If you asked me the cause of my addiction to football – evident in my readiness to watch a game anywhere from the local school pitches to the most obscure website for Bulgarian League matches – I would have to answer, “Because I played it.” This statement requires qualification: I played it as a child, teenager and young adult only; I played it badly; I played it with a heavy leather ball on gravel pitches which meant that a fall on the ground could remove the skin from exposed bodily surfaces; and I had to rely on referees whose commitment to sturdy bodily contact permitted violent assaults on the most tender of organs. I don’t think my testicles dared to descend into the war zone until I was 19 and a half. FC409FA2-9C2D-488B-AD1A-C378429745D2

Above all however, I played it in the football boots of the 1950’s. These were masterpieces of heavy leather with huge reinforced toecaps, designed to control opposing players rather than the ball. It was like playing the violin gloves on. No matter how much I admired Stanley Matthews, Gordon Smith or Willie Bauld, as long as I was wearing these boots, I was doomed to imitate Willie Woodburn, suspended sine die by the SFA in 1954 for “indiscipline”. Don’t whistle at me, I told the referee, whistle at the boots.

(On one occasion Woodburn came off the pitch and said to his manager, “Boss, I think I’ve got a broken leg.”

“Dearie me,” said the manager, “And whose is it?”)

But that makes me sound tougher than I was. Because I went to a rugby- playing school, my first experience of team football, apart from the street, was with the Life Boys, the junior branch of the Boys Brigade, from which I graduated age 12 to the Brigade. At that time the BB football league in Glasgow operated on the principle that the total age of a team should not exceed 158 years, which meant that if you wanted to include a 17 year old you had also to include a 12 year old. Nothing wrong with that you may say, but it meant that my 12 year old self had to face huge and sometimes skilful young adults bearing down on me with extreme prejudice.

I owed my immediate promotion into the team not to my skill but to my perfect qualifications for the unpopular left back position:

a) I could kick with my left foot

b) I had no attributes that would make me useful in any other position.

It’s reasonable to describe my performance in my first two games as execrable, and what’s more I knew it. Spotting my difficulties and my shame, the coach asked me what my problem was. “They’re bigger than me,” I told him, “And better.” He listened, went silent and then spoke, “Never mind son,” he said, “They’re playin’ wi’ the same baw!”

E4054C28-D5FC-43E3-B2D0-F69826E9CEFE
Jimmy Johnstone

This hit me with the force of a revelation. The same baw! Forget their size and skill, and focus on the ball. Forget their height and strength, just look at that ball and aim for it. I became a relentless tackler, and won it often enough to realise that when I got it I’d no idea what to do with it. Still, all those kids who could dribble and pass were playing with the same baw. I could learn how to do the same. And slowly, I did.

Perhaps that’s the reason why, although I’m built big, my favourite footballers are small, from Jimmy Johnstone to Luka Modric, because their focus on the ball has more than compensated for their size. It may also explain why I refused to support either of the Glasgow biggies  and gave my heart to the late lamented Third Lanark.

Of course, the coach’s words were not only a revelation about football, but also about  faith. My Christianity is based on love of Jesus and the challenge of becoming like him. Salvation, sanctification, justification, are just so much mystification as far as I’m concerned. For me what matters is the historical life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the gospel call to be like him. Meaning to be like him in his love of God, his championing of the poor, the sinner, the outcast, while offering affectionate honesty to the rich, the righteous and the establishment; his astonishing openness to whomsoever encountered him; his readiness to pour out his life, generously, joyfully, completely.

But, “to be like him” – isn’t that a destination too far for a grubby, selfish, greedy, lying git like me? How can I have the impertinence to demean the character of the son of God, by saying I want to be like him? It’s a bit like me at the age of nine announcing I wanted to be like Ferenc Puskas because I’d seen him play at Hampden.

But the coach’s wisdom applies here also. “Never mind son,”he would say, “Jesus was playing wi’ the same baw.” And that’s true, because in spite of the repeated mess the Christian Church has made of his nature, Jesus was a human being. Like me. Like you. Like Lionel Messi. He was playing with the same baw, namely, his human self, and on the same pitch, namely, this world. If he could do it, I can do it, my neighbour can do it, even Donald Trump can do it. And if, however hard I try, I don’t get there, I don’t need to worry about displeasing God, since Jesus taught that God is delighted with his children, regardless.

CD9BE124-1085-416D-AA20-359A9F3C9F90
Luka Modric

As Third Lanark supporters always knew, it isn’t winning that counts, it’s the faith that you might. As they used to ask,

”Why are Third Lanark players planting potatoes round the edge of the pitch?”

”So that they have something to lift at the end of the season!”

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

B9CFD853-4081-4DC2-B98A-40AB5B5AFFE8

She is a black miracle once thought to be one of the last birds

to evolve because of her intelligence

but now known to be older than apes. Of all her family,

only she and the raven are black all over

but her physique is is slighter and more elegant

while still sufficiently powerful

to attack a herring gull, as she does now, while I watch her

pestering its head so that it releases

the small prawn from its beak, allowing her male partner

to swoop and catch it midair. She caws triumphantly,

waiting for him to finish the morsel

and take his turn in her role, so that she can do the swooping.

ARKive image ARK009740 - Carrion crow

When they have plundered sufficiently

she flaps lazily upwards until she floats above him

then dives straight down at his eyeballs

nearer and nearer till he slides quietly sideways

dropping towards her, talons extended,

shrieking with mock rage. They have been five years together

and fledged five broods, he feeding her

while she incubated the five or seven or once ten eggs,

she hunting as well as him to fill the gaping

red throats of the ever-ready feathered stomachs

that in time were birds, wanting to walk

on the air, that she sent out and mustered daily,

made them play follow my leader

to learn where to find snails and where then to drop them

from a height and to wait for human beings

to discard food through the windows of parked cars.

She teaches a hundred strategies

knowing that knowledge is life and the air always friendly

to her families and freedom for her

to display the gentle rise on the thermals and the delicate

nudge of wings as she glides easily

sure that there will always be food, so now there is leisure

to enjoy the splendour of crowness

by which she inspires her fledglings and honours her maker.

17F39D29-A5B1-467D-90D3-7933B14245BA

 

 

This morning I came across the newly published New Testament, translated by David Bentley Hart, Yale University Press. It has some features which the author claims to be unique:

1. It has no theological bias

2. It translates the Greek as it is, bad Greek into bad English, good into good, without correction or improvement.

3.It therefore recognises the various styles of different books.

4. It tries to give its readers an impression of a Greek text of the 1st or 2nd century, rather than of a revered holy book.5D5525B5-CD86-4754-8F23-BA9FEEF09668

These are interesting features which the author faithfully provides, although I suspect that the first is a little less honest than the others, even if his bias is more interesting than that of some popular versions. I think he’s less alone in his method than he thinks. Certainly Nicholas King has attempted the same kind of thing in his vivid version of the New Testament, ( Mayhew) and Sarah Ruden has been posting on her blog fascinating glimpses of her work on the Gospels. Both of these are, I think, better equipped as translators than Hart, whose work is nevertheless revelatory and challenging. He shows for example that Paul says that God will judge us by our actions, and that he never says anything about predestination. He represents Paul’s maddening disregard of sentence structure and his occasional coarseness. By refusing to translate the Greek logos (word) in John chapter 1 he draws the readers’ attention to the fact that this is a concept which has no equivalent in English. He avoids translating the Greek Christos as Christ or Messiah and gives its literal sense as “anointed (one)”.

Readers who want something nearer the original than the versions used in church will learn a great deal from this new translation although they should look carefully at every sentence that describes God’s punishment of the wicked. Hart is convinced that none of these speak of ‘eternal” or “everlasting” punishment; I’m not so sure. Like Hart I want to reject the theology of eternal punishment, but I’ve always felt I was contradicting scripture. Perhaps in this instance his own theological bias is evident.

The main virtue of Hart’s translation is that it exposes the prevailing dishonesty of the most prestigious translations, which tidy up poor syntax, cover up gaps or confusions in the manuscripts, protect key church doctrines by their choice of words, and generally present the “Word of God” rather than a batch of early Christian writings, most of which are undated and anonymous, some of which are attributed to people who were not their authors, and many of which are written in barely literate Greek. The Greek New Testament is as the author suggests, a wild and offensive book.

It is also the book I love the best, because it provides early evidence of the historical impact of the life of Jesus of Nazareth on Jews and Gentiles. The theological bias of my church (Calvinist) led to biased translation (KJV) and a skewed interpretation which failed to do justice to the mystery and majesty of Jesus, as described in the original. No, we cannot be sure that every story about Jesus is historically accurate, or every description of him justified. But we can take the whole book as an accurate image of the memory of Jesus cherished in early church assemblies, and as a witness of his meaning for them. This does not justify my trust in Jesus as the definitive revelation of God, but it enables it, tests it and feeds it.1369A371-0D47-4DCA-B8E5-69D7CEFEE282

The assemblies of Jesus,amongst whom the writings were produced and circulated, were both extravagant and down to earth in their devotion to Jesus: extravagant in that they thought him the key to the meaning of the cosmos and were happy to risk their lives for his sake; down to earth in their readiness to make their wealth communal, so that the poor could enjoy the blessing promised by Jesus. Their pictures of him continue to be revelatory to me. How on earth did he manage to be ready for so many different people and their needs? His very occasional unreadiness, as in the story of the Canaanite woman he called a dog, shows how seldom he faltered, how frequently he met the need. And why can’t I be like that?

Any new translation of the New Testament is an addition to biblical scholarship, but it is also a stimulus to informed discipleship of Jesus. Blessings on David Bentley Hart!

 

The smart reviews that tell me what the chattering classes are reading, have publicised the publication of a book by one Margaret Magnusson on the Swedish art of Döstädning, which means “Death Cleaning”. This does not mean taking a bath before you snuff it, in the spirit of my mother who always advised clean underwear in case I was run over by a tram, when such cleanliness would preserve the family honour; nor does it mean the cleaning of my abode by my next of kin after my death.  It is in fact the daily practice of keeping nothing that might be a burden and/ or an embarrassment to my family after my death. Around the age of forty I should begin to clear out such items so that I can die with a good conscience knowing that my treasured collection of Japanese erotic drawings has been safely donated to the Church of Scotland Naughty Ministers’ Archive.

I find this very Swedish in its orderly rationality, and also in its benign assumption that I would want to spare my family either work or embarrassment. I might guess that far from neing embarrassed by post- mortem revelations, they would in fact be entertained by finding me the same in death as in life. Were they shockable I might still want to tease their sensitive souls with the letter which proves my missionary great grandmother had an affair with a Congolese cannibal, from whom we are all descended.

Of course the death cleaning is also meant to apply to possessions which are no longer useful or desirable, as these will simply add to the labour of those who are clearing my house post mortem meum. It is suggested that unwanted books might be regularly given to friends or neighbours. Mmn? Would this really be an act of charity, or might it be the end of decent relationships. After a while, seeing me coming, they would turn off the TV and hide in the cupboard under the stair, whispering, “Oh no! First it was ‘Teach Yourself Origami” then it was ‘ Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason’; what on earth can it be this time? The ‘Complete Artichoke Grower’?”

I can see that the Swedish art might be useful with certain bits of furniture. Not that my house is over-stocked with these. My wife will bear witness that I have asked disapprovingly, “Do we really need chairs in the lounge? Can’t we move them from the kitchen if we have visitors?” But from time to time we have been given furniture by dear ones which turned out to be worse than the gap they filled. Like the “champagne chesterfield” donated by my mother which turned out to be a very big beige sofa made by Wartime Replicas Ltd. It sat in the lounge, large and unloved, until the cat peed on it and it had to be put down.

I suppose that döstädning arose because Swedes are dutiful consumers, making purchases at the rate approved for socially responsible capitalists, from art and music shops, from Habitat and Ikea, and from intelektual bøkstøres. Without doubt this might require fairly regular uncluttering. It seems not to have occurred to them that you could decide not to clutter things up in the first place; refuse to consume anything other than food and drink, and purchase mainly items that you needed and that might last.

Nevertheless I suspect I have not heard the end of death cleaning, and that people and publications which are attuned to the Zeitgeist will talk about, and perhaps start doing it. Just at the very time when Government cuts have minimised our recycling services. At the risk of sounding smug, I ought to leave my readers with some genuine wisdom on this topic:

Matthew 6

25 ( Jesus said) “Therefore, I tell you, don’t worry about your life — what you will eat or drink; or about your body — what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds flying about! They neither plant nor harvest, nor do they gather food into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth more than they are? 27 Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to his life?

28 “And why be anxious about clothing? Think about the fields of wild irises, and how they grow. They neither work nor spin thread, 29 yet I tell you that not even Shlomo in all his glory was clothed as beautifully as one of these. 30 If this is how God clothes grass in the field — which is here today and gone tomorrow, thrown in an oven — won’t he much more clothe you? What little trust you have!

31 “So don’t be anxious, asking, ‘What will we eat?,’ ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘How will we be clothed?’ 32 For it is the pagans who set their hearts on all these things. Your heavenly Father knows you need them all. 33 But seek first his Kingdom and his justice and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Don’t worry about tomorrow — tomorrow will worry about itself! Today has enough problems already!

People who follow this teaching would not need döstâding.

In the old days when ministers held communicants classes – nowadays new believers tend  not to come in batches- I had a  class of ten young people and one man in his eighties. When I asked them to say why they had decided to take this step now, he answered, “I thought it was time to study for my finals…”

Maybe it’s time for me to do the same. This week for example I’ve been busy as a locum minister and therefore been too tired to write a blog. It’s not so very long ago that I was working almost full-time yet hardly ever missed a blog. W.B Yeats asked in a poem, “Who could have foretold / that the heart grows old?” I think my heart is reasonably young, but my brain?

These intimations of mortality have been encouraged by hearing on the radio a short extract from Bach’s Cantata 82, which sings of death in the character of Simeon, the faithful old man who received and blessed the child Jesus when he was presented in the Temple, saying:

Now Lord you let your servant depart in peace

according to your word

for my eyes have seen your salvation

which you have prepared in the presence of all people:

a light to enlighten the Gentiles

and to be a glory of your people Israel.DB62C402-EE34-4FDD-909D-836E5568411F

Bach’s text takes this incident and generalises it as a moment in the faith of all believers:

1.Aria

Ich habe genug,
Ich habe den Heiland, das Hoffen der Frommen,
Auf meine begierigen Arme genommen;
Ich habe genug!

It is enough.
I have held the Savior, the hope of all peoples,
In the warm embrace of my arms.
It is enough.

Ich hab ihn erblickt,
Mein Glaube hat Jesum ans Herze gedrückt;
Nun wünsch ich, noch heute mit Freuden
Von hinnen zu scheiden.

I have seen him,
My faith has impressed Jesus on my heart;
Now I wish this very day
To depart from here with joy.

2
Recitativo
Ich habe genug.
Mein Trost ist nur allein,
Dass Jesus mein und ich sein eigen möchte sein.
Im Glauben halt ich ihn,
Da seh ich auch mit Simeon
Die Freude jenes Lebens schon.
Laßt uns mit diesem Manne ziehn!
Ach! möchte mich von meines Leibes Ketten
Der Herr erretten;
Ach! wäre doch mein Abschied hier,l
Mit Freuden sagt ich, Welt, zu dir:
Ich habe genug.

It is enough.
My one consolation is this:
That I am Jesus’ beloved and he is mine.
In faith, I hold him.
For in Simeon, I already see
The joy of life to come.
Let us go forth with Simeon!
Ah! if only the Lord
Would free me from my body’s enslavement;
Ah! if indeed my liberation were soon,
With joy I would say to you, O World,
It is enough.

3
Aria
Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen,
Fallet sanft und selig zu!

Slumber, my weary eyes,
Fall softly and close in contentment.

Welt, ich bleibe nicht mehr hier,
Hab ich doch kein Teil an dir,
Das der Seele könnte taugen.

O World, I will linger here no more.
For indeed, I find nothing in you
Pleasing to my soul.

Hier muss ich das Elend bauen,
Aber dort, dort werd ich schauen
Süßen Friede, stille Ruh.

Here I am resigned to misery,
But there, there I shall feel
Sweet peace and quiet rest.

4
Recitativo
Mein Gott! wann kömmt das schöne: Nun!
Da ich im Friede fahren werde
Und in dem Sande kühler Erde
Und dort bei dir im Schoße ruhn?
Der Abschied ist gemacht,
Welt, gute Nacht!

My God! When will I hear that precious word: “Now!”
Then I will depart in peace,
And rest both here in the humus of the cool earth
And there within your bosom.
My departure is at hand,
O World, good night!

5
Aria
Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod,
Ach, hätt er sich schon eingefunden.

With gladness, I look forward to my death,
(Ah! if only it had already come.)

Da entkomm ich aller Not,
Die mich noch auf der Welt gebunden.

Then shall I escape all despair
That still enslaves me now on earth.3B82A926-7F90-4CE6-A3F2-8A9E664AA061

————————————-

I guess that although I’ve always liked this Cantata for its music, I often dismissed its text in the past as a typical piece of Lutheran piety, dating from an era when life expectancy was about half what it is now. This time however, I began to study the piece, by listening to a variety of recorded versions, of which my favourites are by Dietrich Fischer- Dieskau and Lorrraine Hunt Lieberson. As I listened, I realised that Bach had found an interpretation of Simeon as the man who knows he has fulfilled his purpose on earth, the task for which he has been born, and is therefore free to approach his death as a sleep and a liberation from the ills of life. Of course, all of this is the product of his faith in Jesus, whom he has held in his arms, as the Messiah expected by his people, who will open faith in God to all people.

The first aria expresses Simeon’s sense of fulfillment in the ambiguous words, It is enough, which cover both the burdens of life and the unique joy of holding the infant saviour, who is impressed on his heart by faith. The second aria is a lullaby which urges the believer to accept much- needed rest and peace. The final aria dances its way towards death as the end of all unhappiness. It is an astonishing work of art for a comparatively young composer, depicting a complex character with great brevity through profound and varied music. It also has the  grace of simplicity – more than 250 years after its composition it still invites the listeners to enter a musical world which is strange yet like enough the world they normally inhabit to pierce the heart with its truth. Is it possible that the death which I have always seen as an enemy, can in certain circumstances, be a friend?

But surely it’s a con to compare my experience of life with that of Simeon, who has carried Christ, the hope of the world in his arms? Yes, it is; yet the insidious music asks me if my years are not enough for me. Whom have I lifted in my human arms, if not Christ, the One present in all my loved ones and all my needy ones? Have I not seen him and is he not impressed on my heart? As I begin to open myself to this truth, the music delivers its most terrible invitation, that I may close my tired eyes and find rest. I didn’t know how tired they were until the invitation to rest was made and repeated with such gentle insistence, breaking my instinctive distrust of anything other than a resolved endurance. Then finally, having seduced me into an acceptance of final rest, the music wakes me up into a new kind of courage, which allows my spirit to keep dancing on the way to the “now” of death, whenever it comes. A tiny alteration, the movement from a the minor key of courage into the major key of victory, happens in the very last note of the cantata.

Perhaps this is the kind of memento mori (reminder of death) which can help me to live creatively as an older person. It asks me what more I can want than what I’ve been given; who has been handed into my arms if not Christ; how much I need rest; and how little death is to be feared, in the dance of faith.

 

 

This is my first extremejesus blog of 2018, although you will find that my bible blog continues also on emmock.com.

When I started this blog with its image of Dundee culture hero Desperate Dan, who like Jesus is always on the side of the underdog, I was immediately concerned with the analysis of the British Government that any public discourse promoting a narrative different from its own, should be seen as extreme. It struck me that almost any narrative based on Jesus would do just that, challenging the government’s lazy sense of entitlement to righeousness, and in particular the righteouness it was claiming in its dealings with Muslim nations.

This blog, therefore has always had political commitments, which are probably well-known to its regular readers, and will continue to be expressed in the face of the neo-imperial nonsense spouted by Boris Johnson and those in charge of our foreign policy. But the blog has not been exclusively political. It has often discussed matters of social and personal morality, as well as trying to construct a theology which does justice to Christian insights on moral as well as political issues.

Today I want to note something which I have observed very recently, in helping bereaved relatives plan funeral services for their loved ones: hardly anyone any longer believes the Christian teaching about eternal life. This is an observation not a criticism. When I say, they don’t believe, I’m not reporting that they said so, quite the reverse, in fact: many of them express  a kind of half-humorous acknowledgement of popular faith in the afterlife, by which the deceased may be imagined as continuing his favourite pastimes “up there.” Any notion of eternal life as a gift of God, related to trust in Jesus Christ and membership of the visible or invisible church is conspicuous by its a absence. Maybe God does offer life after death, but if he does, that’s what he’s there for; it’s his job.

This is linked to the notion of the funeral service as a ‘celebration of life’ rather than  an act of mourning for the dead. It is often confused or conflated with the notion of a memorial gathering for the deceased where loved ones and colleagues will deliver eulogies. I am wholly in favour of such gatherings, perhaps some weeks after a funeral. But a Christian funeral deals with the fact of death and the mystery of human entry into the life of God. Celebration is not absent, and does touch on the way the deceased has made her human journey, but it primarily expresses joy in God  as the giver and renewer of life. It does not offer any automatic blessing of worldly life, but suggests that we a strangers and sojourners on the earth.

For many people, also, any statement that God might not simply offer this to all comers, but only via trust in Jesus Christ, would be regarded as outrageous and offensive, leading to an immediate appeal to the celestial department of equal opportunities. My own Church of Scotland is a national church that promises to provide the ordinances of religion to all residents of the land, and for this reason many who are not church members ask for a funeral conducted by a clergyman or woman. Perhaps throughout the centuries the church could assume that people knew what they were asking for. Now it seems more likely that ministers will adjust their words to conceal rather than declare the gospel of Jesus.

Let me be clear. I’m sure that God offers eternal life to all creatures, and does not limit the offer to those who have heard of, or put their conscious trust in, Jesus. Trust in Jesus is a provocation to accept God’s life, but many who lack the trust accept the life. My sad experience is that there are those who do not want the life and will always try to refuse it, because they hate it. Perhaps God will ultimately persuade them, but I know he will not force them to leave the darkness they have chosen.

There is then, in the Gospel, a kind of universalism that justifies ministers offering the hope of eternal life to those who have not managed to find faith in Jesus. But this has to be declared in a context which allows it to be received as more than a conventional gesture towards ‘the man upstairs.’ The Roman Catholic requiem mass is such a context, but I remain doubtful if the average 25 minute service at a crematorium, topped and tailed by the deceased’s favourtite pop music, is.

Churches should perhaps encourage the use of their own buildings and traditions of worship, for all funerals, so that its gospel for people who are grieving has a chance of being heard. Even then it will still be important for ministers to resist the immense cultural pressure to trivialise death, and therefore, life also.