25 December 2014


 Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
       Eternity shut in a span;
 Summer in winter; day in night;
       Heaven in earth, and God in man.
 Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
 Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav’n to earth.

 Welcome; though nor to gold nor silk,
       To more than Caesar’s birthright is;
 Two sister seas of virgin-milk,
       With many a rarely temper’d kiss,
 That breathes at once both maid and mother,
 Warms in the one, cools in the other.

 Welcome, though not to those gay flies
       Gilded i’ th’ beams of earthly kings,
 Slippery souls in smiling eyes;
       But to poor shepherds, homespun things,
                                          Whose wealth’s their flock, whose wit, to be
                                          Well read in their simplicity.

23 December 2014

Editing tips: Removing field codes

Are you ever annoyed by blocks of text (often within bibliographies that have been created by bibliographical programs like Endnote) that turn grey when you click somewhere within them? Do you ever want to get rid of an automatically updating date? Or remove lots of hyperlinked URLs without applying the Remove hyperlink command individually?

All of these are examples of field codes in Microsoft Word. These are pieces of tagged text which allow advanced users of Word to do clever things with their documents. Some of the things that field codes allow you to do include
  • Building a document automatically in response to information provided by the user. Thus, you could create a template which prompts for a list of standard paragraph names and then assembles the specified paragraphs into a new document.
  • Inserting information about the document into the document itself. For example, you might want to create a document summary sheet, showing the document’s file name, the author’s name, the date created, word and page counts, and similar details.
  • Performing calculations. You could use expression fields to create an ‘intelligent document’, such as an invoice or purchase order which automatically calculates line totals, discounts, or tax amounts.
  • Producing complex numbering systems that go beyond the capabilities of the Bullets and Numbering dialogue.
So field codes can be extremely useful. But for most editorial purposes, they are superfluous. And one of the basic rules of on-screen editing is that all superfluous formatting or coding should be removed from a document before passing it on to the typesetter.

Fortunately there is a very simple way of removing superfluous field codes in just a couple of seconds:
  1. Select the section of text you want to remove fields from. (Ctrl-A selects the entire document.)
  2. Hit Ctrl-Shift-F9. (If this doesn’t work, it could because this key combination has been reassigned, e.g. by Editorium’s Editors’ Toolkit.)

Health warning: Make sure those field codes really are disposable before hitting that key combination! For example, if the document you are editing contains equations, do not use this method to deal with unwanted hyperlinks or the coding associated with an automatically generated bibliography. If you do, the equations will become uneditable graphic objects. Such a mistake can be embarrassing, expensive, and time-consuming. (Imagine a maths or physics textbook with thousands of such equations, which would have to be retyped or pasted in from the author’s original text. You did keep a copy of the original? Of course you did!)

PS If you want to learn more about Word field codes, the Techsupportalert website offers a useful document, ‘Understanding Word Field Codes’.

14 November 2014

Thought for the day: seeing with other eyes

if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect as the things of Earth. The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another (Marcel Proust, The Captive)
And that is precisely what the great novelists, poets, musicians, artists, photographers, etc. enable us to do.

27 October 2014

The Age of the Spirit

A review of The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church by Phyllis Tickle with Jon M. Sweeney, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014.

The purpose of this book is to tell the story of what the (Western) Church thinks it has learned about the Holy Spirit and what this divine agency of change is doing in the lives of the churches today.

The story as told by Tickle and Sweeney is in two parts. Part I comprises a brief history of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity focusing particularly on the nature and role of the Holy Spirit. The authors breeze their way through to the Cappadocian formulation, which seems to represent the high watermark of Christian orthodoxy (and Orthodoxy) by way of such heresies as Arianism and Montanism. En route they also express serious doubts about orthodoxy with a small ‘o’ (a concern for doctrinal correctness). The section concludes with two chapters that summarize the Filioque controversy and take a clear stance against this Western creedal innovation.

Part II attempts to continue that historical journey through the second Christian millennium to the present day while at the same time moving forward our thinking about the Holy Spirit and the Trinity. They begin in chapters 9–11 by effectively revisiting topics dealt with in Part I, warning again about orthodoxy’s pathological (p. 90) concern for doctrinal correctness and reiterating their earlier critique of the addition of the Filioque clause to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. However, they also suggest that, although arising out of Western Christianity, the contemporary Emergent Church Movement aligns more easily with Eastern Orthodoxy and Judaism.

Chapter 12 is a popular exposition of Joachim of Fiore’s doctrine of three ages, which concludes by hinting that Emergent Church may be a sign that his hoped for Age of the Spirit has finally arrived. Chapter 13 proposes that we think of the Spirit as the divine agency of change, asserts that Emergent Church is the authentic form of Church for today, and tacitly assumes that the Age of the Spirit has arrived.

The final three chapters begin by stepping back to the birth of Islam (Chapter 14), which is presented very much as a monotheistic reform movement inspired in part by Muhammad’s disquiet over the Filioque controversy (which, one suspects, grossly overestimates his familiarity with Christianity). One outcome of that foray into Islam is the proposal that we need to rethink Trinitarianism in ‘less biological’ terms. We then return in chapters 15 and 16 to the roughly historical approach of Part I and fast forward from the Middle Ages to the present day via medieval mysticism, the Reformation, and Pentecostalism.

This story is framed by two chapters. In an introductory ‘Back Story’ Tickle and Sweeney explain their fundamental assumption about the way the history of Western Christianity has been shaped. They see it as having been formed by a regular series of revolutions (or paradigm shifts): the Great Transformation (around ad 1), the Great Decline and Fall (ad 500), the Great Schism (ad 1000), and the Great Reformation (ad 1500). On this basis, they predict another significant paradigm shift occurring at the present (the Great Emergence).

Now I have no problem with the idea that Christian belief and practice have over the centuries been dramatically reshaped by a number of paradigm shifts (cf. David Bosch’s magisterial treatment of missiology). However, the near mechanical regularity of the shifts discerned by Tickle and Sweeney makes me uneasy. And I am more than a little sceptical about what they have identified as the key revolutions in this history. Take, for example, the Great Decline and Fall, which they date to about ad 500 (close to the high water mark of Byzantine culture in the reign of Justinian). If I were looking for critical dates around then to symbolize the decline of Rome (Western or Eastern), I would probably opt for the fall of Rome to Alaric (410) and its impact on Augustine’s thought (with all sorts of implications for the subsequent history of Western theology and philosophy) or the sieges of Jerusalem (637) and Constantinople (674–8), which symbolize the emergence of the Sunni Caliphate as a power to rival the Byzantine Empire. Again, while it is true that the formal date of the Great Schism was 1054, this was merely the final act in a drama that had played out over the preceding four centuries. But even if we accept their assertion that Western Christianity has been marked by a series of revolutionary changes spaced at roughly 500-year intervals, the attempt to use this ‘fact’ to predict a fourth happening now strikes me as an unwarranted generalization.

Based on that underlying assumption and the story they have told in the 16 intervening chapters, they conclude with a ‘Front Story’ in which they propose the Emergent Church Movement as a qualitatively new kind of Christianity. However, given that the authors are closely associated with this movement, which they have been at pains to identify with their putative Great Emergence, one can’t help feeling that the thesis is to some extent self-serving. Certainly, Emergent Church is cast in a very positive light and presented as the way forward, while one of its leading spokespersons, Brian McLaren, is likened to Martin Luther (p. 114).

They clearly hope that the Emergence perspective will bring with it an openness to new metaphors (such as fire), which may move us beyond the use of biological language in Trinitarian theology (by which they mean talk of ‘Persons’) towards a more theological account of the Trinity (e.g. p. 152). However, their repeated criticism of the language of ‘Persons’ as biological and their insistence that we need to move beyond such language if we are to achieve a properly theological account of the Trinity makes me profoundly uneasy. How are the three aspects of the Trinity to be understood if not as ‘Persons’? (NB the initial capital and scare quotes: theologians have always understood this language to be metaphorical, speaking of relationships of an ‘I–Thou’ rather ‘I–It’ kind, rather than literally biological.) Surely they don’t want us to see the different manifestations of God merely as the elements of a threefold impersonal force?

In conclusion, this book is interesting and well written. However, I can’t recommend it as a reliable guide to either the doctrine of the Trinity or the history of the Spirit’s dealings with the churches.

14 October 2014

Basil of Caesarea

A review of Basil of Caesarea by Stephen M. Hildebrand (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014)

Basil of Caesarea was one of the key theologians of the early Church. As such, he is well known to contemporary students of theology, but often only in a fragmentary way and often only as a theologian. In this detailed and lucid introduction to Basil’s life and thought, Stephen Hildebrand has integrated those fragments to give us a rounded picture of the man and his thought. More importantly, the book clearly relates his theology to his life and his radical spirituality.

After an introductory chapter outlining Basil’s theological and spiritual context, Hildebrand begins his study of Basil’s theology with anthropology. There are some strikingly modern notes in this chapter. Apparently Basil held that, at the heart of our identity, we are both readers and interpreters. He also argued in favour of the equality of men and women. But Hildebrand also offers interesting and useful excurses into Plotinus and Origen on the body and puts Basil firmly in his historical Origenist context while making clear his more positive view of the body.

One reason for starting with anthropology is that it forms a natural jumping off point for dealing with creation and Scripture in the next chapter. Central to this chapter is Basil’s description of creation as a book that declares the glory of God. Thus there are two books – creation and Scripture – in which God is revealed. The impression left by the chapter was that Basil held an instrumentalist view of creation: its raison d’être is revelation. I must admit I was surprised by this: Was Basil’s view of creation really so different from that of his friend Gregory of Nazianzus?

From revelation, Hildebrand moves in chapters 4 and 5 to its subject: the triune God who accomplishes our salvation. In Chapter 4 he examines Basil’s credal and catechetical treatments of the Trinity followed by his better-known controversial works in Chapter 5.

Chapters 6 to 8 were for me the most interesting part of the book. They deal in turn with Basil’s understanding of Christian discipleship, the importance to him of Christian community, and the relationship between his theology and his spirituality.

I was particularly struck by the extent to which Basil’s approach to discipleship foreshadowed the Franciscan emphasis on evangelical poverty. It is a salutary reminder that Francis’s rejection of private property was no medieval innovation but rather a rediscovery of something that is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition. Perhaps with one eye on his potential audience (American, evangelical, and capitalist), Hildebrand is careful to stress that Basil’s rejection of private property had more to do with living in anticipation of the eschaton than with any this-worldly concern for social justice or equality.

The emphasis of living in the light of the eschaton is also a feature of Basil’s view of Christian community. And he expects this of all Christians: he makes no distinction between lay and religious lives. All Christians are called to participate in a communal renunciation of this world. Ultimately his spirituality is about the movement of human community towards God.

The portrait of Basil painted by Hildebrand is that of a reformer and innovator rather than a traditionalist. Yes, he turned to tradition to help him understand Scripture. But he was not afraid to use fresh insights from that understanding to modify and correct the received tradition.

In conclusion, Hildebrand’s book is a valuable introduction to the life of this key figure. It will be of particular value to undergraduate and graduate theologians and historians of early Church seeking a reliable overview of Basil’s life and work.

30 September 2014

Brush up your New Testament Greek

I recently decided that I needed to brush up my New Testament Greek and, largely because I haven’t studied 1 John for some considerable time, I decided to work my way slowly through 1 John in Greek. Imagine my delight when I discovered that Robert Plummer of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has just begun a series of short videos translating a verse of 1 John from Greek to English every day. If you fancy brushing up your Greek in this way, you can sign up for daily email reminders here.

03 September 2014

The churches and the referendum 4: Better together?

Christian basis for unity

In the previous set of notes I suggested that Christianity lends support to cultural diversity and thus indirectly to nationalism. But, at the same time, it proclaims the fundamental unity of all human beings. This is evident from the creation stories of Genesis 1–11, which present all human races as descended from the family of Noah and behind that from Adam and Eve.

This fundamental unity is reiterated by the New Testament with its insistence that Christ has broken down the barriers between Jews and Gentiles. Look particularly at Acts 10; Galatians 3:27–28; and Ephesians 2:11–22. In light of these passages, how would you assess the relative importance of human unity and national identity?

Living with multiple identities

Christianity emerged and thrived in an era of large centralized multi-ethnic empires (e.g. Roman Empire; Neo-Persian Empire; Chinese Empire). Being a member of the dominant race of one of these empires was often socially advantageous. However, the other member races were still fully part of the empire: the different races retained their distinctive traditions and even languages, but also saw themselves as citizens of the empire (in the case of Rome, this was aided by the Roman tendency to assimilate local religions into the Roman pantheon).

The Jewish nation was exceptional in that its monotheistic religion was extremely resistant to assimilation. At the time of Christ, Judea was a hotbed of unrest because of this resistance. It was widely expected that God’s Messiah would be a supernatural general who would overthrow Roman power and inaugurate a divine kingdom based on ethnic identity.

Some of Jesus’ disciples shared this expectation (e.g. Simon the Zealot) and even after his resurrection, some still saw the kingdom in nationalistic terms (Acts 1:6). However, that expectation was contradicted by both Jesus’ ministry and the subsequent development of Christianity within the Empire.

The example of Paul (Acts 16:36–39; 22:25–29) is instructive. He is clearly happy to exploit advantages afforded by his Roman citizenship. Elsewhere he plays on his Jewish heritage (2 Corinthians 11:22; Philippians 3:4–6) and commends identification with the local culture for the sake of promoting the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:19–23). In view of these passages, how do you think Paul understood the relationship between his Jewish ethnicity and his Roman citizenship? And how does he relate both of these to his identity as a Christian?

Union as the status quo position

Scotland has been a more or less willing member of the UK for three centuries. This is the status quo position. It follows that it is up to the ‘Yes’ campaign to make the case for independence. As indicated earlier, from a Christian perspective, such a case can’t simply be about material well-being. Among the things they might do to be persuasive to Christians is present clear evidence that:

  • the current relationship is exploitative 
  • continuing the Union will implicate us in immoral or illegal behaviour (e.g. unsustainable environmental practices or abrogation of international human rights legislation) 
But, in addition, they would need to argue that the democratic process in the UK is not strong enough to bring about significant change in the above.

Responsible Christian engagement with referendum

We must recognize how the referendum differs from a general election:
  • It is an irreversible, long-term decision. Another independence referendum is unlikely for many years. 
  • It is not party political. Therefore, we should not make our decision simply based on our usual political loyalty. 
  • A ‘yes’ vote implies major changes in the cultural, social and political life of Britain (not just Scotland). 
  • A ‘no’ vote implies acceptance of the political status quo and current long-term political trends. 
  • Either way, it is the most important political decision we are likely to make in our lifetimes. 
  • We must think and pray very seriously about the issues. 
  • We have a duty to read the news headlines and the partisan propaganda of the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns critically. 
  • We must set aside our own self-interest. 
  • Having assessed the arguments on both sides, we must ask which option is more likely to create a society that better approximates Christian virtues. 
  • And we must vote one way or the other on 18th September. 

02 September 2014

The churches and the referendum 3: Can anything good come out of nationalism?

What does nationalism mean to you?

Nationalism has not had a good press in the past century or so. Examples include Zionism vs Palestinian nationalism; Ukrainian vs Russian nationalism. What other examples can you think of? What characteristics do these examples suggest? 

Most of the examples that come easily to mind involve ethnic differences. Most of the nationalisms of the past century have been forms of ethnic nationalism and have been at best divisive, at worst xenophobic and militaristic. Can nationalism exist without defining itself against an Other?

Perhaps the most obvious example of a nationalism that is not rooted in ethnic difference is the civic nationalism of the USA. (And it is this form of nationalism that the ‘Yes’ campaign claims to espouse.)

Biblical basis for cultural diversity

Genesis offers an explanation of the origin of cultural diversity in the form of the myth of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9). In this myth, God’s imposition of a multitude of languages is presented as a judgement on the arrogance of the tower builders.

However, the New Testament sees cultural diversity in a different light. Look at the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19–20) and particularly the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1–11). Taken together, do these passages suggest that one culture/language is superior to another? Or do they suggest that all cultures are equally good? In light of these passages, how should we view different cultures?

Christianity at the roots of nationalism?

In contrast to many other religions (notably Judaism, Islam and Hinduism), Christianity can be translated from one culture to another. Being a Christian does not require us to adopt a particular culture. On the contrary, every culture can be a vehicle for the gospel.

The collapse of medieval society saw the translation of the Bible into local languages (e.g. Luther’s Bible in Germany). Arguably, this strengthened the sense of national identity in the language groups affected. A similar process has been discerned as one of the factors that drove African nationalisms in the early twentieth century.

In Britain, King James VI/I harnessed this power by commissioning the KJV: a vernacular Bible one of whose purposes was to shape a united British identity for the subjects of his two realms of England and Scotland.

Since the Reformation, churches have played a role in shaping national identity in spite of other aspects of the gospel. Think of the national Lutheran churches in Scandinavia and the Baltic States or the Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In the British Isles, the persistence of very different church traditions in spite of King James’s efforts to unite them has been a significant factor in maintaining distinct English and Scottish identities.

What should independence be about from a Christian perspective?

  • Material well-being? But this should not be a priority for Christians.
  • Ethnic identity? But being Christian relativizes all other identities. Christianity is opposed to any political ideology based on separation or exclusion. 
  • Self-determination? Recent Christian social teaching has emphasized that decision-making should be as close to the people affected by the decisions as possible.
  • Opportunity to reform Scotland? This is the promise of the ‘Yes’ campaign (with regard to equality, compassion, hospitality, environment, being nuclear free); it sounds at least superficially good from a Christian perspective. But is the UK currently incapable of reform in these ways?

01 September 2014

The churches and the referendum 2: A godly commonwealth?

Inspired by Calvin’s Geneva, the Church of Scotland’s vision for our nation was the creation of a godly commonwealth. In Scotland, the church became the conscience of the nation. Working in parallel with government, it was the main agent of education, the main provider of social welfare, and it policed the morals of the nation (sometimes heavy-handedly). The same vision lay behind Cromwell’s Commonwealth, the only fully-fledged British example of a political system dominated by a Christian agenda.
Also inspired by Calvinism (and latterly by Catholic social teaching), the various European Christian Democratic parties successfully wedded the vision of a godly commonwealth to democratic politics. Today most of these parties tend to be Christian in name rather than by conviction, but their founders’ legacy is seen in their social conservatism and economic progressivism.

Biblical visions of society

  • Look at Acts 2:44–48. The earliest Christians respond to Pentecost by beginning to model a new kind of society, one in which all possessions were held in common. 
  • Look at Revelation 21:9–22:5. The Bible’s concluding vision is of a city. In what ways does this city differ from today’s cities? 

Responsible Christian citizenship
  • Look again at Jeremiah 29:4–7. What do you understand by ‘seeking the welfare of the city’? 
  • Look at Matthew 5:13–16. What is meant by being salt of the earth and light of the world? [Think of the cleansing properties of salt and the role of light in revealing/uncovering truth (cf. John 1:4–5, 9).] 
A note on ‘peace’ 

The Old Testament (and hence the New Testament) view of peace is much broader than the modern negative sense of ‘absence of war/violence’. Its root meaning is wholeness – for individuals, society and the entire world. So the peace we are called to pray and work for involves social and ecological justice, harmony and well-being throughout society.

How have Christians worked this out in practice? 

The period since the foundation of the church is littered with examples of Christians actively influencing society around them in a positive way. For example, from its earliest days the church has been involved in famine relief and caring for the poor; by the fourth century it was setting up hospitals; in the Middle Ages it was the sole provider of education. What other examples can you think of?

In light of the above considerations is there any place for a distinctive Christian voice in party politics?

Responsible Christian engagement in society:
  • Making the best of the political situation we find ourselves in 
  • Seeking/praying for the peace of the city 
  • Being salt and light: Where we can influence society for good, we should do so by voting, participating, good works, activism (political or otherwise). 
  • What about deliberate disobedience of unjust authority?

30 August 2014

The churches and the referendum 1: What hath Holyrood to do with Canterbury?

[The first of a series of study notes I prepared for St Aidan's Clarkston church magazine]

This question was inspired by an early Christian theologian, Tertullian, who famously asked ‘What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ The point of his rhetorical question was to imply that philosophy and culture had no place in the Christian life. He also, but less famously, argued that Christians should play no role in public affairs.

How should the Church relate to the political dimensions of society?

Several competing views:
  • One influential strand of thinking (of which Tertullian was an early example) set the church against politics: We are aliens and strangers. In its extreme forms this is represented by Christian groups who turn their backs entirely on modern society. It is also widely believed in modern society: religion belongs exclusively to the private sphere of home, family and personal relationships; it has no place in the public sphere of politics and business.
  • The Christendom model: The church gave secular rulers their legitimacy; it anointed them to rule but could also excommunicate them; the church was also a major agent for maintaining the status quo.
  • After the Reformation (a): Secular rulers were seen as appointed by God to protect the church. In some cases, the church effectively became the spiritual bureaucracy of the state (e.g. many Lutheran churches). This is reflected in their passive engagement in politics (and like the Christendom model essentially maintaining the status quo).
  • After the Reformation (b): Other Christians, particularly Calvinists and latterly Roman Catholics, saw the church as having a more active role in society – that of transforming society; not merely praying for the peace of the city, but actively resisting evil and pursuing social justice (in some cases through direct engagement in politics).

What does the Bible say about Christian engagement in society?
  • The Old Testament tells the story of the rise and fall of a political entity: the nation of Israel. Look at Jeremiah 29:4–7: What does God tell the Israelites to do in exile?
  • The New Testament is written from the perspective of a subject people governed by an absolute monarchy; there was little opportunity for direct involvement in politics; but it does have various things to say about our attitude to authority (including political authority). Look at Romans 13:1–7 (cf. 1 Peter 2:13–17): Why should we submit to the powers that be? Look at Ephesians 6:5–9 (cf. Colossians 3:22–4:1; these passages are actually about master/slave relationships but are often applied to employer/employee relationship and by extension to any authority relationships): Does this passage suggest any restrictions/conditions upon submission? What does submission actually mean?
  • But the New Testament also speaks of our responsible engagement in society (e.g. Matthew 5:13–16).

11 August 2014

A sermon for Claretide

Today is the the Feast of St Clare, so I thought I’d post a sermon I gave at a Third Order Claretide Eucharist a few years ago:
At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 
‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11:25–30; nrsv)
This Gospel reading seems particularly appropriate for a Franciscan gathering at which we are celebrating the life of St Clare.

It begins with Jesus responding to rejection – to the fickleness of the crowds who criticized John for one thing and Jesus for the precise opposite; and to the straightforward unbelief of many in the towns and cities he had visited. Strictly speaking it is a continuation of his response, which actually begins at verse 16. He has already addressed himself to those who have rejected him. These verses offer another dimension: he begins to praise God for what has happened. Human agency and divine agency are inextricably intertwined. It is impossible to divide up events or actions by saying humans did a, b, or c, but God did x, y, and z. God is intimately involved in every aspect of creation, even in the rejection of Jesus by these people.

What lies behind that rejection? Jesus says unequivocally that it has come about because God has hidden these things – the truth about John the Baptist and about Jesus himself – from ‘the wise and the intelligent’. Of course the other side of the coin – the human dimension – is that they have hidden the truth from themselves by their cleverness. Theirs is the intellectual pride that picks and chooses what to believe, that rejects the teachings of an itinerant rabbi because he lacks the necessary academic credentials (he’s just some carpenter’s son from Nazareth, hasn’t been to the right colleges, hasn’t been properly trained in the art of biblical exegesis) or more likely because he has touched a nerve with his ethical pronouncements (how dare he question how I choose to spend my money or express my sexuality or treat my employees).

And he contrasts the intellectually proud (the rich, the self-sufficient) with those to whom the Father has revealed these things – infants, those who have nothing, who are completely dependent on others. In order to receive the gospel, we have to become like infants. We have to cultivate intellectual humility (which, by the way, should never be confused with gullibility; though, of course, there will always be those who try to identify the two for their own purposes). This implies that, faced with the challenge of the gospel, we do not deploy the weapons of literary criticism (though I don’t deny that there is a place for those in the academic study of the Bible) but rather adopt the attitude which Eli commended to Samuel: ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’

I want to suggest, further, that intellectual humility does not stand on its own. I don’t think it is really possible to compartmentalize our existence in that way. Rather it is an aspect of humility in the broader sense, and that in turn is an aspect of evangelical poverty. If you like, humility is freely chosen poverty of status. What do I mean by evangelical poverty? Simply the joyful recognition that all I am (whether by nature or by nurture) and all I possess (whether inherited or earned) is rendered completely worthless by the overwhelming grace of God offered in Jesus.

And this, I think, is the vision of poverty that motivated Francis and (possibly to an even greater extent) Clare. This I think is the poverty Clare speaks of in her first letter to Agnes of Prague:
I am sure that you know that the kingdom of heaven is promised and given by the Lord only to the poor, because as long as something temporal is the object of love, the fruit of charity is lost. You know, too, that one cannot serve God and material wealth, since either the one is loved and the other hated, or a person will serve one and despise the other. You also know that a person wearing clothing cannot fight with another who is naked, because the one who has something that might be grasped is more quickly thrown to the ground. You know, too, that it is not possible for a person to remain glorious in the world and to reign with Christ in heaven; and that a camel will be able to pass through the eye of a needle before a rich person ascends into the kingdom of heaven. These are the reasons why you disposed of your clothing, I mean your worldly wealth, so that you might have the strength not to succumb completely to the one struggling against you, so that you may enter the kingdom of heaven by the narrow road and constricted gate.
So, I can imagine Clare nodding her head in vigorous agreement with this passage from Matthew. How should you approach the gospel? As an infant – as one who is humble, who is poor, who is naked.

Then Matthew adds these words: ‘All things have been handed over to me by the Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’ If you like, this is the Matthean equivalent of Jesus’ saying in John’s Gospel, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father but by me.’ If you want to see what God is like; if you want to begin to understand the mind of God, the heart of God, the nature of God; if you want an inkling into God’s attitude to humankind, follow me, he says. Only through him can we see what God is like – which may sound terribly exclusive – but perhaps that is just pride speaking; perhaps if like Clare we approach it with the poverty of an infant, we would see it in a different light – the free offer of God and with him all things to all people regardless of race, social status or gender if only we would accept it with humility.

And, as if to underline that, the Gospel reading ends with Jesus making this direct offer: ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

All the commentaries I have looked at seem to agree that Jesus is speaking metaphorically here about life under the Jewish law as burdensome. He is addressing people who have been driven to despair, who have exhausted themselves by trying to make themselves acceptable to God on their own terms. And doubtless that is part of the meaning. But I can’t help feeling that the offer is more than that. Jesus is offering freedom not just from the self-imposed burden of keeping the Jewish or any other law, but from any oppressive situation.

And that immediately makes me think of Clare again. By all accounts she was a pious young woman. When she was just twelve she sent some money to Francis and the brothers while they were repairing the Porziuncula. It is fairly clear that from an early age she had a vision of emulating Francis’s radical way of living out the gospel. But she was also the eldest daughter of Favarone di Offreduccio, of the family of the counts of Sasso Rosso. So she was a member of the minor nobility and her life was most certainly not her own. She was trapped, burdened by the ill-fitting yoke of impending marriage. As the eldest daughter of the family she did not even have the option of escaping into normal conventual life. All she could reasonably expect was to be used as a bargaining chip in the great game of dynastic alliance: married off to strengthen the family’s ties with a wealthier or more powerful family.

In Clare’s case it was not law-keeping that was burdensome. Rather the burden that weighed her down was her social status, her wealth and the prospect of marriage. She knew in her heart of hearts that she did not fit in to this life; or, it did not fit who she really was. The crisis came on Palm Sunday in 1212. Accept what her family and society in general expected of her, even though it chafed. Or throw everything away for the sake of her Franciscan vision of radical poverty. I don’t know whether this gospel promise played any part in her thinking that day, but it might well have done since it encapsulated the choice that was before her. That night she left her parents’ home through the door of the dead, slipped out of the city by the Porta Moiana, and ran down the hill through the olive groves to meet Francis and the brothers at the Porziuncula.

Just a couple of final thoughts about the yoke that Jesus promises. Anyone who doubts that Jesus has a sense of humour has not read this passage. ‘My yoke is easy’ – chrestos – literally, my yoke fits well. I imagine him saying this with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, after all those close to him would know that he was a carpenter’s son. How many well-fitting yokes had he made over the years? But there is a more serious point to be made about this. The freedom that Jesus promises, whether it is freedom from self-imposed legalism or freedom from the oppressive expectations of our family, friends, employer, society at large, political leaders, etc. is not freedom in the abstract; it is not freedom from all limits. No, what Jesus promises is a well-fitting yoke, a burden that we can carry without over-exerting ourselves. We will still be surrounded by limits, because we are finite creatures and because we are social creatures.

Think of Clare again. She abandoned the ill-fitting constraints of married life in a medieval culture for the much better fitting constraints of Franciscan radical poverty. The limits Jesus places on us are suited to our nature; they are limits that allow us room to grow into whatever he has called us to be.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

31 July 2014

In praise of fountain pens

Like most people of my generation I was forced to use a fountain pen at school. And, like most people, I found the experience messy (blots on the paper and stains on my fingers), scratchy and slow. As soon as I could, I abandoned it for the convenience of the ballpoint pen and, more recently, the gel pen. However, in recent years, I have begun to discover the joys of writing with a fountain pen. Here are some of the reasons I am a convert to fountain pens:

  • The writing experience: Using a decently made modern fountain pen on good quality paper is a revelation. The nib glides effortlessly across the page. It is much easier on the wrist than the average ballpoint.
  • A fountain pen is for life: Fountain pens seem to be far more expensive than ballpoints. Typically they range in price from tens to hundreds (or even thousands) of pounds, though you can get a decent basic fountain pen for less than a fiver. But a well-maintained good quality fountain pen can reasonably be expected to last you a lifetime (in fact, there is a thriving market in vintage fountain pens), whereas even an expensive ballpoint is no more than a fancy holder for a disposable writing mechanism. If you want to reduce the environmental impact of your writing habits, think about a fountain pen – the only consumable element is the ink.
  • A bewildering choice of inks: Most ballpoints or gel pens are available in three or four colours (perhaps a dozen if you use something like a Pilot G-Tec-C4 or a Pentel Slicci). But there are literally hundreds of shades of fountain pen ink to choose from to suit your mood or style. I happen to like dark inks (blue-black, dark greens, reds and browns), but that preference is hard to satisfy with ballpoints or gel pens (a notable exception is the blue-black and dark brown Pilot G-Tec-C4s that Cult Pens imports specially from Japan).
  • A fountain pen gives your writing character: If you want a pen that produces a line of unvarying thickness, then a ballpoint or gel pen is ideal. With a fountain pen, the thickness of the line varies slightly with the pressure you apply and the angle that the nib makes to the paper. This is more pronounced with gold nibs and specially designed flex nibs. In addition, nibs come in a variety of shapes to create a range of writing effects (fountain pens are still the obvious choice for calligraphy).

29 July 2014

Thought for the day: On neutrality

A striking quote from Desmond Tutu:

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

19 July 2014

Some Christian resources for thinking about the independence referendum

The referendum creeps ever closer and the churches (and individual Christians) in Scotland are gradually articulating their views for and against independence. Here is a – hopefully representative – sample of resources to help you think about Scottish independence from a Christian perspective:

  • The Doctrine Committee of the Scottish Episcopal Church has recently published a piece in its Grosvenor Booklet series entitled The Church and Scottish Identity.
  • Last month the Edinburgh SOLAS group hosted a debate on Scottish independence. Someone has kindly put the entire 2 hours on Youtube, so you can watch it here.
  • In the run-up to their General Assembly this year, the Free Church of Scotland asked four of its members – Donald Macleod, Neil Macleod, Gordon Matheson, and John Ross – to prepare discussion papers for and against independence.
  • At its General Assembly this year the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing) accepted a report entitled Scottish Independence: An examination of the Scottish Government's proposals for Scottish independence.
  • Doug Gay’s contribution to the debate on Scottish independence at this year’s General Assembly of the Church of Scotland can be downloaded here. Unfortunately, Douglas Alexander’s contribution does not appear to be available.

12 July 2014

Idealist: sounding the death knell

Judging by the statistics, most readers of this blog will know that I have been a faithful user of Blackwell Idealist (a simple fully indexed free text database) since the mid 1990s. It has several strengths that have kept me going back to it after every dalliance with another database:

  • It is extremely simple and rapid.
  • It is utterly reliable. To give you some idea of what I mean, I have used it on every version of Windows from Windows 3.11 for Workgroups through to the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Professional (and for several months I also used it on Linux Mint with the help of Wine) and unlike some well-known programs I could mention it has never crashed and it has never lost any data.
  • It is easily manipulable. For example, unlike most databases you can create new fields within a record on the fly.
  • These days it effectively has no limits regarding size of database: originally it was limited by the amount of RAM available, but it is a very small program and the 8GB of RAM on my laptop would have no difficulty in handling an Idealist database far larger than the largest one I currently have (which contains about 25,000 records).
On the other hand,  I increasingly find myself rubbing up against its other limitations:
  • It works exclusively with ASCII plain text files. If you want store other kinds of data (e.g. images), you have to look elsewhere. In an ideal world, I need a database that allows me to store Unicode text files and equations in LaTeX.
  • While you can create links between records or to other files, it is not straightforward and the links have to be updated manually if any changes are made to those records or files. These days, life would be so much simpler if these things were done at least semi-automatically.
  • Most seriously, I’m not sure how much longer it will work with Windows. It runs happily enough on Windows 7 Professional, but the setup program does not work so I had to install it manually by copying the Idealist program directory from an earlier version of Windows into the Program Files (x86) directory and create shortcuts manually.
So, after years of dithering, I have started the long, slow process of moving my data out of Idealist. In the end, I have settled on two programs rather than one:
  • Evernote is a relatively simple notetaking program with some database features, which I now use as my primary notetaking application. My main reason for opting for it was the ease of syncing notes between my Android tablet and my laptop, which means that I no longer need to lug my laptop around everywhere. It is also a convenient home for a couple of my smaller databases, but it is not sophisticated or robust enough for me to trust it with my main databases.
  • For my main replacement for Idealist, I have finally settled on ConnectedText. Like Idealist, it seems to be flexible, powerful and reliable. Unlike Idealist, you can throw Unicode and LaTeX at it and it won’t blink. Because I’m into mind mapping in a big way, I also appreciate its visual navigator, which displays how individual records are linked to each other.

03 July 2014

Thought for the day: perfection and simplicity

A quote from Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars (which I found in an interview with the landscape photographer Andris Apse in the current issue of fll magazine):

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

I like that: it seems to have all sorts of applications. Apse quotes it in relation to his search for perfection in photography, but it could equally well apply to writing. I can certainly think of any number of books that would have been improved by judicious use of the red pen.

Beyond the realm of the creative arts, it reminds me of the process of abstraction that is necessary in solving most physics problems. Back in the dim and distant past when I taught physics, it struck me that students most often got into difficulties because they didnt simplify enough.

And, come to think of it, it could also be an expression of Franciscan simplicity – that radical process of self-emptying which cuts away all the clutter, internal as well as external, until all that is left is the image of God.

01 July 2014

Three sexes?

Some months ago I took part in a performance of Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle in Poland. It wasn't an entirely authentic performance: the choir was much larger than the numbers called for by Rossini. He specified a choir of twelve singers including four soloists. Specifically, on the autograph manuscript he wrote:
Douze chanteurs de trois sexes, hommes, femmes et castrats seront suffisants pour son exécution ; à savoir huit pour le choeur, quatre pour les solos, total douze chérubins
Twelve singers of three sexes, men, women and castrati will suffice for its execution: that is, eight for the choir, four soloists, in all twelve cherubim.
[I note that Novello refrained from reproducing this in the prelims of their edition of the score.]

18 June 2014

Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love

A review of Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love by Elizabeth A. Johnson (London: Bloomsbury, 2014)

After an introductory chapter setting out her rationale for a dialogue between Darwinian theory and (relatively) orthodox Christian theology, Johnson embarks in the next three chapters on a much more detailed introduction to Darwin’s theory than is usually found in books relating science and theology. Readers who are not familiar with the theory will probably find this material helpful. However, there is perhaps too much emphasis on Darwin’s own account of the theory at the expense of current understandings. This is understandable in view of her interesting attempt to portray Darwin’s method as essentially contemplative, making him a potential model for Christian attention to the natural world, but it detracts from her claim to be establishing a dialogue between evolutionary theory (rather than a very dated expression of it) and theology.

In chapter 4, she does attempt to bring her account of evolution up to date. Unfortunately she allows herself to be sidetracked into an entirely predictable criticism of social Darwinism. She misses the point that the deployment of evolutionary theory beyond the bounds of biology was inevitable: We are metaphor-making animals so powerful explanatory principles in one discipline will inevitably be deployed in other disciplines. She also allows herself to stray way beyond evolutionary theory into brief accounts of cosmology and the anthropic principle.

The next four chapters offer a theological perspective on the natural world. Chapter 5, ‘The Dwelling Place of God’, suggests that a Trinitarian framework is fundamental to a properly Christian perspective on the natural world and our place within it; I agree, but I was disappointed that this did not come across more clearly in the rest of the book. On a more positive note, she does make very good use of biblical creation traditions here and throughout the book. While I take her point about creation as God’s dwelling place, I can’t help feeling that it would be more helpful (and more orthodox) to see God as creation’s dwelling place. Chapter 6, ‘Free, Empowered Creation’, explores law, chance and causality in light of Christian theology, asserting the genuine freedom and integrity of creation. Chapter 7, ‘All Creation Groaning’, puts the suffering of all of creation in the context of the cross of Christ and resurrection. Chapter 8, ‘Bearer of Great Promise’, picks up the evolutionary theme again and relates it to the Christian concept of continuing creation: the emphasis here is very much on the directedness of creation towards a final fulfilment.

The concluding pair of chapters focus more particularly on the place of humankind within the cosmos as envisaged by Johnson. Chapter 9, ‘Enter the Humans’, offers a thumbnail sketch of human evolution from Australopithecus to the present day concentrating particularly on our growing impact on global ecosystems and concluding with a call to ‘a deep spiritual conversion to the Earth’ (p. 258). 10. The final chapter, ‘The Community of Creation’, picks up where Chapter 9 left off: she critiques the ‘Dominion’ paradigm based largely on Genesis 1.28 and suggests instead a ‘Community of Creation’ paradigm, which makes more use of the Old Testament wisdom and prophetic traditions. She ends by calling her readers to a Christian ecological vocation informed by the latter paradigm.

I was surprised by the relative absence of reference to Franciscan tradition in this book. There are ample resources within that tradition, which could have helped enormously in the development of Johnson’s argument. Francis himself is arguably at the very root of the Christian form of the community of creation paradigm with his vision of the fraternity of all creation. Duns Scotus offers us a Trinitarian conception of creation, a view of Christ’s relation to creation that puts matter in a much more positive light than, say, the Augustinian view, and his insistence on the unique ‘this-ness’ of every creature. Even Bonaventure could be helpful except that she is too quick to accept Paul Santmire's criticism of him, which makes him out to be more conservatively Augustinian than is actually the case.

In conclusion, I was disappointed by this book, not because it is a bad book (on the contrary, she writes very clearly and makes a good case for Christians to take the natural environment more seriously) but rather because I had hoped for more.

09 June 2014

No uninterpreted spiritual experience

I have long favoured Karl Popper’s slogan, ‘there is no such thing as an uninterpreted observation’. Science never merely follows the evidence’, nor is scientific knowledge merely deduced from mythical theory-neutral observations. On the contrary, all observations are theory laden; they are shaped by prior theories/guesses about the way the world is, which determine what counts as evidence and what observations are of interest to us.

From time to time, I come across people who make the valid point that spiritual experience is much broader than whatever we might experience within the confines of religious worship. However, there is a danger in this generous view of spiritual experience: it is all too easy to slide towards the view that all experience of the transcendent is somehow spiritual. For examples of the sort of thing I mean, see Peter van Ness’s Spirituality and the Secular Quest: almost anything from art appreciation to scientific enquiry, from surfing to sex can be described as spiritual.

In response to this point, I am inclined adapt Popper’s slogan to spiritual experience: there is no such thing as an uninterpreted spiritual experience. Experiences of transcendence or of ecstasy are relatively commonplace. We feel awe at the majesty of nature; we are moved to tears by a work of art. Sex, drugs, (rock and roll) – all have the power to create ecstasy. And human beings have for millennia found nature, sex and drugs to be potent sources of spiritual experience. But whether/how we see such experiences as spiritual requires something more; it depends on the interpretative framework through which we view them. For example, a convinced secular humanist will see in a drug trip only altered brain chemistry.

What initially made me think this way about spiritual experience was an interview with a Buddhist monk that I heard some years ago. He had been brought up as a Roman Catholic before converting to Buddhism in young adulthood. Imagine his surprise when as a result of intense spiritual exercises he began experiencing visions of the Virgin Mary. His teacher wisely pointed out to him that this was only to be expected because his unconscious was attempting to process the experiences he was having in terms that were already familiar to him.

One of the things that the world’s religions do is to offer competing frameworks to help us make sense of our experiences of ecstasy or transcendence. Of course, this means that one religion’s spiritual experience may be dismissed by another as a simple case of overindulgence or anathematized by a third as a case of demonic possession.

As a Christian, I am primarily interested in whether and how my experiences of transcendence might be interpreted as the activity of the Holy Spirit? How might we determine whether the Holy Spirit is active in a particular situation, experience or relationship? As it happens, the New Testament offers a handy set of guidelines for discerning the activity of the Holy Spirit: the Spirit is present and active wherever there is a growth in ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22f.).

19 May 2014

Augustine – 1; Lawrence – 0

Some months ago I blogged about Collin Garbarino’s 2014 reading programme for Augustine’s City of God (here). I decided to try it for myself and have managed to keep up. But now it is time to admit defeat.

Why? Well, in part because, although I have been able to make time to read the passage for the day, I have not been able to find the extra time needed to think about important sections when they have appeared. But mainly because, as Garbarino put it, ‘Augustine crams a lot of ancient learning into this one book’: if I have to read about what one more obscure Roman philosopher thought about the nature of demons . . . ! City of God may be the most important philosophical and theological work of the late Roman period, but the sections of lasting importance are seriously diluted by long tracts that can only possibly be of interest to historians of the period. (And to make matters worse Augustine was not above engaging in tendentious and ad hominem attacks on his opponents – I’m afraid it is only too obvious at times that he was a rhetor rather than a philosopher.)

04 May 2014

Give thanks in all things

Here’s something I came across while I was preparing a meditation to go with the poem we looked at in church on Palm Sunday. In this early poem, G.K. Chesterton outlines a spiritual discipline that should be part of the life of every Franciscan:

You say grace before meals.
All right.
But I say grace before the play and the opera,
And grace before the concert and pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, watching, playing, dancing;
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.
  (G.K. Chesterton, Collected Works, Vol. 10, p. 43)

He neatly expands Paul’s advice to ‘give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’ (1 Thessalonians 5:18, nrsv)

14 April 2014

Thinking biblically about Scottish identity: some resources

A couple of years ago the Scottish Evangelical Theology Society held a conference entitled, ‘A Godly Commonwealth? The Gospel and Scottish Identity’. With the referendum on Scottish independence approaching, they have now made the talks from that conference available as mp3s or pdfs. Their hope is that Christians will use this material as they think and pray about the ethical, moral and theological implications of independence.

SpeakerTitleMP3Bulletin PDF
David FergussonChristian Scotland: A Theological-Historical OverviewFergusson MP3 (38.4 Mb)SBET 31.1 (2013): 19-32
Jamie GrantA Biblical Basis of NationhoodGrant MP3 (40.4 Mb)SBET 31.2 (2013): 115-26
Panel*Scottish Nationhood: Personal PerspectivesPanel MP3 (42.0 Mb)
Dewi HughesMaking Sense of Being Welsh (Finlayson Lecture)Hughes MP3 (42.1 Mb)SBET 31.1 (2013): 5-18
Angus MorrisonChristian Witness in Postmodern ScotlandMorrison MP3 (29.3 Mb)SBET 31.1 (2013): 43-60
Doug GayIs a Christian Vision of Scottish Identity Viable in the Early 21st Century?Gay MP3 (40.4 Mb)SBET 31.1 (2013): 33-42
* The participants in the panel discussion were: John Mason (Scottish National Party), Michael McMahon(Scottish Labour Party), Rose Dowsett (Chair), Graeme McMeekin (Scottish Liberal Democrats), and Murdo Fraser (Scottish Conservative Party)

13 April 2014

Poem for Palm Sunday: ‘The Donkey’ by G.K. Chesterton

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

06 April 2014

Poetry for Lent 5: ‘Ecce Homo’ by David Gascoyne

Whose is this horrifying face,
This putrid flesh, discoloured, flayed,
Fed on by flies, scorched by the sun?
Whose are these hollow red-filmed eyes
And thorn-spiked head and spear-stuck side?
Behold the Man: He is Man’s Son.

Forget the legend, tear the decent veil
That cowardice or interest devised
To make their mortal enemy a friend,
To hide the bitter truth all His wounds tell,
Lest the great scandal be no more disguised:
He is in agony till the world’s end,

And we must never sleep during that time!
He is suspended on the cross-tree now
And we are onlookers at the crime,
Callous contemporaries of the slow
Torture of God. Here is the hill
Made ghastly by His spattered blood

Whereon He hangs and suffers still:
See, the centurions wear riding-boots,
Black shirts and badges and peaked caps,
Greet one another with raised-arm salutes;
They have cold eyes, unsmiling lips;
Yet these His brothers know not what they do.

And on his either side hang dead
A labourer and a factory hand,
Or one is maybe a lynched Jew
And one a Negro or a Red,
Coolie or Ethiopian, Irishman,
Spaniard or German democrat.

Behind his lolling head the sky
Glares like a fiery cataract
Red with the murders of two thousand years
Committed in His name and by
Crusaders, Christian warriors
Defending faith and property.

Amid the plain beneath His transfixed hands,
Exuding darkness as indelible
As guilty stains, fanned by funereal
And lurid airs, besieged by drifting sands
And clefted landslides our about-to-be
Bombed and abandoned cities stand.

He who wept for Jerusalem
Now sees His prophecy extend
Across the greatest cities of the world,
A guilty panic reason cannot stem
Rising to raze them all as He foretold;
And He must watch this drama to the end.

Though often named, He is unknown
To the dark kingdoms at His feet
Where everything disparages His words,
And each man bears the common guilt alone
And goes blindfolded to his fate,
And fear and greed are sovereign lords.

The turning point of history
Must come. Yet the complacent and the proud
And who exploit and kill, may be denied–
Christ of Revolution and of Poetry-
The resurrection and the life
Wrought by your spirit’s blood.

Involved in their own sophistry
The black priest and the upright man
Faced by subversive truth shall be struck dumb,
Christ of Revolution and of Poetry,
While the rejected and condemned become
Agents of the divine.

Not from a monstrance silver-wrought
But from the tree of human pain
Redeem our sterile misery,
Christ of Revolution and of Poetry,
That man’s long journey
May not have been in vain.

05 April 2014

Poetry for Lent 4: ‘Pied Beauty’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things –
     For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
          For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
     Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
          And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
     Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
          With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                              Praise him.

26 March 2014

Marked by ashes

Here is a prayer by the Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann. I meant to post this on Ash Wednesday, but didn’t get around to it. However, it seems equally appropriate this (and every) Wednesday.
Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day . . .
This day — a gift from you.
This day — like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
    halfway back to committees and memos,
    halfway back to calls and appointments,
    halfway on to next Sunday,
    halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
    half turned toward you, half rather not.
This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
  but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes —
    we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
      of failed hope and broken promises,
      of forgotten children and frightened women,
   we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
   we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.
We are able to ponder our ashness with
   some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
   anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.
On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you —
  you Easter parade of newness.
  Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
    Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
    Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
  Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
   mercy and justice and peace and generosity.
We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.

You can find it and more of his prayers in his Prayers for a Privileged People (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008).