Today we live in a world of fantasy.  The truth is that this has been so for some time.

From the early soaps Peyton Place and Crossroads, with the enduring Coronation Street of course, to the myriad of other imaginary communities, our lives have become accustomed to living in a parallel universe where the final scene is nearly always a cliff hanger to keep our anxieties high till the next episode.

Then of course historical fiction has also played its part in establishing a world of fantasy. Such novels may be thoroughly researched and beautifully written, but they often owe more to the author’s imagination than they do historical accuracy.

There is also the medium of cinema. Films ‘based on actual events’ have merely added to the fact that fantasy has become more interesting for many than truth. In some cases such versions of the events they depict have been more strongly believed than the original documentation or even eye witness accounts. Did Private Ryan really exist? No. This I had to state only earlier this week when someone was telling me that he did. However I confess that some years ago I did not have the heart to tell the lady at the church door that Forest Gump wasn’t a real person.

Then along comes social media of course. Thanks to social media everyone’s opinion is often judged to be as valid as anyone else’s.  In truth, of course, this is clearly not so.  My opinions on climate change are nowhere near as well informed as those of environmental scientists. I wouldn’t expect an environmental scientist to be as well informed on biblical criticism as I am. Nor would I expect my views on global warming to be treated as of equal significance to those of someone who has spent their adult lives studying the issue.

Social media has also enabled conspiracy theorists to promote their ill-founded claims in ways that appear to be well-researched and irrefutable.  In an interview at the Labour Conference a few weeks ago film Director Ken Loach was asked about the presence of Holocaust deniers, to which he responded that history is always open to interpretation. Such views lead to claims that what is happening in Gaza is akin to Auschwitz – recently re-tweeted by a Church leader I hasten to add. Not only is such a claim historically inept it is morally abhorrent.

All of this is an acute danger to the world we have forged over decades, a world based on verifiable facts; a world that holds truth as the core element to an open and honest society, where respect for the experts and admiration for those who wrestle with the issues exist.

When Michael Gove dismissed truth during the Referendum last year, yes it was only 18 months ago, by saying that we’d had enough of experts he was adding yet another slash to the fabric of a well-ordered society.  When challenged by the claim that Trump’s inauguration crowd was bigger than Obama’s the new President’s senior advisor, Kellyanne Conway, suggested that there is such a thing as ‘alternative fact.’

We have stepped into a world of fantasy and it’s a very slippery slope.  It means that lies can displace truth.  It means that all sorts of wrong can be committed without recourse.  It means that few, if any, can ever be trusted again.

And it is in this world that we are called to not only serve but lead.  A minister’s responsibilities have always been great, but none more so than today.  After hands are laid upon our heads at ordination the President prays ‘may they boldly proclaim your truth.’  There is little more challenging today than to boldly proclaim God’s truth.

I have let it be known that I have never been more despondent of the world and the world of politics than I am today. But nor have I been as convinced of my vocation and the calling of the Church. We have a job to do. And it is as clear as it has ever been.  But, and this is a big but, it will demand our lives, our souls our all.  It will demand something that is so often lacking in almost all areas of life today; and that is authenticity. This call to ministry demands us to be authentic in an age of lies.

There is, you see, too much pretence in our world.  Too many people, and too many organisations, trying to be something they are not, or even trying to not be something they are.  There are just too many games being played.  Much of them with good intention for sure. People play games because they are anxious. They are afraid to be themselves. They try to be someone they are not so that they might fit in with their peers. Or they cover up who they really are lest they lose their friends.  Concerned that others might spot their weaknesses or frailties, their misunderstandings or lack of knowledge, they cover up.  And we minsters are not immune.  We often prefer to hide as an icon to being an honest travelling companion.  So many of us are not just anxious about our reputation we are also anxious about the state of the Church.

Every three years, of course, Conference receives its latest report called statistics for mission.  You might wish to consider it as the report on how far our numbers have dropped since the last report.  It is no secret – I no longer get despondent over decline.  I have stopped beating myself up about it. Why?  Because the truth is that the Methodist Church has been declining in numbers throughout my life.  In fact for about a century and a half.  The last time we grew in numbers the older people in the congregations might well have been blessed as toddlers by Mr Wesley himself.  This fact has not got through to many of us. Or where it has there often exists a state of denial.

Now, this is not to say that we should ignore the decline nor accept it as a given, and we should ask ourselves why this is so.  But it is a massive problem. And we must not pretend otherwise. I believe that we would be healthier and so much more effective if we were to embrace our decline.

You see, some will argue that the Church began to lose its authority at the Reformation; others with the scriptural studies of Spinoza; or because of the Enlightenment; or indeed the rise of evolutionary theories in the late 19th century. Of course, the trenches of the First World War and the inadequacy of the Church to counter fascism or even when they acted with complicity in Nazi Germany quickened the demise.  Whenever the decline began we cannot ignore the fact that the Church is continuing to lose its impact upon society.

In his 2007 book Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor wrote that in 1500 it was impossible not to believe in God while today many find this not only easy, but even inescapable.

In attempts to reverse this trend all sorts of innovations are considered by the Church and even put into practice.  Important though these innovations are in attempting to stem the decline, they are not the whole answer, for they can only attract some for a while. They cannot win over the majority of people and fully alter the trajectory of overall decline. And if we think they can then we are kidding ourselves and conning those whom we inspire to partake of the scheme. The gulf between the believers and the non-believers, you see, is simply far too great.  No, a conversion of theists, including us Christians, to more relevant and sophisticated theologies and philosophies could help bridge the gap; so too would be ridding ourselves of the nonsense that we have built up over the course of millennia. But such a transformation of thinking is clearly not going to happen any time soon.

So what are we to do?

What can we do with the little resources we have at our disposal and so little time to accomplish something, if anything at all?

Well, if the Church claims to hold truth in its heart by following the One who claimed to be the Truth, and ordains those who are charged to boldly proclaim that truth then pretence will not work.  Any claim to truth that is shown to be false, any boast that is empty, and any model where promises are not met will only compound the problem for us.  In an age that is not only secular, one without recourse to God, but an age of lies, fantasy and historical denial, we need authenticity.

We will glance very briefly at two components of authenticity.

Firstly, I believe that, at the very least, authenticity includes honesty: honesty about ourselves, honesty about our faith and doubts, honesty about our limitations and errors.  Such an undertaking would be the beginning of an authentic model of leadership.  To act with such honesty is to also be clear that truth is sometimes difficult to grasp and therefore hard to define. Indeed, that the presence of mystery is also at the core of our beliefs and there is nothing unusual about those clouds that often limit our vision and knowledge.  This approach will be seen as a weakness of course by those who want the confidence of certainty. But certainty also has its pitfalls.  It was certainty that led to the Great Famine in Ukraine and the gulags in the East.  It was certainty that led to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.  It was certainty that led to many a failed project on lesser a scale than those aforementioned.

And here is a warning for those that want to be seen as victors over others: we are not called to win an argument; we are called instead to lay down our lives for a cause that only God need judge.

We will not necessarily see the outcome of such a ministry, but we can be assured that it will contribute to something far greater than we could have ever achieved alone or in our time.

So firstly, honesty is a vital component for authentic leadership.

So too is context, our second component.

Lifting what works elsewhere into a wholly different place is not necessarily going to work. In fact, I believe that it is highly likely to fail.  Every scheme, every model, if it is to reach its full potential has to be adapted to context.  Better still, however, for each place to develop its own model of working, its own form of mission and ministry.  How often now have I seen people’s morale sag because having become excited by what is happening elsewhere they suddenly realise that it is something that they do not have the capacity to achieve? They might not have the numbers, or the energies or the skill set.  Boasting of what is happening in another place, without thought of the limitations placed on those who wish to replicate it elsewhere, is unhelpful to say the least.

Context, you see, determines capacity and context, therefore, determines the model.

I have long stopped thinking about finding people to realise a vision, and prefer, instead, to value those people whom God has placed me alongside and what, therefore, we can together achieve.  Surely God has placed us in a time such as this and in a place such as this, and indeed amongst such people, for a purpose.

We should not lament what we have not got.  Instead we should rejoice in those with whom we share this time and place.  For we are here but briefly.

In conclusion: honesty and context are vital components for authentic ministry.

We began by setting the scene.  We cannot deny the fact that we live in an age where people often prefer fantasy to fact, where truths lose out to lies, where certainty to reality is the prime mover.  None of this will lead to salvation, it will end in destruction; it has done so in the past, it will do so again.

Our calling, as Methodist ministers, is to boldly proclaim the truth.  This we must do at all costs – even to our own – so that we might do so with the integrity of authenticity and leave the rest to God.

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My Advent Hope

3 December 2017

My Advent Hope

I have found myself saying lately that I have never been as despondent of the world as I am today….and yet neither have I ever been so convinced of my calling and so clear in my purpose.

This is a tricky time for us as a human race.  There is an extraordinarily obvious need to act, to resist the encroaching evil in our midst and to make a claim for truth.

 

In describing an Advent Hope it would be very easy to trot out a wish list.

To firstly identify all that is wrong with the world and then put the contrary possibility.

  • So… there is hunger – it would be wonderful if everyone had access to sufficient food to live well and healthily. And we could shut down foodbanks tomorrow. That could be our hope.
  • There is homelessness – it would be wonderful if everyone had a watertight roof over their heads with secure accommodation all round. That could be our hope.
  • There is conflict and war in so many parts of our world – it would be wonderful if peace would come. That could be our hope.

Now, we could easily go on, probably not running out of examples of how bad our world is and then seek to imagine a very different one.

The world certainly doesn’t match up to the ideal; that is for sure.  The utopia dreamt up by generations of prophets, idealists, political activists and hippies seems as far off now as it has ever done.  Those of us within the Christian Church who long to see God’s rule across the social and political world may end up disappointed; we are, after all, far from seeing in our lifetime God’s kingdom established on earth as it is in heaven.

Mary’s Magnificat, an early Church hymn that sought to place Jesus and his birth in the traditions of the past, spoke of the powerful being brought down and the lowly lifted high, about the hungry being fed and the rich being sent away empty.  After 2000 years our critics may have a case against Mary and indeed against us, the Christian Church. For example, and a relatively minor one compared to some others in the course of human history, how well will the church in Zimbabwe fair after so many within it supported Mugabe for so long?

You see, the problem with the sort of hope that views the world in all its torment, injustice and conflict and simply wants to rectify it, is that it is little more than a wish list, an unrealistic vision, a fantasy of what might be if we all sang from the same hymn sheet.   Here lies possibly the main stumbling block in turning a wish list into something more realistic.

Let me explain.

  • If we could all agree on how we get from global poverty and inequality to a fair distribution of the world’s wealth then we would be singing from the same hymn sheet.
  • If we could all agree on how we stop persecuting one another because of difference we would be singing from the same hymn sheet.
  • If we could all agree on the way the future should go we would be singing from the same hymn sheet.

You and I know that ‘aint gonna happen.’  Because even if we were to have access to the same hymn sheet we can’t always agree on the particular song to sing and even when we do some choose to sing in a different key.  We prefer our voice, our version, our choir, our orchestra to any that doesn’t suit our comfort zone.

Here is the dilemma:

  • There is much wrong with our world. We know that.
  • There always has been. We know that too.
  • Therefore we also know that we cannot overcome all that is wrong.
  • We can dream of a better world.
  • We can work for a better world.
  • But we know that we cannot attain it in all its fullness in our lifetime.

This can lead to despondency amongst those that near the end of their lives fearing that little or nothing has been achieved. This is probably more so today than for many a generation, because those that went before us were accustomed to improving our world and to seeing that improvement. But, today we are wondering if we are going to leave the world in a worse position than when we came into it:

  • Our seas are polluted.
  • Our land becoming less fertile.
  • Our weather is uncertain.
  • Species are becoming extinct faster than ever before.

And people today are only doing what they tend to do in a crisis:

  1. they develop a suspicion and fear of anyone who is different
  2. they gather round their own,
  3. and they batten down the hatches against the coming storm.

Populism and nationalism are growing – as they do at such times.  They did so when Germany faced a crisis in the ‘30s, they are doing so again today across Europe and across Britain.  But it is not fear of another catastrophe that will save us from following the same path. Nor a wish list.  What will save us and save our world is for a real hope to take hold; one that is realistic, authentic and achievable.

The Church in Germany during the 1930s spectacularly failed in the face of its greatest challenge. Over the centuries it had absolved its social and political responsibilities to the State. When that State chose to attack the weak and vulnerable, the minorities and the marginalised, all hell broke loose and European civilisation came close to collapse.

We cannot afford to let this happen again. We have to get it right.

Now this is my Advent Hope.

That we look not just at the world’s problems but the way in which those problems are affecting our mood:

  • They are increasing our fears
  • They are tempting us to disengage from others
  • They are encouraging us to become less hospitable

Having recognised this we must respond accordingly.

We have to:

  1. allow our fears to be overcome – after all perfect love drives out all fear
  2. be ever more open to others and to what they have to teach us
  3. and we have to become generous-hearted so that what we have is not ours to keep but ours to give.

When I get to know Jesus I discover that his concerns were focussed on the individual,

  • the woman that touched the fringe of his prayer shawl
  • the bereaved sister lamenting the death of her brother
  • the children that were being prevented from getting near to him
  • the tax collector who was so ashamed he chose to hide in a tree to catch sight of him lest he be spotted by others
  • the father concerned about the health of his child
  • the man whose mind was so disturbed by life that he came close to attacking Jesus

And us? What of us?

What of:

  • The woman whose past still weighs heavy on her?
  • The man who feels his purpose has been taken from him?
  • The student who fears not finding work?
  • The child pressured into growing up all too quickly?
  • And so on, and so on, and so on.

If it is that I have to regain my childlike trust and dispense of my built up self-importance to become a more effective disciple of Jesus, then so be it.

If it is that I must make myself ever more vulnerable to new truths that change my deeply set beliefs in order that I become more grounded in reality, then so be it.

If it is that by loving the individual, through hearing their story, embracing their pain and walking a lonely path with them, we are at our most politically active, then so be it.

Putting it simply and briefly, my Advent Hope is that day by day I become better able to relate to those about me and as a consequence that they become better able to relate to others.

This, then, must surely be the way in which our world’s problems are properly addressed; this is how we ourselves contribute to building a better world.

DSC_0447

The Jericho to Jerusalem Road, May 2017

 

Journeying toward Advent Two

Monday 4 December – Saturday 9 December

 

If you can light a candle then do so to remind you that God is present.

Be still.

Be quiet.

Listen.

Receive.

 

God of time and space,

at this point I focus on your presence here and now.

May this pause be a moment

to ponder your nearness

and your guidance.

Amen.

 

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” Isaiah 40.vv 3,4

 

Consider today’s journey.

Ponder the twists and turns.

Which hills have still to be climbed?

Which valleys still lie ahead?

 

Come in your holy might, we pray,

Redeem us for eternal day;

Defend us while we dwell below,

From all assaults of our dread foe.

8th century Advent hymn.

 

 

We give to you this time, O God.

We give to you our life, O God.

We give to you our hopes, our dreams, our longing, our yearning,

for you give to us the desire to do the things you would have us do

and the people you would have us love. Amen.

 

 

 

 

Dawning Light

Dawning Light

Advent One Sunday 3 December

From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. Isaiah 64.4

Ponder the idols of today. They are no better than the ‘gods’ of the past. They are created and modified to be seen as something they are not. They fail us. They are not what we thought they were. We are wasting our time wanting to be like them.

There is only one God. This is the God whom all people can worship. This is the one God in whom everyone on earth can find imperishable love, unconquerable hope and undiminishing light.

 

God of eternity and all possibility,

whose ways have stood the test of time

and whose hope is in us now,

grant us the trust to place you above all others

so that we may find a fulfilment which knows no end.

From those that denied your truths in times long gone

to those who deny your truths today

deliver us that we may receive of your goodness now.

Amen.

 

poppy

 

 

We remember so that we might pay our respects.

We do so by silence.

We do so by wearing poppies.

We do so by hearing stories.

32 years of ministry have provided me with many privileges; none more so than sitting with those who have made great sacrifices, with those who have been present at some of the key moments of the last century.

30 years ago I wept with Annie who sat in her chair and described how 7 decades previously her brother had surprisingly walked into that very room taking the family by surprise. Their mother had been cooking in the kitchen Annie had been ironing by the hearth and. It was his last leave before his death at Passchendaele.

I remain good friends with a number of Holocaust survivors including Anne Frank’s posthumous step sister, Eva Schloss, who saw the very first Russian through the gates of Auschwitz Birkenau on the day of liberation.

I have had the great privilege of listening to the squaddie who patrolled the streets of West Belfast in the 70’s, to the officer that replaced Colonel H. Jones as CO of the 2nd battalion of the parachute regiment in the Falklands, and to the Chaplain in Helmand who held the hands of many as they slipped from this life.

I remember these and many others whom I have known personally and pay my respects to today.

But let me tell you one story in a little more detail.

Harold and Elizabeth were an unassuming couple. When I met them in 2002 they were in their 80s.  We got round to chatting about their story.  It was clear that Harold had served in the Royal Navy during the war.  When I showed some interest Harold said that Elizabeth’s story was the most interesting. She was reluctant to tell it, so Harold told it for her.

In 1944 Elizabeth had become the first female PA to a Chief of Naval Staff.  When she met Harold, a young naval officer, the Admiral invited him to his office for tea and biscuits. Giving the impression of exercising a role of fatherliness toward his young charge his real intent was to cast an eye over the man whom his PA was courting, after all she knew many military secrets.

One Thursday evening Harold and Elizabeth, now engaged, went to the pictures. At the end of which Harold informed Elizabeth that he had a pass for the following Thursday and would she like to do the same again.  Her reply was simple, ‘that would be lovely.’  But as the PA to the Chief of Naval Staff Elizabeth knew something that Harold didn’t and that was when he returned to base that night thinking he would be seeing her again the next week, Harold was to be confined to barracks. Because within days the invasion of Normandy was to be launched.  But Elizabeth throughout that evening, as she sat with her fiancé in the cinema and kissed him goodnight as they parted, knew that she may never see him again. However such was Elizabeth’s sense of duty and extraordinary discretion Harold not once guessed that something was on her mind.

Today I remember Elizabeth, the courage and the sacrifice she was prepared to make.

So, we remember to pay our respects.

Secondly we remember so that we might learn from the past and be more equipped to resist some of the things of today.

There are two aspects to that resistance.

Firstly, knowing the huge cost of conflict in terms of human life and damage to our world, its infrastructure and environment, we should always resist any rush to war.

I think this was the noble pursuit of those that sought to avoid another conflagration after the Great War. No sane person would have wanted to repeat such a catastrophe.

But, and this is where the second element of resistance comes into play, there are occasions in human history when a threat has to be met full on with all the force we can muster, lest it overwhelm us and destroy that which has been achieved over generations.

 

There can be no war more just than the Second World War.  Out of disillusionment and anger a great evil had garnered enormous strength.  It had won over the hearts and minds of millions. Millions of normally rational and sane people.  This great evil was spreading its racist ideology across the continent.  It destroyed in a matter of a few years what centuries had taken to build.

Today we remember those that resisted the nationalism that threatened to overwhelm us.

Today we remember those that fought for a better Europe.

Today, if the past means anything at all to us, we should ask of ourselves, what should we do to resist the rise of xenophobia, the rampant populism of our times and the short-sighted isolationism that suggests we can go it alone?

British, Commonwealth and Allied blood was spilt across the battlefields of Europe so that we might create a continent, indeed a world, egalitarian in opportunity and resoundingly clear in its belief that we are better when we strive together than when we forge a lonely path.

The Jesus I seek to follow urges me to be, yes, as gentle as a dove, but doesn’t overlook the fact that I should also be as wise as a serpent. And a serpent is always alert and ready to strike in defence of the ground it occupies.

There are those that would, in the interest of the economy, have us turn a blind eye to the suffering of our neighbours

There are those that would reject the stranger at our door, to ignore the plea of the widow and orphan, the refugee and victim.

There are those who no longer see the world as Christians are called to see it, the envisioned world which those who went before us fought and died for.

This is why we remember – to pay our respects to them and to resist the slide into the abyss which they so sacrificially managed to avoid.

This is our challenge today:

  • to build a world where no one should have to go hungry or homeless.
  • Where being and not wealth is the measure of our value.
  • Where public office is about service and not personal gain.
  • Where social justice reigns and where the righteousness of both the individual and the corporate body is an honourable pursuit.

This is the world our ancestors strove for.

This is the world to which we should be committed.

 

Exodus 16 – Manna from Heaven

Matthew 20.1-16 – Workers in the Vineyard

 

These two passages seem straightforward enough.

There seems little to debate about their meaning

The first is from arguably the most important episode in the Hebrew Scriptures when the people choose to not trust in what they are told. They have been instructed to gather everything in. Instead they leave some manna for the next day not believing that it is possible for a further miracle. The next morning they discover that the manna they had left had grown mouldy overnight.

In the second passage we hear of workers who had toiled all day. When they came to be paid they were surprised and annoyed to not receive more than those that were taken on late in the afternoon.

The meaning to each of these stories appears to be: God provides and we merely have to trust what is promised and accept what is given without grumbling.

Seems straightforward enough doesn’t it? Or does it?

 

Frankly I have some sympathy for the people that chose to leave some manna out in the wilderness. I might also feel aggrieved for those workers that spent all day in the field only to be paid the same as those who arrived with an hour to go.

Seriously, who wouldn’t?

 

So let’s look more closely at what is going on in each.

I don’t think that it’s quite as simple as we may have first thought.

We begin with the Israelites in the wilderness.

They have already taken a great risk. They may have been slaves in Egypt but it was still a great step of faith to listen to Moses. After all the back-story wasn’t one that would necessary endear him to the people. I don’t believe for a minute that all the enslaved chose to set out for an unknown destination across the wilderness. Many would have said ‘not on your life, I am staying put.’

So those that are the players in this particular story have already shown great courage.

I think they would be wily characters, resourceful and maybe a little cunning.

If we consider migrants today fleeing economic hardship and environmental challenges, they tend to be amongst the most resourceful in their communities; those that aren’t tend to stay behind and face the consequences.

So when the Israelites see manna appear on the ground, seemingly more than enough to merely survive the night, they choose to be frugal and leave some for future use. Who wouldn’t?

Last week I again had the great privilege of meeting with my good friend Eva Schloss, Auschwitz survivor and posthumous step-sister of Anne Frank. She tells of how some prisoners in the camp would occasionally secrete a little bread away by placing it under their head before they fell asleep. The hope was that it would be there the next morning. Tragically it sometimes wasn’t because someone sleeping next to them had stolen it.

But you can understand why some would secrete the bread away – just in case there was no bread the next day.

In our own lives we might consider the possibility that no matter what God will provide.

But experience tells us that there are barren moments in our lives.

We pray, we may exercise a faithful discipleship but…life doesn’t always go as we had hoped or even had we been led to believe.

Who can blame the Israelites then?

 

Then there are the workers in the parable that Jesus tells. Or does he?

The Gospels were written long after the events of Jesus’ life. Indeed much later than Paul’s letters.

Matthew’s account was composed at a time of great tension between those Jews and Gentiles that believed in Jesus and those that didn’t. Part of the ongoing argument was whether or not those coming late to believe in Jesus were just as valued in God’s eyes as those that had been faithful for much longer.

In other words were the Gentiles that were recently converted to be treated equally to those that were already part of the community?

So this story is likely to be the early church struggling with whether there should be equanimity in the community of the faithful.

You can just imagine it from our own experience.

Who do these newcomers think they are?

‘I have been in this church all my life. Along comes someone new and their views are treated as seriously as mine.’

But that is exactly what God wants.

 

There is a common thread running through these two passages.

It is that God’s provision is sometimes precarious, or so it seems.

We know from experience that a faithful life doesn’t bring privilege.

We all face the same challenges.

The harvest may be good for us. But not so for our neighbour.

We may put in greater effort than someone else yet we might both receive the same reward.

Some might not think this is fair.

And in the capitalist world we have created it’s not.

But the Israelites, nor Jesus, were in a capitalist world.

They were in a world that was more communal than ours.

They were in a world where it really was necessary to share what they had with their neighbours.

To withhold from someone in need might mean that the tables might be turned next time. And on that occasion when we are in need we will need friends.

It is simplistic to suggest that the faithful do not face the same challenges as the faithless. In fact it would be a false claim.

A man whose ninety-year old mother had just died said ‘she attended church all her life…and it’s come to this.’

How very sad. Such misunderstanding and such a failure to grasp reality. Yet the church so often promotes the view that we only have to pray and all will be well.

The truth is somewhat different.

The follower of Jesus is not immune from illness, accident and tragedy.

The provision of God is not about protecting the faithful from such things.

The provision of God is about preparing us for the unseen and unknowable.

So when illness comes our way, accident or tragedy, the blow may still be swift and hard. But somehow the years of patient prayer, and fragile trust, place it all into perspective.

That is the provision that is not precarious but permanent.

For this and for all the blessings of God, we give thanks.

Auschwitz web

21 September 2017

CSC_0105

 

Such a thing of fragility to beatify

when spied upon in dampened, sunlit sky.

True….a jewel hidden for most from view,

but the briefest glimpse it shows,

to those who dare themselves to know,

a web and cornered frailty,

vulnerability in sharpened wind

and the cruellest of human whim.

 

Pulsing, intermittent breeze,

Beats.

Then stilled

at any sudden moment,

abandoned of all sentiment.

 

How many will pass by

this travesty of human design?

How many? We cannot say.

Except in later days

some may pause

and take a gaze,

claim it as a sign

of stifled cries

or muffled pain,

and let out their practised sigh.

 

Before the tears fall to sodden earth,

and dew drops cling for all their worth,

see silent stream of solemn stripes

and hear forbidden birdsong sing,

to parting coach and comforts yearning.

 

 

 

 

The Veil of Moses

4 August 2017

Exodus 34.29 – end

2 Corinthians 3

 

It is often said that a person might wear their heart on their sleeve.

Hiding emotion is more difficult for some than it is for others.

Struggling not to laugh when to do so would be embarrassing is hard work.

I recall the pianist at theological college playing a tune to a hymn that seemed to me more appropriate for the 50’s musical South Pacific than it was an act of solemn worship. Wannabe clergy all around me swaying to the tune conjured up an image of them in white naval uniforms or grass skirts with garlands around their necks. Believe me it was tough to get through the last verse.

On a silent retreat the nun distributing the bread and butter pudding just couldn’t suppress her giggles when she caught sight of my eyes requesting a bigger portion.

It’s not just words that convey our feelings.

When Karen and I were expecting our first child, who was to be called Rebecca but on arrival turned out to be David, our good friend Sally didn’t have to be told Karen was pregnant, she could see it, as she put it, in her glow.

The Hebrew Scriptures recall Moses coming down from Mount Sinai. His encounter with the Lord had left him looking radiant to the Israelites. We are told that his countenance was so bright he had to wear a veil over his face to protect the people. And when he returned up the mountain he would remove the veil again to speak to the Lord.

In years to come, when the Temple was established, a curtain would cover the Holy of Holies; only the High Priest could pass through it to speak to the Lord, and even then only on the Day of Atonement.

The Eastern Orthodox Churches have a tradition that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was surprisingly born to elderly parents, Joachim and Anna. She was therefore dedicated to the Temple and given an education in the Torah, the Law. This was in recompense for working as an embroiderer on the new curtain for Herod’s Second Temple. Such a tradition adds special insight into the curtain being torn in two at the death of Jesus on the cross. Not only is the curtain torn to allow the people to come face to face with the Lord but it indicates the brokenness of Mary at the death of her son.

Myth or not, the veil of Moses became a significant factor in understanding the relationship between God and his people. For a while only the very special ones, Kings and prophets, could experience the glow that came about as a consequence of an encounter with God.

Later, on a mountain in Galilee, three disciples would see that same light in both Jesus and, what appeared to be, Moses and Elijah, the representatives of Law and Prophecy.

Later still, the author of the Second Letter to the Corinthians would argue that we no longer need a veil to hide the glory of God from those we live amongst. He states that we are called, and are enabled, to act boldly in declaring what God has done for us.

Sadly the writer is scathing towards those that, in his view, were seemingly unable to see it and his words were used by the Church to condemn Jews and Judaism.  Today we know that there are many factors that conspire for some people to not experience what others might.  A group of people can look upon the same event yet, through no fault of their own, feel differently about it and draw very different conclusions.

Not everyone in college chapel all those years ago could understand my barely suppressed giggles. Others joined in without knowing what had set me off in the first place.

Clearly joy is infectious for some even if it isn’t always appreciated by others. Ours is not to judge the reason why; some get it and others don’t. Ours is to simply be true to ourselves, our feelings and what we may convey.

And when we have experienced something wonderful it may not be that words are the best way to express our feelings at all.

Anna Pavlova was once asked if she could describe what she was trying to convey at a particular point in her performance. She replied ‘if I could put it into words I wouldn’t have to dance.’

I shouldn’t have to put into words what God means to me, it should be obvious. Sadly that is not always so. Thankfully God is all merciful as well as all knowing.  All too often I place myself far from the Kingdom or indeed from what is expected of me.

So even when the light seems dimmed and the shine has been taken off life, there may be others who will accompany me in the presence of the Lord. This is why togetherness in discipleship, and not the solitary religion so many prefer today, is the means by which we may all experience the glory of God in times good and bad.

Just as the cloud covered the disciples at the transfiguration so it is that the clouds that cover us on occasion cannot hide the fact that behind them the sun still shines.

 

 

This year is the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in which a safe haven was promised for persecuted Jews. Many people have sought to criticise the declaration and blame all the recent ills of the Middle East upon it. They assume that there was some kind of idyllic state that existed in the Ottoman Empire before the British Mandate and the eventual founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Such claims are historically inept.

Long before the Balfour Declaration the writing was on the wall. Both Arabs and the 85,000 Jews (out of the whole population of 689,000 based on 1914 figures), living in what is now modern day Israel, dreamt of being liberated from Ottoman occupation and turning the land into a new nation state. In 1905, observing this developing clash of dreams, Azoury, an antisemitic Christian Maronite, predicted a coming war between Jews and Arabs that would not end until one had beaten the other.

Long before the Balfour Declaration Jews, who had outnumbered others in the Old City of Jerusalem since at least 1850, had faced hostility from their Arab neighbours. Al-Khalidi preferred those Jews fleeing European pogroms to be settled anywhere other than Palestine.

Long before the Balfour Declaration Orthodox Clergy contributed to Jew-hatred by exporting from Europe and Czarist Russia antisemitism into the Arab countries. As the land became more open to travel German Protestants also brought with them abhorrent hard-line Lutheran theology that claimed Jews were destined to suffer as a consequence of failing to accept the Messiah.

By 1908 an anti-Zionist daily began to be published in Haifa – edited by a Protestant of Greek Orthodox origin. Two years later Muslim opposition to legitimate land purchases by Jews led to increasingly frequent acts of sabotage on their property and the following year, in 1911, an economic boycott of Jews was proposed; all this long before the Balfour Declaration.

For centuries under Ottoman rule, despite being the poorest of the poor, Jews were taxed heavier than the Muslims and Christians; they were jostled in the streets, on their way to the Western Wall broken glass was scattered across their path, and when they arrived there they found the wall stinking of urine and faeces that had been smeared across it. They were forced to pass Muslims on their left side because that was the side of Satan. They were segregated and the synagogues had to be hidden in out of way places.

So it is absolute nonsense to suggest that under Ottoman rule, Muslims, Christians and Jews existed side by side in some kind of idyll and that the Balfour Declaration was the originator of the Middle East crisis. To do so is either naïve or dangerous partisanship. Indeed it could be argued that Balfour may have been seeking to resolve the escalating conflict by creating a safe haven for Jews in much the same way as the Dayton Agreement sought to settle the Balkans conflict eight decades later.

By all means criticise British policy in the Middle East if you must but let’s not lose sight of the whole picture. The land had been occupied by Ottomans for centuries, conflict between Jews and Arabs was long-standing and during the British Mandate there were attacks from both sides on each other. If only we could spend our energies seeking a more sophisticated understanding of the historical facts and work towards solutions instead of taking sides.

One of the challenges we must face is that no one actually won this election.

There was no clear winner and this leaves the country in a form of limbo.

It will be extremely difficult to push legislation through at a time when a clear consensus is required but we simply don’t have it.

And it is of little use saying we need a second election, or even a second referendum, because the division in the UK is deep and clear; until there is a proper debate with the arguments played out before the electorate we will just keep getting slim majorities or hung parliaments.

This is because we are currently spilt right down the middle on almost everything; from Brexit to immigration, from the NHS to taxation, from Trident to terrorism.

What I do think is that the much of the electorate punished those who failed to engage in that debate; from the Prime Minister refusing to appear with the leaders of other parties to local candidates that refused to attend hustings. Such a dereliction of duty to those they wish to serve is foolish at best and perhaps arrogant at worse. The democratic process deserves better. There is a part of me that is pleased that they paid the price for such disrespect.

However the fact remains that the political leadership of both major parties failed to convince the electorate that they are worthy of our trust, otherwise there would have been a clear winner.

Personally I think it will be interesting to reflect on any future analysis of how people voted.

My guess is that many preferred to vote against a party rather than vote for the candidate they chose to place their cross next to on the ballot paper.

That is a terrible indictment of those that seek to represent and lead the people.

On the issues that affect us I think the Government has not taken seriously enough the inequalities in our island nations and are storing up resentment in many quarters.

But the other major party has failed to deal with the far left in their wings, and the antisemitism that has gone unchecked is fuelling hostility and hatred in many communities.