Our daughter Eleanor died on 21st April of this year.

E:

I’ll explain why in a minute but right now my mind is taken over
With memories of A.A meetings where in order to recover
My sobriety, I was urged to begin my new life by surrendering
My identity, my alcoholic pride, my ego; to cease pretending
That I was in control, and entrust my future to a Higher Power
Mediated through the Meeting and its programme. God
Forgive me, I refused, because while recognising the broad
Humanity of the programme and its people, I’d been educated
By violence never to surrender my inner self , and in truth I hated
The new person they wanted me to be. I hadn’t fought like a savage
Just to become a sober, decent citizen, but imagined a self more lavish
In its pleasures and commitments. Some of this was my addiction
Speaking.

….
………..Now here I am in a place where divine friction
Is erasing me. It is a vast cirque of maybe limestone such as
I’ve seen in photos of the Picos de Europa, by the soft touches
Of water, wind and ice worked into the shapes they are now
Which will be obliterated day by day until they bow
To necessity and are gone. It is like a speeded up video
In which I too am impacted by forces that rid me of
Whole bits of myself. See, my feet dissolve into the alpine
Flower I bent to examine. I feel my new roots. My spine
Is wrenched and straightened in a tower of rock. My arms
Are feathered in the slow beat of the vulture’s wings. Alarm
Shoots through me, not at the changes, but at my own desire
To be changed, to let go, to breathe myself away, expire
Into the blessed community of creatures. I am afraid no longer
Of being handed a fixed identity like a transferred footballer
In a new shirt, but hopeful for the unique love that is myself
To share the love of every thing and person in the commonwealth
Of heaven. This is process, not completion, but I hope to see
Its end. Let my life be yours, I pray, but let it still be me.

A good bit of life is the sharing of jokes, and some of the best jokes are Jewish. The Jewish mama for example, with her pride in her son’s achievement. Here she opens the door to visitors, in floods of tears,

“Oi veh, oi veh, my son the famous surgeon has been killed in a car accident…!”

Even God can be in a joke:

The poor man approaches God and says, I’m told a million years to you is as a second. God agrees that this is true. The man goes on, I’m told a million pounds to you is as a penny. God agrees to this also. Well, says the man, can I have a million pounds? Sure, says God, just give me a second.

But as far as I was taught, there are no jokes in the Bible.

Just give that some consideration. Jokes are a an indispensable part of living, cementing friendships, easing family tensions, increasing social joy, helping us bear misfortune, offering us insight into life, but there are no jokes in the book which is the basis of our faith and practice as Christian people! Serious believers will answer, The Bible is about our eternal salvation. Do you think that’s a topic for jokes??

Well, yes, I do, don’t you? Aren’t a substantial proportion of traditional jokes about the pearly gates?

A minister who has been recently received into heaven with a modest commendation is disturbed to see his lawyer being welcomed at the gates, with a flourish of trumpets and a special anthem by the heavenly choir. He complains to St Peter, I spent most of my life in faithful service, and I was hardly noticed at the gates but my lawyer has just been welcomed with all that razmataz! Ah, son, replies Peter, you see, in heaven ministers are how shall I say, ten a penny, but this is the first lawyer we’ve ever had!

So of course, we are delighted with jokes about eternal salvation, especially if they offend those who’re sure of theirs. But that takes us back to our jokeless Bible. Is it really so solemn, or is the problem the humourless people who have given us its traditional interpretation?

Maybe I should confess that I find the Bible full of jokes, the Old Testament more than the New, although Jesus provides a ready supply. In fact the Bible story has barely begun when we are given several jokes, in the narrative which has been solemnly called, The Fall of Man. You remember that Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit then hide when they hear the voice of God, who easily finds them. Why were you hiding, asks God. Because we are naked, answers Adam. Who told you that you were naked, asks God; have you eaten from the forbidden tree of knowledge? Perhaps this is more a smart deduction than a joke, but I imagine it was delivered with a chuckle. So Adam tries his own joke, It was the woman you put with me, she took the fruit and gave it to me! It’s not a great joke but it blames God for the whole mess. Humour is woven into the great story, which theologians have misinterpreted over centuries. Surely God’s punishment has to be taken seriously, but how can it be, when part of it is removing the legs from a kind of snake we’ve never seen?

Once we open our eyes and ears to the jokes of the Genesis author, we realise that they are built into the whole design of the story. What greater joke can there be than a God who creates a creature which then proceeds to outguess its maker at every opportunity? Unless it’s the spectacle of a creator who is so enraged at his creation that he destroys almost all of it in a flood, and then repents his action. You need a strong sense if humour to appreciate this story. (The biggest joke of all of course is that this comic-cuts narrative has been made the basis of an utterly humourless theology about the total corruption of humanity.)

I could go on. Genesis is the funniest and most profound piece of theology in the Bible, with the exception of the Jesus tradition represented in the Gospels. If we only take the nicknames He gave to his disciples, Cephas the rock for Simon the shaky; the MacThunders for the aggressive sons of Zebedee; jihadi for the ex-zealot Simon; we can see a wry humour which is not without affection.

When Jesus talks about hypocritical religious people, he exposes their play-acting but finishes with the mild observation, They have their reward. This is accurate and funny. As is his vivid remark about trying to remove a speck from your brother’s eye while having a log in your own. We need to waken up to this dry, passionate, humorous voice which the first three gospels give us as the voice of Jesus.

The parables of Jesus are another example of his wit. The rich man in hades demands that Abraham should send the poor man with some water to moisten his mouth. You can imagine Jesus imitating his accent. Abraham then explains that heaven is a reverse mirror image of the rich man’s society. As it placed a great gulf between rich and poor, so God has placed a great gulf between reward and punishment, so nobody can help him. What fun this is for the poor people listening! Jesus is not giving a lesson about the geography of the afterlife but about the justice of God.

Once we open ourselves to the humour of Jesus, we will find it everywhere in the gospels.

Jokes, which make us laugh because they reveal the contradictions, disproportions, ironies, and baffling stupidities of human behaviour, are integral to any tradition of thought that offers us wisdom. The fundamental joke of the Bible is that the creator God has to learn to be a human being in order to perfect his creation. We need to read the story with humour as well as piety.

In this blog I am following up the general case I made last month, when I used the urgent issue of the global ecological crisis to to show what the Christian revelation gives us and what it does not. In the course of that blog I was impertinent enough to suggest that the revelation itself proclaimed its own insufficiency. In this blog I want to follow up that suggestion as regards the gospels. I will look at each in order of their probable composition.

MARK This is perhaps the most cunningly composed of the gospels, by a storyteller who is adept at placing narratives next to each other for comparison, nesting narratives within another more encompassing one, and setting up expectations which are sometimes fulfilled, sometimes not. One of his greatest teases is the story of the resurrection in Chapter 16. The author’s work it is certain, ends at verse 8, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” What way is that to end the story of a dead man who may be alive? Mark knew that the reader would have picked up the clues: women taking spices early, the stone rolled way etc, yes an appearance of the risen lord was surely coming. Instead a bald announcement that he has been raised, a reminder of a rendezvous in Galilee, then, nothing, full stop, end. Outrageous!

Of course Mark would have known some stories of Jesus’ resurrection, which reflect the church’s faith in and experience of the risen Jesus, but he/she is sceptical: don’t they reduce the overwhelming question about Jesus to something fully and factually answered? Don’t they attempt to create a sufficiency of revelation, when the dignity of faith requires the disciple again and again to follow the way of Jesus to its terrible end, without an assurance which even Jesus didn’t have? That’s why Mark makes use of the story about Jesus’ return to Galilee, there’s still work to be done, lepers to be healed, pharisees to be horrified, uncomprehending disciples to be taught. And readers will only know the truth of resurrection if they keep their own appointment with Jesus in their own Galilee, and follow him in that place and time. PThe revelation according to Mark is insufficient becomes it leaves room for faith.

MATTHEW

At first Matthew looks pretty sufficient: it has birth and resurrection stories, plus a much fuller representation of Jesus’ teaching than Mark, but chapter 25 contains two effective denials of sufficiency.

The first is the parable of the talents, in which the person who thinks the gift is sufficient is harshly criticised, while those who put it to work, risking loss, are commended. The master is happy to find the original gift eclipsed by what his servants make of it. This is a crucial critique of those who think pious maintenance of tradition is the mark of true discipleship.

The other parable in this chapter, that of the king’s judgement is equally telling. Those who imagine that their loyalty to the king in person is all that matters are condemned because they have neglected the least important of his brothers. In the absence of the king, faith is not just waiting but caring for the needs of his present brothers and sisters. The king is absent (insufficient) so that his servants may care for human beings.

These parables are intended by Matthew to provide a key for interpreting his gospel.

LUKE

Those who imagine that a gospel is sufficient must be discombobulated to read the the first sentence of The Acts of the Apostles, “My former work, Theophilus, dealt with everything Jesus had done and taught etc….” It’s immediately clear that the revelation of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is not sufficient, and that the stories of the apostolic mission and the founding of communities of believers, in the power of the spirit, must be added. Amongst other developments Luke charts the break-out of the Jewish faith into the Gentile world. One can say that this is no more than to witness to a revelation of the Christian God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That is indeed so, but because the Holy Spirit leads to unexpected transformations of faith and community in this history, we can assume that it will continue to do so. Luke’s story is unfinished, stopping with Paul’ arrival in the imperial capital. The spirit never contradicts the revelation of Father and Son but continually adds to its meaning. Acts 15:28 is a great affirmation of the freedom imparted by an insufficient revelation, “It seemed good to us and the Holy Spirit….”!

JOHN

I have already, in my first blog on this topic pointed to John’s doctrine of the Spirit- Advocate as asserting the insufficiency of the word made flesh in Jesus. I can hardly write these words because they feel so heretical. Yet John is clear that without the teaching of the Spirit of Truth part of that word will remain unspoken, or at least unheard. The promise of being led into all truth, truth which has been unknown before, can be seen in this generation in the revelation of God’s word in Jesus about the equality of homosexual people within the Christian community.

The valedictory words at the end of the gospel also point to its own insufficiency:

“There was much else that Jesus did; if it were written down in detail, I do not suppose that the world itself could hold all the books that would be written.”

My contention is not that the biblical revelation can be ignored. Certainly not, it is utterly essential to Christian faith and action, but it is essential as insufficient. I will return again and again to this topic to explore in greater detail what it means.

Our daughter Eleanor died on 21st April of this year.

E:

“ There was a paradise a long way back, a green garden

Where I was beautiful, strong and witty-wise, life a bargain

Unlooked for but splendid to possess. I could ride a horse, read

Simone de Beauvoir, set the table laughing, feed

My friends with home-cooked food, while the photographers scrambled

To get shots of my body in new-romantic dresses, cameras angled

To the line of boob and bum nevertheless. Ah, magic, it was magic

To have, to be, that body! And disappointing to find the tragic

Ineptitude of boys who only wanted to stick something into it.

But even they were lovely in their football, bravery and spit.

……….

After so much hurt for which I blamed myself, years later

alone, addicted, angry, and afraid, I’d try to flatter

Myself by getting drunk enough to go to a pub, in the hope

Of talk and laughs and admiration, getting only gropes

Or worse. Yet I told myself that paradise was not lost

But only in the pawn- shop till I could afford the cost.

…………..

Then there was a choice, it was time for decision:

“You can be a drunk or a minister of religion.”

Who spoke? You said sometimes it’s as if the voice comes

From beyond the edge of the universe and thrums

Into your brain. I chose God and with one bound I was

Free of what I had become, spat as if from the very jaws

Of hell, into the douce realm of St.Andrew’s Uni

Where I wrote a dissertation on the Psalms and the tunes they

Were sung to in Scotland, under scholars who were decent

Cerebral people and students who became friends. That sent

Me out as apprentice into congregations where I could preach

The gospel, lead the worship, meet the people and each

Time I did so was a joy of knowing my life in their lives

Beautiful, strong and witty-wise. It was what I had been designed for,

I could do it well! More truthfully I could do it fine for

Maybe four hours a day, then the need for booze attacked me;

Then I missed days on end, and then they sacked me.

………….

I’d never have said my earthly paradises were a foretaste

Of heaven, for my theology did not hold fast

The hope of any after-life. One life, one chance, I reckoned,

That’s why it was so precious, but when One beckoned

Me here, was I to argue? And now I know the truth

Of beauty, strength and wisdom beyond the scope of youth

Or true vocation, as ecological gifts, not my flowering

Only, but the life of the whole garden under the showering

Of the one love, where each by all are nourished, each by all

Admired: my vision of paradise not wrong but just too small.”

Our daughter Eleanor died on 21st April of this year.

E:

You want to know what’s happening to me where I am now,

which makes me reach for something that will represent the calm, slow

Transformation I’m undergoing. If I ever thought of heaven I imagined

Instantaneous change because I lived in a culture with a fashion

For not waiting. And philosophers ask, if you don’t grow older

In heaven, how can you grow? In this place we grow where

Time and space exist without decay, and death has died out.

External obstacles to growth have been removed, but what about

The internal obstacles, the wrong desire, the bad faith, the stubborn

Addiction? It’s these that constrain us to make such a buggering

Mess of life. So, listen up, while I give you the metaphor of water:

You know my passion for mountains and geology. Give thought to

The way the mountain streams have cut through solid rock

over thousands of years, and not by overwhelming shock

But persistent slow erosion, a soft bite daily into granite

Schist or sandstone, which in time will undermine it.

Or think of the red cliffs at Arbroath, where volcanic pressure

Flung great shelves of seabed into air, home for rock-pigeons, treasure-

-house of fossils, worked from above by rain and from below

By the ceaseless crepitation of the sea. Yes, sometimes a wind-blow

Can knock an adult over, but more than the battering

Of winter storms and spring gales the gentle pattering

Of each day’s tides has worked the arches, spires and dungeons

Where you and I have walked, feet touching the junction

Of land and the sea’s persuasion. The rule of heaven is not control;

Love is not force; God works like water on the soul.

Our daughter Eleanor died on 21st April of this year.

E:

The voice says, “People will argue you can do without me.

You can’t. Yes sure, you can gather your determination stoutly

Around you, you can make yourself a paragon of moral virtue

But you will know it is not salvation. It’s like a skirt you

Put on for work but you’re not comfortable in it. When you come

Back to me you know it’s the relationship that counts, the lightsome

Knowledge that you don’t face the day on your own, but with me,

For I can blunt the edge of every trouble and add felicity

To every pleasure. I call this the kingdom of heaven, not a flight

Into the supernatural but my sharing of your everyday, a sunlight

In your heart, like the song says. Conventional wisdom tells you

Never surrender but remain the captain of your soul and all’s well. New

Philosophy is against belief, anything irrational can lead to slavery.

But you and I, we have a history that contradicts this havering;

Times of partnership written in your memory and your blood,

Awaiting new life when once again we bond. Don’t hold back, sod

The sensible advisors and their counsel. Maybe your allegiance

Has to be secret at times. Putting it on your CV might not advance

Your career, nor indeed according to popular psychology, improve

Relationships, so flaunting it defiantly is not a good move

And secrecy is wise. Be sure that breaking up would be a real disaster.

When tempted just remember I’m your Lord and Master.”

…………….

Some identify this as the voice of God, so let me level

With you, reader: it’s the voice of alcohol and the devil.

Our daughter Eleanor died on 21st April this year.

E:

“We were that age, Fiona and me, our bodies changing,

No longer girls and not yet women, staging

Scenarios of the future in our minds and conversation,

When horses were the ideal transport to the next station.

They were fully achieved bodies, even the smallest and ugliest

Engaged in movements huge to us yet able to tug best

At our hearts with a soft muzzle. You used to taxi us

To the riding school; if you delayed we became fractious

Because we had to be there hours early to muck out;

Returning home so smelly that mum threatened to chuck out

Us along with our jodpurs, if we didn’t demand work clothes

From the management. But she missed the point. We loathed

The complicated demands of social etiquette and chose to be united

With the working of these great bodies, the dung and sweat of mighty

Equus. Pastern, Fetlock, hock and hoof; loin and croup and withers.

To ride a galloping stallion was to smash your mind to smither-

-eens: the lift of the huge muscles, the surge, the barely controlled

Power. Yes, power. The jokers speak of sexual thrills, but we were bold

With animal power, free, happy and unstoppable; not arrogant

Since we knew the power was lent us by the horse. I can’t

Think of many later experiences to match that one. Once or twice,

While writing a thesis, I knew the literature had made me wise;

Or leading worship in a church, feeling myself uplifted, I understood

What the Bible meant by inspiration. Not some kind of divine blood

Transfusion but the gift of shared concern. Or at the Community Cafe

I’d had to take so many courses, gain certificates, all that faff eh?

Just to get it going, yet the impetus was the shared gusto

Of women working affectionately together: I could feel the muscles,

As here I do again. Your questions are discreet but if you were so coarse

As to ask me to define the resurrection, I’d say, Horse.

I might have given as a subtitle for this piece, “The Insufficiency of Revelation” which would have seemed almost blasphemous to some and heretical to many. The “Word of God contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments” – how could it ever be insufficient? But not only do I think that it is, I also think that the scripture itself admits that it is.

A series of utterances of Jesus about the coming of the spirit in John 14-16 constitutes this admission:

John 14: 12,13: Jesus says that those who believe in him will do even greater deeds than him because he is going to the father.

John 14: 16,17: Jesus promises that he will ask the father to send another advocate, the spirit of truth

John 14: 26: Jesus says that the spirit advocate will teach the disciples everything

John 15: 26: Jesus affirms that the Spirit of truth issues from the father and witnesses to him.

John 16: 7- 15: Jesus says that if he does not go to the father (via the cross) the advocate will not come. When he comes he will guide the disciples into all truth. The spirit will speak on behalf of God, bringing knowledge of the future by taking what belongs to Jesus and making it known in a new way.

The sum of these passages is that the spirit does not simply replace Jesus’ presence with his disciples but leads them into new understandings of Him. All future disciples who have not known Jesus in the flesh will know him through the spirit making use of what belongs to Jesus, that is, his story and teachings. Great deeds and new truths will be enabled. What has been revealed will always be insufficient (hallelujah!) because the spirit offers truth in the present tense.

An example may help. There’s not a lot in the Bible about ecological concern, except the command of God in Genesis that humanity should fill the earth and subdue it, exercising dominion over its creatures. Well, that hasn’t worked out wonderfully. The reason for this absence is that the biblical writings belong a) to an era of humanistic pride in mediterranean cultures, in which the capabilities of human beings were evident in a new urban civilisation fed by a new agriculture; and b) to the pantheon of masculine sky-gods and their consorts who had overruled the older, often feminine gods of the earth and the underworld. Beliefs and taboos that belonged to an earlier civilisation more embedded in nature were forgotten.

So we’re left with the fact that the saviour of the world has less to say about caring for the planet than Boris Johnson.

Now, of course, the ecological crisis has spawned an awesome number of theological writings asserting that “God is green,” few of which admit that classic Christian doctrine with its anthropocentric bias is partly responsible for the mess that the green God is now trying to clear up. The rush for relevance has in many cases outstripped the desire for truth. In the case of ecological issues Christian thinkers, in my opinion, are not dealing with a classic theme that requires updating, but with a set of assumptions that requires correction.

Is it possible that the spirit of truth can take from what belongs to Jesus an understanding that God’s interpretation of his life is different from ours, and from that of mainstream theology, and perhaps from his own?

When feminist believers asked that question with regard to patriarchal interpretations of Jesus they began to see hints in the scripture of what had been hidden by that bias. I have read a number of green makeovers of Jesus which have left me unconvinced, since they have demonstrated so little in the New Testament that even hints towards ecological truth. In effect they have simply incorporated Jesus’ goodwill in their own mix of ecological teaching.

John’s gospel famously characterises Jesus as the demonstration of God’s love for the WORLD, which is a very strong hint that Jesus was not here with love for human beings only. Is it possible to construct an interpretation of Jesus which sees him in the light of God’s love for the universe? Process theologians, using the insights of Alfred North Whitehead, have developed creation-centred theologies which deal fully with ecological issues, but so far at any rate, the weakest aspect of their work has been their interpretation of Jesus.

It’s possible that when the spirit goes to take ecological truth out of “what belongs to Jesus” it comes back with nothing more specific than an unbounded love of God and God’s rule, meaning God’s making of a perfect universe. But from that point of view, Jesus’ utter opposition to violence and greed, his advocacy of modest living and his trust in the creator might, with the inspiration of the spirit, and the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible, become the centre of a distinctively Christian ecology.

None of this can happen unless we celebrate the insufficiency of revelation, which in some cases amounts to the wrongness of revelation, and open ourselves to the other advocate, the spirit of truth.

Some doubtless may prefer to continue with their view of a fixed revelation, along with their motor cars and beef steaks, trusting that when the world gets fried, theirs will be the only asses that are unscorched. Well, good luck with that, is what I say.

Our daughter Eleanor died on the 21st April this year.

Eleanor:

“Civilisation is the distance of humanity from its own shit.”

I don’t know who said that, but I do know that I disagree with it.

Yes, yes, like others I was grateful for the WC and the sewers.

-In Rome as well as to bits of history like the Pope, they run tours

To the Cloaca Maxima, the big drain that fed by small ones took the poop

Out of the eternal city. We want rid of it but don’t ask where the gloop

Goes after. We feel the same about all our waste whether

It’s plastic bags or oil rigs, which adds up all together

To using the planet as a rubbish tip. But it’s the excrement I

Want to write about. Anyone who’s cared for a baby has plenty

Evidence of the connection between shit and love. We are disgusted

But also tender as we clean the child no matter how lavishly it’s crusted

With the stuff, and I also know from working in care homes, where wiping

Bums is as routine as giving pills, that in spite of our professional griping

We knew that God was with us: “ubi caritas et amor deus ibi est,”

Where there are care and love, God is present. Maybe that was the best

Work I ever did, in that part of God’s kingdom which is shared

By people who are not scared of shit, whom no government has ever cared

To pay correctly for the most important task in the world. I’m still

Part of that communion of saints, savage warm and humble

People who get no medals or applause, but God approves them.

The civilisation of heaven is not far from shit because it loves them.

Eleanor our daughter died on 21st April this year.

Me: I just had to tell you. It arrived with the post today, a glossy advertising leaflet, headed, A place for you at South Grange Residential Care Home. With nice pics! I know you’d have laughed, and wondered, aloud, how they knew me so well.

Eleanor: Yeah, it’s about time you got some professional care, not to mention appropriate discipline to keep you out of trouble….

M: I thought you’d like it. And then there’s the other aspect, which it’s maybe indelicate to mention, but how come they are advertising vacancies? In the wake of coronavirus? I was checking to see if there was a bit that said, “Don’t worry about the expense because you probably won’t be here long.”

E: Of course I’d visit you every week with a bunch of word games simple enough for your diminishing brain……if I was still on earth.

M: I wish you were…..but you came to me in my sleep last night, and you brought an old friend I scarcely recognised.

E: Lilian from Dumbarton. We met because she knows how you feel about me….

M: Ach aye. Her son drowned in a boating accident…. I spoke at his funeral, not understanding the peculiar pain of burying your child.

E: Is it a terrible pain?

M: Yes, it is, at least in comparison with the death of my best friend or my brother, although they are sorrows still.

E: Why is that?

M: Because although they are dear to me, you are younger and dearer…

E: As you and mum are to me. And I can share your pain, but Lilian knows it more than me. And we feel it as part of the burden of pain that heaven bears for the earth.

M: Lilian was a good pal who knew you as a baby.

E: What was I like as a baby and a toddler? I have only a few memories…

M: Your mum made you a happy baby, and you were a lovely toddler, full of fun and curiosity.

E: You were thinking of me yesterday, so I was thinking of you.

M: I was walking in the hills, imagining what you would have been saying…

E: I picked up your pleasure in the hillscape, in particular your smelling the bell heather, a quick intoxicating sweetness; and your looking west towards the great bulk of Lochnagar on the horizon. My memories mixed with yours. In my case I remember sitting beside its remote lochan, seeing in its clear depths a dumped coke can and a condom.

M: I felt you near when seated on the first of yesterday’s summits I heard a bird cry with a single note, and saw it standing nearby on a rock. I might have said, Dotterel? And you would have asked, But where’s the brown belly? And I would have suggested, Plover, Golden Plover? But the cry, a held note descending a half tone, laid on the air as if in knowledge of pleasure and pain, is one of the notes of life.

E: Lilian says that’s right.