Allan’s poetry

This is Michael, Allan’s son. Sadly, my father passed away suddenly on Sunday night. He is deeply missed, not only by family and church friends, but by the wide network of friends he made on the Internet, particularly the M.E. support group on Twitter.

This group understood this often misunderstood illness and supported each other with love. Dad often felt frustrated with how little he could physically do, but he was a (comparatively) tireless Tweeter; his deep love and desire to help gave him the strength to provide comfort to so many.

As well as the support from friends and family, his main source of strength was his Christian faith. He has blogged about that on here before, but I want to pay tribute to him here. His faith was constantly challenged, questioned and reaffirmed and he lived it out as well as any human being could. He knew his Bible so well and he lived a life overflowing with the love of his Saviour.

He also wrote poetry and I would like to share a few of his poems here about faith and M.E. I hope they bring comfort and hope to his fellow spoonies, princesses and friends. 
There will be no further posts from this account; I wish you all well and leave you with his words.

This is my body

May I never seek nor choose to be
            Other than you intend or choose

So if this body, struggling with M.E.,
            At the mercy of unpredictable signals
            From its central nervous system;
If this body is what you intend and wish for me
            Then do not let my sickness and disability
            Distract me from your love.

Though the cells in my body
            Do not produce enough energy,
Yet each cell is made from love, made of love
            And can still produce love.
I am from love, of love, for love,
            With every fibre of my being.

May I therefore:
            Love you with all my heart,
                         Though it beat erratically;
            Love you with all my mind,
                         Though it may stumble in fog;
            Love you with all my strength,
                         Though it may fail to do what I need;
           And love you with all my soul,
                         Which you have washed clean

This is my body, given to me;
             And so I give it back to you
             In thankfulness and joy.

(5th November 2011)


Love the Lord your God…

…with all your strength:
although that is very little,
when an hour’s activity
forces a next day’s rest;

…with all your mind:
although you struggle to concentrate
and you can’t take anything in,
and all seems like fog;

…with all your heart:
although it beats with palpitations,
or drops the flow of blood to the brain
and makes you faint;

…with all your soul:
when this is all that’s left intact,
which cannot be harmed by physical illness,
the still centre where you meet God.

I am called to love God with all of my being,
with all of M.E.

(24th October 2010)

Posted in Christianity, Faith, ME/CFS, NeuroME, Personal, Poems, Twitter | Leave a comment

Devolution or Independence?

It is with some trepidation that I offer this contribution to the debate over Scottish independence. After all, I am English by birth and ancestry (more specifically a Yorkshireman), and my home has been Wales for most of the last 50 years. So I do not have a vote in the referendum; but, as others have said, I do have a voice.

Just so you know where I stand: I am sure that if I were Scottish, I would be voting ‘Yes’. I think my heart would probably have said ‘Yes’ from the beginning, and my head would have joined in after reading the White Paper, “Scotland’s Future”, available here, which I believe shows that independence is a practical possibility.

Others will, of course, disagree; and the main impetus for this post comes from one such disagreement, in this case by Stephen Doughty, the Labour MP for Cardiff South, as expressed last week on the Labour List website. He suggests that:

“Devolution – not independence – is the right vehicle for ambitions of strong nations with a shared purpose.”

As an aside, I’m not sure how this might match up with the independence of the EU nations who have a shared purpose; however, this issue is certainly one worthy of consideration. It would be good to have a reasoned debate over the relative merits of these two approaches, as they might apply to Scotland, but if this has happened, I haven’t seen it. Instead, much of the ‘No’ campaign has played on the uncertainty of independence. Mr. Doughty is no exception:

“In stark contrast to the unchartered and abyssal waters of independence, we know what devolution delivers.”

Soe we have the uncertainty of independence versus what is ‘known’ about devolution. The problem is, it is very misleading to suggest that devolution itself is not uncertain.

To begin with, 15 years ago it was the good ship ‘Devolution’ that was about to set sail into unchartered and possibly abyssal waters, following the first elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. And uncertainty over what devolution might mean was just as much a feature of the ‘No’ campaign a couple of years before that as it is now. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that “we know what devolution delivers”.

But the real uncertainty is over the future of devolution, with the previous and potential future gains under threat in several ways. Here are some of the threats, in no particular order.

First, the devolved powers were granted by the UK Parliament, and could also be taken away or challenged by them. For example, in December last year, the House of Lords removed some of the Scottish parliament’s powers relating to renewable energy; and this year a Welsh Agriculture Bill was challenged in the courts. (The challenge was struck down, but it did cost taxpayers’ money.)

Second, the ability to exercise devolved powers is dependent on the funding available – which is controlled by the UK Parliament. This has already been cut as part of the UK Governments austerity measures; there are concerns that the privatisation of the English NHS may be an excuse to reduce equivalent Scottish and Welsh funding; and even suggestions that Scotland already receives too much.

Third, even if devolved powers are not removed, there have been suggestions which would reduce the ability of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly to use them fully. For example, Gordon Brown has suggested that the Scottish education system should be brought into line with the rest of the UK; and Andy Burnham has said that there should be more commonality regarding health services across the UK. How can devolution work if devolved areas are brought back under UK control?

Finally, although the main UK parties have offered more devolution if Scotland votes ‘No’, it is not clear what theis might mean, what extra powere there might be; and there have been recent suggestions from some prominent voices (e.g. Boris Johnson) that this might not happen at all.

So, can devolution continue to deliver for the people of Scotland and Wales? Who knows?

Both devolution and independence are uncertain; but there is a big difference in the nature of this uncertainty. Although the exercise of devolved powers is within the Scottish Parliament (and Welsh Assembly), the nature of those powers and the funding for them lies with the UK government, outside any reasonable control or even influence from Scotland (or Wales). Independence for Scotland would give more control to the Scottish Government.

In 1997 the people of Scotland and Wales voted to brave the uncertainties of devolution and take up the challenge of both the risks and the opportunites that this might bring. Will the people of Scotland do the same for independence?

Remember: a ship in the harbour is safe; but that’s not what ships were built for.

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Render unto Caesar

This is another postscript to my comments on the letter to the Romans in the #Rom2Rev Twitter reading group, before we move on to 1 Corinthians next week. I’ve tried to tweet or blog my own thoughts, whatever arises from the daily reading, trying not to rely too much on study notes, commentaries etc. It’s not completely possible, as any reflection may well be influenced by things I’ve read or heard in the past. However, I’m going to try reading a commentary after I’ve commented on the reading, to see if that gives any further insights – or corrections! To start with, I’m catching up by reading “Romans: a Shorter Commentary” by C. E. B. Cranfield.

There are some interesting thoughts on some of the areas I’ve had difficulty with (see earlier posts), and I may come back to these at some point. But for today, I want to think about 13:1. The NLT translates the first part of this verse as “Everyone must submit to governing authorities”, and one problem we have is how do we do this, or even should we do this, when those authorities are wrong.

Cranfield translates this as “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities”, and notes that the Greek verb translated as “be subject to” (NLT “submit to”) doesn’t simply mean ‘obey’; he says there are lots of other verbs for ‘obey’ that Paul could have used. He suggests that what Paul is saying, therefore, is simply that we need to recognise and live up to our obligation to the authorities and political systems under which we live. There may be limits to that obligation, but we can’t simply ignore it, as it appears that some of the Roman Christians were doing (eg refusing to pay taxes).

Cranfield also suggests that in a democracy, this obligation is wider than simply obeying civil laws; it means being active, voting thoughtfully, making our voice heard, challenging our leaders when we think they’ve got it wrong or are acting dishonestly. For some of us, depending on our calling, it may mean being a member of a politcal party, or even standing for office.

But this isn’t our only obligation. When Jesus was faced with a question designed to trap him whichever way he answered, he said “give to [traditionally ‘render unto’] Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” (Mark 12:17). As well as recognising and living up to our obligation to the civil authorities, we need to recognise and live up to our obligation to God. And in the same way, this isn’t just obeying a set of laws, but being active in God’s service and for God’s kingdom – of which we are citizens

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Rufus’ Mother

(This is a bit lighter than some of my recent posts. It’s a sort of postscript to my Twitter comments on Romans 16. All Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation, 2nd edition.)

“Greet Rufus … and also his dear mother, who has been a mother to me.” (Romans 16:13)

So, just when and how was Rufus’s mother like a mother to Paul? These thoughts are speculative, though I’m sure I’m not the first person to speculate in this way: I’ve seen some of the suggestions in study Bibles and commentaries, although none of the ones I have suggests all of this.

The only other time a Rufus is mentioned in the Bible is in Mark 15 verse 21, as one of the sons of Simon from Cyrene, who was the man forced by the Romans to carry Jesus’ cross. Matthew and Luke both mention Simon, but not his sons; and Mark actually says “Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus”. This is strange, at a time when people were normally described as ‘X son of Y’, and suggests that Alexander and Rufus were known to the early church, particularly to Mark’s original readers (and less so to those of Matthew and Luke?).

It is wisdely believed that Mark’s gospel was based on the teavhing and recollection of Peter, and Peter was associated with Rome. So it is possible that this Rufus was known to the Roman church, and therefore when Paul mentions a Rufus in his letter to Rome, it is the same Rufus, the son of Simon of Cyrene.

Cyrene was a city in North Africa, and one of the places where there were colonies of Jews, and also Jewish converts from the local population. People from Cyrene were present on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples (Acts 2:10): was Simon still there, having stayed since Passover? Were Alexander and Rufus with him?

Many of the people who saw and heard the disciples that day became followers of Jesus. And it was believers from Cyprus and Cyrene who went to Antioch and started preaching to non-Jews (Acts 11:20); so successfully that the Jewish church sent Barnabas to find out what was going on, who then brought Paul (still known as Saul) to develop the ministry.

And then we read “Among the prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch of Syria were Barnabas, Simeon (called “the black man” [Greek ‘Niger’]), Lucius (from Cyrene), … and Saul” (Acts 13:1). So, is Simeon Niger the same as Simon of Cyrene? Was he a native North African (hence ‘black’), a convert to Judaism, who then became a follower of Jesus?

This is, of course, speculation: but if it is true, then it is possible that Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross, was there in Antioch with his family – his sons Alexander and Rufus, and his wife, their mother. Is this where Rufus’ mother became like a mother to Paul? Did he actually stay at Simon’s house? It would be nice to think so.

And when Paul is writing to the Romans, perhaps, Simon has died, and his widow has gone to Rome to live with her son Rufus. So in his letter, Paul remembers all she did for him as a new Christian in Antioch, being “a mother to me”.

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Romans 11

(I’m taking part in a Twitter Bible reading group covering Romans to Revelation over the second half of 2014. Today (July 28th) is Romans 11, and my comments need a more sustained argument than is practicable on Twitter. All Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation, 2nd edition.)

“Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!” (v33)

Although it is impossible to fully understand God, we still need to try, and get as far as we can! But it means that any explanation we give can only be partial at best, and even runs the risk of being wrong. And maybe even Paul doesn’t get it completely right, or over-emphasises things, or puts things in ways we find hard. There are three things in this chapter that I struggle with; and I recognise that my own concerns may themselves be wrong!

“Has God rejected his own people, the nation of Israel?” (v1)

Of course not! But what does it mean to say that Iserael is God’s own people?

Paul is coming from a particular perspective: belonging to Israel, who saw themselves as a chosen race, a people who enjoyed particular favour from God. He is trying to understand why, if this is true, most of Israel has rejected what he believes to be a fuller revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and a new way of receiving righteousness and salvation. This has been the subject of chapters 9-11, and it finishes with what feels like a heartfelt sigh of incomprehension, that God’s ways are unfathomable.

Paul does see a greater good: that the Gentiles, non-Jews, people other than the nation of Israel, can also receive God’s righteousness and salvation. But, though the way he describes this may be comforting to Jews, I do wonder how an original Gentile audience would have felt. At times it seems condescending, even arrogant.

For example, he seems to suggest that the Gentiles were offered salvation through Christ only because the Jews rejected it: “They were disobedient, so God made salvation available to the Gentiles.” (v11) This is supported by Paul’s own experience, as he told the Jews in Antioch of Pisidia: “It was necessary that we first preach the word of God to you Jews. But since you have rejected it and judged yourselves unworthy of eternal life, we will offer it to the Gentiles.” (Acts 13:46)

Although there is some encouragement, it is the corollary that wories me: is Paul saying that the Gentiles wouldn’t have heard the word of God if the Jews had accepted it?

Paul goes on to describe Jews and Gentiles as branches of an olive tree – an interesting metaphor, and similar to one used by Jesus himself (the vine, in John 15). But Paul’s emphasis here is on the difference between Jews and Gentiles, in the nature of their branches: Jews being ‘original’ parts of the olive tree, and Gentiles grafted in from a wild olive “contrary to nature” (v24). Again, is Paul saying that the Gentiles weren’t supposed to be part of God’s olive tree?

This is not, of course, the whole story; elsewhere Paul is clear that there in the new relationship with God through Jesus “there is no longer Jew or Gentile” (Galatians 3:28). So once again, as I noted in my posts on chapters 3 and 9, Paul is (over-)emphasising just one part of the truth to make his point. In this case, the point is that, even though most Jews have rejected the message, there is still hope: “Did God’s people stumble and fall beyond recovery? Of course not!” (v11)

So, while I would agree that God has not “rejected his own people”, I think it would be better to take a wider view of who “God’s own people” are, and to recognise that God loves all of us equally, and does not show favouritism – a point that, to be fair, Paul does make in many other places.

“All Israel will be saved.” (v26)

But saved in what way?

“Most of the people of Israel have not found the favour of God they are looking for so earnestly.” (v7) But some have – and this seems to have always been the case for Israel, as Paul illustrates with part of the story of Elijah: when he thought he was the only one left, God told him “I have 7000 others who have never bowed down to Baal” (v4, quoting 1 Kings 19:18). This is the idea of the ‘remnant’, a small number of people who remained faithful to God in times of great trouble.

For Paul, the new way to be right with God is through faith in Jesus Christ (see 3:21-22), and I suspect that this is what he has in mind here, and the small number of Jews who have believed. But how could this apply to the remnant of 7000 in Elijah’s time, who had never heard of Jesus?

Earlier, Paul makes the point that being made right with God is a matter of faith, in the sense of trusting God, and is a consequence of God’s action. Although as a Christian I believe that this is mediated through Jesus Christ, I do not hold this belief exclusively. In particular, I do not believe that it is necessary to have such explicit Christian faith in order to be “saved”, nor that not having it means that you are not.

I think that Paul’s example of the remnant actually supports such a view. Elijah thought he was on his own, because he did not know about the 7000 – either because he had never met them, or possibly he hadn’t seen anyone else living in the same way that he did, and made assumptions. It is very easy for any religious group to set its own conditions, and to assume that ‘we’ are right and ‘they’ (= everyone else) are wrong. But this is a dangerous assumption to make.

The fact that the remnant in Elijah’s time was unknown to him means that we can never be sure who is in the ‘remnant’ and who isn’t; i.e. who belongs to God and who doesn’t.

So, while I believe in the possibility that “all Israel will be saved”, I don’t think it is down to Christians to determine the manner of that salvation, but that we should leave it to the greatness of “God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge”. This doesn’t rule out evangelism to those of other faiths, but means it becomes more of a dialogue, seeking mutual understanding.

“God’s grace … free and undeserved” (v6)

But how does God’s grace work? This opens up questions that I have explored before, in the post on chapter 9.

“Most of the people of Israel have not found the favour of God they are looking for so earnestly. A few have – the ones God has chosen – but the hearts of the rest were hardened.” (v7)

Paul is keen to emphasise the fact that God’s grace is “free and undeserved” (v6), but once again I think he goes too far in doing so, or at least leaves himself open to that interpretation. Verse 7 suggests that there are two groups of people: those whom God has chosen, who have found the favour of God, and everyone else, whose hearts have been hardened. This appears to make God’s choice completely arbitrary, and perhaps pre-determined; and even to suggest that God actively prevents some people from coming to him. The quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures that follow this verse reinforce that, saying for example that God “has shut their eyes so they do not see, and closed their ears so they do not hear.” (v8, based on Deuteronomy 29:4 and Isaiah 29:10 – but again with different contexts than the original)

If this were all that Paul had to say on the subject, I would find it very worrying. But fortunately it is not: “God … is severe towards those who disobeyed, but kind to you if you continue to trust in his kindness” (v22). This is part of the metaphor of the olive tree, and goes on to give a warning and a hope: “But if you stop trusting, you also will be cut off. And if the people of Israel turn from their unbelief, they will be grafted in again.” (vv22-23)

This means there is an element of human action, decision, or at least attitude, in relation to whether God is ‘kind’ or ‘severe’ to us. It also means that the ‘chosen’ may become ‘unchosen’ and that those with ‘hardened hearts’ may be ‘softened’. Paul’s earlier categories are not fixed and unchanging in terms of their membership.

So, while I believe that “God’s grace … is free and undeserved” (v6) – because all of us have sinned (ch5), and still sin (ch7)! –  I do not think it is arbitrary, or that we can be complacent. To return to the potter / clay metaphor of chapter 9, I think that it is right for God to be angry if the pots (us) don’t turn out the way he wants, but I also think that ‘turning out wrong’ isn’t because God made (or chose to make) us that way, unlike lifeless clay. We all have the potential for trust or disobedience, and that potential is with us all our lives.

Reviewing this post, it feels quite negative towards Paul and this chapter of Romans. But I could not be true to myself if I did not express my struggle. My concerns may be right or wrong, but they are mine; others may disagree with my conclusions, or even my questions.

And to end on a more positive note, this chapter is really about the potential for salvation – for all of us, if we “continue to trust in [God’s] kindness” (v22):

  • because of God’s grace, free and undeserved;
  • not because of belonging to a privileged people;
  • not by adherence to a specific set of doctrines;
  • not through an arbitrary, pre-determined decision.

“For everything comes from [God] and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. All glory to him forever! Amen.” (v36)

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The Potter and the Clay

A lump of clay is placed upon the wheel;
Initially it could be anything.
The fingers of the potter mould and feel,
And gradually the end result begins
To take its shape. But beautiful or plain,
This is the potter’s choice and not the clay’s.
If it goes wrong, the potter starts again,
Has no-one else to take the blame or praise.
Dumb clay cannot complain, or even speak:
So if God is the Potter to our clay,
Are we completely helpless, silent, weak?
Or, once created, can we dare to say
What’s on our mind, and try to understand
How free will complements the Potter’s hand?

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Romans 9

(I’m taking part in a Twitter Bible reading group covering Romans to Revelation over the second half of 2014. Today (July 24th) is Romans 9, and my comments need a more sustained argument than is practicable on Twitter. All Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation, 2nd edition.)

I have to admit that I struggle with some of the ideas expressed in this chapter, but I suspect I’m not alone. This post will explore that struggle, and perhaps some of it may help others in a similar struggle. Once again, I apologise that it is longer than most of my posts.

My starting point is verse 15: “God said to Moses, ‘I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.'” There are quite a few good things here:

  • It emphasises the nature of God: mercy, compassion, love. Paul is quoting from Exodus 33:19, where God is offering to show Moses this nature.
  • It reinforces the point that Paul has been making in earlier chapters: that being right with God is a result of God’s action, God’s decision, and not something we can earn by our behaviour.
  • It shows God’s favour is not limited to the Jews, the children of Israel, again something that Paul has mentioned and will emphasise again later in this chapter.

But however good this is, it raises a darker question: does this mean that there are people to whom God does not show mercy and compassion, and if so on what basis? In this chapter Paul suggests that the answers are ‘Yes’ and ‘because of God’s choice, decision, even predetermination’.

Paul uses two examples to illustrate this:

  • Esau and Jacob, the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah, where “before they were born [Rebekah] received a message from God … ‘Your older son will serve your younger son'” (vv11-12, quoting Genesis 25:23). In fact, it can be put even stronger: “‘I loved Jacob, but I rejected Esau'” (v13, quoting Malachi 1:2-3; some translations have “hated Esau”)
  • The Pharaoh who refused to let Israel go, and suffered the plagues: “God told Pharaoh, ‘I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you'” (v17, quoting Exodus 9:16). Again, Paul puts it even more strongly: “God … chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen.” (v18)

Is this really how God works – a God of mercy, compassion, love? Does God really decide before people are born whether they are going to be good or bad? Does God really raise someone up just for the pleasure of knocking them down? Does God really harden people’s hearts so that they don’t have a chance to listen and repent and receive mercy? Could Esau and Pharaoh have acted differently?

I don’t want to believe in a God who acts in this way. Paul seems to recognise the problem – or at least acknowledges that it’s a problem for some people: “Well, then, you might say, ‘Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?'” (v19) Yes, I might well say this.

The trouble is, when Paul introduces someone else’s argument, it is usually to knock it down, and this is no exception: “Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, ‘Why have you made me like this?'” (v20). He goes on to use the analogy of a potter making different jars of clay for different purposes.

I think there are two things wrong with this:

  • First, human beings are not lifeless pots. A pot cannot complain to the potter, but a human can challenge God – and they frequently do, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: the book of Job, several Psalms, even Abraham himself (Genesis 18:20-33).
  • Second, if God makes us for particular purposes, I think it is wrong if God then criticises us for not being different. If a potter makes a plain pot “to throw garbage into” (v21), it is ridiculous if the potter then smashes it just because it is not decorative.

So what can we make of Paul’s argument? The notes in the Study Bible I use simply say that this is how it is: that God has absolute sovereignty; that to say or suggest anything else diminishes our view of God; that if we deny this we are assuming that we are in full control of our lives. But taken to its extreme, this idea suggests that we are merely robots mechanically carrying out the instructions written by the divine Programmer. I think that this ignores the reality of free will, that there are choices we can make; and that it actually diminishes the freedom of God in relation to creation.

The relationship betweern God’s sovereignty and our free will is a complex one, and cannot be resolved simply by referring to these verses. But I don’t think that we can simply dismiss them; we need to understand why Paul uses this argument. Perhaps one approach is to recognise that Paul tends to emphasise some aspects of Scripture to make a point; in chapter 3, for example, Paul quotes several verses which say that all people are wholly sinful, ignoring other verses which suggest otherwise.

Is he doing the same here? This argument is part of Paul’s discussion on why most Jews have not accepted the gospel message. Part of this is to say that this should be expected: physical descent from Abraham does not by itself guarantee acceptance as ‘children of God’ (v 8), just as neither does trying to keep all the requirements of the law (v31, and in earlier chapters). Paul suggests that this rejection is itself somehow part of God’s plan – an idea he will return to in chapter 11 – so his use of Esau and Pharaoh as examples and his potter analogy simply emphasise this point without trying to say it’s the whole story.

So I finish where I started: “God said to Moses, ‘I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.'” (v15). Perhaps our emphasis should be to rejoice when we experience this mercy and compassion, and not limit God’s choices. Even Paul moves on in this chapter from the ‘bad news’ to rejoice in God’s compassion for all nations.

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