Good News #1: The Kingdom of God is near!

What is the Kingdom of God?

‘Kingdom’ is a political word. In an election campaign, all of the political parties  set out their party platforms. Some  parties  release them bit by bit, others set them out all at once. The hope is that, in the midst of all the noise, thoughtful voters will actually examine the party platforms and asked themselves ‘How does this compare with my vision for the future of Canada? Which manifesto can I most readily commit myself to?’

Mark tells us that Jesus ‘came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near’ (vv.14-15). This was Jesus’ manifesto, if you like, drawn straight from the pages of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament scriptures there are a number of words and phrases that cluster around the same theme – words and phrases like ‘the day of the Lord’, ‘shalom’, ‘the year of Jubilee’ and so on. All these words and phrases spell out the idea that the world as we see it is not the world as God intended it, but that the time is coming when God is going to act to restore his original plan.

This is spelled out poetically in Isaiah 2:2-4:

In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways,
and that we may walk in his paths.
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

Isaiah sees the nations and races of the earth coming to God for instruction, and committing themselves to living by God’s ways, the ways of peace and justice. Other Old Testament passages add other aspects of this. The poor, the widow, the orphan will be cared for. Land and wealth will be shared fairly so that everyone has enough and no one has too much. Life will be characterised by wholeness, harmony, and peace.

This, you see, is what the people in Jesus’ day meant by the phrase ‘the Kingdom of God’. They certainly didn’t see God’s Kingdom as some sort of ethereal afterlife in which we all stroll through fields of green forever. They expected to see it fulfilled as an earthly reality, in real time and space. And now Jesus arrives and makes this startling announcement: ‘The Kingdom of God has cone near’. The Gospels make it clear that the reason the Kingdom is near because Jesus is near, and Jesus is the King. His arrival is a challenge to people to make their choice: are they for or against God’s manifesto for the future, which Jesus represents?

It’s in this context that the call to follow Jesus is given. It’s a personal decision, but it has huge social and political implications. The Kingdom of God is about fairness, equity, and justice – what does that mean for the way we Christians live, in a world where over a billion people live on less than a dollar a day? The kingdom of God is about peace and reconciliation – what does that mean for the way we Christians live, in a culture shot through with violence, a culture which assumes that problems can be solved by acts of violence, on the international level and on the level of the latest action movie? The Kingdom of God is about accepting God’s instruction for living – what does that mean for the way we Christians live, in a culture where everyone claims the right to construct their own rules of right and wrong? These are only a few of the social and political implications of choosing to be a part of the Kingdom of God.

So this is what the Kingdom of God is all about. So how do we become citizens of the Kingdom of God. The Gospels make it clear that everyone has to make their mind up about this: do I want to be in the Kingdom, or out of it? Will I participate willingly, or not? What does that decision involve? This scripture passage outlines four things. In verse 15 Jesus says, “Repent, and believe in the good news”, and in verse 17 he says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people”.

First, we’re called to repent. This word is not about feeling guilty or even feeling sorry for our sins. Rather, it’s about doing things differently. It’s about making a radical change of direction. We realise that we’re heading the wrong way, and so we make a 180° turn.

What are the things we’re called to do differently? Things contrary to Jesus’ teaching, of course – but here again, we need to resist the temptation to see this in purely personal terms. Of course it means turning away from dishonesty, or lust, or greed. But there’s another dimension to it as well, that we must not leave out.

Josephus was a high-ranking Jew who became an important official in the latter part of the first century A.D. His policy was to collaborate with the Romans, and thus to try to achieve a better life for his own people. He tells the story in his memoirs of how he went to meet with a group of insurrectionists who were plotting rebellion against the empire. He says, “I challenged them to repent and believe in me” – almost exactly the phrase Jesus uses here! But in Josephus’ context, it obviously doesn’t mean turning away from purely private sins – it means repenting of violent rebellion and embracing a different way, the way Josephus represented.

In Jesus’ day there were a number of competing strategies for bringing in the kingdom of God – all the way from armed rebellion on the one hand to rolling over and playing dead on the other. When Jesus challenged the people of Galilee to repent, he wasn’t only calling individuals to leave their private sins and embrace his vision for private morality. He was also calling the nation to abandon the vision of bringing in the kingdom by violence, and believe in a new strategy, which he was going to teach them. And for us today, Jesus challenges us to abandon ways of setting the world to rights that run contrary to his teachings, and to embrace his vision of a different way.

And this leads to the second thing; we’re called to repent, and also to believe in the good news – which is defined earlier in the passage as ‘the good news of the kingdom’. The good news of the kingdom seems like such a risky way of changing the world; military force or political power often seem so much more reliable. But God chose a different strategy – the strategy of coming among us as a human being, showing us the way by his life and teaching, giving himself on the Cross for the sin of the whole world, and then demonstrating by the resurrection that evil will not have the last word. The good news of the Kingdom is about the transformation of the world one heart at a time, as humans become followers of Jesus and begin to live by his vision in their private and public lives.

And that brings us to the third thing; we’re called to follow Jesus. What sort of people can spread the kingdom of God? The answer is obvious: people like Jesus! And so Jesus called people to become his disciples – his apprentices, if you like. Apprentices of Jesus listen to his teaching, watch his way of living, learn from him, and imitate the good things they see.

Jesus’ call still goes out to people today – the call to follow him and become his apprentices. Jesus is busy changing the world one life at a time. The curriculum is the gospels, the Sermon on the Mount, the commandments to love God and love your neighbour, and so on. Each day, we apprentices pray for guidance and strength to apply the teaching and example of Jesus to our daily lives.

This isn’t just a sweet romantic ideal; it leads to concrete actions. Many years ago when I was a student, a friend and I were walking down Bloor Street in Toronto comparing notes about our summers. I mentioned in passing that my watch had cratered over the summer; without hesitation he took his own watch off and gave it to me. ‘”I’ve got two”, he said, “and after all, Jesus did say that if we had two coats and our brother had none, we were to share what we had”. Now I ask you, what would that principle mean for those of us who have two houses in a world where many are homeless? Or two cars? Or two guitars? (I think there are currently four in my house!) Often the answers are difficult, but as Christians, we absolutely must struggle with these questions.

So we’re called to repent, believe in the good news, and follow Jesus. Finally, we’re called to fish for people. All of us are here today because someone ‘fished’ for us. In my case, it was my parents, and especially my Dad who challenged me to give my life to Jesus when I was thirteen. As a result of other people’s fishing, you and I became apprentices of Jesus. Now we apprentices are called to do our own bit of fishing – that is, to invite others to become Jesus’ apprentices too.

Note what Jesus says here. It seems that fishing for people isn’t an optional extra for those who like that sort of thing, or for those who happen to be bubbly extroverts. The one thing leads inevitably to the other: Jesus says, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people’. To make new disciples for Jesus is an integral part of the package of being a follower of Jesus. If you take this element out of the package, you’ve made Christian discipleship something completely different.

Members of Alcoholics Anonymous understand this principle. The Twelve Steps of AA are a comprehensive program for personal transformation. But step twelve, the final step in the process, says ‘having experienced a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we then tried to take this message to others’. This isn’t optional – it’s an integral part of the program. Wise members of AA know that if they don’t do this, they become inward looking and self-absorbed – which is the first step to going back to drinking. And Christians who refuse to follow Jesus in his work of making new apprentices also short-circuit their own growth as his disciples.

The good news that Jesus announced is that God has refused to accept the ruin of his world by the forces of evil. God has worked decisively in Jesus to defeat evil, and the day will come when that defeat will be absolute and complete. The kingdom of God is at hand. All people are invited to be part of that kingdom, by repenting, believing the good news, learning to follow Jesus and to make new disciples for him.


Slight delay with Chapter 12

There’s going to be a slight delay with Chapter 12 of ‘A Time to Mend’. This is because I’ve discovered an inaccuracy: a service of Nine Lessons and Carols being sung by the chapel choir at an Oxford college at a time when the undergrads would have been down for the Christmas holidays. This is going to need more than a slight rewrite, as the events built around it are rather crucial to the development of the plot! Change the chronology or change the events? Either choice involves quite a lot of rewriting. So, my apologies to my two or three readers, and I’ll get chapter 12 up as soon as I can!

A Time to Mend Chapter 11

Link to Chapter 10

Emma turned eighteen in early December. I wanted to give her a good party, and so a couple of weeks beforehand I sat her down and asked her who she would like to invite. We made up a list together: my family members, Owen and Lorraine and their family, a couple of the friends who volunteered with her at Marston Court, and three young people from our little church, all of  whom had also been involved with Habitat for Humanity. “And what about Colin?” she asked; “Do you think he would come?” We had seen Colin a couple more times through Habitat, and he and Emma had struck up a pretty good relationship, despite the nearly two years’ age difference between them; I knew that they talked to each other on the phone occasionally.

“I’ll pass on an invitation to him at school if you want”, I said.

“Yeah – let’s ask him”.

We eventually came up with a list of about twenty potential guests, and it then became clear that our little house couldn’t hold that many people. That was when Emma came up with the idea of asking Owen and Lorraine to host the party; they lived in a large and rambling house in Headington, and there would be plenty of room there for all the people we wanted to invite.

“Would you mind if I asked Colin’s Mum as well?” I asked Emma. “If the party’s going to be at Owen’s house, it might be fun for the three of us to have a chance to visit again after all these years”.

“No, I wouldn’t mind, but do you think she’ll come? We haven’t had much success with her so far”.

I shrugged my shoulders; “I can only ask, I guess”.

As I expected, Owen and Lorraine were delighted to be asked to host the party. It happened that the birthday itself fell on the first Saturday in December, and so we decided to start the party in the middle of the afternoon and run it into the evening. Emma decided that she would like to have jambalaya for the main meal, her thinking being that not only was it tasty but it was also easy to make in large quantities. Owen wasn’t sure if he and Lorraine had a recipe for it, but Becca, who was in on the conversation at this point, had been introduced to it by Kelly at our house and had been making it herself ever since. Emma then asked if she could help Becca make it, and this led to a spirited discussion about whether or not it was appropriate for the person whose birthday was being celebrated to help cook the meal. Emma and Becca dug their heels in, however, and we finally had to agree that they would cook the main meal together, I would make the cake, and Owen and Lorraine would provide the drinks and the munchies. “And I want everyone who has musical instruments to bring them”, Emma added; “That can be part of the celebration”.

Emma made up her invitations herself, and the next day I took Colin’s to school. We had our tutorial session that afternoon, sitting side by side at my desk at the front of the classroom, and when we were finished I took the invitation out and handed it to him. “Emma asked me to give this to you”, I explained. “She’s having a birthday party on December 7th and she wants to know if you can come along”.

“Nice! How old is she going to be?”


“Right; I’ll talk to my Mum about it”.

“I’m going to send your Mum an e-mail about it too. The party’s being held at Owen Foster’s house; the three of us were good friends when we were in university together, and I don’t think she’s seen him for over twenty years, so I’m going to ask her if she can drop by for a while”.

“Okay; that’ll be cool”.

Later on that evening, after Emma and I had eaten supper and done the dishes together, I sat down at the computer in my little upstairs office and wrote an e-mail to Wendy.


Colin’s probably told you that Emma has invited him to her 18th birthday party on December 7th. It’s going to be held at Owen’s house – the address and a map are included in the invitation I gave to Colin. I mentioned to Emma that it might be fun for you and Owen and me to have a visit after all these years, and she was very happy with the idea of you joining us for the party. It’s going to be a very informal sort of thing; music and movies and munchies and all the usual stuff. I hope you can come.


Her reply came the next day:


I’m not sure whether or not I’ll be able to stay. I’ll drop Colin off, but there are a few things I’ve got to do that day. However, I’ll be sure to drop in and at least say hello to you and Owen, and wish Emma a happy birthday.


Saturday December 7th dawned wet and windy; I came back from my early morning walk soaked to the skin, had a hot shower and completely changed my clothes. I brought Emma a cup of tea in bed, gave her the cards and presents that had arrived from Canada, and sat with her for a few minutes as she opened her parcels. We had been particularly curious about a huge box from Jake and Jenna; it turned out to be a ‘Canadian care package’ which included several flavours of ground coffee, a large container of Skippy peanut butter and a jar of Saskatoon Berry jam, several months’ worth of the ‘For Better and For Worse’ cartoon strip, some recent copies of the ‘Saskatoon Star Phoenix’ newspaper, a book and a CD of Stuart MacLean’s ‘The Vinyl Café’, and three CDs by Great Big Sea, Sarah McLachlan, and K.D. Lang. We laughed the hardest at the inclusion of the cartoon strips; Emma was a huge fan of ‘For Better and For Worse’, and she had often mentioned to her cousins her disappointment at being unable to find it in England. She made room for me to sit beside her on the bed, and for about twenty minutes we poured over the cartoons together.

Eventually Emma laid her head back against the pillow with a sigh; “What do you miss about Saskatchewan, Dad?”

“The big sky”, I replied without hesitation, “and being able to see thunderstorms coming twenty miles away. How about you?”

“Total strangers waving to you when you pass on the road”.

“Right! And while we’re talking about roads, how about roads that actually have room for cars on them?”

She laughed; “I’ll go for the road to Prince Albert National Park”, she said; “and big lakes where you can go canoeing for hours and see loons and muskrats and beavers”.

“Let’s not forget the road to the mountains, and camping so high that you’re cold when you wake up in the morning, even in the middle of summer”.

She looked at me reproachfully; “Strictly speaking, that’s not in Saskatchewan!”

“True, but it’s part of my memory of living there”.

“Okay then, I’ll include Mount Robson, and the Pallisades, and Maligne Lake”.

“And I’ll include ‘Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan’ and the Edmonton Folk Music Festival”.

“Oh yeah! And how about being able to go out to a restaurant and being able to buy a cup of coffee that actually tastes like coffee?”

“Well, up to a point; I have to admit I don’t miss that rotgut they sold at the Esso on the highway!”

“True – but I’d go a long way for a cup of coffee at the Beanery”.

“Me too – especially if I could pick the company”.

I saw the sudden sadness on her face; “Yeah, it’s the people really, isn’t it?”

“It is”. I took her hand, and for a moment we sat together quietly, our thoughts far away. Then she gave a heavy sigh and said, “Right! Enough of this morbidity – I’d better get up and get dressed”.

“What’s the rush?”

“I promised some of the old folks I’d go over for a few minutes this morning so they could wish me happy birthday”.

We drove over to Owen and Lorraine’s house in the early afternoon. By then the rain had stopped, but the weather was still cold and windy. The Foster home was an old brick-built place, situated on a quiet residential street with a mix of duplexes and detached houses; Becca’s little Renault was already parked out front when we arrived.

I parked my car behind Becca’s, and we walked up to the front door; Emma was carrying two guitar cases, while I had the birthday cake in a cardboard box. We were met at the door by Owen’s son Andrew, a skinny twelve year old with red hair and freckles; he greeted us with smiles and hugs, took our coats, wished Emma a happy birthday, and invited us to go through to the kitchen. There we found Becca and Lorraine assembling the ingredients for the jambalaya, with Lorraine’s nine-year old daughter Katie hovering in the background. They all wished Emma a happy birthday, and then Becca said, “Right, Emma and I will now take over the kitchen. The rest of you, go for a walk or something!”

“Where’s Owen?” I asked, putting the birthday cake down on the countertop.

“Right here”, came a voice from the living room, and Owen appeared around the corner, a black garbage bag in his hand. “Just finishing the pre-party cleanup”, he said with a grin. “I don’t know how four of us make so much mess!”

I pitched in and helped him finish the cleanup, and then he and I put our raincoats back on and went for a walk around the neighbourhood. The sky was still dark and cloudy, but the rain was holding off. Owen’s house was not too far from Shotover Hill, and we walked around under the bare trees in Shotover Country Park for a while, the wind rattling the branches above our heads, our hands jammed into our pockets for warmth.

“Did you hear back from Wendy?” he asked.

“Just the little note saying she wasn’t sure she’d be able to stay after she dropped Colin off. I’m not counting on anything”.

“She doesn’t seem too inclined to know us any more, does she?”

“Apparently not”.

“Listen, on another subject, in the light of what you told me about your brother, I’ve decided against alcoholic beverages this afternoon. I hope that’s all right?”

“I think that’s a wise move. I’m sure no one will mind”.
“Want to stop by the pub for a quick pint on the way home?”

We both laughed; “Better not”, I replied; “I don’t really want to welcome my brother to a dry birthday party with the smell of alcohol on my breath!”

We arrived back at the house around 2.45 p.m., and shortly afterwards the company started to arrive. Emma’s friends from church and from the nursing home were the first to get there, closely followed by my brother and his family. I caught just a hint of alcohol on Rick’s breath when I greeted him, but he seemed happy to accept Owen’s offer of a coffee. Emma, ever the diplomat, introduced her cousins to her friends, and soon they were sitting around the L-shaped living room in chairs and on the floor, talking in animated tones.

By three fifteen or so everyone was there except for Colin, who had sent word that he was going to be a little late. My father was looking better than I had expected; he had received another chemotherapy injection at the beginning of the week and had been very ill on Wednesday and Thursday. Today, however, he seemed cheerful, and was quite polite when Owen shook his hand and welcomed him. Colin arrived at about three forty-five; his Mum had dropped him off, he said, but she would be coming back in a couple of hours. We introduced him to the people he didn’t know, he gave Emma a gift, and soon he was chatting away with the other Habitat volunteers.

Opening gifts always took a while with Emma, because she was meticulous about removing wrapping paper without unnecessary tearing. Her teenage friends almost all gave her CDs, while Becca, who knew her well and knew what she liked to wear, had bought her clothes, and my brother had got her a gift certificate from Blackwell’s Bookshop – a surprisingly perceptive gift, and I gave him a smile of appreciation. My father and mother had given her a card, and when she opened it I could see there was a cheque enclosed. I could tell by the expression on her face that it was a substantial cheque, and I guessed that my father was following through on his plan to pay for her tuition. She looked across at me, and I gave her a little nod. She got up and went over to where my father and mother were sitting; she hugged them both and thanked them quietly, and then went around the room giving hugs to everyone else who had brought her gifts.

One of the younger people had brought a movie, and soon after the gift opening was over the party split into two; some (mainly the teenagers) were watching the movie in the living room, while others (mainly the adults) were sitting in a loose circle around the corner in the dining area, chatting and drinking coffee around the dining table. Later on, after the movie was finished, Emma asked for some music, so those who had instruments moved into a loose circle, and Owen and I got out our guitars and led them in a few songs.

We had just finished our third song when the doorbell rang. Emma went to answer it, and a moment later she came back into the room with Wendy, who was dressed in jeans and a wool sweater, her hair hanging loose below her shoulders. Owen had just started to play the chords for the next song; when he saw Wendy standing there he stopped. “Well”, he said with a smile, “better late than never, Professor Howard!” He got to his feet and enfolded her in a huge bear hug. “Welcome to our home”, he said, and I could hear the deep emotion in his voice.

“Thanks, Owen”, she replied, returning his hug. “It’s not ‘professor’, though – I’m only a tutor”.

We introduced Wendy to the others, Becca brought her a cup of coffee, and then Owen said, “You’ve arrived in the nick of time, Wendy”.

“How so?”

“I think Tom and I are about to deteriorate into folk music!”

She took a seat between Colin and Emma, across the room from Owen and me. “I haven’t sung anything for years!” she protested; “I probably can’t remember any of the words!”

“They’ll come back to you once you start singing”, I encouraged her.

“You boys sing something, and I’ll drink my coffee and see if I can get my courage up”.

“ ‘You boys’?” Becca repeated with a smile; “You really have known them for a long time, haven’t you!”

Wendy gave Owen a mischievous grin, and he smiled in return; “Fair enough”, he replied, turning to Emma; “What’s it to be, Em?”

We sang a couple more songs, with Emma and Eric playing along on guitar, and Katie Foster playing the recorder. Then Becca got up and went out to the kitchen to do some last minute preparations with the food, and Emma said, “Now, Dr. Howard – please sing something with my Dad and Owen!”

Wendy still seemed reluctant; “I honestly haven’t sung very much for the past ten years”.

“You choose something you can remember, Wendy”, I suggested quietly.

She thought for a minute and then said, “I think I could manage ‘The Recruited Collier’.”

“Oh yes!” Owen exclaimed; “Good choice!” He looked across at me with a delighted grin; “Key of C”, he said.

Owen and I were sitting on stools, and Wendy was on a hard-backed chair; we instinctively moved a little closer together, so that we were facing each other in a rough triangle in the middle of the room. Owen and I began to play a slow introduction, and suddenly, even though there were over twenty people in the room, for me the group seemed to shrink down to Wendy, Owen and me. I knew exactly when she was going to come in, and she did not disappoint me. It was as if we were back in the ‘Plough and Lantern’ over twenty years ago; she took a deep breath, closed her eyes and began to sing:

“What’s the matter with you my lass,
and where’s your dashing Jimmy?
Them soldier boys have picked him up,
and taken him far from me.
Last pay day he went into town,
and them red-coated fellows
Enticed him in and made him drunk,
and he’d better gone to the gallows”.

A stillness seemed to descend on the room; Wendy might not have done much singing in the past decade, but her voice had lost none of its power. For the second verse of the song, I sang harmony with her:

“The very sight of his cockade
it sets us all a-crying,
And me I nearly fainted twice;
I thought that I was dying.
My father would have paid the smart
and he ran for the golden guinea,
But the sergeant swore he’d kissed the book
so now they’ve got young Jimmy”.

After the third verse, Owen played an instrumental break, and as I looked around the room I could see that even my father and my brother seemed to have been moved by the power of Wendy’s voice. My father was leaning forward in his chair, his hands on the top of his walking stick, his eyes fixed on Wendy. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Becca leaning against the door frame, her arms crossed, obviously captivated by the music.

The three of us sang the last verse together:

“As I walk o’er yon stubble field,
below where runs the seam;
I think on Jimmy hewing there,
but it was all a dream.
He hewed the very coals we burn
and when the fire I’m lighting,
To think the lumps were in his hands
would set my heart a-beating.
So break my heart and then it’s o’er,
oh break my heart my dearie;
And I lie in this cold, green ground,
for of single life I’m weary”.

When the last chord died down, there was a brief silence in the room. I looked around at my two musical partners, and I was surprised to see that Wendy was blinking back tears. Then Becca shook her head and said, “My God; that was absolutely gorgeous!”

Immediately everyone began to applaud, and I smiled at Wendy; “Thanks!” I whispered.

“Do another one!” Emma said.

“We don’t want to monopolize your party, Em”, Owen replied.

“It’s my party!” she insisted with a mischievous grin, “and I’m asking for an encore!”

“Are you okay with it, Wendy?” I asked.

She nodded, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “Oh yes”, she replied in a voice full of emotion; “I seem to be unexpectedly enjoying myself! Why don’t one of you boys choose something now, and I’ll see if I can remember it”.

“Well, surely you remember ‘I Wonder What is Keeping My True Love This Night’?” Owen suggested with a grin.

Wendy smiled; “I think I can probably manage that one!”

We ended up singing our old songs together for over half an hour. Eventually Becca put her head through the hatch from the kitchen and said, “Well, I hate to break this up, but this jambalaya is ready and we should eat it while it’s hot!”

“Of course”, Owen responded. “Let’s bring all the stuff out onto the dining room table and then eat buffet style. We’ve got some food trays for people who like to have something hard and flat to put their plates on”.

We all stood up to help, but as the people began to mill around, Owen and Wendy and I seemed to move spontaneously together. The next thing we knew, the three of us were gripping each other tight in a three-way hug. For a long moment we held each other, and when we stepped back, Wendy’s eyes were shining. “Thank you both”, she said quietly; “I wasn’t expecting that, but it was the best half hour I’ve spent in a long time”.

Becca and Emma brought the pots of jambalaya out onto the table, and when the plates and cutlery and everything else were ready, my sister said, “Now, I should explain that we have two pots here, one super-spicy and one with minimum spice. Emma wanted us all to have super-spicy, but I explained to her that not all of us have her kind of stomach!”

“For which some of us older folks are profoundly grateful!” my father replied with a smile.

Across the other side of the room I saw my mother and Wendy talking together. I found myself in the line for food beside my brother; he smiled at me and said, “Quite impressive; I didn’t realize you were such musical pros back in those university days”.

“Wendy makes all the difference”, I replied; “Without that voice, Owen and I were just two more guitarists in a city full of them. By the way, nice choice for Emma’s birthday gift”.

“Thanks; I thought I detected the bookworm genes in her”.

I had given Emma a Loreena McKennitt CD as part of my birthday gift, and she had slipped it into the player while we were lining up for our food. Several conversations were soon going on in different parts of the house; Emma was floating around with her plate in her hand, trying to talk with everyone, but Wendy, Owen and I seemed to gravitate together to one corner of the living room. As we sat down, Owen smiled impishly at Wendy and said, “I’m glad you didn’t have to run off so quickly after all!”.

“Me too. How long have you lived here, Owen?”

“Seventeen years this past summer”.

“Have you always worked in Oxford?”

“Yes, I joined a little practice after I finished my degree, and eventually I became one of the senior partners. It’s been a rather predictable life, I suppose! Becca’s one of my partners now, actually”.

“Oh, is she a doctor too?”.

“She is”.

“I didn’t know that. The last time I saw Becca I think she was about eleven; didn’t she come to that concert we did for your Mum’s music society, Tom?”

“Yes, I think she did”.

“Did you already know your wife while we were here, Owen?”

“No, I met her not long after you two left – in church, actually. I’ve always been a churchgoer, as you know, and she showed up there one Sunday in the September of 1982”.

“I’ve actually become a churchgoer again myself in the last few years”, Wendy admitted with a shy smile.

“Returning to the fold?” Owen asked.

“Something like that. My Dad’s pleased, of course. My children aren’t really that interested in it, though, so most of the time I just attend my college chapel. The chaplain and I get on well together, and I like having contact with the students there”.

“We go to St. Clement’s”, Owen said. “I was going there through most of my student years, and just seemed to stay there”.

“I’ve been there once or twice. I suppose it would actually be my parish church – I live at the top of Headington Hill, not far from your school actually, Tom – but it’s a bit too charismatic for me; I like something more traditional”.

“We three have really got the Christian spectrum covered!” Owen observed.

Wendy looked at me in surprise; “ ‘We three’? Have you become a churchgoer too?”

“He’s a Mennonite!” Owen said with a grin; “Didn’t you see his horse and buggy outside?”

“A Mennonite? How did that happen?”

“Well, I sort of married into it”, I replied with a smile; “that really is how it started. Kelly’s folks were pretty strong in their faith, but she had rebelled against it as a teenager. When I got to know her she was just finding her way back into it. Her Dad was the principal of my school, and her brother Joe and I became pretty good friends. Gradually it just seemed to make more and more sense to me”.

“I seem to remember reading that Mennonites are pacifists, aren’t they?”

“Yes, that’s right”.

“So you’re not cheering for Bush and Blair and their war with Iraq?”

“No, we’re not. Working for peace and justice is a very important part of our faith for Emma and me”.

“So Emma’s involved with your church, too?”

“Yes, she is; her faith’s very important to her”.

“That’s really nice; I wish I could find a way to help my two make that connection”. She glanced across the room to where Colin was sitting talking with my nephew Eric, their plates of jambalaya balanced on their knees. “So what was it that attracted you to the Mennonite faith?” she asked. “I mean, I know you said you married into it, but obviously there was more to it than that”.

“Well, it’s not really very complicated. When I got to know the folks in Kelly’s church, I found a group of people who put a strong emphasis on actually trying to put into practice the things that Jesus said. That included the things about peace and turning the other cheek and caring for the poor. I liked the fact that there wasn’t a hierarchical understanding of leadership; worship seemed to be more of a communal activity instead of something put on by people at the front. I liked the fact that it was a simple and radical form of Christianity with a strong emphasis on community. It’s got its problems, of course, but it still seems to suit me”.

“So you don’t have priests or ministers?”

“Most Mennonite churches do have pastors, but our tradition is to see ministry as more of a partnership, so we share the leadership of our Sunday services, and our elders are involved in the pastoral ministry during the week. And the little Baptist church that Emma and I go to right now doesn’t have a paid minister; we have four volunteer leaders who share the responsibilities among themselves”.

“That’s very different”.

Owen had been listening to our conversation, but now he put his fork down and said, “What about you, Wendy; what have you been doing all these years?”

“Oh, well, my life’s not exactly been a smooth ride, I’m afraid!” She was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “I went to London, you know. Mickey and I were able to work things out, and so we moved in together”.

“That was a big surprise for me”, I said; “You seemed so keen on staying in Oxford for your doctorate, and I was also pretty sure you and Mickey were past history”.

“Well, in retrospect it might have been better if we had been. Anyway, Lisa was born about a year after we moved in together, and we got married not long after that. I worked on my doctorate in London, Mickey did well in photo-journalism and eventually set up his own business. He got to travel to all kinds of exotic places to take photographs for magazines, and while he was there he got to enjoy all kinds of exotic women too, although I didn’t find out about that part of it until later. By the time Colin was born I had my doctorate, and a couple of years later I got a job teaching at University College, London. The rest you know. I wrote some books, and I got a chance about six years ago to move back to Oxford and get a fellowship at Merton. The time was right because Mickey and I had just broken up”. She paused, and then said, “He got quite violent, and the children and I were just too afraid to stay with him any more. I actually had him charged when I left; he was convicted, and he spent some time in jail. He’s out now, but he’s supposed to stay away from us. Most of the time, he does”.

Owen and I were both suddenly silent; I was amazed by the matter-of-factness with which Wendy had summed up what had obviously been a horrific experience for her. I was about to say so, but then across the room from us Becca got to her feet, cleared her throat and asked for everyone’s attention. “I’m going to make a toast”, she said, “So if you could all visit the punch bowl and fill your glasses, you’ll be ready for it”.

We did as she suggested, and for a few minutes the room was full of movement. Eventually, when we were sitting down again, Becca said, “There are two things I want to say. First, for those of us who knew her, there’s an absent person at this gathering tonight, and I know Emma will want me to mention her now”.

She paused for a moment, and then continued; “Speaking for myself, ever since I spent a summer at Tommy and Kelly’s home when I was seventeen, I always looked up to Kelly as my older sister; in fact, in later years I came to think of her as the most outstanding human being it was ever my privilege to know. So, please raise your glasses, and let’s drink a toast to Kelly Reimer Masefield”.

Everyone stood and drank the toast; Becca glanced at me, as if she was wondering if she had said the right thing, and I gave her a nod of appreciation. Taking Emma’s hand, she continued, “Apart from Tommy, of course, I think I can say that I’ve been able to spend more time than anyone else in this room with my niece. I first met her when she was about eighteen months old, and I’ve had lots of opportunities since then to get to know her”.

She turned to face Emma. “Em, you’ve done us all proud”, she said. “We love you, we’re so glad you’re here now so we can spend more time with you, and we just want to say, ‘Happy birthday’”.

We all raised our glasses and said, “Happy birthday” together. After we had drunk the toast, Becca said, “Now, Tommy, it’s time to bring out that birthday cake”.

Later on, when Colin and Wendy were leaving, I followed them outside and walked with them to where their car was parked on the darkened street. On the way, Wendy said to me, “I wonder if you’d like to come over to Merton for a special Christmas event, Tom?”

“What sort of event?”

“There’s a visiting choir doing Nine Lessons and Carols on the evening of the Sunday before Christmas; there’ll be a formal dinner afterwards, and guests are welcome”.

“Tell me more”.

“It’s very traditional – a candlelight service, mainly music, with some Bible readings about Christmas interspersed between the carols. Actually, our own chapel choir did it a week or two ago, but of course they’re all gone down for the holidays now. I’m not quite sure where this visiting choir is coming from, but I know it’ll be a very lovely event. Would you and Emma like to come as my guests?”

“I think she might be interested in that; I’ll talk to her and get back to you, Wendy”.

“Good”. She held out her hand, and I shook it rather formally. Then, a little impulsively, she leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek. “This was a good evening”, she said; “Thanks for inviting me”.

“I’m glad you could come”.

I watched as she and Colin got into their car and pulled out onto the road. I raised my hand to wave to them, then turned and went back into the house to help with the cleanup.

Link to Chapter 12.

Chaim Potok on biblical criticism

chaim-potokI’m a big fan of the late Chaim Potok, one of the great Jewish writers of the 20th century, who died in 2002. His novels, including ‘The Chosen‘, ‘The Promise‘, ‘My Name is Asher Lev‘, and ‘The Book of Lights‘, all deal with Jewish people trying to find a way to be faithful to their religious tradition in the context of a secular culture. For instance, ‘The Chosen’ and ‘The Promise’ deal with the problems of textual criticism and modern psychology; ‘My Name is Asher Lev’ deals with art; ‘In the Beginning’ deals with biblical criticism. My personal favourite is ‘The Book of Lights’, which follows the journey of a young Jewish chaplain (and student of Kabbalah) in the U.S. Army in the Korean War. The site sums it up in this way:

Gershon Loran, a quiet rabinical student, is troubled by the dark reality around him. He sees hope in the study of Kabbalah, the Jewish book of mysticism and visions, truth and light. But to Gershon’s friend, Arthur, light means something else, the Atom bomb his father helped create. Both men seek different a refuge in a foreign place, hoping for the same thing….

In 1978 Chaim Potok gave an interview to Cheryl Forbes, which appeared in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today. Forbes didn’t pull any punches and at times comes across as aggressive and abrasive in expressing her evangelical point of view, but Potok gives as good as he gets as well, although at times he is surprisingly generous in his assessment of evangelical Christianity.

I particularly enjoyed the following exchange about biblical criticism (Forbes’ questions are in bold):

The battle of David Lurie with Bible criticism is somewhat akin to that faced by evangelicals today. What is the significance of this?

Bible criticism presents a particular problem to the Jewish tradition that isn’t faced by Christianity. Orthodox Jewish law is predicated on the assumption that the Pentateuchal text is fixed and divinely given. Once you touch the fixity of the Pentateuchal text the whole mountain of Jewish law begins to tremble.

That’s similar to the problem within Christianity. If you accept one portion of Scripture as culturally conditioned, say, who’s to decide where to draw the line?

Yes, if you say a text is spurious you might say it about a doctrine as well. That’s perfectly true. Essentially both fundamentalisms face the same problem. That’s why fundamentalists are afraid to confront Bible criticism. They don’t know how to handle it.

You don’t think that in confronting it faith will crumble?

Here’s the problem in Judaism: The tradition itself has Bible criticism in it. You can find it all through the medieval Jewish Bible commentaries. If the tradition were entirely devoid of Bible criticism, then a David Lurie might never have been attracted to the excitement of that discipline. First, David Lurie turns his back on the modern version of Bible criticism. Then he realizes that there are truths involved. How do you relate to the truths? You have to rethink your relationship to the tradition. You have to come to an understanding of how you relate to the tradition without basing yourself on a fundamentalist version of its sacred text. And that involves rethinking your relationship to the history of your people. Many people don’t want to do that and simply use Bible criticism as the most convenient excuse for the quickest way out of the Jewish tradition. They claim that Bible criticism proves the tradition to be infantile fables. Well, Bible criticism doesn’t prove that at all. Quite the contrary. We know today that the Bible is far more complex and sophisticated than we ever suspected; it is far more awesome as a creation of man than as a word-for-word revelation by God.

You can read the entire interview starting here.

P.S. Many thanks to Grandmère Mimi for reminding me of this interview with this very great man.

Technology and the Simple Life – coffee and conversation

A note from the Rev. Steve London:

Hello all,

I am again inviting you to our 2nd discussion group at Transcend Coffee. The idea is to have a topic and a good cup of coffee in a relaxed setting and talk for a couple of hours.

The next one is on Saturday morning, May 25th, from 10am to noon at Transcend Coffee, upstairs which is located at 9869 62 Ave which is just south of Argyll Road off 99th Street.

Our topic this month is Technology and the Simple Life. The idea here is simple: most people agree that there is a connection between living peace and intentionally living a simpler life in the midst of a overwhelmingly consumer society. Most people also use quite a bit of technology in terms of smart phones, tablets, social media, calendars and so on. Some times the technology really helps enable a simpler life style, but often it is a tension with it as well. This conversation will be a way of exploring how we have wrestled with that tension and listen to what others have come up with as well. Looking forward to seeing you all!

Blessings, Steve

Note: This event is sponsored by the Edmonton Ecumenical Peace Network

Some random things that I believe – and don’t believe…

I believe that the Book of Jonah is one of the most profound books in the Bible. Not the whole ‘swallowed by a fish’ bit, so much as the fact that God sent him as a missionary to the deadly enemies of Israel. No wonder he ducked and ran…

Oh, and it’s also one of the funniest books in the Bible. Especially in the last chapter, when Jonah accuses God of being a habitual wuss, and then follows the entire ‘gourd’ story (see Jonah 4).

I believe that no political party has a monopoly on lying, stupidity, empire-building and self-interest. In fact, for the most part, I think it’s pretty evenly distributed.

Mind you, ‘trust the markets’ is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. The price of gas goes up in increments of about 6 to 7 cents a litre. But it comes down at a much slower rate. Oil company executives tell me this is because of ‘forces beyond our control’. I don’t believe that.

I believe that Jesus was a pacifist, but I definitely do not believe that he was a passivist.

Until this past weekend, I sincerely believed that a bishop’s mitre was one of the most ridiculous looking pieces of headgear ever invented. But on Sunday one of my Anglo-Catholic colleagues described the Canterbury Cap for me. I now believe it’s a toss-up.

I do not believe it is possible to write a folk song. A song becomes a ‘folk’ song when it is sung by folk – passed around, adapted, set in new situations, etc. etc. It follows that (1) songs that can only be convincingly sung by the author (being inextricably related to his or her life situation alone) can never be folk songs, and (2) copyright is the enemy of the folk process.

Oh, and I also believe that most of the music sung at folk festivals is not folk music.

I believe that Jesus has sent his followers out into the world to share his message and to invite people to turn from their previous allegiances and follow him. I believe that he is the unique Son of God, sent into the world by God to live, die, and rise again to save us. I do not, however, believe that this means I can make exact predictions as to who will or will not fry in the lake of fire (thank you, Allan Hunsperger). The parable of the sheep and the goats leads me to believe that I might get a few surprises.

I believe that there is a very important difference between the words “I do” and “I will”.

I believe that a lot of people confuse worship with entertainment. By the way, this includes connoisseurs of cathedral Evensongs every bit as much as those who like their worship bands served with big screens and lattes.

I do not believe that everyone who says “We are truly sorry and we humbly repent’ has actually repented. This includes me. In fact, I wonder if I should be saying the words “I repent” at all. Perhaps I should concentrate on really repenting (i.e. doing things differently) and then let God judge whether I’m truly repenting or not.

I believe it is possible to be too opinionated. I believe I may have crossed that line a long time ago.