Wednesday, 28 September 2011

the trouble with interpretation...

The picture at left caught my eye today and set me off on a train of thought with regard to matters of interpretation....

One of the ever-present 'features' of the Voldemort discussion surrounds interpretation of scripture.
Some cry: 'plain meaning of the text'.
Others cry: 'it's more nuanced'.
Yet others just sigh in despair and shake their heads wondering what all the fuss is about.
All in our own way attempting to get on with the job of living, loving, and bumblingly trying to serve God.

What are the implications of interpretation when it comes to discipleship?
What if our understanding is all wrong, or misguided?
Conversely, how can we know we may have just managed to get it right?
I think 1 Cor. 13 'for we know in part' is helpful - or provides me with some small comfort.  We mess up: we don't have the whole picture, and the passage continues with the sense that we 'see through a glass darkly', as the KJV  phrases it so poetically.  I don't often go to the Greek, as my proficiency is pretty rubbish, but occasionally, it's a useful way of seeing a well known passage/verse/word in a different way, as the eye doesn't just slide over as easily.  For some reason, I was drawn to do so with this well-loved chapter, and in doing, I've had one of those personal little 'aha' moments, looking at the Greek word translated as 'darkly', αινιγματι... where our English word 'enigmatic' comes from.

Of course we're all bumbling along: why should this take us by surprise?  We worship God known, and yet unknown.  In faltering footsteps we make our way in faith and attempt to follow our energetic, enabling, and enigmatic God.  We explore the journey of the people of God throughout time and various places as they wander and ponder and stumble in the dim half-light of revelation.  We hear the stories of Jesus, and of those who followed him as they furrow their brows and puzzle over just who he might be. 
We look for clues, and take our cue, at times, from them.  And as we do, we see a history of getting it wrong, and getting it gloriously right, and all the stuff that there is in between.
It's a humbling thing.
It's a scary thing.
What if we get it wrong?
Perhaps in that fear of making mistakes,
perhaps in the fear of the unknown, we surround ourselves in the strange comfort of rules and regulations nit-picked to the nth degree that, instead of helping free us, not only bind us, but bind others.

Law - rules and regulations - often get a bad press.
Personally, I think God must be Presbyterian: the ten commandments are helpful guidelines to assist us to live life decently and in good order.  Laws, codes of practice, however one wishes to describe them, are, in their very essence, relational.  The ten commandments are communitarian in context: being in communion with God and one another, being in harmony in both our vertical and horizontal relationships.  This is why the psalmist can describe those who follow God's law as happy:
Ps.119: 1-2 'Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the way of the Lord.  Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart.'
Or link law and delight together - surely an oxymoron :) :
Ps. 119: 16, 77, 174 - 'I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word'/ 'your law is my delight'.

Historically, has there been a shonky interpretation of the word 'law' by the Church when it comes to following God, I wonder?
Has 'law' been misinterpreted and used as a tool to beat people down over the centuries - the ultimate 'power-tool', in effect?
Is law about power...or about love?  
Thinking of the psalmist's delight in God's law, I wonder if seeking after God whole-heartedly might incline us to use the law as a means of grace, building people up, setting the captives free...creating a little foretaste of the kin-dom of heaven on earth and furthering our journey into God, both enigmatic and known? And linking back to 1 Cor. 13... is the law of the Lord actually all about love?
In the end, does love...win?

Saturday, 24 September 2011

'Mawwidge is wot bwings us togevva'

A bit of a rambling post today...

Came across this pie chart earlier today: the section on polar ice caps melting made me grin, given all the ongoing chat about global warming.  Maybe they are connec...no, maybe not.

Was at a discussion last night with the gloriously broad title 'God and Sex' [which God, what kind of sex?!] and again thought that if ever I were to write a book on sexual ethics, I would have to entitle it 'Sexual positions'. :)

The discussion was an oddly irenic one, as opposed to the general slanging matches that tend to hit the news.  This was rather cheering, however, it should be noted that none of the three speakers could really be described as 'right-leaning' in their views.  Richard Holloway discussed themes from a book of his, 'Godless Morality', observing the need to remove God out of the ethical context to better enable more sensible, fruitful discussion.  Sara Parvis countered with the comment that, given we were discussing what the Church had to say re. sex, God was rather right in the midst of the whole discussion and it would be an odd thing to even think of separating God from an ethic that was faith-based.  Augustine and Aquinas received honourable mentions.... While Ian Paton apologised 'for being an Anglican' after an 'on the other hand...' comment.

In what was a wide-ranging discussion concerning the broad spectrum of human sexuality/ies, a major question raised was how to define marriage/ the purpose of marriage.  Certainly, in the on-going Church of Scotland discussion regarding same-gender relationships and clergy, I've often felt that the starting point really should be to ask how we define the term 'marriage'.  And here I'm reminded of the glorious Peter Cook, who unashamedly stole the show in his cameo in 'The Princess Bride' - 'Mawwidge...is wot bwings us...togevva'

 

What is marriage?
Is it only valid if procreation is involved?
What about those who are infertile or who marry later in life: procreation in these circumstances is not possible....
Is it a misuse of 'marriage' to join these couples together?
If not, then why allow the marriage - what is its purpose here, if not for means of procreation?
If the purpose here is for companionship, then why can this not be allowable for same-gender couples?  I'm thinking of 1 Cor. 7:9 -
'But if they are not practising self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.'
This text is fine and dandy if one is heterosexual... but what if one is not and the stance is that only heterosexuals can be married/ have their relationship legitimised?  Should the text then read:
'it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion - except if you fall in love with people of the same gender.  In that case, sorry, you basically just have to burn.'

Currently then, the received wisdom from the Church [in many cases] would be that LGBT people are called to live to a higher standard than their heterosexual brothers and sisters... and reviled when they fail to make the grade.  In this, Michael Vasey opined that 'the Church is dangerous to gay people...' and that 'the Church provided no viable strategy by which to live his life.' [I believe in a CofE synod in the 90's].
In all the [endless/ round and round /torturous] discussions on sexuality and the Church, it is a thing of sadness to me that human relationships end up being boiled down to merely focusing upon the sexual act.  I'd like to think that being in a partnership was a much broader, richer thing - in which sex played a part [or perhaps not for whatever reason], but was not the sole component or focus....
So, what is marriage?
Who is it for?
Why do it?
And why is the Church seemingly getting it's knickers in more of a twist about this matter which is not a substance of the faith matter, than feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoners, clothing the naked, encouraging folk to love one another just as Christ loved us...?

*grin* I did say at the start that this was a rambling post, lol!  
As ever, this is merely a springboard to get some of my own thoughts a little more finely tuned.  

Monday, 19 September 2011

Herding cats...

It has been one of those weeks... which would best be described as a little like herding cats.  Which reminded me of this great advert below:

Monday, 12 September 2011

Retribution, reconciliation, restoration?

 It seems somewhat apposite that the gospel reading for this Sunday, 11th September, comes from Matthew 18: 21-35 - the parable of the unforgiving servant.
The story features a king and two slaves.
In the opening sequence, the king calls his servants to account for outstanding debts.  The first of the slaves is brought before the king: his debt is vast - ridiculously vast.  The king decides that the best option available is to not only sell off the slave, but to sell off the slave's family and all their possessions.  The slave falls on his knees, begging for time to pay the debt.
Mercy.
The king, moved by pity, releases him and forgives the debt.
...
But the story doesn't quite end with that.
Having been shown mercy, and now released, this slave decides that he will do his own reckoning as he bumps into another slave who owes him a pittance.  He asks for his money and the same scene plays out:
2nd slave falls on his knees and utters virtually word for word what the first slave had said to the king.
However, this time, no mercy.  A pound of flesh is sought and the chap thrown into prison.
The other servants, distressed by this, go to the king who has the initial slave hauled in before him.
This time, no mercy, quite substantial wrath.
The message: to forgive one another from the heart.
Reconciliation - debts paid/ offences forgiven.
Restoration of ... relationship, status, dignity.
Retribution on those who don't forgive.
[which is a strange kind of irony - ultimately no forgiveness for unforgiveness?]

In the course of my research, wading through various 16th century kirk session records that note the offences and required/ performed repentance of everyday people [and some high heid'yins as well] I've been doing some work on the place of the church and community reconciliation.  This ranges from flyting to blood feud.

Flyting was your basic neighbourly slanging match and defamation of character [and by heck, these 16th c folks really knew how to insult each other rather amazingly] with the parties coming before the session, talking through what had been said, and working through to the requisite ritual of repentance: usually a speech formula in which the offender somehow physically held their own tongue, and then commenced their apology/ contrition with the words 'tongue you lied', and that they knew 'nothing but good and honest of [insert name here].'  This, usually done on one's knees in front of the offended party.  The response to this ritual was then the offendee noting their satisfaction with the offender's apology and the ritual of shaking hands in front of the session.  Sometimes, if it were a rather big stooshie, the shaking of the hands would also be seen in a public place, generally done at the market cross.  It was a visible ritual which signalled to the community as well as those reconciling, that this was the end of the dispute.

In the case of the blood feud, 4 representatives from each family were required to work through to an agreement, deciding what 'compensation' would restore the peace between the affected families.  This did not always involve monetary compensation - the offender might go to live with the family of the person who had been killed and, in a sense, replace the labour lost to that family.  When families had reached agreement, and the conditions of that agreement had been met, the family of the deceased would issue a letter of slains - a document stating that all compensation had been made and that the offender was now released from their obligations.
Satisfaction had been made; while life might never be the same again, restoration of relationship/s and community harmony had been achieved for a while.
Time for all to move on.

Of course, it was not always hunky dory afterwards: in the session records there are cases in which the same names keep coming up, with the same arguments.  People are only human after all!  But this reconciliation process fascinates me, particularly in light of the preamble to the telling of the parable mentioned at the start of this post.  Peter comes to Jesus wanting to know the exact number of times one should forgive a fellow member in the church.
"Seven times," suggests Peter rather magnanimously given the Rabbinical rule of thumb was three times.
And then from Jesus the astonishing answer 70x7.
That's 490 times... and the question floats about in my head 'how would you keep track of that?'  And the point is, the number is so large, it's almost impossible to keep score.
So don't keep score, let it go. 
A crazy number which demonstrates that forgiveness should be the default position: letting go, working through to wholeness - personal, communal, spiritual.

Retribution, however, seems to be a natural default position:
you insult me, I insult you;
you hit me, I hit you right back;
you bomb me, I drop a bomb on you;
you kill me, my family/ friends/ fellow citizens/ God smites you;
and so the cycle of violence goes until all that's left is the dust and ashes.

Reconciliation and the restoration of relationship is harder.
It's an action in which the process of dehumanisation is reversed:
after all, t's easier to follow the path of retribution if you reduce the offender into a non-human first.
The act of reconciliation requires more effort: it is easier to destroy and much harder to build.
Reconciliation brings us face to face with a fellow human being - not a monster, not a scumbag, not an animal.
It is somehow a harder, more terrifying thing to treat as human someone who has done something that society, that you, think is utterly reprehensible.
I wonder why, and partly think it is perhaps because in the act of confronting a fellow human, as opposed to 'an animal', it brings us uncomfortably close to confronting our own dark side.
In the long reaches of the night, perhaps it terrifies us to think what we, too, might be capable of - or how our own behaviour may have caused such a reaction.

The practice of forgiveness / or non-forgiveness eventually comes down to control and power.
The act of forgiveness could even be said to have an element of self-preservation/ self-interest about it - I vaguely recall Desmond Tutu saying something along those lines, but am a bit woolly and the time is late and my eyelids drooping.
So the question:
Do we keep score - hold onto the wounds - nurse the anger until it makes us bitter and dehumanises us?  Because to do so is to enable the one who has offended to continue to hold the power over the situation.
Everything done will be done working within reference to the one who has caused, and continues to cause harm...because we keep holding on.
We want to equate retribution with justice, and they are utterly different.
Retribution, while  satisfying initially, is ultimately hollow, for the need for vengeance is, in the end, never really satisfied.  It's a little like pick-pick-picking at a scab and never allowing it to heal.
Do we learn to forgive - let go of all that threatens to dehumanise us?
And how do we learn to be people of forgiveness - to do justice with mercy?

Which brings me full circle to this particular day, September 11, and thoughts on retribution, reconciliation, and restoration.  A decade on, and there is a sense that the constant picking at the scab of retribution has resulted in bodily mutilation.  A process of maiming resulting in ongoing loss of life through armed conflict, and for some the inability to move on with their lives through nursing their hurt.
What lessons can we learn and how do we actively work towards breaking down the chains of unforgiveness that hold and shackle, and prevent lives from being lived in all their fullness?
Perhaps now, a decade on from Sept 11, those who have kept the hurt and who marked this 10 year anniversary around the world in some way today, may now let go and begin to heal.