Tag Archives: Jesus

“Where thieves do not enter…”

30 Apr

cybercrimeToday saw me running a session on computer security and privacy issues for trainees on the World Horizons Equipping for Service course. (In other words, yes, I probably am a bit geeky…) Identity theft and maintaining individual privacy online has become a big issue.

Now my main concern in doing this is to help people protect their identity and personal information. Privacy is a right which is not always taken seriously by governments – and I am not just talking of the Irans and North Koreas of this world. Unless we actually want to make all our private communications and data available to whoever happens to want to look then we do need to take some simple steps to protect ourselves. Not that any of these are 100% uncrackable – but like any security, in the end it is about putting enough safeguards in place to make it difficult for an attacker to find a way in. It’s just like putting a better lock on your front door; hey yes, with a big enough sledgehammer they will still get in. But if they don’t have enough time or resources, or they don’t consider your stuff is worth the effort, they will go and look somewhere else.

There’s more to this than not clicking on “suspicious” links and “being careful”. Few people really understand the inner workings of computer code and the security issues that there are. Computing has become like modern cars – you used to be able to take a look at an engine and find bits to unscrew, replace or mend yourself, but nowadays, it is all in sealed plastic units, with no “user serviceable parts” to be seen. Likewise computing – in the early days, you could roughly see how a program worked, understand the basics of code behind what the operating system was doing. Not today. Though estimates vary (and are at best only estimates), there are around 80 million lines of code in Windows 7. So security issues are actually complex beasts and users do in fact need to know a little more than they might be comfortable with to make sure they are safe. The ruthless have always preyed on the naïve or ignorant and probably always will.

passwordYou see, there are always the “bad guys” out there who want to get their hands on your stuff. We live in a real world where thieves do break in and steal, only today they can do it from the comfort of their own homes on the opposite side of the planet. Password hacking is no longer the remit of “script kiddies”; cyber crime has become big business. Dedicated mafia groups pour huge resources into the creation of ever expanding bot-nets and ever more effective tools for phishing scams, all with the aim of gleaning personal information, stealing intellectual property, gaining access to financial assets and scamming their way to millionairedom.

But we knew that already. There really is nothing new under the sun. That our seemingly boundless human creativity – no doubt part of the image of God in humanity – can be turned to evil as easily as it can to good should come as no surprise. Innovation works on both sides, from those who follow the late Steve Jobs’ axiom in wanting to “change the world” (for the better) through technology to those who are happy to invest their lives discovering how to relieve others of the burden of their wealth.

WorstPassword-InfographicSo do take all reasonable precautions. Educate yourself. Lock down your cyberlife in such a way that makes it difficult at least for others to steal from you. But at the same time be sure to heed Jesus’ advice – don’t make this your treasure. Don’t lock your heart in encrypted secure storage with a password that keeps even the Holy Spirit out. We are bigger than that. We are called to love a broken world, including the scammers, to make the healing of the nations in the name of a self-giving God our treasure. No criminal, cyber or other, can ever take that from you.

Oh. And if Password1 is one of your favourite passwords, do me a favour and change it…

Image credits: pbs.org, splashdata.org

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Capisci?

18 Apr

1173672104_fThe end of the Gérard Dépardieu epic film 1492: The Conquest of Paradise graphically depicts the failure of the Spanish expedition to curb the greed and violence of the Conquistadores. In the midst of a tropical storm whose physical violence matched the inner destruction of the colony, Columbus’s faithful translator Utapan once again shaves his head and dons his tribal face paint ready to abandon his patron and return to his native people. He runs across the yard towards the beckoning forest and is entreated by a bewildered Columbus: Speak to me! But he finds no comfort. Before smiling and disappearing among the foliage Utapan exposes the depths of pain in his soul as he shouts back: You never learned to speak my language!

You never learned to speak my language.

80693-19Something as simple as this, but it seems it never ocurred to Columbus or his companions. The Tainos people had managed to learn Spanish, how come the Spaniards never learned theirs? It was certainly not lack of intelligence or curiosity, rather an insidious cultural supremacy that held that everything Western was superior to local mores, whatever shape these may take. And nowhere is this more clearly found than in language.

Language is more than the ability to communicate. It defines us, becomes part of us, draws many of the lines of our identity. It links us to the world around us, but only by separating us from part of that world. Language enables us make our mark, to leave a lasting impact on society, accessible to those that share our linguistic identity.

We are created speechless – a baby’s crying communicates loud and clear, but can hardly be considered speech – with a blank page on which language is slowly written by those around us. And so we acquire the ability to express ourselves, to relate socially to another – the Thou of Buber’s world – and  to pour our innermost self out through our words.

It seems to me that this innate capacity for language is part of the image of God in humanity, and a most significant part at that. In the beginning was the Word – communication, self-revelation, expression, thought-given-form – and the Word was with God, for communication needs recipient as well as expression. And the Word was God. God was, and is, Word.

1301595118.motLanguage is not a bolt-on extra. A mother tongue is the gateway to the heart, sitting at the core of who we are. No wonder when the Word became flesh, he learned our language.

Tomorrow I come to the end of another course teaching language learning skills to a bunch of those who will make it their life’s purpose to bring Jesus to people and communities across the world. Perhaps better than anything else,  learning local languages will connect them with the people they go to serve. As Eugene Nida rightly said:

“Language learning is not a matter of acquiring a simple mechanical ability to produce acoustic signals so as to buy, sell etc. It is a process by which we make vital contacts with a new community, a new way of life, and a new system of thinking. To do this well is the basic requirement of effective missionary endeavour.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself!

Do you speak Christian?

9 Apr

WS4It’s that time of year again when I find myself in Llanelli, South Wales, teaching a group of trainees introductory linguistics and language learning skills. I trust that by the end of this two weeks they will have learned a thing or two about how languages work, and how they can best learn one. And somewhere in the midst of all this, I hope that they will also understand why language is important. As for me, it gives me an excuse to write again about language. Way to go!

In an engaging scene towards the end of the adventures of Don Quixote, the brave knight, his faithful Sancho and their entourage come across a traveller and his companion, a lady dressed in “Moorish” style. Poor thing, she didn’t seem to understand the kind words they spoke in her direction, for she merely crossed her hands over her chest and bowed in appreciation. She evidently did not speak “Christian”.

QuijoteHow many of us speak “Christian”? However we want to define “speaking Christian” – and in Cervantes’ day, it was a simple synonym for Castillian Spanish – that isn’t really the main issue. More to the point is how many people beyond the walls of our churches speak Christian? Because if we are not speaking the same language, we are never going to make ourselves understood. As Taylor Swift would say, “never, ever, ever”.

God has always come to humanity speaking our language(s). Whenever you find an angel in the Bible, they speak in the language of their interlocutor, not in “the language of angels”, whatever these might be. God’s words to people in dreams and visions were always perfectly understandable. Jesus used his native Aramaic but also seems to have managed to communicate happily with Greek speakers in their own language. And the vast majority of the New Testament is written in Koiné Greek, “common” Greek, or that which was spoken by the masses, the trade language of the Mediterranean world and beyond, not the cultured Attic Greek of Homer and Plato.

God addresses people in their own language. And we should too. The second century epistle to Diognetus says it well:

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. […] But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.

Christians did not stand out from the crowd in anything but their godly living. They dressed the same – I guess that might mean hoodies and low-slung jeans these days, not to mention the odd piercing –, ate the same food, did the same jobs, spoke the same language… yet somehow displayed a “striking method of life” that was soon to overrun the mighty Roman Empire.

To “speak Christian” roots us firmly in a bygone age and severs our connection with those that actually need Christ. We risk becoming an irrelevant relic, a quaint nicety that is tolerated, more or less, by outsiders, but little understood.

imagesAnd it’s not just the “thees and thous” that mark us out as travellers in time. So much of our communication is built on an overestimation of the place of “preaching”, a premise of shared values and shared knowledge and basic “biblical literacy” that can in reality no longer be taken for granted. Concepts of sin and morality, the question of whether God even exists, the reliability of the Bible… we assume so much and fail to connect.

And so our message misses the mark, quite simply lost in translation, from “Christian” to however we wish to label contemporary communication.

We simply have no alternative – to follow faithfully in the footsteps of a communicative God, we must live out our faith in ways that other people can understand. Whether in the way we construct our corporate life, our communication style or the very words that we use, our language must be their language; anything else is a distortion of the gospel.

It’s time to stop speaking Christian and live it.

P.S. If you are interested in one theologian’s perspective on Speaking Christian, see this review of Marcus Borg’s book of the same title or an interview with the author.

A veil of tears

1 Apr

MaryMagdaleneBut Mary stood outside the tomb weeping.

Mary — the first on the scene. Confusion. The stone’s been moved from across the entrance. Panic. Wait, no body? What the… Quick, Peter, he’ll know what to do. Or John. Come on! They’ve taken him. Gone. Gone!

Peter and John did little but confirm what she already new. He’d gone. And Mary understood no more than they did. But when the disciples went home,

Mary stood outside the tomb weeping.

Maybe it is unfair and a gross gender stereotype, but — typical men. “No point hanging around moping, nothing we can do now. And anyway, if we’re not careful we might get accused of nicking the body. Best get home…”

But Mary stood outside the tomb weeping.

Mary’s tears kept her where she needed to be, the place where she would be the first to meet the risen Jesus. Yet the same tears blinded her from seeing him. Through a veil of tears her eyes were kept from seeing; it was his voice that penetrated the grief.

“Mary.”

John was right. “He calls his own by name and […] they recognize his voice.”

“Rabboni.” Teacher. But wait, it can’t be. Master. Is it you? Lord. Jesus. It is you. OMG…

“Go and tell my brothers.”

MaryMagdalene1“Who, me?”

“Go and tell my brothers.”

“But they just left…

“Go and tell my brothers.”

“What if they don’t believe me?”

“Go and tell my brothers.”

“But I’m only a woman.”

“Go and tell my brothers.”

Even in death, Jesus turned the tables on the sidelining of women that ran through the society he lived in. Who else would choose a woman as the first and — until that time at least — only witness of his resurrection? The Talmud is clear:

Any evidence which a woman (gives) is not valid (to offer)…This is equivalent to saying that one who is rabbinically accounted a robber is qualified to give the same evidence as a woman (Rosh Hashannah 1.8).

And Josephus was no less blunt:

But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex…since it is probable that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment (Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.15).

MaryMagdalene-NoliMeTangereEaster is about resurrection. Life conquering death. The vindication of the Son of God before all creation. A way into eternity being paved for humanity. A message of hope and purpose. All entrusted to a woman.

Its significance may be lost on us today, accustomed as we are to the Hillary Clintons and Angela Merkels of this world. But the Bible is to be lived in its context, and this was momentous. A woman, bearer of the good news of the resurrection. Mind-blowing. Quite simply unthinkable.

In this deliberate act of cultural rebellion, Jesus, the risen Lord, delivers another blow to the male-dominated status quo of his day. Faithful to the script he had lived throughout his earthly pilgrimage, so now in his life-after-death. Mary. The one he had healed. The one he had delivered…

“Go and tell my brothers.”

“I have seen the Lord.”

 

“Let down your nets…”

22 Mar

iconsI think Jesus would have done pretty well in the 21st century socially networked world. I’m not quite sure how he would have managed all his followers on Twitter, but do know he would have more than a few friends – all sinners – on Facebook. I guess he would have known what it feels like to be “unfriended and “unfollowed” too. He would have been LinkedIn with the Sepphoris carpenters’ guild, rovingexorcists.com and #thesabbathisforpeople group but chosen not to accept endorsements from Sadducees, Herodians and other Judean heavyweights.

I wonder if he’d have stuck with those “big three” of social networking, or maybe he’d have taken social networking up a notch. It would be interesting to browse his circles on Google+ — family, the three, the twelve, the seventy(two), 500+ resurrection witnesses, the four thousand, the five thousand, the women, blocked contacts… Reading the conversation thread on his WordPress hosted blog would have been entertaining, to say the very least. The “Parables” board on Pinterest would have become a favourite of his, and a DiggIt from Jesus would have been well cool. His Tumblr would be filled with daily doses of creativity, with a double ration of Flickr photos and Youtube or Vimeo videos on the Sabbath, and he’d have answered most questions on Quora with another question. He’d even have a legacy MySpace account for life’s eternal nostalgics, not to mention Orkut and Tuenti as part of an early effort in cross-cultural communication. You may have run across him in his local Meetup group, though the one place I don’t think we’d have seen him, is Meetic…

SoMeWordleAll that should have kept him busy, Though there again, the “tell no one about me” warning after another amazing miracle could have got quite complex: “No WhatsApps of this one please, nor Instagrams, and don’t even think about SnapChat-ing it. Oh, and keep it off RSS too while you’re at it…”

Social networking has always been part of life; the digital age is no different, it is simply the means of forming those links that has changed. Physical contact in the same time and place is now no longer the deciding factor in who we relate to and how.

At its simplest, church is about relationship: relationship with God, revealed to us in Jesus Christ; relationship with others in that larger family which is church (and remember, family is in itself simply another social network); and relationship with the world of people created in God’s image who are yet to find relationship with their creator God in a meaningful way.

Social networks are not an optional extra for those of us involved in church, for church is built out of the fabric of human relationships. The question is not if, but how. And if today “social networking” is becoming part and parcel of the way human beings the world over relate to one another, it’s where we need to be. Whilst the effects of decisive engagement with the social networks of the world may not be directly measurable, the long-term results of failing to do so certainly will be: the dilution of relationships within churches on the one hand and growing irrelevance to those outside on the other. To distance ourselves from people in general by failing to understand how individuals relate to one another in today’s world simply is not an option for anyone wishing to follow in Jesus’ relational footsteps. To refuse to take seriously technology’s impact on the way we relate and apply this in church is missional suicide. And yes, you can tweet that if you like!

Godbaby – he cries, he wees, he saves the world

7 Dec

godbaby_283Last Friday saw me in Ormskirk town centre for the grand Christmas lights switch-on. Sharing a stage with the mayor, Black Lace (of Agadoo fame) and the town’s clergy was at the very least a novel experience.

The town centre is transformed into something of a fair ground for the 2 or 3 hours that the event lasts, with stage acts competing with hot dog stalls and an assortment of rides and other attractions for the public’s attention. Fake snow – though it was cold enough that night for real stuff – spewed from above the stage below which a Father Christmas clone was trying to keep the crowd entertained. And into all that, just prior to the grand switch-on, there is a short carol service with a Christmas message – which this year fell to me.

allroads1Enter Godbaby – he cries, he wees, he saves the world. Developed in an attempt to provoke thought and conversation about the true meaning of Christmas, particularly for those outside church, this image has had a mixed reception. It seems that the longer a person has been in church, the less likely they are to approve of it, whereas those new to faith love it. Outside church, some just don’t get it, others find it amusing, and a few think it highly irreverent. But it certainly does provoke comment.

I like it. Jesus was fully human, born with all the human frailty of a new-born babe. Never mind the “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” of one of our favourite carols – Jesus would have filled his lungs and communicated his needs to his mother and the rest of the world within earshot in the same way as any other baby. And filled his “swaddling clothes” too, or whatever equivalent to the nappies of today existed at that time.

allroads6But unlike some of the dolls that will end up under Christmas trees this year and which can do no more than cry and wee, the baby Jesus grew to become the man Jesus, the one who was to save the world. Christmas is about celebrating the birth of the Messiah. But his birth cannot be divorced from his life and death, the reasons that led to his birth. Christmas is the beginning, not the end, and can never be understood in isolation from the life that followed, his death and resurrection, and an appreciation of just what God was doing for us in the person of the baby whose birth we are celebrating.

So I finished my bit on Godbaby, another carol was sung, the mayor gave his address, the countdown began – and the lights were switched on. My own prayer is that, for someone in the crowd that night at least, lights might have been switched on on the inside too.

Behold I stand at the door and knock knock

18 Jul

I reckon that Jesus would have made a first-class comedian. He knew how to get a message across, and there are times when humour is the absolute best way.

Somehow, humour penetrates the armour that surrounds our thoughts and opinions in a way that engaging people in intelligent debate just does not. Yes, there is a time and a place for intelligent debate – I am not suggesting that we just tell jokes rather than reason with people, but perhaps that this should not be our first line of approach.

You see, debate is great for open discussion that enables open-minded exploration on open-ended topics. But most of the time, debate, or the exchange of thoughts between individuals, involves two sides with entrenched opinions who seek to garner as much evidence as possible with which to batter their opponent. Listening is not the sensitive hearing of another’s view in order to better understand and potentially embrace that view; it is discovering the weaknesses in another’s arguments in order to better prepare our own line of attack.

Now what about the magic wand of Protestant Christianity, the sermon? Sometimes, preaching is like a debate where the other side is gagged and not allowed to say anything. Lots of reasons are laid down for whatever the preacher is trying to communicate, but does it reach its target? Whilst a sermon may contain some great stuff, it is at the best of times a one-size-fits-all product applied to all who happen to be within hearing range, with no scope for interaction or exploration of the theme outside the bounds of this one-way communication.

Is this effective communication? Are people influenced towards change by this? Sometimes, no doubt, particularly when “preaching to the choir” and the hearers are both used to this methodology as well as tolerant and generously disposed towards the preacher. For non church-goers, it can serve as a conversation starter but is not the place or the means to engage with genuinely significant issues for them. Perhaps there is a better way.

Enter humour. And Jesus was a master of the art.

Take this one, for example. Jesus is walking along the Emmaus road with two disciples, Cleopas and another – his wife, I reckon. Jesus plays ignorant and gently leads them in understanding what has just happened in Jerusalem. As they break bread together, suddenly they realize who he is and, as if by magic, Jesus simply disappears. Bet he was having a good chuckle as he did it.

Another one. We all know the story of the two guys with things in their eyes, one with a speck of dust, and the other with a log, plank, telegraph pole, or whatever. We analyze the passage theologically, but have you ever stopped to try and picture it? Someone walking round with half a tree in their eye but who still thinks they can get close enough to someone else to help them with their issues? A bit ridiculous really, and humorous to try to visualize… but that was probably what Jesus wanted.

He liked puns too. Puns don’t work in translation, so this passes unnoticed in the English – and the original Greek too for that matter. But when Jesus talks about straining out gnats and swallowing camels, the Aramaic words most likely used are galma and gamla respectively. A real groaner.

And speaking of camels, what about trying to get one through the eye of a needle? Don’t be misled by some half-baked story about a special door next to the gate of a city that a camel could only get through on its knees and having shed its load – there is not a shred of evidence that such a gate ever existed. Jesus was using deliberate hyperbole and we are meant to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all and take an important message home with us.

The absurd has a place in such humour too. Whoever would think of putting a candle under a washing-up bowl? Or what about polishing the outside of a cup and forgetting to clean out the collected crud on the inside? Serve up stones for lunch instead of bread, or snakes instead of fish? And whilst few of us know the botanical facts involved, and thus miss Jesus’ take on this, mustard seeds do not grow into trees that birds can build nests in. The absurdity of such images is meant to convey the strength of the teaching that Jesus wished to transmit.

Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenecian woman in Mark 7 can only be understood if humour and gesture is taken into account. When said with a grin, the meaning changes completely, and the lady herself seems to have been able to respond with some repartee of her own.

Understanding the cultural background to Jesus’ world can help too. It seems that shepherds tore the brunt of many jokes of his day, the rednecks / blonds of first-century Palestine. A shepherd leaving 99 sheep all by themselves, with all the risks that entailed, to go off and search for one would have raised a laugh or two. But it gave Jesus the foundation to speak of the character of God who does the ridiculous to reach us.

And what about irony and sarcasm? Do you think Jesus was really so impressed with Nathanael that he calls him a true Israelite in whom there is no guile as a compliment? Or was it more of a “Well I never, seems like we have found Mr. Perfect” as a response to Nathanael’s incredulity about Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth. Calling Peter “Mr. Rock” also seems a little tongue in cheek to me…

Like jokes our six-year old tells us for the twenty-somethingth time, our over-familiarity with the stories recorded in Scripture means we no longer relate as their hearer did nor respond to the humour they contain. Theological constraints push us to understand and apply, rather than react and respond. And ignorance of humour and communication conventions in Jesus’ world means we miss so much of this facet of his life and ministry. Humour is so very culture-bound; the gospels abound in stories that relate to the honour-shame dichotomy of first-century Mediterranean society but which are completely lost on us. The image of the “prodigal father”, for example, hitching up his tunic and running to meet his second son would have brought a shocked smile to his listeners’ faces.

Humour has the ability to bypass the normal self-defense mechanisms that protect our egos and thought constructs and deliver a one-two punch right to the heart. Where rivers of words fail, aptly chosen humour can succeed. This Jesus knew well.

One contemporary illustration. Look at this cartoon, drawn by Joel Pett for USA Today during the Global Summit on Climate Change in December 2009. So many words on both sides of the issue, but his “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing” cuts through all of that in a mere 15 words. Most people get the message in less than 15 seconds. Tremendous.

So next time you are thinking about how to engage with others to promote change and want people to reflect on deeply held beliefs and values, spare a thought for the humorous, the arty, visual, poetic, something that engages with a person at a different level to rational thought alone. Fire away and see what happens. You might be pleasantly surprised.

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