Wednesday, 29 February 2012

8. Miriam - Old Testament happy clappy

The tambourine is not everyone's instrument of choice. It wasn't great when you were in infant school and it was the only thing you could be trusted to play apart from the triangle. In the Church of England sensitive types come over hot and shivery when a tambourine is spotted in church. Personally I'm a fan but they do take a bit of skill to play well. Think Stevie Nicks in Fleetwood Mack's Go your own way; Davy Jones of The Monkees and of course Linda McCartney. The beat, the rhythm; the frenetic tempo; keeping everyone going with that insistent urgency.

It makes a good victory sound in the hands of Miriam, Moses' sister, as the Israelites emerge from their miraculous Red Sea escape. 

Miriam - brother-rescuer; prophet and musician 'took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: 

'Sing to the lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.' (Exodus 15:20). 

It was obviously before believers became worried about coming across all triumphalistic.
It was what freedom sounded like. No more forced labour, religious restriction, assimilation. 
It was worship - spontaneous; kinetic; noisy, gutsy.

It was, in all sorts of ways, not really C of E.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

7. Shiphrah and Puah - for anyone whose baby arrived before the midwife...

John Bell, charismatic leader of the Iona Community in Scotland, once got up in front of a large evangelical congregation in Reading and addressed God as 'midwife of change...' There was the faintest whiff of a gasp inside  a church which was more used to hearing of God as Lord, King and Father.

But God as midwife...takes us nicely to Shiphrah and Puah (who??), midwives who safely delivered Hebrew babies in defiance of powerful male incitement to genocide under the despotic Egyptian Pharaoh in Exodus 1:15-21.

John Bell (again) speaks of a time when he was invited to speak at Westminster Abbey. Looking through the set readings in preparation for his sermon he noted it was Exodus1:1-14 and 2: 1-10 (Joseph's story rounded off; beginning of Moses's story) because Exodus is all about Moses, right?

Right; but where was the passage about the midwives? Expunged from the Lectionary apparently. Had it not been for the women who feared God more than they feared male power there would not have been a Moses, or any baby boys.

When Shiphrah and Puah are summoned before Pharaoh to explain why the male babies are continuing to be born, they are courageous and witty: 'Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women - they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.'

Way too much detail for Pharaoh - how can he possibly tell if this is technically correct or not?! He goes silent, while the God who brings to birth blesses the midwives with babies of their own.

I can't say I've ever given birth before the midwife arrived but I'VE COME QUITE CLOSE...

Monday, 27 February 2012

6. Tamar - I've waited too long.

As husbands go, Tamar is spectacularly unlucky. To begin with she marries the eldest son of Judah, (Jacob's fourth son by Leah.) 

But he is bad, and then dead. 

Next she marries his brother, hoping to have children by him that will inherit the older brother's estate, but this doesn't appeal to the bridegroom so he, to put it politely, as the bible does, 'spills his seed'. 

So he is also bad, and then also dead.

Tamar is now a double widow and childless. Judah promises his youngest son to her (when he comes of age) but when he does grow up there is still a distinct ongoing absence of wedding bells. In reality Judah is content for her to die a widow, lonely and unmarried. Being an enterprising woman who owns a few veils she decides to take matters into her own hands.

At this point, suspend all notions of 21st Century acceptable moral behaviour, and remember that in this story all the males come off consistently worse than the female....

Tamar dons one of these veils, a particularly fetching one, and goes out to meet her father in law on the road. Mistaking her for a prostitute he sleeps with her in return for.......(some heavy gold coins/a necklace of pure silver/a bushel of fine spices?)

.....a goat.

She really wants that goat so as a pledge, he leaves his seal and staff with her, and later sends the goat to her via a friend, to get his seal and staff back. But she is nowhere to be found.

Three months later, Tamar is discovered to be pregnant. In an unbelievably hypocritical storm of fury, Judah orders her to be put to death for unlawful prostitution. She swiftly sends him a message, along with the seal and staff - 'I am pregnant by the man who owns these (Gen. 38:25).

At last Judah admits his fault - he ignored her sad plight and withheld his third son from her. She is 'more righteous than I' (Gen. 38:26). A pretty amazing admission for an, as yet, unreconstructed Old Testament male. Tamar will, through the birth of twin boys, have an honoured place in the blood line of the Messiah, who is graciously not above being born from such bizarre ancestral goings on.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

5. Rachel - the dubious blessing of motherhood.

'Lord help the Mister, who comes between me and my sister, and Lord help the sister who comes between me and my man', as the song goes...

It's a mixed up tale of love, deceit, mistaken identity, jealousy, infertility and a lot of half brothers. Rachel is loved by Jacob but in the near Eastern manner of veils and darkened bridal tents, Jacob is tricked into marrying/sleeping with her eldest sister, Leah, first. (N.B. best to make good eye contact on your wedding night...)

But Jacob is not to be put off that easily. In the manner of swooning lovers he has already toiled seven years in the fields for her and after a week of Leah he marries Rachel as well, thus setting up a compromised marital scenario of sisterly/maidservantly jealousy and strife extending way into the future as eventually four different women compete to bring children into the same family.

Rachel means 'ewe', a mother sheep, but motherhood is a long time coming. Infertility can make you desperate - she cries to Jacob, 'give me children or I'll die.' (Genesis 30:1) which turns out to be sadly prophetic. Her prayer for a baby must have been a persevering one: 'Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and opened her womb' (Gen. 30:22). After the joy of Joseph (Jacob's favourite) she dies giving birth to Benjamin, the youngest. 

From extremely unlikely beginnings, despite human frailty and a family tree to baffle even 'Who do you think you are?', Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat is now an assured future West End reality.

Which just goes to show that the course of true love (and motherhood) never did run smooth.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

4. Rebekah - have nose-ring, can travel.

As far as the Israelites were concerned I guess the first born males had it quite bad in the pre-anaesthetic department (I'm thinking foreskins and flint) but can anyone shed light on how you get a nose ring through a total stranger's nostril on meeting her at the local well? This is Rebekah's story and she seems a remarkably together young woman to leave everything at a moment's notice for a life of wifely obedience in Cana (the fact that she turns out to be quite a dab hand at wheeling and dealing herself comes later...)

You really have to get into Ancient mindset here. It's not so much 'Would you like to leave your family and come away to a foreign land to marry a man more than twice your age, whom you have never met?' more 'It would seem you have been divinely chosen to be honoured with wealth, status and marriage to your first cousin once removed, not to mention receiving a whacking piece of gold through your nose.'

Amazingly for a society where ownership of women was an entirely normal concept, there does appear to be some leeway offered to her with regards to the wife-hunting project: 'Let's call the girl and ask her about it' (Genesis 24:57). But she is game and off she goes.

Now I'm a terrible romantic, so here's how the episode ends: 

The camels, weary from the long journey, slow to a halt as they approach the field where Isaac, fresh from the Negev, is 'meditating' ('Gosh, I'll need a bath sometime...') Rebekah, getting down from her camel, spots him walking across the field (a bit like the end of the Kiera Knightly Pride and Prejudice film...swelling music...) Rebekah asks the servant 'Is that HIM?' and when told yes, veils herself, being a modest young woman. Isaac is quickly informed, 'By the way, this is your bride.' And the text says 'Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother, Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother's death.' (Gen. 24:67).


Friday, 24 February 2012

3. Hagar - 'Where have you come from and where are you going?'

There's a whiff of Eastern promise in the air...the hot desert sun, the tent, the attentive Master, the hope of something better for a slave-girl nobody. Then it all goes horribly wrong....

It's always in the desert where God finds us and it was the same for Hagar. She was an Egyptian; a slave; young; beautiful. Finding yourself pregnant by the mistress's husband is never a good living/working arrangement and female bullying is a horrible reality. She flees to the wilderness in despair. There's nothing like a pregnancy to remind you of the frailty of human life. Things happen to you beyond your control. Another being is brought into the world and they are your responsibility. You worry about the mess you are brining the child into. It's very probable that God doesn't exist and we must make our own way alone.

But then hope. A spring of water in the desert. This is where God finds Hagar and asks perhaps the oldest question of all: 'Where have you come from and where are you going?' (Genesis 16:8.)
It's not Existentialism after all! 
Someone sees and Someone cares.

At the spring of water, there's a promise of blessing for the new life swimming within her. Hagar names the well 'Beer-lahai-roi' - 'the well of the Living One who sees me.' 
God sees and finds a desperate, pregnant woman and she responds in a beautiful act of divine re-naming.

It's all in the eyes...

Thursday, 23 February 2012

2. Sarah - 'You have got to be joking...'

Second day of Lent and it's Sarah up next.

If women are increasingly postponing the age at which they give birth to their first child, none of us has anything on Sarah. She is introduced in Genesis 11:30 with the chilling words 'Now Sarai was barren...' and, in case we needed clarification, '...she had no children.' As far as the bible goes this has never been an obstacle for God - in fact it appears to be almost a qualification for women whose sons are later to assume major importance in salvation history. Is this to remind us that the initiative and the power to bring to birth is always God's?

Her long awaited son is named after her understandable reaction when told, at the age of 90, she will give birth within the year - i.e. 'you have got to be having a LAUGH.'

I take my hat off to Sarah - she is nothing if not robust. I'm not sure I would have the courage to laugh in the face of a heavenly messenger - John the Baptist's father failed to believe a similar angelic message and look what happened to him (couldn't speak for nine months.)

The conversation about Sarah's impending unlikely conception is actually quite surreal:

Divine Messenger (to Abraham) : 'I will return this time next year and Sarah will have a son.'
Sarah (eavesdropping through the tent flap): 'After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?' (wonderful euphemism for 'I'm past all that business')
Divine messenger (ears like lasers): 'Why did Sarah laugh and say 'will I really have a child?'
Sarah: (lying) 'I did not laugh'
Divine Messenger: 'Yes, you did laugh.'

Long Pause.

You couldn't make it up if you tried.
So here's to Sarah, laughter and pleasurable surprises in old age.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Fabulous 40 for Lent: 1. Eve, mother of all the living.

Here's a challenge - can you name 40 faithful females from the bible? On the first attempt without looking anything up I ground to a halt at 29....Come on ladies, there must be more of you! Eventually I came up with a FABULOUS 40 - one for each day of Lent. So here goes...

First up - Eve.
Apparently there's a female rapper of this name, so my initial foray into Google images got nowhere - I had to type in 'bible Eve.'
So 'bible Eve', in pictures, is mostly saddled with the serpent; nasty crafty creature, and of course that apple of temptation, now probably the most iconic brand image in the world.
But is there anything to emulate in Eve, the first of the fabulous 40?

  • Her name is palindromic and very easy to spell
  • She's created in the divine image. (Wow, what does that say about God?)
  • She makes the man whole.
  • She is 'the mother of all the living' (Gen. 3:20)
  • She had faith 'I have brought forth a man with the help of the Lord.' (Gen. 4:1)
  • She loses a son; another becomes a murderer, and she gives birth to another without apparently losing that faith - 'God has appointed for me another child' (Gen. 4:25)
Not bad going for an icon of temptation.
Thanks for kicking things off in more ways than one, Eve.

Friday, 17 February 2012

afraid of secularisation?

Iconic spires litter the British countryside

Since the successful banning of prayers as part of the agenda of council meetings in Bideford, Devon, there has been a lot of talk about the ongoing march of secularisation in Britain. I occasionally wonder if the perception of secularisation is stronger amongst believers than amongst the general public. If you were asked 'Is Britain a secular democracy or a Christian country?' what would you answer? 

The Church of England is established in law but, as Richard Dawkins was at pains to point out recently, most people who self identify as 'Christian' in polls, rarely read the bible or go to church. Perhaps the National Secularist Society now want to move onto banning prayers at the beginning of Parliament, or promote the separation of Church and State so traditional Remembrance Day services in which we sing the National Anthem ('God Save the Queen' - a prayer) will become impossible.

Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, has recently co-authored a book called 'We don't do God', a reference to Alistair Campbell's now infamous response to a journalist trying to get Tony Blair to discuss faith. This 'official' political line has never stopped politicians pronouncing, at news of tragic or violent deaths, that 'our thoughts and prayers are with the family...' 

However, politics and faith seem to be slightly easier bedfellows these days, with Cameron at least admitting that his Christian faith is a bit like a poor radio signal - 'it comes and  goes.' Where legal rulings have come down against individual Christians for practices which appear to be at odds with Equality Law, and those individuals are described as being 'persecuted', I'm afraid I do part company - being persecuted is what Christians in Nigeria, China and Egypt face and it involves physical harassment and often torture and death.

So how secularised are we?

Something that stayed with me recently on travels around the countryside was the proliferation of church spires visible from train and car windows. Apparently on TV shows about desirable locations they always show a shot of a spire as a kind of background reassurance that this place is a good place to live. I wondered about a countryside devoid of spires...this would be secularism taken to its logical extreme. 

Alain de Boton might be upset there were no churches to give his devotees a warm spiritual glow (without of course any actual substance) but what the absence of churches would say would be that there is no upward, vertical direction to our human existence, just a horizontal one as we (rightly) reach for human relationship and love. But our love is fuelled by His - 'we love because He first loved us' (1 John 4:19.) God made the first move and always does. A spire points us to heaven and suggests we need something more than just each other and the things we perceive with our senses. I think a lot of people who are at best lukewarm about the church, would be quite upset at the thought of a full blown secularisation in the UK. It just might prove to be less tolerant than the dear old C of E.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Lady Wisdom Calls

What does it mean to be wise?

We have a short interruption in our readings from Mark today as we consider Proverbs 8 and the prologue from John’s gospel, famously read at the Advent Carol Service – ‘In the beginning was the Word.’
It’s always instructive to consider the pairing of Lectionary readings.
What is being proclaimed for us by this particular pairing?
There are immediate parallels.
Both are about beginnings – creation – the Wisdom of God was at the beginning of all things as was the Logos, the eternal Son of God.
In John 1 we read ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God’: in Proverbs 8 we read ‘The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.’ (v.22)
The personification (‘The Lord created ME…’) makes for a rather joyful, playful sound to Wisdom as she describes the delight with which she accompanied the LORD as he created the heavens and the earth.
She is a wise woman but she is also a child: ‘Then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always (…) and delighting in the human race’ (vv. 30-31.)
So who is this Lady Wisdom who had such a close relationship with the LORD of creation?
We need to keep in mind the picture language and the poetry before we get uptight about the possible theological implications of God having another part to him which is different from the Incarnate Son of God whom we worship in the person of Jesus.
We believe that all things were created through the agency of the Son, and this ancient, poetic image of Wisdom paves the way for the fuller Incarnation we see in John’s gospel.
The beginning of Proverbs 8 asks ‘Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?’
The call of wisdom is the voice of God just as the eternal Word is one and the same substance as God.

So what does it mean to be wise?
One of the things I like best about living in St Mary’s House is all the book shelves in the study.
They cover the walls from floor to ceiling on both sides of the doorway and when we moved we decided to operate a ‘His n Hers’ system…. so mine are on the left; Chris’s on the right!
By the time we got married we had both completed degrees in English Lit. and post graduate teaching qualifications so we had almost identical book collections.
Streamlining soon became an issue because of space; unfortunately we couldn’t really keep hold of two copies of everything.
This caused some soul searching! Who would give up their own annotated copy of a much loved text?
Well it was difficult to say the least…
Suffice it to say that now, a couple of decades later we're still married and the two collections look a bit different…Chris’s side has all the classics of English literature - Chaucer, Shakespeare, English poetry etc. along with a fair bit of History, Christianity and a lot of railway books.
Mine is mainly contemporary fiction (I was in a book club for many years); of course theology, and latterly a bit of dabbling in popular psychology and philosophy.
In this last connection I have discovered Alain de Boton - an interesting thinker who recently wrote ‘Religion for Atheists’ in which he argues that people of no religion can nevertheless plunder religion for all the good bits, without having to take on board the ‘God bits.’
De Boton has set up the ‘School of Life’ in London where every week 100s sign up to go to into a building not unlike a church to hear a ‘sermon’ on anything from how to stay calm to how to have good relationships at work.
begins to the dying strains of an organ and choir singing of the Lamb of God from the hymn ‘Jerusalem’.
However his opening line is ‘Of course God doesn’t exist, we all know that.’
He goes on to suggest that people still have 'other worldly' experiences when they engage with religious places, texts or artifacts, and they should be encouraged to enjoy these without having to sign up for any set of actual beliefs.
Is this wisdom?
It appears to be a good idea to get a whole lot of people together to think about important issues and to get away from the battleground that has characterized the Dawkins vs. Religion debate for too long.
But it is wisdom that begins and ends in human experience, nothing more.
It is not the wisdom of the inspired Scriptures, where we learn ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ (Proverbs 9:10)
This Lord is the Eternal Word with whom we can know an ongoing friendship by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit…. 'And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…’
In Giles Fraser’s words: ‘Borrowing the wardrobe of faith to dress up atheism as religion is all very flattering but few people are really going to buy it.’

Lady Wisdom still calls – she delights in the LORD and in all his works.
She looks on the beauty of creation and is full of wonder.
‘When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep…’ - haunting imagery of the wonder of God’s creation.
And we too have been marveling as we survey our snowy Oxfordshire landscapes and consider the untamable power of nature.
To reflect on God’s handiwork brings wisdom.
All the books and bookcases in the world will not bring us wisdom; it is primarily to be found in being involved in the loving action of God.
May the God of Wisdom give us fresh delight in all his works and inspire us to seek out Lady Wisdom as we walk the way of faith in this place and in this time.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Jesus healing and hiding

Our gospel reading today follows on neatly from last week’s where Jesus drove out a demon from the man who burst into the synagogue.
Today we see him healing and hiding.

By closely following the life of Jesus as we work through Mark’s gospel we aim for one thing: to know the Jesus we are claiming to follow, much more clearly.
We want to beware of remaking Jesus in our own image in case we end up following someone who is not very like the Jesus we encounter in the gospels.

So Jesus is healing again and our reading begins with the word ‘immediately’.
Mark is fond of the word ‘immediately’ – if you read the gospel straight through, you are constantly struck by this word.
There’s a break neck pace to the ministry of Jesus in Mark.
As John Pridmore points out, the word ‘immediately’ is not one closely associated with the pace of change in the Church of England.
‘Church leaders are adverse to the word ‘immediately’. It rarely occurs in reports published by the General Synod. The public ministry of the Son of God took far less time than the Church of England needed to revise its Ordinal.’ (p. 58, The Word is Very Near You’, 2009.)
But Mark loves the word.
So for example, immediately after his baptism Jesus is driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. Immediately they heard Jesus’ call by Lake Galilee, the fishermen get up and follow him.
And today, immediately they had come out of the synagogue, Jesus is off to Simon Peter’s house where Peter’s mother in law lies ill.
Just as the demon possessed man was a sermon illustration in himself, Peter’s mother in law is one too; Jesus has just been teaching and his actions also speak volumes.

Now I’ve been on the internet looking for mother in law jokes (acceptable ones) and I’m fairly sure that most mother in law jokes are told by men, so I’m not going to break that trend, except to say I did find this: (and apologies to all mothers in law here present…)

Question: What’s the punishment for bigamy?
Answer: Two mothers-in-law.

And this from Ken Dodd, who once remarked: "I 

haven't spoken to my mother-in-law for eighteen 

months. I don't like to interrupt her."

And finally, from Les Dawson (it would be Les 

Dawson…) "My mother-in-law has come round to 

our house at Christmas seven years running. This 

year we're having a change. We're going to let her 


However, on the grounds that I get on fine with my mother in

law, and also that I might become one myself  some day, I 

think we’ll leave it there.

Joking aside, to be ill with a fever in pre-paracetamol days 

was no laughing matter and Jesus responds to this urgent

need straight away by healing Peter’s mother in law.

It says ‘He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up 

and the fever left her.’

I think we can note from the way this happens, that touch 

and healing are inextricably linked.

The other day I had a chance to pray for someone in the street who I met and got talking to.
I was listening to her ailments, which were many, and I thought ‘what marks out a Christian from any other sympathetic listener?’
The answer was we can offer something greater than ourselves – we can put a person in touch with the Healing God by praying for them.
I was writing a sermon that week about words and actions going together, so I thought I’d better offer some prayer.
But I felt strangely reluctant (fear of what anyone might think etc.)
The moment came for the lady to move on and I still hadn’t offered any prayer, but as she turned to go, I instinctively put my hand on her shoulder and that’s when I got the impetus to pray for her.
So I think we underestimate the power of touch amongst ourselves, to comfort, to bless and even to heal. Without being inappropriate, touch and healing go hand in hand. It’s something to ponder for ourselves and our church family.

And so news of Jesus’ healing action spreads like wildfire and by evening, the whole town is gathered at Peter’s mother in law’s door. 
We can’t stress enough the urgency of the need for healing here. Although there were doctors in Jesus’ day, they of course had nothing like the ability to make well that we enjoy on our National Health Service.
Again and again Jesus proclaims the Good News of the kingdom by actions as well as words. Demons are expelled, the sick healed, apparently instantly.
Does this mean that today with all our access to health technology we don’t need to bother as Christians with miraculous healing?
I admit I find this a difficult one. Someone has suggested three levels of belief involved in whether God still heals miraculously today.

1: I believe in theory that God can heal.

2: I believe He heals other people.

3: I believe He can heal me. (I think I'm somewhere between 2 and 3!)

Because we have a friendship with God, we will of course naturally talk to Him about any physical suffering (and sensibly take ourselves off to the doctor when need be.)
I don’t think prayer and medical treatment need be separate things.
We can, as a godly habit, lovingly commend each other to God in prayer whenever there’s a need, and follow the scriptural injunction that we should ‘pray for each other and confess your sins to one another that you may be healed.’
So Jesus is proclaiming the Kingdom of God with actions, and these actions get him rather famous rather quickly.
And this is where Jesus is so very different from the celebrity and broadcasting culture that we all have constantly around us.
By ‘broadcasting culture’ I mean the tendency in the media to continually broadcast what is happening to people who are in the public eye.

By contrast Jesus seems to shun attention.
In a few short verses we have him forbidding the demons to speak, and getting up before dawn to find a deserted place to pray.
It’s not like Jesus to sit around after breakfast basking in the glory of the evening before when all those people clamoured at the door and got healed.
We must resist the overriding desire for numbers all the time.
Of course we want to see people turning up to events we plan, but do you know what? This is how numbers work: When people are hungry they’ll always seek out what nourishes them.
If people are not coming we need to ask ourselves a question: are we offering the true bread or an imitation?
John Pridmore (again) calls this passage a game of hide and seek.
Jesus hides himself. Peter seeks him out: it literally says ‘Simon and his companions hunted him down.
Jesus is not interested in being in the limelight for its own sake: he wants to know what the Father wants, so he goes alone in prayer.

As soon as he is found he says ‘Let us go on to the neighbouring towns so that I may proclaim the message there also, for that is why I came.’
His statement ‘for that is why I came’ is a theological statement meaning ‘that is why I came into the world’, i.e. you could say mission is the reason for the Incarnation…
So Jesus works to the Father’s agenda, no one else’s, not even the agenda of need, because there’ll always be plenty of need on which to spend ourselves.

So as we go forward in our mission to grow our church and reach out to others, what have we learnt from Jesus, and what do we need to do about it this week?

This is what we see: Jesus is on an urgent mission. He acts swiftly. He heals and delivers. He seeks out solitude. He works to the Father’s agenda.
May God give us grace today and into the future to take these things to heart and to follow Him accordingly.