is not life as we know or understand it.
(Mr. Spock of Star
September 3rd 1939
was a Sunday. When people went in to
Church that morning the world outside was at peace.
When they came out it was at war. Chamberlain
had made the announcement at 11.15 am that this country was at war with Germany.
“The sun was
shining, the garden never looked lovelier ~ everything was in bloom.
Tiger (the cat) lies there in the sun; all looks happy and peaceful.
But it’s NOT. War has
broken out between England and Germany, beastly, beastly war.” So wrote a 24
year old living in Croydon later that day. The
events that followed took on a roller-coaster pattern.
People had read HG Wells’ novel “The shape of things to come” so
there was an immediate expectation of death and destruction; bombs, great fires
and huge numbers of casualties. Evacuations
were organized. Black-outs imposed
but nothing happened. For weeks
nothing happened. It was called the
“phony war”. As Christmas
approached there were debates over whether or not it should be celebrated.
A great question mark hung over everything.
Today again a cloud
hangs over us in the shape of a question mark.
What is to be our relationship in the future with Europe and with the
rest of the world? Developments in
technology add another dimension to our uncertainties: driverless cars, parcels
delivered by drones, health monitored via the television, household devices
controlled remotely from thousands of miles away, hereditary diseases eradicated
by gene therapy. And then we have global warming.
What kind of lives will we live? What kind of people will we become?
It’s a fantastic world where the science fiction writers race to keep
up. All previous guidelines are
disappearing fast. Constraints to
our freedom are being broken on a daily basis.
Even religion no longer offers any restrictions.
We are removing all boundaries and we are not being struck by lightning.
We have never known such freedom.
In the opening verses of the Bible we read:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
The earth was barren with no form of life, it was under a roaring ocean
covered with darkness,” Genesis Ch. 1 vs.1,2
It was a blank piece of paper.
There was nothing on it except for a question mark.
“But the Spirit of
God was moving over the water. So the heavens and earth and everything else were created.” Genesis Ch 2 vs. 1.
Life and light was brought into the darkness.
On a personal basis there can be times when we find ourselves at a place
of great confusion, when the unknown completely blanks out the known So much
around us is shifting. Our usual
base points are no longer there. The
diary for the coming months is blank. The
Year Planner is empty. We are facing
a blank sheet of paper. We are
crossing from the Old Year to the New.
As people of faith we pray in silence for the Spirit of God
and we wait.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ was a French idealist
philosopher and Jesuit priest (1881-1955). He
In Holy Communion we share in the breaking of the bread, the
sacrificial way of living of Christ and we also share the wine of New Life that
is part of that Holy Communion. So
through our lives, lived within, and as a part of a chaotic world, the Spirit of
Christ “shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it” John
Ch..1 vs. 5. This may well be life,
but it may not be life as we know or understand it at the moment.
- Isms”, Schisms and Prisms
This year we had two excellent but quite disparate
Advent Talks. The first by Bishop Robert Paterson was, as might be expected,
essentially theological in tone. It focused on who, or what, is the Messiah - a central figure in Judaism and the central figure in Christianity. The second by David
Bryer was an historical travelogue through Palestine, particularly Bethlehem,
from its origins as the cradle of Christianity to its present sadly divided
state. It contained an undisguised political message concerning the appalling
injustice visited on all the Palestinian people dating back to the Balfour
Declaration of 1917, by subsequent events including the Seven Days War of 1967
and the annexing of land in the West Bank (previously ceded by Jordan to the
Palestinians) for Jewish-only settlements. I cannot attempt here to do justice
to either of these two talks, but I attempt to draw out what appears to me to be
a common thread and that is that “isms”, which focus down on narrower and
narrower concepts of identity, culture and practice, almost invariably lead to
schisms and all too frequently to violence.
Bishop Robert explained the Jewish expectations of the
Messiah, and why Christ “came unto his own,
and his own received him not” (John 1 v.11). He was the wrong sort of Messiah -
“political adversity had affected their view of God” He then went on to draw
a parallel between that situation and the plight of the church today in the
European sphere of influence. Society as a whole is obsessed with searching for
individual salvation through a wilderness of “isms” – secularism,
commercialism, relativism, celebrity-ism etc. and this has both disoriented and
marginalized the church from its fundamental purpose of furthering the Kingdom
Turning now to David Bryer’s talk,
particularly focusing on Bethlehem, we learned of the competing claims of the
numerous Orthodox and Latin sects (isms) on the administration of Church of the
Nativity from its foundation by Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century -
disagreements often of the most petty issues having little or no theological
importance. The situation became so bad that the keys to the church had to be
entrusted to a mutually respected Muslim family and this had an unexpected link
with LMP. We were told that many years ago, before Eric’s incumbency, the
Bryers were entertaining some Palestinian friends and visited LMP on Sunday. The
incumbent enquired of the obviously Arabic gentleman whether he had ever been in
a Christian church before. To which the very gentle response was to explain that
his family had been entrusted with the keys to the Church of the Nativity in
Bethlehem!. Much of the rest of David’s talk centered on the more overtly
political situation in the occupied West Bank in recent decades and the negative
consequences that has had on all the inhabitants of the region - a much reduced
Christian presence, an oppressed, dispossessed and embittered Muslim community
on one side and a Jewish State feeling under constant threat on the other side.
There is need for a disclaimer here. Whilst this
piece has been prompted by David’s presentation it is not a summary of it. The
following views are my own. There is not space, and perhaps this is not the
place, to go into the minutiae of the circumstances which have lead to this
travesty of justice in the cradle of Christianity, a region of sacred importance
to all “The Children of the Book”, but a cascade of “- -isms” over the
last Century has led inexorably to this situation:- i) competing European
nationalisms ignited the tinderbox of WW1; ii) the well intentioned but
ill-conceived Balfour Declaration of 1917 gave support to a nascent Zionism;
iii) the Versailles Treaty of 1919 set the scene for the rise of Nazism in
Germany leading to the Holocaust; iv) this generated further impetus to Zionism
and the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine at the end of WW2; v)
the conflicts which followed and continue to this day are too numerous to list
here except to note that they were, and remain, instrumental in creating an
Islamic fundamentalism the effects of which now extend to almost every
I regard myself as an optimist but this is a
deeply depressing situation in which it seems almost impossible to envisage any
just solution coming in the foreseeable future from human agencies. There have
been repeated failures of peace talks as a result of religious and political
extremism. The Camp David Accord of 1978 between President Sadat of Egypt and PM
Begin of Israel failed to deliver its promise to exchange land for peace and
resulted in Sadat’s assassination by Muslim fundamentalists. The Oslo Accord
of 1993 signed by Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli PM, and the PLO’s Yasser Arafat
was intended to facilitate withdrawal of Israeli troops from the occupied West
Bank but aroused violent opposition on both sides to the point where the Two
State solution proposed by UN Resolution 242 now appears virtually impossible.
In the meantime violence on both sides – Palestinian Intifadas and overzealous Israeli reprisals - only produces more
grief, mistrust and hatred, putting further back any hope of peace.
What have prisms to do with any of this? Prism comes
from the Greek word meaning something split or sawn. A single beam of pure white
light enters one face of the prism and emerges on the other as an array of
colours - red, orange yellow green, blue, indigo and violet, and one can even
explore beyond the extreme ends of the visible spectrum into the infra-red and
ultra-violet. This could be a metaphor for a particular type of human mind-set.
Some are colour blind and only see the red light. Some can see the other colours
but treat them with disdain or hostility and consider their colour to be the
only true light, and a few are totally devoted to the ultra-violet or
ultra-violent route to salvation. They seem oblivious to the fact that they are
all derived from that single beam of pure white light which entered the prism.
If we insist on “- -isms” put altruism at the top of the hierarchy and recognize that as all
colours come from that single beam of pure white light we too are all children
of the One God and need to have empathy and compassion for each
At the entrance of the UN headquarters this
sentiment is encapsulated far more eloquently than my clumsy metaphor. It takes
the form of a poem from the 12th Century Persian poet Saadi Shirazi captured,
appropriately enough, at the Siege of Acre (now in Israel) by the Crusaders in
These words are as relevant today as when they were
penned over eight centuries ago.
You do not deserve the name of man If you fail to feel
the pain of others.
All the sons of Adam are part of one single body,
They are of the same essence.
When time afflicts us with pain
In one part of that body all the other parts feel it too.
Just before Christmas I was reminded
of a book by Kate Adie entitled ‘The Kindness of Strangers’. In this
autobiography she describes how, during a career reporting on the horrors of
conflict, it was often the simple, unexpected deeds of everyday people that
This was particularly apt when reading about members of the travelling
community who started a national Foodbank challenge. Originating in County
Durham the challenge was initiated by a traveller who noticed that the Foodbank
donation basket at his local supermarket was usually empty. He filled a trolley
with food to donate to the Foodbank and then nominated fellow travelling friends
on Facebook to do the same, to give to those less fortunate than themselves. The
challenge spread and thousands of members of the travelling community came
together to donate. They filmed themselves handing over the items to
supermarkets before nominating other friends. And so from County Durham the idea
spread nationwide – to Gloucestershire and Dungannon, to Flintshire and
Hertfordshire, to counties and cities.
The idea of random acts of kindness is not new. The book ‘Pay it
Forward’ (C. Ryan Hyde ) takes the idea of repaying a good deed but instead of
paying it back one should perform three good deeds to other people that they
would not be able to achieve on their own. The idea was originally the subject
of a play produced in Athens in 317BC. It was also a concept embraced by
Benjamin Franklin. However such was the impact of the book that the idea
blossomed and spawned a worldwide movement. On the 28th April this year the UK
will participate for the ninth time in Pay it Forward Day. Schools have embraced
the idea forming homework clubs and reading groups.
A simple idea existing in our community is that of the Repair Café.
People who might otherwise find themselves forgotten by society now have the
opportunity to pass their knowledge and skills on for the benefit of others. We
repair rather than replace, recycle rather than waste, attempt to save our
Even with big problems facing us in the world, by taking the time to show
love, appreciation and kindness, we all have the ability to make a difference to
the lives of others.
Perhaps Mother Teresa summed it up by saying: "If you can't feed a
hundred people, then just feed one."
recently asked to give a reference for a longstanding friend of mine requiring
high level security clearance for Government and associated work.
asked to complete a series of questions before writing some “freehand”
the questions was something like this :-
Does he/she belong to or have links with any subversive
I immediately thought, well yes, of course, he’s a
committed Christian and the church is a subversive organization.( I can assure
you that I answered that he was not subversive in the sense they were enquiring
set me thinking. I believe that if you read the gospels Jesus is a very
subversive character. He turns all sorts of views and beliefs upside down
including those of the religious establishment of the time, not to mention the
government. He also rates women highly, not how his culture worked at all. And
how about letting little children into religious secrets? Immigrants invited to
share the goodies if they dare to ask, like the woman saying that even the dogs
get the crumbs.
that say about how we should be in the world?
How do we challenge people and ourselves to look again at
underlying beliefs which we may not realize subtly influence our treatment of
other people, making them “outsiders” or “others” or “foreigners come
to nick our jobs / clog up our schools / abuse our welfare system” ?
And what about our attitude to prisoners and criminals? And
what do we think Jesus would have said about these things?
I believe he would have reminded us of the intrinsic worth
and gifts of all human beings and encouraged us to acknowledge our own
particular gifts and those of others and use them to turn our societal damaging
“norms” upside down. It may be that doing this alone is too daunting, and
joining with others for inspiration and support is necessary, perhaps
campaigning groups or political alliances or even PCN !
Together in Malvern support a Justice and Peace Group. Justice and Peace are
central to the message of the Gospel and the Prophets and the establishment of
the Kingdom of God and should be of central concern to all those who subscribe
to the teachings of Christ. The J & P Group organises Prayers for Peace, the
annual Hiroshima Peace Vigil and a range of other meetings and activities
designed to keep Justice and Peace issues in the Church’s, if not the
public’s, eye. There will be an open meeting on 24th
February to discuss how far it is possible to criticise Israeli government
policies without being labelled ‘anti-semitic’.
of faith should be concerned by the injustices of discrimination, social
deprivation and poverty and more general infringements of human rights - for
example equality of opportunity and employment, equal access to health and
social care, and access to adequate housing - and how to combat them.
Responsibility for these is spread across many government departments such as
the Home Office (particularly in the rights of refugees and asylum seekers), the
Department of Work and Pensions (when it comes to ensuring fair wages and
adequate financial support for those unable to work), the Ministry of Housing,
Communities and Local Government (providing for appropriate housing and communal
facilities), the Department of Education (providing access to appropriate
education and training) and the Treasury and Department of Business (when it is
a question of ensuring that economic activity is directed towards the Common
Good and not towards enhancing the wealth of the already rich at the expense of
this brief overview, it is clear that issues of justice lie at the heart of much
of our social, political and economic life, but are hardly talked about as such,
and it is equally clear that nobody in government takes overall responsibility
for ensuring that we live in a just and peaceful society.
is where people of faith come in. In the Vatican II document on the role of the
laity, it is stated quite clearly that it is part of the role of the laity to
read the signs of the times and interpret them in line with the principles of
Catholic Social Teaching and take appropriate action. The three Abrahamic
religions all worship a just and merciful God. We are called to act in concert
with each other and with all people of peace and goodwill to make justice and
peace shine out in the world. Governments won’t do it. We must.
from (and slightly edited) an article by Michael Townson Hugh McMichael
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