Monthly Archives: Dec 2015

Hard Facts Matter More Than Anything?!

The English language is full of great figures of speech and metaphorical language. Metaphors and similes are used to express concepts that might be too complex for the English language. In other words, a specific word may not exist to represent a feeling/emotion.

Describing ideas using similes and metaphors provides an opportunity to conjure a range of emotions when explaining a particular idea. People have a simile or metaphor for almost everything.  Colourful colloquial language is common in many parts of the UK. There are a few examples on my previous post …

Yet when we want to be more formal, we drop the similes and metaphors, we favour clear, propositional language over more colourful metaphorical language. The English legal system is dependent on the letter of the law, our legal documentation is very carefully worded to avoid as much ambiguity as possible.

Truth-1So, when it comes to communicating the truth, Westerners prefer propositions rather than ‘fluffy words’.

“Because we are somewhat uncomfortable with the ambiguity of metaphors, we tend to distil propositions out of them. We want to know what they mean, in categorical terms. A philosophical description of God (“omni-present”) is better than an anthropomorphic one (“his eyes roam to and fro throughout the land”). Or so we think. This is why books on Jesus often talk more about the facts of his life than his parables. To us, things like metaphors and parables sometimes seem like unnecessarily frilly packages for a hard truth. We want to get past the packaging to the content; we want to know what it means.”[1]

This propensity to prefer propositional language over metaphors and similes leaves us at something of a loss when we read the Bible. Bible authors record important truths in similes, metaphors, parables and other, possibly ambiguous, language.

Different types of literature have different ‘rules’, so we expect different things when we read poetry rather than prose. Historical narrative is likely to use a different style to the telling of a parable or story. These distinctions are easiest to recognise in our own language. We can easily tell the difference between poetry and prose. It is a lot harder to make these distinctions when we are reading texts from another culture and from many centuries ago.

Some forms of literature are completely alien to us. Some books of the Bible are ‘apocalyptic’ in style, books such as Revelation and parts of Daniel. We have nothing in our own culture with which to compare these. “Such books reveal or unveil the mysteries of God about the future and make heavy use of symbolism, often involving numbers and animals. The present time is described as dire, and just when it appears things cannot get worse, God intervenes and rescues his people for a glorious future. While we may understand the big picture, the details are very confusing for those unfamiliar with this genre. We struggle to make sense of horsemen and bowls of wrath and strange hybrid animal creatures. Right in the middle of a natural disaster, a guy rides by on a horse. What’s up with that? This genre is foreign to us.”[2]

In this case, we know we don’t know, so we are prepared, or should be prepared to be careful in the way in which we approach the text. It is less easy to make these distinctions elsewhere in the Bible. The danger with making distinctions, is that we follow our instincts and relegate metaphorical language to a secondary place, we search out the more concrete statements and rely on them as primary. It makes the most sense to us to do so. Or we transpose metaphorical language into propositional language.

Biblical writers “often preferred to speak about spiritual things metaphorically. And this made earlier interpreters nervous because ancient readers of the Bible knew that there was a lot at stake in a metaphor. The original Hebrew text of Exodus 15:3 reads, “The Lord is a warrior.” The context is the Song of Moses. The Israelites have just filed through the Red Sea to safety and Pharaoh’s army has drowned in the tide. The Lord, Moses implies, is a more powerful soldier than all the battalions of Egypt. But the Greek translators of Exodus were uncomfortable with this image. So they did just what we tend to do: they translated the verse as a proposition. In the Septuagint, the verse reads, “The Lord . . . shatters wars” or “bring[s] wars to naught.’ Instead of portraying Yahweh as an armed and bloodied soldier, they highlighted a particular implication of his prowess. While they might be right—perhaps the best soldier is the one who brings war to an end—the Septuagint interpretation narrows the meaning of the text. Resolving the tension of the metaphor actually diminishes the breadth and application of the text. “[3]

Metaphors and other artistic expressions can also say more with less.  Just a couple of examples:

He had a broken heart.

She had cold feet.

When we hear these phrases we know not to take them literally and they carry with them a wealth of meaning, if we were try to be more ‘factual’ in our description of how these people are feeling we would either miss something of the breadth of meaning intended or focus down onto just part of what the metaphor invokes.

In addition, the use of metaphors often connects central truths in Scripture. Our parish in Ashton-under-Lyne is called the Parish of the Good Shepherd.

The concept of God as shepherd runs throughout the Bible. No one believes that God is actually a shepherd, we use the concept as a useful metaphor. For many of us it is a very significant one. We love Psalm 23. In Ezekiel 34, God describes himself as the Good Shepherd and the people’s leaders as bad shepherds. So, when Jesus claims, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:14), what is he saying?shepherd-clipart-eiMAj4nLT

Perhaps first he is identifying other as ‘not good’! But the reference back to Ezekiel is unmistakeable. His audience realised this straightaway. Jesus uses the metaphor to identify himself with God and his listeners pick up rocks to stone him “for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God” (John 10:33).

In Scripture, these connections between metaphors are significant. “It was Abel, the shepherd, whose offering pleased God. Saul was a bad king—and called a bad shepherd—but King David was a good king who shepherded the people of Israel (1 Chronicles 11:2). If we simply distil the propositions out of each of these accounts (“The Lord provides everything I need”; “Jesus lays down his life for us”; “Saul was a bad king”; “David was a good king”), we miss the connection. The metaphor is not just a frilly package. In this case, the package is actually the bridge connecting all these ideas. Real misunderstanding is at stake.”[4]

Biblical scholars in the 19th century argued that Jesus never made any claim to be divine. Their problem was that they ignored Jesus’ use of metaphorical language. “What went without being said in Jesus’ time is that metaphors bring with them the whole weight of the biblical witness—Torah, Wisdom and the Prophets.” [5] … Jesus’ listeners recognise immediately that he is drawing together a series of different strands of Scripture and they react accordingly.


[1] E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien; “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes”; IVP, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2012: p84. 

[2] Ibid: p85.

[3] Ibid: p86.

[4] Ibid: p87.

[5] Ibid: p88.

Metaphor, Symbol and Simile

The realm of faith is a world of symbolism, metaphor and simile. It is almost impossible to speak of God without recourse to pictures and story. Our western world likes to be systematic and propositional  but when we try to speak of God in these terms we so often struggle.

In a future post I want to make use of ideas about metaphor, symbol and simile, so I thought it would be good to set out some ideas about what they are first ….

As Westerners one of our most used questions when we read the bible and particularly the stories and parables it contains is: “What does it mean?” We think parables are like fables: “there has to be a moral or a meaning that can be defined so that we all know what it is about.”

Other cultures can sit a little looser to meaning and read the text for what it is worth. This general difference between the Western cultures, to which we belong, and many other cultures in the world is important to grasp! Why? Because the text of scripture was written down in cultures that focussed more on story than on specific meaning. Perhaps this is why the Bible is a little resistant our attempts at Systematic Theology!

When Jesus tells us a parable he is not trying to convey a single meaning – if he were, why tell us a parable. What Jesus wants, I think, is that those listening to him hear the story and go away to ponder what it might mean. In their pondering the Holy Spirit is able to guide their thinking and develop a meaning for them. The story permits a range of applications or meanings and by doing so becomes the Word of God to each individual or group that listens to it.

This, very simplistically, is the theory behind Liberation Theology, which encourages groups of people, often the marginalised and the poor, to read the text of Scripture in their own context and expect it to speak directly into that context.

So, faith and religion cannot be distilled into a series of propositions which can be ‘proved’, they are about an alternate form of knowing. What is then really surprising is that, while we are often quite comfortable with the use of metaphors, similes and symbols in our daily lives, we can be uncomfortable with them in the context of faith.

We use metaphors in our speech without pause for thought: her home was like a prison; life is like a journey; the snow was a white blanket over everything; her voice was music to his ears; all the world is a stage;  the cast on his broken leg felt like a plaster shackle; her ambitions are as fragile as a house of cards; he is a night owl; the lake was like a mirror; he was like a pig at dinner-time; thank you, you are an angel; the clouds are balls of cotton …..

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a term/phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable so as to suggest a resemblance, as in “A mighty fortress is our God.”  However, when we read metaphors in scripture we risk seeking to turn them into factual statements. Perhaps the most significant metaphor is that “God is our Father”. This is, of course, a metaphor. God is not human, God has no gender, God is not male, God is not physically a father; however the best attributes of fatherhood and the best of fathers help us to understand something of the relationship God has with us, and also God becomes an exemplar for fathers. Fathers who seek to love their families with the depth of love God shows to us are seeking to be the best of fathers. The metaphor is powerful, dynamic and effective in our language. So powerful, that we perceive it as fact.

Many parables function like metaphors, they provide a story which helps us to engage with deep realities. The story of ‘The Prodigal’ in Luke’s Gospel, perhaps better titled ‘The Loving Father’, or even ‘The Grumpy Brother’, is a metaphor for our relationship with God.

Symbols can 425384 1752265 help us engage with deeper meanings as well. They can be as simple as pictures which represent things beyond themselves and which carry a weight of meaning that can be difficult to express in a few words.  So …  a set of scales is a symbol for justice, a dove and olive branch is a symbol of peace.  Other examples of effective and accepted symbols include the logos of particular organisations, coats of arms.

pictureofaGoldChromecross2communion-clip-art-9aiq64AcMEvery religion has symbols of some nature, in Christianity the cross or a crucifix carry significant meaning and point to the importance of Jesus death.

The bread and wine which Christians share are also symbols which carry significant meaning. In a way that we find difficult to articulate and with different shades of meaning for each Christian community, they feed our faith, emphasise our unity, and identify us with the death of Christ. Baptism expresses a connection with death and resurrection. Symbols can express the invisible or intangible in ways that words fail to do.

A simile is usually a figure of speech which pairs two things which are different to make a description more emphatic or vivid (e.g. as brave as a lion). Similes add depth to our language and are very similar to metaphors. Other examples include:  ‘cute as a kitten’, ‘as busy as a bee’, ‘snug as a bug in a rug’ ‘blind as a bat’. Similies are used to enrich the text of scripture as well, to help us imagine what is meant. Examples include:

Proverbs 25:11                  ‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver’;

Matthew 10:16                 ‘Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves’;

Matthew 13:44                 ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field’;

Matthew 23:27                 ‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean’;

1 Thessalonians 5:2         ‘The day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night’.

By using simile, the bible authors add depth to their statements and anchor abstract ideas with comparisons that provide a reference point for our senses. Similes draw us into the text in a way that a bald statement would not.


Christmas Eve ….

How are you doing with the presents? Got them all wrapped yet?

What a job! Trying to hold three different bits of paper together at the same time as cutting the sellotape; sticking the sellotape onto one finger and trying to fold everything back up, only to discover that a bit of the tape has stuck to the paper and ripped it! Then there’s the present which turns out to be just a little too big for the largest sheet or roll of wrapping paper you could find. Wrapping presents is a real bind!

And when you have wrapped everything,  you sit back a look at your endeavours and it’s still pretty obvious what most things are – it isn’t easy to disguise the shirt with the collar which sticks up above the rest of the pack, a tennis racket is a tennis racket even inside Christmas wrapping, a bottle of wine is a bottle of wine however you try to wrap it – and a
mountain bike – well what else could it be?

It is a wonder that anyone is surprised by the presents that they get. And yet we are, aren’t we. There is always something that comes as a complete surprise – even if we’ve given everyone a list of what we want, we still get that present or presents which are impossible to guess from their wrapping. We look at them and wonder what they might be.

Often the surprise is fantastic. Something really special. But sometimes the surprise is negative. …

As a teenager in the 1970s, I set my sights on a lovely pair of cowboy boots that had good 3” high heels and platform soles. I think that they were bright orange in colour. I told my parents about them and they assured me (suprisingly) that my boots would be waiting for me on Christmas morning.

As teenagers are wont to do, I slithered downstairs on Christmas morning, trying not to betray my excitement. Mum and Dad had always said no to the clothes I wanted before.

When we started opening the presents, I was immediately aware that I was probably going to be disappointed. There were no presents large enough. Still I maintained a slim hope that perhaps the boot calves had been folded over to get them into a smaller box. But no, when I opened the present from Mum and Dad, there were a pair of boots, ankle-height elasticised slip-on boots with half inch heels. It felt like they had reinterpreted my request to suit themselves! I don’t think I wore those boots more than once. I was deeply disappointed!

As Israel waited for its Messiah it had a very definite idea in mind what that Messiah would be like. The trouble was that when that Messiah arrived he did not fit their idea of a Messiah. God’s gift to Israel was not what it wanted.

Israel had chosen to listen to the bits of the bible it wanted to hear. It created a concept of a Messiah who was a powerful and dynamic king. A Messiah who would rid them of the oppressor, a military Messiah, a powerful leader who would free them from the yoke of oppression. ‘No,’ says Jesus, ‘I am here to inaugurate a different kingdom, a kingdom built on justice for all, and peace and healing for the oppressed.’

The thing with God is … that we can never pin God down. We think we have listened. We form our ideas of what God wants, or what God is doing. And then, hey presto, God does something different. We’ve tried to understand what he wants and yet again we’ve been trapped by our own ideas and our limited understanding of God.

It is wonderful when God surprises us with something new, something different. … The incarnation of Jesus, was one of those occasions – perhaps the most important of them.

In Jesus’ life and death he turned convention on its head, he disturbed the status quo, and out of a shameful death brought new life and hope to the world.

Jesus is God’s present to us this Christmas. But don’t go thinking that you’ll necessarily get the present you’ve asked for! Jesus at work in our lives is more disturbing, more exciting, more wonderful than we can anticipate. If this baby was a surprise and a shock for those waiting for a Messiah, his life was even more so, and the manner of his death was the final shocking surprise.

When Jesus came in his glory, it wasn’t as a king robed in finery on a golden throne. It was naked, dying, with a cross as his throne. In Jesus’ death shame became glory. We look back with gratitude and celebrate a king born as a baby who is finally crowned king with thorns and with a cross for a throne.

I was disappointed with my boots back in the 1970s, but I have never been disappointed with Jesus. Occasionally confused, sometimes disturbed, sometimes bewildered, but following his lead has taken me all over the place, and he continues to change and challenge me.

We can look back with gratitude to those days when Christ was here on earth; we can express our love of our Lord. But for those who lived through those days, weeks and months of Jesus’ ministry and the week surrounding his death, they were full of shocks and surprises.

Our God is a God of
surprises. He wants to surprise each of us with his presence this Christmas time.

Christmas – Religion-Lite?

I222239-A-Virgin-Birth- like the article below.

I guess it reflects the approach that many of us have to Christmas and to the Anglican Church (C of E). Tim Lott seems to have caught something of our British psyche in a very short article.

However, just to be clear about what I am saying: I believe in the Virgin birth, and in miracles, … the Christian faith is everything to me and I do believe that Jesus really is God’s Son, both divine and human. So, I am like the Vicar in Tim’s article.

Yes, I am a Vicar, so I should believe!?! But as Tim Lott points out, one of the endearing realities of the C of E is that while I and many others really do believe these things, we don’t feel constrained to force our beliefs on others. We really do believe that it is possible for God to do the talking.

It really is great when we see people in church at Christmas time!!!!

It is good that there remains a strong sense of goodwill towards all this stuff among the wider population, even if people are a little circumspect about whether they really believe it or not.

I hope that, in encountering a story once again –  a story that is so tied up with our national identity – our hearts are warmed, our desire to be at peace and to work with others is increased, and that, just possibly, there is room for God to meet with us and speak to us in a way which each of us can hear, and to which we might just respond!!!!

Great article Tim!

Mary’s Journey – Luke 1:39-55

Mary’s Journey

I have spent time living in South West Uganda and I have returned there on a few occasions. Since 1994 when I first travelled to Uganda, I have been to Kisoro, right on the border with Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo 5 times. and I am delighted to name their current Bishop as an important personal friend.

The Christmas story seems to be full of journeys – starting, seemingly with Joseph and Mary travelling to Bethlehem with a donkey, the journeys of shepherd and wise men follow before the Holy Family travel as Syrian refugees to Egypt to avoid persecution.

Today’s gospel focuses on another journey that is perhaps often overlooked … but more of that later. ….

People in Kisoro and the districts around spend a lot of their waking hours travelling. Here, below, are two of the journeys they make on a regular basis. ….

The first is to get to church.

Most of us rely on clocks or watches to sort out when to leave for church – in the past we relied on bells to tell us that the service was due to start. And in those days most of us would have walked to church – perhaps a few hundred yards at the most.  …… In Kisoro, 10 minutes before the service starts drums begin to play under a tree outside the cathedral.

In 1994 virtually no one had a watch and people would start walking to the cathedral when they heard the drums.

At the start of the service there would be perhaps 30 or 40 people in church – the services would last perhaps 2 to 22 hours and by the time the sermon was well underway (usually something that lasted at least 3/4 hour) the congregation would have swelled to over 700. Most people had heard the drums and then had a 45 minute to an hour walk to get to church.

That is quite a journey for a Sunday morning. ……….. However, it is nothign compared with the journey that many children and women still have to make in the territory around Kisoro.  …… A journey to fulfil a more basic need – the need for water.

In 1994, for the first time, I met children who had to walk a 12km round trip each day before going to school – the outward 6km was relatively easy for the jerry cans were empty – the return journey was more arduous – up hill with full 5 gallon jerry cans. As churches in Ashton-ucarrying-waternder-Lyne, we’ve been able to be part of a continuing process of making this a thing of the past, but there are still today children and adults that make that kind of journey each day to collect water. It is still shocking!

What’s the worst journey you’ve ever experienced?

Was it a long car journey and did you get stuck in traffic? Was it a train journey that seemed never ending. Since being in Uganda my attitude to what counts as inconvenient in my travel arrangements has changed. But I still manage to get impatient. Many of us will be travelling this Christmas to see friends and family. Some of us, long distances.

Luke reminds us that Mary travelled with haste to spend time with her relatives. She’d just been visited by the Angel Gabriel. She’d accepted a role which could only mean that she would be ostracised by her community, a role which might mean the loss of her fiancée – being pregnant when Joseph knew that the baby was not his.

Was she afraid? You bet she was. Where did she turn? To someone she thought might understand. Someone who was also having a child in strange circumstances.

Can you imagine how she was feeling? This journey she took from Nazareth to the hill country of Judaea would have been a long one. 50 to 60 miles – a pregnant woman travelling alone – not even a railway system to take the strain. Can you imagine what it was like, walking all that way? How long would the journey have taken on foot? What dangers would she have faced? Why did she leave Nazareth in haste? Had people found out? Was she at risk of being stoned (for that was the punishment for women who had sex outside wedlock)? What would she have been thinking during the days that she was travelling?

How will I be received? Will they understand? Will they too condemn me? … So much time to think!

What must it have felt like to hear Elizabeth’s welcome: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb?”

The immense sense of relief – someone understands.

We know the story so well that we can easily miss the strength of the different emotions that Mary must have felt – fear of what others might say and do, joy at Elizabeth’s acceptance and love.

Acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30"Is it surprising that she bursts into song? One of the most enduring songs of worship.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my
Saviour; he has looked with favour on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed; the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

There are many journeys in the Bible – many have this element of fear attached to them, with questions in the mind of the traveller about how they will be received.

Do you remember Jacob wrestling with God because he does not want to face his brother who is ahead of him on the road?

Or what about the Prodigal Son – wandering home wondering how he would be received?

In both cases the welcome they received far exceeded their expectations.

We’re often told that we can look on our lives as a journey. Its particularly true at Christmas time – whether in reality when we visit friends and relatives, or in our minds and hearts as we revisit significant events in our lives.

For some, Christmas holds out the promise of joy or the promise of renewal; for others, the journey through our memories is long and arduous, and like those Ugandan children we carry heavy loads. The journey brings back feelings of loneliness, of loved ones who have died, relationships which have gone sour. The journey through this Christmas period can be both light and dark, a mixture of joy and sorrow.

As Mary travelled the difficult road south to Judaea, she discovered not the blackness of despair but the joy of acceptance. Elizabeth shared her experiences and rejoiced with her in God’s involvement in her life.

Both Elizabeth and Mary can be models for us this Christmas – Elizabeth offering love and acceptance, offering hospitality, challenges us to make our homes ones of welcome – places were the weary and heavy laden traveller – the one struggling with life or the burden of unwanted memories – can find a resting place of love and care.

Mary encourages those of us struggling with this season to take risks in sharing our fears, our hurts, the loneliness of our journey, with others who will understand. Mary encourages us, perhaps above all, to know that however long or tortuous our journey, just like those Ugandan Christians at the cathedral in Kisoro, when we approach

the communion table we receive God’s loving welcome – we are at home.

Advent 3 – Luke 3:7-18; Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7

ESSC Topper OpenI tried learning to sail once. 4 lessons in tiny topper dinghies at Gorton Reservoirs, in the evenings after work.

One of those evenings there was no wind. As you might be able to imagine, it was a frustrating experience. A lovely location, bright evening sunshine, blue sky and no clouds. But we could do nothing – the sails were limp and the boats would not move. …. It was a beautiful evening, but so deeply frustrating.

The truth is that – beautiful calm seas and lakes only exist when there is no wind! Ultimately calm seas mean no sailing, no progress.

Zephaniah’s prophecies in the 3 chapters of his book include images of a storm wind sweeping away everything in its path. Just like a tornado lays everything waste. … The storm is raging around God’s people. And at the end of a series of verses of vivid and dark imagery comes the passage we read this morning. Zephaniah is lifting the hearts of his people:

Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgements against you,
he has turned away your enemies. The Lord is in your midst.
Do not fear, O Zion; the Lord God is in your midst.

‘Do not be afraid. Be encouraged’, says Zephaniah, ‘God is with us. The storm is over, the dark times are coming to an end’.

We read similar upbraiding words from Paul in Philippians. ‘Rejoice, don’t worry’, he says. These might seem to be unrealistic, unreasonable words for Paul to say – how can we rejoice when times are hard? Paul cannot seriously expect us to rejoice when we are worried about our health, or about our families.

Yet Paul himself was in prison as he wrote Philippians. He is able to say later in the chapter we have just read, that he has learnt to be content in all situations – whether hungry or well-fed; in both difficult and good times.

That’s as it maybe, but how do you feel when you’re struggling and someone says to you, “Just rejoice, don’t worry! Pray about it – it’ll be OK!” ……….. If it wasn’t for the fact that we know Paul was in prison, we’d think he’s saying that Christian life should be about sailing through troubles as though on a calm sea – life should be wonderful!

But as I discovered on Gorton Reservoir, calm water does not allow progress or learning or growth. And in life, even those of us fortunate enough to live relatively peaceful and stable lives know that progress, or growth occur only through facing the challenges that life brings our way. It’s great at times to experience calm waters but we know that choppy waters will come whenever we experience the wind in our sails.

Perhaps we can take the analogy about sailing a little further?

eye_of_the_storm,_hurricane_elena,_september_1,_1985When Paul talks of God’s peace, he is not suggesting something like the beautiful stillness of a lake on a summer evening. He’s thinking much more of something like the eye of the hurricane. That elusive place in the middle of the storm where the sea is calm. Paul has learnt in the middle of the storms and difficulties of life to rejoice because he has found God’s peace. He longs that those who read this letter will experience the same peace.

Zephaniah has a similar image in mind – that in the midst of all the turmoil surrounding Israel, they can be confident because God is with them.

urlHowever, in our Gospel reading, John the Baptist seems almost as though he is the hurricane, ripping through the sin and hypocrisy of his day and pointing forward to Jesus who will strip away the chaff and gather those faithful to himself, just like a farmer will gather wheat into the safety of the barn.

It would be nice to be able to say, as we approach Christmas, that we are filled with God’s peace, but the truth may well be far from this. Worry and fear, darkness and depression sit so close to us at times, and Christmas can for some of us be the most difficult of times. Some of us have lost those dear to us at or around Christmas time in previous years. Christmas is promoted as family time, yet so many of us are lonely and will be lonely over Christmas. The circumstances that surround us and the emotions that we feel can be like a storm raging around us. Our emotions feel out of control. And circumstances feel as though they will destroy us.

Zephaniah’s promise is that God is with his people, ‘with us’. … At Christmas we celebrate ‘God with us’, Emmanuel.

John the Baptist tells us that when Jesus comes he will gather his own and keep them safe like wheat stored in a barn. ……  However we are feeling, God is with us, at the eye of the storm, longing to reach out to us with his love and peace. Promising that he will never leave us alone.

And what some of us need to hear more than anything else are God’s words of comfort as we struggle through difficult times.

Others of us, however, need to hear the challenge that these words of comfort can bring. We need to reach out to the lonely, those struggling with fear and worry, those who feel their loss most deeply. Because as we do so we begin to make God’s promises tangible, we give them a human form.

So if the challenge is appropriate for you, what can you do? What can we do this Christmas? It might mean helping in one of the hostels for the homeless over the Christmas period. It might mean giving sacrificially to a caring charity. It may be as little as inviting someone to share your Christmas meal.

The challenge is to be part of God’s mission. For some, to receive the gift of God’s love and peace through friends. For others to heed the challenge: to get into the boat with those caught in the storm.

Luke 3:1-6 – 2nd Sunday in Advent

LUKE 3:1-6

Why was Luke so precise? …….. In the 15th year of Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod ruler of Galilee, Philip ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Lysanias ruler of Abilene, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiphas. ……. Why was Luke so precise?

We know that he was a doctor, an ordered man, who at the beginning of his Gospel says that he’d decided to write a careful, orderly account for a friend Theophilus – so that he may know the truth concerning the things about which he had been instructed.

In the early chapters of his Gospel he is at pains to root the story of Jesus in the historical events of the day – its as if he=s saying, “This is not just a story – it’s the truth! I’m not just telling stories to encourage you – I’m telling it like it is! It’s true, God did really become human – I can date the story pretty exactly.”

There’s a danger that when we read the Bible we see it as a mixture of nice stories and good quotes. A kind of moral almanac which we can dip into when we feel the need. A spiritual help – keeping us in touch with God. And in one way the Bible is like this – but it is so much more.

The Bible is a historical document – not only telling stories, but interpreting them. It is the story of human history told from God’s perspective. One Hindu teacher said that it was not so much a religious book as “a unique interpretation of human history and God at work in it.”

So, Luke wants us to grasp that this is a historical story. But it seems to me that he has more than this in mind: it’s like the whole world is lined up at the start of our gospel reading – ugly and foreboding.

Tiberius – the head of the Roman Empire – who’d brought peace to the world – but peace at great cost in human life. No one dared challenge the power of Rome, & those who did … were crushed.

Pilate – manipulating governor – concerned to protect his own skin.

Herod and his family – half jews – not really concerned for the people they governed.

Annas and Caiaphas – high priests who should’ve been guarding their flock, but who were more concerned for their own status.

urlIn the midst of all this power, and abuse of power, what is God’s solution? A mad man crying in the wilderness – John the Baptist clothed in animal skins. Not the solution we would have chosen – but perhaps this is Luke’s point. First, God is born as a baby in a stable, then he chooses as his herald an unrespected mad-man, then he comes healing and talking of a Kingdom that is not of this world, a finally he achieves his victory not in terms of political power, but by stretching out his arms on the cross.

God’s purposes are achieved not through physical or political power, but through the mad-man crying in the wilderness, through humility and suffering.

Luke wants us to know that it is through people like us. Those with no power, those with difficulties and problems, those even who feel that if people knew what we were really like they would think us mad! That God chooses to work. Here in the reality of our lives God will work – not just to make us feel good – but to reach out to others around us. It is us who are called to be prophets. It is us who are called to prepare the way, to clear the way so that Christ can come to others.

Restorative Justice

The post below was posted on the HonorShame blog. I’ve read it through a couple of times and wanted to make the link to it. I cannot now find it on that blog. I presume it has been taken down. It seems to me to be a very helpful contribution to an understanding of the value of restorative justice and its impact on those involved and provides an excellent example of the way in which shame and guilt have different effects/consequences in our lives …

Restorative Justice

by HonorShame

In my experience, the practice of restorative justice is one of the best ways to tangibly embody God’s honor and overcome shame. Unfortunately, people in
Western culture rarely practice (or value) restorative justice.

One afternoon we got a phone call from the local Department of Family Services (DFS). They wanted to notify us that they interviewed our 3rd-grader as a witness, but declined to answer any questions about what happened.

It turned out, one teacher grabbed a school kid by the wrist. The parent threatened to sue the school if the teacher was not fired by Monday morning. So, the principle notified DFS to limit future liability. DFS intervened according to the established legal protocol: children were interviewed separately, the teacher was dismissed, and everybody moved on.

Though the situation “followed the book,” something here seemed totally amiss—there was absolutely zero restoration of relationships. The various parties were never brought together, but were in fact separated out so as to avoid interaction. The focus was on ensuring rights and following the law, not proactively repairing the broken social bonds. This incident exposes significant shortcomings in Western notions of justice and responses to wrongdoing.

Retributive Justice vs. Restorative Justice

The common approach to problems in the Western legal system is defined as “criminal justice,” or “retributive justice.” In such a system, crime and wrongdoing is viewed as a breaking of the law and an offense against the state. These violations create guilt that must be punished. The focus is making sure offenders get what they deserve. Then, “justice is served.”

“Restorative” justice, on the other hand, views transgressions as harming people and relationships. Damaged relationships are both a cause and effect of wrongdoing. Doing wrong creates a sense of obligation to the victim, so justice is served when the situation is put back to right. This approach studies the wrong in the context of the broader community, and examines the obligations all parties have to make amends. Instead of focusing on what people deserve, restorative justice addresses what people need to repair the damage or wound in the community. Justice is viewed as a restored relationship.

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Click here to learn more: “Traditional Approach vs. Restorative Approach

How does “restorative justice” relate to honor and shame?

Though retributive views of justice may address the problem of guilt (because it defines the problem primarily in terms of legal culpability/guilt), it ignores the problem of shame. In fact, some point out that retributive justice actually compounds and increases shame. Shame is often a cause in violent crime, but then punitive approaches exacerbate such shame. By placing secondary representatives (i.e., judges, lawyers, and state officials) in charge of justice process, the system separates the involved parties. In the name of “serving justice,” the consequences of wrongdoing disintegrate people from relationships and community, and such alienation is a core source of shame. Furthermore, legal punishment often makes an example out of violators to deter others, without regarding the shaming consequences of such legally sanctioned “justice.” Various occasions certainly do necessitate retribution, but lets remain aware of how a one-sided view of justice may compound brokenness and shame.

Recall, shame is the painful emotion of unworthiness resulting from isolation and rejection. Isolation causes shame; making amends banishes shame. Punishment does not erase shame, but welcoming and acceptance can. An offender or sinner must be reintegrated into relationships to overcome shame. Only when community is restored can shame be effaced.

The practice of “restorative justice” is a tangible way to untangle people from shame. This applies not just to the criminal system, but to every day conflicts and slights. Westerners respond to issues with a retributive sense of justice, then wonder why others feel shamed and abandon the relationship.

Limited Good

One of the concepts postulated about societies that focus more on shame than guilt is that they are ‘limited good’ societies. This idea suggests that people in those societies regard social capital as finite. This concept suggests that if my own lot improves it automatically means that someone else’s lot gets worse. That’s probably simplistic but the blog below challenges that assumption about those cultures and provokes a great deal of discussion in the follow-up comments on the post page

One of the responses references another blog:

It seems to me that these discussions are vitally important in understanding other cultures but also have an impact on how we understand and approach the bible as Christians. We have to get hold of the truth that, unless we are very careful, we misinterpret scripture by reading it through our own cultural spectacles. That isn’t just true for Western Christians but also for others from Africa, South American and Asia. The shame-honour and guilt- forgiveness paradigms are significant factors in understanding cultures and in understanding scripture. To the extent that we uncritically fall into one or the other paradigm then we set ourselves up to misunderstand and misinterpret scripture.

Shame and Atonement

As we seek to understand how Christ atones for our shame, listening to the voices of those for whom this is so much a part of their own faith journey is important. Here is a blog by Mako A. Nagasawa who is a campus minister at Harvard and Boston College with the New Humanity Institute, and founding director of New Humanity Institute.