Friday, December 07, 2012

Being a Blessing

I'm currently reading 'The Story we Find Ourselves in' by the somewhat controversial Brian McLaren. It's written in a style that the author calls 'creative non-fiction', but I prefer to think of it as 'intelligent fiction with a message.' I'm only a third of the way through, very much enjoying the dialogue between the Jamaican radical Christian known as Neo, the ex-charismatic agnostic Kelly, and the cheerful atheist Glenn. What all three have in common is that they have PhDs in sciences.

The style of dialogue in the book is discussion, questioning, and the gradual unfolding of the overall 'story' of Scripture, which is how Neo claims that it would originally have been understood by the story-telling Jewish culture in which it was written. It's all thought-provoking, and the fictional style makes it entirely possible to agree strongly with some points that are made, while being unsure about - or even disagreeing with - others.

Today I was struck powerfully by some comments about Genesis 12:2-3. God chose Abraham, who is in a sense the patriarch of all the three main monotheistic religions of today.  He chose him not because there was anything special about Abraham, and not for the sake of granting him 'eternal life' - something which would not really have been an issue in the culture of the day.  He chose Abraham 'to be a blessing'. In some translations it's even more direct - God tells Abraham that he must be a blessing. The command is not just to bless his own family, but so that 'all the families on earth' would be blessed.  Another word for 'families' is 'nations' - the two modern English words were covered by the same concept at the time.

Fast forward a few thousand years, and Jesus said something similar, when asked by his disciples what the greatest commandment was, in Matthew 22:34-40. Love God, and love our neighbours, Jesus said. Every other command, rule or requirement is subsidiary to those two principles. I wrote at length about what is meant by love in another post, but a further thought emerges: we are in a relationship with Jesus  primarily in order that we can show God's love to other people. Not his anger, or his judgement, but his love.

Something else Jesus said, in John 15:16-17 also makes a lot more sense in this context. Some Christians understand the words 'You did not choose me, but I chose you...' to imply that we have no choice in our salvation; that some people are 'chosen', and some are not. But that's not what Jesus says. The rest of that short passage tells his listeners - and by implication all his followers through the ages - why they were chosen: 'to bear fruit' and 'to love one another'.

God is our Creator. He made the world and the first people so that they could continue the creative pattern he programmed into them.  Apple trees bear apples, cats bear kittens, humans bear babies. And when we are chosen and thus given 'blessings' by God, we are to bless other people, introducing them to God's love, bringing them also into his kingdom.

What does 'blessing' mean? 

Blessing is rather an old-fashioned word, one which sounds vaguely to me like a benevolent old man laying his hand on his grandchildren's heads, as a gesture of good will and approval. It's also used as a Christian jargon word to mean gifts from God - maybe a cheque in the post, a promotion at work, an unexpected meeting with a friend. We might use it in more general terms too, to refer to good health, warm homes, happy families. Unfortunately, as with so much modern Christian jargon, the original meaning can get lost in our 21st century western context.

In Brian McLaren's book referred to above, there's some discussion about what 'being a blessing'  meant in the phrase given Abraham. Eventually the participants agree that it means 'to try to help, to bring resources, to encourage, to believe in, to support, to affirm, to have a high opinion of.' In summary, Neo suggests, it means 'to express love and support'. He points out that despite it being an age of kingdoms and battles, God does NOT tell Abraham to go out and conquer all the surrounding regions, nor does he tell him to force people to follow his commandments.

There was a comment after my post about love, mentioning a quotation attributed to Billy Graham: 'It's God's job to judge, the Holy Spirit's job to convict and our job to love'. I would suggest that God's 'job' primarily is to love too; it saddens me deeply when some people seem to see God as someone rubbing his hands, hoping to condemn sinners to eternal torment. However, the point of that quotation is that ONLY God is able to judge other people. So, it seems to me that our role is primarily to reflect his love outwardly, and 'bless' all those with whom we come into contact.

How we actually do that in practice will depend on our personalities, our circumstances and our abilities.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

The Problems of being a Bookworm...

It all started when someone posted an image on Facebook, which said: "Bookworm Problem no. 37: Pronouncing a word incorrectly because you've read it hundreds of times but never heard it said aloud." There was much discussion about words which I and some of my friends did indeed misprounounce for years: allies, meringue, superfluous, hyperbole, indict, epitome, vaseline... and many more.

Another important question then arose: If that is problem number 37... what are the other 36?

So, in an idle moment, and with help from a friend to bring the total to 40, I compiled this list. Much (though by no means all) of which is based on personal experience.

Beginning in the elementary/primary school years...

1. You believe that ‘reading aloud’ in the early years is a slow, sounding-out process that has no relation to real reading

2. You regularly lose the ‘correct’ place when doing group reading at school, because you are reading so far ahead on your own

3. You take more notice of what fictional parents say than your own

4. You regularly bump into lamp posts or trees because you were reading while walking

5. Your family hunt all over for you, and you don’t hear them calling because you’re up a tree, deep in a book

It gets worse during the secondary/high school years...

6. You believe completely in Middle Earth and Hogwarts, but sometimes wonder if China really exists

7. Your family panics when you vanish from sight for hours in a large and rambling second-hand bookshop

8. When you are assigned a classic for English homework, you're disappointed to find that you have already read it, probably more than once

9. You break up with your girlfriend/boyfriend because she/he isn’t interested in your favourite authors

10. You have to catalogue your books carefully or you forget which ones you already have

11. You have no idea what to give someone for their birthday when they don’t want any more books

12. You can’t actually figure out what is meant by ‘not wanting any more books

13. You teach your young siblings the alphabet: A for Austen, B for Brontë, C for Coleridge, D for Dickens...

14. When you play Scattergories, you can find about twenty authors for any letter, but struggle with many of the other options

15. You can find all the bookshops in any town, but have no idea where restaurants are

16. Your friends call you geeky because you know so much

17. You’re puzzled when acquaintances don’t get the literary references you use automatically

18. You emerge, starry-eyed, from the end of a wonderful book only to discover that it’s morning, and you never went to bed

19. You are mystified when someone asks what you collect. Books, of course.. what else is there to collect?

20. You get depressed when you learn that around 200,000 new books are published every year in the UK alone, and you realise that you can never catch up

Adult life begins, but the problems of being a bookworm only multiply... 

21. You get into your first ever fight with your parents when you’re leaving home, and can’t agree which are ‘your’ books

22. You need new clothes, but books are a much higher priority

23. You forget to reply to your emails because you're too busy reading

24. You buy a Kindle so as to save space, and now you have a large collection there, but you still keep acquiring real books too

25. When you completely run out of shelf space, you don’t think of getting rid of anything - you have to buy a new bookcase

26. You become disillusioned, because nobody in real life lives up to your favourite fictional heroes/heroines

27. The only websites you ever visit are Amazon, Abe, Waterstones, Play and The Book Depository 

28. You frequently miss a bus stop or train station because you’re so engrossed in a book

29. You become frantic when the final book in a series is out of print and you can’t find it anywhere second-hand

30. You feel sad but remote from real life disasters, yet cry your eyes out after reading about Beth March/Walter Blythe/Dobby

Even when you have settled down with a job, house, and/or family, the problems continue... 

31. When you run out of room for bookcases the only option is to move to a bigger house

32. You take a job abroad for a few years, and fill all your boxes with essential books... then realise you have to take some clothes too

33. You can find obscure reference books in a few seconds, but have no idea where you keep the basil and thyme

34. You spend hours online when you should be doing something else, trying to find a copy of an obscure book you vaguely recall from your childhood

35. An old schoolfriend reminds you about a teacher, and you don’t remember if it was a real one or someone from a school story

36. You forget an important meeting with your boss because you’re so absorbed in a book

37. You pronounce a word incorrectly because you’ve read it hundreds of times but never heard it said aloud

38. You can't imagine getting rid of your 30-volume 1980s encyclopedia to save space, even though you know it’s out of date, and quicker to find things out online

39. Visitors worry that your marriage is in difficulties because you have 27 books about marriage on your shelves

40. You never get round to actually doing anything other than reading, because for any new interest or hobby you first have to acquire and absorb several books on the topic