Showing posts with label Christian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Christian. Show all posts

Saturday, 20 May 2017

The Dream of the Rood

The latest in my occasional series of Great Poems I love, and in honour of Easter, albeit a bit late, this is The Dream of the Rood. It's a beautiful, epic poem, well over a thousand years old, originally written in Old English by an Anglo-Saxon monk sometime between the 8th-10th Centuries. It is in the characteristic style of Old English epic poems, with the extensive use of alliteration on lines with two stressed halves, rather than the rhyme used in modern English to achieve the poetic flow.

Rood was the Old and Middle English word meaning a wooden stake or cross, but The Rood was always the One True Cross on which Christ was crucified. In this poem the Cross itself appears in a dream and tells of Christ's death and resurrection.

The poem is a fascinating mix of both Christian (originally Hebrew and Greek) values and aesthetic with its spiritual but fundamentally optimistic focus, and the Germanic and Scandinavian heroic, epic (originally pagan) tradition that was essentially pessimistic about the world and its future. Christ is a strong, powerful young Lord, who leaps eagerly onto the Cross to do battle with Death and the Devil through the crucifixion. The disciples are his thanes, the men who had sworn themselves to their lord and would accompany him into battle. The Cross itself is a loyal retainer, fearful of what it must do in the Battle, but knowing it must hold its courage and do the duty its Lord has embraced.

People sometimes say Chaucer (14th Century) is 'the Father of English Literature', but this is complete rubbish. A proud, creative English literary tradition of epic poetry, both religious and secular, history, songs, spirituality, law, etc, goes right back into the darkest, Anglo-Saxon times of the so-called 'Dark Ages'. The past only seems so 'dark' because we have lost or forgotten about the traditions, festivals, songs, stories, poetry, and factual and fictional prose that were widespread at the time.

Travel back with me a thousand years and more, to hear the story, through Old English hearts, of those events another thousand years and more ago. . .

"Listen! I will speak of the sweetest dream,
which came to me in the middle of the night,
when speech-bearers slept in their rest.
It seemed that I saw a most wondrous tree
raised on high, circled round with light,
the brightest of beams. All that beacon
was covered in gold; gems stood
fair at the earth’s corners, and five there were
up on the cross-beam. All creation, eternally fair,
beheld the Lord’s messenger there; that was no shameful lynching tree,
but holy spirits beheld him there,
men over the earth and all this glorious creation.
Wondrous was the victory-tree, and I was fouled by sins,
wounded with guilt; I saw the tree of glory
honored in garments, shining with joys,
bedecked with gold; gems had
covered worthily the Creator’s tree.
And yet beneath that gold I began to see
an old wretched struggle, when it first began
to bleed on the right side. I was all beset with sorrows,
fearful for that fair vision; I saw that eager beacon
change garments and colors – now it was drenched,
stained with blood, now bedecked with treasure.
 And yet, lying there a long while,
I beheld in sorrow the Savior’s tree,
until I heard it utter a sound;
that best of woods began to speak words:
“It was so long ago – I remember it still —
that I was felled from the forest’s edge,
ripped up from my roots.
Strong enemies seized me there,
made me their spectacle, made me bear their criminals;
they bore me on their shoulders and then set me on a hill,
 enemies enough fixed me fast. Then I saw the Lord of mankind
hasten eagerly, when he wanted to ascend onto me.
There I dared not bow down or break,
against the Lord’s word, when I saw
the ends of the earth tremble. Easily I might
have felled all those enemies, and yet I stood fast.
Then the young hero made ready — that was God almighty —
strong and resolute; he ascended on the high gallows,
brave in the sight of many, when he wanted to ransom mankind.
I trembled when he embraced me, but I dared not bow to the ground,
or fall to the earth’s corners – I had to stand fast.
I was reared as a cross: I raised up the mighty King,
the Lord of heaven; I dared not lie down.
They drove dark nails through me; the scars are still visible,
open wounds of hate; I dared not harm any of them.
They mocked us both together; I was all drenched with blood
flowing from that man’s side after he had sent forth his spirit.
 Much have I endured on that hill of hostile fates:
I saw the God of hosts cruelly stretched out. Darkness had covered
with its clouds the Ruler’s corpse,
that shining radiance. Shadows spread
grey under the clouds; all creation wept,
mourned the King’s fall: Christ on the cross.
And yet from afar eager ones came
to that noble one; I watched it all.
I was all beset with sorrow, yet I sank into their hands,
humbly, eagerly. There they took almighty God,
 lifted him from his heavy torment; the warriors then left me
standing drenched in blood, all shot through with arrows.
They laid him down, bone-weary, and stood by his body’s head;
they watched the Lord of heaven there, who rested a while,
weary from his mighty battle. They began to build a tomb for him
in the sight of his slayer; they carved it from bright stone,
and set within the Lord of victories. They began to sing a dirge for him,
wretched at evening, when they wished to travel hence,
weary, from the glorious Lord – he rested there with little company.
And as we stood there, weeping, a long while
fixed in our station, the song ascended
from those warriors. The corpse grew cold,
the fair life-house. Then they began to fell us
all to the earth – a terrible fate!
They threw us in a deep pit, yet the Lord’s thanes,
friends sought me out … adorned me with gold and silver.
Now you might hear, my dear hero,
that I have endured the work of evil-doers,
harsh sorrows. Now the time has come
that far and wide they will honor me,
men over the earth and all this glorious creation,
and pray to this sign. On me the Son of God
suffered for a time; and so, glorious now
I rise up under the heavens, and am able to heal
each of those who is in awe of me.
Once I was made into the worst of torments, most hateful to all people,
before I opened the true way of life for speech-bearers.
Listen! the King of glory, Guardian of heaven’s kingdom
honoured me over all the trees of the forest,
just as he has also, almighty God,
honoured his mother, Mary herself,
above all womankind for the sake of all men.
 Now I bid you, my beloved hero,
that you reveal this vision to men,
tell them in words that it is the tree of glory
on which almighty God suffered for mankind’s many sins
and Adam’s ancient deeds.
Death He tasted there, yet the Lord rose again
with his great might to help mankind.
He ascended into heaven. He will come again
to this middle-earth to seek mankind.
on doomsday, almighty God,
the Lord himself and his angels with him,
and he will judge — he has the power of judgment —
each one of them as they have earned
beforehand here in this loaned life.
No one there may be unafraid
at the words which the Ruler will speak:
he will ask before the multitude where the man might be
who for the Lord’s name would taste bitter death,
as he has done on that tree.
But they will tremble, and little think
what they might even begin to say to Christ.
But no one there need be very afraid
who has borne in his breast the best of beacons;
but through the cross we shall seek the kingdom,
every soul from this earthly way,
whoever thinks to rest with the Ruler.”
 Then I prayed to the tree with a happy heart,
eagerly, there where I was alone with little company.
My spirit longed for the journey forth; it has felt
so much of longing. It is now my life’s hope
that I might seek the tree of victory
alone, more often than all men,
and honor it well. I wish for that
with all my heart, and my hope of protection
is fixed on the cross. I have few wealthy friends on earth;
but they all have gone forth,
fled from worldly joys and sought the King of glory; t
hey live now in heaven with the High Father,
and dwell in glory, and each day I look forward
to the time when the cross of the Lord,
on which I have looked while here on this earth,
will fetch me from this loaned life,
and bring me where there is great bliss,
joy in heaven, where the Lord’s host
is seated at the feast, with ceaseless bliss;
 and then set me where I might afterwards
dwell in glory, share joy
fully with the saints. May the Lord be my friend,
He who here on earth has suffered
on the hanging-tree for human sin;
He ransomed us and gave us life,
a heavenly home. Hope was renewed
with cheer and bliss for those who were burning there.
The Son was successful in that journey,
mighty and victorious, when he came with a multitude,
a great host of souls, into God’s kingdom,
the one Ruler almighty, the angels rejoicing
and all the saints already in heaven
dwelling in glory, when almighty God,
their Ruler, returned to his rightful home."


Author: Unknown
Source: the Exeter Book,
Translation: R. M. Liuzza.
Thanks to @ClerkOfOxford for making me aware of this epic poem.
Image borrowed with thanks from: http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/liturgical_objects/dream_of_the_rood.html

Friday, 14 April 2017

A Good Friday Reflection - 2017

After a long wait we finally enter Easter through Good Friday.  This is the most emotionally powerful day in the whole of the Christian calendar, the culmination of Jesus’ life and ministry, and the whole story of the Bible: the day they murdered my Lord, and everything changed.

I have often been struck by the simple beauty of the traditional English name for this day - Good Friday. How can it be good, they day they crucified my Lord? But it is right because it is a perfect example of how words can fail us, how the most profound and important of days cannot be properly described, do not need to be described. No more words could do better, so leave them aside. All the better to truly experience.

It was Good, Christ knew, when he prayed that the cup would pass, but he went forward anyway, knowing what must be done. That he would unite God with creation in its suffering, as he had in its birth, and its life. As creation suffers, he would suffer, because God bears creation within him, but through God's power transform and redeem it as well. Salvation comes through the Resurrection, through the bursting forth of God's power to overcome the old enemies: Sin, Death and the Devil, so that holy power could flow through our veins forevermore.

But without Good Friday there could be no Easter Sunday. So it is a good friday, but never have joy and sorrow been so mixed. For he was my friend, and my brother, even though he is my King. And they beat him and humiliated him, they tortured him and murdered him, and all alone, abandoned and forsaken by those whom he has loved, cherished and taught. Another unseen victim of casual brutality and oppression.

And his pain was not his pain alone, but the pain of the whole world forever, that God bears within him. So today is a good day to weep and to mourn. For the whole year round in suffering we must cling to hope, and the faith that evil never has the last word. But today we can give ourselves to grief for the whole world and its hurts and let it all out, for Syria, for Chechnya, for all the evil men and women do, and the suffering they cause to us and we cause to them.

But not forever, for now it's Friday, and time to weep, but Sunday is coming. . .



Monday, 23 February 2015

The Journey Of The Magi

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling and running away, and wanting their liquor and women, And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death?
There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt.
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

By T.S.Eliot



I was introduced to this poem about a year ago by a friend up a ski-lift in France (of all the places). It struck me at once.  Maybe it's easier to feel the force when you're freezing amidst unending snow in the dead of winter. Maybe the grumbling but heartfelt tone makes it chime more with my own sense. Even if you're an optimist sitting by a warm beach, the clarity and strength of the images is enough to put anyone right there hearing the old Wise Man, feeling the chill in your bones, and also, in the end, the unconquerable unease that follows the Nativity.

After the birth of Christ the whole world was changed forever, as History records, although it would take many years for the world to know it. In a staggeringly individual sense for both me and T.S.Eliot the world changed forever in our own age. My life will be (and his was) forever haunted by the birth, the life, the death and the resurrection of Christ. Like the Magus, after a long and hard journey, I can never be complacently at ease again in a world of everyday pleasure that does not have Him at its centre. However strange the world may find that.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

I'm Proud of my Church in 2014


We've seen food banks become increasingly high profile. It is little known, but the Trussell Trust, by far the largest organiser of UK food banks, is a Christian Charity. Churches across the country have been key to helping organise many food banks for years, in Coventry since at least 2007.

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, made a high-profile attack on Wonga (exploitative payday lender) threatening to "compete them out of business" and raising the issue repeatedly in parliament. Churches up and down the country have begun promoting credit unions as an ethical alternative. Since then Wonga has been forced to write off £220 million of debt and overhaul its business model, halving its profits in a year. 

This December the Church of England, along with others founded their own nationwide credit union, which in a few years will hopefully be open to all churchgoers, providing an ethical, compassionate alternative to current banks and lenders for churches, charities and millions of people.

In Coventry itself Anglican churches have organised their own homeless night shelter over winter for the 2nd year. It is housed in different church buildings and staffed by volunteers, to make sure that there is definitely a warm, safe bed available for every potential rough sleeper in Coventry this winter.

It's really good to see the Church making a difference on important issues. Here's to even more in 2015. ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Matthew 25:35-36

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

What are Church Services For?

First I want to draw attention to how artificial our church services are in a way.

We gather together for an hour a week, generally, in order to worship God, carry out our liturgies, and celebrate the eucharist. And then we go out back to our lives.

But we all recognise that God's call, and particularly Christ's call in the Gospels, is a call about our whole lives. We are meant to be first transformed by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, and then also grow in  holiness throughout our lives, not just on a Sunday.

In fact God makes it very clear that the details of our worship are irrelevant, almost worse than useless if we don't have love and faith and sincerity in our hearts generally.  

 And sometimes what we do in church every week can seem detached from how we live our lives, especially when we spend so much of our time surrounded by people who aren't Christian and don't necessarily know or understand anything about our faith.

Now, to be honest, this s already quite a common topic for Christians.  I'm sure we've all sat through at least one sermon about not just being Sunday Christians, or Christians for one hour each week.  But I'm just going to share some thoughts about it that I've found useful.
 Today in many churches, whether Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, URC the basic service can be divided into two main sections: The Liturgy of the Word, and the Liturgy of the Sacrament.  

Basically the first is based around offering prayers, reading the Bible, and discussing it in a Sermon, which is taken from the traditional Jewish Synagogue service (which was based around the Torah).

The Second is based around Eucharist, re-creating the last Supper as Jesus commanded "Do this as often as you eat and drink it in remembrance of me".

In more Protestant churches there has generally been an emphasis on the first part, preaching the Word, in more Catholic and Orthodox churches over the centuries there has been a growing emphasis on the 2nd part:  The Eucharist.

What is clear is that this basic form comes from the earliest days of the Church.  The quote below is from Justin Martyr, one of the earliest of the Church fathers, writing only 70 years or so after the writing of last of the New Testament books, and giving a description that must be familiar to any Christian today.

The two main differences is that this describes a relatively simple structure compared to some liturgies today, and that it obviously dates from a time when there was no set liturgy or text for the service. This came later, when instead of relying on the president to make up the prayers set texts were given both to give the ‘best’ prayers, to ensure that correct doctrine (Ortho-doxy in Greek) was taught and just to save the presiding person from always having to come up with something.
Fundamentally, though, this is the same structure we all use today and reflects the essential features of Christian worship and community. 

Historically what happened to the liturgy/service was a steady trend of making the central communion service more and more elaborate and mystical, with embellishments and more prayers and sections, until the time of the Reformation, when in reformation churches steps were taken to simplify it.

In some churches such as among the Quakers this led to totally abandoning formal, structured worship or liturgy, and in evangelical churches it led to a dramatically reduced form of liturgy.
In the Catholic church it led to one stable form of the Mass being adopted that endured for 500 years from the 1580's before it was simplifed slightly (and translated out of Latin) following the 2nd Vatican Council In 1960's.

What is astonishing to me though is how similar the liturgies and services still are, not just in general structure but right down to individual bits of vocabulary.  Below are selections from the current Anglican common worship, and a translation of the Latin Mass set in 1580, itself derived directly from forms of the Medieval Catholic Mass. 
 Services in Western Christianity (Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran etc) contain a very similar basic structure dating back to the medieval Catholic service containing many or all of the elements I list below, and at least many of these should be familiar to any Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran and many other western Christians. 

Eastern Orthodox churches are slightly different and date back even earlier, but contain most of these same features in a slightly less instantly recognisable form.
 Some more protestant services have a considerably more simple structure, especially if they don't necessarily involve communion.

A common evangelical approach is known affectionately as the Sandwich:  'Worship'-Prayers/testimony-Sermon done.

 Some evangelicals at least claim that they don't like liturgy, they say it's boring and fake and meaningless, but what they generally mean is they prefer a minimalistic liturgy. But the evangelical churches I've been to are definitely using a liturgy of a type even if they don't know it. Whether it's a better or worse liturgy is a very good question. And it can be just as boring and repetitive as any full Catholic-orthodox traditional liturgy.

But the evangelicals do have a good point, I don't think there is any point to church services or liturgy if we are just mumbling through the words every week, or just sitting there feeling bored, however complex or simple our liturgy may be. There is very little to be gained whatever form we use if it is not helping us grow in holiness throughout the week and the year and over our whole lives.

(Slight disclaimer: ‘catholic’ Christians such as myself who believe in the Real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist believe there is a real spiritual, blessed benefit to taking that Eucharist more or less regardless of what else we get from the service. I think what I say here is still strongly relevant in addition to that value though).

Some bits of the liturgy just don't seem to make much sense as we commonly perform them. My favourite example is the confession, which sounds a bit like this:  
 Now certainly in churches I have visited this is read out by the priest and then there is a two second delay before he pronounces God’s forgiveness for our sins. Now I don’t know about you but I need more time than that to confess my sins for the week.  In fact I’ve usually only got to about Monday lunchtime. 
And that’s not the only thing.  If we really, truly confessed our sins, in full realisation of what that meant, of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, the Love of God, and the darkness of sin then we would only ever need to confess them once and never again.  And again, I don’t know about you but I find myself coming back week after week and confessing more or less the same sins.
So what is the point of this?  Is it just bad, lazy religion?   

I think the answer is no. I do really value the liturgy and structure to our services, I really think that there is a lot that is really beautiful and valuable in these bits of liturgy that have come down to us and have been treasured by centuries of Christians.
So I want to try to think of how we can think about our liturgies and services to make them useful to our whole lives:
And my idea is basically this: Our services and liturgies offer us a model in concentrated form of what we should be trying to think about and follow for the rest of our week.  They don't do the job on their own, though they are particularly valuable as you are doing them.  But their main value is in acting as a model of spiritual discipline and the things we should be thinking about all the way through the week. In order to help us reflect on those ideas and grow in holiness.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

On The Person of Jesus


I recently attended a talk by someone from the Student Christian Movement on 'The Person of Jesus'. It was good and one thing he said in particular struck me. Christians are divided into many, many different groups that disagree on almost every imaginable question of doctrine and practice large and small.  But the one thing they all have in common is the person of Jesus. That sounds like it should be really obvious but it made me think about the type of man Jesus must have been, to have made such an impact on people. In particular in contrast to the apparent provincial nature of his life and death. This quote by James Allan Francis, I think, says it better than I could.

"Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village. He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty. Then for three years He was an itinerant preacher.
He never owned a home. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put His foot inside a big city. He never travelled two hundred miles from the place He was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but Himself...
While still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied Him. He was turned over to His enemies. He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed upon a cross between two thieves. While He was dying His executioners gambled for the only piece of property He had on earth – His coat. When He was dead, He was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.
Nineteen long centuries have come and gone, and today He is a centerpiece of the human race and leader of the column of progress.
I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that were ever built; all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life."

For me another the thing that makes Jesus even more remarkable is just how little we do know about him but he stills has this impact.  We have 4 short, extremely partial, fragmentary accounts of a short period of his life spanning at most 3 years. He spoke largely in riddles and metaphors that can be difficult to access today and the exact meaning of which people disagree massively. He left no writings and died an apparent failure.

Look at other great spiritual leaders.  Muhammed died a successful military leader, ruler and lawgiver of a powerful and united state that had already conquered all Arabia and would sweep across most of the civilised world in a single lifetime. Buddha died leaving a thriving and spreading community of monks and disciples several thousand strong and was mourned across much of Northern India. Both died peacefully surrounded by their adoring followers.  Jesus died alone, leaving no money, no written works, no organised community or military force, an apparent failure, and for centuries after his death his followers were a scattered and persecuted minority in states that hated them.

What a man he must have been. How incredible must have been his character and his sheer force of personality, that he could tell people to leave all their possessions and follow him to life and death and they did.  How incredible must he have been that his memory and example was enough to drive his followers through three hundred years of persecution. And that even today, even through the cloudy mirror of those partial, 2nd hand accounts we have of him, he is a real force that speaks to people and changes their lives and is as real and present as any person they know.

And today there are more Christians than any other religion in the world, his words exist in more languages and have been distributed more widely than any other words ever spoken and continue to influence people from almost unimaginably different backgrounds, nations, geographies and lifestyles today. Despite the partial, fragmentary nature of the Gospels the personality and person revealed in those pages shouts loudly enough to capture the hearts of people in every corner of the world in the deepest, most personal manner possible.  And is revered almost universally, even among countless people who don't count themselves as Christians. To 2 billion Christians he is God Incarnate, to a Billion Muslims a revered prophet of God, to many millions of Hindus and Buddhists a respected teacher or incarnation of God, and even for many non-religious people around the world an important spiritual and moral example and innovator.

For me personally the man I met in those Gospel pages has filled my entire life, despite the distance, the huge distance of space and time that physically separates us. It has shouted with a voice that always, even in my darkest and most faithless moments, I have never been able to get out of my head and heart. He has been my teacher, my example, my constant challenge to do and be better, my friend, my ever-present support, my master, My King and my God.

In classic Christian theology there is no book or law or thing or vision that is the Revelation of God. There is a person, Jesus Christ, who is the Truth, the Word, The Revelation, the Way, the Love, the Life, the Salvation, the Being of God, and everything that matters is defined in reference to him. And we could do vastly worse than for us all to have nothing in common but him.


Friday, 6 January 2012

Christmas & Family

Merry Christmas! (I know this is a bit late.  But my excuse is it is still within the 12 days of Christmas. Just.  And hence still technically Christmas. Oh, and happy Epiphany as well.)

Christmas is the great stereotypical time to spend time with your family. I am lucky that my family have always got on well together without much stress. I've always enjoyed Christmas get togethers, as much now I'm an adult as when I was little. For some people Christmas and other family occasions are not relaxing, to say the least, and that is very sad.  It is a rupturing of what family means at a time dedicated to a uniquely unique family.

Thanks to the good works of a friend whenever I think about what family means I will always think of a line from a certain Disney Film. "Ohana" in Hawaiian, "means family, and family means no-one gets left behind". Family means a commitment to one another -to care, to sacrifice, to have patience and compassion- to not give up on one another because there is a responsibility that cannot be put aside. The difference between Family and other relationships is that Family is a bond you're not allowed to give up on. Family may annoy you, they may irritate you, there certainly may be times you don't like them, but if they're family you're stuck with them. And so you do whatever you can to get along, to mend relationships and get to a situation where you can enjoy your time together because you are stuck together. This is a type of Love. Love always means commitment, of a type. A commitment you can't walk away from.  It  also means a whole lot more. It's true that you don't always even like the ones you love, sometimes you can even hate them too.

Family is a commitment. A commitment that we don't necessarily choose.  That usually means blood. The most common basis for that commitment and relation is a blood relation. The saying is "you choose your friends but your family you're stuck with". The nuclear and extended family are the historical basis of human society, the glue that holds society together, that cares for children, cares for people in their old age, and makes sure that almost everyone has someone who is obliged to care about what happens to them. It is the environment in which we are formed, and the original and most essential human social bond and organisation. It is not surprising our wider social, moral and religious ideas are widely constructed by expanding analogy to it.  Blood family bears the advantage that we share experiences and genetics, meaning we have a good chance of being quite like each other and having some sympathy for one another. Sadly it doesn't always work, but it is at least a start.

Family isn't just blood. The rituals by which we add to blood family have always been the most serious in human society. Marriage has always been considered so important because it means two people committing to becoming family to one another, and the traditional language surrounding marriage borrows overwhelmingly from our understanding of what family means. Adoption is another traditional means of grafting onto family, and the issues about the blood family, adopted family and identity of the person are so deep because family bond is crucial to our identity.

In the modern day nuclear families have become more complicated. In addition to the traditional archetype of husband, wife, children some families have single parents, unmarried parents, divorced parents, sometimes with new partners and step-children. A lady I know spends Christmas with her mother, step-dad, step-dad's ex-wife and step-dad's ex-wife's new partner and various respective children. Now these families may be as happy or unhappy as traditional family arrangements, but certainly they introduce complications that must be overcome because of their differences from the standard archetype introduces difficulty in defining who family is, and who bears the responsibility that brings.

Family does not just mean blood family, not even with all its various grafting and extensions through rituals like marriage and adoption.  There is also the family of choice. The families we make. The people we informally adopt as family throughout our lives. Often, and especially in the hectic modern world, we may find ourselves away from our blood family and unable to draw directly on the network of love, support and familiarity they offer. We may not even have a family that offers that. But people have the most wonderful capacity to build entirely new families for ourselves by adopting people as family and extending that bond of support and commitment. Unlike blood family these families carry no legal sanction or recognition, and are often not even explicitly stated, though those involved generally understand.  They are voluntary, but all the more wonderful for that, being a responsibility we choose and build for ourselves, rather than one merely given at birth. They may come about through an individual act of generosity, through some shared extreme experience, shared ideological or social association or just the enduring commitment of deep friendship. In their best moments they may be as permanent as blood family.  But even when they are more temporary they are defined by a depth of commitment and responsibility, which goes beyond whether you find a person useful in this or that particular moment. They provide support, rest,  belonging, understanding, and home. They give us people who will always care, always listen, always try to help, always be available (if at all possible), always say yes (unless there is a damn good reason to say otherwise).  And they are crucial to surviving in a difficult and complicated world cut off from the families we grow up in, and without them we will struggle, sometimes not even knowing the reason why.

These families we choose for ourselves often mirror blood family in many ways.  Someone is like a brother or sister, or even Mum or Dad to us. These families are still often based around people living together, through the way this throws people so closely together. These families of adoption are often more alike our blood family than we are prepared to admit. They are not entirely random or free. We are thrown together with certain people, with whom we may choose to build that bond or not. But generally who we come across is dictated by circumstances we do not control. On the other hand, really, all family is the family we choose.  Blood provides a strong motivation, and a social expectation, that we will treat certain people as family, but really nothing can force us to hold and to honour that commitment of compassion and respect, of Love and devotion, that defines people as family.  In the end that is a choice and a decision we make and hold to, whether consciously or not.  Our society is sadly littered with examples where people have not honoured that commitment, even to those who do share close relation, and the damage and hurt this causes can extend over entire lives.

Family being a choice we make brings me back to Christmas, where we traditionally gather as families, and hopefully remember that most special family of the Nativity. Because the Nativity very much was a Family of choice, of adoption, with more in common, in many ways, with the messy, modern arrangements of so many families today, than the neatness of the traditional archetype.  There was no blood between Mary and Joseph, only a previous commitment he did not have to honour, given the circumstances, and a duty of kindness and compassion. There was no blood between Joseph and the baby he adopted as family and raised as his own, only a choice that was thrust upon him to make that commitment for the rest of his life. There was blood between Jesus and Mary, but not the assurance the baby was shared and accepted by a human father, only the choice to accept a responsibility, and bear the distance of knowing the baby she bore was not just her son, but had a destiny and responsibility that would take him beyond her and from her as well. This was a family that was barely formed before it was forced into the life of political and religious refugees, forced to flee to a alien country, having given birth in difficult conditions far from family and home.

Nativity means a family that only existed thanks to the choice Mary and Joseph made in the strangest of circumstances, as they said Yes to the chance God had sent them, and the Love and commitment they put into making that family a reality from then on. The amazing things about the Nativity are not just the miracle of God become Man, but also that in placing himself physically in the hands of a young peasant girl and her uncertain fiance in a dirty, poor stable, God took on our aching vulnerability. Putting himself utterly in the hands of human weakness and fragility and relying on the choices they made. The fact the family of the Nativity was this uncertain, this mixed family of choice and adoption just increases the vulnerability and contingency around the coming of God into the world in flesh.  God took on not only the weakness of human flesh, and the danger of sinister human political machinations, but also the fragility of human emotions and the decision taken to build a family outside usual expectations. That God would show that trust in human nature and rely so utterly on the choices individual humans made, that is a miraculous affirmation of the human emotion & spirit, in the same way that God growing in human flesh is miraculous affirmation of the physical world we dwell in.

The most emotional illustration of this vulnerability of the Nativity in that distant stable that I have ever experienced came in an email I received on November 25th a few years ago. At the time I was a volunteer at a Night-shelter for homeless refugees in north Coventry. Refugees and asylum seekers generally can't access homeless shelters because these are funded by government welfare and refugees and asylum seekers can't access welfare. Usually without family or connections in the places they end up in, struggling with physical or emotional trauma, and without the legal right to seek work or access welfare, they often end up homeless. A lady called Penny ran a shelter in a previously abandoned North Coventry terrace house, providing a safe, dry, warm place to sleep and a free dinner and breakfast each day for homeless refugees and asylum seekers. The place ran on a shoestring and donations of food, and the support of volunteers from the local community and the University, where I got involved.  Volunteers were responsible for looking after the place over the evening, sleeping there overnight, making sure nothing went wrong, getting people up, serving breakfast and getting people out at the right time. It was pretty unpleasant throwing people out at 8 am, when it was cold and raining and you knew they had nowhere to go all day but wander round outside, but it was sadly necessary to keep the place running. The refugees were from Eritrea, Congo, Iran, Iraq, Kosovo and various countries across Africa.  They were mostly Male with the occasional woman, a woman usually from somewhere in Africa, and usually the most quiet, usually the most scarred by what they had experienced. In the many dirty conflicts across the world women are generally most vulnerable. Penny sent out a few emails every month to ask for volunteers and arrange a rota. One year in November in the email to prepare the next rota Penny left a note.

"Hi everyone,
   
I hope you are all have a happy festive season, Christmas, new year, winter solstice. Here is the rota for January. Please can you arrange a swap if there is a problem with the date. PLEASE LET ME KNOW YOU HAVE RECEIVED THIS ROTA, it saves me making lots of phone calls. If you know anyone else who would like to volunteer, I am doing some training for new people on Wednesday 17th Jan at 6.30pm. Please ask them to let me know they are coming.
   
And to finish on a Christmas note, we currently have a woman who has just arrived from Nigeria staying the week-end before she goes to
claim asylum in Croydon on Monday. Her name is Mary and she is 8 months pregnant. That's true.
  
best wishes to you all,
Penny"

What world was that baby born into? And what opportunity did the world offer that baby and its mother: Single, far from home, refugee, homeless, destitute? How similar to that world Jesus was born into in a stable far from home. But there is one crucial way that it it is a different world, and that is the fact that Jesus was born into our world two thousand years ago. Because that Nativity wasn't just the birth of one family of adoption of a teenage peasant girl, her fiance and the unique baby that God had given to them. Nativity also means that we all, all humanity, become family to God by adoption in its deepest sense. Through his birth and then life, death and resurrection that came from it he covered us over with his Holiness, washed away our Sins and folded us in with his Holy Spirit.  We became children by adoption, with God as our Father, and a relationship of the enduring Love and consistent commitment that defines family. We become family to one another, us to God & God to us, and brothers and sisters in Christ with the duty and responsibility to one another that comes with that.

The story of the world has been the gradual moral expansion of Love from family to clan, tribe, nation eventually to theoretically encompass all mankind, and even our duty to other species and the environment. Moral commands like 'Do not murder' have been present across all forms of human society. But they have always historically been limited within certain communities, while those outside, whether of a different nation or race or religion, could be killed without moral sanction. Most originally hunter-gatherer communities would have lived in separated extended families, each with their own hunting and gathering lands. Slowly those standards were applied more widely, as human society expanded from family to clan to tribe to people (the words for tribe and clan themselves are literally derived from words for family) and even more expanded human societies: nations, countries, Empires have historically been scattered with symbolic references to family.

The expansion of moral prescriptions (like do not kill), the commitment of Love, and the idea of family, from blood family to clan, tribe, nation and then the whole world, have gone hand in hand.  The development of the great Universal Empires of the ancient world, Hellenistic, Roman, Chinese, Indian brought the first idea of the whole world as one universal community. But although these communities expanded the idea of  'Do not Murder' they were only shadows of the true fulfilment of what family should mean. They had negative moral boundaries on behaviour, like forbidding killing or stealing, but without an idea of filling in the positive commitment of family.

But it was the Good News of Jesus Christ that for the first time transformed the idea of a global community based on law and order into that of a Family based on love and commitment. The Gospel tells us to love our neighbour, and tells us our neighbour must be whoever is in need; it tells us to love our enemies, as well as those who do us good.  It tells us to give, to lend, go the extra mile and turn the other cheek, without boundary or restriction and practice radical forgiveness, forgiving the seventy times seven times that any family will tell you is necessary when imperfect people are glued inseparably together and know they have to make things work. We are called to love one another as God has loved us, as a father to a child, and to love one another as Brother and sister and spread that message and community to the whole world, with the simple practical acts of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving thirsty people a drink; that go with that radical message, as they must do for any family to be real. We are called to build a worldwide community, Church, that should be a well of support in the same manner as those families we choose. This is nothing less than the expansion of our notion of Family, in its true meaning of a choice of Love and continuous commitment, to the whole world, to all of creation, to reflect the Love God has for us all and the duty we all have for each other. It is building a complete world where nobody gets left behind, and all are looked out for and cared for, because we each take it as our positive commitment to do so. So that child born in north Coventry in Winter to a refugee mother would also have a family.

And this is not just an ideal; it is a promise through God's Spirit and power.  Sometimes it may seem distant and unimaginable, but through the power of God's spirit, the birth of God as man as Jesus Christ, the family of adoption of Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the Good News of radical Love that Jesus lived and taught it becomes not just a possibility but an eventual certainty.  God's Holy Spirit gives us the power to extend Love to all humanity, despite our deep personal fallibility; the instruction of what that means in our individual lives and choices; and a vision of what that could achieve if we  make the choice and commitment to join that family the same way Mary and Joseph did in Nazareth a long time ago.  

And that is what, for me, family means and Christmas means.  Through gathering together and sharing gifts and hospitality, the tokens of the love, commitment and patience, the fundamental meaning of family; we celebrate the bonds that give meaning to our lives, through the choices we make whether due to blood or experiences we have shared. We remember the unique family of the Nativity, forged in the choice of Mary and Joseph, and the wonderful birth of the Christ-child; and we remember how that birth  means we are all adopted as family of God, children of God and brother and sister to Christ and one another, if we choose to make that commitment. And through God's power we have the chance and duty to make that bond real for all mankind, building a complete family of all mankind where no-one is forgotten or left behind.

Something worth remembering.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

The Giant Blind Spot of Human Rights NGOs - By Ziya Meral

The Persecution of people on the basis of their religion is one of the largest, most serious and most widespread forms of Human Rights Abuse in the World.  But it receives far too little attention from Human Rights campaigners because these campaigners and organisations are overwhelmingly European or North American and hence are overwhelmingly secular. They are either ignorant of religion or just don't particularly care, compared to almost any other cause. This blinds them to the suffering faced by hundreds of millions of people.

Ziya Meral says it much better than I could . . . .

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/ziya-meral/the-giant-blind-spot-of-h_b_991304.html

The one thing that he doesn't say explicitly (though he does hint at it through his examples)  is that it is overwhelmingly Christians being persecuted, hundreds of millions of them. This is something we should all be aware of, and something that gets even less exposure than religious persecution generally.  This is because most Christian or Christian-heritage countries have strong religious freedom, while most Non-Christian countries, whether Atheist, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or other, don't.  And even in the 'Christian' countries where persecution does occur, it is generally authoritarian governments persecuting Christians and churches who they view as a threat to their control.

(By saying this I don't mean to detract from his main point that we ALL are biased towards carrying more about human rights violations against people like us, and ignoring ones against people unlike us, rather than on the objective basis of how bad things are. And this is something we should all be consciously aware of.  Christians are just as bad at this as anyone else.  But it is right to note the largest actual real-world example, the collective blindness among almost organised human rights advocates towards persecution on basis of religion, and the fact that by far the largest real-world example of this is the frequently horrifyingly violent persecution of Christians around the world. )


Thursday, 11 August 2011

Dear Father, we pray . . .

.   
  
For those who live in fear,
That they may find courage,


For those who live in Darkness,
That they may find Light,


For those who live in Anger,
That they may find Peace,


For those who live in hatred,
That they may forgive.




In Jesus's name we ask this, 


Amen.










An old prayer of mine, from about ‘04.


Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Love Is . . .

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Love is patient; Love is kind;  Love does not Envy; Love does not boast; Love is not arrogant; Love is not rude. Love does not insist on having its own way; Love does not get irritable; Love does not resent; Love does not rejoice in evil; Rather Love rejoices in Truth. Love bears all things; Love believes all things; Love hopes all things; And Love endures all things.  Love never ends.

Love is the meaning and purpose of a human life.  Everything else is a tool, a method, a stalling tactic.  We eat so that we may have strength, we breath so life goes on, we study so we know more so we can achieve more, but all these are merely means to the end of having the chance, the opportunity, the possibility to Love; whether we love our life itself, the Universe we inhabit, the joys and wonders we experience, or discover, or learn to understand, the other unique human beings we meet or the God Almighty who gave us all this.  And gave us all this to Love.

But what is Love?  St Paul gives us a description that takes the breath away, that stills the voice, that rests perfect.  But it is a list of features, rather than an essential definition. Love comes in many different forms, we can love another human being , as a friend, as a lover, as family; or we can love a piece of beauty or music or calm or expression, or we can love a sensation, like the taste of chocolate chip ice-cream, or we can love a subject and be driven to learn more, understand more, know more of the thing we love.  Or most mysterious of all we can Love God, who we can never clearly see, or truly know, but people like me feel utterly drawn to none-the-less.

All these Loves are different, as many and diverse as there are different individual possible objects of Love.  But still they are all very much the same.  The Greeks famously had three different common words for what we simply call Love.  And it is important to recognise how Loves can be different.  But also to realise that they all have so much in common.  Though one may be a thing of little importance, whereas another can define an entire life, or shake the whole world.

All Love has so much in common, though still each is utterly unique, to the person loving and the being loved.  What it always is is the utterly deep appreciation of the value of the thing loved.  This leads to care, this leads to kindness, this leads to constant devotion, this leads to boundless optimism.

Love is not just a feeling and Love is not just a commitment. In fact if it is any one thing it is a realisation. But really it is all these things and more.  It is utterly unique and it is totally universal. It can involve your whole being; body, mind, heart, and soul. And Love binds you together as one being, just as it binds you tightly to the thing you Love.

Love is revelation, Love is the one thing that is truly transcendent; Love is true prophecy because in Love the person sees utterly through the skin of things, through the ordinary everydayness of the world, into the Truth that lies hidden just out of ordinary reach. For in Love a person sees through the stuff that makes up the world and catches of glimpse of what lies beneath it: the endless, bottomless well of value, the beauty, the wonder, the perfection hidden inside every ordinary thing whether anyone else sees it or not. And he doesn't just see it, he falls head first into it.

And the world is then filled with light. William Blake said "To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour."  A single flower can be enough reason for an entire life's devotion if someone truly sees the wonder that is contained in it. A single sight of beauty can leave you transfixed for hours.

The world can be grim and dark, the world can hurt, the world can wear you down, the world can seem bleak and grey. But just a little bit of Love shines through all that and fills the world with light that darkness in the entire world can not overcome.  Love makes the utterly ordinary extraordinary.  Love makes a bunch of noises a piece of music, love makes the fall of night a beautiful sunset. Love makes you realise in all the darkness that good will certainly win, that Heaven is real, because through Love we experience it, and that evil will never destroy all that is good. Love is solid and real in the world even when everything else slides into dust.

To Love another person is to truly live. It is to see them as they truly are, the bright Image of God. For in love you see the infinite beauty in their eyes, the infinite nobility in their soul, the infinite possibility in their life if only they chose to do it. And you see the sheer perfection even though on an intellectual level you know that they have flaws like everyone else.  For just a moment you cannot see the flaws at all. You just see the kindness, the generosity, the wisdom, the dedication, the gentleness, the patience, the elegance, the warmth, the intelligence and the laughter. You see the one you Love as we all should truly be, were we all not fallen, and you realise why Life is sacred.

To know someone loves you is the greatest thing in the world.  To see someone's love for you written over their face in a moment is that greatness and wonder captured in a single frame. To be standing unaware, and then to see them looking at you with that incredible, indescribable, unforgettable, unmissable look, which says more perfectly than anything else could ever say, I Love you. Who knew a human face could express so much. And it takes your breath away. And you would live in that moment forever if you could.

Love gives you strength. Love means you can endure more than you ever thought you could.  Love means that the cold and the dark don't touch you because Love transforms every situation. Even a boring or dull task with someone you love becomes a source of joy and laughter and an experience to cherish, because you are sharing it with them.  Love is incredible because uniquely love is not something about yourself but is utterly about the those you love, and so it connects you more deeply with the Universe we inhabit than anything else can.

Love drives you to great things.Love alone can make you sacrifice anything and everything, even if they do not love you.  Love gives true heroism, courage, nobility, wisdom and without it none of these things really exist.  Love makes you realise what truly matters and Love drives you to do something about it, because Love makes every obstacle  and danger seem like a tiny thing compared to all the wonder.

Love may not be grandly expressed; Love may not burn brightly for all to see; Love may be unspoken; Love may be a quiet thing, but it is no less wonderful for that.  Love goes on and on.  You may not feel, but you may still Love, in your commitment, in your dedication, in your kindness, in the actions that you do. And that is Love to.

Love can hurt, and if you trip and fall Love can lead you to do terrible things.  Love can bring great pain, it can be fragile, and it can break, and then it can hurt more than anything else. "Sometimes it last in love, but sometimes it hurts instead".  Love can lead to great loss that cannot be healed, even with time. It can only be slowly forgotten.

But to Love is to realise that the risk is worth it.  To realise that to feel great loss means that you had something wonderful, if only for a while.  Otherwise it would not hurt so much to see it gone. To Love is to realise that it is better to have stood on the peak of the highest mountain and seen the Sun for a few minutes than to have spent all your life in the valleys in the shadows, never knowing what could be possible. Love is a light that even its pain and darkness cannot put out.

Love is the meaning of the Gospel and the Law and the Prophets.  Love is the 1st and 2nd Commandment. Jesus talked about the pearl of great price that a man sells everything he has to hold that pearl and is happy, the treasure in a field that a man sells everything he has and owns just to buy that field. He speaks about the reckless joy and abandon of Loving something and truly knowing it matters, whatever that may be, and that is his description of the Kingdom of Heaven and God.

Christians argued for Centuries about the importance of Faith, and Works, and Gifts of the Spirit, and Knowledge. But in a few lines St Paul bats them all aside. If I speaks prophecies and do wonders and speak in tongues but do not have Love, it is nothing.  If I have all faith, but do not have Love, it is nothing.  If I do all works, but do not have Love, it is nothing. If I know all things, but do not have Love, it is nothing.

St John says it even more briefly: God is love.

God is Truth and Being and the only thing that is truly solid and real in a world of shadows.  But far more than all that God is Love. and as St John also says whoever Loves is truly of God.

And with that I don't know what else to say.   Nothing can truly describe.  Yet if anything is worth writing about it I would say that Love is.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Happy Easter!

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Just under 2000 years ago today a lady called Mary from a small town called Magdala went early in the morning to a rough rock tomb to tend the battered body of her murdered friend and teacher and to say goodbye one last time.  She was soon followed by an unremarkable rural fisherman called Simon Peter and a young man called John.  What they found there that morning changed the world forever more than any other single event in the whole history of mankind.

That is the remarkable truth of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, who we call Christ.  From the good news these three people brought, on that quiet morning so long ago, Empires and Continents and Centuries and Millenia have been transformed.  It has transformed the lives of people from every imaginable time and place, culture and race, nation and language; and today a community of more than two billion people spread across every country in the world exists devoted to those words.  A community transformed by the living God, the man Jesus who reaches out from the pages and experiences of countless books and people to transform lives then and now and tomorrow.

It has transformed my life too.

It has challenged, formed, taught and inspired me.  And always given me the strength to continue when times are darkest.  It has given me a King, a Lord, a teacher and  a friend I could never have imagined.  And if there is any richness in my soul, wisdom in my mind, or nobility in my character, I can only give the credit where it is deserved, to my experience and friendship with the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns forever over all the world. He is as close as a prayer, a word, a thought to being right by your side, each and every day since two utterly unremarkable men and one woman brought back the news that the Tomb was empty.  And nothing has ever been quite the same ever since.













Happy Easter Everybody!

God Bless you and keep you.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Good Friday.

We have entered Easter through Palm Sunday, then the journey of Holy Week, until finally we've reached the grief of Good Friday.  This is the most emotionally powerful day in the whole of the Christian calendar, the culmination of the entire story of Jesus’ life and ministry, of the entire story of the Bible: the day they murdered my Lord, the day everything changed.

Good Friday we call it.  And that may indeed seem a strange name when people first see it.  Good Friday. The day my Lord was murdered. Jesus, the perfect man, who loved so greatly, was killed for a crime he did not commit. In the words of St Paul, “We preach Christ Crucified, which is foolishness to the Jews and a stumbling block to the Gentiles”.

But Good Friday it certainly is.  And as I always thought, it's just crazy enough to work.  Good Friday?  The day that our Jesus was murdered.  This day we name good Friday?   Yes, we do, and how could it be any other way, knowing what wonderful thing came from it?  A strange thing it may seem, a true paradox: but so is the true mystery, the wonder, the mixed joy and sadness that defines our human life. Through tears and weeping and brokenness victory comes beyond all the strength of the world.

It is the most perfect name:  Elegant, precise, transcendent.  Good Friday.  The most simple and positive of all descriptions.  A good man, a good day, a good deed, a good life; a Good Friday.

Any more elaborate description would merely make obvious the total inability of description to do any justice.  Far better to leave almost entirely unsaid, to be seen, to be felt, to be experienced.  So the reality can shine through. So nothing is said apart from all that needs to be said.  Good Friday: the very definition of Goodness, the day everything changed.

On the cross of our pain God Almighty was tortured to death, suffering pain we can hardly imagine, for a crime he did not commit. For he so loved the world he gave his life, forgave even those who murdered him, loved even them, to save all men forever from their sins.  Jesus, God Almighty, emptied himself out on the cross, to become less than the least of men: butcher's meat. Another unseen victim of casual brutality and oppression.

Christ died on the cross to take away the sin of the world and so he experienced in his body the pain that sin has caused. He suffered it himself, as all his children have suffered at one time or another.  As he shared our life he shared our pain. Through sharing our humanity our pain could truly flow to him, so also through that sharing his divine power, to overcome all death and fear and hate and pain and weakness forever, could truly flow to us. So we need never fear those things again. God contains all things within him, so when God came into his own creation, he had to suffer our pain on the Cross that he had always carried within him.  It could be no other way.

Just as during his life Jesus healed the sick, gave  hearing to the deaf, sight to the blind, even raised from the dead: to heal physical bodies; so in his own suffering on the cross he healed all the souls of the world.  As during his life he preached how even the least of sinners is held in the love of God, so in his death he became the least of people, and won eternal glory for heaven, even as he descended into Hell.

Christ become one of the least of God’s children, lest in our joy we forget their pain, and to remind us that we may not rest in joy until the least of God’s children are rescued from that pain forever. Since his people suffered pain here on earth, in his salvation of mankind Christ suffered pain as well. So we know that even in our most terrible pain, joy and salvation are assured forever by that sacrifice.

And so the cross of our pain became the tree of our life. He suffered so he can take away our suffering. So from the death of the one perfect human, Life was given to all the Imperfect humans who ever live.  His life was lost to slay death, his blood was shed to wash all clean, his love to cure all the hate in the world: to ensure Love would never be overcome. Good Friday indeed. It could take no other name.

We remember now that pain God suffered on the cross at Calvary for our salvation, so that he could be one with his children as he was in Eden, as though time run in reverse on that fateful day.  For as God walked in the garden of Eden in the evening just before Adam and Eve were divided from him by their sin and rejection, so Christ walked in Gethsemane in the evening before he gave himself up to death to bring Life forever.  Just as our primordial Mother and Father, who represent all mankind, hid themselves in shame before the sight of God after their disobedience, so Christ trembled in fear before the coming pain. But still he submitted himself to that same pain, to bring glory to God by bringing salvation to mankind.  At the end, returning to the beginning, so that God may once more walk in the garden beside us in the evening.


Many Thanks to D_m_i_t_r_y's photostream for the incredible picture of the Crucifixion.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Prophetic Witness

"And he has spoken through the Prophets" - The Nicene Creed

Prophetic Witness is something that we are always called to. 

It is not something imperfect man can do at all times but it is something we must always be open to the opportunity for.  Fundamentally it is describing the nature of God to a world that does not know him, and relating this nature precisely and practically to our present world.  It is the meaning of the Kingdom of God and the saving of our troubled world.

As I start it is important to say what it is not.  It is not telling the future.  Rather it is speaking and living the Truth, especially the Truth that is not being spoken by anyone else. 

The meaning of Christianity is God who transcends all reality, in perfection, in value, in power, who is totally beyond all our reality but holds it in the palm of his hand in a manner we can never really describe properly.  But this power and transcendent wonder breaking into our fragile world and our lives of its own choice by becoming a man, God with us, as one of us, and transforming it utterly beyond the ability we, as part of that imperfect reality, have on our own.

This is the purpose and duty of prophets and prophetic witness everywhere, whether big or small, or famous or unknown.  And it is possible for all mankind; both the brave, strong and outspoken, and the quiet, meek and calm; in both extraordinary and entirely ordinary situations and it can come upon a person suddenly, or it can come slowly, through study, prayer or experience, until it becomes so strong it just bursts forth. Because fundamentally it is not the property of one tradition or community, rather it is our common human inheritance. 

I believe that this common inheritance is best described by the example and teaching of the man we know as Jesus Christ, so excuse me explaining it a bit further in those specific terms. 

It is what Jesus Christ taught: that the Kingdom of God is at hand, the breaking into our world of the total power of God and its ability to transform our world beyond all recognition, and our ability to play a part in this transformation, through trusting in God’s power and moulding our lives by the incredible truth he taught.

This was the truth he taught, the possibility of utterly raising our sights beyond the compromises and justifications of a fallen world, like a single shaft of light suddenly illuminating a dark room.  Of acting utterly differently, bringing something of God’s perfection into the world and thus transforming it, at first for one instant and at one single point, but then more and more and spreading out, as the light fills the darkness, until the whole world shines more brightly. No longer resting content with hatred, lies, excuses, half-measures, cop-outs, justifications and fundamentally, imperfection.   

The revelation that no evil, however small, can be accepted forever; and that while we can improve ourselves at all we must do so, for any evil however small, any lack of care, of compassion, poisons the world we share. That we must always act to do more, to give better, to always improve the world and never add to its evil. The rejection of the idea that goodness is a matter of doing just enough to qualify, and then sitting back and being smug, however high that bar is set. And the knowledge that with God’s gift we have the capacity to make that choice to do better each and every day.

This is possible because through the example, teaching and power of Jesus Christ we are given glimpse of a reality that comes from utterly beyond our world and beyond our control, a true revealing of something completely new that thus enriches our possibilities as a miraculous, spontaneous creation.
       
This is the nature of prophetic witness.  Found in Jesus Christ and his teaching, but also in Prophets, Saints, Martyrs, visionaries, heroes and good men and women anywhere, at any time, whether religious or not, that challenges the previously limits with the sight of a higher and better possibility of a more loving and joyful world.

That means constantly attempting to step outside our environment, outside the chains that bind us and our thinking and our compassion. By this I do not mean escapism, seeking to run away from our reality. In fact, precisely the opposite.  I mean to be deeply rooted in your environment, to be acting in direct response to your environment, but to be seeing beyond its horizons and describing what you see that it could be, and how that can enrich the world. 

Christian faith was born in Prophetic Witness, a challenge to the socially accepted standard of that day, and I believe if it is not such a witness, then it is inevitably nothing.  Such a witness is an unavoidable response to being in the world, but not of the world. It can take many forms, and be of great and small sizes, but all share these basic elements, adding that the prophet must always be in a position to speak so the world may hear.  And it is also to step out of the world in such a manner as to drag it with you, all for the purpose of taking it closer to God, the foundation of all that truly is, the unity of all that is valuable, the one who is Love itself.  It is to be utterly concerned with man because one is utterly concerned with God.   

Some of it is, in the modern phrase, to speak counter-culturally, or, in what is apparently a Quaker phrase, to speak truth to power.  But not just the holders of political or financial power, also the cultural, the moral and the social assumptions, whether those working in a single room or across an entire world.  Anyone can do it, just as the prophets of ancient Israel were unremarkable men in every way apart from the fact they were willing to stand up and face rejection, ridicule and violence to speak the full word of God honestly, boldly, and defiantly; of his love and compassion for all and especially the weakest, to a society that just did not want to hear it.

Prophetic Witness, whatever our position, whatever our platform and possibilities, is to be a voice in the wilderness, to speak the words everyone else does not want to hear because it calls always to do better, to try harder and to be more loyal to our duty.  It is not to be puffed up with pride in doing so for there is more joy in heaven at one sinner who repents than at ten righteous men, but rather to humbly exhort and gently persuade, with patience and love, although this may sometimes include anger and frustration as well. 

When true it almost always costs the prophet more than it gains him. It has a place every time an accepted wisdom comes to the fore that accepts as evil and it consists of challenging that wisdom by living or being or just speaking of another way. It is existential for such a person lives and is a different person to the world around him and as such is often challenged physically by that world, even as he challenges it ethically.  Speech is important, because it leads the transmission of ideas, but it is only one part of a person’s expression, and hence only one part of prophetic witness, which occurs with the whole human being.  As such a person’s actions, their tone, their decisions, their attitude, may be prophetic as well.  So often we communicate most powerfully not through words, which are often cheap, but in the actions we take and choices we make that cost us.  It can be speech, action, attitude, thought, choice, song, liturgy, Art or anything else.  

Such a person can say something new and unheard of, maybe by only a little bit, but decisively so, or he can say something old, which is being forgotten, either way as long as he speaks distinctly to the voices around him. I, for one, become more and more convinced that not only is change not always for the good, but that there is nothing more conservative than moral absolutes, although it is something that we speak about today mostly in the mealy-mouthed terms of social justice.  I prefer the 3000 years old language of Amos, "let justice flow like a river, and righteousness like a never failing stream" 

This can be constantly possible for us by acting with our hands in this world but keeping our sight and our inspiration on the New Heaven and New Earth, on the vision of the Kingdom of God revealed by Jesus Christ and by the scriptures and visions and sacraments and Saints and Martyrs, and testified to by prophets of every kind who stand up in their heritage.    

Prophetic Witness then means presenting a better alternative to the conventional language around us whether through speech or action or just the way we live our lives.  It is a constant challenge, that  costs us and we are called to, both to challenge the fallen society we live in with a little bit of God. To stand aside from the prevailing discourse, and place our soul a little bit closer to God, for the purpose of bringing in his Kingdom by being a bridge between it and our society and world. 

It means not taking the evil of the world as an excuse to do evil ourselves, but rather to place one’s feet in the world that must one day be, as truth and goodness are the real Being.  It is of the closest and most real union with God possible in this life, and of the truest meaning of religion, for it is to become a mouthpiece for God's words that would not otherwise be spoken. And it is the possible choice of all people. 

It is something that we can and must do, and, I believe, uniquely through Jesus Christ we are all, always capable of doing this, for he has completely shown the way, and his grace gives us the power to step outside the world's totality and speak, for we have seen the New Heaven and the New Earth and the New Jerusalem and the Lamb is who is above them all “and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of Grace and Truth”.