Monday, February 23, 2009

Lessons in faith

It's Polycarp's day today, so I have just read the Martyrdom of Polycarp in my Apostolic fathers collection (the Greek/English version edited by Michael Holmes). It's inspiring stuff

Apart from the amazing courage of the man, what strikes you is how political following Jesus was in the second century. He was asked by his first accuser - the police chief called Herod(!) - 'what harm is there in saying "Caesar is Lord" and offering incense and thereby saving yourself?' Polycarp swaid he wasn't going to do that.

Then the proconsul told him to 'swear the oath and I will release you. Revile Christ.' Thus indicating that the authorities viewed following Jesus to be a political act as much as a religious practice.

Polycarp famously replied: 'For eighty-six years I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my king who saved me?'

He went on to invite the proconsul to hear an outline of Christian teaching. 'I am a Christian,' he said, 'Now, if you want to learn the doctrine of Christianity, name a day and give me a hearing.'

The proconsul declined and Polycarp was burned at at the stake. He's an inspirational figure, a lesson in faith.

Getting to grips with creation and my iPod

I'm still reading Christopher Southgate's book. It's very stimulating and causing me to think through things afresh. I will blog on it at greater length when I have time (and have finished it)It's resulted in me deciding to do a couple of sessions - probably mid-week - on the whole issue of creation, origins, Darwin and theology.

We had a good day yesterday. in particular our Later Service went really well. it's settling into a good pattern of interactive learning accompanied by a slug of teaching from the front to start discussion, respond to questions and stimulate further reflection and response to God's word. I had a conversation with a couple afterwards who are relatively new to the church where they said how at home they felt in the Later Service and how good it was to be interacting with a diverse range of people.

I think one of the things that's helping is that we're working our way, section by section through Mark's Gospel and this is giving us a firm base from which to explore what discipleship is about. Yesterday evening - as we looked at the story of Jairus' daughter and the woman with the constant hemorrhage - we were able to reflect on what it means to trust Jesus in the midst of our real working lives with all their complex and thorny relationships and moral dilemmas.

It was my birthday yesterday and among my gifts was an iPod Touch (from my gorgeous wife). So I have at last (and, I know, not before time) joined the digital music age. Quite apart from its utility in listening to music, I find myself looking at it and thinking that it is quite beautiful, technology and design in perfect balance.

But I can't help wondering if I'm the victim of hype here. Apple is cool. The iPod Touch is the coolest in a long line of cool gizmos that Steve Jobs' empire has launched. After all, it's just an Mp3 player. And yet...

More pictures of Lily soon - just got to get them off the camera, onto the computer....

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Insight into Iraq

We went to see Andrew White at the LICC yesterday evening. He's the vicar of Baghdad, very opinionated and politically incorrect; very funny but also very moving. Life in the city is improving but many still die unnecessarily - among them large numbers of the Christian community.

Andrew still feels that the invasion was absolutely right and the removal of Saddam was the only option available to the world. I'm not sure I agree - I think the war lacked legality and the aftermath still seems worse than what was removed. But I was grateful for his insight and impressed by his faithfulness in really difficult circumstances. I will pray for the country with more knowledge.

Good too that LICC is still putting on events like this - it was not as well attended as I'd expected and the buffet lacked a little something for those of us coming straight from work. But the centre in Vere Street does remain a key place where christians engage with the difficult issues of the world intelligently and prayerfully. long may it continue.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A lesson from the pigs?

We were looking at Mark 5:1-20 yesterday evening and during the interactive session on what we might learn from this, the question of what Jesus was doing with the pigs came up.

You'll know the story. Jesus is confronted by a demonized man who is besieged by a legion of evil spirits. They beg to be sent into a nearby herd of pigs rather than the abyss to await judgement. Jesus obliges. What's going on?

I suggested that through this action Jesus is passing a stern comment on the business-as-usual approach adopted by the townsfolk - and probably its leading citizens. The demonized man had been marginalized by this community that was making a good living through rearing pigs for sale, no doubt, to the sizable gentile populations of the region - not least the Roman army garrisoned around the area. He was chained and shoved out of the town into a graveyard.

Jesus is suggesting that the town had a duty of care to this man that they neglected while they got on with their money-making venture. So, in an act of judgment on business as usual, Jesus frees the demonized man and interrupts the town's casual reliance on cash.

Afterwards, someone asked me what the town's people could have done, since the demonized man was fearful and uncontrollable. That's a good question. But, it seems to me, that Jesus is saying that they should have done something more than cast him out, chain him up and get on with their lives. Care has a cost attached to it and part of that cost is that there'll be a shift of priorities from doing things for us to recognising the interests of those in need in our community.

I wonder if reading this story in the light of our current economic woes might help us reorient our values around caring for the vulnerable rather than maximising our own self interest.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Unsettled in a good way

As part of my preparation for part four of our series, Why Follow Jesus? which is exploring why the world's in such a mess if there's a loving God, I have started reading Christopher Southgate's new book - which I first came across late last year on Robin Parry's always-readable blog.

Called The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution and the Problem of Evil (Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), it is an attempt to create a thorough-going evolutionary theodicy. It is extraordinarily well-written and clearly argued (speaking as one who often finds systematic theology thoroughly opaque and unreadable) and it does what all good theology should do: it's making me think afresh about some pretty basic positions I hold.

For example, in accepting Darwin's theory of evolution as the best explanation for how life arose on earth, Southgate questions whether it's really realistic or plausible for a doctrine of 'the Fall' to be used to account for all the bad things that happen. After all, dinosaurs walked the earth tearing each other to shreds long before people arrived on the scene. And parasites are among the earliest life forms and they live by devouring other forms of life. in other words, predation is part of creation. I'm not sure what I make of this yet... It has big implications for how we read Paul and understand the cross (Southgate, however, believes the cross and redemption to be at the heart of his theology - but I haven't got there yet; his title is taken straight out of Romans 8, of course).

This is challenging, unsettling theology of the very best kind. I have found myself excited and anxious in equal measure as I've read it. But having said that, I will not have time to process this by Sunday so it's unlikely to appear much in my 25 minute reflection on how we speak about God and suffering.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

One day like this

So, throw those curtains wide
one day like this would see me right....

Can't put it better than Guy Garvey (and if you want a real treat press the red button on BBC TV and watch the wonderful Radio 2 concert of The Seldom Seen Kid that Elbow performed last week - including a spine-tingling, riotously uplifting version of One Day like this).

So, I threw my curtains wide this morning and this is what greeted me:

I know the snow brings chaos - but isn't it also so beautiful? Let's chill and praise the one who made this and gave us the eyes and hearts to appreciate it.
And remember to say 'hi' to someone in the street today and check on any people vulnerable in the cold weather.

Monday, February 02, 2009


Oh, and I was sad to hear of the death of John Martin late last week.

He was by all accounts not the nicest man to share a pint with, but Solid Air remains one of the great British rock albums.

So I played it on Friday on my way up to Leicester and remembered all the times I saw him play live at Manchester Uni in the 70s and wondered where all the years went.

A little snow and a bit of reading

It's been amazing listening to the news broadcasts through today - everyone seems to be looking for someone to blame for the traffic chaos and the fact that London has pretty much ground to a halt in the snow today.

Can you imagine the outcry from council tax payers if London bought the number of snow plows it'd need to clear the streets of what fell over the past 24 hours? We get a snow event of this magnitude of this magnitude once every 20 years or so. Can't we just take a day or two off, make sure the vulnerable have got everything they need and enjoy a snowball fight with bored kids in the streets?

Or am I missing something?

Anyway, I've been reading lots of stuff about 1 Thessalonians - getting ready for our men's Bible study (though it's been cancelled tonight because of the snow!); in particular stuff reconciling the Acts account of the founding of the church with what Paul says in his letter. Rainer Riesner makes a pretty good case for there being no contradiction between Luke's and Paul's versions of events.

It seems that 1 Thessalonians is not well-served in terms of studies looking at the social context of the community and the letter - certainly in comparison to 1 Corinthians or even Galatians. Richard Ascough has written some interesting stuff and Karl Donfried and Robert Jewett have too; Bruce Winter has written a couple of fascinating essays on the Greco-Roman background to some of what Paul says. But the literature is thin. if anyone knows of anything good, I'd love to hear about it.

I'm re-reading an essay by Justin hardin on the Acts account of the arrest of Justin which throws considerable light on the passage. One thing that intrigues me is that there seems to be a lot of attention paid to the political context Paul's mission in this section of Acts. Others have pointed out that Acts 16-18 contains a concentration of business language (Frederick Danker, in particular, in an essay I've not read but which looks really interesting), but it seems to me that there's an interesting study to be done on the use of political language in this section too.

Time for a hot toddy, I reckon - there are just so many good things about a cold snap...!

Pictures of Lily...

It's snowing and the world (at least the one I can see) has ground to a halt: no traffic, few people and a soft white shimmer to everything. It's gorgeous (though I know it's a real pain for lots of people!)

We helped Charlie and Shane move into their new home with Lily on Friday. All is well (people throwing snowballs have just passed my window - all our schools locally are closed)

So here are a couple more pictures of Lily (now that would be a good title for a song!)