke emphasises interpretation of Scripture immediately following both Jesus' and the disciples' Spirit-reception. They begin to re-read the OT under the empowerment of the Spirit. Jesus interprets in conflict with the devil and then spells out his understanding of his ministry in terms of Isaiah 61. Peter interprets the Pentecost events in terms of an eschatological reading of various OT passages. Later, Saul becomes Paul and suddenly re-interprets Scripture due to his experience of Christ and the Spirit coming upon him. So, is it really correct to tell people not to interpret the Bible through their experiences but always to start with the biblical data?

This issue of the role of experience is probably most helpfully raised by the growing prominence of Pentecostalism as a branch of Christian expression and with its own growing number of scholars. Such  methodology has historically tended to be frowned upon by evangelicals and other Christians, claiming that it is too dangerous to interpret the "objective" Scriptures through "subjective" experiences. However, isn't this precisely how the NT came into being? Was it not the experience of the Spirit that led people to read the OT anew and understand themselves as God's eschatological people?

Perhaps we should see experience and our reading as mutually informing instead of in competition. After all, experience gives us presuppositions that put filters in place when we read. If we have a pre-understanding that is informed by a lack of experience, then perhaps we will struggle when we come to read certain passages about "supernatural" experiences. Is it not the case, after all, that if we believe we have "met" God and are loved by him then we find it easier to relate to texts that claim just such an experience? Perhaps one possible "blessing" of postmodernism is that it opens us up to more than a rational, logical approach to faith and enables reason, experience and other factors to act together dynamically. At the very least, it helps us to be more honest in our interpretation, acknowledging that experience and other factors do play a role whether we like it or not.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

You are the light of the world

We had a church away day last weekend and one of the passages looked at was from the sermon on the mount - salt and light. The speaker didn't (to my mind) really explore much about light - much of it was merely assumed as known or associated with witnessing. What might Matthew/Jesus have meant here by "light" I wonder? It is a metaphor capable of various meanings depending on where you look. It could be talking about standing out. It could be one part of an ethical dualism (Greek thought?) of light and dark as good and bad. It could be taking some of the Ancient Near Eastern imagery associated with light and deity found also in the OT (e.g. Isaiah 60:1-3; Isaiah 49:6; Numbers 6:24-26, etc.) that spoke of blessing, salvation and the presence of God. Given that Matthew so often wants to show OT fulfilment, perhaps some of this is implied here. But in what sense are we "light" in terms of blessing/salvation/God's presence if this is indeed what is being said?

Perhaps there is a clue in the way that the servant imagery of Isaiah is applicable both to an individual and also to God's people more broadly. Maybe it also has links to the idea of being blessed and a blessing to others as promised to Abraham. What I wonder is, how much of this cluster of imagery is applicable in this instance - particularly the "salvation" bit. We tend to like to only use such language of what Jesus did and does, not of ourselves. But is there a sense in which derivatively God's people are "light" in the sense of salvation to the world also? Or, are we only mirrors who reflect the true light to others?

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Pentecost "hymns"

Having sadly missed the boat with my choice of "hymns" for ascension day, I thought I'd best get in early for Pentecost. I'm sure that all those leading services next Sunday will be eternally grateful...

“Wind of change” (Scorpions)
“Fire in the Sky” (Yngwie Malmsteen)
Or, better perhaps - “There’s a Fire in the House” (Steve Vai)
"Firestarter" (Prodigy)
“Brand New Start” (Alter Bridge)

Technically the Vai one isn't a hymn as there are no lyrics... So perhaps my Anglican friends might call it a postlude or recessional or something of that ilk (at least that's what Wiki thinks and Wiki must be right...?!).

Friday, 3 June 2011

Deep(ish) stuff from a wayward mind

My mind once again took to wandering off on its own paths despite the best efforts of Sunday's preacher (sorry!). We had a reading from John 14, including that well known phrase "I am the way", etc. This got me thinking - how often is this verse simply used (in evangelical circles at least) to bolster the idea that faith in Jesus is the only way to "get saved" and saying nothing about what happens "thereafter"? This tends in my mind to be a bit of a "get them inside the fold" mentality where Jesus as the "way" almost becomes merely a "gate" to get us in to eternal life. What if his being "the way" is referring to the way to live - how to be "fully human"? Maybe salvation should be conceived less in future terms and "getting a ticket" or the like and more as an ongoing reality with a future aspect. So, being saved is being (or growing to be) like Jesus as well as having faith in him. Perhaps I'm too pre-occupied with the imitation of Christ idea I'm toying with, but there seems to me to be a clear connection to this theme even in John 14:6.

Well, it would seem that my brain isn't the only one to wonder along such lines, as I found out when reading a really good little book this week "The Imitation of God in Christ" by E. J. Tinsley. It's not new, it's about 50 years old, but it is still great stuff. He links the "way" to the Old Testament calling on Israel to imitate God, actually translating Torah as something like "signpost". The constant theme to walk in the ways of God as embodied in Torah (which is narrative as well as legal, of course) finds fulfilment in Christ as he imitates and thereby reveals the Father. The NT then points to an imitation of Christ, which is not merely a copying but being conformed to Christ by the Spirit. Good, eh? If you want to know more, either read it or ask and I might blog a bit on it.

Brian Mclaren has also been thinking and writing about John 14:6, wondering if the exclusivist interpretation often encountered is really helpful or accurate. Not quite the same thing as I was wondering, but food for thought I suppose. Like Brian, though, I think it can be unhelpful to be so focussed on who is "in" or "out", rather than on getting on with actually being what God has called us to be - like Christ. Perhaps we should be less ready to pronounce with certainty who is "saved" - but then I ought to watch out perhaps as statements like that tend to get people in trouble.... (Mr Bell for example)!

Oh, no! Not me as well!

Before the bandwagon had a chance to get out of town I thought I'd best jump on it right quick, so here's my own blog... til I get bored anyhow.

I hope to post the odd mix (emphasis on odd, probably) of musing, amusing and just plain confusing stuff. Well, tis my blog so I can write what I like.

Missed the ascension day service yesterday (bummer, eh?!), so I thought I'd post my own list of possible "hymn" choices that really ought to have been played (but probably weren't):

"Learn to Fly" (Foo Fighters)
"The only way is up" (Yazz)
"Spirit in the sky" (um, um, who was it? can't be bothered to google it...)
"Letter from America" (Proclaimers - yes it is relevant, check the first line)
"Going up up up" (most of NCFC fans for the past goodness knows how long...)

Any other suggestions?