Year of Wonders

“Year of Wonders”: not this past twelve months living with the virus but the title of a novel about the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, which was devastated by the plague for fourteen months, beginning in September 1665. Geraldine Brooks’ novel is a fictionalised account of those fourteen months.

If you like well-researched historical novels this is a good one.

Why the title? The author explains that it comes from a poem by Dryden entitled Annus Mirabilis (Latin for “Year of Wonders”) which reflects on the year 1666 – the year of the fire of London, an outbreak of plague in London, and war with the Dutch. Apparently Dryden called it a year of wonders because he was amazed things weren’t much worse than they were.

It remains to be seen how we will look back on Covid-19.

The experience of Eyam has attracted a lot of attention from medics and others seeking insight on how to deal with our current plague.

The novel was published in 2001 – long before Covid-19 – but the story it tells has some parallels with the story we’re living now. (I’ve only read the novel – I haven’t researched the history, so my observations are based on what the novel says.)

  • They practised social distancing, learning to stand apart from people in public spaces
  • There were people who constantly put their own lives in danger to tend to the sick and the dying
  • There were some who took advantage of the crisis to line their own pockets, like the man who (following the death of the parish’s gravedigger) charged families exorbitant prices for digging their loved ones’ graves
  • In the absence online shopping or click-and-collect they left notes in a hollowed-out stone at the edge of the village to let people know what they specially needed
  • They abandoned meeting for worship in church and gathered (socially distanced) in the open air instead.

There is one huge difference between their experience and ours. We keep people out of our home/community/town/region/country to protect ourselves from infection; they took the decision – under the guidance of the Rector of the parish – to keep people out of their village to protect other people from infection.

Can we imagine any community or country taking that decision now? It’s worth pondering why that seems so unlikely.

This being the seventeenth century, the question “Where is God in all this?” loomed large. There was a widespread assumption that the plague was specially sent by God as a punishment for people’s sins. The tragic result was that some people decided they must atone for the sins of the people by self-flagellation: going without sleep and food and beating themselves viciously with whips. The Rector was dismayed by this, but even he (in the novel if not in historical fact) turned out to believe that it’s up to us to atone for our sins, with tragic consequences (which I will not spoil the novel by revealing).

Do we have to atone for our sins? How would you do that? How would you atone even for a careless harsh word? If you can’t do that, how would you atone for murder?

Reading Year of Wonders has reinforced for me the foundational truth of the Christian gospel: Christ died for our sins.

Atonement is his work, not ours. If we try to take on ourselves what only he can do, we make a terrible mess.

Love Story #7 My hour has not yet come

When Mary suggests that he might do something about the shortage of wine at the wedding in Cana, Jesus appears to rebuff her:

My hour has not yet come.

John 2.4

He is referring to the “hour” of his passion and death on the cross – a theme which recurs in this Gospel (John 7.30, 8.20, 12.23-28).

Why does he mention this now?

Jesus knew where his vocation was going to take him. He had read the scriptures of his people, including the binding of Isaac which I explored in an earlier post, the mysterious prophecy of the suffering servant in Isaiah and the psalms of lament over innocent suffering. He knew how things would end. The cross cast a long backward shadow over his life; perhaps, at this moment when his public ministry was about to begin, he felt the oppression of that shadow with particular intensity.

I think he also wanted to connect the three years of his ministry directly with the cross. His teaching, his miracles, his offer of forgiveness and new life, his concern for the poor, his challenge to hypocrisy and injustice, his welcome to the outcasts and rejects of society – all these flow towards the cross and flow from the cross. His ministry depends on the cross and demonstrates the purpose and achievement of the cross. You can’t separate the Kingdom and the atonement. They belong together theologically just as closely as they belong together in the actual life of Jesus. As John puts it in another place:

The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.

1 John 3.8

In his ministry and through the cross Jesus is doing one and the same thing: restoring God’s creation, putting right what is wrong and opening the way to fulness of life.

At the end of John’s Gospel Jesus tells Peter how he is going to die. The shadow of the cross hangs over the disciple’s life just as it hung over the life of Jesus.

When I was a teenager my mother took me to an organization called the Vocational Guidance Association. I think she was concerned that I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life (or maybe she’d just seen an advert in the paper). They put me through a series of psychometric tests and produced a written report outlining some suitable career paths. There were several options they thought would work well, as long as I had nothing to do with selling, for which I was obviously completely unsuited.

The final stage of the process was an interview with the man in charge. After a brief chat he stood up behind his desk, picked up the report and handed it to me. As he did so, he asked (as an afterthought or perhaps the fleeting inspiration of the moment): “You haven’t thought of going into the church, have you?” Absolutely not. Whatever else I might do with my life the idea of becoming a clergyperson was outrageous, profoundly unappealing and definitely not going to happen.

Except that, within a decade or so, I was firmly set on precisely that path.

Within a few years of that interview I had come to faith in Jesus Christ during my time at university. From the beginning I had a strong sense of call to ordination (“going into the church”). For a long time I didn’t take this seriously. I thought it was merely the natural response to finding faith for the first time; so I dismissed it. It took me some time to realize that this could actually be a vocation – a call from God. The sense of vocation didn’t go away, so I finally did something about it.

The sense of call was very important, not simply because getting ordained is one of those things you’re not supposed to do without a sense of call, but because the actual experience of ordination and the life that followed from it were not easy. It mattered that the call was a call and not what I would have done if left to myself. The sense of call sustained me through some difficult times.

Christian vocation typically involves a kind of death: death to our plans, death to the easy option and the easy way out. Not just for those called to official leadership in the church but for every disciple.

The point is not that we all have to die a literal martyr’s death. It is rather that we must be willing to allow a certain kind of death to enter into our experience. Paul puts it this way:

… death is at work in us, but life in you.

2 Corinthians 4.12

The day I was ordained deacon in St John’s Church, Stratford in the East End of London was a kind of death. At the time I hardly understood what was happening; I just knew this was proving a painful experience in a way I had not expected. A kind of cloud hung over the day. The clothes, the clerical shirt and collar, the robes, the service: it all felt as if something was being taken away from me, as if I was being stripped of my identity. Perhaps indeed I was. There seemed at the time to be a particular fondness in the media for representing the clergy as buffoons – comically detached from reality, spouting nonsense to which nobody was listening. But, despite the fact that being publicly identified with this perception of the Church and the clergy was not something I could enjoy, this was not the heart of the matter. Something deeper was going on.

That “something deeper” began to emerge as I met with the Vicar (my training incumbent and now boss), on Monday morning. We went through what the week would look like. I discovered that, with the exception of Tuesdays (the clergy day off), my life was going to be a relentless round of activity, sometimes from 7am in the morning till 10 or 11pm at night.

I particularly remember the shape of one specially crowded Sunday in the month: it started with the 8am service of Holy Communion at the parish church, followed by a 9.30am service in a church hall at the other end of the parish, followed by the main 10.30am morning service back at the parish church, followed by a hospital service at 4pm, followed by tea and cake at the Vicarage for all those who’d helped with the service, followed by the 6.30pm evening service, followed (finally) at 8pm by the youth group led by my wife and myself. At all these events I was a player, not a spectator, required at different levels to contribute and to lead.

I remember too the regular Friday evening meeting with other local church leaders which sometimes went on till 11pm because one of the clergy liked to talk…

For some people this kind of pressure to move from one public event to another with barely a break is normal. And attending boring and pointless meetings late in the evening is something you have to put up with. Some people thrive on that level of exposure; or the demands of their role have forced them to get used to it. For me it was not normal. I came back to the curate’s house after that first staff meeting thinking to myself: “this is going to kill me”. What I really meant was that my introverted desire for private space was being assaulted head-on. It felt again as if my identity was under attack.

In a sense, it was. I needed to learn to give of myself in ways that I had not been used to. Aspects of what I thought of as myself were being put to death.

There was much about my early experience of public “professional” Christian ministry which was not helpful and not a good model to replicate, but I am grateful to God for it all the same. As I have reflected on it over subsequent years I have gradually come to understand that it was not meaningless or pointless, but, in the providence of God, it was an experience of good death – the kind of death which strips away the false accretions to our identity and, bit by bit, enables us to be more the people we were designed to be.

Love Story #6 They have no wine (Part 2)

When Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana, he was responding to his mother’s pointed words to him: “they have no wine”.

Given the fact that he chose to rectify the situation, his apparent rebuff doesn’t seem to make sense:

Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come .

John 2.4

“Woman” sounds rude to us, but the Gospels demonstrate that it was Jesus’ usual way of speaking to women, including (again) his mother when, from the cross, he commends her to the care of the beloved disciple. Even the angels address Mary Magdalene as “woman”. It is a perfectly respectful term.

Nonetheless, Jesus seems to be saying a pretty clear No to any suggestion that he should do something about the situation. His mind, and his concern, are elsewhere – focused on the climax of his ministry at the cross.

But Mary doesn’t take this No for an answer. She turns to the servants and instructs them to do whatever Jesus tells them. She assumes that her request has been properly heard and will be properly acted upon. To translate this into our terms, she believes that her prayer is heard and will make a difference.

Making a difference is important. Mary’s “intercession” with Jesus on behalf of the bride and groom makes a difference to the wedding celebration. If Mary had not brought the need to Jesus, it would have gone unmet. More than that, without her intercession the miracle would (presumably) never have taken place and Jesus’ glory (see John 2.11) would not at that stage have been revealed. Her prayers changed things.

Douglas Gresham is the stepson of C. S. Lewis. After his American parents divorced, his mother moved to England with Douglas and her other son and embarked on a relationship with Lewis which would culminate in marriage.

Sent home from boarding school, Douglas found his mother dying of cancer. For a ten-year-old boy the cumulative effect of all this was overwhelming. He turned to God. Walking into the churchyard of Holy Trinity Headington, he found himself surrounded by the powerful presence of God, a presence which he sensed to be grieving, both for his mother and for him. The Presence told him that, if he could not face life without his mother, she could go on living – he only had to ask.

He went into the church, knelt at the altar and prayed fervently that his mother should be allowed to live. That night, she went into a remission which lasted for four years.

Then she became ill again; it was clear that she was dying, and everybody knew she was dying. Douglas went again to the churchyard of Holy Trinity, not expecting that anything particular would happen, but he experienced the same presence of God, telling him the same thing as last time: if he really couldn’t live without his mother, she could go on living. But this time he decided that at the age of fourteen he was much stronger than at the age of ten, he had Lewis and his brother as friends and supporters, he could cope if his mother died. He prayed that God’s will be done and left the churchyard. Three days later his mother died[1].

Our prayers make a difference. God has made space in his dealings with us and in his plans for the world for a variety of outcomes. He has left us room to choose; he invites us to make requests, to make choices, and to shape events. Our prayers even have a part to play in revealing his glory.


[1] See Gresham’s account in The Church of England Newspaper, 27th June 2008.

Love Story #5 They have no wine

When the supply of wine at the wedding in Cana dries up, Jesus’ mother steps in and brings the problem to her son: “they have no wine”. Her example is a foretaste of the power of prayer to supply our needs.

Tim Matthews and his wife Debi planted a new church at St Swithun’s, Bournemouth, in 2014. Tim tells the story of a couple in the church called Mark and Mandy. Mandy had been a nurse but had to give up her job because of an illness which meant she had to use a wheelchair. In order to be around to look after her more, Mark took a less well-paid job doing shift work. That put them in a benefits trap. For a year they were dependent on their small savings to keep them going while Mandy was considered for disability benefits.

Their finances got gradually worse until they decided to ask the bank for help. The bank took Mark through their account, cancelling insurance policies, reducing pension payments and restructuring their mortgage. Then it came to their regular giving to the church. They had always been committed to giving a tenth of their income to the church, which was fine when they were both working but now their changed circumstances put that in question. Mark felt God reassuring him that they would be provided for, so he rejected the bank’s suggestion of cancelling the tithe.

A bit later Mandy went back into hospital for more treatment, after which Mark brought her home. He then realised they had no food in the house, so set off to the supermarket to shop. As he was driving home the car broke down (and was later declared a write-off). He walked home, carrying the shopping. When he came through the door he found the kitchen was flooded with filthy water from the drains. He did his best to clear up and then cried out to God for help.

Two days later a plumber called to say that somebody had paid for the drains to be repaired. Then a friend phoned to say he’d been banned from driving and therefore was offering Mark his car, for only a nominal sum. It was still too much for Mark to pay, except that a few days later some money inexplicably turned up in his bank account. Money continued to turn up as the weeks went by, but things were still very tough.

Eight months later they were still giving their tithe to the church but were now desperate. They went to a foodbank. When they got home there was a letter saying Mandy was entitled to full disability benefits and free car tax; the award was backdated for eight months. Mandy decided an online shop would be a good way to celebrate and fill their empty cupboards. When the delivery arrived they discovered it was someone else’s; it was far more than they had ordered – and far more luxurious. They phoned the supermarket to explain and were told they could keep the order and the cost of their own order would be refunded. A week later the supermarket contacted them to say they had won a large number of vouchers in a prize draw, which gave them enough money to buy a dishwasher and microwave.

There are two reasons for telling this story. The first is the obvious one: as with Jesus’ prodigious gift of wine at Cana, God is generous; he is able and willing to supply our needs beyond our dreams. But the second is less obvious: namely, that discovering the generosity of God takes faith and perseverance. Prayer doesn’t mean we can somehow flick a switch in heaven and get what we want when we want it. There is work to be done. There is a battle to be fought and won, and those who give up too early or too easily may miss out on seeing what God can do. Mark and Mandy stuck it out by faith through some very testing times, and they lived to know by experience the faithfulness of God.

There is a prayer attributed to Sir Francis Drake which seems to me an apt commentary on the story of Mark and Mandy:

O Lord God, when thou givest to thy servants to endeavour any great matter, grant us also to know that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same unto the end, until it be thoroughly finished, which yieldeth the true glory; through him who for the finishing of thy work laid down his life, our Redeemer, Jesus Christ.

attributed to Sir Francis Drake

Love Story #4: When the wine gave out

“When the wine gave out…” It usually does. Human life is like that. Hardly ever does the first excitement and fulfilment of any experience last indefinitely. Sooner or later the new relationship, the new job, the new church, the new house, the new car, the new anything not only loses a little of its initial lustre but brings some fresh challenges.

Often this is the place where we are ready to meet God.

I left school with a place to read modern languages at university, which is what I had planned for myself. I looked forward to more of the same – a future where I would be in control of my destiny. Now I had ten months to do something with, and I wanted to fill the time with something worthwhile.

Eventually I found myself signed up with Christian Aid (despite at that time having very little Christian faith if any) to work as a volunteer for five months in a home for people with severe disabilities (both mental and physical) run by the Lutheran Church in Austria.

It was a shocking, eye-opening experience. There were men in their thirties, forties and fifties who were bed-ridden and incapable of speech, of feeding or caring for themselves or of any kind of independent action whatsoever. There was one man who had had part of his brain amputated by the Nazis (so we were told) as a reprisal for some act of rebellion by the local populace.

The brightest sparks among the residents were the ones with Down’s Syndrome. I particularly remember Schnecki, who had an ear for music: his party trick was to pick out on the piano the theme from the first movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (appropriately, Schnecki’s actual Christian name was Ludwig). There was a lot of noise, a lot of mess and sometimes physical violence.

My task as one of the volunteer carers was to wash, dress, feed, clean up after, restrain, occupy, entertain and generally care for the residents. I found myself stretched in ways I had not experienced before. After some months I found myself stretched to the point where I sat down exhausted and realized that I had nothing more to give. Because of course what the residents needed above all, beyond their physical care, was love. I had run out of whatever small store of love I possessed.

I didn’t know it at the time, but God was deconstructing my pride and self-confidence. By the time I made it to university later that year my level of self-confidence was very low. In that place I was ready to listen to a friend talking about Jesus Christ.

Meeting God in a place of need works not only for individuals but sometimes for whole communities.

My family and I lived and worked for fifteen years in a parish which had suffered major long-term economic hardship, most recently because of the collapse of the steel industry. Times were hard, but people had a sense of humour which helped to overcome the hardship. And they were ready to respond to Jesus Christ in a way I have never seen equalled.

One year we decided to stage a mission in the parish to be led by the late Canon Keith de Berry and a team from one of the London churches. Keith had been instrumental in my journey to faith at university and had been kind enough to officiate at our wedding. Despite his aristocratic heritage he had an easy rapport with people of whatever background, social class or culture.

It was not an easy week. Sunday was to be the last day of the mission and by Sunday afternoon it seemed as if there was very little fruit for our labours. The level of response appeared to be very thin and uncertain at best.

I sat down after lunch and picked up my Bible to prepare for the evening service, which was to be the final event of the mission. I turned to the psalm set for the day, which was Psalm 126. I read this:

 Those who sow with tears
     will reap with songs of joy.
 Those who go out weeping,
     carrying seed to sow,
 will return with songs of joy,
     carrying sheaves with them 
 (Psalm 126.5-6 New International Version). 

I set off for the evening service with a tentative hope in my heart for better things than we had seen so far.

After Keith had preached he invited people to let him know at the end of the service if they wanted to commit their lives to Christ. I don’t remember how many people were present in the church that night, but it can’t have been more than a hundred. I watched as twenty-five people queued up to give their names to Keith. These were not our usual church members: they were friends and family members of the congregation who had been prayed and persuaded into coming.

We arranged for them to be nurtured in their new faith during the coming weeks. Some sixteen of those twenty-five became key people in the church, worshipping and serving as committed disciples of Jesus for the long haul.

Despite Freud, faith is not wish-fulfilment, or merely a crutch for those who can’t cope with life. God meets people as much in their strength as in their weakness.

C. S. Lewis came to faith with extreme reluctance and from a place of considerable strength. He had achieved First Class honours in two degrees, won a major university prize, been elected to a Fellowship of an Oxford College and given rooms overlooking one of the most beautiful places in the whole city (the Magdalen College deer park). His financial worries were over. He had built up a circle of very congenial friends and his home life, while not exactly ideal, provided the backdrop of domesticity which was important to him. He was not in any obvious need. He had long been a committed atheist and was not looking to have his mind changed. Into that tranquil scene came a growing sense (profoundly unwelcome but finally unavoidable) of the demand of God upon his life. In the end he gave in and surrendered.

This was not meeting any felt needs; on the contrary, Lewis’s comfortable life was being seriously disrupted. From a position of secure conviction and untroubled confidence, he was taken to a place where everything was up for reconsideration and all his mental furniture was being re-arranged.

God meets us where we are – weak or strong, happy or not, in sickness and in health.

Love Story #3 – “On the third day” (again)

John’s Gospel has been described as a sea in which a child can paddle and an elephant can swim. It is both very simple and full of hidden depths. In these posts my aim is to explore some of the hidden depths of the account of the wedding at Cana in Galilee.

The opening words “On the third day” exemplify both the simplicity and the depth. At one level they merely mark the passage of time. At a deeper level they point to the resurrection message at the heart of the gospel, which is acted out in concrete, visible form in Jesus’ transformation of water into wine.

At a level deeper still, “on the third day” echoes one of the most shocking stories in the Bible: the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22. God commands Abraham to sacrifice “your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love”.

Abraham travels with Isaac to the land of Moriah, where he has been told to perform the sacrifice:

On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away (Genesis 22.4).

Paul tells the Corinthians:

… I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures… (1 Corinthians 15.3-4)

 The foundational gospel events of the death and resurrection of Jesus take place “in accordance with the scriptures”, that is, in conformity with the pattern of the Old Testament. In his life, death and resurrection, Jesus fulfils the story of Israel. He lives out the story of the people of God; except that, where they messed up and failed, Jesus is completely faithful. Israel was God’s vine, but it was unfruitful. Jesus, however, is the true and fruitful vine (see John 15). He takes on himself the fulfilment and the restoration of Israel’s vocation. After his resurrection he explains to the disciples (read Luke 24) that the scriptures are about him.

When John begins his account of the wedding at Cana with “on the third day” he is alluding to that whole framework of understanding. He is hinting that the love of God will lead the Son of God to the ultimate sacrifice. Check out “on the third day” in a concordance and you find that the first occurrence of this phrase is in the passage I’ve quoted from Genesis 22. For the rest of the Bible the words are coloured by that association.   

The New Testament reinforces the connection between the binding of Isaac and the vocation of Jesus. At his baptism (the moment he is launched on his vocation) the voice from heaven speaks of him as “the beloved Son”. The voice of the angel preventing Abraham from going through with the sacrifice says:

Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me (Genesis 22.12).

Writing to the Romans about the death of Jesus, Paul deliberately echoes the key word “withheld”:

He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? (Romans 8.32)

The command to sacrifice Isaac is appalling – both inexplicable and unthinkable.

It is inexplicable. How can Abraham sacrifice the child of promise, the one given specially to him and Sarah in their late old age to fulfil the purpose of God to bless all the families of the earth? Sacrificing Isaac would undo the whole plan. It is also unthinkable. Child sacrifice was, and is, an abomination, to the covenant people of God in the Old Testament and to us today. What is God doing?

The New Testament accounts of the crucifixion are sparing in the amount of detail they devote to the suffering of Jesus. Nor is there much about the suffering of the Father. The story of the almost-sacrifice of Isaac, which is otherwise inexplicable, is given to us – I suggest – for reasons to do with the sacrifice of Christ:

  • It casts light on the cost to the Trinity of achieving the salvation of the world.
  • It demonstrates (this is Paul’s point in Romans 8) that, if God is prepared to go through with the horror of his Son’s sacrifice, we can trust him with everything and for everything.
  • It suggests that some of the experiences we may have as those seeking to be faithful to God may be very hard to understand. But one day, in God’s time, they will make sense.

Love Story #2

The love story of God for his world foreshadowed in the wedding at Cana begins (rather mysteriously): “On the third day…”.

What does this mean? Read the first chapter of the Gospel carefully and you discover that John is describing the opening week of Jesus’ ministry – the week when God launches the re-creation of his world. The “third day” is also symbolically the day of resurrection. Jesus was crucified on Good Friday and rose from the dead on the Sunday. Counting inclusively, Sunday is “the third day”.

The wedding at Cana is a foretaste – something like a movie trailer – of the gospel’s power to bring us back from the dead. Through Jesus, God brings hope in place of despair, life in place of death, transformation in place of failure.

For several years my son Nicholas and his wife Georgina were involved in Jackie Pullinger’s ministry with the poor in Hong Kong, in particular looking after discipleship houses of addicts and at-risk youth. What follows is one story of how they saw God at work. I will let Nicholas tell the story in his own words (some of the details have been changed to protect the anonymity of those concerned):

Ah Pang came from a poor family in China. He got into gangs and drugs at a young age and was in and out of prison from his teens. He was on and off heroin for about thirty years. He was deeply involved in the occult and demonic practices of Chinese religion. He left a trail of destruction behind him, including a number of children born to different women.

A few years ago, he and his girlfriend had a baby. One day, their one-year-old daughter ingested drugs that were lying around their flat and was taken into care by the government.

Ah Pang went to prison.

During that time, his girlfriend went to live in one of our houses for women in Hong Kong. She encountered Jesus, came off drugs and started to pray fervently for Ah Pang to come to know Him too.

While in prison, Ah Pang was given a copy of Jackie Pullinger’s book Chasing the Dragon in Chinese by a visiting pastor, which he read in his cell.

On getting out, he came to live with us. His initial motivations were to keep his girlfriend happy, and to satisfy the courts that he was making an effort at putting his life in order. But in the back of his mind was Jackie’s book, and the possibility that Jesus might be real.

He arrived in our house and was a complete nightmare; he was aggressive and disruptive. He mocked as we worshipped and shared communion and he antagonised the other men in the house. We wondered if he wouldn’t be around for long.

But as time went on, the Spirit began to fall on Ah Pang as he worshipped and read the Bible. For a number of months, almost every time he worshipped, he wept and wept as the pain and sin of decades of darkness was gently dealt with by Jesus. He was delivered and healed as he and those around him sang to the God who had saved them.

And gradually, through worship, and a desire to read the Bible in every free moment he had, Ah Pang started to change. He became softer, gentler and more present. Some of his patterns of old behaviour started to unravel. He made friends with guys who belonged to other gangs in their old lives. He began to break up fights rather than start them.  He discovered depths of fresh understanding as he read Scripture. Discussing the Bible with him became a source of joy.

As other addicts came into the house, he started to tell them about Jesus, to pray for them as they came off drugs, and to fight for them when they were finding their first steps into new life tough.

Of course, it wasn’t plain sailing. The day before Ah Pang’s baptism, with his characteristic cunning and wit, he managed to get hold of half a pack of cigarettes from a workman who was on our land to do some building work. Ah Pang shared out his booty and smoked the cigarettes on the roof of our house. The following morning, when we confronted him, after a little resistance he broke down in tears and told the truth about what had happened. It was miraculous that his heart could have softened so much in just a few months. This was the perfect prelude to his baptism.

I remember one evening, when everyone else had gone up to bed, I found Ah Pang quietly sweeping up in the kitchen. No one had asked him to do it and it wasn’t his turn. I realised as I watched him sweep that this was his worship. It was a simple sacrificial act of praise to the Lord for saving his life. From that day, cleaning became a special part of Ah Pang’s worship.

Every other week, I would drive Ah Pang to see his daughter in a government orphanage in Hong Kong. It was a grim drive through heavy traffic to a depressing municipal concrete building.

We were ushered into a room with other parents who, for whatever reason, also couldn’t look after their children. For an hour, the children were put in front of us. Most looked shell-shocked and confused.

Ah Pang had no idea how to be a father. How could he? He would shout at his little toddler for not learning enough English, or stuff her with sweets. His daughter didn’t know how to relate to him and would avoid being touched or making eye contact. Each week the hour dragged by.

But as the months passed, the relationship began to soften. As Ah Pang was fathered by God, he began to learn how to be a father himself. Instead of scolding his daughter, he did his best to play with her and to be present.

About eighteen months later, Ah Pang married his girlfriend on the land where we lived. It was a triumphant day of celebrating what God had done. He was surrounded by his new family of brothers and sisters who had witnessed his transformation first-hand. His ushers were mainly other guys who’d come off drugs and met Jesus in our houses.

Ah Pang and his wife and daughter now live in Hong Kong where Ah Pang works. They are involved in our congregation and continue to reach out to other addicts who need to know the love of God. Ah Pang still comes into our houses to help pray people off drugs.

Things are far from straightforward, and it’ll be a long road, but theirs is already a great story of redemption.

Identified

Identity is a big issue today: gender identity, identity politics… I remember when our children were teenagers they could tell you which tribe/clan a teenager belonged to by the shape of their jeans. Maybe you still can.

People scramble to construct identities for themselves. But how do you know if you’ve done a good job? What are the criteria of success? Can you switch identities? Is getting a new identity like getting a new job? It’s a frightening burden to bear.

There is another way.

The Gospel reading from the lectionary for this Sunday is John 1.43-end. Jesus is gathering a band of disciples. He finds Philip and tells him “Follow me”. Philip finds his friend Nathanael and tells him they’ve found the one foretold by Moses and the prophets: he comes from Nazareth. Nathanael is dismissive: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip persists: “Come and see”. Jesus sees Nathanael coming towards him and says: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom is no deceit!” Nathanael asks where Jesus knows him from. Jesus replies: “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you”. Nathanael is gobsmacked. He turns from cynicism to full-blown faith in one quick move: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

The theme of the readings for this season of Epiphany is revelation: Jesus’ identity revealed to the Magi, (that is, the Gentiles), to Israel at his baptism and, in this passage, to his disciples. But this passage is also about the revelation of a disciple’s identity. Jesus tells Nathanael who he really is. As far as Nathanael himself is concerned, he is a disillusioned and disappointed cynic. Maybe he has lost hope in the God of Israel doing anything to redeem the nation’s fortunes. Perhaps he has prayed for God to act and seemingly nothing has happened. He is on course for a life of quiet bitterness and futility.

But Jesus’ words about a true Israelite penetrate below Nathanael’s surface of cynicism to the hidden self which longs for truth. Jesus knows Nathanael better than he knows himself. Nathanael finds himself known by this strange man in a way which completely upends his world.

Paul tells the Galatians:

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. Now, however… you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God… (Galatians 4.8-9)

At first sight it’s a curious thing to say. Doesn’t God know everybody? What can it mean to be known by God? Eternal life, according to Jesus (see John 17.3), consists in knowing God and knowing Jesus Christ. True, but this passage suggests that it is also about being known by God. Only the Creator God can truly know his creatures. We are easily fooled about who we are. We take on false identities fed by our fears and fantasies or the imposition of other people’s expectations.

Creating one’s own identity is a precarious business. Receiving our true identity from one who truly knows us looks like a much better option. Jesus frees Nathanael from his cynicism and releases him to become the person he really is. He can discard his false self and find self-acceptance and self-worth in an identity which is given rather than constructed.

The example of Nathanael tells all of us that we can let go of the burden of trying to be somebody we’re not. Our identity is a gift from God to us which is also a gift to other people; entering fully into that identity is the gift we give back to God. On this foundation a life of faith is built. We can truly entrust ourselves to One who knows us fully, One who sees beyond our faults and flaws to our potential.

Religious people have the unfortunate reputation of seeing their role in life as sniffing out the bad in others. Jesus overturns that stereotype by focusing on the good in Nathanael – bypassing the cynicism to get to the real person underneath.

One of Jesus’ most frightening warnings (see Matthew 7.23) is that he will one day say to some who appear to have done amazing things in his name (performing miracles, casting out demons, prophesying): “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”

To be a disciple is to be known by Jesus. It seems we have a part to play in that, letting ourselves be known, sharing ourselves with him and inviting him into the shaping our identity.

Love Story #1

Living through a global crisis such as the present pandemic has paradoxical effects on faith: some people turn to God in a new way, some people turn away from God, and some people turn to God with new questions. One of these new questions is the old question about suffering: if God loves us, why does he allow this plague to afflict us? Why doesn’t he just put a stop to it? Instead of trying to answer that question I would like to refresh our appreciation of the love of God.

Christianity is a love story. It centres round the love of God – the love of God for us and the love that he seeks from us. 

The Bible itself is structured around weddings.  First comes the union of Adam and Eve in the opening chapters of Genesis, and then at the end of the last book of the Bible comes the marriage feast of the Son of God and his bride, the church.

In between these two – and providing the clue to how those two weddings relate to each other – is the wedding at Cana in Galilee recorded in John’s Gospel. Jesus is invited to a wedding, along with his very new disciples. In that culture weddings would often last for a week or so, which meant that the catering was a big deal. On this occasion the catering fell somewhat short and the wine supply ran out (perhaps because the host family was poor). Jesus’ mother, who was also a guest at the wedding, tells him about the problem and waits to see what he will do about it. His response is to produce a large quantity of the very best wine. This is his first miracle and the occasion when, according to John, “his disciples believed in him”. Apart from his baptism, this is his first public act and the launch of his ministry.

The wedding at Cana links the human marriage represented by Adam and Eve to the divine-human marriage of the book of Revelation. This is how it works. Jesus tells the servants at the wedding to fill the stone water-jars used for ritual purification with water, and then to draw some out and take it to the steward of the feast. The steward is so impressed that he summons the bridegroom to express surprise and delight that he, the bridegroom, instead of serving the best wine first, has in fact kept back the best wine until the guests are already a bit tipsy.

The bridegroom is responsible for providing the wine. What the steward doesn’t know – though the servants know and we the readers know – is that this time it is Jesus, not the bridegroom, who has supplied the wine. Because Jesus is the true bridegroom. The other Gospels make this explicit. Some people criticised Jesus for failing to make his disciples fast (fasting being common practice for the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist). Jesus responds:

The wedding-guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day (Mark 2.19-20).

Human marriage is a picture and a foretaste of the divine-human marriage. There will be no human marriage in the new creation, according to Jesus, because by then human marriage will have been superseded by the thing it was always pointing to: the union of God with his people.

Paul communicates the same understanding of marriage in his letter to the Ephesians. Talking about the duties of husbands and wives to each other he weaves back and forth between the love between the spouses and the love between Christ and the church. He can’t separate the two stories. He can’t do justice to human marriage without setting it in its proper context, which is the divine-human marriage which will be realized in the new creation. 

The Book of Common Prayer Marriage Service sums things up perfectly, describing marriage as:

… an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church…

Times of crisis can lead us to question the love of God. Putting the wedding at Cana at the front end of his Gospel, John tells us that the love of God is the point of the whole thing – both the starting-point and the destination of the story. And God’s love is not niggardly – it is fabulously generous. The happy couple and their friends are given at least 120 gallons (the equivalent of about 280 standard modern wine bottles?) of the very best wine.

Somehow God is working out his loving purposes, even in and through a pandemic.

Exodus Explored #2

In my previous post I began exploring Tim Mahoney’s “pattern of evidence” for the sequence of events leading up to, and following on from, the exodus of Israel from Egypt. I looked at the first three in the pattern: Arrival, Multiplication and Slavery. Now it’s time to examine the final three: Judgment, Exodus and Conquest.

Judgment

The Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage (a papyrus now housed in the Leiden Museum in the Netherlands) gives a vivid, poetic description of a series of calamities suffered by the Egyptian state and the chaos which resulted. The name of the author is Ipuwer. The standard chronology places this much too early to be a description of the plagues visited on Egypt, but the revised chronology advocated by Rohl and others would place it in the right time frame.

Ipuwer writes:

Exodus film screengrab: Ipuwer

“The river is blood… Gone is the barley of abundance… Food supplies are running short… The nobles hunger and suffer… Those who had shelter are in the dark of the storm… Behold, plague sweeps the land… Blood is everywhere, with no shortage of the dead… He who buries his brother in the ground is everywhere… Woe is me for the grief of this time… Wailing is throughout the land, mingled with lamentations… The people are stripped of clothes… The slave takes what he finds… Gold, lapis lazuli, silver and turquoise are strung on the necks of female slaves…”

Some Egyptologists think this is a purely literary composition, without historical foundation. One scholar is cited as dismissing any historical reference for the papyrus on the grounds that it contradicts itself: disaster sweeps the land but suddenly and inexplicably the poor start becoming rich. But this is precisely the feature of the papyrus which links it most closely with the exodus: God inflicts plagues on the native Egyptian population and the Hebrew slaves take the opportunity to ask for (and get) whatever they want (Exodus 3.22).

Exodus

Exodus film screengrab: bodies in pits

The excavation in Goshen reveals a time when bodies were tossed into pits without proper burial. Suddenly the Semitic population packed up and left. A similar patten is found further south at Kahun, where the inhabitants seem to have disappeared overnight. A scholar from the University of Manchester speaks of a “sudden and unpremeditated” abandonment.

A third century BC history of Egypt describes a foreign invasion leading to the collapse of indigenous Egyptian rule. The author says that “God smote the Egyptians” (not “the Gods”, but “God”). And the foreigners who invaded from the North conquered Egypt “without striking a blow”. How could this happen – unless perhaps Egypt had lost its army in the Red Sea?

Conquest

Jericho has been excavated three times: by Ernst Sellin in the early 1900s, by John Garstang in the 1930s and by Kathleen Kenyon in the 1950s. There are several features of the excavations at Jericho which match the biblical account (Joshua 6):

  1. The city was heavily fortified. The main city wall was made of mud brick 25ft high and 10ft thick. This was protected by a steep rampart. This in turn was protected by a stone retaining wall more than 15ft high.
  2. The mud brick walls collapsed, falling down to the base of the stone retaining wall.
  3. The city was massively destroyed by fire.
  4. The walls of the buildings within the city fell before the fire.

The excavations revealed a very thick burn layer, which Kenyon attributed to enemy attack rather than the fire which would naturally follow an earthquake. Garstang and Kenyon both found jars full of grain in the houses, suggesting both that the harvest had just come in and that, if there was a siege, it was very short. In the Jordan valley harvest takes place in spring. The biblical account suggests the attack took place during the spring, since it describes the Israelites celebrating Passover once they’ve crossed the Jordan river (Joshua 5.10-12).

Ernst Sellin’s report published in 1913 shows that some houses were built on the rampart between the main city wall and the outer stone retaining wall. These houses did not collapse with the rest. Was this how the promise to Rahab given by the spies to rescue her and her family (Joshua 2.12-14) was fulfilled?

Exodus film screengrab: Jabin tablet

Excavations at Hazor (another of the Canaanite cities destroyed by Joshua in the biblical account) again reveal a massive burn layer from the same date as Jericho. In the city’s palace a clay tablet was found displaying the name “Jabin” – Jabin was the King of Hazor at the time of the conquest (Judges 4.2).

Kenyon concluded that the city had been destroyed by the Egyptians around 1550 BC (too early for the exodus according to the conventional chronology). Others say there is no evidence of the Egyptians being in the Jordan valley at this period. A revised chronology would line up the destruction of these cities with the other elements in Mahoney’s “pattern of evidence”. You can access his film here.

I find it fascinating that there is this body of evidence adding up to something very like the biblical account of the exodus. But I must emphasize that this is highly controversial. Most mainstream Egyptologists strongly resist any revision of ancient world chronology.

Rohl himself could be viewed as something of a maverick. But mavericks and outsiders sometimes have a contribution to make, particularly when a long-established theory needs overturning because it’s no longer fit for purpose. Einstein was a bit of an outsider: in 1905, the year he called his annus mirabilis, he wrote four ground-breaking scientific papers which would change the face of physics. At that time, he was working, not in a university, but in obscurity as a patent examiner in Bern. Thomas Kuhn’s seminal book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions shows how science doesn’t always move forward by small evolutionary increments. Sometimes there are major paradigm shifts. Those who have invested their careers in the ruling paradigm will resist seeing it dismantled.

Giles Frasier has written in Unherd:

…when situations seem to require some sort of paradigm shift, the rules of the old order present a block on the emergence of the new.

GILES FRASER: UNHERD

Is it time for a paradigm shift?