Friday, April 08, 2016

Book 4 of 2016 -- How Human is God?

This is one I was asked to read and review for Touchstone.  I actually finished it a few months ago, but just got the review done now.

How Human is GOD? Seven Questions about God and Humanity in the Bible
Mark S. Smith (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2014) Pp.192.

Mark Smith is professor of Bible and ancient Near Eastern studies at New York University. Previously he taught at Yale University, Saint Joseph's University . . . and Saint Paul Seminary . . . he is past president of the Catholic Biblical Association of America” (back cover). In this volume his deep grounding in Hebrew Scripture and knowledge of the world in which that Scripture was written is evident and is a great gift to the reader. 
In the beginning of our faith story we are told that humanity is created in God's image. Does this mean that God is also in our image? In this well-referenced—of the 192 pages 58 are endnotes and recommended readings—volume Mark Smith invites us to think about God as God is revealed in the words of the Hebrew Bible. To lead us in this thinking Smith offers seven chapters, each of which explores (and maybe even answers) one of the seven questions referenced in the subtitle of the book.

These chapters are broken out into two sections. In the first section we have questions about God: “Why does God Have a Body?”, What Do God's Body Parts in the Bible Mean?”, Why Is God Angry in the Bible?”, and “Does God in the Bible Have Gender of Sexuality?”. The second section explores have questions about God in the world” “What Can Creation Tell Us About God?”, Who—or What—Is the Satan?”, and “Why Do People Suffer According to the Hebrew Bible?”. Obviously many, if not all, of those topics could be a lengthy book (or books) in and of itself, which is why Smith gives such good notes and recommended reading for those who want to go deeper.
The nature and understanding of God is an unending discussion for people of faith. The questions about God never seem to get fully answered, but Smith makes an interesting suggestion in the prologue: “. . . the emergence of the understanding of God within ancient Israel was a redefinition of divinity in its time. . . the change in ancient Israel's sense of God may anticipate changes taking place today.” (xiii). As we continue to re-vision how we understand God we need to remain grounded in the witness of Scripture and this book is very helpful in doing just that.
Of course the challenge in talking about God is that all we can use are metaphors, and when we turn metaphors into literal statements then things can get weird. Smith recognizes this. And so even as he starts to talk about God's body he also notes “what are we to make of anthropomorphism? Is it simply a projection . . .” (5). However, as he points out, we use the language we have. Since we understand God as being personal and in relationship we will end up describing God in some of the same ways we describe other persons. But later Smith points out that “human language applied to God not only falls short; it only makes sense for God when it is recognized as being partial and falling short” (64). Smith pushes us to recognize that the descriptions he is talking about are not all that God is, a helpful reminder for us as we wrestle with our own understandings of God.
While this book is ably addresses some of the easier aspects of God (God's body parts, knowing God in Creation) it also does not shy from taking on some really difficult subjects (God's gender/sexuality, God's anger, why do people suffer). Smith knows that some of what Scripture says about God is challenging and is able to name and explore that challenge. This exploration invites the reader to look deeper. As a person of faith it would be easy to accept simple answers to difficult questions but Smith pushes us to look at what the text really says, even when it may move us out of our comfort with the simple answer. As a whole the book calls us to see God “through the positive lens of creation and through the negative lens of evil and suffering” (128) and so pushes a more complete, more nuanced picture.
Early in the book we read “we may be drawn to images of God that move us or comfort us . . .Sometimes, though, we do not really use our brains very much in thinking about God” (ix). Near the end we read “Human images constitute a starting point for thinking about God. . . This is a beginning, not the end . . . we change—our discovery of who God is changes” (129). This sums up an approach to exploring who God is. An approach that includes our own experiences and feelings but also our logic and reason as well as the witness of those who have gone before us. Which seems like a really good thing to encourage people to do as we try to answer who God is and how God is a part of our lives.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Integrity and Community Responsibility...

I am the secretary of our local Ministerial Association (a position I am contemplating retiring from at the end of this year).  It is not an onerus task.  Mainly it consists of sending out agendas and meeting reminders, then taking minutes at the meeting and send those out (all sending done through a group e-mail). Other than that there is some times of being the recipient of requests to speak and taking those to the Executive for decision/invitation. The other piece is to be the central clearing house for items sent to the whole membership.

Normally the last piece is easy.  Something comes in with a request to distribute and I just hit "Forward" and send it on. Occasionally (or even often) the item is not something I would ever support personally but I am clear that it is not my role to screen items to match my social philosophy or theology. My role in this community is to be a conduit, not a gatekeeper or censor.

But recently that was a challenge for me.  I was asked to forward a link to this petition. And I had to stop and consult with the rest of the Executive (knowing that they would want it sent forward) before I could do what I knew it was my role in the community to do. Part of it is because I strenuously disagree with the petition's contents and consider the language ["Totalitarian"] unnecessarily inflammatory. Part of it is because I do not believe the background given accurately reflects the guidelines to which they are objecting. Part of it is that I question if a Ministerial Association should be seen as taking a position on the issue at all, given that by definition there is diversity in our ranks (arguably transmitting a link is not exactly taking a stand -- recipients are free to respond as they see fit). But the big one is that I think this petition asks the government to act in a way that goes against the principle of protecting minority rights and providing a safe school environment.

But let us take a step back.

Last year one of the largest School Boards in the province hit the news because of their difficulty in coming to a fair policy around transgender students. To the extent that some suggested the Education Minister needed to step in and run the district directly. AS a result of this the Education Minister issued a set of guidelines around that very issue, with the requirement that School Boards draft policy based on those guidelines and submit them to the ministry by the end of March for review to ensure the policies are in compliance. A news story about the guidelines is here. The full document (which I admit I have not read completely -- TL:DR) is here.  AND then the excrement hit the spinning blade.

Many places in Alberta are very socially conservative.  The province has already had to mandate that if students ask for a Gay-Straight Alliance then the school is required to provide assistance to have that GSA as a school-sponsored club meeting on campus because some districts refused to do so -- suggesting it could be an off-campus organization instead. SO to tell everyone that they had to abide by these guidelines was like waving a red flag. And to be fair, given that Alberta has a fully-funded Separate (mainly Roman Catholic) School System these guidelines do appear to conflict with many traditional religious teachings. Then again, the publicly-funded school system is not in business to support traditional religious teachings -- there is a question of how far it should go in challenging them.

And so a number of people in the province have found these guidelines (most of which are very common-sense-based when you read them--if you accept that gender is not a binary thing). to be an affront to religious sensitivities and an affront to family values, and an affront to parental rights [one interpretation of them suggested that schools should not tell parents if a child disclosed being transgender, mind you schools have had similar policies around orientation for years]. ANd of course there was the all too common fear mongering that implementing these guidelines around washroom and change-room use would create unsafe environments and male students would use this as a chance to invade the female spaces.

I fully support the guidelines. I watched the press conference when they were released and I did note that the Minister had a real hard time answering when asked what would happen if a board chose to ignore these guidelines. I suspect that the government (or at least some within it) actually wanted these to be regulations-which are much more enforceable- but felt it was more politically palatable to make them guidelines so boards could have some more flexibility. Personally I think at least some of them SHOULD be regulations. I think that actually helps boards who object--then they can say "well we don't want to do it but we have to" (similar to discussions that happened in other places when boards were told they could no longer have the Lord's Prayer led during the school day). Also if they were regulations then boards could go back to the government for cash to redo washroom spaces to make them more friendly to the modern reality.  My personal vision is that instead of a couple of multiple user washrooms based on gender you have a series of individual water closets (fully enclosed rooms with a toilet) along the hallway with a set of common sinks outside. Then the issue of washroom use and safety is automatically resolved. For the record this would be a safer environment for cisgendered students (some people feel very uncomfortable in a public washrooms in general, and school washrooms have a long history of being potential bullying sites) as well.

So I did send the e-mail along.  But I still don't feel good about it.

And to be honest I don't really understand the uproar. Do people seriously believe that these guidelines will make any difference in the life of most students? Do they think there will suddenly be a mass influx of people gaming the system by claiming to be trans-gendered? What is the threat we need to fight against?  I think the threat is to those who are "different" and so we protect them -- even [or especially?] if it means challenging those of us who have privilege because we are not different.

Book 3 of 2016 -- Faith Unraveled

This was a "oh that looks interesting, think I'll get it" purchase while looking for something else (though to be honest I forget what else I was looking for and if I even found it).

It was a nice light read, perfect for a week of vacation time (which I took last week).

As the author herself points out, it does seem a little precocious for someone to write a spiritual memoir before turning 30 but this one works.  The story of a journey from one way of understanding the faith to another comes through with honesty and integrity. I kept finding myself highlighting passages for future reference.

BUt I do have to wonder, given the comments she makes about the implausibility of there being one "Biblical" worldview how she ever wrote a book about Biblical womanhood....

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Book 2 of 2016 -- Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It

This one was a Christmas gift.  Not likely something I would have bought for myself, not likely something I ever would have happened upon when browsing through books. And that would have been a shame.

It is a collection of reflections on quotes from various philosophers, from the ancient Greek to a couple of Scripture passages, to 20th century folks.  And the author himself has studied philosophy and so has the ability to explain a bit about the school of thought surrounding the quote.

Some of the quotes are great, some of them leave me bleh. But there is something to think about in almost every quote and reflection.  And there were some I thought "I could use this in a sermon". I think this is a book I will use as a reference from time to time...assuming I remember which pithy quote I am looking for of course.

Book 1 of 2016 -- Volume 3 of Les Miserables

Whew, it will take forever to get this book finished (partly because I keep interrupting to read other things).

This volume was called "Marius".  As with other characters we have an in-depth introduction to him. We learn about his grandfather and his father. The father who served at Waterloo...who was  in that description many pages ago and met a scavenger named Thenardier.

WE learn how Marius meets the students led by Enjolras and are given a full introduction to each student.

We learn that Marius has a strong predilection for helping others, a charitable heart.  Then again it is obvious in this book that to be a heroic character one has a charitable caring heart

We learn how Marius first becomes besotted with this beautiful  girl whose name he does not know. And how he pretty much stalks her.

ANd then we learn that Marius lives next door to the Thenardier clan, and we watch with him as Thenardier once again meets an old friend.

IT is interesting reading.  But sooo long, and sooooooooooooo much detail that seems extraneous to moving the plot forward.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Book 8 of 2015 Charles Dickens: Some Short Christmas Stories

I found this when looking for A Christmas Carol and since it was free I decided why not take a look.

IT is a set of 6 short stories (though some of them are decidedly short on narrative) and only some of them are Christmas-y.  I liked the last three stories best personally.  For a free book it was ok. But while A Christmas Carol iz certainly a classic, these stories are pretty much forgettable.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Christmas Snail

Each year the girls buy Christmas Tree ornaments at the Ten Thousand Villages sale here in town.  This year Eldest bought a snail, and dad was given the challenge of writing the story of the Christmas Snail.  Here is what developed:
They didn't even see me. But then I am used to that. Nobody ever sees us snails. Or when they do the make rude noises and squish us or run away as if we were some disgusting monster. I think only spiders get treated worse than us.

At any rate I saw it all. From beginning to end I was there. Unlike those uppity other animals you might hear about I don't think I had anything to do with what happened. I just watched it. And I will never forget it. I don't really understand, because I am only a snail. But I will never forget it.

It almost made me run and jump. But, well, you know, snails aren't really great at that.

Do you want to hear my version of the story?

It was a strange day. There I was in Nazareth, creeping along, trying to stay moist, when this foot just missed me. It was a man leading a donkey. Then the donkey hoof just missed me on the other side. Around then I decided maybe I would stay still. You know, to recover from the fright. But fate, it seems, had other plans.

As the donkey's back hoof came by it kicked me forward. At the same time a bundle of cloth fell off the donkey's back. The bundle and I landed together in a heap. Grumbling about how far they had to go and the delay and the time, the man stopped and bent over to get the bundle of cloth, and of course I got scooped up along with it. Before I knew it I was stuck on the back of the donkey, heading who knew where.

That was a horrible journey. Day after day in the hot sun! I was sure I would get fried. Luckily there were lots of nooks and crannies in the baggage so I could find a place to hide. And between the morning dew and the donkey sweat and the occasional splash of water while the man and woman were drinking I got just enough moisture to keep from totally drying out.

I had no idea where we were going. It appeared they did not want to go but they said that they had no choice. The woman was very pregnant. The man was very worried. The donkey was smelly and tired. The woman was tired. The man was getting anxious. The donkey just wanted to stop, the man had to keep urging it forward.

Finally we came to another city. Bethlehem I think the man said its name was. It was late in the day. Thankfully the sun was almost down and it was getting cooler. I was starting to shrivel up. The man sounded much more relaxed when he said:
“Tonight we will have a real bed in a real building. No more sleeping on the hard cold ground. And maybe a real meal for a change. I still have family here, I am sure one of them can take us in.”

In her gentle voice the woman said:
“That will be nice.” Then suddenly she groaned with pain. “Joseph, I think the baby is coming, my water just broke.”
By that point I had started to slide down the donkey. And suddenly I was almost washed off by this rush of fluid that came at me. I was able to hold on, and to be honest I was very happy for all that refreshing moisture.

The man made the donkey go even faster then. He led us from one house to another, asking if he and the woman could stay there. They all said no. Finally he turned to the woman and said:
“Its no use Mary, none of my cousins remember me or my father. I guess we will have to try that inn over there”
And so he led the donkey across a square to an old inn. It sounded very busy. There was lots of light pouring out the windows and doors. The man left us on the walk and went up to the door. I could just barely hear him pleading with the innkeeper, saying that his wife was having a baby and they needed a place. He was gone a long time. All the while the woman kept groaning. It seemed she was about to fall off the donkey.

Finally he came back. He didn't sound happy.
“Well they say they are full, and I don't have enough money to change their minds. But they told me we can go out back and stay with the animals.”

The woman said:
“That will be better than the middle of the street. Hurry Joseph, I need to get off the donkey. It is almost time.”
So the man Joseph led us around behind the building. There was a little shelter back there with a few animals tied up inside. Joseph helped the woman off the donkey and settled her on a pile of straw.
“Is that ok Mary? Are you going to be alright?”
All the woman could do was grunt.

Then there were voices approaching. Women were coming. When they got to where we were one of them said:
“Thee innkeeper sent for me. I am the local midwife. I am here to help. Let me see how things are going.”

I sort of lost track for a while then. Joseph started to unload and brush off the donkey and in that process I got flung off into a corner. But at least there I was safe. Nobody would step on me over there. While I couldn't see anything, I could hear everything.

It appears the woman was having her baby. It seems much easier to just lay eggs like us snails do. But apparently that is not how it happens with humans. There was a lot of screaming. The woman who called herself midwife kept trying to calm Mary down. Meanwhile I found a nice little puddle in my corner and settled in.

Still I listened. I heard Mary say that this was a special baby. She talked about a visit from an angel who told her that the baby was God's baby. It didn't sound like the midwife believed her. Joseph talked about a visit he had from an angel who told him the same thing. They talked about how this baby was going to change the world. I have to admit I didn't really know quite what they mean. After all, I am only a snail and really don't know much about the world.

Then it was done. The baby was born. Did I mention that laying eggs seems much easier? Anyway everybody was very happy. The baby let out a loud scream and then quietened down. But there was something odd.

From my corner I saw this bright light shining. And I was sure I could hear music. And for some reason I felt just so happy. Everybody's voices had gone quiet, and all the animals too. At that point I knew I had to see the baby. So I started to move over toward the light.

As I crept over toward the manger two things happened. The light got brighter and the music got louder. At first I thought it was just music but as it got louder and clearer I could hear voices. Sweet soft voices singing the baby to sleep. The pigeons in the rafters joined in the song. I can see why. You just couldn't help but sing when you heard that song. It drew you in somehow.

And the light. How can I describe it. Normally when you spend your life so close to the ground you see a lot of shadows. All the lights are up high and blocked by people or objects. But this was different. The light seemed to just be there, no shadows. I think it was coming from the baby but even then there was no shadow from the manger. The light just shone through everything and everybody.

Just as I started to get closer to the manger, almost close enough to start thinking about climbing up one of the legs, there was a new noise. A bunch of shepherds came rushing up yelling and shouting. They were very excited. And they had big clumsy feet. I had to slide under a piece of wood to avoid getting squashed.

The shepherds rushed in, but as soon as they saw the baby they stopped dead. They just stood there in silence for a while. Then they told a story. They talked about angels appearing to them. They said they had been told that this baby was the Messiah. They said that they had been told to find a baby lying in a manger, wrapped up in bits of cloth – just like this baby here.

The shepherds started to sing “Glory to God in the Highest! Peace on earth, good will to men”. They said this is what the angels had sung to them. They stayed and watched the baby sleep for a while. Eventually the sheep came wandering in and laid down beside the manger. Then the shepherds gathered the sheep and headed back out of town. I could hear them singing and shouting as they went, telling everyone what had happened that night.

Still there was the music and the light. Making things seem so calm, so special.

Just as dawn was breaking I finally got to the top of the manger. And I could see the baby. Even with all that light shining, light that should have blinded me, I could see him. And looking at him I was sure that somehow things would be alright. Even for us snails.

I slid down into the hay he was lying on. And just sat there looking at him, listening to the song, and feeling very content. But it was exciting too. I knew why the shepherds had been singing and shouting. I wanted to dance and sing! Sadly I can't do such things. So instead I sat there and watched and listened.

After a few days the family left. I stayed behind. I had had enough traveling for the lifetimes of many many snails. But every time a new animal comes in, as we rest in the night, I tell the story of the Baby. And sometimes, as I tell it, I hear the song again and the manger seems to glow a little bit...

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Book 7 of 2015 -- A Christmas Carol

Many years ago (like 36) I was in a play for the first time.  The play was A Christmas Carol and I was playing Scrooge.

Over the years I have seen various productions of the story -- everything from Alastair Sim's classic to Henry Winkler in An American Christmas Carol to Mickey Mouse to the Muppets.  And a few years ago I took art in a staged reading of it.

ANd then I found a free copy of it for my KOBO. (I also found a free book of short stories for Christmas by Dickens which is next in my reading plan)

So I thought that maybe I should start a new tradition of reading it each year.

It is a nice little read.  ANd there are bits that you always miss when it is put to the stage/screen.

A story of redemption, a story of what we might do if we knew for sure how people would remember us after our death, a story of social conscience.

Maybe I should broaden my new tradition to not only read it but read it to the girls....

Sunday, November 29, 2015

NaBloPoMo -- Favourite Advent Hymn(s)

Today's RGBP prompt is:
NaBloPoMo Day 29: Best Advent carol and why
ANd what does best mean????  Who decides?

So I am going with some favourites.

My long-time favourite is one called Tomorrow Christ is Coming.  Some people would say it is depressing.  But it is real.  It talks about the darkness in the world.  Best sung in a minor key to mark the tone of the lyrics.  But I don't push for it to be sung in worship every year -- I can sing it for myself.

A more recent favourite is People Look East, which apparently is a challenge to play -- particularly at the speed at which it is intended to be sung.

And this coming Sunday we are singing one that I have always wanted to sing.  She Walked in the Summer by Miriam Therese Winter

And finally, as the Magnificat is a common Advent reading I have to mention my favoured musical setting of it -- the Canticle of the Turning

NaBloPoMo -- Book 6 of 2015 Accidental Saints

This is actually the third book by Nadia Bolz-Weber that I have read. The first was Salvation on the Small Screen and the other was Pastrix.  As it happens this is not what I was looking for when I went to the KOBO site that day, nor was it the only volume I bought, I also got an Anne Lamott and the Rachel Held Evans that I went looking for.

I loved this book.  I mean it is one of those books where the title alone is a good reminder.  Because we do find God in all the wrong people.  And thankfully we are also the wrong people ourselves.  But the content is wonderful.

I have come to believe that we are definitely people of story.  And Bolz-Weber is a great storyteller. This is a book that I may suggest as a study group project in the new year.