A number of years ago I decided I wanted to read through the Gospels regularly; likewise the Psalms. After some trial and error I created a daily reading chart that would take me through the four Gospels and the Book of Psalms every 3 months - four times a year. One chapter of the Gospel and one or two Psalms gets it done. Yes I try to do it daily; and yes sometimes I miss. But over a year I still get through a lot of Gospel and Psalms with odds on I've read them at least three times! This isn't a guilt trip - it needs discipline but with a small d. And the benefits are not surprising:
The Gospels are read as narrative, not piecemeal. Granted a chapter can be a big chunk (John 6 isn't rec reational browsing) but over time there is a sense of coherence and unfolding story.
The four Gospels take on their own characteristics and you become aware of Jesus as a multi-dimensional figure rather than a vague confluence of Gospel fragments arranging themselves in our minds as if the Gospel writers didn't mind us playing Scrabble with the text. Matthew's Jesus is didactic, a re-presentation of Moses and Exodus and new covenant on the Mount; Mark's Jesus is God in a hurry; Luke more than the others reaches to the margins in a story of inclusion, scandal and healing with Jesus as the protagonist of the Kingdom of God and the prophetic critique of power; John is all about glory, but a strange and beautiful glory of kenosis, the Word made flesh and dwelling amongst us, the presence in our history of I AM, and the defining confrontation of light and the darkness which can neither comprehend it or overcome it.
The voice of Jesus becomes familiar, and the different accents noticeable from Gospel to Gospel. There is the voice that speaks the words; and their is the message of how Jesus acts, what he does, how he behavesm who he is. By the way I want to do another post on What Would Jesus Do? I'm not at all sure we can be as confirdent of answering that question as is sometimes claimed.
Then there's the Psalms. A book of prayers that disturbs as much as comforts; in which complaint and praise can pour from the same heart; in which silence can be companionable or threatening, contemplative or crushed; and in which the conversation with God moves from intimacy and joy to alienation and fear.
Regular reading of the Psalms has been a spiritual habit of the church from the beginning. And no wonder. The whole range of emotion and human experience, the peaks and troughs of the faith journey, the endless perspectives of the soul arguing with, wrestling with, resting in, trusting in, fearful of, mindful of, angry at, wondering at, God.
My new RSV New Testament and Psalms was bought to continue a daily exposure of heart and mind, conscience and will, to those four Gospels and the Prayer Book of Israel. Below is a file showing the first half of 2013. Soon I'll produce the one for July to December.
When I quote the Bible from memory I always quote the RSV. I became a follower of Jesus in the late 1960's just at the time when the Good News for Modern Man New Testament was published. The non inclusive title showed how un-modern it was. A year or two later it graduated into The Good News Bible. By then I had been reading and studying the Bible for some years in the RSV, and some of its phrases, verses and chapters had become part of my newly furnished mind and increasing store of Bible knowledge and discourse.
Neither the Good News Bible, nor its paraphrased rival The Living Bible ever displaced the RSV as the translation which spoke most convincingly to me with that combination of strangeness and familiarity that always creates the right balance of inner tension and attention when we read a sacred text for daily food. When the NIV came along, and Evangelical christians hailed it as an 'evangelical translation', it took me some years to concede that a preacher's translational preference is not a matter only of personal taste and experience. The text familiar to those amongst whom we live and move and preach our sermons becomes the preferred text for all kinds of practical and pastoral reasons more important than the personal. So for much of my ministry I've preached from the NIV. Then came the New RSV, with its inclusive language, updated vocabulary and widespread adoption as the translation of preference for many Christian communities and denominations - but my sense is that the NRSV has little foothold amongst Evangelical Christians, and the NIV remains the default translation.
Now, for study purposes, I use the NRSV and NIV together and with my leather bound not small RSV to hand - years of continuous reading make it still the most familiar text. Nevertheless. Regularly I dive into my King James Version ordination Bible and immerse myself in a language strange, familiar and beautiful, in those places where it is still unrivalled as the repository of sacred text rendered memorable and mysterious. Psalms, Isaiah, Genesis, John, Romans, the Parables, - how on earth did a committee produce a masterpiece? The question is mainly rhetorical - to try to answer you have to begin with the plagiarism of Tyndale's translation, woven into page after page with never a footnote acknowledgement!
This narrative of Jim and his Bibles is by way of saying I recently bought myself a new RSV New Testament and Psalms. Now be careful. I didn't say a New Revised Standard Version New Testament and Psalms; but a new Revised Standard Version and Psalms. I mean the RSV not the NRSV.The picture at the top is of my new RSV and Psalms. Compact, portable, beautifully made, very clear and readable print, high quality paper, two ribbon markers, gilt edged. Come on - this is a real New Testament, a sacred book that by appearance and handling says - 'I'm not an Argos catalogue; |'m not a PDF; I'm not an airport paperback; I'm not the cheapest in a 3 for 2 offer; I'm not a Kindle; I'm not a niche market ploy; I'm the real thing - strange, potent, holy. Go on. Risk it. Open me!'
Every 4 months I complete a daily reading pattern, working through the four Gospels and the book of Psalms. I'll say more about that soon in another post. This new RSV is now a daily companion for that journey.
Below is a prayer of Intercession written recently for a worship service I was invited to lead. It's probably a bit long and tries to do too much, but then again if a prayer is written around the theme and reality of the Triune Love of God then it is likely to suffer from an embarrassment of riches and an overload of possibility! Yet to take the eternal inexhaustible communion of self-giving love of Father, Son and Spirit, as the pattern and paradigm of prayer, is to be called to prayer that is outwardly generous and forwardly hopeful and patiently creative. Anyway - this is one attempt to combine prayer for ourselves and for the world in a way that acknowledges the reproductive power of the Triune God in whose Love we live and move and have our being.
The photo is from the cliffs at St Cyrus. The gorgeous golden gorse, the old fishing cottage and smoke houses, and miles of sand and waves - what's not to love about a world like that, eh?
God and Father, whose
infinite yet intimate love,
from all eternity between Father and Son,
the love you have now poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
Drawn into that life of loving communion,
pray for those in our lives, touched and transformed by love,
unselfish, generous, joyful, love.
friends and good neighbours,
and husbands, parents and children,
and brothers, best friends and new friends:
differences in language, race, gender, religion,
so that in the rich life of love between Father, Son and Spirit,
glimpse and discover love’s inexhaustible possibilities
We pray for those whose lives are broken for lack of love:
whose safety and health come second to adult demands;
ended by exploitation and backstabbing;
shredded by unfaithfulness and shattered by broken promises;
fractured by social pressures, whether poverty or affluence;
where to survive love is weakness and compassion despised;
whose bottom line matters more than the welfare of their people.
pray for Churches, and for our church which
you have called to be the Body of Christ.
Give grace and imagination to
embody and to model the love of God in Christ,
is gift of the Spirit and the sign of your Presence.
I took this photo on an evening drive down to Glasgow. I was looking across the Mearns to the west and stopped at a layby for ten minutes to gaze. Then continued to drive, this time with more care and attentiveness to a world both fragile and durable, and to a rhythm whose regularity recurs in the Psalms as a metaphor of God's faithfulness and the dailiness of blessing. "From sunrise to sunset the Lord's name is to be praised."
In the Fiddler on the Roof, the image of sunrise and sunset describes growth and maturity, as the love of parents for children begins to relinquish and set free while still acknowledging that the investment of our deepest feelings in those we love, and enlarging the circle of those we love, is life's high calling. And in the lyrics, the recognition that life is movement and change, happiness and tears, and what we hang on to, what hangs on to us, is that same rhythm of faithfulness and the recurring cycle of light and life, sunrise, sunset.
Swiftly flow the days
Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers
Blossoming even as we gaze
Swiftly fly the years
One season following another
Laden with happiness and tears
"Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father, there is no shadow of turning with thee..." Well, yes, that's true - though there are shadows, and sometimes it feels like they are cast by the back of God! And then you see a sunset, and our faith holds on for dear life to mystery, and we are smitten by a beauty redolent of love, gently revealing the goodness and mercy that surely follows us all the days of our lives, sunrise, sunset.
I still remember the chill and existential angst as an impressionable if more than a little rebellious teenager watching Dr Strangelove. Two years after the Cuban crisis, and one year after the assassination of President Kennedy, the film dropped into a cultural worldview already distorted by fear, suspicion and the growing insanity of language that spoke of MAD, as mutual assured destruction. The mad antics and the terrifyingly implausibly plausible script did nothing to reassure, nor wat it meant to.
I came across this clip here the other day and watched it with scared fascination. It isn't only the content, it's the jaunty optimism of the narrator describing the triumph of Britain dropping its first hydrogen bomb to explode in the atmosphere in 1957. At the time the fear was an icy terror, a remorselessly spreading glacial fear dubbed the cold war. Perhaps the upbeat BBC commentator was expressing relief that Britain was no longer defenceless against an evil and ambitious Russia. At the very least we could destroy cities of the perceived enemy in retaliation for any attack on our cities. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a million for a million, it's the same principle. It's called deterrence.
There has not been a nuclear exchange in the 56 years since that first successful atmospheric detonation of city killing bombs. Supporters of deterrence would say that's because deterrence works. Maybe. Opponents will argue that nuclear weapons are morally unjustifiable and pose an extinction level threat to human life, and indeed to the future of the planet. I don't know that the argument can be settled - by definition the proof would either never be forthcoming (in which case it worked, maybe) or there will be a catastrophic exchange in which case the argument becomes academic in a nihilistic sort of way.
What's your point Jim? It isn't a global politicised point. I am not an expert in global security, military mind games, or defence strategy and policy. As a Christian theologian I have other concerns, a different perspective, alternative intellectual tools to think through the meaning of human existence and what makes for human flourishing. I watched the clip with a profound and solemn awareness that amongst the crucial components of a Christian worldview is an adequate doctrine of sin. The hydrogen bomb as it was then known carried a mushroom shaped shadow of ultimate menace for humanity's future - and the clip celebrates the success of British efforts to obtain this instrument of mass destruction. I use instrument deliberately - in the background of the clip it would have been entirely appropriate to play Holst's brutal and relentless Mars the Bringer of War to trumpet and announce the newly acquired capacity for orchestrated death on a symphonic scale.
Celebrating the success of such a creation as nuclear weapon capacity is according to the late Lord Macleod, blasphemy, the original sin of creating from the foundation blocks of God's Creation, an instrument capable of global annihilation. I do not see that theological pronouncement as an overstatement. It is one of the most important prophetic denunciations of military and political power in the history of Scottish theology; theology, not politics. But it is theology effectively used to critique all intellectual accommodations to nuclear weapons as an option for the Christian mind. Of course not everyone agreed with Macleod; and not all will agree with what I'm writing here. But go back and look at the clip, listen to the narrative, and then read the Sermon on the Mount. How do the two inhabit the same moral, theological and political universe?
One further thought - the bomb lauded in the 1950's clip is a mere firework when compared with the destructive payload of current contemporary capacity. I recall Jesus argument from the lesser to the greater...how much more...?
They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see. They have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but cannot smell. They have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but cannot walk, nor can they utter a sound with their throats...
My Ordination Bible is a beautifully bound King James Version which remains always to hand, and is read for the soft draping comfort of holding such a lovely volume, and for the glory of the language and as a reminder of what my life, finally and gladly is about. There's something all but sacramental in the recurring act of holding that one Bible, handed to you at the time you make promises which will thereafter guide, undergird and sustain your life of faith.
I went back to my Bible today after reading the last pages of F W Dillisone's old fashioned volume, The Christian Understanding of the Atonement. Old fashioned in this case is a positive term, an affirming and approving response to a book that is relaxedly learned, displaying elegant architectonics, broad in sympathy, precise in analysis and eschewing controversy and partisan posturing. Published 45 years ago it remains one of the finest treatments of the atonement for theologians; polemicists and partisan apologists for this or that theory of the atonement will be definition be impatient with it - and be the poorer for their quick all too narrow judgements. This is a book in which scholarship is in the service of faith, and the exposition of the living core of Christian faith is reverent, searching and sufficiently open to allow for mystery and intellectual humility that feels no discomfort in not knowing, and opting for wonder rather than cognitive closure.
On the last page Dillistone quotes Luke 1.78-79, as follows:
Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
The last words of the book are from Auden's Christmas Oratorio, the words of Simeon:
"Because of his visitation we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to Him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore at every moment we pray that following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace." page 422.
The Giotto Deposition shows Jesus gazed upon from different perspectives and vantage points. And what each saw was cause for wonder, prayer, tears and thanksgiving. Worship always out-thinks and out-wonders controversy.