Wisdom: My review of Jill Firth’s Honoring the Wise

. Sometimes wise, sometimes provocative, and sometimes surprising, Honoring the Wise displays the depth of influence the Hebrew Bible has on Christian thought and behaviour.


Jill Firth & Paul Barker, editors, Honoring the Wise: Wisdom in Scripture, Ministry, and Life: Celebrating Lindsay Wilson’s Thirty Years at Ridley, Wipf and Stock 2022.

281 pages + 25 pages Introduction

Paperback ISBN: 978-1-6667-3647-2
Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-6667-9480-9
eBook         ISBN:  978-1-6667-9481-6

Paperback from $45, Hardcover $70. Kindle $11

Reviewed by Ted Witham
(first published in Anglican Messenger, July 2022)

Old Testament scholar The Rev’d Dr Jill Firth, a former West Australian, with her colleague Paul Barker at Ridley College in Melbourne, has produced this splendid collection of 18 essays to mark Lindsay Wilson’s thirty years as a teacher of Old Testament at Ridley.

Dr Wilson’s central area of scholarship is the Wisdom literature in the Old Testament, and the title, Honoring the Wise, reflects a wide scope: some of the contributions are specifically on Wisdom texts, others honour Dr Wilson as a wise teacher and scholar.

Honoring the Wise is structured in five parts: Wisdom as Narrative, Wisdom in the Writings, Wisdom in Prophecy, Wisdom in Preaching and Teaching, and Wisdom in Life.

As with all collections like this, some chapters appeal more than others to the reader. I was intrigued by Andrew Judd’s exploration of Judges 19 – an obscure horror story for most of us – and his insistence that this fable-like story is an invitation to seek wisdom and to infer better ethics in a society where there is a king, and where Levites behave with wisdom.

According to Judd, “We are invited to sit with the wise and observe the messiness of reality, with all its ambivalence and discontinuity; to get on top of it, take counsel, and then, only then, to speak out.” (26)

Dr Firth’s own contribution on finding relational wisdom in the book of Jeremiah concludes that “In his prophecy and confessions, Jeremiah comes to know God through apprenticeship, questioning, dialogue, and lament.” (58) This fourfold pattern suggest a workable framework for helping Christians come to wisdom in a world where there is conflict and pain.

Ridley College’s biblical theology has a strong reputation both for its academic rigour and its evangelical flavour: here you will find, for example, a consistent belief not shared by all scholars of the Hebrew Scriptures, that the “whole Gospel” is contained in the Old Testament. This collection of essays will appeal to all who wish to be refreshed and challenged in their understanding of the place of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The book has a striking cover by Victorian artist and theology graduate Dr Anne G. Ellison.

The publisher’s insistence on American spelling in a book showcasing Australian scholarship irritated me.

Honoring the Wise deserves an audience wider than the Ridley community and broader than evangelical Christians. Sometimes wise, sometimes provocative, and sometimes surprising, it displays the depth of influence the Hebrew Bible has on Christian thought and behaviour.  

Practicing Peace: Michael Wood’s new book


270 pages
ISBN 9781666735307
Paperback $45, Hardcover $60, Kindle $11.99

Michael John Wood, Practicing Peace: Theology, Contemplation and Action,
Wipf & Stock, 2022.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Michael Wood’s eloquent new book aims to show how the non-violent practice of peace arises directly from God’s nature: God is love, and so we are to treat each other and all creatures lovingly.

The Rev’d Michael Wood, former Chaplain to The University of Western Australia, and a long-term priest in the Diocese of Perth, has written Practicing Peace as a handbook for peace-making, using, among others, the insights of Open Space Technology.

Practicing Peace emphasises the New Testament concept of a Christlike God; that God is in every way a peacemaker as was Jesus himself. Wood writes the clearest exposition I have read on René Girard’s theory of mimetic rivalry. We reflect the desires of others and want what they want, creating a conflict between people that can be overcome by ‘recognizing and releasing’ the conflict.

The second part of Practicing Peace is a handbook for peace. We engage in contemplative practices in order to shine a light on our own disoriented desires. We then listen to each other to create an agenda, share assessments of the situation and options for a more peaceful way forward, and commit to trying those options, a process Wood calls ‘collaborative emergent design’.

While the theology of Practicing Peace is profoundly Christian, the insights into peace-making can be used by any people of good will.

Each section of this book is written with a beautiful clarity and is summarised in a series of appendices and charts which turn the declarative theology into useful visuals. An extensive bibliography rounds out the book. West Australians will note references to local authorities and activities – like salsa dancing at Scarborough Beach!

Michael Wood’s book contains much for Christian leaders to mull, and more importantly, practise! All Christian leaders including clergy in formation and clergy in parishes will find here a way of Christlike leadership that will attract others to the dance. I wish I had this wise book when I served parishes and a not-for-profit!

Practicing Peace is a profoundly hopeful book. ‘Imagine the church,’ Wood writes, ‘as constituting an international academy for peace, focused on the Christlike God, shaped by contemplative prayer, and practicing the art of dialogue. This could be a small contribution that Christians could make to the world.’ (223)

Practicing Peace is itself a substantial contribution to a more peaceable world.

A Spectre, Haunting: Communism and the Christian today

A Spectre, Haunting is above all a masterly commentary on Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto, written with humour and compassion.


China Miéville, A Spectre, Haunting: On the Communist Manifesto, Head of Zeus, 2022

ISBN 9781803282244

Paperback from $29, Kindle $13.19

Reviewed by Ted Witham

For most bourgeois (and I have to admit to being bourgeois), becoming a Communist is a taboo, a step too far. Even for one with progressive politics, the idea of throwing out the whole system by which society governs itself, and starting again, is too, well, too revolutionary.

China Miéville is an English writer I look out for. His fantasy ‘steam punk’ novels explore the use of power and the experience of the underclass. His writing has vigour and joy, so A Spectre, Haunting appealed to me because of its author. If nothing else, it would be well written.

Miéville himself is active in socialist and communist circles in England, so his commitment was no surprise. A Spectre, Haunting is above all a masterly commentary on Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto, written with humour and compassion. The book includes the whole text of the Manifesto and Engels’ prefaces to later editions. It is rounded out with a comprehensive bibliography.

Miéville assures us that Karl Marx was the main author of The Manifesto. The central problem that Karl Marx discerns is that too much wealth is in the hands of too few. In order to create a fairer society, in which everyone has enough and has opportunities to develop themselves, that 1% must be divested of its money and power, so that all can benefit: a commonwealth.

The French Revolution, say Marx and Miévelle, did not go far enough. It replaced the nobility’s hold on the bulk of the wealth in favour of the bourgeoisie. The paysans and the urban poor still missed out.

The difference today is that the wealth is held not only by Queen Elizabeth II and the Sultan of Brunei, but also by Elon Musk and Rupert Murdoch, bourgeois capitalists who, like their royal forebears, have no intention of sharing!

So, the solution to the inequality Marx discerned in 1848 is still the same in 2022: replace the hegemony of the capitalists with government by the workers and the underclasses. Miéville claims that Marx was not idealistic about this. The working classes still need to grow into that role, because as exploited human beings, they have been conditioned by the rich capitalists into the view that they do not have the capacity to build a fairer world.

In 1848, a year of aborted revolutions, Marx whimsically described communism as ‘a spectre, haunting … [a]ll the powers of Old Europe.’ The Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Thirty-three years later, communism still seems to be a spectre, haunting the globalised world. Though technically dead, its persuasive analysis of capitalist society and its attractive vision of a world where everyone has enough to flourish, still sits in the back of our collective mind.

As Christians, we have a love-hate relationship with Communism. Our analysis agrees with that of Marx: that the greed of the very rich robs the poor of a dignified life. But we are suspicious of Marx’s non-violence. We know, right from the Cross, that non-violence resistance usually provokes the violence of the system, however, my reading is that The Communist Manifesto is too ready to condone that violence.  

Maybe China Miéville, writing so compelling about the revolution, will be part of a movement to bring the haunting spectre back to life. Given the ravages of capitalism, we should arise, because ‘we have nothing to lose except our chains’.

Peace Be Upon You


‘Peace be Upon You’: Doubting Religion

A sonnet (2016) on what Thomas saw.


Behold, the blemished Lamb of God, and scarred
with unhealed woundings of the nails and spear,
Thomas seeks to know what it was that marred
pure God to now mutilated appear.


Thomas had seen his rising power before,
No question that God could raise the son of Nain,
But why upend complete Prophets and Law
and accept a sacrifice of bloody stain?


And then he saw altar priests cutting throats
and the violent contest of sacred police,
then the deep purpose of the Bible’s quotes:
to bring violence to an end with world’s peace.


The end of religion flashed before Thomas:
in faith and love alone the godly promise.

  • John 20:24-31
  • Luke 7:11-17

The heart of God


Read Wisdom 6:1-11

“He will search out your works and inquire into your plans.” (Wisdom 6:3b NRSV)

Deep under Duke University in a series of fluorescent-lit rooms, lies a whole different world. If you enter from the Divinity School library and take the elevator down to these “stacks”, you wander from room to room. Eventually, you leave the Divinity School library and meet the subterranean rooms of the main University library. In total, the Duke libraries contain 6 million volumes.

On a few occasions, I spent an afternoon searching for books and journals in this lower world. Because it is so vast, I found myself losing my orientation. I was drawn more and more deeply into the search: from this book, to this author, to this journal, to this Dewey number. It was a totally immersive experience: I felt pleasantly swallowed by the library.

As Christians, we seek the same immersive relationship with God, not necessarily through books, but through our lives, reflection on Scripture and conversations with fellow believers. We are drawn more deeply into who God is, experiencing more fully God’s love, God’s joy and God’s compassion for ourselves and others. We even experience a sense of dislocation, like wandering in the underground parts of Duke Library, never quite sure of the God who is ultimately beyond our understanding.

The writer of Wisdom reminds us of the surprising truth that this deep searching is reciprocated. Not only do we have the opportunity to search into the depths of God, but God searches us out and “inquires into our plans”. God loves us so dearly that he wants to know us through and through, intimately and passionately. God immerses Godself in us, roaming in our lives and tenderly exploring each part as he finds it. And as God discovers more and more who we are, so God’s searching love transforms this, then that, aspect of our lives. 

As we search the depths of God, and God searches our depths, so we become more like God, forgiven and free to be loving, joyful and compassionate.

God is open to our searching. God invites our immersion in God’s life. God rejoices in our deepening understanding of his nature. We too must decide to open ourselves to God’s searching, knowing that there is no part of us that God cannot redeem, and knowing too that God is determined to know as and to transform us.

Thought: God seeks to know us so he can love us more deeply. We seek to know God so we can love God and all God’s creatures more deeply.

Prayer: Open our hearts, God of Wisdom, and come into our lives and change us into your glory. Amen.

The edited post as published in the Upper Room is at https://www.upperroom.org/devotionals/en-2022-03-26t

The house was filled with the aroma


Sermon

St Brendan’s-by-the-Sea, Warnbro

Audio. Click here: https://1drv.ms/u/s!AgoC2q3M9ML7803XvIWbhWu5p3Rq?e=u9KBHk

Lent 5, April 3, 2022

The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John.

Glory to you, Lord Jesus Christ.

John 12:1-8

12 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them[a] with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for a year’s wages and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it[c] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

Hear the Gospel of the Lord.

Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.


In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

One of the amazing things about dogs is their sense of smell. Some scientists say that their smell is between ten and one hundred thousand times more sensitive than our ability to detect odours. A vast portion of a dog’s brain is given over to interpreting smell. By contrast, our dominant sense is sight. We make a picture of the world based on what we see; a dog’s world is constructed from smells.

You can tell I’ve been watching the program on ABC-TV about dogs!

Even so, for human beings, smell can be overwhelming If there is a strong smell, it seems like it is everywhere around us. As a child, I remember the eggs our chooks laid on the farm. We couldn’t use all of them at once, so we smeared them with Ke-Peg and put them aside for later… sometimes too much later. When you crack open a rotten egg, that nasty smell of hydrogen sulphide, rotten egg gas, fills the whole space. You can’t get away from it. And molecules of hydrogen sulphide stick around in the nose, and even when the rotten egg itself has long gone, hours later you can still smell the gas.

An all-pervasive smell like rotten egg gas gives us a little idea of what a dog’s smell is like.

This morning’s gospel begins and ends with the stink of death. One thing we remember from when Jesus arrived to raise Lazarus from the dead, he had been dead four days and ‘there was a stench.’ (John 11:39 NRSV)

The smell of death, of decomposing bodies, is one of the smells that you can’t escape. It’s everywhere in the place where you are. It sticks to your clothes. It lingers in your nostrils for hours. It is a distressing smell. To add to the nastiness of the smell, the circumstances when we experience that smell are likely to be disturbing in themselves. This smell is an occupational hazard for palliative care nurses and first responders – and clergy too!

We all obviously want to stay clear of that smell. We bury or cremate the dead before they begin to smell. It’s hard to stay in the presence of the stench of death. It’s hard even to talk about this smell – or to listen to me talk about it! And it may have been hard for Lazarus’ friends to stay near the resuscitated Lazarus – they would recall that smell.

At the end of the gospel reading, we return to the smell of death – Jesus’ death. The place where the Romans crucified people must have smelled like an abattoir. There was blood and gore, fear and vomit. There were the bodies of those crucified in the preceding days. Gruesome, awful. A place to stay away from, to avoid at all costs.

It’s difficult enough to think about it, let alone be there, as were Mary the Mother of Jesus, and John, and the other Mary and just a few other disciples. Only a few could stick it out. Death produces a horrible stink.

But could there be a perfume, a pleasant smell, strong enough to counteract the smell of death? Mary thinks so. She spreads half a litre of spikenard, Sweet Cecily, some call it, on Jesus’ feet. It’s a huge amount of perfume, costing about $60,000 in our money, a year’s wages. And scholars think Mary and her family were not rich. Martha herself is serving the meal, not a slave. They couldn’t throw money around. 300 denarii was a lot of money.

She rubs the ointment into Jesus’ feet with her hair, releasing even more aroma. John tells us, ‘The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’

It’s an extraordinarily generous gift.

 And think too about foot-washing at a dinner. Mary could get to his feet because Jesus was reclining Roman style; his bare feet were sticking over the end of the divan. But people in the Middle East washed their own feet. Only slaves would wash someone else’s feet.

So, Mary washed Jesus’ feet, taking the part of a slave. She washes them with a hugely expensive ointment and wipes his feet with her hair. So, Mary’s love for Jesus starts so close, so intimately, and expands to fill the very air itself.

Because that’s what this story is about. The extraordinary story of a man raised from the dead, and the extraordinary love of the man who raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus really does bring life. And Mary, for one, gets it. She realises how extraordinarily generous Jesus is as he shares his life – with Lazarus, with Mary, with everyone. Life is a precious gift, and the one who gives life in abundance is a precious giver.

In that light, Mary’s anointing of Jesus with expensive perfume makes sense. Mary responds to Jesus giving life to her family by pouring out to Jesus her love and gratitude.

This morning’s Gospel recalls Moses saying there is a choice. We can choose life, or we can choose death. (Deuteronomy 13:19).

Think of Judas. John paints him as greedy, a liar, a traitor and a hypocrite. Judas’  thinking about giving is back to front: Judas thinks that giving money to the poor proves you love them. It doesn’t.

But loving the poor and expressing that love by giving money or clothing or food or opportunity, that’s the way to life. That’s the choice that Jesus affirms.

Mary, unlike Judas, chooses life. She thanks God for his goodness by spreading love around; love for Jesus first; love that comes from the depth of her heart, love that tries to match the overwhelming generosity of Jesus towards her. We can choose life. We are one of those at table with Jesus, sharing communion, so our choice is clear.

We love.

Our culture teaches us to hold back, not to give too much of ourselves away. It teaches us to hold back by judging others, instead of just letting them be themselves in Christ.

Our culture believes there is a finite supply of love and if we give away too much love, we will run out. But Mary shows us that the opposite is true: that if we give love, it will spread and multiply. Like Mary we can love generously, love from a full heart, love without borders, without judgement, just let our love for Jesus spread and ‘fill the whole house.’

Saint Paul writes, ‘And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.’ (Ephesians 5:2 ESV). Just imagine the combined aroma of our grateful generosity to Christ. This church would become an even more beautiful place, a beloved community…

 ‘For we are the aroma of Christ to God…’  Saint Paul again. (2 Corinthians 2:15 ESV)  We are already that aroma, so let us continue to spread love so powerfully that not only dogs can detect it, but human beings cannot help but experience our love, God’s love, permeating the world.  

****

The print of Mary anointing Jesus comes from the
Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

Prayer in Time of War


Prayer in Time of War

Can you breathe through spreading pain?
Can you bear the suffering again?
Can you bleach the blood-red stain?
Can you stop the rape of Ukraine?

Can you dull the loins of those on heat for war?
Can you block their guns as you’ve done before?
Can the hope of peace-talks cry, ‘No More!’?
Can fiery minds change their very core?

God, so implement the love of Calvary,
Your eirenic Spirit blast the fighters free,
Caress the world with mastery,
Your love that heals painstakingly.

Transfigured

Our face completely mirroring his features.


Paul Claudel, Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Mark (Mk 9:2-10)

Transfiguration:15th Century ikon, Theophanes the Greek, Gallery Tretiakov

Mark 9:2-10

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

  • New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

………………..

“Let us go up to Tabor with him: Jesus is ready. The host is going to be elevated for an instant, we come to the heart

of the Sacred Mysteries.

The perfect man in the Christ fulfils his perfect

appearing,

And by themselves, his feet are separated

from the earth.

The grain is hard, the grape is swollen, it is summer. The time has come when God at last crowns

His entire creature.

Human beings are perfect animals, Jesus is the

consummate human being,

Every living form in Him attains His paragon

supreme.

His clothing becomes like snow,

his flesh shines like light.

The Law and the Prophets suddenly appear in his

presence.

Like the iris where the sun is reflected, and like the Son

when the Father is present:

“You are my well-loved Son to whom I have given my

consent.”

Do we understand that at this moment our Brother

has changed us?

His face, his eyes, – his heart; – his feet that

we have touched?

Our face completely mirroring

His features.”

  • Paul Claudel, Poetic Breviary, Paris, LGF, the “Livre de Poche” collection, 1971, pages 153-155.
  • Translation : Ted Witham tssf, 2022
  • Paul Claudel (1868-1955) was a French Roman Catholic playwright, poet, exegete and diplomat.

Never war


Make love, not war.

Make love, not war.

Make love, not war.

This is the first and great commandment – at least, as it applies to nation-states and other tribal entities.

We have been so quick to fall victim to the narrative of Ukraine the victim and Russia the aggressor. We prayed this morning at church only for Ukraine. Even if it is the simplest case of Ukraine: victim and Russia: aggressor, Russia still needs praying for. We pray for its leaders that they stay their hand, that they make love, not war.

But we know the situation is more complex than Ukraine: victim and Russia: aggressor. That may be a summary of the politics, but there appear to be some in Ukraine wanting war, wanting to show how great the Ukrainian resistance will be. There are Ukrainians hiding trembling in the Metro and there are Ukrainians actively hunting Russians as ‘the enemy’.

And in Russia, think of those braving the Kremlin and protesting in the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg against their leaders. Think of the Russian legislators compromised by their allegiance to Russia and their reluctance to be the aggressors. Think of those in Putin’s inner circle who he has bullied into support for the war. And Putin himself: He is a brutal dictator, but does he not need prayer too?  He is a human being.

It’s complex, as all human relationships are complex.

So, I protest. I protest about praying for Ukraine as if the ‘blame’ is all on Russia’s side and not on both. I protest that our support for Ukraine is so easily subverted into supporting Ukraine’s war effort.

War can never be the answer. Even the great prosecutor of war Winston Churchill said, ‘Jaw-jaw is always better than war-war.’  

We need to pray. We do. So, let us pray for all caught up in this conflict. And above all, let us pray for peace.

Caravanning around

…extremely funny and bitingly serious about the state of the arts in Australian society.


Wayne Macauley, Caravan Story, Melbourne: Text, 2012 (2007)

ISBN 9781922079121

208 pages

Paperback from $15. Kindle $11.96

Reviewed by Ted Witham

The humour is Australian; the settings are banally Australian. There is a lot to like in this savage satire by Melbourne writer Wayne Macauley. Caravan Story was his second novel.

Wayne Macauley

Since the original publication of Caravan Story in 2007, Macauley has published The Cook (2011)and Simpson Returns (2020). A book of stories Other Stories was released in 2011. He has received a number of prestigious prizes for his writing.

In Caravan Story, the writer, ‘Wayne Macauley’, wakes up one morning in a caravan being towed away. The destination is a country town on the footy oval turned into a caravan park.

He finds himself in an oval full of artists, carted here by the Government. They are instructed to make themselves useful members of society. They are fed and housed while they create.

The painters and the actors soon find ways of turning a dollar, but the writers are unable to be so enterprising. Their writing efforts are collected, but it turns out that the rejection slips have already been written. The plot shows ‘Wayne Macauley’ and his partner escaping home from this crazy world of disillusion, and on the way is extremely funny and bitingly serious about the state of the arts in Australian society.

As a writer, I revelled in this book, both for its questioning of the ‘usefulness’ of poems and stories, and for the loving attention to the details of footy clubs, high schools and caravan living. But it is a book for people other than writers, simply to have a laugh at Governments’ total incomprehension of the arts, and the importance of writers, and all of us, to ground ourselves, to have a place that is ours — a home.