Matzah Tov

Good find, op shop hero and so much more.
Who is she round here? Known for plait and calm.
You said yes. Who knew what was in store?
A test. A joy. Grow me. Life arm in arm.

Hair, they say. No shoe. Gift badly wrapped.
Success was to spot you, my lone life skill.
Mere me you took. In love inept inapt.
Join the thrill, the chill, to join to one will.

Your song is in tune, your presence my balm.
Depth immense, patience beyond. So much more.
May I make the tea for you? Bold, Assam.
Safe years, safe key you. I need no locked door.

We Seven Australian Littles from two.
Faith and faithful – daily we lean on you.


Especially always

N plus one. First to have a go. My man.
Thrown in air to land where? Wish I was there.

R 2 child two, you. Too tasty for me.
Hugs and music all round. Cha lizard girl.

M for middle, where you’ll always be found.
I have a question. And The Answer, too.

E the star. Stage, pit and song. Tic, tic, boom.
Firm friend. Wry eye. Quick quip. Calm care. Adamant.

J given we’re full. Taking it all in.
All options. Go well with your discipline.

It is my job to be superfluous.
Supernumerary ever-present.
Not proud – you’re not my pet. Prepare you yet.
My deep waters run still. Still me, still you.

Genesis 49:1-12. A terribly rough translation

* Terrible because my Hebrew is so poor, and this passage has some tricky words too.
Only 12 verses because that was the Bible reading for the upcoming Sunday.*

Jacob called his sons.
He said, “Gather, I will tell you that which will occur for you in later days.”

“Gather, listen, sons of Jacob.
Hear Israel your father.
Reuben my firstborn,
you are my strength and the first of my power.
High in dignity and high in might.
Reckless like water, you do not remain,
for you went up to the couch of your father.
The you polluted my bed! He went up.
Simeon and Levi, brothers – tools of violence their weapons.
Into their counsel my soul will not go. Into their assembly my glory will not join,
for by their rage they killed man, and in their pleasure hamstrung oxen.
Cursed is their anger for strength, and their fury for it is harsh.
I divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.
Judah, it’s you your brothers praise.
Your hand on the neck of your enemies, the sons of your father bow to you.
Cub of a lion is Judah. From prey, my son, you rise.
He bowed, he lay like lion and like lioness. Who will cause you to rise?
Sceptre will not depart from Judah, or decree from between his feet,
until the coming of Shiloh, and to him the obedience of peoples.
Bound to a vine is his city, and to choice grapes his donkey colt.
He will wash in wine his garment, and in the blood of grapes his clothing.
Your darkness of eye like wine, and of tooth whiter than milk.”

Bedside manner aka AABBCCCCAABBDD

The prognosis bad – but we don’t say so.
It’s not on the top of my head, you know.
I can understand why you might ask this.
Right now my thought is to give it a miss.
It would be so fake to give you a date.
Equally bad if we communicate.
Look on line, downstairs. Those people are great.
If it’s a big deal I know you can wait.
We got you to Christmas. That’s Ho, Ho. Ho.
We train not much to let any good word flow.
Hop on your bike. Go, give your kids a kiss.
This from us all – not to know is bliss.
We’re good. We’re sharp. We love our med tech.
But patients with questions. Mate, what the heck?

Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes

It’s the time of year for carol singing. Including Away In A Manger. That also makes it time for someone, somewhere, to claim that this old song is heretical. Perhaps it will be a major article on one of the big Christian websites, or perhaps just in a few scattered sermons. But the claim will appear.

In reality, however, it’s the time of year that shows how poorly we read poetry, in general.

What’s the claim? In short, folks pick up the line about Jesus as a baby waking up, but not crying.

The cattle are lowing.
The baby awakes.
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes.

The argument is that this shows Jesus as not quite human. He doesn’t even cry! The technical terminology then thrown around is – “It’s a Docetic song.” Docetism being the heresy – a serious one! – that Jesus only appeared to be human.

Here’s where we fail as readers of poetry. This song is not a theological treatise, nor is it a PhD thesis on the hypostatic union! It’s a gentle poem, which seems aimed at involving Children in Christmas prayer. And the section of Jesus waking up is a snapshot of a scene around the time of Jesus’ birth. It’s like a still-life, but in words, capturing a picture and a mood. The mood is peaceful. Even with babies there are moments of peace. Such moments are beautiful. What a fine way to evoke the bigger Christmas picture of peace to the world!

But there is no explicit, or even implicit, claim that Jesus was somehow beyond cries, or the other messy parts of life. It’s just a picture, a snapshot, a passing glimpse that has been usefully employed to convey one aspect of the gospel of peace. How about we declare peace upon the composer and decide not to pursue for heresy? Instead, I suggest we make the generous assumption that the wordsmith here knows the theology and used poetic forms to capture a fraction of the whole. I promise that I will keep singing, even if others smirk because ‘they know better’.

Quick review: Reading for the common good

Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help Our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish by C. Christopher Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The surprise for me on reading this book is that it’s not about reading, not primarily. It seems to me that Smith’s primary argument is that local churches can and should aim to make their neighbouring communities flourish. As part of this – a very major part of it – is to read well and to read widely. To say that reading is secondary in this work is in no way to minimise its significance, but to place reading in service of a greater purpose.

For Smith, reading is broad. He mentions material from technical manuals, through journalism, fiction and non-fiction, as well as the Bible. He is also equally generous in acknowledging the range of reading skill levels: there’s a clear effort to avoid snobbishness.

I have a couple of niggles, though, one of these is probably just a personal preference but the other is more important.

Firstly, the less important complaint, about a matter I notice in Christian books from time to time. I sense – maybe I’m oversensitive – that there are many moments of too-easy judgmentalism. There often seems to be a hidden phrase at the end of sentences like, ‘We have been poor at …,’ or ‘The church has failed in …’: ‘by we I mean others.’

The second complaint is of theological looseness, of major terms going undefined. To limit myself to one example, take ‘reconciliation.’ This appears to be a kind of place-holder for the (true) idea that God is doing something for the whole of reality (‘the healing and reconciliation of all creation’ on p.18, or ‘a way that bears witness to the reconciling love of Christ’ on p.147). But what does Smith mean by this reconciliation? And who does it? I can’t tell if he thinks churches and Christians to some extent bring about reconciliation, or if it’s a completed work of God, or some other formulation. I expect that ‘flourish’ (used in the subtitle) will always be a flexible term, but think some terms do require more precision. Perhaps Smith covered this is his earlier work, Slow Church, but it still needs some coverage here.

But moving from these matters, I think this is a book worth reading with others to expand our view of what a church can be and do. It’s full of ideas, it set me to think of ways we can be better neighbours, and it can promote something that Smith repeatedly extols – conversation!

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Quick comment: The Quest of the Historical Jesus

The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

A book famous for being ‘important’ – make of that what you will – but not a straightforward read. It’s a self-assured survey of mostly self-assured enlightenment thinkers whose self-assured positions extremely clever-dumb.

The people Schweitzer surveys are no intellectual midgets, but all hold to starting positions and interpretive shibboleths that are frequently flimsy in the extreme.

For example of an assumed starting position is the facile division between ‘the Christ of faith’ and ‘the Jesus of history’. This seems to be pursuing ‘neutral’ historical truth – but no one is neutral, everyone is committed. There’s no justification in the method of argument that a theological or doctrinal claim is automatically non-historical. Especially if the claim of the whole Bible, including gospels, is that they relate God’s actions in history.

And example of an interpretive shibboleth is the way the theme of the so-called messianic secret is assumed to mean no-one anywhere thought of Jesus as the Christ, even as a possibility (exceptions to Peter, and later the other members of the Twelve). On this basis, other positions follow: there must not have been messianic thought on Palm Sunday’s entrance, because none thought of Jesus that way; John the baptist did not ask about Jesus being the Christ, because he would not have used that term; etc. Again and again, these ‘histories’ explain away the only real evidence they have – the texts – in favour of their accepted agendas.

In many ways, the ‘history’ Schweitzer describes exemplifies the awful dead end of seeing sources as the ‘real deal’. It’s seen in 19th and 20th century literary criticism of the Bible, as well as this historical reconstructionism. It says, texts are only hints to the blurred reality behind them, which we can reconstruct! Hooray for us!

If that seems a harsh judgement, here are two things to say. Firstly, of course there are many fascinating and insightful things written in the histories referenced by Schweitzer. But secondly, pick up the tone of this survey as given in the very first paragraph, and expressed throughout:

When, at some future day, our period of civilisation shall lie, closed and completed, before the eyes of later generations, German theology will stand out as a great, a unique phenomenon in the mental and spiritual life of our time. For nowhere save in the German temperament can there be found in the same perfection the living complex of conditions and factors-of philosophic thought, critical acumen, historical insight, and religious feeling-without which no deep theology is possible.

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Brothers & sisters at war

The Bible has quite a load of sibling rivalry. Here are some examples:

  • Cain & Abel (Genesis 4). Cain’s jealousy at Abel when God accepted Abel’s offering leads Cain to murder his brother.
  • Shem, Ham, & Japheth (Genesis 9:18-29). Noah’s sons’ family discord arises after Ham disgraces his drunk naked father. It is noted that Ham involved his brothers (verse 22). The Canaanites – descended from Ham – are cursed in verse 25 and remain rivals of God’s people right through the Old Testament.
  • Isaac and Ishmael. These half-brothers, sons of Abraham, are the spark of conflict in the tents of Abraham. The problems are between the mothers, Sarah and Hagar, as well as between Abraham and the two women (Genesis 16; 21:8-21).
  • Esau & Jacob. Fighting begins in the womb (Genesis 25:19-26), it continues for life. Most notable are the birthright treated as a commodity (Genesis 25:29-34) and Jacob’s theft of the paternal blessing (Genesis 27). Read the extended Genesis account, them remember that Israel versus Edom is the nation-sized expansion of this rivalry (Numbers 20, Obadiah, etc).
  • The Twelve Sons of Jacob. The central conflict is eleven sons against Joseph. They plan to kill him, but “mercifully” only throw him into a pit, sell him as a slave, and fake his death to deceive father (Genesis 37). This fraternal rivalry undergirds the final dozen chapters of Genesis, along with God turning human evil intent to good (Genesis 50:20).
  • Moses, Aaron & Miriam (Numbers 12). Moses’ brother and sister oppose Moses, that they too might be known as speakers for the Lord. It was not their wisest idea.
  • Amnon, Tamar, & Absalom (2 Samuel 13). Children of King David, but torn by lust, rape & revenge killing. Amnon lusts for, takes, then dispenses with his beautiful half-sister. Absalom broods for two years on avenging his sister. This is not only an awful moral mess, but is a violent death to the putative king – Amnon was David’s first-born (1 Chronicles 3:1).
  • Adonijah and Solomon (1 Kings 1). There was plenty of other trouble between sons of David, not only these two, but this example shows how the trouble plays out in striving for the kingship.

I am not about to draw major conclusions from this line of intra-family discord. But it does, at least, raise a few questions or lead to further observations.

Some observations might by relatively minor. Such as the awareness that the first four disciples Jesus called, later to be apostles, were two pairs of brothers (Mark 1:16-20, Matthew 4:18-22). Do Peter and Andrew, James and John signal the need to end sibling squabbles?

Other observations are much more straightforward. Those who trust the gospel of Jesus must live a different and new way with their ‘brothers’ (also translated ‘brethren’ or ‘brothers and sisters’). Love, peace, agreement and more are to be usual among fellow Christian believers. As a small sample, note these verses of ‘brotherhood’:

  • Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honour (Romans 12:10)
  • Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace be with you (2 Corinthians 13:11)
  • Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another (1 Thessalonians 4:9)
  • For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another (Galatians 5:13)
  • Let brotherly love continue (Hebrews 13:1)
  • Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor (1 Peter 2:17)
  • We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death (1 John 3:14)

I get the distinct impression that Christian love for fellow Christian – expressed in word, in acts, with devotion, and as a foundational aspect of our new identity – is one of the more extraordinary parts of the radical change Jesus brings. It can be a challenge. It is a privilege.

Quick comment: Metaphor and religious language

Metaphor and Religious Language by Janet Martin Soskice

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This work argues that metaphor is not a simple ‘pretty’ way of saying something that could be communicated with straightforward words, but it its own legitimate and necessary way of explanation. Metaphoric statements, at their best, say things that cannot be said in other ways. They also create opportunities for new learning, reflection, and avenues of enquiry.

Extending this, Soskice argues that both science and theology are – fittingly and necessarily – fields in which metaphor plays a major part. Her argument concludes that a realist position is entirely consistent with use of metaphor, in both science and theology. It’s fine, and actually productive, to speak of electrical ‘current’ or of the divine gift of ‘living water.’ This is not a naive realism, but critical realism (I don’t think Soskice used this actual term, but I believe its current use agrees with her argument). In this, the users of metaphor – and use is always of within a community – are able to ‘really refer’ to something, even without knowing all there is about that topic. Even transcendent realities can be, in part and approximately, apprehended (be they electrons, or God).

One matter not possible to be raised in this work, but I think related, is the possibility of historical knowledge. Looking at the science-theology parallels is wonderfully important. Soskice frequently mentions matters of religious experience as a part-parallel to scientific experiment. In this line of thought, metaphor and theory is always open to revision, at least in theory. That’s fair, to an extent, but opens up theology to too simple a comparison with science, and suggests to me that theological doctrines are as likely to change as scientific ones. Think, for example, of the disposal of the idea of phlogiston after Priestly’s discovery of oxygen: the old theory was dumped.

I think a difference between science and (Christian) theology is the historical givenness of events, especially the ministry of Jesus Christ. Knowledge of this history has everything to add to the knowledge claims of Christianity.

This is not to say Soskise should have covered this topic! She has done an amazing job in her survey of metaphor theory, as well as philosophies of metaphor use in science and theology. And all in fewer than 200 pages! What I do mean to say is that philosophies of historical knowledge will affect some of Soskice’s conclusions about the tentativeness and modifiability of religious statements. If Jesus is alive, then some religious models and metaphors are more solid and unchangeable than any scientific model.

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A chaplain’s view on sharing

As a volunteer chaplain for about 15 years now, I know there are two types of group debrief that can happen after a major event. One type is useful, and the other is less useful and (thankfully) going out of fashion.

Situation group debrief
After a major event, it’s useful for the whole team to get together and assess how the situation went, to reflect on both good and bad. This helpful group work fits because the whole group faced the same situation, even though individual responsibilities were different.

Here are some typical questions asked:

“What was the scene like on arrival?”
“What were the patients’ presenting conditions?”
“What standard procedures did we follow? Did we need to modify anything?”
“Did the communication work?”

These are all quite functional: what the team did, and why. It reinforces procedures, investigates when creativity is required, and crystallises any lessons to hold on to.

Support group debrief
The unhelpful group debrief is an attempt to provide support, or psychological first aid, with everyone present. It tends to be a whip-around the group asking everyone, “How are you?” There are a couple of ways it can be a hindrance to support, rather than a help. (That’s why we don’t do this any more!)

The first problem is that people in a group are likely to say they are OK even if that’s not true. This lost opportunity is compounded by the likelihood that managers will hear, “We checked everyone, and they’re fine.”

Secondly, even if there is honest sharing, reactions vary by individual. And rightly so! There may have been just one event, but the numerous participants all bring their own character and history. Group sharing immediately post-event can cross-contaminate responses, or even undermine one’s reaction.

Imagine the following possible thoughts in such a group:

“Adam got teary and sad. Am I sick for not feeling anything much?”
“She got angry at the situation. Maybe that is what I feel, too.”
“Jo looks as calm as she said she is. I must be wrong for this job.”

A lesson in times of Covid-19
These two styles of group debrief came to mind because, it seems to me, in lockdown to reduce the spread of corona virus, social media is playing the role of a debriefing group. That’s good, but it’s also risky.

Social media is good to the extent that information needed by anyone can spread quickly. There is significant news to hear from governments, health agencies, the media, police, extended family, the sports club, schools, churches, local business, …

What’s risky is the amplification of fear and anxiety, or of lies and hatred. I’ve sometimes felt sucked in to a vortex of paranoia and cynicism when scrolling a social media feed. Even knowing this, it can be hard to get the fingers to stop instead of scroll! Even worse, this poisonous type of ‘group’ debrief does not even have the benefit of bringing people to be with each other – we’re still physically apart!

The lesson for me – and maybe for some others, too – is not to run away from all news and information. Rather, it’s important to get the appropriate info while being wary of the subtle dangers of having our reactions contaminated by those things we know are poison.