Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Hardy's Tess

Amongst the books I'm reading currently, one of the most interested has been 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles' by Thomas Hardy. My Dad protests whenever Hardy or his books are mentioned. I invariably hear the words 'depressing', 'morose' or something similar uttered, before discovering that he hasn't actually read Hardy in quite some time. In fact, whilst Hardy novels are known for their sadness and somewhat depressing bent, they are also full of beautiful portrayals of rural England, exquisite tenderness (in the case of Tess) and fascinating character studies.

All to say that, I thoroughly recommend him.

Yes, ‘tis true that he will, in someone's words 'tug at heartstrings you never knew you had', but his novels are glorious. If you're a fan of the English countryside, they are a feast for the imagination, as Hardy lovingly describes in full colour the area of Wessex where most of his novels are based. Not only that, but in some ways Hardy is thoroughly contemporary in his concerns. In Tess, Hardy rages against the superficial moralism, self-righteous pietism and injustice of his day. At the heart of Tess, Hardy is wrestling with what makes someone innocent, guilty, and who is to blame. Perhaps most striking is his understanding of who God is. There is no triune God of love and fellowship here, only a 'First Cause' who watches as dispassionately as Hardy watches tenderly. Hardy's critique of late Victorian moralism is damning, portrayed as a fusion of morals and a sense of social superiority based on class upbringing.

Some of what Hardy critiques is no doubt true; who and what decides innocence or lack of it, what is sin and who is to blame. The despair felt by Tess, ‘all is vanity’ she sighs, chimes with the sense of futility we find in Ecclesiastes (which I’m studying with Dave Bish at the moment). On the other hand, a medieval scholastic understanding of God has replaced the triune God Yahweh. Just shows the damage when we start from ‘unmoved Movers’, rather than the Trinity.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Pray then like this...

John Bunyan defines prayer as:

"a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Spirit, for such things as God has promised, or according to his Word, for the good of the church, with submission in faith to the will of God"

With such a great privilege before us, why do we (read 'I') struggle so much? So often, my prayers are distracted, apathetic and I feel as if I've given God a 'shopping list'. If this is you, then I want to recommend Richard Coekin's recent book 'Our Father: Enjoying God in Prayer'. One of the joys of Relay with UCCF is we are given a number of IVP books during the year. This is the first I've tackled and finished (two very different things!). And what a book!

'Our Father' draws you back to considering God, setting our sights on who he is; his name, his purposes and his grace to us. The book's simplicity is found in that it takes us back to the 'Our Father' as a basis for praying. Each chapter focuses on a verse from the prayer, teaching us what it means and how we could pray this in on a daily basis.

Easy results are not promised, but the book’s advice to learn from the prayer that Jesus taught couldn't be more straightforward to put into practice. In praying through the prayer, we are drawn first to consider God's character, his name YHWH and his goodness to us in Jesus Christ. We then are committing ourselves to his kingdom's extension, to his will in our lives and the world. So straight up, shopping lists are dispensed with! And then in the second half of the prayer, we see how to depend on our Father for every need we have, confident in who he is and his character.

So buy the book, and enjoy God in prayer.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

God's revelation, Scripture, Bibliodolatry

Recently I've been listening to Mike Reeves on Revelation (the doctrine of). It's been personally challenging and heart-warming to see how God reveals himself. Much of it has fed into some thoughts I've been having on the place of apologetics and reason, faith and the self-authentication of Scripture. These are issues which directly impact on the way we evangelise and defend our faith, as well as how we aid struggling Christians and those who doubt.

Another thread of thought which Mike picks up on is the thoroughly Trinitarian nature of God's revelation of himself (what else?). Notably, how God the Father is perfectly revealed through the Word of God who is Christ. This Word of God (Christ) is then revealed perfectly through the Word of Christ which is the Scriptures. This understanding of Scripture as God's revelation of himself avoids two errors; bibliodolatry (didn't know this word existed until yesterday), or treating Scripture lightly. The former is the mistake of the Pharisees in In John 5. They search the Scriptures as an end in themselves, but refuse to come to Jesus. We can be in danger of the same - using the word but ignoring the Word. Avoiding the second error comes when we understand that it is through the Scripture that we do know the living God. The Bible is so precious because through it we not only know about God, but we know God! A point made spectacularly by Packer in 'Knowing God'. Go Read!

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Genesis 12: The call of Abram, Egypt and my great-gran’s Genoa cake

God’s command is comprehensive and daunting in Genesis 12: leave your land, people and loved ones behind (v1). Would we do that? This call on Abram to leave behind what he holds dear comes with a promise though: God says he will Abram a great nation, to bless him and make him a blessing to others; in fact, to all the families of the earth. God's command This call on Abram in the early chapters of the first book of the Bible is the beginning of God’s plan to ultimately bless all nations in his Son, Jesus Christ. The great commission, to ‘make disciples of all nations’ is Jesus’ command for us to continue in working with God's plan. The promise which is begun here in Genesis 12 is one that we are a part of by God’s grace today!

Abram has left his land, his people, but God promises him even more. I wonder if I trust that promise of God → that if I’m asked to give something up for God, it is for my good? The promise of Romans 8 is that for those who love God, all things work together for good. This story is an illustration of that promise. Do we suspect God of short-changing us? We shouldn’t, he is a God of lavish grace.

Abram still has lessons to learn though; afraid of being killed for being the husband of Sarai, he makes her pretend to be his sister. What happened to Sarai in Pharaoh’s household we’re not told, but God’s promise of the seed holds as he protects Sarai. Pharaoh is afflicted by God, and gives Sarai back to Abram, ordering him to leave. Why doesn’t the Lord chastise Abram for his lack of faith in lying about his relationship with Sarai? Maybe it has to do with the seed of the women getting victory over the serpent?

What an amazing chapter showing the LORD’s promises and how he keeps them.

Recipe: this is my great-grandmother’s recipe for Genoa cake. I can tell you from experience that it’s tasty! It felt appropriate given this chilly weather and the Christmas lights on Exeter’s highstreet.

Great-Gran’s Genoa cake

6oz butter
6oz soft brown sugar
4 eggs
1/2lb self-raising flour
4oz sultanas
3oz glace cherries
5oz currants
grated rind of half a lemon
1/4 lb chopped peel (optional)
1 tablespoon of milk
3oz sliced almonds for the top
1 tsp mixed spice if you like it

1. Beat the butter and sugar to a cream (light and fluffy).

2. Add the eggs one at a time, beating till stiff. You can add a little flour with each egg to stop the mixture from curdling.

3. Add all the rest of the ingredients and the milk and mix well. Turn the mixture into a greased and lined tin and bake in the oven at Gas mark 2 for approx 1 1/2hrs.

Enjoy when cooled! Unlike heavier richer Christmas cakes, this can be enjoyed straight away. I think it might be making an appearance at December team-days ☺

Thursday, 19 November 2009

What is this scripture doing?

In the last few months of Relay, I've been struck repeatedly by the subtle misconceptions I have often brought to Bible study. The word 'study' is partly the problem. I associate it with intellectual study (but very little action) and my degree. But again and again, I've been reminded that Bible study is simply not meant to be an intellectual exercise. A few days ago I chatted to one pastor whose analogy is very helpful. If I told you that the building we were in was burning down and you nodded and continued with what you were doing, you would not have understood because you did nothing about it. Similarly, when we approach the Bible, intellectual assent is not enough, because really understanding the passage will lead to something happening, a response taking place.

For that reason, we need to always be asking, 'what is this scripture doing?' Of course, this only comes with having grappled seriously with its meaning first, but mere comprehension would miss the point. I'm thinking about that at the moment as I study Colossians 1v15-20. This fantastic paragraph about Christ's attributes could easily turn into a listing exercise. The challenge is to draw out our worship, praise and encouragement as we gaze on Him.

Noah, the flood and chocolate courgette cake

So after his father’s prediction that Noah will bring relief, it is Noah alone who finds favour in God’s sight. The LORD is sorry that he has made man, but Noah is righteous and walks with God. He alone gets to enter the creation after the flood. Noah is the one to receive a renewed commission to be fruitful and multiply. But this time God is fully aware of the heart of man, which is ‘evil from his youth’.

Even so, fallen humanity still bears the image of God, and so when one kills another, there must be payment in blood (9v4). God makes a covenant with Noah to never cover the earth again with a flood. What a faithful God! In spite of what a mess humanity has already made, and the LORD’s own admission of man’s sinfulness, he is still going to be intimately involved with his creation.

The results of the presence of sin are seen almost immediately, as Noah gets drunk on wine and then curses Ham for seeing him naked. A man sinning with fruit, once again.

The LORD’s involvement with his creation is the focus of the tower of Babel (ch11). This bid for independence and glory in the skies is so different to Abram’s faith in following God’s call on him in the chapter 12. Whilst the builders in Babel say “come,…let us make a name for ourselves”, God says to Abram, “I will bless you and make your name great”, and with that comes a promise of being made a great nation…

This week's recipe - Chocolate Courgette Cake

I made this for Dave Bish my supervisor and Brian our staff-worker when I first came to Exeter. I think they were mildy dismayed to be told what it contained...

Don't be put off - it DOESN'T taste of courgette. Like carrot cake, the courgettes add moisture.

Serves 6-8
115 g butter
2 eggs
125 ml vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
300 g sugar
4 tbsp cocoa
350 g flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
125 ml soured milk (just add a teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice to regular milk!)
200 g semisweet baking chocolate, chopped roughly
2 small courgettes, grated

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F and grease a large baking pan.
Cream the butter and sugar together. Once they are creamy, gradually add the eggs, vanilla and oil.
Blend or sift the dry ingredients together in a separate bowl and gradually add to the butter mixture.
Then slowly blend in the soured milk. Add the chocolate pieces and grated courgette.
Bake for 40-50 minutes or until a knife inserted into the cake comes out clean.
Enjoy hot from the oven or let cool and devour later.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Genesis 1-5 and Chocolate biscuit cake

As part of doing Relay we get the exciting choice of an elective study component. I decided to do a read-through of the Old Testament. Partly because I feel I'm pretty sketchy when it comes to a lot of it, and partly because the idea of 'reading' the Bible more like a novel, chunks at a time, appealed to me.

(see for more details on reading the Bible).

I’m writing this as if sharing my thoughts with a student. It’s a mixture of ‘ah ha’ moments when I see echoes of the Gospel, key themes that emerge, and Jim Walford’s favourite: “shockers and blockers”.

My first point is simply that we see Adam and Eve choose self-determining knowledge, rather than life, in chapter 3 of Genesis. Chapter two tells us that the tree of life was ‘in the midst of the garden’ – surely they would have noticed it? Maybe they did, but the serpent points them towards the tree of the knowledge of good and evil instead. In any case, it’s with this tree of life in mind that God removes them from Eden. The tree that once could have been theirs to feast on, is now the reason they are removed.

Along come Cain and Abel, and with them murder in the family. It’s only as Adam and Eve produce another son, Seth, that people begin to ‘call upon the name of the LORD’. So as the line of the seed begins again, people are turning back to God.

The only two in the next section who ‘walk with God’ are Enoch and Noah. The first is taken by God at the relatively young age of 365. Lamech, Noah’s father, predicts that he’ll bring “relief...from the painful toil of our hands”. Sounds remarkable like the opposite of the curse in chapter 3, where Adam is cursed to toil painfully. So already when Noah is born, we have a preview that his birth means something special.

This week’s recipe - chocolate biscuit cake

With the added addition of fresh ginger this recipe hits the spot, yum. For any budding bakers out there who are afraid of making ‘real’ cakes, this is one that is very easy but sure to impress.

Chocolate Biscuit Cake

150g plain chocolate chopped
150g butter
2tbsp golden syrup
225g semisweet biscuits – e.g. digestives, crushed
thumb sized piece of fresh ginger, peeled and diced very small (like garlic)

1. melt the chocolate with butter and golden syrup in a large bowl over a saucepan of water. Add the ginger and stir well.
2. When all is melted, removed from the heat and stir in crushed biscuits. Add any dried fruit (cherries, raisins, apricots) now if you so desire.
3. Spread into 23cm tin, lined with paper, flattening with the back of a wooden spoon.
4. Refrigerate for a couple of hours till set or freezer for 45 minutes. Cuts into 16 pieces