Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent Sunday 2014 Sermon

This morning I want to speak about something that some of you might feel inappropriate, although it is natural and healthy and the central image of the passage read to us from the book of Isaiah. I want to speak about the menstrual cycle.

We have heard read these words: ‘We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy rag.’ That sounds like a negative image, telling us that human beings are dirty before a clean God, and condemning those who think they are acceptable through works rather than through faith. But is that really the message Isaiah is conveying?

I don’t think so. Indeed, quite the opposite. And that is why the image needs a second and closer look. It is better translated in this way: ‘We have all become like a woman in her monthly confinement, and all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual cloth.’ To understand this image, we need to understand something of Jewish custom.

In Jewish custom, certain people were considered ‘unclean’ at certain times. This included women during their period, and following childbirth. ‘Unclean’ meant that the person was required to withdraw from public life, to be set apart for a certain duration and then welcomed back into everyday life. Orthodox Jewish women still remove themselves from the world, including their closest family, during their period – and consider it a gift, not a punishment.

To say that a woman in her monthly confinement is ‘unclean’ is not to say that biology is dirty, or that reproduction is dirty, or that simply being a woman is dirty – unless by dirty we mean the honest dirt of rolling up our sleeves and engaging with the world, as God does. The confinement of the ‘unclean’ is, rather, a sign, to themselves and to the wider community; a cause to stop and to be reminded of something. A visible sign pointing to an invisible experience.

Likewise, a menstrual cloth is a sign – and one that reveals what kind of ‘unclean’ person Isaiah refers to. It is evidence of two things: that a woman has the potential to be pregnant; and that she is not pregnant. That a woman has the potential to carry life within her; and that, for now, this remains unrealised potential. Being late is often the clue that a woman might be pregnant. And post the menopause, the potential to bear life draws to an end.

So if our righteous deeds are like a menstrual cloth, that is not to say that our righteous deeds are something negativehow could living in right relationship towards God and our neighbour, the very thing we are called to do, be considered negative? If our righteous deeds are like a menstrual cloth, this is to say that our righteous deeds are a sign that points to something.

To say, ‘We have all become like a woman in her monthly confinement, and all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual cloth’ is to say that Isaiah’s community has become a sign. A sign of the tension between the real potential to experience God’s presence in our midst and the actual experience of God’s absence.

Isaiah is saying that, as we long for God to come to us, we live with the paradox of hope and absence.

But Isaiah is addressing God, and what he is saying to God, around this image, is: please hasten your coming and do not delay; because in the same way that a couple hoping to conceive lose hope that it will ever happen, so people have lost hope; and having lost hope, they have fallen short of the love that contends for the greatest possible good in all circumstances, and have settled for something less.

Which is what is meant by sin.

God, you have hidden yourself from us, and we have settled for less.

Before we move on, I want to say this: that there are times when Scripture employs male pronouns and images to describe God or his people, where only a male image will do; and there are times when Scripture employs female pronouns and images to describe God or her people, where only a female image will do. I know that some people are uncomfortable with one, or the other, but these images are those that are given us by our faith tradition in order to point to deep truths. And they honour male and female, who bear the likeness of God – even if particular individuals we have known do not seem to us to be worthy of honour. Isaiah has given us an image that honours women, and that includes all humanity in a longing that the lived experience of women reveals.

Let us turn from Isaiah to Paul, writing to the church in Corinth. They are waiting for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. And in their waiting, Paul assures them that God will strengthen them to the end, and reminds them that God is faithful.

Paul’s community faces the same tension of hope and absence that Isaiah’s community faced. Isaiah prayed for God to come to his people, and 600 years later, Jesus came into the world. Imagine how much longer it would have taken if God hadn’t listened to Isaiah’s prayer! For the community in Corinth, Jesus had come into the world, but he had ascended to the Father and they were longing for his return.

We experience the same longing, as we look back to the first advent and look towards the second advent of our Lord, of God-with-us.

Let us, then, turn from Paul to Jesus. In our reading from the Gospel According to Mark, Jesus addresses the same theme. The tension of hope and absence, which will become the experience of those who wait. It is, as I hope you will have realised, the theme of the season of Advent, which begins today.

We hope for what we do not yet see, for when we see that which we have put our hope in, hope has served its purpose. Yet hope deferred eventually causes the heart to grow weary, causes us to draw back. Another cycle, another Advent, and Jesus still hasn’t returned.

Jesus says, ‘Keep awake.’ Paul writes, you have been enriched with everything you need, to persevere to the end. Isaiah gives us the poetic image that our being set apart for this period at the start of every new year, along with every act of being in right relationship with our neighbour, is a sign to us and to them that while we do not yet see the one we wait for, hope is still alive. Absence may continue, for now, but hope is renewed.

That is why we need Advent. That is the gift of Advent to us. Let us, then, enter our confinement gladly, and be strengthened by God, so that we may be ready to meet our Lord Jesus Christ on the day when he comes.

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

Advent 1 : Making Room In The Bathroom

The bathroom is perhaps not the obvious place to start making room for God entering into our world, but why not?  Acts of washing and cleansing have always had ritual significance: while they might not have religious significance today the luxury of soaking in a bubble bath, or a wet shave, are rituals of personal re-creation.

The shower
For me, the shower is a daily ritual: not so much about getting clean – a basin of warm water would suffice for that – as the thing that wakes me up.  And the shower is the place of my first conversation of the day with God, as I am waking up.  As I shower, I am reminded that it is the Spirit of God that animates me, that enlivens me, that awakens me: without the Spirit, I am dust of the earth; and when one day God’s Spirit will draw away from me, calling my spirit after him, this body will return to dust.  And so I start with dependence on God, with asking for his presence in my life throughout the day ahead, with bringing to God the things that the day will hold, with listening for his prompting.

The bath
I don’t have a bath very often, and for me a bath has nothing to do with getting clean: it is an opportunity to soak tired mind and muscles in hot water; a comforting, relaxing end to a day.  If the shower enlivens and invigorates me, the bath gives me occasion to slow down, to rest.  Because I wash in the shower, the bath is functionally unnecessary – but if life is merely functional, then it is not being lived in the fullness it deserves.  The bath is a great place in which to have a conversation with God, reviewing the day – what went well, what went badly – sharing triumph with God, and allowing him to meet us in disaster.

The toilet
Physically, if we do not expel waste material then toxins build up in our bodies, causing discomfort and ultimately, if not addressed, even death.  The same is true spiritually: if toxins such as bitterness or envy or pride are not dealt with, they build up as poisons within us, causing damage to us and to those around us.  What sitting on the toilet is to the body, asking for forgiveness of our sins – and forgiving the sins of others, the ways in which they fall short – is to the soul.  Moreover, what happens on the toilet indicates our health or lack of health – are we regular, constipated, or suffering diarrhoea? – and these too have spiritual parallels – healthy discipline of receiving and extending forgiveness; blockage to receiving or extending forgiveness; or compulsive seeking or needing to extend forgiveness.  As we all have to go to the toilet, why not use those minutes in honest self-examination, confession, and receiving God’s grace in dealing with our waste products?

The sink
The sink and its mirror is a place of small actions – shaving, or applying make-up, brushing our teeth, washing our hands – all of which can take on ritual significance: reflecting on what we have thought (head, mind); what we have said (mouth, words); and what we have done (hands, action).  Just as regular shaving or brushing teeth are small preventative actions, so attending to our thoughts, words and actions on a regular basis makes changes of direction easier than if left unattended for a long time...

Advent: making room for Jesus – in the bathroom.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Getting Ready For Advent 2014

For many years now I have posted a daily Advent calendar throughout Advent.  This has resulted in quite an archive of photographs, poems, reflections and liturgy – link listed under ‘Advent’ in my sidebar.

This year I am re-cycling my 2010 calendar, slightly updated for content and adjusted to take into account that the length of Advent varies from year to year. I am doing this for a number of reasons:

in my current role, Advent is a busy season, and though it is alright to be busy it is not good to be hurried, rushed, or to encroach on margins of rest;

in taking a break from new material, I hope to refresh my capacity for creativity;

this December marks my tenth anniversary as a faith/theology blogger, and while I have posted less frequently over 2014, I want to celebrate that;

2010 is my personal favourite calendar, and the one which I believe is most helpful to revisit, as it engages with what it might look like to make room for Jesus at the centre of our lives, in very practical ways throughout our homes.

If we find it hard to live as Christians in a post-Christian culture, the problem is not that we live in a post-Christian culture but that we are post-Christian in our own practice of life.  That is, the problem lies not ‘out there’ where we can do nothing about it, but internally – where we can do something about it.

Rituals are symbolic patterns of behaviour by which we create and nurture the stories we live by, the values we claim.  Rituals are necessary, because without them life is merely functional – which is a very poor way to live.  Everyone has rituals – setting aside time to watch a favourite soap opera is a daily ritual – and our rituals inform our values and shape who we are (so, soap opera storylines are often used to change the attitude of the general public towards certain minority groups within society).

The Church has always acted-out faith at least in part through ritual.  However, where one generation carries on a ritual for tradition’s sake alone, the tendency of the following generation is to throw out ritual itself, rather than to do the work of reinventing ritual so that it better meets their needs.  As ritual is a vehicle for carrying belief, throwing out ritual itself is somewhat like getting rid of a small car but not replacing it with a bigger car when your family grows – assuming that a car, rather than a particular small car, is cumbersome.

It is impossible to live without ritual (and here I recognise that the car analogy breaks down, because it is possible to live without a car; we might replace ‘car’ with other modes of transport, including public transport and bicycles).  The question is, do our rituals nurture or strangle our faith?  And, what sort of rituals might help nurture our faith, might help us to make room for Jesus at the centre of our lives?

The idea behind this particular Advent calendar series is not that anyone would attempt every suggestion, but that you might find some that resonate with you – or be inspired to come up with your own.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Genesis 11

The story of the tower of Babel is another iconic episode in these foundational chapters.

Ham has been cast in the role of slave – a slave who will provide shelter for the descendants of Shem as God leads them on an epic journey. But the slave chooses, instead, to build a shelter for himself, in one place. If they will not spread out – ultimately becoming Egypt and Canaan and Babylon and Assyria and Philistia – they will not be in a position to serve a nomadic Shem. If Ham won’t scatter across the earth, Shem will not be able to either.

The descendants of Ham assume that they will make a name for themselves only if they do not scatter. However the story-teller has already let us into the secret that it is in scattering that they will make a name for themselves as the great Empires, or indeed several names as the greatest Empires the ancient world had known.

God confuses their common language. Yet again, God co-opts chaos in order to limit chaos. Yet again, what looks like judgement turns out to be commissioning.

With Ham in place ready to serve, the story turns back to the descendants of Shem, bringing us at last to Terah, the father of Abram (who will later be known as Abraham). With his family, Terah sets out from Chaldea to live in Canaan. To the descendants of Shem being hosted by the descendants of Ham.

But on the way, the journey becomes stalled.

Here we pause and look back. The story so far has introduced the delicate balance of chaos and boundaries, blessings and curses, life and death (which does not separate us from our self, our fellow humans, or God), being set-apart or clean and being set-aside or unclean, the end of the world and how it isn’t the end, slaves who are hosts. Whatever these marks scrawled in ink are, this story is far from black-and-white. It paints a world of almost unimaginable wonder.

Only a story can do that. And this one is the mother of all stories.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Genesis 10

Genesis 10 is a table of nations, showing how all the peoples of the ancient near eastern world descend from Noah’s family, or how the set-apart are set-apart for the inclusion of the set-aside in God’s will.

The focus is on the descendants of Ham, the cursed son, the son who will be a servant to his brothers and in particular his brother Shem – who we will soon find out is the father of the particular line of set-apart people the story will follow.

Among Ham’s descendants we find the nations of Egypt, Canaan, the Babylonian Empire, the Assyrian Empire centred on Nineveh, and the Philistines. As the story continues, each of these peoples will, in one way or another, play host to the descendants of Shem – often in the guise of overlords.

This story, then, tells us something of what it means to be a slave. It certainly isn’t a position under the other brothers. The lowest of slaves will rule over them, serving them – against their will – for set times, in order to keep the set-apart set apart.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Genesis 9

At the end of chapter 3, the human beings were separated from the tree of life. But they were not separated from God. In the chapters that followed, we hear again and again of God coming to human beings, as he had done to Adam and Eve; and of human beings, in all their complexity, approaching God. Whatever needs to be resolved in the wake of chapter 3, separation from God is not it.

As before, after a flood, God blesses life, with a particular blessing on the human beings. All other life – that life rescued by Noah – will experience the fear and dread of the human resting on them. To our ears, this sounds like a curse – the animals will be afraid of us. But here, and throughout the story, fear and dread refer to a right or appropriate reverence: animals will fear and dread humans because Noah saved them, and humans will fear and dread God because of his saving actions.

Again in the story we hear that blood is special.

God makes a binding covenant with Noah, his family, and every living thing, that there will never again be a flood to cut off all life and destroy the earth. The covenant comes with a sign – in this case, the rainbow – a reminder to both God and all life on earth.

After this we hear that Noah plants the first vineyard, produces wine, and gets drunk. In introducing this story, we are specifically reminded that Noah is a man of the soil. Not only a farmer, but one taken from the soil, alone in his generation deeply rooted in the soil when everyone else was behaving as sea-creatures on land. Yet we recall that the soil from which human beings were taken was, itself, soaked by the first flood. Noah, then, extracts liquid from the fruit of the soil, and is intoxicated. But the story does not condemn drunkenness. Rather it is an example of the complex human exercising mastery (in producing wine) over chaos in order to lessen the impact of having lived through the end of the world. What would that experience do to a man? This is self-medication. And this is the human – following in God’s footsteps – co-opting chaos to limit greater chaos.

The images of the vineyard, the vine, and wine will be recurring motifs within the story.

Noah is discovered, naked, by his son Ham. Unable to help his father, Ham tells his brothers, Shem and Japheth. It takes both of them to cover their father’s nakedness (echoes of Genesis 3 here). When Noah discovers what his sons have done, he curses Ham to be the slave of his brothers, whom he blesses.

We assume that Ham’s action is considered ignoble and this is his punishment. But we might recall that a curse is a particular form of blessing: a blessing that places enabling constraints on life; a blessing that is, unusually, time-limited and revocable.  (At a later point this will come to be expressed as curses lasting for three generations and blessings lasting for a thousand generations.) Ham turned to his brothers. Noah ratifies this dependence, with limits.

What this curse looks like in its outworking, we shall see in the next two chapters.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Genesis 8

Genesis chapter 8 recalls chapter 1:

‘But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark.’ (8:1)

‘In the beginning [when] God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was [or became] a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep’ (1:1, 2)

‘And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided;’ (8:1)

‘while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.’ (1:2)

‘the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, and the waters gradually receded from the earth.’ (8:2, 3)

‘And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters” … God called the dome Sky … And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so.’ (1:6-9)

When we hear chapter 8, we are meant to recall chapter 1.

Once again, life is set free from chaos. (And another question won’t go away: did God send the first flood, in order to limit something even more catastrophic?)

And something has survived the flood, outside of the ark, outside of Noah’s obedience: an olive tree. This might be of significance, should we come across an olive tree again later in the story. For now, we record the detail.

Noah’s response to being saved is to build an altar and on it to offer up to God representatives of the clean animals. This act recalls the blood of Abel.

And God’s response is to revoke the curse on the ground, the life-limiting restriction that had been placed on the earth in chapter 3, as part of God’s dealing with the aftermath of the humans’ action. We have already seen that a curse is a particular form of blessing. The ground has been cursed, to protect it from unrestrained action – from its own over-abundance, from human exploitation – after the humans, called to care for the earth’s productivity, instead themselves contributed to a chaos that already threatened the world.

Without taking back from the human beings the call to partner in liberating life from chaos, God gives a personal undertaking to guarantee what the human beings would never be able to guarantee: that as long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.

God will personally guarantee that these things shall not over-run one another. That boundaries will not be trespassed against.

And with that guarantee in place, the curse has served its purpose, and can be dismissed from service. In its place, in chapter 9 God will extend another blessing (though to us, it might sound like a curse).

Friday, November 21, 2014

Genesis 7

In chapter 7, the flood hits.

This story began in chapter 5 and take until the end of chapter 10 to run its course. It is the first extended plot in our narrative. And it is a classic myth.

By myth, like story, I do not mean a sub-group of the Modern category of fiction. A myth is a story that transcends its original context. Myths are very often built on an historical core, crafted and embellished over generations of retelling. Think King Arthur, or Robin Hood, or even the demi-god heroes of ancient Greece we assume to be completely ahistorical. And if you have difficulty with the idea of stories from the Bible being embellished, think of how we tell this story to children today: Noah the zoo-keeper with his floating collection of giraffes and elephants and kangaroos. If you grew up with this story, and have ever passed it on, you will have embellished it yourself.

Every ancient near eastern culture knew that there had been a flood stretching from horizon to horizon that had brought an end to the world as they knew it. The flood story explains how life survived, to return. At one level, it answers – whether satisfactorily or not is for you to decide – the question, how is it that we are here? And, how is it that we know there was a flood? (given that they did not have geological investigation).

But these are not the motivations that enable a story to break free from its first context and become a myth, a story that resonates with story-tellers and story-listeners across time and place.

This is a story given voice around the campfire of a nomadic couple who have no children to inherit their flocks.

A childhood story perhaps recalled by their grandson when he fled home.

Told to their twelve great-grandsons, and brought to mind by the second-youngest left to die, and then sold into slavery, by his brothers, and later still thrown into house-arrest.

The story is passed from generation to generation. Spoken softly by an initially-welcomed minority group who at a later point found themselves enslaved in Egypt. Whispered by a mother over the baby boy she hides, before building him a tar-proofed cradle – an ark – and setting him on the waters of the Nile.

By the time a story is whispered – needs to be whispered – it has become a myth. A sustaining-story.

Many generations later, this myth is told – and written down – by a people taken into exile in Babylon.

After they return home, it is passed-on in the shadow of the desecration of their most holy place, the Temple in Jerusalem, by the Greeks; and later again, the destruction of the Temple by the Romans.

It is recalled by Christians hiding in the catacombs of Rome.

By Jews shut up in their ghettoes.

In death camps.

This is a story about surviving the end of the world.

About God, who consistently brings life out of death, out through death.

And a story about how to survive the end of the world.

A representative of the set-apart passes through death, bringing his family with him. This involves great risk – even the experience of being forgotten by God. Yet this action is for the ongoing survival of both ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ life: the set-apart, and the set-aside.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Genesis 6

It is the nature of story that God has conversations with human characters, a serpent can speak, and the story-teller does not pause to explain how. Such questions – which we might want to ask – do not concern narrative in the way that they might concern scientific enquiry.

Genesis 6 opens with the ‘sons of God’ marrying the ‘daughters of humans’. Yet again, the story is not concerned with answering questions – who are the ‘sons of God’ as distinct from the human beings? They might be the set-apart, marrying the set-aside. But story keeps possibilities open, drawing us further in, perhaps in hope that we will find out at a later point.

In any case, there is a problem. The human beings are wholly inclined towards evil. Human society has become chaotic. In the imagery of the story so far, the earth-creatures are acting as if they were sea-creatures over the land. That is to say that in its proper place, sea and land are good; and in their proper places, sea- and land-creatures are good; but sea-creatures where there should be land are monsters.

If the earth-creature is living as a sea-creature, then the earth-creature must be returned to the sea.

And so we find ourselves facing a flood. But the flood that is associated with Noah is not the first flood that we have encountered in the story. We have already been overwhelmed by waters in chapter 1. So as we head into a second flood, what happened after the first flood is carried with us.

We also find ourselves facing violent death. We have come across this before, too: the prayer of Abel’s lifeblood.

But this time, it is God who will unleash the flood – was the first flood his action, too? – and God who will take human life, on a far greater scale than did Cain. Yet this God is not presented as capricious. His action is in keeping with what it has been, setting limits on chaos and restoring environments for life to flourish. But now we see with greater clarity that God can even co-opt chaos to its own submission.

Among the earth-creatures there is one whose every inclination of thought of heart is to be a creature of the earth. Noah, the son whose father spoke over him, rooting him in the earth from which human beings had been liberated, in the hope that this rootedness would somehow bring about relief from human toil.

This Noah is the set-apart one of his generation.

Genesis 6 introduces another motif to the story, which will re-appear over and over again: the end of the world as it has been known, and the emergence of a remnant of humanity, by which the set-apart somehow continues to ensure the survival of the set-aside.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Genesis 5

Genesis 5 is a genealogy. There is something approaching a genealogy in chapter 4, but that list empties out into burgeoning civilisation. But genealogies will become a particular literary form within this story-telling tradition. They trace the continuity of the chosen ones in the midst of the wider humanity, drawing-out the set-apart from the set-aside.

The almost-a-genealogy of chapter 4 gives us the set-aside. The genealogy of chapter 5 traces the set-apart, from Adam to Noah.

Along the line, we hear of Enoch, who does not die but is taken away by God, we are not told where. An earthling who does not return to the dust. The pattern revealed to Adam and repeated since Abel is not, apparently, inevitable; God can at least interrupt it, disrupt it.

And towards the end of the list, we hear of the birth of a son whose father names him ‘rest’. He considers the child to be rooted in the earth from which human beings were liberated, and that this rootedness will somehow bring about relief from their toil.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Genesis 4

Adam and Eve have sons, Cain and Abel. The older, Cain, is a tiller of the ground. His work expresses a son walking close alongside his father – God’s words to Adam just a few verses before still ringing in our ears. And his work also expresses the closeness between the human and the soil, however compromised that relationship has become.

Abel is a keeper of sheep. His work expresses that charge to ‘rule over’ creation by setting it free, creating and protecting environments for life to flourish. Leading animals to where they might find food and water.

Each brother brings an offering to God. Cain brings the fruit of the earth, and Abel brings the first lambs. God has not asked for either, or indeed for anything. This is a human response, a recognition of God, perhaps the expression that just as their parents have been friends of God so they too would like to be friends of God. And as the story unfolds, God will take up offerings of vegetable and animal origin to represent different things.

But for now, God has regard for Abel’s offering and not for Cain’s. Why? Why not? We are not given any reason – no explanation that, for example, Abel’s offering was accepted because his heart was pure and Cain’s was rejected because his heart wasn’t. When my sons come to me, each offering me something, I must make a decision: at this moment, do I want to watch Despicable Me 2 or Shrek 2?

God does not choose Abel over Cain. But Cain takes perceived rejection hard. And God comes to him, as a loving parent, and tells him that in this moment of anger, sin desires to consume him, but that he must – and can – master it. That water threatens to overwhelm the land, again; that stirred-up dust clouds threaten to blot out the sun. Cain has the opportunity to respond by opposing the flood, or by succumbing to it. And God is willing for human beings to choose to resist chaos, to master sin.

Genesis 3 is often described as the Fall, from a state of grace. But the story mentions no fall from anything. But here in chapter 4, there is a fall: Cain’s expression falls. He sulks. Very human behaviour. But not something, as far as God is concerned, that Cain can do nothing about. His essential nature is as complex as it has been from chapter 2, not chapter 3. Sin is the trespassing over boundaries – in this instance, the threat of Cain’s boundaries being breached – but the human shares in God’s work as boundary-keeper.

Cain, however, chooses to kill his brother. Abel is received by the earth from where he came, and from the earth his blood cries out to God. From the ground, Abel’s blood curses Cain. That is, it speaks constraint on his life: limitations placed upon misused freedom, just as God had spoken over the serpent. The blood cries out not for revenge, but ‘Lord, have mercy on my brother! Protect him from the unconstrained consequences of his action’ – consequences Cain fears, and God, in response to the cry of Abel’s blood, tells him that he need not fear. A curse is a particular form of blessing. Cain rejects the idea that he is his brother’s keeper; but Abel is shown to be his brother’s keeper, even from beyond death.

This is the first prayer in the Bible. And it is not articulated by the mind and the lips. It is no more and no less than the deepest longing of the human, the creature taken from sea-soaked land in order to maintain the shore.

The fruit of Abel’s curse/blessing is civilisation – which is as complex as the persons who compose it.

As the story continues to unfold, any time we come across bloodshed – liquid bursting its banks; something good in its rightful place becoming bad in a wrong context – we should be reminded of Abel’s prayer [Spoiler: one day this prayer will be articulated by a man nailed to an execution scaffold, his blood running free: Father, forgive them – they don’t know what it is that they are doing’].

As the story continues to unfold, any time we come across a city, we should be reminded of God’s response to Abel’s prayer [Spoiler: the story ends with a city].

The story of Cain and Abel is not a story to tell us that some religious practices are acceptable to God and others are not, or that some people are accepted by God and others are not. It is a story that introduces what it means to be chosen by God; and how not being chosen does not mean not being accepted; and what happens to those God chooses, and doesn’t choose, in the world.

Those who are chosen, are chosen to be keepers, to intercede for their brothers and sisters. In this way, those who are not chosen are kept within God’s mercy. Those who are chosen might expect to live, but can expect to suffer and die. Those who are not chosen might expect to die, but can expect to have their life kept safe.

These plot lines are introduced here because they will be regularly recurring plot lines as the story unfolds and God chooses persons, families, and people, in order to enable all persons, families, and peoples to become more fully human.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Genesis 3

A new character is introduced to the story in Genesis 3. The serpent gives form to a creature ‘more crafty’ than any other of the created things God had given freedom to. A creature lacking in innocence, already enamoured by the knowledge of good and evil which has only been withheld from the human beings.

The serpent entices the woman to eat of its fruit, and she, discovering that a little knowledge is a good thing, shares the new-found discovery with the man.

The immediate consequence is the death of innocence. Knowledge is neither good nor bad per se, but always comes at a cost. They make clothes for themselves, at the cost of being entirely at ease with their self and one another.

The next consequence is that the man and woman hide from God’s approach. A distance is opening up between them. Banks are bursting, and water is rising, swirling at their ankles, knees, waist, as the man points to the woman and the woman points to the serpent.

God asks questions: Where are you? Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat? What is this that you have done? These are not the harsh questions of an interrogator, but the loving questions of a parent responding to the sobs of their child: Where are you? Who told you that you should be ashamed, about this or that or the other? Did you do what I told you not to do – did you venture into danger? I am not angry with you, but there are consequences we need to deal with together. And the plaintive cry, What have you done? My son! My daughter!

God addresses the serpent: as a consequence of what you have done, your freedom will be restricted. A curse is a restriction on the fullness of life. Moreover, the human offspring will not listen to the serpent’s voice. A restriction on abused influence.

Next God addresses the woman, telling her three things. She will experience increased pain in childbirth. Yet, she will desire her husband. And he will rule over her.

This sounds to us like a curse. Pain, as a punishment. And the punishment of a wife condemned to be unable to break free, condemned to return again and again to an abusive husband. But there is no mention of a curse in God’s words, and any such interpretation utterly misses the point.

God is not punishing his daughter, but providing for her in her need. She needs to know that the work of bringing forth earth-creatures from primordial amniotic sea is hard labour. To sustain her, God reminds her of the corresponding nature of her relationship with the man – as the two banks of a river flow side-by-side – and strengthens that connection, also reminding the man that their shared role of bringing forth life includes helping the woman to bring forth human life. Here is the first instruction for expectant fathers to be present and a helper at the birth of their children (and to women to allow that).

Of course, this is not just a story about a man and a woman becoming parents, but a story about men helping women to birth life in the world. This, then, is a particular outworking of Genesis 2, where male and female are made for this very partnership.

Then God addresses the man, telling him three things. Because of human action, the ground has been cursed, has had its freedom to bring forth life restricted. They will discover that the work of setting creation free – here expressed in cultivating a harvest – is a never-ending task. And in time, they will return to the ground from which they were taken.

Again, this sounds to us like a curse. But the curse relates to the ground. And the nature of the curse is not that because of what the man has done, a good ground has become bad. Rather, it is that as a result of what the humans have done, the creatures who were commissioned to restore chaos to order have themselves contributed to a chaos that already threatened the world. We’ll return to that idea in a story about Adam and Eve’s sons.

Nonetheless, God does not take away the human commission, and even puts restrictions on what chaos can achieve. Though it will be hard, there will be a harvest.

And by removing the humans from access to the tree of life, God both sets a limit on the length of time they will experience estrangement from the creation, and sends them out into a whole world waiting to be set free.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Genesis 2

Genesis 1 is concerned with the power of words to shape environments (where else could a story, a sense-making collection of words, begin?). In Genesis 2, God rolls up his sleeves and gets his hands dirty. If there is a Creation Story in Genesis, perhaps this is it. Although even this story is not so much concerned with how God created human beings, as with what it means to be human. With the human condition.

But first, God rests – and all creation with him. That is to say, everything is in harmony with everything else – not, nothing is doing anything. Only under such conditions will life flourish – and it does, effortlessly. All is as it should be.

Within this world, a world that has gone through cataclysmic upheaval followed by the release of life that cannot be quenched by destruction, God plants a garden, and within the garden establishes two particular trees. One relates to life, the other to the knowledge of good and evil. These two trees stand in testament to what has happened and to God’s response. According to the story, the fruit of every tree has been given by God to be food for all the animals and birds.

A river flows out from the cradle of life, to water the garden. This river divides to form four new rivers, each of which represents early human ‘civilisations’ or organised societies. The river is more than a geographical observation.

In this context we hear about the origins of the human. According to the story that is unfolding, we are made from the dust of the ground. Earthlings. This is incredibly significant. Already in the stories being told, we have heard about dry land. The land was overwhelmed by water, by chaos, by the different elements of creation breaking-out of their God-allotted place in the order of things. The earth was completely saturated by water. And then it was drawn out again. Restored.

The earthling, then, is made from God’s action to set creation free – the very role the earthling was set free to carry on. Everything necessary to sustain the earthling has been provided. But God instructs this creature not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Why would God do that? What is implied is that such knowledge will be too much, at least for now, for the one creature appointed to set creation free to bear. For now it is enough that it is nourished by the tree of life.

Liberals believe that human beings are fundamentally good, but trapped in corrupt systems from which they must be set free. Conservatives believe that human beings are fundamentally bad (at least post events that will take place in the next chapter), and need paternal figures who create good systems to constrain them. Both are partially right; and both miss more than they comprehend.

According to the story that is unfolding, human beings are, of their essential nature, composed of material that has been created, overwhelmed by chaos, and set free again. We are, by our essential nature, liable to be overwhelmed again, and yet we are enlivened by God for the very purpose of continual restoration of whatever may be encroached upon.

That is what it means to be human.

The story goes on to reveal what human relationships are meant to look like. It starts with an earthling – the adam – which is neither male nor female. And God decides that the creature needs a helper as a partner. We think of a helper as subordinate, and we think of adam as male (the male will take the name Adam), and so we assume that the story is telling us that women are subordinate to men. The earliest surviving words used to tell this story at this point don’t allow that possibility. They paint the picture of a corresponding deliverer or warrior. Corresponding – as in the two banks of one river – implies that whatever the new creature is – a deliverer, or warrior; the same term, which we often translate ‘helper’, will be used of God before the story is done – the adam already is.

This earthling is subsequently torn in two by God (don’t think a delicate operation involving the removal of one rib), to make two parts that fit together – just as when I break a Communion wafer in two, I can hold the two halves together and they fit.

Far from a story that places women in subordination to men, the story creates male and female in the same action (as already revealed in chapter 1) and places them side-by-side as warriors who will fight, together. The nature of their fight has already been told us: to fight to set creation free.