ODE TO THE BIRCH TREE IN THE GARDEN

 

Anyone can tell you’re a right beauty, an arbor-e-al stottir.

How was it that elegant white trunk with paper bark got to

Rise so sinuously vertical, and that other main limb climb

With it in perfect counterpoint? Each new branch has mimed

Its neighbours’ posture, curving more steeply as your height too

Increased, making an outline so classical that if you asked Plato

To draw the perfect form of a tree he’d have made an image mate to

Yours, the same inscribed on every leaf by its veins. Photosynthesis

Is their gift to you and me as they convert the energies

Of light into the sugars you require as food, and release

Oxygen to the planet. Simultaneously they decrease

The levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by fixing

It as carbohydrate. There’s an equation for this mixing:

CO2 plus H2 0 plus LIGHT gives CH2 0 plus O2

This is one of the ancient bases of life, and and woe to

The civilisation that neglects it. Below ground, invisibly

Your roots make common cause with varieties of sibling

Fungi to map the soil, communicate with other trees and find

the moisture needed by your leaves, that are designed

To suck it upwards by making a vacuum as they vaporise it.

Systems of events connected by a pattern are realised

In every cell and tree and poet but seldom with such beauty

As you show now. An end of summer fullness suits you:

The suave dark greenness over the simple white

Of your trunk gives me, in these bright September days,

A cause for gratitude and evokes my praise.

 

Note: “Stottir” is a Scots word for a person of great attractiveness, usually a young woman.

 

 

 

ODE TO DONALD

You had a natural grace that I lacked when we were teenagers,

Your physical habit not so much muscly as lean, braver

Than mine, quick, sure and rhythmic, as in your dancing

While I was clumpy. Even when you were chancing

Your arm with lassies, they trusted your straightforwardness.

Do you remember the spot by the Calder where the river pressed

Between two mighty rocks 15 feet high, 6 feet apart at the top? That’s

Where you challenged me to jump across. I’d have turned you down flat

Had it been us alone but there was a crowd to shame me,

So I said,”You go first” looking down at the torrent that could maim me,

And you did, leaping out to totter on the far edge, steady

Yourself, and grin back at me. “No thanks,” I said, “I’m not ready

To die today,” accepting defeat, although at other times I

Was drawn to share your daft and dangerous gallantry.

 

Now you walk with difficulty and your short-term memory

Is nil. You recognise me but the recognition is temporary

And must be re-enforced with stories from the past. Yet our joy

In one another is not dimmed and the laughter of boys

Flickers on old faces. I worry that maybe there’s not much left

Of you as you struggle to make words work, you who were as deft

With words as with music. Then you smile at your wife, and I know

Behind the damage of disease your soul is still complete. Like the slow

Movement of Beethoven’s Quartet 135, where the lovely first

Melody develops then degenerates into broken bursts

Of harmony portending closure; but now unmistakably the cello

Lays down the tune in the bass, pristine and true, its mellow

Timbre affirms,”It’s me.”

                                            Old friend, we’re both near

The last river and I know if you go first, you’ll leap over

With as much pizzaz as at the Calder and backwards grin with pride

Encouraging me to jump in the hope that there is another side.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ODE TO THE DISCARDING OF UPPER BODY GARMENTS BY MEN

You know that it’s real fine weather in Dundee when they go naked

To the waist, the young men. Maybe they refuse to fake it

With sun-bed tanning but want the sun to bronze their bodies;

Or maybe they are happy to expose their physique like Gods, yes,

Or Greek heroes, even although, being Scots, they’re a bit skinnier

Than those, but tasty enough to tempt the girls judge who’s a winner.

This lady is fifty but her tongue between her lips shows what

She’s thinking while she looks at the lads on the scaffold caught

By a shaft of sunlight, muscles flexing, and hears them say

To all and sundry,”Taps aff! Taps aff! It’s a taps aff day!”

 

Then I’ve seen in Madrid, sophisticated city, in the Puerta del Sol

Where elegant business women in striped suits and high heels stroll,

A noisy troop of football supporters, half- naked, all ages,

Dances past Philip the Third, who remains unimpressed, while it assuages

Its thirst from bottles of San Miguel. Later their team is playing Atlético

But now they are everybody’s friend, they come in peace, and show

It by offering to share their drink with passersby, begging locals

Of both genders to dance with them.  A young woman joins these yokels

Extemporising a flamenco while they clap and call and sway

Ecstatically, “Taps aff! Taps aff! It’s a Taps aff day.”

 

When the Lord decides to blow that horn and rouse the dead to glory

When the oppressors’ mouths are shut and the oppressed can tell their story

When the poor will dine off golden plates and the rich will fry in hell

True justice will be established and all things shall be well.

Sinful saints of all religions and of none will laugh at being there

Where Jesus and Mohammed with Buddha and Confucius share

Perpetual joy and light. And if the gates of heaven are wide enough

For me to sneak in too, I’ll be disappointed if I do not see buff

Lads from all the nations who’ve learned from ours to say

“Taps aff! Taps aff angels! It’s a Taps aff day.”

 

 

ODE TO SUNSET

The clouds are grey above a pale gold strip of sunlight

This spring dusk at Ardmair Bay, the glow mirrored on the quiet

Water. It’s been a day of rain and shine, now ending with the promise

Of fine weather tomorrow. As I watch, the sky fades from this

Shade to something more like white, as the day ebbs. But look out!

As the sun descends out of clouds there’s a sudden shout

Of yellowness that echoes around the bay and sends its arrow

Across the ripples. Fire dances on the horizon and upon the narrow

Headland of the promontory as the  Summer Isles in silhouette

Blacken. Now the sun bleeds slowly into the sea and sets,

Its glory making the grey clouds and the still bay red.

The earth is hushed and shining, the day dead.

ODE TO SMIRR

I always liked it. As a boy, walking down Bothwell Street to Central

Station I felt it wipe my face clean while others went mental

Putting up hoods or brollies. Not bothered by being damp I welcomed

Its gentle persistence. When I watched Third Lanark it gummed

My hair to my head but didn’t spoil my view of Jimmy Mason

Sliding the ball to the winger. You could see its evaporation

From caps and jackets when the sun came out. Mind you

I didn’t wear specs then. Now that I do, I know it’s a bind you

Can only solve if you carry a cloth to wipe them, which I never

Have. Last week on the hill I felt it fall light as a feather

Over summit, corrie, ridge and shoulder, softening their contours

But not erasing them, so that I could move inside it with a sure

Sense of direction, washed and wakened by the cool water;

A secular grace granted by this small rain called smirr.

ODE TO SCOTTISH HOTELS

 

They have their own language: THIS HISTORICAL BUILDING IS

THE PERFECT COMBINATION OF VICTORIAN SOLIDNESS

AND MODERN INSPIRED STYLE ( tacky tart-up of property

Unfortunately protected by law) YOUR ADVENTURE STARTS HERE (we

May get out alive) BREATHE THE REFRESHING SEA AIR (or die).

YOUR ROOM IS YOUR SANCTUARY WHERE YOU MAY LIE

BACK (and count the orgasms next door) CONTEMPORARY DESIGN

WITH A NOD TO TRADITION (almost impossible to align

Your body and the mirror but there is a bed.) UNINHIBITED

VIEWS WITH LARGE BATHROOMS (say no more). EACH FITTED

WITH DIFFERENT EXTRAS (from remaindered stock) SEEP

INTO THE RICH CARPET (so that’s the strange smell) RELAX AND SLEEP

THE BEST SLEEP OF YOUR LIFE (or listen to the argument in the street;

My wife asks, are these Gaelic words?)  VISIT THE MADONNA LOUNGE BAR

WHERE WE OFFER A CURATED SELECTION OF WINES BEERS AND SPIRITS (Rrrr

You idiot, allow me to give you a curated selection of Scots words for fool,

You eejit, bampot, numptie, you roaster, nugget, bawheid, tool,

Who do you imagine is reading this nonsense? Little Miss Muffet

Or Little Lord Fauntleroy? Sensible people will tell you  to sit on your tuffet

While the lassie on reception (whose pay is a tenth of yours) gives them the gen

About the hotel. “It’s no bad and the beds are comfy with a couple of Nurofen”

“The food is good but the Maitre D is away wi’ the goalie” “If you want to tip

Someone put the cash in their hand.” They book her hotel for their trip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* William McGonagall 19th century bad poet

My muse is a lady of inconvenient truths and laughter;

Here we present an ode to Monifieth Beach and Its water,

Stating clearly the facts about this popular facility –

Something beyond the Scottish Environment Protection Agency’s ability.

There’s space for cars, a play park and a promenade

With views across the firth of Tay to Fife. There, bikini-clad

A youngish woman with a child in hand came past my car emoting,

“The notice says that water quality’s good but I saw it floating

Past me!” “What was that?” I dared to ask her. “What was that ? I’ll tell ye,

It was a jobbie! Swimming past  just inches from my belly

Which is bad enough but it could have been the wee lad’s mouth!”

I told her that could happen with a wind in the south

Or south east blowing the sewage back on shore. “But fuck,”

She said, “ on a recommended beach ye shouldnae have tae duck

Big brownies!” I told her that Scottish Water was allowed to discharge

Untreated sewage in an emergency but usually there not many large

Pieces, which you could at least avoid; but the more common fecal bacteria-

It might be days before the symptoms started. “I don’t want to weary you,”

I said, “ But although the Scottish Agency says the beach is good to go,

The European Union calls it “poor”. There are a number of local sewage treatment

Plants feed into local burns that feed the river which is not sweetened

Thereby, but most users think it pretty rather than polluted.”

“Shite,” she said, “I call it shite an’ my voice ‘ll no’ be muted!”

 

Some people are absolute in their judgements. John Calvin for example,

The 16th century Presbyterian reformer refused to let anyone trample

On the Word of God which revealed that human nature is utterly

Corrupted by Original Sin. Reading him I tend to start muttering

About innocent children and decent unbelievers. I prefer

a more nuanced view of sinfulness than his. To err

Is human, to forgive divine, a decent balance of responsibility.

When people argued so, John Calvin opened a window on his city

Square, saying,“Look at them!” (Humans) I think this theologian might be

An admirer of the woman who knew what was in the sea.

ODE TO EXERCISE

 

In my eightieth year, I still go to the sports-field every day to sprint,

-Usain’s record’s not in danger- interval training, 15 times 100 metres , by dint

Of which I keep fit, at least when not suffering muscle strain or tendonitis.

Meanwhile the world trains all around me. On the dot of 9am my sight is

Caught by Blue Pru dashing to the nearby beach to plunge hugely

In the firth 365 days a year, while Glam Sam is no stooge as he

Lycras his carbon racer on the coastal path. Penelope lopes on her five mile

Circuit past Wavy Davey curled in a perfect Plough on the organic pile

Of his yoga mat. By 10am we’re on our way to showers but other heroes

Take our place on grass and sea and trail. Wow! Our existential fear knows

If we don’t move forward, time will catch us, so we push the soft machine

To maximise its function every day. Half-concealed by Time we see the clean

White coat of Death who notes our  BM Index and our sweat with a nasty

Grin, confident that we will all one day be his however fast we

Run. I add an extra sprint to give him the forks and he applauds

Politely saying,”only 1 second 35 slower than yesterday.” The odds

Are stacked against us. But for us resisters of gym and studio,

Outdoor exercisers, there’s something beyond any change of mood you

Ever felt, when you cease to be this person with high blood pressure

And a pension, and become a creature moving with the leisure

To feel simple motion as one with that of gull, of hedgehog and of leaf,

Just that, finding the ineptitude of the body and the grief

Of selfhood annihilated. Here nothing blames and nothing flatters.

You’re going to die of course, but that no longer matters.

 

 

 

ODE TO SUPERMARKETS DURING PANDEMIC

 

Three supermarkets are the glad recipients of my grey pound:

Righteous places all of them, for they impose an order you’re bound

To follow, starting with fresh fruit and salads and ending

Somewhere with the water; and in between the bakery, sending

Its aromas from deep within the store, seductively. It seemed stupid,

The P.M. telling them to feed the nation during lockdown, but they did

And well, without incompetence or dubious contracts for their pals.

The logic of their usual trade extended easily to the rituals

Of hygiene, hand-wash, one-way aisles and distancing. We obeyed,

Since lovely men and women put themselves at risk while paid

Miserably, yet remained cheerful with us at the shelves or till.

The necessary chore became almost a pleasure, that’s a miracle

We could use more of. Some sense of civic virtue inhabited these sheds

Which not everybody liked or lived by. Yes, there were the usual neds

Drunk and buying tinnies; but more significantly, single, sober people

Who trashed the rules. A massive woman, trolley a crazy steeple

Of toilet rolls (maximum purchase 3 but she had 30) was unapologetic

When challenged by the staff: “All these rules are just pathetic-

I don’t see what’s wrong with looking out for your self, so you can stick it.”

A small elderly lady looked her in the face and said, “That’s because you’re wicked.”

 

ODE TO THE STRAWBERRY

 

 

A good one is improbably delicious, you bite into this effervescent

Sweetness with an aftertaste of not too much sweetness, meant

To make you eat and excrete the seeds, so that more strawberries

Will grow, a strategy shared with other fruiting plants like cherries.

First there was a small green plant with colourless fruit, discovering

That if only the fruit was red and sweet those creatures hovering

Around on wings or legs would seize, devour and shit the living

Seeds  where they might thrive. The wild berry, though small, is tasty-

You could call it a symbol of the plant’s determination, its face to

The future. Then human beings by craft and grafting maximise

The berry for their own delight, because savouring it we want a size

That fills the mouth, a symbol of our aggressive partnership

With nature. The European girls and lads who come to strip

Our plants each summer, I see them walking down my street

Young, fit, brown and paired – see this couple now, their feet

Almost dancing! From this tough adventure they go home enriched

With money and memories. Scots too, come maytime, used to switch

From school or unemployment to the Berries, joining travellers and farm

Hands on the rows of planted fruits they knew as dreels. No harm

To anyone but you had to watch for gypsies stealing your picks. Or the weigher

Hiding the scales from you when you brought him your pail. All-dayers

Who kept their heads down and gathered steadily were scorned

As grubbers, while you might eat a few and talk. You’d been warned

Not to, but if the farmer had not given you fair pay you’d piss

In the final fruit pail before you handed it in. Ah, in the midst

Of poverty in Dundee or Romania there was and is something merry

For hard-pressed people in the harvest of the strawberry.

 

 

ODE TO THE HORIZON

 

For a person of average height the horizon is about 3 miles

From the beach. Climb vertically upwards in repeated trials

And the distance to the horizon increases swiftly. You can watch a ship

Vanishing or appearing over it, or you can take a boat-trip

Towards it, only to find it always remains the same distance

From you, like trying to find the rainbow’s gold, no chance.

Analysis of early human habitation here shows most traces

on the coast, where humans navigated leaving as little space as

Possible between their boat and land. Going where land fell

Below the horizon was fearful requiring other means to tell

You where you were. The Phoenicians, best navigators

In ancient Europe, steered first by landmarks, later

By the stars, the Pole Star especially, letting them sail beyond

Horizons to Africa and Cornwall, waters whIch however are a pond

Compared with the South Pacific where Polynesians in nothing bigger

Than rafts and catamarans with crab-claw sails and outrigger

 Canoes slid over thousands of sea miles. Skill and invention

Were of course needed, but think of the courage, not to mention

Contempt for boundaries, of those who knew the world didn’t have

An edge to drop off and heard the tales of dragons with a laugh.

 

Thinking has horizons that define the limits of reason enabling

Us map the landmarks of reality, but when the fabled

Strangers make landfall, when Phoenicians come with spice from Babel

Or Polynesians want to settle with us, can we cope? Or will

Our certainty they don’t exist, our knowledge they are nil

Make us obliterate them? From beyond the horizon they spill

Over, with names like Pandemic, Racial Justice, World Peace, yes, that odd,

Facts and Global Warming, Fire and Flood and Famine, God.

 

ODE TO THE OWNERS OF CLEAN CARS

 

Down here, on the cycle path below the dual- carriageway

I sometimes get hit by the detritus- cigarette stubs, burger trays

Newspapers, cardboard wrappings, food leftovers, knickers,

Ejected from the speeding cars as a wake of waste that flickers

Into grass and shrubs. Now the car is clean. I hope the fires

That’ll burn this rubbish and the verges, that’ll leap to car-tyres

Explode on paint and petrol, gut the vehicles and occupants,

Will leave their skeletons as clean as they would want.

ODE TO GENUINE EFFORT

 

I have a long-term project to improve my humanity

By becoming a just person like Luther King or Gandhi,

Imagining I could succeed by adding some practical concern

For the poor, some solidarity with the oppressed. I learn

that this doesn’t cut the mustard because I don’t rid myself

Of arrogance, posturing, and love of ordinary wealth.

It appears that virtue cannot be obtained by simple addition

Without the effort to change habits that comfortably fit one.

There’s an old Gaelic proverb that’s wise if somewhat harsh:

“You are unlikely get a large egg from a wren’s arse.”

 

The prime minister has announced that poorer parts of the nation

Are going to be levelled up. This will be poverty’s annihilation:

The poor will get richer and so will the rich, so nobody will see

Disadvantage, and all citizens will feel happy and that will be

Best in the best of all possible worlds. Amen. But is it level?

And where will the cash for the poor come from? The devil

Is in the detail and the lack of detail suggests that the PM

Being not interested in the hard grind to make the system

Just, prefers a rhetorical work that may be called a farce.

“You are unlikely to get a large egg from a wren’s arse.”

 

What are the chances of getting world-saving commitments

From COP26 in Glasgow? Few rich nations have a fit sense

Of universal solidarity even in face of universal danger

Having already found ways of keeping the climate-affected stranger

Out. They do not disbelieve the facts but already plan

Where to get their resources when the shit hits the fan.

If the USA wants it, whose water supply is safe? If China

Has famine, whose rice fields will they seize? Designer

Promises will be made, but their authors are booking for Mars.

“You are unlikely to get a large egg from a wren’s arse.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The church to which I belong is going through a crisis: its membership is so diminished in numbers and income that it cannot any longer support the large number of constituent parish churches which provided Christian ministry throughout Scotland. Congregations are closing, uniting or being linked with others, and ministers of word and sacrament spread more thinly over the land. There are many causes for this, the most important of which is that not many citizens, especially not many under the age of fifty, are any longer believers; and even those sympathetic to faith show little desire to worship regularly or to support the church financially. The Church has responded honestly and creatively to this crisis, without however communicating to its members any focus of faithfulness other than participation in the re-ordering of local ministries. Perhaps it expects its local ministers to provide this.

I’ve asked myself, if at my advanced age (79) I have anything to offer the congregation to which I presently minister on Sundays. I think that some simple means of asserting individual and communal identity as believers, of living out that identity from day to day, and of imagining the future of faith, would be helpful.

My suggestion is that such a focus can be found in the Lord’s Prayer or Our Father, which has a number of advantages:

1. Almost all believers know it and use it.

2. It comes from Jesus.

3. It is a prayer, rather than a programme.

4. It is personal as well as communal.

5. St. Tertulian (b 165 AD) called it a “compendium of the Gospel.”

Obviously, all these advantages depend on how we pray it and how we understand it. I recommend that we pray it individually or with our families every day, and with our fellow believers once a week. But immediately there is an issue about what version of it we should use. Church tradition has selected the version found in The Gospel of Matthew chapter 6 verses 9-13, but then there is another question about what translation is best. Although older versions are well-known, it surely must be time to to use a modern one, or to alter our traditional versions to incorporate the results of modern scholarship. This is especially true of the familiar words, “ lead us not into temptation” where the modern meaning of “temptation” seriously misrepresents the Greek “peirasmon” which primarily means “testing” or “trial”. The best easily available modern version of the Prayer is the New Jerusalem Bible:

“Our Father in heaven, may your name be held holy, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us. And do not put us to the test, but save us from the Evil One.”

It is right to keep the language of “debts” which is broader than that of “sins” or “wrongs.” “Daily bread” is an arguable translation, and “the bread we need” might be better. Other good translations can be found in the REB, GNB, NRSV. I consider the concept of testing or trial essential to the meaning of the prayer, linking it to Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, and to his own testing by Satan.

So, ok, we have a useable translation of the prayer. Our next move might be to invite churchgoers to study it over a period of 6 weeks, during which they would meet once a week using the study material provided while praying the prayer every day, feeding their experience of it into the study. Seeing that the prayer is Jesus’ gift to every disciple, it will be vital to encourage every person to contribute to the discussion, and to record contributions briefly in each study session.

SESSION 1 THE BIBLICAL CONTEXT

Gospel writers used sources of information about Jesus. Both Matthew and Luke used the Gospel of Mark and also a collection of the Saying of Jesus, probably in written form. They both freely made changes to their source material as they thought fit, and added other information from other sources.

Matthew was particularly concerned to set the ministry of Jesus in a Jewish context, and to depict him as promised by Holy Scripture and greater than the teachers and prophets who had gone before him. He often compares him to Moses, not least by dividing his gospel into five sections, in imitation of the Pentateuch, the five Books of Moses.

The Sermon on the Mount is a compendium of Jesus’ teaching placed by Matthew in a particular place and time. Probably his sources gave him the material and he invented an appropriate setting. He puts Jesus on a mountain because he wants to compare with Moses at Sinai, bringing the Law from God. Here Jesus brings teaching for the new people of God. Luke sets this teaching on a plain, because he wants to emphasise Jesus’ presence amongst the people. Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is found at Luke 11:1-4, which is not part of the sermon on the plain. If you look you can see it only has 5 petitions, whereas Matthew has 7. It seems more likely that Matthew added to the source material than that Luke cut bits out. Matthew’s additions are a) your will be done etc. and b) save us from the Evil One, both of which explain the meaning of what goes before. The ending of the prayer in our usage- for yours is the kingdom etc. – does not belong to the original prayer in either gospel, but was added by the early church assemblies.

Jesus’ prayer draws from the Jewish Bible, as you might expect. The “name” of God was Yahwe, which was once used in prayer, but it became so holy that it could not be spoken at all. To do so was considered blasphemous. The kingdom or rule of God, was first of all Yahwe seen as ruler of the tribes of Israel when they had no king, then as the ruler of the king, and then gradually as the true ruler of the world. His kingdom is not a place, but an active persuasion towards justice, peace and goodness.

SESSION 2 THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT

The ancient manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel give no information about the author or the circumstances of its composition. Scholars have had to use a certain amount of guesswork to arrive at tentative conclusions. Mark’s Gospel refers to the destruction of the Jewish Temple and is therefore dated after 70 CE when the Romans put down a Jewish rebellion and destroyed their temple. Matthew used a copy of Mark, so his Gospel must be later than Mark’s. Scholars have guessed that Matthew was writing around 80 CE ( or between 75 and 85) for a Christian Assembly in Syria, and a more precise guess in unlikely to be made with the present evidence. The identification of the gospel writer with Matthew/ Levi the disciple of Jesus is almost certainly wrong, as this author relies on sources rather than on his own memories.

He was however, very likely, a Jew, writing at a painful time in the Jewish community, many of whom had been savagely expelled from its own lands by the Romans, leaving the centre of their faith, the Temple utterly destroyed. The Pharisee Teachers began to adapt their faith for use outside the holy land. They saw the Jews who worshipped Jesus as Messiah as a danger to their faith, and began to expel them from their synagogues. The anger of Jewish Christians at this treatment can be seen in the language Matthew uses to recount Jesus arguments with the Pharisees. Even families were divided.

The evidence available suggests that soon after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the good news about him began to gain new disciples, and also new communities of disciples in Israel itself and in the surrounding nations. The missionaries saw themselves as a new movement of Jewish faith, and with the missionary work of St Paul and others in Turkey, Greece and Italy, believers began to see themselves as a new sort of Judaism because they no longer awaited a Messiah but were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. Stories of Jesus’ life were memorised and passed on to the growing number of Jesus’ Assemblies. The language of these assemblies was the common Greek spoken by most inhabitants of the Roman Empire. In that language they were called Christ- ians using the Greek word meaning anointed or Messiah. Judaism was a “permitted religion” in the Roman Empire, so as Christian assemblies became separate from their mother faith, they became subject to Roman suspicion and eventually persecution. It was at this time that the Gospels were written, providing a resource for the small communities of believers, to support and guide their lives.

SESSION 3 THE FORMAT OF THE PRAYER

The prayer is directed to OUR FATHER. Jesus called God “Abba,” an Aramaic word meaning “dear father”. In this prayer he invites his disciples to share his relationship with God.

The first three petitions deal with God’s business: his holiness, his rule, the doing of his will on earth. The children cry out passionately for the Father’s honour – this is true worship towards God and a separation from the unholy ones who rule on earth and demand that their will be done. It also continues Jesus’ announcement of God’s rule by word and action.

The other four petitions concern the shared life in God’s spirit of Jesus’ disciples. The Spirit is communion: lives open to each other as God’s life is open to them. The children pray for bread, for life’s necessities, because they see them as a gift; and they pray for OUR bread because they know it must be shared. The open table is a good symbol of Jesus’ ministry and of the first assemblies.

The forgiveness of debts is a major theme of Jesus’ teaching, which he likely took from the Jubilee legislation in Leviticus 25: every fiftieth year, debts were to be cancelled, slaves set free, land returned to its original owners. Jesus expressed this liberating Spirit in his identification with the poor, his affectionate opposition to the wealthy, his forgiveness of sinners, and his friendship with outcasts. So the children pray to share that Jubilee spirit as God’s forgiveness of their debt to him, and their forgiveness of what they are owed by others. They want to live in a climate of generosity.

But they remember that such generosity took Jesus to the place of testing, where he asked his father to let him avoid suffering and death, but was refused and died on the stake. Only in and through his death was he saved from the Evil One. So, knowing themselves not greater than their master, the children pray not to be put to the test. Perhaps by the time Matthew was writing, already some Christian Assemblies had been persecuted by the Empire, and knew that tests were real and terrible. Their prayer identifies them with Jesus – like him, they are weak human beings- but they may be able to follow him into hard testing, if they can trust in the God who through resurrection saved Jesus from the Evil One. This too is part of the shared life of the Spirit.

As I understand the prayer then, it seeks the honour of the Father, and the shared life of the Spirit. Believers in the Trinity may ask, what has happened to the Son? The Son is praying this prayer. It is Jesus who prays it and who gives it to his sisters and brothers so that they may pray it in his shoes. To pray the Lord’s Prayer is to become one with Jesus and to stand before the Father in the confidence of being his children. So, yes, the prayer becomes trinitarian as it is prayed.

SESSION 4 BEING THE CHILD OF GOD

This is such an unusual idea that we should look at the Sermon on the Mount and see how its purpose is summed up in Matthew 5:45, as “so that you may be children of your Heavenly Father.” Here too Jesus invites people to stand in his shoes, by following his teaching. His relationship to God is not closed but open to all through the wisdom of his teaching and the power of his example.

St. Paul writes of people “growing up into the full stature of Christ,” and suggests that although no one person is fully capable of this, the Assembly of believers can be seen as Jesus’ body, each person a different organ with a special function. This too is stepping into Jesus’ shoes. Some questions may help an understanding of this idea:

I am me, how can I be The child of God?

I’m a serious sinner, how can I be The child of God?

I’m not very bright, how can I be the Child of God?

I can’t do miracles, how can I be The Child if God?

I don’t want to be like Jesus. Look what happened to him.

I’m more comfortable just being a follower. Isn’t that enough?

I’m gay, how can I be the Child of God?

Old fashioned religion was a bit more modest. Couldn’t I just be an ordinary half- convinced church member?

Can a child of God have fun?

The result of dealing with such questions might reassure us that the title Child of God” is meant for us. If so, that leaves a last question:

If you really believed you were a Child of God, what difference would it make to your life?

SESSION 5 BEING CHILDREN OF GOD IN WORSHIP AND OBEDIENCE

If we see how Jesus went about this we may be surprised by how traditional he was: attending pilgrim Feasts at the Temple in Jerusalem, and Synagogue worship on the Sabbath, as a means of honouring God, and opening himself to obey God’s teaching. In addition he studied the Bible, perhaps at the synagogue, which possessed scrolls of the Bible, and may have had a Rabbi/ Teacher who could assist understanding. Like the Rabbis, Jesus may have memorised large amounts of the Bible. For him, this was no dry as dust bible study but exposure to the will of his dear Father , his Abba, and an opportunity to honour him by sharing in communal worship, which was itself focused on understanding scripture and obeying it in odaily life.

Worship in Nazareth expressed Israel’s experience of being God’s child, its joys, its tests, its sorrows, its hope, above all its precious privilege. Worship among the first Christians did the same, but with a heightened sense of each disciple in the community being a child of God along with Jesus, the risen Master. Gathering together with Jesus was fundamental and the presence of Jesus was normally marked by bread and wine, with the memory of the last supper. It was a new meal with Jesus, attended by the children of God. In most cases, it would appear, this was also a real meal, shared by all. The separation of Sunday worship from Holy Communion is the ancient custom of the Church of Scotland, doubtless because its Calvinist founders wanted to avoid what they regarded as the superstition of the Mass. We should ask if perhaps the first believers were not right to see Holy Communion as the basic ordinary form of regular worship. Probably, when that first Assembly met, there were no distinctions, no minister/ priest, no deacon/ elder, no male or adult privilege; all were God’s children. By St Paul’s time there were different functions or roles, some could sing, some could organise, some could make a prophecy, and so on, but there were no differences of status. What would it mean to rebuild our weekly worship on that model? Certainly it would be a challenge to the enforced passivity of congregations and the privilege of ministers. I do not mean that there may not be a role for a trained, full-time minister – especially in the training of others- but this role should be seen as desirable for the wellbeing of the Christian Assembly rather than necessary for its very being.

Praying for God’s kingdom only makes sense in view of the Old Testament story of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the upshot of which is that God is always trying to persuade her human agents to rule for justice mercy and peace. God does not rule directly, but through judges, prophets and kings. Breakthroughs occur when a ruler like David or a prophet like Elijah acts faithfully as God’s agent. Jesus did not imagine that in the present age God would intervene to enforce her rule. Rather he emphasised the immediate availability of God’s persuasion and encouragement. Our prayer for the coming of the kingdom must be passionate but not credulous, childlike but not childish. It must be fuelled on the one hand by prophetic visions of God’s Rule, and on the other by our personal separation from the worldly powers that rule in defiance of God- a separation which is not easy because the persuasions of the Evil One are subtle and convincing. But this difficult separation is proof of our identity as God’s children with Jesus our brother.

Sometimes indeed we also have to separate our physical selves from all company, as Jesus did when he prayed alone. His instruction on personal prayer is very clear: it must not happen in public or in the midst of a worshipping group, but secretly where only God sees. We have to remove ourselves from every temptation to make a show of our faith. If our relationship with God is passionate it is also intimate. It is where we are delighted to be with the Father, who welcomes us, as he did Jesus, “you are my dear child; I am delighted with you.” This kind of prayer may be easier if we meditate on a Bible passage or the words of a hymn or prayer. Our speaking is not important, but our listening is vital. That doesn’t mean we expect to hear a voice, at least not in my experience, but rather that by attending with love we become conscious of who we are and what we are asked to do.

SESSION 6 THE SHARED LIFE OF THE SPIRIT

The second half of the Lord’s Prayer is about sharing the mutuality of God’s goodness. We pray for bread, that is for the necessities of life, because all that we are and have comes from God’s generous creation; and we call it OUR bread because the produce of creation is for all God’s children, which is to say, all living things, the complete ecosystem. Jesus refers to God feeding the birds, so our request for what we need in life is made with the complete ecosystem in mind. If our eating habits are destroying the ecosystem, we cannot pray this prayer. The life God shares with us is the life of all creation, as well as the life of the Scottish children who go to school hungry because their parents are poor. We cannot solve all injustice at once, but we can share what God gives as well as we can.

The extent of God’s sharing is seen in Jesus’ announcement of God’s forgiveness, which he offered with scandalous freedom. Yes, but as Jesus taught it, God’s forgiveness of our debts is a Trojan horse: once within our gates it attacks our selfish defences and demands that we employ it in respect of what we are owed by others. It includes wrongs and hurts and sins, and extends to any sort of debt. Of course if our neighbour owes us money we should expect to be paid- Jesus’ business must have been paid for joiner work -but if the debt is disabling them we must be ready to forgive. How much more ready we should be to forgive the trivial hurts of everyday thoughtlessness. The generosity of God, once received by us, won’t let us alone. But what about seriously evil actions, like child sexual abuse, torture or murder? Surely we are not expected to forgive these! We should explore the idea that God’s justice is one of the strategies of his forgiving love. Firstly, those who have done wrong must undergo a complete change of mind, before they can be forgiven: “change your mind and believe the good news,” Jesus says. God promises that forgiveness awaits the sinner, but it cannot happen without that change. Secondly, justice may involve a penalty. The rich young man has committed the sin of selfish enjoyment of wealth. Jesus loves him and wants him to have forgiveness but first he has to give up his wealth and become a disciple. If a person’s sin has broken human law, then they have to bear the right penalty, which in some cases may be necessary for a true change of mind. Oscar Wilde, reflecting on his fellow prisoners in Reading Gaol, wrote,

And thus we rust life’s iron chain/ degraded and alone./ and some men curse and some men weep/ and some men make no moan./ But God’s eternal laws are kind/ and break the heart of stone.

Ah, happy they whose hearts can break/and peace of pardon win!/How else may man make straight his plan/ and cleanse his soul from sin? / How else but through a broken heart/ May Lord Christ enter in?

We are not asked to forego justice but we are asked to share God’s forgiveness of us with those who have wronged us. As God’s children we live in God’s generosity.

But that generosity is threatening to those who enjoy power over others, who neither give, nor have compassion, but use moral, political or physical force for their own advantage. In Jesus’ case, the Jewish religious and the Roman political establishments were threatened enough by his gospel to cooperate in his death. The cost of offering God’s forgiveness is Jesus’ suffering and death on the execution stake. It is a goddamned lie that God imposed this suffering upon him; rather God suffered with him. Jesus experienced this as a test of his being the Child of God; and he prayed not to undergo this test. Earlier in his ministry he felt tested by Satan to regard his divine childhood as a means of privilege or to abandon it and seize the power that Satan could give him. These experiences explain why the prayer of Jesus asks God not to put us to the test. We are human children of God, not superheroes. Through the suffering of Jesus we become children of God, but we should not be any more confident of standing up to testing than he was. We may have to share his suffering, but like him, we should pray to avoid it.

God cannot control what happens to us, but can, by her persuasion in our hearts, by her sharing of her unconditional love, save us from the power of the Evil One, who wants us to deny that we are children of God and to become lovers of wealth, popularity, domination and violence. If we trust in our Abba we are saved from that, and God’s creative spirit, who raised Jesus from death, is promised to us also.

The first believers came to realise that the life-giving power seen in Jesus’ resurrection, had been active throughout his life, enabling him to attack the forces of death in his society, with courage, humour and wisdom. Children of God, therefore, are realistic about evil but optimistic that in partnership with God and each other, it can be overcome.

As children of God we enjoy the true wealth and splendour of life; the goodness of creation, the love and friendship of human beings, the joy of physical and mental activity, the building of true community, the fight for goodness in the world, and the hope of life beyond death. And we pray not be put to the test, but to be saved from the Evil One.

How do we interpret the impatience Jesus sometimes shows when asked to heal someone, as when he says, How long will I be with you? I think it may be due to his conviction that God’s goodness is available to anyone who has faith. He sometimes says, Your faith has made you whole. Or he recognises the faith of the companions of the paralysed man who is lowered through the roof of a house, and proceeds to announce his healing. Faith, meaning trust in God’s goodness available in Jesus, allows the sufferer to cooperate with his/ her healing; to be, not the object of a miracle but the subject of a joint therapeutic action.

Certainly Jesus trusts in the availability of God, whose persuasive goodness is present in every event, but he knows that God needs active cooperation which is another way of saying faith or trust. Note that this trust is not the expectation that God will miraculously do it all, but rather the readiness to work with God. Often the very fact of the sufferer coming to Jesus shows that this work has begun. Often the work takes only a little time, but it must be shared.

This cooperative pattern is also seen with other forms of rescue by Jesus. Of the sinful woman who accosts him at a pharisee’s table, he says, “ Her great love shows that her many sins are forgiven” and he tells her, “Your faith has made you whole.” In a different instance, a rich young man refuses the difficult cooperation that God requests, and sticks with his wealth.

Jesus’ impatience – evident for example in his healing of an epileptic boy- can be attributed to the failure of people to play their part in healing. Jesus is seen by them as a magician who can do anything, while they remain passive. In this case Jesus’ disciples have tried to help but have failed. When the boy’s father asks him to help “if you can,” Jesus turns the words back on him, “If YOU can! everything is possible for the one who has faith.” The man replies in honest desperation, “I do have faith; help me where faith falls short!” Jesus has roused the man to be an active agent in healing, while he supplies what is lacking. Two faiths are better than one.

This cooperative work of rescue can be seen in the whole of Jesus’ ministry, with the exception of his murder on the cross. Here nobody shares his suffering, not even God. It is his faithfulness to the God who has (temporarily) abandoned him which establishes the greatest divine persuasion of all, the death and resurrection of Jesus. His lonely death pleads for the kind of trust which is ultimately shown in the disciples’ announcement of his resurrection. Even a risen Jesus cannot save the world on his own, but requires the assembly of trusting people, the church in every place and time.

It might seem that St. Paul with his rejection of human works in his teaching of God’s rescuing grace, rules out any notion of a cooperative salvation, but we should be clear that what he rules out are “the works of the Law” that is, the mixture of moral and ritual provisions of the Jewish Torah. Other forms of work are acceptable to him: “Work out your rescue with fear and trembling” Indeed Paul’s teaching about faith is similar to that of Jesus, involving a trustful cooperation with God, which includes human effort. Luther’s interpretation of faith in the writings of Paul is simply wrong, as is his complete rejection of human work as contributing to salvation. Certainly we can say that salvation is pure gift, as everything ultimately comes from God; but it does require to be actively received, cherished and worked out. The Greek word “pistis” usually translated “faith” can mean trust in a person or trustworthiness to a person. Paul means that loving trust in Jesus Messiah, leading to actions worthy of Him, is the right human response to Jesus’ love shown especially in his death on the execution stake. This trustworthiness according to Paul brings people into the shared life (communion) of the Holy Spirit, in which they share the labour pains of God’s perfect creation.

Again, although Paul attributes all power and all knowledge to God, the vocabulary he uses to describe divine actions and relationships point always to partnership. Of course one can affirm partnership while affirming God’s omnipotence by saying that God in his love lays aside omnipotence in order to rescue his human children. That is certainly a moving picture. But what about the God who lays aside his omnipotence in order to permit Auschwitz and the death of children from cancer? That is perhaps not so moving unless we mean being moved to rage and unbelief. I prefer the God of persuasion and partnership revealed in Jesus.

What if the part human imagination plays in the experience of God is grounded in the fact that God does not have existence in him/herself alone, but is as dependent on the universe as the universe is dependent on God?

The great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna taught that “All things have their being and nature through dependence on other things; and aside from this co-dependency there is nothing.” When he was challenged that this would mean that the Buddha and Buddha Truth were dependent on other things, he did not repent but boldly affirmed this to be the case. Something that has intrinsic existence in itself cannot learn and cannot love for these involve change.

Now Nagarjuna was talking about Buddha who is the enlightened human being rather than God, so Christian believers might find themselves agreeing with Nagarjuna in respect of all beings in the universe, while denying that his doctrine can apply to God, who is not of the universe at all. God may be IN the universe in Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but is not OF the world and no worldly conditions apply to him/her. Except of course, as a glance at the hymn book will confirm, believers characterise God as omnipotent, just, merciful, loving. St. Thomas says that these words are applied to God by analogy, just as the Bible depicts God as sitting, rising up, coming down, and so on. We do not mean such words literally, but as human similes which can be applied to God because after all humans are made in “his image and likeness.” If however, God is indeed like human beings, if moreover he/she is to love her creatures, then she must surely be subject to the fundamental condition of all existence, namely what Nagarjuna called “dependent arising.” God may indeed be the creator of this universe, bringing order out of chaos and life out of no-life, but God becomes God in and through the process of creation, as indeed is the case in the Hebrew story of creation in Genesis 1: God is revealed as the universe is revealed; God has no life before creation. The event of God is just as much a singularity as the event of the universe.

So OK, can the story of this God be told?

God comes alive as his/her Spirit broods over chaos, and with one enabling word creates energy which flows out in all directions here and there becoming light, the same light which burns in the Sun and is shed onto its planets. God’s spirit is in the energy, the light, the stars, the sun, the planets the earth, always persuading the existing particles into events of greater complexity -proteins, amino acids, organic molecules, and with extra persuasion, a living cell; life in the oceans, on land, in the air, plentiful and free. Nothing made to do anything, all persuaded into growth and development. That meant accidents. Life destroyed in volcanic firestorms. Life wiped out in the wake of asteroid collisions. But life itself insatiably finding its way over obstacles and through extinctions, urged by the persuader present in every event. And yes, eventually, but not at all finally, the hairless ape, which would be the greatest accident and disaster of all, appeared. The creator continues through the long 6th day of his creation to struggle towards the 7th day in which there will be peace and perfection. He/she is sadder and wiser than when the world began. The life of Jesus is the saddest and wisest event in this struggle.

I don’t think this story is unbiblical. It’s true that this God is not omnipotent, but subject to the resistance of the universe, and especially of Homo sapiens. Curiously, although the Bible often speaks of an all-powerful and commanding God who cannot be resisted, its main narratives are full of resistance and the stubborn refusal of human beings to obey. They are also full of the splendid stories of partnership with God, the Abrahams, Isaacs, Jacobs, the Sarahs Rebeccas and Rachel’s who allow God to do things that would have been impossible otherwise. Once you start interpreting the Bible with the concept of a co-dependent God, it’s hard to stop because it fits so well.

The story of this God is always twofold: the response of the creation to God, and the response of God to creation.The metaphor of the Virgin birth of Jesus shows him as the perfect climax of this double story.

At the end of my second last blog, I described the Holy Spirit as the shared project of God and human beings to bring victory out of defeat by importing the ultimate perfection of the universe into the present time, by living tomorrow’s life today. This is of course linked to Jesus’ ministry of God’s kingdom, by means of which God’s future erupts into the present time. Indeed Jesus’ whole ministry is inspired by the Spirit which had descended on him in baptism. But long before Jesus, the Holy Spirit is mentioned in the creation story of Genesis, and in many of the oracles of the prophets.

The question arises: is the experience of the Holy Spirit the same before and after the earthly life of Jesus? It would seem impious to suggest otherwise, but then if the action and suffering of Jesus have added nothing to what Isaiah knew, that looks like a lot of bother for nothing. I had already characterised the Spirit as the persuasive action of God on the universe, on molecules and minds, but if Jesus is seen as the conclusive act of divine persuasion, surely something is thereby added to the Holy Spirit? The Nicene Creed may take account of this with its description of the Spirit “proceeding from the Father and the Son.” Well that’s the Latin version of the Creed. The Greek version does not have “and the Son” insisting that the Spirit takes life only from the Father. Somehow we want to honour the integrity of human experience of the Spirit throughout history while recognising the crucial place of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection in the experience of God. Yes. I meant that. God was changed by the event of Jesus: the suffering of God with Jesus opens up in the Father even greater depths of compassion, and in the Spirit a greater urgency to adopt human beings as children of God, like Jesus. In his letter to Romans Paul wrote of the same Spirit that Isaiah knew, but it is a Spirit who has learned to tell the human spirit that it is a child of God. Yes, God learns. If God loves, how can he/she not learn?

Perhaps we can lean a little on the Pauline phrase, “the communion of the Holy Spirit.” In Greek this is koinonia, a word taken from the cultural and commercial life of the Greek cities. Enterprises with several partners were a koinonia. People who belonged to religious, philosophical or artistic clubs were a koinonia. Paul used it of the life that believers shared with each other and with God. The writer of the First Letter of John writes that the purpose of his letter is that the recipients may have koinonia with the senders who have koinonia with the Father and his son Jesus Christ. Something that faithful people might have looked for in the world to come, a common life with God, is said to be available now, to all. The life of the Holy Spirit is characterised in the last three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer: shared daily bread, shared forgiveness of debts, shared deliverance from evil.

This last petition is well placed to remind the one who shares a common life with God, that temptation towards evil is still possible, in fact very much possible for people who believe they are united with the Most High. The name of this basic temptation is arrogance – remember the garden of Eden? Human beings may imagine that they are such privileged creatures that the other creatures don’t really matter as much. But if the Spirit cooperates in the birth of every child, acts as the finger of God in every healing, and raises the murdered Jesus to new life, it must understand the process of every molecule, the life of every cell, and incorporate in its koinonia the planet and all its living things. It has been active in the creation of all forms of spirited dust from viruses to vaccines, from cabbages to kings. The communion of the Holy Spirit includes the ecosystem of the universe. All life and all the bases of life are holy.

This truth has been evident to some Eastern religions, especially Jainism and Buddhism for centuries, while Christians have been deceived by bad theology, bad humanism and bad science into thinking that homo sapiens is all that matters. The idiot Mr. Musk was quoted the other day defending expeditions to Mars because we’ll need to live there when we’ve made the earth uninhabitable. In all honesty I have to admit that the Bible and the Christian tradition, lacking any profound insight into non- human life , have been an obstacle rather than an encouragement to ecological awareness. A reformed trust in an all- inclusive Holy Spirit may lead to a wholesale reformation of Christian thinking.

The foregoing blogs are only an initial attempt at grasping the sort of story told by Mark’ Gospel. All the groundwork – the history, sociology, anthropology, economics, politics and culture of the society in which it was written are missing from my account, although some amounts of all of these have fed my understanding over the years of my study of this text.

Q. So, wouldn’t it be better to start with these basics rather than rushing into the kind of theological overview I have given. Surely that overview may need altered by the results of these other disciplines?

A. Yes, it may need alteration, but some grasp of the extraordinary story which Mark told, is necessary in advance of using these disciplines more thoroughly, if only to guide that use and make it fruitful. So, for example, my overview reveals that this text is not an eyewitness account of Jesus’ life and death, but rather a narrative meditation on the memory of Jesus held by the author and the community of faith to which he or she belonged.

I do not need therefore to use the resources of history to discover factual evidence for every event in the narrative. It is irrelevant whether or not Pilate had the custom of releasing a political prisoner at Passover time, since Mark is using a typical folktale motif – the choice of which prisoner to be released- to show the determination of the Jewish leaders that Jesus should be killed. If we found out from historical sources that Pilate did in fact have this custom, that would add to our knowledge of Pilate, but would not make it more certain that Mark’s story is factual, because any sensible person who reads it, knows that it is not primarily a factual report.

Yet historical study is necessary to show that it does contain some factual material: the fact of Jesus’ life and its location; the period of time and the social conditions in which he lived; the faith of the Jewish people and its institutions; the geography of Galilee and Jerusalem; the Roman Empire and its administration of Galilee and Judaea; the politics of the occupied territories; the language of Jesus as different from the language of the Gospel; the fact of slavery; the economics of these areas; their climate and ecology; the teaching, healings and death of Jesus; the existence of his disciples as a group. And much more. Enough to show that although the Gospel is not a factual report, neither is it a theological fantasy with a wholly imagined hero, based on an extreme form of Judaism.

Q. Another question is why I permitted myself the freedom of re-imagining Mark’s story. Surely that involves an illegitimate leap from the language of the first century into that of the twenty first? As if we could mean the same thing by the word “God” as Mark meant. And why adultérate Mark’s imagination by mine?

A. If the leap is impossible, there is no point in reading the Gospel as it would remain a mere time capsule, opaque to our understanding. And if imagination was necessary for Mark’s understanding of Jesus, it may also be true that mine is essential to my understanding of Mark, and may be useful to others, provided I do not try to conceal it. One of the debilitating assumptions of the worship of the Church of Scotland is that the mere reading of Scripture is meaningful to the congregation. Yes, a sermon follows which may assist such understanding, but often by that time the reading itself will have been forgotten. A good translation can assist the transfer of meaning from text to people, but often the clearer the translation the more opaque the text which is rooted in another time, place and culture. Attempts to overcome this problem by forms of scripture which are frankly paraphrase rather than translation are unsuccessful because they limit the scripture to the skill and honesty of one paraphraser. But a re-imagining of scripture based on the best practice of Christian scholars is a reasonable task for clergy in the reformed churches. Mark needs many others like me to make his/her imagination comprehensible to twenty first century readers.

Q. You don’t need to be a Marxist to see that theological ideas however imaginative belong to the ideological superstructure of a communal event of which the lives of particular persons in a particular society are the material basis. Given that God cannot be seen, the reality of what he/she does must somehow be evident in what people say and do and suffer. Yet my re-imagining of Mark takes very little account a) of the people who participated in the ministry of Jesus, especially the Galilean disciples, or b) the people from whom Mark learned the story of Jesus forty years after that ministry.

A. I agree with this objection: the people of Galilee, those who encountered him and those who followed him; the people of Jerusalem who participated in the events of the last period of his life before his murder; the Pharisees, Sadducees, priests and High Priest; the Roman officials and soldiers; all these need attention, as we cannot understand the story of the Gospel without them.

Then there are simple but vital pieces of historical information: what is a denarius? What was the average daily wage of a Galilean peasant? How was the fishing trade organised in Galilee? What was a “carpenter”? How does crucifixion kill you? Familiarisation with such matters is also necessary for interpretation.

I can only plead that I have studied all or most of these matters over the years, and do not feel I need to detail them in this series of blogs. Those who want this kind of information could usefully read The Historical Jesus, a Comprehensive Guide by Gerd Theissen, Fortress Press.

Q. Usually scholars interpret the tearing of the temple curtain in one of two ways: as signifying an end to the temple worship for those who trust in the crucified Jesus; or as signifying a new open access to the heart of God. I suggest that it signifies the rending of the partnership of God and Jesus, meaning it is one with his cry of abandonment. How can I be sure I’m right, given especially that Jesus was quoting a psalm which ends with trust in God?

A. Let’s remember that one of these events did not happen – the tearing of the curtain – and that the other may have, but who would have heard it? So this is how Mark imagined Jesus dying, and therefore the details are his. I think he means the cry to be one of abandonment. Luke supplied details which end with an expression of trust; Mark could have done so. The curtain is a more difficult matter. As it screened the Most Holy Place it can be interpreted as the interface between humanity and God, a symbol of the relationship of God and Jesus. But yes, the tearing of it can be seen as a symbol of revelation, of the un- concealment of God. Such a meaning seems to contradict the cry of Jesus, whereas my interpretation, that it symbolises the state of abandonment would be more appropriate. Perhaps it could be seen as the tearing apart of the flesh of Jesus to reveal his divine holiness? That might chime with the response of the Centurion,”Surely this man was a son of God!” I want to focus on the reality of the abandonment, which I see as central to Mark’s understanding of the murder of Jesus. I am aware that in all probability Mark had access to an account of Jesus’ time in Jerusalem concluding with his death, which may have been written or memorised and spoken. Some of the details he used may have been in that account, but the choice of detail remains his.

I wonder if my interpretation of the resurrection in Mark is totally honest. I say that I am following Mark, who gives no detail about the resurrection. That’s true, but I also should have stated that I start from the conviction that no “supernatural” events happen in this world. So corpses blasting their way out of tombs is not on my list of possible happenings. But even when I believed that the resurrection happened much as recounted, I nevertheless thought it disappointing that after trying to save the world through a human being, God intervened by force majeure to rescue Jesus and defeat the powers of evil. After all, presumably he could have just solved all the problems of the world by supernatural action, and saved Jesus the trouble. My interpretation doesn’t rule out divine action in the divine sphere, where God takes Jesus into Godself forever, while leaving his disciples to be persuaded of his resurrection by his life and death. The nature of that persuasion can be seen in Paul’s description of the appearance of the risen Jesus to him: “it pleased God to reveal his son in me.” For Paul this risen life fills all worlds, but is manifested in him and other believers. There is something in Paul’s experience of himself, which he calls, “messiah in me,” but equally he writes of “ growing into the full stature of Messiah, and of belonging with others to the “body of Messiah”, in which believers comprise the organs and limbs of the body. The risen Jesus is wonderfully greater than his followers but not separate from them. Their imagination of him still matters.

In using Mark’s gospel as an imaginative account of Jesus’ murder, I realised that his narrative of that murder is the key to the whole of his story of God’s persuasion of human beings in the life of Jesus; and although this story is only one of many in the New Testament, I want to look at it more comprehensively, to begin rewriting the story of God.

The first verse of Mark’s gospel is notoriously slapdash in its syntax:

“Beginning / origin/ foundation/ of the joyful message of Jesus messiah, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet…..

There is no punctuation in the Greek MSS so it’s not clear whether the opening sentence ends after Messiah or continues into the reference to Isaiah. It is clear however that Mark is emphasising the first word. He wants to remind the reader of that other beginning which is the first word in the Book of Genesis, which signals the mysterious start of God’s creation of the universe. He is saying that the ministry of Jesus is part of that creative movement of God, indeed, a decisive part.

A little later, in the baptism of Jesus, Mark tells us that at that moment, Jesus saw the heavens torn apart ( the Greek verb is schizo as in schizophrenia). The Genesis story tells that God made a vault to separate the realm of the universe from the realm of God. Mark is saying, in language borrowed from the Hebrew Bible that all separation of God from his creation is abolished in the mission of Jesus.

Mark shows us the dove of the Holy Spirit, the presence of God, settling on Jesus, while God’s voice recognises Jesus as his/ her dear son. Then “immediately” as Mark insists, the Holy Spirit drives(!) him out to be tested by Satan, the enemy of God and power of evil. This phase of creation involves battling the power of evil. How quickly and vividly Mark establishes the theology of his gospel!

God is the creator God who is still at work making a universe of which he/she can say, that it is good. In pursuit of this goal God recognises Jesus as the dear son and rips open the vault of heaven to send the Holy Spirit upon him.

Jesus who is called Messiah, ie anointed person, is God’s dear child, God’s human partner in the battle against evil. Jesus does not separate himself from other human beings but comes with sinners seeking a new start in baptism.

The Holy Spirit is the presence of God with the universe and its creatures. It’s dovelike shape is a reminder of its brooding presence over the waters of chaos in Genesis, a telling image of God’s persuasive love. It is the available God, present in every event, but especially present to Jesus, who is uniquely responsive to it.

Let’s not say that from the beginning of Mark’s gospel we have a doctrine of the Trinity, but rather that we have a vivid articulation of the dimensions of the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

At the risk of ridicule let me imagine God, as the One in whose womb the universe is being born. Jesus is the child God has made already before the programme started, as the model for all things. The Holy Spirit is the life God shares with her children, through the health of her own body. The pregnancy is menaced by disease, so the Holy Spirit actively persuades the universe towards life, and Jesus plays the role of good physician. When disease strikes the physician, clearly we have a crisis. The key to this clumsy metaphor is that just as a woman does not have access to her own womb, so God the mother/ father does not have direct access to creation, because God respects the creation’s own processes of growth.( freewill).

Mark goes on to depict Jesus as teacher and healer, who in both activities battles for life against death. Evil and death are linked powers in Mark’s view, infecting not only bodies but minds and doctrines. When he teaches that the Sabbath was made for human beings and not the reverse, he tackles the deadening power of religion on scriptural law. The same power can be seen today in the conservative insistence on what Leviticus says about homosexual acts. Jesus’ principle of interpretation is that all rules are intended for the benefit of human beings. For life and not for death. That is to say that scriptures must be interpreted in the light of the Holy Spirit, the life God shares with people. When the religious leaders estimate that Jesus’ healings are enabled by the power of evil, Jesus warns them that if they badmouth the spirit, because they do not value its gift of life, it may not be available to them to prompt their own escape from death. The same principle is announced when Mark shows him dealing with a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. When conscious that he is being observed by religious leaders, he asks, Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to do evil? To rescue life or to kill? Actual, ordinary life, the gift of the creator, is the touchstone of his teaching and healing. Of course we may say he is also concerned with the quality of life, but he is disturbingly unconcerned with what some would define as quality, when he forgives sins almost casually and provides physical health.

What are the evil spirits against whom he acts so decisively? Elsewhere I have analysed these as a combination of personal damage and social prejudice. Leprosy as such is physical damage but the society’s fear of the disease and rejection of the sufferer is social prejudice which makes the sufferer feel unworthy, to the extent that they find it hard to believe that anyone cares. As when the leper says to Jesus, If you want to….you can make me clean. Or there is the damage done to the demon-possessed man from Gerasa, by the Roman conquest, who gives his name as Legion. The brutality of Roman conquest is matched by the fear of his community, to leave him afflicted. Jesus has the courage to do battle for the man’s life, but in order to do so, he has to enter the conflicted realm where evil has power and may damage him. His willingness to put himself at risk is a measure of his trust in the efficacy of the Holy Spirit.

Evil is no-creation or un-creation, the embrace of chaos as a tool for gaining power over the forces of the universe and over the bodies and minds of living creatures. It is ultimately self-destructive, but it lives a parasitic existence on the back of those it seduces, terrorises and torments. Mark represents this evil principally in diseased people whom Jesus heals, and in the powerful religious leaders whom he opposes. The corrupt court of Herod who almost literally consumes his people, and the equally corrupt government of Pilate are other possessed bodies.

Evil is only manifest in human arrogance, wealth, malice, hard-heartedness, lies and cruelty, so Mark leaves it open whether it has an origin beyond humanity. The Satan, the enemy of God, may as easily be a product of human evil as its cause. Evil is happy to maintain the kind of secret hegemony it exercises in the Israel that Jesus challenges, but once challenged, once exposed by the demonstration of goodness, it reveals itself as a vicious killer.

But the crucial moment of revelation is the moment of Jesus’ dying, when he is separated from the presence of the father/ mother God, because the Holy Spirit is no longer active but suffering. What is happening here? Mark tells us with the sign of the temple curtain torn asunder ( Greek schizo, as in the baptism story) that here the heart of God is revealed as ready to suffer out of love for his/her human son, and for the universe through him. At the same moment evil is revealed as a busted flush because with all its force it cannot compel allegiance from a human being, even when the human being feels abandoned by God. In face of the sorrow of God and of God’s child, evil is shown up as brutal and impotent. The exposure of the human/divine partnership reveals limitless resources of love; the exposure of evil reveals it as bankrupt.

This is the point where the reasonable reader says, Come on, in spite of all your rhetoric, Jesus is dead, snuffed out, nailed down, kaput, yes? So we may give him a sort of spiritual superiority to the powers of evil, but not victory, if we want to keep,our feet on the ground. In the real world the result is Sanhedrin +Romans 1: Jesus+ God 0.

Even from a perspective of worldly realism, we may question this alleged result. Has it not often been the case that the example of the martyred leader has given courage to the apparently defeated forces of justice so that they rally, persist and finally win? The persuasive power of the martyr, which shares in the persuasive love of God, cannot be safely ignored by the worldly powers that killed him/her.

But from the perspective of God there is more to say. We left God suffering the death of Jesus, the Holy Spirit rendered inept by Jesus’ acquaintance with grief. And God the father/ mother, in whom we live and move and have our being also suffered the same event. But to suffer is to receive, and to receive is to take into oneself, and to be taken into the self of God is to find life if you want it or death if you don’t. In this suffering, therefore, in this grieving love, Jesus finds again the life he has always shared with God, and evil people find the death which is their true desire. And the life of Jesus, no longer circumscribed by earthly limits, is unlimited in its scope and joy: the son is with the father, the child is with the mother.

But this is not yet the resurrection, since it leaves the human beings whom Jesus loved out of the picture. They are left simply with what they saw or heard of Jesus: that he died painfully opposing the powers of evil, out of love for God and the world. If the veil has been torn away, what they can see is a dead body on a stake. The question is: Is that enough? Can they believe that this is nevertheless a victory, and not a skin -of -the -teeth victory but an overwhelming conquest of evil and death? The answer is, they can, as they decide to continue Jesus’ ministry. No jiggery-pokery with tombs, no visions beyond those often seen by mourning people, are given to them. Perhaps it took months, assisted by Jesus prophecy that he would meet them again in Galilee, the place of the “beginning” where the doing of God’s persuasion in the world has to start again and again.

Mark gives no stories of Jesus’ appearing; only the enigmatic empty tomb and the command to keep the rendezvous with him. What we know is, eventually they announced the resurrection. They were persuaded and believed they could persuade others. The stories of Jesus appearing to individuals and groups are skilled narrative versions of this fundamental faith: persuaded by Jesus’ life and death, they believed he was alive in God, victorious over evil. So of course his tomb is empty, of course his most faithful followers, women, experience him as alive, of course his presence is felt in the discussions they had about his mission and death, of course he offers forgiveness and re-employment to Peter and all his shaky disciples. Yet it’s important that all this comes from facing the terrible silence of God that Jesus faced in his dying. God must not give them sneaky evidence of the truth. Out of their disappointment, their rage at injustice and the doers of it, their continuing loyalty to Jesus’ as the true ruler, out of their guts, they must imagine it for themselves; then it is resurrection, in which God and human beings give strength to each other and can celebrate with each other as partners in victory.

That partnership in which human beings share God’s ability to create liberation out of a sorrowful defeat, gives them a present into which they dare to import the promise of God’s future; they can live tomorrow’s life today. This is called the gift or shared life of the Holy Spirit, who is constitutive of the Assembly of Christian believers.

Yes, this is my imagination of Mark’s imagination of Jesus, except I have missed out much of his rich picture. But I have tried to be faithful to his strange truth. In my next blog I will attempt a critique of what I have written.