Monday, 30 January 2012

carried off on the surging tides of history

Being a postgrad is an odd thing: it is, at times, very hard to measure your progress.  It is also a very bizarre mind-game. 
There are occasional 'deer-in-headlights' moments where you can feel utterly overwhelmed by all the information that you are having to gather, take in, and analyse, and organise.
There are those other 'thesis-to-slash-your-wrists-by' times when the work is either just dull, dull, dull, slog...or the writing is not flowing...or you keep thinking you've found useful primary sources and then realise that you've hit another dead end.
And then, there are those moments of sheer joy: a small click as a light-bulb turns on and you realise you've worked something out; the sources you find are absolutely 'the' thing you're looking for - and make for fun reading as well; the brain is buzzing and the writing is flowing and you find your thesis 'happy place'.  At the moment, I'm delighted to be in my thesis 'happy place': the energy and enthusiasm for the project is back and I am loving the work once more.  This current thesis section was always going to be the fun part: flyting, fighting and feuding.  I am learning a whole new vocabulary of 16th century swear words/ insults, as well as reading up on such cheerful things as swordfights in the kirkyard 'during tyme of sermone' [well, a change from falling asleep during sermon, at least].

As to measuring how I'm progressing...?  I was at an all-day late medieval/ early modern history conference on Saturday at which several academics, at the height of their powers, delivered blisteringly brilliant papers.  It got my brain buzzing in that good, creative, stimulated way.
I found myself utterly engaged all day and following lines of arguments, knowing references made, and thinking of other references not highlighted.... 
I think I was grinning for most of said day as well.
Basically, I just got the stuff - knew the stuff.
How different to the first conference illustrious supervisor had suggested would be good to go to, when I was doing my Masters.
Oh...the horror.
Not supervisor - the conference.
Was akin to spending the day in a fog-riddled swamp being slowly sucked down into quicksand.  By end of that day, my brain had shut down, I was exhausted, and also very depressed.  I remember thinking 'oh gosh, I will never survive this'.  Supervisor did note that she had deliberately thrown me in at the deep end: and indeed, it was a near-drowning experience.  However, perhaps that experience has proved a useful measuring tool re. progress.  I sense I would still struggle somewhat with parts of that very first conference, and certainly the conference just experience on Saturday was more accessible, but I also know that I seem to have moved on somewhat in my knowledge / understanding of the work at hand.
At this point in the work, I might be beginning to believe that I am, perhaps, finally on the way to becoming an historian.
Hmmm, possibly a dangerous thing: dip your toes in the water and you can find yourself being carried off on the surging tides of history...and at the moment, I am very much enjoying going with that particular flow  :D

Friday, 27 January 2012

lectionary leanings: 'what's this then?'

Some musings on this Sunday's gospel passage:

Mark 1: 21-28 
21They went to Capernaum; 
and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 
22They were astounded at his teaching, 
for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 
23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, 
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? 
Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, 
“Be silent, and come out of him!”  
26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, 
“What is this? A new teaching—with authority! 
He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 
28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. 

The writer of the gospel of Mark continues to drive the narrative on at a break-neck pace.  Still in Chapter One, we have moved from the Baptiser's baptism of repentance and Jesus' baptism in the Jordan, briefly noted a wilderness time, have just managed to catch our breath and travelled to Galilee to hear a call to turn and listen to the good news being proclaimed and some fishermen being made an intriguing offer too irresistible to walk away from.  Now we find ourselves suddenly in Capernaum one sabbath day in the local synagogue...

Questions in my head for personal reflecting revolve around what it is to 'teach with authority'; this coupled with avoiding the seduction of 'fame'.  Here, I'm remembering some wise words of Eugene Peterson reflecting on ministry and vocation in 'Under the Unpredictable Plant' about keeping it all real, about being authentic.  And certainly, that can be a challenge when working within and without institutional forms of church: lured by a sort of subtle 'careerism', or lured by building up the biggest and best form of independent church / or type of novel 'fresh expression' ever....
Funny how that's the book I keep coming back to out of all the discernment ones: Peterson speaks in a language that I understand and find myself saying 'yes!' out loud to when I read.  It helps keep life, death, ministry and the universe all a little bit more in perspective at least. 
The gospel text is also one of those passages that both make me smile and have a way of making me feel, for want of a better word, rather compassionate.  Here, both smiling at the irony of demons knowing exactly who Jesus is, whilst feeling somewhat kindly towards the people sitting about going 'what's this then?'
I guess I identify a bit with them: I know I certainly ask the 'what's this then?' question quite a lot as I sit about scratching my head, knowing only part of the whole.
Kinda looking forward to moving from the 'now we see in a mirror dimly' to the 'then we shall see face to I know in part, then I will know fully, even as I am fully known.'
Perhaps that, in the end, is what keeps us all going; in the meantime, it's accepting the stuff we do know, embracing the mystery, and walking forward in the now and not yet of hope.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

the purity bear: a morality tale of terror

On Friday, a bill proposed by Conservative MP Nadine Dorrie, aka 'mad Nad', was withdrawn from discussion in Parliament.  The bill called for extra sex ed. classes for girls aged between 13-16, which were to focus on the 'benefits of abstinence'.  This based on the premise that it is good for girls to 'just say no.'
Not boys, mind, just girls. 
Once again a case of the old, old Victorian gender double-standard, as well as that very old trope from near the beginning of creation itself: 'it wasn't my fault, the woman tempted me.'
Women: such power we have.  It is really rather astonishing to realise the implied danger we are to poor, weak men. 
This line of reasoning has been used over time to regulate how women behave, what women wear, who they are allowed to speak to, as well as control over their bodies.  Not to control women could lead to the undoing of all men. 
Or not.  

The other way in which to read this need on the part of some men over the course of history to regulate women's behaviour is that women, left to their own devices will just naturally get it wrong: women are the inferior sex whose weakness was demonstrated by the primal archetype of Eve, who fell so easily into temptation.  Women can't be trusted to make decisions and need to be looked after for their own sake, as well as to ensure that the world doesn't go to hell in a handbag of wrong choices.  It is, therefore, the role of men to make the moral decisions, etc.
Which brought to mind a youtube video friend Fran had posted up on my facebook wall at the beginning of the week:      

Leaving aside questions arising from the video, such as:
*what gives with the close-up shots of the rather tensed hands?  It is, I suspect, supposed to be symbolic of sexual tension, but instead conveys all the suppressed passion of a damp sponge.

*is it just me, or is that 'cuddly' purity bear actually just downright creepy?  And why does is sound unnervingly like Darth Vader?  Looking at the laddie, I truly don't believe the force is quite *that* strong with him.

Hmmm, as I said, leaving aside the above rather worrying questions, what we read from this little morality tale is that this girl is either:
a/ utterly naive and unaware of her vixenish, voluptuous powers: does she not know what forces she might unleash in the boy?  She could bring his utter ruination upon him. 
or - b/ quite the hussy to suggest the boy come in when the parents are away.  Lordy, letting the lad in might lead to... coffee.  Here we see her moral inferiority letting her down.  It is up to this poor benighted lad to man up, and be strong for both of them. 
Which of course, he does, triumphantly.

You know, in the end, this lass could really have done with some extra sex ed. classes on the benefits of abstinence.  Had the male not made the 'right' choice in our little video morality tale, I picture a bleak future for our young woman. 
Possibly after opening up her parent's house one too many times, leading to one too many coffees, she ends up one evening on a massive coffee buzz that prevents her from going to sleep once the chap has left ...after coffee.
Restless, she gets up, dresses, and ends up walking the streets.
Given the jerky uber-caffeinated movements she is making as she briskly walks the streets, a passing police car slows down so the police inside can more closely observe her.
Said police pull over and question her, however, high on the caffeine she is speaking so rapidly that the police think she is high on other substances.
She is taken down to the station where she is put in a cell until morning, with the thought that she will have come down from whatever drug she had been using.
Alas, mixing with the wrong company in the shared cell, by the next morning she has gambled away her parent's home, car, and time-share in Florida and finds herself hideously in debt to a scar-faced woman with a wooden leg called 'Hilda' - the woman's name is Matilda.
Knowing she has no home now left to go to, she embarks on a life of crime with Matilda, falls in love with with a string of no-good men, takes up drinking whiskey, and learns to spit.
By 25, she is a ruined woman, with several children from different men, an alcoholic gambler, and the inheritor of Hilda - Matilda having come to a bad end in a ping-pong incident in a Siberian bar.
Having been in and out of jail more times than she has had hot breakfasts, and now working as a barista in a church crypt which is now a decoffinated cafe, she pauses to reflect on that fateful evening many years back, when, having asked her boyfriend in for coffee... he fell into temptation, and said 'yes'. 
A silent tear falls down her cheek, as she regrets the fact that when she was 13-16, she did not have the opportunity of extra sex ed. classes discussing the benefits of abstinence...nor indeed, the dangers of coffee.

Monday, 16 January 2012

lectionary leanings: Mark 1:14-20 - dreaming, MLK, and some good news

Mark 1: 14-20
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

This coming Sunday, the lectionary cycle picks up the Gospel of Mark once again, having had a brief foray into John.  Here we find that having been baptised, Jesus journeys to Galilee...

The kiddies song 'I will make you fishers of men' is for me, often the accompanying mental sound-track to this reading; this unusual invitation tending, as it does, to often be the focus or 'stand out' verse for the potential preacher.  However, that is not what caught my eye this time as I read these very familiar words.  Instead, in the business of picking up the narrative from the preceding week, it was the initial set of statements that Jesus was making which made me pause momentarily.
Good news.
God has come near.
Repent, and believe in the good news.

This latter statement set off a wee train of probably lateral tangent thinking, as well as bringing to mind the 'dream' speech of civil rights activist Martin Luther King - whose remembrance day it is today.

Repent, and believe in the good news....
What I found myself mentally adding to this was:
and stop believing the bad news/ the worst case scenario/ being paralysed by fear/ being filled with suspicion, or cynicism.
Repent, and believe in the good news.

Good news that is life-giving, life-enhancing...
news that enables abundance;
news which shines light into the dark fear-filled places and sees possibility and potential and hope;
news which gives us the ability to shake off the chains that keep us clinging to past hurts, and which propels us forward...
equips us with a capacity and a courage to take up that most unusual of invitations...
to fish for people.
Which is... to share the good news about not believing the 'negative press', but to believe the good news:
to believe that the kindom of God has indeed come near...
that kindom - God's gathered community - which works together;
where hope triumphs over despair;
where the captives are freed;
where wounds are healed;
where the broken-hearted are gently tended;
where the vulnerable are championed and where power is used wisely and well;
where people are not judged by the colour of their skin, their orientation or gender, or by the material wealth that they possess...
but where, to borrow from Martin Luther King, they are judged by the content of their character.

Repent, and believe in the good news.
The good news that we are beautifully and wonderfully made in God's image, and that each one of us in our small corner can and will make a difference as, in that perseverance of the saints if you like, we continue in the ongoing journey of turning from believing the bad news and incline instead, towards the good news.

Idealistic dreamer?
And the ideals move us from the realms of contemplation towards action:
to be a dreamer of dreams is to actively take up the invitation to follow to one who proclaims good news, and so in turn, we become bringers of the good news, in our homes, in our streets, in our local communities....
To be a dreamer of dreams is to imaginatively and actively engage with one another, and with institutions...
from taking the time to check in on our elderly neighbour, to occupying Wall Street and challenging systems that have the potential to bring out the worst, not the best, in people.
It is to have the courage to shrug off the temptation to use any available ways and means open to us that puts us first, and tramples others under the weight of our own agendas.
But it is also to know that this does not equate with being a doormat...the cleansing of the temple was not exactly the act of a doormat.
Referencing a previous post, what indeed would Jesus do... and how would he do it?
How then, does that inform how we live and act? 

Idealistic dreamer?
Because that is what we are called to be and do:
to dream dreams and have visions - of what can be,
to turn away from the soul-destroying paralysis that belief in the bad news brings,
to share the good life-giving news with others.

We are called to follow the great dreamer and activist, Jesus, who turned social conventions on their heads, upset institutions,
who emphasised again and again how much people mattered...
and that institutions are there to serve people, and not the other way around. 
As we dream our dreams and have our visions, we also live and act in the belief that the kindom of God is indeed nearer than we even think.
An inaugurated eschatology... which is not to be equated with a 'do nothing now and wait for pie in the sky when you die', or a 'we're all doomed' attitude.

Friday, 13 January 2012

the real reason dinosaurs became extinct

... smoking?

nah, prolly not.

Saving cute fluffy defenceless little mammals from asteroid storms?


But prolly also ... not.

The real reason?

I think it might have something to do with married gay dinosaurs choosing to do their grocery shopping at Tesco...

Or something like that.

Maybe I'm just a little confused by the latest bizarreness emanating from Christian Voice [because there can only be one voice... and it apparently belongs to these particular folk]

Examining - and I use the term loosely - the reason for the fall in sales over the Christmas season, Christian Voice note:
Analysts are blaming Tesco’s ‘Big Price Drop’ idea for the store’s failure, which has led to them issuing a profit’s warning.   Natalie Berg, of consultant Planet Retail, said: “Tesco has taken its eye off the ball.  It has focused too much just on the price of food.  We now all expect high-quality food and everyone is claiming to be the cheapest – consumers are much more wary.”
However, it could fairly be said that Tesco took its eye off the ball even more when it bowed to pressure from its homosexual staff and associated itself with the ‘Gay Pride’ brand, with all its anti-Christian aggression, indecency, immorality and separatism.

Yes, because the latter is utterly more reasonable and rational than the former...

I know. I know.
Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit.
I have let myself down with this post.... 
I have just never really got the idea that when scripture states 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, your mind' that I'm supposed to omit the 'mind' part...[Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22: 37; Mk. 12:30; Lk. 10:27], whilst ensuring that I remember to make a top priority of praying against grocery stores which is apparently Very Important in the greater scheme of the world. 

Sunday, 8 January 2012

the undergarments of the Lord...

At one time, amongst a particular strand of Christianity, the WWJD? [what would Jesus do?] fad kicked off: Christian bookstores/ resource centres/ bookstalls/ etc. were inundated by sales reps marketing the WWJD? slogan in all manner of gift format.
WWJD? bracelets
WWJD? t-shirts
WWJD? coffee mugs
and even, allegedly, WWJD? boxer shorts... which provided me with the rather unhelpful distraction of bemusedly wondering about the choice of undergarments worn by our Lord. 

The follow up marketing gimmick was another set of initialled products, all displaying 'FROG' - the rather dire acronym for 'fully rely on God'.
No, I don't make these up, I merely pass on this information.
The purpose of these Christian products were, I believe, two-fold:
1/ to aid the wearer to think how one might behave as a follower of Jesus, when faced with various ethical crises to make the 'right' choices 
2/ as an tool for evangelism - wearing the products as a type of witness to your own faith.

I'll gloss over my difficulties with number one [turning these products into a type of  'lucky talisman' as a tool for decision-making, the possibility of creating Jesus in one's own image, etc., using such items as a way of taking any potential joy in life and crushing it dead 'just in case' - Jesus did go to parties, but one would be inclined to think that Jesus was a particularly miserable kill-joy] and move on to number two:
it's all very well having signs and symbols... wearing particular things, using particular gestures and language, but unless those on the 'outside' of the 'club' know what the symbolism is about, I wonder if it is not rather a futile gesture/action/etc.?
On the other hand, one should not downplay mystery and otherness either, as potential conversation starters.
Further, when the WWJD? outfits are teamed up with actions that seem contrary to what some think Jesus might actually do, we have an interesting conundrum.
Perhaps rather than wearing items asking WWJD?, we might just get on with the business of learning to love one another - and wear what Jesus would do on our hearts and through our actions....
to learn to live life in all its abundance, and to share that abundance with others,
to encourage spaces in which life can blossom and flourish, not wither and perish,
to create environments that nurture and nourish and ensure that all are welcome and all have a place at the table...
this, even when we might disagree with one another over theologies, structures, the manner in which we do things,
this even should it mean we might lose our own status and privileges.

Love abundantly,
and sacrificially.
Love to build up, not beat down.

I'm still not quite sure about whether he'd wear boxers, however.

I rather like the pic. below, posted by friend Nad. on facebook...

Friday, 6 January 2012

lectionary leanings: scrambled musings on the baptism of Jesus

The Baptism of Christ - Piero della Francesca
Mark 1:4-11

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, 
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 
And people from the whole Judean countryside 
and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, 
and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 
Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, 
with a leather belt around his waist, 
and he ate locusts and wild honey. 
He proclaimed, 
“The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; 
I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 
I have baptized you with water; 
but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee 
and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 
And just as he was coming up out of the water, 
he saw the heavens torn apart 
and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 
And a voice came from heaven, 
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 

This coming Sunday's gospel reading focuses on baptism, in fact, baptisms.
The mysterious cousin of Jesus, John, 'appears', as the text puts it.
There's a sense of John somehow unexpectedly springing up out of nowhere -
out of nowhere, and into that nowhere named 'the wilderness'.
And there, in the wilderness, a place beyond the edges of society, of civilisation, of comfort, John both proclaims and offers a baptism.
In the wilderness, the seemingly deserted desert comes alive with streams of people: 'the whole Judean countryside...all the people of Jerusalem' spill out into the desert to seek this baptism.
Some were probably driven by curiosity, others to watch the entertainment of a good show, and some who had within them a sense that all was not well within and which needed to be put right.
John offered a baptism of repentance, a visible, physical act that demonstrated to the one baptised, and to those watching, that whatever had been done was forgiven.  With that forgiveness came the opportunity to imagine and walk towards a future unshackled by the chains of the past,
to let go of bitterness that sucked the soul drier than the desert wilderness itself,
to take on the hope of a new life, green-growing shoots of healing and recovery.

Whether the writer of the gospel is using hyperbole or not, when it comes to the numbers who seemingly began to overcrowd the desert, the point is that people left their homes to seek out this odd man in the middle of nowhere who dressed in the style of a prophet, had a rather odd diet, and talked of one who was greater than he was.
And the reading tells the story of how his words took on physicality in the form of the Word appearing: there in the wilderness, by the River Jordan, amidst the crowds seeking forgiveness prophecy takes on skin... and Jesus, the 'greater one', who will baptise with the Spirit', looks to John for baptism.
This gospel does not have any conversation between the two cousins: no John looking shocked or confused, objecting to such a request.
No editorial theological aside explaining why Jesus, as the Son of God, felt the need to undergo a baptism of repentance and forgiveness.
The act of baptism is dealt with in a simple, straightforward sentence. 
And we, as those watching the scene play out in our minds, are left to wonder what it was all about without the comfort of an easy answer.
And then a further mystery:
the heavens torn open echoing Isaiah's cry [64:1] 'o that you would tear open the heavens', the dove-like Spirit, the voice affirming Jesus as 'Beloved'.

This is such a rich text: rich in imagery, symbolism, mystery.

And in brief:
what catches my eye at the moment is the nature of John's baptism and the response; it would, of course, given rituals of repentance and forgiveness happen to be the focus of my thesis.
Forgiveness is a powerful two-edged tool - to seek and receive it, as well as to give it.
There's something cathartic about it; a liberating act for both giver and receiver that aids the process of closure and moving on.   
And it's something that continues to fascinate me, which is just as well, given I do have this thesis to write....

Monday, 2 January 2012

definitions on a postcard: 'church'

I've been thinking about the word 'church' for quite some time now.
What is it?
How do we define it?
And how does the way in which we define it impact the way we are,
who we are,
what we do,
where we do it,
why we do it?

Do we too often recite the old familiar mantra: 'the church is not a building, it is the people who are church' but get too easily weighed down by the demands of bricks and mortar?  Heating bills, insurance to pay, ongoing maintenance, roof repairs....
Do we meet together to worship God, or come and pay homage to an impressive building?  Yes, this last question is pure rhetoric; it is not quite as black and white as this.
Is church about structure that goes beyond a physical building?
A structure involving a whole raft of whizz-bang programs and events, often trying to continue even as resources of people, time, skills, money, are depleted?
There's so much baggage with the word 'church' - the demands of upkeep, administration, organisation - occupy our minds and hearts to the point that we get into the way of thinking that church is about all this peripheral 'stuff'.
It's not.
We sometimes get so caught up in this peripheral business: doing SWOT analysis, creating fundraising targets, putting the need for efficiency before all else, striving to be hip and relevant... whilst quietly feeling like we've not done enough, failed to achieve, have somehow missed the point, have tried and been found sadly wanting.
I wonder how we find a way to better fine-tune and clarify what we mean when we say 'church'?
A way that will help us not to confuse structures created to assist the work of the church and the demands of bricks and mortar, and of obligations towards our ecclesiastical framework, from what is actually the church... us?
I suspect, if we can, not only will be less weighed down and exhausted, we might have a little more time for God, and others.

This is just a rather simplistic starter for ten.  More pondering to come....