Love to the power of nothing

My family is pretty immense. At the risk of making my parents sound like members of the Borg collective, they are both one of five.  So that’s eight sets of aunties and uncles before you’ve even started. I stopped counting at 20 cousins.

We are also a pretty diverse bunch; a mix of races, sexualities, educational attainment, geography, tastes and lifestyles.

With a family that big it’s never very long between ‘occasions’ and the fact that we all enjoy celebrating together regularly is a powerful testament to how our mutual love, affection and shared history totally trumps our differences and holds us all together. Nice.

This gets me thinking about the breath-taking diversity in God’s creation and the immense, unfathomably creative power that must be holding all that together; connecting us to each other and to Him.

In the bible, God challenges this guy called Job with some heavyweight questions about His power over the universe. Imagining myself being confronted with some of these questions, could go like this:

God: Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?

Me: How about ‘no’?

God: Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place….?

Me: Erm….nope again.

God: Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons?

Me:  ……..Dah.

If you’ve ever seen the film Bruce Almighty, you’ll know the scene where Bruce first realises that the entirety of the power of God has been given to him. What does he do? Drenched deep in a sense of his own powerlessness, he uses God’s power big himself up. Who wouldn’t, right?

Not Jesus.

“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing.”

– Philippians 2:6-7

 

The thing that blows me away about this is that Jesus – he through whom all things were made – made himself nothing.

Here we have Jesus, the creator of the universe, with infinite unspeakable power, imagination, resources and time – the very ‘hands that flung stars into space’ – choosing to make himself nothing, so that I – we – could be ‘something’.

Humility personified. Love to the power of nothing.

We often think of and experience power as something too compelling not to use. Power is so often something that we want in order to get gains in our own direction; something that allows us to control people and events for our benefit or advantage.

Not Jesus. Apparently, ‘down is the new up.’

When he ‘turns it on’, power is always for the benefit of others. Motivated by love, he can choose to announce his power in the wonder of creation for his glory and our amazement, and he can also choose to withhold his power when it’s necessary for our ultimate good.

And on the cross, Jesus held back on the chance to use his immense power to save his own life in that moment, so that God’s bigger picture of salvation through grace could be revealed through Jesus rising from the dead three days later.

I wouldn’t consider myself to be particularly powerful as a human being, but this challenges me deeply. How humble am I in the face of any power I might have? Am I more like Bruce, tempted to wield it for shits and giggles? Or am I ready and willing to humble myself, as Jesus did, for the sake of the bigger picture, and for the benefit of others? Think on.

hands that flung stars

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Good or safe – when things get ‘ouchy’

“Let His Majesty guide us wherever He will. We are not our own; we belong to Him. His Majesty may do what He likes with the soul. It is His property. The soul no longer belongs to itself. It has been given over wholly to our Lord. Let it, therefore, cast its cares wholly aside forever and ever.” – Saint Teresa of Avila

My current read-on-the-bus book is ‘Leadership Pain,’ by Samuel Chand. In it he talks about the inevitability of pain as a leader, yet notes that, “new insights – ones that couldn’t have been learned another way – become treasures found in the darkness. The person now has more compassion, deeper joy and more love to share with others.”

Wise words.

Indeed, in my own life I can say with all honesty that whilst I would not want to repeat certain desperately painful events; if it was not for that pain, I wouldn’t have discovered the deeper and wider realms of God’s love and mercy for me, nor his delight in me.

And so, as someone who is tentatively moving into ‘Christian leadership’, I’m at times painfully aware of my novice status and my oftentimes crippling sense of inadequacy for what God might be calling me towards. Against that green-shoot backdrop I’ve found myself recently knocked for six by a relational breach which I’ve experienced as confusing, wounding to my already fragile sense of relationship-ability and out-of-the-blue anxiety-generating.

The temptation towards feeling defended, angry and condemned has been uncomfortably close; at times like rancid breath down the back of my neck. But by the grace of God, being kicked into the black pit of the unknown has been faith-enlarging, trust magnifying and God-intimacy growing. Alongside the temptation to allow my heart for relationship and community to develop a ‘squint’, my soul-eyes have been opened all the wider to the expansive and surer reality of God’s goodness and sovereignty. And in this potentially isolating space, God has revealed himself faithful in my being wrapped around and threaded through by a diverse community of people who hold me close and steady and love like family.

One aspect which has been especially difficult to bear has been wanting to be able to express my own hurt, but without doing it in a way that hurts the relationship even more. In ‘holding in’ my own pain I’ve assumed a type-of-silence that has at times felt choking and unjust. Yet as is very often the case when external and expressed silence occurs, you become all too aware of the noise within. Oh, how I wrestled and wrangled and interrogated anything and everything I could in order to understand what might have ‘gone wrong’.  Seemingly endless ‘why’ ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions attempted to flood my thoughts and draw my attention away from the One in whom I trust.

And so from wrestling to rest.

A re-reading of Isaiah 40:31 beamed God’s perspective-altering radiance like a shaft of light in the fog.

“But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Those who wait for the Lord.  In every waiting situation, we have a choice to make about what (or rather who) we are waiting for, and that choice fundamentally changes our perspective in the pain. As I wait, I ask myself, “Am I waiting for a circumstantial outcome that depends on another person?” If the answer to that question is ‘yes’, then it strikes me it would have the potential to induce the opposite effect within me to Isaiah 40:31. It would sap my strength. It would make me tumble-fall like Icarus. I would become woefully weary and leaden-footed. But what if I am ‘waiting for the Lord’?  A perspective shift in this ‘waiting space’ leads me to realise what I am expectant of is God’s joy to burst in on the scene. I’m waiting for God to reveal himself.

In all this, I am reminded yet again of God’s immense goodness; abundant enough to cover all of this. And it’s that surety which I want to be both my circumference and my centre in this, despite the uncertainty that remains about the outcome. As ever, The Chronicles of Narnia expresses this feeling so pertinently;

“Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh,” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he…quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

safe-good

 

Alpha and Omega

I read today that an estimated 47% people are going through some kind of life transition. As someone familiar with change and upheaval, it was comforting (as it always is) to learn I’m not the only one.

I’ve recently been challenged by some difficult changes and have been steadied in this by remembering that God is the Alpha and Omega – He knows the start and end of me and the start and end of every situation I face; as well as all the details of the in-between.  He holds it all and I trust he will bring light to it and life from it.

So, poet me came out to play. Which was nice.

Alpha omega

 

Gotta love a good story…

I was intrigued to discover an article recently explaining how a key quality in leadership is effective storytelling – defined as the ability to “shape and express engaging narratives”. Some of the reasons offered for this were that good story-telling:

  • boosts morale and empowerment
  • builds ties and social networks
  • gives a fresh perspective and helps to ‘contain’ conflict in groups
  • helps people handle stress better
  • helps people find purpose and meaning

Interesting stuffs.

There are, of course, leaders and people in power who are good at a kind of ‘storytelling’ which has the opposite effect; where their leadership and power is built and rested upon narratives that demean, disempower and divide. And we’ve certainly seen plenty of that in political debates lately as well as the defence in the recent Stanford sexual assault case.

Anyway, it got me thinking about our ‘stories’ – the narratives of our lives – and how in telling and retelling our stories we are not only expressing who we once were or have become, we are also dynamically shaping the narrative of who we are becoming as we interpret and reinterpret the meaning of the events that have shaped us.

I wonder how many of us would ever attempt to articulate our lives as a whole story? If someone else was to write your story, would there be ‘chapters’ that you would prefer to be edited out?

I recently had the pleasure of organising a surprise family get-together for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and I wanted to ‘tell their story’ in a creative way, so I wrote a poem.  I won’t include it here, but as I so easily amused myself working out verses for the earlier chapters of their life, I found myself suddenly floored and lost for words when it came to ‘shaping and expressing a narrative’ about the loss of their first born son, my older brother, to cancer in 2002 aged 34.

I found myself needing to heavily edit their story and move swiftly on to the later verses. Any words I attempted to mould together seemed tenuous and inadequate as a means of expressing an event so profoundly painful and deeply life-altering.

But none-the-less it remains part of my parents’ story – part of our story as a family. And part of my story as a sister. I may be able to edit it out of a poem, but I can’t edit it out of our lives. Ian’s life and death shaped who I am, probably more than any other person. Much of my identity has been both hinged and unhinged on his presence and his absence.

My brother’s death is one of many dark and unlovely chapters in my life I could be tempted to ‘edit out’ of the story. But it strikes me that if I were to pursue that course, it would have two effects:

  • Firstly, it would confine me to a shrunken space; to only expressing those bits of my story that are pleasing, uplifting and ‘nice’ – I’ve got to be honest, with that approach, I’d be on starvation rations pretty quickly…..
  • Secondly, it would mean those chapters remain forever static; becoming calcified and unchanging skeletons in a suffocating closet.

Newsflash: that’s not me.

I want my darker chapters to be pierced perpetually by God’s light; to be opened up and edited with the creative renewal and healing that God’s abundant love and faithfulness can bring. I want all my chapters – ‘nice’ and ‘nasty’ – to be dynamic stories that I can tell and re-tell because they say something about a visionary Creator whose mission in me, in all of us, is to bring joy from mourning, beauty from ashes and life out of darkness and death.

6a6d0bbaf15b59d02d9d19145e8026d2

When beauty and ugliness walk in company with one another. And some stuff about worms.

I recently returned to work after a couple week’s leave, and several of my colleagues asked the inevitable question, “Did you have a nice holiday?” Much as I’d love to respond to these friendly enquiries with a simple “Oh why yes, thank you, it was just lovely!” and move on to the next subject, life, for me, rarely seems to be that joyously simple.

left right brainIt was a week of contrasts; times of beautiful crystal clear waters of stillness and healing with God, alongside the perpetual, tumultuous wranglings of my inner world. And some leftfield ‘outer’ circumstances thrown in for good measure.

Allow me to explain….

I spent a few sunshiny days in beautiful Shropshire with dear friends. Amongst the relaxing, chatter, news-sharing, good food, crafting and laughing, we also shared our sadness and confusion around being estranged from another mutual friend; a sorrow that’s been exaggerated recently by the discovery that the ‘friend’ in question has been diagnosed with breast cancer. How is it possible to extend the hand of love and sisterhood when it’s not wanted? If we don’t have the opportunity or permission to do it in person, then we must respect that and simply, quietly, powerfully stand with her in prayer.

A few days later, I had the joy and privilege of being invited to join in a conversation at Malmesbury Abbey where they are reviving their Benedictine roots through setting up a dispersed monastic community inspired by old-school Abbot of Malmesbury, St Aldhelm. I’m always rather stunned and humbled that my opinion and input may be sought let, alone valued, but there we were talking and creating insight together, connecting our modern with the ancient and growing in love and grace.

Against this backdrop of relative spiritual bliss, it was, therefore all the more rude an awakening to collide sharply and loudly with another car on the return journey.

My dear little car limped home and has now been retired from service…..

The third contrast on my ‘holiday’ revolved around my birthday. My dismissive nonchalance of yet another year past and my reluctance to bow to social expectation to ‘celebrate’ in some way, was blown out of the water by the breath-taking beauty of my brother’s birthday present. Not a gift-wrapped trinket in sight, though. No, it was a video of him giving his whole birthday gift budget to a Big Issue seller on Park Street in Bristol and saying, “Here you go, mate, my sister would want you to have this.”

Yes. Yes I would.

I could have died of crying and sisterly pride. I’ve been praying that my dear little brother will catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, and there he was unwittingly bringing it about in a simple, small way that was deeply moving and hugely humbling.

It all made me appreciate something afresh: that rather than following separate tracks, where you are either on one track or the other, life’s beauty and ugliness so often walk in each other’s company.

In a slightly less turbulent moment on holiday, I was doing some charity research, and stumbled across a charity called ‘Wormfree World International’.

worms may chase youI thought, “Wow that’s pretty specific!” And then, on reflection, thought again, “Actually, it’s not specific enough!” Surely not all worms? There is much that can be learned from the humble earthworm in relation to the above bumpy-road scenarios we so often travel in life.

And yes, believe it or not, someone has blogged: ‘Life lessons learned from an earthworm’.

I’ll save sharing the whole thing (you can follow the link), but one ‘lesson’ stood out in the light of my recent so-called ‘holiday’:

Find your anchor, and don’t wander…. The easiest worms to catch are those that are far away from their holes. This isn’t suggesting we should all become homebound and avoid the outside world, but instead to search and latch onto a higher purpose. … to find the security of something more divine. The more we anchor ourselves in the safety of truth, the better our chances of surviving the rough patches in life.

“The more we anchor ourselves in the safety of truth….” What? Wait. Post-modern culture would have us believe that there is no such thing as objective truth; it’s ‘whatever is true for you’, or the more touchy-feely version (which does rather induce my gag reflex, I’m sorry to admit) ‘whatever resonates with you’.

Nope. I don’t buy that. ‘Whatever’s true for you,’ just leaves me unsatisfied; emotionally, spiritually and intellectually. Like a glazed donut, it looks nice, it even has has the potential to make you ‘feel full’, but soon enough, when the sugar drop kicks in, you are hungrier than ever.

My ‘holiday’ had the potential to tell me all sorts of ‘truths’ that could have ‘resonated’ with me in any given moment:

  • I’m a bad friend – v – I’m a great friend
  • Some people hate my guts – v – I’m deeply loved and treasured
  • I’m entirely inadequate and should stop pretending – v – I’m gifted, talented and capable of offering something of value to others, including, on occasion, love

If we let circumstances and feelings persuade us what is ‘real’, where does that leave us?

Cue, the little earth worm: we need to anchor ourselves. What do you anchor yourself to?  Money? Family? Status? Image? Your iPhone? What other people think of you?

The bible says we can anchor our souls on the promises of God, and that all of God’s promises have their ‘yes’ in Jesus. hope anchorWow. Love this big time.

Jesus is my hope, my anchor. Nothing else even comes close. Who he is, what he did, and why it matters are the fundamental questions that drive me to explore and discover his rich spiritual landscape; to keep me digging deeper into holiness.

When the world around me gets noisy and demanding, when it invites me into chaos or tries to grab my heart and mind, I don’t want to be swayed by ‘whatever resonates’ in the moment, I want to be lifted up and embraced fully and powerfully by a greater and surer promise and hope: the ‘yes’ I have in Jesus.

Tolerance isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

My recent experience with a few people has led me to consider that there is an alarming amount of intolerance among those who purport to be tolerant. I’m not going to divulge the details of the events I’m talking about as it would be disloyal and frankly a bit rude. But anyone who uses social media will have experienced something of this phenomenon – people being ‘de-friended’ for sharing or expressing political or spiritual opinions that differ from their own.

Rather than taking the expression of a differing view as an opportunity to enquire, “Why do you think that?” – to connect and discover an understanding about why we hold the views we do, people are being summarily dismissed. The de-friender ascribes themselves the role of judge and executioner and their peace is restored by tuning out the other view.

It strikes me as not only ironic but rather hypocritical behaviour. The very people who promote tolerance and free speech have an expectation that their voice will be heard amongst the masses; yet think nothing of stone-walling or silencing others. That is not tolerance it’s censorship; it’s intolerance.

Of course, I’m not in any way suggesting we engage with hate-fuelled and extreme political views and without challenging them. We are surely meant to ask ‘wtf?!’  No, what I’m talking about here is differences that are not hated-filled, just different.

I have been shut out by people because I disagree with them, and yet I have been branded the intolerant one. You cannot ask me on the one hand to tolerate your difference, to listen and hear your voice if you deny me the same opportunity. In doing so you don’t just deny me a voice but, far more importantly, you deprive us both of an opportunity to connect; to form a bond of community between two fellow human beings, to begin a dialogue which could diminish the barrier between you and me. You deny us both our humanity. You prevent a relational landscape from being developed where common ground and same-ness is more nurtured and valued than difference. I’m not your enemy, but you won’t even allow us to start being friends. And you call me intolerant?

As a Christian, my choices should depend on whether or not I believe those choices would bring me closer to, or further away from, my commitment to follow Jesus. I don’t deny that difference is difficult and challenging. And, yes, sometimes really fricking painful. But here’s the truth – Jesus doesn’t call us to tolerate one another, He calls us to love one another.

In pursuing the tolerance agenda, I wonder if Christians aren’t selling themselves short. Tolerance is a human construct; fleshy and susceptible to being very broken. It has monopolised the debate about human relationships and difference and has mutated into a weapon of pride to be wielded against those who don’t agree with or conform to a prevailing cultural norm. On the surface, ‘tolerance’ appears to include but it’s become misappropriated; more and more it seems to take the form a polarizing dynamic which excludes and pushes ‘the other’ away. Surely love is our higher call?

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-8

But how can I love you my brother or my sister if you exclude me because we disagree? How can we take the more worthy road – shoulder-to-shoulder – and work out love, grace, mercy and understanding between us if you refuse to connect with me? How can we seek to speak about and pursue the truth together if you silence my voice because the challenge of dialogue is too great for you?

1 Corinthians 13:4-8Tolerance carries with it a veiled sense of pride (and possibly fear) that places us at the centre of our own universes which, for our comfort and convenience, we desire to be occupied only with those who are the same as us. It is a self-reflecting universe that actively holds at bay those who are different. In doing so this form of ‘tolerance’ denies us all the opportunity to fulfil our basic human need to relate and belong.

This form of ‘tolerance’ is a fake and cheap alternative to love. Love is an infinitely better way. Love sees the inherent value in every person. Love folds people in; it includes them even in spite of difference.

This form of ‘tolerance’ sticks its fingers in its ears and says, “I don’t want to hear you.” Love reaches out a hand and says, “Let’s talk.”

The Bible – historically accurate or big old fairytale?

It’s not hard to discover so many, many books and blogs on the subject of biblical accuracy, several of which I’ve read, others I’ve skimmed and no doubt there are many more I’m totally unaware of (or were a bit boring, so I skipped over them). I couldn’t hope to add anything new to the debates, or to do them all justice in one single post; someone could spend a lifetime just reading it all, let alone coming to any firm conclusions! I’ve simply tried to look at as much as I can  and reach an answer for the purposes of linking to my Easter reflections posts.

It would seem that if I’m going to rely on the opinions of others about the historical accuracy of the Bible, then I’ll get nowhere pretty darn fast – the question ‘Is the Bible historically accurate?’ on debate.org shows that 50% of people say ‘yes‘ and 50% say ‘no‘. Well, 100% of me says ‘thanks guys,  but that’s not exactly helpful’ 😉

So what do I think? I guess it’s up to me, as it is with anyone, to weigh the evidence and draw what could be a ‘reasonable’ conclusion. I appreciate someone may go through the same process and draw a different conclusion, and of course your starting perspective and interests may influence the outcome you reach. But after my extensive trawl of the world wide web and various books, here’s the four things that persuade me most:

  1. It’s not one book, but a collection of books, written over thousands of years by many authors from a range of geographies and cultural backgrounds, and yet it has a very high degree of internal consistency. How’s that? Even if you asked five people who all witnessed the same football match to recall it a month later you would have different perspectives and details brought to mind. To me, it carries a lot of weight that something like the collection of books in the Bible can be so consistent in and of itself.  But if you then compare it to the reliability of other ancient writings, it becomes even more striking – factors such as the short time gap between events and when they were recorded, the number of original copies, the accuracy of translations and scribing over time all point to the conclusion that the Bible is basically the most reliable historical document ever.
  2. There are numerous and increasing numbers of archaeological finds that confirm the events depicted in the Bible. So much so that it’s used by archaeologists at the Smithsonian Institution (and other significant non-religious organisations) as a reference book to support their studies of the ancient world. The reputation of the Institution would surely influence their choice of source material, wouldn’t it? This quote from the Department of Anthropology is pretty unequivocal: “Much of the Bible, in particular the historical books of the old testament, are as accurate historical documents as any that we have from antiquity and are in fact more accurate than many of the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, or Greek histories. These Biblical records can be and are used as are other ancient documents in archaeological work. For the most part, historical events described took place and the people’s cited really existed.”  OK, so some people might come back at me on that one and say, “They didn’t say ‘all of the Bible‘ is accurate.” Correct – they said “most” – and the general understanding of that word is ‘the greater part’ of or ‘the majority of’.  Apparently, the Institution were asked the same question about another ‘religious book’ (which I won’t name, but a Google search will find it for you), and they gave a very different answer, saying there is ”no direct connection between the archaeology of the world and the subject matter of the book.'”  A very different conclusion, I think you’ll agree! Unless they had a bunch of work-shy temping archaeologists on a shift for their analysis of the second book, I’m assuming they applied the same rules of intellectual rigour to both? So, the same archaeologists that use the Bible as a historical reference book, have never located the cities, people, names, or places mentioned in this other book, but they have in the Bible. Interesting.
  3. Following on from the above point, there are also many finds that refute the criticisms levelled at the bible years ago – to quote ICR, “critics have long been silenced by the archaeologist’s spade, and few critics dare to question the geographical and ethnological reliability of the Bible. Nothing exists in ancient literature that has been even remotely as well-confirmed in accuracy as has the Bible.” In my meanderings online to research this post, I found lots of stories about academics who had started out to unravel the Bible’s credibility as a history book, and ended up concluding the opposite! Sir William Ramsay and Josh McDowell to name two better-known examples.  Josh McDowell makes a the point in his book ‘The New Evidence‘, that there is a “desire on the part of many to apply one standard or test to secular literature and another to the Bible. One must apply the same test, whether the literature under investigation is secular or religious. Having done this, I believe … the Bible is trustworthy and historically reliable”.
  4. The last point is more personal; being a detail-geek, the presence of fine detail in some of the Bible’s stories fascinates me. I don’t see how they would be necessary if the writers didn’t intend for it be a historical record.  I think, ‘why bother to add that snippet if it didn’t happen?’ You can find lots of examples of this – some here – but one of my favourites is in Luke’s account of Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law.  Three of the gospels tell this story: Matthew. Mark and Luke. Here’s what they each say.

Mark – Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed, sick with a fever

Matthew – he (Jesus) saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever

Luke – Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever

Why did Luke say it was a ‘high’ fever? Maybe because he was a doctor he knew the difference between different types of fever; it was a subtlety that passed the other two medically untrained writers by. A little thing, I know, but it strikes me as pretty neat 🙂

There is of course, so much more that could be said on this subject, but for now, those are my reflections.  I hope I started with an open mind, or at least a willingness to be convinced either way, and I’d say what I’ve looked at strongly convinces me that the balance of favour lies significantly more on the side of the Bible being accurate than not.

If you fancy some further reading, I found quite a thorough review of this question at www.everystudent.com.

Easter reflections #3 – A grave affair?

This post took a loooong time to work out because I dug deep (yes, pun intended) to ask the question ‘Was Jesus buried?’ OK so it might might seem an odd question following my last post – if he was dead, then of course he was buried.

But wait. I don’t want to assume anything, here. Could Jesus not have been buried? Why is it important whether or not he was buried? Can’t we just skip to the next bit?

I think it is important to answer this question for two reasons:

  1. It would add weight to the conclusion that Jesus was definitely dead.
  2. It would locate the body of Jesus of Nazareth in a specific and known place, which is important as the rest of the story unfolds….

OK so first let’s look at what the options were for the disposal of a crucified body. A delightful subject, as I’m sure you’ll agree.  Apparently a body could be:

  • Left on the cross and eaten by crows (bits might fall off and get eaten by dogs)

    When puppies attack. There may be no hope for this man.

    When puppies attack – there may be no hope for this man.

  • Taken from the cross and put in a common grave (again, there could have been an element of ‘getting eaten by dogs’ in this scenario too)
  • Taken down and dragged outside the city walls and left to rot (my guess is the dogs were right on the case with this option)
  • Taken from the cross after being displayed for 6 days and burned (unsure what the dogs would make of this one)
  • Stolen by family members in the night when the Roman guards were inattentive (possibly they were playing ‘fetch’ with the dogs?)
  • Taken down and handed over to relatives for burial (unlikely to be any dogs involved)

From what I’ve read, it seems to be assumed that of these options, the last one would be the exception, rather than the rule. So can we claim it as an exception for Jesus? What evidence do we have to go on?

It shouldn’t be all that surprising that there are virtually no known human remains from crucifixions, given that the bodies were either left to decompose, burned or eaten by aforementioned dogs. Also, iron would have been expensive, so the nails were likely removed from bodies to be melted down and remade for the next hapless victim – so even if a body had been buried, any tell-tale evidence of crucifixion could be easily overlooked.

But…… I like a good ‘but’. There is, now a well-known piece of archaeological evidence;  a heel bone(s) and nail found in an ossuary inscribed with the name Yehohanan, a 1st century Jew. These remains have led to a better understanding of the ‘mechanics’ of crucifixion, and its physiological impact on the crucified body, but they tell us practically nothing about who Yehohanan was as a person.

What does this have to do with Jesus? A couple of things, I think.

Continue reading

Will the real me please step forward

My dear brother, a super-talented hair stylist was recently telling me about some of his more entertaining clients, including one who kept using the well-renowned Bristolian phrase, “fair play” in response to pretty much everything he told them. Fair play, to ‘em.

It got us wondering how this little turn of phrase reflects the Bristolian culture. We couldn’t decide whether ‘fair play’ is simply a generous spiritedness celebrating freedom of expression, or if it’s potentially a complete disregard for whatever the other person has just said.

Let me explain this second theory by way of a possible conversation:

Steve: “Ere, Dave, what d’you you do at the weekend, mate?”

Dave: “Oh, me and me missus dressed up like rampaging Vikings and rode a cup-la badgers down Whiteladies Road.”

Steve: “Oh fair play, mate.”

What do our accents and the way we talk say about us? Some psychologists would argue that a person’s accent has a greater impression on people than the way they look; that our accents reveal more about us as people than our visual appearance.

Why am I saying all this?

Like many others at this time of year, I’ve been reading the Passion stories in the Bible and this year have been really struck by the behaviour of Peter.

He was in the courtyard outside where Jesus was facing his so-called trial by the High Priest, and this where he denied that he knew Jesus. When he was asked, he said, “I don’t know the man” -as if he was saying, “I’ve never heard of him, I don’t know what you’re on about”. He actually seems to have gotten quite narky about it!

But despite what he was saying, the way he said it – his accent – was noticed. The bystanders said, “your accent gives you away.” It’s as if they were saying, “Oh come on, mate, d’you really expect us to believe you’ve never heard of Jesus, you’re from the same neighbourhood!”

Despite Peter’s ‘best’ efforts, he gave himself away.

People are funny like that. We sometimes try (with a quite strenuous effort) to give an impression about ourselves to others to avoid ‘giving ourselves away’. We fear being judged, misunderstood or rejected. Maybe we’re struggling with something and assume everyone else has ‘got it sorted’ so we keep shtum and pretend while inside we feel discouraged or alone.

In his book, ‘Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?’ John Joseph Powell explains that our answer to the question, could quite simply be, “I am afraid you might not like who I am . . . and I’m all I’ve got.”

I don’t know about you, but if ‘I’m all I’ve got’, then surely I owe it to myself and others to pursue being as real and authentic a person as possible. And for me, that has only come about by discovering who I am in Jesus. Despite all the crap and abuse and negative narrative I’ve lived through, I’m compelled to press on into discovering the beautiful truth that it’s God’s view about me that reflects the real me. That is my ‘authentic self’.

Christianity Today magazine summed this up perfectly by saying that authenticity is: “transparency and admission of failure…. the rejection of pretence and hypocrisy. It’s truth-telling about all areas of life. …. Christians serve a God who is always truthful. Never lies. Never deceives…..For Christians, our true self is found in Christ, and we are on a pilgrimage to become more like him.”

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Easter reflections # 2 – What have the Romans ever done for us?

What have the Romans ever done for us?

What have the Romans ever done for us?

OK, so this is the second in a series of posts sharing some of my reflections in response to the question, “Did Jesus of Nazareth rise from the dead?

It’s quite a long post already, so first up, I’m not going to get into debates here about the historicity of Jesus – ie did he actually exist in the first place – this is not only well debated in other places, but it’s established opinion among scholars that Jesus of Nazareth did indeed exist. He was a real person in history. Given the weight of opinion on this, I’d say it’s only fair that people who hold the minority view (that Jesus didn’t exist), need to bring some convincing and as-yet-unknown evidence to the table.

So we start with the premise that Jesus lived. For the purposes of these blogs I’m fast-forwarding rather unceremoniously through his whole life to the next critical point in the question – his death. Did Jesus die?

Well, of course if he was a real person, then he must have died. Did he die of old age, disease or some other way? Christianity teaches that Jesus was crucified.

What’s crucifixion? Wikipedia is helpful here if you want the full details of the practise and common causes of death associated with it. Needless to say it was brutal, painful and effective in bringing people’s lives to an end.

Was Jesus crucified? All four accounts of Jesus’ life in the bible (the Gospels), tell that Jesus was crucified. You can find them online easy enough or look them up in Matthew 26-27, Mark 14-15, Luke 22-23 and John 11-19. But what if you don’t believe the bible is telling the truth? What other evidence is there?

Actually there is other non-bible sources of historical evidence. In the Talmud, for example, it says Jesus was crucified on the night before the Jewish festival of Passover. And in Roman historical documents there is evidence too. The most famous (and I’d say pretty indisputable) was written by Cornelius Tacitus in his Annals, he wrote “Christus … was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate.” Well, I’d say that’s pretty clear!

Bear in mind that the Talmud writers were heavyweights at recording events, and the Annals are considered to be the “pinnacle of Roman historical writing”. These aren’t whimsical ramblings, these are carefully researched and constructed documents that are considered historically reliable. Put this into the context that neither the Jews nor the Romans were on the side of Jesus or his disciples – they were simply recording historic events – and there’s no reason to believe that they simply ‘made it up’. So, for my money, I reckon it’s fair to conclude that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed crucified.

So going back to the question, “Did Jesus die?”, and accepting that he was crucified, it is very unlikely that he would have survived. Could he?

Well, yes, it was possible to survive crucifixion and in fact there is an account of three people who survived from the historian Josephus, who’s considered to be the best documentary source for the practice of crucifixion in Roman-era Palestine.

Josephus was a general who had command of Jewish forces at the time, and he personally pleaded directly to Titus, a Roman general, for a reprieve for three of his friends who’d been crucified. Apparently, Titus granted his request and ordered that Josephus’ friends be taken down and cared for by a doctor until they recovered. How nice of him. Two of these friends subsequently died, but the third did indeed recover, although it’s not known how long they had been crucified before they were let down.

The reason I mention this – and it’s the critical thing in this account – is that Josephus pleaded directly to Titus. I don’t reckon he could’ve done that if he was just some ordinary Joe. He could only do it, surely, because of his standing as a general. It would seem that someone’s only hope of surviving crucifixion was to be taken down early (ie before it finished you off) on the basis of someone important or influential making a case for your reprieve. Otherwise you were left to die. This is important, for me, in picking apart this question, because going back to the Talmud writings they say “And do you suppose that for (Yeshu of Nazareth – Jesus) there was any right of appeal?” If anyone could have spoken on Jesus’ behalf, surely they would have done?

Here’s another thing: yes Romans ‘gave us’ all the stuff in the famous scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian – sanitation, roads, irrigation and fresh water etc – but one thing that mustn’t be forgotten is that Roman ‘civilisation’ came to prominence on the back of an awful lot of bloodshed. They really knew how to kill people. It wasn’t just something unsavoury that a civilised majority kept at arm’s length on the edges of society for the reluctant or specialised minority. No. Death was an integral part of Roman life. Soldiers were trained in it, civilians were entertained by it. Romans were brutal, determined, merciless. A great blog giving some delightful examples of this particular characteristic of Roman life is here. It ain’t pretty reading.

I recently visited Rome and came away profoundly disturbed by the stark contrast between the outward appearance of civilisation in the form exquisite art and impressive architecture, and the backdrop, or rather the foundation of murder, slavery, greed and savagery on which that ‘civilisation’ was built. Frankly, it not only surprised me, it disgusted me. One example, was on my visit to the Colosseum. Amongst other things, in its early days, the Colosseum had been used for re-enactments of sea battles, and was filled with water to enable this to happen. The tour guide explained to us that the arena came later, and was constructed over a network of tunnels, rooms and machinery that allowed different people, animals and scenery to be hoisted through the floor for the games. The word ‘arena’ is derived from the Latin word ‘harena’ – a type of fine sand. Why? The reason for this change, according to our archaeologist guide, was that the sand was the perfect solution to absorb all the blood. Nice.

What’s my point? Basically that Romans were serious experts at death. Crucifixion was an effective method among many they had of getting the job done. Without someone to make a case for Jesus’ reprieve, he would have died, I’m sure of it.

The bible gives extra details about what Jesus endured before he even got to be crucified, which is examined here – OK so it’s a Christian website, so there a lot of references to the ‘meaning’ of Jesus death, but if you’re a sceptic and want to strip that out, go ahead, I’m linking to it because I reckon it adds weight to the case that crucifixion was an effective method of killing (not terribly efficient, it has to be said, but I gather the torture of it was part of the punishment) – its gives the views of physiologists about what would’ve been going on with someone’s body during crucifixion, and how they would have died. The practises of the torture meted out to Jesus, as described in the bible, are backed up by historical records about how Romans treated criminals, and I’ve found a good summary here.

So, I think I’m done on this post for now. Did Jesus die? Of course. Did he die by crucifixion? I’m convinced that weight of evidence suggests that he did.

What’s next? Was he buried? …….(coming soon!)