Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Restoration Work on Ageing Temple

Poor thing has taken a lot of abuse over the years.  Structures are basically sound, but very rough around the edges.  Significant wear and tear.  Has been neglected for far too long. 

I turn 33 tomorrow.  I'll be in the 'year of our Lord' - hope that's not as ominous as it sounds! 

I thought that approaching 33 would make me think of how much/little I've achieved in life, or have some big existential crisis.  Instead, I'm trying to make sure 'reparation' work gets done to this rather unworthy temple of the Holy Spirit (my body).  If I don't sort it out now, it'll only get harder to get under control.

The main thrust of this maintenance work is running.  It's free, it's easy, there's no ball to catch, and you can daydream while doing it.  Perfect fit for me!

I don't think I've ever heard a sermon on healthy living based on the doctrine that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.  Plenty of 'oooh that's naughty' depending on what the preacher was against at the time: smoking, drinking, cavorting etc.

But never against refined sugar, nutritionally empty 'white' carbs, addictive MSG loaded snacks, caffeine overloading ... things that are doing us real, lasting damage.

We can be very selective in our interpretation of Scripture, and cultural glasses filter out lots of otherwise clear messages.  In Scandinavia, so the joke goes, the Norwegian was so shocked to see a Danish Christian drinking beer, that the cigarette fell out of his mouth.

What would an Irish equivalent be?  The Ulster Christian was so shocked to see the Frenchman smoke, the Spaniard drink wine, the Greek dance ... that the fried sausage, bacon and egg feel out of his breakfast soda?  (Stereotyping is so easy ... !  I'm not having a go, really, I have plenty of my own vices - cheese?!) 

Maybe, just as green theology has made an impact on our spiritual values and worldview, we need to be challenged to listen to the Holy Spirit within about the physical state of our temples as S/He inhabits visceral fat and feels the strain on our briny kidneys and choked livers.

Here I go again, I know, I know, and next month it could well be another hobby horse.  But I hope not.  Because if I'm to serve the church, and glorify God in my life, then I don't want to compromise that with self-afflictions caused by lifestyle.

So why are we afraid to preach against transfats and supersized fast foods?  Are we scared we'll make people uncomfortable?  Are we cautious to demonize one issue, especially a very personal, seemingly non-spiritual one?  Or aware that the overweight are probably feeling bad enough without adding guilt to the equation?  Guilt is a very bad motivator, in my experience. 

And it's a complex issue.  How free are we when the food industry manipulates neuroscientific research to get us addicted?  What about the emotional dimension?

The body is amazing, when it is looked after and works well.  Wonderful temples, we are, walking round, little God-breathed creatures, each one unique.  We wouldn't graffiti a church building, or desecrate a sanctuary, or leave a church to gather dust and rot.  It's special.  As are we.

So, my resolution as I enter my 34th year, is to get on with some restoration work: eat right, sleep well, limit caffeine, worry less about things that don't really matter, and keep on running.  Because humans are very, very precious.  And because the Holy Spirit deserves a more appropriate place to live than where I have him cooped up right now.

For better reflected thoughts than these on simplicity and controlling the body, I recommend Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline.

Monday, 18 June 2012


It's not a metaphor.  It's just cheese.

We were in Dublin over the weekend, and I should be writing about running or something cultural, but I'm writing about cheese.

Sarah and I went to Sheridan's Cheesemonger's in Anne Street South.  They made us an amazing four-tiered cheese cake (i.e. cake of cheese) last year for our wedding and shipped it up to Co. Donegal for us.

How many French cheeses can you name?  How many Italian?

Now in an island with this number of sheep and cows ... how many Irish cheeses can you name?

Our little traditional producers are finding it tough to beat the commercial competition.  We must be the only nation in Europe where most people can't name a traditional cheese of our own.  So let me introduce you to four smelly friends ...

First, we have Mount Callan, an aged cheddar-style hard cheese from Co. Clare.  It's made of milk from a single herd of Montbelliard cows.  It's very sharp, take a bite, chew ... wait for it, wait for it - boom, tastes boozily punchy.

Then we have Ardrahan from Co. Cork, oat-smoked and soft, it's a washed cheese which means it's smelly and oozy and yummy.  Despite the whiff, the Corkonian actually tastes quite mild and nutty.

Next up, we have Crozier Blue from Tipperary.  Like it's cow's milk cousin, this ewe's cheese is veined with dusty blue mould, tangy and ripe, bathed in a creamy soft meltedness.  It's a Gaelic Roquefort.

And to finish it off, then there's a cheeky little St. Tola sitting on top, a French-style soft goat's cheese, again from Clare.

But try getting any of these in Tesco, Temple Bar or Sainsbury's here in Derry!  Or anywhere in Derry, for that matter.  So when in Dublin, we just had to drop into Sheridan's to reacquaint ouselves :)

So, support local produce, learn that Ireland has fantastic cheeses to rival France and Italy, and give those arteries a good work-out, visit

Now to research local Irish beverage-producers!

Monday, 11 June 2012

Photo Album

Some thoughts on studying theology ... I remember the pre-digital age as a child on school trips to Edinburgh and York, with my beloved camera. I was so excited to be seeing new things and I wanted to remember them, so that old Canon 110ED instamatic was an important piece of equipment. And an expensive one. There was one roll of film to capture the essence of a five day trip. That meant 24 exposures – every click counted, and snap-happy people found that they had no film left for the last few days. The flash was bigger than the camera itself, a translucent plastic thing like an ice cube tray with individual little cells, maybe eight of them. It clicked into place on top of the camera itself, meaning eight indoor pictures might turn out visible. Each flash shot was accompanied by a sound like an ice cube breaking and the faint smell of smoke.

There was no panoramic function on the old camera, and sometimes there was a view that was worth two or even three photos. Say for instance Edinburgh Castle and that part of the Royal Mile and New College viewable from Prince’s Street. That was a big investment out of a 24 exposure film. At least it was outdoors, i.e. no flash required. So I’d photograph one side, then move the viewfinder to contain a landmark turret or spire as a shared landmark to make it easier to create a panoramic view later from two or three photos. My panoramic view was made by carefully overlapping prints and gluing them in place in a scrap book or photo album.

Other times, say from a height like the Castle Walls, there were beautiful and therefore photograph-worthy scenes below, but maybe not enough of a view to justify a prit-stick panorama job. So I might snap the view from one side and then another, taking in north and south, say, but ignoring the less exciting east and west.

I wonder if other school children employed these low-tech photographic solutions?!

I was thinking the other day how the Salvation Story of the Bible is a bit like leafing through a photo album. Often leafing through reminds us of important things in our past that we do well to remember, good times and bad. Albums, well constructed ones at least, tell a story, perhaps missing out lots of less remarkable days and emphasising significant milestones in our lives.

But it’s another similarity with photo albums that I pondered recently. It’s the way they are designed. We flick through. We might start looking in detail and then skip more superficially over a few until one catches our attention. Think about the way the mind works. We find a picture that stands out, or that chimes with us, and we look at it, start to drink it in. Probably, we look at the centre first, or the subject in the foreground, and then let our eye flit around the sides and the background as we place the subject in context.

In the written Word, there are lots of pictures. There is a surprisingly small amount of theological exposition. There’s lots of theology, but it’s mainly presented through stories and images, analogies and metaphors. St Paul develops theology in embryonic, logical texts, but even these are found in pastoral, practical letters addressed to young churches and particular leaders with problems to deal with and decisions to make. The Bible did not descend from heaven, and was not dictated word by word by an angel or disembodied voice. It was written by many people from varied backgrounds across centuries, all inspired to write through their grappling with faith, trying to make sense of their life experiences and open to the prompting of the Spirit to see the sacred in everyday life and events and to discern deeper, more eternal purposes. No wonder it isn’t an easy book!

Here lies a problem for us (I say problem, but I could equally say advantage). Different people notice different photos. Everybody has their own favourite. Sarah and I had a hard job choosing which of our wedding shots made the album, and relatives and friends who wanted copies for themselves all chose different ones. In the Christian community too, people are drawn to different pictures. Some like clear, practical shots, others like mystery and symbolism, more or less arty ones, real life or posed. Within Anglicanism, we have Catholics who like mystery and holiness, a sense of Otherness. We have Evangelicals who like clear, concrete answers (and others who like ambiguity!). There are liberals who just love portraits of people smiling. We have traditionals who like the picture to be composed just so. We have innovators who want something different. And we have lots of people who don’t easily fit into any of these caricatures! It’s part of the wonderful diversity of the church, in terms of theological perspectives, and probably temperament and personality as much as anything more doctrinal!

I think when we see the Bible as more of a technical user’s manual, we can get into trouble. When we force metaphors into procedural, literal boxes, we really get into trouble.

A clear example of analogy is the Church as the Body of Christ. The church is like a human body as far as it is made up of different parts that function in a coordinated way. It has a head that basically governs what the rest does. None of us get ourselves in a twist about the literal meaning of being a body. Maybe because ‘body’ has come to mean ‘organization’ or ‘team’ in addition to its basic meaning of torso, limbs and vital organs.

A much more debated metaphor is the legal view of Christ’s death that some call penal substitution. We were guilty, but we go free because Christ took our place. As a literal doctrine, this can be hard to understand for a number of reasons – legally, how can one person’s punishment be acceptable in lieu of the punishment of many individuals? What is the role of forgiveness if the wrath was simply unleashed on an innocent person? . But there it is, an image in our Album, this legal process, whether or not we call it ‘penal substitution’. It’s not for any of us to remove it.

So how do we handle it? We look at this image, let it confront us, let it change us. We try to make sense of it. All sorts of mental associations fire impulses from our own life experience, the court system of where we live, crime statistics on the news today, our feelings about mercy versus justice, a time when we got the rap for something someone else did. All the sermons we heard preached on the topic. It’s hard to drown out all those associations when we look at the image as framed in Scripture.

In our desire to make more sense of penal substitution, we look around the subject for clues. How does this fit into the bigger picture?

We might be tempted to ‘fill in the gaps’ and speculate what doctrine knits this into a whole systematic theology. I think there’s a lot of speculative theology about the harder doctrines – predestination, say, or the chronology of end times. We spend a lot of energy arguing about it, too.

Anyway, back to this difficult photo. Penal substitution (at least, that’s the caption some write underneath it). On the same page, there are related images: ransom, redemption, atonement, re-birth and renewal. Another temptation might be to take the closest other image and to overlap them, push them together, and glue them in place. But they don’t quite match up. There are lots of these bumpy bits in systematic theology. There are lovely smooth lines of thought, and then bump – we have a problem.

(Anglicans tend to be above average for tolerating the bumpy bits and the gaps!)

Translating these images to text, a scientific copywriter would approach it in a very different way to a poet. I would suggest that images – analogies, metaphors – in the Canon of Scripture are more like poetry than physical, five-sense descriptions. Saying that x is y, or calling Jesus a shepherd, or explaining the cross as penal substitution, these are ways of understanding eternal realities using cues from lived experiences on earth.

I am not advocating a platonic understanding here, claiming that a table on earth is just an attempt at making the great, ultimate table out there in the spiritual realm. It always struck me as a bit of a random philosophy. But I am suggesting that much theology is based on images rooted in the created world, while the truth behind them is much, much more ancient, from before creation. But how can humans understand except in language and images we can relate to?

Let’s take an example. God is our Father. If we take Father as a metaphor, we understand that there are aspects of ‘making’ us and giving us life, sustaining and caring for us, being wise and leading us. Over the millennia, and from one culture to another, the exact idea changes but basically we get the idea.

Unless – we project onto God our own ideas based on taking the metaphor too far. Say, ‘God is male because he is Father, not Mother’ or the dangerous idea that a father can invoke God’s right to judge and punish in whatever way he sees fit, confusing rage and frustration with God’s holy anger. For far too many people, God as Father is not an immediately comforting thought.

Thematic photography, you might call it. Bible analogies are ANALOGIES. Not saying one thing is another, but one thing is like another in some ways. Anthropomorphic language, especially male-centric language, has to be understood as it is – analogy. Father doesn’t mean God is male. Penal substitution can’t become doctrine beyond what writers wanted to draw as analogies with secular law. Every analogy breaks down at some point.

There is plenty of diversity within God’s collection of images of his Salvation Story. Different lenses, techniques, styles and genres. No surprise there – he created diversity, he loves it. We needn’t worry that he sometimes zooms in on one nation and at other times pans out to take in the panorama. That he shows us pictures of the same thing seen from another angle. Some people will be drawn to prophetic images, others to practical advice, others still to stories of miracles or songs or even scary apocalyptic stuff about giant locusts firing from their tails.

A cell can be dissected and understood accurately in terms of its structure, its functions and processes. But as soon as it is dissected, it dies. Art too – words, images – can be dissected and understood, but at a cost. Understanding the images in the Bible is important; our brains are a gift from God as much as our hearts, souls and every other bit. But doctrine is not the ultimate aim. The eternal purpose is the worship of God, and for us union with the Holy Trinity in the Reign of God on earth as in heaven.

Here’s the way I see it ...

In the beginning: God.

At some point in eternity, God made space and time.

At some point in space-time, creation reached its pinnacle and God made humans as sentient beings, in his own image.

Things went wrong at the Fall and humans messed up the relationships with God and each other.

God started a long, slow, patient pedagogy, reaching into our encultured lives in ways that we would understand, all in order to bring us back to him and make things good again, like it was supposed to be in the first place.

In communicating with us, he used images that are anthropologically quite universal, such as father, fire, wind, rest. And he used images that are quite culture-bound like shepherds, bread, tents and wine. These images are placed in a Great Narrative, the Salvation History of the Bible.

Images help us on our way. Our response to these God-revealed pictures should be to fall down and worship. Understanding may come, even fleetingly, questions may be answered. But confronted with Great Salvation Story, we fall to our knees in grateful worship.

I hope as I continue to study that I can keep admiring the wonderful images in the Scriptures, enjoying them and being transformed by them, and not get too distracted by the bumpy bits where we add two and two and make fifteen, and the rough sketchy bits we've added because we're scared by the blanks.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Kitchen Table

Welcome to my blog!  I've been talking about starting a blog for a very, very long time.  It's a four-day weekend so I reckon the time has come to commit words to screen.  I feel OK about it, because there's an edit button.

I'm sitting in one of my favourite places, at the kitchen table.  Sarah and I have decided that we are getting into a rut with the meals we cook.  So, we are flicking through Rick Stein's Spain, Nigella's Feast, and some of my many low-GI, wheat-free, lentil-centric cook books, for new ideas.  By the way, the hippy-style cook books are there more to make me feel better than to be used day to day!

So far we have decided to eat more prawns, and that we want to make lots of recipes.  But still no shortlist.  To make the choice easier, we are automatically discounting all recipes that have no accompanying photo.  I'll let you know how we get on!

Anyway, I'm not just here to tell you about our lazy Saturday morning.  Gosh, I'm not doing very well at not making this blog post self-indulgent.  That's not meant to be the point at all.

I suppose I'll only know myself once I get started what I decide to talk about.  I predict food will feature significantly.  Hopefully travel will too.  And if all goes to plan, as a born-again runner (used to run, took it up again in February this year and have kept it up because I was obedient and followed the plan unlike all previous attempts the past 4 years), I hope to be brave enough at some point to say out loud what distance/event I am aiming for.  If you think it's a marathon, please lower your expectations ... by about 50%.

And I expect a lot of my rants and raves will be about the 'state of the world'.  I often rant about apostrophe use and the like, but you probably wouldn't be reading this now if the last paragraph had been about apostrophes.  So I'll try to refrain.

I'm doing a course at the moment called 'Christian Ministry' with the Church of Ireland Theological Institute in Dublin and St John's Nottingham.  That's what really made me want to start a blog, actually.  It's a brilliant course, and makes me think about a lot of things.

So if you would like to talk about any of them with me, thank you for stopping by, and please feel free to keep me accountable about the running, to ask me to tone down the rants, and to have a chat about the big issues and small ones too.

OK, got to get back to my cook books.  Chat soon!