Sunday 18 May 2014

Feelin' Groovy

Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.
Just kicking down the cobble stones.
Looking for fun and feelin' groovy.
Anyone else old enough to remember that? The 59th Bridge Street Song by Simon and Garfunkle, from way back in 1966.

One of the downsides of a chronic illness (one of!) can be a tendency to look for the downside when life is good. It's a beautiful weekend, here in sunny Caversham (yes, it really is sunny!); yesterday I felt dynamic and got a lot of things done, so today I was expecting a hit. Yet here I am, I'm up and about and still feel great.

The reaction will come, sooner or later, I'm sure. Nuts to it! There's nothing I can do to change that (apart from being reasonably sensible and not going out to dig the garden); so I'll enjoy the morning.

It's a gorgeous spring day, sunny but not too warm. Enjoy your day ... even if it's cloudy where you live!

Saturday 17 May 2014

The Wind Blows Where It Pleases
For many years I found it difficult to really relate to the 'third person of the Trinity' - the Spirit. With hindsight a lot of that is because of the individualistic way in which the modern church portrays it. In the Bible the Spirit is mostly shown through community: in God's people united by the one Spirit into the body of Jesus' followers.

I see 'The Trinity' - one God, three persons - as being about a God who is so big and so amazing that people can't get their heads around what he/she/it/they are like. So instead we separate out three main ways in which Christians have historically found themselves relating to God; although even there the split ends up quite complex.

There is the creator God, the one who made the stone and wood many church buildings are made from, not to mention snowflakes, galaxies and, of course, people:
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
But this creator God, the first person of the Trinity, is also known as a parental God: the New Testament tends to emphasise the 'loving Father', aspect; the Old Testament has more of the 'caring Mother'.

Then there is the redeemer God: Jesus who - somehow - became man, lived and died among us and for us. He had human form, even if we don't know much about how he looked. We do know that, contrary to many pictures, he probably had relatively short hair and a trimmed beard, and it is likely that he wasn't particularly handsome or obviously impressive in appearance.

This Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, is known in love that serves others and sacrifices itself for them. But he is also known in fresh starts, in new hope, in life coming out of death, in impossible situations that somehow resolve themselves.

The Spirit, sometimes called the sustainer God, is harder to picture. Images in the Bible include the wind, blowing where it will, and flames, flickering, always moving, never still.

But the big New Testament claim is that the Spirit is best seen through his/her/its (the Bible terminology varies) work within the church. By 'the church' I mean communities of people who follow Jesus, bound together by said Spirit - not a building of wood or stone, and certainly not some religious organisation. A genuine church is recognisable by the signs of the Spirit at work within it:
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace,
forbearance, kindness, goodness,
faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
The Spirit of God, the third person of the Trinity, is known by the love of one for another: a love between equals. This love does not exclude, it neither despises others nor puts them on pedestals. The Spirit's love is a dynamic thing, always in motion, always looking for new opportunities to live, love and work together. The Spirit's love is a sign to all that Jesus' followers are at work:
By this will everyone know
that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.
So, God is love: parental love, serving love, and love between equals. One God known in three ways of loving.

Monday 12 May 2014

Fire By Kristin Cashore

As ash rose black against the brilliant sky,
Fire's fiddle cried out for the dead,
and for the living who stay behind
and say goodbye.
I read Kristin Cashore's first novel, Graceling, some months ago and enjoyed it, so when I saw Fire on special offer I went for it. Wow! The first book was good, I thought, but the second is amazing!

Basically the components are fairly standard young-adult fantasy fare. It's a medieval sort of setting, where a tiny minority of people, including the heroine, have psychic powers. Early in the book the heroine is an emotionally immature young woman, then she meets a prince and they loathe one another on sight ... no prizes for guessing where that is going. It's a coming-of-age story, so by the end she's grown up a lot and it's all kind-of happy-ever-after ... ish.

It's what Cashore does with these common components that make this book so wonderful. For instance, there is a romance at the heart of the novel: a love story. But there are actually many different love stories in there, charting many different sorts of love - some with happy endings, some not so happy.

The heroine has special powers: it's standard enough to question whether the hero/ine uses their powers for good or ill, less standard for the basis of that good/ill divide to be so thoughtfully and caringly examined. One thing that struck me was that the effect of these powers was maybe to highlight aspects of what growing up as a young woman is really like today, but emphasised, 'written in bright bold colours' as it were. I'm not directly in a position to say, of course.

Medieval fantasies often have battle scenes between good and evil. Rarely is the pain and price of these battles communicated so well. Throughout, the book is remarkably good at examining good and evil and the way they can be mixed up. Not so much the 'shades of grey' approach, which can minimise the reality of evil, more the way that real people can be both good and bad at the same time. There are very good characters in the book who turn out to have done dishonourable things, and evil characters whose evil is ... leavened, maybe.

I almost used the word 'dissecting' in the above paragraph, but that has a kind of impersonal, analytical feeling to it - this book is far from that: it is filled with powerful, emotional writing. I found it deeply moving and insightful. Highly recommended.

Tuesday 6 May 2014

What's So Special About Galatians?
Paul's letter/epistle to the Galatians, that is, from the New Testament.

This is an exciting time for Bible geeks, such as myself, as new finds from Bible times reveal new insights into Jesus' world; the world in which most of the New Testament documents were written.

A quarter century or so back, when I really started getting into this sort of thing, the scholarly consensus about Bible writings was based on the views of 20th-century theologians, building on the work of 19th-century writers, responding to 18th-century thinkers, developing the ideas of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation from the 16th- and 17th-centuries, and so on.

It was all very clever, but such a long way away from the simplicity of, say, Mark's Gospel, and it left Galatians itself appearing confusingly inconsistent with the timeline of Acts and the rest of Paul's letters.

Now the translation of high-profile documents like the Dead Sea scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library, along with vast numbers of lesser-known smaller finds - individually less-important but cumulatively highly illuminating - have changed all that. They allow us a more direct view of what was going on in and around Judea, to help us understand Jesus' words, as well as in the world of the North-Eastern Mediterranean, which Paul wrote into.

In particular, as far as our understanding of Galatians is concerned, we know more about the southward expansion of the Roman client kingdom of Galatia (which became the Roman province of Galatia in 25 BC) to incorporate Antioch and the planned Via Sebaste (completed in 6 BC), along which Paul travelled on his first missionary journey.

This links Paul's letter to the Galatians to this first missionary journey (around 46-48 AD). Its subject matter - passionately arguing that God's grace supersedes the Jewish Law for non-Jewish Christians - makes it a part of the controversy which led to the Council of Jerusalem (around 49/50 AD). This pins the date of the letter to around 48/49 AD, some 3 years earlier than Paul's next letter, to the Thessalonians around 52 AD.

Which makes Galatians special:
- It is the earliest written New Testament document;

- It is a pivot between the Old and New Testaments;

- It sketches out what it means to be a church, a community united by God's Spirit;

- It is the background and foundation for understanding Paul's later writings.
In theory the Protestant Reformation, back in the 16th century, marked a rediscovery of Paul's message (particularly from Romans) that following Jesus is about God's grace, received through faith, not about following rules. In practice it mostly just changed the rules, particularly once Calvin got involved.

Galatians is about freedom. Maybe, just maybe, a focus on its simpler, more Spirit-focussed, message could lead to a new reformation in our churches: one actually about God's love and grace rather than power politics. You never know ... it's certainly about time.