The street evangelist was entertaining his small crowd with  some grisly warnings about the fate of sinners: “And if you do not heed the call to repent brothers and sisters, you will end up for all eternity in the fires of hell where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth!”

“Eh heh,” objected an old woman with a gummy grin, ‘ I’ve got nae teeth left.”

“Dinna think ye’ll be spared,” the preacher advised, “TEETH WILL BE PROVIDED!”

Is such confidence in the resourcefulness of God’s wrath enviable or merely laughable?

inferno, the lustful whirled by desire

Attempts in modern theology to dismiss the threat of divine judgement as somehow sub- Christian are made questionable by the fact that some of the most direct warnings of judgement are attributed to Jesus himself. And even if scholars question the accuracy of the gospel record, it is evidence that at least the first Christians did not see any contradiction between judgement and the character of Jesus. As regards the resurrection Jesus appears to have agreed with the Pharisees who taught that those who observed Torah would have a personal place in the world to come. There is no clear evidence that they also taught divine punishment for those who did not; perhaps missing out on new life was considered punishment enough.

Jesus however is on record as promising punishments as well as rewards.   A typical bit of teaching is his injunction, “If your right hand brings you into temptation, cut it off and throw it away! It is better for you to lose a limb than for your whole body to be thrown into Gehenna.” Gehenna was the Jerusalem rubbish dump which became a symbol for God’s wrath.  When He spoke of the judgement on towns that refused hospitality to his messengers, he didn’t mince his words, ” Sodom and Gomorrah will fare better on Judgement Day than that town!” The parable of the great judgement in Matthew 25 may not be the exact words of Jesus, but the notion of God’s Judgement separating humanity into sheep and goats is not foreign to Jesus’ teaching.

These images of divine reward and punishment are common to the New Testament, except the Gospel of John, which explains that evil people pass judgement on themselves, because they choose the darkness rather than the light. For this Gospel people choose the hell they inhabit in this life and the next. God through Jesus only wants good for his children, but will not force people to be good. God gives them the choice and will respect their choice for all eternity. This seems to me a positive interpretation of Jesus’ teaching: those who turn towards God’s goodness will live in it; those who don’t, won’t.

This gives a clue for the development of Christian thinking which is fully expressed in Dante’s Divine Comedy: God’s love moves the sun and the other stars, but human freewill may choose to be moved by it or not. In the after-life people get what they have chosen. Those who are in Inferno “want” to be there, even although they know they have made and continue to make a wrong choice; those who are in Purgatory “want” to be in paradise, but not enough, and must persevere until their desire is stronger; those in Paradise “want” God’s love, even although they may have at times been sinful. Dante knows that his poem is metaphorical, but it is not a mere gloss on worldly experience. Rather it points to a mystery  that cannot be fully captured in human thought or language.

Inferno, the gluttonous eaten by demons

If Mr Abedi, the  alleged Manchester murderer thought that he would be rewarded by God for killing children, women and men I believe that he was wilfully mistaken. I say wilfully because he was making a fundamental choice about what he wanted: a world ruled by death. Faced with God’s love, he will be given a new choice: he can admit how wrong he is, and submit to centuries of painful and humiliating repentance, only ending when he obtains the forgiveness of his victims; or he can have the death he desires. (Dante believed that the determining choices are made in this world, and that there is no wriggle room after death. I respect his view, although I disagree with it.) Those who have recruited and instructed killers by distorting the Noble Qur’an are more guilty than their disciples, have chosen death more decisively and are more likely to be utterly extinguished. The same is true for all agents of death in the world and their masters, in the USA, Syria, Israel, UK, Russia, indeed in most nations of the world: they stand under judgement.

Yes, all this is picture language, but it is not intended as an image of the inner life of murderers or the moral struggles of society. It is intended as gospel, as the announcement of good news. When the great oppressive city of Babylon is destroyed by God’s power in the book of The Revelation, the saints sing, “Alleluia! And the smoke goes up forever!” They enjoy God’s justice and applaud it. Inasmuch as I can offer to my oppressed brothers and sisters a chance of justice in this world, I will work for it, through the organisations for justice and peace which I support, and through my political allegiance, but knowing how little can be achieved I also want to offer them the gospel that their persecutors will not finally win. They will get theirs. And the oppressed will not finally lose. They will have life and all tears will be wiped from their eyes.

The greedy, gnawed by each other


This is not the aort of language that modern liberal Christians are supposed to use, so I guess I’m not one of them. Again, I confess that my language is pictorial and points to a mystery which itself is described by the book of The Revelation. In God’s Kingdom, the Lamb is in the midst of the throne; the one who has been oppressed and sacrificed shares the rule of God, the intelligence of the victim makes the final judgement: “whatever you have done to the least important of my brothers and sisters, you have done to me.” Teeth will be provided.


Today I listened to a very informative radio programme about the effects of climate change on our crops. It was part of Radio4’s “Costing the Earth” series. A number of plant scientists talked about the ecology of global warming with reference to plant life, indicating the genetic profiles that made plants more or less susceptable to changes in seasonal temperatures. Plants that for example rely on a specific insect species for reproduction are obviously dependent on how that species copes with climate change and are therefore more at risk than plants that have no such dependence, or attract a great variety of insect partners. The programme highlighted a great amount of precise practical research which will assist our agriculture as change occurs. I was reminded of the value of patient, well-tested investigation of the world, with its emphasis on finding and respecting the facts.

Today also I’ve continued to mull over a theological theme aroused by the aftermath of the Manchester atrocity and its aftermath, in which bereaved people expressed the faith that their murdered children had become angels. As a parish minister I know that many people who are otherwise not religious find comfort in popular images of an afterlife.  And in truth I also find consolation in the vision that those who have been deprived of life, or deprived of a decent life on this earth, are given new life by God. But two questions arise. One, how can this belief in an afterlife be reconciled with the kind of science of which I have written above? And two, does not the notion of an afterlife devalue life on earth and possibly lessen our determination to eradicate its evils? There is ample evidence in Christendom that the poor were often discouraged from holding the rich to account by the promise of eternal life in God’s kingdom. It also seems that gross carelessness with human life, their own and others, by jihadis, is supported by a faith in the heavenly reward of Islamic martyrs.

This second criticism is somewhat undermined when we look at how the most confident developments of capitalism took place in the protestant societies of northern Europe and America, many of whose citizens looked forward to the riches of heaven. It’s clear that you can be greedy for both worldly and heavenly rewards. And if it be argued that these were corrupt forms of Christianity, then the evidence of the first three centuries CE is that the same Christian faith that helped people face death rather than surrendering their allegiance, also helped them form a world network of communities which challenged and survived the Roman Empire. Evangelical Christians with a strong belief in eternal salvation were part of the movement which abolished the slave trade in Britain. These examples suggest that the precise nature of faith in life after death is important. Doubtless some beliefs can foster either laissez faire attitudes to worldly evils or even promote them, but it is at least arguable that the classic Christian faith in resurrection promotes a sense of responsibility for earthly conduct.

The first criticism is more difficult to answer. The science of human biology has more and more insisted on the unity of the human person. The old division of body and mind has been challenged so successfully that the notion of a soul separate from both lacks all credibility. There is no “ghost in the machine” that has separate existence from the body and survives bodily death. Our mind exists in all parts of our central nervous system and in every physical organ of sense perception. Our body functions in all its parts as a cognitive agent. And our souls or spirits must also be seen as functions of our whole selves. The fact that physical damage to the brain also changes the person, so that a widow’s phrase about her late husband who suffered from dementia, “he died two years before his death” make perfect sense, reminds us of the physical basis of personality. Psychological science has put forward evidence that we are not ever simply individuals but defined by our relationships with other people. No man is an island, as John Donne knew.

All of these scientific discoveries can rid us of the kind of popular Platonism with which Christian faith has been contaminated for centuries. Nothing of us survives physical death. When we accept that fact we are set free to recognise that this also the teaching of the New Testament. The resurrection of Jesus is never presented as any kind of survival. There is no Jesus-Spirit that survives crucifixion. Rather the Jesus who appears to his disciples is a bodily presence, bearing the marks of bodily injury. The authors are careful to deny that he is a spirit or ghost. Certainly he is not a physical body, as he can appear and disappear. In some appearances he is not immediately recognisable, but he is clearly identical with the Jesus who had been.

St Paul explains that physical bodies which are subject to decay cannot share God’s eternal life. But rather than denying the body, he denies the physicality of the resurrected person, who is, in his language, a spiritual body. The person is with God and shares God’s mode of being; she is no longer an item in the universe but a person in God. He asserts both the identity of the resurrected person with the earthly person, and the difference between them, by using the image of the seed and the plant.

Since Paul wanted believers to model their lives on that of Jesus, to express his exhuberant goodness even at the risk of their lives, he wryly notes that if there is no resurrection, “we are of all people the most pathetic” since they will have risked their only lives for nothing.  Again here we can see evidence that it is precisely faith in the resurrection that gives Paul and his converts the freedom to act courageously in the world.

But is it true, in the sense that it’s true that “deep-rooting plants are best at surviving climate change” as I learned from the radio programme. Clearly the latter is a truth about this planet in this universe, while resurrection is a truth about God and life in God. Does that mean it’s merely a metaphor for an particular attitude to life in this world? No, it’s a assertion about One who is not the universe and the life he/she gives to sentient beings, which will, according to St. Paul be one day extended to the universe itself. That makes it a  truth which is “in this world but not of it,” a phrase which has also been used to describe Jesus. Theologians call this an eschatological truth, that is, a truth about the end or purpose of the universe that we know.

Of course, Paul and the New Testament also speak of God’s judgement and God’s anger, so I should speak of these too, in my next blog.



Today I wrote to the Dundee Courier, my local newspaper, in these terms:

Dear Sir,

In the wake of the Manchester atrocity, all sorts of opinions and analyses have been offered to the public, but as Mr. K Marx has said, the real deal is not so much to understand the world as to change it. If we want to unify the different communities in our society and make it harder for terrorists to conceal themselves among us, we have to be active in forging friendships among different religious communities; not just toleration but real person -to -person relationships, and mutual engagement for the benefit of society. This is happening in Dundee.

Dundee has always fostered good relationships between faith communities, as open days at the Mosque and at Churches testify; and all the communities have been active in this process. There is a great deal of human warmth, humour and wisdom already invested in creating a secure, inclusive city.

As a retired minister, I find myself by good fortune ministering to the Sidlaw Churches – Monikie, Newbigging, Murroes, Tealing and Auchterhouse – where the congregations have formed a partnership with the Taught by Mohammed Foodbank, a splendid Muslim organisation which delivers food parcels to the neediest citizens of Dundee. It acts on referrals from Social Work, Citizens Advice, and other caring agencies, and offers help regardless of ethnic or religious identity. Although we all think it’s a disgrace that Foodbanks exist, Church people are delighted to gather food and to volunteer for other tasks along with our Muslim friends. Recently our united congregations welcomed Amna, the foodbank coordinator, at Sunday worship, and listened to her presentation. Sometime soon we hope to visit the Mosque. We continue to hold our respective faiths dear but we hope that Jesus Christ and the Prophet Muhammed, peace upon them, approve of what we are doing.

This is a small step, but it is a step towards changing our conflicted world rather than just talking about it. I hope that by celebrating all the small steps already taken in Dundee, other people here and elsewhere may be encouraged to take their own. “Do not ask for the way to peace; peace is the way.”


The theologian Hans Kung expressed the veiw that until there is peace amonsgt the world’s religions, there will not be peace amngst its nations. Given that religion attracts at least as many as and perhaps more nutters than politics, this may be a tall order. Religions that claim a monopoly of truth should especially be urged to look at themselves, and those who claim to possess in inerrant source of truth in their sacred book should be urged to look even harder.

One of the great barriers to peace is the existence of different versions of reality. People who can disregard facts or only interpret them one way are dangerous to any commonality on the earth. Even if they were quarantined in separate enclaves of the Sahara desert they might still cause significant damage to the planet.

Christianity is one of these. It has managed to package the revolutionary and peaceful story of its founder so successfully that it has been responsible for war, imperialism and persecution throughout most of its history. When its modern believers look at the Manchester bombing, they should remember, as IS does, the Crusades, not to mention the Christian (and Muslim) slave trade, the wars of religion, the partnerships of missionaries and imperialism, right wing religion and the KKK. Any community that fails to respect facts will be manipulated by unscrupulous power-seekers and loopy prophets with an appetite for blood.

We cannot oppose IS in the name of our own magic book and our own divinely revealed certainties, but must rather in humility show the way, by recognising the value of facts, by being honest about our Bible and its errors, and affirming that our commitment to the way of Jesus is a choice, which we believe to be fruitful for all people, but which requires us to respect their choices. I would welcome the day when Christian faith is freed from the all the trappings of religion.

In a multiracial, multifaith world, while we strip our faith of religious certainty, we should take small whatever small steps we can, to build the human friendships and shared endeavours, that serve peace.

A great poem from the Book of Proverbs, chapter 3:

Happy is the man who finds Wisdom, who gets understanding;

For trade in it is better than trade in silver and the profits greater than fine gold.

She is more precious than rubies, and all the things you can desire are not to be compared to her.

Length of days is in her right hand; in her left hand, riches and honour.

Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace.IMG_0413

There is not much that has been said by human beings that means more to me than these words, for although I have many passions in my life, nature, art, politics, literature, my greatest passion is for understanding, that is, the comprehension of the universe and its life, by means of any discipline open to me. My adventures of understanding have included astronomy, physics, biology, geography, philosophy, ecology, systems theory, marxism, psychology, history, politics, and theology, along with Latin Greek, French, Spanish and a tiny bit of Welsh. Obviously I have only a very sketchy knowledge of some of these, although my study has never been trivial or second hand, as I’ve always tried to read the original masterpieces in these disciplines rather than secondary sources. Sometimes that has been a journey into complete bafflement, as for example my grappling with Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, but I have gained at least a direct exposure to genius.

Even yet I refuse to allow myself the excuse that I’m getting elderly, and have recently been reading about parallel universes on the one hand, and the history of modern economic disaster on the other. A marvellous book by Yanis Varoufakis on contemporary economics is on my desk as I write. I hope I can rely on my readers to see this information as a simple statement of my peculiar addiction, rather than as any sort of boast. Nothing gives me more pleasure thnt the adventures of understanding, which I hope will lead to wisdom rather than the mere accumulation of knowledge.


My late best friend, Bob Cummings, of Glasgow University, was a man who loved to know things just because they were so, and accumulated knowledge as naturally as a sponge soaks up water some would say, but I would say, as naturally as a buzzard kills: there was a savagery about it. My brother Colin, head of the Scottish Government’s Improvement Service, is another such, in whom the desire to understand is a passion, rather than a means to an end. I also have to admit that there is a competitive edge to my love of wisdom: I don’t like anyone to be wiser than me, which is of course, a sin against the very wisdom I seek, as it requires humility and cooperation.

For example I have just read a theological book entitled, “Jesus the Forgiving Victim”  by James Allison, which is full of such well-informed and persuasive interpretations of Bible passages, that I am left a) wiser than before and b) resentful that this Allison fellow knows so much more than me, and can express his knowledge so eloquently. Mind you, it also spurs me on to know as much about these texts as he does. Well, more than him preferably.

IMG_0416I have no clear idea of how the specific knowledge that I will gain, can become useful to me, but I do know that I will find the sources of information used by the book and familiarise myself with them. The discerning reader will realise that this kind of search for equal expertise is doomed, as no sooner have I caught up with one source of information than I will be presented with another. Yet this sad comedy is the continuing story of my intellectual adventure.

In and through all of these daft attempts to know everything, Lady Wisdom, that creative companion of God, asks me if I have learned anything about how to live well in this world; and when I confess that I’m not sure if I have, she encourages me to keep travelling, for “all her ways are pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.”

I noticed in today’s news that a man and a woman have just been convicted of causing or permitting a child’s death and then pretending it had taken ill on a London bus. I am grieved at this story, but even more grieved by the large number of results I got on Google when I entered , “convicted of child killing.” It made me realise how many of these there have been recently and how easily I had read about them, without shock.

A fair proportion of these killings are carried out by people whose own lives are a mess: poverty and addiction are frequent factors. Violence between partners,  especially by men on women, is another. A significant proportion however seem due to an unexplained malevolence in the perpetrator’s character, and even more disturbingly, to a malevolence shared by partners, directed at their child. Although people express their revulsion by asking how people could do these things to their own child, I fear that the harm is done precisely because it is their own child.

One of our ingrained beliefs is that a child belongs to its biological parents, which allows them rights over the child which they do not have over any other child or person. The right to use violence, for example. This cherished right is now being legally questioned in Scotland, attracting a denuciation from Rev. David Robertson of Dundee Free Church of Scotland. I could be guarranteed to vote for any social policy which had on the wrapper, “Denounced by Rev David Robertson.” I guess he believes that kids should be smacked in the name of Jesus. In this he is supported by majority opinion, which remains convinced that what people do to their kids is their business. Until they kill them, of course.

Most people don’t know that child- killing can be traced in the Bible. Let’s look at Exodus 22: 28,29:

The first-born of your sons, give to me.

Do this also with your ox and with your sheep:

for seven days let it be with its mother, then give it to me!

The example of the animals shows that the text is commmanding sacrifice of the first-born animals and sons!  There are many other indications that the sacrifice of children to God was an issue for the Israelites, a custom which they gradually learned was abhorrent. The famous story of the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham is the best known example of the change from human to animal sacrifice only. The story in no way criticises Abraham’s readiness to kill his son; in fact it praises him for his obedience to God. Of course, if we interpret the Bible as a human document we can see a development away from a bad custom towards a better one. But those who have a fundamentalist view of scripture are left with what the texts say. Small wonder that some of them insist that God had to ‘kill’ his own son Jesus in order to forgive the sins of humanity.

Jesus and the children: Lukas Cranach the Elder

The biblical evidence, along with anthropological research from around the world, reveals that children were often sacrificed to  secure the blessing of the gods for the family or the tribe. I’m not making the mistake of judging these customs as cruel in the way that modern child abuse is cruel, but rather taking them as evidence of how children, albeit precious or maybe because they were precious, could be considered disposable for the benefit of adults. The contemporary view, that parents have rights over their children, is an extension of the classic view, that under certain circumstances, children are disposable.

The tradition about Jesus found in the Gospels contains a strong rebuttal of the classic view because it asserts the worth and dignity of children as children over against all adult denials, so much so that “being a child” becomes one of the most desirable conditions of humanity under God. This is one of the charateristics which distinguishes the Jesus tradition from all other ethical and religious traditions in the world.

In a startling subversion of the classic view, Jesus taught that just because children belong to God, their lives and welfare should be a primary concern of human beings. In a week when we also note the death of the child -killer Ian Brady, this gospel has especial relevance.

Hollywood actress, Paris Jackson, has been criticised for placing nude images of herself online. Now she has hit back at her critics with a public statement:”I’ll say it again for those questioning what I stand for and how I express myself.

59th GRAMMY Awards -  Arrivals

“Nudity started as a movement for ‘going back to nature’, ‘expressing freedom’, ‘being healthier’ and was even called a philosophy. Being naked is part of what makes us human. For me it helps me feel more connected to mama gaia. I’m usually naked when I garden. Not only is your body a temple and should be worshipped as such, but also part of feminism is being able to express yourself in your own way, whether it’s being conservative and wearing lots of clothes or showing yourself.”

I’m sure Ms. Jackson is a good person, but just as surely this statement shows that she has been touched by a sort of unapologetic narcissism which is all too common. It consists of a need to be noticed, to make your intmate self into public property, and to gain approval or at least notoriety thereby. Often this need is justified by specious philosophies; in this case the reference to mama gaia, a personification of the global ecosystem, which is trivial, as if her current ailments could be cured by rich young women taking their clothes off. Were this an effective remedy I would be as much in favour of it as the next man, but alas, it is not.

The narcissism is particularly evident in the passage about the body as a temple. The phrase, which was coined by St Paul, has become a modern cliche which is hard to use without irony. “I like to say that my body is a temple but my friend says it’s more like a bouncy castle.” Ms. Jackson, however,  wants people to take it seriously. Unfortunately, she interprtets the phrase in a mistaken way which reveals her underlying narcissism: she thinks a temple is TO BE WORSHIPPED. Yes, that’s what she’s saying, that the body as temple should be worshipped. She lives at such a distance from any genuine religion that she imagines people go to a temple to worship the building, rather than the God/ Godess whose name it bears. This gives her, she believes, the right, indeed the duty, to worship her own body, and to make it available for worship by others.IMG_0403

Does she in fact suspect that this kind of image worship is idolatry, and so deny it by her use of the temple image? In any case, we are faced with behaviour which is trivial in itself, but a a matter of concern for what it reveals about the consciousness of rich people in the rich world: that they are gods and goddesses to be worshipped by more ordinary people, as once the stars of Hollywood movies were worshipped by cinema- goers all over the world.

Now don’t get me wrong. As far as human nakedness is concerned, I’m with Mae West: “skin ain’t sin.” Even public nakedness may have a place, although with my body, I’m grateful for clothes. My concern is with the taken-for-granted privilege, the pervasive preening, and the ignorant pseudo- philosophy, of this particular form of popular culture.

Most decent people in the world, who have to work hard for their survival, also have a beauty that can be appreciated: the marks of their labour,  pain and longing are inscribed in their bodies, which are revealed, not as god-like presences, but as frail assemblies of dust, subject to time and chance, and as such, marvellous. These are the bodies of which Michelangelo knows nothing, but which are precious to Rembrandt, Goya, and Lucien Freud. In fact they are not bodies but people, whose bodies, like that of the risen Christ, tell the story of their struggle.

IMG_0404St. Paul wanted his Corinthians to know that their bodies were temples of the Holy Spirit. He taught that their bodies were mortal and therefore subject to decay, but open to an ultimate transformation into the splendour of spiritual bodies, through the power of God’s spirit. But even now, in the midst of their struggles, that Spirit would, if allowed, take up residence in their mortal bodies. “Therefore,” he urged, “honour God with your bodies.” A glimpse of ultimate splendour could be seen in the lives of ordinary people who were learning to love each other as children of God.

Peace to Paris Jackson, but I prefer St. Paul’s vision to hers.


One of the genuine illuminations in the history of my faith was the discovery, in my theological education, that “lead us not into temptation” was a misleading translation of Matthew chapter 6 verse 13. The Greek “peirasmon” certainly has the sense of “testing”, and while the Elizabethan “temptation” of the King James’ Version may have retained something of this sense, the modern use of the word does not. Modern translations which insist on the “testing” are more accurate: “Do not put us to the test”, / “Do not bring us into hard testing” give good impressions of the original, which may refer to the severe testing that life can bring at any time or to the supreme test that the end times of the world might bring.

Juliana after ‘gator test

In the Gosepl story, Jesus experiences his own arrest, trial, torture and murder as a supreme “test”, but has also been tested in his ministry by encounters with people in need as well as religious leaders trying to trip him up. In his suffering he wins through while not being ashamed to reveal his weakness and need; and in the tests of his ministry he copes marvellously, with every- ready compassion, wisdom and humour. He is always the one who is balanced, able to respond either with calm help or robust refutation. This aspect of Jesus’ character fascinates me, because I am always caught unawares by such tests, unsure of my capacity to help someone in need or to reply to sharp questioning. Afterwards, ah yes, afterwards, I can reconstruct an adequate response to need or a smart answer to a challenge, but by then the moment of testing has passed, and may not return in that form. The next test will be different and just as likely to find me wanting.

The alligaotor was shot

This is where ten year-old Juliana Ossa of Florida comes in. The other day ahe was swimming in two feet of water at Gatorland, Orlando, when a large alligator clamped its jaws on to her leg. She tried hitting it which didn’t work, but remembering what she had been taught on a previous visit to the park, she stuck two fingers up its nostrils so that the beast could not breathe. It unclamped her leg in order to breathe and she was able to escape with minor wounds. Wow! What coolness in the face of danger, what presence of mind under pressure, what a speedy, resolute response to a test!

I think I would have failed this test. Doubtless I would have struggled, while screaming for help, but I probably would not have remembered the relevant information, and if I had I would have delayed while trying go decide which fingers to use and how hard to push, by which time the alligator would have strolled off with half my leg. The incident also reminds me of all the occasions when I’ve rejected information because I thought it was an overload and unlikely ever to be needed. Once I was in the water I’d be thinking, “Now what was it the stewardess said about inflating the lifejacket or was that to do with blowing the whistle?” So if I’d remembered something about disabling alligators, I’d have been unsure whether to use fingers or toes.

So, as far as practical matters are concerned, Juliana Ossa should remain a aymbol of excellence. Anyone boasting their presence of mind should be asked to take the Juliana test. (Would we need wild ‘gators for this or would pet ones do?)

All this convinces me of the wisdom of Jesus’ prayer, that we should be spared hard testing. In the Gospels, Simon Peter is the one who is always saying, bring it on and I’ll be up for it, only to discover that he is unready. Jesus himself doesn’t meet his fate with the steely disdain of some heroes. Rather, he admits his unreadiness, seeks support from his friends, pleads with God. He doesn’t rush cheerfully to death but allows himself an honest weakness. Then indeed he meets the test, but he does not urge his followers to make light of what life may throw at us. For him, evil can happen, hurt can be done, suffering is real, and they can all break us. He does not expect us to be Superchristian, winning all battles. His prayer should inculcate a realistic humility about our own virtue.

Where your fingers go

That is not to deny that there may be tests that God wants us to meet and conquer, crucial challenges that either enable us to grow or disable us because we have run away from them in denial. Peter’s denial of Jesus seems to be like this, yet the Gospel tradition shows that even his unreadiness can be forgiven for the sake of the new person he can become. Even if God does not spare me a hard test, he may still spare me the consequences of my cowardice.  The prayer itself and Jesus’ forgiveness of the disciples who failed the test, should be a clear instruction his community to be realistic about its members’ ability to face tests, and compassionate to those who foul up, not for the sake of letting us off the hook, but in the hope that we may one day be as ready for our test as Jesus…… or Juliana.



I decided that I would talk to the church kids about food waste, and was doing some preparatory reading, only to discover that I had vastly underestimated the true extent of the problem. First of all, I had failed to appreciate how much waste, especially in poorer countries, is caused by inadequate harvesting and poor distribution. But I was amazed at the estimate of total annual food waste in the world: 1.3 billion tonnes and increasing. This means that about 30% of all farmland is producing food that will be wasted. 15 million tonnes are wasted annually in the UK, including almost a third of all lettuce and quarter of all bread. IMG_0396

There is an assumption that if we were not wasting so much we could feed all the starving people in the world. This may be no more factual than my mother’s assertion that the starving children of India might somehow benefit from the uneaten lettuce on my plate. Even then I wondered how she would get the lettuce to them, albeit she was a woman of outstanding determination. Nevertheless if the system can put guavas on my supermarket shelves it could probably make sure that available foodstuffs got to where they are most needed.

But the sheer quantity of waste is staggering, because it must be the unintended result of an equally huge communal carelessness. How did we get to be so bad at estimating the amount of food we need and so tolerant of packaging that forces us to buy quantities in excess of our requirements? The packaging isssue is the responsibility of the food trade, especially of supermarkets and is an example of the truth that capitalism is nothing to do with the needs of the buyer: the needs of the seller are much more important.

Domestic food waste on the other hand makes me much more uncomfortable, because my own household always has the heaviest food and packaging bins in the street. By far. We go through more bottles, more bags, more plastic containers, more cardboard boxes than anyone else, and consign more pasta, rice, bread, and vegetables – we are vegetarians – to the swill pail than the family next door with three kids. As we  would also claim to be good recyclers – good? We’re unbeatable-  with a concern for the planet, this is hard to explain and impossible to justify. And there’s more! There’s all the Internet purchase packages that are too big to go in the bins, which have to be taken to the tip by car. Where are we going wrong?Fresh Food In Garbage Can To Illustrate Waste

1. We don’t really plan our weekly eating but shop daily for our evening meal.

2. We try to stick to a veggie diet even when this means buying more than we need.

3. At least once a week we use ready meals, buying too much rather than too little.

4. We’re getting older and often find we can’t eat as much as we thought we would.

5. We are quite well-off and spend a greater proportion of our income on food than most people.

We’ve noted these behaviours and are trying to modify them, but I’m not sure that change will be either radical or speedy.

But we would like it to be.

The waste of food reveals a lack of appreciation of it; a carelessness that denies any reverence for gifts of nature or agriculture. People become consumers of food rather than eaters of their daily bread. The modesty of daily sustenance and the extravagance of occasional feasts are equally negated by routine overconsumption.

food waste compostingThe prayer of Jesus is relevant:

“Give us this day our daily bread”

1. It acknowledges that no matter how hard-earned, daily bread is a gift.

2. It speaks of “our bread”, that is, nourishment for the relevant community, rather than “my bread”. It includes a responsibility for sharing.

3. It is a daily prayer asking for daily provision. Of course it does not rule out wise storage, but it refers to the old story of the manna in the desert which couldn’t be gathered in bulk and stored because it became degraded after a day. If we try to secure all possible future supply we go against the teaching of Jesus.

4. It asks for bread not caviar. A slightly mocking phrase from my middle class Glaswegian culture comes to mind, “a modest sufficiency” is the ideal.


My title phrase was coined by a researcher into the life of bacteria within the human body. I grew up thinking of bacteria as enemies which had to be defeated by washing my hands before eating and after using the lavatory. But modern research has shown that the total number of genes in the human genome – 23, 000- is vastly outnumbered by the millions of bacterial genes in our bodies. The human gut alone contains 40,000 bacterial species and 100 trillion microbial cells. IMG_0390

Most of these cause us no harm, while a substantial proportion are beneficial. Research has also shown that bacteria provide maybe a quarter of the earth’s biomass, and occupy some of the most hostile of its environments. Because they are able to share their genes with one another, they can exchange information easily and adapt to change speedily, as we have seen in the emergence of bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Because these creatures are so small we have neglected until recently to study them and their relationship with their environment, including ourselves.

Of course, human beings have reacted to the new wave of bacterial research by latching on to its commercial possibilities. Think of all the so-called probiotic foods which are on sale, especially in the yoghurt aisle of the supermarket, promising with a load of pseudo – scientific gobbledygook to improve the bacterial balance of our guts. It would be a pity however if their exaggerations and misunderstandings put us off considering the results of genuine research.

The role of micro-organisms in the evolution of life is central. First of all they came into being and colonised the very unfriendly environment of the young planet. They did so by cooperation with each other, sharing their different abilities for the common cause of survival. Eventually the sharing cells seem to have joined together in one new kind of the cell named eukaryotic, which is the basis of all multicellular life including homo sapiens.IMG_0391

These clever creatures share my life, or maybe I share theirs. Being human includes being a bacterial zoo.

This is a revelation not provided by the first biblical account of creation, in which God’s creation of human beings in his own likeness is separated from the creation of all other life. We can see that account as a theological diagram rather than a description of how God did the job. The second account in Genenis is less exalted: God fashions some dust into a shape and breathes his life into it. Perhaps we can see this dust, a gramme of which contains millions of bacteria, as the source of bacterial life in humans.

The two accounts are not mutually exclusive: the first depicts the making of human beings as similar to the making of stone “likenesses” of themselves by contemporary rulers, to represent their presence in their distant territories; humans are meant to be images of God’s rule on the earth. The second depicts the actual origin of human beings, as of all beings, from the dust, the fertile dust of the planet, reminding men and women of all they share with the planet and its other life. Indeed the Genesis story tells how germane this reminder is, as it shows how human arrogance leads to expulsion from God’s garden into the familiar harshness of the world we inhabit, and threatens to make it uninhabitable.

Although I have responsibility to represent the rule  of God in the world, along with a range of skills which enable me to do so, I am also a composite creature, made of the soil of earth, sharing the life of innumerable tiny creatures. The latest science joins the Bible in directing me to a wise humility ( Latin: humus =dust), to realise the intimate ecology of my existence: I  am a shared life, whose continued health depends on my partners. I cannot simply be or do anything I want without an understanding of my place in the web of life. And the life I share is not only inside me, it does not end at my fingertips: my very breath is an exchange with the planet, and if I pollute it, I pollute myself.

IMG_0392This “dustiness” does not negate the revelation that I am made in the image of God, for God is the life which humbly shares itself with all creation; nor does it exempt me from the duty of representing God’s rule, which persuades all creation towards the perfection of shared goodnesss. Me and my microbes are called to cooperate.