I don’t know what your reaction was when you heard the news that Fr. Jacques Hamel had been brutally killed. Two terrorists had entered his Normandy church as the much-loved priest conducted Mass, seized him and callously filmed his last moments

My own reaction was more muted than it might have been.

Shock, horror, anger even, should have come across me when I heard the news. Instead I felt empty and resigned, as if I had somehow been expecting it.

Perhaps my senses have been dulled by what has become seemingly a near daily occurrence of one atrocity after another.

It is, after all, only six weeks since the life of Jo Cox was brought to a tragic end. So much has happened since her death that it seems a lifetime ago:

Unprecedented political turmoil in our own country, a failed coup in Turkey, 84 killed in Nice as they celebrated Bastille Day, 9 murdered in Munich by a man who saw the fact that he shared Hitler’s birthday an honour, numerous bombings in Kabul claiming the lives of hundreds, in Baghdad a new type of bomb killed almost 300, the largest loss of life there in a single incident for over a decade, shootings across the United States, the list goes on and on. All in the space of six weeks.

It is understandable if some of us have become desensitized to atrocity.

Last week the Pope repeated his claim that the world is at war. To have said so in Poland is poignant. It was on Polish soil that a significant part of the greatest crime in human history was perpetrated by the Nazis and their accomplices.

The Pope’s claim that the world is at war could, I believe, have been better phrased. World war conjures up aerial combat in the skies above us, tank squadrons battling it out on vast landscapes and ships seeking to avoid detection by submarines.

No, this is not what we are facing today. Instead we are facing a wholly new form of conflict, drawn out, sporadic, erupting in unexpected places, conducted by those whose minds have been won over by warped and even evil ideologies.

A Global Conflict is underway, that is for sure, and we cannot avoid it.

The killing of Fr. Jacques is one more incident among many. The circumstances of his murder could impact upon us because we can so readily relate to it. Our churches have an open door policy at times of worship; all are indeed welcome, even those who would visit trouble upon us.

Fr. Jacques has now joined a growing list of martyrs, slain as they went about God’s will.

What happened in Saint Etienne du Rouvray last Tuesday has been happening throughout our world century after century and especially so in more recent years. To say so is to not diminish the tragedy, nor to excuse the perpetrators, perish the thought; but it is to recognize that what has been happening elsewhere for so long is now on our doorstep.

The clash of ideologies that has been waging for decades is now erupting on our own streets and in our own places of worship.

It is not a war between nations, it is not a war between East and West, nor is it a war between Christianity and Islam; it is far more complex than any of those scenarios, though there are many of course who would like to make it that simple.

Donald Trump being one such character. In this he shares more in common with Osama Bin Laden than he would ever admit: a simplistic world view, where the world is divided between the ‘goodies’ and the ‘baddies’, between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and the longing for a world whose population is uniform in belief, where the alien, the ‘other’ is removed or even eradicated.

In this they share the same mind-set as Hitler.

But before we fall for the same mistake and begin demonising those with whom we disagree, we must pause and consider how we react to the different among us.

Because some of the terrorist attacks are carried out by those who claim to be inspired by Islam there is a temptation to view Muslims as a threat.

A Muslim acquaintance of mine was staffing an Islamic exhibition and she was welcoming people to the event. A non-Muslim man walked in and began casting glances on the floor near the tables.  She asked if she could be of help.  He said that he was looking where she kept the bombs.  ‘Oh I am sorry,’ she responded, ‘if you don’t find any let me know and I’ll pop round the back and get you one.’

The killing of Jo Cox was not by someone inspired by the Koran, but by someone whom it is alleged to have been inspired by right wing, racist, white supremacists, someone who perhaps felt that the MP’s stand for refugees was enough for him to end her life.

Many MPs, especially women incidentally, are receiving death threats, one being Luciana Berger who happens to be Jewish. As a consequence she is often singled out for particularly vile abuse. To date, two men in separate incidents have been jailed because of their attacks on her.

Those that would divide us are seeking to encourage us to hate.

They carry out atrocities in an attempt to get us to respond.

If we were to respond by treating a whole race, or religion or people with suspicion, fear and hostility our enemies will have achieved what they set out to achieve: division and a breakdown of society thus destroying all that makes us great.

They must not succeed. They will not succeed.

Why? Because we are resilient people.

Our faith makes us resilient.

Our faith tells us that all people, no matter what the colour of their skin or the creed they profess are the children of God, children made in God’s image.

We are brothers and sisters, one family under heaven.

The teaching of Jesus was interpreted over the centuries by a Church seeking to make it fit the context in which that Church was set.

Our religion has never stood still.

But there is a core to the teaching of Jesus that can never be changed; it is a message that has stood the test of time, it is one that has on occasion challenged the Church to think again, to be better than it had become.

And it is a message of love.

Despite being a letter written for the Early Church with all its complexity and contradictions 1 John hits the spot like few others:

‘Whoever loves is a child of God and knows God.’

That has been the foundational text for my faith since my first sermon as a twenty-one-year-old way back in May 1981.

‘Whoever loves is a child of God’ – no matter how they may name God, no matter how they may voice their prayers, no matter how they may express their identity, everyone who loves is a child of God. In the love they have for their partner, in the love they have for their new-born child, in the love they offer their neighbour, colleague or indeed the love they put into their work, their love ensures that they are unmistakably a child of God.

And whoever loves knows God; for God’s love is alive in their own. How else can we explain love? True love?   The love that makes sacrifices? The love that persists in the most challenging of places and times? The love that says no matter how much you hate me I will love you in return, and go on loving you, come what may?

 How else can we explain such sacrificial, persistent love?

We can’t, unless it is of another being than our own and that being is God alone.

The God who is uniquely revealed in the life of Jesus, but not solely revealed.

If incarnation means anything, God coming to earth and alive in human flesh, then it is this, that every single human being has the same potential, to live and die in oneness with God.

We will never know what was going through the mind of Fr. Jacques as he knelt that last time at the altar and realised he was about to be killed.

Nor should anyone presume to know or dare to guess.

But I sat and wondered what words I would hope to remember should such a time befall me. And I couldn’t help but think of these:

What language shall I borrow

to praise thee dearest friend,

for this thy dying sorrow,

thy pity without end?

Lord, make me thine for ever,

nor let me faithless prove;

O let me never, never

abuse such dying love.

 

Paul Gerhardt (1607 – 1676)

 

 

God, who’s Spirit brooded over the waters of creation bringing order out of chaos,

descend upon those places
where fears rise, threatening to overwhelm all in their path,
and where the tide of hatred is turning into a flood;

so that waves of love may wash over all who feel
overlooked,
threatened
and without purpose.

Restore our respect for one another and our confidence in the future;

give us clear guidance and courage to live according to the wisdom of truths and grace,

and bring
us,
the communities in which we are set
and indeed the whole human race into a just peace. Amen

Addiction is bad.

Addiction is bad for addicts and bad for those about them.

When we think of an addict we might think of a drug user or an alcoholic.

I believe we are all potential addicts.

Whatever our age, no matter where we are on our faith journey, however seemingly secure our lives appear to be it is possible for each of us to become, if we haven’t already been, an addict.

We may broaden our view by thinking that some of us are chocoholics and make light of this form of addiction.

Or that we can’t get through the day without a regular intake of coffee or tea.

When we can’t get through the day without eating, drinking or doing something lest it damage our sense of well-being then we are addicted.

And we begin to realise that the stereotypical image of an addict is inadequate.

Psychology Today offers us a helpful definition of addiction:

Addiction is a condition that results when a person ingests a substance (e.g., alcohol, cocaine, nicotine) or engages in an activity (e.g., gambling, sex, shopping) that can be pleasurable but the continued use/act of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary life responsibilities, such as work, relationships, or health. Users (addicts) may not be aware that their behaviour is out of control and causing problems for themselves and others.

In the light of this definition I wonder how many of us can honestly say that we have never been addicted to something at some point in our lives.

The father of modern western philosophy, René Descartes is often quoted as saying ‘I think, therefore I am.’ It was for Descartes the concluding sentence to a lifetime’s quest for something that could not be contradicted.

We exist and we only know this to be so because we have the capacity to think.

The reason for our being is to think, and to think is to engage in a search for meaning, to identify purpose for our lives and even our world.

Descartes was writing almost 400 years ago.

If we were to ask today what our reason for being is my guess is that in our part of the world many would suggest ‘to engage in pleasure.’

They might rewrite Descartes, I enjoy, therefore I am.

For many, once self-indulgent pleasure is taken out of their existence then there seems little or no point to life.

Which is why I fear that ‘assisted dying’ is the tip of a very large iceberg and once legal permission is given to end a person’s life unnaturally then that which has been below the surface will rise and become more evident. Assisted dying has the potential to get out of hand and many who would not fit into the first category granted permission to ‘die with dignity’ will soon be pleading their case; they might argue ‘Life is no longer worth living because it is no fun anymore please end it.’

It is little or no consolation to suggest to those for whom life is a real struggle to make ends meet, or indeed to the rising generation that happens to be the first to not have the prospects of a better lifestyle than their parents, but it is nevertheless true, that we live in an age of entertainment.

From the beaming of live sporting events into homes or public spaces, to the streaming onto our tablets and phones the latest films, comedy programmes or documentaries, for those who can afford to do so of course, we clearly live in an age of entertainment.

Our forebears would be utterly amazed.

And speaking of phones, I confess that my Blackberry is my own addiction.

For Christmas Karen bought me a little book ‘101 Things to do instead of playing on your phone’.

I regret to say this but I have yet to do any of the 101 exercises.

Addicted? Too true I am.

There is the little story of the woman at the meal table saying that she is going to strap her partner’s phone to her forehead because then he would look up at her.

Addiction is bad.

It is also more widespread that we might imagine.

The first step towards a more holistic life is the recognition that our lives are broken.

Someone said we will never break out of prison until we realise we are locked up.

If we are to be truly free then we have to acknowledge that we cannot stay where we are.

Change has to come.

If addiction holds us back then overcoming it has to be our priority.

Our brains might tell us that we need x, y or z to be truly fulfilled: eg coffee to get us through the day, alcohol to help us relax in an evening, a particular habit that gives us a thrill and so on but it was the Beatles who highlighted our fundamental need when they made popular the phrase ‘All You Need is Love’.

Once this is recognised then the possibilities are endless

There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done. Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung. Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game.

Nothing you can make that can’t be made. No one you can save that can’t be saved. Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time.

Nothing you can know that isn’t known. Nothing you can see that isn’t shown. Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.

Lennon & McCartney

For those whose minds are addicted to a substance or an action it would seem that love is not all they need but their need is all consuming, their need is all they love, all they crave for, or something for which they may even lie, cheat or even steal for.

For Jesus, as a religious, faithful Jew, and therefore rooted in the Jewish tradition, it was daily bread that was sufficient. Nothing more.

‘Give us each day our daily bread.’

For Jesus, the daily provision of God, presence and potential, is fulfilling enough.

Unfortunately the original meaning in the Lord’s Prayer may be stunted by the English translation.

The term ‘daily bread’ may mean today’s needs or tomorrow’s needs, or both.

It could be then translated as ‘Give us sufficient for our basic needs today and tomorrow’.

Which is why both our traditional and modern forms of the Lord’s Prayer that we so often recite and as printed in our hymn books are so misleading.

‘Give us today our daily bread’, is inaccurate.

The NRSV which I quoted earlier more accurately translates Luke’s version as ‘Give us each day our daily bread’.

Knowledge of ongoing, future provision calms the fears far more than if we were to think of that provision as simply sufficient for today.

We come to appreciate that God will provide for us not just today but every day, for we know there to be an endless supply of God’s goodness, God’s grace.

Those who have dwelt in a valley of despair and struggled to a mountain top where they might breathe again and survey the journey they have undertaken are truly blessed with the knowledge that God is a providing, resourcing, faithful God.

We who have been there, when the night seemed too dark for light and we somehow managed to rise on a morning that had once seemed too far off know that there is no need to look elsewhere for our thrills; for God is both provider and promise.

That is not to say we should live in a thoroughly austere, puritanical world where there is no entertainment, no colour, no joy, no thrills.

But we should find in the things that thrill us the presence and provision of a loving, grace filled God.

If what we seek for our entertainment becomes an addiction that diminishes our health and well-being, undermines our covenantal relationships, or destroys the work we undertake then we have gone beyond that which God ever intended for us.

When those who first heard Jesus include the term ‘give us each day our daily bread’ they couldn’t help but recall that God had provided manna in the wilderness. This, of course, was bread not made by human hands but miraculously granted to the people in their time of great need. It was beyond their ability to even provide for themselves such was their situation but God could be trusted to resource and to save them.

As we look across our world today, at a time that is quite possibly the most traumatic in many people’s lives, we may not be too confident in the human response.

  • More people on the move than at any time since the Second World War.
  • A resurgent Russia threatening the borders of our European allies and even once again testing the limits of our air defences.
  • Climate change rendering us impotent in the face of impending ecological catastrophe.
  • Political leaders seemingly at a loss as to what to do.
  • And so much more that unnerves even the steadiest of souls.

In all of this we are who we are, you and I.

We are where we are, with sufficient resources we have at our own disposal, to live the life God intended for us.

It is a life not without challenge, that’s true; but nor is it a life without joy.

It is a life that can both thrill us and help change the world in which we are set.

For if it is a life lived in the full knowledge of God’s presence and provision, it is one that is both exciting and worthwhile.

On the face of it Christianity and Socialism have a lot in common. One former General Secretary of the Labour Party, Morgan Philips, put the case clearly when he said that the Party owed more to Methodism than Marxism. Each of these worthy causes, a commitment to social justice, an equitable distribution of wealth and a recognition of the value of both the individual to the corporate could be as attributable to the Christian Church as to the socialist movement. Where we may part company is on how these things might be achieved and what the source of our inspiration is.

For the Church, of course, it is the Divine will that acts as a catalyst for change. We believe that God has called the people to undertake a programme of self-sacrifice. We are called to establish a community that has at its core mutual respect. We seek to express a love that is difficult to articulate in words but evident in deed. The community we endeavour to build is all inclusive, one that is hospitable even to the stranger with whom the rest may profoundly disagree.

For the Church, realising that community is by way of a pragmatic path. And the journey is necessarily a very long one indeed.

Where Socialism has so often failed is that it has proffered a programme of change via a quick revolution fed on disenchantment rather than realistic hope. It has been better at diagnosing the ill in society without formulating an achievable prognosis.

Today, in these island nations and indeed across much of Europe, we are experiencing a political climate that bears much resemblance to that of Germany prior to the seizure of power by the NSDP (National Socialists). It was a time of scepticism in the democratic process, a belief that the political elite was out of touch, that the pride of the nation was at stake as others elsewhere in Europe had dictated the terms, that the austerity measures were unfair, that the future was economically bleak, that there was an existential threat from the East and that a minority group was responsible for the fear.

It is not difficult to see the similarities between now and then. Like all secular political movements based on an unachievable goals, the one that came to the fore in 1930’s Germany eventually ended in catastrophe.

For a number of reasons the Church found itself incapable of challenging the populist views sweeping across central Europe in the 1930’s as despair was replaced with false hope. Even many of its leaders, the Methodist Church leadership included, held out that Hitler was ‘divinely appointed’; no wonder that vast numbers of the people lost their moral compass.

We cannot make the same mistake again.

The German Church had spent centuries accepting that the people should be subject to the governing authorities (Romans 13.1). That view was a costly error when the greatest crime in human history was about to be orchestrated.

Today there is much despondency about the situation in which we find ourselves. It would appear that those who claimed a bright new dawn have backtracked on their promises. The reality is slowly sinking in.

Today hate crime is increasing at a rate we have never before known. Our neighbours amongst whom we have lived for much, if not all of our lives, are victims of racial abuse on the streets and in the shops. Those whom we have elected to serve us receive vile threats of rape and killing on social media. A very large number of our fellow citizens have somehow felt permitted to openly express misogynistic, xenophobic and homophobic views in places when once they only spoke of them in the confidence of trusted companions.

Today it is not just those on the far right that have diminished our nation with their rhetoric but those from the hard left have played their part too through the whipping up of hostility towards anyone with whom they disagree. Extremists share much in common even when they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Neither can provide the programme necessary to move us forward in a positive manner.

The Church, along with all others who share our values, has to be clear in its condemnation of the racism that formed a very real part of the recent referendum campaign. The Church has to voice its fundamental belief that all people, irrespective of their creed, are children of God. The Church has to offer an unequivocal reminder of our past: isolationism does not work and the break-up of long-established unions are fraught with unforeseen dangers.

The Church must also stand up to those who are deepening division within society by fuelling despair and fostering unfounded mistrust of others.

While some might prefer fantasy, we proclaim eternal truths. Unpopular though such truths may be, they are the truths that have stood the test of every chaotic age. When the dust has settled after battle there has always been a sense of ‘if only we had listened and learnt from previous times…’ Now is the time to listen and learn before the permission to hate gathers an unstoppable momentum.