Category Archives: faith

The Poor in the Gospel of Luke – an addendum

A few years ago I did a blog series going through the gospel of Luke, discussing what it said to us about the poor (which can be found here). Having recently re-read this series as part of some sermon prep on the same theme, I found (with the help of a commentary) some important additions from chapter 7 of Luke.

John the Baptist is in prison, shortly to be beheaded, and he is having doubts. He knows he is the one who was to announce the coming of the Messiah and prepare the way for him, so he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus whether he is the one, or it there is another to come, presumably for his peace of mind. This is Jesus’ response.

21 At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. 22 So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 23 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” Luke 7:21-23

“Good news is proclaimed to the poor.” A question here would be to ask, who is the poor? Another would be, why is this incident placed here in the gospel? Just before we have two accounts of miracles by Jesus. The first is the centurion who comes to Jesus asking him to heal his servant (7:1-10). He exhibits his faith by saying to Jesus “Just say the word and by servant will be healed.” Following that is the account of jesus raising the dead son of a widow, brought back to life off his funeral bier (7:11-16). After the incident with John the Baptist’s disciples, we have the description of the Jesus having dinner at a Pharisee’s house when a woman who “had lived a sinful life” came in, began crying over Jesus feet and then poured expensive perfume over them – during the meal! (7:36-50)

It is well known that Jesus called to him those who were on the edge of society. In this chapter, Michael Wilcock (from the BST commentary) argues that all the recipients of Jesus grace in these accounts were poor in some way. The centurion was a Roman, and whilst probably materially well-off, he wouldn’t normally have had access to the synagogue, the temple, or Israel’s God. In this sense he was socially poor as he was from the wrong ‘tribe’. The widow was facing material hardship. Her husband had already died at some point in the past, leaving only her son to be a wage earner. In the days before social welfare, families would have been the last line of support before financial hardship, and now her son has died too. Jesus not only reaches into her grief but alleviates her poverty at the same time.

In the final passage, the ‘sinful woman’ was spiritually poor. By being labeled “sinful”, she would have been on the edge of society, and most respectable people would have avoided her. She cries over Jesus’ feet and Jesus proclaims her sins forgiven, and declares “Your faith has saved you”.

So we have the socially poor, materially poor, and spiritually poor all encountering the Kingdom of God in Jesus, with the latter being declared ‘saved’. This reminds me of one of the Lukan Beatitudes: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (6:20). Jesus’ understanding of the word ‘poor’ goes beyond the material sense that we often associate it with.

Here and elsewhere, Jesus talks about “preaching” or “or claiming” good news to the poor. Yet it is evident from his actions that this also involved practical help. The Kingdom of God comes where gospel words are supported by actions, and actions by words.

Wolf Tide

The latest novel discussed in our book club was an accomplished first foray into fantasy fiction from established author Catherine Fox.

Anabara Nolio is a young private investigator in the city of Larrity trying to make her way in business, life and love. The world she inhabits is one filled with sub-species of humans each with their own attributes and traditions. Anabara is half Gull, half-Galen which means she can fly, although she isn’t supposed to within the confines of the city. It is also a world filled with charms, magic, faith and fairies – only these fairies are not ones you’ve ever dreamed of. Less Tinkerbell and a little more vampire.

When Anabara is appointed to investigate the disappearance of books from the university library and to report on the broken charms in the stained glass windows, she makes a solid start. But as she delves deeper she discovers layers of deception, corruption and injustice, even by those she loves.

I’ll not say any more as that would give the plot away.

This is a new style of fiction for Catherine Fox. I first was alerted to her when I was an undergraduate at Durham, and I was told that there was this new author, a former student, who had written a novel about theological students in Durham, and if you knew the place you could actually pinpoint where in the colleges the characters were. I didn’t really read novels at the time, but I gave Angels and Men a go and loved it. Her next two novels were in the same style mixing keen observations of faith, strong characters, humour and love together  – this time following female vicars as they took their first steps into ministry. Wolf Tide is quite different but doesn’t disappoint. Anabara is a well rounded female lead character. She is good at her job, she obviously is looking for love but is not overly obsessed with make-up or appearance, yet there is enough that is vulnerable or uncertain about her 17-year old self which makes her quite believable. She relies day to day on St. Pelago, who is key to the organised religion of the town, and he usually comes through for her.

This is certainly a good addition to this genre. I was able to imagine the world quite well and I liked the central characters – always important to keep you reading. And in the plot Fox keeps the pages turning too. If I was being really picky, i might have liked a little more distinction between the human sub-species – Gull, Galen, Tressy, Zaarzuk. Their difference in character between the groups were described well but I had a little difficulty imagining their general differences in appearance. But that is being picky. Despite, I think, not being the intended demographic of readership, I enjoyed it a lot. I hope there is a sequel and I will certainly read it if there is.

On it’s release Catherine Fox told the Greenbelt Blog a little about how she came us with the idea.

 

(Photo from Greenbelt)

 

Only sleeping

jarius daughterSome thoughts/questions on the account in Mark 5:35-43 of Jesus raising a young girl from death back to life.

– Jesus is demonstrating his authority over death, to add to the other authorities that Mark presents. The girl is not raised with any magical formula but with a very normal “Up you get!” – the sort of thing a parent might say to a child who they are trying to wake up from sleep. To him this is normal and well within his power.
– In spite of this, there is no sense of triumphalism, with Jesus again reminding people not to tell anyone about it (as he does after a good number of miracles). Could this be because great miracles alone are not the basis of faith, but a secure walk in his footsteps. Miracles alone may lead to a shallow faith, always wanting to be amazed. He wants engaged followers who are always listening and acting.
– But what about all those who die that Jesus doesn’t raise? Off the top of my head, in the gospels I can only think of Jarius’ daughter, Lazarus, and the widow’s son whom he raises to life. There must have been many others who died. Of courses, Jesus’ own resurrection from death is different, defeating it, coming through the other side and initiating a new order of things, unlike Jarius’ daughter et al who were restored to the old order.
– Therefore, part of what he is demonstrating is the initiation of a new kingdom, when all the usual foes and fears (including death) get turned upside down. In this sense it is a signpost to his own resurrection and this overcoming of death is open to all, not just those he happened to meet and raise in the flesh.
– I’m also thinking a little of the final scene from the Disney movie frozen, where love conquers death.

The Magus

greek island viewAs this 1966 novel was chosen as the latest offering in our book club, one of our members exclaimed, “I’ll talk about it but I’m not reading that again!”. This didn’t bode well for the The Magus, by John Fowles. But I was willing to give it a go and to get to the end. It isn’t often I don’t finish books and this one was no exception, but 656 pages later I was more than a little frustrated.

It follows the story of Nicholas Urfe, an Oxford educated public school teacher in his early twenties. After a year teaching at an English public school and a short but intense affair with a young Australian air hostess in London, he decides to travel to Greece to take up the post of English Master at an exclusive boarding school on the tiny island of Phraxos. Initially bored, due to the lack of company of his own age, he soon finds himself in the company of a wealthy elderly gentleman, Conchis, one of the few English speaking people on the island. He is invited to visit most weekends, during which he begins to hear the story of Conchis’ own personal history. Soon though, he realises that he is caught in an intricate psychological, mythological, and emotionally perverse game – the godgame. Over the course of the year, he is introduced to a bizarre cast of characters, including beautiful English twins, also in their early twenties. He begins to fall for one of them. Questioning everything he is told and experiences, caught inside an ever increasingly bizarre situation, he is overcome with curiosity, anger and the search for truth and cannot bring himself simply to walk away and has to see this macabre game out until the end.

Immediately after finishing the book I tweeted this:

Some spoilers follow from this point

That is the level of frustration that this book left me with. Whilst it is undoubtedly well-written, and the description of the Greek island is beautiful and idyllic, at no point do we get a reason or explanation for the weird sequence of events that Urfe endures. There is a meanness to the game that his played. Urfe’s letters are intercepted. Things are made up and evidence fabricated to make him believe that certain things are happening outside of the island in order to guarantee his participation in the game on it. Conchis and his friends even, somehow, persuade the Australian ex-girlfriend to be a part of it (although we are never told how they persuade her) and they convince him that she has committed suicide, just at the moment that he realises his true and deep feelings for her. He is distraught but the effect of this is simply to entice him further into the trap.

The final straw for me was the ending. Urfe returns to London to try and piece together parts of the story he has been told, and finds even more people who are in on it. When he eventually discovers that his Australian friend is alive, he realises he simply has to wait. He will not find her until they allow him to. The last section is written very well and, in the spirit of a detective novel, leaves you wanting to turn to pages to find out the resolution. you want Urfe and the air hostess to get back together. Sadly you never find out. The book ends with them meeting and arguing, both quite justified in the hurt and confusion that has preceded. Both want answers, as does the reader, but Fowles doesn’t give them. He simple ends the book before it is really finished.

I imagine this is the type of book that lots of people start but never finish. One of those that looks intelligent but sits on lots of bookshelves unread. Six hundred pages, albeit of well-written prose, but culminating in no clear ending or message is severely disappointing. I can’t say I understood it, but it seems that Fowles doesn’t really want us to, and no other reviews I’ve seen can shed much more light than that.

I did come across this letter, reportedly from the author himself shortly after the novel was first published. It seems that he is being deliberately baffling, trying to deconstruct freedom which, he says, results in the rejection of everything except human reason.

fowles letter

Whilst I cannot disagree with the conclusion of the letter – acting humanely to all humans is simple a rephrasing of Jesus’ commandment to love others as we love ourselves – however, “reason alone” is an argument that the new atheists still try to peddle today, and it is flawed. I think that modernism has shown that reason alone cannot help us in everything, and leaves vast areas of life untouched. The Christian would argue that true freedom is only found in God – growing into the people that he has created us to be.

Credit to Fowles for his writing – The Magus certainly leaves plenty to ponder on, but I can’t say I recommend this. It is simple too random, unexplained, and frustrating. And it doesn’t have a proper ending.

 

Never too late.

AK-47_type_II_Part_DM-ST-89-01131

A couple of weeks ago I came upon this story in the Independent newspaper: The Dying Remorse of Mikhail Kalashnikov.

Kalashnikov invented the infamous automatic rifle, the AK-47, and as the article says, it’s the “weapon of choice, for revolutionaries, drug cartels, terrorists, kidnappers, pirates and soldiers”. Despite the 100m weapons in circulation, Kalashnikov made surprisingly little money from his invention. It was simply designed and easy to copy. Still it has been responsible for who-knows-how-many millions of lives to be cut short.

Earlier in his life, Kalashnikov justified his invention like so: “It is not my fault that the Kalashnikov was used in many troubled places. I think the policies of these countries are to blame, not the designers.”. He may have half a point. The designers of a bread knife cannot be held responsible if that knife is used in a fatal attack. Yet an AK-47 is not a bread knife. It was designed in order to put together and shoot quickly and repetitively. It’s purpose is to kill.

Yet still, the burden of this knowledge must have become a weight upon him. At the age of 91 he first entered a church, and asked to be baptised.

“My spiritual pain is unbearable. I keep having the same unsolved question: if my rifle claimed people’s lives, then can it be that I… a Christian and an Orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths? The longer I live the more this question drills itself into my brain and the more I wonder why the Lord allowed man to have the devilish desires of envy, greed and aggression”.

The same day I read this article, I happened to be reading a section of Matthew’s gospel, and the parable of the workers in the vineyard. A landowner is looking to hire labourers for a day’s work on his land. He goes down to the market place (the job centre of the day) and hires some men who have not yet found work, promising them a denarius for their day’s work – this was the going rate for a labourer at the time. A little later, around lunchtime he goes down again and hires some more men. And twice more, in the mid and late afternoon he finds some more men. At the end of the day the men line up to receive their pay, starting with those who came last. Those who had worked only a few hours received a whole day’s pay – one denarius. As did those who were hired in the afternoon and at lunchtime. When the turn came of those who were hired first to be paid, they thought they may  be entitled to more, but they received exactly what was promised to them – one denarius for a day’s work.

It seems the Church is there, as it should be, for the spiritually broken, no matter how severe the crimes or burdensome the guilt or how late in life they come. This is the point of faith, that we all have messed up and called far short of God’s standard, yet through the sacrificial death of Jesus, we can hear the words “You are forgiven” and be welcomed into God’s family. We all get the same reward, whether we’ve been trying to follow Christ for our entire lives, or whether, like Mikhail Kalashnikov, it takes us until our tenth decade to discover him.

Well done to the Orthodox Church for welcoming him in, declaring his sins forgiven through Christ, for easing his guilt. He has received the same reward available to all who come to Jesus.

Achievements

champagne cork

It’s a new year. As the years change we often find ourselves looking back at the achievements of the previous year, and looking forward to new goals, resolutions and plans for the next year. Has it been a successful year? Will next year be better? And of course, there are many things which turn up unexpected and we can’t plan for. In reality, we know that many of our goals and resolutions will go by the wayside by the end of January, and will still remain intentions moving into next year.

So what should my goals be for the 2014? I have some ideas, physical, social, and work related. I’d like to run more often and further, I may think about a writing project, and I have definite ideas about the growth of the church I lead. Hopefully some of them will come to be, and with a little discipline this may be possible.

But at the end of the day, we are not measured on what we achieve or the plans to bring to fruition. There is a certain amount we are judged on how we have used the situations and talents at our disposal (the parable of the talents), however, on the whole, God is far more interested in our character than our achievements. Jesus focuses our attention on loving God and loving our neighbour (Matt 22:39), on thinking of others as better than ourselves (Mark 9:35), whilst Paul encourages us to follow Christ’s example of humility (Phil 2) – not in a ‘beat yourself up’ way, but simply in an Godward looking way. Get these right, act out of a love for God and maybe some of the goals which we plan may happen also. We will certainly grow closer to God in the process.

So perhaps this year it is worth working on character rather than achievements.

Christmas Present

Tottenham Hotspur v Newcastle United - FA Cup Fitfth Round - White Hart LaneThis is the text from a short Christmas message I’ll be giving today in the Lounge after the game at Northampton Town FC

———–

The first professional football match I went to was Newcastle United vs. Luton Town, in the top division in february 1987.

My parents weren’t into football, so I’d been sent along with an old friend of the family, who was a season ticket holder. My mum made sure I had a stash of chocolate and sweets in my pocket, and a drink to keep me going.

I remember certain things about the game. The final score was 2-2. I sat in an old stand with a corrugated iron roof, which has now given way to the huge Milburn Stand. The first goal was a headed effort by Paul Goddard in the first half.

Just after half time, I remembered the chocolate in my coat pocket. I rifled through and selected a Twix and broke open the wrapper. I was just about to take a bite when all of a sudden everyone jumped out of their seats and started cheering, leaving me, ten years old, as the only one not standing. I’d missed the second goal!

I later found out that it was scored by defender Peter Jackson, but, as it was the days before tv cameras at games, I never did get to see it.

These days, I find myself distracted easily, with the help of my smart phone. Even though I can be physically in one place, I’m mentally somewhere else.

In fact, one of the few things which helps me switch off from everything else around me, is football: either playing, or watching it. During those times I’m not worried about anything else, I’m not checking my phone. I’m entirely present, entirely in the moment.

Christmas is a time when Christians remember that God became present to us. God, so often thought of as distant, physically became human by being born as the baby Jesus, growing up and then walking round in skin and bone, just like the rest of us, experiencing the whole range of things that humans experience. God became present to us in the only way possible, by physically being with us.

I don’t know what you’re doing for Christmas day. We’re spending the day with some family and close friends, having a meal, playing some games and watching movies.  But for the duration of the day, I’ve decided to turn my smartphone off. For Christmas day at least, I want to be entirely present with the people I’m with. To be in the moment.

I hope you have a great Christmas, and I look forward to seeing you in the New Year.